Monday, June 29, 2020

Is God a Destroyer of Souls?

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)
These are sobering words Jesus spoke to the disciples. What do they mean? There are two assumptions that are often made about this verse. The first is that it is about a postmortem, afterlife experience — often thought of as eternal conscience torment in “hell.” The second is that it is God who destroys both body and soul in hell. But let’s take a closer look.

Is Jesus speaking of a postmortem experience? The word for “hell” here is Gehenna, which often gets conflated with the word Hades and translated as “hell.” But is Gehenna the same thing as Hades, so that they can be spoken of synonymously, as many modern translations seem to do? I think not. I have written about both of these terms in previous posts (see links below). My conclusion is that they refer to two very different things and cannot be lumped together.
  • Hades is a Greek name and is a counterpart to the Hebrew word Sheol in the Old Testament. It refers to the realm of the dead (see Hades — A Word About Hell?). As such, it is postmortem in nature.
  • Gehenna, in the New Testament, is a variation of the Hebrew name, Ge Hinnom — Valley of Himmon — from the Old Testament (see Gehenna — A Word About Hell?). It is geographical, a place located outside of old Jerusalem and can still be found today. The prophets spoke of it as a place where faithless Israel would be judged, and the valley would be filled with their dead. This judgment was fulfilled in history, centuries before Christ. Although it was not a postmortem experience, Rabbis after the time of Jesus did come to use it metaphorically for such an experience, but it was thought of as a judgment that was of very limited duration, a purgatory of sorts.
So, how did Jesus use this word, Gehenna? What did he mean by it? It seems unlikely that he would have followed later rabbinic usage but much more likely that he would have followed the usage of the Old Testament prophets, to speak of a judgment that would occur not in some otherworldly scenario but in this world and could be located in history.

There is a movement of warnings in the book of Matthew that culminates in the Olivet Discourse, in Matthew 24, where Jesus warns of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. This destruction is seen as a judgment on the faithless leaders of Israel (see the “woes” pronounced on the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, ending with the words that their “house” would be taken from them). It is the destruction that occurred in AD 70, when Roman armies, after a long siege, burned the temple and the city to the ground. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, speaks of that horrific time and tells us that, during the siege, the Jews ran out of burial space for the dead, so the bodies were thrown over the wall into the valleys below Jerusalem. Jesus’ warnings about Gehenna were fulfilled.

In Mark 9, Jesus again speaks of Gehenna and adds that is where the “the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.” It is a reference to Isaiah 66:24, “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind” (see Where Worms Do Not Die). This scene depicts not only the thorough destruction of the dead bodies of the faithless, rebellious ones but also the contempt that is shown for them. Cyril of Alexandria, a fifth century Church Father, commented on this final verse in Isaiah, connecting it with the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70:
These misfortunes piled on the Jews are meant to be the things we say happened to them at the hands of the Romans, when the temple was destroyed and all were subjected to cruel slaughter. Suffering such things they became a spectacle for all, but their suffering was not prolonged indefinitely. Yet this is what perhaps is meant when it says, “Their worm will not die nor the fire go out.”
If Gehenna is not a postmortem, otherworldly experience but a judgment in this present world, then who is “the one” who can destroy both body and soul there?  Many assume that it refers to God. But is God a destroyer of souls? In John 10, Jesus speaks of the thief who comes to steal, kill and destroy, while Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep and gives deep and abiding life without limits. We know that God does not act any differently than Jesus, because Jesus is the perfect expression of God (Hebrews 11:3). And if God were the destroyer of both body and soul in Gehenna, it would be rather odd that the verses immediately following describe him in quite a different way:
Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-30) 
God is the Good Father who knows when a sparrow falls. God is not the destroyer of souls. Jesus is not playing “Good Cop, Bad Cop” here. God is not malevolent one moment and then benevolent the next — there would be no assurance in that. But Jesus clearly intends to reassure the disciples about God’s intimate care for them.

Who, then, is “the one” Jesus is talking about in verse 28? Would it not be “the evil one” he referred to earlier, when he taught the disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13)? I am persuaded that it is so.

The persecutors Jesus warned the disciples about knew how to kill the body, but how is the evil one able to destroy the soul? Can he annihilate the soul and put it out of existence? No, he is not the creator and sustainer of the soul, so he has no power to make it cease. Nor does he have the power of death, for that has been destroyed by Christ: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). The only ability that he has is to and accuse and to slander — that is what the name “devil” means. His is not the way of Christ, whose way is love and forgiveness, but the way of hate and shame.

Jesus promised that those who followed him would be persecuted by the Jews and spoken of falsely — and, indeed, many were martyred for following him. Yet that was not to be feared; those who were persecuted for the sake of righteousness would have great reward (Matthew 5:11-12).

Far greater than the destruction of the body through such persecution would be the destruction of the soul if they departed from the way of Christ, the way of peace, the way of forgiveness. In the prayer Jesus taught the disciples to pray, he lay heavy emphasis on forgiveness: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Failure to forgive is no small thing but is a trap of the evil one. In 2 Corinthians 2:10-11, Paul instructs them to forgive, “in order that Satan might not outwit [exploit, defraud, take advantage of] us. For we are not unaware of his schemes” (see Don’t Let the Devil Outsmart You).

For those who followed the way of Christ, death would find no shame in them. But for those who turned instead to the way of violence, the Gehenna that was to follow in AD 70 would be not only the destruction of the body but also the shaming of the soul. Even if the Jews had defeated the Romans and gained the whole world by their violent resistance, their souls would have been eaten up by their own bitter hate.

Those who followed the way of Christ endured persecution but were not present at the destruction of Jerusalem, for they had been forewarned by Christ about when to leave (Matthew 24). But those who followed the way of violence suffered terribly under that destruction and were put to shame by the Romans.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Random Thoughts


More random thoughts, pretty much as they come, gathered from my Twitter tweets, Facebook updates and Instagrams. About God in Christ and the reconciliation of the world. Some have come to me in moments of prayer and quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. The stuff that memes are made of. Offered as “jump starts” for your faith.
  • Christ, who is in all things, and in whom all things hold together, holds me together. It is a good day.
  • Christ is my wisdom, my healing and my prosperity. It is a good day.
  • The Cross and the Resurrection cancel out every word of death, destruction and injustice.
  • A will truly free is one that naturally follows God, in whose image we are created.
  • Discipleship is learning to live daily in the reality of the love of God, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
  • Christ is risen from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father ~ and we with Him.
  • At Pentecost, God poured out His Spirit on all humankind, just as He promised through the prophet Joel. For all in Adam are made one in Christ, joined to God through the Incarnation and reconciled through the Cross.
  • There is a deep, deep love in the universe that embraces you and me. It is the mutual, overflowing love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
  • God chose us in Christ from the beginning of the world. Which is to say, when God chose Christ, He chose us, too. That is the wonder of the Incarnation.
  • When we hold on to bitterness, we leave no room for God’s peace. Forgive.
  • Faith in God, who is love, looks like love.
  • Faith in Jesus, who is The Way, looks like following.
  • God can take the worst our broken humanity has to offer and turn it to profound healing and blessing. Behold the Cross.
  • Though the God of Creation is fundamentally different from Creation, yet through the Incarnation, God has become part of His Creation, to suffer with Creation in a way that is completely redemptive.
  • In Jesus Christ, all humankind is put right with God.
  • We are in Christ not by anything we have done, not even by our faith, but through the Incarnation of Christ.
  • Lord Jesus, you are my rest, the calm peace of my soul. It is a good day.
  • The gospel is not about sinners in the hands of an angry God but about sinners in the hands of a Loving God, about God in the hands of angry sinners, and  how God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us.
  • The wholeness of Christ judges the brokenness of the world with healing.
  • Grace is the mutually self-giving nature of Father, Son and Holy Spirit extended toward us.
  • Grace is the hospitality of Father, Son and Holy Spirit bringing us all into Their divine fellowship.
  • Nothing depends on our faithfulness. Everything depends on Christ’s faithfulness. In that is our rest, our peace, our freedom.
  • If we do not forgive one another, we do not forgive ourselves, for we are all connected.
  • The wrath of God is the love of God burning away in us whatever does not belong, whatever is harmful to us. For God is love, and love is a consuming fire.
More random thoughts ...

Sunday, June 14, 2020

A Trinitarian Prayer



Abba, Father,
Thank You, for giving us Your Son
And sending us Your Holy Spirit.

Holy Spirit,
By whom we cry out, “Abba, Father,”
Thank You for showing us Lord Jesus,
For taking what is His And revealing it to us.

Lord Jesus,
Who is the image of the invisible God,
In whom all the fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form,
And in whom we are made complete
And become partakers of the divine nature,
Thank You, for showing us Abba, Father.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Lead us all into the eternal bliss
Of Your divine fellowship.
Amen.

The icon above is The Hospitality of Abraham, by Andrei Rublev. It shows the three mysterious visitors in Genesis 18. The narrative says, “The LORD appeared to Abraham,” (v. 1), and the angelic figures arrive. In Christian theology, these are understood as a type of the Trinity. Consequently, the icon of The Hospitality of Abraham is often referred to as an icon of the Trinity.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Freedom of Will

So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God. (Philippians 2:12-13 NET)
People usually think of freedom of will as the ability to choose, a deliberative action by which we select from among competing options. But in recent years, I have come to think of freedom of will as the ability to live according to our true, inherent nature; which is to say, according to who we really are — and who we really are is beings created in the image of God and to be like God (Genesis 1:27).

St. Maximus the Confessor, a very interesting Christian theologian from the 7th century, spoke about this distinction. There is the “gnomic” will, which is the deliberative will, choosing among the perceived options. But there is also the “natural” will, by which we act according to our inherent, created nature.

The problem has never been that human beings have free will and must deliberate between moving toward God or away from God, and therefore must somehow be persuaded to choose the former rather than the latter. The problem has been precisely the opposite: human will in bondage, leaving us incapable of acting according to our true, inherent nature, our natural selves, as God created us to be. Human will needed to be redeemed and set free.

God delivers us from that bondage of will through the Incarnation, in which Christ became one with us, not only revealing God’s faithfulness toward us but also becoming our faithful response to God. But more than that, and as the manifestation of that, Christ delivers us through the crucifixion, in which he destroyed death and all the powers that kept our human will in bondage.

Now we are in the process of the outworking of that deliverance, for it is God himself who is at work in us, bringing forth in us what he desires (Philippians 2:12-13). In other words, God’s work in us is freeing our wills from bondage so that we may naturally be what God created us to be from the beginning: the image of God, created to be like God.

Another way of saying this is how the apostle Paul put it in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” This not about us deliberating among the options and choosing “good works” but about our inherent nature as beings created and redeemed in Christ Jesus being manifested through “good works.” What we receive in and through Christ’s union with us is true freedom of will, which is to say, freedom of being — for it is Christ who is ever and always the source of our being.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

A Meditative Riff on the Lord’s Prayer



Father of us all, 
Who is over all things,
Let the beauty of Your name,
The glory of Your goodness,
The faithfulness of Your love,
The brilliance of Your light,
The vibrancy of Your life
Be seen and adored and embraced
Throughout the whole world.

And so, Your kingdom come,
Your will being done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us that bread today.

And so, forgive us, O Lord,
As we forgive everyone everything.
Do not let us be caught in the snare
But deliver us from evil—
From doing evil to others,
And from evil done to us.

For this is Your kingdom,
And this is Your power,
And this is Your glory
Now and forever.
Truly, it is so.

The image above is of a Russian icon from about 1800. It is a visual presentation of the Lord’s Prayer. “The prayer ‘Our Father’ rendered allegorically over two register and five scenes each one illustrating a verse; beginning from the central scene at the top frieze, God Father encircled by archangels in a double glory standing for: Our Father, who art in heaven. The lower scenes symbolising the verses: Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil (Adam and Eve in the Paradies).” This description is from The-Saleroom.com. “Paradies” is a variation of “Paradise.”

Friday, June 5, 2020

Will Evil Finally Be Eradicated?


Will evil finally be eradicated from God’s creation, or is the best we can hope for is that it will be sequestered? Will it finally be no more, or will it be forever confined in some corner of God’s creation?

The question I am posing actually concerns the extent of Jesus’ victory over evil. If, in the end, evil is merely shut away but still existent, that would seem to be a lesser victory than if it were altogether done away with, would it not? Evil would still have a little bit of the victory inasmuch as, though sequestered, it would still exist in God’s good creation. The cross and the resurrection would be mostly successful — but is that the most we can say?

Annihilationism (also known as Conditionalism) is a possible reading of the Scriptures. It is the view that there are some who will suffer varying degrees of punishment and then perish and cease to exist. It seems that a few of the early Church Fathers may have leaned toward that view. The undivided Church never took any dogmatic position on it one way or another (though individual sects and segments have over the years). The late Edward Fudge, who wrote about it in his book, The Fire That Consumes, addresses some of the history of it and the exegetical issues involved. His is a helpful book, and I did take the Annihilationist view for a season, but finally came to a different position on the matter.

The advantage of the Annihilationist view is that it does envision the full and final eradication of sin and evil from God’s good creation — which is more than my former position did or could. But the problem is that it does so at the cost of part of God’s good creation, which God called good. In particular, it comes at the cost of a portion of humankind, which God created in God’s own image and to be like God, and which God called very good. Can we call it a full victory over sin and evil when even a portion of what God created and called good ends up being destroyed? In that case, sin and evil would seem to win at least some victory over those who get annihilated.

My former view — Lord, forgive me — was of a fire that torments eternally; some in the early Church did hold to this view. Fudge referred to Annihilation as a fire that consumes, utterly and completely; and there were some in the early Church who held to this, though not quite as many. But what I see in Scripture is the fire of God as a fire that refines. This view was prevalent in the early Church for about the first five centuries; more in the East than in the West, though not absent from the West. Again, the undivided Church never took any dogmatic position on any of these views one way or another; all three are within the bounds of historic Christian faith and orthodoxy.

In 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, we see the fire of judgment as a refiner’s fire, a purgative fire, a therapeutic fire that burns away in us what is evil, without destroying what God has created; burning away, as it were, the “wood, hay and stubble,” leaving finally only the “gold, silver and precious jewels” (that is, what is created by God). Even those whose works are burned up will be saved, not in spite of the fire but through the fire. Jesus declared that everyone will be salted with fire (Mark 9:49). Salt, like fire, was and is an agent of cleansing and purification.

Lest anyone misunderstand, none of this does away with or replaces the saving work of Christ on the cross but, quite the opposite, is an expression of it, Christ’s saving work being applied to the sinner to free him evil and sin. Without the cross, none of that could happen.

All of this, I believe, is in accord with Paul’s words, that God will be “all in all” — not just all in only some, or even all in whatever is left. Everything that God in Christ created in heaven and on earth in Colossians 1:16 gets finally reconciled to God in Colossians 1:19, through Christ by the blood of the cross. Likewise, in the divine purpose of God as expressed in Ephesians 1:7-10, all things in heaven and on earth (and not merely whatever is left of them) are finally brought into unity in Christ.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

God’s Judgment is Always for Our Good


The judgment of God is never against us, to condemn us, but is always for our good, to save us. That is a stunningly beautiful truth, though one that some Christians balk at. It means that God never gives up on us. For God is love, and love never fails. Even in hell — whatever such hell may be — God’s love endures. What God has purposed in Christ will be fulfilled.

Jesus is the perfect expression of God’s being, in whom all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form, so that whoever has seen him has seen the Father. Scripture has much to say about God’s purpose in Christ — and God has no other purpose for the world apart from the one he has purposed in Christ.
  • In John 3:17, we see that God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world but to save the world. God has no purpose to condemn the world.
  • In 2 Peter 3:9, we see that God has not purposed that any should perish but that all should repent.
  • In 2 Corinthians 5:19, we see that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us. Christ, the perfect expression of God’s being, came reconciling everyone to God, not condemning anyone.
  • In Ephesians 1:9-10, we see that God has purposed to bring all things in heaven and on earth together in unity, headed up in Christ.
  • In Colossians 1:19-20, we see God’s purpose to reconcile to himself all things in heaven and on earth, through Christ, having made peace by the blood of the cross.
God’s plan and purpose in Christ, as found in Scripture, is to save the world, to reconcile all in heaven and on earth to himself through Christ by the blood of the cross, so that all are brought to unity, being headed up in Christ. There is no Plan B, no plan to condemn anyone in case Plan A does not work out.

Even in Matthew 25:46, often cited in support of Plan B thinking, we find a very interesting thing. It comes at the end of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, and it speaks of “punishment” in the age to come. The Greek word is kolasin and is rooted in an agricultural term that refers to pruning. Pruning is not done in order to destroy a plant but to restore it to health and productivity. In this passage, kolasin is used metaphorically and refers to chastisement. It is not retributive; the Greek word for that sort of punishment would be timoria — but that is not the one we find here. The difference is this: retribution is for the benefit of the one exacting it; chastisement is for the benefit of the one receiving it.

What Jesus speaks of here is chastening, not condemnation. It is for the purpose of restoration, not retribution — for God is love, and love is not retributive. Clearly, it is divine judgment, and it may not be pleasant to endure, for it strips away whatever does not belong so that whatever does may come to fruition. This may be very painful if we try to hold on to what God is working to purge from us. Yet, it is not intended for harm but for healing and for good, to bring one finally to know their salvation and completion in Christ.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Breathing the Spirit

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:21-22)
As we celebrate Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, there is much we can learn about the Spirit in the Gospel According to John:

  • The Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove from heaven and remained on him (John 1:32).
  • Jesus is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. (John 1:33).
  • What is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:6).
  • Everyone born of the Spirit is like the Spirit (John 3:8).
  • The Spirit is of infinite measure in Christ (John 3:34).
  • The giving of the Spirit is related to the glorification of Jesus Christ (John 7:37-39).
In John 14-16, Jesus speaks much of the Holy Spirit.
  • The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot understand because it does not know him (John 14:17).
  • The Spirit is the Advocate the Father sends in Jesus’ name, who teaches us everything and causes us to remember everything Jesus taught (John 14:26).
  • The Spirit testifies to us about Lord Jesus, who is the Truth (John 15:26).
  • The Spirit guides us into all truth, because he does not speak on his own authority but whatever he hears from the Father; he tells us of what is to come (John 16:13).
  • All that belongs to the Father belongs to Jesus, and the Holy Spirit takes what belongs to Jesus and reveals it to us (John 16:14-15).
There is much more in these chapters concerning the Holy Spirit, but let us now turn to John 20:19-22. It is the evening of the Resurrection, and the crucified and risen Christ comes and stands among the disciples. “Peace be with you,” he says, and then he shows them his hands and his side. The disciples are overjoyed to see him. Jesus again says, “Peace be with you,” and adds, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22)
It is a scene that recalls a moment in Genesis, in the beginning, when God created Man. God formed humanity in the image of God and according to the likeness of God (that is, to be like God). “Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
The Scriptures are about the crucified and risen Christ (see Luke 24 and Reading the Scriptures), so Genesis is about the crucified and risen Christ, by whom, through whom, for whom, and in whom all things are created (Colossians 1:16-17). It is Christ who made the Man in the image of God, and it is Christ who breathed the breath of life into the Man. In the Septuagint (aka, LXX, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew text), the word for “breathed” is emphysao, to puff. Christ puffed into humankind the puff of life, and it was only then that what he had formed from the earth became a “living being.”

In John 20, the crucified and risen Christ “breathed” on the disciples. The word used here is the same as in the LXX of Genesis 2, the word emphysao. Just as Christ puffed the breath of life into humankind in the Garden, so here he puffed his breath on the disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Greek word for “Spirit” is pneuma, which is also translated as “breath.”

The Lord Jesus breathed on the disciples, and the Holy Spirit is that breath — the holy, life-giving breath of God. As the psalm writer says, “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:30). The NET Bible has it as, “When you send your life-giving breath ....” Christ gives the life-giving breath of his Spirit to his disciples, and so to the Church, which is the body of Christ, alive with his Spirit. As we confess in the Nicene Creed, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life.”

The crucified and risen Christ is the “firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:18). As he imparts his life-giving breath in Genesis 2, so he does in John 20, and the body he formed from the earth becomes a living being.

At Pentecost, Christ gave his Spirit, his life-giving breath, pouring it out not just on the disciples but on all people (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:16-17), to renew the face of the earth. For he says, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5).