Review: Still believing the Bible!

3 October 2020

Many books today are knocking the Bible by giving reasons for rejecting it. Many, perhaps most, are ill thought-through and lacking in scholarly substance. So it’s good to find a book in defence of the Bible’s trustworthiness, written by a competent biblical scholar with his feet on the ground. It is

Can We Still Believe The Bible?—An evangelical engagement with contemporary questions by Craig L. Blomberg (Brazos Press, 2014)

Blomberg engages with six aspects that have commonly come under attack:

  1. Textual criticism (finding the Bible’s original wording)

cwsbtbWith so many textual variants in the NT, can we be sure we know what the original version was? The author exposes the glaring weaknesses in Bart Ehrman’s influential book: Misquoting Jesus. He shows the statistics there to be presented in a misleading way, and counters them with a balanced and settling presentation. He goes on to examine the two key ‘doubtful’ NT passages: the ending of Mark’s Gospel, and part of John 8. Along the way, he addresses many other shorter textual variants.

He goes into considerable detail, too, on the more complex text of the OT. It makes fascinating reading. He concludes that, overall, we can be more certain of the text of the Bible than we can of most other ancient books. We can reconstruct it with a very high degree of probability, even if we cannot claim to have a flawless text.

  1. The biblical canon (which books are in the Bible, and why)

Here, Blomberg addresses the popular opinion that political forces at the time of Constantine (4th century AD) decided which books should be in the canon of the NT. He provides solid reasons for rejecting that position. He also examines the debates that took place over certain books and their legitimacy as candidates for inclusion in the NT canon, and what the criteria were.

outstandingbook  He looks at the OT canon, too, and shows how flimsy a foundation some of the critical claims are based upon, offering firmer alternatives on which to build a different view. But he is honest in admitting where our knowledge of ancient sources and developments runs out and speculation begins. He also tackles the question of the Apocrypha and how we should regard it.

There is an interesting section on the abuse of the canon of Scripture, in which Wayne Grudem’s widely-used Systematic Theology comes in for some direct criticism.

  1. The problems of the proliferation of English translations

Blomberg has already, in the previous sections, debunked the notion that the Authorized (King James) Version is somehow more trustworthy than later versions of the English Bible. And there are vastly more of these than in any other language, some of them of dubious quality.

He provides a history of the translations and the three main approaches adopted by translators. He debunks the idea that the more ‘literal’ a translation is, the more we should prefer it. Interestingly, the version favoured by most English-speaking scholars worldwide is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Conversely, he shows how exaggerated are the claims made for the English Standard Version (ESV).

The author also faces up to the fraught issue of gender-inclusive language and how appropriate it is for the Bible text, especially in relation to the latest edition (2011) of the popular New International Version (NIV).

  1. The ‘inerrancy’ of the Bible

It is chiefly in the USA that ‘biblical inerrancy’ is emphasised. But many Christians elsewhere have picked up on it and assumed it to be a ‘given’ of orthodox faith. It holds that the Bible is without errors. But there is debate over what constitutes an error! Definitions of inerrancy usually include a phrase like ‘Scripture properly interpreted’, which opens the door to many opinions.

Blomberg examines the ways in which, in biblical times, people reported speech or recorded history. They differed enormously from modern practices, but we should not judge the former by the latter. A difference does not constitute an error.

He comes down in favour of inerrancy, but with a view of it that is very nuanced and sensitive to the complexity of the biblical text. It is a view that many conservatives would, I suspect, dismiss as far too liberal, but which I myself find very satisfying.

  1. The biblical genres (e.g. what parts are history, and in what sense?)

The Bible contains a wide variety of literary genres: history, letters, wisdom, poetry etc. A problem for many people is which parts they should receive as historical narrative, and which as illustrative stories that are not necessarily true in a literal sense.

Blomberg looks at many examples, starting with the accounts of the creation and fall in Genesis. He goes on to discuss Job and Jonah—was he really swallowed by a whale?—and then the authorship of Isaiah, before looking at Daniel and the genre known as apocalyptic literature.

The NT section examines the theory that Matthew is an example of the Jewish genre called midrash, the disputed authorship of some of the epistles and, finally, the much-disputed book of Revelation. Blomberg’s treatment of them all is sensible, balanced and persuasive. To his credit, he comes clean on where he personally stands on the main issues.

  1. The question of miracles

Sceptics have argued that the Bible’s miracle stories make it a mythical book. This comes from a materialistic worldview that has no place for real miracles.

Blomberg disagrees. He points to the evidence for miracles happening today, well-documented and with lasting results. And, in addition, reminds us that miracles—especially the resurrection of Jesus—are an integral part of Christianity in a way that is not true of other religions.

After recounting some miracles that he himself has personally witnessed, he goes on to examine some of the NT miracles and ask whether they were embroidered over the years onto more mundane events, or were even based on pagan miracle stories. He looks particularly at the resurrection of Jesus, for which the evidence is overwhelming. Then he takes a similar approach with some OT miracles.

He identifies categories: types of situations where OT miracles were frequent. Then he applies the same process to NT miracles, including those in the book of Acts. He decides that the evidence for biblical miracles—and miracles today—is strong.

He concludes by coming down firmly on the side of the Bible’s trustworthiness. While cautioning against an over-liberal approach to it, he wisely warns, too, against the opposite: an unrealistic conservatism. The latter, espoused by hard-line biblicists, has done as much as the former to put off genuine seekers from engaging with the Scriptures.

Finally he cautions against exclusivist, pharisaical attitudes towards those who take a ‘lower’ view of the Bible that we do, asserting: ‘Millions of evangelicals worldwide and throughout history have not accepted the belief that every last word of Scripture is without error, yet they are living (or have lived) faith-filled, Christ-directed, God-honoring lives.’ (p221)

This is a first-class book, and I recommend it wholeheartedly to every thinking Christian.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

It seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that God has worked with humanity gradually over time, progressively revealing more and more of himself and his will as humans have been able to receive it, which also suggests that there are trajectories of moral enlightenment established on the pages of Scripture that we should continue to push even further today. (4)

There are…areas of scholarship where new findings, or at least much more intense study of slightly older discoveries, have actually strengthened the case for the reliability or trustworthiness of the Scriptures. (7)

Huge misunderstandings remain about the strengths and weaknesses of so-called literal translations. (10)

Many people simply can’t live with even a very slight uncertainty about the exact reading of the original text of a document they treat as inspired, authoritative, and infallible Scripture. So, however implausible their arguments have to be, they insist on defending the notion that God has inerrantly preserved his Word. (39)

We have massive amounts of support for our convictions that the sixty-six books of the canonical Scriptures accepted by all branches of Christianity have been extraordinarily well preserved. (42)

The New Testament explicitly quotes from a broad cross-section of Old Testament documents but never quotes from the Apocrypha. Jude quotes once from a pseudepigraphic work, 1 Enoch, but not in a fashion that necessarily implies that he understood the work to be part of the Hebrew canon. (49)

In John’s original context, Revelation 22:18–19 on not adding or subtracting to the words of this book referred only to the book of Revelation itself. But when the church finalized the canon, by including Revelation and ending with it, it was in essence applying John’s words to the entire collection of authoritative documents. (56)

The criterion of apostolicity [for inclusion in the canon] does not mean that every book was written by an apostle—by one of Jesus’s twelve closest followers—but rather that they were written during the apostolic age, before the last of the Twelve (most likely John) had died. (58)

The Hebrew Scriptures remained an open-ended narrative in a way the New Testament did not. Christians, in compiling their uniquely sacred Scriptures, added to the Old Testament what they believed was the divinely intended fulfilment of the story of God’s dealings with humanity. (62)

Tellingly, the only way Muslims and Mormons have been able to justify another collection of divinely inspired literature is to claim either (1) that the existing texts of the New Testament are corrupt and originally taught something quite different (the typical Muslim claim), or (2) that entire books were left out of the canon that God originally gave to his people (the typical Mormon claim). (76)

Occasionally an evangelical systematic theology is written with insufficient reference to the history of Christian thought on the topic or to the philosophical and cultural underpinnings of the major schools of thought throughout that history. The result makes it appear as if the theologian’s task is merely to group every passage from the Bible on a given topic together and see what concepts emerge.115 Wayne Grudem’s widely used Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine unfortunately too often approximates this approach. (79)

The Bible is uniquely inspired and authoritative, but that does not mean that Christians shouldn’t read widely from every perspective on every topic about which they wish to learn. Nor does it mean that we can treat the Bible like a textbook on any topic, even theology, as if immersing ourselves in Scripture alone, with no other resources, will suffice to teach us everything that God has revealed about any area of human inquiry. (81)

The options [in Bible translation] are whether to (a) prioritize accuracy, (b) prioritize fluency, or (c) optimize both by seeking as much of a and b as can be accomplished simultaneously. Of course, there can also be gradations of these priorities, but in broad generalizations, the NASB, ESV, and NRSV represent a (putting meaning ahead of clarity); the NLT, CEV, and GNB represent b (putting clarity ahead of meaning); and the NAB, NET, HCSB, CEB, and NIV represent c (aiming at the optimal amount of meaning and clarity simultaneously). (94)

The updated NIV may have attained the best combination of accuracy and clarity of all the translations. (118)

Numerous competing theological and exegetical positions over the centuries have appealed to the inerrancy or trustworthiness of Scripture for their support; in reality these were debates over hermeneutics. (124)

The reporting of people’s words is a particularly significant example of where the ancients employed noticeably less precision than we moderns do. (127)

What it means to say that the Bible is wholly true varies widely from one genre to the next, but the concept of a deeply flawed or errant Scripture is a virtual oxymoron and largely the invention of recent times. (131)

Nothing in principle should prevent the person who upholds inerrancy from adopting a view that sees ʾādām (“man” or Adam) and awwâ (“life” or Eve) as symbols for every man and woman, created in the image of God but sinful by virtue of their own rebellious choices in succumbing to Satan’s lures. (152)

Outside of evangelical circles, roughly half of contemporary New Testament scholars believe that Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, James, 1 Peter, and Jude were not written by the authors to which they have traditionally been ascribed. Perhaps as many as three-fourths of New Testament scholars reject the Pauline authorship of Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles (1–2 Timothy and Titus), and an even higher percentage rejects Petrine authorship of 2 Peter. Second Peter is also the one canonical letter whose authorship claim was disputed in the ancient church as well. (169)

The form of Christianity in which these church-leavers and faith-leavers were brought up and/or nurtured did not allow for serious discussion of the hard questions of the faith in a safe environment and drew small circles around what was deemed acceptably “Christian.” (175)

Among biblical scholars there is a much greater openness to the miraculous than there was even a generation ago. (185)

The reliability of the entire exodus story has, of course, been frequently called into question because of the lack of direct archaeological evidence. The problem is compounded by the debate over its date, whether it should be placed in the thirteenth or fifteenth century BC. But we do have hieroglyphic paintings from Egypt from the fifteenth century that depict foreign slaves making mud bricks under the supervision of Egyptian overseers, and we have archaeological evidence for the sudden appearance or growth of towns in many places in Israel at about the right time, if we opt for the later date for the exodus. It is not realistic, moreover, to expect anything to remain of the shelters of impoverished people like the Israelite slaves in Egypt living in the marshy delta of the Nile, or of their temporary wilderness wanderings in the Sinai utilizing even less permanent structures. And no Pharaoh would have wanted to acknowledge the loss of a slave community due to their flight by recording or commemorating it in any way! There are, to be sure, sites in Israel where we might have expected evidence of occupation or signs of larger settlements, but it is actually amazing that so much has remained over the millennia. We should always remind ourselves that the absence of evidence is never the evidence of absence! (195)

Just as often as Christ works a sign or wonder in response to faith, he also effects a miracle to produce faith where it is too small or nonexistent. (201)

A study of the heresies that the early church had to address in its first several centuries quickly discloses that there are two ways one can distort the truth. The best known, then and throughout church history, has been to redefine central doctrines too broadly—to become too “liberal.” Less well remembered are the heresies caused by redefining central doctrines too narrowly—to become too “conservative.” (216)

We can still wholeheartedly believe the Bible in the twenty-first century, even after honestly engaging contemporary questions. (217)


Review: The ‘Jesus approach’ to the Bible

3 September 2020

Richard Rohr is a Roman Catholic and a Franciscan priest best known as an exponent of the ‘contemplative’ approach to prayer and spirituality. His many books have been immensely popular, even among non-Catholics, some of whom have had questions about the way he approaches the Bible. To answer them, we now have

What Do We Do With The Bible? by Richard Rohr (SPCK, 2019)

wdwdwtbIt’s a short book: just over 40 pages. And it’s commendably to the point. Rohr is keenly aware of the way Christians have misused the Bible over the centuries to justify the most appalling practices, like apartheid, slavery and the burning of heretics. And he is equally familiar with the weird ways many ordinary believers today approach it: ‘as a personal power pack, a hammer, or a rationale for their bad behaviour.’

At the same time, he recognises that, for sincere Christians, the Bible remains properly ‘the primary authoritative source’ for their beliefs and practices. He outlines the different approaches to it fashionable in different periods of history, most recently the rational, literal and historical approach since the Enlightenment. This, he maintains, hampers true spirituality. He is sceptical of the ‘biblical inerrancy’ line, with its excess literalism, and points out that Jesus took a different approach to his own OT scriptures, and so did the likes of Paul.

We cannot, the author claims, act as independent interpreters of Scripture, but must be aware of ‘the perennial tradition’ formed throughout Christian history. Nor must we overlook the way our individual personality affects our approach to the Bible. And let’s remember that, in the vast aeons of human history, the Bible turned up very late, but God was not silent before that; he was known through the natural world (Romans 1:20).

A ‘bullet point’ section briefly identifies some popular misconceptions about what the Bible is, how it came to us, and how we should use it. Traditional evangelicals will feel a few body-punches here! Rohr is skilled at showing how some of our strange ideas came into being, enabling us better to identify and hopefully jettison them.

He ends with what he calls ‘the Jesus hermeneutic’. That means, simply, ‘Let’s use the Bible the way that Jesus did!’ Jesus in fact treated his own Scriptures in a very biased way, picking and choosing which bits to highlight and which to overlook, and sometimes veering close to what have been called ‘situation ethics’. A further string of bullet-points provides a comprehensive range of examples from the Gospels.

He winds up by re-asserting that we ourselves should interpret Scripture the same way, which will be unsettling for many evangelicals—and needs to be!

Reassuringly, Rohr’s overall approach tallies with the hermeneutical approach being emphasised by a wide variety of scholars and writers today. If you want a brief overview of that approach, you can find one in my own free e-book, A Poke In The Faith.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

…the postmodern revolt against religion in general and Bible quoters in particular. (9)

Read the Apostle Paul’s Sermo Sapientia, or sermon on wisdom, in 1 Corinthians 1:17–2:16, where he says that believers have an alternative way of knowing that prayerfully contemplates a text instead of using it as dualistic ammunition to protect our opinions or attack others. (9)

We must be prepared to somehow state our method of interpretation, including our conscious biases, or we end up being dishonest or manipulative with the text—without even knowing it. (13)

Our hermeneutic must make use of both our will and our intellect. Mere conformity (will) or mere reason (understanding) is always a dead faith, and unworthy of the full human person. (13)

The most common default position for Scriptural interpretation is, of course, the literal/historical one—which is honestly the least helpful and the least fruitful. (17)

The Reformation’s critical thinking was surely a necessary stage in our maturation process—but we cannot permanently rest in oppositional thinking. We must continue toward mystical, non-dual, and conciliatory patterns. The overreaction that produced fundamentalism soon set in motion an equal and opposite reaction called rationalism. This is the present argumentative frame inside of which we are trapped. There must be some good alternatives and subtleties to this false dualistic split between non-critical fundamentalism and overly critical rationalism. (18)

Good scriptural interpretation is not limited by the rational lens, but that does not mean it is irrational either. There is also the childlike lens of the pre-rational, the adult’s intelligent reason, and the very sophisticated lens of the trans-rational, the symbolic, and the mystical. This last is our wide-angle and long-distance lens, which provides the basis for our Biblical hermeneutic. We need all three. In fact, I would correlate the pre-rational with the always unknowable work of the Creator, the rational with the visible work of Christ, and the trans-rational with the ubiquitous work of the Holy Spirit. (19)

As Paul directly puts it, “Ever since the creation of the the invisible existence of God and the Divine Power can be clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things” (see Romans 1:20). These words undercut and self-correct the absolute and autonomous authority of Scripture—from the inside out! They base spiritual wisdom in nature, in creation, and from the beginning, thus preceding all later spiritual writings, which were composed in the last nanosecond of geologic time. (20)

This “proof text” approach to Scripture, which allows us to find a single line to prove or illustrate almost anything, has now been universally discredited and, also, shown to lead us to some very dangerous and difficult conclusions. (22)

The Bible does not demand academic scholarship, but it is indeed dangerous in the minds of unbalanced or agenda-driven people. (23)

We also extracted Christ from the eternal love flow of the Trinity and made him into a lone male monarch, revealed as such in almost all language and art up to our own time. We henceforth understood the God relationship less in terms of a circle and flow of shared life, and more as a pyramid of feudal authority. Obedience and loyalty were the supreme virtues, not love and compassion. (26)

By not reading the Jewish prophets, except in terms of their “foretelling” of Jesus, we failed to notice that the constant recipients of their ire and judgment are two special groups—the princes and the priests. (27)

When we watch his pattern of interpretation, we could even say Jesus “played light and easy” with the only Bible he knew—the Hebrew Bible. Jesus was anything but a fundamentalist or a legalist. This is not hard to demonstrate; in fact, it is culpable ignorance not to see it now. (29)

I am convinced that Jesus is presenting rewards and punishments as inherent and present-tense. Goodness is its own reward, evil its own punishment. (31)

Jesus appears to ignore most of his own Bible, yet it clearly formed his whole consciousness. That is the paradox. If we look at what he ignores, it includes any passages that appear to legitimate violence, imperialism, exclusion, purity, and dietary laws—of which there are many. These are the very ones we love to quote! Jesus is a Biblically formed non-Bible quoter, who gets the deeper stream, the spirit, the trajectory of his Jewish history and never settles for mere surface readings. (32)

[Jesus] is not factually correct in some of his examples, which clearly should suggest to people who like to pick apart arguments that this is not the point! For example, he describes the mustard seed as the smallest of all seeds and the mustard bush as the biggest of all shrubs in Matthew 13:32, which, in both cases, is not anywhere close to the truth. Is the Bible still to be called inerrant when Jesus uses erroneous examples to make spiritual points? (34)

When religion meets culture, culture wins, nine times out of ten! Take that as normative. (35)

Not all Scriptures were created equal in Jesus’ mind, which is a great blind spot for most fundamentalists, who have little or no skill or training in spiritual discernment. Jesus seems to teach that you can only tell goodness “by its fruits” (see Luke 6:43–45) and not just by the naked action itself. (35)

God does not ask and expect you to do anything new until God has first made it desirable and possible for you to do it. (37)

Excessive God talk and quoting of Scripture are the best cover possible for a narcissistic personality. (38)


Review: Q&A on ‘God Can’t’

31 July 2020

It’s no surprise that Thomas Jay Oord’s book, God Can’t (which I reviewed here) stirred up a huge response, and many questions.

gcq&aHe has now written a follow-up book where he addresses the major issues identified in a year’s correspondence, giving more detail on certain aspects of the ‘uncontrolling love’ view of God that he espouses. The book is:

God Can’t Q&A by Thomas Jay Oord (SacraSage, 2020)

Its eight chapters address one topic each, as follows:

 1.  If God can’t control, why pray?

 2.  If God is uncontrolling, how do we explain miracles?

 3.  What does an uncontrolling God do?

 4.  What does it mean to say that God loves everyone and everything?

 5.  How does Jesus fit in a theology of uncontrolling love?

 6.  If God created the universe, why can’t God stop evil?

 7.  What hope do we have if God’s love is uncontrolling?

 8.  Do you know God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly?

Good questions! And he answers them all in a frank and precise way, without dodging any of the issues. If you have read God Can’t—and/or his more academic work on the same subject, The Uncontrolling Love of God (reviewed here)—you will find this new Q&A volume really helpful. If you haven’t, you should read one of them first.

To whet your appetite, here is a selection of quotations from each of the above sections, with page numbers.

Introduction

We don’t have to believe everything happens for a reason. (13)

God doesn’t punish. But there are natural negative consequences that come from sin and evil. (13)

Some theologians say God’s love and power are equal. But then they’ll claim God has the power not to love. Or they’ll say God could decide to stop loving someone. These claims reveal such theologians actually think God’s power of choice comes logically prior to love. By contrast, I think love comes logically before power. (16)

I suspect that if John Wesley were living today, he’d identify as open and relational. (19)

If God can’t control, why pray?

The Conventional view portrays God as having the ability to rescue singlehandedly but not always doing so unless we ask. It portrays God as metaphorically sitting back, arms folded, waiting for us to pray, or pray enough, before jumping in to help. (26)

From the uncontrolling love view, petitionary prayer affects God. (27)

An uncontrolling love view says petitionary prayer makes a difference without fully determining others. It says our prayers affect God without saying prayers make it possible for God to determine others fully. It says praying opens new possibilities God can use in the next moment, without saying those possibilities guarantee the rescuing, healing, or blessing we seek. Prayer can be a factor in the good that occurs, but it doesn’t guarantee it. (29)

All of life is petitionary prayer, in that sense, because everything we do influences God’s experience. I think about this when pondering the Apostle Paul’s recommendation to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). (34)

Many worship songs stress sovereignty when speaking of God’s glory. “God is in control,” they proclaim. “God orchestrates every lightning strike and falling leaf.” Some songs ask God to “take my will” or say God’s ways are “irresistible.” Taken literally, many worship songs assume God is or could be controlling. I can’t worship a God who could singlehandedly control but chooses not to prevent evil. (39)

I’m motivated to pray when I believe God cannot control but lovingly influences all. (40)

If God is uncontrolling, how do we explain miracles?

Miracles are unusual and good events that involve God’s causal action in relation to creation. (45)

Miracles involve both God’s initiating action and creaturely responses or the conditions of creation being conducive. (48)

For God to interrupt the law-like regularities that result from divine love, God would have to deny God’s nature. And God can’t do that. (48)

I know of no passage that says miracles require God to control creatures or creation. No story or passage of Scripture explicitly says God singlehandedly brought about some miraculous result. (50)

If for theological reasons we can assume God was active but not always mentioned in biblical miracles, why can’t we for theological reasons assume creatures were active but not always mentioned in biblical miracles? Assuming God and creation always play roles in miracles resolves mysteries and offers a plausible framework for understanding God’s action in the world. (53)

The (wrong) idea that God chooses how much to influence triggers what I’ve called “The Problem of Selective Miracles.” This problem comes when thinking God controls others when doing miracles. But the idea also emerges if one thinks God voluntarily regulates how much to influence. (54)

What does an uncontrolling God do?

God always acts without controlling. (61)

As a spirit with being, God influences everyone and everything moment by moment. In this influencing, God calls, persuades, commands, or woos us to choose particular courses of action and ways of being. This is God’s causal action. (67)

God creates and sustains all things in relation with other causes and factors, so being a necessary cause in all things does not mean being the primary cause for all things. (69)

When we experience goodness, we should praise God for being its source. But we should also thank creatures who cooperated with God. When outcomes are evil, we can blame uncooperative creatures, random events, or the conditions of creation. God did not want this evil, and creatures and creation sometimes oppose God’s work for good. (72)

God is always present to all creation. So it makes no sense to say God “intervenes” from over there… I refrain from using “intervention” and “supernatural” because in my experience, these words confuse rather than clarify. (73)

I believe the universal Spirit acts at every level of existence, all the time. This action includes God’s causal effects, as God empowers, inspires, calls, and more. God is an efficient and final cause that provides formal causes. But because God always loves without controlling, God’s actions require positive responses for the results God wants to see. (77)

What does it mean to say God loves everyone and everything?

To love is to act intentionally, in relational response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. (82)

Some people think a loving person has only the well-being of others in mind. But this perspective of love doesn’t account for appropriate self-love… If we ought to love those whom God loves, we ought to love ourselves! (83)

After decades of studying Scripture, I’ve come to believe biblical passages that portray God as unloving are in error. It may seem bold to say this. But it seems the most honest. I don’t look at biblical passages that portray God as violent, cock my head, squint, and say, “God killing people must be loving from the divine perspective.” Instead, I say, “The biblical writers who think God kills people misunderstand God.” (85)

God by necessity loves, because God’s nature is love. You and I don’t have natures of love, so we must choose whether to love moment by moment. (86)

God loves rapists, for example, because God acts for their well-being. But God doesn’t like rape. God knows what’s good for the rapist involves him avoiding rape, and that’s obviously also good for the potential victim. (87)

We could say God is not free not to love. Because love comes first in God’s nature, God does not freely choose whether to love us. In this sense, divine love is not free. Divine love is free in another sense, however. God freely chooses how to love. (91)

We have little reason to trust a God for whom love comes second. (92)

Many believers have inconsistent views of God’s love and power. Incoherent theology is prevalent. (94)

When I think about a God worthy of my worship, I find more winsome the vision of a God who consistently loves but can’t control than a God who can control but loves inconsistently. (96)

How does Jesus fit in a theology of uncontrolling love?

After pointing to Jesus’ example of self-giving love, Paul tells his readers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12b-13). He’s saying God empowers us — “works in” and “enables” us — to express love. But we have to respond, to “work out” our salvation. (102)

Many now think of Jesus’ kenosis as telling us something about who God is and how God acts… The life, teachings, and cross of Christ powerfully reveal God’s power as non-coercive love. (103)

I believe a perfectly good but voluntarily self-limited God — if this God existed — would become un-self-limited, in the name of love, to prevent preventable evil. Because genuine evils occur, I can’t believe God is voluntarily self-limited. I think God’s nature of love limits what God can do. And God necessarily expresses uncontrolling love for creation. (105)

The belief God can control creatures or creation leads to other problems too. For instance, one wonders why the Bible would have errors, contradictions, and ambiguity if God could control its writers to produce a perfect text. (107)

It’s hard to understand why a loving God would create through a long and painful evolutionary process if God has controlling power to snap existence into its present state and avoid all evolutionary evils. (107)

Some readers of the Bible notice that Jesus did not heal everyone who needed it. They offer “explanations” for this selective healing that blame the victims, appeal to a mysterious divine plan, call the illness God’s punishment, and more. Much more satisfying is the idea Jesus wanted to heal everyone but encountered actors, factors, forces, and agents that did not or could not cooperate. (111)

If God created the universe, why can’t God stop evil?

Should we consider a God who created a world and added features with great potential for calamity a good Creator? (119)

Believing God can create from absolutely nothing leads to a host of problems. Most people are unaware of those problems, so they don’t question creatio ex nihilo. (122)

If God once had the ability to create from absolutely nothing, God would essentially retain that ability. But a loving God with this ability would be morally culpable for failing to use it, at least periodically, to prevent genuine evil today. (123)

The Bible does not explicitly support creation from nothing. Writers speak of God creating out of something, that that “something” might be water, the deep, chaos, invisible things, and so on. (124)

God everlastingly loves creaturely others. “Love for creation” is necessary to what it means to be God. This means love is God’s motive for creating and God has always been creating. (127)

God’s creating had no beginning. There was never a time God started from nothing. Because God’s eternal nature is creative love, God has always been creating and loving creatures. (128)

The problem of evil cannot be solved if God created the universe singlehandedly or from absolutely nothing. For this reason (and eight others), I reject the view God ever creates from nothing. Instead, I believe God always creates in relation to creatures, creation, and creaturely forces. And God’s creating is always loving. (136)

What hope do we have if God’s love is uncontrolling?

If God can’t singlehandedly prevent evil, what hope do we have for love’s ultimate triumph? (137)

My relentless love view of the afterlife assumes God loves everyone and everything. It assumes God’s love is inherently uncontrolling. And it assumes God’s love never ends: God never stops loving us and all creation. I call this the logic of God’s uncontrolling love. The logic of uncontrolling love grounds our hope for the afterlife. (143)

Never-ending conscious torment has little or no biblical basis. The theory’s influence owes more to the medieval writer Dante than the Bible. (144)

Saying sin generates qualitatively negative experiences fits well with the broad biblical witness, contemporary health sciences, and our own experiences. (145)

Infinite punishment doesn’t fit the crime of finite sin. (145)

I don’t embrace the common universalism view… The God with the controlling power necessary to put everyone in Heaven someday should use controlling power to stop evil right now. (147)

I don’t like the annihilation view. It rightly says our actions have consequences. It rightly says God sends no one to never-ending torment in Hell. But it assumes God quits. God gives up on some people. God does not forgive all but actively or passively destroys some. It implies divine love has limits. (148)

When we do not cooperate with God, we suffer the natural negative consequences that come from failing to love. God doesn’t punish. But there are natural negative consequences — in this life and the next — from saying no to positive and healthy choices. Sin is its own punishment. (149)

I believe we should remain open to the possibility that afterlife bliss may occur near to or on earth, somewhere in our galaxy, or some other location. (150)

The relentless love view does not guarantee everyone will enjoy eternal bliss. But it provides the hope of universal salvation. (151)

It’s reasonable to think the God who never gives up and whose love is universal will eventually convince all. (152)

God calls and empowers all to respond in love in this life and the next. And divine love never gives up. (156)

Do you know God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly?

I find I share more in common with those who do not identify as Christian but love consistently than those who identify as Christian but don’t love consistently. (160)

Doubt is fundamental to the good life. Doubt is an aspect of belief. Christians are “believers” not “certainers,” to coin a word. I like what Phineas Bresee says on this: “Faith isn’t the absence of doubt; it’s choosing to act despite doubt.” (161)

Professional scholars and the average person on the street reach for the mystery card when argued into a corner. (163)

I don’t know with certainty the ideas of the uncontrolling love view are correct. I think it’s plausible the view is true, however. These ideas fit how I read the Bible, the best of my intellectual abilities, and the way the world seems to work. Given the widest array of information and experiences, it makes sense to say a loving God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly. (167)

 


Review: God can’t…

25 July 2020

‘God can’t’? To many, that’s an oxymoron. God, they say, is by definition omnipotent; he can do anything!

But Scripture lists several things he can’t do: he can’t lie, be tempted or grow tired. And, most importantly, ‘he cannot deny himself’ (2 Timothy 2:13). That is, he can’t act outside of his essential nature. An important book by Thomas Jay Oord highlights the fact that, fundamental to that nature is love, and love is by definition uncontrolling.

gcThat has huge implications for people who have suffered tragedy, abuse, rape, torture, a serious accident or life-threatening illness. They rightly ask, ‘If God is both loving and all-powerful, why didn’t he prevent this happening?’ It is to such people that this book is primarily addressed. It is:

God Can’t: how to believe in God and love after tragedy, abuse and other evils by Thomas Jay Oord (SacraSage, 2019)

A few years ago, Oord set out its principles in The Uncontrolling Love of God: an open and relational account of providence (2015). It was aimed at a fairly academic readership but the interest it stirred led to his writing this simpler version for the average reader.

It lays out five principles which, together, undergird the understanding of God and his love that this approach puts forward. They are:

  1. God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly.
  2. God feels our pain.
  3. God works to heal.
  4. God works to squeeze good from the evil he didn’t want in the first place.
  5. God needs our cooperation.

This is no weird, heretical set of proposals. The author—who himself knows what major suffering means—grounds his work soundly in Scripture, alongside a sensitive appreciation of our human fragility and the things about God’s activity that, if we are honest, often leave us puzzled or frustrated. I recommend it with enthusiasm, and you will find it very relevant if you are involved in counselling, chaplaincy or pastoral ministry. Below is a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

  • If you want a summary, I have written a synopsis of the book here.
  • My review of Oord’s earlier book, The Uncontrolling Love of God is here.

Taking evil seriously means rethinking conventional ideas about God and the world. (4)

Polls indicate the existence of evil is the number-one reason atheists cite for rejecting belief in God. Who can blame them? (9)

Some assume God’s love is altogether different from ours. The phrase, “God’s ways are not our ways,” is taken to mean, “God’s love isn’t like ours.” What God thinks loving is not what we think. This sleight-of-hand confuses rather than clarifies. It doesn’t help to say God loves us if we have no idea what love is! (11)

It doesn’t make sense to say a loving God permits evil. We don’t need to say, “Your rape happened for a reason,” and mean, “God allowed it.” (13)

Perfect love prevents preventable evil. (18)

If God can control evildoers, we should blame God for allowing the atrocities they commit. The God who fails to prevent preventable genuine evil is morally reprehensible. (19)

The God of uncontrolling love cannot control creatures. (20)

The broad themes of the Bible help us make sense of God and life. But we must resist thinking the Bible is a weapon, medicine bottle, or magic book. And it’s not a systematic theology. While it’s important to drill down to explore the details, it’s more important to grasp the major ideas of the Bible. (24)

Love does not overrule or override. It does “not force itself on others,” to quote the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13:5).  (26)

If God’s nature is love and love never controls, God would have to deny his love to control others. But God can’t do that. The limits to divine power come from God’s nature of love. I call this view “essential kenosis.” (28)

A bodiless, universal spirit cannot do what embodied creatures sometimes can. Despite having no body, God is present and active in all situations. Divine power is direct but persuasive, widespread but wooing, causal but uncontrolling. God’s loving activity makes a difference without imposing control or using a divine body. (33)

An uncontrolling God neither creates us as robots nor temporarily roboticizes us. (34)

Despite the positive aspects of The Shack, the story offers no believable reason why a good and powerful God fails to prevent genuine evil. The Shack fails to answer the primary question victims ask. (38)

God is always present, always affected, and always loving. Because God’s giving and receiving is universal and because God knows us fully, God empathizes to the utmost. God feels what we feel. God’s sensitivity is unrestricted. (52)

It’s important to believe God suffers with those who suffer. But we must also believe God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly. Without both, we can’t offer a believable explanation for unnecessary suffering, tragedy, abuse, and other evils. A God who could singlehandedly emancipate but chooses only to commiserate is not someone to worship or to emulate! (60)

If God heals, why doesn’t God heal a lot more often? (81)

We need a plausible explanation for why healing sometimes happens but often does not. (84)

Requests for “intervention” don’t make sense. If God is already present and acting for good all the time, we don’t need God to come into our situation. God is already here; an omnipresent God is everywhere. (89)

When we understand that God cannot heal singlehandedly, we solve the problem of selective miracles. If God always works to heal but cannot control anyone or anything, it’s not God’s fault when healing does not occur. (93)

Factors within or outside us can frustrate God’s work to heal. Perhaps my phrase, God is “working to heal to the utmost, given the circumstances” now makes sense. God always works alongside people and creation when healing. “Healing to the utmost, given the circumstances” implies creation may not cooperate. Inanimate entities and conditions may not be aligned for the healing God wants. (95)

God is not a vending machine that automatically kicks out a miracle when we insert a prayer coin. But prayer alters circumstances in our bodies and world. It presents new opportunities for God to heal. Prayer opens up new possibilities for God’s love to make an actual difference. (96)

If good comes from suffering and God wants what’s good, is suffering God’s will? (109)

“Everything happens for a reason” really means, “even evil is God’s will!” (116)

The idea God punishes sinners is mostly absent in the New Testament. (122)

A loving God disciplines us in non-coercive ways for our good. God’s discipline isn’t punitive; it’s instructive and encouraging. (125)

There are natural negative consequences to sin and evil. Rather than believe devastation and heartache are supernatural punishments, we should believe they’re the natural negative consequences of refusing to cooperate with God’s love. (130)

Sometimes nobody causes the suffering we experience. No one sinned. No one’s to blame. We suffer as victims of natural disasters, random sickness, or plain bad luck. Accidents and forces of nature make our lives miserable or kill us. Calamity happens. (131)

I believe God uses suffering to mature us. And God responds to evil by helping us and others in positive ways. But I don’t think God causes or allows suffering and evil for this purpose. (133)

The best reasons for atheism are reactions to conventional ideas about God. (143)

The conventional view says that although God could control us and others, God typically gives free will and invites response. The One capable of control doesn’t need cooperation. Coercion is always an option when the conventional God wants to get a job done. (146)

Believers in the conventional God say we should help the poor. “God is calling us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and free the oppressed,” they say. But the God capable of control allowed that hunger, nakedness, and oppression in the first place. And he can alleviate it with a snap of a finger… if he really wanted to do so. (147)

The God who could singlehandedly determine outcomes but invites contribution is like an authority who pretends his minions matter. A condescending boss does what he wants but pretends to need help. He says the efforts of his underlings make a difference, but it’s a sham. He’s patronizing. (148)

The idea God needs cooperation is more common in the Bible than most realize. Because many readers assume God can accomplish tasks and develop relationships alone, they overlook it. They interpret stories as saying God alone accomplished some goal or task, though the texts don’t explicitly say this. (154)

My own prayer life grows as I pray in light of uncontrolling love. I don’t ask God to control others or situations. I don’t say, “God force them to act differently!” If God always loves and love never controls, asking God to control others or circumstances is fruitless. As I pray, I imagine how I or others might cooperate with God for love to prosper. I ask God to inspire and inform me. (158)

In my view, God doesn’t send anyone to hell singlehandedly. In fact, God can’t. The God whose nature is uncontrolling love also can’t force anyone into heaven. Such force requires control, and God’s love is inherently uncontrolling. (162)

Love is always uncontrolling. Because God’s love is relentless, however, we have good reason to hope all creatures eventually cooperate with God. It’s reasonable to think the God who never gives up and whose love is universal will eventually convince all creatures and redeem all creation. After all, love always hopes and never gives up (1 Cor. 13:7)! (164)

The uncontrolling love of God perspective says what we do — what we all do — matters. The radical truth is our lives count. (171)

 


Stuck in the mist

20 March 2020

Hiking in the Yorkshire Dales was a regular delight in my younger years. Fresh air, glorious scenery, challenging terrain and, once you got to the top of the fell, a magnificent view.

But on several occasions there was no view at all, because the summit was covered by cloud. As you enter the cloud you lose perspective. You have no clear bearings. No visible summit-cairn to head for. It can be truly disorientating.

mistLots of people are feeling like that at present under the coronavirus ‘cloud’ that has descended upon us all. Suddenly, everything is confusing. Might I catch the virus? Is my job safe? Should I hug the grandchildren or not? Will we get our holiday deposit back? What if the supply of loo-rolls runs out? Which way is ‘forward’? Just mist all around.

I was encouraged by an ‘in the mist’ experience recorded in the New Testament. It’s the account of Jesus’ transfiguration in Luke 9:28-36 (also in Matthew 17:1-8 and Mark 9:2-8), witnessed by Peter, James and John. Please read it. The key bit is: ‘A cloud appeared and covered them’ (v34). Here’s what I learnt from it.

It’s easy to get confused in the mist. Peter got confused on the Mount of Transfiguration. He started saying all kinds of unhelpful stuff: ‘He did not know what he was saying’ (v33). We’re the same, liable to be confused by the fake news on social media, and by the weird rumours circulating all around. Be aware of the danger of falling for them, and think before you speak or pass rumours on.

It can be frightening in the mist. ‘They were afraid as they entered the cloud’ (v34). And these were big, tough working men, not usually scared by anything. Even the most psychologically robust of us can suffer qualms of fear when plunged into the unknown the way we have been at present. But there is an antidote to that fear…

Jesus was in the mist with them. The cloud covered them all. Maybe the three apostles couldn’t see Jesus because of it, but he was there, close by, nonetheless. Jesus is with us, too, in the midst of this coronavirus cloud. His promise never to leave or forsake us holds good, even here. He has always delighted in standing in solidarity with his people, and he’s doing that right now.

You might not be able to ‘see’ him, but he is near. Hold on to that. He still says, as he did so many times during his ministry, ‘Don’t be afraid.’

God spoke to them in the mist. He urged them to focus on Jesus: ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him’ (v35). Your heavenly Father still speaks in the mist, so keep your spiritual ears open for his voice. It might even be that, in the forced inactivity that the current crisis is bringing to many, you are in a better position than usual to listen to him.

God doesn’t waste words, so expect him to speak pointedly into your situation, maybe giving you a steer when you are confused. Above all, he will nudge you towards a closer relationship with Jesus.

Eventually, the mist cleared. The ‘in the cloud’ experience of the transfiguration didn’t last forever. In due course, Jesus himself led the three apostles out of it into normality again (Matthew 17:6-9).

Our current cloud will pass, too, so don’t despair. We have no idea whether it will be weeks or months, but it will eventually pass.

The disciples were forever richer for their experience in the mist. They came out of it with a better understanding of God and his ways, a deeper appreciation of Jesus and who he is, and a clearer idea of the mission to which he was calling them.

Let’s learn from them and determine that, when all this is over, we too will be the stronger for it.


Dry powder

17 March 2020

‘Put your trust in God, and keep your powder dry!’

That was Oliver Cromwell’s advice to his troops as they prepared to go into battle. He was a wise man. He understood that while trust in God’s providence was to be their basic attitude, it needed marrying with practical common sense—in their case, ensuring that the gunpowder used in their muskets was kept dry, and thus effective.

Oliver_Cromwell_by_Samuel_CooperThe same balance is vital in our coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

All committed Christians will say amen to the ‘trust in God’ bit. But I’ve already seen some weird Christian posts on social media suggesting that this is all we need. The gist is, ‘Repeat this Bible verse often and loudly, and shout your defiance at the devil, and you’ll be OK.’ No mention of taking sensible precautions in line with the guidelines from the Chief Medical Officer and others who are qualified to advise us.

At the other extreme are posts—from people without a faith—that make everything dependent on our own sensible actions, and give no room for God at all. That can leave us open to debilitating worry, or even panic.

So we need to embrace both factors: trust in God, and practical self-help steps.

I’m reminded of the young man developing as a preacher who, hearing that a famous preacher was in town, got an appointment to see him. He had a burning question. ‘When I’m booked to preach,’ he said, ‘how should I go about it? Some say I should prepare my sermon down to the last detail. Others say no, I should just stand up and rely on the Holy Spirit to give me the words. What’s your advice?’

‘That’s easy,’ replied the wise old man. ‘Work hard at your preparation, as if there were no Holy Spirit to depend on. Then, when you stand up to preach, rely on the Holy Spirit as if you hadn’t prepared.’

God has always shown himself to be committed to collaborating with human beings this way. Even in Eden, he did the donkey work of creation, you might say, but then handed over the running and shaping of the planet to human beings. That’s the way he continues to work: he asks us to trust him as the foundation of our lives while, at the same time, he expects us to do our own bit. It’s never one or the other; it’s always both.

Wise and godly people in every generation have understood this. Nehemiah is a case in point. He was in charge of rebuilding the broken-down walls of Jerusalem after Judah returned from exile. Not everybody liked the project, and ‘they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.’ How did Nehemiah react? ‘We prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat’ (Nehemiah 4:8-9).

Not either/or, but both/and. Let’s tackle coronavirus the same way.


Perishing?

2 March 2020

Familiarity breeds contempt. For evangelical Christians, no Bible verse is more familiar than John 3:16. As you know, that’s probably the ‘gospel text’, much used by Christians to explain the gospel to enquirers. It says:

God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

perishing roseWonderful! But because I don’t want to let familiarity breed contempt here, I’ve been trying to look at this glorious statement with fresh eyes.

As a result, I’ve realised that people, almost without exception, take ‘have eternal life’ to mean ‘go to heaven when you die’, and ‘perish’ to mean ending up in the other place. Is that justified? Well, it’s certainly open to question.

The first part of the verse is no problem: God’s love for the world motivated him to give his Son. And, as a result of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, putting our trust in him is altogether beneficial. No issues there. It’s in the second part that we are conditioned to think we know what it means: the perish’ and ‘eternal life’ bits.

Take ‘eternal life’ first. Older Bible versions tended to have ‘everlasting life’, emphasising its duration. But because Bible translators realised that this doesn’t do justice to the original Greek, more recent versions go for ‘eternal life’, which doesn’t home in on duration and is, to be honest, a bit fuzzier to the average English reader.

The Greek words mean, literally, ‘life of the age’—that is, ‘the age to come’, which will be inaugurated at Christ’s return, when the ‘new heavens and new earth’ will burst upon us in all their glory. But the life of that age is available today. We could say that the age to come has, to an extent, overlapped with the present age. It has moved back through history to make some of its benefits available now. The primary benefit is ‘life’—life of a superior quality, the life we enjoy in union with God through Christ.

As the book of Hebrews puts it (6:5), those whose trust is in him ‘have tasted…the powers of the coming age.’ Sure, it’s far from the full banquet that we shall enjoy then, but it’s a superb ‘taster’ to keep us going. and transforms our everyday living. Jesus said, ‘The one who believes has eternal life’ (John 6:47). Since we have it now, the emphasis is more on the quality of that life than on its duration—though its endless duration is taken for granted. It begins the moment someone decides to commit their life to Jesus, so we err if we see it purely as an afterlife benefit.

And what about the ‘perish’ bit? Is that a reference exclusively to fire and brimstone? To the lake of fire? Far from it. To live life without God is to be perishing here and now. That’s why Paul refers several times to ‘those who are perishing’ (e.g. 2 Corinthians 2:15). Without the sense of purpose, direction and forgiveness that comes from staking all on Jesus, people are perishing daily. They are struggling with a sub-standard existence. And the gospel offers relief from that grim condition: if they believe, they can exchange it for ‘eternal life’, starting right now.

Does the ‘perishing’, like the ‘eternal life’, have a longer-term aspect? If, after a life of perishing, I die without consciously putting my trust in Jesus, am I doomed to go on perishing forever?

Some say yes. But deep down it’s doubtful if they really believe it. They probably just believe in their belief in it. No crime, or lack of trust in Jesus, committed in the infinitesimally brief confines of a human life, merits everlasting suffering, especially in the type of hell portrayed in Dante’s Inferno. And how could a just God impose that on the billions who, for one reason or another, have departed this life without even hearing about Jesus? A God who would do that is not, in my view, the God who ‘so loved the world…’

Most evangelicals have been schooled to believe that death is the cut-off point, after which one’s final destiny is sealed—you make your choice in this life and reap the endless consequences in the next. But when I’ve asked people to give their reasons for that conviction, I’ve always got vague, unconvincing answers.

Surely God’s love, and his reach, extend beyond the grave? And if ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:19), how can he be satisfied with a partial outworking of it? So if, post mortem, some fiery cleansing of clinging earthly defilement or unbelief proves necessary, will it not result in every sinner’s ultimately being drawn through by God’s love to a place of acceptance, and the enjoyment of ‘eternal life’? That’s the way the early generations of the church interpreted the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 3:15). It’s a pity we have lost that.

I recently posted a review of a book on universalism. It upset some evangelicals. One responder asked, ‘What’s the point of bothering to preach the gospel if, in the end, God saves everybody?’ The answer is, ‘Because people are perishing now!’ Are you going to let them carry on stumbling through life without the grace and blessing that Christ brings? Or are you going to offer them ‘eternal life’—now? 

John 3:16 remains the great gospel text. Give it some breathing-space!

 


Will God one day be ‘all in all’?

30 January 2020

Can we realistically hope that, in the end, God will restore everything, and that all will be saved? This hope, usually called ‘universalism’, seems to be gaining ground steadily in evangelical circles. A new book on the subject tackles it head-on, and concludes we have every good reason—biblical and otherwise—to embrace it. The book is

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation by David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press, 2019).

tasbsIt takes its title from 1 Timothy 2:3-4, which reads: ‘Our Saviour God…intends that all human beings shall be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth.’ Yes, your Bible version might have ‘wants’ instead of ‘intends that’, but either is a legitimate translation of the underlying Greek word.

The book comes in three parts. Part 1 is The Question of An Eternal Hell. It faces all aspects of the topic and concludes that the classic view of hell is ‘inherently incredible’ and is certainly not forced upon us by Scripture. Part 2 consists of four extended meditations under the heading Apokatastasis (that’s the Greek word translated ‘restoration of all things’ in Acts 3:21). These give a detailed examination of the reasons—biblical, logical and philosophical—pointing to the inevitable conclusion (in the author’s view) that all will indeed be saved. Part 3, What May Be Believed, pulls it all together by way of summary, and drives the message home.

The author is not suggesting that all will come to salvation this side of death, but gives reasons for believing that, post-mortem, God’s love will draw to him even those who outstandingbookdeparted this life spurning him. He has a sound grasp of church history and is thus well able to show that, down the centuries, many churches and Christian scholars and leaders have believed that.

In line with the seriousness of the subject, this is not a light read. The author is verbose, rarely using five words when twenty-five will do. But in spite of that, his reasoning is razor-sharp and his line of argument clear. He is familiar with every argument against his position, including the ones you yourself are probably turning over right now, and he deals robustly with them all. You should hear him out.

In the wake of earlier books on this subject, particularly Gregory Macdonald’s The Evangelical Universalist (2006) and Rob Bell’s Love Wins (2011), this new one is a forceful wave guaranteed to send the tide of evangelical opinion still further up the beach of universalism. Deep down, if we’re honest, we all want it to be true.

[Hart lists the following as New Testament passages pointing clearly to universal salvation, noting that the list is by no means exhaustive: Romans 5:18-19; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Romans 11:32; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; Titus 2:11; 2 Corinthians 5:29; Ephesians 1:9-10; Colossians 1:27-28; John 12:32; Hebrews 2:9; John 17:2; John 4:42; John 12:47; 1 John 4:14; 2 Peter 3:9; Matthew 18:14; Philippians 2:9-11; Colossians 1:19-20; 1 John 2:2; John 3:17; Luke 16:16; 1 Timothy 4:10.]

Here is a selection of quotations with page numbers.

[In the church’s first 500 years] They believed in hell, though not in its eternity; to them, hell was the fire of purification described by the Apostle Paul in the third chapter of 1 Corinthians, the healing assault of unyielding divine love upon obdurate souls, one that will save even those who in this life prove unworthy of heaven by burning away every last vestige of their wicked deeds. (1)

Some will claim that universalism clearly contradicts the explicit language of scripture (it does not).  (3)

The very notion that a rational agent in full possession of his or her faculties could, in any meaningful sense, freely reject God absolutely and forever is a logically incoherent one. And a final state of eternal torment could be neither a just sentence pronounced upon nor a just fate suffered by a finite being, no matter how depraved that being might have become. (18)

Christians have been trained at a very deep level of their thinking to believe that the idea of an eternal hell is a clear and unambiguous element of their faith, and that therefore the idea must make perfect moral sense. (18)

[We have] been taught to approve of divine deeds that, were they reduced to a human scale of action, would immediately be recognizable as expressions of unalloyed spite. (21)

I am convinced that practically no one who holds firmly to the majority tradition regarding the doctrine of hell ultimately does so for any reason other than an obstinate, if largely unconscious, resolve to do so, prompted by the unshakable conviction that faith absolutely requires it. (28)

I still insist that most putative believers in an eternal hell do not really believe in it at all, but rather merely believe in their belief in it. (29)

The most popular defense of the infernalist orthodoxy today is also, touchingly enough, the most tenderhearted: the argument, that is, from the rational freedom of the creature, and from the refusal of God to trespass upon that freedom, for fear of preventing the creature from achieving a true union of love with the divine. (33)

The better the rational will knows the Good for what it is—the more, that is, that the will is freed from those forces that distort reason and lead the soul toward improper ends—the more it will long for and seek after the true Good in itself; and, conversely, the more rationally it seeks the Good, the freer it is. (36)

We should all already know that whenever the terms “justice” and “eternal punishment” are set side by side as if they were logically compatible, the boundaries of the rational have been violated. (43)

Another, even feebler attempt to make sense of eternal retribution is the traditional claim that a soul cannot alter its orientation after death. (45)

If there really is an eternal hell for finite spirits, then it has to be the case that God condemns the damned to endless misery not on account of any sane proportion between what they are capable of meriting and how he chooses to requite them for their sins, but solely as a demonstration of his power to do as he wishes. (47)

A father who punishes his child for any purpose other than that child’s correction and moral improvement, and who even then fails to do so only reluctantly, is a poor father. One who brutally beats his child, or wantonly inflicts needless pain of any kind upon his child, is a contemptible monster. And one who surrenders his child to fate, even if that fate should consist in the entirely “just” consequences of his child’s own choices and actions, is an altogether unnatural father—not a father at all, really, except in the most trivial biological sense. (54)

It is not God we are trying to judge when we voice our moral alarm at the idea of an eternal hell, but only the stories we are accustomed to telling about him. (55)

I do in fact believe in hell, though only in the sense of a profound and imprisoning misery that we impose upon ourselves by rejecting the love that alone can set us free. (62)

I have always found what became the traditional majority Christian view of hell—that is, a conscious state of perpetual torment—a genuinely odious idea, both morally and emotionally, and still think it the single best argument for doubting the plausibility of the Christian faith as a coherent body of doctrine or as a morally worthy system of devotion. (65)

If Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all, and that any understanding of what God accomplished in Christ that does not include the assurance of a final apokatastasis in which all things created are redeemed and joined to God is ultimately entirely incoherent and unworthy of rational faith. (66)

All comes from God, and so evil cannot be a “thing” that comes from anywhere. Evil is, in every case, merely the defect whereby a substantial good is lost, belied, or resisted. (70)

Paul dared to ask, in the tortured, conditional voice of the ninth chapter of Romans, whether there might be vessels of wrath stored up solely for destruction only because he trusted that there are not: because he believed instead that all are bound in disobedience, but only so that God might finally show mercy to all (Romans 11:32). (73)

Many Christians down the centuries have had to reconcile their consciences to the repellent notion that all humans are at conception already guilty of a transgression that condemns them, justly, to eternal separation from God and eternal suffering, and that, in this doctrine’s extreme form, every newborn infant belongs to a massa damnata, hateful in God’s eyes from the first moment of existence. Really, no one should need to be told that this is a wicked claim. (75)

The very notion of an “inherited guilt” is a logical absurdity, rather on the order of a “square circle.” (75)

The most civilized apologists for the “infernalist” orthodoxies these days tend to prefer to defend their position by an appeal to creaturely freedom and to God’s respect for its dignity. There could scarcely be a poorer argument; whether made crudely or elegantly, it invariably fails, because it depends upon an incoherent model of freedom. (79)

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34): not seeing the Good, says God to God, they did not freely choose evil, and must be pardoned. (80)

It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or out of his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy. (80)

…those three or four deeply ambiguous verses that seem (and only seem) to threaten eternal torments for the wicked. (88)

There is a general sense among most Christians that the notion of an eternal hell is explicitly and unremittingly advanced in the New Testament; and yet, when we go looking for it in the actual pages of the text, it proves remarkably elusive. (93)

If one can be swayed simply by the brute force of arithmetic, it seems worth noting that, among the apparently most explicit statements on the last things, the universalist statements are by far the more numerous. (101)

I prefer a much older, more expansive, perhaps overly systematic approach to the seemingly contrary eschatological expectations unfolded in the New Testament—an approach, that is, like Gregory of Nyssa’s or Origen’s, according to which the two sides of the New Testament’s eschatological language represent not two antithetical possibilities tantalizingly or menacingly dangled before us, posed one against the other as challenges to faith and discernment, but rather two different moments within a seamless narrative, two distinct eschatological horizons, one enclosed within the other. In this way of seeing the matter, one set of images marks the furthest limit of the immanent course of history, and the division therein—right at the threshold between this age and the “Age to come” (‘olam ha-ba, in Hebrew)—between those who have surrendered to God’s love and those who have not; and the other set refers to that final horizon of all horizons, “beyond all ages,” where even those who have traveled as far from God as it is possible to go, through every possible self-imposed hell, will at the last find themselves in the home to which they are called from everlasting, their hearts purged of every last residue of hatred and pride. Each horizon is, of course, absolute within its own sphere: one is the final verdict on the totality of human history, the other the final verdict on the eternal purposes of God… This way of seeing the matter certainly seems, at any rate, to make particularly cogent sense of the grand eschatological vision of 1 Corinthians 15. (103)

Though Paul speaks on more than one occasion of the judgment to come, it seems worth noting that the only picture he actually provides of that final reckoning is the one found in 1 Corinthians 3:11–15, the last two verses of which identify only two classes of the judged: those saved in and through their works, and those saved by way of the fiery destruction of their works. (105)

True, the book of Revelation does contain a few especially piquant pictures of final perdition, if that is what one chooses to cling to as something apparently solid and buoyant amid the whelming floods of all that hallucinatory imagery; but, even then, the damnation those passages describe chiefly falls upon patently allegorical figures like “Hades” (Death personified) or “the Beast” (Rome “brutified”), which hardly seems to allow for much in the way of doctrinal exactitude. (107)

If one chooses to read Revelation entirely as a picture of the final judgment of all creation, and of the great last assize of all souls, one must then also account for the seeming paradox of a prophesied final judgment—one that includes a final discrimination between the saved and the damned—that will nevertheless be succeeded by a new Age in which the gates of the restored Jerusalem will be thrown open, and precisely those who have been left outside the walls and putatively excluded forever from the Kingdom will be invited to wash their garments, enter the city, and drink from the waters of life. (108)

We might even find some support for the purgatorial view of the Gehenna from the Greek of Matthew 25:46 (the supposedly conclusive verse on the side of the infernalist orthodoxy), where the word used for the “punishment” of the last day is κόλασις, kolasis—which most properly refers to remedial chastisement—rather than τιμωρία, timōria—which most properly refers to retributive justice. (116)

It is hard, I know, to convince most Christians that the picture of hell with which they were raised is not lavishly on display in the pages of scripture. (118)

There is, it turns out, no final division between the elect and the derelict here [Romans 9-11] at all, but rather the precise opposite: the final embrace of all parties in the single and inventively universal grace of election. This is why Esau and Jacob provide so apt a typology for Paul’s argument. Esau, we must remember, is not finally rejected in the story of the two brothers; he and Jacob are reconciled, to the increase of both, precisely as a consequence of their temporary estrangement. (136)

[Re Romans 9-11]  For the time being, true, a part of Israel is hardened, but this will remain the case only until the “full entirety” (πλήρωμα, plērōma) of the gentiles enter in. The unbelievers among the children of Israel may have been allowed to stumble, but God will never allow them to fall. And so, if their failure now brings enrichment to the world, how much more will they provide when their own “full entirety” (plērōma) enter in? Temporarily excluded (like Esau) for the sake of “the world’s reconciliation,” they too will at the last be restored to God’s grace; and this will be nothing less than a “resurrection from the dead” (11:11–12, 15). This, then, is the radiant answer dispelling the shadows of Paul’s grim “what if” in the ninth chapter of Romans, its clarion negative. It turns out that there is no final illustrative division between vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy; that was a grotesque, all-too-human thought that can now be chased away for good. God’s wisdom far surpasses ours, and his love can accomplish all that it intends. (136)

This is perhaps the most depressing paradox ever to have arisen in the whole Christian theological tradition: that Paul’s great attempt to demonstrate that God’s election is not some arbitrary act of predilective exclusion, but instead a providential means for bringing about the unrestricted inclusion of all persons, has been employed for centuries to advance what is quite literally the very teaching that he went to such great lengths explicitly to reject. (138)

It would be possible for us to be saved as individuals only if it were possible for us to be persons as individuals; and we know we cannot be. And this, in itself, creates any number of problems for the majority view of heaven and hell. (144)

On the whole, Christians rarely pay particularly close attention to what the Bible actually says, for the simple reason that the texts defy synthesis in a canon of exact doctrines, and yet most Christians rely on doctrinal canons… But the Bible is not a system. A very great deal of theological tradition consists therefore in explaining away those aspects of scripture that contradict the finely wrought structure of this or that orthodoxy. (161)

How many modern Evangelicals think of salvation as something one receives by “accepting Jesus” as one’s “personal lord and savior,” even though such language is wholly absent from the New Testament, and even though all the real scriptural language of salvation is about a corporate condition of sacramental, moral, and spiritual union with the “body of Christ”? (162)

If the story really does end as Augustine and countless others over the centuries have claimed it must, with most—or, at any rate, very many … or, really, any—beings consigned to eternal torment, and if this story then also entails that God freely and needlessly created the world knowing that this would be the result, then Christianity has no “evangel”—no “good news”—to impart. (166)

The idea of a punishment that does not serve an ameliorative purpose—as, by definition, eternal punishment cannot—should be a scandal to any sane conscience. Endless torture, never eventuating in the reform or moral improvement of the soul that endures it, is in itself an infinite banality. A lesson that requires an eternity to impart is a lesson that can never be learned. (168)

If a rational creature—one whose mind is entirely unimpaired and who has the capacity truly to know the substance and the consequences of the choice confronting him or her—is allowed, without coercion from any force extrinsic to his or her nature, to make a choice between a union with God in bliss that will utterly fulfill his or her nature in its deepest yearnings and a separation from God that will result in endless suffering and the total absence of his or her nature’s satisfaction, only one truly free choice is possible. A fool might thrust his hand into the flame; only a lunatic would not then immediately withdraw it. (179)

If human nature required the real capacity freely to reject God, then Christ could not have been fully human. (189)

Evil has no power to hold us, and we have no power to cling to evil; shadows cannot bind us, and we in turn cannot lay hold on them. In the end, God must be all in all. (193)

God’s final victory as described in scripture, will consist not merely in his assumption of perfect supremacy “over all,” but also in his ultimately being “all in all.” Could there then be a final state of things in which God is all in all while yet there existed rational creatures whose inward worlds consisted in an eternal rejection of and rebellion against God as the sole and consuming and fulfilling end of the rational will’s most essential nature? (193)

Over the years, I have dutifully explored all the arguments for hell’s eternity from Christian antiquity to the present, philosophical and theological, and I continue to find them all manifestly absurd. (202)

I honestly, perhaps guilelessly believe that the doctrine of eternal hell is prima facie nonsensical, for the simple reason that it cannot even be stated in Christian theological terms without a descent into equivocity so precipitous and total that nothing but edifying gibberish remains. To say that, on the one hand, God is infinitely good, perfectly just, and inexhaustibly loving, and that, on the other, he has created a world under such terms as oblige him either to impose, or to permit the imposition of, eternal misery on finite rational beings, is simply to embrace a complete contradiction. (202)

Can we imagine—logically, I mean, not merely intuitively—that someone still in torment after a trillion ages, or then a trillion trillion, or then a trillion vigintillion, is in any meaningful sense the same agent who contracted some measurable quantity of personal guilt in that tiny, ever more vanishingly insubstantial gleam of an instant that constituted his or her terrestrial life? And can we do this even while realizing that, at that point, his or her sufferings have in a sense only just begun, and in fact will always have only just begun? What extraordinary violence we must do both to our reason and to our moral intelligence (not to mention simple good taste) to make this horrid notion seem palatable to ourselves, and all because we have somehow, foolishly, allowed ourselves to be convinced that this is what we must believe. (204)

The two exceedingly simple—almost childish—questions that have persistently bothered me down the years, whenever I have tried to make sense of the doctrine of a hell of eternal torment, are whether it lies within the power of any finite rational creature freely to reject God, and to do so with eternal finality, and whether a God who could create a world in which the eternal perdition of rational spirits is even a possibility could be not only good, but the transcendent Good as such. And, for the reasons I have given above, I believe that the answer to both questions must be an unqualified and unyielding no. (208)

 


The eye of the storm

19 December 2019

Chinese Christian leader Watchman Nee (1903-1972) wisely observed: ‘The reason for much poverty of thought is thinking too much.’

For many of us, our biggest struggles are with the tyranny of the mind. There’s so much going on around us, so many demands on our attention, so many compex issues in the world, so many fascinating questions, it’s no wonder that our minds, as they struggle to eye of the stormprocess everything, sometimes come close to bursting. The mental whirlwind threatens to suck us up, tear us to shreds and spit us out into madness.

As a committed Jesus-follower, I’ve learnt a few mental disciplines over the years. I wrote about some of them in my book A Sound Mind.* Since that was published I’ve made further progress in dealing with mind-matters, and one aspect is a departure from something I said in the book.

In the section on meditation, I wrote that, for Christians, meditation means focusing the mind deliberately on good and godly subjects, rather than emptying the mind. The latter, I suggested, causes a vacuum that invites negative stuff to rush in to fill it. And negative stuff is the last thing we want.

While I remain a staunch promoter of choosing what to think about, and of limiting my choices to good and godly topics, I’ve come to see that, alongside this, there’s room for helpful moments of not thinking at all—of deliberately emptying my mind. These days, because I’m far more conscious of God than of the nasty stuff allegedly waiting in the wings to take over the stage of my mind with vile performances, I can retreat confidently from thinking…into the presence of God.

This practice is called centering prayer. While it shares elements with forms of spirituality outside of Christianity, centering prayer is distinctly Christian. It involves coming deliberately into God’s presence, not to ask for things, and not even to offer thanks and praise, but just to be there. To stop mentally hopping around and just relax in his presence, in the knowledge of his steadfast love.

I normally do this at times when I can be alone and undisturbed, and aim for about twenty minutes. I sit upright, with my eyes closed to avoid distractions. I briefly tell the Lord that I’m coming just to be with him. Then I relax and try not to think about anything. To help keep that focus, I have a personal ‘sacred word’ that I repeat to myself as required.

It’s a bit as if, on a warm summer’s day, I were sitting on a rock at the edge of a river, with my feet in the water. Bits and pieces float by on the current and I find myself automatically picking them up. These are the thoughts that appear, unbidden, in my mind: a phone call I need to make today, the conversation I had with a friend yesterday, the mark on the lounge carpet, the tickle in my left ear…

As soon as I become conscious of having picked something up, I gently put it back in the water and let the current carry it away, because I’m not here to think; I’m here just to be in the presence of God.

I’m getting better at this, but the thoughts still intrude every few seconds. It can be frustrating, and the temptation is for me to berate myself for my ineptitude. But that wouldn’t help. It would only unleash a host of jumpy thoughts, and that’s the opposite of what I’m aiming for. So I try to relax, let the river carry all that away, and remind myself briefly that God understands and is not displeased. And so I return, to think of nothing and relax in his presence. I’m ‘centered’ again.

Sometimes, what I find myself picking up from the water is a spiritual insight. I put that back in the water, too, because the aim of this exercise is not to collect anything, but just to be. I can trust God to bring back to me later that sermon idea, or that angle on a passage of Scripture I’ve been reading. For now, I’m just here, relaxing in God’s presence, soaking up the sunshine of his love.

Time passes fast this way. Twenty minutes are soon gone. I wind up with a brief spoken prayer, get up and go about my business.

The benefits of this practice are more in the long-term than the immediate, I’ve found. The scientists say that it leads to some gradual neural re-wiring that makes for a calmer disposition and the ability to be more in control of one’s reactions. And since it’s true that we inevitably become more like the god we worship, the Christian can see centering prayer as one means by which the Holy Spirit can further the process of transforming us gradually ‘into his image’ (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Watchman Nee would have approved, I’m sure. If ‘thinking too much’ leads to ‘poverty of thought’, here is one way, at least, of taming our wild thinking and thus becoming richer.

At the eye of the mental storm is a place of calm. I invite you to explore it.

*  My book is available from Amazon, in Kindle format only now. For further information on centering prayer, download the guide from Contemplative Outreach here.

 


APITF Second Edition!

16 December 2019

I launched my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, in 2016. It shows how many traditional evangelical beliefs have come under question in recent years. And this, not by enemies of the Christian faith, but by solid, committed followers of Jesus who have been bold enough to query some aspects of their faith.

apitf cover 2nd edn small for FB

Cover of the new Second Edition of A Poke In The Faith

My aim in writing the book was, first, to spell out some of the challenges being made—most of which I’m in sympathy with, but others not—and, second, to show how it’s possible to face up to them without losing your own faith.

The latter came, in turn, out of the grim awareness of an increasing number of Christians who have jacked in their faith all together. And the reason they have done so, it appears, is because they have held to an inter-connected belief system in which every item is linked to all the rest. As a result, if an attack on one item brings it down, the whole belief-system comes crashing down with it.

In my book, therefore, I set out to show that you don’t have to have a tightly inter-connected system. That sets you free, then, to let go of—or adopt a different view of—certain items without having the whole faith-structure collapse around you.

Since the book went public on my website, I’ve had a steady flow of responses from people in many countries  who have found it helpful in just the way I intended, which is gratifying. Most of these have been Christians with a long evangelical history. Many of them have been questioning certain aspects for years, but have never dared make it known, for fear of being thought to be ‘backsliders’.

Naturally, I’ve also had a handful of vitriolic responses writing me off as an irretrievable heretic!

A few of the topics covered are:

  • Heaven and hell
  • What happened at the cross?
  • Creation and evolution
  • Interpreting the Bible
  • Belief-systems like Calvinism
  • What the Bible is and is not
  • The meaning of ‘justification’
  • What exactly is ‘the gospel’?
  • The kingdom of God
  • Christianity and other religions

Now (December 2019) I have updated A Poke In The Faith to its Second Edition. This involves a few minor tweaks to the text, plus three new topics:

  1. A section on ‘the wrath of God’
  2. A chapter on the doctrine of ‘original sin’
  3. A chapter applying current thinking on Bible interpretation to the fraught topic of homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular

You can download the book for free here. It’s available in PDF, Kindle and epub formats which, between them, mean you can read it on any computer, tablet or phone. I invite you to give it a read in the hope that, along with many other readers, you will find it informative and, hopefully, liberating.

The same link will give you access to my other current free e-book, Signposts To God. This is an evangelistic book aimed at people who at present don’t have any active faith but are beginning to feel their way towards God. Please don’t hesitate to download it and pass it on to anyone you feel might find it helpful.

And if you have any feedback to offer, I’d be very happy to receive it. You can email me via the link on my website at www.davidmatthew.org.uk

[If you have found this interesting, you might also like this post.]

 

 


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