Fatalism and Despair in Hebrews 6?

Fatalism and Despair in Hebrews 6? June 3, 2013

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

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

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

I suggested a different possibility might be worth considering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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