Fatalism and Despair in Hebrews 6?

Today my Sunday school class reached the end of Hebrews 6. It is a famous passage, often related by Protestants in particular traditions to discussions of whether “once saved, always saved” and that sort of thing. For those unfamiliar with the text, here is the most controversial portion (Hebrews 6:4-6a, NIV):

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened,who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance.

After discussing the common approaches which take the text to  be warning either something about predestination (although then what’s the point of the warning?), or that if one commits apostasy after becoming a Christian, then as much as one might repent, God will not accept them because they had their chance and they blew it. Some early Christians debated whether post-baptismal sin could be forgiven along such lines.

I suggested a different possibility might be worth considering.

What if the impossibility is not referring to an issue on God’s end, a theological hindrance of some sort, but to a practical impossibility on the human side?

We can all imagine, and perhaps have even encountered, people who persisted in doing evil and justifying it to themselves to such an extent that appeals to things like human decency or the value of other human lives seem to fall on deaf ears.

What if the meaning is that, if one tastes of maximal goodness, and even so decides to turn away, it is a path that could lead one to a point at which one will no longer have a desire for goodness, truth or justice?

The continuation of the passage seems to support such an interpretation. The author seems, on the one hand, to have some reason to think that apostasy is a real danger in the community he is addressing, and so there are presumably some symptoms visible. Yet on the other hand, the author expresses confidence of better things, and uses an analogy with land which suggests that it is not occasional but persistent and unchanging unfruitfulness that puts certain ground in jeopardy.

This would also be in keeping with the sort of outlook expressed in the story of the prodigal son. The message is not that a son can be so bad that the father will become unable to forgive him. The message is that there is a serious risk that a son who has chosen a particular path may become incapable of coming to his senses.

I did point out nevertheless that, if one still finds the theology of this author problematic, it just barely made it into the New Testament, and other perspectives can be found in other New Testament works.

What do readers of this blog think about the meaning of Hebrews 6?

  • Jason Staples

    That’s how I’ve taught that passage for years.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      So then we must be right! :-)

  • beau_quilter

    Well, speaking as an apostate myself, I can attest that the chances of my returning to Christianity are remote.

  • Gary

    “if one still finds the theology of this author”…. A simple threat by the author, no more, no less. Trying to develop a theology based upon an author’s comment is a waste of time. The author has a motive, just like every other author. Analogy, a mother saying to a child, “if you do that, I will never forgive you”. If a kid took everything seriously, and built a house-of-cards theology based upon everything his mother yelled at him, we’d all need to see a shrink. I think I might be turning atheist.

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    I like that. Interesting approach; I had never considered it before.

  • http://historical-jesus.info/ Bernard Muller

    ” if one commits apostasy after becoming a Christian, then as much as one might repent, God will not accept them because they had their chance and they blew it.”

    This is confirmed by:
    Hbr 10:26 For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins,
    Hbr 10:27 But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.
    Hbr 10:28 He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses:
    Hbr 10:29 Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?
    Cordially, Bernard

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thanks Bernard! I am not sure that those texts are incompatible with the interpretation I proposed, although they may perhaps be. 10:26-29 may well envisage a scenario in which someone has done precisely what I described in my post, turning away willfully so that they find themselves uninterested in repenting. But when we reach ch. 10 in my Sunday school class, I will revisit the subject!

  • James Pate

    One question I have about that interpretation: What about Esau seeking repentance with tears in Hebrews 12:17, but not finding it? Can one desire to repent, but not be able to do so?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Perhaps. But that story is about Esau being regretful after the time had come to reap the consequences of his actions. And so the application of that might be to the envisaged final judgment, when it might be presumed that there would indeed be some regret, but it would be too late not to be held accountable. That can be distinguished from the view that even during their lifetime someone might genuinely want to return to God but be rebuffed.

  • http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ed_babinski/babinski-bio.html EdwardTBabinski

    I think the passage means, “You are f#cked if you’re not a Christian,” which is typical “insider” OK, but “outsider” DAMNED, type of thinking for any cult or cultist. Do you really think God is like that? Of course any cultist who pushes “damnation” does, be they Christian, Muslim, et al.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Do I think God is like that? Absolutely not. Did this author? That’s a question that needs to be asked, but also kept distinct from what one ought to think today. It is extremely problematic for those Evangelical interpreters of Hebrews who treat it as evidence that God does not and cannot forgive apart from the death of Jesus as sacrifice. The Bible as a whole has far more about God simply forgiving than about Jesus’ death being required for forgiveness.


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