Paul’s “Futility” Versus Hegelian Dialectics

Given creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing), one can either recognize with Paul (in Romans 8) and Gregory of Nyssa, Origin, and Maximus, that creation continues toward an eschatological realization of pleroma or fullness in which the nihilo (the chaos, disorder) is reduced and eventually has no place, or one can assume the nothing is part of a cosmic dualism giving rise to fullness (fullness of knowledge or a fullness of salvation). The difference pertains to two readings of Scripture and two modes of ordering reality. Do we read from creation to Christ and understand who Christ is on the basis of creation or do we apprehend creation as being fulfilled or completed through Christ?

Our reading will make a world of difference in how we define sin and evil and how we picture the work of Christ. The Hegelian mistake, in that it sums up the human mistake in giving first place to an immanent frame within creation, is key in regard to the nihilo. Hegel’s dialectic fully articulates Paul’s depiction of the reign of death through the reifying of nothing. Given subjection to this understanding our tendency will be to misread Paul (in the manner of the Western theological tradition?) and to imagine Romans 8 depiction of futility and its defeat pertains simply to sin (a sin reduced to the individual). To put it anachronistically, the world is with Hegel (and by extension the forebears and heirs of Luther) in Paul, while salvation is deliverance from out of this order.

Nonetheless, there is a certain value to be gained in engaging Hegel through Paul. The theological concepts of sin and evil tend either toward reductions to misdeeds and perverse thoughts or toward abstractions of cosmic battle which do not easily translate into the fabric of human experience. Even in our reading of the New Testament we may be so focused on individual transgression that we miss how sin can be definitive, not simply of some experience, but of experience per se as it is filtered to us through our world (so much so that it becomes a mode of reading the Bible). In Marx’s language, we might recognize the failures of the bank robber and even of the banker, but we tend to miss the definitive role of capitalism, which gives us both (bankers and bank robbers). Understood rightly, the nihilo of creation ex nihilo (a key point of departure for understanding God) is not simply an abstraction about the order of creation in relation to God but concerns the “fleshing out” or the overcoming of futility accomplished by Christ. If evil is a privation or a nothing given its opportunity in the manner of creation (i.e. it is without any metaphysical or ontological ground but a parasite on the good), this not only locates sin’s origin in the contingency of creation but its ongoing point of access in human experience as a “counter-force” or absence. Hegel gives full and positive articulation to this understanding.

The point at which Hegel and Paul converge pertains to the psychological or experiential reality of this imagined dualism (nothing and futility as a necessary something) in its constitution of human experience. Both will refer to it as a form of enslavement – even agreeing upon its point of entry in and through human cognition. For Hegel, “we are the activity that thought is.”[1] For Paul, human words and thought are deployed in an attempt to displace God and found an independent realm. Its specific point of entry is futile or deceived thought: “they became futile in their speculations” (1:21). Ματαιόω – is “to present what is vain” or “to deceive.”[2] Though Romans 8:20 (“the creation was subjected to futility”) does not “solve the metaphysical and logical problems raised” by this futility it explains that it has a beginning and end.[3] It arises with finitude and contingency and taken as an end in itself this lie turned them into fools (1:22). But this futility is delimited in those who put on Christ: “the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21).

Paul consigns this force to its original contingency as part of the unfolding of creation: “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (8:22). The pain of childbirth is no more necessary to the fully formed child than the nihilo is to creation. To assign death, futility, and suffering, to part of the constitution of the finished product is to serve the futility. It is to hollow out reality with the unreality of a lie. Creations purpose fulfilled in Christ consigns this futility to a passage through suffering forgotten or subsumed by the eschatological end point of creation: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Ro 8:18).

Paul, in an appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures, depicts the advance of futility through empty human speech and its embodiment as a lie incarnate: “THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE, WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING,” “THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS”; “WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS” (Ro 3:13–14). Paul describes the phenomenology of the lie as characterizing all forms of humanity (the original contexts of his quotations point to both Jews and Gentiles), originating as part of the universal man (the first Adam in Ro 5) and as definitive of individual human experience (Ro 7). Collective experience, universal experience, individual experience, which is inclusive of human religiosity, human sexuality, and human ethics, all fall under this futility – the exchange of the truth for a lie (Ro 1:21-23).

Hegel (and I presume Hegel is indeed the master thinker – truly summing up the alternative to Paul and the New Testament) gives primacy to human knowing (it is the true creation or outworking of spirit) while Paul presumes that this incarnate lie is an enslaving power and is not part of a creative dialectic. For Hegel enslavement necessarily precedes freedom; slave/master, nothing/something, evil/good are the terms of truth and freedom but also the substance of experience. For Paul, this presumed dualism and its defeat explains his form of dialectic in Romans 7 and Romans 9-11. There is for the individual, the law of the mind and the law of the body constituting the law of sin and death which gives way to the body of Christ (7-8), and there is the corporate experience of Jews and Gentiles fluctuating between disobedience and mercy which results in a Pauline synthesis: “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (11:32). This is not a dialectic between nothing and something but a false dialectic of the lie and disobedience defeated individually, corporately, and cosmically. The lie (disobedience, misorientation to death and the law) is countered by the truth or by the Word (the final Word of creation, the completion or fullness of creation).

The opening to Romans 6 points to sin as the slaveholder but it also indicates the perversity of the Hegelian notion that maintains the necessity of this enslavement for freedom (Ro 6:1). Even those who recognize “sin reigned in death” (5:21), are in danger of positing a dialectic between sin and grace: “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (6:1). In both Paul and Hegel the dialectic of sin is definitive of human experience. For Hegel, perhaps the archetypical sort of Christian perverter of the Gospel Paul has in mind, the dialectic of sin is normative for Christian thought. Paul recognizes dialectic is liable to be carried over into Christian understanding at key points in 6-7. “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” This is to allow sin to “be master over you” (6:14-15). For Hegel this explains why history is necessarily a “slaughter bench” while for Paul the violence of history definitive of human activity (3:9-18) is a futility overcome in Christ.

Paul’s description of how the dialectic arises through an orientation to the law gives rise to his pithiest dialectic formula: “Is the Law sin?” (7:7). He seems to have recognized the danger of pitting grace against law, such that the law itself is perceived as the problem (perhaps a succinct formula for the Protestant dilemma). But of course, it is not that law is the problem but sin coopts even the law of God. It is not simply that the Jewish law, due to this lie, reduces to the law of sin but all human religious and ethical striving – even the best, even that built upon God’s law, is sin possessed. Thus, Paul concludes that all are unrighteousness and all are misoriented to the law. In the progressive argument of Romans there is a flattening out of all law to the law of sin and death.

The difficulty, where sin and evil are pervasive, is to be able to name this thing – to name and recognize the idol (the ideology, the politic, the value system, or even the theology by which Paul is read) by which we measure and experience. Paul does not presume to have a place from which to begin to describe sin apart from the Gospel. The law provides an opening to sin and serves as a point of revelation only in conjunction with the Gospel. Romans opens with the good news (a proclamation of everything being made right) and part of this news concerns the universal reign of sin and death. God’s saving power (1:16-17) to redeem all of creation (8:19-23) simultaneously reveals that the world spirit is not God but the enemy defeated by Christ.

In David Bentley Hart’s depiction, for Paul we are living in the midst of transition between two worlds: “we are living in the final days of one world-age that is rapidly passing and awaiting the dawn of another that will differ from it radically in every dimension: heavenly and terrestrial, spiritual and physical.” This is a story of “invasion, conquest, spoliation, and triumph” in which “nothing less than the cosmos is at stake.”[4] The world has been made subject to death in and through some form of malign governance (“angelic” or “demonic”). These archons, or what Paul calls Thrones, Powers and Dominions, divide us off from God. Whether arising from a sub-personal or demonic realm, Christ exposed these powers and this exposure is part of their defeat. Given that evil’s modus operandi is a lie, exposure is the beginning of defeat.

Indicators that we have to do with a deadly lie, with philosophy gone bad, with corrupt powers of state, is that sin’s defeat is through life giving truth; it has to do with the transformation of the mind enabling a capacity to know and do God’s will (12:1-2), which is integrated with and gained in new forms of human community (12-15). The futility of the nihilo is displaced with hope (5:1-5; 8:24), peace displaces bloodshed (5:1; 14:17; 15:13), and joy and love displace despair and condemnation (8:1ff; 15:13). While this describes a radical alteration of human experience it is a difference grounded in an alternative reality and alternative world.

The resurrection is the opening and summing up of this world as it defeats and exposes the reign of death which saturates this world order. Cosmic and individual enslavement is a servitude to death definitive of sin and Christ’s death and resurrection dethrone death so that his followers can now face down the powers. The death dealing power can no longer separate from God.  “Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” or being “slaughtered as sheep” separate from the love of Christ? (8:35-36). There is a confrontation that continues between Jesus followers and the principalities and powers, but Jesus Christ, “He who died, yes, rather who was raised” has determined the outcome of this confrontation (8:34). “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 8:38-39).

To miss this vision would seem to endanger the opportunity to “crush Satan under your feet” (16:20) and to instead give way in the conflict and be overcome by “deceitful men” who may pose as slaves of Christ. Paul warns, “such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (16:18). These deceivers appear to be turning once again to a preference for human speech over God’s Word. How many have been drawn in by their “flattering speech” which would diminish sin and smooth it over through human speech or dialectic?

In summary, sin entered through the opening of nihilo and is accentuated and spread out through human futility. Death, the ultimate futility, entered through Adam and continues to reign through the offspring of Adam, who are its helpless victims. Sin is not a force to simply be forgiven, placated, or satisfied. It is not a force that God can overlook and it is certainly not a force humans can pass over. It is a beast before which one kneels (in the form of nations and kings), a value system by which one gauges all achievement (mammon), and an all-consuming impetus giving rise to human thought and action. It is a mode of thought passed on in this worlds wisdom and it constitutes a philosophical tradition (Colossians 2:8). It is a principal or power that is either served or defeated.

The question is if a Gospel focused on imputed righteousness (a dialectic between law and grace), penal substitution (a dialectic that presumes suffering and death accomplish God’s will through Christ), deliverance from an eternal torturous existence (a dialectic which gives primacy to futility), has anything left of the Gospel in it. In David Bentley Hart’s estimate such a gospel, may have terms “reminiscent” of those used by Paul, “at least as filtered through certain conventional translations”; but “it is a fantasy” to imagine it coincides with Paul’s Gospel. He concludes, “that a certain long history of misreadings of the Letter to the Romans . . . has created an impression of his theological concerns so entirely alien to the conceptual world he inhabited that the real Paul occupies scarcely any place at all in Christian memory.”[5] A recovery of the Gospel, lost as it has become in misreadings of Romans, will of necessity have to begin again with reading Romans.

The notion that sin primarily has to do with guilt and forgiveness or with personal deliverance or private spiritual blessing through a violent sacrifice is not simply inadequate but would seem to be part of the deception. It is deceived in its diminished depiction of sin and in its failure to realize the scope of salvation.


[1] https://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=phil_facpub 105

[2] Bauernfeind, O. (1964–). μάταιος, ματαιότης, ματαιόω, μάτην, ματαιολογία, ματαιολόγος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans

[3] Bauernfeind, O. (1964–). μάταιος, ματαιότης, ματαιόω, μάτην, ματαιολογία, ματαιολόγος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[4] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories, p. 373, University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[5]Hart, p. 371-372.

Acknowledgement of the Problem of Evil as a Test of Authentic Christianity

John Piper apparently (I am quoting someone quoting – I do not have the willpower to look myself and hopefully it is all a lie) has a best-selling book explaining that the coronavirus is directly caused by God: “It is a bitter season. And God ordained it. God governs it.”[1] Piper maintains (according to my informant, who in a perfect universe would be pulling my leg), God is teaching a series of lessons (the horror of sin, divine judgment is coming, prepare for the second coming, no more self-pity, have joy, become a missionary, and I presume – vote for Trump) but of course as with all such lessons, God is having to kill off those who are paying the price for this somewhat confused lesson.  This sort of blasphemy has a specific genealogy, through John Calvin, that makes it plausible that there is such a book and such an author (to say nothing of his unfortunate readers).  

According to Calvin, what we would call evil, originates in the secret council of God: “The first man fell because the Lord deemed it meet that he should.”[2] “I freely acknowledge my doctrine to be this: that Adam fell, not only by the permission of God, but by His very secret, the council and decree …”[3] “God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it.”[4] In this view, one must learn to delight in the evil caused by God and ultimately to spend an eternity rejoicing at the sight of the damned roasting in hell. There is a majority Christian tradition in which such notions were not open to consideration and if proposed would have been dismissed as sub-Christian or simply pagan. What Calvinism shares with most forms of paganism, is that evil (though it may exist as a word or a concept) is not really a problem but just part of reality (the reality of God in Calvin, or a necessary part of the cycles of karma in Hinduism).

Of course, at the existential level all humans are confronted by real world evil, but it is the Christian religion that has the most acute problem in explaining evil (unless we are counting Calvinism as Christian on this point, which I would not). As Hume states it, the problem Christians have lies in their peculiar understanding of God: “God is omnipotent and yet animals prey on each other and humans suffer all sorts of ailments. If God is willing to prevent evil but does not, then he is not God. If he is able but not willing, God is not good. If he is both willing and able, then why is there evil?” Hume’s argument may not bring the full acuity of the problem of evil to bear, as one might simply conclude there is no God (which may have been his point – though it is not clear that he was an atheist), but of course if there is no God there really is no “problem of evil,” there are just events which might be good or bad but which do not call for explanation.  

One test of whether we still have to do with the Judeo-Christian religion might, in fact, pertain to the willingness to give full voice to the problem of evil. The earliest book of the Old Testament (according to some), the book of Job, goes Hume one better. There is God, there is evil, and the impetus to provide satisfactory explanation in human free will or human evil are pointedly dismissed by God. Job’s friends have a full explanation of evil (which more or less captures every subsequent attempt at theodicy, though even they do not stoop as low as Calvin and assign evil directly to God).

 As Phillip Nemo has put it, “There is an excess of evil – it exceeds the law of the world, it exceeds the scene of the world as a technical world.” Theory and explanation are refused in Job, but what is put in place of theory is the full existential realization of the human plight. As Nemo brilliantly describes, in Job we pass from “speculative aloofness” (the friends of Job – the makers of theodicies) to “anguished situatedness.” It is the difference between the simple judgment – life passes, death comes – to a judgment of value: life passes too quickly death comes too soon. “They were borne off before their time” (22:16). Swifter than a weaver’s shuttle my days have passed” (7:6). There is a maximum amount of anxiety (“While I am speaking, my suffering remains; and when I am not, do I suffer any less” (16:6).  “If I say, ‘My bed will comfort me, my couch will soothe my pain’, you frighten me with dreams and terrify me with visions” (7:13)) – “the personage of Job suddenly appears as eternal, truer than the world.”

The vision of Job is nothing less than the Christian hope vaguely imagined: “This I know: that my Defender lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God. He whom I shall see will take my part: he whom my eyes will gaze on will no longer be a stranger” (19:25-27). This is not an explanation but a vision, which means it is not within the horizon of technical understanding or theory but is more of an existential comfort. But the quandary of Job or his vision more concretely recognized in Christianity does not relieve the problem of evil, in fact the problem of evil is accentuated.

Augustine’s depiction of evil as a privation, that is it has no ontological ground (as in his former faith of Manichaeism), is a step closer to the truth and set in the right context properly accentuates the problem. Yet, I would suggest, Augustine’s theory of privation has given rise to two major problems: a false notion of the real world power of evil and a multiplication of theodicies. If something is presumed to be simultaneously removed from potency and from the good, this seems to be precisely contrary, according to David Roberts, to our experience: “the more evil something is, the more powerful its acts of destruction, the more we feel its actuality . . . and the more we realize the power before which we tremble is not nothing.”

Sin as a nothing, an incapacity, located in the will might be taken as an explanatory unreality – a ground of departure for a variety of theodicies, all of which will maintain either that evil is less real than the good or that evil is the pathway to a greater good. While, as John Milbank claims, this may be doing violence to Augustine, there is certainly a long history of imagining that under Augustinian terms the good makes sense of evil. This entails, as has been demonstrated in Western thought, adherence to the doctrine of progress and the idea that good ultimately triumphs over evil in and through the outworking of their interaction. Thus, someone like John Hick holds that each person progresses through evil to the good in his own life-time and the fall was a necessary inevitability in this journey. Many will assume that free will requires evil (as an alternative, as a result, or as implicit to freedom) – all of which seems to depend on a weak (post-Augustinian (?)) notion of evil. It is not too far off to see this as resulting in Hegelian notions of idealism (the good arises from out of its interaction with evil).

Assigning evil either to privation of the will or to the necessity endured in order to have a free will, as has been done in classical theodicies, seems to ignore the diabolical (Satan inspired) nature of evil in the Bible. The basic premise of Christianity, perhaps affirmed nowhere else but fundamental to this faith, is that the world is fallen, things are not as they should be, death is unnatural, and this evil is not needed as part of a theory of the good or an impetus to progress. Working backward from Christ, we can presume evil requires supernatural intervention, precisely because it is itself unnatural or sub-natural. As David Bentley Hart has put it, “that the universe languishes in bondage to the ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’ of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the Kingdom of God . . . is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.”[5]

The problem with theodicies is that in explaining evil they imagine the world is somehow ok the way it is, the cross is not really necessary, evil and Satan are not so serious, and we lose the real presence of God in his defeat of evil and our participation in that defeat. Topics I will take up next week.


[1] Thanks Justin.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. 23, Sect. 8.                           

[3] John Calvin, On the Secret Providence of God, 267.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. 23, Sect. 7.

[5] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories (Kindle Locations 1570-1577). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

Are Calvinists Saved?

The question of the title (above) is, in the first instance, a Calvinist question which Calvinists have about themselves. While some have assurance of salvation, where this assurance fails or is lacking, the results can be torturous or deadly. When Jonathan Edwards’ uncle slit his own throat in the absence of this assurance, this demonstrated to Edwards himself that the “devil took the advantage, and drove him into despairing thoughts.” Soon after, many in the community of Northampton were reporting suicidal ideations. The existential realization that one is predestined for eternal damnation, selected as a vessel of wrath, the object of sovereign hatred bound for an eternity of torture, has proven unbearable for many. To imagine that the all-powerful, omnipresent, power of heaven hates you, must be several times worse than a simple, atheistic nihilism which holds that the universe is indifferent toward you. In fact, to be able to rid oneself of belief in this monstrous God and achieve a more harmless atheism would seem to be a positive moral and mental achievement.  A good friend, who concluded that he was one of the objects of wrath, a vessel of destruction, describes his descent into drug addiction and two overdoses and near-death experiences, not as a departure from God or a descent into unbelief, but due to his belief in God. It was his belief that God hated him, the living proof of which was his poverty of spirit, his condition of feeling hated and not loved, which drove him deeper into self-destructive behavior.  If salvation is entry into the benefits of the love and goodness of God, the assurance that the true, the good and the beautiful, are determinative of ultimate reality and the determinative factor in human life and destiny then Calvinism, in the second instance, is indeed an obstruction to salvation. It specifically opposes this understanding and is an obstruction to the practical realization of this reality, as God’s decisions are rendered arbitrary and unpredictable. So, my question is not polemical or sectarian but a question evoked by Calvinists and a true concern that this may be one form of the Christian faith which most effectively obstructs the core teaching of the New Testament. Far from good news, this is the worst news possible.

Calvinism is not an assurance of love, a defeat of death or the destructive drive toward death, but it inscribes death and destruction into the eternal fabric of creation and into the very nature of God. Instead of Christ defeating death and undoing death’s fatal hold upon us, Calvinism would turn the creator into the eternal source of an everlasting living death in eternal hell, made a necessity so that his glory might shine forth. In his commentary on I John, Calvin states that God is not love in his essence. Love is an anthropomorphism while wrath is an attribute flowing from God’s definitive justice.  In book 3 of The Institutes, Calvin explains that even the Fall was predestined by God – so that the fate of both the saved and the damned are preordained by God. The implication is that God is beyond our comprehension to such a degree that he might be said to be both good and evil or merely a sovereign force that makes nonsense of such categories, and anyone who experiences God as love cannot be said to have entered into a realization of the true divine essence but it is simply descriptive (in Calvin’s explanation) of human experience. If one were to make Satan into one’s God, this might be an improvement over Calvinism, as we can at least read a singular intent and goal into evil personified in the devil. Satan is not arbitrary, unpredictable, all-powerful. God in Calvinism becomes an overwhelming and unavoidable malignancy, undefeatable, imperturbable and immovable in his wrath and hatred.

The logic and mechanical like structure reflected in TULIP, even in Calvin’s own estimate, is not so much a reflection on Scripture as it is a turn inward. The presumption is that “knowledge of God and of ourselves” are “connected together by many ties,” such that to examine the self is to arrive at God: “because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.”  Good lawyer that he was, and being largely innocent of the countervailing tradition of the church in its reading of the New Testament, Calvin gives us the doctrine of sin as if it is the means to salvation. Sin is an orientation to the law, captured in Paul’s phrase “the law of sin and death,” in which life is presumed to be in the law which is presumed to be determinative of God and humans. Calvin turns to himself to find the logic of the law; the incontrovertible logic needing violence and blood, made up of vengeance and wrath. The predestined damnation of the derelict needs both the derelict and the damnation to prove the power of God. Just as Napoleon once called upon one of his officers to shoot himself in the head to demonstrate his power to a visiting dignitary, God depends upon damned derelicts to demonstrate his sovereignty. Calvin explains, in Book III of the Institutes, that this is why God predestined the Fall of man so that his greatness would show forth in both arbitrary salvation and damnation. Like death itself, this arbitrary divine power cannot allow for any competing liberty or freedom. God is the power behind all that happens to people, blessed be the name of God, the great unadulterated power.

Calvinism does not speak of the undoing of death but succumbs to a worship like that of Mot, Thanatos, Santa Muerte, or the worship of death itself in that in defending the absolute sovereignty of God, transcendence collapses into identity with the realities of the world (clearly ruled by death). Tsunamis, viruses, accidents, homicides, suicides, or the inevitable march to the grave are all the will of God. The world does not possess its own liberty, people have no freedom, but everything is a product of divine power and divine power most superbly expresses itself in death, destruction, and wrath, with love reduced to a human fabrication. As David Bentley Hart notes, “God is simply the totality of all that is and all that happens; there is no creation, but only an oddly pantheistic expression of God’s unadulterated power.”

The law of sin and death taken as God’s law, results in a religion which takes on a resemblance to various cults of the dead but also to a Lacanian psychoanalytic orientation which presumes the real or death drive is the unchangeable reality of the human condition. The infinite struggle with sin posed by Calvinism is precisely the Lacanian picture of the symbolic order of the law pitted against the imaginary or egoistic order. As in Paul’s explanation, law is felt as the inexorable controlling power in life so that all of one’s desires, all of one’s mental and bodily effort, might be described as a working out (an agonistic fight with oneself) of this seemingly sovereign power in one’s life. God is mistaken for the law in Paul’s definition of sin, and this means that one must reinforce the good through the evil. Paul gives some four formulas for this perverse understanding each of which might be mistaken for Calvinist doctrine: evil establishes the good, sin makes grace abound, or the law is sin itself. This dualism is read into God and is lived out in the struggle for salvation – a continual grasping after an ultimately unattainable object – which Paul describes as being subject to the “body of death.”

A mind conditioned to imagine this wickedness is Christianity is in a worse estate than a sincere pagan who has never heard but may still hear of the good news. The good news of God’s love falls on deaf ears as this Calvinist mind has been twisted to believe that a moral hideousness is a paradox that one must swallow so as to be saved. Only the blessed have this insight, and I suppose as with the satisfaction of belonging to the most elite club, part of the satisfaction (as Calvin testifies) is to delight in the suffering of the masses. This translates into the health and wealth notion that the blessing of possessing wealth is made clear by those who are dispossessed – after-all money only works in a zero-sum game. So too Calvinist salvation, the few, the elect, possess at the expense and through contrast with the damned.  

The price of admission to this elite club is to believe in the contradiction that this morally hideous God is good and then to submit to the notion that ultimate injustice is justice. This was demonstrated on Sunday to Faith and I in a documentary, I will not name, for fear someone may watch it. In this portrayal there are two options: one can either accept the basic tenets of Calvinism or one can give up on the true Christian faith. As John MacArthur puts it, if a person does not hold to penal substitution he cannot be saved. He acknowledges that one might not understand penal substitution and still make it in, but a clear sign that one is damned is if they reject this damnable doctrine. The focus of the documentary is to suggest that there are those (e.g. Rob Bell, Richard Rohr) who do not accept the Calvinist version of God’s justice and wrath, but they apparently do so on the basis of their own willfulness. No mention is made of the large majority of Christians in the world who are not Calvinist and who do not accept penal substitution. In place of this, one Calvinist after another gives us a “universal” opinion gained by sheer repetition and multiplied singular opinion.

The result was a feeling that these people were either dishonest or profoundly ignorant of world Christianity and Christian tradition. What the documentary succeeded in demonstrating to me, is the large population that imagines that their moral idiocy might only be appreciated by those who might mistake contradiction and incoherence for profundity. For the first time I appreciated how Richard Rohr, Rob Bell, or Bart Campolo (who is an honest atheist), might be taken as a breath of fresh air or a positive relief from the stifling religious nihilism being passed off as a more nuanced faith. Any voice, any counter narrative, any note of objection, came to be a relief from the noxious smugness and presumed moral superiority of the heretical proselytizing. Given the options posed by the film, I understood how happy flakiness is certainly preferable to moral and spiritual insipidness. If this is the actual option posed to most people, I think I better understand this cultural and political moment. But of course, this is a false choice.

The primary doctrine of biblical Christianity is that the law of sin and death and all that it includes – evil, suffering, violence, the orientation to death marking human moral failing – are not the tools of God but precisely that which Christ came to destroy and that which God opposes. The person of God made manifest in Christ reveals the life, love, beauty, and goodness of God, without admixture of evil. Where Calvin does not allow for any clear distinction between what God wills and what he permits (though he speaks of God’s permissive will it is still the will of God), the New Testament pictures a world in which human choice has profound consequences for both good and evil. God in Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world but to deliver it from willful evil, sin and death. In the words of Hart, “For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”[1]

Be assured the choice is not that maybe Jesus died for you or maybe he didn’t. In this understanding, statistically your chances are poor and experientially you may one day realize you are damned – or maybe you already have this confirmation. The good news is that God loves you, and there is no question, no qualification, no obstacle that can obstruct this love (Romans 8:38-39).


[1] The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

The Wrath of God Proceeds from His Love

Christ came to address the problem of sin and not the various consequences of sin, such as the wrath of God, guilt, shame, or the list of consequences spelled out in Romans 1 (degrading passions, greed, unrighteousness, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossiping, slander, hatred of God, arrogance, boastfulness, etc.). To miss the root problem underlying these consequences is to miss why Christ came and the role of God (he “turns them over to their desires” (Ro 1:24)), in these consequences. Christ did not come to turn away the wrath of God, which would mean he would be turning away God’s love as well. Christ came to do away with what gives rise to wrath. Likewise, he did not come to resolve the problem of guilt but to do away with what causes guilt – and so on down the list. These consequences flow from the root problem of shutting ourselves off from God, and of course in addressing the root problem these consequences are addressed up to and including, particularly, God’s wrath.

To imagine the wrath of God is the primary problem is to miss the way in which it is also a necessary part of the cure. Paul describes sin (the root cause and not the results) as the exchange of the truth for a lie in which the creature displaces the creator as the object of service and worship (Ro 1:25). He seems to be referencing the early chapters of Genesis, but the same prognosis is repeated in each contemporaneous setting Paul addresses. The progression outlined in Ephesians introduces the same sequence of events. People have given themselves over to the “Archon of this world order” (2:2) and as a result they are “godless in the cosmos” (2:12). In other words, they have exchanged creation for the creator, becoming children of wrath (2:3), and this then results in their “being given over to their desire.” The wrath of God is unleashed in sins consequences in both passages, and this results in “walking in darkness” and being “dead in trespasses and sins.” God’s wrath or his vehemence against sin reveals itself in the fact that sin is a despoiling, dying, passing, circumstance.

Romans 1 specifies where the wrath of God is specifically directed: “against all the impiety and injustice of human beings” (Ro 1:18). Paul speaks of an immediate revelation of this wrath from heaven in its unfolding consequences oriented to and deserving of death (Ro 1:32). In Ephesians, walking according to the course of the Prince of this world, and thus being dead in sin, are synonymous with being “children of wrath.” Where love is an enduring state and God’s love endures forever, the experience of his wrath is a passing state (death being, by definition, unenduring) as the dross of sin is burnt away by the wrath which works in sin.

 The wrath is interwoven with being dead in sin but it is also immediately conjoined to the love of God: “because of His great love with which He loved us even when we were dead in our transgressions” (Eph. 2:4-5). The children of wrath are still children and are not simply consigned to wrath as an end point but are destined to pass through wrath to love. Paul is talking about himself and other Christians, who have passed into full experience of the love of God by way of wrath.

 As George McDonald has described it, the passage from wrath to love is not a change in God (from wrath to love) but a passage through a purifying love: “For love loves unto purity,” and this is often experienced as wrath, “as the consuming fire that will not be content until our sinful nature, everything that separates us from God, is burned away.” According to McDonald, “God’s anger is at one with his love.” Mercy and punishment, love and justice, are not opposed, “for punishment—the consuming fire—is a means to an end, that we might be the creatures he intended us to be. God’s punishment, his justice, can be his most merciful act.”[1]

The Hebraism “sons of death” (“sons of wrath” or “sons of stripes”) occurs in several places in the Old Testament, and as in Psalms 102, these children seemingly consigned to death are to be set free so as to constitute “kingdoms to serve the Lord” and to “tell of the name of the Lord in Zion” (Ps. 102:20-21). Ephesians seems to be echoing this tradition of building a kingdom by its purifying passage through the love/wrath of God. The “sons of wrath” are those very ones who will be shown mercy and who “are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (2:22). As Hebrews puts it, “Wherefore, we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). This unshakeable kingdom is established in and through this purifying fire. In each instance, the point is to pass from walking in darkness and works of death so as to walk in the “good works, which God prepared beforehand” (Eph 2:10).

If salvation is a harmoniously functioning kingdom united under Christ (the thematic picture in the New Testament is of being “in Christ” as part of his body), then the image would seem to also account for the entire movement from damnation to salvation. That is, the disparate elements of the divided kingdom (split in two by the dividing wall of hostility) will come to constitute the stuff of the united kingdom. “He himself is our peace” and this means that hostility, enmity, hatred, and violence will be burned out to make way for this enduring peace among the objects of his wrath. He “abolished in his flesh the enmity,” which means we might speak of his having passed through the fire of wrath but he has turned it into purified love: “because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, [he] made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4-5). The making alive due to love redirects from within the orientation to death definitive of experience of God’s wrath (i.e. wrath is a passage to love enacted by Christ).

 As David Bentley Hart has written, “The wrath of God in Scripture is a metaphor, suitable to our feeble understanding, one which describes not the action of God toward us, but what happens when the inextinguishable fervency of God’s love toward us is rejected.”[2] As Hart notes, this is the understanding passed down from the Church fathers. Origen writes, “If you hear of God’s anger and wrath, do not think of wrath and anger as emotions experienced by God. Accommodations of the use of language like that are designed for the correction and improvement of the little child. We too put on a severe face for children.”[3] In Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor, the wrath of God proceeds from his love, so that “even hell itself is not a divine work, but the reality we have wrought within ourselves by our perverse refusal to open out — as God himself eternally has done — in love, for God and others.” Sin is a shutting ourselves off from God, being lost in the cosmos (in a paraphrase of Paul), or being lost within ourselves such that “the fire of divine love cannot transform or enliven us, but only assail us as an external chastisement” as a hell of our own making. [4]  But what is sinful cannot endure the flame of God’s love. As McDonald puts it, “There is nothing eternal but that which loves and can be loved, and love is ever climbing towards the consummation when such shall be the universe, imperishable, divine.”[5] Or in Harts phrase, “Our God is a consuming fire, and the pathos of our rage cannot interrupt the apatheia of his love.”[6]


[1] George McDonald, “The Consuming Fire,” from Unspoken Sermonshttp://www.online-literature.com/george-macdonald/unspoken-sermons/2/

[2] David Bentley Hart, “The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics” p. 62

[3] 1. Maurice Wiles and Mark Santer, eds., Documents in Early Christian Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1975), 7–10

[4] Hart Ibid.

[5] McDonald Ibid.

[6] Hart Ibid.

What is Eternal – God or Rewards and Punishment?

Multiple teachings of the Bible (e.g. the Temple as microcosm, image bearing, resurrection) pertain to the two-fold interdependence of humans and the world and humans and God. But what must be included in the mix is the overlapping of time or of the “ages” with eternity. The heavenly and its earthly entrance point are not distinct but are pictured as overlapping[1] and this is reflected in the Biblical words for time and eternity. There are a series of words in both Greek and Hebrew that often get translated as “eternal” and yet they are specifically references to time. The question arises if any stretch of time is an eternity? Or as David Konstan has posed the question, “If one speaks of the next life, or something that happens in the next life, as aiónios, does it mean simply the next era or eon, or does it carry the further implication of ‘eternal’?”[2] Is the next age either an eternity in hell or in heaven or does this way of putting it miss the intersection of time and eternity?

To pose the question in terms of the cosmology represented by the Jewish Temple, it is simultaneously a spatial and temporal microcosm in which a peculiar sort of temporal passage is represented spatially, but how can the two (the finite and infinite) be sorted out? It is not simply that the outer court is representative of the visible land and sea and the Holy Place representative of the visible heaven and the garden of God (the finite), but these realms are conjoined in the sabbath time with the Holy of Holies (the infinite or eternal). The picture is of the invisible heaven of God, and perhaps passage beyond time, somehow connected with the visible and finite. As the priest would pass into the Holy Place, he also made a temporal transition, as the garden motif in which it was decorated simultaneously pointed to the garden of Genesis and its future restoration (eternity once again intersecting time). If the Temple is taken as illustrative of an infinitely enduring state, creation (the garden, time, embodiment) will always be the meeting place between God and humans but it cannot itself be equated with the Holy of Holies or God’s eternality.

As the book of Timothy decisively states it, God “alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (I Tim. 6:16). God’s immortality or eternality are not something that can be appropriated by humanity or invested statically in creation. Eternity, as a predicate of God (τοῦ αἰωνίου θεοῦ, Romans 16:26), like immortality, is of a different order which transcends time and is not simply unending time.[3] Other things might be derivatively eternal (according to TDNT – such things as divine possessions or gifts, the Covenant, or the Kingdom) but only God is intrinsically eternal. This would include rewards and punishments of God or the age in which they exist. God is the singular eternal causal source, so that to speak of eternal punishment and reward is simply to identify the source and not the duration.

As David Bentley Hart notes in the concluding postscript to his translation, aiōnios or aiónion (as found in Matt 25:46 describing future punishment) is drawn from αἰών (aiōn or aeon), might “mean a period of endless duration, but which more properly, throughout the whole of ancient and late antique Greek literature, means ‘an age,’ or ‘a long period of time of indeterminate duration, or even just ‘a substantial interval’.” The adjective aiōnios never clearly means “eternal” in an incontrovertible sense.

So, for example, it is not as the Revised Standard Version would have it, that some “shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Th 1:9, RSV). But as Hart translates it, they “will pay the just reparation of ruin in the Age, coming from the face of the Lord and the glory of his might.” The two renderings give two very different notions of the location of eternity and thus two very different ideas of its duration.[4] In the RSV the eternality occurs in an impossible category for the Bible, in its exclusion from God. It is not as Hart translates it “from the face of the Lord” but the RSV assigns eternality to what cannot be inherently eternal. This is why Hart can say, in That All Shall Be Saved, an eternal hell is “entirely absent from the Pauline corpus, as even the thinnest shadow of a hint” (p. 93). It seems to be an intrinsic impossibility. By the same token this gives us a very different picture of the coming Kingdom.

The age of the Kingdom is parallel to the age of punishment, not as an alternative end point, but as an alternative reception of that which emanates from God and resulting in a final Age or a consummate summation of all things, which I will take up in my next blog.


[1] In one of the first Biblical images of this overlap, the breath breathed in the breathing (living) Adam is repeated in the tree of breath (life). The tree is the mediating point of God’s life giving (eternal) presence (Genesis 2:8). Eve will “breathlessly” go “breathing after” (the image of her desire) the second tree which circulates only an immanent self-referential frame (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil).

[2] Found on this internet forum https://forum.evangelicaluniversalist.com/t/terms-for-eternity-aionios-aidios-talk-part-2/1392#p27926 and referenced here https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2017/10/08/sometimes-eternity-aint-forever-aionios-and-the-universalist-hope/

[3] Sasse, H. (1964–). αἰών, αἰώνιος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 1, p. 208). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[4] This piece runs this down more – https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2020/02/05/apprehending-apokatastasis-what-the-bible-says-and-doesnt/?fbclid=IwAR1_okyxztphkhJxz1mqOeDPqw3b6o8qS84TPni6xhAj2j5f

When I Am 64 – Life’s Lesson

Today, on my birthday, Jason and I had a long discussion about the nature of salvation – sort of a meaning of life lesson. I must admit that David Bentley Hart’s universalism makes perfect sense at one level and at another seems to empty the world, humanity, and the particulars of our individual history of meaning. Jason, my earth bound, Wendell Berry loving, poetry making friend, sent me back to a strange reminiscence. I was relating the simple story of Wacky Cake, my traditional birthday cake, and its meaning (which I warned him I was making up). Then he began to question if my mother really was a Mississippi shrimp boat captain and I realized the key element of our discussion is how we see meaning woven into our own lives and history.

At birth, like baby Moses, they put me in a Singer Sewing Machine lid as we floated out of Kansas City, stopping for a time at a trailer court on Dixie Highway in Louisville Kentucky. A few blocks away a missionary family, the Maxey’s from Japan, kept a small house for furloughs and Pauline Maxey gave birth to my wife. Faith and I must have crossed paths at the local Safeway, where I would have nodded and cooed, “I will be back.” Our ancestors had sailed from Maxey and Harlaxton, only a few miles apart in England, to converge in both Virginia and Kentucky and our lives would eventually merge to produce an ongoing stream.

But my father had called the trip a “vacation” and a trailer court along Dixie Highway did not fit the bill. We moved on to Biloxi Mississippi to the Ever Breeze trailer court where Mama ran a shrimp boat and Dad headed back north while we vacationed – the next four years. Hinkle, a family friend, owned a cypress shrimp trawler named “Shirley,” built in 1928 and requiring three crew members captained by my mother. They hired a young man out of the Air Force, Jim Slayton, who could nurse the engine along, and a very religious first mate, Joe Dee, whom my father said devoutly made the sign of the cross on all important occasions – according to Mom he must have “double crossed” when stealing the days catch and tools . High winds beached the Shirley just out of Gulf Port. My memory is of hard rain beating down on a flimsy trailer roof along the wind-swept coast. Luckily, the hurricane of 59 sank the Shirley before Joe Dee could completely bankrupt the family and before my mother was lost at sea.

So, we headed to Page, Arizona where my father would build the Glen Canyon Dam (it was not clear to me if he required help). We were leaving the “gween gwass” of Mississippi for a miserable desolation, and my only consolation, as I explained to my mother, would be in catching a small Indian. Dad wore a hardhat and carried a metal lunch pail with a thermos, so as to build the dam. My first memory of a present, I presume it was my fifth birthday, was a miniature pail with a miniature thermos, my Rosebud. Objects invested with a weight of meaning, a magic C. S. Lewis describes in his boyhood garden contained in a dish, from which Narnia would spring.

At 7 I acquired a beagle who was my own hound of heaven. My father was running for mayor, promising to close down all gambling in Parsons Kansas and promising to rid the town of its arch villain, Ed Thompson. Ed was a political operative all over Kansas and my father was in the basement printing off anti-Ed literature when huge Ed Thompson knocked on our door at midnight, and my father at about 5 feet 4 inches confronted the meanest man in Kansas. Ed followed my father to the basement and helped create more anti-Ed Thompson literature and helped run Dad’s campaign, which my father won.

Much later, my father and I met Ed downtown, and I remember feeling important that I was in on this special meeting, which was about Mr. Magee, Ed’s beagle. For some reason Mr. Magee wanted to abandon political life with Ed, and required a country home. Ed and I walked with Mr. Magee and I noticed the dog was eating grass and Ed explained the medicinal effects of grass. Meeting Ed and his dog became a warm memory – a living sort of magic.

Mr. Magee, who would politely wipe his feet when coming inside and could open his own cans of dog food, became the center of my life. I remember a long morning in which we had a rabbit trapped in a pipe and I was trying to slide the rabbit my way to rescue him from the jaws of death at the other end of the pipe. After hours of struggle I grabbed the rabbit by the ears and took him home as a pet – but something happened that morning.  Part of it was that Mr. Magee must have gotten the point, as he later gingerly carried a baby rabbit unharmed and set it at my feet. The patterns of memory I have with this dog are tinged with a deep spiritual sensibility. My first great trauma in life and my first religious experience, prayer, occurred when Mr. Magee disappeared.

Could it be that this little piece of history, trivial, nearly nonsensical, bears meaning?  Isn’t the world and our passage through it somehow enchanted? Is there one point where we can say, here eternity intersected time, so that this moment is weighted forever as part of the life of God and it now pervades all things. If the cross, the life of Christ, the resurrection, is such a moment in time, then why not a similar significance interwoven throughout life. The old woman hidden behind a mound of plastic flowers whom I have come to help make artificial flowers at age 7. Her small kindnesses, our quiet conversation, the sheer delight of my first ice cream sandwich, my salary. Hours and days spent alone on the Texas prairie; are they empty or lost or woven into my eternity.

What weight does any history bear and what dignity? Aren’t we to be about creating, constructing, weaving eternity throughout the moments of time? We are not simply the passive recipients of the divine future presence, but are to be conduits of eternal purpose as co-creators here and now. The great danger in notions of post-mortem universal correction is that creations purpose is denied its eternal weight – its intersection with the divine worked out in the history of the cross and all history. Justice will amount to nothing. None of it will have mattered one way or another. The devil will be saved according to Origen, and Hitler, Himmler and Stalin are on the same level as Mother Teresa.[1] The world enchanted by eternity, or left un-created, unmade, unfulfilled, is part of the weight borne in the responsibility of Imago Dei.




[1] Clifford Dull in correspondence. See the Patheos article by Geoff Holsclaw https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2019/10/02/reviewing-david-bentley-hart/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Best+of+Patheos&utm


Does Hart’s Dogmatic Universalism Miss the Real World Engagement of Christian Hope?

David Bentley Hart, in That All Shall Be Saved, arrives at an unquestioning universalism which he poses against the “hopeful” but “timid” universalism of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and concludes that to be timid simply springs from being muddled. Either everyone will be reconciled to God through the work of Christ or some human beings will never be reconciled – both cannot be true. If Hart’s argument has a target audience, beyond those who already agree with him, it must be to nudge the hopeful universalists toward his dogmatic universalism. Hart blends philosophical and biblical argument and concludes that the notion of “tension” between two irreconcilable positions is simply a way of eliding “contradiction” and, the ultimate Hartian insult, this timidity is just giving way to a “post-Hegelian dialectical disenchantment, as well perhaps as a touch of disingenuous obscurantism” (p. 103). It is his blending of modes of discourse which I want to question: Is biblical certainty of the same order as philosophical certainty and do these modes of discourse position us differently in regard to the work of Christ, history, and most especially the problem of evil?

It is not that philosophy and theology are absolutely discreet, but the incremental difference between “hopeful” and “certain” universality pertains to tone and perspective. That is, Hart’s tone, his wonderfully entertaining arrogance, is not a side light of this work but is gained from a perspective he would have everyone adopt. Here we have not so much to do with the hard work of explaining how justice can possibly be meted out or how evil can be resolved. This tone of certainty smacks more of the perspective of a philosophical transcendence, which need not bend to the limited perspective of a mere human. The categories are dealt with, the formal causes and problems engaged, while there is really no comprehension of how this really works. I certainly believe in a final justice but the comprehension that this is so is far different than understanding how it is going to be made the case. The justice enacted in Christ, the revelation of God in Christ, by way of contrast, deals in the realm of human history, human experience, and allows for human understanding. This too is a certainty, but it is a certainty in progress, working itself out in history, and engaged not in terms of an absolute philosophical certainty but the “hopeful” certainty of faith. The former need not take into account the realm of evil or the contingencies of history. The latter is a humble “hopeful” certainty which deals in the reality of human perspective and the existential fact of suffering and evil.

The argument for humility may sound like a niggling critique, but it makes all the difference in terms of the problem of evil. We can, in portions of Hart’s argument, momentarily set aside the real-world overcoming of evil in the Cross of Christ – the engaged position of those responsible men and women called to action in the face of evil[1] – as we our now given a God’s eye view above all of the sound and fury.  It turns out that the weight of God’s action is in the future, far removed from real-world engagement with evil, beyond history and on the other side of death. Isn’t the danger of this absolutely confident universalism that, like infernalism, it so weights future categories so as to empty out the necessity of the Cross and our taking up the Cross?

The objection is not that Hart does this permanently or all the time, he is too good of a theologian for that, but the entire argument is geared toward adopting a tone warranted, not so much by a Christocentric perspective as by arguments from formal cause. Both may give rise to what we call “certainty” but the former brand of certainty is an engaged certainty, which looks to the gradual triumph of the work of Christ and the Cross. The latter certainty can skip over all mere historical, known categories, and invest its trust in an incomprehensible future. For example, purging fire (a perfectly sound idea) is as metaphorical as punishing fire, how either works is beyond comprehension. Unlike the Cross, which we can ascertain, comprehend in part, witness to, the certainty imbued by this future work is made of the same stuff as purely formal analytical arguments (of which Hart is so critical).

Hart’s confident universalism functions in this book much in the same way that divine apatheia functions in The Doors of the Sea. In order for God to not be implicated in the problem of evil, the mode of rescue is through an apatheia beyond comprehension. A book spent on disclaiming theodicy reverses course in the case of God so as to provide Him, if no one else, a way out. The Cross in turn, rather than being a real world unfolding of the defeat of evil (as an ongoing battle) is “a triumph of divine apatheia” (p. 81). Hart’s formal cause is protected from evil, in both instances, by formally dismissing the contingencies of evil as entering into the equation. This is accomplished not by focusing on what is knowable about God in Christ, but by trusting primarily in what is apophatic, a-historical, and ultimately unknowable. One might speak of this trust as “certain” as part of a formal and flawless argument but it is a certainty that almost certainly has nothing to do with the real world-defeat of evil found in the historical Jesus. The fault is not in the logic of the argument but in the perspective it affords.

The Christocentric perspective, as with the evil which it takes into account, primarily deals in the concrete and specific and is not aimed at protecting formal arguments nor an abstract understanding. While one might be certain of one’s formal statements about God, does this form of certainty give rise to ethical behavior, to resistance to evil, to assuming personal responsibility or does it, in fact, have the opposite effect?

As with the discourse of the friends of Job, the heirs and guardians of infallible arguments, their knowledge is dispensed from a height which could lord it over the evil that plagued their poor, muddled thinking, friend. Their knowledge is pure and positive and does not rely upon taking into account momentary evil. While their thought takes flight from the world, Job’s hope is that God would show up in the midst of the world.

“This I know: that my Defender lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God. He whom I shall see will take my part: he whom my eyes will gaze on will no longer be a stranger” (19:25-27).

There is a certainty in Job’s statement, but it is not the certainty of his friends in their apprehension of formal cause. It is a hopeful certainty that takes into account his present suffering. It is not through denying or turning away from suffering that we see the presence of God in Christ; it is by entering into the truth of these realities that we best apprehend God.

In his deployment of creation ex-nihilo Hart notes, “God does not determine himself in creation—because there is no dialectical necessity binding him to time or chaos, no need to forge his identity in the fires of history—in creating he reveals himself truly.”[2] While God does not determine himself in creation, is it the case that this is sufficient revelation for his human subjects? Contrast this with Luther’s critique of scholasticism:

Thesis 19: ‘He is not rightly called a theologian who perceives and understands God’s invisible being through his works. That is clear from those who were such ‘theologians’ and yet were called fools by the apostle in Romans 1:22. ‘The invisible being of God is his power, Godhead, wisdom, righteousness, goodness, and so on.  Knowledge of all these things does not make a man wise and worthy.’

Thesis 20: ‘But he is rightly called a theologian who understands that part of God’s being which is visible and directed towards the world to be presented in suffering and in the cross. That part of God’s being which is visible and directed towards the world is opposed to what is invisible, his humanity, his weakness, his foolishness…For as men misused the knowledge of God on the basis of his works, God again willed that he should be known from suffering, and therefore willed to reject such wisdom of the visible, so that those Who did not worship God as he is manifested in his works might worship him as the one who is hidden in suffering (I Cor. 1:21).  So, it is not enough and no use for anyone to know God in his glory and his majesty if at the same time he does not know him in the lowliness and shame of his cross. Thus, true theology and true knowledge of God lie in Christ the crucified one.’[3]

Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s critique of theological liberalism, which mostly served the Nazi cause, took its strength from their engaged form of Lutheranism. For Bonhoeffer, the foundation of ethical behavior is how the reality of the world and the reality of God are reconciled in the reality of Christ (Ethics, p. 198). To share in Christ’s reality is to become a responsible person, a person who performs actions in accordance with reality and the fulfilled will of God (Ethics, p.224). Hart’s form of certainty stands in danger of foregoing the necessity of reconciling the two forms of discourse he engages and thus produces a philosophical certainty in place of the hopeful assurance of faith. The formal realities of God known through creation take precedence, in his dogmatic universalism, over the hopeful universalism of faith in Christ.  The danger is in missing the prime reality of the world engaged by Christ; the basis for a responsible ethical overcoming of evil.


[1] In Bonhoeffers description.

[2] David Bentley Hart “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilho, in Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics, (Vol. 3, Number1 (September 2015): 1-17) p. 5

[3] Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518.

Hell and Universal Salvation

If one has never questioned infernalism (the belief that some or many will experience eternal torturous punishment in a future after-life), David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven Hell and Universal Salvation is probably too large a pill to swallow. On the other hand, those who have never questioned infernalism are probably not the target audience of the book, which is part of the problem and Hart’s opening point; “I know I cannot reasonably expect to persuade anyone of anything, except perhaps of my sincerity” (p. 4). Those who follow the argument will simply agree that it “successfully expresses their views,” while those who disagree will either dismiss his argument out of hand or presume to leverage the same old tired counter-arguments. “The whole endeavor may turn out to be pointless” (p. 4). The feeling of futility may be peculiarly irksome as the gravity of eternal torturous punishment pulls every other doctrine into its orbit, even and most especially the doctrine of God. If God is eternally angry (in spite of the Biblical teaching that he is not), if eternal torture of finite humans is part of his plan and necessary to his ends, and if it is by this means that God demonstrates his sovereignty, one might become suspicious, Hart argues, that Satan has taken the place of God and that worship of one or the other is an arbitrary choice.

 The problem is, if one pulls out the infernalist thread, then atonement theory, anthropology, and doctrine of God, in the common Western understanding will also unravel. Hart’s hard-hitting volume raises the question, given “the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment” and the “absurdities and atrocities” it entails (p. 78), whether we are still dealing with the same God and faith as that of the New Testament? Given the “moral hideousness” (p. 79) of infernalism, given that like God one will be required in eternity, according to Tertullian, to learn to relish “the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate,” given that, according to Martin Luther, “the saved will rejoice to see their [former] loved ones roasting in hell” and that according to Thomas Aquinas “the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven)”  (p. 78), given all this (and more) do we still have to do with the religion of love of the New Testament? Hart does not put the question exactly like that, but this gets at the enormity of the shift for which he is arguing. In short, eternal hell distorts the character of God, changes the nature of salvation, puts human will at the center of eternity, creates a feeling of elitism, diminishes the value of the vast majority of humanity, and shifts the focus of the New Testament and the work of Christ away from salvation from sin and death to salvation from eternal torturous existence.

Several pages of the book are given over to simply listing those New Testament passages which seem to describe an unqualified universality. The opening epigraph sums up the idea of some 25 passages Hart deals with: “Our savior God. . . intends that all human beings shall be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:3-4, Hart’s rendering). Hart’s translation of the New Testament, which he considers the required starting point (he sees the book as a companion to his translation), at a minimum, “restores certain ambiguities” (p. 3) read by the early Church as entailing universal salvation. The evidence indicates, “that the universalist faction was at its most numerous at least as a relative ratio of believers, in the church’s first half millennium” (p. 1). This did not rule out belief in hell, rather; “to them hell was the fire of purification described by the Apostle Paul in the third chapter of I Corinthians” (p. 1). Hart maintains, “There have been Christian universalists . . .since the earliest centuries of the faith” but the theological influence of Augustine has given rise to two millennia of misunderstanding in the West (“if only he had died twenty years earlier,” Hart laments elsewhere).

A significant part of the book is spent refuting the notion that the integrity of free will requires belief in infernalism. Hell allows some to be in eternal rebellion while others use their free will to choose God. In either case, the main thing is the integrity of human will (unblighted by coercion or by circumstance). Hart’s point is that this entails a faulty view of free will.  Is free will total freedom from any constraint, any authority, any tradition, so that nothing constrains? What would total lack of constraint look like, presuming it a possibility? We might describe someone who jumps off a bridge or who runs into a burning building for the sheer fun of it as exercising their unconstrained freedom. Maybe the individual wants to feel the freedom of flying off the bridge or maybe they want to experience the exhilaration of being burnt alive. This person may be exercising a kind of liberty, but it seems they are slaves to delusion, that they are experiencing a poverty of rational freedom. Pure choice, free of purpose, and free of a goal is simply “brute fact” and has nothing to do with free will.

Our choices (or will) are always exercised on the basis of some rationale and this reason depends upon circumstance. In the Bible, humanity is depicted as deluded, held captive by a lie, enslaved to sin. This means understanding and knowledge are bent by circumstance and will is deluded by sinful contingencies and capacities.  Sin is a marring of reason, an obscuring of the truth, and a perversion of reason. Jesus tells us the truth will set us free, so that freedom requires truth. To imagine that free will is at work in the state of sin is to misunderstand both the nature of free will and sin, as well as salvation

Salvation is the exposure of the delusion and the displacement of a lie with the truth so that one puts on her right mind by having the mind of Christ. The more one is in her right mind, the more she is conscious of God as Goodness that fulfills all beings. The more she recognizes that human nature can have its true completion and joy only in him, to that degree she throws off the fetters of distorted perception and is freed from deranged passions. Seeing the good in God is simultaneously a reshaping of the will, so that rightly understanding and rightly willing are synonymous with total freedom. Liberated from crippling ignorance and emancipated from the impoverished condition of sin, the rational soul can freely will only one thing – its own union with God. Seeing the good, the true, the beautiful in God, draws us inevitably toward God. As John depicts it, “When I am lifted up, I will drag all men to myself” (John 12:32). God’s will is being enacted in creation, in history, in all of our lives culminating in universal worship: “Every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11).

The compelling necessity of the light is not a constraint on freedom, as demonstrated in the truly human one. The “integrity of Christ’s humanity entails that he possesses a full and intact human will, and that this will is in no wise diminished or impaired by being ‘operated’ . . . by a divine hypostasis whose will is simply God’s own willing” (p. 189). True freedom in no way necessarily entails the possible choice of rejecting God, as Christ could not have been fully human. This lack of choice is no constraint upon the freedom of the will. It is simply the consequence of possessing a nature produced by and for the transcendent Good; a nature whose proper end has been fashioned in harmony with a supernatural purpose. God has made us for himself, as Augustine would say, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him.

Hart’s dogmatic universalism raises the question of focus (is it, like infernalism, weighted heavily toward the future) and balance (where is justice to be found), which I will address next week.

Escaping Idolatrous Capitalism

To ask what comes after capitalism is on the order of asking what comes after idolatrous religion. [1] One might devote his life to defeating Baal worship only to have Baal replaced by Kali. Improvements may be made in the exchange but people will devote themselves to the gods of culture and these gods (even in their atheistic and Christian incarnation) will bear the image of their makers. Capitalism (or late capitalism in all of its incarnations) is the refinement of all that one would expect of a religious system: nothing is made an absolute something, excess/surplus value (not to be found in any actually existing entity) is the only true value, exponential desire set to consume the world (literally sacrificing the planet in poisoning and despoiling its resources) with no counter value (human survival, care for creation, care for those immediately being sacrificed) able to halt the slaughter. This new world religious order may be unsustainable but it appears all pervasive and irresistible. In the devolution of culture, the human disease – the compulsive attempt to extract life from death, has unified into a world religious economy of perfect plasticity in which the god cannot be satiated.

Equating love of money or a system which promotes love of money (greed) with idolatry (Col. 3:5; I Tim. 6:10) goes to the heart of the system and the apocalyptic nature of resistance.  It is important not to be blinded by extraneous elements – imagining that manipulating the economy, exposing the fallacies of the particular system, or reordering the religion is the answer. Capitalism reengineered or exchanged for something else might improve the lot of some: as in the joke that under communism everyone now drives a limo, the explanation comes that the party boss drives the people’s limo on their behalf whereas under capitalism the same man drove it only for himself. One might have tried to convince the ancient Aztecs that the gods did not need war or that the sun would still shine without offerings of human hearts and blood, but the underlying economy would still be at work. The gods are at the service of a very particular economy extracting life from death. One might as well try to convince Donald Trump to give up his wealth, health and wealth gospelers to give up their gospel, name-brand Christianity to sell its possessions, or evangelicals to trade in Dave Ramsey for Jesus’ admonitions against wealth and the wealthy. Only an apocalyptic reordering of the world permits the naming of the idol from the clearing of an alternative economy and kingdom.

Locating the love of money with idolatry means that this too is a nothing that can be treated accordingly. Capitalism is the same process of gaining symbolically (in the realm of the law or the gods) through a process of destruction as is found in every idolatrous sin system. As David Hart describes it, “It is a system of total consumption, not simply in the commercial sense, but in the sense also that its necessary logic is the purest nihilism, a commitment to the transformation of concrete material plenitude into immaterial absolute value.”[2] One is “morally bound to amorality,” greed is good, and the  “the lust of the eyes” is cultivated as, with idolatry, more is the goal. Just as idolatrous religion consumes the lives of its worshipers, so too capitalism is aimed at uninterrupted, planet despoiling, life destroying consumption that is destroying the planetary body for nothing. The living interchange of life becomes a death exchange in which relationship (to others, the planet, and God) is converted into an exchange value – a dead piece of paper.

The answer is not, as Hart claims, that the early Christians were communists. While those in Jerusalem may have willingly shared their possessions, others such as the Corinthians had to be coaxed into giving a respectable amount of money to aid the poor in Jerusalem. This gift reveals that the economy out of which it flows is not communism but something more pointed. The dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile is broken down in Christ, and the removal of this barrier is, for Paul, the archetype of salvation. Money shared by Gentiles and accepted by Jews is the token of its accomplishment. Specifically, the money stands in place of the wall of hostility as a bridge between two alien communities and religions. Judaism is unique in this, not because its law constitutes the only barrier, but because it is representative of all dividing walls between all peoples.

At this point in history it is easy to comprehend that capitalism and nationalism, like any religion, requires its walls. That the wall is also the killing field, and vice versa, is obvious in primitive religion as well as modern politics. For example, in Aztec cosmology the Sun God, Huitzilopochtli, was waging a constant war against darkness and to ward off the dark (and simultaneously ward off the Aztecs’ enemies), Huitzilopochtli required human hearts and blood (supplied, anthropologists now know, from among enemy combatants and peoples). The religion of human sacrifice is the barrier defining Aztecs and warding off their enemies. Paul once stood firm in the breach of the dividing wall of hostility, attempting as a good Pharisee to seal up the border. Christ was sacrificed by Israel to ward off Rome and to secure the Temple from Roman wrath (which eventually came anyway in 70 A.D.). Paul, as a Pharisee, was willing to make more human sacrifices to the cause.

In taking up this offering though, Paul has a very different explanation of Christ’s death: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (II Cor. 8:9). This sacrifice transforms the economy of Israel, the sacrifice of the Temple, and the orientation to Gentiles. The new Israel and the true Jew will now worship in a Temple not made with hands but crafted from among all peoples in which the dividing wall of hostility is broken down. Christ’s purposeful impoverishment is to be imitated by his followers, enriched by his life which is then to be shared. “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” (8:13-14).  Economies of lack, necessitating sacrifice of the Other are undone. Paul sees the death of Christ as ensuring their end through the koinonia.

This purposeful impoverishment and generosity is not a vocation for the few but, in Paul’s universal vision, embraces the world-wide (Jew/Gentile) koinonia which is to displace the god of the age. Idolatry and capitalism depend on disparity and human sacrifice: either outright slaughter or the wage-slavery which impoverishes the many for the few. In the koinonia-economy abundance is not for accumulation but for relief of the poor – an opportunity for balance on both sides. Capitalism, by legal definition, treats corporate entities as persons – persons that have a singular purpose – capital gain (accumulation of wealth). In Paul’s explanation, abundance is a sign of an imbalance that needs correcting, a gift that needs to be shared, an opportunity to give and to in turn become an opportunity for others to give. This economy is pointedly aimed at destroying the barrier of human religion and identity. It is not simply an alternative economy but is aggressively invasive in its generosity. If ever there were an anti-capitalist creed it is to be found in the koinonia of Christ.

 This purposeful poverty and dispossession explains why the New Testament does not qualify its condemnation of riches. Jesus good tidings are for the poor (Luke 4:18) and the prosperous and rich are disqualified as disciples: “every one of you who does not give up all that he himself possesses is incapable of being my disciple” (Luke 14:33). The choice is to be rich and suffer judgment (Matt. 5:42; Luke 16:25) or to store up heavenly treasure (Matt. 6:19-20). The choice is between mammon and God (Matt. 6:24), which gets at the truth that money can become a God-like power serving to center a religious-like identity where it is not sacrificially given away.

James depicts it as an absolute and unqualified choice: “You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you” (James 5:6). In his depiction, one is either with the dispossessed savior, the righteous man, or with the wealthy. Biblical Christianity is geared to expose idolatrous religion, but the idol must be named and its economy exposed. The Christian koinonia must be as dispossessively generous as her Lord, so as not to be found among those whose gold and silver “will consume your flesh like fire” (James 5:3).


[1] For Jonathan, Scott, and Matt and the special koinonia we share and for inspiring this blog.

[2] David Bentley Hart, “What Lies Beyond Capitalism? A Christian Exploration” Plough https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/discipleship/what-lies-beyond-capitalism?fbclid=IwAR0KPKstix_yBjp5QjfJvGAyZMzs4T4VbIDLpoiSC8xZajuZDV0dh8n9gpI

Everything Hinges on the Flesh

“The truth is that the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges. And since the soul is, in consequence of its salvation, chosen for the service of God, it is the flesh which actually renders it capable of such service.” Tertullian

Sin and salvation and the logics, theories, and worlds attached to each are centered in orientations to the flesh.  Sin takes hold in the flesh and Christ came in the flesh so as to address sin. Which raises the questions as to what the flesh might be (is it the sinful nature or does it refer simply to the physical body), what happens to the flesh at resurrection and what is its relation to Spirit? David Bentley Hart has re-raised the issue of the flesh, suggesting that resurrected bodies have no flesh and that the writers of the New Testament were, indeed, denigrating the flesh and did not hold to the notion that flesh was a designation for the “sinful nature” (the NIV rendering). As much as I might enjoy Hart’s cheekiness (“I would check the exact wording, but that would involve picking up a copy of the NIV”),[1] the entertainment value is diminished as it becomes clear his is an extreme version of the system he critiques.

Before I get to critique though, it may be helpful to attempt an appreciative word of what I think Hart may be up to. In countering N. T. Wright’s heavy focus on all things earthy and material it may be that Hart simply hopes to ground theology and understanding firmly in Spirit as a first order reality. A healthy dose of German idealism and basic Aristotelian philosophy mixed with the New Testament tells us that matter ultimately eludes understanding and that the true essence of things is in the Mind of God and is to be discovered by tracing his thought with and through the Spirit. Flesh, matter, and physicality, are not the ground of being but the Word of God is true Ground and substance. The turn to the material and empirical may have gone too far Wright and Hart, in pushing it left, is aligning himself more with German idealism rather than a naïve critical realism.  This may account for his focus: “Spirit was something subtler but also stronger, more vital, more glorious than the worldly elements of a coarse corruptible body compounded of earthly soul and material flesh.” [2] Setting aside for the moment the anachronism and dialectical contrast with spirit, the notion that soul and flesh are a compound (presumably separate entities), this is an affirmation we (or he) might wish Christians appreciated (even if it has nothing to do with common philosophical thought in the first century).  

 As James Ware points out in his not unappreciative critique, Hart is wrong in presuming that the ancient world held to a notion of spirit that would accommodate (even Hart’s) resurrection (the resurrection was shocking and unbelievable even for those who eventually believed); Hart is wrong in presuming that it is Protestants who have innovated the notion that Jesus was raised and ascended in a fleshly body (it is the overwhelming position of the early Church as Ware demonstrates); he is wrong; and he is “egregiously” wrong in presuming that Paul’s contrast between spirit and soul (in I Cor. 15) is typical of the ancients.[3]  Hart’s factual errors though, point to a more deeply rooted hermeneutical problem.

 I presume that Hart’s determined misreading is rooted in something more than a momentary lapse, but is connected to his more eloquent and less unorthodox groundings in Neoplatonism, versions of natural theology, and notions of God’s absolute impassibility. That is, Hart’s error springs from the same well he imagines has poisoned Protestant theology; he too drinks of the presumption that there is a given understanding (knowledge of God as creator and law giver) available to all persons (whose capacity for reason remains largely intact in spite of sin) and that salvation does not pertain to the source of this epistemological putrefaction. Hart’s efforts to read the New Testament in the context of contemporaneous thought and philosophy is more Protestant than the Protestants (strange for an Eastern Orthodox theologian) in that he presumes Paul and John are mostly reflecting and not critiquing the received understanding. The conceptual world of the New Testament, he claims, is not to be found in a distinctive Hebrew or Christian form of thought but intertestamental apocalyptic literature fused with Platonism informs New Testament cosmology and gives meaning to words such as “spirit, soul, and flesh.”

Hart blames Descartes for modern Protestant failures and presumes that by being steeped in knowledge of intertestamental literature, ancient cosmology, and Greek philosophical thought, he has access to what Paul really meant. Thus, “In the New Testament, ‘flesh’ does not mean ‘sinful nature or ‘humanity under judgment’ or even ‘fallen flesh.’  It just means ‘flesh,’ in the bluntly physical sense. . ..” (He goes on to say “flesh is essentially a bad condition to be in; belonging to the realm of mutability and mortality, it can form only a body of death” (and yet he maintains flesh does not mean “sinful nature,” making death a natural outworking of creation, and salvation deliverance from what God calls good and a “shedding of flesh.” All of this is so problematic as to bear no further scrutiny).)[4] When Paul describes the “body of death” and connects it to the working of the flesh he certainly does not mean that this flows naturally from what God has created or that sin is an inevitable result of creation.

Paul says that “I” “of the flesh” is “sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). Not everyone is given to this condition but only those deceived by sin in regard to the law are afflicted with “the body of death.” Paul describes the “body of death” as constituting a split within the “I” with one half of the self pitted against the other in a struggle in which human agency is entirely relinquished to sin: “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me” (Rom. 7:17).  The flesh as descriptive of this dynamic, is not a stand-alone force (the physical body as Hart would have it) but is the combination of law, deception, sin, and an orientation toward death.

The “body of death” pits “the members of my body” against “the law of my mind” and this makes “me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (7:23-24). The body of death does its work, as the body itself, with its members, stands outside the law of the mind (that world which is presumably without extension, as with Descartes), and this constitutes the work of death. Death is not simply mortality, and the principle of the flesh is not simply the fact that one has fleshly members. The members of my body are out of control (or “I” am out of control). “Nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (7:18) but this is not because of God’s good creation but because of sin. The precise place which sin dwells is not in “my members” alone but in the law of the mind pitted against the members of my body. The entire dynamic of mind against body (dualism) constitutes the problem.

In presuming Paul is just an extension of his time (more of the same), Hart misses the deep nature of this Pauline critique of human wisdom (inclusive of both Descartes and Hegel, as Žižek notes), such that he falls into the very dualism constitutive of this wisdom (flesh/spirit is no advance over soul/body or mind/body).

Descartes is not the innovative genius giving rise to modernism (it is modernism and not Paul that is more of the same) but Descartes succeeds in giving formulaic expression to the dualism Paul describes as inherent to human wisdom. “I think therefore I am,” (the ground of Descartes’ certainty and the point of departure of modernity) pits the law of my mind (thought without extension into my body) as separate from being (leaving no room for the biological body). The transaction works itself out in a distancing from the biological body, such that the body becomes a medium for the “soul” – the “true essence of the self.” One does not identify immediately with the physical body but it is a screen or orthopedic for the soul. This gives rise to two bodies, as the biological dimension is refused and yet the symptoms of embodiment begin to speak and intrude, such that the soul cannot recognize itself.  Paul calls this second body the flesh (sarx), as it is not the actual physical body (soma) but it is a principle or orientation which has taken on a force and significance that is out of control. Hart seems to repeat sin’s delusion in imagining a body without flesh (without itself) is salvation.

In I Corinthians 15, around which much of this controversy revolves, Paul uses a series of analogies (several employing a positive notion of “flesh”) from nature so as to enable conceiving of the resurrection as on a continuum with the fleshly body. A seed has continuity with the plant that springs from it. Though it may cease to be a seed, this same entity transforms into something else. The person that dies is the one that is raised as it is the same self, though the same self will assume a different form. Paul declares not all flesh is the same flesh. Human flesh differs from that of animals, and so too the sun, moon, and stars vary. Resurrection, it would seem, is not a departure from the created and fleshly order but an addition to it.

The “soulish body” does not become the “spiritual body” by ridding itself of flesh. Pneuma (Spirit) conveys immortality but this immortal kind of pneuma is from God. Spiritual body (σῶμα πνευματικόν) does not mean composed of nonmaterial spirit (God alone is Spirit); rather, Paul is referring to the work of the Holy Spirit. The raised body is characterized by the uninterrupted, transforming power of the Holy Spirit as there will be no frustrating of the work of the Spirit. Paul’s contrast is between the body energized by either the soul (and thus subject to death), or the risen body infused with the Holy Spirit. The body does not become the Holy Spirit but is energized and enlivened by an undisrupted divine power.

Paul has already indicated that if the Corinthians do not hold to bodily resurrection they might as well be nihilists – “eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (15:32). He has already said the soulish human (the psychikos person) does not receive the things of the spirit, because they are spiritually discerned, while the pneumatikos person discerns everything (I Cor. 2:14-15). This passage and others like it do not speak of the human soul and spirit, but contrast the human soul with the divine Spirit of God (e.g. 1 Cor 2:14-15; Jude 19).[5]  They could easily have conceived of souls or spirits going to heaven and leaving physical bodies behind (as the Gnostics will soon demonstrate). Paul says this is not good enough. One can presume the Corinthian problem is just more of the same, more identity through difference – mind against body – heaven against earth – light against dark – being over against nothingness – or spirit against flesh, but to presume Paul concurs precludes the very need for such a letter and such harsh warnings.  

While one can appreciate that prime reality is Spirit, part of realizing this essence is not to subtract matter or flesh as an obstacle to the One who conceived it but to realize the physical body is fully itself when joined to Spirit.

 As Tertullian(160-220 A.D.) puts it, “Shall that very flesh, which the Divine Creator formed with His own hands in the image of God; which He animated with His own Spirit, after the likeness of His own vital vigour; which He set over all the works of His hand, to dwell amongst, to enjoy, and to rule them; which He clothed with His sacraments and His instructions; whose purity He loves, whose mortifications He approves; whose sufferings for Himself He deems precious; — (shall that flesh, I say), so often brought near to God, not rise again? God forbid. God forbid, (I repeat), that He should abandon to everlasting destruction the labour of His own hands, the care of His own thoughts, the receptacle of His own Spirit, the queen of His creation, the inheritor of His own liberality, the priestess of His religion, the champion of His testimony, the sister of His Christ!”[6]


[1]David Bentley Hart,  “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients,” in Church Life Journal (July 26, 2018), https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-spiritual-was-more-substantial-than-the-material-for-the-ancients/

[2] My source on this paragraph is Ryan Hemmer whose incisive insight came right as I was writing this blog thus I added this paragraph. Here is the key idea for Hart and the entire quote: “Spirit,” by contrast—πνεῦμα or spiritus—was something quite different, a kind of life not bound to death or to the irrational faculties of brute nature, inherently indestructible and incorruptible, and not confined to any single cosmic sphere. It could survive anywhere, and could move with complete liberty among all the spiritual realms, as well as in the material world here below. Spirit was something subtler but also stronger, more vital, more glorious than the worldly elements of a coarse corruptible body compounded of earthly soul and material flesh.” If his focus elsewhere was on continuity and transformation of the flesh and not discontinuity, and was not factually and theologically suspect, and if he had recognized the peculiar application of Spirit by Paul, this particular passage might have had insightful elements.

[3] James P. Ware,  “The Incarnation Doesn’t End with the Resurrection,” Church Life Journal (June 21, 2019), https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-incarnation-doesnt-end-with-the-resurrection/ Ware provides extensive counter examples. One example, Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) – “They who maintain the wrong opinion say that there is no resurrection of the flesh; giving as their reason that it is impossible that what is corrupted and dissolved should be restored to the same as it had been. And besides the impossibility, they say that the salvation of the flesh is disadvantageous; and they abuse the flesh, adducing its infirmities, and declare that it only is the cause of our sins, so that if the flesh, say they, rise again, our infirmities also rise with it.” (Fragments, 2).

[4] A less generous assessment is to be found here: https://calvinistinternational.com/2018/08/09/ancients-resurrection-david-bentley-hart/

 [5] According to Ware, “This is something that never occurs in pagan literature, and is contrary to the usual collocation of “soul” and “spirit” in Jewish and Christian texts. Graeco-Roman thinkers did not use “spirit” (pneuma) in contrast with “soul” (psyche), as Hart claims. Platonists and Peripatetics used pneuma (Latin: spiritus) straightforwardly of the “breath” and “air” exhaled by the lungs. The Stoics used the word in this way as well, but they also used it of the divine spirit or pneuma that they believed pervades the universe and subsists as the soul (psyche) within each person.” 

[6] Tertullian, De Resurrectione Carnis, 8 – 9. http://www.vatican.va/spirit/documents/spirit_20000908_tertulliano_en.html?fbclid=IwAR3ov2nIWwUnB4XIg1MjL8RmRR-nrnxC97OrLEDHrjsTU44MVRS-78FhbmM Thank you for pointing me to this quote Joelle.