Against Miracles

What are miracles? If by “miracle” we mean an instance in which God overrules or violates the laws of nature for some greater end of His, a common enough definition, it is unclear whether we have any solid biblical grounds for believing that such things take place.

Of course, to say that is probably a headscratcher to most of you. Doesn’t the Bible obviously teach miracles? Isn’t it full of them? Perhaps so, but perhaps not. The key question is with respect to the idea of a “violation” of the natural order. Is it actually the case that, to accomplish certain things, God breaks, temporarily suspends, or simply overrides the order which He wrote into the fabric of creation? This would seem in a certain light to be quite problematic. After all, if God is the one who upholds and energizes the natural order by the power of His Word, then why would He also be the one who contradicts that order on a few scattered occasions? Could He not, in His omnipotent wisdom, have designed the natural order so that it would do His bidding in all circumstances without the introduction of cheats and exceptions? To put it more simply, why should God have to contradict His own rules? Could He even do so, since it is impossible for God to be unfaithful to Himself?

It is largely this question which raises doubts about the commonly understand nature of miracles as interruptions of the natural order. Yet there is another relevant issue involved, namely the second (or, more properly, first) sphere of creation, the heavens. While it is often forgotten, “heaven” as the domain of God and the angels was created in the beginning alongside the earth. So it, and its angelic inhabitants, can in a certain sense be considered part of the natural order. This modifies what can be legitimately considered a violation of the natural order. If angels and their doings are, in this larger creational sense, natural, then the scope of possible violations of the natural order narrows considerably.

A final consideration is, well, the nature of the natural order itself. Just what are, for example, the laws of physics? In modern times, we tend to think of them as autonomous mechanics, an independent set of gears behind the universe. In such a picture, God’s action must take the form of distinct interruption, a suspension of the ongoing system. But the Bible doesn’t speak of nature that way. In the Bible, the natural order is the ongoing creative work of God. It says of rain, “He makes waterdrops evaporate; they distill the rain into its mist” (Job 36:27), and of plants, “He causes grass to grow for the livestock and provides crops for man to cultivate, producing food from the earth, wine that makes man’s heart glad” (Psalm 104:14). In the biblical view, the ways of nature are the works of God’s own hand. So the laws of nature, to use a term I believe comes from James Jordan, are basically divine habits. The regularity with which the cosmos operates on every level is simply a matter of how God habitually energizes all things, how He usually governs the forces and masses of creation. So for God to do something different, say, bring a dead man back to life, is not an interruption or violation of any mechanism outside of God, but rather God playing a suddenly different tune, as it were, on the instrument on nature.

Of course, we don’t want to erase the Creator/creature distinction here, either. God opens up the clouds and pours rain upon the earth, but it is equally true that water vapor in the atmosphere condenses according to basic chemistry and physics and is pulled by gravity onto the surface of the planet. On this level, in accord with what was said just above, we should understand that even what we call the “laws” of nature are many orders of magnitude more complex than we like to think. We don’t understand the physical universe half as well as we think we do, and this also leaves room for questioning the supposed overriding nature of miracles. Some miraculous events which we think are naturally impossible may simply be possible by some aspect to the world which we currently know nothing about. After all, just in the last several decades we’ve discovered relativity and quantum mechanics, which has radically modified our ideas about what’s possible. Quantum mechanics alone seems to make nearly anything possible (I’m not entirely serious, but close enough).

The sum of all this is to simply offer a suggestion: maybe the way we normally think about miracles is wrong. If a miracle is an interruption or violation of fixed natural laws, then maybe they don’t exist. But this is, obviously, not to say that biblical miracles never happened. On the contrary, everything the Bible says happened most certainly did. The only questions here are what kind of events they were and precisely how they came to be. Maybe the line between the natural and the supernatural isn’t as clear cut as we tend to think.

And on the other hand, maybe not.

Against Miracles

He Died for His People, Not the Elect

The classical Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement is problematic in several ways, even if it does contain a nugget of truth. One of these problems is simply bad exegesis, which in turn results from an unbiblical hermeneutic. A key place where this problem manifests itself is in limited atonement prooftexts like this one:

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
Matthew 1:21

The argument for limited atonement tends to read “his people” here as a reference to the unconditionally elect, a timeless mass of individuals chosen for salvation. Moreover, proponents frequently take this for granted, not seriously considering the possibility that the people to whom the verse refers might be a different group. (Indeed, this could be true even if limited atonement were correct.)

There is very little, if any, evidence that the Bible ever directly refes to a transtemporal elect consisting of all the redeemed in all ages (though of course some statements indirectly apply to this whole group). This doesn’t in itself prove that no such group can be defined, of course, but it does create a problem for the limited atonement reading of verses like Matthew 1:21. For there is a more natural referrent for the term “his people” when the context is the Messiah. This is simply Israel.

There is intertextual support for this reading. Take the following verses, for example:

In [the Messiah’s] days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
Jeremiah 23:6

God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.
Acts 5:31

Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.
Acts 13:23

The identity of the Messiah was bound up with being the representative of the people of Israel. This was a primary function of the monarchy. When Israel fell into a repeated pattern of sin during her quasi-anarchist theocracy in Judges, God raised up a king upon whom fell the corporate responsibility of keeping the covenant. David was the exemplary king who remained basically faithful to Yahweh and thus typified Christ. Jesus came as the Greater David, taking up the mantle of Israel’s corporate representative so that He could act on her behalf and bring her salvation. Jesus was Israel when He died on the cross, and He died for the sins of His people, His subjects as the King of the Jews. This is still the context of Matthew 1:21, where Jesus identified specifically as the Son of David and His ancestry is traced back to Abraham.

Of course, some will likely respond that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.”1 Jesus died for Israel, sure, but this Israel is the true Israel, which is the elect. This response, however, has two flaws. First, and more controversially, it fails to recognize that Paul’s argument hinged on a new development in the constitution of Israel. Formerly, Israel was defined by flesh in the form of Torah observance and ancestry.2 Now, with the accomplishment of justification in Christ’s death and resurrection, Israel is defined by the Spirit around union with the Messiah. This point I have argued elsewhere and will not elaborate on here. Second, this is simply not an identification which is supported in the relevant contexts. As I mentioned above, Matthew 1:21 comes in the context of Jesus as the Son of David and heir to the Messianic throne, a role which is definitely representative of Israel corporately.

This applies to a handful of other texts, as well. Isaiah 53 speaks of the Servant dying for “my [God’s] people,” which there is no contextual warrant to read as referring to anyone but Israel. Many verses which speak of Jesus dying as an atonement for “many” may well also have Israel corporately in mind, although I think it is marginally more likely that the word has no specific meaning except the vastness of the number of people included. When Colossians 2:14 speaks of Jesus “erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands”3, Paul is talking about charges accumulated under the Torah, which was given to and only directly condemned Israel. When the Bible says, then, that Jesus died for the sins of His people, the first and foremost referent is Israel corporately.

However, there are two qualifications which must be made to this. For one, Israel is never just Israel. Election is by nature a representative status. The elect represents others to God and God to others.4 When God condemned in Christ the sins of Israel under Torah, He also condemned the sins of the whole world which Israel had summed up in herself. Israel was not any different from the other nations,5 and in their constant rebellion against God they epitomized and intensified the rebellion of all, so atoning for Israel meant atoning for the world. This reality, however, is not necessarily in view in texts which speak of Christ’s death for His people.

The other qualification is that sense still remains in which some texts certainly do speak more specifically of Jesus dying for the Church (though even this usually refers to the temporal, historical Church rather than the group of the eternally elect, at least directly). John 10 and several parts of Revelation emphasize this. Jesus died for His sheep, and these sheep were, at least to begin with, believing Israelites in direct contrast to unbelieving ones, though it also included believers far off. This operates on a couple of levels which do not necessarily correspond to what limited atonement says about the matter. Specifically, it involves the facts that Jesus died for Israel, but Israel was transformed in the process to consist of believing Jews and Gentiles rather than those who are Jewish by flesh, that the formation of this redeemed new form of Israel was an essential goal of the atonement, and that the Church is therefore the one people in whom forgiveness and justification actually take root and effect in their real lives. Thus it is right to speak of this new people reborn from Israel through Christ’s atoning work as the proper object of the atonement, even if it is not true that the atonement was in some sense “limited” to the sins of a timeless company of elect individuals. For more on this point, I refer you to a closely related post I made some time ago.

In all of this, there remains no particular reason to see any text as referring specifically to Jesus dying exclusively to pay the precise penalty for the sins of a particular company of elected individuals. That’s just not how the Bible thinks, or how the Bible talks about the people of God.

He Died for His People, Not the Elect

Remnants of Revelation

I recently read a book by Winfried Corduan called In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism. If the title doesn’t make it obvious, the book is about the evidence (primarily the case of Wilhelm Schmidt) that the first religion of mankind was ethical monotheism (i.e. that there is a Supreme Being who made the world and gave humanity a code of morality). This contrasts with the common, evolutionary view that religion progressed from primitive ancestor or spirit veneration to animism to polytheism to monotheism. Much of the argument for this book works with the apparent preservations of an ancient monotheistic belief system in the cultures of small, primitive tribes around the world.

Corduan’s book was rather fascinating, and of course it raises a fairly obvious question if he is correct. If mankind started out from the beginning with a full-blown belief in a singular, personal God who made the world and instituted moral law, then from whence did this belief come? Corduan, a Christian, briefly argues that there is hardly a good answer except that such a Being actually did reveal Himself to primitive humanity.

So, all of that is great to think about, but it provoked me to some other theological considerations related to primitive revelation. If we take a basically literal reading of Genesis, we have to reckon with the fact that all people on the planet are descended from Noah and his family, all of whom knew God personally. This means that any such remainders of primitive monotheism as Corduan takes note of in his book must trace back to Noah’s family. And yet these remainders are also clearly quite corrupt, enough so that it is hard to imagine that tribespeople who follow these beliefs are actually following the true God.

Of course, this does raise the question: how long were people still worshipping Yahweh? Obviously, Noah’s sons must have known God for who He really is. And the modern tribes do not. So over the last few thousand years, it seems that God’s memory was slowly forgotten. But how long was true worship still a thing? How long were people around the world, not just in Israel, still aware of and faithful to the true God? Presumably, there could have been a number of such people who end up legitimately saved for many years. How long? Centuries? Millennia?

This brings up even more questions. Just how much of the original revelation does one need to know in order to be counted as believing in the true God? At what point in the process of forgetting and mythologizing did the cultures which retained monotheism shift from confused Yahweh-worshippers to idolaters? And is it possible for some people in such places to have continued clinging only to those beliefs which genuinely originated with God’s self-disclosure at the beginning of history, so as to be saved?

The possibility of remnants of revelation which, at the very least, kept a saving witness to God alive throughough the world for many years is, I think, not to be discounted and should be relevant to debates about the fate of the unevangelized. We also have to weigh whether this thought would open up the possibility of some rare people being saved even today by their memory of the oldest special revelation. It might not do so, but if nothing else it’s worth wondering about. Such an idea might be called “revelational inclusivism” and would, at least at a prima facie level, seem to be free of some of the problems with traditional versions of inclusivism which try to grant salvation to people who lack any special revelation. After all, in such a scenario people would only be saved by clinging in faith to whatever small bits of special revelation they had left. But on the other hand, even this might have its own issues when put to scrutiny. And it does not seem unlikely that we may have to conclude that man’s original knowledge of God became everywhere too corrupt to save anyone much too long ago to be relevant today.

Yet Paul did say that God had not left Himself without a witness…

Remnants of Revelation

On a Historical Old Testament

Yesterday I posted the following status on Facebook:

The problem with abandoning the historicity of the Old Testament is that every few years another aspect of it is vindicated.

To which I received this response:

Yet we would acknowledge the role that varying styles of literature in the ancient Near East has to play, right? The historical consensus, as far as I am aware (and I’m not necessarily taking a position), is that the Old Testament starts out as more metaphorical and increases in historicity until the time of David, after which it becomes much more reliable. For example, we still have not found any evidence of a large population of Israelites having lived in Goshen around 1400 BC. It makes little difference to me, though, which side turns out to be right, but I’m interested to keep up with it!

I do have some empathy here, but there are several issues involved on which I would like to make a special point. Approaches along these lines are gaining traction in Evangelicalism, both with and without a doctrine of inerrancy. I do not see this as a good sign. The historicity of the Old Testament is more important than even most Christians who believe in it give it credit for. So here are some thoughts on the issues raised in this coment.

First, with respect to literary styles, it is simply not the case that there are any convincing reasons to believe that most, much, or even just a decent slice of the Old Testament is not intended as basically “historical” literature. While there are thematic differences between different parts, and the form of the narratives can vary based on the “zoom” factor, there are no clear shifts in the basic use of narrative from Able to Zechariah. The account of Ezra is literarily much like the account of David which is like the account of Abraham which is like the account of Noah which is like the account of Cain. The only passage which might plausibly seem an exception to this is Genesis 1, which is clearly very different from most narrative accounts. Yet it is clearly not poetry (since it lacks parallelism or most other features of Hebrew poetry), and a narrative account of something which happened before the cosmos was fully in place or humans existed is naturally and necessarily going to be different from other narratives.

This brings me to an extremely important point. It is true that Genesis 1 and basically all the narratives in the Bible have meaningful, carefully constructed literary features and forms. There are chiasms, parallels, recapitulations, non-chronological sequences, modified repetitions, typologies, and all sorts of good stuff. For some bizarre reason, though, people treat this as an indication of a narrative not referring to literal history. If Genesis 1 is clearly arranged into a theologically relevant pattern of forming and filling, with the significant number of seven days being associated with temple construction, then many scholars will be willing to stop with “We see a theological meaning to this text, so a literal, historical meaning is superfluous.” If the Bible presents Noah as a new Adam and Ham as a new Cain, peopel imagine this means that one or both of the stories never actually happened.

This is, of course, logically absurd. Literary richness does not prove, or even vaguely imply, that a story is unhistorical. Indeed, for Christians we must understand that the same Spirit who authored the Scriptures has authored history. We should expect patterns, structures, and typologies with theological significance in real, tangible history. And even if we didn’t have that theological link, it should be recalled that even a perfectly historical event can be written down truthfully but stylistically to produce an account with certain intended levels of meaning beyond the “bare facts.”

Moving on, then, to the point about historical consensus. My friend explained what he understood as the consesus this way: “the Old Testament starts out as more metaphorical and increases in historicity until the time of David, after which it becomes much more reliable.” This is problematic in three ways.

First, for the secular historical consensus, it’s not so much that the Old Testament starts off metaphorically as that it simply starts of as myth or legend with amibiguous relationships to events which may or may not have happened. Whether the events recorded are supposed to have any actual metaphorical significance would be a side debate, akin to the question of whether The Illiad is metaphorical.

Second, for the Christian historical consensus, there simply isn’t one. Even within the relatively small sphere of Evangelical Protestant scholarship, opinions range from quasi-fundamentalist hyper-literalism to the view that almost none of the Old Testament is historically reliable except where it is confirmed by secular accounts. As far as I can tell, there’s not even really a majority view on the historicity of any part of the Old Testament before around the time of the Exile. This is not to deny that there are trends, of course. And the trend seems pretty clear: a dehistoricization of Genesis 1-11 at the very least, but often including much more, especially the Exodus. But this brings me to the third problem with the question of historical consensus.

Third, the closest thing we get to a historical consensus is the stuff on which secular historians agree with a decent number of the moderate Christian scholars. The problem with this consensus is that it is bunk. There are three notable problems with it. First, its arguments against the historicity of biblical events are usually from silence, i.e. “we can’t find extra-biblical evidence for that.” These often, and I mean very often, get overturned by later discoveries. It’s the same story every time: historians said there was no King David, until they found archaeological evidence of King David. They said there were no Hittites, and lo! they found that there were Hittites. They doubted countless minor details of customs and names found in the Bible until more evidence confirmed that they existed in the time the Bible seems to claim. It seems that if we have functional pattern-recognition, we should expect this to be the norm: historians deny biblical claims for lack of evidence, only for evidence to show up later.

The second problem with the historical consensus is that it quite unjustly minimizes the Bible as a historical document. I don’t mean that they simply fail to believe every word as historically true. I mean that they don’t even give it the minimal benefits of the doubt which they extend to other ancient literature, and in proportion they give it much less historical weight where it stands alone than they do most similar works. Basically, in researching and hypothesizing about the Ancient Near East, they try to rely as little as possible on what can be justly called the largest, most internally diverse, and most well-preserved collection of texts from the Ancient Near East. This is bound to go wrong, and it is only natural that doing this for such a distant period of history would lead to tension with the biblical account even if it were mostly correct (or, you know, inerrant).

But the third problem with the historical consensus is a plain historical issue: the historical consesus account of the ancient world is largely constructed on a very weak and increasingly questionable foundation: a hypothetical chronology built from Manetho’s list of Egyptian kings and dynasties. This matter would be difficult to address in detail here, but I’ll give a summary. Almost all historical work on the ancient world around the Mediterranean relies on a specific chronology of Egyptian history. This chronology is based on adding up the lengths of the reigns of all of the Egyptian kings in what we have of Manetho’s work. Two major problems present themselves here, because (1) scholars have noted that some or many of Manetho’s dynasties may have ruled simultaneously in different parts of Egypt, and (2) the conventional chronology requires that Mantheo made few or no errors or intentional falsifications. This produces a host of issues which have the potential, if solved, to radically reshape the history of the Ancient Near East. This appears quite likely to change things in the Bible’s favor. Donovan Courville in his work The Exodus Problem and Its Ramifications analyzes many of these issues, and his work has been followed up by others. Even if not perfect, it opens up many interesting possibilites. This, by the way, is not a mere desperate Christian apologetic. The book Centuries of Darkness argues the same basic point from the perspective exclusively of secular historical academia and has inspired plenty of further research.

All of these issues add up to make the point that the historicity of the Old Testament does not deserve to be dismissed the way it so often is, or really even be approached with half the skepticism usually aimed at it. It might take faith to expect the whole Old Testament history to be vindicated, but if anything it is a reasonable faith grounded in precedent and evidence.

None of this even begins to deal with the theological problems involved with dehistoricizing Old Testament narratives. That alone could be the subject of a book, but in the meantime I think this piece of Peter Leithart satire says the gist just as well.

On a Historical Old Testament

God and His Gods: A Review of Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm

I just finished an extremely interesting book, probably the most deserving of that descriptor which I’ve read in a long time. This is Michael Heiser’s book, The Unseen Realm. It is about the gods. Specifically, it as about the other gods which the Bible assumes to exist besides the true God, Yahweh.

The Unseen Realm begins with Psalm 82, which opens with this very bizarre verse:

God stands in the divine assembly;
he pronounces judgment among the gods:

Heiser, an Old Testament scholar, was in school for his Masters (if I recall correctly) when he read this psalm in Hebrew and was struck by its oddity. God is presented as standing among other gods and prouncing judgment on them for their corruption. He was quickly convinced that this could not easily be explained away, and as he researched more in the Old Testament he came to regard the “gods” in this verse as real beings, members of a divine council among whom Yahweh God was and is the greatest.

This is not the say, of course, that any of the gods mentioned are “God” in a way comparable to the true God. He is the Creator, and they are His creation. Rather, these gods (elohim in Hebrew) are simply inhabitants of the unseen, spiritual realm. They have a range of rank and power, from the lower messengers and fighters (generally associated with the term “angel”, which literally means “messenger”) to higher cherubim and seraphim to the members of the divine council who assist God in administrating the affairs of the created world. In Hebrew, he explains, elohim is a very generic term for spiritual beings, one which can apply as a name or title to Yahweh, who is the Elohim above all the elohim, or can apply as a species to other heavenly beings.

The focus of the book is on the divine council, the highest of the heavenly creatures. I will not go into his argument for this council’s existence in any depth, but he points to passages such as Psalm 82, Genesis 1, 1 Kings 22, Isaiah 6, Job 1, and many others which portray God surrounded by other heavenly beings with whom He discusses plans and decrees action. I think his case is strong, and it explains many otherwise puzzling features of the Bible, primarily in the Old Testament.

More interesting than his case for the council’s existence is his reading of their role in the story of the Bible. It is this which I would like to sketch below.

Creation
At some point, God creates the heavenly beings and puts some of them into His council (which previously was only the council of the Trinity). On the sixth day of creation, God consults with His divine council to create another kind of being which shares their image. (Heiser spends some time arguing that both the heavenly beings and man are made in God’s image, a historically debated point.) The plan is for them to grow up, join the council, and have dominion over the physical realm just as God has placed His heavenly council over the unseen realm.
Fall
Right off the bat, one of the divine council members opposes God’s plan for humanity, so he comes as the “Serpent” to trick Adam and Eve. Heiser argues against many modern scholars that Genesis 3 itself portrays the Serpent as a supernatural being and not merely as a talking animal. Thus Eve would not have been startled or concerned by conversation with someone she recognized as a member of the heavenly host.
Flood
Heiser excellently defends the supernatural interpretation of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6. The Nephilim were the offspring either of a carnal union of heavenly beings and human women or perhaps were miraculously begotten with the help of these beings, like Isaac later was to Abraham. Either way, these people were giants and powerful warriors, more wicked than others. The Nephilim were the primary problem which corrupted the world so thoroughly as to require the Flood to wipe out all life.
Babel
By the time of Babel, the Nephilim were back. Whether this is because of a second event like the one in Genesis 6, a local flood, or some ancestry in Noah’s family, they continue to cause trouble. Nimrod may have been one of them, and under him the Tower of Babel is constructed. When God judges this work, He disowns the nations and assigns them to the rule of divine council members. These council members, however, are eventually corrupted and set themselves up as gods to receive the worship of the nations.
Abraham
God calls Abraham to head the one people who He will still hold close, the people through whom His kingdom will come and bless the world. By Abraham He will create a people through whom He can reclaim the nations from the gods which have corrupted them.
Moses and the Exodus
God defeated the gods of Egypt and led His people free to return to the promised land. At Sinai, God met with Moses, Aaron, and Israel’s 70 elders, the firstfruits of a new divine council including humanity. Those who remained of His original council were also there and helped to give the Torah, which is why in the New Testament it is said that the law was delivered through angels.
Joshua and Conquest
While Israel was in Egypt, the Nephilim and the Anakim (who seem to be related) made their home in Canaan. Joshua’s conquest was primarily for two purposes: (1) give Israel possession of the land and (2) destroy all of the Nephilim. This is why the Israelites made note of the land’s giant inhabitants, and why the book of Joshua repeatedly mentions where the Nephilim and Anakim dwelt, and where they were destroyed (or not). The total annihilation treatment given to certain cities can be found to only apply where there were Nephilim and Anakim. The point was not genocide on normal people living in Canaan. Rather, the few fortified cities were Nephilim dwelt had to be completely eliminated to remove all traces of the corrupted seed.
Daniel
Daniel mentions princes in conflict who are quite obviously supernatural in nature, being mentioned along Michael the Archangel and Gabriel the messenger. The prince of Persia, for example, should be identified as a divine council member who was given authority over the Persian people, but like the others eventually turned against God.
Jesus
Jesus’ day was quite obviously one of spiritual warfare. Demons were rampant and were under the authority of Satan, who can be identified with the divine council member who deceived Eve. Satan could offer Jesus all the kingdoms of the world for the simple reason that they were all under the control of fallen council members who gave him allegiance. Jesus, of course, resisted with an eye to His own plan for reclaiming the nations. Later on, since the Old Testament was (intentionally) obscure about the death and resurrection of the Messiah, Satan and his cohorts mistakenly think it is a good idea to kill Jesus. After Jesus basically declares war on them by announcing His Messiahship right under Mt. Hermon and promising to build His church on that rock (a mountain which Heiser shows throughout the book is associated with the enemy gods), they get Him killed quickly only to find themselves defeated in His resurrection.
The End
Among other points, Heiser explains that in the end humans will be “divinized” in the sense that our glorified, spiritual, resurrection bodies will be equally at home in heaven and earth, which will be one, and we will take our seats on the divine council behind Jesus. This is what it means to reign with Christ, both in Revelation and elsewhere in the New Testament.

As you can surely see, this is a pretty interesting book. I didn’t agree with every jot and tittle, especially his frustrating reiteration every other paragraph that we have to study the culture of the Ancient Near East to understand anything in the Old Testament (I think nearly everything he said in his book could be established biblically without the need for such research, however helpful it may be). But overall, it was stimulating and very willing to shatter the comfortable conventions of modern Christian thought to recover the supernatural worldview of the Bible. We need more stuff like that, so I heartily recommend it.

Here’s the Amazon link, and here’s a link to a shorter, more accessible version for popular level reading titled Supernatural.

God and His Gods: A Review of Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm

The Promise in the Tomb

In Genesis 23, Abraham’s wife Sarah dies. Probably the most important aspect of this event to biblical history is that it leads to Abraham’s first legal claim to the promised land. In seeking a tomb for Sarah, Abraham spoke to the local Hittites and asked to buy some land. Both these first Hittites and Ephron, with whom Abraham ends up doing business, try to get Abraham to take a tomb, apparently at no charge. This Abraham refuses, and for good reason. If he received the land for free, his claim on it might later be questionable. By burying Sarah on Hittite soil, Abraham would be taking a firstfruit, a partial realization of the inheritance God had promised him. But this would be an unstable claim if no official transaction took place. Thus Abaraham insisted on paying for the land, and in the end he paid a high price.

So it came to pass that Abraham’s first property in Canaan was a plot with a tomb. God began to fulfill His covenant with Abraham by means of a tomb. The typological significance should be obvious when put this way. The tomb is the beginning of the new creation. The project which began with a tomb from Ephron the Hittite for Sarah come to fruition in a tomb from Joseph of Arimathea for Jesus. New life begins where old life ends. As the author of Hebrews explained, no testament can take effect without a death.

Interestingly enough, this tomb, which eventually contained Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph at the least, was at Hebron. Hebron would later be completely under Canaanite control until Caleb took over during the conquest of Joshua. In time it would become King David’s initial capital, prior to him taking Jerusalem. So again for David Hebron was the site of a firstfruit, the guarantee of covenant fulfillment.

Taking these together, we find a connection between tomb and promise, death and resurrection. Bodies went in the tomb in anticipation that God would fulfill His promises and bring about greater glory. The tomb was the pledge of the ultimate blessing of Abraham, which would come through Abraham’s true Seed, Jesus Christ, who was laid in a tomb and was raised three days later. With this resurrection, an exit from the tomb, the promises made to Abraham came to a new stage of fulfillment. So the tomb is almost a storage unit or waiting area. Abraham and Sarah will be (or have been?) raised just as Christ was raised.

This connects to us as well. We enter the tomb through baptism as we are buried with Christ, and when we exit the water we anticipate that God will fulfill His promises, bring all things to completion, and raise us from the dead. But we are not actually raised yet, and so we live our lives in the tomb as a waiting area, with the Holy Spirit given as a pledge of the new life to come.

The Promise in the Tomb

Is There Really Any Biblical Support for Unconditional Election?

I just ran across an article by Tom Ascol titled, “Is There Really No Biblical Support for Unconditional Election?” I think the answer to that question is rather close to a “Yes,” at least if “unconditional election” is defined as in classical Calvinism. But of course the article argues otherwise. In response to those who claim the lack biblical support for this Calvinist doctrine, Ascol says this:

[W]hen a person claims that “the Reformed idea that God chooses some individuals and not others for salvation has no, I repeat, no biblical support,” it is hard to take him seriously. Gratuitous, dismissive assertions have no place in serious theological conversations. Unfortunately, when a respected person makes such a claim some will be tempted to take him at his word.

In order to help those so tempted and to expose the foolishness of such a claim, here are a few of the Bible’s many teachings that highlight God’s sovereign grace in election. I put the key words in bold simply to highlight the precise way that the Bible teaches that God chooses some individuals and not others to salvation.

I would like to register bafflement at this attitude. There is irony in the line, “It is hard to take him seriously. Gratuitous, dismissive assertions have no place in serious theological conversations,” since this very statement makes the gratuitous, dismissive assertion that the Bible cannot be legitimately read in a way which offers no support to unconditional election.

So my point here is to respond in summary to the verses which supposedly expose the “foolishness” of claiming no biblical support for unconditional election. Rather than foolish, I think the negative claim is the product of good hermeneutics. Here, then, are a few quick responses to the verses Ascol uses.

25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
Matthew 11:25-27

The basic hermeneutical error here is one which applies to many of these prooftexts: they ignore the irreducibly eschatological and redemptive-historical dimensions to Jesus’ mission and teaching. Jesus was not making a general point about how God tells mysteries to some people and not to others. He’s talking about the historical realities of His ministry. The scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisses were “wise,” but sinful and resistant to God’s purpose. So when the Messiah came, God “hid” the truth from them and instead revealed it to the many peoples excluded and oppressed by their ways, the poor and the tax collectors and the unclean. Jesus spoke so that the hard-hearted would not hear, but become harder of heart, and that the expectant and but unexpected would hear the word and receive it with joy. None of this implies a division made in eternity past. It’s about God’s judgment on Israel at that eschatological moment: the faithful remnant would be revealed the Messiah, while the corrupt leaders would be justly blinded for their corruption.

37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
John 6:37

Ascol writes about this one, “…doesn’t that mean the Father gave some to Christ and didn’t give others to Christ?” Of course, that is true, but he takes it for granted that Jesus is talking about some “giving” in eternity past the point of which is the eternal destiny of many individuals. But the context does not bear this out. Again, the point is unique to a moment in redemptive-history. The whole Gospel of John emphasizes how Jesus’ coming polarized Israel into the faithful remnant, ready to believe and receive their Messiah, and the unfaithful Jews who would rather have Him crucified. Those the Father has given to Christ here are not the aggregate mass of eternally elect individuals, but those who, in the days before Christ, had “heard and learned from the Father” in the Torah and the temple cult, learning to wait patiently for the true Messiah. These people, now that Jesus had come, would all come to Him and believe in Him. The Father thus gave them to the Son, entrusting them into His Messianic hands so that He might bring about the salvation they had been waiting for.

(P.S. Even if you disagree with this interpretation, I would implore you to show why the Calvinist one is any more likely. In particular, what grounds does John 6 offer for the idea that Jesus is speaking of a giving which took place in eternity past?)

1 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.…

6 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. 8 For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.
John 17:1–9

Again, Ascol takes this as evidence for a general doctrine of eternal election of all Christians. But that’s not specified. The point remains something Jesus is doing for His people, which means Israel, not a timeless aggregate of elect individuals. The focus has been on Jews throughout Jesus’ whole ministry in all four of the Gospels, with the Gentile theme only hinted at. The point is that Jesus is fulfilling the saving promises which the faithful Jewish remnant had been waiting to see, those few who trusted in God on His own terms rather than in revolution against or compromise with Rome.

It should also be mentioned that in verses 6-9, Jesus is only talking about the disciples, and He specifically does not mention any other believers until later in the prayer. I don’t think that serves well the interpretation which treats Jesus as talking generally about unconditional election and limited atonement.

48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.
Acts 13:48

This is perhaps the only verse in the whole article which well serves the stated purpose. But even in this case, it is underdetermined. It does not say enough to support the doctrine of unconditional election over and against other possibilites. Indeed, by itself the verse gives no indiciation of when, how, or why these people were appointed. Calvinists must read into this appointment the doctrine of unconditional election, and when they do so, they create the odd situation that apparently every single elect person in that crowd was saved on that one day, and every other person in that crowd was reprobate and never converted afterward. This verse is perhaps at best the strongest “maybe” in the article.

9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Romans 9:9–13

The distinction between Jacob and Esau should be understood as a decison of through whom to continue the covenant promises to Abraham. It functions in Paul’s argument to support His point that God is allowed to redefine the limits of Israel’s election whenever, however, and with whomever He chooses, even to the point of leaving out the majority of Israel when they do not believe in the Messiah, the new head of Israel’s election. The point is redemptive-historical, not about individual soteriology. (I explain this view in slightly more detail in this post.)

13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Thessalonians 2:13–14

I feel this is simply an example of question-begging. The word “chose” does not automatically entail unconditional election. In fact, literally speaking, “chose” all by itself would be compatible with almost any kind of election, even obvious heresies like “election by works.” It takes more than that word to support any specific doctrine of election.

4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.
Ephesians 1:4–5

The locus of choice here is “in him” and “through Jesus Christ,” not ourselves. This text does not support the idea that God chose us individually. Instead, it speaks the same way that the Old Testament could speak of election, where Israel could say that God chose “us,” even though the individual Israelites were not chosen to become members of Israel, but were members of Israel because Abraham was chosen, and they were descended from him. To say that we were chosen “in Christ” is to say that Christ is chosen as the head, and we are “chosen” because we have been united to Him. A random Jew was not in and of himself chosen to be a covenant member, but received this election through his ancestor Abraham. Likewise, we have not been chosen ourselves to be members of the new covenant, but received this election through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


That concludes my responses. These aren’t meant to be complete arguments or to end any debate, but to make the simple point that it is quite easy to claim seriously that the Bible contains no actual support for unconditional election. If you interpret these verses in ways like I have suggested, or perhaps in still other ways, and you believe (as I do) that these intepretations are actually very probably what the texts were intended to say, then you can make the claim without reservation, “The Bible contains no support for unconditional election.” Maybe we’re wrong, but the claim isn’t an unreasonable or disingenuous one.

Is There Really Any Biblical Support for Unconditional Election?