Options on the Intermediate State

I have crusaded here before against the conflation of life-after-death with life-after-life-after-death (to use N. T. Wright’s terminology), of the “heaven” we go to upon death with the “heaven” which is really the new creation earth united with God’s presence in the future. And my theological focus has mostly been on the latter of these, the resurrection and the restoration of the cosmos in the age to come. Nonetheless, the real question about what happens immediately after death is still at least somewhat important, and some of what I’ve been reading recently has gotten me thinking about it.

This subject, the state of human beings between death and resurrection, is of course better known as the intermediate state. The usual focus is on believers. What precisely do we, as Christians, experience postmortem? In this post, I just feel like outlining some of the basic theological options, along with their strengths and weaknesses. I am still quite unsure what I think about this, but I’ll mention what I’m thinking these a’days.

On to the options. I’ve titled them myself; not all of them have set names.

Sensory heaven
The average pew-dweller, due to the common kind of preaching which does conflate the intermediate state with the new creation, often imagines that after we die we get to experience a fully sensory world, tangible and visible and tactile, paved with gold and filled with mansions. This, however common, is terribly mistaken with no biblical evidence whatsoever. The descriptions it makes use of come from Revelation 21-22, which describe the future new earth, not anything which is a present reality. Moreover, it ignores the fact that our physical bodies are literally in the ground, not transported to another physical realm, after death, and the fact that senses are all strictly physical phenomena, not something you experience spiritually.
Spiritual bliss
For those who realize that there is no biblical reason to think we will be able to experience a sensory reality of heaven after death, there is a next step of simply affirming a kind of spiritual bliss. What this actually is like, we cannot imagine now. We only know that it is a different quality of existence and consciousness than what we experience now, but it is bliss in the presence of God in Christ. This tends to draw strength from texts like 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 and Philippians 1:21-23. In this view, we will experience the glory of God in Christ in some way without body or sense until we are reunited with our bodies in the resurrection.

This view is common among people who have dispensed with the first, erroneous notion. Nonetheless, there are some criticisms which have been leveled at it. For one, it may be unclear what human conscious experience could even be without our bodies, which include our brains. All of our emotions, thinking, and consciousness have always been massively physiological, involving brain and hormone and the like. What kind of “consciousness” would we have separated from our brains? Also, there are biblical statements which seem to imply a lack of consiousness in the intermediate state, particularly in Ecclesiastes (and some of the Psalms). It is questionable to what extent the rather unspecific statements in 2 Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1 might overcome these themes. As a final note, this view is often accused of importing the idea of the immortality of the soul from paganism, with the assertion that the Judeo-Christian tradition originally understood men as entirely mortal in flesh unless raised to glory.

Soul sleep
The soul sleep view is common in some circles, though definitely a minority view. Perhaps its most well-known proponent was Martin Luther. In soul sleep, the intermediate state is unconscious. You die, and the next thing you experience is the resurrection, however many years may separate the two events. This view takes very seriously the rather shadowy statements about the afterlife in the Old Testament especially, taking advantage of the ambiguity in the New Testament statements which might imply consciousness in the intermediate state. That much of the Bible reflects a view something along these lines is almost a consensus in the higher world of scholarship.

Perhaps the largest problem the soul sleep view faces is the near unanimity of Christian tradition. Soul sleep has always, with a few exceptions, been on the fringes of Christian theology. While we have little data on the views of the very first Christians outside the sparse information in the New Testament, the earliest references we do have are from Eusebius, who argued against a group as unorthodox for teaching a form of soul sleep. The Catholic Church has declared it heretical, as have some smaller groups. None of this, however, can mean all too much for adherents to sola Scriptura.

Total obliteration/Christian mortalism
Often soul sleep and Christian mortalism are classed or defined together, but I decided they would make more sense to separate them distinctly. In soul sleep, human souls are still supposed to be alive in some sense. They may not strictly conscious, but they are still truly alive and existing. What may go by Christian mortalism can go much further. I speak of total obliteration of the human person. Body, soul, spirit, identity, whatever else go into the grave together and lose everything until the final resurrection, which raises the whole person. Most of what has been said about soul sleep also applies to this kind of mortalism, with a few key differences.

At the biblical level, Christian mortalism has a harder time handling texts like 2 Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1. There are plausible solutions to them, but what is questionable about that is nonetheless questionable. On the other hand, Christian mortalism does have the upper hand in the “immortal soul is pagan” argument, as only this view completely repudiates the idea. For Christian mortalists, humanity is entirely mortal apart from God’s resurrection power. Again, a great deal of modern biblical scholarship sees a view like this as quite plausible in light of the historical-linguistic-cultural-contextual evidence in Scripture.

I’m really not sure what to add to this, only that I find the correct view here difficult to discern. Parts of me are attracted to all of them, except obviously the first. What do people here think? I’m ready to play critic or Devil’s advocate to any of them if you comment.

Options on the Intermediate State

2 Biblical Issues I Think Calvinism Gets Wrong

I really am a rare breed when it comes to the debate over Calvinism/election/predestination/sovereignty. There are a lot of studied Calvinists who were once unlearned (and often non-professing, de facto) Arminians. Likewise, there are enough ex-Calvinists (who are now usually Arminians, Catholics, or unbelievers) who never knew the system well, and still repeat common misunderstandings and misconceptions about what it teaches and how it works. What you have relatively few of are ex-Calvinists who knew the doctrine well, in all of its ins and outs, with nuance, precision, and depth, able to mount detailed and comprehensive arguments both for the 5 points themselves and the basic system of causal determinism that accompanies them so readily, especially ones who are still Christians and don’t hate Calvinism. I fall into this latter camp, and I do not mean by the description I gave to “toot my own horn.” My point is rather to identify where I am coming from. Very little of the normal debate involves people from this place, and it cuts off some of the normal lines of argument.

Anyway, from this unusual perspective I just want to offer two simple Biblical points that I think Calvinism just doesn’t get right. This is not stuff at the theoretical, complex theological, or moral level, just two problems that involve Biblical interpretation. Hopefully this will provide some food for thought, or perhaps even provide a place for constructive dialogue.

  1. Biblical use of election: Calvinism frames mostly all discussion of election/the elect in terms of an unconditionally chosen collection of individuals destined for eternal salvation. This does not seem to ring true with the actual Biblical use. Bearing in mind that to elect literally means to select or choose, most of the incidents of election do not appear to fall in line with this systematic concept. Election doesn’t usually appear to be about all the individuals who are going to be saved. Instead, it appears as God’s choice of a people or an individual for a specific purpose in redemptive history. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, all Israel, Moses, Aaron and his descendants, the Levites, King David and his descendants, even King Cyrus, Jesus, the Twelve, Paul, and the Church all were chosen, selected by God to accomplish particular tasks for God’s design in the midst of history. These people and groups are truly elect, that is, chosen by God. This isn’t to say that God said, “Let’s make sure this person gets to heaven,” but rather that He picked and called them to do His will, bear His word, and share His blessings. Going right along with this, these elect groups and individuals were not chosen merely for their own sake or salvation. Their very election was the grounds of blessing for those who were not elected. Israel was elected to bless the rest of the world (Gen. 12:3, Mic. 4:1-3, cf. Gal. 3:8). Moses was chosen for a role and relationship with God unique in all history (Exod. 3:10, Deut. 34:10), yet this election was for the liberation of all Israel. Jesus is referred to literally as the Elect One of God (Lk. 9:35), and His mission was clearly not for His own benefit, but “for us and for our salvation,” as the Creed says. When taken all together, the picture of God’s choosing is one of graciously bestowing a call, a word, and a blessing on historical persons and groups in order to accomplish His redemptive purpose. This is what I believe the Scriptures generally mean when they speak of God’s chosen ones/elect. (Granted, this does not mean the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and reprobation is false. At most it simply means that, true or false, “election” would be the wrong Biblical word for it. Yet I think that this alternate understanding of the terminology removes much of the weight behind the occurrence of words like “elect” from general Calvinist argument.)
  2. Limited atonement: I am convinced that limited atonement is the weakest point of Calvinism, and I am convinced of this primarily on exegetical grounds. When it comes to the plain statement of Scripture, I think there are few other doctrines without Christian orthodoxy with as little support. Generally, texts cited in favor of limited atonement rely entirely on deductions. John 10 is applied by extracting certain logical deductions from a certain reading of the text. Phrases like “save His people from their sins” and “gave Himself up for her [His bride]” are taken to imply that what they say is not true in any sense to people besides the immediate referents. Texts worded so that they could mean Jesus only died for the elect are taken as they they must mean so, and on that basis texts worded so that it seems abundantly clear that Jesus died for all are taken as though they cannot mean so. Basically, the most direct statements in Scripture on the matter (e.g. Heb. 2:9, 2 Cor. 5:15, 1 Tim. 2:5-6) are interpreted more difficulty based on logical interpretative deductions from less explicit passages (e.g. John 10, Eph. 5). Yet Scripture interpretation is meant to run in the opposite direction: passages less directly about a particular topic ought to be read primarily in light of the more clear and direct statements on it. In the case of atonement, “He died for all” is much more clear and direct than, “the Bible says Jesus lay down His life for His sheep, therefore He must not have intended to die on behalf of anyone who is not ultimately saved.” The latter sounds like it makes sense, but is a couple interpretive steps down the road, and if those steps don’t mesh with the prior clear statements, they ought to be reevaluated.

Well, those are what I’ve got for now. I could write more on each of these, especially the first, and perhaps I will. Nonetheless, this is a basic overview of two major Biblical objections I see to Calvinism. There is probably one other major Biblical category, all further theological, philosophical, and moral questions aside, but I will get to it some other time.

As always, I do not wish anyone take any offense, for I am not on the offense. I’m mostly writing this to keep you guys informed on where I’m coming from, and to invite anyone who has questions about my views to find answers. I still love Calvinists and respect Calvinism far more than any other ex-Calvinist I’ve met, so make sure to take it all in benevolence. Until next time, may God bless you and keep you.

2 Biblical Issues I Think Calvinism Gets Wrong

In Other Words: An Alternative Dictionary of Election

I’ve written in the last several months on occasion about my move away from classical Calvinism into something which, when I feel the need to name it (and I often don’t), I’d call Evangelical Calvinism. And while I have provided a couple of posts giving some details about this transition, I’ve heard people say to me since then that as they read Scripture it seems harder and harder to get around election, predestination, God’s choosing, and the like. So doesn’t that support the classical Calvinist view of things?

Alas, I suspect this is mostly the result of a vicious cycle of reinforcement by assumption, an implicit question-begging. I tend to think that the prominence of Calvinistic thinking in the Protestant tradition has created widespread assumption about words like “election,” “predestination,” and “chosen” actually mean. So when people see them in Scripture, it registers in a Calvinistic way, regardless of whether the author would have been using them in a way that matches up with or even basically agrees with modern Reformed systematic theology textbooks.

My goal here is to offer a basic alternative dictionary, or glossary, for the terms associated with election that show up in Scripture. These are not entirely original; they will follow on thoughts which have been thought and presented many times by many people before me. Nor will I flesh out a defense of this alternative dictionary here, but hopefully it will become clear in reading Scripture with this list in mind how these definitions can plausibly work. Basically, these are for “test driving”: you take the definitions, read the Bible, and see if the interpretive results are a smooth ride or end in a crash. Without further ado, here they are:

  • Predestine — The Greek word, proorizo, literally means to “arrange/limit/set/order/appoint beforehand.” At simplest this only requires setting something up or making an arrangement in advance, not anything in particular about God assigning an overriding destiny1. As an alternative, I would suggest the more broad meaning of simply making a decision or plan beforehand. In the particular theological usage in reference to believers, the specific pre-arrangement would be God’s intention from the start to redeem the human race and conform us to the image of Christ. This is what God has prepared for us in Christ through His Cross, which He also arranged beforehand. Predestination is thus not God choosing individuals X or Y to end up saved, but God’s gracious choice before and apart from all human response to provide salvation from sin and glorified existence in Christ. It is not something fundamentally about you or me as individuals, but fundamentally about Christ and all who are found in Him.
    Verse references with “predestine/predestined”: Acts 4:28, Romans 8:29-30, 1 Corinthians 2:7, Ephesians 1:5, 11.
  • Elect — The Greek word translated “elect” is eklektos, which literally means “select” or “choose.” Many times that it shows up, it should really not be taken as any more than that. Just like in the real world, there are many kinds of choosing. It can not be assumed that this refers specifically to choosing an individual to end up saved, or to get saved. Christ Himself is called the Elect One/Chosen One on multiple occasions2. This word is applied also to King Cyrus of Persia3, the nation of Israel, and Christians. Obviously, there is a possible range in meaning. I suggest with many others that when used of believers, the meaning is essentially corporate, that is, it is about the body of Christ as a whole, in Christ the Chosen One, instead of about specific people picked out to be saved over other people. (Basically, I think it’s all about Jesus instead of all about man!) In fact, I would add several layers: God freely chose the world He created, He chose humanity as the ones to bear His image and represent His authority over creation, He chose Israel within humanity as the people in whom He would reveal Himself, He chose Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel, and we are chosen because we are a part of all of those layers, being created human beings united to Jesus Christ.
    Verses which speak of believers as “elect”: Matthew 24:22, Mark 13:27, Luke 13:7, Romans 8:33, Colossians 3:12
  • Call — A word frequently used by Calvinists in support of irresistible grace is “call,” which they relate to the doctrine of the “effectual call,” the way that God’s inner invitation through the Spirit infallibly brings the elect to faith and salvation. Paul uses it apparently exclusively of believers, implying that believers were somehow “called” by God in a way that unbelievers have not been, and more significantly this call seems strongly associated with conversion4. So is salvation the result of some kind of call God only gives to a certain group of people?
    I don’t think this is necessarily the case. I rather think this call is indeed a supernatural invitation given through the Spirit to participate in the life of Christ by faith, but that Scripture does not clearly teach this call to be something only given to those who become believers. Rather, I suggest that the Spirit can and does give out this call frequently along with the Gospel to whomever He pleases, and that it can and often is rejected and denied (for an inexplicable reason). The reason Paul only ever mentions believers as having this call is simply because they are his audience, they have experienced and obeyed this call, and now are bound to live up to it. As a side note, I add that this call is not merely to get saved, but to participate in Jesus’ own life of self-sacrificing, martyr-oriented love, which accords with a number of Paul’s uses of the word.
    Verses which refer to the “call”: Romans 1:6, 8:28-30, 9:11, 1 Corinthians 1:9, 7:17-24, Galatians 5:13, Ephesians 1:18, 4:4, Philippians 3:14, 1 Thessalonians 2:12, 2 Thessalonians 1:11, 2 Timothy 1:8-9

There are probably some other words that I could address, but these three seem the most important. Obviously, this short post isn’t enough to make my case in full detail, or answer any objections that might be brought against my suggestions. But I do think test driving these definitions in Scripture will yield a mostly smooth ride, and that they will be found to work at least as well as the Calvinistic versions. More detail on these may come later, but for now I hope this is useful.

In Other Words: An Alternative Dictionary of Election

Jesus Is Lord, the U.S. Government Is Not

“Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not.” This quote from N. T. Wright (among others) reflects what he sees as a major subversive political message throughout the Gospels and the New Testament in its entirety. The fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead despite the agreement of Jewish and Roman political leaders to kill Him means that the authorities of this world have no real power. The greatest power of tyrants is death, and Jesus undid death. This reality of resurrection is a threat to all world powers. Christ’s people are therefore free to live as citizens of the kingdom to come and not the kingdoms of this world.

Of course, this sounds rather irrelevant to modern life for the most part, at least in the Western world and America. We don’t live in a dictatorship, or an absolute monarchy, or a police state, or any recognizable kind of political tyranny. Instead we pride ourselves on being a free country. So the significance of “Jesus is Lord, [insert political power here] is not” can be lost on us. 

But at the same time, there is something slightly subversive even now in saying, “My allegiance is to Jesus Christ, not the United States of America. My country is from above, and in this nation I live as a foreigner. The President, Congress, and the courts can say what they like, but if I obey them it is to better serve Christ, and not for their sake.” After all, we look to the government to affirm right and wrong, do something about our national problems, and maintain order among the people. So a statement like this grounded in Jesus risen Lordship can’t help but strike lots of people as at least a bit rebellious and dangerous.

But what brings me to this topic? I know this will get me a facepalm from my more liberal friends (both politically and theologically), but it’s of course about a certain Supreme Court case. Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you probably know that Obergefell v. Hodges is set to determine the future of gay marriage in all 50 states. And unless you’ve been living under a rock for 50 years, you can probably guess how this will turn out. Given the status of public opinion on gay marriage, and the spirit of the age, it seems likely enough that this case will result in the determination of a “Constitutional right” to gay marriage in the entire nation.

Obviously, the mere existence of gay marriage won’t hurt me or others who oppose it, but the real issue comes in the affect unanimous government approval of gay marriage would have on churches and Christian schools. As it stands, most churches can choose to only hire straight pastors and other staff members and to only marry straight couples. Generally, Christian schools are not obligated to hire gay teachers or enroll students in gay marriages. We have moral standards based on traditionally solid readings of the Holy Scriptures, and we can for the most part honor those beliefs in how we run schools and churches.

This may very well not continue following the Supreme Court’s ruling. If you’ve paid attention to the news lately, you may have seen the comment by Solicitor General Donald Verrili in the case arguments. Chief Justice John G. Roberts asked him about the tax exempt status of religious schools who oppose gay marriage. Bob Jones University was previously stripped of their tax exempt status for banning interracial relationships, and the Chief Justice asked if the same would happen to places with policies against homosexuality. The response:

You know, I—I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I—I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is—it is going to be an issue.

So we have from the mouth of an important political official that there will be some kind of problem with the ability of Christian colleges to oppose gay marriage if the ruling enforces its recognition. That is dangerous to Christians, since here we have the legitimate possibility of the government wielding taxation as a weapon to make believers conform to the mindset of the world at large. If this happens, it will be the declaration, “We are Lord, your Jesus is not.”

This problem can also be seen in the statements of various politicians around the nation. Most recently Hillary Clinton comes to mind. Here’s what she said about abortion “rights”:

Far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth. All the laws we’ve passed don’t count for much if they’re not enforced…Rights have to exist in practice — not just on paper…Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.

There’s no trick or quote mining here. Hillary’s record on these matters speaks for itself. For Hillary Clinton, one of the foremost representatives of the Democratic Party and half the country, religious convictions are an obstacle to be overcome so that people can have abortions. Disagreement cannot be tolerated. The law must spite religious belief and move the people towards liberalism’s goals. 

Unfortunately, beliefs like these are all to common and seem to be the trajectory of the government. Soon Christian schools and churches are likely to be faced with a choice: obey Christ or country. Let your judge be God or government. And of course if you choose to believe that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, there will be consequences. They’ll likely start out purely within the economic sphere (taxes and fines), but do not be surprised if they move on from there. Christian schools could potentially lose accreditation. Churches could lose their buildings. And there’s always the possibility of more “hate speech” laws leading to jail time for Christian pastors, professors, and bloggers.

Of course, I’m not here simply to scare anyone or complain about the victories of some conspiratorial liberal elite. I’m simply making the point that our government is reaching a point where it considers itself the “father” of church. Religions are like rambunctious children who must be corrected and disciplined so that they will do what their parents want. The state is to keep the church in line, not the other way around. This is dangerous and points ever so subtly towards an innocent-looking, nearly accepted totalitarianism. 

We know, however, that Jesus is Lord and the U.S. government is not. Whatever they say, we must continue to follow Christ. For we don’t obey the laws of this world for their own sake, as though they had any real authority. We obey them for the Gospel, so that by submitting to the institutions God has given power for the sake of maintaining order we may live quiet, respectful, and peaceful lives which witness to God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ.

This means that when it comes down to it on issues like abortion and gay marriage, or anything else which comes up, we will not waver but follow the faith we have received. We trust that whatever the fallout, we will be vindicated and restored by our Father, if not in this life then in the resurrection. But this also means that we should not go out of our way to cause trouble. While we should stand our ground, we should avoid being feisty, aggressive, or rebellious. These are not Christian virtues and will only unnecessarily hinder our respectable witness. 

I suppose I’ve rambled a bit, so here’s my main point: the U.S. government is coming to a place where it thinks it can control the Christian religion. But it cannot. Whatever authority it presumes to have is undermined by the victory of Jesus. So if they try to oppose us in whatever ways, we are already on the winning side. Because of Christ, we need not fear or get feisty, but can be bold, brave, and also respectably self-controlled. For Jesus is Lord, and the U.S. government is not.

Jesus Is Lord, the U.S. Government Is Not

When God Doesn’t Seem Good: Living with Tough Texts in the Bible

God isn’t always easy to trust. I don’t just mean in the daily lives of living out of faith. I mean even based on what we know of Him, it can be tough to trust Him to be good. Prime example:

This is what the LORD of Hosts says: ‘I witnessed what the Amalekites did to the Israelites when they opposed them along the way as they were coming out of Egypt. Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ “

1 Samuel 15:2-3

Think about that for a moment. Here God, our God revealed in Jesus Christ, says to kill all of the Amalekites without mercy. Even the children and infants. This is not, either, the only time in the Bible that God gives such commands to Israel. There are many tough texts in the Bible, especially in the early Old Testament.. What do we make of that when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me,” and John said, “God is love?” Can these things possibly even mesh at all?

According to a growing number of people, the answer is an obvious “no.” Popular thinkers and writers like Peter Enns and Rachel Held Evans are willing to relegate these instructions to the projections of the Israelites onto their God. The character of Yahweh in the Old Testament, as many will now tell you, is a picture of God distorted by the cultural sins and prejudices of ancient Israel.

On one hand, this sounds good. It would be nice to say, as Enns does, that “God lets His children tell the story,” and leave all the uncomfortable bits in the trash bin of Israel’s sin. But is this really viable? Is this a truly Christian way of reading Scripture? I don’t think so. We have to be willing, as far as I can tell, to let God tell His story through His method, namely the Bible, gore and all.

How can we understand these difficult texts, then? How do we reconcile in our minds the God who died for all the Amalekite children and the God who had them executed? Some people don’t try and just live in denial of the tension. Some people divide God’s will into two, with God’s house divided against itself as He pursues both His love for people and His love for His glory. But a truly Christian way of handling these difficult parts of the Bible requires Christ, namely seeing all of Scripture through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself said that all Scriptures point to Him, and that He fulfills their meaning and purpose.

How does this relate to these hard verses? According to people like Enns, the love of the Cross undermines them. If Jesus is love to such an extent, then Yahweh the Warrior must not be pure revelation but human corruption. Yet this seems dangerous to me, mainly because I believe Jesus and the Apostles treated the entire Old Testament revelation of God as an infallible authority and assumed that portrait in their theology. This even includes His holy wars.

If that “solution” doesn’t work, what does? How do we reconcile these two different views of God? Well, I still point us to the Cross, but in a different way. Instead of undermining the Old Testament violence, I believe the Cross gives us reason to trust God in spite of such things. Yes, God seems to have ordered the wholesale extermination of the Amalekite people, but we should let the Cross teach us that God’s love is even at work here, not that it didn’t happen by God’s plan. Whatever judgment He was willing to inflict on the Amalekite people and children, He willingly suffered Himself for their salvation. If God can perform the ultimate act of love within the horror of His own Son’s unjust crucifixion, surely He can love in anything else.

Ultimately, this all calls for faith. Do you trust that God is good? I do, honestly. I don’t always understand Him, but I trust that He is good. Moreover, I trust that He is good in the revelation He gave us. I trust that He gave us a reliable picture of Himself, even in the tough texts in the Bible, and that this somehow flows with His all-consuming love. How can this be? I don’t have a clue, but like Mary I trust His promise and wait patiently to see what He will do. And even in that I do struggle with this. This is one of the questions that can keep me up at nights, forcing me to surf the web for smart believers with fresh insights. But even then, I wait patiently for God to answer, even if that will not happen before Jesus returns. I can trust Him in the wait, because Jesus proved His love. My prayer is that you can, too.

When God Doesn’t Seem Good: Living with Tough Texts in the Bible