Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Why and how we evangelize

One of the more common objections I hear to the doctrine of universalism is this: how are you supposed to evangelize, if universalism is true? Why should you evangelize at all, in fact, if all people are going to be saved regardless? There is much to be said in response to this, but I want to focus on merely one possible line of response.

I was reading from 1 John, one of my favorite epistles in Scripture, and I noticed the way that John opens up his letter:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1.1-4).

Notice the way that John opens up his evangelistic letter. He is concerned that his audience share the fellowship he has with Jesus Christ and with the Father. Yet how does he do this? And why? He tells us: he does it by appealing to his own experiences in this regard, and he does it because he wants his joy to be completed by seeing others enjoy the fellowship he has. The NLT translates it this way: We are writing these things so that you may fully share our joy.

There is no threat of hell-fire here, nor any appeal to fear in order to motivate repentance. Rather John relays his experiences as a disciple of Jesus Christ, his eyewitness report to the wonderful things that he had seen and touched and heard. And he tells others to join this fellowship because he wants to share his joy with those around him. He doesn't evangelize by fear or by threats, but rather out of the goodness of his heart, wanting to share something wonderful that he has found (or perhaps better, that has found him).

It is too bad that more people do not evangelize in this way. Perhaps they don't do it because they themselves do not have many experiences of joy in fellowship with the Holy Trinity, and because they are not concerned to see other people enjoy the true happiness of life in communion with God. Perhaps for these reasons, furthermore, they don't see any purpose or mode of evangelism possible on a universalist scheme. But John here provides us with one. In fact, if you listen to many people who first learned about universalism, you'd know that discovering this doctrine moved them to want to share the good news with others, and to evangelize, rather than making them lazy.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Being a part of Jesus' family

At one point in his ministry, Jesus was teaching with a large group of people crowded around him. His family expresses worry about him, since the news about him has gone far and wide, and the religious authorities from Jerusalem are spreading the word that he is possessed by the Devil. So they find out where Jesus is and call for him. Someone tells him the news: Look, your mother and your brothers are outside looking for you (Mark 3.32).

Jesus' response is significant. He says: Who is my mother, or who are my brothers? And looking around at the people gathered in a circle around him, he responds, Behold, these are my mother and my brothers. Anyone who does God's will is my mother and brother and sister (3.33-5).

Now these people gathered Jesus are not particularly holy or special individuals in any moral sense. They are ordinary Joe Schmo-types, like you and me. They have weaknesses, shortcomings, failings, vices, histories. Yet Jesus heaps tremendous words of honor on them, saying that they do God's will and that they are his brothers and sisters and mothers. Imagine that—to be a part of the family of God's Son!

What did they do that was so great, so as to deserve such honors? Nothing in particular except this: they came to listen to the word of Christ. This is God's will, that ordinary folks such as us sit and listen and learn from the Son of God. When we do this, we are a part of God's family and we can call Jesus our brother.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The return of Christ

When I was growing up, the notion that Christ would one day return was hardly something dear to me. I was convinced for most of my time growing up -- as I think lots of children raised in Christian households are -- that if Jesus returned, I would be excluded from the Kingdom for whatever reason.

But then I grew up and experienced the world, knew myself a little better, learned at some point to love God, and now I think about the return of Christ much differently. Now it is something I eagerly anticipate, rather than dread or fear.

I was watching the funeral service of Clementa Pinckney, the pastor who was killed in the shooting in South Carolina recently. The predominantly black congregation was singing It Is Well With My Soul and an elder prayed so fervently and passionately to the Holy Trinity for peace and for comfort in this difficult time. These people are eagerly anticipating the return of Christ because it will mean release from all their toils and suffering and injustices. One line from his prayer stuck out to me: . . . when we will have been called everything but children of God . . .

The return of Christ is dear to Christians, even though for unbelievers it will be dreadful and terrifying, because it means the end of suffering. Imagine if you knew someone who was immensely powerful and good, far beyond the goodness of anyone else, and you knew he could come visit at any moment. It would be something you look forward to. It means the end of senseless victimization of black people. It means the end of the decapitations and horrors in the Middle East.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Being a son of God

When John calls the people of Judeah to repent and be baptized in the river Jordan, Jesus of Nazareth comes along with them. Though he is the Son of God and had no need of repentance, yet he comes and is baptized, and during his baptism something extraordinary happens. As he exists the water, the Spirit of God descends upon him from above and he hears the voice of God tell him: You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased.

I ask: why does God the Father say that he is well pleased?

It is interesting to note the context of the baptism of Christ. John is calling the people of Israel to repent so that God will restore the nation's fortunes. The promise in Deut 30 is that, if the nation repents, God will put all the blessings of the covenant back upon the nation. More than that, in Deut 30.6 he promises that he will circumcise their hearts so that they can love and obey God entirely — which refers, I think, to the baptism of the Holy Spirit. But the condition of all this is the repentance of the people.

When Jesus shows up and participates in this baptism into repentance, he effectively takes the burden of repentance upon himself. God knew that any repentance humans might offer is imperfect and incomplete, yet his concern is that human beings be saved. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather in the salvation of the sinner. Therefore when Christ takes the burden of the people's sin upon himself, this pleases God greatly.

Indeed, perhaps this is exactly what it means to be a son of God. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is known especially as Savior. To the extent that we are sons and daughters of God, we too occupy ourselves with the salvation of others. We pray for them, we tell them the good news, we plead that God have mercy on them, and in this way God is very pleased with us.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Eschatology and the fruit of the Spirit

I find there is a close connection between Christian ethics and eschatology. For example, Christians are called to pray for the salvation of all people, because this is what God himself desires (1 Tim 2.1-4). It would be strange for God to be calling on his people to pray for the salvation of all, only for God to destroy wicked unbelievers forever in Gehenna. Thus insofar as we have an ethical imperative to pray for all, and our characters are to be formed in this direction, it is reasonable to suppose that God will answer these prayers affirmatively.

There is also another connection between eschatology and the fruit of the Spirit. When the Holy Spirit of God lives within a person, the human is transformed and given a certain character. She is made loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled (cf. Gal 5.22-3). The reason she is made like this is because God himself is like this, and his presence within the Christian's heart transforms her into his likeness. Christian ethics as godlikeness is a regular theme of Paul's writings. For example, he tells the Ephesians: clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4.24).

Now I ask a question. How does a gentle, generous, peaceful, loving, kind, patient, self-controlled person deal with sinners and offenders? If these traits are motivating and informing her actions, how does she act towards those who have done wrong? Suppose, furthermore, that such a person is wise enough and powerful enough to act so that the wrongdoer will eventually repent, come to see the error of her ways, and be restored to the community in peace. Is it not perfectly obvious that a person full of the fruit of the Spirit would act for the other person's benefit? After all, the essence of these character traits are a sensitivity and concern for the other's good in our interactions with her. If you are gentle, generous, loving, kind, etc., then you are concerned to act for the benefit of the other person.

If we are made like God by the fruit of the Spirit, then God has all these things naturally. These are a part of his essence, a part of his existence as such. Consequently they inform everything he does. It should be no different when we approach eschatological texts dealing with hell, punishment in Gehenna, etc. God does not become a different person when he punishes people than he was previously. There may be rhetorical purposes in making the threats of punishments sound as terrible as possible, but we cannot plausibly interpret them in such a manner as to compromise God's very character.

This is perhaps my fundamental objection to traditionalist and annihilationist doctrines of hell. Whether God punishes the damned continuously, or else he annihilates them after a limited time of punishment, it seems in either case that his character is compromised. If he could save everyone and does not, if he treats the wicked so mercilessly, it is difficult to see how he can simultaneously be gentle, kind, patient, loving, generous, etc.

It is no surprise that some classical universalists argued that the traditionalist position attributes to God actions that even a virtuous human person would never undertake. Isaac the Syrian writes:

That we should imagine that anger, wrath, jealousy or the such like have anything to do with the divine Nature is something utterly abhorrent for us: no one in their right mind, no one who has any understanding (at all) can possibly come to such madness as to think anything of the sort about God. Nor again can we possibly say that He acts thus out of retribution, even though the Scriptures may on the outer surface posit this. Even to think this of God and to suppose that retribution for evil acts is to be found with Him is abominable. By implying that He makes use of such a great and difficult thing [of Gehenna] out of retribution we are attributing a weakness to the (divine) Nature. We cannot even believe such a thing can be found in those human beings who live a virtuous and upright life and whose thoughts are entirely in accord with the divine will -- let alone (believe it) of God, that He has done something out of retribution for anticipated evil acts in connection with those whose nature He had brought into being with honour and great love. Knowing thema nd all their conduct, the flow of His grace did not dry up from them: not even after they (started) living amid many evil deeds did He withhold His care for them, even for a moment.

If someone says that [God] has put with [sinners] here (on earth) in order that His patience may be known -- with the idea that He would punish them there mercilessly, such a person thinks in an unspeakably blasphemous way about God, due to his infantile way of thinking: he is removing from God His kindness, goodness and compassion, (all) the things because of which He truly bears with sinners and wicked men. Such a person is attributing to (God) enslavement to passion, (supposing) that He has not consented to their being chastised here, seeing that He has prepared them for a much greater misfortune, in exchange for a short-lived patience. Not only does such a person fail to attribute something praiseworthy to God, but he also calumniates Him (The Second Part 39, 2).

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Restraining the damned in hell

My principle objection to Jerry Walls's defense of traditionalism on libertarian grounds is this: human agency has an object, namely the good or happiness, and human persons learn through the choices they make whether they are pursuing happiness in the right place or not. If this is true, then we have adequate reason to believe that the experiences of the damned in Gehenna will be educative and human persons will freely repent of their sins when learning their consequences.

Now Walls holds that the experience of hell is never unbearable misery, though it may be miserable for the damned person. If it were unbearable misery, then the damned person would want to leave. But in this case her "repentance" would be a false one, a mere giving up under pressure rather than genuine moral reform. But it is possible that the experience of unbearable misery in hell can be the first step in a sinner's eventual moral reform. Indeed, it may be that God cannot avoid making the experience of hell unbearable for some sinners.

Suppose Nietzsche is in hell for his refusal to believe in God and to accept Christian ethics. He insists that the order of nature is the superiority of the strongest over the weak, whereas the morality of Christ is for the weakly and the lowly. One day as Nietzsche is doing his thing in hell, Genghis Khan and his band of marauders ride by, capture the weakly German philosopher, and begin to torture him for the fun of it. Because Nietzsche's body is immortal, he cannot be killed by the things that he is undergoing; yet he is being tortured, and he would give anything to escape the pain of his torments.

At that moment, an angel appears to Nietzsche during his torture and tells him: "You are more than free to leave hell, of course, on one condition -- that you genuinely repent of your wickedness of thought and accept God's truth in humility. Note well, however, that these men are only embodying the principles you defended within your own lifetime. Can you complain about what is happening to you?"

Now Nietzsche is confronted with his own philosophy. He sees that in such a world ruled by the law of the jungle, he is doomed to be a victim in unbearable suffering. He would give anything to get out, yet he cannot do so until he genuinely repents. He connects his own false thinking with the unbearable pain that he is suffering, and so decides that it is better to leave than to stay. He yells out, "I repent!" And the angel immediately frees him from the bonds of Genghis Khan and his band of marauders.

Yet Nietzsche is not immediately taken into heaven, since after all, his character is not changed. No, he is taken into some liminal, purgatorial place where he must be taught and his character must be developed so as to be worthy of God's presence. In this place he will experience many difficulties, he will be forced to confront himself and his constructed identity, to give up many false notions he previously believed, and it may take him a long time ever to leave it. Still, in his mind, hell is the last place he'd ever want to go, because it has become connected with the experience of horrific, unbearable misery at the hands of the godless.

In such a case, Nietzsche's moral development is a slow and gradual one, sparked first by an association of a certain course of action (or thought) with pain. It is similar to the moral education of children, who first learn by associating actions with pain and later come to develop more sophisticated moral sentiments. Yet his moral development is certainly going to go in only one direction, because backsliding into hell is no longer an option.

Jerry Walls suggests that repentance under unbearable misery is never genuine. Yet suppose that after many eons spent in purgatory after his horrific experiences in hell, Nietzsche comes to be totally and freely transformed, eventually enjoying God's presence in the kingdom of heaven. Why shouldn't we consider such repentance genuine, even if it were caused initially by unbearable suffering? His repentance was gradual, a lengthy process, but no less genuine for that reason. Neither is it any less genuine because it was occasioned by an experience of unbearable suffering for which -- thank God -- there was an escape.

Walls may respond that God restrains the freedom of some persons in hell in order to prevent others from suffering unbearably. But this is problematic on two counts. First, if unbearable suffering can lead to free, genuine repentance, and if God desires the salvation of those in hell, why shouldn't he permit it? God clearly permits people to suffer unbearably on this side of the grave, where we do not know if it is for their salvation or not. But secondly, God's restraining the freedom of some individuals may make their suffering unbearable.

Imagine Genghis Khan and his marauders want nothing more than to raid and torture and pillage in hell. So God puts them in a cage that restrains them. Yet Khan does not want any less to do various violent things, and perhaps the cage even provokes his ire even more so. When he sees that there is no leaving the cage, Khan's rage may be so great as to make his existence unbearable. It may drive him insane, compromising his freedom in choosing to remain in hell. Or he may prefer to die than to be restrained in this manner, and so he attempts to kill himself -- only to find that, with his immortal resurrection body, he cannot die. In any case, as soon as he judges it preferable to die than to continue living, he by definition is undergoing unbearable suffering. In this way, we can see that God might not be able to prevent unbearable suffering in hell, even if he restrains the freedom of some.

Or consider the case of a womanizer who wants to give free reign to his lusts. Eventually he becomes violent in his treatment of damned women. In order to prevent the suffering of these women from becoming unbearable, God restrains the womanizer. But his lusts are growing and are not satisfied, and so his desire soon controls his consciousness. Because it is increasingly powerful yet frustrated, the womanizer either goes insane or else judges it better to die than to remain in hell. At this point his suffering is unbearable, and when he sees that death is not an option, he will want to leave. Thus the possibility of eventual genuine repentance is opened to him.

Of course these situations are horrific, but that is the nature of hell. Sinners getting what they wanted all along, as C.S. Lewis said -- and it just so happens that some sinners are truly monsters. These persons will either make hell unbearable for others, or else it will quickly become unbearable for them as they are restrained in their evil. In either case, we can see how sinners would learn from their experiences and begin a long and painful journey to genuine repentance and salvation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Learning about God by his actions

Whereas some people refuse to believe something about God or some Christian doctrine except if they can find it straightforwardly affirmed in some propositional manner, it seems the Jews learned about God in large part by interpreting his actions. So for example, consider what Ps 103 says about God:

The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are opposed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
  his acts to the people of Israel.
The LORD is merciful and gracious,
  slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
  nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
  nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
  so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
  so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
  so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
  he remembers that we are dust (Ps 103.6-14).

Look at the theologizing this psalmist does, merely out of the fact of the Exodus! He has no problem affirming God's fundamental commitment to justice for all oppressed persons, the limits on his anger and accusation compared to the limitlessness of his love and mercy, his moral fairness and awareness of human weaknesses and shortcomings, and so on. The psalmist had no single text to which to appeal which explicitly spells all these things out. He sees these things about God in the act of the Exodus itself.

There is nothing wrong with this. We learn about people by what they tell us, but also by what they do. Things are no different for God. And the things the psalmist learn are quite powerful: God's mercy far outweighs his anger, and his goodness is permanent beyond his accusations.

Now someone may suggested that these conclusions only apply to the righteous who keep God's law, not to all persons in general. So David writes at vv. 17-8: But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. But there are plenty of good reasons to think that actually God's love and mercy are even greater than David here imagines.

First, of course, there is the fact that the same sentiments are echoed by Jeremiah in the Lamentations precisely in the context of the punishment of unfaithful, wicked covenant-breakers. After the covenant curse had come upon God's people for their faithlessness, Jeremiah has the gall to insist:

I am one who has seen affliction 
  under the rod of God's wrath. . . 

But this I call to mind,
  and therefore I have hope.
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
  his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
  great is your faithfulness.
"The LORD is my portion," says my soul,
  "therefore I will hope in him."

The LORD is good to those who who wait for him,
  to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
  for the salvation of the LORD.
It is good for one to bear 
  the yoke in youth,
to sit alone in silence
  when the LORD has imposed it,
to put one's mouth to the dust
  (there may yet be hope),
to give one's cheek to the smiter,
  and be filled with insults.

For the LORD will not 
  reject forever.
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion,
  according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
  or grieve anyone (Lam 3.1, 21-33).

Here we see appeal to the superiority of God's goodness over wrath precisely in the context in which the covenant curse is being suffered. God's goodness is greater than his wrath even in the case of the wicked who break his covenant and do not remember his commandments.

Moreover, we find in the New Testament the revelation that God loves us even while we were still sinners (Rom 5.8), even to the point of dying for our sins in our place! If anything can be a proof of the superiority of God's goodness over his wrath, this would be it! And it would not be fundamentally mistaken or out of place to read this into God's actions on the cross. For if David can get so much out of the Exodus, in which God does the killing rather than the dying, how much more can we understood about God's goodness from his death in Jesus Christ on our behalf!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Rethinking Hell 2015: some thoughts

This past weekend I was in Pasadena, California at the Rethinking Hell 2015 Conference. It was quite fun to see Chris Date, Robin Parry, David Instone-Brewer, Oliver Crisp, Jerry Walls, and Jim Spiegel at the conference, each of them arguing for their respective views. The break-out sessions were a lot of fun as well. Especially interesting for me was Laura Robinson's paper during the fourth and final break-out session entitled "Hell is for Christians? Eternal Judgment as a Unique Theological Emphasis in the Gospel of Matthew."

It seemed to me that the majority of the attendees present were universalists. I may be mistaken about this, though. In any case, Robin Parry's presentation got the longest applause of any of the plenary speakers, for what it's worth.

The academic level of the conference (attendees, anyway) was not quite as high as I would have liked, but it wasn't bad by any means. My paper did receive praise, some of it quite enthusiastic, but no substantial commentary or critique from anybody who heard it. I guess I must have decisively proven my point. :-)

I think the presentation most interesting to me was David Instone-Brewer's. He tried to position Jesus's teachings on hell in the context of 2nd temple Jewish rabbinic debates about the salvation (or not) of all Jews. Some rabbis thought that righteous Jews would go to heaven, some middling Jews would go to Gehenna for a while and then leave, and wicked Jews and Gentiles would go to Gehenna forever. Jesus evidently rejects the second possibility of leaving Gehenna, affirming instead that some Jews will go to Gehenna forever if they fail to repent and believe in him, while possibly some Gentiles will be in heaven forever for their faith. The suggestion is that no person will be in Gehenna only for some time and afterwards leave.

I thought Instone-Brewer's presentation was fascinating but I don't think it settles the debate about universalism in quite the way he supposed. I made the suggestion in the post-presentation Q&A that Jesus is unique among Jewish rabbis: he offers himself to die as a propitiation for the sins of the whole world, and this may warrant a reinterpretation of Jesus's teachings on Gehenna away from the categories of the rabbis of the time. In other words, because Jesus dies for the sins of the world, it is open to us to think that a person with this sort of character might plausibly think of Gehenna differently than his contemporaries did, even if he used some of the same language.

Instone-Brewer's response was that Jesus would be lying if he were to talk about Gehenna in the terms his contemporaries used, yet secretly mean something else with the words than his contemporaries did. But this is not obvious at all. As I told Laura Robinson after the presentation (and she found my points plausible), matters are not so simple.

There are instances in the OT where God makes categorically false statements about a person or city's future destruction precisely so as to inspire the repentance that would prevent their destruction. Think, for example, of Jonah's message to Nineveh: 40 days and the city will be destroyed. He doesn't preach for more than a day, and the people all repent. Importantly, they are not certain that their repentance will accomplish anything -- this implies that forgiveness conditioned on repentance was not a part of Jonah's message to the people. Yet God sees their repentance and forgives them. Moreover, both Jonah and God knew that this would be what would happen. So God gives Jonah a message about the apparently inevitable destruction of the Ninevites for the purpose of provoking their repentance, so that God can forgive them. God has Jonah preach a falsehood for the sake of realizing the conditions which will falsify the message.

Or consider Ezekiel's message from God in Ezek 18. There God tells Ezekiel the following. If he tells a wicked person, You will surely die, and yet this wicked person repents, and no longer does this and that sin, then God will forget his wickedness and forgive him, and the person will not die. Now I am assuming that God can know that a wicked person will repent or not in response to his preaching. If this is true, then God can give a person an unambiguously phrased promise of future death, knowing that a person will repent in response to the message and thus will not be destroyed but forgiven. In other words, God can speak an unambiguous, certain sentence of judgment for the sake of realizing conditions by which the sentence will be annulled.

Granting for the moment that Jesus's initial hearers would have heard him saying that people will be in Gehenna forever or else be destroyed there -- which fact by itself does not tell us everything about how to interpret Jesus's words! -- it does not follow that therefore some people will spend an eternity in Gehenna or else be annihilated there. God can threaten judgment for the sake of ensuring that it doesn't happen by provoking repentance. I've shown that in two different cases from the OT.

Instone-Brewer had some unfriendly remarks to say about theologians who, as opposed to biblical scholars, try to go beyond the evidence they have and paint over the cracks in an incomplete picture. But there is no reason to think that the work of the biblical scholar solves all the problems or ends the discussion.

I tried to make the above point about Jonah and Ezekiel in a written question asked during the panel discussion. Instone-Brewer again insisted that he doesn't think Jesus would be lying to people about hell to inspire repentance when actually no one would go there. The problem with his response, of course, is that my question was given limited space to be formulated and so he didn't quite get what I was trying to say. Unfortunately, Robin Parry (who was sitting next to him) seemed to agree with what he was saying. I say that it's unfortunate because I think Robin Parry could make good use of this point in his own discussions and debates.

I give the following syllogism in defense my point:

1. God cannot lie (cf. Titus 1.2).
2. God makes false, unambiguous statements about future judgment for the sake of inspiring repentance, the very condition by which the statements are falsified (e.g., Jonah 3-4, Ezek 18).
3. Therefore, making such statements is not lying.

Instone-Brewer may respond that this is just sophism, but I don't think so. One of my premises has to be false; otherwise the argument goes through. Eric Reitan seemed to think that my point was a good one, and he also agreed with me that in spite of the very good evidence Instone-Brewer's presentation brought forth, an excursion into the analysis of divine judgment rhetoric was needed before we make any final statements about the doctrine of Gehenna. Moreover, Jerry Walls seemed to see and approve of my point as we were discussing it after Laura Robinson's paper.

This gives me an idea for another paper to write. So among the many benefits of having come to the Rethinking Hell conference, there is this further one.

In general, the conference was very fun. I had a great time, and I enjoyed meeting Oliver Crisp and Jerry Walls especially, but also the other plenary speakers and other guests besides.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Christian apokatastasis contra Crisp and Walls

Here is the draft of my paper which I read at Rethinking Hell Conference 2015 in Pasadena this past weekend.

Christian Apokatastasis contra Crisp and Walls
Steven Nemes, Fuller Theological Seminary Arizona

Athanasius once argued that it would be unfitting and unworthy of God’s goodness that he permit human beings created in his image to be destroyed, whether deservedly or because of the deception of demons (On the Incarnation 6). Such thinking motivates a doctrine of universal salvation while challenging traditionalist or conditionalist alternatives. Now theologians of various stripes might respond in different ways to the Athanasian challenge. Oliver Crisp and Jerry Walls are two renowned contemporary scholars who have offered cogent and impressive defenses of their traditionalist conviction drawing from two very different theological traditions, though their arguments could just as well be accommodated to a conditionalist framework. Crisp argues against universalism and for particularism on broadly Augustinian grounds, appealing to the nature of divine justice and goodness. Walls argues against universalism and for particularism on broadly Wesleyan grounds, insisting on the inviolability of human freedom in salvation. But in addition to these traditions, there is also something of a classical universalist tradition, with its own unique understanding of the relevant theological, metaphysical, anthropological and axiological questions. Ilaria Ramelli has described the development of this tradition through the first millennium of the church in great detail in her recent tome, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Brill, 2013). Drawing from her work, my intention is to elaborate upon this tradition and to support it with varied arguments when it contradicts those aspects of Augustinian or Wesleyan tradition motivating the objections of Crisp and Walls. In this way, I want to neutralize potential conditionalist adaptations of their arguments and in general to uphold the superiority of the universalist tradition relative to its competitors.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Surprisingly answered prayers

When Herod killed James and put Peter in prison, the believers in Judea prayed fervently to God for him (Acts 12.1-5). Then just before Peter was going to be brought out and presumably executed, an angel of God appeared to him and freed from the prison. It brought him back to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where people were gathered and praying for Peter. The servant Rhoda heard Peter's voice as she went to see who was knocking at the gate, and she was so excited to hear him, she went running back to the group to tell them. But they didn't believe it was really him.

In many ways the Christian life is a paradox -- think, for example, of Luther's phrase that the Christian is simul justus et peccator -- and this episode provides one further illustration of this paradox. The believers are gathered and praying fervently for Peter's release, trusting that God can work even miraculous means in order to free him from the tyranny of Herod. On the other hand, when Rhoda the maid brings the news that Peter is outside, and thus that their prayers have been answered, they don't believe it. They tell her instead that she has lost her mind, or that it must be his angel -- anything but that Peter should really have been released.

In my experience, I find that I have prayed to God for wisdom or direction at various times and received answers quite soon thereafter. The difficult thing is being able to discern God's answer, which may oftentimes be subtle. It is not as if the heavens open up and a large banner written clearly in the language of your choice presents you with the directions you have been looking for. It may be small things here and there; they are from God, but you might disregard them as insignificant.

Sometimes we can both have faith and lack faith. We pray to God fervently for something terrific to happen -- say, the release of Peter from prison -- but then we cannot believe it when our prayers are answered. God preserves stories like these for us so as to increase our faith and our trust in him. And we learn thereby to be on the look-out for God in our daily lives.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Crisp on God's essential benevolence

Oliver Crisp writes:

. . . it need not be the case that an essentially benevolent being always acts in a benevolent way. God could be essentially benevolent without being benevolent to all God's creatures, and this seems to be a view that at least some Augustinians have espoused.

Naturally, this Augustinian counterclaim makes its own assumption, that essential benevolence need not be exemplified in every act of an essentially benevolent being. Is this plausible? If a particular being is essentially good, then does it not follow from this that all the acts of that being will be good? It does not. All that follows from this is that the acts of an essentially benevolent being will not be morally bad. For instance, it might that God permits a certain evil to occur that a greater good state of affairs might be brought about that could not otherwise be brought about without the actualization of the prior evil action. Thus, an essentially good God could allow evil for some greater good that would not be actualized without the presence of some prior evil, as in the case of the atonement. Moreover, it appears to be the case that there are some actions an essentially benevolent agent does that are morally indifferent, such as creating Smith with dark rather than red hair.

So, if it is the case that an essentially benevolent being has the property of essential benevolence but not that this being must therefore only ever act benevolently toward other moral agents, then God may be essentially benevolent but not benevolent to all human agents. For it might be . . . that in damning a particular number of reprobate, God brings about an objectively greater good that could not be actualized without the damnation of this number. As we have already seen, traditional Augustinians might claim that such greater good is the glory of God, brought about by the display of God's justice and holiness in the punishment of sin (Deviant Calvinism, pp. 109-10).

I think that this is mistaken.

In the first place, we must be clear about what goodness and benevolence are. Crisp's comments elsewhere seem to connect goodness and benevolence with keeping one's duties, for example when he says that it would not be contrary to God's benevolence not to save anyone who has sinned, since salvation is an act of grace and thus cannot be obliged (Deviant Calvinism, p. 147). But this is not what goodness and benevolence are; they have nothing to do with keeping duties per se. Rather, they are dispositions to act for the benefit of the other, especially so when she is undeserving.

Consider the way the term is used in these scriptural passages, in many of which it is connected to mercy and compassion:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life (Ps 23.6).

Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord. Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way (Ps 25.7-8).

... in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy (Ps 68.10).

Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me (Ps 69.16).

For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you (Ps 86.5).

For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations (Ps 100.5; cf. 106,1, 107.1, 118.1, 136.1).

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
  slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
  and his compassion is over all that he has made (Ps 145.8-9).

To my mind it is clear enough that goodness and benevolence per se have nothing to do with keeping duties. Perhaps there are duties to be benevolent in some circumstances, but benevolence and goodness themselves go beyond duty. They are dispositions to act for the benefit of the other person, and especially so when the other person is undeserving. Thus you are not particularly good if only give each person what they deserve; but you are good and recognized as such if you go beyond the call of duty in order to act for another person's benefit -- e.g., housing strangers without a place to stay, selling your property to help the poor, etc.

Now if a person is essentially good, if it is a part of that very person's existence to be good, then it only makes sense that this should inform in some way or other everything that the person does.

Consider the analogous case of an essentially malevolent agent. Such a person would be malevolent in everything she does, ultimately if not proximately; her goal in life would be to act malevolently, and she would construct her very identity around her malevolence. She might do good to another, sure, but not for its own sake; rather, she does good for the sake of later doing an even greater harm. It would be contrary to her essential malevolence ever to act for the ultimate good of another person.

So also mutatis mutandis in the case of God.  If he is essentially good, then this goodness will inform everything he does. He may harm a person for the moment, but only for the sake of realizing a greater good through the harm. Ultimately, however, everything he does is for the sake of the good of the other person, because it is a part of his very existence to be good and to do good. In the same way that essential malevolence rules out acting for another's ultimate good, so also essential benevolence rules out acting for another's ultimate harm.

I judge it obvious enough that damning a person for eternity for whatever reason is acting for another's ultimate harm.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The damnation and salvation of Job

In many ways, the experiences of Job in his sufferings resemble those of the damned in Gehenna or otherwise experiencing God's judgment. Consider some of Job's statements about his lot.

Like Judas (Mt 26.24), he seems to suggest that it would have been better had he never been born:

Why did I not die at birth,
  come forth from the womb and expire?
Why were there knees to receive me,
  or breasts for me to suck?
Now I would be lying down and quiet;
  I would be asleep; then I would be at rest (3.11-3).

He wants to die but is unable (cf. Rev 6.15-6):

Why is light given to one in misery,
  and life to the bitter in soul,
who long for death, but it does not come,
  and dig for it more than for hidden treasures (3.20-1).

His state is one of continual distress (cf. Rom 2.9, Rev 14.11):

I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
  I have no rest; but trouble comes (3.26).

Job is convinced that there will be no escape from his situation:

Remember that my life is a breath;
  my eye will never again see good.
The eye that beholds me will see me no more;
  while your eyes are upon me, I shall be gone (7.7-8).

He would rather die than go on living:

I loath my life; I would not live forever.
  Let me alone, for my days are a breath (7.16).

He refuses to accept that he has done anything wrong, but rather seeks to justify himself:

If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity?
  Why have you made me your target?
  Why have I become a burden to you?
Why do you not pardon my transgression,
  and take away my iniquity? (7.20-1)

Much like that Eastern Orthodox tradition, the presence of God is repugnant to him:

Will you not look away from me for a while,
  let me alone until I swallow my spittle? (7.19)

Just as Jerry Walls suggests people in hell might do, he questions God's justice and goodness while affirming his own righteousness:

How then can I answer him, 
  choosing my words with him?
Though I am innocent, I cannot answer him;
  I must appeal for mercy to my accuser. 
if I summoned him and he answered me,
  I do not believe that he would listen to my voice.
For he crushes me with a tempest,
  and multiplies my wounds without cause;
he will not let me get my breath,
  but fills me with bitterness. . . . 

Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me;
  though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse. . . . 

It is all one; therefore I say,
  he destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When disaster brings sudden death,
  he mocks at the calamity of the innocent (9.14-8, 20, 22-3).

Interestingly, too, Job points to God's status as his creator to suggest the wrong in what is happening:

Your hands fashioned and made me;
  and now you turn and destroy me (10.8).

In many ways, then, Job's situation is very much the experience of the damned, at least as many theologians and traditions describe it. Yet we know that Job is restored to God in the end, after God's revelation to him in the whirlwind. He repents in sackcloth and ashes (42.6), recognizing that no purpose of God can thwarted (42.2). Likewise, God is even willing to forgive Job's mistaken friends after he prays for them (42.7-8).

Job's story can be quite helpful to the universalist. It shows how an experience of hell can be simultaneously finite, unbearable, and yet the damned person is saved at the end of it. Job's realization is that God's providential purpose is impossible to thwart, that what God wants to come about will in the end be realized. If we know that God's purpose is the salvation and unity of all creation (cf. Eph 1.9-10; 1 Tim 2.4), then we can be confident that he will accomplish this.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Ethical universalism and John Chrysostom

Recently I considered the possibility of ethical (as opposed to dogmatic) universalism. Though the name is not exactly precise, I have in mind something like this. This is a universalist soteriological conviction that expresses its universalist hope in ethics rather than in dogmatic affirmation. For example, the ethical universalist prays for the salvation of all persons and expects this prayer to go answered by God, even though she does not always dogmatically affirm that all people will be saved. She may read and preach the relevant hell texts (e.g., Mt 25.46) in a way that they teach that some persons will be damned forever, though she does this for its rhetorical effect more than because she is convinced that it will actually happen. She is like Jonah, who preaches destruction and hell-fire to Nineveh but knew all along that God foresaw their repentance and would forgive the Ninevites.

It occurred to me as I was reading through Ramelli's The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Brill, 2013) that St. John Chrysostom may have been just such an ethical universalist. John studied under Diodore of Tarsus alongside Theodore of Mopsuestia, both of whom affirmed universal salvation and a limit to the punishments of the damned in Gehenna. He was familiar with the doctrine of universal salvation and was aware of the debates and arguments going on about the topic.

Let us be clear: John does argue against apokatastasis in his works and affirms the eternality of the punishments of the damned in Gehenna. Yet that's not all he does.

John is aware that the Greek term αἰώνιος does not always mean "eternal" or "everlasting," for example as when he describes the power of the devil as αἰώνιος, meaning "bound to the present aeon" and doomed to come to an end along with the end of this world (Ramelli 2013, 553). Being aware of the ambiguity of the term αἰώνιος, his argument is rather facile when he says: How, then, can that which is αἰώνιος [namely the torments in Gehenna] be temporary? (554). It is plausible that he does this because he makes use of the teaching of eternal torments in hell for the rhetorical and ethical effect it has on his audience.

On the other hand, John has some very suggestive remarks to say about the way the living can help those who've died in sin. He recommends prayers, supplications, and almsgiving, especially the prayers of the liturgy, as ways in which the living can intercede on behalf of the dead for their salvation (558). He appeals to the example of Job's sacrifices on behalf of his children, and asks: why do you doubt that we too, by acting on behalf of the dead, will be able to bring them comfort and help? For God is used to bestowing a grace upon someone even by virtue of someone else. . . . Thus, let us not get tired to help the dead and to pray for them. For the perspective [literally κεῖται, what is foreseen] is the common purification of the whole humanity (ibid.). Likewise he says that nothing is more valuable than almsgiving, and that almsgiving can put out the river of fire, suffocate the worm, destroys the chains, and extinguishes the furnaces -- all of which imagery clearly refers to hell (561).

St. John Chrysostom clearly has a moralist emphasis in all of his writing. He is particularly concerned for the treatment of the poor, and heaps up praises on almsgiving as if the simple act of charity could undo the sinfulness of a thousand generations. When it comes to speaking about the punishments in Gehenna, he declares them endless because this will motivate people to do good. But when it comes to those who've died in sin, he tells their loved ones not to worry, but instead to pray for them and to pick up almsgiving as the means by which their departed beloved can be saved.

Ramelli provides an extreme example from John's writings. Commenting in Hom. 9 on 1 Cor 3.15: He will be saved but, as it were, through fire, John says:

When Scripture says 'He will be saved,' it does not mean other than the prolongation of his punishment, as though it were saying: 'He will continue to be punished uninterruptedly.'

This is obviously a terrible misreading of the text, but for John, the moral motivation provided by threats of punishment is the ultimate end. Ramelli comments: John's paraenetic intention is here stronger than logic (556, n. 612).

Ramelli does not draw any strong conclusions, but the evidence she brings forth is suggestive. It may well be that Chrysostom, who had interactions with universalists and learned under and alongside them, may have affirmed the doctrine within his heart of hearts, even though his preaching and teaching was otherwise for some moral purpose.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

God's grace makes sinners into saints by good works

Reading through the epistle of Paul to Titus, it is striking how many connections are made between proper teaching and good works, between orthodox faith and orthopraxy.

For example, the bishop ought to be learned and a trustworthy believer in the true faith, so that he can rebuke and refute dissensions and heresies (1.9). Yet he must also have a number of other character traits, a reliable character, and in general, a bishop, as God's steward, must be blameless (1.7).

In response to false teachers and heretics and rebellious, Titus is told to teach what is consistent with sound doctrine (2.1). What follows is a list of moral exhortations to members of Titus' churches of various classes and ranks: older men ought to be like this, older women ought to be like that, younger men and younger women should do this, slaves ought to do that, and so on.

One of the most important lines in all the epistle is this:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds (2.11-4).

For many people, the grace of God means his overlooking our sinfulness. Paul's words here imply that God's grace does not overlook our sinfulness but transforms it into righteousness. It is part and parcel of our redemption and salvation through Jesus Christ that we renounce impiety and worldly passions, and that our lives be self-controlled, upright, and godly. God's grace makes sinners into saints in a real way -- our lives are transformed and our characters molded into the divine likeness.

Paul comments Titus to insist on these things as opposed to controversies and matters of debate so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works (3.8). And he closes his letter with this injunction: let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive (3.14).

Paul's letter is a fascinating one because of its emphasis on good works and the ethical life of the believer. His recommendation to avoid quarrels and to focus instead of character development and good works may be good piece of advice that sadly has gone disobeyed for much of Christian history. Doctrinal disputes over the theological fine points led to anathemas, persecution, and the condemnation of brothers, rather than to a focus on doing good. But that's the temptation of the theologian: to measure himself by his theological knowledge and precision, rather than his willingness to do good to all people, and especially to the family of believers (Gal 6.10).

Monday, June 8, 2015

Ecclesiastes and Hard to be a God

Here's my final paper for my Theology and Film class. It is a critical dialog between Ecclesiastes and Aleksei German's Hard to be a God (2013).

In the creation of a work of art, it is inevitable that the philosophical and theological convictions of the artist inform every movement, every artistic choice, every aspect of the completed work. The creator’s understanding of the world, of humanity and its place therein, of life and its meaningfulness (or not), of God and his existence (or not), etc. both guide her activity and are expressed through it. Consider what Paul Thomas Anderson had to say: “I put my heart—every embarrassing thing that I wanted to say—in ‘Magnolia’” (quoted in Johnston 2004, 73). The artist may not always explicitly communicate her convictions: “I was trying to say something with this film without actually screaming the message” (quoted in ibid., 74). Nevertheless a person—and so a fortiori an artist—cannot help but to act on what she believes is true. These convictions may be present whether intentionally or unintentionally, in the same way that a phrase unthinkingly used in conversation may suggest more than the speaker had initially intended. The consequence of all this is that a work of art may be likened to a speech act: through a film, for example, the filmmaker communicates something about her vision of things to her audience.

Theological or biblical film criticism is possible, therefore, because the Bible, Christian tradition, and theology more generally also have things to say about the world, about humanity, and about God. Biblical film criticism is engaging in a dialog with the artist and her film. As in any conversation, either side has something to learn from the other: a film may provide a parable or example to illuminate some theological or biblical point, or it may raise questions against some received understanding; the Bible and Christian tradition, on the other hand, may provide answers to the artist’s questions which she does not consider, or may correct misunderstandings, in addition to affirming what the film says and does. (Beyond this, God may make special use of a film to present himself to some viewer, just as he might make use of a sunset or a vision or some other turn of providence; in such a case, however, God is using the film as a medium for self-revelation, something for which the artist cannot plan.) Of course, in order for this dialog to be fruitful and positive, the Christian viewer must first experience the film and hear its message before responding. “If one gives answer before listening, it is folly and shame” (Prov 18.13).

Ecclesiastes is one book of the Bible which more than anything else engages in philosophy rather than history, inspired prophecy, or theological argumentation from revelation. For this reason, it makes the perfect dialog partner for filmmakers and works with philosophical concerns. An enigma in the Bible for its unique message (Davis 2000, 159), Ecclesiastes offers a fascinating sort of theistic existentialism: all is vanity and life is meaningless, but it is a gift from God, to be enjoyed while it is still available. This message can be both appreciated and countered, however, and much more needs to be said. In what follows, I will utilize renowned Russian filmmaker Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God (2013; in Russian: Trudno byt bogom), engaging in thematic criticism as well as analyzing the visuals and sounds of the film, in order to present a dialog with the wisdom (or perhaps anti-wisdom) of Qoheleth.

Hard to be a God, based on a novel by the Strugatsky brothers, is about a group of scientists from Earth who have gone to do research on a distant planet called Arkanar, very similar to earth in a number of ways but with a twist: it contains human-like creatures who seem to be following the same evolutionary path that humans took, but they are behind by about 800 years. Stuck in the miseries of the Middle Ages, intellectual and social progress is slow coming because poets, thinkers, and the rest are all killed by the rulers. These scientists were sent to study the progression of the planet and to attempt to facilitate the birth of an extraterrestrial Renaissance, but they are not permitted to interfere with the politics and society of the planet by using their advanced knowledge and technology, no matter the horrors and inhumanities they witness. Mythology develops about their origins, and many revere the scientists as sons of gods and barons, but Don Rumata, the protagonist of the film, finds his circumstances exhausting and miserable. Hence the title of the film: it is hard to be a god! The greatest weakness of the film lies is its very poor narration: to someone who has not read the novel before, it would not at all be clear what the plotline of the film is supposed to be, where the story is going, what each character is doing, and so on. In any case, this problem can be resolved by reading a basic synopsis of the novel beforehand, and experiencing the film on its own terms. German’s efforts were apparently focused on recreating the filth and grime of the medieval context, which he accomplishes stupendously in this case. What is important in Hard to be a God is not plot so much as atmosphere: the seemingly inescapable and ubiquitous discomfort, misery, and violence of this particular stage of human development.

German accomplishes in a number of ways. To begin, the set design of the movie is very impressive. The movie was filmed in the Czech Republic, while some interior shots were filmed in Moscow. A medieval context is expertly recreated as the characters of the film wander through dusty, crowded castles with animal carcasses and meats hanging from the ceiling, or else slog through perpetually muddy villages, passing by hovels and outhouses and deformed villagers and monastic orders singing psalms in what seems to be permanent fog and smoke. The film is shot in black and white mostly using a handheld camera which almost always sticks close to Rumata as he meanders through the claustrophobic environment, packed with servants, slaves, villagers, soldiers, monks, and animals. The main actors and numerous extras also contribute to the visceral effect of the film through their truly medieval manners: in what seems like every scene, someone is spitting indoors, or urinating, or forcibly expelling mucus from his nose, sometimes just onto his upper lip only to clean himself by hand. This intolerably uncomfortable environment is experienced almost first-hand by the viewer thanks to the unconventional, unorthodox cinematographical style German has adopted: some elements of the environment (mostly extras) of a particular scene are almost always obstructing the line of sight from the camera to the characters of interest, giving the film the realistic, involved feel of a documentary or reportage. In a real sense, German’s film is an extended exercise in provoking the visceral eye, in Boorstin’s terms (Boorstin 1995, 105ff.). As one reviewer noted, though it is initially fascinating and curious, “soon the ugliness wears on you… Over time, like Rumata, we’d rather be anywhere else” (Marsh 2014).

Yet the exercise is not done for its own sake, but in service of the philosophical and theological question of the film. German has the viewer go “wading through shit” (Bitel 2014) in order to ask a question: what relation does God have to this world full of mud, blood, shit, spit, and piss? At an earlier point of the film, Rumata asks a doctor whom he is escorting what he would ask for, if he could petition God for anything and receive it. The doctor responds that he would rather God leave the world alone, so that humans could be left to their own devices. Rumata won’t accept this, however, because the strong will overtake the weak and abuse them, much as he has been witnessing throughout his time on Arkanar. If there is a punishment of the strong, however, so that conditions are equalized, it will turn out over time that the previously weak become the new abusers; sin is intrinsic to all humans. But in response to the suggestion that God ought then to destroy everyone, he says, “It’s easy to destroy. The lice-ridden, the sick, and even the children. My heart is full of pity. I can’t do that.” Don Rumata wants to bring Arkana to a Renaissance, to liberate it from the squalor and mire in which it seems stuck. To do this, he must resist against an order known as the Grays, who are set on exterminating all the intellectuals and poets and possible catalysts for widespread social change. Towards the end of the film, after a bloody battle with some Grays in which Rumata has finally succumbed to killing his opponents, he says to another scientist: “Hey, if you write about me, and you’ll probably have to, write that it’s hard to be a God!” To desire the good for the suffering and ignorant, for the miserable and the backwards, and yet to be unable to drag human persons forward because of the inviolable freedom of their will—this is the difficulty of life as God.

So is God hopeless in the face of a wayward creation? One reviewer notes that, though Rumata’s desire is for a Renaissance on Arkanar, “German’s trick here is to suggest it may not happen – that instead the savagery of the Middle Ages will last forever … [because] the Renaissance was a fluke. Cruelty and barbarism are the default modes of existence” (Marsh 2014). Rumata does not consider the possibility at all that God might actually create and orchestrate such a world intentionally. If God were able, he would make things far different from what they actually are. Thus, Rumata prays at one point in the film, just as he is about to kill a large number of persons: “God, if you exist, stop me.” Perhaps the alternative is rather that God does not exist at all, and that Arkarnar is simply one corner of the hell that is the entire universe. Certainly it would seem strange that God, whose “mercy endures forever” (Ps 136.1 and passim), should create such a world as Arkanar!

Hard to be a God thus makes a theological argument, though it also says something about being a human—namely, “it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with” (Eccl 1.13). German had been interested in shooting Hard to be a God more or less for the entirety of his career as a filmmaker—since the publication of the source novel in 1964 (Craig 2014). It is evidently a work whose message resonated deeply with him. (He died before the completion of the film, during post-production.) His questions about the misery and suffering and ignorance in the world are shared by Qoheleth, and the two may have much to appreciate about each other.

Qoheleth, too, is struck by the senselessness of life under the sun. Much like Don Rumata on Arkanar, he finds that “All things are wearisome; more than one can express” (1.8), and in many respects, Qoheleth and Rumata are the same. Just as Qoheleth is the “son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1.1), so also Don Rumata is something of a king over the people of his village, in which he is revered as the son of a god. He lives in his castle, eats sumptuous meals, plays earthly jazz music on his space-clarinet, and has a number of servants waiting on him at all times (cf. 2.7). Likewise, they are controversial in the eyes of the religious figures of their times. Rumata constantly pranks and harasses the monastic orders in his villages, at one point flinging a pouch filled with the excrement of a donkey at a group of monks as they sing. Qoheleth, for his own part, turns the traditional wisdom of the Jewish proverbs on its heads by affirming that “in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow” (1.18; Davis 2000, 174-176). Yet Rumata’s experiences as a god among men are unsatisfying, just as were Qoheleth’s privileges (2.1-26). Both Rumata and Qoheleth perceive the amorality of the world around them: “in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well” (3.16). Rumata, like Qoheleth, cries out: “Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors was power—with no one to comfort them” (4.1). In spite of their similarities, however, it would seem that Rumata and Qoheleth also have different reactions to the travails of their respective worlds.

In the face of an absurd, amoral, unjust world, Qoheleth’s advice is to enjoy the simple pleasures of life so long as they are available: “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil” (2.24; cf. also 3.13, 5.18, 8.15, 9.7). This is his response to various forms of vanity in the world: to the problem of leaving the products of one’s labors to potentially unwise successors; to the general meaninglessness of human toils on earth; to the wasted efforts of those who work without enjoying their labor’s results; to the injustice and unfairness in the well treatment of the unrighteous as well as the persecution of the righteous; and to the annihilation of the human person (as well as her wishes, hopes, dreams, loves and hates) at death. Though Qoheleth supposes that judgment may eventually come upon the wicked, “for [God] has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work” (3.17), yet it would seem that “the wise die just like fools” (2.16) and in the end those who have never been born are better off than both the living and the dead (4.2-3). It would be a mistake to moralize Qoheleth’s picture of the world when all of his observations contradict such a reading. The judgment that comes upon the wicked is their death, not some postmortem eschatological judgment, but death brings the end of the righteous person as well as the wicked, and there is no hope of a return: “never again will [the dead] have any share in all that happens under the sun” (9.6). Even their memory will be forgotten before long, which tragedy brings Qoheleth to hate life itself (2.16-17). Death comes to all: therefore eat and drink, enjoy your work, and spend time with a partner if possible (4.9-12; 9.9). That is the lesson to be learned from Qoheleth.

From the perspective of German’s Hard to be a God, however, this quasi-Epicurean enjoyment of life while it lasts is not enough. Rumata has a greater concern for changing the concrete circumstances of his constituents than Qoheleth apparently does; the latter is far more reserved and withdrawn, unconcerned in any profound way to better the world. Admittedly Qoheleth does give the injunction: “Send your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back” (11.1), which Davis interprets as “commending acts of charity” (2000, 219). But this commendation is a single verse in a long work which says very little about the moral life, and there is no impression given in Ecclesiastes that the world will ever change for the better. On the contrary: “What has been is what will be, and what has been is what will be done” (1.9). German’s fear that the Renaissance was a fluke, that barbarism is true human nature and the inescapable condition of the citizens of Arkanar, is apparently Qoheleth’s plain and simple truth.

Why should God have created the world in this way? Rumata wants to change the state of Arkanar, to bring a Renaissance, because he knows that life can be better than they currently experience it. There is a genuine difference between existence in the modern world and life in the backwards medieval age in which his constituents are trapped; for him, what has happened is not always what will be, because there can be genuine progress. Out of pity for the lice-ridden, the sick, and even children, he wants to do what he can to make things better, to lift up Arkanar out of the muck and mire. The only obstacle is the inviolability of human freedom, which in the end seems more like an obstinate slavery to ignorance and extremist conservatism. This is the dilemma: either it is hard to be a God, or else there is no God at all and life is hell. For Qoheleth, however, God has made the world this way “so that all should stand in awe before him” (3.14). God works against human pride by giving the same end to kings as well as to swine: “God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals” (3.18-19). It would seem God intentionally made things unintelligible: “God has made [the day of prosperity as well as the day of adversity] so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them” (7.14). In the end it would seem reality is unknowable: “…I said, ‘I will be wise,’ but it was far from me. That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?” (7.23-24). Indeed, perhaps the most difficult of Qoheleth’s musings contemplates God’s disposition towards the world: “the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate one does not know. Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked” (9.1-2). Even the wise and the righteous cannot know whether God loves them or hates them. In the end, as for “all the work of God … no one can find out what is happening under the sun” (8.17).

Qoheleth’s philosophizing about God makes his theism very unstable. Suppose German poses the question: what difference would it make to our experience of the world, our hopes and our dreams, the purpose of our life, if God did not exist? Qoheleth has no answer to give, since in many ways, in his experience it is already as if God does not exist. He writes on the one hand about the eventual judgment of God (11.9), but on the other he notes that, “Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the human heart is fully set to do evil” (8.11). Moreover the hope of God’s judgment of the wicked seems trivialized, since the same judgment—death itself—will come upon the righteous. Qoheleth apparently affirms the Genesis creation account and its picture of God as good when he writes, “God has long ago approved what you do” (9.7). He is referring to the pronouncement of God at the creation of the world: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1.31). But the goodness of God, here affirmed obliquely through a reference to the creation myth, is compromised by much else of what Qoheleth writes, especially the eminently anti-prophetic and anti-wisdom denial that the wise and righteous can know whether God loves or hates them. Why would the good God create a world like this? Rumata might further bring the following criticism against Qoheleth: your advice that a person eat and drink and enjoy the life she has while she has it is impossible to live for far too many. How can you “eat and drink and be merry” (Eccl 8.15) in famine, in war, in pestilence, in disease, and in persecution? What of the poet killed in the first scenes of Hard to be a God by being held face-down in the refuse under an outhouse? This is advice for the privileged; it may seem plausible to those with the means available to live that sort of life, but for those who suffer, it may be better to die than to go on living (cf. 4.2). Moreover, a person whose concern is to bring the world forward, whose goal is to work for progress, cannot accept that “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done” (1.9). No change, no progress, no hope is possible on such a view of things.

In summary, then, Don Rumata and Qoheleth are both similar and radically dissimilar characters. Hard to be a God shares the dim perception of the conditions of life which Ecclesiastes so profoundly and repeatedly laments, but raises moral and theological difficulties to which Qoheleth has no easy answer. Why should we grant that life is the gift of God (5.19), if it turns out to be so miserable a gift even we wouldn’t give it? If life is just “eat, drink, and be merry” (8.15), what difference would it make if God did not exist? If history is inexorably cyclical and repetitive, why bother to work for any good, and what hope is there for any progress? Perhaps the best that Qoheleth can say is: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (9.10).


Bitel, Anton. London Film Festival 2014: Hard To Be A God. October 8, 2014. http://www.filmlandempire.com/2014/10/london-film-festival-2014-hard-to-be-god.html (accessed May 18, 2015).

Boorstin, Jon. Making Movies Work: Thinking Like a Filmmaker. Los Angeles: Sillman-James Press, 1995.

Davis, Ellen F. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.

Johnston, Robert K. Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes through the Lens of Contemporary Film. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004.

Marsh, Calum. Hard to be a God: Brilliant Russian Film Imagines Humanity Without a Renaissance. February 26, 2014. http://www.villagevoice.com/2014-02-26/film/hard-to-be-god-rotterdam-aleksei-german/full/ (accessed May 18, 2015).

Skinner, Craig. Why Aleksei German's Hard To Be A God is worth the wait. April 2, 2014. http://www.filmdivider.com/173/why-aleksei-germans-hard-to-be-a-god-is-worth-the-wait/ (accessed May 18, 2015).

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

This change of mind was from the LORD

Solomon dies, and so his son Rehoboam takes the throne. Now Shlomo (as I like to call him) had enacted very oppressive policies, but the people thought that a regime change carried with it the hope of reform. So they approach Rehoboam and tell him, Your father made our yoke a heavy burden; but if you now lighten the harsh servitude and the burdensome yoke under which your father placed us, then we will serve you (1 Kgs 12.3).

Rehoboam does no such thing, however. He listens to the advice of his younger counselors rather than his elder counselors, and so promises the people that I will add to your yoke (v. 10). This event leads to the rupture of the Kingdom of Israel in two: ten tribes separated to form Israel, whereas Judah and Benjamin remained united to form Judah. This is a schism that would continue to exist for many years thereafter.

What is fascinating to me is the commentary of the author about Rehoboam's decision. He says: So the king did not hear the appeal of the people, because the change of mind was from the Lord, that He might establish His word which He spoke by the authority of Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat (v. 14). The reference is to a prophecy recorded in ch. 11: Ahijah prophesies the split of the kingdom as a punishment for Solomon's apostasy (11.27-32).

The text affirms that God brought about the change of mind in Rehoboam proximately for the sake of securing the prophecy made earlier by Ahijah, but ultimately for the sake of punishing the king for Solomon's apostasy. This might seem problematic for some persons who are convinced that God does not interfere with the freedom of will of human beings. On the contrary, the text suggests that this can happen, for example in instances of prophecy or punishment.

Now at this juncture I would like to reference a fascinating remark made by Origen in commentary on the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. Origen reasoned like this. Some persons point to that incident as evidence that human beings do not have freedom of the will. On the contrary, Origen argued, God would not have needed to harden Pharaoh's heart if he didn't have freedom of the will. If Pharaoh was intrinsically disposed to do evil, then what would be the purpose of hardening his heart? The hardening presumes that he could have relented and permitted the Hebrews to leave.

Origen's argument is interesting and there may be something to it. My own impression, reading the Old Testament, is that human beings are depicted as acting largely independently of God. Of course, there are also moments such as the incident with Rehoboam in which it would seem the Lord plays a role in the direction things take.

I am not sure what to make of this question of the relation between providence and freedom. Perhaps there is no sense in theorizing about it systematically, but rather we affirm what scripture does and use the emphases that scripture uses. Scripture certainly speaks to us in the second person as if everything depends on a choice that we must make, independently of God. Consider God's words to Israel: For why should you die, O house of Israel? For I do not will the death of the one who dies (Ezek 18.31-2). And yet, when it speaks about the choices of others in the third person, sometimes there is mention of God's intervention, "interference," etc. Perhaps that's the way we talk about things, without systematizing the matter.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Rethinking Hell 2015

I will be participating in a conference called Rethinking Hell, to be held at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA in a couple weeks here.

Registration is still going on, if I'm not mistaken. Here's a link to a page with the full conference program and a code for a $25 discount on registration.

Here's the blurb about my paper:

“Christian Apokatastasis contra Crisp & Walls” – Steven Nemeș (Fuller Theological Seminary Arizona) - in this presentation, an M.Div student will sketch the contours of a patristic, biblical universalist tradition, drawing from Ilaria Ramelli’s recent research in The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, and argue for its superiority over those of the doctrine’s objectors, specifically those held by plenary speakers Oliver Crisp & Jerry Walls.

If I sound like a punk-ass, it's because I am one. I will probably post my paper here after I present. In any case, some of the arguments I bring up have already been the topics of posts here.

The Savior of the world

1 John 4.14 says:  And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.

Describing Christ as the "Savior of the world" is rare in the bible. It appears only here and John 4.42.

Likewise at 1 Tim 4.10 we find:  For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

These are very powerful statements about the universal scope of God's salvation in Christ. The Son of God is the savior of the world (σωτῆρα τοῦ κόσμου) and the savior of all human beings (σωτὴρ πάντων ἀνθρώπων). These are statements which emphasize both the universality of Christ's salvation as well as its actuality.

It wouldn't be plausible to read these statements in conditionalized ways, as if what John meant is this: the Son is the savior of the world, in that if the world is going to be saved at all, it would be through him. Likewise Paul's words to Timothy cannot mean something like this: God is the savior of all people, in the sense that if people are going to be saved at all, it has to be through him. These readings are not plausible for a number of reasons.

To begin, John is describing the reason for which the Father sent the Son into the world. He sent him in to be the world's Savior. But if we accept the proposed conditionalized reading above, then he wouldn't need to have sent him at all. Christ could have remained in heaven, never having come to earth, and he would still be the "savior of the world" in the sense proposed, because it would still be true that the world would only be saved through him if at all.

A similar line of reasoning can be brought forth against the proposed conditionalized reading of 1 Tim 4.10. If God does not actually save some persons, then in what sense can he be called their savior? Suppose you and a group of your friends are taken hostage by ISIS, and American soldiers come. You exclaim, "Finally, my saviors have arrived!" Then the soldiers proceed to free some of the hostages but not others, leaving you behind. They leave, and then the ISIS operatives return from their lunch break and proceed to torture you out of frustration. Would it make any sense to call those American soldiers your saviors? To my mind it would seem not; if they were your saviors, they would have saved you. So also, if God is the savior of all human persons, then it seems he does save all human persons.

There is a further complaint to make about these conditionalized readings. In 1 Tim 4.10, Paul uses the verb εἰμί (to be) in the indicative mood: God is (ἐστιν) the savior of all human beings. Verbs in the indicative mood refer to actual realities: John is writing; Paul is speaking; Jesus is preaching; etc. This conditionalized reading of the passage negates the indicative force of the verb, however, by adding a hypothetical where the verb doesn't communicate one: God could be the savior of all persons. This reading, to my mind, is grammatically problematic.

It seems to me clear enough that in the scriptures, a savior is a person who actually saves or will save. Consider these examples of the phrase as it is used in various passages:

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you save me from violence. I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies (2 Sam 22.2-4).

Therefore the Lord gave Israel a savior, so that they escaped from the hand of the Arameans; and the people of Israel lived in their homes as formerly (2 Kings 13.5).

Therefore you gave them into the hands of their enemies, who made them suffer. Then in the time of their suffering they cried out to you and you heard them from heaven, and according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hands of their enemies (Neh 9.27).

They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt (Ps 106.21).

It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them (Is 19.20).

For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you (Is 43.3).

The title of savior comes hand in hand with saving activity. Consequently, if God is the savior of all human persons, and if Christ is the savior of the world, then all human persons and the world will be saved.