Some Problems I Have With Penal Substitution Theology of Atonement

Some Problems I Have With Penal Substitution Theology of Atonement April 3, 2017


If penal substitution is true, God is not unlike other ancient, blood-thirsty god.

In church we often sing worship songs with themes and phrases that say, “there is none like you!” I believe those songs are beautiful, because it’s true– there is no God like our God.

But if penal substitution is true, God isn’t unique at all– God would be just like every other ancient god who had a thirst for blood. I mean, how is a god who needs a virgin thrown into the volcano any different than a god who needs a bloody human sacrifice on a cross? Both gods would functionally be the same.

Thus, if penal substitution is true, all those things we sing about God’s holiness and uniqueness are completely false.

If penal substitution is true, God is a slave to his own anger.

One of the key, historic Christian beliefs, is the belief in God’s omnipotence– but if penal substitution is true, God is not all powerful and neither is he free. Instead, God is constrained by his wrath, unable to freely forgive those who have wronged him or misunderstood him without first getting his pound of flesh in.

Defenders of penal substitution will often say things like, “God cannot allow sin to go unpunished” or, “God cannot forgive without a payment.” These statements however, indicate a belief that God is limited and powerless over his own anger. It would be a divine case of the tail wagging the dog, and I have an issue with God being a slave to that.

If penal substitution is true, God cannot or will not do what he asks us to do: freely forgive.

Here’s a question: if penal substitution is true, wouldn’t that make God a hypocrite? After all, it would mean God either cannot or will not do the very thing he asks us to do: forgive without demanding something on the part of the one who offended us.

Jesus tells us we are to forgive over and over again. He tells us that we should be loving toward our enemies to emulate God who is “kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” He tells us we should walk the extra mile, turn the other cheek, and to freely give without expecting in return.

However, if God demanded a blood sacrifice and was unwilling or unable to extend forgiveness without it, God himself is unwilling to follow the teachings of Jesus. Furthermore, it would mean Jesus was wrong about God when he claimed that God was kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

I like how Greg Boyd puts it:

“If God the father needs someone to “pay the price” for sin, does the Father ever really forgive anyone? Think about it. If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? It seems not, especially since the very concept of forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.”

Surely, we don’t teach our children this idea of forgiveness. When someone says, “sorry” we teach them to respond with, “I forgive you.” We don’t teach them to say, “I will forgive you, but I have to punch you in the face first, or at least punch a substitute for you, before I can forgive you.”

If penal substitution is true, the atonement lacks true justice.

I affirm that Jesus, in some way that perhaps will never be fully understood, served as our substitute. However, where this breaks down is when you add the penal part of it all. How is penal substitution just? How does it even work?

For example, if someone robs a bank, how is justice served if an innocent person serves their prison term for them? Is not justice about more than punishment? Is not justice making sure those who have been wronged are made right, that the offender is rehabilitated and restored to life as God intended? If an innocent person serves the prison term while the offender is free to continue to harm others and harm him or herself, how is that justice? Wouldn’t such a scenario make the world more broken and unjust, instead of less?

If guilt and innocence can be so easily transferred, does not justice become deeply impersonal, lacking actual concern for the welfare and restoration of the parties involved? If this system of transferring guilt and innocence is so valid, why do we not use it in justice systems today?

If penal substitution is true, God’s primary method of resolving problems is the use of violence.

At the heart of penal substitution is the belief that God had to punish someone– that violence was the only solution to fallen humanity. This, of course, is highly problematic.

The problems with this concept could fill a book, but the biggest problem is that it is incredibly damaging to trinitarian theology. In orthodox trinitarian theology, the father and the son are one in essence. Jesus in fact claimed that “anyone who has seen me has seen the father” because he and the father “are one.”

Yet, penal substitution would divide them– they would not be one in essence, or in full harmony and agreement.

Jesus taught that we are to not use violence against our enemies– that violence is off limits, and that a commitment to nonviolent enemy love is a requirement of becoming a child of God. Time and time again, when Jesus was confronted with the option of using violence to either punish sin or solve problems, he rejected it and taught us a new way.

Jesus thwarted a public execution. He rebuked his best friend for using violence in self defense. Even at his trial he argued that the hallmark of his kingdom is the refusal to use violence to solve problems.

If penal substitution is true, God the father and Jesus the son radically disagree on the use of violence to punish and solve problems– one sees it the only way, and one sees it as the only option that needs to be immediately taken off the table. Thus, in my mind, penal substitution is at odds with orthodox trinitarian theology because Jesus and the father would not be one in essence and agreement.

I grew up believing in penal substitution, and it was to be unquestioned. No one told me it was a new theology, born largely out of the reformation, and often articulated by European theologians who had previously been lawyers– making sense of the fact they’d understand the cross by way of strict legal terms.

The reality is, penal substitution has a lot of problems– and thankfully, more and more Christians are recognizing that.

unafraid 300Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. 

Be sure to check out his new blog, right here, and follow on Facebook:

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  • Huh – I’d never heard the connection between penal substitution and “European theologians who had previously been lawyers” before. Can you give some examples? In any case, it does make sense; penal substitution does have a certain airtight legal logic to it if you accept its premises – the problem, of course, being that many of those premises are faulty. (FWIW, I blogged a bit about this a few years ago: ).

  • Don Roberts

    Thank you for posting this. I completely agree. Penal substitution completely goes against Jesus’s forgiving of sins. It also goes against Isaiah 1:11 teachings. No sacrifice is or was necessary. There is a huge difference between Jesus dying because of sin and Jesus dying for the forgiveness of sins.

  • the one

    the other thing about the penalty being Jesus taking our place…is that we are taught that the penalty for sin…is unending torture…..for one persons sins….if Jesus took penalty for ALL mankind…and HE was not tortured forever…how does that add up?

  • olbab

    I like to think: Jesus died to get our attention. What else could have done it in that bloody age (not that this age is much better). I think you could make a serious case that the “cult of Jesus” would have died in it’s tracks on his death if not for the very gruesome way he died, and the accretions of John and Paul, and later, the discovery of the Romanized church that they could more easily control the peons through fear than through love.
    Just sayin’.
    Ol’ Bab

  • $205938141

    Think John Calvin

  • Kate

    Please refer me to more detailed explanations of how Jesus’ death was substitutionary, a ransom, but not penal. I’d like to be more theologically conversant before discussing this topic with the majority of my Christian friends who consider the non-violent atonement position a watered-down gospel. Thanks!

  • The penalty for sin is death not unending torture. – Hell, described as unending torture, is a Christian myth. However, death is real and all men die once because all men have sinned. Jesus died for our sins. He was resurrected as we will be. He was resurrected to life and back to His place with the Father. Many men will be resurrected to life and achieve their place in the Kingdom. Other will be resurrected and suffer the second death which is permanent but still not unending torture.

  • ashpenaz

    If God’s wrath is completely satisfied by Jesus’ death on the Cross, then why does
    He need to condemn people to Eternal Conscious Torment? Is there wrath left over that the Cross didn’t deal with? How many people does God need to predestine to ECT before His wrath is satisfied? If He’s only going to save a select few, why not just let those few be born and then stop? Why allow more and more people who are predestined to ECT to keep getting born?

  • Just thought I’d point out that Bob said something I agree with– let that be a lesson to all of you.

  • Ben may come at this from a different take, but if you’re asking about resources, I’ve got a couple of recommendations.

    One is the book “Paul on the Cross” by David A. Brondos – a Lutheran minister in Mexico:

    The second resource is Andrew Perriman’s blog. He’s recently been doing a series on the atonement. The post where he specifically critiques a PSA view is here:

    I should add that both of these sources are coming from the perspective that Jesus’ death needs to be interpreted in light of the historical narrative of Israel, and therefore virtually all “theories of the atonement” suffer from common flaws. So, these sources are not great for mounting a defense of a different theological view of the atonement, but they are great for ditching all theological views of the atonement and just looking at Jesus’ death from the standpoint of the biblical narrative.

  • Ok, Bob, I pretty much agree with what you just said. I believe this is the third seal in Revelation.

  • If you haven’t read my previous work on the topic, I’d invite you to check out related pieces that I think will answer a lot of your questions:

  • John

    A couple points:
    1) God differs from those other capricious false deities because he pays the debt himself. He does not demand that others pay the price. To compare God giving himself up as payment and demanding virgins to die is disgusting.

    2) The biblical language around Jesus’s substitution is that of paying a ransom. An example in our modern system might be that of getting a speeding ticket. Let us say that we just learned how to drive and get a ticket for $300. When we get home and tell our father, he magnanimously offers to pay the debt on our behalf. In the same way, Jesus pays the debt that we owe.
    The ransom language is also used in reference to Jesus buying us out of our slavery and bondage to sin.

    3) You seem to think that God is not just. A God who has rules, but lets people break them without any consequence is not a just God.

  • Bones

    Some branches of the Eastern church don’t accept PSA which is a derivative of western medievalism.

  • 1) This makes even less sense. It would make far more sense to forgive the debt, especially since it is God’s own laws that create the “debt” in the first place. Furthermore, I think you’ll find that it’s actually the human being Jesus Christ who died as a human a being suffering as a human being, and not God the Father who is a spirit.

    2) There are tons of biblical phrases around the atonement, “ransom” being one of them, and whatever definition we come up for for “ransom,” none of them would equate to paying a parking ticket.

    3) But we know God didn’t let Israel break His laws without consequence. You seem to think that God needs to go the extra mile beyond exile, death, and foreign dominion into eternal hellfire. There’s nothing about justice that necessitates that.

  • And PSA is a newcomer to the scene compared to Christus Victor. You can find Christus Victor in the second century, but we have to get to the 11th century to see something that -looks like- PSA in Anselm, and then developed to full-blown PSA by John Calvin.

  • Bones

    Yeah, nah God’s not into genocide.

  • Zenon Lotufo Jr.

    “The concept of God’s justice, like any other attribute of the divinity, varies radically depending of the internal image one has of the Creator. The justice of a compassionate and loving God, interested especially in loving and being loved, is one thing; the justice made by an authoritarian, arbitrary and, even cruel, God, whose greatest interest is in being obeyed and glorified is quite another. The former is the justice of a loving father, the latter that of a spiteful monarch. On the other hand, it is not too much to insist that the image of God is not something one finds primarily
    through study or reflection, but rather a basic belief that conditions all of a
    person’s other beliefs”. “Cruel God, Kind God” p. 93

  • Zenon Lotufo Jr.

    I think you’re right in rejecting the absurd Penalty Substitution Theology of Atonement. Attributing manifestations
    of anger and revenge to the God that we can see through Jesus make no sense. I
    wrote about it in my book “Cruel God, Kind God”:
    Divine anger? From what we have seen, anger is incompatible with the Jewish-Christian concept of God. It exists in the human being and in other species with well-defined functions that are important to animals in the fight for survival, creating
    physiological conditions to better attack and defend, and to humans in
    regulating our rights and interests in social relationships. But it would play
    no part in regard to the divine being, who we cannot imagine ever needing
    physiological mechanisms to fight or flight. Nor can we imagine, if we use the
    starting point of the compassionate and loving God, that God manifests the
    bloodthirsty wrath with which conservative theology characterizes him. (Pp.

  • Honorio Tanquintic

    Because Luther was a priest in the Catholic religion and no matter how he tried to be holy could not and also salvation then was by being good and be a part of the Catholic religion which is not the doctrine of salvation. Faith in the Lord Christ was the way to salvation. Also Jesus is God, the Son. No one can understand the substitution of Jesus to die for our sins if one cannot believe Jesus is God who died for our sins.

  • Kate

    Thanks! Also found Reclaiming the Atonement by Reardon from an orthodox perspective. Lots to read.

  • The part about resurrection and second death was specifically the part I didn’t agree with, if that helps.

  • I can appreciate this, but if we’re going to say the anthropomorphisms people have used to describe God are illegitimate because God doesn’t have genes, adrenaline, hormones, etc., then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to describe God as loving or compassionate, either.

  • Sherlang

    Maybe I’ve missed something…but have you written an article about what your theory of why Jesus had to die on the cross Dr. Corey? You’ve done a really good job rejecting the penal substitution theory…so what needs to replace it?

  • John

    Both are included in the Biblical aspect of God.

  • LastManOnEarth


  • Ron McPherson

    Btw enjoyed your latest piece on this very thing

  • If penal substitution is true, God’s primary method of resolving problems is the use of violence.

    Not only violence, but, at least according to common Hell interpretation, infinite violence. To use your previous example, not only do we not teach children to forgive only after punching their interlocutor or a substitute in the face, we also don’t teach them that they have the right to punch that person as much as they like for the rest of that person’s life, and then pursue them into whatever comes afterward to continue punching them forever and ever.

    I refuse to believe, if God exists, that God is an infinitely more cruel and petty entity than the world’s worst child.

  • Paul D.

    The most comprehensive set of arguments against the PST (and resources arguing both sides) probably comes from the late theologian Ken Pulliam, whose blog is still online:

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I’ll give you (1): the god of PSA is different in that he is completely and irrationally insane in his anger, desiring to inflict pain even on himself in his fury, rather than cruel but rational.
    With (2) the Bible does refer to Jesus’ death as payment or ransom, but in the Bible it is not a payment to God, but by him, and a payment to (or at least made necessary by) our being hopelessly enmired in sin. The traditional doctrine of the atonement is that Jesus died to cure us of our sin: only by becoming incarnate, entering into our human nature and dying could God reach and touch us in our sin, death and confinement to hell, by entering in to sin and death destroy it and by becoming human transform human nature into something divine.
    Re (3) I again would agree with you that a just God cannot ignore sin and injustice, but would say that it is clear from the Bible that God’s justice is restorative not punitive. A perfectly just outcome for God is that:
    1. Injustice and sin are stopped, so that they no longer occur.
    2. Those who have committed sin or injustice honestly and truly repent of their sins and are given the opportunity to make amends.
    3. Those harmed or oppressed by sin or injustice are compensated and restored to their rightful place.
    4. All concerned are reconciled and continue in love and brotherhood with each other.
    This is would be in no sense God ignoring or allowing sin, and indeed no other outcome could be described as truly “just”, and it doesn’t require anyone being tortured to death.

  • Marcus Hübner

    I actually don’t see the point in argument 1. That God is – ontologically – totally different from any other “so called” deities is nothing to say about his funtion as forgiver or the mode by which he is doing it. If that would be so, God couldn’t be all-merciful, because that’s how the muslim God is depicted at the beginning of every single sura.
    Also, PST actually doesn’t talk about anger in any way as it is depicted in this articla. PST speaks about justice being carried out, not in white-hot anger but in the reflected all-encompassing plan of a God who wants to be just AND the justifier. –
    I could go on like this about all the different points given above, but I leave it with these two.
    It’s not that I don’t see challenges to the PST interpretation of the cross, but I found this article heavily lacking any substantial definition of the terms used actually.

  • David Hagemann

    Are you familiar with

    Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross,

    By Mark S.

    Heim ??? Excellent book on this topic. (available at a low price from ABE Books). I’d be interested in knowing what you think of his ideas and book, in this topic.

  • Matthew

    The medieval church and its scholastics taught that via water baptism the grace of God is infused into the recipient and original sin is dealt with. This infused grace, apparently, is what provides the person with the divine strength to keep the commands of God and to live a holy life. Sin, however, causes the person to fall out of this grace. The sacraments of the church are then provided to forgive, strengthen, and renew this lost grace as the person continues on the Christian spiritual journey. By participating in the sacraments and keeping the commands of God the person, slowly over the course of a lifetime, works out his or her salvation and piece by piece receives the righteousness of God offered through Jesus´work on the cross. I believe the Eastern Orthodox church teaches something similar, but in their circles it is called (I think) theosis or deification.

    At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther had a “Turmerlebnis”
    (tower experience) after reading from the book of Romans in a room in a tower
    in Wittenberg, Germany. It was as though in a split second (although any good historian will have to admit that even Luther´s theology developed and progressed over time) God had revealed to Luther via Holy Scripture that the righteousness of Christ was not received piece by piece over the course of a lifetime (as the person attempts to remain in a state of grace by keeping the commands of God and participating in the sacraments of the church), but rather in an instant (100%) via faith in Christ´s work at the cross. This theological understanding, although quite simplified here for the sake of time and space, is really the crux of the Reformation and for many Christians the very heart of the Gospel.

    I don´t want to debate here whether or not Luther´s “Turmerlebnis”
    is theologically sound. My question is simply, IF Luther is correct in how
    Christ´s righteousness is applied to a human being (and thus ultimately how a human being receives divine salvation and is “justified”), do we then, by default, have to accept PSA as the atonement theory that explains this process?


  • Tim

    They might appear to be to less careful observers. What you are (continually) missing though, is that the bible includes some perceptions of God that are inaccurate, even among Jesus’ own disciples. I mean, how many times in the NT do we see Jesus having to rebuke them because they just don’t get it? In other words, the bible is a conversation about who God is, and we can’t give equal weight everything we see in scripture.

  • Tim

    3) You misunderstand the nature of God’s justice, and that is where things keep getting hung up for you.

    God doesn’t care about broken rules, he cares about broken relationship.

  • Tim

    Of course, the answer to your first question is that He doesn’t.

  • Tim

    By the way, Jesus must have been working out just prior to the crucifixion, because he’s totally ripped in the picture of that crucifix sculpture.

  • Tim

    “One of the key, historic Christian beliefs, is the belief in God’s omnipotence– but if penal substitution is true, God is not all powerful and neither is he free.”

    I agree with where you’re going with this argument, but I have a bit of an issue with the quoted statement here. I’m not saying that this is not a key historic Christian belief, but the words in scripture that are translated as omnipotence actually mean something more like ‘sovereign’, which is not quite the same thing. It doesn’t mean omnipotence in the sense we would think of it. It has more of a connotation of authority rather than raw power.

  • But a concept like “enjoyment” or “satisfaction” is also something that we define biologically, which also would not technically apply to God. Further, the behaviors of love – altruism, etc. – also have genetically beneficial origins in the same way that the behaviors of wrath would.

    To even feel compelled to return to homeostasis, or to even feel desire (for enjoyment, enrichment, etc.) involves the introduction of a host of both biological environmental factors that you claim can’t apply to God. There’s nothing more “biological” about ensuring survival than pursuing enjoyment. Maslow may be helpful in demonstrating what sorts of behaviors may take priority under various conditions (and even this is debatable as addiction shows us), but he cannot demonstrate that one set of characteristics is heavily influenced by biology and environment while another set is totally independent of them, which is exactly what your argument requires.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that, when we talk about God’s love or God’s wrath, we are applying anthropomorphic descriptions to behaviors that are analogous to our own experiences of these things, and this would apply across the board. In order for your argument to work, I’d need to see some compelling evidence that “love” is totally independent of biology and circumstance in a way that “wrath” is not, and while I can agree that “love” can transcend basic homeostasis (although it doesn’t have to), that doesn’t indicate that there’s something about being God that makes love possible but wrath impossible. In fact, if history is to be our guide in these matters, and we look at things like wars as an outcome of wrath, one could say that wrath also transcends a mere desire to return to homeostasis and embraces concept like expansion and fulfillment. Do you not think an ancient king that conquers his most dangerous enemies would not feel fulfillment?

    I’m not trying to argue for the integrity of wrath, here. I’m just not sure your distinction as it pertains to what a divine being can or cannot feel is very concrete.

  • Robert

    I suppose this is one important reason I tend to be a fan of the excommunicated heretic, Marcion of Sinope. Marcion contended that the Father of The Lord Jesus was not the father and god of Judaism. Without going into a long explanation….and, believe me I could, as I was birthed and raised in a Levitically driven form of so-called “Judeo-Christianity”….I find that Marcion’s theology answers so many ignored questions.
    I have a warm spot in my heart for the consciousness of the secular Jew. However, the religious Jew, as well as every other idolatrous religion including all forms of Judeo-Christianity, is in great darkness and bondage. The god they choose is indeed quite blood-thirsty and predatory… as is the basic character of this planet called earth.

  • ashpenaz

    Light exists–darkness doesn’t exist. You can’t make a “flashdark” and shine it into a room and add darkness to the room. Sin, disease, and death are all darkness–they weren’t created by God, and they don’t exist. Augustine and Aquinas call them “privations of good.”

    Jesus didn’t destroy or defeat sin, disease, and death on the Cross–He showed that they had no real existence. He defeated darkness with Light. “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” “I am the Light of the World.” The Atonement was Jesus showing us that we are already, and always have been, at one with God. All the darkness in the universe can’t hurt a single photon. All the sin, disease, and death from all time and space aimed itself at the Cross, and Jesus brushed it all away in the same way a beam of light defeats darkness.

    Christus Victor doesn’t work because you have to assume God created sin, disease, and death, and sustains their existence. If God created them, then He could simply withhold His sustaining power from them. There’s no reason to send Jesus to the Cross since God can simply eradicate the Powers of Darkness. If sin, disease, and death are not created and sustained by God, then simply turning on a light to show us reality can bring us healing. Jesus’ death and resurrection are a light in the darkness.

  • JimA

    It was a Jewish friend that pointed me to an unfamiliar but troublesome Deuteronomy 24:16 (and Ezekiel 18:20) passage which admonishes, “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.”

  • Herro

    >”…when Jesus was confronted with the option of using violence to either
    punish sin or solve problems, he rejected it and taught us a new way.”

    Jesus clearly did not reject violence as a punishment for sin.

    In the gospels Jesus says that his god is going to be the one who will punish sin by inflicting the violence. You quote him forbidding his followers to be violent, but he never says anything about god not being violent.

    Jesus talked about people being bound up and thrown into hell-fire. That is violence. In the gospels he illustrates this violent act by comparing it to a king that has a man tortured in his dungeon, a king who commands his enemies to be slain and a slave-owner who beats up his slaves.

    Jesus was clearly pro-violence when it is divine violence.

    We can see the same thinking going on in Rom 12:19, where Pauls tells his readers not to seek revenge themselves, but leave the violent revenge up to the wrath of his god.

  • Don Juan

    Interesting thoughts. Your first point re Gods uniqueness is suspect though. Yes other gods were violent, but other gods were loving, kind and generous too. Does that mean God isn’t unique because He shares those traits with other mythical gods? No of course not.

  • Take this with a grain of salt, because I don’t think Luther was right.

    But if I did think he was right, I don’t think it mandates a PSA view, because God is still free to allocate Christ’s righteousness as He desires. Jesus doesn’t even have to die for that, necessarily.

    I think the main requirement for the PSA view is not a particular doctrine of righteousness, but more of a particular doctrine of how God is forced to work. Either because of the laws of universe or His “nature,” PSA requires that God is forced to kill somebody or something to pay for sin. Without that key belief, I’m not sure there’s any theological view of salvation or holiness that would require a penal substitution.

  • John

    You don’t get to just ignore everything that disagrees with your preconceived notions as inaccurate. If Jesus rebukes them for it, then sure. If God corrects them, then sure. If the apostles disagree, then sure.
    But if there is a consistent message given in the scripture, then it either needs to be taken seriously.

  • Ben will have his own thoughts on what makes for a better theory of the atonement, and I haven’t searched, but I know he’s spoken favorably of Christus Victor in at least one article.

    For my take, I would challenge the idea that anything needs to replace it. Why have any theory of the atonement at all? The biblical narrative gives us an executed Jesus. God raises him from the dead, both vindicating his message and granting him all authority. Followers of Christ will also be martyred and hope for the same resurrection. As word of what God has done in Christ rolls out, people believe, receive the Spirit, and join with the faithful people of God. As part of this, their sins are forgiven.

    Why does Jesus’ death have to mystically do some spiritual thing in order for any of that to happen? What if Jesus’ death is only necessary in the broad sense of God’s plan to restore His people – a mission that Jesus is totally sold out to and will inevitably result in his execution? Would anything about the biblical narrative change if it turns out that Jesus’ death in and of itself does nothing in particular different than anyone else dying?

  • I agree with this in broad strokes except for the being thrown in to hell-fire bit. But, yes, Jesus accepted a narrative of God’s wrath expressed as historical circumstances involving war and death, at least as depicted in the Gospels.

    People may disagree with him on that or believe those texts are not authentic sayings of Jesus, but in terms of the biblical text, I think we get a Jesus who is against personal violence but is consistent with the Jewish narrative that Israel’s present circumstances are due to her disobedience and a final curtain is about to drop that will end violently for Jerusalem, and this isn’t just circumstantial but an actual movement of God.

    I do think, however, that we also find him deeply grieved by this. He wept over Jerusalem, for example, and the trauma in store for her. So, I don’t think he was excited about the idea of those historical outcomes, but at least as the Gospels give him to us, he thinks of them as an outworking of God’s response to Israel’s oppression.

  • Tim

    You need to take your own advice here, mate.

    And for what it’s worth, I’ve spent the last 10 years discovering that my preconcieved notions were exactly what you seem to believe, which was what I was taught the bible said instead of what it actually says.

  • “Consistent message in the Scripture” = my favored interpretation

  • John

    It seems Ben’s main problem is with the word “penal.” He clearly believes that Jesus served as our substitute in a way “that will never be fully understood.” But this substitutionary concept is what he needs to unpack more. Given Ben’s Anabaptist beliefs, problems with violence (read ‘penal’ here in this article) are understandable. But Ben cannot escape the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ sacrifice. He must reckon with Isaiah 53:5, the narrative of Abraham and Isaac, and Revelation 5:9 among others. Ben’s issue is reconciling the violence in the OT with the nature of God. And that is a daunting task indeed.

  • John

    Nice thoughts, but devoid of biblical support. It’s almost like you purposely avoid seeing the biblical language of death, substitution, and punishment as one aspect of justice. What about the prophecies of his death on our behalf, his sacrifice as spoken of in Hebrews as necessary, and OT stories of the ram slain in Isaac’s place or scapegoat sent out to die for the sins of others? You can’t just wish the deep meaning and prophetic nature of those things away, can you?

  • Brendan Hickey

    Though I generally agree that penal substitution is challenging, and
    possibly incorrect – John’s concept of Jesus as being obedient even unto
    death fits better with how I see human dynamics as well as how I
    (feebly) perceive God’s demands – I disagree with a few of the points
    made to support this argument. One is the “slave to anger” challenge to
    God’s omnipotence. I suggest that God’s omnipotence has never been in
    the form that we imagined as children, that God can do “anything.” For
    example, I believe in a perfect and perfectly good God who, therefore,
    cannot act evilly. I believe in a rational God who cannot act
    irrationally. Scripture suggests that God cannot overrule human free
    will, and though I do not understand why that would be the case, I
    accept it, in part because I really like it.

    Dr. Corey also cites, as examples of forgiveness, Jesus’
    admonitions to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile. To me,
    these seem to be ways of preventing anger, of removing the sense of
    powerlessness, as the sin happens. When the soldier orders me to carry
    his pack for a mile, and I choose to carry it a second mile, then I
    mitigate the violence of his demand, which is that it is not my pack and
    not my duty to carry it but through the force of custom, law, and the
    soldier’s immediate capacity for assault, I am forced to carry it. The
    second mile is purely my choice and that dilutes the violence of the
    first mile. If I am struck on one cheek and I readily offer the other
    to be struck then I similarly decrease the violence in the act, increase
    my sense of power in the moment, set a stage for a lower sense of
    prolonged victimization. I suggest that these are not strategies of
    forgiveness but rather preemptive tactics

  • John

    So when we are told to repent, to turn away, what are we repenting from?

  • I think the funniest thing about your response is that there is absolutely no “biblical language” that calls Jesus’ death a substitution. But somehow I’m ignoring it. You are correct. I am ignoring language that does not exist.

    Seriously, kid, come back with your accusations after you decide to actually read the Bible.

  • It’s pretty amazing how every writer in the New Testament manages to “escape” the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death, since not a single one refers to it as a substitution. You’d think such a doctrine clearly taught by your gaggle of completely unrelated texts ripped out of their contexts would not escape them.

    Thank God for people like you who can fill in the gaps that the apostles missed!

  • John

    Really sorry if my first response was patronizing. Didn’t mean to write it that way. My fault.

    I would mention Matt 20:28, but in other comments you dispute the concept of ransom as one taking the place of another. Yet, context does present it as one taking the place of another. 1 Peter 2:22 show he bore our sins, which reads as substitutionary. One for another is substitutionary. 1 John 4:10 reads as Jesus being a sacrifice for our sins. That is one in place of another.

    If you are looking for the word susbstitution, you won’t get it articulated that way in scripture, but any good theologian can see a concept where the english word is missing. You know that. But you haven’t addressed the entire concept of substitution, which Ben apparently believes in some capacity. Please explain more on that idea. Don’t play semantic games.

    Also, I am not some kid, but graduated from Gordon Conwell, Ben’s Alma mater.

  • John

    No, references are not taken out of context. They read pretty clearly. Don’t shift sideways. What is Ben’s concept of substitution? He believes it in some aspect. Elaborate. You won’t find the word in scripture explicitly, but Ben see’s it. Please explain it. Thanks.

  • Matthew 20:28 says Jesus will give his life as a ransom for many. It does not say he is substituting his death for a penalty they deserve. 1 Peter 2:22 says that “Christ suffered for you so that you would follow in his steps.” It says nothing about Jesus suffering as a substitute for the readers. 1 John 4:10 says that Jesus was the propitiation for the sins of the readers. It does not say he died as a substitute for them. Nor does calling Jesus a sacrifice make him a substitute, because sacrifices were not substitutionary atonements. Because you have already decided in advance Jesus’ death is a substitution, then you read that into the term “sacrifice.”

    Damn straight you won’t find it articulated that way in Scripture, which is why you’re way out of line to say I’m ignoring the “biblical language” of substitution. I would say theologians who “see concepts” the words do not actually present are terrible theologians, not good ones, but I also don’t believe in adding our own words to Scripture. You are obviously totally ok with that.

    I’m sorry to hear that the same institution that once boasted professors like Meredith Kline are now churning out people like you. But I do appreciate your previous comment, because it provides clear evidence that you equate your own theology with the text of Scripture, which is what I have said for some time.

    You would think this would make someone go, “Oh crap. I just accused someone of ignoring biblical language that isn’t actually in the Bible. Maybe I’d better rein in the horses and see if my views are actually present in the biblical texts.” But, no such luck, I guess.

  • Why would I explain Ben’s views? Ben can explain Ben’s views. I know this is hard for someone like yourself to understand, but I don’t actually blindly accept the views of other theologians as my own. I realize that is your modus operandi, but I find it unhealthy. As much as I agree with Ben on many things, if he does believe the atonement is substitutionary, that is not somehow a strike against me and it’s very weird for you to argue that way.

    Your references are totally taken out of context. Those passages have nothing to do with each other. You’ve airlifted them out of the text and strung them together as if they are paragraphs in a theology textbook about atonement. There is nothing atoning about the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham and Isaac have nothing to do with Isaiah’s identification of the returned exiles as persecuted martyrs who will turn all Israel back to God. Revelation’s depiction of Jesus as a slain lamb has nothing to do with the remnant of returned exiles.

    I’m not upset that you can’t read the Bible for squat. That’s just ignorance. What upsets me is that you have a theology made of coat hangers and chewing gum and then have the gall to accuse everyone else of ignoring clear biblical teaching.

  • John

    Wow Phil, quite over the top. Insulting my and Ben’s seminary because you have a different interpretation. Sorry to have set you off so bad. I will say this. Your responses are usually more engaging and informed. Not sure what happened here. I asked legit questions and you went sideways. Concerns from other viewpoints are legit and normally you engage. Peace.

  • John

    Hey, just though that because you are the moderator you could further explain. Please don’t impugn my ability to read scripture because you don’t agree with my perspective. That is quite off-putting and judgmental given my sincere questions.

  • Herro

    So it’s clear that Corey’s argument that PSA couldn’t be true because then his god would be using violence in contradiction to Jesus’ teaching is not sound since Jesus was all for divince violence?

    Two small points regarding your post (that I don’t really think change the over-all argument):

    1. You seem to talk about Jesus’ attitude as if he’s only talking about punishing Israel/Jerusalem. Jesus is talking about judgement day, so not some local event.

    2. The weeping passage doesn’t contain any condemnation or disagreement in regards to the violence. Maybe we can compare it to a violent parent who says to a child “I really don’t want to hit you, but you’ve forced me!”.


    And one more thing, you say you don’t agree with the “thrown in to hell-fire bit.” So what’s this passage about?

    “Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will **throw them into the furnace of fire**, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Mt 13:40-42)

  • Benjamin, do you put out an alternative idea, somewhere on the blog, why Jesus died and rose?

    Was it a significant and planned part of Jesus’ mission on earth?

  • I like the distinction you make clear, clearer than the article did: “the Bible does refer to Jesus’ death as payment or ransom, but in the Bible it is not a payment to God, but by him.”

    This implies the death of Christ is important, but not because God is wrathful and demands a blood sacrifice.

  • Matthew

    Thanks as always Phil.

    Didn´t really want to debate :-) … but since you mentioned it :-) …

    How do you think Christ´s righteousness is allocated to the mere mortal?

    — Was the medieval western church right?
    — Is the Eastern Orthodox church right?
    — Was Luther right?

    We may have already discussed PSA and justification when we were talking about the historical-narrative hermeneutic, but not directly I don´t think. For me, I´m somewhat familiar with the new perspective on Paul (although not so new) and that those theologians don´t think the word justification means what Luther thought it meant. I don´t agree with them about justification (at least not yet) — or maybe for me it´s both reconciliation AND gentile table fellowship the word “justification” is getting at in the NT.

    Re: PSA. If I can still receive what I think Christ did for me at the cross even if I ditch PSA, then no problem. I too agree it´s a problematic atonement theory.

  • Matthew

    Do you accept the teachings of the church Phil if not any particular theologian?

  • Matthew

    I have found that those who believe hell doesn´t exist and that all the judgement passages from the Gospels point to a 70 AD fulfillment often don´t use scripture to back up their claims … although I could be wrong or I´m simply generalizing too much.

    I have yet to find a readable resource that goes through all the judgement passages in the NT and attempts to argue why and how they all point to a 70 AD fulfillment.

  • Tim

    To repent means “to change your mind”. (Presumably about what one is doing) I don’t really see what your point is here.

  • Ron McPherson

    Well, I’m not prepared to say that necessarily ALL judgment utterances by Jesus point to the destruction of Jerusalem, but I do believe that event needs to be at the forefront of possibilities. Dispys lift difficult to explain judgment passages to a future event because it’s hard to fit neatly into the 70 AD fulfillment, so I get that. But when forwarding his warnings to a still yet unfulfilled future event, the problem we’re faced with is that Jesus was often responding directly to his apostles’ questions (especially in the Olivet discourse). By assuming that at least a portion of his response dealt with a universal judgment day seems awkward from the text. Like how were his questioners to know he switched eras in midstream? How were they to know that his response to their direct questions were ultimately not meant for them, but for a people yet to be born at least some two millennia later? I think much of this eschatological framework developed from being unable to reconcile Jesus’ words to the age in question at that time. So to them, if those events didn’t happen, then Jesus was either wrong or the events in question just haven’t been yet fulfilled. For the record, I don’t believe Jesus was somehow wrong, because I affirm his deity. But that just underscores my need to really dig into the text rather than just scratching around on the surface. I still don’t have it resolved but maybe that’s ok.

  • Matthew

    Why does this topic always seem so secret code-ish??? I have no idea why Jesus couldn’t have simply said “that‘s for near future and that’s for far future” or something like that …

  • Tim

    Ah yes; “whack a mole” or “choose your own adventure” theology, as I like to call it.

  • Tim

    Maybe because his audience would have understood, and the confusion is due entirely to what we read into it.

  • No, especially not the church of Phil. I am constantly critiquing the church of Phil.

  • Well, I don’t want to mistake identification of divine violence with being “all for” divine violence. I know that’s where a lot of evangelicals are at, but I don’t want to read that back into the first century. Their attitude toward divine retribution is a complicated issue because they are actually under the thumb of oppressors, and the retribution Jesus talks about will deliver them from their oppressors.

    For instance, if you told a slave in America’s antebellum South that God was going to destroy all the slavemasters, you’d have some delighted because of vengeance, you’d have others who might regret that this was the solution, you might even have some who didn’t want that solution – some might even feel a combination of all of those things – but nobody is going to be upset about being liberated.

    And there’s also the simpler issue of identifying something is not the same thing as supporting it. Even the prophets depict YHWH as not wanting destruction, even as they proclaim imminent destruction at the hand of YHWH. We might have our own evaluations of how healthy or consistent that is, but to them, there isn’t a contradiction.

    As to the small points you raised:

    1. I believe he’s talking about a local event. Virtually everything, if not everything, Jesus expresses in apocalyptic imagery refers to the impending war with Rome.

    2. That’s a way to interpret Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. To my eyes, he seemed legitimately grieved over their impending destruction.

    The Matthew 13 passage refers to the end of the age, which from a historical perspective fits the destruction of the Temple, the sacking of Jerusalem, the dispersion of believers who prior to that day received the Spirit, etc. Throwing them into the kaminon of fire is a description of the corpses burning in Gehenna. Jesus will refer to this location in other passages (twice in Matthew 23, for example). To me, the Matthew 13 passage is one of the clearer examples that Jesus is referring to the destruction Rome will bring to Jerusalem because of its identification of throwing people into the fire while there is weeping and teeth-gnashing.

  • Don’t impugn your ability to read scripture? You mean, like, for instance, accusing someone of ignoring clear biblical language?

  • If you had approached the discussion from the standpoint of asking questions and an honest exchange of ideas, I suspect it might have gone that way. But you don’t come in declaring that people are ignoring Scripture and inventing their own ideas, and then get huffy when the responses are less than civil. I take the Bible very seriously, and I take such accusations very seriously.

    If you don’t see why the way you are conducting yourself is offensive, then to me that’s just further evidence of how much you actually care about understanding the Bible.

  • John

    Point taken Phil. My comment was opinionated and prejudged your position. My apology for taking that initial approach.

  • John

    I think all I asked for here was Ben’s opinion on what kind of substitution he is referring to. That is fine if you can’t speak for Ben. I get that, but hoped you had some thoughts on it since he did mention it in his post. In my post above I made no reference to your biblical knowledge or ability to read scripture.

  • JD

    I may be wrong, but I believe he aligns w/ the Christus Victor view of atonement.

    Christus Victor and Ransom Theory are very similar, and were the predominant views on atonement for nearly 1000 years.

  • I think the three institutions you mentioned are trying to figure out issues that the Bible doesn’t really address. To me, deciding between them is difficult for that reason. It’s sort of like trying to decide whether Manchester United or Arsenal are the better astrophysicists. There probably is an answer to that question, but I’m not sure if answering it will move anything forward or how much effort we should expend.

    In terms of the biblical narrative, justification is vindication. You have two parties contesting at a trial, and you have a judge. At the end of the trial, one party goes home having been declared in the right and receives whatever benefits come with that (justification), and another party has been declared in the wrong and receives whatever penalties come with that (condemnation). The party in the right has been justified.

    In the Old Testament, for example, the justification scenario par excellence is the Exodus. The plagues harm Egypt, but Israel goes untouched, and all this culminates in a dramatic display where the Israelites cross the Sea on dry land, but Egypt’s armies are destroyed in it. God has justified the Israelites and condemned the Egyptians. And this basic idea forms the Old Testament complex of what it means for God to justify a people. Certainly, the concept of “being right with God” is related, but justification in the Old Testament is a concrete, historical event with a concrete outcome. Everyone can see by what happened who was vindicated and who was condemned.

    Can this language be applied to individuals? Certainly. Two individuals can be brought into a contest / trial. Jesus even tells a parable about an ostentatious pharisee who loudly declares his own faithfulness to everyone and a tax collector who announces that he is a sinner and asks for mercy. Jesus tells them that the tax collector went home justified, because God would exalt the humble and depose the proud.

    So, when we talk about justification in the New Testament, the first thing we have to do is determine the context before we create some definition of “justification” that rules every instance of the term. When people discuss the issues you raised, they usually mean Romans 3-5.

    In that passage, Paul is talking about whether faith or the Torah will justify anyone – obviously an important issue to a church where Gentiles are starting to show up. Really, if there is a dominant theme to Romans, it’s how God’s faithfulness could possibly be expressed when many Jews have rejected Jesus as the Messiah, but (weirdly) Gentiles are acknowledging him as such and coming to believe and wanting to follow Israel’s God.

    So, this is an important issue, because if Torah-keeping is the grounds on which God will vindicate His people, that has some ramifications for Gentiles. They should become circumcised and follow all the laws of the Torah as fastidiously as any native Jew. This is obviously the prevailing view in the first century, and it makes total sense considering Torah-keeping pretty much defined faithfulness for millennia, although the prophets point out that Israel could keep the Torah formally but still neglect its core – love for God and neighbor – that God was particularly concerned about.

    But Paul makes the case that the faithful are justified by their faith (which, if it is true faith, produces actions that are consistent with actually believing what you say), and as at least one example points to the fact that Abraham was justified before receiving the sign of circumcision. In Paul’s reasoning, it was Abraham’s faith prior to the Law that was the grounds of his justification against the rest of the ancient world, and this provides a theological explanation for why uncircumcised Gentiles can be justified against the rest of their world without taking on the yoke of the Torah.

    I don’t think anything about that story requires a mystical transfer of Jesus’ covenant fidelity. Paul in Romans 3 seems to be of the mind that faithfulness has now appeared apart from the Law – it is now faith in Jesus Christ. That now defines covenant faithfulness, not Torah obedience, and that faith is the grounds for justification.

    If someone wants to come up with some mystical theory about why that works involving imputation, etc., that’s fine – I just don’t know why we need such a thing. It’s like all the theories about where Cain’s wives came from. I have no idea how to evaluate those theories or why any of them are necessary. I’m totally cool with, “The story in Genesis says Cain had wives.”

  • Ron McPherson

    Exactly. This is why I have trouble with the notion that he somehow switches audiences in midstream without telling anyone

  • Well, it’s easy to forgive that, and I apologize for my snarkiness as well.

    But you have to understand that most of us here have already wrestled with the traditional evangelical arguments and proof texts many, many times, and now we are in different places. That doesn’t make any of us right or better or anything like that, nor does it free us from prejudice or being selective.

    But it does mean that most of us have already been through the stuff you are coming here proclaiming as the clear teaching of Scripture and have determined that is not the case. It is not helpful to repeat those exact same texts and arguments and ascribe disagreement to willful ignorance or rebellion.

    I am a Christian, and that is important to me, and I take the Bible seriously. Others have ended up in different faiths or no particular faith at all. You may have your own estimations about all that, and that’s fine, but the vast majority of Ben’s regular readers are people who have already entertained these passages and arguments and have rejected the standard evangelical story for actual reasons. That doesn’t mean you can’t disagree, nor does it mean you can’t defend the traditional position, but I think it does mean we all need to assume good faith, and I include myself in needing to do that.

    Thing is, John, a lot of us are also raw from evangelicals showing up to declare The Truth to The Heretics and have no intention of critically examining their own beliefs. And I can’t speak for everyone, but my own patience gets pretty thin when I start seeing people throw phrases around like, “That’s not the biblical view” or whatever, as if you are in sole possession of that.

  • Jeff Martin

    Exodus 13:15 says the whole idea of sacrificing the first born male of animals was to remind the Israelites that he redeemed them at such a great cost of Egyptian first borns, that they should never forget. No one ever talks about this verse. It has gotten short shrift.

  • RollieB

    I see no need for any form of atonement theory. I see Jesus’ crucifixion as a political assassination; the result of pointing out corruption, speaking truth to power. Luke 17:21 (and other passages) speaks of a different way of looking at the life and death of Jesus. No sense in twisting ourselves into a knot to explain a revolutionary life.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    It’s a bit of cheek answering a question posed to someone else, but what the heck.
    According to the online NAS Concordance at least, dikaios, the Greek verb translated as “to justify” means to pronounce an acquittal, or to demonstrate or declare to be righteous. When Paul (particularly) talks about Christians being “justified by faith” he is using the present tense (at least so I understand it) referring to non-Jewish Christians being demonstrably righteous and approved of by God by virtue of the faith they displayed, despite not complying with Jewish law. This creates some confusion since “justification” in the later Christian sense tends to get used to mean future acquittal by God in the final judgement.
    I have not read Luther’s theology but I am vaguely familiar with Lutheran theology and their take as I understand it is that one is acquitted through belief and one remains acquitted as long as belief is sustained, rather than a once and for all and irreversible moment of belief that guarantees future acquittal regardless of what happens next (that is Calvinism, not Luther). Lutherans (and I think Calvinists) believe in “sanctification” which they view as essentially a more-or-less automatic by-product of faith, whereby one is gradually relieved of one’s sinful nature by God as one continues to believe, but they do not apparently regard this process as relevant to one’s final acquittal in the last judgement, which is based on whether one believes or not.
    The Eastern Orthodox and pre-Luther view are, I think, really the same as each other: their difference with Luther / Calvin is that whilst agreeing that it is ultimately faith that saves, it saves because of the sanctification (to use the Protestant terminology for convenience) it produces, and it is sanctification that leads to (indeed constitutes) salvation.
    There is also a different understanding of faith from at least some Protestants, in that faith is regarded as an active faith, faithfully eneavouring to follow Jesus’s teachings, rather than simply assenting to a set of beliefs. (This view of faith seems to be becoming more emphasised in Protestant circles too, however.)
    Where Eastern Orthodoxy departs from both Western Catholicism and in generally Protestantism is in not having a “forensic” approach to final judgement. In general the Eastern Orthodox do not consider that God directly punishes people after death for their sins, rather they take the view that for those who reject God and will not let go of their sin God’s presence is experienced as burning fire whilst those who return God’s love experience it as heavenly light and love. This firstly necessitates the “process” concept of salvation with exercising faith fitting us for heaven and the experience of the presence of God, and secondly making PSA essentially meaningless and impossible.
    For what it’s worth, I think the Eastern Orthodox approach is most theologically coherent and the best fit to what we see in the Bible.

  • Matthew

    Is there one true church Phil?

  • Obscurely

    Good luck expecting a reply here from Dr. Ben :) — I haven’t had any luck after several queries of my own …

  • Matthew

    So are you basically in a holding pattern, Ron, regarding hell and final judgement?

  • Obscurely

    For a deeper (and more deeply biblical) reconsideration of substitutionary atonement than Dr. Ben’s blog form allows, I highly recommend world-renowned theologian and bible scholar N.T. Wright’s new book, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Here’s a quote from the book explaining its own aim:

    “Just as the resurrection of Jesus cannot be fitted into any other worldview, but must be either rejected altogether or allowed to reshape existing worldviews around itself, so the cross itself demands the rethinking of categories. We cannot capture it; to be Christian means, among other things, that it has captured us. If we make it our own too easily, fitting it into the theories and preachers’ illustrations that explain it all neatly, we will have shrunk it, reduced it to a size that we can manage and perhaps manipulate. The aim of the present book is to do the opposite: to point to new visions more robustly biblical and more deeply revolutionary of what the cross meant to the first Christians and even to Jesus himself.”

  • Matthew

    Thanks so much for this Iain Lovejoy.

  • John

    I think I got mixed up on the different threads. In the other place you had said that God cares about broken relationships, not broken rules. My comment was in response to that.
    We are told to repent for the forgiveness of sins. Why is everyone so interested in the forgiveness of sins if God doesn’t care about broken rules?

  • apoxbeonyou

    You have much more patience than I. I have already blocked all those people. I don’t miss reading their responses, but I always look forward to reading yours.

  • Matthew

    It´s hard for me to follow you sometimes on this topic Phil, but it seems to me you basically have the same end game as the Reformers — just using a different, possibly more biblically sensitive way of describing what happens to those who believe in and follow Jesus Christ.

  • John

    2) Yes, I agree. Jesus fulfilled the requirement of the law as the payment for sin for all who believe in Him, although I’m not quite on board with your description of Jesus making human nature into something divine. Jesus was divine at all points in time. He did not making human nature divine. He allowed humans to participate in a real relationship with God through the giving of a new mind, he changing of a stone heart for a flesh one, etc.

    3) I would disagree with this point. If God’s justice was purely restorative, then the death of Christ would be unnecessary. Payment would be irrelevant as long as people changed their ways. Our restoration depends completely on the fact that Jesus took the punitive aspect for us.

  • Good extrapolation thanks for bringing it to my attention!! Will Speaking truth to power lead to political assassination every time? One who is born into a marginalized class is more likely to be subjected to such in my humble opinion. Whistleblowers are are going to blow the whistle at their own expense. Jesus example of what happens is both encouraging and appalling. The leap of faith one must take in order to establish a beachhead to further the process of liberation from oppression may fall to and involve a whole generation sacrificing it’s Comfort, risking it’s privilege, abandoning the task of maintaining and defending status quo in order to initiate the way for the rest of humanity to continue to Thrive, exist, achieve enlightenment and connect with a higher power.

  • Tim

    Well, what is sin? It isn’t about breaking rules, despite the impression we might have gotten in Sunday school.
    Sin always has to do with breaking relationships. It always has to do with how we treat each other. Forgiveness of sin has to do with restoration of relationship.

  • John

    That just doesn’t seem to jive with scripture. I agree that broken relationships are often the result of sin, but I don’t think scripture defines sin by broken relationships.
    Take adultery. It is called sin and is forbidden, no matter what. The Bible doesn’t say, “Hey, if you both agree to an open relationship, then it’s fine.” It says don’t do it, ever, no matter what. It even goes so far as to say an illegitimate divorce causes one to commit adultery.
    The consistent understanding seems to be that God has a specific ideal for marriage: that two people come together and stay together until one of the dies. It’s a rule based on God’s desire, not on the pure relationship between the two.

  • Ron McPherson

    I would characterize it more as still learning. I used to be heavily dispensational but no longer. The fact of the matter is that none of us mere mortals can figure it all out and that’s ok. I find evidence in scripture certainly regarding judgment. What I don’t see is compelling evidence of eternal conscious torment in the afterlife. I was always taught that, and just believed it for years because I dared not question entrenched beliefs. Not anymore though. I just see an overwhelming amount of evidence in both OT and NT that the fate of those without God is death, not being scorched alive forever.

  • Ron McPherson

    He’s written several pieces on the various views I believe

  • Ron McPherson

    Yeah, you even get critiques from some who don’t even go there

  • Matthew

    Thanks for the clarification Ron.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    Re (2) I am sorry if I was unclear, it is our human nature in us that was transformed by the incarnation, according to the classic doctrine of the atonement, so that we could participate in the divine. I am not suggesting Jesus was not divine from the beginning.
    Also, I nowhere suggested that Jesus’s death was a payment to God for sin, I actually said the opposite: God requires no payment to forgive sin, his forgiveness is free. The classic doctrine of the atonement is that it is we who required Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection to effect a cure of our sinful natures.
    Re (3) the whole point was that we were too mired in sin to “change our ways” without God’s intervention through the incarnation and death of Christ. I thought I had made that clear. The Church decisively rejected Pelagianism’s assertions we could change our ways and rid ourselves of our sinful natures by our own efforts.

  • Yes. Probably yours. ;)

  • I suspect various Reformers probably had different end games in mind, but we’re probably trying to do the same thing in the sense that we are looking at these 2000 year old documents and asking the question, “What, if anything, does this possibly have to do with me?” which is what the Church has been asking herself this whole time in some form or another, really. I personally feel like the best answers to that question start with what those documents meant to the people who originally experienced them, and not everyone has had that same starting point.

    If we end up in the same place, that’s fine with me. I just care about being pointed in the right direction.

  • John

    I agree with everything you’ve said here except the following statement:

    The classic doctrine of the atonement is that it is we who required Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection to effect a cure of our sinful natures.

    I agree completely that the effect of Jesus’s death and resurrection is to free us from our sinful natures, although we are not free from it yet, but I don’t think that’s all it does.

    There is definitely a sense of payment, a sense of Jesus taking the consequences that we deserve. He took on our sin, paid the price for it, and gave us his righteousness. This has coherence with the symbols of the sacrificial system that Jesus fulfilled in his death and the prophecies of the Messiah from the OT (Such as him being “crushed for our iniquities” in Isaiah 53).

  • Although the passage grounds its origins in the Exodus, the passage actually says they are redeeming their firstborn sons in that exercise. So, if PSA is correct, this would mean that God had an ongoing desire to kill the firstborn of Israel that they perpetually offset by killing an animal. Hope nobody forgot.

  • Considering that Jesus specifically identifies the Valley of Hinnom in several of the “hell” passages, I think the burden of proof would be to demonstrate that Jesus was talking about a heretofore unknown spiritual plane that people would go to when they died.

  • Yes, this.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    Yes. That is PSA as developed by Protestant theologians post Reformation. It is not, however, the concept of atonement that existed prior to this, not that accepted by either the Western Catholic of Eastern Orthodox churches. It is also (in my view at least) unsupported by much in the way of Biblical evidence and gives a horrible, horrible picture of God.
    As far as I can see and am aware there is nothing in the Bible (or in Christian writings prior to Anselm in the 11th Century) that supports this view, which was an innovation by Anselm.
    You are taking statements about a necessary price for sin and assuming they mean a price to be paid *to* God, when until Anselm the assumption was that this was rather a price paid *by* God in Jesus: these are two different things.

  • John

    I don’t think it’s necessarily a price “to” God. It is just the price of sin. It is the necessary consequence for a just result that Jesus paid on the cross.

    Is the death penalty a price paid to the government or to society? No, it’s simply the consequence of breaking certain laws. The same goes for many consequences in our society. It’s the idea that justice demands consequence.

  • John

    That’s not true at all. PSA thought is found throughout the early church fathers. Here’s an extended quote from Justin Martyr about the subject:

    “For the whole human race will be found to be under a curse. For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them’ [Deut 27:26]. And no one has accurately done all, nor will you venture to deny this; but some more and some less than others have observed the ordinances enjoined. But if those who are under this law appear to be under a curse for not having observed all the requirements, how much more shall all the nations appear to be under a curse who practise idolatry, who seduce youths, and commit other crimes? If,
    then, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He had been crucified and was dead, He would raise Him up, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if He were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves? For although His Father caused Him to suffer these things in behalf of the human family, yet you did not commit the deed as in obedience to the will of God.” (Dialogue with Trypho)

    Here’s another example, Athenasius:

    “Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would
    make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.” (De Incarnatione Verbi Dei)

    That’s just two examples of many.

    Also, Anslem didn’t even really hold to PSA. He held to something call “satisfaction theory.”

  • Obscurely

    As a pastor I so appreciate your theological and biblical humility, Ron … I’m reading an excellent book (by an evangelical no less!) on universal salvation called, The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott — you might want to check it out if you haven’t already …

  • Ron McPherson

    Excellent thanks. I’ll look it up

  • RollieB

    When there is no need for an atonement theory for our understanding the message of scripture it should follow that a new path of understanding must be found to understand the over arching message. I’ve come to the conclusion that the original message is that of how to live a life as it is intended (designed) to be lived, in harmony with our creator.

    When those in power are the architects of how to live we chafe at the associated corruption. Jesus’ message to his fellow Jews of his day was the message of Abraham, live in faith and harmony with your creator; Mosaic law will take care of its self when harmony (enlightenment?) is achieved.

    Marginalization occurs when those in political power assume the roll of overlords. Speaking truth to them always gets folks in trouble, always has, always will. But speak we must. Sacrificing comfort and privilege to challenge any power structure can be taken on a personal level without too much danger, it’s at the corporate level we run into trouble.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    Where is PSA in the dialogue with Trypho quote? It says Jesus suffered and died for our sins but nowhere mentions he was punished for them by God, or that his death was a price paid *to God* for sin. Once again, Jesus dying for our sins is not synonymous with Jesus being punished by God for our sins. This is not the same thing.
    The Athenasius quote you don’t appear to have actually read particularly carefully, because he actually stated expressly precisely what I have been saying is the original atonement doctrine:
    “This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.”
    It doesn’t say anything all about Jesus being punished, or make God no longer angry with us, or anything like that. It says Jesus died so he might make men (us) turn back from corruption to incorruption, I.e. to induce / enable us to repent of our sins. It says partaking in his body and his death and resurrection makes us alive, not pardoned, not forgiven but “alive”, and goes on to clarify that this means that death in us is destroyed, I.e. we are cured of the sinfulness of our (thus riddled with death) nature, not that God is persuaded to withhold punishment for it. There isn’t a trace of PSA here.
    I am well aware Anselm held to satisfaction theory: satisfaction theory was what PSA was developed from. Anselm’s satisfaction theory was that Jesus’s sacrifice was a sufficiently good and noble deed to permit God to pardon mankind’s sin as a reward. Protestant PSA changed this to Jesus’s suffering being sufficient punishment being inflicted for mankind’s sins.

  • John

    You keep insisting on the phrase “to God,” and I’m not sure why. I’m saying that Jesus paid the just consequence of sin. It doesn’t have anything to do with it being “to God,” just like a murderer who gets the death penalty isn’t paying his life to society. He’s simply getting the just punishment for his sin.

    You’re taking specific lines out of their context. Athanasius says that Jesus died for all as an offering to the Father in place of men, and that he did this to fulfill the “law of death.” The result of this that men can go from corruption to incorruption. You’re taking what Athanasius considered the result of Jesus’s death and making it out to be the substance of his death.

    The Justin Martyr quote says that all men are under the curse by not following God’s law and that Jesus took that curse upon himself, suffering for us.

  • Yet another addition to my amazon watch list! Thanks. My wife won’t thank you, though; most of my books are still in storage!

  • Bones

    You still have god massacring whoever doesn’t meet some criteria.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    “Athanasius says that Jesus died for all as an offering to the Father in place of men”
    Not quite he doesn’t. Indeed he says Jesus died in place of men, which says no more than he died so we didn’t have to, which all agree. He says Jesus did so as an offering to the Father, right enough. What it doesn’t say (unless you distort the text as above) is that he did so because otherwise an offering / punishment for sin would be required of men by God (or otherwise by some sort of authority or law or principle somehow higher than God or by which God is somehow bound). That is the part of PSA which is innovatory, and, I say, quite wrong.
    You are the one taking a single quote from the work out of context, not I. Athanasius repeatedly returns to the theme in the work of Jesus “becoming man so that man might become God” (his quote) and of the incarnation transforming the entire nature of all mankind, of entering into the world, touching sin and death and destroying them (at one point he apologises for being repetitive on this). If Athanasius’s view was that Jesus’s death was him being punished as the necessary criminal penalty for man’s sin, why is that never expressly stated (in so far as I can tell from a brief look)?
    Here is the full text:

  • Tim

    Jesus continually says things like; “Love one another as I have loved you. Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me”. Our relationship with Him is directly related to our relationship with others. Gluttony and pride do affect our relationships with others. It doesn’t take much imagination to see this.

  • Tim

    The key though, is why those things are forbidden. It always affects someone around us. Even if two people agree to commit adultery, there’s always a third party there that gets hurt. Most likely, it will hurt at least one of the other parties as well. It always comes back down to our relationships with each other.

    It doesn’t seem to jive with a certain way of interpreting scripture, you mean.

  • Tim

    Relationship with God (from our end) can suffer as well. The “Lord’s name in vain” example is not a good one, because that does not mean what you think it means. Sins that are kept secret can still have an impact on your relationships, although it may not be as overt, it can still be very real. To think otherwise betrays a very immature view of sin.
    Sin literally means “to miss the mark”. “Transgression against divine law” as you put it, is still only there for our own benefit as well as that of our relationships with both God and others.
    I sense in what you’re saying a notion of offending God directly, but God is only “offended” by mistreatment of ourselves or others. Even Paul says that when we are (or were) enemies with God, it is only in OUR minds that this is so.

  • Tim

    Also, because I’m guessing you’ll ask, or at least will say something about it; I thought I’d just post a response here in anticipation of some sort of challenge to my comment on “taking God’s name in vain”.

    What does it mean to use God’s name in an empty or vain way?
    What does the third commandment really mean? It’s hard to tell from a simple word study on the Hebrew term שָׁוְא (vain). Also, our understanding of a “name” and what it signifies is much different than what it meant in the context in which this commandment was given.
    First, we must try to understand what it meant when it was written. Second, we can then work out how that (possibly) applies to us.
    It does us no good to anachronistically impose our understanding upon an ancient text. This is eisegesis (reading into the text what we presuppose), not exegesis (letting the text speak on its own terms).

    The nations to which the Israelites were going (in Canaan) had many gods. They were highly superstitious. Their prophets used the name of their god(s) in pronouncements all the time. The usage could be in a curse, hex, or even a blessing. They used the name of their god(s) to give their statements, whatever they may be, authority.
    To pronounce something in the name of a god meant that people would listen and fear. They may have said, “In the name of Baal, there will be no rain for 40 days.” Or “In the name of Marduk, I say that you will win this battle.” This gave the prophet much power and authority. But, as we know, there is no Baal or Marduk. Those gods couldn’t have made such pronouncements. Thus the words of the prophet had no actual authority and didn’t need to be praised or feared.
    God was commanding the Israelites not to do the same thing. God instructed them not to use His name like the nations around them used the names of their gods. He did not want them to use His name falsely to invoke authority.
    In essence, God didn’t want the Israelites to say that He’d said something that He in fact had not. This makes sense. He doesn’t want anyone saying, “Thus saith the Lord”, if the Lord has not spoken.
    We’ve all experienced this. We’ve had someone say we said something we didn’t. This can be very damaging to our character and destructive to our reputation. Why? Because it makes us out to be something we’re not.
    What does this mean for us? Well to begin with, we understand that the third commandment is focused on something more foundational than simply saying “God damn it!” (or similar).
    While some people may never think of using that phrase, people all over the Christian religious landscape are breaking the third commandment every day, damaging God’s reputation:
    • “Thus saith the Lord…”
    • “God told me to tell you…”
    • “I have a word from the Lord…”
    • “God says that if you send in this much money, you will be blessed.”
    I could go on, but you get the point.
    If all one needed to do to keep the third commandment was to avoid saying certain socially unacceptable (in some circles, at least) words or phrases, it would be the easiest of the Ten Commandments to keep!

  • Tim

    How does one blaspheme against God in secret? You’re grasping at straws here.
    One cannot be a glutton for a day. Gluttony is a repeated pattern/ lifestyle, not a one-off thing.

  • gimpi1

    I would argue that torturing someone forever for the sort of minor “sins” most people engage in – minor deceptions and inconsistencies – is no more just than burning someone at the stake for a parking violation.

    Throughout history, many rules have been unjust. Rules that permitted slavery, treated women as property to be bartered, enshrined racism and discrimination into law are only a few examples. Many of the rules described in the Bible are unjust. Blind obedience to rules has led to many miscarriages of justice.

    There’s a huge gap between obedience to law and justice. I feel you are arguing that God comes down firmly on the side of rules and against justice.

  • John

    Can you explain how your interpretation is coherent within context of the Old Testament sacrificial system?

  • Tim

    I’m sure the religious leaders of Jesus’ day asked him a similar question when he started overturning their interpretations of scripture.
    The Old Testament sacrificial system was based on human misunderstanding of God, and is irrelevant. That’s why Jesus did away with it.
    “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”.

  • How so? By leaving them dead? I’m not saying God would leave people out of a general resurrection, but if He did, are you saying you would think of that as equivalent to massacre, or am I reading you wrong?

  • John

    I don’t disagree with those other statements. They fit just fine into PSA theology. The question is HOW did Jesus effect those things.
    PSA says that he effected them by taking the consequence of our sin upon himself.
    Under your interpretation, what did Jesus actually DO in order to take death away from man? What does it mean to “destroy” death and sin if he did nothing to effect the sin within us?

  • In fairness to Tim, PSA does not jive with the Old Testament sacrificial system either, since it includes no mechanism for substitutionary atonement.

    This is easily seen in the fact that the sin sacrifices do not avert the death penalty, other items besides live animals can be offered for atonement, sin offerings can be given for sins where death is not the prescribed penalty, and animal sacrifices can be offered for instances besides guilt.

    What I find tends to happen is that people decide Jesus’ sacrifice was a penal substitution, and therefore the OT sacrifices were penal substitutions. But if you read things forward, there does not appear to be any concept in the OT sacrificial system that you kill a goat in the place of yourself.

  • Herro

    Regarding Jesus’ attitude to divine violence: Explaining why he would be OK with it (seeking revenge on the opressive Romans or soemthing like that), doesn’t really change the basic point.

    And generally, I don’t think that a religious leader who frequently says that his opponents are going to burn in hell is adverse to divine violence.

    Regarding Mt 13: It talks about “the world”. Is that local?

    And angels are throwing people into Gehenna (which I think is hell, you seem to think it’s the valley outsie Jerusalem). When did angels do anything like that in the Jewish revolt?

  • Herro

    Phil: If I understand you correctly then you think that Gehenna is just talking about the valley outside Jerusalem, and not some sort of a place of eschatological punishment (i.e. what we would call “Hell”).

    Here’s a tricky passage for you :)

    “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna. (Lk 12:4-5)

    Now, from my view it’s clear that here we have Jesus contrasting humans (who can’t do anything to you after they kill you) with his god (who can throw you to hell after you’re dead).

    Interpreting “Gehenna” as a valley outside Jerusalem doesn’t fit here because humans can easily throw corpses into a valley outside Jerusalem. We can’t throw people into hell.

    So how do you explain this passage? :)

  • RollieB

    Question: Do you really think heaven and hell are actually paces? …or conditions?

  • John

    Jesus calls the OT scripture the “Word of God,” he says that it “cannot be broken,” etc.
    He doesn’t seem to agree with your throwing away of the OT.

  • John

    PSA holds that the OT sacrificial system was a symbol or shadow of things to come. In the words of Hebrews 9:24-28:

    “24 For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; 25 nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own. 26 Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. 27 And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, 28 so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.”
    And Hebrews 10:

    “10 For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? 3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”

    You also have the symbolism of Jesus being the “lamb of God.” This harkens back to the Passover where the Jews spread the blood of a lamb across their doorposts and God’s wrath passed over them. In the same way, Jesus’s blood causes God’s wrath to pass over us.

  • Herm

    Rollie, God is spirit only. The entirety of God is omnipresent while simultaneously able to set as one atop the very peak of a pimple on any one quark.

    Heaven, hell, love, and hate are all attitudes of awareness. When Jesus was dead for three days He knew nothing. Eternal life is awareness without end.

    God exists in this place, right here, bound by the condition of love for you, for the Son, for the Father, for Their neighbor, for Their enemy, and for all Their children. To be baptized by the Holy Spirit is to be immersed in God and God in you. In human relationship it is best characterized as a single family body bound in love. You, in the image of each of God as versus the image of each of Man, are a unique spirit body comprised of heart, soul, strength, mind; as is Jesus, our Father and all children of God who are immersed to be united as one by the Holy Spirit.

  • Herm

    If to be a disciple of the Messiah means I must carry my own cross who could I possibly consider myself good enough to substitute in behalf of?

  • RollieB

    Herm,you didn’t address the question, are heaven and hell literal places. When we die do we go to these ‘places?’

  • Herm

    John, I went through every time Dr. Corey used the word “substitution” and not once did he forget to append “penal” to it. The problem is with you in that you assume that therefore he must have another theological substitution that he agrees with when there is actually no hint to that effect.

    The fact is that all previous prophets were the substitute teachers and instructors for God before Jesus as the one Instructor. There is only one Teacher, one Instructor (the Messiah), and one Father. Jesus literally taught me how to carry my own cross that none before Him, or since, could.

  • Herm

    Rollie, all things physical will pass away. Think by spirit exercising the image of himself God gave you; your heart and mind. They exist in a place but they are not physical.

  • Bones

    So God is only resurrecting the good people and leaving the bad ones dad?

  • I don’t know what He’s going to do. It’s just that Bob had posited a scenario where he would raise some people in order to kill them, again. I don’t agree with that. I was asking you if you were thinking that, if God did decide only to raise certain people, if you thought of that as being the same as killing them.

  • Right, but none of what you said is substitutionary atonement. In fact, the Hebrews passage you quoted specifically says that the blood of bulls and goats did not take away sins. So how were they a substitutionary atonement? What evidence do you have that anyone thought of Mosaic sacrifices as the dead goat being a replacement for the sinner who offered it, and how does that square with the fact that this had no impact on the application of the penalties of the Mosaic law?

  • Because Jesus’ followers who are killed for faithfulness will be vindicated, but those destroyed in the judgement on Jerusalem will not be. It’s a very solid repurposing of Jeremiah, such as 7:30-33 or 19:1-13.

    The references to the Valley of Hinnom aren’t just general abstractions in the sense that any old person can kill someone and throw them into the valley; they are direct allusions to the fate of the unfaithful in Jerusalem.

  • You’re certainly welcome to your own estimations of Jesus.

    In Matthew 13, the “world” is even more abstract than that because the word is “kosmou,” which means “present order.” It’s not even referring to a geographical location in the strictest sense, unlike “ge” which is a far more common word that is often translated “world,” but simply means “the land.”

    A fuller translation of “kosmou” might be “the present state of affairs” or “the world as we know it.” It does not mean the planet Earth and, in fact, I would argue that none of the words in the New Testament that get translated “world” mean “planet Earth” because nobody would know what “planet Earth” was.

    As far as angels throwing people into Gehenna, keep in mind this is apocalyptic. I mean, when was Tyre ever covered by a flood or when was Edom turned into burning sulphur whose fires go up forever? When did God ever appear at the forefront of Israel’s armies and break the spears of their enemies? This is Early Jewish Literature 101 stuff. You use the language of divine action and cosmic destruction to communicate that some historical phenomenon was of divine origin. It’s not meant to be a newspaper article.

  • Bones

    So we’re all speculating about what we know nothing about.

  • Bones

    It’s mine.

    I’m seriously considering starting my own church.

    I hope no one comes.

  • Obscurely

    Here’s a link to an amazing (and respectful) debate over the biblical legitimacy of penal substitutionary atonement between two gifted evangelical pastors — the debate was called “Monster God or Monster Man” …

  • Western theology!

  • John

    Like I, and the verses that I quoted, said, the OT sacrificial system was a symbol that pointed forward to the true sacrifice of Christ; just like the tabernacle within Israel was a symbol of the true tabernacle in Heaven.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I am beginning to suspect you have a different idea of PSA than that which it usually means. PSA says that in order for God to forgive our sin, Jesus had to take the punishment due for that sin himself (that’s what the “penal” bit means). Justice (or something) meant that God couldn’t simply just forgive us freely.
    It is PSA that provides no mechanism for actually curing us of the sin itself, Jesus’s death just permits God not to punish us for it. It is the idea that it is God who needed Jesus to die so that God could forgive which is the much later innovation. As you can see there is none of that in Athansius.
    It is this “penal” bit, that God requires someone, guilty or not, suffer before he can forgive sind, which I and many others find horrible and illogical and a slander on God.
    In the classic view of the atonement, what Jesus needed to do was transform man’s nature. Sin is seen as a disease, a corruption, which leads to death not because God gets angry and kills people for it but because it eats away and destroys our souls and separates us from God who we need to survive. (A person doesn’t die of thirst because the water punishes him for not drinking it!)
    In order to save us from sin, God needs to transform human nature so that it becomes infused with God instead of sin. Sin, in this theology, being essentially an absence of or rejection of God, love and goodness. Death in sin is the ultimate separation from God.
    The incarnation, as much as the crucifixion, is God’s solution. Jesus enters the world as a man, takes on human nature, dies and descends to the dead. This allows God to touch the world directly, to become part of it, and us, to infuse the world and mankind with God’s own nature and thus (if we let it in) drive out sin. Also, by taking on flesh and dying God could reach those experiencing the ultimate separation from God – death, and reach and save them also, and, by being now directly present in death, he can now save from becoming separate from God in death those who die believing in him.

  • Herro

    I don’t quite get how you understand Lk 12:4-5.

    Who is Jesus talking about when he says: “those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more”?
    Who is Jesus talking about when he says: “after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna”?

  • Tim

    No, but that’s not what I’m saying. That’s what you THINK I’m saying because you can’t see past your own confirmation bias.
    I’m saying it is irrelevant now, because he has already fulfilled it. He said, “not one jot or tittle will pass away until all (of it) has been fulfilled”, and that’s exactly what he did at the cross.
    “Behold, I make all things new”.

  • Matthew

    Why do the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics think they are the true church?

  • John

    Ben’s statement from above – “I affirm that Jesus, in some way that perhaps will never be fully understood, served as our substitute.” Very simple question, I thought. In what fashion is he our substitute? I get that this is an article against ‘penal’ substitution, so just looking for a bit more clarity on Ben’s concept of substitution. I am not assuming anything here Herm, but Ben’s words speak for themselves.

  • Overall i agree, although some of that might be a bit spurious. We can’t judge because we are ignorant, but God knows all. I think he would want to punish not for himself but for what we did to each other. However, as i said, i agree, and that’s why i believe:
    –God would not create us flawed and then blame us for it. He knew we’d screw up and he still made us this way. Whose fault is that?
    –The “Logos/Word” that existed with God in the beginning is NOT JESUS. The Logic/Truth is that God loves us totally and completely and forgives all our flaws, and it has always been true. Jesus didn’t accomplish it, he just embodies it, he “expresses it” (so i guess in that sense he is the “word” or “expression” of it).
    –Yes most of the time Jesus talks about God as if his “father” were separate. Saying “I and the father are one” can’t just override that, and is more likely an Eastern “zen” type statement such as “they are in me and i in them.”
    –One “hell” (anyway it’s Gehenna, the burning dumpsite outside of town) is totally unfair if it punishes angry people the same as mass murderers, or militant atheists the same as someone who really wanted to believe but couldn’t.

  • John Thompson

    If God cannot be in the presence of sin, and He is omnipresent (which I believe He is), and we are sinful. How are we alive? God must know evil, He created the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. It is by grace I am forgiven of my sins. The death of Jesus did not set me free as the Baptists believe. God’s love and love forgives all things that set me free.

  • “Those who kill the body” are the Pharisees – the people Jesus was talking about in Luke 12:1-3. Those who have promoted Torah-keeping while secretly maintaining their own power and position. These are the people who will kill Jesus and persecute those who follow him.

    The one who has authority to cast into Gehenna is God, who will bring judgement down on the former group and those who follow them. Jesus is telling his potential followers not to be afraid of the first group who can martyr them, but rather fear God who will judge the former group. This is the basis for his instruction in verses 8-12.

    I think the issue may be that you’re reading verses 4-5 as an abstract commentary on death. But Jesus isn’t just stringing together a list of unrelated topics. The flow of Luke 12 goes:

    – Don’t fall under the sway of the Pharisees
    – The day is coming when everything will be brought to light
    – Don’t be afraid of the Pharisees, but rather fear God who is bringing this day
    – Everyone who allies with me will be vindicated on that day, but everyone who rejects me will be rejected
    – Your estimation of me can be forgiven, but to deny that this is God’s doing is rejection
    – When you are persecuted by the Pharisees for your allegiance, do not be afraid

    Verses 4-5 occupy a space in a little sermon about the people’s specific historical circumstances, not abstractions about life, death, God, and the afterlife. And the imagery Jesus chooses to use is a repurposing of Jeremiah’s imagery who is doing the exact same thing – proclaiming an impending judgement against Israel’s leaders because, even though they have outwardly given the appearance of obedience, secretly their hearts have been against the Lord and His people.

  • Ok, great. So if the OT sacrifices are NOT substitutionary, then neither is Jesus’, right?

    That’s what I’m trying to get you to establish. How do you know the OT sacrifices are substitutionary atonements, especially given the rather overwhelming indicators that they were not?

    You don’t get to say, “We know Jesus’ death was substitutionary atonement because the OT sacrifices were substitutionary atonements, and we know the OT sacrifices were substitutionary atonements because Jesus’ death was a substitutionary atonement.”

    When the NT authors refer to Jesus as a sacrifice, they clearly expect the reader to import their knowledge of OT sacrifices. That’s where we have to start. That’s where Israel started. What in the OT sacrifices tells you that they are substitutionary atonements, and how does that square with the fact that you still killed offenders, etc.?

  • Herro

    Ok. So we have the pharisees and Jesus’ god here according to you. So Jesus says that his god can throw people into Gehenna, but that the pharisees can’t do that.

    If Gehenna is in this passage just a valley outside of Jerusalem, in what way are the pharisees unable to throw persons there?

  • Herm

    John, I see your consternation, thank you for that, I would guess that you don’t understand that Ben was saying that he didn’t fully write off that Jesus substituted in some way for us but that penal substitution is not one of them.

    Would you please explain to me your understanding of what you call “the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ sacrifice“?

    I don’t exactly see where Jesus necessarily made a sacrifice as a substitute if the concept of penal substitution is ruled out.

  • Matthew

    I don´t think Yom Kippur — for example — has anything to do with substitutionary atonement. The sacrifice was made on behalf of the people, but I don´t think the ram or goat was a substitute for anything or anybody.

  • John

    Great question Herm. It is close to the same one I posed to Ben – what is his concept of substitution (if penal is ruled out)? He see’s some kind of substitution and I am honestly curious as to what that is if it isn’t penal. I have some issues with penal substitution also, but I have not dismissed the concept of Jesus as substitution at all. Sorry I am not giving you my ideas because this is Ben’s blog and I am curious about his ideas.

  • Herm

    John, I would not expect Ben to answer your question when he conditioned his affirmation with “in some way that perhaps will never be fully understood“. I say this because it is easier, even possible, to eliminate what is not than to project on what could be when discussing within the constraints of infinity and eternity.

    Some things must be left to unfold for the children of God to discover when the time is right and they are prepared to see. I’m not sure there is anything we are prepared to accept as Jesus substituting for us what we could not do for ourselves, except to teach us it is more constructive for all to carry our cross rather than wield our sword.

    We had proven that we would not have learned that lesson to even try on our own; most particularity so from the history we had from the first chosen king of God’s chosen people, David, until Jesus. Perhaps, the Messiah did have to substitute for our teachers of the law???

  • Bones

    Because it’s all about apostolic succession.

    Somehow Catholics and eastern Orthodox believe the first Christians were the same as them.

    The reply I give to that is NUTS!

  • John

    Did you not say that the OT system was based on human misunderstanding? How can something both be based on human misunderstanding and be the Words of God?

  • John

    The OT sacrifices were to atone for your sins in front of God, not in front of society. The fact that society still had civil punishments is an entirely different matter.

    The key, as presented in the NT, is the OT sacrifices did not actually atone for anything. They were simply symbols and shadows of the true atonement to come through Jesus.

    How are you understanding the idea of an atoning sacrifice for one’s sins if not under a substitutionary system? What does it mean to say Aaron had to kill and offer the bull for his sins to make atonement for himself and his family and then had to kill a goat as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of all the people? This is the image given in Hebrews of what Jesus does with his own blood instead of the blood of the bull and goat.

  • John

    How does that fit with all the verses about God’s wrath towards sin, but also the sinner? (John 3:36, Romans 2:5, Romans 5:9, Etc.)

    These verses speak about God’s active wrath toward the sinner, not simply a separation.

  • Yes, I know. You keep saying that Hebrews uses the image of a sacrifice as if that somehow self-evidently proves both systems are substitutionary atonements. I’m saying you haven’t proven that about either one; it’s just an assumption you’re carrying. And you just keep repeating the statements over and over which doesn’t lend a lot of credence to the idea that you actually have evidence or argumentation to back them up.

    So, now you’re asking me what other possible understandings of sacrifice could exist if not penal substitutionary ones, which I guess is a step in the right direction.

    One thing I might offer is that the most straightforward understanding of the sacrificial system would be one shared with every other people in group in the Levant, which is that you’re giving up something valuable to you to demonstrate your sincerity and commitment to your god and constitute an appeal for a response as a symbolic act.

    For instance, in Leviticus 5:11, if a person can’t afford doves for the sin offering, they offer flour instead. The same is said in the case of a lamb for an atonement offering in 14:21. I find it highly unlikely that the flour is dying a substitionary death in the stead of the offerer, however it makes sense that the poor person is offering what valuable substance they can.

    In Numbers 31:50, the soldiers allow the Midianite women and children to live, and they offer the gold and jewelry they took as atonement for their souls. In Numbers 16:46, Aaron burns incense as an atonement for the people who complained against Moses – an atonement for people God declared He would destroy. Did the incense die a substitutionary death? Did the jewelry?

    Easily the most straightfoward way to understand these incidents is that there was a symbolic act going on whereby something valuable was given up to God as a sincere appeal. This is, incidentally, also the meaning 1 Peter 3 ascribes to baptism. I also think it is an understanding that easily describes how Jesus can be a sacrifice.

    It also explains why, even having made an offering, you still die if the Law (which came from God, right?) warrants it, and also why you sacrifice animals for sins whose penalty is not death.

    So, sacrifices are still made to benefit the people, performed by high priests on their behalf, but there’s nothing in the OT system that necessitates the idea that the sacrifices are dying in the place of the offerer, especially when this is literally impossible for some of the substances offered.

    Now that we have established that other possible explanations for sacrifice besides substitutionary atonement do exist, what evidence do you offer that substitutionary atonement was the understanding in operation for the Old Testament sacrifices?

  • I feel like you’re being purposefully obtuse.

    Obviously, a Pharisee can lug a corpse into the Valley of Hinnom. What they cannot do is bring God’s judgement against Israel. This passage isn’t about comparative physics and corpse leverage; it’s about martyrdom at the hands of the Pharisees (like the prophets before him) versus falling under the wrath of God against Jerusalem. “Casting into Gehenna” isn’t talking about God physically picking someone up and throwing them somewhere. God wouldn’t physically pick someone up and throw them into Hell, either. You’re reading this passage as if Jesus takes a two minute diversion from his warning about the Pharisees to elaborate on what happens to people when they die, then jumps right back into his original subject, and the main logic of the passage is the physics of who can pick up what objects and place them where.

    Jesus begins Luke 12 by warning people against following the Pharisees, then he says this bit we’re discussing, then he talks about what will happen to people who follow in faithfulness versus the people who deny the Son of Man (which is Daniel’s apocalyptic figure who receives the kingdom after the “Ancient of Days” destroys the empires of the world with fire), then he talks about not being afraid when his followers get dragged into the synagogues. All this using imagery drawn from a prophet before him who was also prophesying doom against Israel for what she had become.

    If my view of the passage is correct, then Jesus is placing himself in the line of the Old Testament prophets prior to him and the vocation of John the Baptist, announcing the immanence of the Day of the Lord and urging faithfulness as a way of escape. This was a live issue of Jewish eschatological expectation in Jesus’ day and uses apocalyptic language in a way that was a well-known genre by and in the first century. He is urging his audience not to give in to the fear of the persecution they will experience at the hands of their own religious leaders and deny the Son of Man. This makes cohesive sense of chapter 12.

    If your view of the passage is correct, then this is just some random diatribe where Jesus felt like this was a good time to bring up the fact that people go to Hell. I think your reading is far less likely to be the reading of the original audience, but you’re entitled to it.

    I think, if we’re going to critique the contents of the Bible, we need to do so from its hermeneutical world and not our own. To read the passage your way would require me to disconnect the authors of the gospels from any sort of actual first (or second) century Jewish concerns, or at the very least pronounce them completely irrelevant. I will grant you this is par for the course in most evangelical readings of the Bible, but not mine.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    The standard Christian view is that God is wrathful towards sinners only whilst they don’t change their ways and stop sinning, whereupon they are forgiven.

  • John

    What do you believe it means that God has wrath towards a sinner?

  • Iain Lovejoy

    God’s wrath towards a sinner is to show his disapproval, stop his sin and induce his repentance. The word “wrath” means “anger”: you know what anger is, right?

  • John

    But does his wrath have any effect? Wrath, or anger, doesn’t fix relationships.

  • John

    The OT sacrifices are so much more than just the giving up of something valuable. That ignores so much.
    For example, blood is a key component. Blood is spread on the doorway for Passover, Aaron had to sprinkle the blood on the Mercy Seat for atonement of sins, etc. Blood represents death in the Bible. Giving up something valuable isn’t enough. There must also be death and blood for the atonement of sins (the oil, grain, and other non-living sacrifices are the exception and are not applicable to the biggest sacrifices like on the Day of Atonement).

  • Iain Lovejoy

    “Wrath, or anger, doesn’t fix relationships”
    Hence Jesus.
    Anger (or the display of it) does not fix relationships, but can be necessary when dealing with stubborn children who will not otherwise pay attention. God is also portrayed as exercising his anger in defence of the poor etc where the oppressor will experience God as wrath as God acts to overturn their oppression. To the oppressor once overturned and stopped from harming others, God can then once again be merciful.

  • Bones

    Yes we see that your God demands death to forgive.

    Which isn’t forgiveness.

    Oh and blood was pretty big in pagan cultures.

  • Bones

    If a married man screwed a single babe, that wasn’t adultery according to the Law.

    Only other guys’ property was off limits.

  • Herro

    I don’t disagree in regards to the function of the saying: it is admonishing Christians not to be afraid when facing persecution.

    The problem is that he does that with a parallel that I don’t see how you can make any sense of if Gehenna doesn’t mean what we would call hell.

    Being cast into Gehenna is in the text something god does to you after he kills you. That doesn’t fit with “bringing judgement on Jerusalem” or something like that. But it fits perfectly with the idea of god throwing people into hell.

    This idea of hell was a common view during that period, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see a 1st century dooms-day prophet mention it.

    And presumably he imagined that god would have people physically thrown into hell-fire. Jesus says that angles would to it elsewhere, presumably that’s how his god would have it done.

  • RollieB

    Herm, since I think of myself as a trans-religious mystic, I understand, and to some degree agree with your responses. What I was trying to do with the question was to get others (read evangelicals and fundamentalists) to express their beliefs. I think they think of H&H as real places, rather than being with, or absent from, the Ground of Being. You may get the premise, I’m not sure they do. Carry on…

  • Herm

    Keep up the effort to help others come to the truth they can live with. I feel, on this forum, that many “others” might be afraid to take the bait where as those who find themselves rooted in the “Ground of Being” would be more likely to. If nothing else there may be some help for others to find their direction from our conversation. Thank you Rollie!

  • Ron McPherson

    Gehenna to the Jews was a detestable place. It was the OT location of burning human sacrifice to the false god Moloch, of which God hated the practice for obvious reasons. So it seems odd to me that Jesus would then use a place that God hated (because of burning victims alive for what would have been minutes of agony) to describe a fate where God would then allow victims to burn in agony forever. In other words, if God hated a temporary suffering in the fire of Gehenna, why are we to assume that an unending fire in Gehenna hell is ok? Wouldn’t that be the epitome of cruel irony?

  • Herro

    Ron, in ancient Jewish writings you have references to Gehenna and “the accursed valley” as the place where the wicked would be punished. So religious Jews clearly had no problem with using the word Gehenna for that place.

  • Ron McPherson

    I’m not denying it was associated as a place symbolic of judgment. Some suggest it was a burning garbage heap at the time of Jesus, and possibly where the bodies of dead criminals would be incinerated. The Jews would certainly equate that to judgment, tossed outside the walls of Jerusalem, separated from God’s covenanted people. To me, this seems more reasonable as to what Jesus was referring to.

  • Herro

    The first mention of it being some sort of a garbage dump is from a French rabbi in the 12th century. So there’s no good reason to believe that it was a garbage dump.

  • Ron McPherson

    We’re speculating about what the Jews would have understood at the time of Jesus’ teaching. The whole point is that none of us know with certainty. But it seems a stretch to assume they would understand Jesus’ reference to Gehenna as being a place of unending fiery torment in the afterlife, especially given Gehenna’s OT history and how God condemned the very practice of burning people alive. If God condemned a temporary torture at Gehenna, why should the Jews at that time (and us today) leap to the conclusion that God allows instead for an infinite torture, all the while underscoring that point ironically referencing the exact same site that he originally condemned.

  • Um, no, the idea of Hell wasn’t at all a common one. The closest we get to it is 1 Enoch portraying an underground prison of fire that contains the Watcher angels. Enoch descends into this prison and preaches to them.

    There is also a reference in 4 Maccabees (12:11-12) where one of the sons declares that Antiochus Epiphanes will be consigned to fiery torment for eternity because of what he has done. So, you might be able to establish that there is something vaguely Hell-like in Jewish theology that is reserved for fallen angels and genocidal tyrants.

    Being thrown into Gehenna is “meta to apokteinai,” which you have quoted as translated as “after having killed.” This would still fit the idea because, in the slaughter presented by prophets like Jeremiah, Gehenna is where you pile up the bodies after they are killed. In my opinion, it changes nothing.

    However, “meta” does not only mean “after,” it typically means “along with.” It is translated “after” in a small handful of passages, probably because of the theology of the translators. The far, far overwhelming majority of where the word appears, it means “with,” not “after.” For instance, in the very same chapter, we have Luke 12:46 – “with the unbelievers” is meta ton apiston. In Luke 12:58, we have “with the adversary” – meta tou antidikou.

    The idea that tons of people will fall in the judgement and have their corpses stacked and burned in Gehenna appears in the Old Testament prophets, as I’ve already demonstrated. Jesus is saying to be afraid of the one who has the “authority” to do this.

    Your reading is just very ahistorical. It doesn’t make it wrong, but to me, it makes it incredibly unlikely.

  • No, there doesn’t have to be death and blood to atone for sins, unless, flour, jewelry, and incense count. You’re getting super close to actually lying, here, to prove your point. You know for a fact that atonement is achieved in the Old Testament without death or blood.

  • Herro

    >”… how God condemned the very practice of burning people alive.”

    And that’s never done. In the OT Yahweh even burns people himself and orders peopel to be bunrt. If you reference a ban on offering children as a burnt sacrifice to other gods, then that’s not a blanket ban on burning people. And even if he had banned his followers to burn people, then that’s totally different from him himself doing it. And besides, we clearly have ancient jews believing this, so there’s good reason to think that Jesus would too.

    >”…why should the Jews at that time (and us today) leap to the conclusion that God allows instead for an infinite torture,…

    We should of course not believe in the existence of some god that tortures people.

    I don’t know why people believed what they believed. But it’s clear that many of the Jews at that time did believe in a fiery place of punishment for the wicked.

  • Precisely. And it’s a known geographical location with known historical connotations. I’d think the burden of proof would be to demonstrate that, when Jesus says “Gehenna,” he does not mean Gehenna, but rather a spiritual plane of eternal torment. Calling it “Gehenna” seems like it would just serve to utterly confuse people who knew where and what Gehenna was.

    It would be like me saying, “Beware the one who can send you to New Jersey,” and expecting everyone to just know I actually meant a Platonic, metaphysical realm.

  • Ron McPherson

    From the preponderance of biblical evidence, I don’t see eternal conscious torment being taught. Nowhere was that concept taught in the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul never wrote of that either. Further, I don’t believe Jesus ever taught it either. He taught that whoever believes in him has eternal life. Those that believe in him will never die. I don’t find any teaching that suggests that no one ultimately dies (only that some will have a good life and the rest will have a really really bad life). Anyway, certainly you are entitled to believe differently. Peace

  • Herro

    >”Um, no, the idea of Hell wasn’t at all a common one.”

    So it of course depends on how narrowly we want to define “Hell”.

    But I could add some more references for you. In Judith 16:17 it says that on judgement day Yahweh will punish people by sending fire and worms into their flesh and they’ll weep in pain forever.

    When I read up on this subject I saw this part from a famous Dead Sea Scroll:

    >”And as for the visitation of all who walk in this (spirit) it
    consists of an abundance of blows administered by all the angels of
    destruction, in the everlasting pit by the furious wrath of the
    God of vengeance, of the unending dead and shame without end and of the
    disgrace of destruction by the fire of the regions of darkness . And
    all their times from age to age are in the most sorrowful chaggrin and
    bitterest misfortune in the calamities of darkness till they are
    destroyed with none of them surviving or escaping.” ” (1QS IV 6-8)

    Here we have angels punishing people, an “everlasting pit”, fire and darkness.

    Josephus (Ant 18:1:3) describes the view’s of the Pharisees as the wicked being punished in an “eternal prison” underground.

    We have lots of talk about hell.

    >”This would still fit the idea because, in the slaughter presented by
    prophets like Jeremiah, Gehenna is where you pile up the bodies after
    they are killed. In my opinion, it changes nothing.”

    My point is that in Lk 12:4-5 “throw into Gehenna” is something that men can’t do. So it can’t be piling up bodies in a valley.

    Regarding “meta”. Your examples had “mete” + G. This example is “meta” + A, where I think it generally means after.

  • But we don’t. You can’t just take a passage about destruction in fire or darkness and say that’s Hell. That’s assuming your conclusion. The Judith text says nothing about Hell. That is language we find all over the Old Testament about all kinds of very temporal historical occurrences. If you -assume- Hell, then you’ll find it anywhere language appears talking about destruction by fire or pits or what have you. The problem is that language gets used in the OT all the time for stuff that is very much this-worldish. Take a look, for example, at the destruction of Edom in Isaiah 34. Mountains get crested with blood. Stars get cut out of the sky, and then we get into 9 and 10 where the very soil of Edom becomes sulfur and the rivers pitch and the land burns with fires “night and day it shall not be quenched, and its smoke shall go up forever.”

    But it doesn’t become pitch and doesn’t burn forever. Nobody interpreted this as happening on some spiritual plane. It’s apocalyptic language describing Edom getting their asses kicked. Total eternal destruction in fire and darkness is par for the course when apocalyptically describing a terrible historical event.

    Look at the passages I brought up for your referral such as Jeremiah 7. Here, we get:

    “Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room.”

    Not only did this not literally happen, but clearly the idea is Gehenna is where you bury the dead Israelites God brings judgement upon. This exact same pronouncement is expanded upon in 19.

    In the Essene text you quoted (which I’d say hardly constitutes a “common” view in first century Judaism, especially for Jesus and his audience), note the end – their lives from age to age are tragic until they are all destroyed with none of them escaping. This isn’t everlasting torment in fire – this is a comprehensive destruction. There IS an Essene text that makes Sheol (the grave) a place of burning, but it’s pretty badly mangled. It’s 1 QM 14:17-18 if you want to bring it up next time this topic comes around.

    Assuming Josephus is an authority on Pharisaical theology, which he isn’t (he refers to them as people whose practices derive from their devotion to Reason with no mention of the Torah), what he says in the passage you mentioned is that both the virtuous and the vicious go underground, and the vicious are eternally detained there (there is no mention of punishment, torment, or fire) and the virtuous have the power to revive and live again. This sounds a lot like death and resurrection to me, but once again, if you already decide it’s about Hell, then you’ll see Hell there.

    And we could say that about a host of doctrines that come from the evangelical/fundamentalist/Sam Harris/Greco-Roman take on the Bible. If you think the Bible teaches trinitarianism, you’ll see it. If you think it teaches Arianism, you’ll see that. If you think it says it’s inerrant, you’ll see that.

    I think, assuming our interest is actually in understanding ancient texts and not trying to demonstrate how stupid they are, it’s much wiser to interpret them from the concerns and questions and precedents of their own world. When I read Plato’s “Republic,” I don’t think he’s talking about the United States Senate, although I could probably make the language fit the concept if I were determined to make that work.

    What I want to do is figure out what Plato means by Republic, and I do this by consulting Plato’s other works, the historical and cultural issues alive in Greece at the time relevant to politics and political theory, and what other voices were in the air about it. I think this is what we have to do for Jesus, and if all I had to go on was the Old Testament, the literature in circulation around the Old Testament, and rabbinical commentary from the period – and I had no pre-existing idea in my head of a place where dead spirits are eternally tortured by fire – I don’t think for a second I’d ever come up with that reading Luke 12. I think I’d interpret it in line with the apocalyptic, prophetic literature that preceded it.

    Luke 12:13 “divide with me” – merisasthai met emou. Meisasthai is A, not G.

  • Herro

    Platonic metaphysical realm? Hell was imagined as an actual place, with fire.

    I’s pretty clear that Gehenna was used as a reference to the place where the wicked were to be punished on judgement day (I mean, look at the discussions in rabbinic literature, clearly not about just a valley outside Jerusalem: So the word clearly took on that meaning, whether it confused some people or not.

  • John

    As I’ve said time and time again, the OT sacrifices (as the NT says) are symbols and shadows. They are not a one to one exact representation. This is a claim made by the NT author, not by me. It is not something that can be ignored.

    The direct comparison made by the author of Hebrews is that of the Day of Atonement. The author specifies that Jesus uses his own perfect blood instead of the imperfect blood of bulls and goats used by Aaron in the OT. The author of the Hebrews focuses on the death and blood. I’m not just arbitrarily bringing it up.

    What is your position on why he focuses on the death and blood form the OT when comparing it to Jesus?

  • Bones

    Jewish belief about the afterlife is all over the place and you can easily find rabbinic literature to back up any belief.

    Heaven and Hell in Jewish Tradition
    Jewish sources are conflicted about what happens after we die.


    Ultimately no one knows….

    Its bizarre that an atheist is arguing for hell….

  • Bones

    Just off the top of my head

    Because he was writing to Hebrews……..

  • Bones

    It wasn’t a secret code to first century Jewish Christians….

    Ffs why do people try to minimise the holocaust of the Sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.

    Many of Jesus’s comments about destruction do relate to real world events…look what happens when you follow the Pharisees and the wide path of Nationalist insurrection….real, physical fire and destruction.

  • Bones


  • Bones

    To generalise:

    Western theology (Catholicism and Protestantism ie Catholic Lite) sees the Atonement as a juridical law court…..

    Eastern theology sees the Atonement as a hospital for our own healing…..

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Ah, Benjamin,
    Always a bit easier and more self-satisfying to throw down on strawmen arguments, right? If you want to be more persuasive you need to more sensitively and accurately and thoroughly represent the best arguments of those who hold to a particular view of the atonement (there does seem to be something like that presented in the NT, doesn’t there?) So, what is your view of that ransom Jesus spoke of? Please state it positively so others can strawman your position as thoroughly as you do the often more subtlely and thoughtfully affirmed penal substitution theology.

  • Bones


    Aaaah Richard’s come back to express his outrage.

    Ben must be on the right path.

  • Herro

    >”ts bizarre that an atheist is arguing for hell…”

    I’m arguing that certain texts mean something specific. Why is that bizarre given that I don’t believe in the existence of any gods?

  • Herro

    >”You can’t just take a passage about destruction in fire or darkness and say that’s Hell. That’s assuming your conclusion.”

    Judith talks about people being punished on judgement day by eternal torment by fire. That sure sounds like hell and you don’t find anything like that in the Old Testament.

    Let’s assume that 1QS IV 6-8 is talking about annihilationism. It’s still a place where the wicked are being punished by angels for some amount of time in a region of darkness of fire. That sure sounds more like hell and not just their bodies being thrown in a valley outside of Jerusalem (or something like that).

    Josephus says that the Pharisees believe in the immortality of the soul. So when he talks about wicked souls being in an everlasting prison underground, then that surely is a reference to a belief in a hell.

    And sure, we need to try not to read our own ideas (or what we want the texts to say) or try to twist the texts to fit with our agenda, and read them in their cultural context.

    >”Luke 12:13 “divide with me” – merisasthai met emou. Meisasthai is A, not G.”

    I should have been more specific, sorry for that. “A” was “accusative” and “G” was “genitive”. emou is in genitive.

  • But Judith 16 isn’t talking about judgement day; that’s the song after Judith’s victory over Assyria in Judith 15. The song is all about what Judith did to Assyria, and it says that specifically. Read Judith 16. It ends with the notion that the Lord will destroy all of Israel’s enemies in a day of reckoning where we will send fire and worms *to devour their bodies* (not their souls) and they will weep into the ages. Everything about the Judith passage is tied to a temporal, historical, defeat of the enemies who fight Israel, which is completely consistent with the pattern of apocalyptic language everywhere else in the Old Testament.

    Yes, if I yank that passage out of its context and read it on its own, I could say, “Hey, this matches the idea of Hell I have in my head” and assume the text is about that, but that would be a poor way of determining the meaning.

    I don’t think the Essene text is talking about annihilationism.

    1 QS 4 contrasts two spirits – one that walks in virtue and receives a long and happy life, and one that walks in the way of falsehood and has a life full of torment. I will grant you that, in typical Essene style, the language will turn apocalyptic, but even this is interwoven with language that is explicitly temporal. For example, in 5-10, one of the rewards for the virtuous spirit is “everlasting joy in life without end” (and I’m assuming that’s a good translation – I do not know where I can look at the original text of the scroll, but I do know translators are often fond of translating phrases like “of the ages” as “eternal”), but another reward is “great peace in a long life.” For the wicked, it says that their “generations” will suffer calamities until they are destroyed without survivor.

    And even if you are correct, that the Essenes had managed a scheme that looks a lot like what we now think of as Hell, that’s neither determinative of Jesus’ use of Gehenna in Luke 12 nor any kind of indicator of what was a common idea in Judaism.

    >> So when he talks about wicked souls being in an everlasting prison underground, then that surely is a reference to a belief in a hell.

    Is it? Or are you finding Hell there? Josephus also says in that same passage they believe the righteous dead will receive their rewards underground. Josephus says they also have constructed their ethical standards by appeal to Reason.

    I guess my thing is, if we have clear Old Testament references to Gehenna being the location of a temporal judgement against unfaithful Israel, and we have clear Old Testament uses of “eternal fire” and such language to refer to temporal events, and Jesus uses the exact same geographical location and language, our bias should probably be to understand him in similar lines and that his audience would understand him in similar lines as to how those terms and images had been used in the past.

    I think that’s far more likely than Jesus completely jettisoning all the Old Testament imagery around his statements in favor of a completely different understanding of those locations and images, and that would have been the understanding of his audience as well.

    You seem very committed to an evangelical reading of Scripture, and that’s fine – a lot of people are. But I’m just saying that the best you’re going to find from the Old Testament world is an overwhelming amount of counter-examples where the imagery clearly indicates a temporal judgement and the occasional fragment here and there that might have sort of kind of sounds like our conception of Hell.

  • It’s definitely a location of eschatological judgement. The question is whether or not this judgement is expected to be a temporal, historical judgement that takes place in that Valley, or whether that Valley is just a metaphor for a spiritual location for souls.

    It is interesting to me that it was an Arabian scholar who proposed that the destruction of Korah was him being sent to Gehenna. I’m genuinely interested in the differences of how the Jewish ideas of these things were shaped by their neighbors and vice-versa. And as you pointed out, we can get differing fragments from different rabbis to suggest different things.

    But once again, that article is doing second hand interpretive work (as are we all). For example, the article says that Zakkai wept because he did not know whether or not he was going to paradise or hell, but this is not what happens in Ber. 28. He does use the phrase, “one leading to Paradise and the other to Gehinnom, and I do not know by which I shall be taken, shall I not weep,” but what he says beforehand is:

    “Now that I am being taken before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, who lives and endures for ever and ever, whose anger, if He is angry with me, is an everlasting anger, who if He imprisons me imprisons me for ever, who if He puts me to death puts me to death for ever, and whom I cannot persuade with words or bribe with money”

    So, there’s no indicator here that Zakkai is afraid of his spirit being tortured by fire forever. He is afraid because, unlike human kings, whatever fate God decides for him will be permanent and there’s no way to sway Him. In fact, since this is the first century and Zakkai has spent his career arguing -against- war with Rome. He predicted the rise of Vespasian and wanted to avoid the destructive conflict. Against this, I would assume that Gehenna would be a very powerful symbol for him.

    But it just goes to show how easy it is read these things against a framework of our own as opposed to a historical one.

    Even the article you sent defines Hell as a Greek idea and points out some passages where some things some rabbis have attributed to Gehenna match the Greek version. But what I really liked were the portions where it pointed out the very temporal, concrete phenomena behind some of the more colorful descriptive language in the texts, such as:

    “Because of the extent of Gehenna the sun, on setting in the evening, passes by it, and receives from it its own fire (evening glow; B. B. 84a). A fiery stream (“dinur”) falls upon the head of the sinner in Gehenna (Ḥag. 13b). This is “the fire of the West, which every setting sun receives. I came to a fiery river, whose fire flows like water, and which empties into a large sea in the West” (Enoch, xvii. 4-6).”

  • Well, you’re going to have to decide at some point where you want to break your vicious circle.

    You can either establish that Jesus’ atonement is substitutionary and penal -without- appealing to the sacrificial system, then use that as a foundation for arguing the sacrificial system was also substitutionary and penal. OR you can establish that the sacrificial system was substitutionary and penal -without- appealing to Jesus’ sacrifice, then use that as a foundation for arguing that Jesus’ sacrifice was penal and substitutionary.

    What you can’t do is what you’re doing now, which is arguing that both are penal and substitutionary, and the reason you know this about one is because it is true of the other, and this becomes your foundation for establishing the PSA nature of the original. If you’re going to use one as an argument for another, you have to establish it without assuming the truth of the other.

    Like, if I said, “Jesus sacrifice didn’t mean anything. I know this because the Old Testament sacrifices didn’t mean anything. And this is obvious, because they are a type and shadow of Jesus’ sacrifice, and his sacrifice didn’t mean anything,” you would rightly point out that this is just a circle where everything hangs together because I’m assuming the truth of my conclusions. And that’s exactly what you’re doing right now.

    As to why Hebrews 10 focuses on death and blood, that would be mostly because it’s trying to import meaning to Jesus’ death, and the most logical import would be from an animal sacrifice. Jesus is not flour or jewelry or incense or any of the other things in the Old Testament that were perfectly acceptable offerings to God to plead for atonement.

    And the meaning it imports would be the same. The OT sacrifices were the offering up of something valuable to God to ask for His forgiveness. They didn’t “buy” His forgiveness or achieve that forgiveness by some cosmic law that, if you kill something, your sins are forgiven. They were appeals to God for a clean conscience. It is God who decides to forgive you – it is His will – and the sacrifices are your offering to ask for that forgiveness.

    This is, in fact, the language the author of Hebrews 10 uses as well.

    For instance, in verse 10, it says that it is God’s will that actually sanctifies. What Jesus’ sacrifice does is not sanctify anyone, but it brings this whole sin – offering – forgiveness pattern to its completion. This is the whole argument of chapter 10. The OT sacrifices cannot complete this for any offerer (v. 1 “teleiosai”), but Jesus’ sacrifice brings it to completion for all time (v. 14 “teteleioken”) which is why there is no longer a need to offer sacrifices to appeal to God for forgiveness. Jesus’ sacrifice is the final, superior appeal after which there is no more need. But it is not because Jesus’ death is a substitutionary atonement for sin, any more than the bulls and goats were – it is because of God’s will to sanctify.

    Jesus’ death is a plea, a prayer, an offering to God that Jesus makes willingly on behalf of his people, for God to forgive the sins of His people and liberate them from the curse of the covenant they broke. In response to this sacrifice, God does exactly that.

    Now, there are other portions of Hebrews that will talk about Jesus in terms of other facets of the Old Testament. For instance, the author points out that blood sacrifice is also how you initiate a covenant, so Jesus’ blood initiates a covenant, etc. etc. But there is nothing in Hebrews that portrays Jesus’ death as him dying in the place of / taking the punishment for people who rightly deserved that punishment, but now do not.

    The irony is that, if your argument held up, then the OT sacrifices would also be substitutionary atonements, and the reason God forgave anyone in the Old Testament would be because they killed something. But this logic is strictly countermanded by Hebrews and yourself.

  • Matthew

    Phil … if it’s temporal, historical judgement and not a metaphor for the destiny of lost souls, how do we get that from the texts?

  • My guess is that we primarily owe that to Greco-Roman theologians who had to try to make sense of the Bible in their world with very little point of contact with Jewish concerns. A Jesus who saves the faithful from falling under God’s judgement against Jerusalem would mean very little to them if they were even aware of those expectations to begin with, and it means even less once we get out of the first century. So, Jesus’ salvation has to mean something to them, and in their world, the transmigration of the immortal soul is a key question of philosophical and religious discourse. Even Plato addresses it.

    These theologians come to the Bible with the Greek ideas of the afterlife and the soul and apply the biblical writings to that world. This becomes the root of our own theological tradition. One of the facets of the development of theology is, very early on, commentary on the Bible ends up in the hands – not of historians, but of Greco-Roman theologians and philosophers – few if any had much knowledge of early Judaism and some of them actively fought to divorce the meaning of Jesus from Judaism and use their theology as a weapon against Judaism instead of, say, a reformation of it.

    Consider this. Contemporary American theologians happily find in the Bible a Jesus who supports tight immigration laws, no gun control, legislation to force transgender people to use their biological bathroom, capitalist economics, and unqualified support for the modern nation-state of Israel. They will find this in the text of the Bible.

    Or how often does God’s promise to the Babylonian exiles in Jeremiah 29:11 get used as a text for college graduates that God has a good life planned for them?

    It all comes from that same, basic impulse. We have a world of ideas, questions, and concerns, and we come to the Bible looking for it to speak to those questions. So, if I’m an early Greco-Roman philosopher, I want to know what the Bible says about what happens to my immortal spirit when I die, and that’s what I’m going to see there and that’s going to be one of the pivots around which the Scriptures will turn.

    Perhaps the thing that has contributed most to the longevity of this effort is the fact that the Church is no longer producing narrative. The early church fathers put together a -theology- and it is this -theology- that gets passed down from generation to generation, not the narrative of the people of God. It’s a set of doctrinal propositions. These propositions become our framework for understanding the narrative, and the Scriptures become raw materials for producing the propositions. In that kind of climate, you’re never going to be able to challenge the roots of the theology without someone calling you a heretic and, for a rather large portion of church history, killing you as a result. This tends to stifle dialogue.

  • Matthew

    When is the book coming out Phil :-):-)?

  • Thanks, I can relate to Tim Higgins. Just added another N.T. Wright book to my Amazon wish list, now over 4 pages long! Thank goodness I’ll be retiring next year. Will do a bunch of reading, well, between the honey-do’s!

  • Justin

    Before you “agree” with this post, read, “The Nature of the Atonement.” It includes arguments for and against all major atonement theories.

  • Bones

    Because you’re reading it like a fundamentalist….It is clear that many of the destruction and gehenna passages have to do with the literal destruction of Jerusalem.

  • Ron McPherson

    Was thinking the exact same thing. Every time he writes some little nugget I feel like the scriptures take on a breath of fresh air

  • Herro

    I think we’re talking past each other because you have a very different, and narrower, definition of hell. In another comment here you talk about Gehenna being a reference to hell as “a metaphor for a spiritual location for souls” and here you emphasize that the fires and worms would be in the flesh (and not the souls) of the persons in Judith.

    I don’t think that hell was generally some sort of “another dimension where souls go” or something similar (like many modern Christians seem to believe). I think that they thought of hell as an actual place where the wicked would actually burn in fire.

    >”You seem very committed to an evangelical reading of Scripture, and that’s fine – a lot of people are. ”

    This is another problem. The reading I propose here isn’t an “evangelical reading”. One of the first things I read about hell (and came to the conclusion that Jesus did preach hell) was from a liberal Christian New tesatment scholar (Dale C. Allison)

  • Herro

    But I’m not reading it like a fundamentalist. There’s nothing specially fundamentalistic about thinking that some of the NT passages are about the second coming, judgement day and hell.

    Sure some passages in the NT are about the destruction of Jerusalem. But the hell-fire stuff is also there.

    I’ve often seen fundamentalists try to say that all of this judgement-day talk is about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. They do so because they are trying to save Jesus from being a false prophet.

    I think that many Christians (liberal and fundamentalists) also go to great lengths to avoid all the hell-talk because they (rightly) think it makes Jesus and their god into a fiendish monster.

  • I don’t know if we’re talking past each other, but we may be in an area of diminishing returns. You asked me why I didn’t think Jesus talked about a literal place of eternal torment of fire, and I guess I answered that.

    To me, the Old Testament precedent for using that language to describe temporal, earthly destruction is overwhelming and, when I am going where probabilities take me, it seems to me to make sense to continue to interpret Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet who is carrying on the tradition. I certainly do not have the qualifications to argue against Dale Allison, but given his work with Jesus’ apocalypticism, I’d be curious to see where he’s at on the issue.

  • Matthew

    Very interesting Phil. You have really thought this stuff through.

    I´m wondering though … can we ever really shed all of our modern day questions and presuppositions before we come to any biblical texts? I mean how do we really get at the historical context in a pure and clear way? For our brothers and sisters who embrace tradition as well as scripture, can they no longer trust the theologians of the church for spiritual guidance?

    Can´t Jeremiah 29:11 be a both/and verse?

    More questions than answers these days regarding this particular topic …

  • Bones

    Ummm no.

    Fundamentalists have no qualms about Jesus burning people like yourself for eternity. The text is what it is, they say.

    Now critical studies of the texts specifically the eschatology of scripture such as Mark 10 (copied in Luke and Matthew) makes it clear that the judgement is specifically about a past event.

    As Mark was read more and more by gentiles and away from the destroyed Jerusalem the text came to have a futuristic eschatological element which became embedded in Christianity.

    The simple fact is, there is no hell, nor future judgement.

  • Matthew

    “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” — Matthew 24

    Has this already happened?

  • Herro

    Yeah, well I think he is clearly in the apocalyptic tradition that we see elsewhere in jewsih writing of his period.

    But thanks for the discussion. :) We’ll meet again next time Corey says something silly :P

  • Herro

    Well, thare are fundamentalist annihilationists. And there are preterist fundies who think that all of this judgement talk in Mark 13 (I assume you meant Mark 13 and ot Mark 10) is about the fall of Jerusalem.

    And I think it’s clear that in those passages that a final judgement day was in view.

    >”The simple fact is, there is no hell, nor future judgement.”

    Totally separate issue. Of course there are no such things. But what the texts say is a whole another question. :)

  • If someone finds a way that allows me to truly suspend all my assumptions and presuppositions before coming to a biblical text, I’d like to hear that. I doubt it is possible and, to a certain extent, perhaps not even desirable. I think being aware of them and how they affect your reading is about as good as we’re going to get. The problem is that many Bible readers are completely unaware of them and just assume that their default reading is the same thing intended by biblical authors.

    And as we look even in the biblical texts themselves, we see people repurposing texts to explain their present situation. This is basically any time the New Testament authors use the Old Testament. Often, their situation is not at all the original referent of the original text. However, the meaning of the original text is what defines their ability to bring that meaning forward into their own context.

    For instance, Matthew tells a story about Herod ordering the babies in the area of Bethlehem killed, and he cites Jeremiah 31:15 – “A voice is heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they are no more.”

    That passage has nothing to do with Bethlehem (it specifically says Ramah) or babies being killed. That passage is about the town where Babylonian captives were held and processed before being carted off to Babylon. Israel’s children are being carted away into exile through Ramah. But this is part of a prophecy where God will put an end to the weeping by delivering Israel from Babylon.

    Matthew uses this passage to describe Herod’s tyranny. He is also removing the children of Israel to keep them in captivity to Rome (and himself, by proxy). But this is a prelude to God’s deliverance from the captors. The particulars are clearly different, but Matthew feels like what Jeremiah was getting across to his audience in principle during the Babylonian captivity can be used to explain what’s going on at the time Jesus is born during Roman captivity.

    But what Matthew doesn’t do is use the passage anytime anyone is sad about anything, as if the passage were some abstract truth freed of its historical situation that could be applied to anything that involved sadness or dying. In fact, it is -because- of the historical particulars of the Jeremiah passage that it becomes appropriate as a descriptor of Israel’s historical situation centuries later.

    So, yes, I think it’s entirely appropriate for the church or individuals to transpose the meaning of a text into their situation to help them make sense of it, decide on appropriate behaviors, etc. The reach of a text in that sense can easily go beyond its original scope. But it’s the original scope that clues us in to how we can meaningfully use that text.

    For example, Jeremiah 29:11 could easily be used to comfort persecuted churches who are facing a situation that seems hopeless. We can remind them that Israel’s situation also seemed hopeless, but God did not forget His faithful and brought them safely through their situation, even though they had to persevere for a very long time. This is what Jeremiah 29:11 meant to the original audience, and we can recontextualize that meaning for our own day.

    But what we can’t (in my opinion) do with a straight face is use Jeremiah 29:11 as an abstract truth to speak to any situation where we’re thinking about the future and not sure what to expect. I could not see using this verse to comfort college graduates or stock traders or people about to buy their first home or people deciding what brand of peanut butter they should get. In order to use Jeremiah 29:11 to speak to those situations, I would have to utterly disconnect it from its historical context as if it came out of a fortune cookie.

    Sadly, this is how most people have learned to read and interpret the Bible, and the history of theology has tended to skew that way as well. Once again, I suspect this has to do with the fact that our earlier theologians were pretty out of touch with the historical moorings of Scripture and just did the best they could with what they had to work with.

  • Well, then you should probably find Jewish writings of his period that support your interpretation over against the enormous body of Jewish writings that don’t fit it. I don’t mean that to be snarky, because I like you and you’re very intelligent and you don’t deserve it, but honestly, you came up with MAYBE an Essene writing passage that blends temporal destinies with eternal ones and a summary by Josephus that doesn’t even mention torment at all. Those are, like, your flagship texts.

    By contrast, I could spend all day sending you Jewish texts that used the language of eternal fires and cosmic destruction and whatnot that clearly referred to temporal events. If we’re going with probabilities here, which is the best we can do in most cases, I’m not at all sure how you can define “the apocalyptic tradition that we see elsewhere in Jewish writing of the period” as what you claim.

  • Matthew

    Thanks for the long response Phil. I know how much thought you put into each comment and the time it takes to formulate responses. As always, I appreciate it.

  • Bones

    According to Mark, yes…..

    Mark 14

    Again the high priest was questioning Him, and saying to Him, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” 62 And Jesus said, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

    Was Jesus wrong or lying?

    Or did Jesus just start talking to everyone in the future?
    I mean these are Jesus’s enemies, remember?

    And of course the no brainers

    Mark 13:30 “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”

    Oh and Mark 9:2
    “And Jesus was saying to them, “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.””

    So the kingdom of God is directly equated with the coming of the Son of Man in power….

    Btw Matthew 24 is a rip off of Mark 13 which is clearly about the destruction of the Temple and the associated Jewish-Roman War.

    There’s a strong case by Ched Myers that the coming of the Son of Man was the crucifixion according to Mark anyway. It’s Mark’s way of saying there will be a new creation after the powers of oppression have been toppled.

    ““Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.”

    Let the reader understand…..

  • Bones

    No, I meant Mark 10 because you tried to ignore it in our last discussion on the Law which you tried to quote mine one verse.

    You claim to not read it like a fundamentalist when that is precisely what you are doing.

    You put forward the same arguments that fundamentalists do.

    What the texts say have to be understood.

    Mark 13 definitely relates to past or maybe even present day events.

    It’s not even clear if Matthew and Luke who copied that account even understands Mark or deliberately changes the account to a futuristic eschatological event.

    It has zilch to do with a judgement day.

    Only a fundamentalist would say it would.

  • Daniel Fisher

    These problems I find exceedingly odd as critiques; some quick observations:

    “If penal substitution is true, God is not unlike other ancient, blood-thirsty god.” If the Bible is true at all, then God is open to that (shallow) accusation. Who is it, after all, that “will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty,” inviting the birds to gorge themselves on his enemies’ bodies?

    “If penal substitution is true, God is a slave to his own anger.” And when he forgives and shows mercy, is God a “slave” to his love? or might we just say simply he is acting in accordance with his character; both in justice and love?

    “If penal substitution is true, God cannot or will not do what he asks us to do: freely forgive.” And when we forgive someone, does that similarly remove from them any just punishment that is deserved? When a victim forgives, that person is absolved of standing trial for their crime?

    “If penal substitution is true, the atonement lacks true justice….If this system of transferring guilt and innocence is so valid, why do we not use it in justice systems today?” We see it all the time when the punishment is in fines – anyone can pay a punishment for another. And there would certainly be justice in other punishments in it if everyone involved – including the judge and the injured party, agreed with a person making such a voluntary substitution.

    “If penal substitution is true, God’s primary method of resolving problems is the use of violence.” I’m not sure I understand what this even means. Does the fact that our criminal justice system requires certain just punishments for certain crimes mean that our culture’s primary way of resolving problems is the use of punishment?

  • Good food for thought. Why was God required to kill in order to redeem? Why couldn’t an omnipotent god—who repeatedly preached forgiveness and nonviolence and turning the other cheek—freely forgive sans the bloodshed? True forgiveness need not require anything in return. That’s what it *means* to offer something freely. Creating more death and violence and bloodshed, in a world shot through with mortality and suffering, does not seem to me a good thing for the world. Nor are concepts involving gruesome blood sacrifice and the exacting of mortal punishment on another particularly good messages to be taught to children. These things always bothered me as a Christian.

    The extreme penalty of carnage by crucifixion sits comfortably within the historical context in which Jesus emerged. The gospel writers drew upon Hellenistic and pre-Hellenistic motifs such as scapegoating, martyrdom, and other sacrificial systems to make sense of the death of a revered figure. These concepts do not, I think, sit well with the moral intuitions and ethical sensibilities of those of us living today. Notice that we have not adopted this concept of justice in our criminal justice systems around the world (e.g., contrast the ancient concept of vicarious satisfaction with the modern legal notion of personal responsibility).

    We should also recognize that substitutionary atonement as a theological concept is a relatively recent innovation, rising to orthodoxy in the Reformation period through the work of Luther and Calvin and, later, Charles Hodge. As such, it represents a primarily Protestant evangelical understanding of the atonement which differs, in some ways dramatically, from Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox understandings as well as the liberal Protestant understanding which tends to affirm the moral influence view—the dominant view of the early Church. I think there is a danger, moreover, in presuming the penal substitutionary view is the only view available to Christians, that it is the only valid view, that it originated with the early Church, or that it is less recent than competing views.

    Fundie Xians, in their rush to paper over the mere hint of nuance, set up unnecessary false dichotomies, and this can–as in the case of those who are taught they must choose between faith and evolution–lead to deconversion and a lapsed faith.

  • Sarah ‘Norris’ Hissin

    So for us less educated folks ;-)… what Early Jewish literature 101 books would you recommend.

    I’m despite for some resources that will put Jesus’ teachings about wrath/punishment/”hell” into one place.

    Like “kosmou” meaning present order… that’s not what my Greek hebrew study bible says.

    Thank for you help in educating to poorly educated :-)

  • Sarah ‘Norris’ Hissin

    I’m totally screwing up the flow of this discussion but I lost the place you mentioned the topic to my request and it’s almost midnight and I have 3 little kids to joyfully wake me up in the morning at 5:45am ;-) so I’m being lazy and just jumping in to request something of you on the first place I saw your name.

    Seriously though I’m willing to fly you to my town, feed you every Southern comfort food you could desire in payment for an day to pick your brain!!

    You mentioned somewhere about the evangelical church… I’m assuming since it’s rooted in the Western church… how it’s theology is based deeply in Greco-Roman thought… makes sense.

    I know about the GR view of an internal soul but could you list out other ways evangelical views are based more in western (Greco-Roman) than eastern (Jewish) philosophy/worldview?

    I’m presently reading a book titled “The Lost History of Christianity” which focuses on the church that went east. It is wonderful and has revealed how western the ideas I’ve been taught by the church are. I have only been taught those views and they are from people who seemingly hated the Jews which one would assume meant they didn’t approach Scripture with the original audience in mind.

    Anyways… I desire to be an ignorant almost middle aged ;-) woman no more!!

    Could you educate me a bit by answering my request?

  • Sarah ‘Norris’ Hissin

    Where can I find the piece you’re referring to Ron?

  • Matthew

    Can we talk about the topic of Christianity and Hellenistic philosophy? Is it necessarily wrong that the early church fathers were trained in Greco-Roman philosophy? Couldn’t God have meant for Christian thought to be influenced by the Greeks and Romans?

  • Realist1234

    The Logos became human in the form of Jesus of Nazareth.

  • Realist1234

    No. Jesus talked both about the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and His future return. You will know when it happens!

  • Ron McPherson
    The April 2 entry I believe

  • Hi Sarah,

    Hmm. It’s hard to come up with general books about early Jewish literature. It’s complicated because things change over the course of time as well as the inherent diversity that existed in Judaism. There’s a list Pete Enns put together of the 10 books that changed his view of the Bible that has some on there you might like:

    Although the one that addresses that question most head on (Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel) is also ludicrously expensive. Another one that’s not on that list (although the author is, twice) is Early Biblical Interpretation by James Kugel and Rowan Greer.

    For me, though, I usually have to dig through primary sources in response to a particular topic of interest. It’s hard to talk about the “ancient Jewish view” of almost anything without a lot of nuance. For Christians, I often encourage them to begin by reading the apocryphal literature of the time, and I don’t just mean the books that ended up in the Catholic canon (although that is also a good start for Protestants). 4 Maccabees and your various apocalypses are good.

    If you’re interested in Hell, specifically, the Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective by Andrew Perriman is a good survey. It’s been a while since I read it, but I believe it’s basically a collection of articles.

  • Ha! Well, I grew up in the South, so I love Southern comfort foods. Is bourbon a Southern comfort food? Anyway, I’m in the Midwest these days, so it’s all casserole this and corn that.

    When it comes to the Greco-Roman world, there’s a few things to keep in mind:

    1. These guys had almost no point of reference for the early Jewish world, so they’re doing the best they can with what they have to work with. We all come to the Bible with a pre-existing narrative, and they just happened to bring theirs. It is true, however, that some of them did self-consciously go on the offensive trying to get rid of any kind of Jewish thought in Christian theology, and that’s much less excusable.

    2. These guys are also rhetoricians. They’re theologians and philosophers. They aren’t historians. I sometimes wonder, if they had been historians, if they would have made more of an effort to preserve the Bible’s -story- in the West and not been so keen to develop a -theology- to preserve through the ages. In my mind, this is perhaps the most fundamental shift, where the Bible went from being a record of the people of God and their experiences with their God in the world into being a book of basic propositions out of which to draw doctrine.

    With those two things in mind, it’s easy to see why things went the way they did. Metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics are their primary categories of inquiry. What is the fundamental nature of reality, how can we know truth, and how should we live ethically? These are the things they are hoping to get out of the Bible, and that goes better some times than others.

    With regard to specific issues, we might think of Plato’s sharp division between the physical world and the ideal (spiritual, through a Christian lens) world, or the immortality of the soul and the transformations it undergoes after death. We might think of Aristotle’s logic and his guarantee of truth if we can mathematically reason from abstract premises. That issue alone undergirds a metric ton of Western theology.

    So, when you drop the Scriptures into that world, and the world that produced it doesn’t follow, you’re going to pull it into your world and use it as your reference point. What used to be writings about Israel, her experiences, her ups and downs, and her hopes for the future now becomes a book about the universe, everybody everywhere, universal abstract truths, and the fate of the cosmos.

    Now, I would never say it was wrong to try to understand what the Bible may mean to you in your frame of reference, but my opinion is that goes best what that meaning and application flows out of its actual origins. If I take an Old Testament passage about Israel and drop it right onto modern American politics, for instance, the odds are pretty good I’m headed for disaster. However, if I understand what that passage meant to Israel, I might be in a good position to evaluate how that might speak to American politics, today, if at all.

  • Sure. And God could have meant Constantine to enforce his doctrinal views with an army, and God could have meant the monophysites to be defeated by force of arms, and God could have meant the Eastern church to break off, and God could have meant for the Schism, and God could have meant all the Catharists to be slaughtered, and God could have meant for American slave owners to influence Presbyterian interpretation, and so on. I want to be very careful about saying, “X happened and was very influential, therefore it is good because God must have wanted it.”

    However, having said that, I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong that the early church fathers tried to make sense of the Scriptures in their world. That’s all any of us are doing. That’s all the Jews in the New Testament were doing, too. Those doctrines and views are where the Church went at the time, and I respect that for what it was and don’t dismiss it out of hand simply because they were Greco-Roman or whatever.

    But at the same time, the New Testament uses of the Old Testament, for the most part, seem very aware – yea, dependent on – the original meaning of those Scriptures in their original context. They borrow that original context to give meaning to their own. This, I would argue, is a very different process than ignoring the original context altogether and just injecting the passages with meaning that comes from your world.

    It’s one thing to take the play “Romeo and Juliet” and tell that same story in the modern world, it’s another thing to take the themes of the play “Romeo and Juliet” and explore what they might tell us about the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union, but it’s another thing altogether to say that “Romeo and Juliet” is obviously about the Cold War and is the final authority on anything we might believe about the Cold War.

    And it’s that last thing that I think is most closely analogous to how many Christians read their Bibles, today, and this is a tradition they inherited from theologians who pretty much took the same tack centuries ago.

  • Matthew

    O.K. … let´s move through this slowly.

    My first thought for the day as I consider this topic is Acts 17 — the Mars Hill sermon. Paul found himself in a Greco-Roman world, yet the message he preached was obviously a unique message … no? I say this because so few embraced what he had to say according to the text. My best guess is that Paul was simply preaching what had been divinely revealed to him via Jesus, not something that had been conditioned by his Greco-Roman philosophical training. Is Paul any different than, say, the other apostles, the early church fathers, the medieval scholastics, the reformers, etc.?

    Next … if each epoch or generation tends to read the scriptures based on their own worldview at that point in time and history, where does that leave us when we begin to consider authority and timeless truth? I get it Phil … we should consider the historical context and the original audience when attempting to understand any biblical text. That said, what I am beginning to take away from our discussions about all this is that everything the church has ever produced theologically and doctinally is simply nonsense. It´s culturally conditioned. It´s not Jewish enough, not historical enough. It´s biased. It´s filled with presuppositions from one´s own cultural context. It´s not even speaking to what the Bible is really trying to illustrate. If these points are truly valid, then it seems that Andrew Perriman and Phil Ledgerwood and others enrolled in their school of thought have finally discovered a way to rightly interpret and understand the Bible. Oh happy day!!! :-) :-) :-) Sounds a bit “cult-ish” to me (not saying you´re a cult leader Phil :-)).

    Is there a better, more balanced way forward I´m wondering? Can we observe across the spectrum of what has been produced theologically for the last 2000 years or so (I mean all the teachings of all the churches) and come up with something that is valid, true, and lasting that we all can agree on is an accurate picture of what God wants us to know from the scriptures?

  • Matthew

    I´m wondering what you might think of this short blog post Phil:

  • Bones


    We read the Bible through our worldviews…

    We are not Hellenists nor Greco-Romans….many of us are Western educated secularists.

  • Well, in Athens, Paul isn’t expositing a Scripture, is he? In fact, the only thing he quotes is Aratus’ poetry. So, I’m not sure I’m following you with regards to how this informs our reading of Scripture. Certainly his proclamation to Jews and Gentiles was different in form, primarily because Gentiles generally speaking had zero point of reference for the Torah and no relationship to it and no relationship to the people of God up until that point in history.

    As to your second point, I would push back on the idea that the Bible is supposed to be timeless truth. Why does it have to be timeless truth? Why does it have to have “authority,” whatever that even means for a book. Why can’t it be a collection of historical writings that are profitable to us, today, from the standpoint of learning the lessons of the past and applying them to our present situation? There isn’t any passage that says, “I, God, am giving you a finished, compiled book full of timeless truths, each of which is meant to speak directly to your situation until the end of time.” I think we’d all have an easier time with the Bible if we could quit dictating to it what it has to be and the role it has to fulfill in the Church and just explore it to discover what it is.

    Finally, I think it’s a mischaracterization to accuse me of painting everyone in church history being full of nonsense and myself being correct. I have taken great pains to point out that neither of those things are true. I would encourage you that reality is often far more complicated and nuanced than polarized categories. People can be wrong without everything they say being total nonsense. People’s writings can be shaped by their own time, and that doesn’t make those writings useless BS because they aren’t transcendent, timeless truths with authority. We all read the Scriptures with our own frameworks; it’s an inescapable part of the human condition, and to point this out and how it affects our products is a healthy act of self-critique and truth-seeking and not a blanket condemnation.

    Let’s take the Reformers, for example. If we take their emphasis on justification by faith alone and do not consider the fact that they are reacting to the excesses of the medieval Roman Catholic Church e.g. indulgences, we can get a very skewed view of what they were trying to get across. But the fact that they are reacting to a historical phenomenon does not make everything they say useless. The fact that the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith are Scholasticists, Ramists, and Common-Sense Realists does not mean everything in the Confession is tripe even though it very clearly reflects those influences. We become -aware- of those influences, and that enables us to understand their writings more clearly and informs us as to how those writings are and aren’t useful for us, today.

    It seems like you’re in a place where you’ve only given us/yourself two options. One option is that the Bible is a book that transcends its own history. Everything in it, or at least the overwhelming majority of everything in it, is meant to speak as-is to everyone everywhere at all times, and what it has to say are issues that every individual everywhere at all times has to deal with, and it’s dealt with the same way. Theologians rightly pick up on the timeless, transcendental nature of the Bible and construct an edifice that is itself timeless and ahistorical, polishing and clarifying the timeless, ahistorical truths that God always wanted us to have. The other option is that everything in the Bible, or at least anything anyone has ever said about the Bible, is useless BS.

    My own take is, very early on in the history of our theology, Greco-Roman theologians got hold of the Scriptures and did not have much of a context for them, so they used their own. That doesn’t mean everything they said is garbage. It does mean we need to be aware of their context so we can critically evaluate them, and this is true for any theologian.

    Maybe someday, some digital archaeologist 500 years from now will reconstruct these comments and go, “Oh, yeah, the early 2000s. That was when historical criticism was a big deal in biblical scholarship. Thank God we’re past that. Look at some of the stuff this Phil guy said.” And I’m totally ok with that.

  • His first point presupposes the truth of his conclusion – that “Christianity” is a body of truths that transcends all cultures and time periods, but this does not follow from his (correct) observation that there came a point in time when Israel’s God brought Gentiles into the fold apart from Israel’s past defining characteristics. However, even -that- is part of Jewish eschatological expectations and part of the ongoing story of Israel. It’s not like God said, “Ok, now that Gentiles are involved, all that stuff I did doesn’t mean anything going forward.”

    His second point diagnoses the issue very well, but his resolution is just his personal opinion, namely that by translating the Scriptures into Greco-Roman concerns which are more abstract, it aided the spread of Christianity to other non-Jewish cultures, and therefore was fine (his side comment about this aiding the unity of the early church could not be more wrong, however).

    Well, that’s certainly what -happened-, and I can respect that, but whether or not all that is an unmixed bag o’ goodness is a different story. Making the Bible support slave ownership really strengthened its adoption in the American South and, ultimately, American Evangelicalism. I’m not sure that makes it ok, much less something we should continue to support. If his view is that the “abstraction” of the Bible was good because it helped get it into more cultures, that’s certainly his prerogative and continues to be shared by many evangelicals to this day – anything you do with the Bible is ok as long as you draw more people in. It’s not really an argument, though.

    His third point starts out not very good. I don’t know a single historical critic who thinks the early church fathers were stupid or not self-aware. What we do know, though, is that they had very little to no acquaintance with Jewish thought, theology, or expectations. That doesn’t make them stupid; it’s just an acknowledgement of where they were.

    But I did like where he ended up, which is that we shouldn’t reject their thoughts out of hand just because they don’t come from the Bible’s world. I could not agree more with that. However, we cannot do so uncritically, nor can we conflate their thoughts with “what the Bible says” or “what the Bible clearly teaches,” and it’s that last bit that gets my dander up about modern evangelicalism.

    If someone came in here and said, “I like the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. I realize it’s a theory and the Bible doesn’t actually address it as such. But when I look at the Scriptural data, it makes me think about these categories, and how they apply to me, and this that and the other thing, and so the idea of it makes sense to me, even though I recognize it’s not something the Bible actually says.” If someone said that, first of all, my heart would probably stop, and then I would probably think the sixth seal had opened or something, but once I had recovered from my shock, I would respect that position and be interested in interacting with those thoughts, and maybe I would learn a thing or two.

    But that’s not what happens. Penal substitutionary atonement is what the Bible is all about, full stop. That’s the kind of thinking that is only borne of a host of very uncritical assumptions.

  • Matthew

    Thanks ever so much Phil.

    Yep … I think that´s right where I am … somewhere between authoritative, timeless truth and worthless BS. HELP!

    I´m struggling with the historical person of Jesus Christ — a 1st century Jew — his message and what it meant to his followers AND with the very different religion we get when Paul lands on the scene AND the very different religion we get post Nicea — and so on, and so on, and so on.

    Will the real Christianity please stand up!!!

  • Matthew

    You´re absolutely correct Phil. I´d probably fall over too!! Sad that we cannot interact that way most of the time with one another as Christians. Really, though, throughout church history there hasn´t been a whole lot of “niceness” when it comes to this stuff. Sad really.

    I´d love to meet you someday Phil. Want to visit Germany? :-)!

  • Well, here’s the irony – I think the landscape of Jewish thought offers a lot of unifying power between Jesus and Paul. The main difference between them is that Jesus is VERY Israel-centric, only sporadically touching on the Gentile issue (and generally for the purpose of saying something about Israel) in a few, specific episodes until quite literally the very end when he turns his disciples lose on “the nations.”

    Paul, by contrast, starts out being very Israel-centric, but disappointed with their response, begins to focus on what is starting to be increasing interest from the Gentiles. So, he has to take a very different scope of people into his preaching purview (alliteration) and expand the eschatological horizon somewhat to encompass not only will happen for the Jews but also the entire scope of the Empire. He still maintains a “to the Jews first, then the Gentiles” order of operations, but because of that, he sees ramifications for the Empire as an inevitability, and Israel’s God will become god of the nations in Jesus Christ. Once again, though, all this is driven out by Israel’s own expectations for the future – the vindication of Israel leading to the nations coming to worship YHWH, the liberation of Israel, and the judgement on both unfaithful Israel and the pagan, idolatrous Gentile world – all those things are in the OT.

    But the unique twist Paul offers, which is something he directly claims nobody knew until that very moment, is that the ongoing survival of faithful Israel includes/is accomplished by the incorporation of believing Gentiles. Even in the wildest dreams of OT prophets, Israel is still Israel, Egypt is still Egypt, Assyria is still Assyria. But in Paul’s mind, God has now created one, new faithful people out of two.

    In a sense, he’s a great example, because he isn’t replacing the OT meanings and concerns with a different set – he is carrying those meanings and concerns into a new historical era.

  • Well, I’m not very nice all the time about this stuff, either. But really, I can put up with a lot of snark and ego, because I have unhealthy levels of both of those, myself. It’s the being honest about our core assumptions piece that I find hard to deal with.

    For instance, there’s no passage in the Bible that says, “I am best interpreted through the worldviews of my original authors and audience” or “Jesus’ statements should be understood in light of Second Temple Judaism.” Those are extrabiblical assumptions on my part, and I wouldn’t pretend differently. I have personally found them to have a lot of explanatory power, and those are the basic assumptions I bring to just about any text and, arguably, most people bring to every other text but the Bible, but they are assumptions. And that thought world is just as distant to me as to anyone else. I have to reconstruct it, and no doubt there are glaring errors in my reconstruction. But so goes the life of the Church under the cross.

    I’d like to meet you as well and would love to visit Germany. I already know the German words for “pencil” and “water,” so I feel like I could hold my own in any conversations involving writing or hydrology. One of my clients has a location in Germany, so who knows?

  • Matthew

    Yes … who knows. If I´m ever in the U.S. again maybe I can drop by. You´re somewhere in the midwest … correct?

  • Matthew

    Phil … are you at all familiar with the New Perspective on Paul understanding of justification by faith? NT Wright is a proponent of this school, but honestly I don´t really know what he´s getting at. I have read about the others (eg EP Sanders), but also I´m not totally sure what the point is, but it certainly has the reformed calvinist evangelicals up in arms …

  • Yes. Dead center of the country. Kansas City.

  • Yes I am, and I like the questions those guys are asking and, at least in N.T. Wright’s case, bringing some of the discussions that typically happen in journals and teacher’s lounges to a more popular level.

    And the pushback they’re getting is for the reasons you’d expect – in seeking to understand a concept like “justification” more in terms of Israel’s story than as an abstract theological category, that does not sit well with some. The critiques themselves are typically an interesting read, too, if for no other reason than the terms used are indicators that we’re operating at a level (or possibly several levels) above the biblical text when we talk about justification the way a typical systematic theology might put it together. So far my favorite is “moral equity.”

    But the critics perceive, perhaps rightly, that if “justification” is not understood the way it’s been classically understood by Protestants, then the whole narrative about sin, reconciliation, etc. may need to be reframed, and now we’re getting close to ground that for some reason is not up for modification.

    MY criticism of the New Perspective folks is, ironically, that they care too much about making their insights fit into their respective theological traditions. I don’t know if that’s genuinely the way they feel, or if they’re concerned about really alienating their potential audience. I’d really like to get a few Guinnesses into N.T. Wright and hear what he has to say when he’s not at all worried about how a potential audience might react.

    Probably the most genuinely disruptive books in this area these days are coming from Scot McKnight.

  • Matthew

    Are you familiar with Brian Zahnd? He has a church in St. Joseph´s, Missouri.

  • I’m not familiar with him, but St. Joseph is fairly close. Is he a friend of yours?

  • Matthew

    Check out his blog. He is a prophetic voice in the more progressive church.

  • Matthew

    When you have time can you explain to me how Wright’s view of righteousness and justification differs from the classical evangelical understanding? 101 version please :-):-)

  • Hoo. Ok, here goes.

    Evangelical Protestant Understanding:

    An individual sins/inherits Adam’s sin. This calls for a penalty of death (which is actually Hell in most views) demanded by God’s justice. In order to avoid this penalty, the sinless life of Jesus (his righteousness) is imputed to a believer. Because the believer now has Christ’s righteousness, God can justly declare the believer righteous and deserving of the rewards Christ’s sinlessness has earned. That is justification.

    N.T. Wright et al:

    God’s justification is to declare who is in the right. Israel was justified by God on numerous occasions, and her righteousness was determined by conformity to the Law, including the sacrifices for when you screwed up. After Jesus, it is the community of Jesus-believers whom God justifies, and their faith is counted as righteousness. Jesus’ sinlessness does not get transferred to them in any particular way.

    I’m sure both groups I just summarized would take issue with my generalizations.

  • Ron McPherson

    I follow him on twitter

  • Ron McPherson

    ” I’d really like to get a few Guinnesses into N.T. Wright and hear what he has to say when he’s not at all worried about how a potential audience might react.”

    If you can pull this off, please invite me over.

  • Ron McPherson

    With Tom Wright, I don’t know that a 101 version even exists.

  • Ron McPherson

    I think you captured it nicely. The only other thing I might add is that Wright and others would argue (I think) that the Jews’ motivation for obedience to the law was not necessarily a theology of works righteousness in order to merit heaven in an afterlife, but rather borne from a response to stay a member in good standing of God’s already established covenanted people. If true, that would foundationally alter the whole justification premise as we traditionally know it.

  • Matthew

    I like him a lot too Ron. He has a gift for explaining deep, theological ideas in simple, understandable prose. I can´t say I always agree with him, but he has been a refreshing breath of air as I rethink much of what I thought I knew.

    Have you read any of his books?

  • Matthew

    2 thoughts (one not really related to the other :-)):

    First, it seems to me that Wright´s (et al) view basically accomplishes the same thing, but uses different language to describe the event. My question(s) now is … if Wright (et al) is correct (and if he´s not saying the same thing as the classical evangelicals), what are the practical implications of this theological shift for those who believe in a more evangelical understanding of righteousness and justification? What, in its essence, truly changes?

    Second, it seems to me that since, officially, Pentecost (when the ekklesia was founded) the ekklesia has gone through many periods of theological reflection, systematizing, and then action. I would argue that the last time we saw such a big movement was at the Reformation. Luther developed his ideas within a specific cultural context while dealing with the problems that had developed in the ekklesia (not to mention from the context of his own problems with his relationship with God). My next question is: What developments is the ekklesia facing now in the 21st century (I´m speaking mainly of the ekklesia in the west since that´s my cultural context) and how should the ekklesia, theologically speaking, deal with those developments?

    Is the next Reformation at the doorstep of the chapel? If so … what does it (or should it) look like?

  • Ron McPherson

    Haven’t yet. Have you?

  • Matthew

    I´m reading for the second time “From Water to Wine” which basically discusses a part of his spiritual journey and transformation and I´m greatly awaiting the release of his newest book which I think is entitled “Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God”.

    I would highly suggest “From Water to Wine” specifically for someone who has gone through any strand of charismatic evangelicalism and has simply been left longing. I would also recommend it to many others as well no doubt :-).

  • Matthew

    Phil … something just came to me at lunch as I was breifly looking at an academic (more liberal leaning as most evangelicals in America would call it) Bible commentary.

    If we are not supposed to look at (and interpret) the biblical text(s) in a hellenistic, Greco-Roman way, but rather through the lens of Judaism as it would have been understood by the followers of Jesus during his public life and ministry, then which Judaism should we use? I mean it´s safe to say Judaism has never been monolithic.

    Also … there is such a thing as hellenized Judaism and weren´t the Jews of the first century just as guilty of interpreting their holy texts through an enculturated lens?

  • Ron McPherson


  • Matthew

    No prob. What´s your biggest question today?

  • We don’t look at the Old Testament from a Jewish perspective because that perspective is inherently superior; we do it because that’s the perspective of the authors and the audience, and therefore it is the most likely to give us insight into what the text means. If the authors and audience were Hellenized Jews or Greco-Roman philosophers, then we would want to read the text against those backgrounds.

    So, when we come to any given text, part of the reconstruction process is trying to determine what we’re looking at when it comes to authors and audiences. For example, when Jesus has a dialogue with Sadducees, that will inform us about what Jesus is trying to get across differently than if he is speaking with Pharisees. Part of our task as interpreters is to try and figure out where the author is coming from and where his audience was likely to be.

    Having said that, while there are certainly different kinds of Jewish thought, they are diverse, but they are diverse in the way Christian denominations are diverse, and there’s also far fewer definable groups. So, it’s not like there was some Jewish school of thought that -didn’t- expect God to keep his promises, etc. There are common cores that are going to inform us no matter what.

    As far as biblical texts go, I find a varying factor is more the time frame than a particular Jewish school of thought. You don’t have the same set of assumptions in Genesis 1 that you do in Ezra.

  • Matthew

    The actual title, Ron, is “Water to Wine Some of my Story”

  • As to your first question, I guess you’d have to ask Wright about that. The evangelicals who are upset with Wright seem to be upset more about the accuracy of the doctrinal formulation than any practical differences. As far as I know, and I could be wrong because I haven’t read all his books, Wright does not think about the net effect of justification in a different sense than a Reformed type would.

    And that’s where I would want to push further in the direction he started. Justification appears to me to be a concrete historical reality and not a spiritual transaction. I’m not sure if he would agree with that or not. But he’s a lot smarter than I am, too, so there’s that.

    For the second, I’m not sure that I’d describe Pentecost as the founding of the Church, but I think I get what you mean.

    This is where we need our prophets, right? To help us identify the crises that we face and help us correct ourselves to weather it. I’m not sure I have that gift, but just spitballing, I’d guess the rising tide of secularism would be a big issue. Perhaps also our definitions of outsiders needs some tweaking as well if we’re intended to survive into the 22nd century.

  • Matthew

    Thanks as always Phil. Good stuff.

    I read on a Catholic site that on Pentecost the Holy Spirit descends, Christ´s mission is complete, and the new covenant is inaugurated. Is that why they call it the brithday of the church?

    About justification …

    I really appreciate all that you have done to explain your point of view (historical reality rather than spiritual transaction), but honestly I´m still attempting to wrap my head around the difference between the two constructs.

    I suppose the bottom line is that when one begins to think of justification as historical reality rather than spiritual transaction, the idea of going to heaven when one dies because of their faith in Jesus Christ becomes less central (if not altogether dismissed). If I´m right in my assessment, then that´s a hard pill to swallow for me at least.

  • Matthew

    What do you think about the creeds Phil — eg Nicene Creed?

  • Ron McPherson

    “…the idea of going to heaven when one dies because of their faith in Jesus Christ becomes less central (if not altogether dismissed).”

    I’m gonna jump in here for a moment if that’s ok. Practically my entire life it was drilled into me that the goal of becoming a Christian was for the purpose of going to heaven. But when stepping back and looking objectively at the biblical texts, it doesn’t seem to the central point of Jesus’ ministry, especially within the synoptics. Living forever with God is certainly a benefit of course, but if getting a ‘get out of hell for free’ card is the motivation, then I think we miss much of Jesus’ message.

  • I would say that’s correct, but I would also say that “going to Heaven when we die” is not anywhere close to being important in either Testament, and on that, N.T. Wright and I agree. For both of us, hopes for the future are about things like resurrection and new creation, and you’ll find a lot more in the New Testament about those topics than anything about going to Heaven after death.

    But I would also add that a view of justification as a historical event puts a lot of emphasis on perseverance – attending to earthly faithfulness for the entirety of your life, which entails a life of service embodying the sort of kingdom of peace envisioned by both Old and New prophets. It is those who are faithful to the end who are vindicated, and those works of peace, forgiveness, compassion, and healing in the world are concrete manifestations that you actually believe what you say you believe and testify to your hope.

    This is not to say that the “say the prayer and go to Heaven when you die” folks are automatically unconcerned with doing good in the world, but in broad strokes, a lot of that direction tends to produce believers who are acutely interested in conversion and right beliefs and maybe even personal morality, but are otherwise disinterested in changing the world for the better. Perhaps because it’s not their home and they’re just a-passin’ through.

  • Generally, I think they’re great, but like any other doctrinal statements, they are products of their time. I prefer the Apostles’ Creed to the others. The Nicene Creed is a clear reflection of doctrinal controversy being eradicated and, as such, includes relatively specific philosophical statements that I’m not sure really belong in a confession of basic belief. The Athanasian Creed is even worse on that front. But all of them are valuable for what they are – insights into early articulations of belief that we might well resonate with today, even if we might disagree with this or that clause or understand them differently.

    I mean, how many Christians actually believe Jesus went to Hell when he died?

  • Matthew

    Thanks. I´m struggling with how we (the ekklesia) moved from a 1st century Jewish movement of followers of Jesus Christ to the belief focused, propositional, creedal, movement most of the ekklesia is today. Why was it so important to move in this direction and can the creeds themselves even be trusted as accurate illustrations of Jesus Christ and his teachings?

    Also … what about 1 Peter 3 in reference to Jesus´ descent?

  • Matthew

    Why can´t it be both Phil? It seems that so very often theology is born out of knee jerk reations to other theological constructs that have been stretched so to speak. Might the historical approach to justification simply be a much needed correction of the “say a prayer and go to heaven” school?

  • Matthew

    Hello Ron!

    I just received my copy of “Simply Jesus” by Tom Wright. If the first few chapters are any indication of how the rest of the book is going to pan out, then I think I´m in for an exciting ride. Have you read it?

    I think you make a good point BTW.

  • What about 1 Peter 3? I’m not an apologist for the creeds. I just pointed out that most Christians don’t believe Jesus went to Hell and the creeds says he did. Personally, I have absolutely zero interest in coming up with a theory of what happened to Jesus in between death and resurrection.

  • Why can’t what be both? Why can’t justification be both a spiritual transaction and a concrete historical event? I suppose it could be both in theory, but the question is whether or not the Scriptural data we have is best understood as both.

  • Matthew

    Fair enough.

  • Matthew

    Thanks. Maybe we need to update the creeds. Can I call for the next ecumenical council :-):-):-)?

  • I wish you all the best.

    Actually, contemporary creeds (“Statements of Faith” as they’re typically called) are sort of fascinating to me. I’m always intrigued by what various groups feel they absolutely need to include and what they feel can be safely left out.

  • Daniel Fisher

    “God can not extending his infifnite love and grace to some, whilst inflicting wrath and violence onto others, not unless he’s playing favorites with humanity”

    I’m not sure what you are arguing for here? Do you disagree with the idea that there are two different final destinations for a person; one where they will be experiencing God’s love and grace, the other where they will be experiencing his wrath?

  • Ron McPherson

    Thanks for sharing. Keep me posted what you think

  • Ron McPherson

    That video is fantastic!

  • Ron McPherson

    A friend of mine, who was Baptist, once said, “We baptists may not know what we believe, but we’ll fight you over it still.”

  • Ron McPherson

    party pooper

  • It definitely serves the purpose of tribal definition, which is of questionable value once you get past the people of God / people of this age definition, which can already be a little porous once you get down to actual, living, breathing, people and their complexities and nuances.

    I just wonder what people are protecting themselves from with boundary statements like those. Are they afraid someone outside that boundary might worship with them? Serve with them? Are they afraid they might hear something that’s different than what they already think? I’m just curious what kinds of consequences people are trying to avoid with Statements of Faith.

    I can understand (although not necessarily agree) with their purpose for, like, seminaries or something where the product you pay for is doctrinal instruction. You spend a lot of money for seminary and some consumers want to have an idea of what they’re going to get. In those cases, I can see the relevance of specifying what sort of content you’re going to be selling.

    Outside of that, I don’t know. I do know I use them as guides for groups to avoid, not because of their particular positions, but oftentimes what a particular group insists is a defining issue tells me whether or not we’d get on very well – regardless of what their position on that issue actually is.

  • Ron McPherson

    It’s very complex obviously. I suppose there are myriad reasons for tribalism. A few quickly coming to mind (though doubtless I’ve missed some):

    Discomfort living in uncertainties (therefore I must latch on to written dogmatic statements of faith);

    insecurity in one’s own faith (I must be correct in my belief system, otherwise if I’m wrong on one thing then the whole house of cards collapses – i.e. statements serve as reminders on the core things I MUST believe in order to be right with God)

    arrogance (written statements tell you where I stand and dammit, I’ve got it figured out; i.e. the Bible means what I think it means, and if you disagree then you aren’t right with God)

    Prejudices (if you don’t believe the way I do then don’t bother to join us cause just know if you do, then we’re gonna tell you that you’re wrong)

    Altruism (I sincerely think I’m right and want you to as well because if you don’t you’re on the wrong track, so here are the concrete things memorialized so you can know what you’re supposed to believe)

  • Matthew

    Should lines in the proverbial sand ever be drawn?

  • Ron McPherson

    With respect to dogma?

  • otrotierra

    Thank you for sharing this mini-lecture by Peter Hiett. I’m surprised this hasn’t gone viral. Though it’s heresy among U.S. evangelicals, as they’d have to ditch their hell-fire demon god in order to accept such profound divinity.

  • Matthew

    I´m still working all this out Ron.

    I mean it was obviously important to the church over the centuries to establish what is means to be a Christian — lines in the sand so to speak.

    What I´m struggling with currently is just how that development came about. It seems like we moved from a “come and see, experience and follow” kind of faith in the 1st century public ministry of Jesus to this propositional, belief oriented, creedal institution that is now the ekklesia.

    Now we find ourselves battling over competing statements of belief (at least in Protestant circles) and forever attempting to say who is “in” and who is “out”. Why? Is it really necessary to say, well, the Jehovah´s Witness guy down the street isn´t really one of us because he denies the Trinity, but that other gal down the street is one of us because she recites the Nicene Creed?

  • Matthew

    I think as soon as we attempt to systematically put into rational and intellectual boxes words about Jesus we step into the realm of dogma and doctrine. Should we be doing this?

  • Matthew

    What dogma and doctrine is necessary to believe in order to be considered a Christian?

  • Matthew

    So .,. different dogma, different doctrine, different Christians???

  • Matthew

    Then why the Nicene Creed?

  • Ron McPherson

    When Jesus found his disciples, what were his instructions? “Follow me.” No doctrinal statement for entrance. When we see the early church being formed,what systematic set of beliefs were required for entrance? None. Throughout the book of Acts the common message was to believe upon Jesus. To me, that’s the only line in the sand. This united the fellowship of believers. In the book of John, Jesus said others would know we are his disciples by the love we have for one another. In Matthew, when asked what was the greatest commandment, it was to love God and our neighbor. No systematic belief structure.

  • Daniel Fisher

    I have to remain dubious of any system of doctrine that requires me to think so low of Jesus’ skill as a teacher. If Jesus’ understanding of these things, and what he was trying to teach his followers, was essentially the same as what Peter is teaching here, I’d be forced to think Jesus as one of the most inept of human teachers. Consider:

    Imagine if Peter Hiett here had been trying to communicate those ideas he communicates so well; but instead of the words and illustrations he used, imagine that he relayed threats of people being thrown out into darkness, of people pleading to be let in but the king won’t, using phrases about them like “wicked”, if he of spoke of a wide chasm that prevents those in hell from being able to cross over and enter heaven; if he describes a final judgment where sheep and goats are separated into either “eternal life” or “eternal punishment”….

    If Peter had been trying to communicate his same message using such language and illustrations, I think we would safely say he was an inept teacher.

    So, if Jesus was really all the time trying to communicate the same message Peter is here, I am forced to conclude Jesus was a most inept teacher, not realizing that his choice of words and illustrations would have the very opposite effect of what he was trying to communicate.

    And give that the Christian church throughout history did not understand Jesus’ words the way Peter does, it would confirm how poorly Jesus communicated these things.

    Or, perhaps, the ideas Peter is here espousing are not the same as what Jesus believed. And if so, I prefer to follow Jesus’ formulation and understanding of these things over Peter’s, for obvious reasons.

  • Daniel Fisher

    For what it is worth, we evangelicals (this one at least) embrace the ideas about God that you find demonic not because I have some deep need to embrace a hell-fire God, or because I have some aversion to a sweet benevolent deity.

    Rather, the idea of “eternal punishment” is not something we invented; they are Jesus’ choice of words. If you don’t like the concept, or the words used, why not take it up with the source, rather than us evangelicals that are just copying what he said?

  • Matthew

    I was just thinking about this …

    The rising tide of secularism is a genuine issue the church needs to deal with. The church is supposed to be doing things (acts of mercy, compassion, healing, forgiveness, love, etc.) that the secular realm is simply incapable of. Tom Wright in “Simply Jesus” shares what he thinks Jesus´ central message was during his public life and ministry. It was to declare God as king and to definitively demonstrate what such a kingdom looks like. The challenge I see (in the west specifically and more directly western Europe) is for the church to live out Christ in such a way that people would begin to say “Hey … what those folks are doing is simply unique. It´s mind bending. It´s something I´ve never seen before in the world I live in day in and day out. They´re offering something the culture simply cannot. I want that.”

    Fact is … people in my part of the world are not in large measure saying this. What they are attempting to champion is the idea that secularism can do everything the church can without all that God stuff. Without all that dogma and doctrine. Without all that ugly history. Without the Holy Spirit. Without Jesus. I have to say my sociological observations tell me that in some measure the secular realm seems to be succeeding. Many secularists call for love and human rights, justice and mercy and compassion. Many secularists and atheists can be moral (I believe this is because of the image of God within them even if they don´t care to admit it) and can even forgive one another.

    What´s the church´s role in such an environment?

  • otrotierra

    Jesus used the word “iskolasis” which is also translated in English as “correction.” And “aiōnios” does not mean “eternal,” but the length of an age. Therefore, correction for the length of an age has nothing to due with the mythology of so-called “eternal punishment.”

    Sorry, but Jesus spoke of restoration, not of an eternal hell-fire torture demon.

  • Daniel Fisher

    You’re saying that the life promised to the sheep is not eternal, just the length of an age??

  • Well, secular institutions can certainly do good in the world, and that is just awesome.

    I don’t know if I have the answers to your question; I think we’re all still figuring that out, honestly. What I do see in those early faith communities is perhaps a love that is radical to a degree that is counter-cultural, and it is that factor that sets them apart. People are selling all they have to take care of poor people in their congregation. The powerful people in society defer to the lower. Masters treat their slaves as brothers (I know, slavery is still terrible, but I’m just pointing out how crazy even this would look in first century Rome). People who were formerly strangers care for one another like their own family across socio-economic and ethnic lines.

    It is perhaps the radical level of love, justice, and care that these communities exhibited that marked them out in distinction against Empire. It’s not that they were doing good works that could not be replicated; it’s that their actions reflected that money, power, and self-preservation were just not important at all in light of the greater goal of being a community of shalom in the name of Jesus, and the degree to which they were willing to pursue that made poor people out of rich people, nobodies out of the powerful, and even dead people out of live ones in certain cases. And when your very existence is a sermon against the forces that drive the society around you, that is a powerful statement. Some people will hate you for it and want to destroy you, while others crave it – they want to live in a world like that.

    I can only speak for the USA in this regard, but most of our churches just do not look significantly different than the culture around us. Our distinctives are that we have prayed a prayer to keep from going to Hell, and we have a tight moral code. The only thing that makes us seem different than any other organization or religion who might also have a claim to spiritual enlightenment and a tight moral code is that we believe that we’re right, so we invest heavily in apologetics and convincing everyone else we believe the right things. Unfortunately, “proving we believe the right things” draws us into areas of competition with other groups who are generally better prepared to establish their belief system on harder evidential grounds.

    I really wonder what might happen if, in America, we truly were willing to go into poverty to demonstrate our care for one another and spent all those books, videos, and resources trying to figure out how to be a community that looked like that – radical, sacrificial love. What would happen if we quit putting our resources into “being right” and “winning” and put them into kicking butt in the “faithful communities of radical, sacrificial service.” That’s the kind of thing you can’t really argue with and, if you’re thorough, is a challenge to the world around you.

  • Daniel Fisher

    I’m saying that Jesus was in fact an inept teacher if he was trying to teach universalism or some similar variation of it. When I watched the video you linked, I would never have gotten in a million years the idea that Peter believed in an eternal punishment of fire where God would refuse eternal life to anyone.

    What I’m saying is that if Jesus really was a universalist, and we have misunderstood him – the fault of this lies squarely on him for being such an absolutely inept teacher, not realizing that his repeated teachings would come across to most of his hearers as if he were teaching anything but universalism… How would he not realize that teaching about “eternal fire” “bind him and cast him into the outer darkness” “I never knew you, away from me you evildoers,” “between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us’… would come across to most of his hearers as not particularly espousing universalism?

    In other words, Peter wants me to believe that Jesus was teaching largely the same universalism as he does, and when Jesus used the language of “eternal punishment”, “everlasting fire”, “cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness”, “Lord, Lord, Open to us, but he answered, I do not know you”, “slaughter him in front of me”, “the master will cut him to pieces…” “how are you to escape being sentenced to hell”, “bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness, in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” “he will put those wretches to a miserable death” …. when jesus used all these words a teachings, he was really trying to teach the same universalism as Peter. My point remains that if Jesus was in fact attempting to communicate the same doctrine (more or less) as Peter is, I’m saying Jesus failed miserably at teaching clearly his intent. I don’t think it a stretch to say that ANYONE could have found a way to teach universalism in a more clear way than Jesus did.

    And thus I remain terribly dubious that such a universalism is what Jesus was really trying t communicate. If Jesus was a teacher of universalism, he had to have been the worst one in history. Every other teacher of universalism I’ve ever read, no one would ever possibly misunderstand them to the degree that Jesus has been misinterpreted.

  • Matthew

    I think you are onto something Phil.

    You might disagree with me, but personally I think the supernatural element is also something important to consider. The church certainly has something that the secular realm doesn´t in that regard. Also … the secular authorities cannot restore humankind´s relationship to God the Father.

    That said, I think you are absolutely right about the churches in America. I have lived in America and western Europe and quite honestly there isn´t any real difference as far as I can tell in the “churchy” realm. In Germany, the evangelical churches are as you say and the more liberal leaning Protestant state churches have simply adopted secular methods within the context of an old time liturgy. I can´t really speak for the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox here as my time with them has been limited, but I´m relatively certain their penetration into the culture at large is not measureably different than their institutional counterparts. If there is a difference, I think it might be that the evangelical churches here are not as politically active as in the U.S., but of this I cannot be certain.

    I think the in-fighting among Christian brethren is also a problem. We spend more time attempting to defend our propositional beliefs and getting people to say the sinner’s prayer (at least in evangelical circles that is) than we do trying to be a unified, counter-cultural, living body that doesn´t bicker so much.

  • Ron McPherson

    I don’t espouse universalism, but the issue is how Jesus’ original hearers would have understood his teaching. Many tend to filter Jesus’ words from contemporary evangelical lens. So any teaching that strays from that seems dubious, because we’re reading our own ideas back into the text. But the metaphors and symbolism Jesus used two millennia ago to a Jewish audience may have made perfect sense to them. So our lack of understanding is not a result of Jesus being an inept teacher, but rather results from our own lack of understanding of how a first century Jewish audience would think.

  • Matthew

    Can you suggest a good, progressive commentary for the four Gospels? I have yet to find one.

  • I definitely think the supernatural has a role. I often wonder where our prophets have gone. Real prophets, I mean, not the “Satan is trying to oppose Trump” prophets.

  • RollieB

    Aren’t you and Matthew discussing God-people loving one another without organized religion (church) being the middleman? If that’s your drift I’m onboard.

  • I’d just want to make sure (for my own perfect world) that this was still happening in community. Whether that community looks like what we’ve traditionally made into church for the past few centuries is a different story. I’m not sure that model is even survivable post-Christendom.

  • Ron McPherson

    What initially jumps to my mind (though I wouldn’t characterize these as progressive necessarily) with respect to helping understand some of the backdrop for biblical narratives, you may want to check out the IVP Bible Background NT commentary by Keener. Also Harper Collins Bible Commentary and Dictionary are useful as well.

  • Matthew

    Thanks Ron.

  • Matthew

    Maybe you should also look on the subway walls an in the tenement halls ……. although those words of wisdom are coming from a neon god they made … no?? Not good now that I think about it.

    Anyway … they are out there. The real ones that is.

  • Ron McPherson

    I think the key is actually the word LIFE. Jesus said eternal LIFE is given to only those that believe upon him. He didn’t say that everyone has an unending life; only that some will have a great one throughout eternity while all others will have a bad one. John 3:16 allows for two fates: either LIFE, or perish. Even Paul framed it under those constructs. The wages of sin is death, the gift of God is eternal LIFE. In John 11, He told Martha that those who believe in him will live, even though they die.

  • Daniel Fisher

    OK, but I was mainly addressing the preivous post’s claim that “aiōnios” does not mean “eternal,” but the length of an age”…

    Does the poster believe that the life promised us repeatedly (using the word “aionios,” traditionally translated as “eternal”) is in fact not eternal, but only lasts for a particular, limited age?

  • Ron McPherson

    I think Otro makes a good point in that eternal could signify an ‘age.’ What I was getting at is that the unending part can be found, maybe not so much in the word ‘eternal,’ but rather in Jesus’ promise of ‘life.’

  • Matthew

    But the word eternal is an adjective describing the kind of life one receives when they believe in Jesus. So … it seems to me that if you guys are right then one receives life for an age. I think others here think that eternal life in the Gospels has something to do only with 70 AD, but I have yet to wrap my head around that notion.

  • Ron McPherson

    This gets back to why translation accuracy is so vital. Aionios (eternal) is an adjective, true. But interestingly the noun Aion is translated as age (or often world as in the KJV). For instance, the last verse in Matthew quotes Jesus as saying to his disciples that he would be with them to the END (synteleia) of the WORLD (age, aion). So it seems the age here is not unending, by virtue of the very fact that Jesus uses synteleia with it. It would make no sense to render it as he would be with them to the end of the unending age. And yet how many times has this very verse been used in conveying the sense that Jesus will be with us forever. Now, I do believe we will be with him forever, but we may derive that truth from other passages.

  • Matthew

    Why do you believe you will be with Jesus forever Ron? Where can we find those verses that promise such if not in the “age” verses we are discussing?

    Matthew 28 — what age is Jesus talking about?

  • Ron McPherson

    Keep in mind that I can be wrong of course. Just my opinion, so I’m asserting no authority here. Plus I’m not saying that eternal can NEVER convey the thought of unending. But assuming he is speaking of a particular quantifiable age in those verses (again I could be wrong), we can always go to other places like John 11:24-26, which is pretty clear.

  • Matthew

    Thanks brother :-).

  • Matthew

    How long is an age do you think in the context of Matthew 28?

  • Daniel Fisher

    It could signify an age; it is just a bit too convenient an interpretation that the word means an “age” when referring to punishment, but the exact same word means “eternal” when referring to life; especially when they are juxtaposed in the same sentence.

  • Ron McPherson

    Not really sure. I haven’t dug into that. Could be he’s saying he’ll be with them all the way up to and thru Jerusalem destruction. Or maybe he is in fact saying forever, but again seems odd that he would use the word ‘end’ (as in end of the age) if he was referring to a time WITHOUT end. I believe Jewish thinking at that time also tended to think of time as two main eras: 1) the current age at that time and 2) the kingdom age of the Messiah who would usher in God’s reign. Of course Jesus’ ministry was that the kingdom had indeed come, but was a spiritual realm such that he ruled in the hearts of his people (which was a different concept than that imagined by the religious leaders of his day, causing them to reject him). But I digress.

  • Matthew

    Thanks Ron.

    “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

    The more I examine this passage (without the Greek), the more I am asking questions. Like:

    What did Jesus mean by “all nations”? The known world at the time?

    Is the “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” part separate from the commission itself? What I mean is … could the commission be an ongoing, universal ministry but the end of the age still is focusing on the destruction of the temple in 70AD?

    Frankly Ron … I´m not certain I am even asking the right questions.

  • Bones

    Matthew has a total different understanding as Mark on the ‘age’ and the kingdom of God.

    eg Matthew 19

    27 Then Peter said to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” 28 And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.

  • Matthew

    Yes Eva … that’s the one I mean. Do people who call themselves Christian need to believe this creed? That is my question to you.

  • Matthew

    Is there going to be a second coming of Christ, will there be a final judgement, and how eternal is eternal???????

  • Matthew

    I’m still working out my personal view Eva.

  • Ron McPherson

    All good questions and can only give you my thoughts , doesn’t mean I’m correct of course. I take all nations to mean expanding the kingdom beyond just Jewish boundaries. Jesus’ mission on earth was clearly Jewish focused, but now it’s time to go forth.

    I also believe the commission remains valid for us today because we are followers of Jesus and desire for his kingdom to come here on earth. So maybe while Jesus was focusing his words to his disciples on that particular occasion would not seem to negate the rule of God in our own life and to be kingdom oriented here in the 21st century.

  • Ron McPherson

    Well just know I’m wrong a lot too ha

  • Ron McPherson

    Sure looks like a millennial type reign there. Do you think Matthew’s concept was more physical than spiritual?

  • Bones

    No to the first two and buggered if i know for the last.

    You have to make a decision – either Mark or Matthew is wrong?

    My money’s on the original as the most accurate – Mark.

  • Bones


    It’s part of Matthew’s rhetoric of judgement against Israel which is the whole point of Matthew (let his blood be on our heads and our children’s)

    This is the author of Matthew writing – not Jesus.

    He has an agenda.

  • Yes, this is what the Greek suggests: literally, “length of an age.” So “eternal punishment,” as otrotierra has pointed out should best be understood as “correction for the length of an age.” See: .
    The concepts of eternal punishment, eternality of the soul, the soul as disembodied spirit, eternal conscious torment, etc., come to us via the Latin church Fathers, such as Augustine. They owe their origin to Hellenistic philosophy creeping into Christian thought. Coincidently, the philosophy of eternal torment and hell becomes a dominant theme in the western church about the same time the church goes from persecuted to the persecutee, ie., when it becomes the state religion of the Roman Empire. A scare tactic to keep the populace in line perhaps?

  • The real question is, did the early church have a Greek or Jewish concept of “olam” or “aion?” Since the early church sprung out of Judaism I suspect it carried with it the thought of it meaning a distant, long period of time.
    “The Hebrew word olam means in the far distance. When looking off in the far distance it is difficult to make out any details and what is beyond that horizon cannot be seen. This concept is the olam. The word olam is also used for time for the distant past or the distant future as a time that is difficult to know or perceive. This word is frequently translated as eternity or forever but in the English language it is misunderstood to mean a continual span of time that never ends. In the Hebrew mind it is simply what is at or beyond the horizon, a very distant time. A common phrase in the Hebrew is “l’olam va’ed” and is usually translated as “forever and ever” but in the Hebrew it means “to the distant horizon and again” meaning “a very distant time and even further” and is used to express the idea of a very ancient or future time.”
    In Jewish thought time continued through various ages, each following the last.

  • Daniel Fisher

    not sure if you misread my question, let me rephrase – in response to otrotierra’s claim that aionios does not mean eternal, i was asking if the LIFE promised by Jesus throughout the gospels ought properly be understood as “LIFE for the length of an age”, as opposed to “eternal LIFE” as is typically understood?

  • The Gospel message is literally Jesus declaring that the next aion is breaking into this aion, so what he is offering is for believers to experience the coming aion life in this present aion. This is given as an “alternate” understanding in Strong’s as:
    [166 (aiṓnios) does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age (165 /aiṓn) it relates to. Thus believers live in “eternal (166 /aiṓnios) life” right now, experiencing this quality of God’s life now as a present possession. (Note the Gk present tense of having eternal life in Jn 3:36, 5:24, 6:47; cf. Ro 6:23.)]
    The problem with modern English translations is that aion (noun) or aionios (adj), are interpreted in widely divergent ways, depending on the theological presuppositions of the interpreters. Aion is a noun, but is mistranslated as the adjective “eternal,” forever and ever” or “everlasting” numerous times in the various English translations. Strong’s gives examples of it translated as both eternal and pertaining to a period of time. It cannot possibly mean both as they are opposites! If you read an interlinear or a literal translation like the MLT or YLT these Greek words will always be in the context of “age.”
    For example, Eph. 3:21 αἰῶνος τῶν αἰώνων, literally “age of the ages.” KJV: “throughout all ages, world without end.” NKJV: “forever and ever.” NLT: “forever and ever through endless ages.” How on earth can one have endless ages plural? Do eternities overlap? It’s nonsensical.
    Ok, so now onto your question more directly. Looking at Matt. 25:46, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (NIV) the Greek reads: “καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον.” when you understand αἰώνιον means “of an age” and not eternal and κόλασιν means “to prune” or “cut” you get a more literal translation of “and these will go away into a correction of an age, but the just to a life of an age.” This sounds stilted because we have been brainwashed to see the passage interpreted a certain way. Eonian life is not eternal life in the Latin sense (see aeternum), which is how Augustine and Latin Fathers saw it, but in the Jewish sense. We enter into a relationship that will last through the ages with Christ. “For instance, as a believer in Christ, I am currently enjoying life pertaining to this age. When the next age arrives, the temporary period of the Millennial Kingdom, I will no longer be enjoying life in this age but then it will be life pertaining that age.” Julie Ferwerda “Raising Hell,” p. 154. Hope this clarifies things.

  • Daniel Fisher

    ‘We enter into a relationship that will last through the ages with Christ. “For instance, as a believer in Christ, I am currently enjoying life pertaining to this age. When the next age arrives, the temporary period of the Millennial Kingdom, I will no longer be enjoying life in this age but then it will be life pertaining that age.”‘

    OK, but then I observe that the goats will be receiving punishment in “that age”? Which would also, if consistent, be one that will last “through the ages”?

    Also, at least here in mt 25, aionion is clearly used as an adjective, as both it and life are accusative. If it were a genitive noun (“of [an] age”, ) it would read aioniou, no? Unless your Greek is better than mine and I have missed something here, which is certainly possible?

  • Powerful truth!

  • Your observation of the Greek correct. Aionion is used as an adjective describing both the pruning, punishment as you put it, and the life for the just. Aionion referring to the type of pruning and type of life. Meaning a long time, but not eternal. Death and the grave (Sheol, Hades) are eventually, at the end of the millinial reign destroyed, are they not? Rev. 20. If Hades is hell, we have hell being cast into hell, or hell being destroyed in hell, an odd twist of events. It makes more sense to see the lake of fire symbolically representing God’s burning purifying presence that consumes death and the grave. As to the unrighteous, they are either annihilated or purified in some fashion depending on how one reads the texts that seem to imply universal restoration.

  • Daniel Fisher

    Or put more briefly: if we do not find eternal punishment in Matthew 25 because aionion inherently communicates a limited duration, then why do we not conclude that the promised “life” is not also of such limited duration?

    Conversely, if the word age (aionion) does not, in fact, require us to conclude that the promised life is of limited duration, then neither can it be used to conclude that the promised punishment be of limited duration, no?

  • Daniel Fisher

    OK; now please forgive me if I’m slow, but I’m still not following you in regard to my basic question – you said:

    ‘Aionion referring to the type of pruning and type of life. Meaning a long time, but not eternal. ‘

    So, the ‘life’ that Jesus repeatedly promised the righteous – is it eternal, or simply of a long duration but not eternal?

  • Matthew

    So what does this mean practically regarding spreading the Gospel and final judgement?

  • I think you are still trying to see aeon in Platonic terms. The Jews of Jesus’s day would have thought that odd. “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matt. 28:20. You see, ages, Jews thought in terms of ages, not an abstract term such as eternity. Wikipedia:
    “According to the Christian doctrine of universal reconciliation, the Greek New Testament scriptures use the word “aeon” to mean a long period (perhaps 1000 years) and the word “aeonian” to mean “during a long period”; Thus there was a time before the aeons, and the aeonian period is finite. After each man’s mortal life ends, he is judged worthy of aeonian life or aeonian punishment. That is, after the period of the aeons, all punishment will cease and death is overcome and then God becomes the all in each one (1Cor 15:28). This contrasts with the conventional Christian belief in eternal life and eternal punishment.”
    I would add, this was the predominant belief among the early Greek church fathers for the first half millinia before the Latin side took over via Catholicism. Contrast Origen with Augustine, for example. Also, take note that Augustine found learning Greek tedious, and therefore stuck to the Latin texts.

  • Daniel Fisher

    …OK… respectfully, I’m not sure if we’re talking past each other, or if you’re wanting to avoid answering the question. I’m not trying to be difficult, but I think I’m asking a simple question: Is the “life” promised to the righteous eternal, or not?

    Call it platonic, but I’m not asking whether ancient Jews thought in these terms or not, I’m asking whether or not it is in fact true. However Greeks or Jews conceived the ideas, whatever vocabulary they used to describe it, whatever word pictures were in their mind, the question I’m asking is one of basic logic: assuming the resurrection to life actually happens, is the promised life in fact endless, or will it at some point end?

    I’m genuinely interested in understanding your position, and how you’re reading Jesus’ teaching – but as such I’d like to understand whether or not you believe this promised life to in fact be eternal/everlasting/unending, or if it is finite/limited/”not eternal”. It isn’t Platonic to recognize that, in fact, it must either be one or the other.

    Saying “I don’t know” would be a legitimate answer, of course; or saying that Jesus’ teaching, couched as it is in Jewish culture, simply does not in fact address that quesiton, is also legitmate. But in fact, the duration of the promised life will either be unlimited, or it will not. And Jesus either taught this life will be unlimited in duration, that it will be limited in duration, or he didn’t teach on the topic. There really aren’t any other logical options.

    So can I respectfully ask very clearly and specifically: In your understanding: Did Jesus teach that this promised life was A) eternal, of unlimited duration; B) finite, of limited duration, or C) his teaching does not clearly specify, and thus while either are possible, neither can be claimed with certainty?