Posted on

Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: March 2013

(Note to anyone who got here by Google search: This post is not a discussion of whether hell is eternal or not. That debate does not interest me. It is a discussion of what “aionios” means in general, with particular interest in what the phrase “aionios zoe” (generally translated “eternal life”) means in the New Testament.)

The Greek word aion originally simply referred to life, and later came to mean “life span.” From this usage it became a general word for a “length of time.” By the time of Christ it more commonly referred to longer time-spans, and is often translated as “age” in the New Testament. It is where we get our word “eon”(or aeon). 

When Christ speaks of those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit not being forgiven “in this age or in the age to come” [Matthew 12:32], the background Greek is aion. About 75% of the time you read “age” in the New Testament, the background Greek is aion. Unfortunately, there is simply no English equivalent to the essential meaning of aion, but “age” is the most accurate of several unsatisfactory choices. Indeed, if translators were more literal, we would read “age” more frequently in our Bibles, but often aion gets translated as “world” or “forever.” Instead of “forever,” a more accurate translation would be “throughout this/the age.” To capture the notion of something transcending the/this age, writers often use the plural, as in the common reference to glory being to Jesus “forever and ever” (e.g., Hebrews 13:21) which is literally “into the ages.”

While “age” is the closest English word to what aion means, it fails to capture its philosophical trappings. Indeed, our modern understanding of time forms a real barrier to understanding the Greek notion of an “age.” We see time as a type of coordinate system that complements space. Space bounds the universe and every point in that universe travels through time. In this way, locations and events can be designated by their place and date much like points on the Earth’s surface are designated by latitude and longitude. For the Greeks, though, time was bound up with the idea of motion and (more generally) the type of gradual change perceived in the world as it evolves.

When I say aion means “age” I don’t mean to emphasize the chronological time interval moving from one date to another. In fact, the philosophical meaning of aion contrasts with the notion of chronological time. Chronological time (as understood by the Greeks) is bound to the realm of our senses. We see and apprehend events occurring in time and we mark time off from one solar cycle to another. The notion of aion is rather a “timeless present” that captures the abstract properties of the world. A new aion is marked out when the characteristics of the previous one cease to be and are replaced by new characteristics.

One example given by Philo [(On the Changing of Names (267)] is the aion signified by the birth of Isaac. The world prior to Isaac’s birth is somehow fundamentally different from the world afterward because Isaac’s birth marks the fulfillment of a promise by God. This was an aion that was, in Philo’s words, truly “strange, marvelous, and new.” So the point of an aion is not that it marks off some interval of time but rather that it represents an apprehension of abstract qualities of the world, an apprehension that does not change gradually (as the world seen through the lens of time does), but is rather a timeless present that endures until the next age commences.

Linguistically, the word “aionios” is just the adjective formed from aion. Thus, if we were using strict etymology, aionios would mean something like “pertaining to (a/the) age.” Its actual meaning (or range of meanings) has been much debated.

It is an odd word. We don’t have one in English. The words “age-y” or “time-span-y” don’t exist. The closest we come is when we say something like “That outfit is so 80s.” Words are created because of practical needs, and it is not clear why one needs an adjective form of “age.”

For this reason, the adjective aionios came rather late. The Greeks got along perfectly well for several centuries prior to Plato coming up with the word. He is the first person known to use the term aionios, most notably in Timaeus, where he describes the creation of the universe. 

The thing that makes aionios so difficult to understand is that it is very often used to refer to “unceasing” or “constant,” and hence is often read as “eternal.” Yet, the Greeks already had a word for “eternal” [adios], so why did Plato feel the need to create this other word?

More important to my study is “What did John, Paul, and the other Jews responsible for the NT mean when they wrote aionios?” If they just wanted to say “eternal” or “unending,” then the Greek word that clearly means that is adios. Yet aionios is used very frequently in the NT while adios is only used twice (in Romans 1:20 to refer to God’s eternal power, and in Jude 6 to refer to the eternal chains binding the rebellious angels for punishment). Aionios is a more obscure word, so why was it favored so heavily? What did the apostles mean by it?

Much of the interest in the meaning of aionios comes from people who want to argue against the idea of hell lasting forever. This strikes me as a rather silly debate. First, whether or not hell lasts forever, the Bible is clear it should be avoided at all costs. Second, claiming that God could not possibly choose to punish people for eternity seems too much like judging the Creator. Third, those who argue for a temporal hell generally (though not always) do so as part of a Universalistic theory that claims all eventually go to heaven. This further claim seems decidedly unbiblical based on Matthew 10:28. (Luke 13:24 ff also seems to suggest that once the door is closed it won’t be reopened.)

The reason I care about the meaning of aionios is its use in the key phrase aionios zoe, generally translated “eternal life.” I claim that it rather refers to “life in the age (to come)” or “life in the (Messianic) age.” In other words, the life we have in the New Covenant. We have a type of this life now with the advent of the Holy Spirit, and it will reach fullest flower when we receive our full inheritance of a purified flesh in the resurrection (Romans 8:23).

The problem is that it is hard to tell what aionios is intended to mean in general because the life of the next age is supposed to be unending/eternal (see Luke 20:36) as well, and the life of the New Covenant is understandably linked to that life as described above. Thus, it is hard to untangle what aspect of the life we have in Christ the New Testament writers referred to with aionios. Was it intended to refer to the new creation, the “life of the new age.” Or was it intended simply to refer to immortality?

Often this is when people who don’t like theology say something like “can’t it be both?” Or, similarly, “why does it matter which meaning they actually intended if both meanings apply?”

The reason I’m pursuing the question is that our understanding of what the apostles meant by aionios zoe (typically translated “eternal life”) directly influences how we think about other topics because the idea of aionios zoe is fundamentally linked to salvation and Christ’s work in general. If you think of aionios zoe as referring to the life we have in the New Covenant through the power of the Holy Spirit, then the gospel story of Christ’s work revolves around the question of “what did Christ have to do to allow me to receive the Spirit?” In other words, it becomes centered on verses like John 16:7. This is quite a different gospel story than what many Christians are used to. Note that this question includes the key idea of the resurrection as well because the resurrected flesh is the most perfect form of this life in the New Covenant. It is the completion of the work Jesus has already begun, the final inheritance for which the Holy Spirit is a portion.

Notably absent from the above is any discussion of the Final Judgment, which I do not believe is directly linked to salvation. Jesus judges both Christians and non-Christians alike, but not as a judge assesses a defendant (who is only on trial for supposed crimes). Rather Christ judges everyone based on all their works (both evil and good) to determine whom He will choose for the New Kingdom. (This is indicated many times in scripture, some clear examples being Matthew 14:47-50; Matthew 25:31-46. Paul says it in three different ways within the Romans 2:5-16 passage and repeats it in Romans 14:10-12. 2nd Corinthians 5:11 is also notable.)

Recently I found a couple of particularly interesting passages in Philo where aionios is used in a way that completely settles the question as to the basic meaning of aionios for Hellenized Jews around the time of Christ. Before going into the details, I want to give an English hypothetical that mirrors Philo’s discussion of aionios.

Imagine you are a 5th grade student, and your science teacher says “The academic name for our Sun is Sol. I say ‘academic’ because it is not a universal name for our ‘sun.’ Our sun doesn’t have a universal name, and it does not need a universal name. People just say ‘the sun’ and most people have no knowledge of the name ‘Sol.’”

Now, as a 5th grade student, you may not know what “academic” means, but from the above discussion it absolutely cannot mean “universal” or “used everywhere” or “unlimited in space.” The teacher has specified that the whole point of her use of “academic” is to limit the scope of the term under discussion. If “academic” could in any way have “everywhere” or “universal” as its base meaning, then her statement becomes sheer lunacy.

Philo makes a statement very similar to the above, except instead of discussing something containing all of space (everywhere/universal), the discussion refers to time.

Philo comments on passages in the Old Testament where the name of God is discussed. The Greek version of the Old Testament uses the term aionios to refer to this name. Philo explains that the use of the word aionios tells us that this name is not the eternal name for God. It does not apply to the age that came before this one, but is only given in this age so man would have a term to use in prayer. Philo indicates that aionios is a fundamentally limiting term (with respect to time) and specifies that it is not only a limiting term, but it is used precisely for the purpose of specifying that God’s absolute name is not in view because God has no absolute name. Philo says that the word aionios is used to “relativize” the name of God, indicating that the name given to Moses is God’s name relative just to this age, not one that is applicable beyond or before this age. Clearly, if aionios had “eternal” as a base meaning, it could hardly be used with the purpose of limiting the noun it is modifying.

In discussing the well-known “I am who I am” passage where God is said to have given God’s aionios name, Philo says (On the Changing of Names, section 12):

For this, says he, is the “[aionios]” name, as if it has been investigated and discerned in the age [aion] in which we live, and not in the age [aion] that was before.

In another passage (On Abraham, section 51), Philo makes a similar remark. He quotes Scripture where God says “This is my [aionios] name: I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Here, Yong’s classic translation of this passage:

…appropriating to himself an appellation composed of the three names: “For,” says God, “this is my [aionios] name: I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” using there the relative term instead of the absolute one; and this is very natural, for God stands in no need of a name. But though he does not stand in any such need, nevertheless he bestows his own title on the human race that they may have a refuge to which to betake themselves in supplications and prayers, and so may not be destitute of a good hope.

This discussion is not intended to suggest that aion or aionos can never imply or give rise to the notion of eternity.  As mentioned above there are certainly phrases using this term (“from age to age” and “into the ages”) that convey the notion of “forever and ever.” However, these very phrases indicate that aion itself cannot refer to “forever” in the philosophical sense. There cannot be multiple “forevers.” These terms can get across the notion of “ceaseless” or “enduring” because the notion of aion embodies those properties of the world that are not subject to the gradual effect that time has on the world. However, this does not mean “changeless” per se, but rather “constant within this age.” (Of course, there is nothing saying that the age in question has to end…)

The point of this discussion is to claim that when Jesus or one of the apostles used the term aionios to refer to the life made possible to us through Jesus, they were not referring to the “unendingness” of that life but are rather referring to the character of that life. The aionios zoe is the life in the age of the New Covenant and is fundamentally different from the life of those who never received the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Just as the birth of Isaac ushered in a new age fundamentally different from that which came before it, the ascension of Jesus as High Priest who sends the Holy Spirit, brings about a new age, and those who believe in Jesus have access to the special life of that age.

Under this reading, Christ’s claim in John 17:3 makes perfect sense: “This is the aionios zoe, that they know You, the one true God, and Jesus Christ Whom You have sent.” This verse defines the aionios life not in terms of its duration but in terms of its nature.Note that the special linguistic structure John uses in 17:3 is the same he uses elsewhere when he wants to give a definition or exact description of something or someone. See John 1:19, John 3:19, John 15:12, 1 John 1:5, and 1 John 3:11 for further examples of this grammatical structure and John’s use of it.

The life in this new age is one typified by knowledge of God, knowledge which Jesus says will be brought by the Holy Spirit. It is the sending of the Holy Spirit that Jesus claims is the reason He had to die (John 16:7).

Posted on

Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: May 2012

I recently read much of “Perspectives on Election,” one of those books where four or five different theologians/pastors each defend a view on a controversial topic and then respond to each other. There are several biblical passages that appear to clearly support this or that view on election, but arguments over election also become arguments over God’s attributes. Those arguing for pre-destination might say, “If God is omnipotent, God can bring about any end God wishes, so anyone who is not ‘saved’ must (at least in some regard) be that way by God’s choice (either omissive or comissive).” Of course, true Calvinists argue something much stronger than that. Conversely, Thomas B. Talbott points to “God is Love” (1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:16), meaning not merely that God “happens to love,” but rather that love is an essential aspect of God. Talbott uses this to defend Universalism because God must be loving in all God’s acts, precluding eternal damnation. One thing that irks me about this type of debate is the careless logic involved when we begin using terms like “omnipotent” or “all-loving.” If we say “God can do anything” we must be leery about what we mean by “anything.” For example, a careless interpretation of that would say it means God is able to sin. But saying that God has the “power” to sin is illogical on its face, for it unravels any reasonable definition of “sin.” Nor does it mean “God has the power to create a rock that God cannot lift.” Saying “God is omnipresent (everywhere)” does not mean “God exists in the homeland of Adam’s Grandfather.” Nor would it mean “God is in hell,” assuming one takes the absence of God as one essential aspect of hell. Similarly, saying “God is omniscient” should not suggest that “God knows the name of the integer between 1 and 2,” as no such integer exists.

These observations do not violate a belief in God’s “omni-” attributes. Saying “X is everywhere” means “X is every where,” so a place has to qualify as a “where” before X can be said to be there. Certain “places” are not “where”s at all because they don’t exist. Similarly for things like “God can do any thing.” There are certain feats that don’t qualify as “things” because they involve a logical inconsistency and hence do not exist. Sometimes these are logical inconsistencies relating specifically to the item under discussion (Adam’s Grandfather’s homeland does not exist), and in other cases they are logical inconsistencies because of some other attribute of God (like the notion of God sinning).

This naturally extends to such things as God’s love. To determine whether an act is loving or not, one has to consider the logical boundaries provided by God’s other attributes, such as God’s righteousness and justice. One also has to consider that an act may seem unloving toward one person while being loving toward another.

None of the above is meant to push for one or another view on election, but I will say I’m intrigued by a view I read where “election” is cast in terms of how God saves rather than who God saves. In other words, this view suggests that certain people are elected to be God’s ministers to others, bringing God’s word and love to the world so all may praise God. As interesting as this sounds, I don’t see how it gets around Acts 13:48, which clearly describes some as being “appointed” to a portion in the World to Come.

Posted on

Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: July 2010

I know I have not been blogging much recently [understatement].I’ve been working on a science book that is now about 6 months past due. However, I’ve also begun much-needed revisions to WRGTH.If you are interested in being a volunteer reader for the new edition, please send me an email. You would receive PDFs with new material in red so you can see quickly what has been changed and comment on it.


Posted on

Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: What is the point of the Garden of Eden story?

What is the point of the Garden of Eden story? Many Christians believe the point of the story is to explain how humanity fell into sin. While there may something to that, it must be always kept in mind that NONE of the New Testament evangelism even mentions the fall of Adam. If the Garden of Eden is a key part to the story of Christina salvation, you would never know it from reading the Gospels and the many evangelistic sermons in the book of Acts. In fact, I claim the text makes clear in flashing neon lights what the story is about, and we only fail to see it because we have been taught to read Protestant theology into the story.

It is true that the Garden of Eden story is linked to man’s mortality (which is different from his damnation), but not in the way people often are taught. Even after sinning, humanity could have had immortality had Adam eaten from the tree of the fruit of life. [Genesis 3:22] and the principal reason God kicks Adam out of the Garden is that (for whatever reason) God did not want Adam to both know the difference between good and evil and be immortal.

But the story answers other questions as well. For example, it explains why snakes have no legs [Genesis 3:14], more importantly it explains where our conscience, our ability to determine right and wrong, comes from [Genesis 3:5-7, and Genesis 3:22 again].

Most importantly, it acts as a key lead-in to Noah’s story!!

Yes, I believe it is not an over-estimation to say that the single most important theme of the Garden of Eden is that it acts as a prequel to Noah’s work. It does not appear that way to us because we focus on the least important aspect of Noah and miss a key point to the Garden of Eden story. When you think of Noah, you think of the flood. And when you think of the flood story, the conclusion everyone remembers is the rainbow as a proof that God will not destroy the Earth by flood. To us Americans living in the land of plenty, where true poverty and hunger are extremely rare, the dramatic story of the flood and the destruction it wrought on the Earth is the key point. But to the Israelites/Hebrews reading the story of Noah, the flood is not the real point. When we look at the passage where God makes a covenant with Noah [8:21-22] we note two blessings given to Noah. The one everyone knows (the rainbow, etc.), and another one “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the intention of his heart is evil from his youth.”

Recall that in Genesis 3:17-19 the ground is cursed because of Adam’s sin. Prior to this curse Adam was still expected to work in the garden and tend it [Genesis 2:15]. The curse made the work much harder. Indeed, Noah gets his name because he was appointed to reverse this curse: Genesis 5:29 reads “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.” [The Hebrew word Noah sounds like the word for “bring us relief” and there are several puns made on this in the ensuing story of the flood.]

This reference to agriculture is also found in Noah being the first person to plant a vineyard.  In fact, Noah more than reverses the curse because not only does God remove the curse on the ground, but for the first time God allows humanity to eat animals rather than only plants. [Genesis 9:3] This is another reason why the curse on the ground was so onerous: humanity depended completely on agriculture rather than ranching. So I think the most significant part of the Garden of Eden, at least for the original readers, was its role in the general drama of sustenance. Before the garden, no plants were cultivated because it had not rained and there was no one to tend them. Adam is made and put in the garden to tend the plants there. Adam’s sin causes the ground to be cursed, making life hard. Noah gets his namesake from the hope that he will break the curse, and sure enough that is what happens. He more than breaks the curse because the ground is no longer cursed and humanity can now eat animals as well. How very different we read the story.

Posted on

Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: Holy Spirit

The evangelism of the apostles revolved about three main notions: The Gift, The Hope, and the Promise. To often Christians see these as merely vague terms [or they assume they all mean “life in heaven after I die.”]Putting a fine point on these terms allows not only to interpret individual passages better, but also grants a richer understanding of what apostolic evangelism was about.

Christian Hope

When the apostles speak of “Hope,” they do not refer exactly to “eternal life in heaven for believers.” The hope they refer to is the idea that what God had done to Jesus already [bodily resurrection], the Almighty would do to everyone later.

To understand why this Hope is so exclusively Christian, you have to understand the culture of 1st century AD. Some Jews believed in a bodily resurrection that would occur far in the future, and many Jews did not. Those outside Judaism generally did not believe in a bodily resurrection at all.

What no one believed was that the Messiah would come, die, and be resurrected before everyone else. Not even Jesus’ disciples understood that [which is why they deserted Him… the Messiah was supposed to lead the Jews to victory over the Romans [and everyone else who had oppressed them: Luke 1:71 ] How could He do that if He were dead??

This is why they wonder in Mark 9:10 what Jesus means, since He cannot possibly mean He is going to literally die. It also comes through loud and clear in Luke 24:20-21, they had hoped (but no longer)…and what did they hope for, that the Christ would redeem Israel. Like David, they were waiting for Jesus to take His position as true King. Having Jesus die crushed these beliefs, for they did not understand He had to die [John 20:9, Luke 24:25-27]

So, the resurrection not only proves that the Christian God lives, but gave hope in their own resurrection later. Note the wording of Acts 4:2 and Acts 17:32 — this was the central message of their evangelism (as well as Jesus as the Christ and Jesus as Judge, see post on evangelism in Acts.) Paul also avers that belief in resurrection of the dead is absolutely required of believers [1st Corinthians 15:12-14].

This Hope in the resurrection of the dead was the main reason Paul was in so much hot water in Acts. It was, after all, directly opposed to the beliefs of the ruling sect of Judaism. [Acts 23:6, Acts 24:15, Acts 24:21, Acts 26:6-8.]

The Gift

People use the term “a free gift” often in evangelism today, but for Paul and the other apostles, the term had a different meaning. The Gift is nothing other than the Holy Spirit.Jesus uses this to refer to the Holy Spirit in John 4:10, Peter refers to the Spirit as “The Gift” three times: Acts 2:38, Acts 8:20, and Acts 11:17. Luke uses the term in this way in Acts 10:45, and Paul does so in 1st Timothy 4:14, and 2nd Timothy 1:6. The writer of Hebrews follows suit in Hebrews 6:4.[Note it is important to separate “The Gift” (with the “the”) from situations where there is no “the,” also there are 3 words for “gift” common in the NT, and only 2 of them appear to be used in this way, the other is more of a term for “offering.”]

The (Promised) Promise

And now we come to an interesting term. “The Promise.” We know that God promised Abraham to bless the world through his seed, but how was God going to do that? Peter answers this question for us as well, in Acts 2:33. This is the promise Jesus refers to in Luke 24:49, and in Acts 3:26, we find that it is, in fact, the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham.The Holy Spirit is further referred to as “The Promise” in Acts 2:39, Galatians 3:14, Ephesians 1:13, Ephesians 3:6, Hebrews 9:15-(The writer views us as receiving the Holy Spirit as an inheritance from Christ. Note this is definitely referring to the Holy Spirit available now that was not available earlier before Christ died: see Hebrews 9:16, Hebrews 9:8, and, most notably Hebrews 11:39-40, where the Spirit is once again referred to as what was “promised.”)But, the Holy Spirit is not only the fulfillment of a promise, it also acts as a promise…a reminder of the full salvation available when our bodies are transformed and New Jerusalem arrives [ Revelation 21:2]. The Holy Spirit, in granting us power over the desires of a flesh set against God [Romans 6:6] grants us a slice of our transformed future. It allows us to already begin living the life of the next era today. Indeed, it calls us to do so, for we are no longer to live for ourselves, but rather live for Christ.In this way, the Holy Spirit is then a Promise itself. Not on an individual basis wherein we “know we are going to heaven because we have the Spirit.” The Spirit allowed those in Matthew 7:22-23 throw out demons and prophesy in Christ’s name, but it did not see them through the Judgment, and Hebrews 6:4-6, Hebrews 10:26-27, and 2nd Peter 2:20-21 all describe that the Spirit is not a personal guarantee but a global one. God will not be mocked.

Understanding “The Promise” is crucial to getting a handle on Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans, where the term is used very often.

Posted on

Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: Wisdom

The book goes by many names:
Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira
The Wisdom of Sirach
Proverbs of Sirach
Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes, which was originally called Qoheleth.)

This last name, Ecclesiasticus, comes from the Latin word for “Church” and came about because the book was so often read in the early church. Thus, it is a misnomer for Protestants because they do not accept it as authoritative.

I finished reading it recently, and there are two major points to be drawn from it.

First, Sirach gives some window into the Jewish conceptualization of “Wisdom,” which took on a meaning far more intricate than what we generally mean by the term. The Jews often anthropomorphized Wisdom. It is described as God’s “first creation,” begotten before all worlds. Note that these references are not just the Apocrypha, check out Proverbs 8 (and Proverbs 8:22 and Proverbs 8:30 in particular).

Sirach 24 begins      1 Wisdom sings her own praises,      before her own people she proclaims her glory;      2 In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,      in the presence of his hosts she declares her worth:      3 “From the mouth of the Most High I came forth,      and mistlike covered the earth.      4 In the highest heavens did I dwell,      my throne on a pillar of cloud.      5 The vault of heaven I compassed alone,      through the deep abyss I wandered.      6 Over waves of the sea, over all the land,      over every people and nation I held sway.      7 Among all these I sought a resting place;      in whose inheritance should I abide?      8 “Then the Creator of all gave me his command,      and he who formed me chose the spot for my tent,      Saying, ‘In Jacob make your dwelling,      in Israel your inheritance.’      9 Before all ages, in the beginning, he created me,      and through all ages I shall not cease to be.      10 In the holy tent I ministered before him,      and in Zion I fixed my abode.      11 Thus in the chosen city he has given me rest,      in Jerusalem is my domain.

There was a deep connection that equated (or intrinsically linked) Torah with Wisdom running through much of Jewish thought. I think there is much to be understood by studying these connections because they appear to match the incarnation of Jesus as Living Torah  that provides Wisdom (the Holy Spirit). In Chapter 9 of TGYNH I wrote about the relevance of Jesus as living Torah for the Jew/Gentile issues in the early church.

The second important point to draw from Sirach is that it paints an empty picture of the afterlife. There is no post-death reward, no resurrection, no Judgment, etc. Sirach presents the interesting notion that God’s justice is seen in how we die and how we are remembered. The wise and righteous do not have a painful death, are remembered by many after they are dead, and generally have lots of prosperous offspring. The ungodly may suffer greatly at the end of their days, perhaps just in the last day, and will not have a positive posterity. This is quite an interesting way to grapple with the crises of faith the Jews of Sirach’s day encountered. They had been dominated by ungodly nations and many righteous Jews (among a generally unrighteous nation) had suffered early death. Furthermore, those who oppressed the poor seemed to live a good life. Where is God’s justice then?  For Sirach, the key was that one could never know what pain someone might endure in their final hours, so one could never claim that someone profited from evil. More important than Sirach’s view of God’s justice is the simple fact that Sirach lived relatively late, only a couple hundred years before Christ, yet even then the notion of an active afterlife appears not to have been the norm. For me this is important because people are often taught the great fiction that all Hebrews who came before Jesus were looking forward to a savior who would save them from hell, when in reality the Hebrews did not even believe in an active afterlife until a couple centuries prior to Jesus, let alone the notion that we are all in need of deliverance from a wrathful God who judges everyone based on a strict law demanding absolute perfection.

Posted on

Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: Jesus

I’m reading David Flusser’s “The Sage from Galilee” and a verse was pointed out that I find incredibly important.Micah 2:13 speaks of the Messiah leading God’s people out of a gate after having the strength to break it. The interesting part of the verse is its emphasis on the Messiah going out before them, in advance. John 10:4 holds much the same idea.This is important to me because I claim the earliest Christians saw Christ as a “trail-blazer” or “pioneer,” giving proof of blessings available to them by experiencing them first. Christ was baptized. Christ received the Holy Spirit. Christ put his trust in God (“He who judges righteously” in 1st Peter 2:23) rather than call on angels to save Him, providing an example of how Christians should live. And then Christ was resurrected with a transformed body. These are the elements of Christian salvation as understood by the early Christians (in particular the receipt of the Holy Spirit and then resurrection with a transformed body).This idea of “trail-blazer” or “pioneer” for the purposes of providing example is, in fact, what the Greek word “archēgos” means. The one used in Acts 3:15, Acts 5:31, Hebrews 2:10 and Hebrews 12:2, but most translations do not convey the notion of “trail-blazer” or “pioneer” because there is a general interest in under-playing Christ as an example or seeing Him as the first Christian martyr.Instead, the word is translated as “Prince” or “Author” in these verses [the other two meanings according to Thayer’s Lexicon.

This discussion of the first verse is linked to another verse shown to me when reading a completely different book. I am also reading the apologies of Justin Martyr. He pointed out a verse commonly used by early defenders of the faith to refer to the idea of Jesus submitting to unjust death out of confidence that God, being good, would not allow a righteous man to be ashamed. This is the idea found in the 1st Peter 2:23 verse I mentioned earlier, but is found throughout that letter.

A crystal clear OT prophecy of Christ submitting to suffering for that purpose is given in Isaiah 50:5-7 !

I really love this aspect of Christ’s submission. It really speaks of Christ’s faith rather than merely His faithfulness to God’s plan. If we think of Christ as merely going through the whole suffering and death for purposes of fulfilling God’s plan, it really speaks nothing at all about faith. Faith is confidence in something unseen. If we picture Christ as being absolutely certain of the aftermath [in the way that the Almighty Father was], there is nothing to have faith in because there is nothing unseen to rely on.

However, if we allow Christ to have the dimension of a righteous follower of God who believed so strongly that the Father, being righteous and good, would not allow the extremely shameful crucifixion to be the end of the story, then we see Christ having faith in the unseen…faith in God’s attributes. This is exactly the kind of faith Christ calls for in others: “you believe God is powerful, cares about the poor, and is inclined to reward those who do His will…then why don’t you act like it?”

I could see that the above depiction of Jesus might seem a bit too humble for some. A “middle road” would be that Jesus had been told by God what would happen and then we see Jesus not having faith in God’s attributes but rather God’s willingness to do what He said.

However, I think the above is both absurd and very close to what might be reality: Christ had faith in God’s Word as shown in the Old Testament. He believed the sketch portrayed there was authentic and could be trusted. Note that this is precisely the kind of faith He attacks His disciples for not having in Luke 24:25-27.

Given that Jesus is the incarnation of God’s Word, it would be (in some way I cannot fully wrap my head around) fitting for this latter type to be the kind of faith Jesus had.I realize this whole discussion may grate on some people who feel it makes Jesus too human by claiming there were things he did not know [in the sense of have evidence for rather mere confidence in.] But He has no problems evincing His ignorance of some aspects of the Father’s plan in Mark 13:32 (and note Luke 2:52).

P.S. The content of this passage is not meant to suggest that the only reason Christ submitted to death was for purposes of example.

Posted on

Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: Interesting Scripture

Of course, most people reading this blog will have heard a version of John 3:16. Many people consider it a concise description of “the gospel,” and I would agree with that. The question is, if John 3:16 is a summary of the gospel, what gospel does it summarize?The reason I bring this up is that the surrounding verses indicate that John 3:16 cannot possibly be a summary of the gospel of evangelical Christianity. Let’s take a look at what John says after this oft-quoted verse.John 3:16-17-

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.

So far, so good. Nothing odd there.John 3:18a-

He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already,

At first this appears to drive home the commonly accepted gospel even more. We are told that those who do not believe have “been judged already.” That sounds a lot like the idea of everyone being condemned to hell “by default” for their sins, and Christ is pictured as saving them, hence showing the love mentioned in John 3:16

But then we get to John 3:18b-

because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

And this really should raise an eyebrow or two. The evangelical gospel is primarily focused on heaven and hell, and how everyone more or less deserves the latter but through God’s grace some receive the former. The issue here is that the “condemnation” John speaks of is not a condemnation for general sin, but rather a condemnation because someone “has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”Reformed Christianity in particular is adamant that we are not condemned due to rejecting Christ (if so, that would not condemn the millions who never knew of Him). But here that is exactly what John is referring to.

Some would say that John is not speaking of “rejecting Christ” but simply “not believing.” Those who “do not believe” (for whatever reason) are still “being judged” rather than having escaped that judgment. (Of course, this whole line of thought is contrary to those passages that describe the Judgment, where all are clearly Judged, believers and non-believers.)

But John is not talking about mere ignorance or “not believing,” because he tells us exactly what the Judgment is for in the next verse, John 3:19-21

This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.

John is clearly describing two groups of people everyone who does evil and he who practices the truth. This latter forms another problem for evangelical Christianity, which says that no one can really practice the truth until they have already come to believe. But here John says the opposite: those who desire to please God are exactly those who come to Christ.

In any event, this last section shows that John is not saying “those who believe” versus “those who do not believe.” He is making a separation between those who actively rejected Christ and those who actively came to Christ. You cannot with any intellectual integrity claim that a 12th century Native American “failed to believe” for the reason John gives here.The same applies today even where some version of the Gospel is preached everywhere. If someone rejects the message of the church because history has exposed too much hypocrisy in the church to find it a solid source of spiritual wisdom, you certainly cannot say that person rejected Christ for the reason John gives.

So, if this passage serves as your gospel, you have to accept that it does not give a definitive description of who is condemned and who is not, for by its own words it would not apply to all people. Secondly, you would have to accept that the reason people come to Jesus is because they are dispositionally inclined to do God’s will. That is very different from the reason most people accept for how or why someone believes.

This latter idea, that people believe in Christ or not based on whether they already have a desire to do God’s will is a recurring theme of John’s. Jesus says it about as clearly as one could hope for in John 7:17-

If anyone is willing to do [God’s] will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or {whether} I speak from Myself.

This is repeated over and over, Jesus wants people to believe in Him because His words make sense. The commands He gives are ones that those who desire God naturally find value in, while those who were interested in their own gain are humiliated by Christ’s commands.

This might all seem a bit odd, but it isn’t odd if you take into consideration why and when John was written. John was written to Gentiles after the Temple had been destroyed which represented God’s prophesied judgment against the Jewish leadership for rejecting Christ.

This is what John has in mind when saying This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.

Obviously, the men here does not everyone. “Everyone” didn’t reject Christ. The Jewish leaders did. And why did they reject Christ? As John tells us: For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.

That is the reason the Jewish leaders rejected Christ. We are often told this fiction that the reason the Jews rejected Christ was that they were looking for a political leader rather than a spiritual one. That is simply not true. If that were the reason for rejecting Christ, then everyone would have done so. All the Jews (including Jesus’ disciples) were expecting Jesus to eventually be anointed and become the new David, the new King (just as David had to wait on the fringes for Saul to be deposed). That is why the disciples are so shocked when Jesus is actually killed. The notion that He would rise from the dead to be king was unfathomable. They thought the game was up when He died [hence their forlorn response in Luke 24:21.]

You might be asking, so what is the point if John is just talking about the Jewish leaders?

To see the point of this you have to once again look at John’s purpose. He is sharing the gospel with Gentiles, broadcasting that God’s Kingdom is now open to them. The focus is not on the God so loved the world. The focus is on the whosoever. This notion of everyone (not just Jews) shows up throughout John. In particular it shows in the verse immediately before John 3:16. John 3:14-15 reads

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.

The “lifted up” has a double meaning. It refers to both Christ’s crucifixion and ascension, but it also refers to the “lifting up of Christ” for the world to see. Why? so whoever believes can receive eternal life. Note the similar language Christ uses when discussing this very idea later in John 12:32 –

And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.

So, what we are seeing in John 3:16 is really a commentary on the destruction of the Temple [has been condemned already] and the reason for that judgment against the Jewish leaders.

You might wonder why John uses the term eternal life here if it is referring to the physical destruction of the temple as an indication of the judgment on the Jews. That’s a topic for another blog, but it is linked (once again) to the context of this passage. The John 3:16-21 passage is a commentary on Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus. The eternal life here is linked to the kingdom of God Jesus refers to in John 3:3.

This Kingdom of God is not “heaven after we die,” as Jesus makes clear in that dialogue. It is the baptism by the Holy Spirit, the seal of the new covenant God makes through Christ, a covenant in which everyone is invited to participate. The term that gets translated eternal life by John, when writing to Gentiles who do not know much about the Jewish O’lam Ha-Ba was the best way to get across the blessedness of living in the spirit. Eternal life is not even the best translation. Boundless life is probably a better one. [Greek does have a word that means “eternal” in the way we would think of the term, but it is not the word used here. It is used in Jude 13]. This shows in John’s amazing definition of eternal life in John 17:3

This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.

Note that this is really meant as a definition (or as close as a definition as you can get) to eternal life (or, rather, the Greek John used for that term). The grammar here is one John uses elsewhere when giving a dictionary definition or precise explanation of what something is. Other examples where John uses the exact same grammar are: John 1:19, John 3:19, John 15:12, 1st John 1:15, 1st John 3:13.

And that is why John 3:16 is a fine description of the gospel: God sent Jesus to allow all people to recieve the Holy Spirit (which, if one reads Galatians 3:13-14 closely, you’ll find Paul saying the same thing!!!) It just is not necessarily the gospel people generally think of.

Posted on

Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: Natural Theology Problems

Most people are taught that the demons Jesus and His apostles cast out are fallen angels. But there is no passage that actually says that [to my knowledge.]This came to me today as I was thinking about Jude 6 And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day2nd Peter 2:4 is similar.The issue here is that Satan and his Angels are cast out of heaven immediately after Christ’s resurrection [Revelation 12:9]. If Jude and Peter claim that these angels were put into Hell, then they could not have been around tormenting people during Acts, and Paul would not be too concerned about their teaching people in 1st Timothy 4:1.

The issue here is that if demons are not fallen angels, then what are they, and where do they come from? Some might find this just an odd question of no real relevance but some would find it very relevant because many teach that God cannot create anything evil. [The Bible itself says no such thing, but people think it would go against God’s goodness. This is the same reason people claim Satan had to be an angel at some point. Actually, it seems the above verses would suggest that Satan is not, in fact, a fallen angel, as he is not confined in hell at the moment.]

Perhaps demons are evil souls of Nephlim who died.*shrug*

Anyone else have some ideas?

Posted on

Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: Homosexuality

I’m off for a day to celebrate my fiancee’s 30th birthday.As a topic for discussion, does the modern divide on homosexuality remind anyone else of the difference between Israel and Judah after Solomon?

Israel fell away from God’s law and was quickly assimilated into tribes and peoples who were not sons of Jacob. It seems that those churches that are totally “open and affirming” are doing the same and at the same risk.

Judah nominally kept God’s laws but in the wrong proportion and with the wrong emphasis (to the extent they kept them at all). Those in the strict anti-homosexuality branch of the church appear to be doing the same thing.I’m not just talking about people like Fred Phelps here. I’m referring to a much broader class of Christians who have taken the matter of homosexuality and made it central to Christian thought, as though being against homosexuality is on par with believing in the resurrection. For example, when Piper is describing how he personally views N.T. Wright, he praises him for such things as defending the resurrection and upholding the deity of Christ; then, in the same breath, he tacks on the defense of the traditional view of homosexuality. That’s preposterous — to somehow claim that the set of things that separate “real Christians” from others now includes something that gets so little ink in the Bible.

I think any church who wants to be closed to homosexuals should have already thrown out everyone who contributes to their own 401k.