Friday, November 30, 2018

The Possibility of Repentance After Death

Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment ... (Hebrews 9:27)
Evangelical universalism entails the possibility of “post-mortem conversion,” that is, the proposition that, though many depart this life without faith in Christ, yet is it still possible for them to come to such faith after they have died.

A common objection to this view has been Hebrews 9:27, “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment …,” and it is supposed that this precludes any post-mortem opportunity for salvation. It is then further assumed that if one has not come to faith in Christ when they die, all that is left for them is an eternity of conscious torment.

What is the Context?
But there are a few problems with such a reading. First, it ignores the context. Verse 27 is not a stand-alone statement or a completed thought but is part of a larger discussion about Christ as our high priest, holding him in contrast with the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament:
For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:24-28)
The high priest of the Old Testament had to go into the Holy of Holies every year to make sacrifice for sins. But Christ did not come year after year to offer himself as a sacrifice over and over for our sins. He did not suffer many times but only once. Mark the word “once” in the verses immediately preceding and following verse 27; it is the key to the comparison the author makes.
  • Christ has appeared once for all to do away with sin (v. 26).
  • Just as people are destined to die once (v. 27).
  • So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of the many (v. 28).
Note also the use of “just as” by the NIV (or “and” in several other versions) at the beginning of verse 27. It indicates the continuation of a preceding thought. The use of “so” at the beginning of verse 28 shows a continuation of the thought carried along in verse 27 and completes this portion of the argument that author is making: Just as people are destined to die once, so Christ was offered once, in sacrificial death.

What is the Judgment?
Here, we come to my second point, though still considering the context. The second clause in verse 27 has to do with judgment. If we think of this in general terms, it is worth noting that the author does not specify how soon after death this judgment comes, only that people are destined once to die, and after this comes the judgment. We cannot simply assume that it comes immediately, leaving no room for coming to repentance and faith.

But the author of Hebrews has been focusing our attention on Christ, and that, it seems to me, is how we should think of judgment here. The first part of verse 27, “destined to die once” is answered by the second part, “Christ was sacrificed once.” So also, the second part of verse 27, about judgment, is answered in the second part of verse 28: “to take away the sins of the many.”

To see how the taking away of our sins in verse 28 corresponds to judgment in verse 27, we need to understand something important about the nature of God’s judgment: it is not retributive but restorative. Our own sense of judgment is often about retribution or pay-back, even to the point of the destruction of offenders — and we tend to imagine that God must be that way, too.

But God’s judgment is always about restoration, for God is love, and love does not seek retribution. God comes to set things right — to set us right. The judgment of God does not come to destroy the offender but to remove the offense. For God did not send Christ into the world to condemn us (John 3:18) but to bring about reconciliation (more on that in a moment).

The judgment of God, then, does not preclude any further possibility of repentance, for repentance and faith are exactly what it is intended to bring about. Think of the many times in the Old Testament when God judged wayward Israel. It was not to abandon Israel forever but to bring her to repentance, for there was always the promise of the day when God would finally gather her in from the nations.

The ultimate judgment of God took place at the cross, where the “once for all” death Christ died destroyed the works of the devil (1 John 4:8), disarmed the principalities and powers (Colossians 2:15), broke the power of death, and the power of the devil, who held the power of death (Hebrews 2:14), and so, broke the power of sin. The cross is where the forgiveness of God was revealed, and the judgment of God made manifest.

The author extends the thought at the end of verse 28, showing that the One who was offered once for our sins, “will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” The death of Christ brings salvation — and that is the judgment of God.

The author of Hebrews is not arguing that death is a “point of no return” that precludes any possibility of post-mortem conversion but showing us something very different, a Christ-centered focus. Nor can we conclude that the future appearing of Christ is the cut-off point for repentance and faith; the author simply does not make that argument.

What is God’s Purpose in Christ?
This brings me to my third point: there are numerous passages in Scripture that clearly indicate God’s purpose is the reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth through Christ and by the blood of the cross. I have listed several of them in another article, “What If ‘All’ Means All?”, but I will mention three here:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)

With all wisdom and understanding, [God] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1:9-10)

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19-20)
In the end, God will be, as Paul said, “All in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). The reconciliation of all things will not happen apart from Christ, or the cross, or repentance and faith. But Paul does seem convinced that it will indeed happen.

If that is so, and all are finally to be reconciled, then it seems to me that post-mortem conversion is not only possible but is inevitable, seeing that so many people appear to depart this present life without having come to any repentance or faith in Christ. Hebrews 9:27 does not preclude this; it does not even address the question, much less answer it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

What Does It Mean to be “In Christ”?


We hear it a lot — I say it a lot — but what does it mean? Simply put, to be “in Christ” is to be in union with Christ, one with Christ. To be in union with Christ is to be in union with God, one with God, because Christ is God become human. He did not become merely one like us — he became one with us. Christ is fully human, as well as fully divine, and participates fully with us in our humanity, so that we may share in his divinity, sharing by grace what Christ is by nature.

In the modern Western world, we are used to thinking of ourselves and others very individualistically: You are you and I am me, and apart from close biological relationships, we recognize no real connection to each other, only whatever social or psychological associations we decide to have with one another.

But the truth is that there is only one humanity, and we all partake of it. This means that we are all vitally and deeply connected to one another. Whatever happens with one of us ultimately affects all of us, and the loss of one of us diminishes all of us. There is no “us” and “them,” there is only us.

The apostle Paul recognized this profound connection when he compared Christ with Adam. We can see this, for example, in Romans 5:18, where he says, “Consequently, just as one trespass [Adam’s] resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act [Christ’s] resulted in justification and life for all people.” And again in 1 Corinthians 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

Just as Adam’s act of disobedience affected all humankind, bringing mortality upon all, so the faithful obedience of Christ resulted in justification and life for all. In both instances, this could only be because the humanity in which we all share is a deep and abiding connection, a union we all have with one another. So, when Christ became human, it was not a union with only some of us but with all of us.

The great mystery of the gospel is that the God who created this one humanity has joined with us in it by the Incarnation of the Son, Jesus Christ. Christ is our union with God. This is not something we must strive for — or even can strive for. But through the Incarnation, we now have this union with Christ, and so with God, purely by the love, will and desire of God. It is not even our faith that puts us “in Christ” or in union with God, but it is solely the grace of God, the faithfulness of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit that has done this.

What this means for us is that we are “accepted in the Beloved,” as the old King James Version puts it in Ephesians 1:6. The Greek word behind that means that we are fully graced and highly favored by God, and this is though Christ’s union with us. Our faith did not bring this about; the faithfulness of Christ has done it. But it is by faith that we begin to understand and live out the truth of what Christ has already done for us.

So, when we read in Paul’s letters about being “in Christ,” it has nothing to do with what we have done or ever could do, not even our faith, but has everything to do with what Christ has done. It is about the union with God every human being has because of Christ, the Incarnation, and the victory of the cross and resurrection that inevitably resulted from that union.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

No Coercion Required

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How hard it is even for Christians to believe that God intends to save the whole world. This is even though the New Testament indicates in several places that this is exactly what God has purposed in Jesus Christ (see What If “All” Means All). One objection that comes up, and I encountered it twice just yesterday, is that for God to fulfill his purpose would require that he must coerce people to believe — and wouldn’t that just make puppets of them?

The first time it came up was in a discussion I had with a Christian friend on his Facebook page. The second time was because I posted the opening sentence above on my Facebook page: “How hard it is even for Christians to believe that God intends to save the whole world.” Almost as if to demonstrate my point, another Christian friend, who I hadn’t heard from in a while, brought up the same objection in the comment section. Here, with a few edits to smooth it out a bit, is how I responded:

The question at hand is, of course, about free will. And it is usually asked as if anyone has a will that is truly free outside of a relationship with Christ. But the human will apart from Christ is not in any way free; it is in deep, dark bondage. This is one reason why Christ came into the world: to set free our bound and broken wills so that we may turn to God.

Many people think of freedom of the will as the ability to choose between competing options, to deliberate between good and evil, to calculate between choosing God or not choosing God. But which tree in the Garden of Eden does that sound like to you? The Tree of Life? Sounds to me more like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The decision to eat of that tree was not one freely made but by one who was deceived, and it led only to misery, destruction and bondage to fear and further deception. A will that is bound up in deception is not one that is truly free.

Many other folks, and I am one of them, understand freedom of the will to be the ability to act and respond according to our true nature. This leads us to ask, what is our true nature? I understand it this way: God made us to be in God’s own image and according to God’s likeness — that is, to be like God. That is our true nature, the truth of who we really are and were always meant to be. But through the deception and darkness of the evil one, our true nature, and so also our will, was bound up so that we were no longer able to act according to how God created us to be.

But Christ came to set us free from all bondage. He came to destroy all the works of the devil, to bind up the “strong man” and plunder his house. Through the Incarnation, Christ joined himself with all humankind — he did not become merely one like us but one with us. That is why his cross, which was inevitable because of the Incarnation, was not just Christ’s victory but our victory as well.

Christ, who is fully human as well as fully divine, is the perfect expression of God. All the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ in human form. Christ is the one to whose image God conforms us. Christ is exactly what God had in mind from the beginning, when God said, “Let us make man in our image.”

We were chosen in Christ from before the foundation of the world (see How God Chose Us In Christ and Chosen in Christ for the Unity of All Things). This is the truth of all humankind: Christ is now our true nature. With Christ as our true nature, then, freedom of the will is the ability to act according to Christ.

And the love of God is always at work in us like a consuming fire to burn away all the chains of lust, anger, violence, pride, egoism, rebelliousness, etc., until our wills are truly free and we are able to simply respond to God according to our true nature, the truth of who we are in Christ and who Christ is in us.

In the end, every knee in heaven and on earth will bow before Christ and every tongue will confess Jesus as Lord (Philippians 2:9-11). This is not the language of anyone being coerced. It is the language of that which is offered freely and willingly. A coerced confession is not a true confession but a contradiction in terms. A coerced confession would be nothing more than lip-service, and God has no interest in that. The confession of Jesus as Lord is not one that can be made apart from the Holy Spirit (12 Corinthians 12:3), and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, not coercion.

So, no coercive force is required for the complete fulfillment of God’s purpose to save the whole world — or else God would be no better than Zeus, a cheap and petty deity, and not the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The only “force” needed is the power of God’s non-coercive, self-giving, other-centered love. It is out of such divine love that God was in Christ reconciling the whole world to himself, not counting our sins against us (2 Corinthians 5:19).

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Surprising Vengeance of God

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Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19)
There is something very deep and dark within us that craves revenge and reaches for retribution. “Paybacks are hell,” we say, and it is often from that dark place that we love to hear, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” For we have often imagined that God is like us, and that wrath and vengeance mean the same for God as they do for us. So, we latch on to Romans 12:19 “with a vengeance” and pay little attention to the context, which is all about love:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:9-18)
This is how we are to be, and it sounds very much like what Jesus taught us and lived out to the fullest. So, when we come to verse 19, how can we understand it in the way we are accustomed to thinking of vengeance? We cannot. For Jesus is the perfect expression of God and the one in whom all the fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form, so we must expect that God lives what Jesus preached. We must understand it in a way that fully demonstrates love, for as the biblical witness teaches us, God is love (1 John 4:8, 10). To take the “vengeance” of the Lord in a way that is less than fully loving toward all would violate the very nature of God and the perfect revelation of God we have in Jesus Christ. It would also violate the surrounding context in Romans 12.

How do we understand this verse, then? What is the “wrath” and “vengeance” of which it speaks? The Greek word for “vengeance” is ekdesis and is about doing justice. David Bentley Hart’s translation has it as “The exacting of justice is mine.” But here again our dark thoughts interfere, for we usually think of justice as retribution. But that is not how it is with God. God is not vindictive, for that is not the nature of love, and so, not the nature of God, who is love. Search the majestic description of love we have in 1 Corinthians 13 and you find that there is not even the slightest whisper of anything retributive in it.

God is just, but the justice of God of is not at odds with the love of God. Rather, it expresses the love of God. Retributive forms of justice simply do not do that. So, the justice of God is not retributive but restorative. Though it may read as punishment, it is always for the sake of correction and reconciliation. It is always about restoration, putting everything right according to how God made everything to be from the beginning. And it is always a perfect expression of God’s love, even toward those who are object of such correction.

How does the justice of God operate here, and what does it look like? We can see an example of it in the Romans 12:20-21, where Paul shows us how we ought to be towards those who hate or mistreat us. We should not expect that God behaves any differently from the way we ought to behave. Instead of taking revenge or rendering evil for evil, Paul says, “On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

How does God treat his enemies? When they are hungry, God feeds them. When they are thirsty, God gives them something to drink. Jesus said that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mark 5:45). This is how love responds.

God is always loving and good toward all, but those who have turned away from God may not perceive it as love and goodness being extended toward them. God offers them light — Christ is the true light who gives light to everyone (John 1:9) — but they may have become so used to the darkness that the light of God seems a torment to them. “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). And though it may feel like “burning coals” have been heaped upon their heads, neither the love nor light nor goodness of God are intended to be a torment to the wicked. Rather, earlier in Romans, Paul tells us that God’s kindness is intended to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4).

When we turn and see that God loves us, that God is for us and not against us, then we understand the “burning coals” for what they are: light against the darkness and warmth against the cold, not intended as evil against us but to do us good. So, God does what Paul tells us to do: God overcomes evil with good, and this is how God repays evil and puts things right.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Gospel Changes How We See Each Other

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From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. (2 Corinthians 5:16)
The gospel changes how we view every human being. The cross certainly does, for Christ died for all of us. And referring to the cross, Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” That being so, we can no longer look at each other through the lens of “us” and “them.” That lens is a “worldly” point of view, how the world determines things. But it is a failed way of seeing each other, and the cross of Christ puts the lie to it. There is no “us” and “them,” but only those for whom Christ died, which is everyone.

Along with the cross, we must also consider the Incarnation, through which the death of Christ could be effective for any of us and, by the same reason, was effective for all of us. For it is through the Incarnation that God joined himself with all humankind; in Jesus Christ, divinity and humanity became one. All the fullness of divinity dwells in Christ in bodily form, in whom also all the fullness of humanity dwells, so that, in Christ, we are made complete and become partakers of the divine nature.

In the Incarnation, Christ did not just become one of us, or even just one like us, but he became one with us. This union does not depend upon anything we have done or ever could do; it does not even depend upon our faith. Rather, it depends upon Christ and his faithfulness, who is completely faithful. It is this union that made the cross of Christ effective for every one of us, so that Paul could say, “one died for all, and therefore all died.”
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
Christ died, therefore all died. This could only have been possible because of the Incarnation. Indeed, the Incarnation made the cross inevitable, because the one who has joined himself to us is Life and would therefore confront the human mortality to which we are all subject. And in confronting death, he overcame it, even as light overcomes darkness. The death of Christ is our death and his victory, our victory, so that his life has now become our life. This is true of every one of us because of the inclusive nature of the Incarnation.

This is why Paul could say, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.” Paul had once considered Christ from a death-bound point of view, but then having met the living Christ on the way to Damascus, he could no longer see him that way. Christ, who died for all, had been raised from the dead for all, and the death-bound perspective of the world no longer made any sense.

“Therefore,” Paul says, “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Elsewhere, Paul calls Christ the “firstborn over all creation” and the “firstborn from among the dead” (Colossians 1:15,18). Christ, by whom, for whom and through whom all things were created, and in whom all things consist, became part of his creation, joining himself to us through the Incarnation. When Christ died, all creation died; when Christ was raised from the dead, all creation was raised to new life with him. The new creation has come!

When Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ,” he is not suggesting that there are two groups: those who are in Christ (“us”), and those who are not (“them”). That is the old, worldly point of view that has been done away by the gospel. Rather, all are in Christ, for when Christ died, all died. Paul could not have asserted that all died when Christ died unless all were in Christ. But the “if” in Paul’s statement makes a logical connection and shows what it means that we are in Christ, that we have new life and are part of the new creation.

We see this same dynamic at work elsewhere in Paul’s letters. In Romans 5:18, for example, he says, “Just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.” The one trespass was Adam’s, and it resulted in condemnation for all, because all were in Adam. The one righteous act was Christ’s and resulted in justification and life for all people, because all are in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15:22, Paul says, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Paul sees everyone as being in Christ, as having died with Christ, as having been raised to new life with Christ, and even as having been seated with Christ at the right hand of the Father (Ephesians 2:4-6).

So, for those who are in Christ, which is all of us, the new creation has come, and we are part of it. This is why we can no longer view each other through the old way of the world.
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)
In Christ, the whole world has been reconciled to God, and God has not counted our sins against any of us. All are forgiven, and this has been demonstrated at the cross. The good news of the gospel is the announcement of that reconciliation and forgiveness — our at-one-ment, as the word “atonement” literally means.
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20)
This reconciliation is objectively true, but clearly, not all have known it or experienced it. Our subjective response to it is a matter of faith, but our faith does not make it true, nor does our lack of faith undo the truth of it. It is objectively true of us that we are in Christ and reconciled to God whether or not we have any subjective sense of it or response to it. The work of evangelism, of bringing that message of reconciliation, is so that others may begin to know and experience what has been done for us in Christ and live in the truth of our fellowship with God.
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
God was in Christ, and Christ became sin for us. This happened in the Incarnation. In Christ, God became a human being (though no less God), joining himself with all humankind, even at our very worst, taking all our darkness, all our brokenness, all our shame into himself. For whatever in us he did not join himself to, he could not deliver us from.

Why did God do this? So that in Christ we would become the righteousness of God. In Christ, we have, and are, God’s own righteousness. Not by imputation, nor by impartation, but by Incarnation. That is, this righteousness is not a legal fiction, or something that is merely reckoned to our account (imputation). Nor is it merely something imparted to us, as if it were some discrete substance delivered to us from the outside. But we have it by the Incarnation, in which we participate in Christ and Christ participates in us. By that participation, then, we participate in God’s righteousness. We share in it because we share in Christ and Christ shares in us.

Because we are in Christ, chosen in him from before the creation of world (Ephesians 1:3), and have been reconciled in him, have died with him, have been raised with him and seated with him in the heavenlies, and share with him in the righteousness of God, we can no longer see each other through the old eyes of the world. The gospel changes that, giving us new eyes to see.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Oriented Toward Light

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him. (Psalm 103:11)
How high are the heavens above the earth? It is more than we can comprehend. Yet that is how great God’s love is for those who fear him. But it is also how great God’s love is for those who do not fear him. For God is love. Love is not something God has, or a choice God makes; it is the nature of God to love, for love is what God is in his very being. For God to ever cease to love anyone to the fullest would be for God to cease to be God.

There is no difference, then, between the love God has for those who fear him and those who do not. It is the exact same love for both. But the difference is in how each perceives or experiences that love. Those who fear God, that is, who turn toward him, love him, trust him and walk in his way, they experience the love of God for what it truly is. But those who turn away from God, who love themselves above all others, and walk in their own way, the way of the world, they experience God’s love very differently. God’s love is the same for them as it is for the others, but their understanding is distorted, so the love of God seems to them a torment and a condemnation.

They walk in darkness, and the light of God’s love shines brightly. Like coming out into the sunlight after a long while in the dark, it can be somewhat painful, because our eyes are not used to the splendor of the sun. We want to shade our eyes and return to the darkness. But if we let the light in, our eyes gradually grow accustomed and we begin to see clearly.

The light of God is a judgment upon darkness — not upon us but upon the darkness within us. God comes to enlighten our darkness, to banish it from us so we can see with unhindered eye the absolute goodness of his divine glory. The love of God comes to heal us, to cast out the fear and hatefulness that causes us to turn away from God and from each other, and even causes us to despise our own selves.

Christ is the True Light who has come into the world to give light to everyone. He is the love of God fully revealed to the world, even when we were caught up in the hatefulness by which we crucified him and each other. Through Christ, God has “qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:12-14). This is the good news of the gospel.

In 1 John 2:8, we read that “the darkness is passing, and the true light is already shining.” It is as we turn to Christ and let his divine light penetrate our darkness and his love penetrate our hearts that we begin to experience the light and love of God as they truly are. And also the truth of who we really are, for it was for light and love and life — fellowship with the Divine — that we were created in the beginning.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Trampling the Fear of Death

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 — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
For the past couple of posts, we have been looking at the relationship between sin and death, particularly at the question of whether we are mortal because we sin, or we sin because we are mortal. My understanding of Scripture is the latter, that we sin because we are mortal. (See Whereupon All Sinned and The Sting of Death.) But how is it that mortality leads to sin? I think Hebrews 2:14-15 provides a clue.

First, let’s notice what the author of Hebrews identifies here as the problem that is solved by the death of Christ. It is not sin but death, which is to say, the power of death, and the power of him who holds the power of death. It may come as a surprise that the one identified here as holding the power of death is not God but the devil. But God is not the one who kills.

God has the power of life, not of death. Death is nothing in itself; it is the absence of something. Just as darkness is nothing but the absence of light, so death is nothing but the absence of life. Christ is life, and when he encounters the power of death, as he did at the cross, it is “game over” for death. There is simply no contest.

In Revelation 1:18, Christ says, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” But what does he do with those keys? In Revelation 20, both death and Hades (the place of the dead) are cast into the “lake of fire,” but before they are, they are emptied out.

At the cross, Christ broke not only the power of death, but also the power of the one who held the power of death, that is, the devil. In 1 John 3:9, we read that Christ came to destroy the works of the devil. This, too, happened at the cross and was revealed in the resurrection when Christ broke the gates of Hades and set its captives free.

Now, let’s look at how the author of Hebrews describes what the power of death and of the devil does: It causes us to fear, and that fear leads us into bondage. But Christ has broken that power so to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

Fear of death is a terrible bondage, causing people to do all sorts of things to avoid it, or else to get all the pleasure they can out of this life before they meet their inevitable end (supposing that death has the last word). It is fear of death that whispers in us, “What shall we do? How shall we survive?” Jesus speaks to this deep anxiety in his Sermon on the Mount:
So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:31-33)
We live in bondage and the fear of death when we do not know we have God as our loving Father who takes care of us in every way. It causes us to live as orphans, believing we must make do for ourselves in whatever way we can. Fear of death blinds us to the truth: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” (Romans 8:15). “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 4:7).

There is an illuminating scene toward the end of the comedy movie, Moonstruck. It is a brief conversation between Rose Castorini (Olympia Dukakis) and Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello).
Rose: Why do men chase women?

Johnny: Well, there’s a Bible story ... God ... God took a rib from Adam and made Eve. Now maybe men chase women to get the rib back. When God took the rib, he left a big hole there, where there used to be something. And the women have that. Now maybe, just maybe, a man isn’t complete as a man without a woman.

Rose: [frustrated] But why would a man need more than one woman?

Johnny: I don’t know. Maybe because he fears death.

[Rose looks up, eyes wide, suspicions confirmed]

Rose: That’s it! That’s the reason!

Johnny: I don’t know ...

Rose: No! That’s it! Thank you! Thank you for answering my question!
Fear of death is a terrible bondage. But Christ rescues us from it, having delivered us from the power of death and of the devil — and so from the power of sin. He did this:
  • By the Incarnation, in which he fully participates with us in our humanity (and we participate with him in his divinity).
  • By the Cross, where he experienced the full measure of our mortality, destroying the power of death and the works of the devil.
  • By the Resurrection, shattering the gates of Hades through the victory of his death, binding the strong man — the devil — and liberating captive humanity.
  • By his Ascension to the right hand of the Father, leading captivity itself — death and Hades — captive, showing himself as Lord and victor over them. And being emptied out, they are finally cast into the “lake of fire.”
  • By Pentecost, where he poured out upon all people the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit by whom we cry out “Abba, Father,” so that no longer need we live in fear of death or of anything else.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Sting of Death

https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevensnodgrass/6067723012/
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. (1 Corinthians 15:56)
Last time, we looked at the question of what Paul meant in Romans 5:12, on whether universal sin resulted in universal death, or conversely, it was universal death that resulted in universal sin (see Whereupon All Sinned). That brief study brought to mind another passage where Paul speaks of the relationship between death and sin. It is at the end of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s extended discussion of Christ and the resurrection. In verses 55-56, Paul taunts death, the defeated foe: “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:55-56).

The Greek word for “sting” is kentron and refers literally to the sting of creatures such as bees or scorpions. This sting of death is sin, Paul says (metaphorically, of course). Commentary on this verse usually seems to have the sting, sin, as the cause of death. But would that not be like saying that the sting of a bee is what causes the bee? Is it not rather the bee that causes the sting? So when Paul says, “The sting of death is sin,” is he not saying that it is death that causes sin rather than sin that causes death?

Besides this passage, kentron appears two other times in the New Testament. In Revelation 9:10, it is used of the sting of scorpions. “They had tails with stingers [kentra], like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months.” Again, should we suppose that the sting was what caused the scorpion to be? Rather, it is the scorpion that produces the sting. But what the sting does produce is a temporary torment.

The other occurrence of kentron is in Acts 9:5, where Saul (Paul), heading to Damascus to hound the Christians there, encounters the risen Christ. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Jesus says. Saul asks him, “Who are you, Lord?” and receives the answer: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (NKJV). The word for “goad” is kentron. A goad was used for prodding oxen or other beasts of burden. In this case, something was prodding Saul, trying to move him in the right direction, but Saul was resisting, and it was painful for him. (This bit about kicking “against the goads” does not appear in the oldest manuscripts of this passage but it does show up in later ones, and so is instructive for us about what kentron means.)

If we translate kentron as “goad” in 1 Corinthians 15:55-56, we have: “Where, O death, is your goad. The goad of death is sin.” The direction of causality should become apparent: it is not the kentron that produces death, but death that produces the kentron. What is the kentron death produced, and toward what does it prod? Sin.

So, it is not our sin that causes our mortality; it is our mortality that prods us or stings us with sin. Sin is brokenness of relationship, the alienation we experience toward God, each other, the rest of creation and even within our own selves. Death took full advantage, revealing itself as sin.

Next time, we will look at an important clue to how that happens — and how Christ delivers us from it.