Tuesday, January 31, 2006

10 Essential People to Visit for Theologians

Faith and Theology has been running lists of essentials for theologians, from essential paintings to essential places to visit (Africa, anyone?). This last inspired me to compile a list of 10 essential visits for theologians:
  1. Your family members (I Timothy 5:8).
  2. Your neighbors (Luke 10:27).
  3. The person you always say Hi to at church, and think someday you should call (Acts 2:42).
  4. The foreigner that works at the corner store (Exodus 23:9)
  5. A nearby soup kitchen or food pantry (Matthew 25:35)
  6. A social outcast that you know (Luke 7:34)
  7. A nearby hospital or shut-in (Matthew 25:36)
  8. The breakdown lane of the highway (Luke 10:33)
  9. The old friend you lost touch with years ago (Proverbs 18:24)
  10. The person you're avoiding who holds a grudge against you (Matthew 5:23-24)
Why are these 10 essentials actually essential?
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (James 1:22)
The risk is not unique to theologians. But maybe we word-oriented people can use a reminder that the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Is Democracy a good thing? Follow-up on a Monday mind-stretcher

This is the much-delayed follow-up to the previous Monday mind-stretcher asking about democracy in a pluralistic society. Some examples of clashes are taken from the modern political scene, though the same framework is useful for evaluating more than just the current hot-button issues.

Multiculturalism: Pretending all cultures are the same?
The modern brand of multi-culturalism denies that there are significant differences among cultures or significant problems with peaceful coexistence, despite millenia of recorded history to the contrary. The essential condition of a pluralistic society is that all cultures respect each other. But the question has never been seriously confronted: what if all cultures do not value the idea of respecting those who are different? Has any culture succeeded in respecting those who do not share its core values? Is it even possible to embrace people who despise your core values and still hold to those core values?

Closely related to cultural pluralism is religious pluralism. The modern brand of religious pluralism is based on the often-repeated "all religions teach the same", which is more a denial of the realities of pluralism than an honest attempt at it. If we're all the same, then exactly what differences are we respecting? The problem has a number of levels:
  • It is assumed that all differences are superficial. Is that assumption warranted? Was this a conclusion based on a thorough knowledge of the differences, or was it an assumption based on hopes of peace? How much factual basis does this idea actually have?
  • Glossing over the differences is disrespectful of those differences. This is at odds with the stated purpose of pluralism.
  • Since true pluralism requires welcoming differences, true pluralism is impossible without a knowledge and recognition of those differences.
  • Pluralism requires that all religious and cultural differences are immaterial to governing a country and to living together peacefully.
  • It requires that all differences are of the type that the right reaction is to welcome them.
  • It requires the assumption that all cultural and religious approaches are peaceful and constructive approaches, and that there are no dysfunctional cultures or religions.
Without an honest and detailed look at the actual differences, there is no basis for supporting these assumptions. There are some deeper differences beween cultures. We are in need of a better framework for handling these differences than simply hoping they are not substantial. As a nation, we have not squarely asked the question whether there is such a thing as an irreconcilable difference in culture and what we would do about such a difference if we found one.

Democracy and voting for leaders
Democracy means at least voting for a leader. Even that minimal level of democracy assumes that the people ought to have control over their leadership. It's not exactly an intuitive idea, at least in perspective against world history and most world cultures. Would you expect the right to vote for your boss? How about your CEO or equivalent? Do we assume that all cultures must respect the idea of government of the people, by the people, and for the people? Are we assuming, in trying to spread democracy, that nobody is allowed to disagree with us on that? If there were a culture in which most people wanted a monarchy, would we respect that? If the people of Iraq wanted a theocracy, would we still be talking about their right to self-determination? If there were a culture in which people believed they owed it to the ruler to submit, even if the ruler was abusive and corrupt, would we respect that culture? Should we?

Does democracy include voting for laws?
Voting for laws is even more problematic than voting for leaders. Some people would base law on consensus: whatever people can agree on is fine by them. When social consensus and tolerance are the rule, there is theoretically nothing stopping this from becoming the rule of the lowest denominator. Whether enacting the law of the lowest denominator is politically acceptable is one question; whether it makes for good laws or a good society is a separate question with possibly a different answer. If we studied different cultures and found that lowest-denominator laws led to a more dysfunctional society with more personal wreckage, would that affect our theory of law? Should it? Do cultures advance more by aiming higher or by aiming lower? Do we share enough of a sense of direction to agree on which direction is higher and which is lower?

Some cultures hold a theory of law as divine command in which the exact laws and penalties are seen to be eternally fixed and universal. The Muslim concept of law runs along these lines. The U.S. has not given serious thought to this difference in the efforts to spread democracy in Muslim countries. It has also not given serious thought to this difference within our own country. If a culture believes that an immutable divine law says that a woman's testimony should count less than a man's testimony, and a non-Muslim's testimony less than a Muslim's, do we respect that difference? Are we willing to say "that is not a universal, immutable divine law"? If we are unwilling to say it, are we prepared to live with the consequences? If we are willing to say it, are we still divided amongst ourselves as to why we say it?

The Christian concept of divine command theory is somewhat different, since Jesus did not set up a worldly government by means of an army and a law code as Mohammed did. The Christian concept of divine command is less by specific decrees and more by general principles: that laws should have the aim of establishing justice, protecting innocent life, rewarding the good and punishing the bad, securing public decency and order. That the law should show no favoritism is a cornerstone of the Christian concept of justice. In this view the exact laws and penalties may vary based on the specific problems and resources in a culture, but the line between right and wrong is not negotiable. Does the assumption of an objective right and wrong allow for respect of laws based on tolerating the lowest denominator? Does an omnitolerant morality respect the view that some things may not be negotiable to some people?

Some people see law's job as protecting freedoms. Does freedom have limits? In traditional Christian thought, freedom is highly valued but should not be used as a cover for sin. Other traditions do not recognize the concept of sin. Still other cultures do not think that freedom is necessarily a good thing. What we see as simple freedom of speech and intellectual honesty, to follow truth wherever it goes, is valued in our culture but may be banned in another. For example to question whether someone like Mohammed, given his track record, was actually a holy man -- some non-Muslims would see this as a fair question that deserves open evaluation. However, traditional Islam sees the question itself as a capital offense based on the contents of their specific law, viewed as immutable divine command. Islamic culture values submission above freedom, values top-down control and respect for authority. Democratic societies punish offenders but typically refrain from cruelty and avoid the death penalty except in extreme cases. Muslim societies place a high value on severe laws that control through fear, which is seen as a legitimate method of maintaining order.

I know this post is a bit more dizzying than most. Part is the amount of ground covered. Part is my seeking, however inadequately, to map out ground that has not been explored very thoroughly at the popular level. Part is that there is a serious look at other views without denying the deeper nature of the differences or the fact that these views make sense to the people who hold them.

The reason for broaching the subject is that the questions are urgent. The need for answers is pressing. Our complacency and misunderstanding of the problems have fueled the problems. U.S. democracy has historically enjoyed a reasonably wide consensus based on widely shared core values. We have an ideal of unlimited multiculturalism; we have cultivated the habit of tolerating and accepting nearly any view that people are willing to defend. We have assumed that the broad consensus we once enjoyed would continue to carry our country along. The problem is that the consensus has fallen apart. This version of democracy only works with a consensus, which is to say a shared culture to the extent of sharing core values. The U.S. no longer has a consensus on core values.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Parable of the Parachutist

A man had studied skydiving, read every book, taken every written test. He wrote a dissertation, passed his orals, got a Ph.D. in skydiving. He began teaching Theory of Skydiving at a prestigious university. Eventually, he was awarded the esteemed Chair of Theoretical Skydiving.

One day at a coffee shop he met a soldier who had actually made a dozen jumps after a short period of study. After a few minutes, the professor decided the soldier was nice but a bit low-brow. He changed his mind about inviting him as a guest speaker in his Parachute Theory class. Years later, the professor retired after making ground-breaking contributions in the field of Skydiving Theory, hailed as among the most important theoreticians of skydiving in the modern age, never having actually made a jump himself but understanding the principle well. The soldier had saved lives on missions that involved jumps, and had learned skydiving from a different kind of instructor.

Hearing God's word is one thing, but doing it is the jump. Would you be more likely to jump yourself if your teacher was the soldier's teacher or the professor? Have our seminaries institutionalized a timid Christian life? Given that study is necessary, at what point does further study amount to hiding from the risks of a real jump?

Most Christians have made some small jumps. But the more I talk around, it seems that most of us have our eyes on one particular big jump that God has laid on our hearts. Lots of times, when we look at the big jump, we go back to the books, or pray for wisdom (which, we may secretly hope, means the wisdom to do something other than jump).

Praying for the courage to jump.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Posting will be light

Yesterday my mother was admitted to the hospital. Posting will be light until things are more stable with her. They're still running diagnostic tests, so we don't know the whole situation yet. As for the blog, I have a few pieces that are works in progress that I may be able to finish up and post, but this is lower on my priority list than my mother, obviously. Hope to see you all again soon.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Monday Mind-Stretcher: Is Democracy a good thing?

I am planning an experiment for a few Mondays posting "devil's advocate" types of pieces. I am not necessarily advocating what the post states. It is intended as food for thought, as practice in clarifying, refining, and strengthening our positions.

Mind-stretcher for today: Should democratic nations be spreading democracy in the world? In world history, it is a bit of a new experiment. Have we proved that it works here? Have we figured out how to have democracy without the result being laws geared towards the lowest or most extreme position that has the nerve to stand its ground? Can a democracy without an established religion avoid that pitfall? Is a democracy with an established religion still a democracy? If we can't answer those questions, have we established a working democratic theory?

Any takers on establishing a working democratic theory? My own thoughts as an update after a few days ...

Update: Posted follow-up thoughts here.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Puzzling Verses: You Will Receive 100 Houses

For a long time, these verses puzzled me:
"I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the good news will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields -- and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life." (Mark 10:29-30)
Lately I've been studying how the early church valued material goods and spiritual goods. The New Testament consistenly insists that spiritual goods are valued much more highly than material goods. That has always made this one passage sound strange, not just on the grounds of "where are the 100 houses?" but also on the grounds of being so out-of-step with the rest of the message. That was before I figured out where the 100 houses were.

Jesus had been replying to Peter's comment, "We have left everything to follow you!" The hundred brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and children are fairly easy to understand, since all believers in Christ are considered as family. But after Jesus' resurrection, did Peter even have a home to call his own? Didn't he go from town to town? Even while Jesus was with him, he often traveled from town to town with no place to lay his head.

Jesus' comments on persecutions were very accurate. The disciples were sometimes chased from town to town, sometimes in hiding, sometimes arrested, sometimes flogged. Some of them were lynched. Many of them, including Peter, were eventually sentenced to death and executed. But as I imagined what it would be like for the apostles, their lives on the line in one town, having no home of their own, pondering where to find a safe place to stay, as I considered all this I finally got it. They did not just have one home of their own, and once that was seized they were out of luck. Wherever they had taken the word of God, they had family after family who would take them in, all over their own land and increasingly all over world. When choosing a safe place to stay, they had a hundred homes, with a hundred fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and children and fields. And with them, persecutions.

Industries which distort the gospel to a get-rich-quick scheme have very much missed what Jesus was saying. Were the 100 new brothers and 100 new sisters that Jesus discussed supposed to be acquired from your parents having 200 more children? No, not at all. Is it possible to get 100 more mothers in this kind of acquisitive sense? No again. When all the other blessings in the list are not possessed by acquisition but enjoyed by fellowship while remaining someone else's, what else but greedy distortion could imagine that the houses or fields would be different?

And, as with many an insight I have, it soon comes to my attention that it's old news to many, discovered many times before. That comes with the territory of studying texts that have been studied for nearly two millenia now. When I was searching the 'net to find if anyone was still misusing this verse, I was glad to find that far more people were speaking up against the abuse than committing it.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Promiscuity as Sexual Homelessness

If our deepest human needs in life include fellowship, then it deserves our notice. It has a rightful place among our goals in life. A family is the most basic group where we belong, and sexual integrity is necessary to building a lasting family. But to many people, mentioning sexual self-control does not raise visions of people building a life where they always have love and a place to belong, but instead raises visions of Puritans or angry fundamentalists. When the topic comes up, people look for the nearest exit (on this screen, it's at the top of the browser). I'd like to restore sexual integrity as a rightful topic of conversation and as a rightful goal, recognized as a basic part of an upright and fulfilled life. "Upright and fulfilled life"? That's right. If it sounds strange, if it does not sound like what happens around us today, that's true. Just one question: what kind of life do you want?

Is Christian Morality Trustworthy?
Many people are skeptical of Christian morality because it does not square with today's morality of doing whatever we please (if that can be called morality). The cornerstone of Christian morality -- we would say all morality -- is this: "Love the LORD your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength" closely followed by "Love your neighbor as yourself." The suspicion that morality is angry, mean, and joyless is unfounded.

A stable life cannot be built on desire without discipline. Putting desire above wisdom and putting action before thought is a recipe for trouble. Just as a financial planner would talk about self-discipline with money to deliberately plan for finances to last, so a Christian talks about self-discipline with sexuality to deliberately build a home and family that will last, a love and a trust that will last. People are so much more important in our lives than money that it is only common sense that we should put thought and planning into the matter of how we relate to people.

Sexual Integrity
Opponents of Christian morality don't usually oppose love of God and neighbor, but often try to use it for their own purposes. "See! It says 'love'. So I can sleep around if I want to. It doesn't hurt anybody."

But as the old song goes, "What's love got to do with it?" Promiscuity treats someone as a sex object. There's not much concern for the other person; next week or month -- or tomorrow -- it will be someone else. That's not loving them, it's using them. That approach degrades us as human beings. It makes us into an interchangeable and disposable part of someone else's life. Treating other people as interchangeable dehumanizes both people. There's no recognition that the other person is valuable and always will be. There's no recognition that you yourself are valuable and always will be.

Peoples' long-term happiness and health are tied closely to having a place where we belong. Promiscuity means not having a place to belong. It's sexual homelessness. It leaves you alienated and cynical. It makes you doubt you will ever find a place to call home. It leaves you less able to feel at home, to accept where you are, even if you should find someone you love deeply. It builds a habit of breaking off contact with other people when things become awkward or difficult; it stunts the skills you would need to sustain a lifelong love.

Sexuality is too important to treat casually. Human beings are too valuable to treat as interchangeable and disposable.

A Note on Why I Wrote This

While looking for material for teaching my children about sexuality and family-building, the materials I found were not very satisfying. The materials my parents used (left where I could find) were no better, being "value neutral" by talking about physicality and reproduction but managing not to talk about the human and family aspects. They missed the point. My older child is reaching the age where he will soon become interested in sexuality. His school has presented him materials about unmarried parenthood and its hardships, and about sexually-transmitted diseases and their dangers. It's important to cover that material. But they did make it sound as if there's nothing wrong with promiscuity that a condom can't fix, even if they aren't mentioning condoms at his age. They are addresing big issues but leaving out even bigger ones. There is an unspoken assumption that "faith-based morality" is based on rules or traditions that are groundless; I wanted to open up a conversation on how God's commands are based in the value of the human being and the value of the bond of love. This is my first cut at it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Life's Brokenness

If anything can go wrong, it will. -- Murphy's Law
Sometimes life behaves. Plans work, people behave rationally, kindness wins over selfishness, nobody is nasty, love triumphs. But what percentage of the time is that true? What percentage of life already has Plan B in effect because Plan A didn't work? How much of life is a constant fight where rationality is forgotten, kindness is gone, nastiness is common, love is missing?

We're not supposed to notice times like that, or notice how often they come along. We're supposed to convince ourselves that rationality, kindness, and love are the rule and brokenness is the exception. But is that completely true? How much of that is looking at the best, how much is wishful thinking or goal-oriented, how much is self-deceit? How much is self-preservation in the face of the brokenness around and within us?

These are the things on my mind after a night like last night. I've been trying to get my mother to see the doctor for an ever-growing "growth" in her mouth for years now. This last month or so she's been dropping weight too quickly, so my brother and I tried again. As of last night, she's finally agreed to go see a doctor, but only after my brother and I take care of last year's back taxes never filed for herself and her parents who died recently. I'm not sure she can afford to wait any longer. I'm not even sure that we haven't waited too long already these last two years where every mention of going to the doctor was quickly put down. After devoting yesterday's and today's spare time to my mother, my home looks like a minor disaster area. And there are the everyday problems that need solving at work, and with my children. All my human endeavors have to be constantly tended to fix them wherever and whenever they break. Because left alone, things fall apart.

I tend to write what's on my mind, so today it's Murphy's Law and the brokenness of life. I'm really grateful, today of all days, that Jesus said he had come to seek the sick because they need a doctor, come for the sinners because the righteous don't need to repent, come for the lost because the found don't need finding. I'm relieved that he came with blessing for the brokenhearted and the mourning. I'm glad that, when he saw people looking harrassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, he looked with compassion. I'm glad he meets us in our brokenness; there's nothing unusual about it at all.

Monday, January 16, 2006

How mainstream is Pat Robertson?

Does anyone else tend to be aghast at both Pat Robertson's ill-considered and sensationalist quotes and the media's following after him to mine them? You may be interested in an on-line petition to publicly show support for Pat leaving the public eye. Legally binding? Of course not; it's a free country. But it's another way to make your voice heard.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

IMonk, Prissiness, and Christian Culture

Michael Spencer's December post on prissiness in Christian culture recently caught my eye and left me thinking. It's not just that the good v. bad line in his post works out to men = good, women = bad (excepting Peggy Noonan); I've heard that line before and can hardly muster the interest to respond on that level. But his stereotypes, for all their age, are not yet faded; they still have some life left in them. It would be easy to dismiss Spencer's comments as chauvinism, for they are unmistakably that; but because the underlying concerns actually resonate, I'll pass over the woman-baiting/man-baiting comments (I wonder how much is just marketing gimmick anyway). Here I will take a look at the men's and women's cultures with a quick word on both sides of the house. In the interest of full disclosure, if any stray reader isn't already aware, I'm on the women's side of the house myself.

On the women's side of the house
The woman's stereotype is nagging, arguing, and whining. (These days, large and prominent women's lobbies use uncomfortably similar strategies as tools of the trade, part of the lobbyists' repertoire. That approach is not exactly a stereotype-buster. I do not wish to imply that all lobbying is that bad or that these are the only tactics of lobbyists. The point is that women's lobbying using the tools of a negative women's stereotype plays into that stereotype.) Nagging and complaining are the traditional tactics of the powerless, tactics designed to annoy people into compliance simply to make the unpleasantness stop. Winning by making yourself odious, by taking yourself to a place where nobody cares to deal with you, is a poor strategy. But more than that, it's morally repugnant, dishonest and manipulative. It's a type of bullying which few victims are skilled enough to escape unscathed and uncompromised. It also locates the perpetrator outside of reasonable and mature society.

Another stereotype is a certain fussiness over little things. Are women prone to prissiness? The historical woman's responsibility of raising children may have led us to focus more on smaller things which happen in our homes and are under our authority such as children's crude language, to focus less on concerns outside our assigned area. Have we become tunnel-visioned?

Spencer also points out that, in history, much of the temperance movement in the U.S. early last century was led by women who were distressed over the male alcoholics' unstable family lives and tendency to physically harm their wives. It's often tricky to know how much of a noble cause is the desire to help others, how much to protect yourself, how much to get your own way. No doubt all play a part. But the temperance movement's result, the temporary prohibition of alcohol in the U.S., left some uncomfortable questions on the table. Has women's historical lack of power led to a manipulative use of morality as a tool for getting the upper hand?

If you take a person with a small sphere of influence, a small sphere of authority, and one main tool for reaching beyond it (morality), you're going to see that tool abused. It's not right, but it's predictable. Morality that forgets God, that is steered by the "divine right" of the personal convenience of the wielder, is being used in an immoral way. How often do we succumb to that temptation?

On the men's side of the house
The man's stereotpye is strong and powerful. Unfortunately, we live in an age where many are horrified by power. It's an understandable reaction to the abuses of the past. But anything that hints of power is now suspect, from plain references to control, order, or obedience, to moderate ones such as reverence, respect, and loyalty. Things that are related to power tangentially, such as gentleness and humility, can also be awkward. A man who is in power has become a distrusted expression of power.

Women are at home in a world where overt power is not available; men are not. Is our society playing by women's rules? Spencer's post is the voice of a man trapped in a woman's world, looking for a way out. "Blame the women" (or Spencer's only slightly more oblique "blame effeminacy", the influence of women) is not exactly an original or ground-breaking approach. It's not at the top of the "realistic and honest" scale either, as prissiness and whining are hardly powerful enough adversaries to stop someone who actually has strength of character and is resolved towards a goal. Beyond that, "blame the women" is not even productive; scapegoating others is less productive than accepting responsibity for what each one can fix on his own.

If power and authority are to become once again rightful matters that can be discussed without shame and embarrassment, they have to be rehabilitated. If women stereotypically abuse morality, men stereotypically abuse power, using it as a dishonest way to get their own way. It is easy to remember that morality is supposed to take its lead from God's love and holiness, is supposed to serve him; this has not prevented abuses. But it is easy to forget that power is also supposed to take its lead from God, likewise taking its lead from his love and holiness, likewise serving him. Power that forgets God, steered by the human convenience of the one in power, will be abused whenever it is used. The current posture of half-hearted abdication and painfully self-conscious power sharing has not worked very well. The solution to the abuse of power is not a power-vacuum; that will be filled one way or another. Complain about effeminization if you will but nature abhors a vacuum.

If you are interested in the rightful use of power, it seems that the challenge is to take up not just the right of power but also its responsibility, holding it as a steward under Christ and not as an independent despot or tyrant. Left to our own devices, steered by our own egos, that is what we become. Strength and power have to be redeemed. Men, your work is cut out for you.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

What you can't know about apophatic theology (parody)

Inspector Clouseau / Call Me Ishmael has a parody on apophatic theology that had me rolling. Both my regular readers will know that I enjoy apophatic theology, but it has the tendency of so many things to be taken Very Seriously and lose all sense of proportion. I enjoyed Ishmael's post more than the current round of blonde jokes ... and those who have no idea what "apophatic theology" is are just as likely to enjoy it as those who do.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Harrowing of Hell

He descended into hell. -- The Apostles' Creed
The ancient Christian teaching of the harrowing of hell between Christ's death and resurrection is barely a trace memory in the Protestant liturgical churches, and is probably completely forgotten among the non-liturgical Protestants. It may get a nod during the recitation of the Apostles' Creed1 if that church recites a creed. That it is mentioned in Scriptures, that the early church fathers taught it, that it is one of the most popular subjects of Eastern Orthodox icons2, that the idea was once widely accepted, that it was incorporated into Dante's Inferno ... all that is within an inch of forgotten. What exactly happened between Jesus' crucifixion and his resurrection? The early church held that Christ descended to the place of the dead as a conquering victor, preaching to those who had died in previous ages, and releasing the faithful souls from the prison of death; that during his time among the dead he plundered hell. That ancient teaching is referred to as "the harrowing of hell."

Scripture's comments
He was put to death in the body but made alive through the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built (from 1 Peter 3:18-20)
Peter mentions plainly that Christ preached to the "spirits in prison" and mentions those who disobeyed long before, long since dead. While Peter does not explicitly mention when this occurred, he mentions it immediately after mentioning Jesus' execution and resurrection. If that were the only mention, it would still be plain enough to know that Christ preached to those who were dead. Peter mentions it again:
But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are [now] dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (1 Peter 4:5-6)
The NIV adds the word "now" to make the phrase "preached even to those who are now dead"; this is simply not in the Greek, which says that the gospel was preached to the dead.

Do the gospel texts mention preaching to the dead or harrowing hell and releasing those held there? There are two passages which are sometimes quoted in that respect but, like many controversial theological issues, are contested in interpretation:
I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. (John 5:25)
Note that modern Protestant interpretations sometimes interpret this to mean that those who hear will live at judgment day; as for the part about the time "has now come", that is taken to mean that the "dead" who hear are the "spiritually dead" at the time he spoke. In fairness to this interpretation it is not an impossible understanding of the text -- though it is not the one that most naturally occurs to us at first reading. It is not certain that this refers to the harrowing of hell because the time "has now come" is a little premature for Jesus' death.

Matthew also contains a mention that at Jesus' death, at least some among the righteous people already dead were restored to life:
The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. (Matthew 27:52-53)
This is one basis on which the early church maintained that Christ did not merely preach while he was among the dead, but also released the righteous among the dead.

The Early Church
The church before Nicea has a good number of references to this teaching, some of them very early. Irenaeus gives us one glimpse of how the early church understood all this.
It was for this reason, too, that the Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching His advent there also, and the remission of sins received by those who believe in Him. Now all those believed in Him who had hope towards Him, that is, those who proclaimed His advent, and submitted to His dispensations, the righteous men, the prophets, and the patriarchs, to whom He remitted sins in the same way as He did to us, which sins we should not lay to their charge, if we would not despise the grace of God. For as these men did not impute unto us (the Gentiles) our transgressions, which we wrought before Christ was manifested among us, so also it is not right that we should lay blame upon those who sinned before Christ’s coming. (From Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter XXVII)

The Stromata (Clement of Alexandria) contains an entire chapter devoted to the subject that the gospel was preached to the Jews and the Gentiles in Hades.

More of its history can be reviewed in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, or various Eastern Orthodox references such as this. A complete review of the material would be beyond the length I intend for here; those interested are invited to pursue the links and to visit and search the Christian Classics Etherial Library.

What conclusions can be rightly reached from the material? It is clear that many in the early church believed and taught that Christ had harrowed hell during his descent, and they based this on their understanding of what the apostles themselves taught. It is clear that this understanding of Scripture has a long history going back to very early church writings. The passages of the New Testament which support this are brief and few, though in fairness it could be mentioned that some other doctrines are likewise based on just a few mentions in Scripture. Some would hold that one plain mention is enough. The passages in Peter's first letter are the clearest in establishing that Christ preached to the dead. The topic does raise more questions than it answers, both for the texts and for the theological implications.

For this writing, it is beyond my intent to show that the Harrowing of Hell is a necessary conclusion. Some of the passages of Scripture are contested, others still specifying the event of Christ preaching to the dead but not in the same passage specifying the time or the outcome. This is simply to show that the harrowing of hell is a viable interpretation and is no doctrinal innovation, having a history back to the earliest days of the church and to the pages of the New Testament. One of the largest obstacles to renewing a teaching of the harrowing of hell is simply this: we do not know all of the implications.

1 - While the history of the Apostles' Creed is beyond the scope here, it should be noted that this particular line of the creed does not seem to have come into the Apostles' Creed from the old Roman creed but from other sources. Like the other portions of the Apostles' Creed, this line has its foundation in Scripture -- the teachings of Christ as passed along and taught by his apostles -- and in the understanding of Scripture in the primitive church.

2 - The Orthodox icons of Christ's resurrection tend to show the "gates of hell" lying broken as he pulls out the righteous from Adam to David to John the Baptist, as they say the gates of hell shall not prevail.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Condemnation and the Ancient Gentiles

This is a follow-up to the previous post on sacrifices offered for the unaware and part of what has become a growing series on forgiveness. Susan from Heart Soul Mind Strength (don't you just love that blog name?) asked particularly for comments on Romans 1 and on Hebrews (esp. chapters 10-11). I'm not sure of Susan's concerns since they were not specifically stated, but I would anticipate objections from those who have been taught always that all non-Jews before Christ went to hell automatically, that their damnation was a given based on their time and place of birth into a sinful humanity. (Susan, if these weren't your particular objections just let me know what they were; meanwhile, this bit needed addressing anyway.) As I have mentioned each time discussing this subject, I do not find grounds in Scripture for a "default judgment" (either for all or against all based on time and place of birth). I have not yet covered all the ground I plan to cover in this series, but will take the time here to address the passages Susan suggests.

Paul to the Romans
Paul spends large parts of the first eleven chapters of the letter to Rome addressing the topic of the Jews, the Gentiles, and judgment first for the Jew and then for the Gentile. A little familiarity with the excesses of ancient pagan culture is enough to explain Paul's strong condemnations; the parts cited here focus particularly on idolatry. Paul begins on a none-too-friendly note:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. ... They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator -- who is forever praised. Amen. (from Romans 1:18-25
In case that's not quite plain enough, Paul is at it again shortly:
Since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (Romans 1:28-31)
Would I even suggest that someone like that would be blessed with eternal life just for ignorance of their sins and a sacrifice of which they were ignorant? Of course not. Here are the things I would point out about the people described here deserving God's wrath:
  • That this type of behavior is always evidence of a heart at enmity with God;
  • That their guilt was made worse because they were not innocently ignorant, but knew and suppressed the truth (see Romans 1:18-20 at the beginning of the first quote above)
  • That this went to the extent of the people being "God-haters" (v. 30)
If that were all that could be said of non-Jews before Christ, we would assume a default judgment of hell. But the whole does not end here. First, Paul mentions that not all the Gentiles fit this description of lawlessness and rebellion. While they were never given God's law, some of them still do try to keep it:
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them (Romans 2:14-15)
Anyone who has read Paul through knows that he is not teaching earned righteousness. His topic here is the role of the law, but in passing he does mention that there are Gentiles who do not behave as enemies of God in the ways he has so vigorously and justly condemned.

Some ancient Gentiles in their own words
Remembering that Paul soundly condemned those who worshipped man-made images, those who were God-haters and suppressed the truth -- and examples of that are plentiful -- was that the whole of the ancient Gentile world? Here are a few examples thoughtfully culled out by the ancient Christian writer Justin Martyr (Hortatory Address to the Greeks). He first explained why the Greek poets and pantheons and philosphers could not save them, but then also showed that the truth was not entirely alien to their culture.

He quotes Orpheus:
Look to the one and universal King—
One, self-begotten, and the only One,
Of whom all things and we ourselves are sprung.
(Quoted in Chapter 15 of Justin's address)

And the Sibylline Oracles:
But we have strayed from the Immortal’s ways,
And worship with a dull and senseless mind
Idols, the workmanship of our own hands,
And images and figures of dead men.

And the Sibylline Oracles again:
Blessed shall be those men upon the earth
Who shall love the great God before all else,
Blessing Him when they eat and when they drink;
Trusting it, this their piety alone.
Who shall abjure all shrines which they may see,
All altars and vain figures of dumb stones,
Worthless and stained with blood of animals,
And sacrifice of the four-fooled tribes,
Beholding the great glory of One God.
(Quoted in Chapter 16 of his address)
Note that the part about loving God above all else and trusting God alone as their piety is in the same neighborhood as the core of Christian teaching.
Justin Martyr also quotes Sophocles to the same effect:
There is one God, in truth there is but one,
Who made the heavens and the broad earth beneath,
The glancing waves of ocean and the winds
But many of us mortals err in heart,
And set up for a solace in our woes
Images of the gods in stone and wood,
Or figures carved in brass or ivory,
And, furnishing for these our handiworks,
Both sacrifice and rite magnificent,
We think that thus we do a pious work.
(Quoted in Chapter 18 of Justin's address)

These are only a small sampling of what Justin Martyr found and quoted. In turn, Justin Martyr likely did not exhaust his sources, and those sources were already limited to those familiar in the Greek culture in his day.

But let these suffice as examples that all of Gentile culture before Christ was not summed up in the condemnation of God-haters and idolaters who suppressed the truth.

The Letter to the Hebrews
The letter to the Hebrews covers plenty of topics, but a few in particular bear on the subject of the ancient Gentiles.

First, notice that Christ's sacrifice is "once, for all" -- we know that Christ's sacrifice is not limited by race, since it includes both Jews and Gentiles. As for whether the sacrifice was limited by time, we know that the author to the Hebrews considered that the ancient sacrifices had no power to remove sins (Hebrews 10:4, Hebrews 10:11). So we see that even under the old covenant people were ultimately justified not by the blood of goats and bulls, but by the blood of Christ. The blood of Christ, then, is not limited in time so as to only redeem those who live after his sacrifice, but also those who came before. The former things were shadows and copies of what was to come; they were fulfilled in Christ (see Hebrews 9:23-24, 10:1). But some might still ask, "If Christ's sacrifice was not limited by race to his own people, or limited by time to those who came after him, still aren't the ancient pagans cut off from all hope by their own ignorance of all holy things, their lack of hope, their lack of faith?" If that were the case, then what would we make of Melchizedek?

We know that Christ's priesthood is not of the old covenant and the old priesthood of Aaron, a priesthood which was given under the Law of Moses specifically to the nation of Israel. But Christ's priesthood is of the order of Melchizedek, who was not of the house of Israel. Melchizedek was a priest of God Most High among the heathen nations and a representative of those who served the one true God among them. Melchizedek was honored by Abraham, and he in turn blessed Abraham. So Melchizedek's priesthood, which Jesus fulfills in its fullness, is recognized by Abraham and blesses the house of Abraham, but includes those not of the blood of Abraham. Neither can we rightly suppose that Melchizedek was a priest alone, having no followers, since he was also King of Salem. Any king's people follow him, and if he is a priest and a king then it is only natural that he has others who worship the one true God under his leadership. And it is unthinkable that Melchizedek should be among the damned, for Christ would never be given a priesthood lesser than that of Aaron, but one greater. The material here is drawn both from Hebrews 7 and from Genesis 14.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews recognizes, as we have seen before, that sins of deliberate rebellion are regarded as weightier, and that having no knowledge is the hallmark of a sin that is not rebellious but ignorant.
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Hebrews 10:26-27)
Finally, those who show contempt for Christ's sacrifice are condemned in strong, plain terms:
How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:29)

In short, I do not find anything in the letters to the Romans or to the Hebrews that call us to assume a default condemnation of all Gentiles who lived before Christ. The efficacy of Christ's sacrifice for those who lived before him is clear in the case of the patriarchs and of Melchizedek. The existence of righteous Gentiles serving the one true God in ancient times is clear in the case of Melchizedek. One important aspect we have not yet discussed is that of knowledge of Christ. For next post ...

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Forgiveness and sacrifices offered for the unaware

The question sometimes comes up, "What became of all the people who lived before Jesus, or who died never having heard of Jesus?" Unfortunately, the Bible never records someone addressing that exact question. Because of that, peoples' answers typically depend on their view of God. The points I will mention here provide insight into ancient views on sacrifice on behalf of the unaware.

Are the Gentiles before the time of Christ sent to hell by default?
It is a commonplace of internet debates that one particular theological school will claim that Gentiles in ancient times were universally consigned to hell. The exception amongst the ancient peoples were the Jews, who had a covenant with God providing for sacrifices for their atonement. But how did the ancient Jews understand the covenant sacrifices? The ancient Jews understood themselves to be offering sacrifices on behalf of all nations, not just Israel. During the Feast of Tabernacles, on 7 successive days a number of bulls were sacrificed (13 one day, 12 the next, and so on) until a total of 70 bulls were sacrificed (Numbers 29:12-34). According to Jewish tradition, these 70 bulls were sacrificed for the 70 nations listed in the table of nations (see Genesis 10). On the eighth day, one final bull was sacrificed, the only time during that feast that a single bull was sacrificed alone. According to tradition, this one bull sacrificed alone was for the unique nation of Israel.

Here are some comments from the Talmud:
R. Eleazar stated, To what do those seventy bullocks correspond? To the seventy nations. To what does the single bullock correspond? To the unique nation. (b. Sukkah 55b)
In the same section R. Yohannan followed up by saying
Woe to the idolaters, for they had a loss and do not know what they have lost. When the Temple was in existence the altar atoned for them, but now who shall atone for them?
The nation of Israel understood that their offerings atoned for the idolaters as part of their call as a priestly nation, part of the call that through Abraham's offspring all nations should be blessed.

This argument is suggestive but will remain inconclusive because it is based on the tradition of those offering the sacrifices, not directly in the command of the sacrifice itself. But it does give grounds to notice: the idea that all those pagans and idolaters were automatically lost was not the ancient understanding of God's people. The ancient Jewish understanding is very much in keeping with what Paul said to the Athenians about their idolatry: "In the past, God overlooked such ignorance" (Acts 17:30). As I've mentioned before, ignorance was never presented as some guaranteed ticked to heaven, but the Torah did record that sins committed in ignorance are easily forgiven, while sins of rebellion were only forgiven with both sacrifice and repentance.

Sacrifice offered without knowledge of the beneficiaries
There are also ancient records of sacrifices offered without the knowledge of those for whom they were offered. In the offerings mentioned in the Talmud, discussed in the previous section, the pagan nations were unaware of both the sins and the sacrifices on their behalf. The book of Job also records that Job offered sacrifices for his grown children just in case they had sinned (Job 1:5). The inter-testamental literature also records sacrifice being offered to atone for those already dead (2 Maccabees 13:38-46), not as a regular practice but as a noble thought.

Again, the endorsements here of sacrifice for those unaware are more suggestive than conclusive. No Christian is required to accept the Talmud as binding or authoritative, though it is a worthwhile insight into Old Testament thoughts and theology of sacrifice. Many Christians do not accept 2 Maccabees as an authority based on the witness of Jerome that the ancient church did not view it as suitable for establishing church dogma (see Jerome's prologue to the three books of Solomon where he comments on the church's valuation of various books). Even those who do not regard it as suitable for church dogma may still find it an interesting witness to the theology and spirituality of Jews in the Second Temple era. The book of Job is likewise not a plain endorsement since it records sacrifice under a non-established system of sacrifice in a context where no covenant is present, though here the practice is clearly recognized in an authoritative text.

These texts do not bind someone to agree that sacrifice for the unaware is effective. But it does show that someone who assumes that the ignorant are condemned, and further assumes that the ignorant cannot benefit from sacrifice on their behalf, is going against the ancient understanding.

Writing this post it was tempting to try to "decide on my own answer"; a reader might think something similar. But the topic is not mine to decide. The matter of someone's final judgment, of their atonement before God, is in Christ's hands. What is mine to do is to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in his name, and to trust him.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Christians in Action

Dan Edelen at Cerulean Sanctum is sounding the same call to action that I sounded a few days ago about more action from the Christian community (though I'm sure he doesn't read my blog, it's just that the need for this topic is so plain). I'd like to pick up his challenge and send out for my readers to do likewise. I'm going to list Christians I have known who excel in service as a reminder that there are a lot of serving Christians out there, and then I'm going to list the "dream ministries" that I hope we can start. I'd invite you all to join in with Christians you know who excel in service, and other ministries that have been on your heart to start or join.

Heroes in service I have known
I'm listing these by their initials because I haven't asked whether it's ok to post their names:
  • LP: When told by her doctor that her pregnancy was hopeless and she should abort, she decided to trust God and let nature take its course. She decided this expecting the worst. Her daughter Mia is now 3 years old and perfect. The doctor was wrong, but we would never have known it except for LP's courage and faith.
  • BH: Though her arthritis makes it difficult to use her hands, she still uses her spare time to knit clothing and blankets to donate to premature infants; you just can't buy clothes off the shelves at those sizes. She heads a group of women who similarly use their skills and spare time.
  • BF saw his neighbor, a single mother, struggling to keep up with yardwork while her father was in the hospital. He took it on himself, unasked, to cut and edge her lawn for several months.
  • LL church works with the local fire department to provide gift certificates in a substantial amount to people who suffer catastrophic losses in fires. Gift certificates are given to their choice of either Target or Home Depot.
  • Various Christians I know volunteer at a local cancer hospital helping provide care items for the patients and relieve their loneliness, fear, and boredeom with a friendly visit.

Dream Ministries
  • Organizing a neighborhood harvest where people collect and donate the excess produce of their gardens or fruit trees to a food bank
  • Finding a doctor or nurse willing to work at a clinic for very little money; having the clinic entirely funded by donations and accept those who have no health care. Start at home: U.S., Mexico, or here near their border.
  • Inner-city boarding schools: for those whose homes are destructive, a Christian-run boarding school could provide a safe place for children who have never had a safe place
  • National volunteer coordinator: when big disasters strike -- and that's at least once every few years -- it would be nice to have someone coordinating the volunteer efforts. Now the Salvation Army and to some extent also the Red Cross do a decent job of coordinating material relief -- but not volunteer efforts of manpower such as was needed in NYC in September 2001, in New Orleans and Houston last fall, and is still needed all along the coast from Beaumont to New Orleans right now. The day will come again; are we going to be any more ready next time?
I'll have to mention that I am not in the "serve instead of preach" camp. I could go on about this at length, but for the "social needs" camp, look at the causes of poverty and ask yourself how high amongst those causes are single parenthood, drug abuse, and alcohol abuse. Acts of love are best if accompanied by news of God's forgiveness in Christ (of which we should not be ashamed) and plain insistence on the good and orderly life rooted in morality (of which we should not be ashamed either).

The blogosphere is a great tool. Those of us who wish for more action, help us plan it, or fan the flames of it.

Carnival #103 is exceptionally good

Christian Carnival #103 is up at Miserere Mei. The carnival has an exceptional number of strong entries so that I had trouble picking a favorite. Maybe people had more time to write, more time to reflect, or more time to savor the holy during the holidays, but this is the best carnival in recent memory for number of high-quality of entries.

Forgiveness, Sacrifice, and Christ

Previously we looked at repentance and forgiveness. But if there is repentance for forgiveness, then where does Christ fit in?

Background: Covenant at Sinai
In the covenant that God made for Israel at Sinai, God ordained that a sacrifice could atone for sin. A brief word is necessary about sacrifice and atonement. Jewish theology holds that an unrepentant person's sin is not atoned for even if the appointed sacrifice is offered for it. Some have argued that all intentional, wilfull sins are unforgiven since, according to the Torah, typical offerings only atoned for unknowing or unintended sins. But this argument has been contested by others who note that, in contrast to the appointed sacrifices for unintentional sins, the Day of Atonement atoned for even deliberate sin and rebellion. But, the scholars of the Torah insisted, there was an important point to be made about sins of rebellion: the sacrifice was only effective for the repentant, not for those who still continued in the same state of rebellion which spawned their particular sins. Which is to say, if a sin had been committed while in a state of rebellion, then it was considered forgiven in a state of penitence, but not in a state of continued rebellion.

How were God's chosen people sure of his forgiveness? After all, God has mercy on whom he pleases and hardens whom he pleases, so what guarantee was there of God's mercy? The guarantee was God-given. God bound himself to mercy, to forgiveness -- he made a binding covenant by which people could be sure they were forgiven because of his own word, his own promise. But he did it in a way that never let people forget that life is forfeit for sin, a way that never belittled the seriousness of sin or allowed people to imagine it was a small thing. In the sacrifice the people were invited to die to their wickedness, rebellion, and sin so that they did not die in their souls or continue to cause death around them.

New Covenant
Jesus' words over the cup at his last supper, "This is the blood of the covenant", were a deliberate echo of Moses' words at Sinai, "This is the blood of the covenant the LORD has made with you" (Exodus 24:8). With Jesus' words, the blood of the covenant was no longer the blood of a sacrificial animal. It was now the ultimate sacrifice: Christ. God bound himself to forgiveness and mercy publicly, for all nations, for all times. If people could never forget the horror of sin when a sheep or other animal died to atone for them, how much more could we not forget the horror of sin when Christ died for us. If people could be sure of God's word and promise of forgiveness when an animal died, how much more when Christ proclaimed his sacrifice, and has us proclaim his death until he comes. If an animal sacrifice reminded people to die to their rebellion or face that judgment themselves, Christ's death and resurrection goes beyond that. In it, we are also reminded to die to our rebellion -- and be raised to new life. We are joined with Christ. While in death he takes our place, he is more for us than only a substitute; we are joined to him in his death and resurrection. Our being united with him in his death becomes our death to sin; our being united with him in his resurrection becomes our hope of eternal life. Therefore this participation in Christ's death and resurrection effects our own transformation from sinners into sons of God. Again, Christ in justice has paid the price of death due for our sins; still he is more for us than even the penalty to be paid. In being united with his death and resurrection, we are drawn into the very nature of God, which is love and eternal life.

The Talmud has an interesting if unintentional historical note on Jesus' institution of a new covenant, for those interested.

Next in the series on sin and forgiveness: sacrifice on behalf of those who are unaware of the sacrifice.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Sin, Repentance, and Forgiveness

The question is often asked, "Whom does God forgive?" While this post focuses on this question of whom God forgives, this question leads necessarily to Christ. The next (God willing) will focus on Christ as the answer to the more basic questions about forgiveness.

What does Scripture say on forgiveness and repentance?
There is no place in Scripture that suggests that God forgives the unrepentant, those who persist in rebellion against him. But Scripture does say that God forgives the repentant, even those who had deserved death. The entire chapter of Ezekiel 18 is devoted to this teaching. After a long and thorough teaching, its closing words:
"For I take no pleasue in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!" (Ezekiel 18:32)
John the Baptist taught in the same vein:
preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4)
Jesus began his preaching on the same note when he came out of the wilderness after his baptism:
From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." (Matthew 4:17)
And again,
I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:32)
Jesus' summary of his message and blessing to the world, recorded at the end of Luke's gospel, showed that this is the continuing message of his church for all times:
repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24:47)
This same message was taken up at Pentecost by the apostles, as their spokesman Peter proclaimed,
Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. (Acts 2:38)
Peter, knowing the teachings of God in Ezekiel, knowing the teachings of Jesus, explained it to those who were impatient with waiting for the last day:
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
God brings people to repentance in the way he has chosen, which is exalting Christ:
God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. (Acts 5:31)
Paul also taught that God's kindness and patience also lead people to repentance (Romans 2:4). Peter wrote again of God's grace, and of the humility of repentance, saying "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (I Peter 5:5). John the apostle also taught the same, that in humility and repentance we hope in God who has decreed forgiveness for those who turn to him:
If we claim we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (I John 1:8-9)
God has promised forgiveness to the humble, the penitent, those who call on him and turn to him.

Conclusion and Continuation
Time and again, Scripture answers that God forgives the repentant; he lifts up the humble, those who turn to him and call on him and admit their sin are promised the goodness of God, who is faithful and just. But the conversation is very much incomplete at this point. Next, God willing, we will look at Christ and our forgiveness.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Sin, Ignorance, and Judgment

The question is often raised about people who sin without knowing it. It is part of a larger conversation about those who did not know Christ through no fault of their own, and did not know what God requires through no fault of their own, or the countless people who died in pagan lands before Christ was proclaimed in those lands. Today I will look at only the first issue: whether ignorance is taken into account in judgment.

The Bible states again and again that God takes account of man's ignorance in his judgment of their sins (though ignorance is hardly a guarantee of God’s favor!). The ancient law ordained that sins of ignorance are handled much differently than sins of defiance (Numbers 15:22-30). Jesus prayed that those who executed him be forgiven on account of their ignorance (Luke 23:34). Paul celebrated that he was forgiven his former blasphmey because he acted in ignorance and unbelief (1 Timothy 1:13). There is a long-standing and ancient tradition that mere ignorance does not condemn anyone.

For the time being, we leave a lot of ground uncovered. Other related questions on forgiveness and judgment will be addressed in subsequent posts.