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)


APITF Third 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 3rd ednMy 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

In December 2019 I updated A Poke In The Faith to its Second Edition. This involved 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

Hard on the heels of this, in August 2020, came the Third Edition. This added material on God and the problem of evil. In particular, it addressed the issue of why, if God is both loving and all-powerful, does he not do more to stop it?

You can download the latest edition 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.]


The Bible teaches…

26 January 2018

‘The Bible teaches…’ Time was when I used that phrase a lot. Having spent over sixty years studying the Bible, I felt I had a pretty good grasp of its message. I could tell you with great conviction what ‘the Bible teaches’ on, say, the baptism in the Holy Spirit, or male headship, or divorce, or the kingdom of God, or homosexuality, or church government, or whatever.

bible-thumper.jpgThese days I’m far less dogmatic on these and a host of other issues. And that’s because I’ve come to the conclusion—better late than never—that the Bible as a whole doesn’t in fact ‘teach’ much at all very clearly.

I’d always been aware, of course, that my convictions about what it taught on this or that were not shared by all Christians. Some of them had reached conclusions very different from my own—and from the same Bible at that! But somehow I had failed to grasp the enormity of the problem highlighted by these differences. The problem is this: if, after two thousand years, Christians are still reaching hugely different conclusions about the Bible’s teaching, the only thing I can conclude with any certainty is that the Bible is not clear in its teaching at all.

For decades, I felt convinced that my own conclusions (and those of my spiritual clan) as to what the Bible teaches were the right ones, and that everyone else’s were wrong. Now, I’m deeply ashamed of the appalling pride that this attitude displays.

Proof-texting was dear to me in those bad old days. I was skilled at mustering verses from both Old Testament and New to back up the ‘right’ view that I was presenting. I wrote semi-learned papers on a host of topics, using my middle-of-the-road knowledge of Hebrew and Greek to bolster my case and quoting from my extensive library of Bible commentaries and reference works.

I don’t do that anymore. I’m convinced that, if you have a mind to, you can present a decent case from the Bible, with supporting proof-texts, for just about any theory you want. Indeed, this has been happening regularly for two millennia, and it’s happening still. I don’t want any part in that sort of behaviour now. So I’ve ditched my old views on the Bible’s inerrancy, even its infallibility, and certainly what the Puritans called its ‘perspicuity’. I take a far less tidy view of the whole thing these days.

‘Ah,’ you say, ‘it’s tragic that you’ve gone off the rails at this late stage in your life, Dave. So sad that you’ve kicked the Bible into touch like this.’

Hang on. I didn’t say that! The fact is, I love the Bible now more than I ever did. I read it more. I draw more strength and sustenance from it, and I honour it as God’s Word with a new-found vigour. And that’s because I’ve adopted an altogether different approach to it. ‘And what exactly is that? you have every right to ask.

Now, I see the Bible as ‘God’s Word’ in only a secondary sense. The ultimate ‘Word of God’ is Jesus Christ. The Bible is the story—a God-breathed one, I believe—of a people struggling, through their changing times and cultures, to understand God better, and often getting it only half-right, or sometimes even wrong. But the whole story was leading to its brilliant climax: Emmanuel, God with us in the person of the God-man, Jesus the Messiah. He alone is the end to which the Bible is merely the means.

Jesus, and Jesus only, is ‘the exact representation of God’s being’, the full and final revelation of what God is truly like. Everything else is shadowy, vague, temporary, unclear. But in him the shadows have cleared and the sun has come out. The Bible gave enough light to guide the previous generations along, but it will always be secondary to him. I’m now trying to take my views and convictions, my lifestyle-model, my attitudes, my standards, my everything from him, and from nowhere else.

As for the Bible, I feel wonderfully liberated by my new way of looking at it. I love to read it for the insights it gives into the life of pilgrimage that I’ve embarked upon. I am gripped as I read about the ups and downs, the frustrations and joys, of previous generations of God-seekers, and learn much from them. I tap into the Bible’s psalms of praise and its accounts of the moments of life-changing revelation enjoyed by the pilgrims of old. And I quietly skip (as Jesus did when quoting Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue) the bits now shown, in the light of his revelation, to be wide of the mark.

So that’s where I’m at. If what I’ve written makes you hopping mad, I’m not going to let that faze me. After all, not so long ago, I would have reacted the same way myself, so I can understand where you’re coming from. I sincerely hope, though, that you will pause to think about what I’ve written, and maybe even become open to a few changes yourself. Jesus, I think, would smile at the prospect…

[You can read more about my changed attitude to the Bible in my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, which you can download here.]

 


Red Herring in Galilee: Israel and prophetic promise

16 January 2018

I’ve never been to Israel and I’m not really keen to go. If someone offered me a paid trip I’d take it, but my own holiday cash is more likely to take me to Minorca or Corfu, where’s there’s less chance of gunfire in the streets.

Some would question my priorities. A trip to Israel should be top of the list, they’d say. I am, after all, a Christian, and Israel is where our Lord himself lived and died—and rose again. It would do me good to peer at the site of the nativity, breathe the air of Galilee or stroll the Via Dolorosa.

jerusalemsmallWell, maybe it would, but I’m not the sentimental type. And anyway, if ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’,[1] my own neck of the woods in England can be as replete with his presence as any Holy Land.

Others offer me another reason for showing interest, even if I don’t visit. Israel, they point out, is the Promised Land, given in perpetuity to the Jews, and the return of scattered Jews since 1948 is a fulfilment of Bible prophecy. So I should at least be praying for the peace of Jerusalem—which means, they seem to imply, Israeli subjugation of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular.

Some Christians take all this very seriously. Like the pastor who told me his church was committed to ‘the conversion of the lost to Christ, and the return of the Jews to Israel.’ I found this a strange pairing, a bit like being committed to world peace and the eating of Harrogate toffee. The two are simply not in the same league. Didn’t the spiritual distinction between Jew and Gentile come to an end with Christ and the foundation of his church?[2] Certainly the church—that redefined ‘Israel’ or ‘people of God’—is what Jesus loved and died for,[3] and that’s what he’s building.[4]  It’s the church that matters, not Jewish ethnicity, and certainly not any Middle Eastern territory.

The New Testament, in fact, contains not a single reference to the return of the Jews to the Promised Land. That’s for two reasons. First, because, while God’s promise of the land was unconditional, their possession of it was always conditional upon their obedience.[5] The Old Testament records how they failed to meet the conditions and so lost the land. And second, because ‘Israel’ has been redefined in the light of Christ. Present-day Israel is a secular state unrelated to God’s revealed purpose.[6] My view has been, therefore, that the whole ‘Christian Zionism’ thing is a gigantic red herring, diverting believers from their twin tasks of reaching the lost and nurturing the saints.

‘Ah yes, but what about that famous passage on the Jewish question: Romans 9-11? Isn’t it clear from Paul’s words here that the Jews are a special case?’

On the contrary. Look at the context. The theme of the whole letter is an examination of the question: who are the people of God? And Paul’s answer is unequivocal: God’s people are those who put their faith in Christ. Whether they are Jews or Gentiles is immaterial. A Chinese, an Indian, a Swede or an Eskimo can, by trusting Jesus, be as much a descendant of Abraham as a thoroughbred Jew.[7]  And the point of Romans 9-11 seems to be not that the Jews are a special case for God’s favour but that—wonder of wonders—in spite of their obstinate refusal to recognise their Messiah, they are still in with a chance. God in his mercy has not slammed the door on them. They are still candidates for salvation as much as any Gentile!

In fact Paul ends up redefining what ‘Israel’ means. While recognising Jewish ethnicity, of course, his more basic point is that the real ‘chosen people’, the real Israel, is the redeemed community: the church.

‘Ah, just as I thought!’ claims someone. ‘You’re into Replacement Theology, pushing Israel aside and saying the church has taken its place. And it’s heresy!’

Here I permit myself a few groans, then quickly gather my wits for a reply. I don’t believe in Replacement Theology, at least not as just defined. My position—and that of virtually all mainline biblical scholars—is a different one: not that the church replaces Israel but that the church is Israel. The real Israel, that is. The true people of God, the ultimate ‘chosen people’ of which the Jews in their national ‘chosen’ capacity were merely a type and shadow.[8] The church has not replaced Israel; God’s promises to ancient Israel have been fulfilled in the church.

Here’s where we have to check our hermeneutical bearings. We believe in progressive revelation: that God has made himself known gradually, culminating in Jesus Christ.[9]  The New Testament reveals truth unknown in the Old Testament, and the New Testament writers are the Spirit-inspired interpreters of the Old. No longer now can we afford to read the Old Testament—including its ‘land’ promises—as if the New Testament didn’t exist. If we do, we shall become bogged down in a quagmire of doctrinal confusion.

Let’s apply this principle to the Promised Land. That God gave it to the Jews no-one in their right mind can deny. According to the Old Testament he promised it to Abraham and his descendants [10] and, after the exodus, that’s where those descendants went. Later, when ousted from it at the Exile, they headed back to it—or at least a remnant did.

But what does the New Testament say about the Jews and the land? Zero. Absolutely nothing. For a start, that in itself should make us massively cautious about Christian obsession with Israel and Middle Eastern territory. And sure enough, when we look closely we see the New Testament writers pointing us in a quite different direction.

First, we see Jesus signalling a departure from Jewish centrality by choosing twelve apostles as the foundation for the new people of God in an obvious alternative to ethnic Israel with its twelve tribal ancestors. Then we see those apostles themselves adopting the same ‘new people’ line. Peter—that Jew par excellence—takes Old Testament phrases precious to Israel and applies them, without excuse, to the church. It is redeemed Jews and Gentiles together, he says, who are in the final sense ‘a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.’ And not just a people, for he goes on: ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.'[11]

In the Bible, ‘the people of God’ and ‘Israel’ are synonymous.

Paul is equally clear. He takes, for instance, a bundle of Old Testament promises originally addressed to the Jews and, writing to chiefly-Gentile Christians in Corinth, declares, ‘Since we have these promises, dear friends…'[12]  And in case we have any lingering doubts he tells the Galatians, ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision[13] means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.'[14]  Rare is the serious biblical commentator who sees that phrase as referring to anything but the church.[15] And again, ‘It is we who are the circumcision’—it is we who are true Jews—’we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus and who put no confidence in the flesh.'[16]

So it’s no wonder ‘the land’ is absent from the New Testament picture. The real people of God, the church, are so numerous you would never fit them into that tiny country in the Middle East, even if they wanted to live there.

Instead, the New Testament writers give a global application to those Old Testament promises originally limited to the Holy Land. Abraham would be ‘heir of the world’,[17] his descendants in every land, not just in one. The meek now ‘inherit the earth’,[18] not Canaan. Christian children who honour their parents will ‘enjoy long life on the earth’,[19] not, as originally, ‘in the land the LORD your God is giving you.'[20]

That the church is the real Israel is so patently obvious that, to me, it’s not even up for debate. And I’m apparently in good company because, over the centuries, ‘the majority view within the church has been that the church is the New Israel and that the Jews have lost title to that claim.'[21]

‘But surely,’ you insist, ‘you accept the fact that the return of Jews to Israel in our own day is a wonderful fulfilment of prophecy?

Not in the least. The prophecies usually quoted in support of that view are capable of a more obvious interpretation: they refer to the return of a Jewish remnant from exile in Babylon around 500 BC.

‘But the return from exile was a return from a single country—Babylon. The promise that God would bring them back from among “many nations” can only be fulfilled in the return of the Diaspora in our own times.’

Well, that’s not what Jeremiah thought. He saw the Babylonian Empire for what it was: a conglomerate of ‘many nations’, and the return of Jews from Babylon in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah fulfilled those prophecies perfectly, as he himself makes plain.[22]

‘Well, then, what about Isaiah’s prophecy that God will bring his people back “a second time”?[23] The return from Babylon was clearly the first, so the second has to be today’s re-gathering.’

A look at the context knocks that one on the head, too. Isaiah states that the first return was, in fact, Israel’s arrival in the Promised Land from Egypt after their earlier escape from slavery at the exodus.[24]  Against that background, the ‘second time’ is the return from Babylon after all. And there’s no mention of a third time to cover events since 1948.[25]

That’s it, then. All the ‘Jews to Israel’ promises were fulfilled in the distant past. There’s no reason at all to look for any further fulfilment today.[26]

‘Ah, but what about the principle of double or multiple fulfilment of prophecy? Isn’t there room there for the Zionist return?’

No, because all prophecy finds its ultimate fulfilment in Jesus and his church. He’s what life, history, the Bible and prophecy are all about. Once Jesus came on the scene, all the strands of Old Testament prophecy came together in him.[27]  We have no business looking for rogue strands due to be fulfilled in ways unrelated to him or to the church which is his body. The only homecoming that matters now is the exodus of sinners from the ‘Egypt’ of sin through the blood of Jesus, God’s Passover lamb,[28] and their gathering into the real and ultimate Israel which is the redeemed community, the church. That is what all the Old Testament ‘return to the land’ prophecies were ultimately about.

And what a relief it is to get into that land! After those wearisome struggles to earn our own salvation, the ‘rest’ of receiving it freely by God’s grace is wonderful—more wonderful, even, than the relief of the desert-weary Israelites when they at last set foot in Canaan, the land that God called ‘my rest’.[29]  The letter to the Hebrews develops this theme, underscoring yet again that a patch of Middle Eastern territory for the Jews was merely a picture of a spiritual homeland for all God’s people in Christ and the church.[30]

‘But that’s all very spiritual. Don’t you believe there’s room for physical and geographical fulfilments as well? Surely there’s a heavenly people with a heavenly destiny—the church—and an earthly people with an earthly destiny—the Jews?’

No, because the Bible makes the progression clear: the natural comes first, then the spiritual.[31]  The one doesn’t run alongside the other; it supersedes it. Now that Christ has come, turning back to the natural (Jews in Middle Eastern territory) is unthinkable. Everything is better in him. Why grasp at shadows when the reality is here?[32] Why should the man who has just won millions on the lottery continue busking for pennies on cold street-corners? Even Abraham never saw Canaan as his ultimate destiny. He had grander prospects: a heavenly country, a city whose architect and builder is God himself.[33]  That’s the church—Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. And it’s not just a future prospect, inaccessible until Christ’s return. Already those who are in Christ ‘have come to’ it.[34]

The old Jerusalem is doubtless a fascinating place, with its Western Wall, ancient streets and souvenir shops selling olive-wood carvings. But it’s not a patch on the new one! [35]

So I’m not fussed about whether ethnic Jews live under the Israeli flag, or in New York, or Leeds, or wherever. Like Cambodians, Welshmen, Hottentots, Greeks and Kashmiris, they’re candidates for the gospel wherever they live. König is right: ‘[There can be] but one conclusion about the Jews’ future in the New Testament. The message expressed most fully by Paul is that, despite Israel’s rejection and merited judgment, God continues to hold open the doors of his mercy so that the Jews can again be ingrafted through faith in Jesus.'[36]

Well over half the world’s Jews live outside Israel and, today, emigration continues to outstrip immigration.[37]  But if God is the God of all the earth, he can use the fact that lots of Jews do live in Israel to further his saving purpose. May he do so! But let’s not get all misty-eyed and pseudo-spiritual about Zionism. It’s a deceptive sideline, nothing more. And the mainline? ‘Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.'[38]

Fancy a piece of Harrogate toffee?

 

P.S.

Experience tells me that some people get very emotional about this subject. So before you lose your cool, please note the following:

  1. I am not anti-Semitic. I have as much time for Jews as I have for anyone else. They stand in as much need of God’s grace as Gentiles do. According to the New Testament that grace—praise him!—is equally available to both.
  2. I am supportive of those who feel God has given them a particular call to evangelise the Jews—as long as they don’t condemn those of us who may, instead, be called particularly to evangelise the British, the Moroccans, the Guatemalans or the Palestinians.
  3. The present-day State of Israel is a reality, even if there are serious doubts about the wisdom of its creation. I take the view that the Arabs need to accept its existence and withdraw their determination to wipe it off the map. At the same time, some sort of Palestinian state is needed, existing alongside Israel and living in peace with it. The current mutual killing by both sides remains unacceptable, and Christians should certainly not adopt an unthinking support for Israel in the conflict on the mistaken assumption that the State of Israel somehow enjoys divine support. It does not.

Footnotes

  1. Psalm 24:1
  2. Galatians 3:26-29; Colossians 3:11
  3. Ephesians 5:25
  4. Matthew 16:18
  5. Jeremiah 18:7-11; Deuteronomy 28:62-63; Joshua 23:16. The unbelieving spies, along with a whole generation of Israelites, were kept out because of their unbelief (Numbers 14:21-23); Moses was kept out because of his pride (Numbers 20:12). And one certainly cannot argue that the present State of Israel exists because its citizens have turned to God. It is a thoroughly secular state, with only a very small number of practising Jews and Christians.
  6. Only about 15% of Israelis are even observant [of Judaism], much less Orthodox.’ Holwerda D.E., Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, Apollos, 1995, p28
  7. Romans 4:16. See also Galatians 3:7
  8. God’s way of moving from ‘old’ to ‘new’ is not to replace the old with the new, but to remodel the old into the new. The earth after the Flood, for example, was still in many respects the same earth, yet new in the sense that it had been radically reshaped by the waters. For further detail see my post: The Same But Different.
  9. Hebrews 1:1-2
  10. Genesis 15:18
  11. 1 Peter 2:9-10, referring to Isaiah 43:2 and Exodus 19:6
  12. 2 Corinthians 6:16 – 7:1
  13. A common shorthand for ‘Jewishness’ and ‘non-Jewishness’.
  14. Galatians 6:15-16
  15. Some have tried to argue that the Greek word kai doesn’t mean ‘even’ here but ‘and’. The weight of scholarly linguistic opinion is solidly against them. Paul is saying—controversially for the Judaisers who opposed him—that those who have been born again (i.e. have experienced the ‘new creation’), whether they be of Jewish or of Gentile stock, constitute God’s true Israel. He makes a similar plain statement in Romans 11:26 where, after using ‘Israel’ in the ethnic sense from the beginning of chapter nine, he then deliberately shocks his readers by using the phrase ‘all Israel’ to mean the church. N.T. Wright comments: ‘Paul is clearly offering a deliberately polemical redefinition of “Israel”, parallel to that in Galatians (6:16), in which the people thus referred to are the whole company, Jew and Gentile alike, who are now (as in chapter 4 and 9:6ff.) inheriting the promises made to Abraham.’ (P. W. L. Walker, ed., Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God [2nd edn. 1994] Carlisle: Paternoster. Grand Rapids: Baker, pages 53–77
  16. Philippians 3:3
  17. Romans 4:13
  18. Matthew 5:5 cf. Psalm 37:11
  19. Ephesians 6:2
  20. Deuteronomy 5:16, from which Paul is quoting in Ephesians 6:2
  21. Holwerda D.E., Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, Apollos, 1995, p4
  22. Jeremiah 29:10-14
  23. Isaiah 11:11
  24. Isaiah 11:16
  25. Some see a third homecoming of a sort at Pentecost—the Jewish feast that, at the time of Jesus, annually brought Jews back to Jerusalem from their homes throughout the Roman Empire. It is interesting that Luke’s list of their home areas echoes those mentioned in the homecoming promise of Isaiah (Acts 2:5-11 cf. Isaiah 11:11). Apparently some who became Christians when the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost sold property in the places from which they had come and settled in the Jerusalem area. It was these Jews who, in submitting to baptism and receiving the Spirit, fulfilled in a minor sense God’s homecoming promise through Ezekiel (Ezekiel 36:24-27).
  26. There has always been a school of thought among the Jews that the return from Babylon under Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah did not in fact fulfil the many OT promises of restoration, and that the real exile continued long thereafter. Paul seems to sympathise with this view in his treatment of the subject in his letters. On his view, the restoration of the Jews to God is tied up with Gentile salvation and its provoking of Jews to jealousy. But it is a purely spiritual restoration, which is why references to ‘the land’ in the Middle East are notable by their absence in the NT. For more of this see the entry ‘The Restoration of Israel’ in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Hawthorne, Martin & Reid, eds., IVP, 1993.
  27. Acts 3:24; 2 Corinthians 1:20
  28. 1 Corinthians 5:7
  29. Psalm 95:7-11
  30. Hebrews 3-4
  31. 1 Corinthians 15:46
  32. Colossians 2:16-17
  33. Hebrews 11:10-16
  34. Hebrews 12:22
  35. Revelation 3:12; 21:2-3
  36. König A., The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology, Eerdmans/MMS, 1989, p170
  37. According to The Jerusalem Post’s online statistics, Jews in Israel in 2000 numbered 4.9 million. At the same period, over 6 million Jews were living in the USA alone. Also emigration of Jews from Israel in recent years has exceeded immigration by about 600,000 (see R.H. Curtiss, ‘Year-End Statistics Gloss Over Israel’s Biggest Problem’ in the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, March 1997). The Sunday Telegraph of 30 Nov 2003 reported: ‘The government wants to bring another million Jews to Israel by 2010. Yet figures released by the absorption ministry, responsible for helping new immigrants, have revealed that an estimated 760,000 Israelis are living abroad, up from 550,000 in 2000. Only 23,000 people are expected to move to the Holy Land this year, the lowest figure since 1989… Many families head for Canada. So far 6,000 Israelis have moved there this year, double last year’s total.’
  38. Galatians 3:7. See also v26

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