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
Awhile back I did several posts in which I tried to look at various arguments against universalism and to show why, in my view, those arguments were unsuccessful. The first post in that series looked at arguments that didn’t even address the issue to begin with, but which missed the point either through logical fallacy or misdirection. Recently I have been involved in discussions on universalism on a couple of other blogs and in an online course I’m taking. Some of the same hoary old anti-universalism arguments I’ve detailed before have been cropping up. There has also been a bit of missing the point. In light of this, I want to take a second look at two arguments which miss the point and which I didn’t directly discuss before. One did not actually come up in the discussions, but was jarred loose in my memory. The other is less an argument as such and more an approach, but I think in a sense it also misses the point. Onward, then!
The first argument is to say something like this to the universalist: “I understand your concerns, but they’re misplaced. Instead of worrying about the fate of others–which you can never know, anyway–you need to focus on yourself. Take every care that you can to lead your own life in such a way as to merit salvation, and leave others up to God. He’ll take care of things.” A more nuanced, complex, and sophisticated version of this argument is made by the late Avery Cardinal Dulles in this essay at First Things (my emphasis):
We are forbidden to seek our own salvation in a selfish and egotistical way. We are keepers of our brothers and sisters. The more we work for their salvation, the more of God’s favor we can expect for ourselves. Those of us who believe and make use of the means that God has provided for the forgiveness of sins and the reform of life have no reason to fear. We can be sure that Christ, who died on the Cross for us, will not fail to give us the grace we need. We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, and that if we persevere in that love, nothing whatever can separate us from Christ (cf. Romans 8:28-39). That is all the assurance we can have, and it should be enough.
Both of these versions of the argument boil down to this, to put it crudely: “The fate of others is none of your business! Work out your own dang salvation, and quit ragging on God!” Alas, this argument, however stated, is a red herring.
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.
The last seven posts in my series on universalism (beginning here and going to here) were intended more or less as a coda to the series. My idea was that they would in summary fashion deal with all the major objections to universalism–both those that in my judgement missed the point and those that at least legitimately took on the issues at hand–and show why they were unworkable or problematic. So I thought, anyway. Alas, nothing ever ends–nor, in a sense, would I expect it to. Strong partisans of what I have called the traditional view of hell (or TVOH, as I abbreviate it) are not likely to be moved by any arguments. Conversely, strong universalists will likely also remain unmoved.
This week I have participated in a combox discussion at Rod Dreher’s blog, and as sometimes happens, the issue of universalism arose. There was a bit of back-and-forth between me and some supporters of the TVOH. For those who are interested, the exchange is over here. It’s actually much shorter and less detailed than previous blog discussions I’ve had on the issue, both there and at other blogs. It does induce me to make more explicit some points that I have not, perhaps, elaborated on enough here. Mostly, I’ve been looking at the philosophical underpinnings of the arguments for the TVOH, and trying to show why those underpinnings are problematic, as well as trying to make a philosophical argument in favor of universalism. As often happens in combox discussions, though, the discussion in question brought back the issue of authority. I have never really explicitly dealt with that issue in this series, though I’ve touched on it several times. Therefore, I decided it would be a good idea to dedicate a post specifically to just those issues, which I will now deal with.
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.