Is the devil beyond redemption?

Question from MF, USA

Why don’t we pray for the devil to convert? He’s a creature just like us, a sinner just like us. If we could prevail on him to rethink his life’s course, it might take a huge weight off the rest of us. I can’t see how including the devil in our daily prayers wouldn’t be a good idea. After all, we are supposed to love our enemies.

This idea has been put forward before; in its earliest form by one of the first Christian apologists, called Origen (c.185-254AD). Among many innovative ideas, Origen proposed that Christ’s death was sufficient to renew all things. Therefore at the final restoration (‘apokatastasis’ in Greek), even the devil would be restored to an original, good state. (more…)

Disembodied State

Question from SB, USA

Can you tell me the meaning of a ‘disembodied state’?

A simple definition is that of a spirit or soul existing without a body. The idea that the soul can exist apart from the body is quite popular today, but is not actually a traditional Christian point of view, having its origins in Hellenistic (Greek) philosophy. The New Testament borrows from pre-Christian Jewish thought, regarding human beings holistically – an indivisible three-fold combination of body, soul and spirit (or mind). That is why salvation is seen through a physical resurrection, albeit in a changed body, not a ‘spiritual’ migration of the soul to a different place (see for example1 Corinthians chapter 15, verses 42-44).

In contrast to the New Testament view of human beings, some Hellenistic philosophy (often called ‘gnosticism’) taught that the true essence of humanity was found in the immortal soul, which was ‘trapped’ in the physical body and needed releasing from its ‘fleshly prison’. This negative view of the body is firmly rejected in Christian doctrinal statements about what it means to be human.

Another ‘disembodied state’ is the disputed occurrence of ‘out-of-body’ or ‘near death’ experiences (OBE and NDE). These typically take place in perilous situations, where people are gradually dying and include visions of their own body seen from ‘outside’, white light, dead relatives and sometimes even God or Jesus. There have also been recorded OBE and NDE accounts where people claim to have visited Hell and have been so shaken by the experience, that upon medical revival in this world, they have fervently become Christians. How much credence is given to these accounts is of course entirely subjective and theories relating to thought pathways in the brain triggering visual hallucinations as the brain cells shut down have been posited instead.

Given the Christian holistic emphasis on the nature of human beings, it naturally precludes the sentimental idea of departed souls with unfinished business continuing to exist as ‘ghosts’. However, inconclusive yet intriguing evidence for psychic phenomena has been presented and there is also one ‘ghost story’ found in the Old Testament when the Israelite king Saul uses a witch to summon the spirit of Samuel the prophet (the story is found in 1 Samuel chapter 28). At no point in this tale does the author say that the spirit was not Samuel and if it was indeed his spirit, then this is the one account in the Bible of someone in a disembodied state.

Thanks for your question, SB.

Going solo

Two freelance theology correspondents have written in asking questions related to church attendance.
Firstly, new questioner JF, United Kingdom, asked:

I’ve often heard Christians saying things like ‘if I ever found a perfect church I couldn’t join because then it wouldn’t be perfect anymore’, or ‘I’m remaining at my current church as a witness of what I really believe’ etc. While this is a sentiment I’ll go along with to a point in regard to the out-workings and practices of a church, I believe it can be unwise in terms of beliefs and doctrines. So, how much (if at all) do you think you should go along with what a church believes/does/says if it goes against what you believe the true message of Christ is? How much should you ‘play church’? Are these people just making excuses, and at what point do you think you should stand up for what you believe to be right and leave? Is staying just making a mockery of what doing church is meant to be all about? (The example that comes to the forefront of my mind is that of the role of women, but it also applies to worship, outreach, regard for the poor, dress, gifts of the spirit, to name a few.)

And then regular question-poser CM, United Kingdom, asked:

I have a couple of Christian friends that seem to be drawn into this new Christian trend of individualism and the rejection of regular church fellowship as beneficial. They say they don’t need to go to church and think their spiritual life is fine. Their lifestyle is totally contrary to what they say they believe, not just in a typically human way but in a “If it feels good how can it be wrong” way. How would you define this? Is it a form of Christian relativism or is it liberalism? They don’t think anything of sleeping around and as long as it’s only with one person at a time they think it’s alright, but at least they’re not hurting anyone. I seem to meet others who are like this too, usually either in university or not long out of it. Have they succumbed to the overpowering influence of submitting to an institution that doesn’t reflect their beliefs? I can think of a dozen or more reasons to excuse their behaviour but ultimately surely if they really understood their salvation and what it truly means to be ‘born again’ they would not act like this?

While freelance theology does not advocate any particular type of church over and above another, both these questions reflect key issues facing many churches, which boil down ultimately to one issue – the growth of the consumer, materialistic, individual worldview that still characterises the ‘Modern’ mindset of Western Christianity. This consumerism has infiltrated Christianity to the point where Christians often mistakenly believe that there are many churches within a given location. In fact, there is only one church. There may be many expressions of it (and some of those expressions may disagree with each other to the point of exclusion), but it is worth pointing out that no one denomination, or particular gathering of Christians, has the right to label themselves ‘the’ Church, only ‘a’ church.

Belonging (or not) to any Christian community of faith is always an act of conscience and an act of will. A believer commits to a particular brand of church, or decides not to belong anywhere. Difficulties often arise over three points. The first is theological – does what this particular local church say is true resonate with me and my reading of Scripture or understanding of the world. The second is practical – do I enjoy or appreciate this particular way of ‘doing church’. The third difficulty ties in with the first two and asks whether being part of this community is relevant – or in other words, does it help me?

It could be argued that all three difficulties are, as stated above, down to the consumer mindset inculcated by society. But there are genuine criticisms of ‘church’ made by many believers who struggle to see the ideal of what church should be in the day-to-day reality of how churches actually are. This dichotomy between the ideal and the real, not just in the area of church life, is one of the main reasons those outside the faith brand Christians hypocrites. To put it another way, if Christians claim that the God they worship is powerfully involved with the world, why are their meetings so dull? It’s a legitimate point that is usually ignored by those who seek to defend Christianity from its detractors.

Leaving a church due to theological differences is a thorny issue. On one level, again, you have to be pretty sure that you are wholly correct (and the rest of the church wholly in error) before you ‘take a stand’ and even then is the issue important enough to ‘break fellowship’ with other Christians? The history of protestant Christianity is littered with breakaway churches, where people have taken issue over minor theological points – the way to baptise people is a classic one, while in recent years the legitimacy of the ‘gifts of the Spirit’ have become a frequent reason for church splits. It has been noted that there is always a tension between the establishment and the radical tendency – a conflict that is sometimes labelled ‘prophecy’ versus ‘order’. Christianity has a tendency to stabilise and normalise into a rigid orthodoxy with a legalistic, conforming bent. In reaction to this, there has always been a reforming strand, both before the Reformation proper, and certainly in Protestantism since the break with Rome. The old joke goes: “We don’t mean to cause a split, but we are known as the dissenting church…

However, it is unlikely that, with a few exceptions, most people leave a church due to theological objections. The evidence seems to be that most people switch churches because they prefer the meeting format elsewhere or they fall out with people. The same is true for people who stop attending church altogether. It just does not seem relevant to real life. Again the ideal of church – that it is a place where the believing community meets to corporately express their worshipful gratitude to God and grow as disciples of Christ through teaching and proclamation of God’s truth – does not match the real experience of church.

Protestantism’s over-emphasis on individual salvation (which, incidentally, was a prime formational component of Modernist individualism) has naturally led to a point where many believers look to their own interpretations of Scripture, plan their own discipleship strategies, and generally live their own Christian lives independent of a believing community. Critics of such an individualistic outlook often cite Hebrews chapter 10, verse 25 (“let us not forsake meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing”), to castigate those who have voluntarily chosen not to participate in church life. Although, in fairness the eschatology within the same verse – that sees Judgment Day as immanent – is hard to appreciate two thousand years later. The internal logic of this verse would imply that Christians should be meeting together al the time now, as we are presumably so much nearer to Judgment Day!

The importance of the Church universal, as opposed to the local expressions of it, is of course a prominent part of New Testament theology. The Church is the “Body of Christ” (1 Corinthians chapter 12, Ephesians chapter 4, verse 25, Colossians chapter 1, verse 24) and a ‘living Temple’ that replaces the Jewish Temple as the place where God meets his people (1 Peter chapter 2, verse 5), among other allegorical statements. It is quite clear that exiting the believing community was considered a sign of disbelief among the New Testament writers, as too was disharmony, quarrelling and one-upmanship. Most of the advice to specific people given by Paul and the other letter-writers ends up with the writer urging people to get along. So, difficulties in church life are nothing particularly new.

The tension, then between asserting a personally-grasped faith and individual commitment and the belief that a believer should stay in community, does lead to a tricky dilemma, at least within protestant churches. On the one hand, there is no desire to locate salvation within the institutional set-up (unlike in the Roman church for example, where you have be part of the Church, however loosely that is applied, to be saved), but at the same time a check needs to be placed on taking personal salvation too far and away from accountable relationships. ‘Discipleship’ shares the same root word as ‘discipline’ and, as is frequently seen by many people besides CM, it is hard to maintain self-discipline in isolation from the normative influences of the community.

Churches have often been quick to condemn those who have left as ‘backsliders’ or for ‘falling away’, but it can be convincingly argued that many churches have themselves fallen away from the ideal of what the Church should be about. Christian faith has often been weakened to a vague set of rules and ‘happy thoughts about heaven’, while churches have sought to increase their influence in society, seeking respectability rather than scandalous radicalism that affronts the world and wins over the hearts and minds of people.

None so Blind (John 9)

Jon the freelance theologian delivered this community talk on 12 June 2005. The reading was John chapter 9: the healing of the man who had been born blind.

If you stopped anyone on the street and asked them what the Bible was they’d probably end up telling you it was a religious book. So, it always amazes me how anti-religious the Bible can sometimes be. It seems ironic that the real villains of this section of Scripture are in fact the people who should be ‘in the know’. They are the holiest men from among God’s chosen people and yet the ruling religious elite seems to get things awfully wrong.

Looking at this passage of scripture we see that the set-up, as is so common in the gospel accounts, is a question: “Who sinned? Was it this man or his parents?” (verse 2). Usually when a question is asked it’s prefaced by a comment like ‘some of the teachers of the law were trying to trick Jesus so they asked him a tough question’, but here this isn’t a ‘test case’; it isn’t a semi-philosophical conundrum designed to catch Jesus out. It’s a genuine question from his disciples.

The common theory of the time was that usually sickness was a result of sin. In many ways the ‘health and wealth’ prosperity teaching that we have inflicted upon us by fundamentalist Bible preachers and satellite television is nothing new. The claim that ‘real believers don’t get sick’ – and it’s flipside: that if you do get sick, then you’re not a real believer – were as prevalent in Jesus’ day as they are now. And yet like many discerning believers today, such blanket claims and such patently false teaching was often questioned by those who had experienced life and knew that good people got sick and died while bad people seemed to prosper. This question from the disciples is a genuine one. They want to know what Jesus really thinks about this situation, because it seems ridiculously unfair.

What could a person have done – what sin was so great? – that they would be struck blind from birth? What did their parents do and, more importantly, what does it say about God’s justice that this man may be suffering as a result of someone else’s sin? It’s actually a hugely open-ended question and one that must have puzzled the disciples. They were used to hearing the religious types castigating the beggars and lepers as sinners (conveniently meaning you didn’t have to feel compassion or pity for them – they must deserve whatever sickness they are suffering from).

And in this religious worldview, the disciples presented Jesus with the two options they had heard – it was either this man or his parents who had sinned. Jesus could have picked one and gone on to do something else. All the other rabbis were giving a simplistic answer to the conundrum that besets the believer when faced by seemingly random evil. He didn’t take the easy option and get judgmental. But he did make a judgment call.

The disciples question masks the real question: what is God doing in the world when things like this happen? Why is this man blind? And Jesus’ response is to say ‘this is what God’s doing. If you need some sort of proof that God really does care, here it is.’ And then he spits on the ground, rubs the mud on the man’s eyes and sends him away to wash the mud off.

I don’t really know what was going through the guy’s head when he heard the conversation about sin and stuff. He was probably used to it, thinking ‘oh, here we go, another “holy man” going to tell me I’m a sinner’. He was probably used to people spitting on him too, so hearing Jesus getting some spit together (getting ready to huck a loogie as our transatlantic brethren would call it) wouldn’t have been too much of a surprise. He was probably quite glad that when Jesus spat he missed his target. He wasn’t to know that Jesus was aiming at the floor.

When Jesus healed lepers he broke one of society’s taboos and touched people, and reaching out and touching a beggar was also unusual – they were obviously ‘sinners after all! And I think it’s interesting that this blind man heard Jesus’ command to go and wash and followed it through. The author of John’s gospel, traditionally the apostle John, notes that the pool the blind man is sent to is called ‘sent’. There is a direct correlation between the man’s healing and his obedience when he hears the command of Jesus. As with the ministry of the apostles whom Jesus sends out to do the work of the Kingdom, the effects of the Kingdom of God, in this case – healing, dynamically break through into ordinary life when the man is sent. [And note he is actually sent away from Jesus. He had to leave the place he was in, the begging station he probably knew so well and go to a different part of the city; perhaps somewhere he didn’t know well. I don’t know if there’s any significance in that, but it’s also interesting.]

And of course he’s healed. His friends and neighbours were mystified. Not even sure if he was the same guy. Was this some kind of trick? But note the reaction of the religious leaders as the news started to spread. The man had been taken to the Pharisees. We aren’t told why. Perhaps it was to have the miracle authenticated. We don’t know. But we do know that the Pharisees weren’t best pleased. I think there is something crucial here that I’d like to explore over three points.

Firstly: this healing has occurred, but there is scepticism at work, rooted in the fact that it’s happened on the Sabbath. This is an objection to Jesus’ actions that came up again and again – how could you do the things of God if it meant working on the Sabbath? We might think it’s a bit daft, but given that the Sabbath had been divinely instituted – it features in the core of God’s law as revealed in the early part of the Old Testament, when Yahweh God give his Ten Commandments to Moses – it throws up a quandary. If Jesus is healing through the power of Yahweh God, then why is he doing this ‘work’ on the Sabbath, as Yahweh God told people to preserve the Sabbath as a holy day of rest?

Well, perhaps it’s down to a misunderstanding as to what the Sabbath is really about and people not realising who Jesus really is. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus tells the religious leaders that the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around (see Mark chapter 2, verse 27). In other words the Sabbath is important because human beings need to rest and take time out to consider God’s priorities. The problem was that ‘observing the Sabbath’ had taken priority – the thing that was there to meet the needs of the people had become this thing that placed extra demands on the people.

Societal structures often have a habit of doing that. The welfare state is a fantastic, and I believe God-honouring idea, but too often those who depend most heavily on it have to spend far too much time filling in forms and going to interviews and examinations. What has happened is that something that was designed to serve vulnerable people has started making demands on those people and they have to jump through the various hoops imposed on them. The principle of government is another example. We vote for people who become servants of the people in their constituency, but our relationship with the ‘Government’ is one of oppression and being made to conform to certain rules. The institution that was created to protect and benefit society now demands we serve it.

But compared to religious structures, other societal institutions that exercise wrongful authority pale into insignificance. What has happened here? The religious leaders have substituted cast-iron rules and regulations instead of a personal love for the ways of God. It is the bane of religion that it is so much easier to create a checklist of do’s and don’ts that will dictate whether you are holy or not. It is so easy to substitute ‘morality’ (usually based on God’s ideals, but still only a way of living, when it comes down to it) for a genuine relationship with God.

And that’s what has happened in this situation. The religious leaders know that the Sabbath rules have been broken so they quiz the man. When they don’t get any satisfactory answers from him, they question his parents. I feel for his parents. They have suffered years of shame from having a son who was born blind – the whispers, the word ‘sinners’ muttered behind their back – and then when this incredible event happens, the religious people who had condemned them as sinful don’t even give these parents the opportunity to rejoice in their son’s healing before dragging them into the synagogue and giving them the third degree. The parents deflect the questions back to their son out of fear. (It’s sad, isn’t it, how religion intimidates people?)

So then the Pharisees ask the man the questions again and at this point he starts getting annoyed and eventually gets facetious, as all sensible people tend to when faced by hardcore religious dogmatists, asking if they’re interested because they want to be his disciples too (verse 27). And he gets sarcastic: “That’s really strange that you don’t know [whether he’s from God or not]. Well, God doesn’t listen to sinners, but he does listen to people who do his will” (verses 30-31). That’s a direct challenge to the Pharisees – ‘you say you know God, but you couldn’t heal me!’

Then they chuck him out, reaffirming that he’s a sinner. (“You were born in sin!” -verse 34.) Despite the miracle and despite the fact that the ‘evidence’ for calling him a sinner (his blindness) is no longer there, the things he says do not mesh with their worldview. And they aren’t willing to question their own doctrinal certainties. What a travesty. There is the comparison a few verses on when the insight of the ex-blind man is contrasted directly with the closed-mindedness of those who could physically see. The author of John’s gospel is a master of irony and he pulls this point out at the end of the chapter that we read earlier. Those who should have seen God’s hand in the day’s events, refused to recognise it, but a sinner and outcast truly saw what was going on.

It’s a salutary warning to those of us who engage in church. To give it a more contemporary feel, although this is old news for many of us, the divisions and arguments caused by the spiritual awakening in the early 1990s that was dubbed the “Toronto Blessing”, is an apt example. Those of us who were in churches at the time will remember the debate about whether it was really from God and, interestingly, the debate never really moved beyond the scenario in John chapter 9. Those who opposed it did so on the basis of their theological disposition towards charismatic phenomena. They had their ‘certain truth’ and they were positive that God wouldn’t move in a way that seemed to go against His own Word, as they interpreted it.

Now I’m not going to stand here and say that they were completely wrong because there were serious issues in the way some churches were affected by the hype and decided they wanted to ‘do Toronto’ too. Egos did get involved and the whole thing fizzled out rather quickly when they did. Some of the wilder claims concerning revival still haven’t come true and we would be wise to hold certain Christian leaders to account for that and bear it in mind if we’re asked to weigh future pronouncements. So, yeah, there were issues. But nobody has the right to tell God that he can’t act in any way he sees fit, just because we think we know everything there is to know about the way God does things. It’s a sad fact that the majority of opposition we will face when ‘doing the stuff’ will probably come from other Christians.

I’m not a name-dropper. But recently I was at a media conference and ended up in a small-group conversation with Joel Edwards, the head of the Evangelical Alliance. He was saying how the world needed to see more empirical evidence of the good news, either through acts of kindness like ‘Soul in the City’, or supernatural acts of kindness like miraculous healing, to pique people’s curiosity. But, he said, the cynicism of the media and our current culture would soon dismiss whatever ‘proof’ we had.

I challenged him on that, because I think if someone went out on the streets of Cardiff and healed 50 lepers (not that we have a huge amount of lepers in Cardiff, but you know what I mean), the general public would be amazed and the media would definitely want to know more. In fact, I said to him, I think the biggest cynics would probably be among that non-Charismatic element within his own organisation, the Evangelical Alliance, who so sneeringly dismiss stories of healings, spiritual gifts and other aspects of the Kingdom life. “When,” I asked him, “are you going to convince some Christians that God can work supernaturally?” Joel Edwards, to his credit, is a very gracious man and he didn’t slap me for being so cheeky, but it is a real issue. Let’s not kid ourselves. If we go out on the streets to ‘do the stuff’, some religious people are going to take issue with us.

The second point to draw out of this chapter is that the religious people completely lost sight of the human being at the centre of it. They were asking questions, they wanted to get to the bottom of it, but they didn’t realise the real miracle.

As we mentioned the blind man was sent… and he went. The response was unnatural. If someone had rubbed spit-mud in your eyes would you then do what he told you to do? I don’t know if I would. And when he gets shirty with the Pharisees, he asks them if they want to be Jesus’ disciples too. Think about that – ‘do you want to be his disciples too?’ There’s an identification going on there. This man now thinks of himself as a follower of Jesus. Hardly surprising, considering that Jesus has transformed his life, doing what no other rabbi or holy teacher had been able to do.

But, just like they cannot see God’s involvement in this situation, the Pharisees have also lost sight of the human being at the centre. That’s something that we can do too. We should never substitute seeing God at work for a quest for doctrinal correctness. What that means is, we should never demand that people sign a statement of faith before we grudgingly admit that God has worked in their lives. We have to realise that everybody starts somewhere and – I’m a theologian, perhaps I shouldn’t be saying this – you don’t need to know the Bible backwards to hear God’s voice; you don’t need to spend three years at Bible school to pray effectively; you don’t need to understand the Nicene Creed, or even know what it is, to know that you need God in your life. I’m happy to talk you through the tough bits of the Bible, I’m happy to explain the development of Christian doctrine and even what the Nicene Creed is, but those of us who are learned should never allow our learning to become a source of pride and a barrier to God’s intentions. Otherwise what we will end up with is an arid intellectual faith that is technically correct on all it’s points, but is fundamentally hollow.

All the learning in the world is no use to anyone if you don’t love people, value them, cherish them, spend time with them, encourage them, build them up and appreciate the things God is doing in their lives. The soulless hole we see in so much religion comes from insisting on a tick-box attitude to faith – replacing a love for God that often comes from a flawed and broken life, with adherence to precise and correct points of belief.

The mistake we make is assuming that if we attain doctrinal purity, then behavioural purity will follow. We say ‘believe the right things and you’ll act the right way’ and when we do that we put our own theological systems in the place of God. Meet God and you’ll act the right way! Do what he tells you and you’ll be doing the right thing! It’s true that we all need pointers into hearing God’s voice, and we need good friends who will ask us if we’re doing the right thing, and hold us accountable in our actions, but our priority has to be to do God’s will, not understand the finer points of theology to the very last detail. (And that applies for those of us who love theology and can’t get enough of it!)

Another mistake we make is forgetting that the people we are called to love; those who don’t know God as their father yet, are precious to God. I hate the term ‘friendship evangelism’. I think it is easily the most pervasive heretical statement of the post-Modern era. I know it doesn’t mean this, but it sounds like we only want to be friends with people because we have an ulterior motive. Let me say something provocative (just for a change): the people you meet every day, who you work with, who you live with – they need friends, not ‘evangelists’ who want to be their friends and try and convert them all the time. They need to be valued as human beings, respected as creatures made in the image of God, in whom that image still flickers faintly. We should never become friends with anyone for any other reason than that they are worth it and that God thinks they are worth it. Otherwise we lose sight of the precious human being that Christ died for and we become hypocrites.

My third point is a short one. The question was raised and the disciples gave Jesus two options – is it this reason, or that reason? And Jesus wasn’t happy with either. Instead he took the discussion off into a whole new dimension that ended with a huge miracle, a huge controversy and a huge number of seriously pissed off religious people. Hallelujah!

When we ask questions of God, we should only ever expect an answer that will confound our limited expectations. God doesn’t tend to answer our questions directly. Often he just asks questions back (“whose image is on this coin?” Matthew 22.20) or sets tough challenges of his own (“Let anyone without sin cast the first stone” John 8.7). But even though he doesn’t answer the questions we set, he still has an answer. He presents his solution to the problem – in this case he heals a man born blind, something that had never been done before.

As we think about this chapter more and get into it, we see these applications:
Firstly, to not allow what we think God can do to get in the way of accepting what he actually does and to not elevate our human knowledge above its station. Secondly, to not lose sight of the human beings in whatever situation we find ourselves in. Thirdly, to anticipate the answer we don’t expect from the God who does things that have never been done before.