That (Other) Dratted Verse...

As you may have noticed, in an earlier post I deliberately (and perhaps provocatively) stated that I didn’t believe that there was anything contained within the Recapitulation Theory of the atonement, nor within scripture, which contradicted the idea that people can repent post-mortem. I was well aware, whilst writing, that at least some of you were going to think:

‘But what about Hebrews 9:27? That clearly says that judgment comes after death. And judgment, for those who haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and saviour, means eternal punishment in hell, which means those people can’t repent.'

I was going to set in and write my own post about why and how Hebrews 9:27 is misinterpreted, and then I remembered that my good friend Tony Cutty also has a blog, and that he has written a very comprehensive exposition of this verse and its context. I asked if I could repost it here, instead of writing my own. It’s rather longer than the things I usually write, because Tony is much more thorough than me, so I have edited out all but the ‘essentials'! Nevertheless, I hope you find it enlightening and enjoy reading it. The full version of the post can be found here. Over to Tony:

The Unassumed is the Unhealed

In my previous post, we considered the Recapitulation Theory of the atonement. In my mind, that gives rise to one particular question - something I feel I must ‘tackle’ before going any further. I blithely stated that Christ became human, and that by doing so, he united humanity and divinity.

There is an ancient doctrine of the church, going right back to the early church fathers, which is known, in technical terms, as the ’Hypostatic Union’. At its most basic, it states that Jesus Christ is at one and the same time, both fully God and fully man.

But how does that play out in practice? It’s easy to say, so long as you don’t actually think about it! Once you start to think though, it rapidly turns into a huge ‘can of worms’. It’s incredibly complicated, and gives rise to lots and lots of ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions… Not to mention lots of ways we can ‘get it wrong’ in our understanding and unknowingly believe things which, when examined closely, turn out to be heretical.

Gregory of Nazianzus was a fourth-century theologian, and the archbishop of Constantinople. He, along with the brothers Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, is known as one of the ‘Cappadocian Fathers’. He is most famous for helping to devise the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. He is also known for his work on each member of the Holy Trinity - which is why I mention him here.

Atonement Part Two: Recapitulation Theory

As we saw in the previous post, I realised that Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), and its torturous bedfellow, Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) made me more than a little uneasy, and I set in to illustrate at least some of the reasons why they made me so uncomfortable. Added to those reasons, there’s the simple fact that I don’t see either of them to be compatible with God’s loving nature, nor with his sense of justice, nor with basic fairness. As I hinted, I much prefer another theory of the atonement, which I feel fits God’s character much better. It is usually called Recapitulation Theory or, more colloquially, as the Therapeutic Model.

Recapitulation Theory dates to very early in the Church’s history, being seen alongside the ‘Christus Victor’ model. Many people believe thatRecapitulation Theoryhad its beginnings with Saint Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century. There are references to it throughout the writings of the early Church Fathers. For instance, ‘On the Incarnation’ by St. Athanasius of Alexandria(originally being written as a letter to one of his followers)explains Recapitulation Theory clearly.

Atonement - Explaining How Salvation Works

There are a number of different ‘atonement theories’ (ways to explain salvation). The first thing to note is that they are all theories - none of them is ‘proven’. Some are more popular than others in different parts of the church, and this has varied over time. In Protestant churches nowadays, one theory is overwhelmingly dominant - in fact most people see it as ‘the gospel’ and have no idea that there are alternative, competing, theories - in fact they usually state it as accepted fact, not even realising that it is a theory.

This theory is known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (hereafter PSA), and it is usually paired with another doctrine, Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) to form what most Protestant churches believe is the gospel. I won’t go into the fine detail of how it supposedly works because it is probably familiar to most of my readers, but the basic idea is that of a courtroom, with God sitting as judge (and jury and executioner too?). That the model should be this way is unsurprising because it was devised by a lawyer,back in the sixteenth century- none other than John Calvin. The basic idea is that we are found guilty in this court, and our sin makes God, the judge, so angry that he wants to kill us. But Jesus, on the cross, takes the punishment due to us as a sacrifice on our behalf, as our substitute, so that God the judge will no longer be angry with us, and will let us enter the heavenly kingdom. In the second, complimentary part of this narrative, ECT, the idea is that those who do not ‘accept Jesus as their saviour’ during this lifetime will spend eternity being tortured for not having done so. The argument as to why the punishment should be eternal is largely based on the idea that transgressing God’s perfect, infinite, holiness deserves infinite punishment.

More About Grace

Having spent the previous post marvelling at the free gift of God’s grace, I have also been thinking about sin - without which it appears that there is no need for grace. But what is sin?

We have a tendency, in the church, to be fixated on ‘sins’ - thinking of them as moral failures - but as we have seen before, I have grave doubts about this interpretation; indeed, I am beginning to feel that sin is actually a failure to ‘live within’ the image of God which we are supposed to bear in the world - in other words, sin is a failure to love.

But if, for a moment, we suppose that sin is ‘just’ about disobeying God, and take a look at the story of ‘the fall’ (Genesis 3:1-13) we see that God has forbidden Adam and Eve to eat fruit from, or even touch, a particular tree… Which they then touch, and eat from, beginning the whole 'sorry tale’ of humanity’s alienation from God.

And I had a thought. The idea, very crudely, is this.

Imagine a child. You forbid them from doing something - such as ‘Don’t touch the cooker because it’s hot.’ That, if the child is anything like me, creates the desire to touch the cooker (even if only to check whether it really is hot)... Even if I hadn’t thought of it before, now I definitely want to touch it - whether because it’s forbidden, or because there must be something there which I want and/or you don’t want me to have, or whatever - the desire is there now. Even if I really didn’t care before, the seed is sown - sooner or later, I’m going to touch the cooker (probably when I think you’re not looking); I won’t be able to resist; indeed, the more I resist, the stronger the desire becomes.

Contemplating Grace

Last summer we went away on holiday to Northumberland. One day, my son Tim and I took a trip to Lindisfarne - Holy Island - while the girls went shopping in Newcastle (aren’t we the super-spiritual ones? :-D). It was a gorgeous sunny day. We did the ‘sights’ - monastery, castle, etc., but we also walked around the island, and found ourselves eating our picnic lunch on a headland, looking out at the sparkling blue waters of the North Sea and watching the waves relentlessly washing onto the beaches below. For some reason, I started thinking about grace. And I carried on, on and off, for the rest of the holiday.

Grace is not grace if we have to ‘do’ anything to ‘earn’ it - perhaps even having to ‘accept’ it is too much. Let’s consider what I think I mean in a little more detail.

Grace is, by its nature, something which God extends to us. It is part of his loving essence. It is, stated most simply, ‘unmerited favour’. Unmerited - that means we haven’t done anything at all to deserve it, or to earn it - indeed it can’t be earned - it is a free gift from God, a manifestation of his unfathomably deep love for humanity. It is God’s benevolence towards humanity, deserving or not.

The Gate is Narrow

The system of chapters and verses in the bible is very useful - in that it helps us to find particular passages of scripture easily. It does though, introduce two problems - first is the tendency to examine the text ‘verse by verse’ instead of reading it like an ordinary book and concentrating on the ‘big picture’ stuff; second is the problem that the chapters are often quite arbitrary, and so they can fracture particular lines of thinking, and cause us to miss important relationships between ideas. That’s bad enough, but then the publishers of most modern bibles have taken to adding in ‘subject headings’ - which, again, can be helpful, but also fracture the text still more, and prevent us seeing even more ‘links’, as well as, in effect, telling us what to think about particular sections. We’ll return to this theme further down.

A passage which is a favourite with evangelists is this one:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. Matthew 7:13-14

More about what I believe

I said in my previous post that I thought that perhaps there was another way to translate the scriptures which appear to state that in order to be saved we need a personal faith in Jesus Christ. I’m sorry if you’re fed up with me banging on about Greek - but here I go again!

I think Western Christianity has, in some ways, ‘painted itself into a corner’ by the insistence on ‘salvation by faith’ (by which we mean ‘faith in Christ’) - which can lead us into the ‘slavery’ of it mattering how ‘strong’ our faith is - for instance, if our prayers aren’t answered in the affirmative, it’s because we didn’t have enough faith. It can also tempt us into a place where it seems as though we can almost control (or manipulate?) God by our belief and our actions: ‘If I pray hard enough, I’m sure God will honour that and…' So, surely, something must be wrong with that interpretation?

In Romans 3:22 (an almost identical phrase also occurs in Galatians 2:16, and the following discussion also applies to that verse) we read:

So What do I believe?

Having done my best to show you how I demolished my belief in both heaven and hell, what am I left with? What do I actually believe?

Well, in some ways it’s complicated. And in other ways it’s dead simple.

First and foremost, I believe that God is love… Θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν. (1 John, 4:8 - and other places) That is not just His primary attribute, but the very essence of who He is; the root of His being; it’s His nature; it’s what makes God God. Everything else about Him is derived from that.

Everything I believe about God, and humanity’s relationship with God has to be seen through that ‘love-tinted’ lens.

What is God like?

God is just like Jesus, as he told us himself:

Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.John 14:9

If we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), then we are designed to reflect God’s likeness: that likeness is summed up in the loving nature of Jesus.

Jesus said:

“The most important commandment is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

Is Jesus a Liar?

In my previous post about why I don’t believe we go to heaven when we die, I deliberately omitted dealing with a ‘complication’. Shortly after posting it, a friend said "Whilst I’m not necessarily arguing that you are wrong, you do need to do something with, ‘today you will be with me in paradise.’ “

I’d been rumbled!

By that, he meant one of the things which Jesus said when he was on the cross. Cutting the story short, Jesus has been crucified, and is hanging there between two criminals, also on their crosses. The first criminal has just said some quite unpleasant things - for which I don’t entirely blame him - he’s really not in a good place is he?

And then the second criminal joins in…

“Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:40-43

Heaven, Hell, or Neither?

Hell has taken a bit of a beating in my previous two posts; so in the interests of balance, I feel as though I ought to hammer heaven a bit as well: I don’t really believe in a literal heaven either! Actually, that’s not strictly true - I do believe in heaven, but I don’t believe we get the opportunity to go there.

It’s hard for me to back up that view with scripture because, actually, ‘going to heaven' isn’t really mentioned in scripture much at all… Unsurprisingly because originally it wasn’t a part of either the Jewish or Christian understanding of our ‘future’.

Judaism was, and remains, a religion concerned almost entirely with living in the now rather than in the future; Christianity too, in its early days, was largely about living in the present, with just a nod to a future ‘second coming’ and a renewal of all things stemming from that. The notion that (if we’re Christians) we ‘go to heaven when we die’ is derived almost entirely from pagan philosophy. You won’t find it in the bible, but you will find it in Plato’s ‘Republic’ - and, somehow, it has become the dominant belief about ‘what happens after we die’; people believe it, preachers mention it whilst speaking, and no-one seems to bat an eyelid about its lack of support in scripture! But the idea that, after we die, our disembodied souls ‘float away’, leaving behind this (supposedly) awful place for ‘somewhere better’ is, quite simply, incorrect.

Gehenna and Other Words for Hell

This post follows on from the previous post. I’m sorry to say that it’s rather long, but there wasn’t an easy, logical, way to break it down into smaller posts.

I don’t believe in hell. There, I’ve said it. Actually, I need to qualify that slightly - I don’t believe in a hell of eternal conscious torment - a place where recalcitrant souls are sent to be punished forever. I don’t believe that the concept is to be found anywhere in the pages of the bible if the bible is translated honestly from the original languages.

The concept of hell is one which is owed almost entirely to medieval thought on reward and punishment… The threat of hell was, in essence, a means of keeping the ‘Christian’ population ‘in line’ - set opposite the promise of the rewards of heaven if you were a good Christian. Our mental images of a place of fiery torment are owed, almost entirely, to the rather lurid imaginations of people such as the poet Dante Alighieri (circa 1265-1321) and his ‘Divine Comedy’.

Traditionally, certain Hebrew and Greek words have been translated as ‘Hell’, perpetuating our association of part of the Christian message with being about avoiding punishment for sin. So let’s take a brief look at these words, and what they seem to have meant in their original context.

Hell - a Couple of Random Thoughts

A bit of a wander through a couple of my ideas on hell. The first is more philosophy than theology but hey, who’s really making distinctions or caring about a little thing like that?

Two scriptures came to mind when I was thinking about hell and the likelihood of its existence:

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.Genesis 1:31

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.John 1:3

Here and now I’m not going to get into discussing on what level the Genesis account of creation is true - that’s outside the scope of this debate. We will just assume that the κόσμος (cosmos - world, universe - everything that is) came into being because God willed it, and that everything which exists does so because of the divine will - however that works out in practice.

What does that mean, and how is it relevant to hell?

If God made everything which exists, as John 1 says, then it follows that if hell exists, He must have made it. And yet the Genesis quote says that God saw that everything He made was good...

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022