Friday, December 29, 2006

Sin and Salvation

I just received a new comment on an old blog post. Rather than continue the discussion there, I've decided to start a whole new one here...

The anonymous comment said:
"All of the world's problems began when Adam and Eve broke God's law...that is what sin is, the breaking of God's law. I don't mean to sound condescending, but there are no levels or measures of sin, the bible says that our very best is as dirty rags, that is why His grace is through His sacrifice which He provided Himself...Read your bible every day and do what it says..."
The issue I have here is that the commenter (in general agreement with a huge portion of Christianity) is blaming all the world's problems on two people I really don't believe existed - or rather I don't believe the two characters described in the bible were two individual people. Perhaps there really were two people called Adam and Eve, but I am certain that they were not the first man and first woman and I am pretty certain that their eating of a piece of fruit was not the event which introduced sin to the world.

Don't get me wrong here, I'm not saying that sin isn't a problem, and I'm not saying that Jesus didn't need to die to atone for our sins, but I'm questioning the supposed origin of sin.

I've made this point before on this blog, but nobody commented then so I'll keep following this train of thought for a bit.

If we can't blame sin on two people about six thousand years ago, where did it come from?

If there really is no 'original sin' would it be possible (however unlikely) for someone (other than the Son of God) to live a perfect and sinless life? (By the way, how can we be sure that Jesus lived a sinless life? It is clear that he got angry and even cursed a poor defenceless fig tree for no good reason on at least one occasion - if we did this, would it not be considered 'sin'?)

Would such a person need salvation?

The bible makes it clear that Jesus is the only way for us to be reconciled to God. But who are the 'us' in this arrangement? All people or all sinners? Or are the two categories the same thing?

Any thoughts anyone?

I'm sure I had something more to say here, but I've forgotten. Maybe later...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Soul man

In my other blog, I posted an article about teleporters, like the ones you get in Star Trek. My friend Marcus responded with a long comment (that, due to an error, I have only just read) that took the discussion in a whole different direction. Essentially, he questioned the issue of the soul, which set me thinking...

What is the 'soul' and does everybody have one?

A quick search on an online concordance reveals that the word 'soul' (or 'souls') appears 113 times in the Old Testament (NIV) and the context of the word in virtually every instance is that of 'the depths of my being' - most instances of the word are in terms of doing something with 'all your heart and all your soul'. There is no suggestion of an immortal soul in the Old Testament, or that the soul is in any way distinct from the being or body. Specifically, there is no suggestion that the soul is that part of you which lives on after the body has died.

In the New Testament, several of the (23) instances of the word soul (in NIV again) are in exactly the same context as in the OT, that is, the soul is the 'being'. However there are a few verses which add an extra dimension:

Matthew 10:28 (and similar verses in other gospels)
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Hebrews 4:12
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

Here we find the belief, as uttered by Jesus himself, that the soul lives on after the body has died. Note that the soul can be destroyed in hell, not tormented or punished as is generally believed. Also note that both the body and soul are destroyed in hell, not the soul alone.

But the verse in Hebrews is a tricky one. It suggests that the soul and the spirit are not the same thing, but can be separated.

Here are Marcus's words in the comment he made:
'I'm not sure if I [believe in the soul]. Which may be shocking, but as a Christian, I find the classic "soul" to be a rather un-Christian idea. I mean, whilst St Paul does make a flesh/spirit divide, and whilst St John has overtones of the same, neither of them has a doctrine of the soul as the-spiritual-bit-of-us-that-lives-on-and-goes-to-heaven. [...] For the new Testament writers, the whole flesh/spirit thing isn't dualism (flesh is bad, spirit is good, so let's pretend we have no flesh just like Jesus didn't really have any, he just looked like it) but rather a way of seeing the world under the sphere of God's influence, and the world outside God's rule. '

He then went on to make an astounding observation:
'Look at John 3. Jesus clearly says that you don't have a spiritual life unless you have a beginning to that life which is a separate thing to beginning fleshly life. Yet we aren't then two persons, or one person in two bits, but a whole person able to wholly exist (and not perish) in God's love. That doesn't seem to me to say "everyone has a soul".'

Whoa! Marcus, you're right, in John 3 Jesus really does say that being 'born again' is your spiritual birth - that you have no spirit before that event. This has astounding implications for almost our whole theology of death, heaven and hell. If only those who are born again have a spiritual component which lives beyond death, then many of the problems associated with the 'how can a God of love send people to hell?' question can be resolved. But then again, Jesus does speak of hell too, so this can't be the only answer.

Now I'm confused. I'll need to think more on this, but I'd welcome your comments here before I say more...

Several days later...

Rather than post a comment on this blog, Marcus phoned me up last night. (In my experience, having a blog has actually reinforced a few friendships in the real world - I've kept up with folk online, but this has rolled over into real life too. Which is good.) We talked about many things but eventually got around to the subject of the soul again. Here are a few thoughts which came out of that chat:

What is hell? What does Jesus say about hell? Well, he tended to refer to hell in terms of Gehenna, which was the rubbish tip outside Jerusalem where 'the fire is not quenched'. This has been taken to imply eternal suffering in hell, but when you think about what is said, it really does look like Jesus talks in terms of people being destroyed in hell - the rubbish wasn't kept in Gehenna forever, it was burned and destroyed. And although I am always cautious to try and draw specific meaning out of Revelation, the same sense is apparent there - the 'lake of fire' at the judgement (Rev 20) is the 'second death' - that implies destruction rather than eternal torment.

The bible only speaks in terms of a physical resurrection. We have bodies now. We will have bodies when we are resurrected. OK, so they may be changed (1 Cor 15) a bit, but they will be bodies. There is no need for a concept of 'the part of you that lives on without a body' because there is no part of you that will live on without a body. We will always have bodies. OK, so there may be an apparent discontinuity of existence between when our earthly bodies die (sometime in the next 70 years or so) and when our new bodies are resurrected (at the end of 'time') but for us there will be no discontinuity - we leave this world and are resurrected in eternity. Eternity does not follow after time in a linear manner.

There were other things we discussed, which I may blog about in the future, but that's enough for now. Marcus pointed to Tom ('N.T.') Wright as an authority on these matters, so I may go away and read some of his writings on the subject. Watch this space for future thoughts...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Greatest or least in the Kingdom of God?

Matthew 5v19
'Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.'

Matthew 6v19-21
'Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.'

1 Corinthians 3v10-15
'By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.'

What will 'heaven' be like?
Will all people in 'heaven' be equal?

Not by my reading of the above scriptures.

The thing that always struck me about the verse from Matthew 5, above, is that both the characters mentioned in it are in the kingdom of heaven. Its not as if the actions of one send them to hell and the actions of the other send them to heaven, what we have here is two characters who are both going to heaven, but one will have greater esteem there than the other. They will not be equal.

The Matthew 6 verse also implies inequality. If you can store up treasure for yourself in heaven, then it is obvious that some will store up more than others. Therefore, in heaven, some will have more (possibly much more) than others. Inequality again.

And finally we have the verse from Paul's letter to the Corinthians. I thought about these verses long and hard several years ago. The sense is much the same as Jesus's 'store up treasure in heaven' saying, but Paul speaks of building a house. The interesting bit of the passage, in this regard, is the end of it. Here we have the case of a man who hasn't built with the right materials on the right foundation - in other words everything he has done is wrong - but, his salvation is assured, he is in the kingdom. When the judgement comes, all his (misdirected) efforts come to nothing, but he is still saved. He has nothing, and even has the pain of losing everything, but still makes it through to the kingdom of heaven. In contrast to this, of course, are the folk who have built on the right foundations with the right materials - they enter the kingdom with their buildings still standing, and probably with much treasure also.

So I think it is clear that both Jesus and Paul preach a message of inequality - even if we get to heaven, we will not all be equal. This is also clear from several of Jesus's parables. How many times does Jesus say 'the kingdom of God is like...' and go on to explain a situation where one man gets 10 talents, one gets 5 and one gets only 1, or similar? If I recall correctly, there are several parables like this.

The kingdom of God is not built on equality. There will be inequality in heaven.

What are you doing to store up treasure for yourself in heaven?

Oh, and by the way, I'd still rather be least in the kingdom of heaven, than be great in the kingdom of hell...

Monday, December 04, 2006

Alternative therapies

There's a debate going on within the leadership of my church at the moment. A few weeks ago, the church building was rented out to a Reiki 'healing' group.

Several years ago the church was renovated and part of the funding came from the local council, on the understanding that the building would be available for local groups to rent it out. So we have had a film society, a gardening club, various art exhibitions, etc., all using the church building.

But should a church building be rented out to an 'alternative therapy' group?

According to a leaflet from our local Reiki practitioner, Reiki therapy involves 'channeling healing power' from a spiritual source without touching the recipient. But what spiritual source?

What spiritual powers are there? Are they all good? Are any evil? How can you be sure?

The bible makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is not the only spiritual power, even though He may be the greatest. There are angels, there are demons, there may be other spirits out there. In the bible, these are presented as being either good or evil - either on God's side or against Him.

So what spiritual source is the Reiki practitioner tapping in to (if any).

Some claim that the founder of Reiki was himself a Christian. Was he tapping into the Holy Spirit's power? What about those who practice Reiki who aren't Christians - do that tap into the Holy Spirit or do thay have to find some other source? Are there any neutral spiritual powers?

And in addition to the questions of where the alleged power comes from, is this the sort of thing that should be allowed to be carried out in a church building?

One thought keeps coming back to me - the only thing that got Jesus so angry that He resorted to physical violence was the misuse of the house of the Lord...