Thursday, April 30, 2009
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from Life Together.
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Tuesday, April 28, 2009
To an outsider, the Fernald school in Waltham Massachusetts looked like any other educational institution. During the school’s hay day in the 1920’s and 30’s, few passers-by would have guessed the dark secret lurking behind the brick walls – a secret penetrating to the heart of American liberalism.
Fernald was no ordinary school. Set up in 1848 with funds from the Massachusetts State Legislature, the institution was designed for the incarceration of “feeble-minded” children. Throughout the early 1900s, hundreds of thousands of low-intelligence (though not necessarily retarded) children were warehoused at Fernald in unspeakable conditions. Treated like animals and denied any affection, these “human weeds” were considered genetically inferior from the rest of society.
In his book The State Boys Rebellion, Michael D'Antonio shows that one of the purposes behind the Fernald school was to prevent these “idiots” from reproducing and diluting the gene pool. Margaret Sanger, icon of the American left and founder of Planned Parenthood, put it even more succinctly: “The undeniably feeble-minded should, indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind.”
It was not until the 1960s that the school began releasing their children to live in the outside world.
Eugenics: The Dark Secret of the American Left
The ideology behind Fernald was supplied by the American Eugenics movement. It was customary for American liberals of the 1920s and 30s to identify human beings as either hereditarily valuable or inferior. Taking Darwin’s theory of natural selection and applying it to human society, they typically classed Jews, Gypsies, Blacks, Native Americans and those of low-IQ as harmful to the human gene pool.
“People were told, we can be rid of all disease, we can lower the crime rate, we can increase the wealth of our nation, if we only keep certain people from having babies,” said Michael D'Antonio.
In his New York Times bestseller Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg shows that before Hitler gave eugenics a bad name, almost all the leading progressive intellectuals of the early 20th century interpreted Darwin’s theory as a writ to “interfere” with human natural selection. Indeed, when the National Socialist sterilized over 50,000 “unfit” Germans, a former advisor to Teddy Roosevelt exclaimed, “The Germans are beating us at our own game.”
Although contemporary left-wingers have tried to hush it up, it is a fact of history that the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the National Research Council, Planned Parenthood and the pre-1960's Democratic Party, all supported the right of the US government to engage in Eugenic selection, while thirty states adopted legislation aimed at compulsory sterilization of certain individuals or classes. Conservatives, orthodox Roman Catholics and radical libertarians, on the other hand, were routinely ridiculed for their opposition to such policies.
The underlining premise behind the American eugenics movement was the view that irresponsible individualism in breeding would act as a cancer on the human gene pool, harming posterity. Government held the future of the human race in its reigns and could improve the evolutionary direction of the nation – and indeed the world - through strategic intervention.
Government as Savior of the Human Race
The Fernald school is no longer operating and by the 1960’s all the states had cancelled their sterilization laws. After Hitler gave the politics of race hygiene a bad name, American and British “progressives” stopped defending government’s right to direct the gene pool.
Nevertheless, the ideological coordinates behind these abuses remain as intact as ever within the minds of American left, although they have found a myriad of different expressions.
Consider, for example, the widespread assumption that the state has the vocation to act as a supra steward of the human race. In January, James Hansen of NASA (known as the “father” of the global warming movement), told the Guardian that Obama “has only four years to save the world.” Hansen painted a chilling picture of the apocalyptic future awaiting us if government failed to assert drastic measures like the “carbon tax.”
It is not hard to see the continuity Hansen’s remarks have with the eugenics politics of the last century. In both cases, the underlying premise is that the state holds the future of the human race in its reigns, and unless significant freedom is surrendered over to them, irresponsible individualism will destroy our chances – or our children’s chances - on this planet.
Such scare tactics are not limited to the issue of climate change any more than they are limited to the Western side of the Atlantic. Earlier this year Jonathan Porritt, chairman of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, said that couples with more than two children were placing an “irresponsible’ burden on the environment.” To his credit, he didn’t say that government should step in and decrease the surplus population, but he did warn of what would happen if drastic measures were not taken: the UK must cut its population from its current 61 million to 30 million, or British society will be unsustainable.
"The Greater Good"
One of the ideological foundation stones behind the 20th century eugenics movement was a utilitarian outlook which elevated pragmatism above principle. If a policy - such as the isolation or forced sterilization of the unfit – was believed to be for the “greater good”, it didn’t matter if actual harm was committed to specific individuals along the way. And as the example of Fernald so clearly illustrates, it is the weak and helpless members of society who are always first to be sacrificed on the altar of “the greater good.”
The American left has not departed from this basic utilitarian criterion. Consider the justification liberals are constantly giving for using taxpayer money on embryonic stem cell research (which involves the destruction of humans at the embryonic stage). They tell us that such research is justified because it can save lives. In other words, the end justifies the means when the end is the greater good of the human race. We see this same callous utilitarianism in the other ethical debates over killing innocent human beings: whether the killing of innocent humans occurs at the embryonic stage (certain forms of stem cell research), the foetal stage (abortion) or the elderly stage (euthanasia), these practices are defended by an appeal to the greater good either of society or (in the case of euthanasia) of the individual who elects to kill himself. As with the social Darwinism of the 20th century, the casualties of this utilitarian approach are inevitably the weakest and helpless members of society.
Decreasing the Surplus Population
The 20th century eugenics movement was closely linked to the social theories of men like of Sir Francis Galton and Thomas Malthus (pictured below), who believed the poor were draining the world’s recourses.
One of Malthus’s solutions was to reduce the surplus population by introducing policies specifically designed to bring death to large numbers of poor people. For example, Malthus encouraged poor people to move near swamps, because he knew that they would catch diseases there and begin dying off.
Not a lot has changed since the time of Malthus, although our lawmakers are careful not to present their policies in neo-Malthusian terms, even if their ideas are underpinned with the same network of operating assumptions.
In this regard it should not be overlooked that President Obama’s original stimulus package proposed subsidizing family-planning services and contraception. If it was hard to see how contraception for low-income families can help stimulate the economy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi helped us out on ABC’s This Week program: “The states are in terrible fiscal budget crises now and...contraception...will reduce costs to the states and to the federal government.” Pelosi and Obama were obviously aware of the 2007 study by the Congressional Budget Office which found that the federal government could save an estimated $200 million over five years if states gave free contraceptives to poor women.
Following the public outcry, Democrats removed subsidized contraception from the stimulus package, but the underlying philosophy remains the same: human life is essentially an economic equation. Once that premise is accepted, it follows that society can be improved by reducing the population among certain classes of people. No where is this more plainly evident than in Planned Parenthood, which was championed by leftist White supremacists like Margaret Sanger as a means of keeping down the infestation of black babies. In 1939, Sanger created the “Negro Project” aimed at bringing birth control to American blacks and reducing their surplus population. Even now, Planned Parenthood makes no secret of the fact that its “core clients” are “young women, low-income women, and women of color” and makes a particular point of setting up clinics in minority and poor neighbourhoods.
Aware of the eugenicist pedigree behind the abortion movement, many black activists (including Jesse Jackson before he decided to seek the Democratic nomination), opposed abortion on grounds that it amounted to genocide against the black race.
It would be going beyond the facts to suggest that the contemporary abortion movement still harbours sinister ambitions about decreasing the black population. While the liberals of the early 20th century saw genetics, and therefore race, as central to the future of the human race, liberals of the early 21st century see economics as central to the future of the human race. Thus their aim is no longer to reduce the quantity of black births, but to decrease the amount of poor babies. However, given that blacks are among the poorer segments of American society, the end result is pretty much the same. While blacks make up little more than 12% of the American population, they have 37% of the abortions. This is one of the reasons that many African Americans still oppose abortion on the grounds that it is the number one killer of African Americans today (see the Black Genocide blog).
Racism and Social Engineering
Although the American left no longer advocate eugenics, forced sterilization and race-directed abortion as a means to achieving racial utopia, ethnicity remains just as central in the minds of liberal social planners. This can be seen in the numerous affirmative action programs which mandate positive discrimination against whites. The increasing and well-documented privileges which now accompany being an ethnic minority are so manifold in American society that some law professors have even proposed making “racial fraud” (pretending to be black when you are not) a crime. As Jonah Goldberg points out in Liberal Fascism ,
“In the 1960s, when the civil rights movement still relied on the classically liberal formulation of judging people by the content of their character, enlightened liberals denounced the “one-drop” rule which said that if you had a single drop of “black” blood you were black, a standard transparently similar to National Socialist notions of who counted as a Jew. Now, according to the left, if you have one drop of black blood, you should be counted as black for the purposes of positive discrimination.”
The backdrop to this “positive” discrimination, as well as “identity politics” and many forms of feminism, is the view that human society can and should be organized in terms of competing groups. It is the view proclaimed so shrilly by Obama’s former church: racial consciousness, not the colour-blind state of classical conservatism, must be at the heart of government policy.
This brings us full circle to the social Darwinism of the 20th century. Contemporary liberals, like their leftist predecessors, have no scruples using the state as an engine to organize and dispense privileges on the basis of race, though social engineering has replaced the discredited science of eugenics. And like their leftist forefathers who built Fernald, this is underpinned by the ideology that government has a mandate, not merely to maintain law and order, but to proactively operate as the steward of the human race. To achieve this, contemporary liberals are just as happy as their early 20th century counterparts to follow the utilitarian principle that harm to innocent human beings can be justified by an appeal to “the greater good.”
Fernald may no longer be standing, but the philosophy behind it is as alive and well as ever.
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"BRITAIN appears to be evolving into the first modern soft totalitarian state. As a sometime teacher of political science and international law, I do not use the term totalitarian loosely.
"There are no concentration camps or gulags but there are thought police with unprecedented powers to dictate ways of thinking and sniff out heresy, and there can be harsh punishments for dissent." Keep Reading
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Also see The Orwellian Legacy of Tony Blair.
In his dysutopian classic 1984, George Orwell imagined a society in which even this final liberty had been taken away. Using omnipresent surveillance technology, Orwell’s thought police root out and punish those who engage in unapproved thinking.
For years, Orwell’s predictions seemed to bare little relevance to the free world of the West. While communist nations routinely used the Leninist notion of "false consciousness” to brainwash and control the minds of its citizens, the Western world has consistently stood as a hedge against such methods by putting a premium on intellectual freedom. As the oft-quoted maxim (falsely attributed to Voltaire) puts it, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
In recent years, however, Western society has experienced a paradigm shift...
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
There is a universalist brother in Christ whom I have been good friends with over the years, and who has been very involved in helping me through times of personal struggle in the past. Although I have never personally met him, his son and I used to live in the same town and developed a very close friendship. Some years ago this brother wrote a book arguing that everyone – from Ghandi to Attila the Hun – would eventually end up in heaven (albeit, after many have passed through a purgatorial hell) and I helped him edit the manuscript it. He, in turn, offered feedback on my universalist papers and debates. Recently, this brother was shocked to learn that I no longer believed in “the larger hope” as we called it. Moreover, he was horrified to learn that I was advocating the “lesser hope” of Calvinism. A few weekends ago I suggested to my friend that we have an online chat. Before I knew it, two other universalists had joined in the discussion. After the dialogue was over, other universalists from around the world began emailing me with questions, and before I knew what was happening an informal e-group had developed. What follows is my final reply to my friend. Although some of the comments are only relevant to his universalist apologetics, it is also written with a broader audience in mind as I hope my other universalists friends will read and benefit from my observations. Finally, a disclaimer: this letter was written last night when I couldn't sleep and given its length I have no intention of going back to edit it, so please be patient with any errors or unclear sentences.
An Open Letter To an Evangelical Universalist:
I am addressing you as an “evangelical universalist” in order to emphasize what we have in common. Unlike liberal universalism, you do not maintain that Jesus is unnecessary because all roads lead to God. Indeed, your universalism is rooted firmly in the cross of Jesus Christ: by taking the Arminian doctrine that Christ died for all, and adding in the Calvinist doctrine that Christ’s death is efficacious in securing the salvation of those for whom He died, you reach the conclusion that all people have been/will be (your ordo salutis remains vague) saved. Unlike the older universalism of the 9th century, you are fully committed to the inspiration of scripture and endeavour to do business, not just with passages such as Colossians 1:16-19 and Philippians 2:9-11 that seem to support your position, but also with the judgment passages such as Matthew 25:46 which appear to speak of eternal judgment.
But while we may share these and many other things in common, and while I would never join with those who dismiss all universalists as heretics (for them the very idea of an “evangelical universalist” is an oxymoron), nevertheless I do remain concerned that you are subverting the Biblical story.
I make this observation as much about my former universalist writings as I do about your writings.
(This may be a good place to point out, for those who are unfamiliar with my background, that universalism runs very deep in my veins. Both my wife and I have relatives who are deeply committed to the universalist project. Indeed, it was through the universalism of George MacDonald that I met my wife, Esther, and I first met. Esther’s father and my father have both authored books and numerous articles on the subject. I myself wrote two books on the subject, and publicly debated Douglas Wilson on the topic.)
The problem is not so much that you are misinterpreting specific scriptural passages, but that you are telling the Bible’s story in the wrong way. You are connecting all the dots that make up the Biblical picture, but you are connecting them in a way that draws a different picture from the Biblical picture. Before showing how this is the case, let me ask you to imagine that you are listening to the story of Little Red Riding-hood for the first time. You get to the part where the Red Riding-hood asks the wolf “Why do you have such big ears?” and the wolf replies, “All the better for hearing you with.” You stop and exclaim, “I’ve got it! That is what the story is about. The tale of Little Red Riding-hood is about being able to hear better.
Now of course, that interpretation of the story would be wrong. It would be wrong because it is failing to take the story on its own terms. It doesn’t matter how detailed an analysis you might give of the syntax of the story to prove that your reading is correct, because even a child can tell you that that is not what the story is about, even if the child is unable to refute your grammatically proofs.
In a similar way, people often misread the Biblical story, twisting it out of shape to tell another story other than the one which it tells. The other story may be something which is in itself correct, but is not what the Bible is fundamentally about. For example, some people take the gifts of the Holy Spirit and then read the entire Biblical narrative through that lens. So everything from the period of the judges to the second coming has something to do with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Or the lens might be one particular member of the Trinity at the exclusion of the other two, so that the entire Old and New Testaments is about Fatherhood. Or we might make social justice into a metanarrative into which all the Biblical themes are subsumed. Now does scripture teach about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, God’s Fatherhood and social justice? Of course it does, but these things are not what the Biblical story is fundamentally about? By making any of these themes central to the story of redemption history, we end up subverting what the Big Picture is really about. The Bible begins to reflect our own preoccupations rather than the thrust and intent of those who actually wrote it. Steve Schlissel made this point in his Letter to a Morbid Introspectionist:
I would submit that you are doing the same thing with universalism. You are using universalism as an overarching superstructure to give continuity to the various particulars of scripture, and in so doing you are connecting all the dots in a way that tells a story, but it is not the Biblical story. In itself this does not necessarily mean that your universalism is false: universalism may still be a subordinant theme even if it does not hold the central place in the Biblical story that you and claim for it. However, as I have never met an evangelical universalist who held that universalism occupied a marginal place in the story of redemption history, that is not a view with which I am interacting.
"But alas, sinful creatures that we are, we soon forget the desirability -- the necessity -- of balance, and we often find ourselves giving undue emphasis to one particular doctrine of Scripture. For example, many (oh so many!) today live their Christian lives as if they were on an eschatological egg-hunt. They scan the newspapers daily for more clues that might help them become the first to infallibly identify the triple-sixer. Others concentrate on the gifts of the Spirit (as they understand them), not only missing the significance of the place of these gifts in redemptive history (see
Richard Gaffin's, Perspectives on Pentecost for a good treatment of the subject), but often living as if there were no other manifestations or ethical demands of a consistent Christian walk. Still others are virtual Satanists, speaking incessantly about demons being the cause of this, that, and of the other thing (some might even say, this letter). Now, to be sure, the Bible does discuss Last Things, Spiritual Gifts, and Demonology; but none of these constitute the whole (or even the main) teaching of Scripture, and further, none can be truly understood unless properly seen in relation to Jesus Christ Himself, His person and work."
I will give some examples shortly of how universalists like yourself you have been subverting the Biblical story, but it may first help if I explained just what I think the Biblical story is all about. No doubt those from other theological traditions could come at me and say that I am misreading the Biblical text in the same way that I criticize you for doing, and that is where we would have to look closely at the different texts and themes – far more closely than this brief overview will allow.
After years of studying the Bible and consulting with Biblical and historical scholars who have tried to read scripture in its original historical context rather than on my terms (a process which has been both painful and enlightening), I have concluded that the Biblical story is fundamentally about God’s plan to fill the world with the worship of Him. I would submit – and I believe this can be supported by an honest reading of the text – that this constitutes the central story of the Bible. I would argue that all of redemption history, is simply an outworking of this original intention.
God’s desire to fill the earth with the worship of Him goes back to the very first commands that God gave Adam and Eve. In the Garden, God gave His images the obligation to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) and “fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). God’s plan for the world is to fill it with His images. Now images and worship are closely linked. The original Hebrew says that mankind was made ‘into’ God’s image. In other words, men and women are not made in the image of God; they actually are the image of God. In the ancient world, people would have understood the importance of this because of the role images played in the surrounding culture. The Ancient Near Eastern god-kings set up images of themselves all over their territory, as a way of establishing their dominion and fostering the worship of themselves. The king’s dominion was established by the numerical and geographical extent of his images, and it was in that region– the region marked by his images – that he was worshiped.
Similarly, the way God establishes His dominion is through the expansion and dominion of His images: mankind. In commanding His images to populate the earth and take dominion as His representatives, God is acting like a king who is concerned with the increase of his kingdom (the region where he is worshiped). Thus, another way of saying that God’s plan for the world is to fill it with His images, is to say that God’s plan for the world is to establish a kingdom, a kingdom marked out by His images.
Because we were made as God’s images, human nature is an imperfect reflection of God’s nature, just as the icons that the ancient god-kings put around their territories were typically meant to be a likeness of the ruling king. Thus, the things we see God doing in Genesis 1 and 2 - such as speaking (1:3, 6, 9, 11, etc.), naming (1:5, 8, 10, etc.), making (all of 1 and 2), appreciating (1:31) and reasoning (2:18) - are also qualities inherent to us as human beings.
With that in mind, look again at the commands God gives to mankind:
“Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). This command establishes that God’s images are supposed to expand numerically.
“Fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). This command establishes that God’s images are supposed to expand geographically.
“Subdue [the earth]; have dominion” (Gen. 1:28). This command, known as the dominion mandate, shows that God has delegated some of His authority to man, giving us the job of taming and ruling over the earth as well as naming and defining it. The earth is full of raw materials that have to be developed by man.
“Tend and guard it” (Gen. 2:15) This command, often referred to as ‘the cultural mandate’, establishes our responsibility both to develop and to guard the earth’s resources.
When we come to Genesis 3, the plot takes a sinister twist. Among the trees God had planted in the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve were told not to eat from the later tree. But Satan came and tempted the woman to disobey God. We need to note the strategy Satan used, because it is central to understanding how sin works. The devil caused Adam and Eve to fall by taking a number of good things and twisting them. In particular, he exploited the human vocation to be God’s image-bearers.
God had created mankind in His image, which means humans were capable of speech just as God was. In Genesis 3:1-5, the devil used language, which was good, to communicate falsehood. While the Lord used speech to introduce life, the devil used speech to introduce temptation. In Genesis 3:4-5, the devil’s speech encouraged Eve to doubt God’s goodness, truth and love, thus implying the lie that there can be meaning outside of the Creator.
God had created His image-bearers to be aesthetic like He is, which means we are capable of appreciating what is good and beautiful. Thus, Adam and Eve would have appreciated all the wonderful things God had given them in the garden. When the devil comes along, he tries to undermine that sense of appreciation. He does this by using a technique that has subsequently been developed by modern advertisers. He created a false sense of need in Eve that could only be satisfied by a certain product, namely the forbidden fruit. Although Adam and Eve had everything they could possibly want, the devil introduced a sense of discontent. Notice what happens next. In Genesis 3:6, when “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes,” this is a chilling parody of Genesis 1:31 when God saw that everything He made was good. Eve is utilising her God-given ability to appreciate what is good and pleasant, but she is doing so outside the parameters previously established by God. This began when Eve ceased to appreciate that everything God had given her – including the prohibition – was completely good. A few minutes later, Adam fell into sin through the same temptation. Adam, failing in his role as guard, had stood by whilst Eve sinned and then disobeyed God himself.
Just as Satan corrupted man and woman’s aesthetic sense – their ability to appreciate properly - the same is true of reason. Because we were created in God’s image, we are rational creatures. In Genesis 3:1-5, the devil encouraged Eve to use her reasoning ability (which was good) in the wrong way: a way that was autonomous and outside the boundaries of what God had already said.
As God’s image bearers, Adam and Eve had the vocation to develop the world and themselves. The devil appeals to this, encouraging Eve to develop knowledge by eating the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:4-5). He is taking the God-given dominion and cultural mandates and twisting them.
The result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience was the event we call ‘the fall.’ As soon as they sinned, Adam and Eve’s bodies became subject to death. The Lord had warned them, saying, ‘in the day that you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you shall surely die.’ (Gen. 2:17) Although Adam and Eve did not experience full physical death on that day, from the very moment they sinned they began to die. The applies to all of their descendents. Whenever a human being is born, the death principle immediately kicks in. This means we experience things like pain, hurt, misery and eventually full physical death.
The fall of man also affected the whole of creation. In Genesis 3:17, God cursed the ground because of what Adam had done. Things like earthquakes and natural disasters only came about after the fall, as well as smaller imperfections like weeds, thistles and animals eating other animals, etc.. From then on, taming the earth and exercising dominion now became a matter of toil (Gen. 3:17-19). It is also became a struggle to fulfil the command to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 4:16).
The introduction of the death principle did not merely affect physical human nature, but it also affected who we are inside. The fall affected our mind, emotions, thoughts, creativity, impulses and every aspect of our humanity. From the moment we are born we are subject to sin at every level. This is what we call our ‘sinful nature’ or ‘original sin’ or ‘total depravity.’ These phrases are all different ways of saying that sin is now an intrinsic part of who we are as human beings.
Despite the pervasiveness of sin, it did not change the fact that we still bare God’s image. We remain images of God but we are defaced images. We are in need of redemption before we can properly fulfill our God-given vocation. And because we are fallen we are unable to trust ourselves and can only know truth through an objective standard outside ourselves.
The other thing that sin did not change was the basic goodness of creation. One of the tragic things about sin was that it corrupted a creation that was so good. But corrupting the goodness of creation is not the same as obliterating the goodness of creation. The fall caused creation’s goodness to be marred, just as it caused God’s images to become disfigured. But creation still bares the fingerprint of God – it still imperfectly reflects the wisdom, beauty and goodness of its Creator.
In Genesis 3:14-15, God gave a promise of redemption. “The Lord God said to the serpent [the devil], ‘Because you have done this…I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.’ This is a promise that there will continually be strife between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent (the devil), but it also contains a promise that one day the serpent’s head will be bruised by one of the woman’s offspring.
Looking back we know that the seed of Eve who bruises the serpent’s head refers to Jesus Christ and those who are in Christ (Rom. 16:20). We shall also see that it is ultimately through Jesus that the multiplication and dominion of worshiping images of God will be extended to the ends of the earth as the Lord originally intended. That’s the simple answer. But getting to that point involves a long process that we call salvation history. That’s where the story of Israel comes in. (And I know none of this is new to you, but I am telling the story because it creates a foundation for some points that I want to go on and make.)
God’s plan to redeem mankind began when God called out Abram and made a covenant with him. A covenant is a solemn oath or promise made between two parties. The covenants that God makes in scriptures are administered sovereignly by Himself, usually carrying with them blessings and curses.
In Genesis 12 we read about the covenant that the Lord made with Abram. "Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him… (Gen. 12:1-4)
God promises to the descendents of Abraham (as he was later called) a land, to make his descendents into a mighty nation and to make them a blessing to the rest of the world. Elsewhere the Lord says, “…by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves” (Gen. 26:4; see also Gen. 18:18 & 28:14). In the book of Genesis we read about Abraham’s family and his descendents. Abraham had a son named Isaac and Isaac had a son named Jacob. The Lord later changed Jacob’s name to Israel and that is why his descendents were called the children of Israel.
That is how the Israelite and Jewish nations came to be. They arose because God called Abraham and selected his descendents to be His special people. The rest of the Old Testament is basically the story of this people. But in another way, it is also the story of the whole world. That is because the world’s fate was inextricably linked to Israel’s story. The Lord had called this people, not at the exclusion of everyone else, but in order that they might eventually share God’s blessings with the rest of mankind on the earth, including, ultimately, the promised redemption of God’s images. This people was called out to be a holy nation and set apart, in order that they might image God and His ways to the rest of the earth. That was, of course, the primary vocation given to mankind in the garden.
That is something that would be worked out in history in this space-time universe. Only by committing some major anachronisms can we say – as you have numerous times – that the blessing to the rest of the nations has to do with the post-mortem state. That is just not the same story that scripture is telling. God entrusted Israel with the special vocation in order that through them the means for reconciling all the nations back to Him would come. But that reconciliation is a process that occurs here on the earth.
God called the children of Abraham out so that the seed of the serpent might be defeated. This is the beginning of the long process of salvation history, by which God’s promise of redemption would eventually be fulfilled. The people of Abraham were called to be His chosen nation in order that through them everyone else might be blessed, but that blessing is something that would have to be worked out over thousands of years on the earth, and does not refer to what is going on in heaven or hell or purgatory.
Before moving on, I want to summarize the key features of God’s covenant with Abraham. The purpose of God’s covenant with Abraham was to call out a people to image God. God promises to make of Abraham’s descendents a mighty nation (Gen 12:2; 18:18; 22:17), to give them a land (Gen. 26:4; 28:13-14; 35:11-12) and to make Abraham’s descendents a blessing to all nations. (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:17-18; 26:4; 28:14). The sign of this covenant is circumcision.
Abraham’s great grand-child was a man named Joseph. For reasons that we read about in Genesis 37, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. That is how Joseph came to be in Egypt, where God blessed him and he grew in power and influence. Later when there was a famine in the land of Canaan, Joseph’s father, brothers and their households came to join Joseph in Egypt. At Joseph’s death, because he knew that God would give them the land promised to Abraham, he instructed his family to take his bones with them when they returned. However, for many generations Abraham’s descendents remained in Egypt. Eventually the Egyptians decided to turn them into slaves. Then it was too late to return to the promised land.
God’s people languished in slavery for two hundred and fifty years until God raised up a man named Moses to delivery them out of captivity. We read about that in the book of Exodus.
After Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt, they couldn’t just go in and take possession of the land God had promised Abraham. Abraham’s descendents, represented now by twelve tribes, had grown to include thousands of people. Before they could go in and start functioning as God’s people (his worshiping images), this great multitude needed to be instructed how to be God’s people. They needed to be shown how to become a mighty nation, how to live in the land God had promised to Abraham and, most importantly, how to be a blessing to the other nations. To achieve these goals, God gave His people the law. He did this through the covenant that He made with Moses.
Remember that a covenant is a solemn oath or promise with attendant blessings and curses. When God gave His people the law, He promised to bless them if they kept it and He promised to curse them if they turned away from following Him. God’s covenant with Moses is really just an extension of his original covenant with Abraham. Giving His people the law was simply the next stage in the process of showing Abraham’s descendents how to image God to the rest of the nations. It was also the next stage in showing them how to guard and treasure the special revelation that they, as a people, had been chosen to keep.
To summarize, the covenant with Moses involved the giving of the law to show Abraham’s descendents:
1. how to become the mighty nation God had promised to Abraham (Deut. 7:12-14)
2. How to live in the land God had promised to Abraham (Deut. 6: 6-9)
3. How to be a blessing to the whole earth, as God had promised to Abraham (Deut. 4:6-8 & 28:9-10)
4. How to be worshiping images of God.
God’s people are eventually led into the promised land, not by Moses, but by his successor Joshua. After conquering their enemies and settling down, they are ruled over by judges. Eventually the Lord gives them a king named Saul, and after him a king named David.
David is the next important milestone in the history of God’s people because it is with David that the Lord makes another covenant. God’s covenant with David is really an extension of His covenant with Moses. The law of Moses made provision for a temple, where worship and sacrifices would occur. But it wasn’t until King David that the temple actually became reality. Before that, God’s presence dwelt in a portable tabernacle. In actual fact, it wasn’t David who built the temple but his son Solomon. However, David was the one to whom the Lord gave the promise of a temple, he prepared material for the construction of the temple and he was the one who designed it according to the pattern given to Moses.
The other important aspect of the covenant with David was the establishment of a royal dynasty. God identifies His kingdom with a specific human dynasty. This means that the divine kingdom is also a human kingdom and the human kingdom is also a divine kingdom. As the nation of Israel is God’s people, so their kingdom is God’s kingdom. This moves God’s promise to Abraham - that His descendents would be a mighty nation – to a whole new level. God reveals that His promises are to be fulfilled through David’s line with a king and a kingdom.
God’s people were charged with keeping and following His laws, which would mean they would increasingly become a mighty nation, which would mean they would be a blessing to everyone else and God’s means for bringing redemption to the earth. But remember that God’s covenant with Moses had been conditional, based on the people’s obedience to His law. There were blessings if they followed in His ways, and there were curses if they rebelled and went after false gods.
To sum, the key feature of the covenant with David was kingship. Immediately, we should see continuity with God’s original plan presented in Genesis. This kingship becomes focused in the Davidic dynasty (2 Sam. 7:12-13, 16). Through the covenant with David, God will fulfil His promise to Abraham that kings would descend from him (Gen. 17:6) and His promise to Moses that God would provide His people with a king (Deut. 17). By being mechanism for defeating enemies of God (2 Sam. 7:23-26) kingship establishes Abraham’s descendents as a mighty nation, defends and expands the land of Abraham’s descendents and proves that the God of Abraham is superior to gods of other nations, in order that “All men shall… declare the work of God.” (Ps. 64:7-9) Defeat of Goliath “that all the earth may know there is a God in Israel.” (1 Sam. 17:46) This is a blessing to the other nations.
The covenant with David also involved the establishment of a temple (2 Sam. 7:12-17) in order to facilitate the worship of God. This fulfils the Mosaic promise of a temple where heaven and earth meet (Exod. 15:17) a place where God would dwells among men. It also represents God’s heavenly enthronement over other gods (Ps. 135:5) and implicates the victory of Israel’s God over all peoples of the earth (Ps. 86:8-10). Above all, the temple presses forward God’s plan to fill the earth with worshiping images, although at this point it is still only one nation who is being remade from defaced images into worshiping images.
David’s son Solomon, though he had been instrumental in completing the temple, turned to other gods towards the end of his life. As a consequence, the Lord tore the kingdom in two, leaving only two tribes in the Davidic line. This became known as the nation of Judah. Israel in the north consisted of the remaining ten tribes.
As we know from the parallel histories recorded in Kings and Chronicles, the people forsook the Lord’s covenants and chose the way of wickedness instead. The Lord sent various prophets to warn the people and gave them numerous chances. However, because they continued to forsake His law, the Lord eventually cut His people off from the land. Thus, in B.C. 712, the northern kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity in Assyria after their capital city, Samaria, was conquered by Shalmaneser. In BC 586 the people of Judah were taken to Babylon in exile after being conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar. Before taking the people away, King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed and plundered Solomon’s temple.
There were many reasons why the exile was tragic for the people, not least because the people had to leave the land of promise and the place where their temple had stood. And, of course, it was tragic because this was God’s own people who were meant to be a mighty nation and a blessing to the rest of the earth, not a byword and a term of contempt. It was as if God’s covenant with Israel, and all the promises that were bound up with it, had failed. That is why the covenant seemed to fail. God’s people stopped imaging Him and began to image idols. They stopped being a blessing (Ez. 36:20). Consequently, God’s people were exiled from the promised land and God’s presence left the temple, as the Lord had warned (1 Kings 9:7). They stopped being a mighty nation and became a byword instead (1 Kings 9:7).
In spite of the appearance of failure, God’s plans to fill the earth with worshiping images of Himself were continuing all the same. He had not forgotten His people, nor had He reneged on his promise to Abraham.
It was during the period of the exile that many of the Psalms were written. They were written simply as prayers that the Lord would restore His people, forgive their sins and remember His promises made to Abraham and David. Psalm 53 is a good example of an exilic Psalm. It ends with these moving words,
Oh, that the salvation of Israel would come out of Zion!
When God brings back the captivity of His people,
Let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad.
During the period of exile, prophets came to Israel and Judah, telling of a time when the nations would be restored and united under God’s perfect kingdom (kingdom = the rule of Israel’s God on earth). This had begun during the time of David and when it reached culmination it would mean that the curse of Adam would be reversed, worldwide judgment would be brought against evildoers, and justice and peace would reign from sea to sea. Many of the prophets connected this idea with a new covenant that the Lord promised to make with His people in the latter days. Because of His covenant faithfulness, God promises to make a new covenant with laws written
on His people’s hearts (Jer. 31:31-33; Ezek. 36:16-38), to brings His people back to the land (Is. 11:1-10; Ezek. 36:24), to renew the temple and kingdom through a Messiah from David’s line (Zech. 6:13, 8:3; Dan. 7: 26-27; Mic. 5:2; Isa. 9:7; 11:1 & 10, 55:3-4; 16:5; Ezek. 34:23-24; Jer. 33:19-25; Gen. 49:8-10), to restore the people of God to a mighty nation (Is. 52: 9-10 & 15), to enable God’s people to be blessing/image to rest of nations (Ps. 102:13-22; Isa. 2:2-3; 45:22-24; 52:10; & 66:19; Ezek. 36:36; Zech. 8:21-23; Zeph. 3:14-20; Micah 4:2; Mal. 1:11), to defeat enemies of God’s people (Is. 41:11-12; Zech. 13:2; Zech. 14:18-19), to judge the nations through the Messiah (Isa. 2:4, Isa. 16:5), to establish justice and peace throughout the whole of the earth (Isa. 9: 2-7, 11:1-5, 42:3-4; Zech. 9:9-10; Mic. 4:2-3). Above all, He promises that His Messiah will fulfil redemption history and all earlier covenants by renewing the earth and reversing curse of Adam (Isa. 11:6-9; 35:1-2 & 7; 43:19-20, 65:17-25; Ezek. 34:25-31, 34-35, 47:8-12; Hos. 2:18), that not only God’s images, but the entire created order (mountains, trees and hills included) will clap their hands to worship God. Sometimes the Biblical prophets speak explicitly about ‘the kingdom’, sometimes they talk about the ‘new covenant’, sometimes they use return-from-exile language and sometimes they talk about the Messiah coming to rule. These are all different ways of speaking basically about the same thing: that God will fill the earth with the worship of Him, and all the corollaries that this obviously involves.
Well, the people of Judah did eventually return from their Babylonian exile. The return began in B.C. 536 under the decree of Cyrus. Once back in their homeland, however, things hardly went smoothly for the people of Judah. They were ruled by one foreign power and another. All the wonderful promises associated with the return seemed far from being fulfilled. In fact, the people still considered themselves to be in spiritual exile even though they had returned geographically. Although they eventually rebuilt the Temple, the Lord’s presence had not returned to it. Although they were living in the land geographically, they had not taken possession of it, but were ruled by a succession of foreign powers. As N. T. Wright puts it in his book What St. Paul Really Said: “The story was still incomplete. Israel had not been restored, Zechariah’s ten men had not taken hold of the skirt of a Jew saying ‘we will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’ (Zechariah 8:23); nor had yhwh taken his stand on Mount Zion to defeat all the nations that oppose Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:1-5). Ezekiel’s new Temple had not been built, with rivers of healing water flowing out to make even the Dead Sea fresh (Ezekiel 47). And, towering over them all, Isaiah’s vision of comfort, forgiveness, peace and prosperity had never been remotely near fulfilment (Isaiah 40-55). The Pharisees, and a good many Jews not aligned with any particular party, were still waiting for the great events to happen ‘according to the scriptures.’ They were still in exile. As the Qumran texts witness so poignantly, people were on tiptoe to believe that the real return from exile was about to happen.”
There is one further complication to this picture. Israel had seen her vocation as being God’s force for defeating evil in the world, reversing the curse of Adam and bringing God’s blessings, as well as His judgements, to the rest of mankind. What the exile made clear, however, was that Israel was herself in need of redemption - not just physical redemption from her enemies, but redemption from the sin and unfaithfulness that had brought about the exile in the first place. Through their sin and compromise, the people of the solution had actually become the people of the problem. It is ironic that in the first century we find the temple - which was supposed to epitomise Israel’s vocation of bringing healing to the rest of the nations – had become the very symbol of her corruption. The temple was controlled by a power-hungry elite who used religion as a means to oppress the poor and advance their own aggrandisement. Forget about the rest of the world, Israel herself needed God’s healing waters. The very ones who were meant to be God’s source of blessing and renewal were themselves in desperate need of blessings, forgiveness and renewal. Thus, as I said in my study of the sheep and the goats, the return of YHWH to His people also included the sombre element that God would judge His own people. Those who claimed to represent the true worship of God but who had become unfaithful would receive the brunt of God’s judgment. The book of Malachi is taken up with this theme, as is Zechariah 11 and the first half of Isaiah 65. God would indeed vindicate His people, but this vindication would involve a separation between the true Israel and those who claimed to represent a tradition that they had in fact abandoned.
And that brings us right up to the time of Christ. Christ is more than simply the next big milestone in the story of redemption history, though He is that as well. Christ is where the entire story of Israel reaches its fulfilment and dramatic climax. Afterwards nothing is the same either for Israel or for the world at large. The very purpose for which Abraham had been called apart, for which Israel had been given the law and for which David had been given a kingdom, was about to be manifested.
You cannot properly understand Jesus’ ministry without being steeped in the Old Testament. To read the accounts of Jesus without first understanding everything that preceded it, would be like opening a novel and beginning to read in chapter 4. Yet amazingly, this is how you and many of my universalist friends approach the New Testament. A good example of this is universalist interpretations of the second chapter of Luke’s gospel where we read the account of angels announcing Jesus’ birth to shepherds. In Luke 2:14 the angels sing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men.’ I have read more than one universalist writer referring to this phrase as a basis for postulating general peace between God and all men – a peace that is incompatible with the unending punishment of the wicked. This completely fails to appreciate what the phrase would have conveyed in its 1st century context. The phrase, as it occurs in the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, follows directly after the angelic announcement of the “good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.” (Lk. 2:10) You cited this passage in your email to me of Tuesday, March 24, 2009 9:56 PM, when you heard that I no longer believed in universalism, as if these verses are connoting hope in the post-mortem state. But to a first-century Jew, phrases such as these would have bound together the whole network of associations and expectations related to the return from exile, the establishment of God’s physical kingdom over the face of the earth, the renewal of the covenant, the vindication of God’s people, and so on. And although the renewal of the earth had implications that would eventually be worked out for the whole earth, in its original context it said nothing either way about those who were already passed from the earth. That was not even on the radar screen and to read these ideas into the Lukean passage (as you have numerous times) is to commit a serious anachronism.
The backdrop to the “good news” we read about in Luke is further fleshed out by considering texts such as Isaiah 40:9-11 and 52:7. Here we read about a royal herald announcing the glad tidings that Israel’s God has come to restore His people, to renew and reign on the earth. If Jesus is the fulfilment of these ‘glad tidings’, as the angels claim, then this is what He came to do. Thus, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, Gabriel says that Jesus is coming to sit on the throne of David, to reign over the house of Jacob and that His kingdom will have no end (Lk. 1:32-33). These royal terms were not coded references to an invisible ‘spiritual’ work, nor was it a radical departure from God’s physical work with a nation to an invisible work with individual souls. Rather, the words indicated that the physical Davidic kingdom was about to be established on earth as it is in heaven just as God had promised throughout the Old Testament. That is why the genealogies at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel are so important, because they establish that Jesus was descended from David’s line. The establishment of David’s kingdom is what the gospel (lit. “glad tidings”) were all about. No wonder the shepherds got so excited! They weren’t excited because the angels had announced UR to them. Rather, when the angels announced ‘peace on earth, good will to men’, this was a reference to the peace the Messiah brings when all the earth is submitted to His sovereign rule of justice (Isa. 9: 2-7, 11:1-5, 42:3-4; Zech. 9:9-10; Mic. 4:2-3). The great Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 9:6-7 pointed to this same reality hundreds of years earlier:
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called “Wonderful, Counsellor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.
As this and so many of the other Messianic prophecies made clear, the purpose of the Messiah coming would be to bring God’s kingdom to the earth, which meant justice and peace for everyone. Seen within the context of God’s covenant with Abraham, this makes perfect sense. However, within the context of normal evangelical theology, there’s a problem. In so many different ways, universalists would have us to think we’ve had it drummed into our heads to think of Jesus’ work as ‘spiritual’ in the sense that it belongs to a separate sphere to the material world. We’ve been taught to think that Jesus’ mission was merely to save our souls so that we can be taken away from this earth rather than to heal this earth. I believe that evangelical universalists like yourself have colluded with this Gnostic tendency by relocating the great salvation promises to being a matter of what happens to people when they die. As we read the gospels through the lens of the Old Testament, particularly the covenantal promises, we find that it’s all about God’s physical kingdom progressively breaking into the space/time universe. It’s not about God gathering as many people as possible to take to heaven so that the earth can just be abandoned or destroyed (dispensational premill); nor is it about a general universal reconciliation in some distant eon on the other side of the final eschaton. Rather, it’s about a renewed Israel being rescued from exile. It’s about the earth being put to right. It’s about God’s promises to Abraham, Moses and David coming to glorious fulfilment here on the earth (not heaven and hell).
Now every Jew expected God to fulfil these promises through a Messiah. But although Jesus conformed to the Messianic profile given in the Old Testament, He went about things in a way that radically subverted the people’s expectations. Jesus was clearly proclaiming that the end of spiritual exile was finally at hand. But it hardly looked like what people were expecting. For Jesus, the end of exile was as much about being delivered from the enemy within as the enemy without. The end of exile meant bringing the covenant to its climactic fulfilment in His work of New Creation.
At the centre of Jesus’ ministry of new creation was the new creation of Israel in and around Himself. The Jews who believed that they, as God’s chosen people, were alright, were offended when Jesus said they could not be part of the promised kingdom unless they repented. They knew exactly what he was talking about and it was a great cause of offence. Thus it was that the majority of Jews rejected Jesus, failing to grasp their need. They understood that they had been set apart to keep and hold the revelation of God, but they failed to understand that they needed salvation to enable them to do that.
One of the reasons Jesus’ message was so hard for the people to accept was because He radically redefined who the people of Abraham were. Jesus restructured the covenant community around Himself and His ministry. That is the meaning of the Lord’s table: that it is through Jesus’ work and our identification with that work that we become children of Abraham and therefore children of God. No longer is membership to God’s covenant people a matter of heredity and physical descent from Abraham; rather, it is through faith in Jesus that we are grafted into the family of Abraham. (Rom. 2:28-29; see also Rom. 4; 9-12; Phil. 3:3; Heb. 11; Rev. 2:9 & 3:9). God is still being faithful to the covenant promises given to Abraham and his seed. What has changed is the requirement necessary to qualify as a descendant of Abraham. This is a theme that was later taken up and hammered out at some length by the apostle Paul in his epistle to the Romans and Galatians, and also by the writer of the book of Hebrews. In these works, Paul addresses the question of how the harvest of the nations can occur when the firstfruits (Israel) had become spoilt. Paul’s answer is that it is through the Messiah Jesus that this occurs. Through His life, death and resurrection, Jesus was enacting the role that Israel was always meant to play. Jesus is the embodiment of true Israel through which God is faithful to the covenant with Abraham, a covenant meant to be a blessing to the entire world. That is why Paul can be confident that in Christ all the world will be reconciled, which is to say that one day the entire earth will be filled with worshiping images. If Christ has really fulfilled the Abrahamic covenant, then Paul knew the implications were global.
That sounds simple enough for us Christians today to accept, but for the Jews of the first century, this was a loaded minefield of potential theological problems. On the surface, God’s decision that the covenant was no longer restricted to the physical descendents of Abraham, could seem like an abandonment of the terms of the covenant. To make matters worse, what role did things like circumcision, temple and torah (which had played such a central role in God’s covenant with His people), now have if faith in Christ was all that was required for covenant membership?
When Paul wrote to the Jewish Christians in Rome, he had to address these very questions. From the very beginning of Romans, or at least by chapter two, it is clear that Paul’s concern was to show how this new work fit into – and indeed, fulfilled - everything that went before. Since the Jewish believers had a background of being steeped in the Old Testament covenants, they needed to be carefully shown that there is continuity, not discontinuity, between the new work of Christ and the older Abrahamic covenant. There is not space to develop this point, but all the great themes of the first half of Romans – the significance of circumcision, the role of the law, justification by faith, etc. – spring forth out of these basic questions. The issues Paul raised were designed to show that the new covenant expands rather than abrogates the promises given to Abraham. Paul shows that as God’s mercy is opened up to the Gentiles, God is able to fulfill, through Christ, everything that the law, circumcision and the covenant with the Jewish people had foreshadowed. In Romans 9 through 11 Paul defends God from the charge of unrighteousness, showing that the election of Gentile believers is in keeping, not only with the way God has always done things, but with God’s plan for the future salvation of Israel as well. Therefore, when Paul goes on to give practical advice on Christian living in Romans 12 through 16, this is not just an add-on so that people know how to behave in the meantime. On the contrary, since the point of the covenant was always that there would be a worldwide family to function as a corporate witness of the Creator God, Paul’s concern was to show how this people should function in practice. By living as a community of people loyal to Jesus, the church witnesses to the world that Christ is in charge – that this is His world.
The centre of Romans, chapter 8, is also its climax – the point of it all. Here we read his wonderful exposition on the renewed earth when “the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (8:21). The reason this is the climax of everything is because the eventual renewing of the earth was the purpose behind the covenant with the Jewish and Israelite people. The covenant had been in order that, through Abraham’s descendents, all the nations of the earth might be blessed and the curse of Adam might be reversed. Therefore, if Paul is really correct in maintaining that Christ is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, then it must necessarily follow that, through Him, the earth will be renewed. Romans 8, particularly verses 18-28, are the natural outcome of the call of Abraham that Paul discussed in chapter 4 of Romans. The future reconciliation of the whole world (and note again that we are not talking about universalism) follows from the election of Abraham’s seed, which now include anyone who places faith in Christ.
When this backdrop is kept in mind, when we come to the verses such as Rom. 5:12-21 and 1 Cor. 15:21-22 about Jesus being the second Adam (verses that you have been quoting to me very frequently recently, as if I must either by blind or wilfully ignorant not to see the universalist implications to them), we know that Paul’s argument is far more nuanced than your quantitative approach to the respective “all”s. When those passages are read with the foundation in place that I have been building, it should not be hard to see that Paul is talking about covenantal heads. Jesus is the covenant head for all who are in Christ just as Adam is the covenantal head for all who are in Adam. This fits nicely into what is Paul’s basic question: how is God being faithful to his promises to Israel when Israel has become faithless? Paul’s answer is that God is restructuring Israel around Jesus the Messiah. How is Israel’s God being faithful to renew the earth and to fill it with worshiping images of Himself? Again, Paul’s answer is the same: through Jesus the Messiah and those who are in Him. These are the currents that run backwards and forwards throughout the Pauline corpus, and these currents are greatly lost when we take verses such as Rom. 5:12-21 and 1 Cor. 15:21-22 to simply mean, “Everyone gets saved through Jesus.”
It may be helpful to run through all the ways that Jesus fulfils the earlier covenants. Through His death & resurrection, Jesus redeems the images of God (Col. 1:15 & 3:10; Eph. 4:24), making it possible for worshiping images to begin to fill the earth. Through His death & resurrection, Jesus reverses the curse and brings life to the whole earth (Jn. 1:29; 3:17; 4:42; 6:33; 6:51; 12:47; 2 Cor. 5:19, 1 Jn. 2:2). Jesus bruises Satan’s head by defeating evil on the cross (Col. 1:20). Jesus specifically fulfils the covenant with Abraham because
· All who put faith in Jesus become Abraham’s spiritual descendents (Rom. 2:28-29, 4; 9-12; Phil. 3:3; Gal. 3:15-29; Heb. 11; Rev. 2:9, 3:9)
· Through people of the new covenant, God is making Abraham’s descendents into a mighty nation (Rev. 19:6)
· The Lord is giving them a land and a kingdom (Rom. 4:13; Rev. 11:15)
· The Lord is making them a blessing to all nations (Mt. 5:16)
· Christ fulfils covenant sign of circumcision as Holy Spirit circumcises our hearts (Rom. 2:28-29)
How does Jesus fulfil the covenant with Moses? Christ fulfils the law of Moses (Mt. 5:17-19; Gal. 3:19-25) because:
· Through Christ God’s laws are written on His people’s hearts (Jer. 31:31-33; Ezek. 36:16-38)
· Christ’s perfect substitutionary sacrifice fulfils blood sacrifices (Hebrews)
· Christ fulfils clean/unclean laws by bringing spiritual cleanliness (Rom. 14:14; Heb. 9:8-10; Mark 7:18-19)
· Christ fulfils circumcision by bringing circumcision of heart (symbolised by baptism) (Rom. 2:28-29; Gal. 5:6)
· Christ gives the Spirit to achieve for His people what the law could not (Gal. 5:18), to enable them to become a mighty nation, to live in the land, and to be a blessing. The feast of Pentecost, fifty days after Passover, was always the feast of the giving of the Law. Fifty days after coming through the Red Sea, they arrive at Mount Sinai, where Moses, goes up and comes down with the tablets of stone. After Jesus ascended to heaven, He sent the Holy Spirit to be the way of life for God’s redeemed people, and the Spirit descends at Pentecost. This is the fulfilment of the Torah, the Law.
Jesus also fulfils the covenant with David. Christ sits on Davidic throne and rules forever (Lk. 1:32-33) and renews the temple (Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:4-10). King Jesus defeats enemies of God (Col. 1: 19-20; Phil. 2:9-11) which (A) establishes Abraham’s descendents as a mighty nation (Rev. 20:4); (B) defends and expands their land (Rev. 11:15); (C) proves that He is superior to gods of the other nations (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:16)
Jesus also defined who the enemies were. The prophets had always said that when God fulfilled His covenant with Abraham then God’s people would be delivered from their enemies. The ministry of Jesus will culminate in God’s people being delivered from every human enemy, but He begins by delivering them from the greatest archenemy: Satan himself. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, He fulfilled the promise given to Eve that one of her descendents would defeat the serpent. Through His triumphant defeat of the principalities and powers, Jesus redeems God’s people from death.
But sin and evil still exist. Jesus may have healed a number of people, but what about everyone else? What about the fact that God’s enemies still prowl the earth like hungry lions seeking whom they can devour?
To answer this question we must understand that just as Jesus defined what it meant to be a child of Abraham, so He defined what the Kingdom of God looked like. The reign of Israel’s God in the present world, He said, would not be a sudden once and for all event, but a gradual process that would start off slow but build and build and build. He used the analogy of a mustard seed maturing slowly. He also said that the kingdom of God was like yeast working its way through dough. Similarly, in the writings of the apostles we come across the idea that new Creation began with Jesus’ work. Because sin has been defeated, the earth can begin to be reconciled back to God. What began with Jesus’ ministry, the New Testament says, will be finished by the church. It will not be complete until all things are under God’s feet, until the glory of God fills the earth as the waters cover the sea. (Notice I am talking in terms of the earth. The Bible says very little about heaven.)
The numerous accounts of healing that occur throughout the gospel narratives have to be seen within the context of the kingdom. Jesus faces the forces of death, sickness, disease and demonic power head-on and replaces them with life, health and new creation. The reason He can do this is because, as Messiah, He has authority over this earth. Many Christians have this strange idea that Satan is ruler of the earth and Jesus is the ruler of my heart. Jesus’ healings ministry refutes that. Jesus’ healings show in practice part of what it means to bring the rule of Israel’s God to this earth. As such, Jesus’ kingdom is a physical, earthly kingdom.
John 18:36 is often quoted to try to prove that Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual, invisible reality, occupying a separate sphere to the kingdoms of this world. But a literal translation of this verse in the Greek is “My Kingdom is not from this world.” Jesus’ kingdom did not arise from the earth as if He were an ordinary violent revolutionary; rather, His Kingdom came from heaven. Again, it is the Old Testament picture that we find in Daniel 7 and so many other places of the reign of Israel’s God coming from heaven to the earth. Jesus is fulfilling the prayer of the Psalmist who said in Psalm 27:13, “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.” The land of the living is, of course, earth itself. That is why, in the Lord’s prayer, Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Christ’s kingdom is not about going to heaven when you die but healing the earth. This does not deny that heaven exists. Heaven is the place where those who die in the faith go to be with the Lord. There they await the time of resurrection, when they will return to the earth to live in Christ’s kingdom.
Jesus also redefined the temple. This is a fascinating subject and an entire Bible study in itself. For the moment, suffice to say that Jesus claimed for His work and His people the role that previously the temple had always occupied. He re-appropriated the temple symbolism and applied it to Himself and His people. In the letter to the Hebrews we are told that the design for the tabernacle was instituted until that which it symbolised should take over. In the new covenant, the people of Jesus corporately form a temple of living stones that are to the world everything that the physical temple promised and foreshadowed.
And this brings us round to the blessing theme. The temple was the place where rivers of living waters were supposed to flow to the rest of mankind, thus fulfilling the promise that Abraham’s descendents would be a blessing to the rest of the world. Through the living temple of His people, God’s blessings will continue to flow throughout the entire world until all the nations are healed. As Abraham’s true descendents, the church can claim the promise that we will be a blessing to all the nations.
Jesus’ victory over sin and death on the cross means that the entire natural world, will be liberated from the bondage of decay. This is a point Paul develops in Romans 8:18-25. In other passages, such as Philippians 2:8-11, Paul looks forward to a time when the effects of Christ’s victory will have permeated through the entire earth. Universalists seem to think that these promises can be moved upstairs, as if they indicate what happens on the other side of a purgatorial hell, but that is anachronistic. It was a blessing that would happen in the earth itself. Like the little stone in Daniel or the yeast and mustard seed in Christ’s parables, the kingdom will continue to grow until it has spread the work of new creation through the entire earth: from Antarctica to the North Pole, from Mexico to China, from the very top of the highest mountain to the depths of the deepest sea. The whole earth has now become the promised land, as Paul makes clear in Romans 4:13. That is why, at the end of the book of Revelation, we read about all the world’s cultures bringing their glory into Christ’s kingdom.
This brings us to the final section of the Biblical story, which is the church. The church exists in the interval between the inauguration of Christ’s kingdom, which occurred through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the culmination of that kingdom when He comes again and God’s people are resurrected. The church is called both to implement the victory of the cross and to anticipate the time when that victory will have reached consummation.
The church – being the community of those who have been reconciled to God – are given the vocation of bringing the message of reconciliation to the rest of the world, as Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:18-19 and 10:5. Like the Psalmist, we are to “say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns’” (Ps. 96:10). Naturally, this includes all the institutions, organisations and cultures that make up those nations. We are to proclaim the salvation and kingship of Jesus over all the arts, the sciences, the economies, the music, the philosophy, the educational systems, and of course the political systems of this world. In the church, this should already be reality.
As we know from the New Testament and church history, the actuality is often far different. The church can and does have the tendency to get into a mess just as much as our spiritual forefathers in Israel. Yet we can take confidence in the fact that just as individual Christians sanctify over time, so the church will mature over time. The work of new creation has begun in Jesus Christ, and that means that God’s people can never be the same again.
In the meantime, the church need to repent just our forefathers did. Also like the Israelites of old, the church has the privilege of proclaiming what it means to be a citizen of Christ’s kingdom now. Also like the Israelites of old, the church is engaged in constant warfare. Even though the seed of the woman has crushed the head of the serpent, this is a victory that must be implemented now through the church, in the power of Christ’s completed work. The primary way we fight this war is by proclaiming the message of Christ’s kingdom in how we live our lives. Our own lives individually, and the life of the church corporately, should be showing the fruits of redemption. In this way, we can testify in practice what it means to have Christ rule as king.
Unfortunately, I have found that universalists do not have a well-orbed vision of the church. This may possibly be because they are so busy looking at what happens in the post-mortem state. Ultimately, however, it means that universalists like yourself end up missing what the good news is all about. You keep pressing me to give “the reason for the hope that is in you” as if anything short of universalism robs me of the kind of hope the apostle was referring to. But if you have the Big Picture Story in mind that I have been at pains to sketch, you know that dead people being given a second chance was not “the hope” Paul was referring to. I don’t have to even do any exegesis on the passage because that’s as bizarre as saying that the point of Little Red Riding-Hood is to listen better.
My concern is that in your eagerness to hold out hope for those who die without Christ, you end up subverting the Biblical story. This can be seen in the way that “hope after hell” has become the good news (gospel) itself for you. Your recent letters to me, with their continued stress that anything short of universalism cannot really be “good news” in the Biblical sense, shows that you are not viewing “good news” (gospel) in the context of the same story that the Bible tells. You write, “The good news of universal salvation is truly THE GOSPEL. Gospel means GOOD NEWS.... No lesser hope than this can be good news.”
Again, this completely fails to understand the OT backdrop. The Old Testament backdrop to the gospel is the ‘glad tidings’ or ‘good tidings’ of Isaiah, which is usually always connected to the Messianic kingdom coming to the earth, not, as you would have it, a resurrection to eternal life of every person who had ever lived. Consider Isaiah 40:9-11:
O Zion, You who bring good tidings [euangelion in Gk.]
Get up into the high mountain;
O Jerusalem, you who bring good tidings,
Lift up your voice with strength,
Lift it up, be not afraid;
Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’
Behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand,
And His arm shall rule for Him;
Behold, His reward is with Him, and His work before Him.
He will feed His flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom,
And gently lead those who are with young. (Is. 40:9-11)
This is clearly a prophecy about the Messianic kingdom that would be established on the earth. The glad tidings would be when Israel’s God has finally come to rule the earth with a strong hand. The corollary of this would be that God’s people would return from their physical and spiritual exile as He gathers His elect like a shepherd gathers His flock. These themes occur throughout Isaiah, where the heralding of glad tidings is always connected with the reign of Israel’s God on the earth. Consider Isaiah 52:7:
How beautiful upon the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings good news,
Who proclaims peace,
Who brings glad tidings of good things,
Who proclaims salvation,
Who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’
The gospel theme in the New Testament draws on this background. When the angels spoke to the shepherds announcing Jesus’ birth, they said, “behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.” (Lk. 2:10) These ‘good tidings’ would have been understood in light of their Isaianic background and the kingdom context. Earlier, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he described to her exactly what these glad tidings were. Notice first what they were not: they were not that Jesus was coming to offer a system of personal salvation, or that Jesus was coming to make it possible for every person to have a relationship with Him, or that He was coming to start a new religion. Nor is the gospel the news that God will be saving all his enemies, including those who perished in the generations since Adam. Whether God will do that or not, it is anachronistic to say that this is what the gospel is about. The angel Gabriel says that Jesus is coming to sit on the throne of David, to reign over the house of Jacob and that His kingdom will have no end (Lk. 1:32-33). That is the gospel and that was the glad tidings that the angels announced to the shepherds.
If not believing in UR means that you can’t really appreciate the gospel, as you have written again and again, then Isaiah himself cannot have believed the gospel. Jesus’ use of the gospel draws on this backdrop, as is clear from Jesus’ own words in Luke 4:16-21 where he applied Isaiah’s ‘glad tidings’ to his own ministry.
Instead of seeing the gospel as the liberating of the space-time universe from sin and death and the hope of resurrection for those who are in Christ, you see the good news that everybody gets a second chance, that there is hope-after-hell and that even the devils will be reconciled to God. That may be a type of good news, but I would submit that it is not the good news that Paul announced. The good news that Paul announced was that God is restoring the covenant and rescuing His people from exile, and that was great news because it had implications for the whole earth, as the Abrahamic covenant always did. It has nothing to do with hope beyond hell or what happens beyond the earth. It has to do with the space-time universe being rescued from sin and death and filled with worshiping images of God. Even the great promise of resurrection is firmly grounded in the earth, as those who are in Christ are resurrected to enjoy eternal life, not in heaven, but in the renewed earth (see Tom Wright’s book Surprised by Hope for more on that).
Again, the good news or gospel has nothing to do with those who die in a state of alienation from God being given a second chance after death. If that is a Biblical concept at all, it does not occupy the central place in the Biblical narrative that you believe it does. If universalists were capable of doing serious-minded exegesis, I might be able to be persuaded that passages such as Colossians 1:16-19 and Philippians 2:9-11 are extending Christ’s redemptive work to realms other than the earth, but that is not the view that I am interacting with – I am interacting with a view which sees universalism as THE central organizing theme in all of scripture, THE purpose behind the Abrahamic covenant, and a theme so central that to believe anything else means that one has practically lost faith in God’s grace and love. As you wrote in your prayer, after finding out that I no longer believed in universalism. “Father, only your Good Spirit can restore Robin's hope in your superabundant grace and love.” If you really think that not believing in universalism means that we have lost hope in God’s grace and love and no longer have “a reason for the hope that is in us” (as you also have argued in numerous places), and that the good news becomes the bad news, then universalism occupies a place in your theology that it does not occupy in scripture. This is bound to trickle out in numerous ways and distort your concept of other Biblical doctrines, not least your practice of preaching assurance to unbelievers.
I speak as someone who has been there. Though I was never went as far as you and preached assurance to unbelievers, in our former universalist home-church, universalism defined us and characterized who we were as a fellowship. We essentially created a new creed, albeit an unspoken one, which we held onto as functionally just as important to us as the primary creeds of the church which had always been the benchmark of Christian belief. Universalism became central to our very concept of God and His character, so that we had to “hold on” just tenaciously as we held on to the existence of God Himself. Not only could we not do without universalism, but to even consider whether it might be false would make our whole world would come crashing down around us.
The problem here is the same with any doctrine that is allowed to become a hobby horse. When we begin to minor in the minors like this, we lose a sense of proportion, a sense of the church steadily marching through the ages. Above all, we lose the overall architecture of the Biblical story and replace it with our own story – a story that connects all of the same dots but connects them in radically subverting ways. It is subverting, not so much because it preaches anything that is false (although I do believe universalism is false), but because it anachronistically twists and distorts the natural counters of the Biblical narrative. It tells a story but it is a different story.
See my other posts Universalism and The Sheep and the Goats.
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Friday, April 17, 2009
The Christian Voice website has an article of mine titled 'Political Christianity in the Early Church' in which I argue that Christianity was a political religion from the very outset, long before Constantine.
I want to thank those who have helped to advertize my observations about the economic crisis on their blogs (for example HERE and HERE).
Also, thanks to those (see HERE and HERE) who are using their website to advertize my book The Way of a Man With a Maid and to the Noval Morrisseau blog for republishing my article on unisexism.
“Cheep grace”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Bonhoeffer contrasted cheep grace with the costly grace presented in the gospels. Real grace is so costly, it might even cost a man his life, as in the case of our Lord. “Such grace" he wrote, "is costly because it falls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'ye were bought at a price,' and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too fear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’
“Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’
Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
Like so many of Jesus’ parables, the parable of the sheep and the goats is routinely read with the assumption that Jesus must be talking about personal salvation at the end of the eschaton. This salvation, in turn, is understood primarily or exclusively to be a matter of going to heaven when you die. The converse of this is to see Jesus’ pronouncement of damnation primarily or exclusively in terms of certain people going to hell when they die. Indeed, Matthew 25:46 is frequently detached from the rest of the parable (as well as the corpus of kingdom parables to which it belongs) and then used as the most-cited proof text for the doctrine of endless hellfire.
If we understand the parable as referring to the second coming, then it is hard to escape the force of this interpretive tradition, even if we want to nuance the meanings of salvation and damnation to encompass more than merely heaven and hell.
My suggestion is that this reading of the parable is anachronistic. A 1st century Jewish audience would not have taken this parable to be about Jesus’ final coming at all. Nor would they have heard it as referring to final rewards and punishments meted out to individuals at the end of the present age.
The Return of the King
The key to understanding the parable is verse 31. “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.”
The idea of a king returning after a long absence is, of course, a recurring motif throughout the parables which Matthew records. The parable of the vinedressers (Mt. 21:33-44), the wedding feast (22:1-14) the foolish virgins (25:1-13) and the talents (25:14-30) all invoke this idea of a king returning in judgment. Clearly, the returning king is Jesus, who comes as yhwh’s representative to vindicate His people and to judge His enemies.
Jesus is drawing on themes that would have resonated deeply with a 1st century Jewish audience. The theme of yhwh returning to bless His people and judge His enemies goes back to the great covenantal blessings of Deuteronomy 30. There the Lord promised that yhwh’s return to His people would be marked by an end of captivity, blessing in the land God has given them and judgment on his enemies and theirs. After the people of Judah were exiled to Babylon in BC 586, Daniel took up this same theme, showing that there would be a return from exile when God vindicated His people (Daniel 9). This too would be marked by the Lord coming back to His people: specifically the “the Son of Man coming” (Dan. 7:13) to assume dominion of His kingdom and to make a judgment in favour of the saints of the Most High.
Many of the prophets took up this theme as well, pointing out that the return of God to His covenant people would be marked by the end of exile and the vindication of His chosen ones. For example, the Lord spoke through the prophet Zechariah, saying, “I am returning to Jerusalem with mercy” (Zech. 1:16) and “I will return to Zion, and dwell in the midst of Jerusalem.” This return would be marked by God’s lavish blessing on His people (Zechariah 8 - 12) and judgment on His enemies (Zech. 9 & 14).
That is what many Jews in Jesus’ day were still waiting for. Although the southern tribes had returned from the geographical exile during the period of Ezra and Nehemiah, and even rebuilt the temple, the great covenantal promises of Deuteronomy 30 and Daniel 9 were still unfulfilled. The people had returned to the land but God had not returned to His people. God’s presence had not returned to the temple in the way described in Ezekiel 40-48 and the Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine had a daily reminder that they had yet to be vindicated from their enemies.
This is why, according to many Jewish theorists of the time, the real return from exile was still future. The real return from exile would be when Daniel’s Son of Man came and assumed dominion of the kingdom, when God returned to His people to bless and vindicate them and judge His enemies. This was, of course, was what Messiah was expected to bring about.
But the return of yhwh to his people also included the sombre element that God would judge His own people. Those who claimed to represent the true worship of God but who had become unfaithful would receive the brunt of God’s judgment. The book of Malachi is taken up with this theme, as is Zechariah 11 and the first half of Isaiah 65. God would indeed vindicate His people, but this vindication would involve a separation between the true Israel and those who claimed to represent a tradition that they had in fact abandoned.
Jesus as the Returning King
The parable of the vinedressers begins with a landowner who went into a far country (Mt. 21:33) and then returns in judgment (21:40), and this judgment lands on those who thought they were the heirs of the kingdom but who had actually become unfruitful (21:43). Similarly, in the parable of the wedding feast (22:1-14), the intended guests are unfaithful and therefore overlooked. That parable ends with the sombre separation between those whom the king had called and him who looked the same but was actually rejected. In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the bridegroom unexpectedly returns to his people to bring judgment against those who thought they knew him, but to whom the bridegroom replies, “I do not know you.” (25:12). The parable ends with Jesus explicitly invoking the Danielian motif of the Son of Man coming: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.” (25:13). Similarly, the parable of the talents begins with a man travelling to a far country and ends with His return in judgment against he who thought he was carrying out the master’s will but who was actually guilty of unfaithfulness.
In all these cases, I would suggest that Jesus is drawing on the great Old Testament themes discussed above but adding a subversive twist. He is using motifs that were familiar enough to be understood by his audience, but re-applying them in ways that were deeply subversive. Jesus’ version of the story goes like this: after a long period of exile, Israel’s God is returning to His people in the person of Jesus Himself.[i] This return is marked by a separation between God’s chosen people and those who claim to follow yhwh but have actually become unfaithful. The referents of the latter group are those who reject Jesus’ message. By clinging to their own understanding of the kingdom and rejecting Jesus’, they become the recipients of the covenant curses and not the covenant blessings. They become the real exiled ones, so that when Israel’s God returns to vindicate His people, they find themselves on the wrong side, cast into the outer darkness.
The Sheep and the Goats
Following the proposal laid out by N.T. Wright in his book Jesus and the Victory of God, I would suggest that Jesus believed all this was happening in and through His ministry for the very generation He was addressing. The judgment on unbelieving Judaism to which this parable, like the others, so clearly point was not something reserved for the end of time, as if Jesus was talking about heaven and hell or His final coming. Rather, it was a warning about the very imminent destruction that God had in store for unbelieving Judaism. In hindsight, and with the rest of the New Testament to guide us, it is not hard to see this destruction in terms of what happened to Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman in AD 70, when God’s vengeance was let loose against those who had persecuted the true Israel (Christians). But while Jesus’ message was specifically focused on the nation of Israel, the principle is international in application. Thus, throughout the present age, God continues to separate the sheep from the goats by judging or rewarding nations that help or hinder the progress of the gospel (pictured as their response to “the least of these My brethren”).
The obvious Danielian backdrop to this particular parable helps to clinch the fact that it has nothing to do with Christ’s second coming. In Daniel 7, the coming of Son of Man is not His coming to earth. Rather, it is in the other direction: He comes to heaven from earth. When He does so, He takes His seat with the Ancient of Days and assumes dominion of His kingdom (Dan. 7:13-14). The parallels between Daniel 7:13-14 and Matthew 25:31 are too obvious to overlook. By invoking Daniel’s picture to His hearers, Jesus is identifying Himself with Daniel’s Son of Man, showing that He too will be coming to the heavenly throne of the Ancient of Days, to assume dominion of the kingdom in glory. When He does this, He will vindicate the true Israel. As N.T. Wright puts it:
"In Matthew, the other parables in chapter 25 are focused, not on the personal return of Jesus after a long interval in which the church is left behind, but on the great judgment which is coming very soon upon Jerusalem and her current leaders, and which signals the vindication of Jesus and his people as the true Israel. There is, of course, a time-lag to be undergone, but it is not the one normally imagined. It is not the gap between Jesus’ going away and his personal return (the ‘coming of the son of man’ in the literalistic, non-Danielic sense); it is the time-lag, envisaged in Matthew 24, between the ministry of Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem. This time-lag will be a period in which, in Jesus’ absence, his followers will be open prey to the deceit of false Messiahs, and will face a period of great suffering before their vindication dawns." [ii]
“Eternal Life” and “Everlasting Punishment”
Much confusion has been generated by the language of “eternal life” and “everlasting punishment” in verse 46. It is often asserted that if “everlasting punishment” is taken as anything short of never-ending hellfire, then the “eternal life” of Christians must also be limited because of the obvious juxtaposition of the two. Of course, this assumes that Jesus’ parable is addressing the post-mortem state. However, Jesus’ hearers would not have associated “eternal life” with “going to heaven when you die” or even resurrection. Again N. T. Wright is helpful in explaining the matter:
"In its original Jewish context the phrase [‘eternal life’] fairly certainly refers to ‘the life of the age to come.’ The ‘present age,’ according to some Jewish thought, would give way to ‘the age to come.’ One of the great beliefs of the early Christians was that God had already kick-started the ‘age to come,’ even though the ‘present age’ was still in some sense continuing…. The phrase ‘eternal life’ should…refer to a new dispensation which God will create in the renewal of all things. Perhaps we should translate zoe aionios differently, to make the point."[iii]
Understood as such, when Jesus invokes the ideas of eternal life and eternal punishment, he is invoking the historic-temporal blessings and curses that would occur in the age shortly to come – the age he was even then inaugurating by His kingdom announcement. In the chapter just previous (Matthew 24) Jesus had described the judgment upon Jerusalem that marked the passing of one era and the establishment of another in which the glory of God is no longer concentrated in the Temple but in the Son of Man.[iv] These are not realities reserved for Christ’s final coming, but dire warnings to the very people Jesus’ was addressing. These warnings are not about hell fire (at least not in the sense that hell is traditionally conceived), but Roman fire, falling masonry and crosses outside the city.[v]
Further, if taken in the context of the other kingdom parables I have briefly addressed, Jesus is not issuing mere empty threats, nor is he preaching a judgment that ends in hope; rather, He is setting forth the very real possibility that those who reject His ministry will be left out in the cold, exiled from the covenantal blessings like the devil and his angels, where they can do nothing but weep and gnash their teeth. Jesus is taking all the Old Testament promises of covenant renewal, as well as the warnings about covenant curses, and showing that they find fulfilment in how people and nations respond to His own ministry. It is to this reality, not our preoccupations with what happens when you die, that Jesus’ kingdom parables so vividly point.
[i] For an excellent treatment of how returning king motif is at the heart of the meaning of the gospel, see Derrick Olliff’s paper, “The Gospel: The Return of the King”, at http://www.davidpfield.com/other/Olliff-Gospel-King.pdf.
[ii] N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (SPCK, 1996), p. 636.
[iii] N. T. Wright, New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of the Christian Hope (Cambridge: Grove Books Limited, 1999), p. 7. For a more detailed study of the meanings of the Greek aionios (“eternal”), see Edward Fudge, The Fire that Consumes (Carlisle, UK: The Paternoster Press, 1994), chapter 2.
[iv] There is not space to discuss the matter here, but a compelling case can be made for reading Matthew 24 and the parallel section of Mark 13 as referring to Christ’s “coming” in judgment at AD 70.
[v] If the kingdom parables are simple stories about salvation and damnation, then who can the foolish virgins or the unfortunate wedding guest be other than those who want to access Christ’s salvation but can’t. It is unconvincing to say that these are people who were trying to achieve salvation in the wrong way – say, by trying to earn their salvation by works – unless we are prepared to swallow the even more implausible idea that Jesus was a poor communicator that the meaning of these parables would lie shrouded in mystery until post-reformation Europeans came along to de-code them. The advantage of the interpretation I am pressing is that in all likelihood, this is what the audience of Jesus’ day would have heard Him as saying.
Rethinking Unquenchable Fire