Archive for March, 2014

Hortus_Deliciarum01aThis series on Hell has come to be dominated by the question, Does it exist? We’ve looked at the one bit of theology the ‘Hell’ position traditionally used to prove its case: the immortality of the soul. Now its time to hear from the annihilationists. What positive theology have they got to back their case? (We’ll get to exegesis and proof-texts later).

It has been the rise of biblical theology that has actually given the greatest impetus to the annihilationist view. I personally didn’t take this view very seriously until I started learning about biblical theology. Biblical theology looks at the large-scale narrative of Scripture.  It interests itself in God’s purposes and at how how he brings them to fruition, and so reveals himself, over time, in history. It looks at the patterns and shape of salvation-history.

How does biblical theology shape our thinking about the ‘hell’ question? Perhaps we could give a summarised answer by quoting Tim Keller, at the Sydney City to City conference this week:

“Everything will be redeemed.”

When questioned about what he meant, Keller talked biblical theology (it was about the only time he did, so we got pretty excited!). He said that the creation was the object of God’s redeeming activity. And so rather than destroying it all, God was saving it. There is continuity between our world and the new creation. Eventually, the only thing that remains will be God’s redeemed creation, healed from all the ravages of sin. The ultimate symbol and firstfruits of this redemption is the body of Jesus, risen and whole, but with scars.

Let’s unpack that slightly further. God’s original goal of blessing for his creation was not ultimately destroyed by sin. Sin didn’t win the day, forcing God to start from scratch with ‘creation no.2’. Rather, in redemption God re-established his original purpose of blessing for his creation.

So the story at its absolute simplest goes like this:

God created an ordered world out of chaos. And it was good. And he intended it to get even better. But sin derailed everything, and brought destruction. So God by his Son conquered sin, completely erased it from his world, and by his Spirit he healed the creation, so that it was perfectly blessed after all. 

That’s the story. That’s what Keller meant when he said, ‘Everything will be redeemed.‘ He’s not teaching universal salvation: he’s saying that in the end, there will be no trace of sin left in the creation, that God’s redemption will win the day, ‘as the waters cover the sea’. He’s thinking of Jesus saying ‘See, I am making all things new!’ (Rev. 21:5).

Now here’s the question that biblical theology throws up for us: where does everlasting hell fit into this story?  I remember the strange feeling I got after a time of intensive reading and reflecting on biblical theology and the story of redemptive history, when I was at college. I’d been immersed in this mindset for a while, and then something reminded me of the doctrine of hell, and it kind of jarred, and I found myself thinking, ‘that’s a weird doctrine, how on earth does it fit in to all this stuff?’ Hell may be a necessary part of medieval cosmology, with its dualist, spiritualised future: a universe balanced in two halves, paradise and inferno. But is there room for Hell in the (very physical) new creation that the prophets foresaw? That’s the $64000 question.

There are two main options for an answer:

ANSWER 1. In the new creation, the world is made anew. But there is a zone where the effects of sin continue. Not everything is redeemed, there is a part of the creation where misery and death continue forever and ever. And for this zone there is no remedy. Ever. Heaven is a paradise, a palace of endless bliss – except that if you go downstairs, you’ll find the dungeons, and there is a torture chamber. (traditional view)

ANSWER 2. Part of God renewing the creation is to condemn, destroy and remove all that stands against God and his purposes of blessing. Sin and the devil and all those who side with him will be removed from the creation, i.e. removed from createdness, i.e. removed from existence. Like when a surgeon removes a cancer, God will cut these diseased parts out. In the end they will no longer be found. Anywhere.  (annihilationism)

So what do you think: which of these answers best fits with the story biblical theology tells us?

Personally I think this is the most compelling argument for the annihilationist position. When Keller says, ‘Everything will be redeemed’, I’m hearing Answer 2. I doubt whether Keller himself holds to annihilationism. But the structure of his thought is definitely Answer 2.

If someone can show us how Answer 1 fits with the biblical meta-narrative, I’d be willing to give you a serious hearing. But on the surface of it, you’ve got your work cut out for you. It just prickles with apparent contradictions of the story. As a focus for this problem, we want an answer to the question:

In the new creation, where exactly is Hell? 

I’m still trying to think through this issue. But from what we’ve seen, I’d be willing to go as far as this:

If we take seriously the Bible’s big story, it seems to rule out Answer 1 and require us to give Answer 2.

I feel uncomfortable about this. But there it is: I can’t seem to get around it.

Any help welcomed.

Hell 8: Lowering the temperature

Posted: March 28, 2014 by J in Church, Theology
Tags: ,

6a0105349e894a970b0133f1f6beeb970b-800wiOk, so Irenaeus has shown us that there are serious theological problems with the doctrine of an ‘immortal soul’, as well as the problems we saw earlier from biblical studies. 

The Christian theology of creation means every created thing is mortal – including the soul. If God chooses not to maintain souls in existence, then their existence will cease. The only possible immortality for the creature is a conditional sort, supported from outside.

The church has probably been wise to back off from its traditional ‘immortal soul’ teaching. Personally, I think it’s a dead duck.

Irenaeus’s insights seriously damage the traditional underpinning for the doctrine of hell – by removing one of its thickest supports. The traditional package of ‘immortal soul=everlasting heaven or hell’ just doesn’t hold up. 

They also open up the possibility of the annihilationist position. For the ‘immortal soul’ doctrine was the main theological obstacle in the way of this view. (We have noted that most of the objections to annihilationism were not theological but more practical.) So it seems there is no strong theological reason why the annihilationist view is unacceptable. If it were the case that annihilation was God’s practice in judgement, core gospel doctrines would not be undermined by this: creation, redemption, the work of Christ and of the Spirit, the need for faith – all of these are upheld by Irenaeus’s view, and are compatible with annihilationism. 

This of course only creates the possibility: it doesn’t prove one view or the other. Clarifying the soul’s nature hasn’t actually resolved our issue about hell. The question is thrown back to: what is God’s intention for the future of his creatures? In particular, what is he going to do about those who persist in turning away from him?

On which, more next time!

But perhaps this is a good moment to stop, and say: probably we can relax a bit about annihilationism. It’s true that this is a shift from the traditional meanstream position. But it’s hardly a novel view: Irenaeus in the 2nd century was pushing in this direction. And it doesn’t seem to be a core gospel issue. Not much hangs on it, at the theological level. It’s not necessarily going to put you on some slippery slope towards heresy or liberalism or compromise, or whatever.

It seems that we evangelicals can afford to disagree about this. 

So I want to make a plea for peace. Could we make a decision to not fight over this? To not persecute or alienate over this? Shouldn’t we put this in the same category as adult vs infant-baptism? Good evangelicals on each side, etc.?

body-soulWe’ve seen that belief in ‘everlasting hell’ is wrapped up with the traditional Christian doctrine of the ‘immortality of the soul’. And we’ve seen how Calvin’s deep investment in that doctrine created serious problems for his theology. Now its time to consider the alternative approach of Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century A.D.). Cards on the table: Irenaeus is extraordinary on this. Sit back and watch how real theology is done.

In Against HeresiesIrenaeus was writing against a popular belief now called gnosticism, which made use of Christian terminology, but combined it with a big whack of Greek cosmology. These gnostics taught that there were two orders of existence: a lower order of material stuff which had been created, and a higher order, including some people’s souls, which existed alongside God and was, like him, eternal – without beginning or end. These souls were able to transmigrate from one person to another – a kind of reincarnation. They were ultimately destined to return to the higher spheres which were their true home, while lower stuff like the human body was fit only to be burned up and annihilated. Not that different from Plato. (Or from Calvin, actually!) In fact, Irenaeus holds Plato responsible for a lot of these ideas (2.33.2): and he’s not that impressed!

Many Christians in Irenaeus’s time, however, were being swayed by these ideas. To counter gnostic teachings, Irenaeus employs Christian theology. He doesn’t take the usual proof-texting approach which we all know and love. Rather, we are going to see four powerful, big-picture theological ideas which Irenaeus brings into play – like a battery of hand-picked, long-range guns, which he feels are more than adequate to knock out the opposing forces. Let’s see if he’s right.

First, Irenaeus introduces the idea of God’s freedom in creating:

If He (the Creator) made all things freely, and by His own power, and arranged and finished them, and His will is the substance of all things, then He is discovered to be the one only God who created all things, who alone is Omnipotent, and who is the only Father rounding and forming all things, visible and invisible, such as may be perceived by our senses and such as cannot, heavenly and earthly, by the word of His power; and He has fitted and arranged all things by His wisdom, while He contains all things, but He Himself can be contained by no one: He is the Former, He the Builder, He the Discoverer, He the Creator, He the Lord of all; and there is no one besides Him, or above Him.

Against Heresies 2.30.9

As you can see, this idea of God’s freedom gets Irenaeus a lot of mileage. He asserts that God made the world the way he wanted to make it. He was able to arrange his creation ‘by his wisdom‘, not by any external necessities. His will is bedrock for the creation: it is ‘the substance of all things.’ This all seems hard for any Christian to deny.

But if this is so, then there could not have been any other heavenly beings or souls existing alongside God. For if there were, then the necessity of those things’ existence constrains and limits God in his creating. God would be surrounded, or as Irenaeus puts it here, ‘contained’. His freedom is compromised. It follows that for God to be truly free as Creator, then he must have created alone. So then, anyone else that is, was created by him:  ‘then He is discovered to be the one only God who created all things…there is no one besides Him:

God alone, who is Lord of all, is without beginning and without end… always remaining the same unchangeable Being.

Against Heresies 2.34.4

Irenaeus’s second contribution follows close on the first. He teaches that the soul, is therefore created, just like the body:

But, as each one of us receives his body through the skilful working of God, so does he also possess his soul.   2.33.5

Not only are souls created: Irenaeus defines them with reference to the body:

[Souls] preserve the same form [after death] as the body had to which they were adapted…  2.34.1

…the soul possesses and rules over the body     2.33.4

Wow. The soul is not a prisoner of the body (cf. Calvin): it is actually the proprietor of the body! The soul possesses its own body. Moreover the soul is tailor-made and adapted to that particular body, and after the body’s death, the soul continues in that same form. The two parts of the human have a strong and permanent affinity. For the soul has much in common with the body with which it has been ‘mixed up’ (2.33.4). In other words, the soul’s true home is not a disembodied spirit world: its true home is its own proper body.

Blown away are the eternal souls of the Gnostics, who pre-existed uncreated alongside God. Such souls are not compatible with a free Creator. Irenaeus places everything, including souls, firmly and unambiguously in the ‘created’ camp, as the beneficiaries of God’s wise, sovereign, free creative action, and belonging within the created order. Note the difference with Calvin, who creates an ambiguous special category for souls, with both divine and creaturely qualities.

Now we come to the really interesting thing: Irenaeus also believes in ‘the immortality of the soul’. How does he maintain this, if souls are mere creatures? Here is Irenaeus’s third theological idea, perhaps his most important contribution to this whole debate. Irenaeus describes a different kind of immortality:

But if any persons at this point maintain that those souls, which only began a little while ago to exist, cannot endure for any length of time; but that they must…if they have had a beginning… die with the body itself— let them learn this:  [Souls] endure, and extend their existence into a long series of ages, in accordance with the will of God their Creator; so that He grants them that they should be thus formed at the beginning, and that they should so exist afterwards.

Against Heresies, 2.34.2

But thirdly, this immortality is not intrinsic but given, and not built-in but maintained from without. God, who is the only one to have essential immortality, grants length of days to his creatures as he wills it. Irenaeus compares souls to the sun and moon, which had a beginning from God, but which last on through long ages as he upholds them by his will.

Importantly, this immortality is seated not in the soul’s nature, but in the will of God:

When God bestows life, it happens that even souls which did not previously exist, henceforth endure [for ever], since God has both willed that they should exist, and should continue in existence. For the will of God ought to govern and rule in all things, while all other things give way to Him.”

Against Heresies 2.34.4

God’s freedom, then, extends to maintaining the creation he first made.

This is so important that we will dwell on it a bit more. Here is how Irenaeus sees this ‘supported’ immortality functioning in Scripture:

The prophetic Spirit bears testimony to these opinions. He thus speaks respecting the salvation of man: “He asked life of You, and You gave him length of days for ever and ever;” indicating that it is the Father of all who imparts continuance for ever and ever on those who are saved. For life does not arise from us, nor from our own nature; but it is bestowed according to the grace of God. And therefore he who shall preserve the life bestowed upon him, and give thanks to Him who imparted it, shall receive also length of days for ever and ever. But he who shall reject it, and prove himself ungrateful to his Maker, inasmuch as he has been created, and has not recognised the Giver of life, deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance for ever and ever.

Against Heresies 2.34.3

Continued existence or life is not automatic or intrinsic to our nature, not even to our souls. Rather it is a gift given moment by moment by the God who has promised eternal life to those who trust him. As he says later, “the soul herself is not life, but partakes in that life bestowed upon her by God.

In this one move, Irenaeus blows away the cosmology of Plato and the Greeks, so beloved of many in the medieval Church. He replaces it with a model derived from the doctrine of God’s free creation out of nothing (ex nihilo): souls are by nature mortal, not immortal, like every other part of creation. They belong down here, with their respective bodies! The world just turned on its axis!

Irenaeus’s final great contribution to this issue also follows tightly. It follows from all this that immortality is conditional: something which some receive by asking, and others miss out on. Or as Irenaeus puts it, immortality must be entered into. It is not the automatic inheritance of souls by nature.

And this has an unexpected corollary for the poor old human body:

If, on the other hand, [immortality] is on account of their righteousness, then it is no longer simply because they are souls, but because they are righteous. But if souls would have perished unless they had been righteous, then righteousness must have power to save the bodies also [which these souls inhabited]; for why should it not save them, since they, too, participated in righteousness? For if nature and substance are the means of salvation, then all souls shall be saved; but if instead righteousness and faith [are the means], why should these not save those bodies which, equally with the souls, will enter into immortality? 

Against Heresies 2.29.1

Now Irenaeus has an immortal body as well as soul: a scandalous idea for any well-informed Greek! You can’t have it both ways, he says: either immortality is inherent in souls, or it comes only from righteousness. If it comes from righteousness, then it can come to the body of the righteous person also: for the body took part in the righteousness! Good call.

And this of course pushes the whole question about immortality into the future, to the resurrection of the dead:

And then the doctrine which we believe concerning the resurrection of bodies, will emerge true and certain… since God, when He resuscitates our mortal bodies which preserved righteousness, will render them incorruptible and immortal.

Against Heresies 2.29.2

Immortality is something we look forward to, our promised inheritance. It comes at the end of the story, not at the beginning.

And so Irenaeus’ version of immortality relies on the work in history of Christ and especially of his Holy Spirit, to bring this transformation at the appointed time. This view of immortality is eschatological, fully integrated into the Christian hope. Once again we note the difference with Calvin, whose doctrine of immortality tended to sideline both Spirit and eschatology.


We could show more of Irenaeus’s stunning work in this area. There is more gold here, to be mined. But what we’ve seen is enough for us to say: Ireneaus has given the Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul a complete reworking along biblical-theological lines. When it emerges, it is a doctrine of conditional immortality as the goal of the gospel. Not everyone who has been granted existence will be given continuance in life for ever and ever. But some will enter into eternal life. This doctrine seems to sit well with the framework of Christian faith at the very points where Calvin’s did not.

We know that Calvin was familiar with Irenaeus’s work in this area, because he quotes it. But he seems to have been little influenced by it. Calvin acknowledges Irenaeus’s points:

For when we say that the spirit of man is immortal, we do not affirm that it can stand against the hand of God, or subsist without his agency. Far from us be such blasphemy! But we say that man’s spirit is sustained by God’s hand and blessing. Thus Irenaeus, who with us asserts the immortality of the spirit, wishes us, however, to learn that by nature we are mortal, and God alone immortal.

Calvin, Psychopannychia

Ok. But Calvin doesn’t seem to learn much from Irenaeus’s masterly treatment of the subject. He appears not to see that conceding this much undermines his own insistent teaching of the soul’s essential immortality. Calvin here gives the game away without even noticing. He ends up with a fairly confused and conflicted position. Irenaeus on the other hand, shows us what can be done if you start with Christian theology.

Chaucer’s Parson

Posted: March 25, 2014 by J in Bible, Church, Church history, Pastoral issues

(Taking a break from Hell)

One of the most inspiring writings on gospel ministry ever. From the 1300s.

In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the narrator meets a troop of pilgrims heading for the shrine at Canterbury. One of them is a parson. Chaucer has a lot to say to us about gospel ministry, through his parson. I think you might like him.

I love to read and re-read this part of Chaucer’s Tales. It refreshes my soul every time.

NB I’ve updated the language a bit, but tried to keep it poetic. If you haven’t read Chaucer before, be aware that the thoughts flow over from one line to the next, as in 

…full patient

He oft was proved to be, by trials beset.



A good man was there of religion

And was a poverish Parson of a town

But rich he was of holy thought and work

He was also a learned man, a clerk

Who Christ’s own gospel truly he would preach.

His parishers devoutly would he teach.

Benign was he, and wondrous diligent,

And in adversity, full patient

He oft was proved to be, by trials beset.

And loath was he to force men’s tithes by threat

But he would rather give, without a doubt

Unto his poor parishioners round about

From th’ offerings and from his substance too –

Himself, he could with little well make do.

Wide was his parish, houses far asunder

But he would not leave off, for rain nor thunder

In sickness nor in trouble, still to visit

The farthest-off, whe’r rich or poor, whoisit

Upon his feet, and in his hand a stave.

This noble example to his sheep he gave:

That first he wrought, and afterward he taught

– an idea he had from the gospel caught!

He also this proverb added thereto:

“That if gold rust, then what shall iron do?”

For if a priest be foul, in whom we trust

No wonder if a common man should rust!

Shameful it is – let priests here caution keep –

A shitten shepherd and a clean sheep.

A priest a good example ought to give

By his own cleanness, how his sheep should live.

He did not put his ‘living’ out to hire

And leave his flock, a-sinking in the mire

And run to London, seeking at St Pauls

A cushy job, a-chanting mass for souls

Or rest, as chaplain of a guild retained –

But dwelt at home, and his sheep-fold maintained.

So that the wolf could not steal in and harry

– He was a shepherd, not a mercenary.

And though he holy was and virtuous

He was to sinners not contemptuous

Nor in his speaking haughty or above

But he would teach discreetly and with love.

To draw folk up to heaven by the fairness

Of his example – this was his main business.

But any person sinning obstinate

Whate’er he was, of high or low estate

Him would the parson chastise without fears

– A better priest, I trust, there nowhere is.

He looke´d not for pomp and reverence

Nor over-spiced with laws his conscience,

But Christ’s good word and his apostles twelve

He taught – but first he followed it himself.

We’ve seen how  the doctrine of ‘hell’ was traditionally based on the idea that humans possess an ‘immortal soul’. And how in modern times the discipline of biblical studies has called that idea into question. The other direction from which ‘the immortality of the soul’ has been assailed is from the discipline of Christian theology.

I want to look at how two of the great theologians – Calvin and Irenaeus – wrestled with this traditional teaching. This will hopefully get us to the heart of the theological problems surrounding the (now unpopular) doctrine of the ‘immortal soul’.

We will come at Calvin’s struggle from an unexpected direction: by looking at his argument against the doctrine that souls are unconscious after death in the ‘intermediate state’ before final judgement (also called ‘soul-sleep’). Why did Calvin reject soul-sleep so strongly? It doesn’t seem to be exactly a core faith issue. Why did he begin his writing career by publishing against this teaching?

To understand Calvin’s beef with soul-sleep, you need to realise that, like most theologians before him, he is a massive disciple of Plato. Massive. In the Institutes, writing on the soul, Plato is pretty much the only extra-biblical authority Calvin mentions with approval. Calvin overtly accepts Plato’s doctrine of the soul – as did much of the church since the time of the Fathers. So we need a thumbnail sketch of Plato’s view. Bear with me, this will get us some serious mileage.

For Plato, the material world was a miserable affair. It was a long way out from the good stuff, the eternal realm of reason or ideas which was the centre of reality. Matter was not properly real at all: not rational. The human was a strange mixture of parts: a soul that belonged to the core of reality (the rational realm), housed inside a body that definitely did not. The body was like a brute animal, stupid and controlled by base desires. So the human person was a conflicted mess: a little spark of eternal realm trapped inside a miserable, perishable flesh-cage. The only hope was to be released from the prison – through death – so the soul could be freed to get back to the centre of things, and do its rational knowing stuff without all the distractions of the beast. Death was a good: it was the start of a better life (see Plato’s Phaedro).

When Calvin talks about the soul, he has Plato’s cosmology and anthropology in the background, but he is trying to think Scripturally. So we find him working hard to explain Christian ideas from within this Greek world-view. The realm of ideas is now the ‘spiritual’ realm, the rational eternal core of existence is ‘God’, and the glimmer of rational, eternal substance inside the human is ‘God’s image’. It is the seat of conscious intelligence:

our spirit is the image of God, like whom it lives, understands, and is eternal.

from Psychopannychia (1534)

Calvin insists, then, that though the soul is created, it is created as an immortal essence. Immortality is kind of ‘built-in.’ (Institutes 1.15.2 etc).

As a young man, Calvin got really annoyed with the Anabaptists for suggesting that after death the soul went unconscious, and slept until the day of resurrection. (Actually Luther taught the same thing, but Calvin couldn’t so easily have a go at the great Reformer.) You can read Calvin’s Psychopannychia (‘Soul-sleep’) and see just how annoyed he got!

Why did Calvin care so much about this ‘intermediate state’ issue? I don’t care much about it, do you? He cared, not for its own sake, but because of what it implied about the nature of the human soul. The soul was the thing Calvin got fired up about.

What did the doctrine of soul-sleep suggest about the soul, that Calvin took issue with?

It was the ‘unconscious’ bit that stuck in his craw. We’ll let him explain in his own words. Following Plato, Calvin insisted that:

The soul, after the death of the body, still survives, clothed with sense and intellect.  And it is a mistake to suppose that I am here affirming anything else than the immortality of the soul. For those who admit that the soul lives, and yet deprive it of all sense, feign a soul which has none of the properties of soul, or dissever the soul from itself, seeing that its nature, without which it cannot possibly exist, is to move, to feel, to be vigorous, to understand. As Tertullian says, “The soul of the soul is perception.”

from Psychopannychia (1534)

The soul is the rational, sentient part of man, its function is to know and understand: the higher senses. The body on the other hand was the dead-weight that dragged down and dulled all the higher senses. So the idea that death might detract from the soul’s consciousness is not permissible. That would be to make the body the seat of consciousness. To postulate a sentient body and an unconscious soul was to turn the whole Platonic cosmology and anthropology on its head.

This was important for Calvin: to be freed from the body implied a liberation of the rational, sensible soul to return to the place of true consciousness where its awareness would be that much more profound:

The body… decays, weighs down the soul, and confining it within an earthly habitation, greatly limits its perceptions. If the body is the prison of the soul, if the earthly habitation is a kind of fetters, what is the state of the soul when set free from this prison, when loosed from these fetters? Is it not restored to itself, and as it were made complete, so that we may truly say, that all which it gains is so much lost to the body?

from Psychopannychia (1534)

Because the spiritual/rational world is so superior to this material one, in fact is where God is, therefore:

We desire indeed to depart from this prison of the body…since the load of clay by which we are pressed down, acts as a kind of wall of partition, keeping us far away from God.

from Psychopannychia (1534)

This is all written by Calvin, not Plato – just in case you were confused! It’s not hard to see how the structure of Calvin’s thought mirrors Plato in this area.

All this was threatened, then, by the idea of ‘soul-sleep’. So, for Calvin, much bigger and more annoying issues were at stake than just the ‘intermediate state’ question. That’s presumably why he felt this was this first thing he wanted to publish on.


I wonder if you’ve noticed the dodgy theological territory into which Calvin has strayed here? The Greek idea of the soul as immortal and eternal, involves it being a part of the divine core of things. A little bit of divinity emanated from the centre out to the fringes, and got locked into a filthy body made of corruptible material (yuck!). That divine soul-substance was not created: it has always existed. This idea is called panentheism.

Transferring this into Calvin’s Christian arena, we run into immediate problems: is the soul a breakaway bit of God himself? Calvin definitely did not want to be saying this. For him the soul is created. Yet in his scheme soul has quite a bit of the divine about it. How can he have it both ways? Calvin manages this by calling the soul the image of God. This is why he insists ‘God’s image’ means ‘rational intellect’: because ‘rational intellect’ is Calvin’s definition for what the soul is. I.e. God’s image = soul. Calvin needs this category of ‘image’, as a kind of mediating half-way point between God and created matter. He wants an essence that has the qualities of divinity, but is created. He needs to distinguish soul from God, and also to distinguish soul from corruptible flesh. In this way Calvin gets an immortal soul while avoiding Plato’s panentheism.

OK, but in practice, is there a difference in nature between God and our soul? Here things get sticky for Calvin: he needs to assert that our souls share in the divine quality of eternity or immortality. Otherwise they cannot belong to that higher ‘spiritual’ realm. Trouble is, things that are immortal may not need a Creator. In Plato’s scheme, the soul always was. But if Calvin goes there, he introduces something that existed necessarily, and not through God’s creative will. Was the soul-substance always there, alongside (or within) God? Perhaps God didn’t create it. If he didn’t, then we lose creation ex nihilo, which any theologian will tell you is a disastrous thing to lose. Calvin does not want to lose ex nihilo, so he adds ‘created’. But is this just a word tacked on to a basically Platonic structure of thought? Is it convincing? In short, can a truly immortal thing be created, and can a truly created thing be immortal? Justin Martyr thought not: he says of the soul, “it ought not to be called immortal: for if it is immortal, it is plainly unbegotten” (Dialogue with Trypho, ch.5).

Calvin does not seem to be aware of this strong tensions in his teaching re. the ‘immortal soul’. In the Institutes, he doesn’t really address or resolve them. He does little to disentangle himself from the conflicted implications that come along with his Platonic structure of thought.

This question about souls’ past history is likely a problem. What is definitely a problem is the present and future relation between an immortal soul and God. You see, really, intrinsically immortal souls don’t need God at all to continue existing. If you’re immortal, even if you’ve been created, by nature you cannot die, and so go on existing without relying on anyone to sustain you. You are truly independent, in the matter of existence. This idea severely limits God’s role as sustainer of the whole creation and of all life. And that is a Bad Thing.

Was Calvin aware of this problem? Maybe, a bit. but he doesn’t appear to make any effort, in his Institutes, to guard against it. No, he just asserts ‘immortal essence’ strongly and repeatedly. And since this imperishability is core to what it means to be the ‘image of God’, it sounds very much as though souls are by nature immortal: it is an intrinsic quality they possess. ‘Immortal essence’ sounds a lot like immortality is a quality intrinsic to the soul, doesn’t it? And this all tends to overthrow God’s place in his creation.

In other words, the panentheism world-view is not really compatible with creation ex nihilo: the Hebrew idea of a God who creates and sustains all things out of his own free will. It is precarious to try to bring together ideas from these divergent schemes of thought – and Calvin gets himself in a right mess trying it.

Calvin gets into hot water at the other end, also: in redemption. Because there is in Scripture a kind of immortality which Christ and his people are said to receive from the action of the Holy Spirit through resurrection.

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable… For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  

from 1 Corinthians 15: 42-53

This is a classic ‘before and after’ structure. Before this we do not possess immortality. Afterwards, we do. As N. T. Wright comments,

‘Barr is surely right to stress that the Genesis story as it now stands indicates that humans were not created immortal, but had (and lost) the chance to gain unending life.’

Resurrection of the Son of God. (2003) p.92, 129:

…and so the story of the Bible was needed.

But if we already have an intrinsic or essential immortality, from creation – if our soul is already a fit vehicle in which to see God and to live forever: then why must we all be changed? Do we need the Bible story to happen at all? What need of this other, lesser immortality? What need, ultimately, for the Holy Spirit? The imperative to resurrection is lost, as Calvin has given us at the beginning the thing which redemption holds out as our hope for the end. 

This is a worry and then some. It tends to undermine the goal of the gospel. It puts the Holy Spirit out of work. Takes the ‘Gee!’ out of eschatology. Gulp.

Turns out Plato has not been a good guide for Calvin, after all. He’s led him up a couple of different creeks and taken away his paddle. This doctrine of the immortal soul doesn’t seem to sit well in the framework of Christian theology.

Has anyone worked out a better doctrine of the soul than Calvin’s? Which personally I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. This is not the end of Calvin’s struggles with the theology of the immortal soul. But we’ll leave him for now. Next post we’ll look at the work of another theological giant, Irenaeus, who points a helpful way forward.




Hell 5: Is the soul immortal?

Posted: March 19, 2014 by J in Bible, Church history, Theology

We have seen that the traditionally, the doctrine of everlasting torment (‘hell’) rested on another doctrine: the immortality of the soul. We’ve stopped teaching an immortal soul in the past century. But if we could sustain that doctrine from Scripture, then ‘hell’ would also be looking pretty strong. Can we bring back the immortal soul?

Historically the church was confident about the human soul:

Whereas some have dared to assert concerning the nature of the reasonable soul that it is mortal, we, with the approbation of the sacred council do condemn and reprobate all those who assert that the intellectual soul is mortal, seeing, according to the canon of Pope Clement V, that the soul is […] immortal […] and we decree that all who adhere to like erroneous assertions shall be shunned and punished as heretics.

— Fifth Council of the Lateran (1513)

Wow. This stuff could get you excommunicated. Denying immortality to the soul was heresy. It was that important.

However, the doctrine has fallen into disrepute, and it is hard to find a theologian now who affirms it.

“That the idea of the soul’s immortality as disembodied state beyond death is not popular amongst Christian theologians or among Christian philosophers today… “.

Hebblethwaite (2005), Philosophical theology and Christian doctrine, p. 113,

“It is this essential soul-body oneness that provides the uniqueness of the biblical concept of the resurrection of the body as distinguished from the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul”.

Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible (rev ed.), 2009

” … the “immortal soul” has sometimes been a commonplace in preaching, but it is fundamentally unbiblical.”

Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, 1987

What changed? Why did we back away from this ‘core’ Christian doctrine from the middle ages, still so important until recently?
There have been a couple of forces eroding the doctrine of the immortal soul. The most obvious has been the inroads made by biblical studies. The basic insight at work here is that in Hebrew thought and language, we do not possess a soul: we ARE a soul. The word traditionally translated ‘soul’ (Heb. nefesh, lit. ‘throat’) refers simply to a living person or animal. It is the whole person, the life, that is in view, not just a part. The living being is thought of as a unity, not a composite of parts: body, soul, spirit etc.

“Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures (nefesh)”. (Genesis 1:20)

Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (living nefesh). (Genesis 2:7)

Notice that God does not give the man a soul: he makes the man become a soul. It has gradually been realised that the OT has no concept of soul as it was understood by the Christian church since the times of the Fathers.

In the NT the equivalent term to the Hebrew nefesh, is ‘psyche. Its meaning is broader than the Hebrew nefesh, embracing also meanings from Greek culture. However its normal NT meaning is pretty much the same as nefesh: the life or living person.

“those who were seeking the child’s life (psyche) are dead.”  (Mat. 2:20)

“keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life (psyche) among you, but only of the ship. (Acts 27:22)

What psyche does not mean in the NT, is an immortal core to the person that endures after the death of the body. Psyche is about life, not death.

So the key words traditionally translated ‘soul’, really don’t bear that translation. Nefesh and psyche are not words for an eternal, incorporeal core to the human person. Much of the meaning content attached to the word ‘soul’ in the Christian tradition, just doesn’t fit with these two words.

And there are no other words in Scripture that convey the traditional idea of ‘immortal soul’, either. Man’s ‘spirit’ (ruach) in the OT usually refers his life-force, the ‘breath of life’ that God breathed in to Adam originally. It means something a bit similar to nefesh. It can be used a bit metaphorically, to mean morale. But never ‘immortal soul’. In the NT, the equivalent word, pneuma normally means the Holy Spirit, but when used of man it is employed in much the same way as ruach: the life-force or morale of the person. It seems these terms are never, in Scripture, used in conjunction with words meaning ‘immortal’.  There is no suggestion of immortality for ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’.

This is not a recent insight. As far back as 1769, John Parkhurst, in his Greek and English Lexicon, noted the lack of textual support for the traditional view that nefesh and psyche referred to an ‘immortal soul’. Since then scholarly consensus has come to overwhelmingly agree with him.

“The word ‘being’ translates the Hebrew word nefesh which, though often translated by the Eng. word ‘soul’, ought not to be interpreted in the sense suggested by Hellenistic thought…any conception of the soul as a separate (and separable) part or division of our being would seem to be invalid…The human person is a ‘soul’ by virtue of being a ‘body’ made alive by the ‘breath’ (or ‘Spirit’) of God.”

New Dictionary of Theology (2000).

The absence of ‘immortal soul’ terminology in the NT is all the more significant because of what happened in Judaism in the inter-testamental period. Judaism was hit with a massive whack of Hellenism, including Greek ideas about the soul. Plato and the Greeks saw the soul as the true ‘stuff’ of humanity, a non-material core to our being that was the real ‘us’. Plato would say that our soul was an eternal spark imprisoned in the mortal shell of our body.  It was waiting to escape and take up its true place in the realms of eternity and the divine, to which it was fitted.

By Jesus’ time, these Platonic ideas had entered mainstream Judaism, which now did teach an immortal soul and heaven and hell. This was a widespread, popular anthropology with connected eschatology (re. the afterlife). It’s in the intertestamental ‘Apocrypha’ and the Rabbinic literature.

And yet, as we have seen, Jesus and his apostles do not use the key terms in this way. They seem to avoid this by-now-traditional Jewish doctrine.

Lack of Scripture terminology is not a knock-out argument. Doctrines can survive without specific Scripture-terms for them. Think Trinity, creation ex nihilo, etc. Deeply biblical ideas, with no word for them in Scripture. But in fact, even the concept of ‘immortal soul’ is just not that easy to find in Scripture. Or to deduce from Scripture. Or even to square with Scripture. It’s certainly not clearly and explicitly taught.

In fact, Scripture evidence for this doctrine is so very scarce, people come back again and again to just a few texts. The main two are a parable of Jesus and one verse in Revelation (Rev. 6:9).

We will need to look at those texts, but at first blush, the textual support for this teaching seems weak.  A parable and a verse from Revelation are not promising places on which to build an entire core doctrine of the faith. We don’t normally use either of these genres to build our basic doctrines. Which other key doctrine has such slender and uncertain foundations?

So that’s a problem. We’ve got this doctrine, which was of the essence for the Church for over 1000 years, and now we can’t find much sign of it in Scripture. Gulp! No wonder we’ve been backing away!

So much for biblical studies. There’s one other direction from which the doctrine has been eroded: from theologyThe ‘immortal soul’ teaching has gradually been seen to create serious theological problems that damage the Christian faith. Clued-up theologians don’t like it.

But that’s going to need its own post.

Does the Bible teach a literal hell? In keeping with The Grit‘s tradition of rushing in where angels fear to tread, we thought it was time to tackle this disturbing and sensitive issue.

Is hell real? For a long time, nearly all Christians said ‘Yes’. Those condemned by God are tormented in eternal flame, forever and ever.

In modern times (i.e. since the 1700s) this view has become one of the most offensive aspects of the Christian faith. Many Christian believers have confessed they found it psychologically difficult to maintain the doctrine.

Also, in the c.19th, minority Christian sects (e.g. 7th day Adventists) began to question this teaching at the level of biblical exegesis. In the late c.20th, British evangelicals also began to question it. Leaders and scholars such as John Stott, Philip Hughes, John Wenham, F. F. Bruce and others found it difficult to support the traditional doctrine from an exegetical or a moral standpoint. C. S. Lewis was also pretty iffy about traditional hell (in The Problem of Pain).

By now, the doctrine of eternal hell has fallen from its position as ‘the one mainstream view’ agreed on by all Christians. This doctrine has broken up. Surveys show that many who consider themselves evangelicals no longer hold to ‘hell’. However, in our Sydney Diocese, hell is still considered the ‘orthodox’ view.

What’s the alternative? The main alternative position does not deny judgement, but sees the final result of God’s condemnation as being the destruction and non-existence of the person. This view has been called ‘annihilationism.’ It has become surprisingly widespread, given that it still feels like a pretty new view.

Actually the annihilationist position is not without ancient precedent. The great Irenaeus, and some other church fathers, taught that continued existence was a privilege enjoyed only as long as God sustained it. They did not teach eternal torment, but spoke of the cessation of existence. This minority view, however, did not gain much traction in Christendom.

Before we look at the biblical evidence, we will explore the two views a little more, see if we can get our collective head around them. What is at stake here?

In the past, what was at stake was something very simple and clear: the immortality of the soul. ‘Hell’ is based on the doctrine that the human soul is immortal. As such it goes on forever, in blessedness or damnation. Thus hell is everlasting. This view of humans was deeply important for Christendom for about 1500 years, although the church seems to have backed away from it nowadays. Very rare to hear anyone teach the immortality of the soul. We hardly talk about souls anymore, do we. But for centuries this doctrine was considered to be of the essence of Christian faith. The doctrine of everlasting torment was never a stand-alone concept: it was always a corollary of ‘the immortality of the soul’. ‘Hell’ was an integrated part of a larger package which was as much about anthropology as it was about eschatology.

N.B. The distinctive feature of the traditional ‘hell’ teaching was not the idea of judgement: that idea is common to both sides of the argument.

Our shift away from the ‘immortal soul’ idea is an important shift, and it has big implications for our belief in the attached doctrine regarding everlasting torment. Because the latter really does rest on the former. When people question the doctrine of hell today, they are often accused of being ‘soft’ on judgement. But if you’d questioned the doctrine of hell in 1500, people would have said, ‘Don’t you believe in the immortality of the soul?‘ I would suggest that the 1500s person was making the more acute observation.

It seems like we are left with a kind of floating doctrine: its foundation and the main reason for its importance has been taken away. Many churches have retained the dependent doctrine, but it is no longer clear how it connects to the body of teachings which make up the Christian faith.

So if we no longer care that much about an immortal soul, let’s ask again: what is at stake now in the argument about hell vs annihilationism?

From the point of view of those who hold the traditional ‘hell’ view, a few things are at stake: firstly, persuasive power. ‘Destruction’ is seen to be less of a threat than ‘eternal torment’ – a soft option, an easy way out, if you like! Kind of like suiciding to escape from hell. If we don’t have hell to get us leverage, people might not take God seriously. They might even be happy to be annihilated. That way they have no more liability for their past sins.

From a political point of view, annihilationism also smacks of ‘going soft’. We evangelicals have a highly attuned radar for compromise. It just seems too convenient that in the same era when hell has become offensive, Christians have discovered that it doesn’t exist! It was all a terrible mistake. We suspect the motives of these annihilationists. Aren’t they starting from a position of not wanting to believe in hell. And then, abracadabra, they make it disappear!

And if hell can go this century, what will go next? No doubt the whole idea of judgement will be found to be a mistake. The slippery slope. We worry a lot about slippery slopes, we evangelicals!

It is worth noting that none of these concerns is directly theological or doctrinal. There is no real suggestion that any other Christian doctrine, let alone the core matters of our faith, is threatened by annihilationism. The concerns are more at the practical and sociological level.

From the point of view of those who hold to annihilation, what’s at stake is the morality of God. Anyone who can plan a torture chamber where he will keep people in pain and misery, being tormented for all eternity – anyone who can do that is, frankly, a sicko. If tell that story about God, his goodness is impugned. If you taught that God enjoys kicking the heads of small children, you could hardly bring him into a greater disrepute than the doctrine of hell does. There must be better ways of dealing with evil, no?

And of course following on from that concern is the worry that by asking people to swallow this hideous hell doctrine, we are unnecessarily turning people off Christian faith. I.e., it’s damaging our mission.

Interesting that both sides feel the other view damages our mission.

We will explore the rights and wrongs of all this further. But one thing we can suggest already is, that this should not be an issue that divides Christians or churches. There are so many evangelical people on each side of the debate, that if we anathematise the other view, it’s going to mean a massive split in the movement. Haven’t we got better things to have massive splits over? No, I suggest this is a disagreement we’re just going to have to learn to live with, without reproaching or belittling each other. I reckon we can probably afford to have Christian brothers who are ‘misguided’ on this issue, without it keeping us awake at night. So we can study this issue without needing to gear up for a major war. No?

To that end, it’s worth pointing out what is not at stake here. Not at stake is our belief in the authority of Scripture: both sides of the debate accept that. People who don’t accept Scripture are not usually annihilationist: they are more likely to be universalist.

The other reason why belief in Scripture is not at stake here, is because Scripture has so very little to say that is overtly on the subject of hell, or the subject of the human soul. There’s actually not a great deal of material to exegete.

On which, more next time!

Will all people be ultimately ‘saved’ – restored to God and to goodness and life?

Last post we saw that God’s judgement is one of the major, big-picture ideas or images that run through the whole Scriptures, and give shape to the story of God’s purposes for his world. The gospel can be well-expressed as the story of God’s judgement arriving in the world through his Son, the judged one and the bringer of judgement. The Christian confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ is really saying that Jesus is the judge of the world.

Fundamental to the image of judgement, we saw, is the idea of division. The judge distinguishes between those approved and those shamed. He makes a finding in favour of one, and against the other (Model 1)

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Model 1

This core image of division has been largely lost in Protestant teaching about judgement. And this has directly led to the teaching of universalism which has been so pervasive in Protestant churches over the past century or so.

Our Protestant message of God’s judgement has instead gone something like this: Everyone has sinned and put themselves in the wrong with God. Everyone receives the verdict of guilty, an adverse judgement. There are no two sides in this judgement: everyone is on the same side: the ‘condemned’ side. Or if we imagine two sides, then God is on the other side, standing over against us all (Model 2).

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Model 2

In this Protestant story of judgement (Model 2), the details of what we do ‘down here’ make no difference. Everyone is by definition included in the general condemnation. Thus there is no possibility of division between different people. Not in the judgement.

This revised version of God’s judgement (Model 2) has far-reaching consequences for the whole of our gospel theology. Here are some of the most problematic:

  • It divorces God’s judgement from his saving activity. These become opposites, rather than one and the same thing. God’s judgement becomes an entirely negative thing, which saves no one. Where the early believers could sum their faith up simply with ‘Jesus is Lord’, we Protties feel we have to add ‘Lord – and Saviour‘, because for us they are very different things.
  • God the judge is seen to be against everyone. Literally everyone.
  • The only way of salvation for anyone is by escaping from God’s judgement. Justice becomes a kind of evil, to be escaped at all costs.

These are serious and fundamental distortions. The doctrine of God’s character, the very idea of justice, the Lordship of Jesus: the whole shape of our faith has been badly skewed by this alternative version of judgement which we have adopted.

Those who have been unwilling to accept these distortions have found themselves in a hard place. They have felt forced to reject the traditional teaching. But there have seemed to be few alternatives, and all of them bad.

From a starting point of Model 2 (which is the common heritage of all Protties) how can you avoid the unacceptable consequences outlined above?

a) You could deny the whole judgement thing. A God who judges is a primitive doctrine not appropriate to modern man. God is love and salvation, and therefore he is not judgement. OR

b) You could keep the structure, but subvert the meaning. If Protestants can lump everyone together under the ‘negative’ side of the original bible doctrine of judgement, then why not just reverse the thing, and lump everyone together under the ‘positive’ side, and still call it judgement? Just as defensible, no? So judgement would be defined as a restorative, salvific process, in which all will eventually be healed and reconciled to God.

They’re your main options, and those are the main two ways churches have gone. We evangelicals tend to tar them both with the same brush and call them liberal, missing the differences.

What is common to these two options, is the universality of the result. Either everyone is free from judgement because it doesn’t exist, or else everyone is caught up in the saving judgement of God, and ultimately rescued.

And now we need to step back a bit, take in the bigger picture, and ask, “where did this universal, all-inclusive structure come from?” Why have ‘liberal theologians’ felt constrained to arrive at one ultimate reality that would be the same for everyone? Who taught them this undifferentiated structure of thought?

We did.

Universalism is a Protestant heresy. It came from us. It was born in our ranks.

Liberal universalists were not the ones who rejected the differentiating, distinguishing, dividing core of God’s judging action. We’d already done that for them. The heart of what it means to judge: to save some from others – we Protestants abolished that. The universal structure of thought regarding judgement – that came from us. Liberal Christians simply adapted it to try to lessen the distortions it created. And of course they ended up with equal and opposite distortions to ours. But the traditional Protestant view of God’s judgement – that came first.

In other words, we kind of forced them to it, the liberal universalists. We left them in a place where they could see no alternative, no other stance that was liveable. We made universalism necessary.

If we had stuck with Model 1, above, the doctrine of universal salvation would hardly have been needed. If God’s judgement is essentially between people, if it differentiates – then it doesn’t mean the same outcome for everyone. Not everyone experiences it in the same way. If that is core to your doctrine, universalism is ruled out from the start.

In summary then, what we have really been seeing is when it comes to the doctrine of God’s judgement, both traditional Protestants and liberals are universalist: just on opposite sides of the thing. In a kind of Dark Crystal scenario, both have gone in different directions away from the Scripture teaching about judgement, depicted above in Model 1.

It seems to me that even one as great as Karl Barth has gone wrong here. As far as I understand him, by downplaying the role of the Spirit in applying redemption to individuals, Barth (in Church Dogmatics) minimises the judgement dimension of the gospel – its distinguishing effect on mankind. Barth sees condemnation and acquittal as having been brought together in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and so allows the structure of his thought about judgement to collapse them together. He makes the cross of Christ produce a fundamental change in the core meaning of God’s justice: it no longer distinguishes between people, as in Model 1. For Barth thinks all mankind experiences both sides of judgement, in Christ.

Barth’s insight that the whole of humanity has been renewed in Christ is sound. Trouble is, he doesn’t allow much room for the ‘opt-in’ nature of the gospel message about Christ. He neglects to emphasise that not everyone joins the new humanity. And at that point, the point where people respond well or badly to the gospel, Paul would say, ‘judgement is happening’ (e.g. Acts 13:46). But Barth plays this division down. He isn’t going for Model 2, but he’s undermined Model 1. Barth ultimately leaves the way open for a new version c) of the universalist position.

Next up: What about Hell?

Hell 2: wrath vs judgement

Posted: March 10, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology
Tags: , ,

We said, last post, that ‘God’s wrath’ is mentioned comparatively rarely in Scripture. The main people that ever get threatened with it are corrupt Jewish leaders. By comparison, the theme of God’s judgement is overwhemingly and explicitly prominent, in both testaments, proclaimed to everyone regardless of status or nationality.

Judgement is one of the true biggies, the big-picture ideas that make sense of the whole story. Let’s take a look at the shape of this theme. Let’s tell some stories:

When God created man he placed him in a beautiful paradise. But outside was untamed wildness, empty of life, perhaps unfit for life. God tells the man, subdue the creation. Bring it under your will. Make it a place fit for habitation. Man is to bring his judgement to the unruly world, and fix it – as agents of God’s judgement.

However, man sins and finds himself on the ‘wrong side’ of God’s judgement. Thus begins the long story of mankind’s wrongs and God’s efforts to put things right. It is no longer safe for man to eat from the tree of life and live forever – perhaps confirmed forever in wickedness. So God’s judgement drives them out. It is not safe for mankind to live all in one city – who knows what depths of evil they might sink to? So God’s judgement scatters them. These judgements are, of course, also mercies. Mankind is no longer a force for good, imposing God’s judgement on the unshaped world. Now he is a force for chaos. And so, out of love for his creation, God determines to rid the earth of man. He sends the flood – a mighty judgement.

This first great judgement is described like this:

And Yahweh saw that the evil of the human creature was great on the earth… and Yahweh said, “I will wipe out the human race I created from the face of the earth…” But Noah found favour in the eyes of Yahweh.                  Genesis 6:5-8

Explicit here is the distinction made between the bulk of mankind, and Noah. He receives a different judgement from the rest. They are placed on one side of the judge – the ‘condemnation’ side – and he on the other – the ‘favour’ side.

When Yahweh awards the promised land of Canaan to Abraham, he also explicitly takes it away from the Canaanites. God acts out this judgement by passing through the divided animals he has ordered to be set out. Very visually, Yahweh’s judgement makes a division between Abraham and the Canaanites (Genesis 15:16-21).

In another great act of judgement, Yahweh destroys the cities of the plain, and all their inhabitants. Except Lot. Why the exception? Because Abraham pleads with God to judge rightly:

And Abraham stepped forward and said “Will you really wipe out the innocent with the guilty? Far be it from you to do such a thing, making the innocent and the guilty the same. Will not the judge of the earth do justice?”  Genesis 18: 23-25

Here we are introduced to the basic function of judgement: to distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. In Abraham’s view, this is what it means to judge rightly. The thought of universal condemnation strikes Abraham as implicitly unjust.

The great judgement event of the Hebrew Scriptures is the exodus. God’s judgement is the theme to the fore when Israel gets stuck in Egypt, under the tyranny of Pharaoh (cf. Genesis 15:14). By refusing to let them go, Pharaoh puts himself on the deadly side of that judgement. God cannot rescue his people without first smashing Egypt – which he proceeds to do. In the plagues we see the extreme to which Yahweh’s love will go to bring judgement for his people (i.e. make things right for them). We see that judgement can be extremely costly. Also foregrounded in the Exodus narrative is the division which judgement brings, depending on which side of it you are on: for or against, salvation or wrath.

Later, under the judges we find one pattern repeated over and again: God’s judgement violently rejects his people’s idolatry, then God’s judgement rescues and restores them. Both of these acts of judgement are, of course, mercies, expressions of God’s jealous love for his people. The judges themselves represent or embody that judgement, and they are largely warrior/saviours. They bring judgement to Israel by releasing her from bondage – and judgement to the surrounding nations by punishing their aggression.

The exile is the other focal point of judgement in the story of Israel. God refuses to leave his people under the misery of idol-worship and oppressive leadership. He will come with a ‘Spirit of burning and a Spirit of judgement’ and cleanse the bloody stains of his people (Isaiah 4). He will not stop until all that is wrong has been burned away. The exile is part of that fire. But the whole program, outlined by Isaiah, does not stop with exile. God’s Spirit of judgement will recreate the nation, putting right Jerusalem and giving a new lease of life to the people (cf. esp. Isaiah 4). Not all will be lost: there will be a holy remnant saved – once again the idea of division is basic to judgement.

John the baptist picks up on this Isaianic program, preaching of the one who will flood the nation with the Spirit of fire and judgement (Luke 3). For John the Baptist, the time to put Israel right once and for all (last judgement) had finally arrived, now. True Israelites  (the wheat) would be regathered into God’s house (barn), while those who rebelled would be burned up (the chaff): a division, once again. Jesus Messiah would do all this by the power of the holy fire-Spirit which he was bringing. The day of judgement had arrived.

This was all going according to the prophetic forecast – but a shocking twist now occurred in the story, when Messiah himself came under judgement. He was ‘handed over to the nations’ like Israel, bore the fire of judgement and exile in his own body. There it burned out the sinful human nature which he had taken up, until it killed him. This was Jesus’ baptism of fire (Luke 12:50). And in this baptism, John the baptist’s program was completed: like wheat grain emerging from the chaff, the old body of sin was done away with, burned away, leaving a new, cleansed body to come forth. This recreated body, now filled and animated entirely by the power of the fire-Spirit, was gathered up into God’s house. The final judgement was complete.

But the effects of this Day of Judgement did not stop with Jesus. Rather, they began to ripple out catastrophically across the world. The judged one was now appointed Judge of the world. The fire that had fallen on Jesus fell on the whole earth (Luke 12:49). It fell on Jerusalem in tongues of fire at Pentecost – at which point a new and rival Jerusalem sprang to life and began to function – complete with its own new leadership – right in the midst of the old rebellious city. The grain emerged from the chaff. Judgement had arrived, and was announced openly (Acts 2:40). The people were to submit to this Spirit of judgement by taking the sign of it on themselves: baptism. At which point the fire would fill their lives, and they would be cleansed and made right towards God. Others resisted and were defeated (cf. Acts 5:17-42). A division became painfully apparent in the Jerusalem.

But the judgement could not be contained in that city – like a flood it flowed out across the landscape, transforming whatever it touched, doing what God’s judgment always does: bringing a division. A new people sprang up: a cleansed people living radical lives of love and holiness, and suffering bitter persecution from their neighbours.

The means of this judgement spreading was always the news of its arrival at the cross. As Jesus’ cross and resurrection were proclaimed, it was like opening the floodgates, and the fire-Spirit would fall, the judgement would arrive. People would divide. We still live in this phase of things now.

And so it can be seen that God’s original plan is finally accomplished: a second Adam stands as the agent of God’s judgement, to bring judgement to an unruly and broken world. To overthrow all that is evil, set things right and restore everything. But this time Adam does the job.


It should be apparent from the story we have just told (the Bible’s big story) that ‘judgement’ is a much bigger category than ‘wrath’. We would never want to title Jesus ‘the bringer of wrath’. However, the early Christians’ basic confession was ‘Jesus is Lord’, by which they meant that Jesus is the one God appointed to bring the whole creation into alignment under his leadership, gathering together the willing and destroying his enemies. If they were using the terminology of the book of Judges, they would have said “Jesus is JUDGE.”

Tomorrow: Universalism and Karl Barth


Posted: March 7, 2014 by J in Bible, Church, Pastoral issues, Theology

Many of us feel a bit nervous about God’s wrath. But in recent years, I’ve been noticing that some Christians I know find the teaching of (which people usually equate with ‘hell’) positively comforting. They really like it. They talk about it often. They get fidgety and uncomfortable if it’s missing for a while.

These are not nasty, twisted people – the sort who tie firecrackers to kittens, and rub their hands in glee at the thought that most people are going to burn. No they’re friendly, decent sorts who you’d trust to babysit your kids. But somehow, they do like to hear about hell quite a bit.

These people are not as interested in the broader category of God’s justice or judgement – in spite of this being a vastly bigger theme in the NT. Judgement language occurs hundreds of times throughout the NT, while wrath/hell language occurs only tens of times – perhaps once per book.

No, it’s the wrath they want. If the preacher talks wrath, they are content. They feel at home, at peace.

Why is this?

I don’t think the NT equates ‘God’s wrath’ with ‘hell’, but the people I’m describing generally think they mean the same thing. So I’ll let that pass, I want to explore this positive emotional response to such a grim theme.

I would welcome people’s thoughts and suggestions. Perhaps you know people of the sort I am describing? Perhaps you are one? Maybe you understand this phenomenon better than I do.

Here’s a couple of thoughts of mine. I think this fascination with wrath has a kind of perverse logic to it. See, it’s the Christian doctrine which is least palatable to the world. It must be the most offensive doctrine in the book, for today’s postmodern relativists.

What’s more, this is not surprisingly a teaching which many churches and church leaders have backed away from in modern times. Some disown it completely, others, well they just quietly don’t mention it, it seems a bit tasteless somehow, a bit medieval, it doesn’t fit the kind of progressive, positive image they’re trying to build for their ministry. Many, many ministries have gone soft on wrath.

So then ‘wrath’ becomes a kind of litmus test, a marker of orthodoxy and faithful ministry. If we are willing to be explicit about this most objectionable teaching, then surely that proves we are not man-pleasers. We must be God-pleasers.

So when we hear the preacher talking wrath, we can relax. This is a faithful ministry, the preacher is going to teach us the Bible, this is a safe place for me and my family to be.

Make sense? It does to me.

For us preachers, we can use this to build a reputation for evangelical soundness. If we hit on this theme often, we can gain some serious credibility and trust – with a certain kind of constituency. So there’s a temptation to dwell on it far more heavily than the NT would warrant.

That’s the main dynamic I see at work. However, one can’t help wondering, whether people who feel comforted by this teaching have really taken to heart the reality being spoken of. The idea of eternal shame and condemnation for a human person, the effective and irrevocable destruction of the person, beyond hope of recovery – shouldn’t the very idea trouble and distress and shake us? Shouldn’t it make us feel that we would rather it weren’t true? Shouldn’t we speak of it with heavy hearts?

Oddly enough, I wonder if people who like to hear about God’s wrath, are really listening to what is being said. I question whether the doctrine is being taken seriously – or whether it is largely functioning as an identity marker for the group. “We are the guys who are not afraid to talk like this.” – that sort of thing. If once it actually sinks in, I doubt it could elicit the comfortable feelings it currently does.

(We might try to explore the theme of ‘hell’ in a few follow-up posts).