Love is a Promise (in 1 Corinthians 13 and Doctor Who)

Love is a Promise (in 1 Corinthians 13 and Doctor Who) June 21, 2015

Love is a Promise

This image comes from the blog Whovian Theology. I had been meaning to share it a while back, and it ended up as a saved draft. But recently we discussed 1 Corinthians 13 in my Sunday school class, and it reminded me of this.

One older person in the class asked “What is love?” and I of course responded by saying “Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more.” She didn’t get the joke, but another person started laughing hysterically. So I followed up by asking the class how they define love, using these carefully-chosen words: “I want to know what love is. I want you to show me.” The song “More Than Words” also got a mention.

I set the class the challenge of telling me what the chapter is about, taking love off the table as an answer since it is so obvious. They quickly proposed spiritual gifts and unity, which are the focus throughout the preceding and following chapters. And so there is good reason to think that the passage is not a poem Paul had heard (perhaps at a wedding), but rather composed specifically to address the issues in the Corinthian church that Paul is writing about.

The passage is quite radical – it says that without love, even the kind of mountain-moving faith that Jesus spoke about is worth nothing. (I am struck once again by the preponderance of references to the Jesus tradition in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, and am still unsure what accounts for this). What would it mean to take Paul’s point here seriously, and apply it in relation to those Christian traditions that make faith the sine qua non of being a Christian?

An analogy that we came up with was making soup. Vegetables and herbs are not unimportant. But if you do not include some meat or stock then you do not have soup, even if you boil vegetables and herbs.

I also shared the interesting things that happen when one substitutes “God” into the passage, based on the identification of God as love in 1 John. It works well for the most part. But many Christians balk at the idea that God “keeps no record of wrongs.” Yet if that is a defining feature of love, then it seems appropriate to go there.

One can also substitute one’s own name into the passage, and it is very challenging to do so. Then it serves as a mirror, and helps me to ask myself pointedly, “Am I patient, am I kind…?”

1 Corinthians 13 is a very rich passage, and it is important to really dig into it as part of the letter as a whole, and not only in isolation from that context.

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  • John MacDonald

    Love is believing in the primacy of the Other over the Self, and acting accordingly.

  • “Love is not resentful [love does not count up wrongdoings]; … Love bears all things… hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…”

    Unless of course you believe in eternal punishment.

    • John MacDonald

      The Christian founders did an amazing job of selling their religion: 1. Believe what we tell you, and the best thing possible will happen to you (Heaven); 2. Don’t believe what we tell you, and the worst possible thing will happen to you (Hell).

      • You seem to be unable to keep from reading modern fundamentalism’s emphases into the earliest literature from what eventually became Christianity.

        • John MacDonald

          You’re saying The New Testament doesn’t teach about heaven and hell? You would seem to be in a minority position there.

          • Please do not misrepresent what I wrote. Which of the very earliest Christian sources envisage Christians “going to heaven”? Which envisage people being sent to “hell” for not believing certain doctrines? Which define faith as acceptance of dogma on authority?

          • John MacDonald

            That’s a lot to answer in a blog post, but I’ll try.
            Christ has more to say about hell than anyone else. Jesus was the one who compared hell to the Valley of Hinnom near Jerusalem (also called “Gehenna”), a huge public rubbish dump where dead bodies and trash burned in continually smoldering fires; thus “Gehenna” took hold as a name for hell. Jesus also compared hell to a prison and to outer darkness. It was he who likened hell to “a fire” at least twenty different times.

            Lazarus and the Rich Fool

            A premier text about hell from the mouth of Jesus is Luke 16:19–31. The wider context of its teaching is the abuse of wealth. Yet when describing the other-worldly setting of this teaching, Christ expanded the doctrine of hell. The passage is about a rich man who played the ultimate fool by luxuriating in his wealth, ignoring true faith in God and service to humanity, until he found himself in hell for his godless selfishness.

            The passage seems much like a parable, but it is not specifically called that. In this text, Jesus’s primary intent was not to describe details of the unbeliever’s afterlife, but the Lord does end up giving us an insider’s view of hell, encapsulating important details of what is taught on this subject elsewhere.

            No Exit Door

            One foundational principle Jesus taught in the lesson of the rich man and Lazarus was that hell has no exit door. Abraham tells the writhing sufferer why his condition could not be remedied: “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” (Luke 16:26).

            The divide between eternal heaven and everlasting hell is made hard-and-fast by God’s eternal decree. The word “fixed” in Luke 16:26 has about the same meaning as our phrase “cast in concrete.”

            Luke 16 says that when an unbeliever becomes conscious of this tragic reality immediately after his own death, it is already too late to humble himself before the gospel of Christ and the cross, which he has spurned hundreds or thousands of times; it is too late to believe in Jesus as Lord; it is too late to beg for divine mercy.

            Scripture extends the opportunity of grace for every human being’s full lifetime. We hear in 2 Peter 3:9 of the Lord’s vast patience: “. . . not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Yet people will perish—once they have passed the doorway of death without knowing Christ.

            Sufficient Warning

            Another principle Jesus taught in Luke 16:27–30 is that God’s Word gives humanity sufficient warning about how to avoid hell. The rich man grasped it when the remedy could no longer personally help him. He experienced his first-ever altruistic impulse as he pleaded for a messenger to warn his family so they might avoid his plight.

            But he is told that testimonials from “Moses and the Prophets” are set before all living men (v. 29). God’s revealed Word can tell mankind all we need to know about our sin and a Redeemer’s grace. In Luke 11:28 Jesus declared, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Do not miss a tremendous irony here. The rich man maintained that something more than God’s Word is needed—perhaps a miraculous sign. He went so far as to predict the exact type of miracle that would communicate better than God’s written Word: someone returning from the dead, to garner widespread public attention. What folly!

            Not long after teaching this gospel lesson, the same Jesus who narrated Luke 16 arose from the grave. And what resulted? A minority of people in the immediate precincts of Jerusalem embraced him as their living Lord. However, the majority scoffed and turned back to perusing their sports pages or looked to the stock market reports to discover what was new on that particular routine day.

            Unbelief determinedly shrugs off all historic proofs of Christ. The very One who was told that a family would surely respond to the supernatural wonder of a messenger from the grave became that miraculous messenger. And he is still being spurned.

            All Bad News?

            Suppose the Bible told us nothing about hell. Would that really make the Scriptures more “loving,” or compassionate? Does concealing unpleasant truth demonstrate that you truly care more for others’ destinies? What we find in Luke 16 is that the unique spokesman who most insistently announced a dreadful alternative to gracious divinely authored salvation is the same great Lord who died and rose to save us from hell.

            Scripture is resolute: there is no means of escape out of hell. However, the gospel of God’s love and mercy shows one way of escape before entering. Jesus told it in John 5:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” Hence, the doctrine of heaven is set against the doctrine of hell.

          • It is striking that you refer to some of the latest works in the New Testament, and nothing earlier. But you also seem to have completely lost from view your original claim. How does the parable about the rich man and Lazarus provide evidence of your claim that the earliest Christians threatened people with hell for not accepting dogmas? If that is an authentic parable that goes back to Jesus, it seems to me to depict punishment in the afterlife based on whether one was a perpetrator or victim of injustice.

          • John MacDonald

            Christian would say if you don’t believe in and follow our rules for ethical behavior and good conduct, you go to hell. Hence, the rich fool goes to hell.

          • John MacDonald

            That should have said “Christians.” I wish this blog had a grammar checker. lol

          • John MacDonald

            Here are a few other thoughts regarding Christians teaching that people who will not adopt their religious and ethical systems will be punished by being sent to hell.:

            In Matthew 7:19, Jesus, referring to false teachers and prophets, makes a very clear statement about how not everyone who comes to Him will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Paul also touches on this subject a couple of times in letters he wrote to churches in which he says that if you continue to commit sin (he provides a long list of examples), then you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Hebrews 10:26-27 are verses that refer to anyone who has knowledge of the truth of Jesus Christ and yet continues to sin, negates the sacrifice by Jesus and possibly face the “feerful prospect of judgement and a flaming fire…”
            If Jesus claims that not everyone will enter the Kingdom of Heaven as well as Paul the apostle, then where could one possibly go if denied entrance to Heaven? The bible clearly describes and even warns us of eternity in a place where God is not – Hell.

          • Ah, I see the problem. You are equating “kingdom of heaven” with “heaven,” not having realized that “heaven” in this phrase is a circumlocution for God.

          • John MacDonald
          • He makes some useful points about some mistaken generalizations that used to be repeated a lot some decades ago. But he acknowledges that we can compare Matthew with Mark and see the former’s substitutions, and thus know that “kingdom of heaven” is Matthew’s preferred term for what Mark calls the “kingdom of God.” And of course, we have Jewish sources which use “Heaven” as a circumlocution for God.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Actually, not really. Modern conceptions of heaven and hell are completely absent from the New Testament.

          • John MacDonald

            Here is an interesting blog post about what the apostles in Jesus’ time thought about heaven:

          • John MacDonald

            And if you’re interested, here is an interesting blog post about what Paul thought about hell:

  • QueenMab

    James, thank you for the Whovian Theology link. I think someone may have to do a panel on that at this year’s Dragon Con in Atlanta. There is already a very cool Catholic priest who does a Theology and Supernatural (the show) panel. And I went to a Theology and The Walking Dead panel at Walker Stalker Con last Fall (in Atlanta). The latter one was run by an Episcopalian priest. It was really, really great.

    • Sounds like a great idea. If something of that sort does end up being planned, please do let me know!

  • R Vogel

    Love is a battlefield. :p

  • John MacDonald

    Paul seems to believe in heaven. He writes:

    2 Corinthians 12:2,

    “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago– whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows– such a man was caught up to the third HEAVEN. And I know how such a man– whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows– was caught up into PARADISE, and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. (2 Cor. 12:2-4).”

    • To whom is this addressed? Did you misunderstand someone to be suggesting that Paul thought that there were no heavenly realms where God and his angelic retinue dwelled?

      • John MacDonald

        Andrew Dowling said in his post above that: “Modern conceptions of heaven and hell are completely absent from the New Testament.” I just disagreed because I didn’t think they were “completely absent.”

        • If you do not think that the modern conceptions of heaven and hell are completely absent, then presumably what you need to do is (1) show that you understand the differences between the modern conceptions and ancient ones, and (2) show in what way the two overlap to a sufficient extent that “completely absent” is not an accurate description.

          • John MacDonald

            I don’t believe that the author of Matthew thought good people went to heaven after they died. He seemed to think that the righteous dead people were “asleep” in the ground, and that the resurrection of Jesus would eventually allow them to walk again “on this earth,” not in some heaven up in the clouds. We read in Matthew (Matt 27:50-54) , for instance, that:

            Matt 27:50-54 The Dead walked the Streets

            Matt 27:50-54 “Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.”

          • John MacDonald

            On the other hand, the author of Luke seems to have a view of heaven more like that of a paradise in the sky that is attained through a relationship with Jesus. We read, for instance: Luke 23:42-43 New International Version (NIV)
            42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

  • Rullbert Boll

    Love is oxytocine. It is also a necessity function from cooperation and from procreation, which in its turn is a necessity function from survival. It is not a cosmic force, and not God, and not the primary essence of God. Read some psychology and biology, then go for sociobiology from the perspective of mathematical realism, and then God starts to be defined!

    • Thank you for this comment. I sometimes have commenters claim that no one really holds the reductionist views that I sometimes talk about. Thank you for providing evidence that people with such views really exist!

      • James, I only correct you when you dismiss whole swaths of people as “reductionists” (like atheists) with no nuance.

        I don’t know what to think of Boll here. There is no denying that some aspects of what we call “love” can be attributed to evolution, hormones, and psychology as Boll intimates. Boll rejects “God” as an explanation of the phenomenon of love, but that does not necessarily mean that he does not value love.

        It’s hard to know what you mean when you criticize “reductionist views”. Surely you recognize the need in the sciences and other arenas to “reduce” phenomena to their constituent parts in order to understand them better. It is a leap to the assert that this practice leads to devaluing the phenomena.

        Clearly Boll doesn’t see God as a good explanation for the phenomena of love; and perhaps he is too dismissive of Christians who do. But what does it mean to dismiss him as a reductionist? My guess is that, while Boll has opinions about how love evolved, he also embraces the experience of love, as most humans do.

        I don’t want to go too far defending Boll, here, because I don’t know him. But I would point out that Boll is not dismissing “love” by tracing it’s evolution and components, he is dismissing the idea that “love” is a phenomena that exists outside of human experience.

        (caveat – while I don’t think painting Boll as a “reductionist” is valuable, that doesn’t mean he is not an internet troll – that remains to be seen, and is a different issue altogether)

      • Rullbert Boll

        It is common with people from a natural science background, whether they have a faith or not. You can cite me, if you wish. Do you need any specific odd statement, such as f.ex. paranaturalism instead of supernaturalism and naturalism? Any non-platonic realism or so? Then I can provide complicated views that aren’t well respected among f.ex. post-modernists.

    • Boll, my guess is that you experience love with joy and pleasure as most humans do. My guess is that you behave altruistically towards people that you love. So even for you, love is more than hormones, evolution, and psychology. It is also an experience that you probably value. I know that the apple evolved to spread the seeds of a tree, but that doesn’t make the apple less sweet to me.

      I would agree with you that “God” is a poor definition of love. However, with all of the rancor and hatred that can be seen from conservative Christian groups these days, I don’t mind it when Christians try to realign their understanding of God as love – as long as it is the view of God that is being changed by the concept of love – and not the other way around.

      • Rullbert Boll

        I understand what you are doing — it is some kind of “religious politics” — but that is just another trivialization, that fits for an implied purpose. What I personally experience would only be relevant if I was formulating a personal faith, but I have already done that. I’m interested in what religion really *is*, not what I want it to be.

        • I am an atheist. I don’t have a “personal faith”, and so I doubt that I engage in “religious politics” (whatever that means). But I certainly find my personal experience and that of other humans relevant to the way we live. I don’t expect everyone in the world to share my understanding of the world. I think it’s useful to promote reason, but I also think it’s important to live together peacefully regardless of our differences.

          • Rullbert Boll

            Right! I wish you luck for your tolerance, and I respect your choices — but there are too many individuals prefering to use the religion as a cudgel to apply on others, and a lot of other individuals using the religion to ignore the real problems of this world either by inventing imaginary problems, or by leaving all decisions to God.

          • I agree with you that a lot of people use religion as a cudgel or an avoidance of real world problems. James McGrath isn’t one of those people.