Q. I always felt sorry for Saul. God chose him to lead His people, and he did a good job at it. Saul only made one mistake and God sent David to replace him. I think David did much worse, yet God said, “He’s a man after my own heart.”
These are excellent questions. In this post I’ll look at why God rejected Saul as king. In my next post I’ll consider how God could call David a “man after my own heart.”
Kingship in Israel was supposed to be different from kingship in the surrounding nations. Israel’s king was not to be considered divine. In the law of Moses, God carefully distinguished the priesthood from the kingship and gave future kings careful instructions that put them under the law.
So it was vital that Israelite kings not usurp any priestly or divine prerogatives. The precedent that Saul set as Israel’s first king would influence all of his successors (like George Washington declining a third term). So he was held to a strict standard.
At one point during Saul’s reign, he was campaigning against the Philistines and waiting for Samuel to come and offer sacrifices to seek God’s favor. When Samuel didn’t arrive as soon as he expected, Saul offered these sacrifices himself, assuming the prerogatives of a priest. When Samuel did arrive, he told Saul, “You have done a foolish thing,” using the Hebrew term for people who act without regard for God. Samuel warned that Saul’s kingdom would not endure, meaning that his family would not establish a dynasty. He’d be succeeded on the throne by someone from a different family.
Some time later, however, God gave Saul a new assignment in his capacity as king. Samuel introduces this assignment by saying, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel.” So perhaps this was intended as a “second chance.”
God commanded Saul to destroy the Amalekites. (This is one of those episodes of total destruction in the Bible that are very difficult for us to understand; I’ve shared some thoughts about them here.) One thing we can recognize in such episodes is that the Israelites were never to take any plunder because weren’t in the war for themselves; they were considered agents of divine judgment.
But Saul and his army spared “the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good.” They only destroyed what they thought was undesirable and worthless. They spared King Agag because in this time captured kings were a prized trophy of war. By conducting this raid as if it were ordinary warfare that he was directing, Saul once again usurped a divine prerogative and misrepresented the character of divine judgment, which doesn’t privilege the powerful and the beautiful.
It seems that God gave Saul a second chance, but this only showed that he still hadn’t learned to respect the limits of his authority as king. And so, to prevent Israelite kingship from being established on the model of the divine kings or priest-kings of surrounding nations, God didn’t allow Saul to establish a dynasty.
Nevertheless, even after Samuel announced this judgment a second time, he granted Saul’s request, “Please honor me [as king] before the elders of my people and before Israel.” Saul reigned for 42 years and throughout that time he was acknowledged as the rightful king. David, even though promised the kingship himself, respected and protected him as the “LORD’s anointed.”
One of the last things we hear about Saul in the Bible is David’s tribute to him after he was killed in battle. Acknowledging how Saul had made Israel secure and prosperous by defeating its enemies, David laments,
Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
How the mighty have fallen in battle!
So even though Saul wasn’t able to establish an Israelite royal dynasty on the right principles, the Bible acknowledges the benefits Israel received from his long reign.
This is a follow-up to my post about the recent publication entitled A New New Testament. One of the justifications its editors offer for adding books to the New Testament is this:
Both now and for the past 400 years Catholics and Protestants don’t agree on what is in the Bible, and neither do Episcopalians and Lutherans. Internationally the eastern Orthodox, Ethiopian, and Syriac Bibles all contain different books than the western Catholic and Protestant Bibles.
Now it is true that the Bibles of these various communities contain some different books. However, we need to make some important observations about this:
1. None of these Bibles differ when it comes to the New Testament. All Christians communities agree universally about what books belong to the New Testament. So these differences do not provide any justification for changing the New Testament canon.
2. The current differences are rather about certain Old Testament books that were added to the biblical canon at the end of the Fourth Century in the Western church, but not in the Eastern church. No other books have been considered for inclusion since then by any of the communities the editors of A New New Testament mention. So it’s somewhat misleading to cite these communities in support of adding books to the biblical canon, particularly so many centuries later.
3. Since these books were added, and especially since the 1500s, the trend in newly-formed communities in the West—Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, and other Protestant—has been towards rejecting these books as canonical. Only the Roman Catholic Church still considers them fully canonical. In other words, the percentage of Christians who consider these books Scriptural, even in the West, has been steadily decreasing in recent centuries. One could posit that the church is actually moving towards a consensus about the canon that would exclude these disputed books. So the appeal to disagreement among various communities about “what is in the Bible” as grounds for adding to the canon is not really valid.
4. All of this said, there is still ample precedent for putting different books in Bibles, as the examples below will show. Nevertheless, this does not provide justification for adding more books to the canon of inspired Scripture. But that is precisely what the committee of scholars behind A New New Testament wants to do. As the publisher’s web site explains, “Hal Taussig called together a council of scholars and spiritual leaders to discuss and reconsider which books belong in the New Testament. . . . They voted on which should be added” to the “previously bound books” (that is, the ones previously bound together in the canon). As I said in my earlier post, it would have been much better to call the publication An Anthology of Early Christian Literature or even An Expanded New Testament, showing that books were being added to a published volume, but not making a claim that they should be accepted as inspired Scripture on a par with the canonical books.
Here are the details about which additional books appear in the Bibles of specific Christian communities. (I am indebted to this article for leads to much of this information.)
The issue is whether followers of Jesus should consider canonical certain books that were written in Greek within the Jewish community in the centuries before Christ. These books, sometimes known as the Apocrypha, are missing from the Hebrew Bible but they were included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was most popular among early Christians.
The Roman Catholic Church, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, includes the following apocryphal books in its Bible because it considers them fully canonical: Tobias, Judith, Baruch, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), Wisdom of Solomon, First and Second Maccabees, and the additions to Esther and Daniel found in the Septuagint. These books were affirmed as canonical by regional councils at Hipppo in 393 and Carthage in 397, pending eventual ratification by Rome. Around this same time Jerome included them in the Vulgate, his Latin translation of the Bible.
However, Catholic theologians describe these books as deuterocanonical, meaning that they belong to a second group of books “whose Scriptural character was contested in some quarters,” as opposed to the protocanonical books, the collection of “sacred writings which have been always received by Christendom without dispute.” To the extent that a Catholic considered the consensus of Christendom significant, this distinction would have some bearing on the authority attached to these books.
Nevertheless, in 1546 the Council of Trent, largely in response to the way Martin Luther had separated out the apocryphal books and placed them between the testaments in his German translation of Bible, decreed that these books were as fully canonical as the others—finally validating the decision of the Council of Carthage over a thousand years later. The Council of Trent also decreed that the Vulgate was the authoritative text of Scripture.
This actually sent something of a mixed message about the Apocrypha, however, because Jerome’s prologues were always included in the Vulgate, and in his prologue to the book of Kings, in which he surveyed the entire Old Testament, Jerome specified that the books that had been translated from Greek, rather than from Hebrew, are “set aside among the apocrypha” (inter apocrifa seponendum) and “are not in the canon” (non sunt in canone). He made similar comments in the prologues to several of the apocryphal books themselves.
So while the Roman Catholic Church’s embrace of these books is explicit, its position on them is not without internal tensions.
Eastern Orthodox Bibles include all the books in the Catholic Apocrypha, plus 2 Esdras, 3 Esdras, 3 Maccabees, the Prayer of Manasseh, and Psalm 151. Greek Orthodox Bibles also contain 4 Maccabees, in an appendix. However, all these apocryphal books are classified as Anagignoskomena (“worthy to be read”), meaning that they are read during services of worship, but that they are not as authoritative as the other books. Orthodox theologians sometimes call the apocryphal books deuterocanonical to indicate their secondary authority, using this term differently from Catholics, for whom it describes how these books were received after first being disputed.
The Coptic (Ethiopian) Church traditionally considered all of the books in the Catholic Apocrypha canonical, along with 3 Maccabees, the Letter of Jeremiah, and Psalm 151. However, according to the Coptic Encyclopedia, “At the beginning of the twentieth century and by order of Cyril V (1874-1927)” all the apocryphal books were “removed from the canon,” although they are still “normally included in the Coptic versions of the Bible.”
Anglican or Episcopal Bibles typically include the Apocrypha, and the Book of Common Prayer prescribes readings from it. However, the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England specify that the canonical books are those “of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church” (that is, only the protocanonical ones, and not the deuterocanonical ones, in the Catholic sense of those terms). As for the apocryphal books, these “the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.”
Lutheran Bibles also typically include the Apocrypha, but not mixed in among the Old Testament books; rather, as noted above, they are in a separate section between the testaments. Martin Luther wrote in his preface to this section that they were “books which are not held equal to the Holy Scriptures, and yet are profitable and good to read.” (Das sind Bücher so nicht der heiligen Schrift gleichgehalten: und doch nützlich und gut zu lesen sind.)
Other Protestant Bibles contain the same Old Testament books as the Hebrew Bible.
So once again, the only differences between Christian communities when it comes to the biblical canon have to do with books that were added by the Catholic church to the Old Testament in the Fourth Century. The trend in the following centuries has been away from accepting these books. This hardly provides a precedent for adding books to the New Testament today.
Two notes about the New Testament itself:
The publishers of A New New Testament probably refer to the Syriac Church for the following reason. Tatian, a second-century Christian writer and theologian, created a harmony of the four gospels called the Diatessaron. Because Tatian’s influence was felt strongly in Syria, the oldest Syriac Bibles include the Diatessaron in place of the four gospels themselves. But by the middle of the Fifth Century, the separate gospels had been reintroduced in Syriac Bibles, displacing the Diatessaron. There is therefore, as noted above, no difference among contemporary Christians about the New Testament canon. And the very fact that Tatian created a harmony of the four canonical gospels shows that the church accepted these, and no others, as inspired Scripture. This example, therefore, hardly makes a case for adding any new gospels.
The editors of A New New Testament also claim that Martin Luther himself tried to remove some books from the New Testament, and successfully did so from what he called the Old Testament. We’ve just seen that Luther actually removed the Apocrypha, which had always been disputed by the Eastern church, from the Old Testament, and put it in a section between the testaments.
As for the New Testament, in the earliest editions of his German Bible, Luther moved Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation, which he said were inferior books, to the back. But he soon reconsidered this opinion, restored these books to their original places, and wrote more appreciative prefaces to them. In addition, as this site explains, “In all the editions of Luther’s Bible translation after 1522, the Reformer dropped the paragraphs at the end of his general Preface to the New Testament which made value judgments among the various biblical books.”
So it’s not really fair to Luther to say that he tried to remove some books from the New Testament when he only entertained this idea briefly, then reconsidered, and even retracted his earlier negative comments about books such as James.
Q. Recently, A New New Testament, published by Hal Taussig, has incorporated 10 new books into the New Testament. Most of these texts are Gnostic. Can you shed some light on the claims of the “Bible scholars” behind the project as to why these texts should be added to the canon?
Your specific question is why a group of scholars wants to add particular books to the New Testament when these books are “Gnostic,” that is, they “come from a different time period than any New Testament document, and they represent a fundamentally different worldview,” as one reviewer has observed. I will answer that question first. But this new publication also raises the issue of whether anyone can add any more books to the New Testament at this point, and if so, how and why might that be done? I’ll respond to that question as well.
I have not seen a copy of A New New Testament, but in my doctoral studies I did read some of the extra books it contains, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Paul and Thecla.
The publisher’s web site, in “A Conversation With Hal Taussig,” explains that the committee of scholars behind the edition wanted to include these books precisely because they represent a fundamentally different worldview. Taussig says that the new books will show that “some of the narrow-minded doctrines of orthodox Christianity and the old-fashioned ideas of the traditional New Testament are not the only way that the early Christ movements expressed themselves.” He says that the expanded collection “opens the door to a wider set of expressions, practices, stories, and teachings than [Christians] have previously known.”
In other words, the scholars on the committee behind this publication (a complete list of them can be found in this article) didn’t like traditional Christian beliefs and practices, they wanted to challenge them by adding other kinds books to the Bible, and they’re hoping this will attract people to their own beliefs.
No one can do this. No self-appointed, narrowly-defined committee (this one excluded any scholars who didn’t find orthodox Christianity narrow-minded and the ideas of the New Testament old-fashioned) can decide on its own what books should be in the Bible. The canon of the New Testament was not established by a committee or council of church leaders.
Rather, as I explain in this post, “books that stood the test of time through continuous use in diverse Christian centers were eventually accepted by almost all believers.” The formation of the canon was a process that unfolded over centuries. I believe, by faith, that through this process the Holy Spirit was bearing witness to the church corporately about which books were Scriptural. (For specifics about the virtual consensus among Christians regarding the canon of Scripture, see this post.)
If we were going to add any more books to the canon, the same process would have to unfold in the centuries ahead. For example, suppose we discovered another letter by the apostle Paul—his letter to Laodicea, for instance, mentioned at the end of Colossians but not known now to survive in any copies. This letter would have to stand the test of time and continual use in diverse Christian communities, as the other New Testament documents have, before it was accepted as part of the word of God.
And the individuals who contributed to this ultimate determination would all have to be active community followers of Jesus. The committee behind A New New Testament included a Jewish rabbi and an “expert in yogic and Buddhist traditions.” While such people may have an academic background in biblical studies, by their own admission they are not part of the living Christian community that is animated and directed by the Holy Spirit.
I can, however, think of one good use for the extra books in question. Recognizing that “early Christ movements expressed themselves” in ways different from the ones we know today can help us appreciate the good reasons behind many of the beliefs and practices we have adopted.
For example, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Thecla, thinking she is about to be killed in the arena by wild beasts, baptizes herself. Her life is miraculously preserved and when she finds Paul afterwards, she tells him, “I have received the baptism.” Paul does not correct her, from which we understand that in the circles in which this work originated around AD 80-160, self-baptism was considered acceptable. But over time, Jesus’ followers recognized that baptism had to be the community affirming the work of God’s Spirit in an individual’s life, and so the practice of self-baptism was abandoned.
Since there is value in seeing that our beliefs and practices are the result of careful deliberation over time among alternatives, I think it’s helpful for people to know about early books that describe some of these alternatives. But if we’re going to put these books together with the New Testament documents, I would call the whole collection An Anthology of Early Christian Literature. That’s the title that many universities now use for what used to be called courses in “New Testament.” Saying “Early Christian Literature” gives assurances that the enterprise is secular and historical. The title of the new publication, by contrast, is a bid to change what people believe and practice as Christians by changing their Scriptures, and we should rightfully be concerned about this.
Another response to this questioner is offered in this post on Stephen Miller’s blog.
Q. A friend and I recently read out loud through the book of Hebrews using The Books of the Bible. I can definitely recommend this way of experiencing the Bible.
We do have a question, though. Your introduction says that the recipients of this letter “seem to have lived in Italy.” But as we read through Hebrews, it seemed to us that it was addressing instead a pre-70 A.D. Jerusalem audience—people who needed encouragement to stand strong while on the receiving end of persecution from temple-observant Jews. This seemed to us to account better for the letter’s encouragement to persevere and endure persecution.
We thought that the reference in the letter to people “from Italy” sending their greetings was actually describing people who were in Italy at the time, and not, as you say, people who used to live there who were now sending greetings back to their friends in Rome.
We don’t know any Greek and we haven’t looked in any commentaries; this is simply two reasonable laymen looking at each other and reflecting on what we’ve read—both in the text, as well as in the preceding intro.
It strikes me that the questions you’re asking are the kind of broad and comprehensive ones that arise naturally from the consideration of an entire book. You and your friend clearly got the big picture as you read through and listened to the book of Hebrews. All the more reason to present the Bible in a format that encourages that kind of experience!
Questions like yours, about the background to a whole book, won’t necessarily lead you to a “gem of the day” devotional thought that you can carry around with you. But they still matter tremendously. As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart write in their book How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, we can never really recognize what the Bible is saying to “us now” until we appreciate what it was saying to “them then.” All of the biblical documents arise out of real-life experiences of communities of believers. The better we can understand those situations, the more clearly we can hear how the word of God was speaking into them, and so into our situation as well. Anything less does not do justice to the believers whose faith and courage in following Jesus brought us the New Testament in the first place.
You’ve raised an interesting question about the book of Hebrews that other readers and interpreters have also posed. Why couldn’t the audience of this book have been in Jerusalem, where we would expect the strongest opposition from those who wanted to maintain temple observances and sacrifices? Why couldn’t the greetings of “those from Italy” be from people who were actually living in Italy, meaning that the book was sent from there, not to there?
The answers to these questions don’t depend on knowing Greek. The Greek phrase translated as “those from Italy” could mean either people who live in Italy or people who came from Italy. But there are some other things in the epistle that suggest it wasn’t written to people living in Jerusalem:
– The writer says near the beginning, “This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.” So neither the writer nor the audience were eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus. If this letter was addressed to believers in Jerusalem before AD 70, it’s almost certain that some of them would have seen and heard Jesus when he was alive on earth.
– From the rest of the New Testament we know that the believers in Jerusalem were very poor. (This is why, for example, Paul took up a collection from wealthier believers elsewhere in the empire to help them.) But the writer to the Hebrews notes, “You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you had better and lasting possessions.” This would fit the wealthy situation in Italy much better.
– The writer also says, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” This also wouldn’t fit the situation of the Jerusalem believers, who had already seen some of their number killed for their faith. But there was a large and strong Jewish community in Rome, and Hebrews could be reflecting the threat that was beginning to be perceived from them.
– Finally, as I note in the introductory session to Hebrews in my Deuteronomy/Hebrews study guide, “At the end the author calls the whole work a ‘word of exhortation,’ the technical term for a sermon or homily in the Jewish synagogue.” There were, of course, synagogues in Palestine as in other parts of the empire, but if the question is whether the letter arises out of Diaspora Judaism or temple observance in Jerusalem, the synagogue language points more naturally towards the Diaspora.
None of these considerations are, of course, absolutely conclusive, but they are the kind of things that lead me to believe that Hebrews was written to the community of Jesus’ followers in Rome, not in Jerusalem.
Why did God tell Balaam he could go with Balak’s men but then get mad at him for going? Was Balaam not supposed to ask a second time after God said no the first time, and God said “fine, go!” but really didn’t want him to?
The story of Balaam in the book of Numbers raises many perplexing questions, and you’ve highlighted one of the main ones. God seems to say no to Balaam at first. But he asks again, and God says yes. But then God opposes him. So can we really appeal a decision from God or not?
Balaam is one of those enigmatic figures in the Old Testament who’s outside the nation of Israel but who seems nevertheless to have a relationship with the true God.
Balak, king of Moab, feels threatened by the Israelites. He knows that Balaam is a diviner and so, in league with the Midianites, he sends messengers to bring him from Mesopotamia to curse the nation of Israel.
Balaam waits on God for guidance overnight and God tells him, “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.” So Balaam refuses to go.
Undaunted, Balak sends a more impressive delegation and now, instead of offering the standard fee for divination, he promises, “I will reward you handsomely.” Still, there’s no reason why Balaam should even consider this offer. God has already told him the people of Israel are blessed and not to be cursed. But Balaam once again goes before God for guidance.
So why does God tell him this second time that he can go? The reasons seem not to have to do with Balaam, but with Balak. God says, “Since these men have come to summon you” (that is, the large delegation of Balak’s high officials), “go with them, but do only what I tell you.” My suspicion is that God is seeing an opportunity to declare his purposes and his glory before a large audience, the leaders and people of two nations, Moab and Midian. God is prepared to work through Balaam to do that.
I believe that God sovereignly accomplishes his purposes through the free choices, good and bad, of human moral agents. (This is how I relate divine sovereignty to human moral responsibility.) I think that despite Balaam’s bad motives for wanting to go—he was clearly after the reward and renown—God felt he could work through him in the situation.
But the next day, as Balaam is on his way, God angrily opposes him, in the person of the “angel of the LORD.” Now the reasons don’t have to do with Balak, but with Balaam. God explains (translating literally), “I have come out as an adversary because the way plunges [into destruction] before me.” In other words, I can see that your way is leading right into destruction, and so I’ve come to stop you, even if I have to kill you to do it.”
Balaam is so chastened by this that he offers to return home, forsaking the hoped-for reward. In view of this, God allows him to continue instead, but after a repeated warning: “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.” Hopefully the experience of seeing the angel of the LORD blocking the road with his sword drawn will stay with Balaam and keep him from doing anything foolish.
At first it seems to. Balak gives Balaam three chances to curse Israel, but he blesses them three times instead. Balak then refuses to pay Balaam, who delivers four oracles of judgment against Moab and other enemies of Israel. God’s mission accomplished, right?
Unfortunately not. In the very next scene, women from Moab and Midian seduce the Israelite men into worshipping idols, and in a divine judgment for this, thousands and thousands of Israelites are killed in a plague. It’s as devastating as any defeat they might have suffered in battle against these enemies. And who thought of this strategy? Balaam.
We learn shortly afterwards in the book of Numbers that the Moabites and Midianites “followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD . . . so that a plague struck the LORD’s people.” The book of Jude, still using Balaam as a negative object lesson many centuries later, notes what his motive was: “for profit.”
But the Israelites fought back against the Midianites, and when they defeated them, “they also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword.” He hadn’t gone back to Mesopotamia. He was still living with Balak and his allies, enjoying (briefly) the reward he’d received for finding a way to help them oppose Israel, even though God had told him only to bless Israel.
God saw accurately that Balaam’s way was plunging into destruction and tried to warn him. But God didn’t take away Balaam’s freedom to choose. And since Balaam was an available agent, God worked through his choices to ensure that his purposes were publicly proclaimed. Balaam could have and should have taken warning from his near-death experience at the hands of the angel of the LORD. But in the end, his greed overcame him, he opposed God’s purposes, and he was destroyed.
All of this leads me to conclude that while it might be possible to appeal when God says no, it’s a risky proposition, and not a very good idea.
What you make of the argument that God is not a stable or consistent character in the Bible, that He is shown to change and grow over time?
I guess the question is really twofold:
1) Does your reading of the books of the Bible see any inconsistency in the way God is presented over time?
2) If yes, does that inconsistency show a change in God, a change in our understanding of God, a gradual revelation of who God is (culminating in Jesus), or something else?
If we’re talking about God as a character who features in each book in the biblical collection, and if we’re thinking of that collection as organized by an overall story, then I’d say yes, God as a character definitely does change over the course of the Bible.
For example, in the early accounts in Genesis, God doesn’t seem to be omniscient or omnipresent. God has to come down to the earth to investigate what the builders of the Tower of Babel are doing. God doesn’t realize that Adam and Eve have sinned until he takes his customary evening walk in the Garden of Eden and he can’t find them–because they’re hiding among the trees.
Later in the Bible, God is portrayed as aware of what people on earth are doing, but as relying on the help of various agents to accomplish his purposes. For example, God knows that wicked King Ahab is contemplating attacking Ramoth Gilead and that he’s likely to get killed if he does. So God asks the heavenly hosts around him who will go and entice Ahab to do this. The Bible says that “one suggested this, and another that,” and “finally a spirit came forward” and offered a plan. God felt it would succeed, and so sent the spirit on its way.
By the time of the New Testament, God comes to be portrayed with all of the attributes we usually associate with him, such as omniscience and omnipresence. Peter says on the day of Pentecost that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were events accomplished by “God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge.” Paul tells the Greeks in Athens that God “is not far from any one of us.”
So how do we explain this change in God as a character? I think it’s the last two things you suggested: a change in our understanding of God, as collective human knowledge develops; and a greater revelation of who God is, culminating in Jesus, as God continues to relate to humanity through the covenants that shape his redemptive-historical work. As a result, the early anthropomorphic (that is, God-as-human) portrayals are recognized to belong to an immature phase of the human understanding of God—but fascinatingly, they’re allowed to remain in the Bible. We still hear the various parts of the story as they were first told by those who experienced them.
But to say that God as a character changes over the course of the Bible is not to say that the character of God changes. From the start we see that God is consistent in his character qualities: creative, loving, generous, merciful even in judgment.
Q. I’ve been told that if even the worst criminal repents on his deathbed and prays for Jesus to be his Lord and Savior, he can be forgiven and spend eternity as a “good and faithful servant.” But many, if not all, of his innocent victims might never have understood the need for redemption, such as young children who never got the chance to learn right from wrong. The criminal goes to heaven while the victims suffer in hell. How is this a moral system?
I sympathize with your sense that this would be a great injustice. So we need to ask some important questions about the idea of a deathbed conversion.
It’s often used as a hypothetical example to illustrate how salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone. We can do nothing to earn or deserve salvation, so even the worst offender who truly repents can be saved.
But it’s an extreme example. Could this really happen? Would someone who had pursued a course of evil over a lifetime really abandon it right at the end, out of truly genuine motives? Wouldn’t their conscience be so hardened that any show of religion would actually be just a desire to escape the consequences?
The actor and comedian W.C. Fields was a lifelong atheist. Shortly before he died he was seen reading the Bible. When asked what he was doing, he replied, “Looking for a loophole.” Whether he was serious or making a joke, his example illustrates what the motive might be for a deathbed conversion. Divine justice has no obligation to open the gates of heaven to people who think they’ve found a loophole just by praying to receive Christ.
We can reasonably expect that a sincere commitment to Christ will be accompanied by the “fruits of repentance,” as John the Baptist insisted to the crowds who were trying to escape the “coming wrath.” These fruits, which can only be confirmed over time, must include a newly sensitive conscience, a full admission of guilt and acceptance of responsibility, and a sincere effort to make restitution to victims and their families. If any any of these things were missing, we couldn’t say confidently that the criminal had genuinely been saved. “By their fruits you shall know them,” Jesus insisted.
Another important point to make about deathbed conversions is that we shouldn’t equate being saved by grace alone, through faith alone, with simply “praying the prayer.” I believe that to be saved a person does need to make a definite commitment to Christ in response to God’s gracious overtures, and we often encourage people to do this by praying and asking Jesus into their hearts as Lord and Savior. But such prayers are only words if they don’t express a genuine, heartfelt intention to follow Christ at any cost. I’ve heard great emphasis placed on being able to say exactly when and where you “prayed the prayer.” I’m actually more interested in what this really meant, and what happened next.
With all of this said, we must still acknowledge that a genuine deathbed conversion is a possibility. When the thief on the cross, a convicted criminal, acknowledged Jesus as the innocent Savior, Jesus promised he would be with him in Paradise. The approach of death and judgment can lead a person to examine their life in light of eternity and make a commitment to Christ, recognizing a need they hadn’t taken seriously before. But we should expect this to be the culmination of a process that was already leading the person visibly to a more sincere faith in God and a more generous love for others. The thief who was promised paradise wasn’t demanding “Save yourself and us!” like the other thief. He was concerned for Jesus’ reputation, not his own escape from the judgment he admitted he deserved.
I would add, in conclusion, that I believe God looks upon the victims of crimes with mercy and compassion, and that God doesn’t punish people endlessly just because they never got the chance to understand or believe.
Q. If you’re trying to place Paul’s letters in chronological order in The Books of the Bible, why isn’t Galatians first? I was taught it was the earliest of Paul’s epistles, written around AD 49.
Actually, scholars disagree about when Galatians was written. The date depends on how the visits to Galatia and Jerusalem that Paul describes in the letter correlate with the ones described in the book of Acts. A related issue is what Paul means by “Galatia.” If he’s speaking of Galatia simply as a province, the letter was probably written to people he visited in the southern part of the province on his first journey, or even from Tarsus before going on any of his journeys. But if he’s referring to Galatia as the home of an ethnic group, the Galatians or Gauls, who lived in the center and north of the province, then the letter was likely written later, to people he visited on his second journey (when, as Luke tells us in Acts, “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia“).
After considering all of the evidence and arguments, our Bible Design Group, which created The Books of the Bible, agreed that a date towards the end of Paul’s second journey made the most sense to us. Our “Invitation to Galatians” explains:
“It’s difficult to know exactly when and where Paul wrote his letter to the churches in Galatia. He doesn’t say where he’s writing from, as he does in his letters to Thessalonica and Corinth. And while he says he’s writing on behalf of all the brothers and sisters with me, he doesn’t say who these ‘brothers and sisters’ are. Many interpreters believe that Galatians may actually be the earliest of Paul’s letters. However, its themes and language are so close to the letter he sent to the church in Rome that it is quite probable Galatians was written about the same time as Romans. This would mean he wrote it from Corinth around 56–57 AD while arranging for the offering to be sent to the poor in Judea.”
“The scholarly conversation about when Paul wrote this letter continues. But this study guide will follow the interpretation that it was written in Corinth, when Paul was preparing to travel to Jerusalem with the collection. Many interpreters believe that Galatians was actually written several years before this. However, certain details in the letter arguably correspond best with this particular moment in Paul’s life:
• Paul writes in Galatians that the apostles in Jerusalem asked him to ‘remember the poor,’ and that he was ‘eager’ to do this. It’s unlikely he would bring this up years before he’d actually done anything about it, but it makes sense for him to mention it in the middle of the collection.
• Paul’s language of being ‘eager’ is identical to his reference in 2 Corinthians to the ‘earnestness’ [‘eagerness’] of the Macedonians in their giving.
• Paul’s encouragement to ‘do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers’ may similarly refer to the collection. (The Galatians were taking a collection of their own at this time.)”
The study guide also notes the similarity between the language and themes of Galatians and those of Romans—for example, the discussions of what it means to be dikaios (righteous or justified) by faith; the appeals to the example of Abraham; and the believer’s relationship to the law.
While it is possible that Galatians was written at an earlier time (this is a respected position among scholars), a setting in Corinth while Paul was arranging for the offering provides a reasonable and cohesive account of the letter that is consistent with its contents. This is what persuaded me and my fellow editors of The Books of the Bible to place Galatians just before Romans as we worked to put Paul’s letters in their likely chronological order.
The following exchange with a reader of this post is shared with permission.
I read your post about “Why did God create Satan?” and I like your comparison to the question about whether God can create a rock so big He can’t move it. That part of the post is understandable. But I still don’t see why omniscience isn’t lessened by a lack of knowledge of the outcome of an event or a decision. And even if God truly didn’t know that His greatest angel would turn against Him, why wouldn’t he just squash Satan like a bug after he did rebel? He’s going to be punished in the end, so why let him cause so much trouble on the earth in the meantime?
The following illustration might help explain what I mean when I say that it’s not a failure of omniscience not to know what cannot be known.
Someone might say, “I know all of my division tables.” So another person tests them:
“What’s 35 divided by 7?”
“What’s 12 divided by 4?”
“What’s 6 divided by 0?”
“There’s no answer to that question, because division by 0 is impossible.”
“Then you don’t really know your division tables.”
Actually, the person does know their tables. It’s not a failure for them not to know what can’t be known.
Does that make sense?
Your example about division by zero seems just like the impossibly big rock scenario. I don’t see how these logical fallacies apply to the concept of omniscience. These situations could never happen anyway. They can only be thought up.
If you mean that God created us, including the angels, with the ability to think and make decisions without His knowledge, and now, because of this, it becomes one of the impossible things for anyone to do, I think I understand your point. I just think God would have this ability. There is still one more point: Why doesn’t God destroy Satan now because of his incessant meddling? Why must God wait until the end of the ages?
You have understood what I was trying to say: I do believe that that God created intelligent beings, including humans and angels, with the ability to think and make decisions so freely that He wouldn’t know in advance what they were going to decide, and that, because of this, knowing these outcomes in advance becomes one of the things that are impossible for anyone to do. Of course someone might believe something else, but because I believe this, I don’t think God knowingly created a being, Satan, who would inevitably cause massive destruction and evil on a planet-wide scale.
As for why Satan hasn’t already been judged, like human individuals and civilizations that have done great evil, I honestly don’t know. I can’t really come up with a scenario where this is better for us than having Satan dealt with already. But from what I do know of the character of God, by faith I consider this mystery consistent with an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God.
OK, I do get your point now. But I’ll have to work on the all-knowing, but creating “non-readable” creatures concept.
I’d have no problem with these exchanges being posted on the blog. Others may have the same questions, and I agree with what you do in your book studies: the brontosaurus-sized elephants in the room need to be acknowledged sooner rather than later.
One concern may remain from my argument (developed starting with this post) that Paul’s apparently broadly restrictive comments in 1 Timothy actually have a narrower, local focus—that women representing a false teaching are not to argue with or authoritatively “correct” someone who is presenting the true teaching. While this may be the original context, Paul still says that women, as women, aren’t to relate to men, as men, in a particular way. So aren’t his restrictive comments universally applicable? If he had really only wanted to stop the spread of a false teaching, wouldn’t he just have said that no one (meaning either man or woman) was to advocate this specific false teaching?
An analogy from history may be helpful here. During the First World War, the “Order of the White Feather” was founded with the aim of shaming men into enlisting for military service by getting women to present them with a white feather, symbolic of cowardice, if they were not wearing a uniform. While the concern was local (context-specific in time and place), this was still an exercise in encouraging women, as women, to relate to men, as men, in a particular way. The women considered themselves to be acting on behalf of their sex in appealing to the bravery and chivalry of men to protect them and their country.
The “Order of the White Feather” soon became controversial and unpopular. Government officials who were actively promoting the war effort, civilians in military employ, and even soldiers who were out of uniform because they were home on leave were publicly accused of cowardice by being handed white feathers. Men who were not suited for military service may well have been shamed into enlisting and ultimately killed in situations where others might have survived. Vital industries were deprived of needed workers.
So we can easily imagine a factory owner, for example, issuing an order applicable on the factory premises such as, “I do not permit a woman to give a man a white feather.” Even though a local situation is in view, the order needs to be stated in such general terms because it concerns something that women are doing, as women, in relation to men, as men.
I believe the same thing was going on in first-century Ephesus. If the belief was that women were the physical origin and source of spiritual enlightenment for men, it makes sense that they were being encouraged, as women, to re-enact the role of Zoe/Eve in bringing spiritual enlightenment to men, as men, by correcting their supposedly mistaken view of the creation order. This explains why Paul would speak to a local situation in such general terms. And it shows that his statement does have a limited local focus, even though it is worded this way.
My conclusion, once again, is that the Bible does not say women can’t be in church-wide positions of teaching and authority.