A cure for curses

Question from MF, USA

What are curses? Are they real, and how do you make them go away? Can you make a curse on someone else go away?

A recent news story from England, reported on BBC online, relates to this in very interesting way. The city of Carlisle in Northern England has a bloody history relating to a time when the ‘reavers’ of the lawless English and Scottish borders exerted a reign of terror during the Middle Ages. [On a tangent, that’s where the English word ‘bereaved’ comes from.] During this period the Archbishop of Glasgow issued a ‘curse’ upon the reaver families in 1525.

As reaver history centres on Carlisle, a local artist carved the words of the Archbishop’s curse on a special 14-tonne stone commemorating the turn of the millennium. In early 2005 a number of people requested that Carlisle Council remove the stone because since it had been installed the city has suffered widespread flooding, a large city-centre toxic fire and had borne the brunt of the foot-and-mouth epidemic that significantly affected the agricultural economy on which Carlisle depends. To make matters worse, the local soccer team were relegated from the Football League. [Full details of this story can be found online]

Ironically, a ‘white witch’ argued against destroying the cursing stone because: “A curse can only work if people believe in it… if the council destroys it, they would be showing their belief in the curse… destroying the stone would be very bad for Carlisle because it would feed that power.” [Kevin Carlyon, quoted in a BBC Online article ‘White Witch Warns of Curse Stone Power’, 8 March, 2005]

While it is not freelance theology’s intention to endorse Wicca or paganism, there is a certain element of truth in this statement. The Bible is fairly consistent in believing that words do have power, whether ‘blessings’ or ‘curses’. Oaths and vows are treated as seriously binding. However, while curses are regarded as, in that sense, ‘real’ by the Biblical authors, there is also a clear paradigm where God counteracts a human-uttered curse: Balaam’s curse on the Israelite nation is turned to blessing (Deuteronomy chapter 23, verses 4-5; see also Numbers chapters 22-24).

Within a Christian theological framework, curses are rendered powerless. A significant aspect of the crucifixion is that it included an aspect of being cursed because Jesus was ‘hung on a tree’(see Galatians chapter 3, verse 13/Deuteronomy chapter 21, verse 23). Every curse invoked against a Christian is therefore dealt with, just as any sin or wrongdoing is dealt with, through Jesus’ death on the cross.

In terms of making curses on other people ‘go away’, in Matthew chapter 18, verse 18, Jesus tells his disciples that: “Whatever you bind on earth will be (or has been) bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be (or has been) loosed in Heaven.” This is a commission of authority to those who choose to follow Christ and it would naturally follow that curses and the subsequent effects of curses are included in this, as much as anything else.

Thanks for your question, MF.

The point of miracles

Question from ES, USA

There are many events taking place in the world all the time. Some of these are held (by some) to be miracles. How do you tell which events are miracles and which are not? What about things that don’t happen? Sometimes when something doesn’t occur that some expect to occur, that is held to be a miracle. “A tornado roared through town and not a soul was injured! It’s a miracle!” If it’s difficult to tell the miraculous events from the non-miraculous events, it’s much worse for non-events.

The problem with ‘miracles’ is that they are ultimately subjective. Even where objective studies of miraculous healing take place, the findings of said studies either confirm previously-held convictions or produce conundrums that needs to be studied further. A cynical approach to miraculous events (and non-events) would be that when something ‘good’ happens, then it’s a miracle, but when a similarly unexpected and unlikely chain of events causes something ‘bad’, then it’s an unfortunate coincidence. How involved God is in either case is a matter of personal belief, with few people wanting to ascribe ‘negative miracles’ to God.

Those Christians who rely on miracles to verify their beliefs unintentionally subjugate their belief system to subjective experience. The oft-raised unanswerable question in ‘charismatic’ Christianity is not whether God can heal, but why God sometimes does not. This is the crisis point for many Christians in the experiential tradition – the proof of God’s existence seen when God heals miraculously is reversed as proof against God’s existence when such healing does not occur.

Another way to assess the ‘miraculous’ is to look at the point behind it. The New Testament gospel accounts include many ‘miracle stories’. In the post-Enlightenment scientific age, many of these have been explained away or ‘demythologised’, but whether the stories are taken at face value or not, it is obvious that the gospel writers viewed the stories about the miraculous as pointing to something more.

Jesus’ ability to heal the sick and raise the dead indicate his authority over the effects of sin in the world; his divine power over creation is similarly revealed in the ‘nature miracles’, such as the calming of the storm on the Sea of Galilee (Mark chapter 4, verses 35-41 and parallel accounts). In John’s gospel the link is made even clearer through the use of the word ‘signs’ instead of ‘miracle’ – each mighty act prefaces or links to a discussion that Jesus has with various individuals. The ‘sign’ underlines Jesus’ authority to teach the things he taught about God.

In the contemporary world, there is an emphasis on the miraculous that encompasses the human fascination with the mysterious. The same interest was recorded by the gospel-writers as a source of frustration to Jesus, who on occasion refused to ‘perform for the crowd’ (e.g. Matthew chapter 16, verses 1-4). To ascertain whether any unforeseen event could be a miracle, the point and ultimate result of said event is worth reviewing.

Thanks for your question, ES.

One in three, three in one

Question from VN, United Kingdom

Is God the father the boss of the trinity or are they all equal? Does God have a personality disorder, as there are different bits with varying characteristics?

The assertion that the Christian concept of God is of ‘one God in three persons’ has been the cause of many debates throughout Christian history. It is hard to understand how three can be one can be three, given the fact that human beings are individuals. The relationships between human beings have clearly defined limits and humans, as physical beings, have natural physical limits regardless of relationship. While any number of models to explain how the Trinity ‘works’ have been proposed (e.g. God as the Sun, light and heat), they are all slightly flawed because they rely heavily on physical examples.

It is not easy to talk about the way God relates within the Trinity as opposed to God’s external relationships with the world and created beings. Within orthodox Christian thought, though, one important concept is the idea of ‘coinherence’, or ‘perichoresis’. This idea was present in the Trinitarian debates of the fourth century, and then refined over the following centuries, as this question was repeatedly debated.

Put simply, coinherence/perichoresis refers to a relationship of mutual indwelling, so that when one person of the trinity acts, all three act. One is invariably in the other two, just as they are in the one. From this idea of perfect relationship and harmony comes the uniquely Christian idea of God being in very nature relational, which is the central point of creation and, of course, underscores the absolute tragedy of abused free will and the Fall. The creatures created out of a desire for relationship rebel against that relationship and turn their back on the creator.

The primacy of one Trinitarian person over the others was the cause of the fourth century Arian controversy, which saw God the Father as the prime, unbegotten God, with the Son as a lesser divine agent, and the Spirit as lesser again. This idea of gradated Godhead was countered at the Council of Nicea in AD325, when the Son was declared to be ‘homo-ousios’ (literally: of exactly the same being) as the Father, and then again at the Council of Constantinople in AD381 when the same was applied to the Spirit. The names ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ denote relationship, but not primacy. The ‘Father’ cannot be a ‘Father’, without a ‘Son’; the ‘generation’ of the Son happens eternally within the Godhead, so there was never a time when the Father was alone. The Spirit is the ‘bond of love’ between the Father and the Son. The Spirit thus proceeds from the Father and the Son (although that indicates a major point of theological disagreement between western Catholic theology and eastern Orthodox theology, with the west historically regarding the Spirit’s procession from both, while the east sees the Spirit proceeding from the Father alone).

While it is tempting to do, the concept of a coinherent Trinity means that drawing distinctions between God’s “different bits with varying characteristics” is slightly misguided. While the different persons may act in different ways towards the created cosmos and the creatures who inhabit it, there is a strong sense of united purpose and action together. So, the Son becomes a mortal man through the impetus of the ‘sending’ Father and the agency of the Spirit, all three working together as one to achieve the same ends; the Father endorses the Son through the sending of the Spirit; and the Son imparts the Spirit to reveal the Father in the life of the Church.

Thanks for your question VN.

Human bodies after the resurrection

Question from DH, Australia

When Jesus returns to earth and raises the dead what form will they be in? This is a question given to me by an elderly man in a nursing home and I cannot come up with a suitable answer for him.

The traditional Christian doctrine relating to the resurrection is that believers will receive new, immortal, perfect bodies when the dead are ‘raised’ (see 1 Corinthians chapter 15, verses 35-55). This emphasis on a physical body follows the Jewish holistic way of regarding the complete person as inseparable, in marked contrast to the Hellenistic Greek idea that the body and soul parted at death and only the soul survived.

Paul makes it quite clear that whatever the eventual fate of the body, the believer has already been ‘buried with Christ’ through the rite of baptism (Romans 6, verse 4, see also Colossians 2, verse 12). This is the death that matters to Paul – the death of the ‘old self’. The resurrection, when it happens, will occur ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ when ‘the dead will be raised imperishable’ (1 Corinthians 15, verse 52).

In the passage in 1 Corinthians chapter 15, Paul notes that, as with seeds, there is a difference between what is ‘sown’ and what is ‘raised’ and there is also continuity. Wayne Grudem comments: “On this analogy we can say that whatever remains in the grave from our own physical bodies will be taken by God and transformed and used to make a new resurrection body.” [Grudem, Systematic Theology, IVP 1994, p.833] This explains how the sea will ‘give up the dead who are in it’ on judgment day, as described in Revelation chapter 20, verse 13.

The Bible is quite aware that bodies decompose; dust returning to dust (Genesis 3, verse 19). Yet it would seem that is not a problem to God, who can take whatever remains and refashion the physical body in a perfect and incorruptible form, recognisably the same, yet different.

Thanks for your question, DH.

The impact of The Da Vinci Code

Question from KR, India

Hello, I came across your site and I found it very useful. But, I couldn’t find one answer, I searched all over the internet but didn’t find any luck. Could you please tell me how the Da Vinci Code affected/influenced Western thought? I hope you can help me.

There is already an item on freelance theology about The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. In terms of this question, the book has had very little impact on Western academic thought because it is a poorly researched detective novel that repackages some old, unproven and historically dubious ideas as part of its storyline.

The Da Vinci Code has of course proved very popular in terms of book sales and, with a film dramatisation being released next year, that popularity is probably set to continue. However, while it has sparked interest in the history of Christianity, a cursory glance at the contemporary features of the book indicates that this is a work of fiction. For example, the Catholic organisation Opus Dei, cast as villains in the novel, do not have monks, and the real Westminster Abbey does not have metal detectors at the doors.

Given the lack of contemporary accuracy, it is telling that the author shies away from questions about the accuracy of his research. Despite an assertion of truth on the introductory page, most of the ‘revelations’ concerning Jesus and Mary Magdalene are old ideas borrowed straight from a book published in 1982 called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. The authors of that book are now reportedly suing Brown for borrowing their ‘research’ without asking permission.

Incidentally, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was dismissed as fringe nonsense back in the 1980s. Other parts of The Da Vinci Code, including the description of the discussions at the Council of Nicea and the assertion that the Emperor Constantine rewrote the Bible to ‘prove’ Jesus was divine are laughable in the extreme and betray a complete lack of historical knowledge.

The success of The Da Vinci Code is undoubtedly because it challenges conventional religious norms and established religion. As such, its popularity is telling, revealing that despite centuries of scholarship the sensational and novel (i.e. new) grabs the imagination of people, who are willing to accept fiction as fact for no other reason than that they want to.

Thanks for your question, KR.

Salvation in the here and now

Question from TS, USA

If Jesus destroyed the power of sin and death, why does salvation seem to only give future and not present hope?

One criticism that is frequently levelled at Christianity is that it promises ‘pie in the sky when you die’ – the inference being that the promises of eternal life distract people from the injustices and hardships of day-to-day living. This view of salvation as something to come was the basis for Karl Marx’s famous description of religion as the ‘opiate of the people’, used by the rich and powerful to dupe the masses (proletariat) into accepting oppression and exploitation now in the hope of a better life later. (more…)