Category Archives: Bible
In Lent of 2009 I decided I’d start reading the Bible from beginning to end for a third time. I’d tried that a couple of times in the past, never having got past Genesis, or once the very beginning of Exodus. This time, I vowed, I’d do it. I began reading it. Two and a half years later, I’m still at it. At least I’ve finished through the end of Joshua, and I am confident that I will indeed finish the whole Good Book again eventually.
Alas, it is now almost seven years since I wrote that post, and over nine years since I began re-reading the Bible, and I just ran out of steam. I have, however, started back, in a bit of a roundabout way.
This past Easter (2018) my wife, after eighteen years of marriage and twenty-one years together, entered the Catholic Church. This was a cause of celebration in our family. During Lent, she began using a Catholic app on her phone to read the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible. For Easter I bought her a hardcopy, as well as getting the Kindle version for her Kindle Fire. Since we use a common Amazon account, I put the Kindle version on my Fire, too. I have no idea why she decided to read that particular translation. However, since I now had it on my Fire also, I decided that I’d just jump in and start reading it, too. It wouldn’t be bad to be rereading the Bible (again); and by reading the specific version my wife was reading, I’d be better equipped to answer any questions she had.
“Lost” or “forbidden” scriptures are a big thing these days, and have been for some time. They have certainly played their role in pop culture, in works ranging from The Da Vinci Code and its sequels to horror/suspense movies like Stigmata, to name just a couple. The Gospel of Judas caused a worldwide sensation when it was translated and published in 2005. Walk into any large bookstore and you’ll see Elaine Pagels’s classic, The Gnostic Gospels (which arguably started the craze), various publications of the Nag Hammadi scriptures, both individually and as a group, collections such as The Gnostic Bible, and so on. Of all the various “lost”, “forbidden”, and “Gnostic” scriptures, probably the most famous is The Gospel of Thomas.
The Gospel of Thomas, though short, is a mysterious and intriguing document. Unlike the canonical gospels of the New Testament, and even some of the other heterodox gospels, The Gospel of Thomas has no narrative. Instead, it consists of one hundred fourteen logia–sayings–of Christ, addressed mainly to the disciples. Like the Gospels of Mark and John, Thomas lacks birth stories of Jesus. Unlike all four canonical gospels, Thomas also lacks any account of the crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, as well as the apocalyptic themes associated with Jesus in the canonical gospels. About half the logia are parallel to or at least similar to sayings of Jesus in the canonical gospels. The rest are of unclear origin.
The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naïvety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed. The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.
–C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms; from here
It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our fathers too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and not read without attention to the whole nature & purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.
–C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3; from here
There any number of translations of the Bible, in full or in part, and more each year, it seems. There are classic Bibles like the King James and Douay-Rheims versions, modern Bibles such as the Revised English Bible and the New Revised Standard Bible, Protestant Bibles, such as the New International and English Standard versions, Catholic Bibles, such as the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible; there are more traditional formal equivalence Bibles (the New King James), dynamic equivalence Bibles (the Good News Bible), outright paraphrases (the Living Bible); and on it goes. To this number has recently been added a translation of the New Testament by Greek Orthodox scholar and theologian David Bentley Hart.
Hart has made a name for himself as a scholar, theologian, and cultural commentator, having published eleven books and numerous articles in both professional journals and in venues such as The Wall Street Journal, The New Atlantis, and First Things. Hart had planned to translate the New Testament for some time, but a spell of ill health slowed him down. Finally, he completed the translation, which was released in October of 2017.
Not that kind of dessert; but I couldn’t resist the visual pun! 🙂
Back here we began the discussion of the traditional argument in favor of Hell (and thus against universalism) which asserts that God is just in condemning to Hell the souls of those who are not saved (by whatever specific criteria that is determined). In that context, we looked at the functions of punishment for transgression, and we came up with the following: restitution, prevention, deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution. After discussing these various motivations for punishment, I concluded with this:
Hell certainly won’t rehabilitate the damned, since they are said to be damned eternally, incapable of reform. It won’t give the saved restitution–if someone murders me, no amount of Hell he experiences will bring me back to life. Further, whether I go to Heaven or Hell is traditionally said to be dependent on my own spiritual state. In short, Heaven is not a “restitution” to me for getting murdered. If I’m in a state of mortal sin, I’d go to spend eternity in Hell with the one who murdered me. Prevention and deterrence are not operative here, either. Fear of Hell might keep a living person on the straight and narrow. However, after the Last Judgement, when everyone is either in Heaven or Hell, neither prevention nor deterrence has any further purpose. The saved can no longer sin, so there is no necessity to deter them from evil. Even if the damned were “let loose” from Hell, the saved can no longer be harmed in any way, so there’s nothing the damned can be prevented from doing to the innocent.
Thus, the only logic of Hell can be that it is a just retribution. If an eternal Hell exists, retribution is its sole logical purpose. Thus, in looking at this issue, the question is not “Is eternal damnation just?” as such, but “In what way and to what extent is retribution, or more precisely retributive punishment just?”
Thus in trying to determine if it is just for God to damn certain people for eternity, we actually have two questions. The first and most obvious is, “Is eternal punishment for one’s sins just?” This is the question I’ll discuss in this post. However, the very question brings up another, subtler question, to wit: “Is retribution a just motivation for punishment at all?” That question I will deal with in the next post in this series.
Update: A Facebook friend has reported that I misremembered the Hitchhiker’s guide, writing “Not My Problem” field for “Somebody Else’s Problem” field. Due corrections have been made! I have left the title intact, though, for the sake of the alliteration….
In the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as fans well know, the setting is the fictional Southern California city of Sunnydale. Sunnydale just happens to be located on top of the literal gates of Hell–the Hellmouth, as it’s called in the show. Because of this, Sunnydale is chock full of vampires, demons, and monsters of various sorts. The ongoing joke in the series is that everyone in the city is completely oblivious to all of this, attributing supernatural events, murders, and general mayhem to anything but their real causes. The explanation given by Giles, Buffy’s Watcher, is that most people subconsciously block out anything that conflicts with their picture of ordinary reality. They literally can’t see the weirdness.
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (consisting actually of five volumes by Douglas Adams and one by Eoin Colfer), there is mention made (in Life, the Universe, and Everything, I believe) of the SEP field. It is explained that invisibility is extremely difficult to produce. Therefore, if someone wants to hide something (in the novel, an invading spaceship), it’s easier to use the Somebody Else’s Problem–SEP–field. Humans have a natural propensity not to want to get involved with anything that is “somebody else’s problem”. The SEP field amplifies this natural tendency, so that while the object to be hidden is perfectly visible and in the open, no one actually notices it.
My contention is that most people who read the Bible are much like the people of Sunnydale; or to change similes, they read the Bible as if under the influence of an SEP field.
Last time I said we need to start our second look at the Fall from the other end; that is, with the Atonement. To do that, I want to begin with what has tended to be the traditional viewpoint (at least in the West), the Penal Substitutionary model of the Atonement. I’ve discussed it a bit before, but I want a narrower focus here, and I want to discuss the issues I see with it. For the purposes here, I’m writing the outline as if the first two chapters of Genesis were literally true.
1. The first human couple, Adam and Eve, are created innocent and free from sin. Humans, like the angels before them, and like all created intelligences, truly have free will.
2. The human race is given a test of obedience: the command to Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
3. Humans fail the test through the abuse of their God-given free will. Tempted by the Serpent (traditionally interpreted as Satan), Eve eats the Forbidden Fruit and gives it to Adam, who does so as well.
4. As a result of this, they and all their descendants are stained with Original Sin both in terms of guilt and of effects. That is to say, all descendants of Adam and Eve inherit the guilt of their sin merely by descent. Even a newborn child has the guilt of Original Sin, as well as the effects thereof. These effects include, among other things, weakness of the will, difficulty in overcoming bodily urges, loss of a direct knowledge of God, a tendency towards sinful actions, and most significantly, mortality. Further, the world itself suffers from this curse, with plagues, disease, and all natural evils being unleashed into the world by Adam’s sin.
5. Though the action of disobediently eating the Forbidden Fruit was finite, the guilt thereby incurred is infinite. This is because the sin was against God, who is infinite. The human race is therefore barred from fellowship with God, and from Heaven after death.
6. God wishes to restore the human race to His fellowship and make Heaven possible for them. However, He cannot merely dismiss Original Sin and allow a “do-over”, since He is all-just, and this would contravene His justice. Through Original Sin, mankind is in “debt”, either to God or to Satan (accounts vary); and since God is perfectly just, this debt must be paid in full. However, from 5, we see the debt is infinite. Therefore, by definition, it can never be paid by mankind, individually or as a race. However, as humankind incurred the debt, humankind must pay the debt; which is impossible. Mankind is up the well-known creek without a paddle.
7. God, however, is not only perfectly just, but perfectly loving. Therefore, He sends His Son, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, to take human form. This is vitally necessary. As a human, Jesus can pay the debt incurred by Adam. As God, Jesus can pay an infinite debt in full. As both human and God, Jesus can represent the entire human race. Therefore, his death on the cross pays the infinite debt of mankind to the Father (or the Devil) in full, thereby satisfying both God’s justice (the debt is legally paid, no chicanery) and his mercy (God in Christ does it for a human race that can’t do it for itself).
8. Though the debt is now paid, individual humans, in order to benefit from it, must accept Christ. How one does this varies in the teaching of different churches, but all agree on this in one way or another.
I think this is a reasonable summary. Now let’s analyze it.