Weblog

In this blog, I shall attempt to record my thoughts and feelings as I go through life. Don't expect too much logic, great wisdom, or theological perfection. I am liable to ramble over all sorts of topics, some overtly Christian, others rather less so. See it as a stream of consciousness. I hope and pray that you get something out of it.

The Really Good News

In my previous post ‘Grace is Outrageous’ I made it fairly clear that I believe in ἀποκατάστασις πάντων (apokatastasis panton), meaning the restoration of everything and everyone (derived from Acts 3:21, but implied in lots of other places too).

Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. Acts 3:21

When I say that this is what I believe, I encounter a number of objections, but one in particular crops up most frequently. It is usually expressed something like this:

“If everyone is saved anyway, then there was no point in Jesus dying on the cross.”

I’m sorry, but I completely fail to see the logic behind that argument.

God’s stated aim is that everyone be saved.

God ourSaviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:3-4

I suggest that, if Jesus’ life and death saves anything less than everyone and everything, His incarnation is a pointless failure and God is a serial liar…

Grace is Outrageous!

We can’t cope with grace. We find it offensive. It seems unfair to us. We want rules; we want obedience to the rules to bring reward; we want disobedience to bring punishment. To us, that’s ‘fair’ and how, in our transactional mindset, we feel that the world should work…

It’s the way we try to make the world work - with our ideas of working for a living; being paid for what we do - and in the words of the Lord High Executioner’s song from Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Mikado’:

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time -
To let the punishment fit the crime…

Indeed, most of our theology is set up this way - those who are ‘good Christians’ - those who ‘accept the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour’ and who then lead squeaky-clean lives of service to the church - ‘go to heaven’ whilst all the rest ‘go to hell’. This seems natural and right to us.

And then we come across scriptures we can’t deal with. The parable of the workers in the vineyard, where everyone receives the same wage, regardless of whether they worked all day or just for an hour at the end of the day, is bad enough, but then we get to things like this:

Homosexuality: The New Testament

Now we move forward to the New Testament in our quest to understand the bible passages supposedly condemning homosexual practice. Three passages are relevant here: Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which we won’t look at because we examined it previously; and lastly 1 Timothy 1:9-10.

Let’s start with the passage from Romans. This has all the appearance of being an ‘open and shut case’ - but appearances can be deceptive.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator - who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. Romans 1:24-27

Homosexuality: Continuing to Examine Scripture

We move on now to two laws found in Leviticus. We’ll deal with both together, because they are very similar. I am quoting here from the NIV, not because I think it’s a particularly good translation, but because it’s widely used and familiar.

Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable. Leviticus 18:22

If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. Leviticus 20:13

The original verses were written, obviously, in Hebrew. I don’t know much Hebrew at all, so I’m relying on others for anything connected to the language used. What I do know is that translating from Hebrew to English is very difficult; it’s made even more so by the huge gulf between ancient Jewish culture and modern Western culture - many things we think are ‘obvious’ have no correspondence in ancient Jewish culture, and vice versa. So some concepts don’t translate well, if at all.

Homosexuality: More Scripture to Consider

At the end of the official ‘Living in Love and Faith’ course, we had a sixth session, in which the Church of England statute on marriage was explained, along with what is considered to be the traditional view on what the bible has to say about sexuality.

This traditional view is based on six or seven verses from the bible, which some would argue condemn homosexuality the (so-called ‘clobber verses’), and although there have been recent attempts to reinterpret them, some would still argue that actually the only way to read them is to read them literally.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t agree. Yes, the English translations of those verses are very clear, and make it all too plain that the translators are almost universally of one mind on the matter: that homosexuality is a sinful life choice. That’s probably not surprising - not least because they’re working for ‘Christian’ publishing houses, whose aim is to sell bibles. The work of translating bibles isn’t cheap, and you don’t want an expensive ‘flop’ on your hands, so you’re going to go with what sells… In this case a ‘traditional’, quite conservative, interpretation.

The Narrow Way

This post is going to be a bit political. But actually, that’s okay… Jesus was political. It’s partly what got him killed.

This morning, the newspapers here are full of outrage over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter Day sermon, in which he ‘intervened’ in the growing row over Priti Patel’s plan to send single male asylum seekers to Rwanda for ‘processing’… A ‘process’ which, it seems to me, is a blatant attempt to ‘offload’ the problem onto a struggling third-world country - there’s no plan, apparently, to allow any men whose applications ’succeed’ to return to the UK. The plan is probably illegal anyway, and is certain to result in huge legal costs… Overall, it’s an ideological ‘stunt’ - and likely to cost far more than simply allowing the men to apply for asylum and settle here if their applications succeed.

Anyway, returning to the point I want to make. The headlines are quite vicious.

‘Outcry at Welby’s Attack on ‘Ungodly’ Asylum Plan’ screams the Daily Mail.

‘MPs Attack Welby Rant’ takes up most of the Daily Mirror’s front page.

Loving God?

This post is related in a way, to a the one before last - in ways which should, I hope, become obvious as you read.

Here I am, yet again, about to start banging on about God’s love. But this time looking at it from the other side, specifically, thinking about how we love God. It has taken me some days to write and, yesterday, I thought I was about finished. But then Fr. Richard Rohr published one of his Daily Meditations, which turned out to be saying almost precisely the same thing. Here then, is a somewhat ‘nuanced’ version of what I was going to say.

Jesus told a questioner, when he asked which was the greatest commandment, that there were two:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. Matthew 22:37-40

The second is easy to understand, and is related closely to the ‘Golden Rule’, found in all major religions ‘treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.’

Precious

Yesterday we were at the wedding of two young friends - a couple we’d got to know when they were students attending our church. The invitation had come as a complete surprise - we neither of us felt we could have ‘mattered enough’ to deserve an invitation to their wedding. Sometimes it’s a case of ‘how wrong can you be?’

It was a very special, blessed day, witnessing the ceremony, and celebrating it with them.There was much joy and laughter, as well as moments of seriousness and sadness mixed in - life’s rich tapestry in microcosm.It was made more precious because others from that same ‘student crowd’ were there too. It was so good to see them all, and to spend time with them, celebrating and catching up with what’s happened to us all in two years of ‘pandemic life’. A real blessing, and quite cathartic to see them and spend time with them, after all that’s gone on.

This morning I went out for a walk, and some much-needed solitude after all the noise and blessed busy-ness of yesterday.

Why?

I thought, for a moment, of entitling this post ‘Shit Happens’, but thought better of it. It’s inspired by it having been ‘Mothers’ Day’ here in the UK recently. It isn’t always an easy day for either of us, for a number of reasons.

I have spent many, many, years wrestling with the concept of what are known in theological circles as ‘theodicies’ - i.e. theories as to why a supposedly loving God allows suffering. The short answer is that I don’t know and neither, really, does anybody else. The long answer says essentially the same thing, but in a lot more words.

When our first child was stillborn, the loudest question, which at times even drowned out our grief-stricken wailing, was

‘Why?’

That question propelled me into questioning my faith in God. And, in that questioning, I found no easy answers. But I did find companions.

It has to be said that there were people who had simple, black-and-white, answers.

For some ‘it was God’s will’ or ‘it was God’s plan.’ Well, if that’s what God is like, He can think again if He imagines I’m going to worship Him - I want nothing to do with a god who has plans like that.

Talking about God

Here are a couple of ‘musings’ which have been developing over some time. Neither is big to form a whole blog post on its own (at least, that’s what I think as I start writing - but who knows, maybe they’ll grow as I write), but they are related, so I’m leaving them together for now.

The first concerns how I refer to God. It is mostly related to my discomfort with the word ‘God’. It’s a word loaded with ‘baggage’. Not least because it makes ‘God’ seem like just another god among many gods, although it seems that this one has been going to the gymfor a whileas well as taking anabolic steroids and is ‘ripped'. I almost feel as though I need to use a different word, so as to break the link between ‘God’ and ‘the gods’. And that’s because of what I might call both God’s supremacy and his transcendence. He is, in a very real sense, ‘way beyond’ and ‘way above’ other gods humanity has worshiped. Those other gods - Zeus/Jupiter and the rest of the Greco-Roman pantheon; Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and the other Hindu gods; Odin and the Norse gods; Amun, Horus, Ra and the other Egyptian gods; I could go on and on. Somehow God is above, beyond and, in a sense, ‘behind’ these other gods - in that they’re all attempts by humanity to either invent or explain what is ‘beyond’ humanity’s understanding. They all have very ‘human’ aspects and, yes, flaws… Having been 'made in humanity’s image' that isn’t surprising.

God is Love

I don’t want to try to count how many posts I’ve written and published with this title in the past six years. It must be some sort of obsession. And yet, I don’t think we should stop talking about it. Love is God’s very essence; it’s who He is.

It’s very easy to be deceived into thinking that God doesn’t really love us, and that we need to be afraid of Him. Either that or, like me, never really believe it in the first place. It’s a very hard one to get over too, particularly given what we’re told about God in our churches.

We’re told that God is love, but that He only loves us if we repent; that we have to keep a ‘short account’ with Him; that He can’t abide sin and can’t bear to be near it. We get these very mixed messages a lot of the time, and end up asking ourselves

‘Does God really love me?’

If you’re like me, the conclusion you come to is

‘No, not really, because I’m not obedient; I sin all the time; I don’t really trust him’ - and so on.

And so we end up feeling like ‘second class citizens’ - if we feel like citizens at all. I spent years and years being afraid of God - afraid of really ‘letting Him in’ to see the ‘mess’ which was my life (despite knowing that He knew anyway!) - instead of believing I was loved.

Giving to the Church

If you’re involved in a church, it wants you to give your money to it… Typically ‘in order to further its ministry’ - which is usually a form of Orwellian ‘Newspeak’ meaning, basically, to keep the building(s) in a state of good repair and to pay the clergy and other staff… Rather than much (or even sometimes any) of the money going to relieve poverty or to support ‘widows and orphans’ or any of the other worthy causes you might think of. The church I belong to has a long-standing policy of giving 10% of money received to missionary organisations.

The doctrine of ‘tithing’ (giving at least 10% of your income to the church) is contentious. It can be contentious within the group, but it’s contentious outside too… Few things are more off-putting for potential ‘members’ than the knowledge that, at some point, the vicar or some other representative of the organisation is going to put the squeeze on you and start ‘suggesting’ that you really should be giving the church a not insignificant proportion of your hard-earned money.

Some More Thoughts on Homosexuality

In this post I am going to touch on two things. First of all, having in my previous post touched on ‘scriptural matters’ pertaining to LGB folk, I am going to look, very briefly, at what the bible may have to say about Transgender and Intersex folk.

Transgenderism probably wasn’t ‘a thing’ in ancient Mediterranean culture - there seem to be no references to anything like it - or at least I haven't found any. Intersex isn’t mentioned explicitly either. Jesus does talk, briefly, about eunuchs - castrated males - and that’s about as close as the bible gets to talking about either transgenderism or intersex people…

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” Matthew 19:11-12

This passage is translated a number of ways, depending on the point the translators think Jesus is trying to make. Some translations imply that Christian men should castrate themselves in order to live as though they were in the heavenly kingdom, whilst others, as here, make it seem metaphorical. What it does say, at least the way I read it, is that Jesus has no problem with eunuchs in the Kingdom of God… And there’s nothing, anywhere, other than some obscure passages in the Levitical laws about which animals make acceptable sacrifices, to suggest that God has any problem with what, if any, sexual organs a person has.

That (Other) Dratted Verse...

As you may have noticed, in an earlier post I deliberately (and perhaps provocatively) stated that I didn’t believe that there was anything contained within the Recapitulation Theory of the atonement, nor within scripture, which contradicted the idea that people can repent post-mortem. I was well aware, whilst writing, that at least some of you were going to think:

‘But what about Hebrews 9:27? That clearly says that judgment comes after death. And judgment, for those who haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and saviour, means eternal punishment in hell, which means those people can’t repent.'

I was going to set in and write my own post about why and how Hebrews 9:27 is misinterpreted, and then I remembered that my good friend Tony Cutty also has a blog, and that he has written a very comprehensive exposition of this verse and its context. I asked if I could repost it here, instead of writing my own. It’s rather longer than the things I usually write, because Tony is much more thorough than me, so I have edited out all but the ‘essentials'! Nevertheless, I hope you find it enlightening and enjoy reading it. The full version of the post can be found here. Over to Tony:

The Unassumed is the Unhealed

In my previous post, we considered the Recapitulation Theory of the atonement. In my mind, that gives rise to one particular question - something I feel I must ‘tackle’ before going any further. I blithely stated that Christ became human, and that by doing so, he united humanity and divinity.

There is an ancient doctrine of the church, going right back to the early church fathers, which is known, in technical terms, as the ’Hypostatic Union’. At its most basic, it states that Jesus Christ is at one and the same time, both fully God and fully man.

But how does that play out in practice? It’s easy to say, so long as you don’t actually think about it! Once you start to think though, it rapidly turns into a huge ‘can of worms’. It’s incredibly complicated, and gives rise to lots and lots of ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions… Not to mention lots of ways we can ‘get it wrong’ in our understanding and unknowingly believe things which, when examined closely, turn out to be heretical.

Gregory of Nazianzus was a fourth-century theologian, and the archbishop of Constantinople. He, along with the brothers Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, is known as one of the ‘Cappadocian Fathers’. He is most famous for helping to devise the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. He is also known for his work on each member of the Holy Trinity - which is why I mention him here.

Atonement Part Two: Recapitulation Theory

As we saw in the previous post, I realised that Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), and its torturous bedfellow, Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) made me more than a little uneasy, and I set in to illustrate at least some of the reasons why they made me so uncomfortable. Added to those reasons, there’s the simple fact that I don’t see either of them to be compatible with God’s loving nature, nor with his sense of justice, nor with basic fairness. As I hinted, I much prefer another theory of the atonement, which I feel fits God’s character much better. It is usually called Recapitulation Theory or, more colloquially, as the Therapeutic Model.

Recapitulation Theory dates to very early in the Church’s history, being seen alongside the ‘Christus Victor’ model. Many people believe thatRecapitulation Theoryhad its beginnings with Saint Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century. There are references to it throughout the writings of the early Church Fathers. For instance, ‘On the Incarnation’ by St. Athanasius of Alexandria(originally being written as a letter to one of his followers)explains Recapitulation Theory clearly.

Atonement - Explaining How Salvation Works

There are a number of different ‘atonement theories’ (ways to explain salvation). The first thing to note is that they are all theories - none of them is ‘proven’. Some are more popular than others in different parts of the church, and this has varied over time. In Protestant churches nowadays, one theory is overwhelmingly dominant - in fact most people see it as ‘the gospel’ and have no idea that there are alternative, competing, theories - in fact they usually state it as accepted fact, not even realising that it is a theory.

This theory is known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (hereafter PSA), and it is usually paired with another doctrine, Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) to form what most Protestant churches believe is the gospel. I won’t go into the fine detail of how it supposedly works because it is probably familiar to most of my readers, but the basic idea is that of a courtroom, with God sitting as judge (and jury and executioner too?). That the model should be this way is unsurprising because it was devised by a lawyer,back in the sixteenth century- none other than John Calvin. The basic idea is that we are found guilty in this court, and our sin makes God, the judge, so angry that he wants to kill us. But Jesus, on the cross, takes the punishment due to us as a sacrifice on our behalf, as our substitute, so that God the judge will no longer be angry with us, and will let us enter the heavenly kingdom. In the second, complimentary part of this narrative, ECT, the idea is that those who do not ‘accept Jesus as their saviour’ during this lifetime will spend eternity being tortured for not having done so. The argument as to why the punishment should be eternal is largely based on the idea that transgressing God’s perfect, infinite, holiness deserves infinite punishment.

More About Grace

Having spent the previous post marvelling at the free gift of God’s grace, I have also been thinking about sin - without which it appears that there is no need for grace. But what is sin?

We have a tendency, in the church, to be fixated on ‘sins’ - thinking of them as moral failures - but as we have seen before, I have grave doubts about this interpretation; indeed, I am beginning to feel that sin is actually a failure to ‘live within’ the image of God which we are supposed to bear in the world - in other words, sin is a failure to love.

But if, for a moment, we suppose that sin is ‘just’ about disobeying God, and take a look at the story of ‘the fall’ (Genesis 3:1-13) we see that God has forbidden Adam and Eve to eat fruit from, or even touch, a particular tree… Which they then touch, and eat from, beginning the whole 'sorry tale’ of humanity’s alienation from God.

And I had a thought. The idea, very crudely, is this.

Imagine a child. You forbid them from doing something - such as ‘Don’t touch the cooker because it’s hot.’ That, if the child is anything like me, creates the desire to touch the cooker (even if only to check whether it really is hot)... Even if I hadn’t thought of it before, now I definitely want to touch it - whether because it’s forbidden, or because there must be something there which I want and/or you don’t want me to have, or whatever - the desire is there now. Even if I really didn’t care before, the seed is sown - sooner or later, I’m going to touch the cooker (probably when I think you’re not looking); I won’t be able to resist; indeed, the more I resist, the stronger the desire becomes.

Contemplating Grace

Last summer we went away on holiday to Northumberland. One day, my son Tim and I took a trip to Lindisfarne - Holy Island - while the girls went shopping in Newcastle (aren’t we the super-spiritual ones? :-D). It was a gorgeous sunny day. We did the ‘sights’ - monastery, castle, etc., but we also walked around the island, and found ourselves eating our picnic lunch on a headland, looking out at the sparkling blue waters of the North Sea and watching the waves relentlessly washing onto the beaches below. For some reason, I started thinking about grace. And I carried on, on and off, for the rest of the holiday.

Grace is not grace if we have to ‘do’ anything to ‘earn’ it - perhaps even having to ‘accept’ it is too much. Let’s consider what I think I mean in a little more detail.

Grace is, by its nature, something which God extends to us. It is part of his loving essence. It is, stated most simply, ‘unmerited favour’. Unmerited - that means we haven’t done anything at all to deserve it, or to earn it - indeed it can’t be earned - it is a free gift from God, a manifestation of his unfathomably deep love for humanity. It is God’s benevolence towards humanity, deserving or not.

The Gate is Narrow

The system of chapters and verses in the bible is very useful - in that it helps us to find particular passages of scripture easily. It does though, introduce two problems - first is the tendency to examine the text ‘verse by verse’ instead of reading it like an ordinary book and concentrating on the ‘big picture’ stuff; second is the problem that the chapters are often quite arbitrary, and so they can fracture particular lines of thinking, and cause us to miss important relationships between ideas. That’s bad enough, but then the publishers of most modern bibles have taken to adding in ‘subject headings’ - which, again, can be helpful, but also fracture the text still more, and prevent us seeing even more ‘links’, as well as, in effect, telling us what to think about particular sections. We’ll return to this theme further down.

A passage which is a favourite with evangelists is this one:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. Matthew 7:13-14


Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022