Are deathbed conversions really fair?

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.

I hope these thoughts are helpful.

Why isn’t Galatians Paul’s first letter in The Books of the Bible?

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.”

In my study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, I offer this fuller explanation:

“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 Roman province of Galatia stretched from near the Black Sea almost to the Mediterranean Sea. One issue in dating Paul’s letter to the Galatians is whether he was writing to people in the south or the center/north of the province.  Image courtesy Wikipedia.

A conversation about “Why did God create Satan?”

SixDividedByZero

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?”
“5.”
“Very good.”

“What’s 12 divided by 4?”
“3.”
“Very good.”

“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.

“I do not permit a woman to give a man a white feather”


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.

Does the Bible say that women can’t teach or have authority over men? (Part 3)

In my last post I suggested that we can best understand what Paul says he doesn’t want women to do, when writing in 1 Timothy about teaching and authority, if we appreciate as clearly as possible what he does want them to do.  For that, we need to look at the words he uses.

Paul uses two forms of the same Greek root.  When he says that women should “learn in quietness,” he’s using the noun form, hēsuchia.  When he says that women should “be quiet,” he uses the verb form, hēsuchazō.

When we look at all the ways that hēsuchia and hēsuchazō (as well as the adjective from the same root, hēsuchios) are used in the New Testament, we discover something interesting.  (You can follow the whole word study in several posts starting here.)  While the root sometimes describes complete silence, the absence of speech or sound, it more often describes a person refraining from saying something they otherwise might.  In other words, it signifies that a person doesn’t object, or stops arguing.

One typical example is in the book of Acts.  After the apostles in Jerusalem heard Peter’s explanation of why he preached the good news to Gentiles, “they fell silent, and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life'” (ESV).  Clearly this is not silence in the sense of no speech, because the apostles continue speaking.  Rather, it means “they had no further objections,” as the NIV translates the phrase.

We know from Paul’s other letters that he does not want women literally to say nothing in gatherings of Jesus’ followers.  He tells the Corinthians, for example, that each person in their community, without qualification, should have something to share in worship, and he specifically describes women praying and prophesying.  So we need to recognize that in the passage we’re considering in 1 Timothy, and in the similar one in 1 Corinthians about women being “silent” (where Paul uses the synonym sigaō in place of hesuchazō), what Paul is actually saying is that women shouldn’t argue or object.

But what would women in particular have wanted to argue about or object to in this setting?  I believe that Richard and Catherine Kroeger, in their book I Suffer Not a Woman, have correctly identified the point of dispute.  It was the myth, prevalent in the Mediterranean world of Paul’s day, that the woman (Zoe or life in Greek, identified with Eve by syncretistic teachers) was created first and brought spiritual life to the man by showing him that the creator of the world was not the true, supreme God.

Paul’s comments here would be a correction of that myth.  In other words, by saying “Adam was formed first,” Paul is actually countering the content of this false teaching. He’s not citing primogeniture as a reason why men should be in charge of women.

So what Paul does want women to do is “be quiet” or “not argue,” that is, not dispute this point, particularly in gatherings of the community.  What he doesn’t want women to do is publicly and authoritatively “correct” a speaker, which they may have felt was a duty to their own gender.  (I’ll talk about this more in my next post.)

In my view, Paul’s use here of the infinitives didaskein (“teach”) and authentein (“be in authority” [?]) together is well suited to convey the idea of public correction.  The verb authentein appears only here in the New Testament, so we have no parallel uses that can confirm this is what the verb itself means.  However, this kind of correction is described in Galatians, where Paul says that he “opposed Peter to his face . . . in front of them all.”  The same kind of thing happens more privately when, as described in Acts, Priscilla and Aquila invite Apollos to their home and “explain the way of God to him more adequately.”

If this is really what Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy mean, then they have a specific, local focus: women representing this false teaching about the respective origins of men and women are not to argue with or authoritatively “correct” someone who is presenting the true teaching. (The example of Priscilla shows that Paul’s comments don’t even apply to women “correcting” men generally, but are limited to this specific issue.)

While many applications can be drawn for the present day from the way Paul addresses this situation in 1 Timothy, one application is not that no woman should be in a church-wide position of teaching or authority.  When we understand the historical and literary context of Paul’s words, we realize that the Bible does not teach this.

Does the Bible say that women can’t teach or have authority over men? (Part 2)

In my last post I argued that we need to understand Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man,” as something more than an isolated proposition.  When we do pay attention to its literary and historical context, one of the first things we notice is that Paul immediately gives a reason for saying this:  “For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”

So what?  Why does it matter that Adam was formed first?  Some have argued that Paul is invoking a principle of primogeniture, that is, the senior status and authority of the firstborn.  Thomas Schreiner, for example, notes that Paul is alluding here to a passage in Genesis, which he says it’s one that “the Hebrew reader would be disposed to read . . . in terms of primogeniture,” implying a principle of male authority.  Others have made similar arguments.

Now it is true that God establishes primogeniture as an important principle within Israelite society, which was supposed to be a model for the surrounding nations.  Nevertheless, in his own inbreaking work of redemption, God repeatedly disregards this principle.  For example, he chooses Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his ten older brothers, Manasseh over Ephraim, Gideon over his older brothers,  David over his seven older brothers, and so forth.  So why would God uphold primogeniture as a governing principle in the community of Jesus’ followers, which is the very embodiment of his inbreaking work of redemption in our world today? (Indeed, the book of Hebrews describes this community as the “church of the firstborn,” suggesting that all members share this status corporately.)

Since this initial consideration of the context doesn’t really account for Paul’s statement, I propose taking a different approach. Let’s read the entire sentence in which it appears.  Our English translations don’t always bring this out, but this famous statement is not an entire sentence in itself, but part of a larger one. It’s actually a dependent clause within that sentence, not even its main point.  (So it shouldn’t ever be used as an independent proposition.)

Paul says (in the NIV translation, but following the punctuation of major critical editions of the New Testament), “A woman should learn in quietness in full submission; I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”  In other words, Paul is primarily asking women to do something (“learn in quietness,” “be quiet”), and he only describes what he doesn’t want them to do secondarily, to help explain what he does want them to do.

It seems to me, therefore, that we can best understand what Paul doesn’t want women to do by appreciating as clearly as possible what he does want them to do.  I’ll take this up in my next post.

Does the Bible say that women can’t teach or have authority over men? (Part 1)

The prophetess Huldah answers the high priest Hilkiah’s questions about the Scriptures.  Was she allowed to do this?

It’s not difficult to read between the lines of my study guides (to Paul’s Journey Letters or to Paul’s Prison Letters, for example) and recognize that I believe there should be no restrictions on what women can do in communities of Jesus’ followers.  In the guides I acknowledge this as a question on which believers can legitimately differ, and I make every effort to explain both points of view so groups can discuss the issue amicably.  But I think my personal sympathies are probably pretty clear.

I’d like to make them even clearer here.  When a friend of mine saw this post in which Steve Holmes said that for him to defend the ministry of a woman like Phoebe Palmer “would be as ridiculous as a worm trying to defend a lion,” my friend commented how valuable it was for her to hear male biblical scholars affirming the ministry of women.  And so, particularly to encourage women who feel called to ministry, I want to add my own (male) voice in support of their calling.

In recent months, at the request of some friends, I’ve been blogging privately on this topic so we could discuss it together confidentially.  We’ve reached a point of resolution in our conversations, and so with their agreement, I’d now like to share my reflections publicly here.  The material from this formerly private blog is too long (17 posts, nearly 10,000 words) to appear in its entirely in this venue, so I’ll summarize it instead.  But I’ll provide links along the way to those fuller discussions, for those who are interested in pursuing specific points in more detail.  If you’d like to see it all (except for the original participants’ comments, which have been removed), it starts with this post.

Those discussion are more wide-ranging, but in these posts I’d like to focus more narrowly on the biblical statement that is most often taken to support restrictions on what women can do.  Paul writes in 1 Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.”  Doesn’t that settle the question?

Actually, whether it does depends on what the Bible is and what we’re supposed to do with it.  If the Bible is essentially a collection of propositions, and if we’re supposed to isolate and collect these propositions in order to answer questions that we pose to the text ourselves about belief and practice, then this statement speaks pretty clearly and decisively to the question, “Should there be any restrictions on what women can do in communities of Jesus’ followers?”

Some further statements that apparently take the same position, although less explicitly, can be brought in for support (for example, “The head of every woman is man”).  Other biblical statements that seem inconsistent with this working conclusion can be accounted for somehow (“Deborah . . . was leading Israel at that time . . . and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided”).  But other passages aside, if we take this approach to the Bible, the statement in 1 Timothy is the definitive one that seems to settle the matter.

The problem is, the Bible is not a collection of propositions that we are supposed to isolate and collect in order to answer questions that we pose ourselves.  The Bible is instead a library of complete works, of greatly varying kinds, that as a whole tell the grand story of God’s initiatives over the course of human history to redeem fallen humanity, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  (Seen in this way, the Bible has many more questions for us than we have for it, starting with, “What are you doing to join in this grand story?”)

Because this is the true character of the Bible, no biblical statement is true or valid in isolation.  Each one appears in the historical and literary context of an entire work of literature, itself placed within a grand overarching story, and so no biblical statement makes sense in isolation.  If we really want to understand what Paul meant by his statement in the first letter to Timothy and what its implications are for us today, we need to situate it in its historical and literary context.  That is what I will seek to do starting in my next post.