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.
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.
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.
Last time I stated the postulates I’m starting with in order to move forward in considering the Fall. They seem reasonable to me, in light of what has been looked at and discussed in this series over the last nine months. However, I want to look at one alternative (which I reject) in order to elaborate on why I reject it and what I see as being problematic about it.
First, I need to correct something I omitted in my last post. I gave my “postulates” for this discussion, but left out the most obvious and important one, the zeroth postulate, if you will, without which there’s no point in even having written this series to begin with.
0. Science is correct in asserting the vast age of the Earth and universe, and the evolution of humans from lower animals.
Comment: As noted in my update to the previous post, this is not a postulate properly so-called; but it’s solid enough.
Corollary: Any theology which does not take 0. into account is to that extent erroneous, and thus can–and should–be dismissed out of hand. Therefore, for example, young Earth creationism, anti-evolutionism, and so-called Intelligent Design as presented, are non-starters.
Having set the stage, let’s move on to look at an account of the Fall that seems fairly popular in some circles and discuss its ramifications.
I alluded to the following in one of my earlier posts in the series “The Pretty Good Book”. I finally found my copy of C. S. Lewis’s Miracles, and located the quote, which is in a footnote in Chapter 15, “Miracles of the New Creation” (page 218 in the Harper San Francisco/Zondervan paperback edition I’ve got).
A consideration of the Old Testament miracles is beyond the scope of this book and would require many kinds of knowledge which I do not possess. My present view—which is tentative and liable to any amount of correction—would be that just as, on the factual side, a long preparation culminates in God’s becoming incarnate as Man, so, on the documentary side, the truth first appears in mythical form and then by a long process of condensing or focusing finally becomes incarnate as History. This involves the belief that Myth in general is not merely misunderstood history (as Euhemerus thought) nor diabolical illusion (as some of the Fathers thought) nor priestly lying (as the philosophers of the Enlightenment thought) but, at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination. The Hebrews, like other people, had mythology; but as they were the chosen people so their mythology was the chosen mythology—the mythology chosen by God to be the vehicle of the earliest sacred truths, the first step of the process which ends in the New Testament where truth has become completely historical. Whether we can ever say with certainty where, in this process of crystallization, any particular Old Testament story falls, is another matter. I take it that the Memoirs of David’s court come at one end of the scale and are scarcely less historical than St. Mark or Acts; and that the Book of Jonah is at the opposite end. It should be noted that on this view (a) Just as God, in becoming Man, is ‘emptied’ of His glory, so the truth, when it comes down from the ‘heaven’ of myth to the ‘earth’ of history, undergoes a certain humiliation. Hence the New Testament is, and ought to be, more prosaic, in some ways less splendid, than the Old; just as the Old Testament is and ought to be less rich in many kinds of imaginative beauty than the Pagan mythologies. (b) Just as God is none the less God by being Man, so the Myth remains Myth even when it becomes Fact. The story of Christ demands from us, and repays, not only a religious and historical but also an imaginative response. It is directed to the child, the poet, and the savage in us as well as to the conscience and the intellect. One of its functions is to break down dividing walls.
The boldface is my added emphasis. It touches very felicitously on something I’ve noted (but not as effectively)–that is, that the Old Testament was revealed to a savage, barbarous people in a savage, barbarous time, and that this should always be remembered when we try to figure out what lessons to draw from it. Too many, not realizing this, try to justify atrocity, nastiness, and horrible behavior of every sort because they read the Old Testament literally, with no subtlety, nuance, or recognition of the issues Lewis describes here. I will return to this at a later point on a post I’m planning on a specific Old Testament story.
Back in my post on Marcion, I said the following, with added emphasis:
Reading [the Bible] at the age of forty-eight is very much a different experience. Things such as the plauges and destruction God sent against His own people (Numbers 11:33, Numbers 16:1-35, and Numbers 25:1-4), the (lauded) behavior of Phineas (Numbers 25:5-9) which causes God to stop the last-mentioned plague, the mandates to kill all the men, women, and children in various cities in Canaan when the Jews return from Egypt (Joshua 6:20-27, 8:24-26, and 11:10-15, among others)–and that’s just in the parts I’ve re-read so far. There’s plenty more nastiness to come, too–just for a couple of examples, check out 2 Samuel 24 and 2 Kings 2:23-25. Examples could be multiplied quite a bit.
The point is that I’ve decided that I do not like the Old Testament as a whole very much at all.
I am not a Marcionite. I do, however, find his view more viscerally and emotionally appealing as I read the Bible again after all these years. I’m not quite sure why–perhaps I’ve grown more cynical. Maybe suffering and the general messiness of life have become more real to me and I have thus become less able to blithely tolerate a supposedly loving God who seems not only to be OK with this but who seems actively to perpetrate it with distressing frequency. In many ways it would be very easy for me to just jettison the Old Testament altogether (whether that would entail leaving the Church would be another and even more complex matter) and cast my lot with that of Marcion and the other teachers (mostly, but not exclusively Gnostic) who held similar ideas.
I cannot do that, though. That would be the easy solution.