Can we on earth do anything to help those who have already died?

As Paul is defending the resurrection in 1 Corinthians, he asks, “If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?”  Is there really something we here on earth can do, such as being baptized, to help those who have already died?

In my guide to Paul’s Journey Letters I explain that he doesn’t actually support baptism for the dead.  My understanding of Paul’s reference in 1 Corinthians to those who were baptized on behalf of the dead is that he was talking about something his opponents were doing—the people who denied his teaching about the bodily resurrection.  Paul was pointing out how inconsistent and contradictory this practice was, in light of their doctrine:  It made no sense to baptize the bodies of the departed through a substitute if those bodies were gone and never coming back.  But Paul wasn’t advocating either the practice (baptism for the dead) or the doctrine (denial of the resurrection).  He was just delegitimizing his opponents with this rhetorical question.

As for your specific concern, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that some devotional activities can reach across the divide between this world and the next.  Christ’s intercession at the right hand of God for us here on earth is a clear example.  (It may also be that God hears and answers the prayers of believers in heaven for people on earth, although we aren’t told about this specifically in the Bible.) So maybe our prayers can also be of some benefit to those who have passed on.

This gets into the larger question of whether everyone’s eternal destiny is fixed definitively at death, or whether people have some opportunity after death to embrace God’s love, and might be helped towards this through our prayers. There are some hints about this in the Bible, such as when Peter talks about Jesus going and preaching to the spirits who were in prison.  But we don’t know enough to be able to say for sure.

BaptismIn any event, baptism itself is only effective, as the church has held throughout the centuries, if the person being baptized has faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior.  This faith is not something one person can supply for another.  (In infant baptism, the parents or sponsors are doing for the infant what they believe he or she would if able; the expectation is that the infant will later confirm this action as a believer.)  The issue in this case, in other words, is the nature of baptism itself, not the question of whether we can do anything for those who have passed on.  Prayer, maybe, but baptism, no.

Did the earth’s atmosphere become translucent and then transparent, allowing light and then the sun to become visible on earth?

sun_4ae1db4b5688c

The following is a comment on my earlier post on the question of how there could have been light on the first day of creation when the sun was only created on the fourth day.  Because of its length and detail, the comment is printed here and my response follows.

What a great question. Whilst I don’t believe that Genesis was written as a science textbook, I believe that there should be harmony between what we see in the Bible and what we observe in science. This is because God is the author of both.

One of the most important things one needs to do in scientific research and in Biblical hermeneutics is to determine the frame of reference. I think that it is important that readers of Genesis 1 understand that the days of Genesis come from the Hebrew word “yom” which can mean a very long indeterminate length of time . . . an age.

Furthermore, a change in the frame of reference takes place between Gen. 1:1 [“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”} and Gen. 1:2 [“Now the earth was formless and empty”]. It moves from the universe to the surface of the primordial earth.

The text does not say that light was created in Gen. 1:3 [“God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light”]. The actual Hebrew word is “hayah” which means to “appear” or to “cause to appear”. According to the best planetary theory the primordial earth had a dense and opaque atmosphere. This is exactly what the Scriptures say. Planetary models describe how the atmosphere slowly cleared and day and night were distinguishable . . . they “appeared”. Later on the atmosphere becomes translucent and then transparent. This explains the sun and moon “appearing” only on creation Day 4. This scientific model is in harmony with what the best science describes.

The rest of Genesis is also completely consistent with science. The establishment of a stable water cycle, the appearance of continents and plants, the clearing of the atmosphere, the appearance of sea animals and birds, followed by land animals and humans. Science tells us that this is the order that these things happened. But the Bible said it first! For an ancient writer to just get one of these creation events correct would be something. But to get them all correct and in the correct order is truly remarkable. The probability of an ancient writer getting the order of the 13 creation events correct is 13 factorial or 1 chance in 6.227 billion.

Don D. Wallar, M.Sc.
President, Toronto Chapter
Reasons to Believe
http://www.reasons.org

Don, thanks so much for sharing your own reflections on the Genesis account.  It’s great to engage these questions with you.

It seems to me that we are approaching the account with different expectations.  You’re expecting that it will be possible to match up its narrative details with the facts of natural history. I’m not necessarily expecting this; rather, I think we need to try to understand the account as a whole from its own perspective and then ask how it speaks to us today.

But this difference in approaches doesn’t mean we can’t talk.  In the Genesis study guide in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series, I invite small group members to state their opinions briefly about how the Genesis creation account  relates to science, but then “leave them at the door” and not debate them, so that the group can explore the text on a literary level. And that’s what you’ve allowed the two of us to do by your references to its literary structure and vocabulary.  Let me then engage each of the points you made.

The meaning of the word “yom.” The basic and most common meaning of the Hebrew word yom is “day.”  In most cases this is an ordinary day.  It’s true that the term can also be used figuratively to mean a longer, even an indeterminate, length of time.  In Deuteronomy, for example, Moses tells the people of Israel to celebrate Passover so that they will always remember “the day of your going forth from the land of Egypt.” The NIV translates this as “the time of your departure,” recognizing that a longer period of time is in view.  The prophets, to give another example, often begin their oracles by saying “In that day,” referring to an indefinite future period.  And so forth.  So how can we tell whether yom means a simple day, or a longer time period?  We have to depend on the context.  And the Genesis account says that for each “day,” “there was evening, and there was morning.”  I take this as an indication from the author that we’re meant to understand these as ordinary days, which the Hebrews considered to begin at sunset.  From the author’s observational perspective, creation looks like six days’ work:  realms are created on the first three days (day vs. night, sky vs. sea, sea vs. land), and these realms are populated on the next three days.  “A place for everything, and everything in its place”:  the account communicates the original order, beauty, and harmony of God’s creation.  But it doesn’t necessarily say that creation took place over a long period covering many ages.

•  Change in reference after the start of the account. Our English translations give us the impression that there is a change in the frame of reference after the opening sentence of the creation account, a change “from the universe to the surface of the primordial earth,” as you put it.  We hear about God creating “the heavens and the earth,” and then the action apparently shifts to the waters of the sea, grass on the ground, etc.  But the words used for “heaven” (shemayim) and “earth” (‘erets) in the opening sentence are actually the very same words used for the “sky” and the “land” everywhere else in the account, for example, “God made lights for the expanse of the sky (shemayim),” “The land (‘erets) produced vegetation,” etc.  So it would be more accurate to translate the opening line of the account this way:  “In the beginning God created the sky and the land.”  We would then realize that this is a summary of what follows, in the characteristic Hebrew narrative style.  (For example, later in the book of Genesis we’re told in summary, “Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more.”  Then we get the details.)  So as I see it, there is no change in the frame of reference.  An earthbound observer is describing “the sky and the land” throughout the whole account.

•  The meaning of the word “hayah.” The Hebrew word for “to appear” is actually ra’ah, “to see,” in the Niphal or reflexive stem meaning “to be seen” or “to appear.”  That’s the word that’s used in the creation account when God says, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.”  The word hayah means “to be.”  It can also mean “to become,” that is, “to come into existence,” and that’s what I understand the term to mean with regard to the light of the first day:  “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and the light was (hayah),” that is, light came into existence.  This is not a case of a previously created entity becoming visible.

Even though these considerations related to the vocabulary and structure of the account leave me convinced that it is literally intended but written from an observational perspective, I share your belief that there is an ultimate coherence between scientific discoveries of the wonder and beauty of the created universe and the Bible’s revelation to us of God as Creator.  I happen to believe that these operate on two different levels, while it seems you believe they operate on the same level.  But we both agree that we can learn much about God from what are often called the “two books” of God’s revelation, nature and Scripture.  The fine organization you work with, Reasons to Believe, encourages believers and seekers to reflect with wonder and respect on the universe that God created, and I feel that the Genesis author is doing exactly the same thing, speaking out of an ancient culture to readers down through the ages.

How could a divinely inspired book be written from a limited human perspective?

Valentin de Boulogne, "St. Paul Writing His Epistles"
Valentin de Boulogne, “St. Paul Writing His Epistles”

In my last post I discussed the question of how there could have been light on the first day in the Genesis creation account when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day.  I suggested that the Genesis author was writing from an observational perspective—that he was describing on the first day the light that appears in the sky before the sun rises and which is still seen on days when the sun doesn’t become visible, believing this light to be independent of the sun.  As I noted, this explanation may answer the original question, but it raises another one:  How can the inspired word of God be expressed through such a limited human perspective?  In the Bible, wasn’t the omniscient God making sure that everything the human authors wrote was fully accurate, scientifically and historically?

My response to this would be that we only have one divinely inspired book, the Bible, so that whatever expectations we might have of such a book, if we want to know what one is really like, we have to look at the only one we have.  And when we do, it  appears that the Bible is indeed written from an observational perspective:  The Genesis creation account as a whole, for example, describes a flat earth under a solid sky, lit by a diffused light independent of the sun. That’s exactly how it appears.

But it’s actually very gracious of God to allow the biblical authors to tell his story from our perspective like this.  Imagine if the Bible had said instead that while the sun might appear to be moving through the sky, it’s actually stationary relative to the earth, and while the ground beneath our feet might not appear to be moving, it’s actually spinning at a thousand miles an hour, creating the impression of the sun’s motion.  People throughout the centuries would have rejected a book that made claims so outlandishly contrary to plain experience!  People would still do the same in many parts of the world today.  So by having the biblical authors express divine truths in observational language, God ensured that the Bible could travel into all different times and places, speaking to all human cultures.  It can still speak to our own scientific culture today if we simply recognize and accept the perspective from which it is written, without being scandalized that this is contrary to the expectations we might have of it.

Indeed, the Bible itself says that it was delivered through human authors.  The implication of this is that while the authors were given divine wisdom and insight, the human limitations on their knowledge were not supernaturally lifted. Peter, for example, describes the inspiration of Scripture in this way:  “Men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21).  He does not say, “God took over the minds of people and used their hands to record His omniscient thoughts.”  Later in that same epistle Peter describes Paul’s letters as “scripture,” but listen to how he describes their composition process: “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him”—not “through the substitution of the divine mind for his own” (2 Peter 3:15).

Indeed, when we look at Paul’s letters themselves, we find that, even as inspired scripture, they show that there were limitations on Paul’s knowledge, which he himself recognized.  For example, when pleading with the Corinthians to be unified, Paul said he was glad he only baptized Crispus and Gaius, so that no one could say they had been baptized in his name.  “Oh yes,” he adds, “I also baptized the household of Stephanus, but beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.”  This is a place where Paul admits the limitations on his own knowledge of a specific point.

Later in that same epistle, he shows that he was aware of the limitations on his knowledge generally, compared with God’s knowledge:  “For we know only in part, we prophecy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  . . .  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Here we see a biblical author, in the very act of writing scripture, contrasting his partial knowledge with the divine omniscience.  We should therefore not conclude that if the Bible is the word of God, it will demonstrate omniscience—among other ways, by transcending phenomenological description of the natural world—and that if it does not behave this way, it cannot be the word of God. Rather, we should marvel at God’s creativity and gracious condescension in allowing his story to be told from our perspective, so that people everywhere and at all times could hear it without impediment from within the framework of their own earthly existence.

How was there light on the first day of creation when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day?

I have a question about the creation account in Genesis:  How could there have been light on the first day when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day?

SAMSUNGThis is an excellent question that has long puzzled readers of the book of Genesis.  In response to it, some have asserted that the “light” created on the first day was not the light we now see from the sun, but rather something like newly-created matter, or electromagnetic radiation, static electricity, or even a divine light that no longer exists.

But in my view, the simplest explanation is that the light of the first day is the light that appears in the sky before the sun rises and which remains in the sky after the sun sets, finally fading away until it can be seen no more.  We now know that this light comes from our sun, but the Genesis author apparently believed, writing from an observational perspective, that it was an independent entity that was present before the sun existed, and which appears even on those days when the sun is absent.  This light defined the realm of “day,” just as the dome above the earth defined the realm of “sky” and the gathering together of the waters below constituted the realm of “sea.”  As the Genesis study guide points out, this creation account is about realms and their rulers, and light is introduced as the essential defining characteristic of the first realm to be set off from the primordial darkness and chaos.

When I was in grade school we used to tell this joke:
Q. “Which is brighter, the sun or the moon?”
A.  “The moon, because it shines at night when it’s dark.  The sun only shines during the day, when it’s light anyway!”
In a simple but profound way, this joke captures the naïve observational cosmology of the Genesis account (although it admittedly does not also capture its reverential spirit).

It actually makes good sense, from the perspective of ancient readers, that the “days” of Genesis should be defined on the basis of this light, rather than on the appearance or non-appearance of the sun.  After all, this first light is more reliable than the sun; it always appears in the sky even when the sun does not (due to complete cloud cover, or to dust storms, sand storms, volcanic ash, or something similar).  This obscuring of the sun may, in fact, be what Job was referring to when he said of God, “He commands the sun, and it does not rise” (Job 9:7).  When we don’t understand that the light in the sky comes from the sun, we can picture God having the sun take a “day off” like this from time to time, because even when it’s not visible in the sky, there is always light.

For some readers of the Bible, however, this explanation may solve one problem only to create another.  Light before there was a sun makes sense from an observational perspective, but were the inspired Scriptural writers really writing from such a perspective?  Wasn’t the omniscient God making sure that everything they wrote was fully accurate scientifically and historically?  I’ll address this concern in my next post.

See here for a detailed comment on this post and a reply.

“I can’t tell you when I’ll be there, I need to be like the wind.”

In the gospel of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” I’ve heard people say that this means followers of Jesus shouldn’t let themselves be pinned down to appointments or commitments, but should live as freely and spontaneously as possible, because they never know where the wind of the Spirit might take them next.  What do you think of this?

Jesus’ interview with Nicodemus is discussed in Session 4 of the John study guide.  To answer your specific question, when Jesus said that people who are born of the Spirit are like the wind, I don’t think he meant that they’re unpredictable and spontaneous, and don’t make or honor any regular commitments, so that no one will ever be able to tell where they’ve come from or where they’re going.  I think Jesus was talking instead about his own origins and destiny, and by implication the origins and destiny of anyone who chooses to follow him.

Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus by saying, “We know you are a teacher who has come from God.”  Jesus replies to this assertion, which is a little too confident, by saying in effect, “Do you really think you know where I’ve come from?”  An incident later in the gospel illustrates how Nicodemus doesn’t know where Jesus has come from even from an earthly standpoint.  Nicodemus tries to stand up for Jesus when the Jewish leaders accuse him, but they argue that Jesus couldn’t possibly be the Messiah because he’s from Galilee, and the Scriptures don’t say the Messiah will come from there.  If Nicodemus really knew where Jesus was from, in the most basic sense, he’d reply that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem, right where the Scriptures say the Messiah will come from.

But much more importantly in terms of the theological concerns of the gospel of John, Nicodemus doesn’t realize that Jesus is the eternal Word who has come to earth in human form. So Jesus talks about the wind: you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.  The earthly Jesus can be seen and heard, but most people don’t realize his divine origins, and they don’t realize the divine destiny he’s come to fulfill.

Amazingly, anyone who is born of the Spirit will be like Jesus in this same way.  I think that’s what Jesus really means when he talks about those who are born of the Spirit being like the wind.  He’s not endorsing or recommending a spontaneous, unpredictable behavior pattern.  Rather, he’s saying that his followers will be endowed with the same heavenly origins and destiny that he has.  Pretty amazing!

Does Isaiah’s prophecy about a remnant returning predict the formation of the state of Israel?

I’m reading through the Bible and have gotten as far as Isaiah, where I’ve just read, “The Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.  In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people” from nations all over the world.  Is this a prophecy of the formation of the state of Israel in 1948?

My study guide to the book of Isaiah in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series takes readers through the entire book, situating each passage in its historical context and explaining how Isaiah’s words apply both to his own day and to future events.  The guide explores the Messianic significance of this specific prophecy about the Root of Jesse.  Let me tell you a bit of what it says here.

With biblical prophecy, it’s important always to determine first what the original message was for the original audience.  Only then can you understand any further Messianic or end-times implications.

The “shoot from the stump of Jesse” in this passage is originally a new king in the line of David, Hezekiah, who will be faithful to Yahweh and reverse the policy of his father Ahaz.  Ahaz appeased Assyria and even put up altars modeled after Assyrian ones.  But Hezekiah will trust Yahweh, refuse to serve Assyria as a vassal, and see Yahweh’s deliverance.  Then there will be peace, and just as God reached out his hand to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he will reach out “a second time” to bring home the “remnant,” Israelites who were carried off into Assyria as exiles or who fled to other countries to escape the Assyrians.  That’s the message for the original audience.

But Hezekiah is also a type of Christ, and what is said about him has Messianic overtones.  When Jesus comes to reign, there will be a similar gathering of the “remnant.”  But who will they be?  My understanding is that they are gathered from all the nations because they’re people from all the nations. This gathering brings together the “great multitude” described in Revelation, which comes “from every nation, tribe, people and language.”  In other words, under the New Covenant the “chosen people” become a multinational community.  As Paul writes in Galatians, “If you are in Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.”  (See the study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, session 19.)

The implications of this are that the 1948 formation of the state of Israel is most likely not what is envisioned and predicted in Isaiah’s oracle about the “Root of Jesse.”  So modern Israel does not enjoy any special privileges in the world. Rather, it is a nation-state that is responsible before God for conducting itself with justice and prudence like any other nation.

I’m glad you’re reading through the whole Bible!  That’s the best way to come to understand each individual part: by seeing where it fits within the whole.  Keep on reading!

Is the story of the woman caught in adultery a later addition, and if so, what are we supposed to do with it?

Q. In your John study guide, you have a note at the end of Session 8 that says the story of the woman who was caught in adultery “was most likely not an original part of the gospel of John.”  Sure enough, in my Bible the passage is in italics and there’s a note that says, “The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.”  If that’s true, then who added stuff like this that wan’t there in the first place?  And what are we supposed to do when we get to these parts? Ignore them?

The gospels were all written about a generation after Jesus lived.  They’re based on a stream of oral tradition coming down from his day about what he said and did.  Not everything in this tradition was put to use by the gospel writers.  But in the case of the story of the woman who was caught in adultery, it seems that something more from this oral tradition found its way into the gospels after they were written.

This story appears at John 7:53-8:11 in some later manuscripts; it’s also found in different places in other manuscripts:  after Luke 21:38, after Luke 24:53, after John 7:36, and after John 21:25.  With so much attestation, it’s likely that this story is part of the genuine tradition coming down from Jesus.

Rembrandt, Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery

None of the gospel writers included it, perhaps because it could be misunderstood to condone adultery.  But it’s such a powerful episode when rightly understood (“let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”) that people who knew about it added it to the gospels later.  This may originally have been as a “gloss” or marginal note, which later got added to the text itself.  In several manuscripts it’s marked as an addition by asterisks or other symbols.

Bruce Metzger, who was of the leading textual critics of our day, writes in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament that while “the case against … Johannine authorship appears to be conclusive” (that is, it’s pretty clear that John didn’t include this story in his gospel originally), the account “has all the earmarks of historical veracity.  It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts at various places.”

So even if we can make a good judgment that something probably wasn’t in the original manuscripts, we still need to ask whether it might be part of the tradition coming down from Jesus.  In this case, the story probably is. That’s why I do encourage groups to discuss the story, just not as part of their regular meeting.  In the study guide I say that the story “probably preserves a genuine episode from the life of Jesus” and I suggest that groups discuss it over dinner before doing the next session.  (Even if a group didn’t usually have a meal together first, this would provide a good occasion to do that at least once.)