Sunday, March 29, 2020

1 Peter 3:18-22 and 4:6 - Did Christ Preach in Hell?

Hello L---,

It was great to hear from you, and thanks for the good question. These passages don't yield their meaning so easily, and thus Bible readers have long wrestled with them. This means we must proceed without haste and with caution, remembering always that basic interpretive principle, that what is unclear must ever be understood in the light of what is clear.

We might wish that Peter had said more, but his very brevity actually holds the clue to its meaning. Peter's speech reveals that he expects his readers to know what he's talking about. He doesn't appear to be sharing a new thing with them for the first time, but is simply pointing their attention to things they already know. This means either that the background to these texts is already in the Bible somewhere, or that it is in their culture. If today we are slow in getting the point, it's because we either don't sufficiently see what is in the Bible, or we don't share the cultural context of those 1st century readers. Possibly both.

So let's not approach this passage as if Peter, like Joseph Smith, were sharing with them some "new revelation" about heavenly mysteries. Peter is appealing to a common and shared pool of knowledge. There's nothing esoteric here.

Let's begin with 3:18. "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit". There's nothing difficult about this verse, as Peter is simply stating something all Christians know, including us today. Christ died for our sins to accomplish our salvation, and rose from the dead. It's possible that this verse is an early Christian hymn, which would confirm the fact of it being public knowledge. One important thing to notice about this verse: the English translation above correctly reflects the Greek, when it says that Christ was put to death "in the flesh" but made alive "in the Spirit." This contrast emphasizes that Christ once lived in the flesh--which means the fallen, material realm of this creation--and died in the flesh, and yet when He rose, He rose no longer in the flesh but in the Spirit--that is, His body, while still His same real body, now partakes of the newness, power, and incorruptibility of the Spirit. Christ now is in a new state of being; He rose, not merely to exist again in this old world in the same way, but to a mode of existence that transcends what was before. He is free from death and decay, able to access both this world and the heavenly world, and He bodily ascended into heaven. This has relevance for what follows.

3:19: "in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison". Verse 19 confirms the point I just made, that through the resurrection Christ is now in the Spirit, and it is in this new state that He went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison. This is the crucial point. There are many who have thought that Peter is talking about Christ descending into hell when He died, and that the time in view here is between the crucifixion and the resurrection, i.e., while Jesus was dead. That is, they think Peter is saying that after Christ died, He went to hell and preached to the spirits there, and then rose. But I believe the text indicates that His going to the spirits in prison was a result of, and followed from, His resurrection: "...but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went..." After Jesus rose from the dead He preached to the spirits in prison. By identifying when this occurred, we will be greatly helped in understanding what it means.

At the risk of getting too technical, the Greek word translated here "he went" is πορευθεὶς. I mention this because this very word, and even its exact function, is found again in v. 22: "who is at the right hand of God, having gone ( πορευθεὶς) into heaven, with angels and authorities and powers having been subjected to Him." Both verses refer to the same "going." Peter repeats his point about Christ's going, and speaks about it from different angles. In v. 19 he says Christ "went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison"; in v. 22 he says He went "into heaven, with angels and authorities and powers having been subjected to Him." The two verses are speaking about the same thing.

Therefore most scholars today think that Peter is talking about Christ's resurrection and ascension into heaven, after He atoned for our sins and accomplished redemption. He entered heaven in victory, as a returning conqueror, and announced His victory and rule over the evil spirits.

In a nutshell:

-When does this going and preaching occur? After the resurrection and ascension.
-Where does this occur? In heaven (the heavenly realm).
-What is the preaching? Not the offer of salvation, but the announcement of Christ's victory and rule over His enemies.
-To whom does this preaching occur? The evil spirits.

Let's examine what else Peter says about these spirits and their imprisonment.

3:20: "who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water." This verse describes who these spirits are. Peter is speaking of those evil spirits who rebelled against God during the antediluvian period (the age before the flood), who we read about in Genesis 6:1-6. According to the common interpretation of this passage in Peter's day, these were angelic beings who left their own realm, wickedly mixed with the human race, and incurred judgment upon themselves. The flood happened, in large part, because of them and their evil influence on human beings. It is interesting that Peter refers to them again in 2 Peter 2:4 (which speaks of their disobedience and subsequent imprisonment), and so does Jude in Jude 1:6. Although this story is less familiar today, it was widely known in Peter's day, and his readers would not have struggled to recognize who he was talking about. Once again, we see there is no esoteric knowledge here. Peter is working with stories and concepts that his readers already knew from the Bible.

Since we know who these spirits are, it is plain that Jesus's proclamation to them was not for the purpose of salvation. 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6 tell us these beings are being kept in prison for judgment. Why then did Jesus preach to them? We aren't given the content of the preaching, but it is easy to imagine a declaration of victory or a proclamation of His rule. The hosts of hell were not only defeated by Christ, but they were told that they were defeated. One is reminded of Colossians 2:15: "When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him." The entire letter of 1 Peter was written to encourage struggling, persecuted believers who find themselves as strangers and outcasts in the world. They are misunderstood and mistreated, thought of as worthless nobodies. But the truth is, they are a holy nation and royal priesthood, a people for God's own possession. They are precious to God. In the context around 3:18-22, Peter is encouraging his readers to look to and follow the example of Christ, who was Himself despised and rejected, although precious to God. And just as Jesus suffered greatly, yet ultimately was vindicated, rising from the dead and triumphing over His enemies, so Christians should take heart, because they too will experience victory over their enemies in the future. The function of 3:18-22, therefore, is to encourage Christians by emphasizing that Jesus defeated the Satanic hosts who meant evil for God and God's people. Jesus died for our sins, rose from the dead, and is now sitting at the right hand of God, having humiliated His enemies. The hearts of Christians should be strengthened by this, and see in Jesus the pattern of their own experience.

Thus far 3:18-22. What then of 4:6?

The simple answer is that 4:6 is not related to 3:18-22. Peter isn't returning to his previous point, but has moved on, and makes a fresh point in 4:6. In 4:6, the preaching to those who are dead is not the same as the preaching of Jesus to the evil spirits in prison in 3:19. Note that in 4:6 Peter does not say that Jesus did the preaching, and does not say that the dead are spirits in prison. He identifies the content of the preaching as "the gospel," and makes it clear that "the dead" are human beings ("that though they are judged in the flesh as men"). We are therefore talking about two very different things.

The preaching of the gospel to the dead in 4:6 means, not that the gospel was preached to people after they died, but before they died. That is, at the time of the writing of the letter they were dead, and so Peter calls them "the dead," because they were then dead; yet those dead people had the gospel preached to them during their lives. Peter's point is that the gospel is relevant not only for living people, but also for people who have died, because, as he says in 4:5, Christ will judge "the living and the dead." Jesus Christ is going to judge the entire world, not only those who remain alive when He returns, but absolutely everyone; and that is why the gospel was preached beforehand to people now dead, because all need the gospel, and our need for the gospel continues beyond our deaths. This idea contrasts the biblical worldview with the pagan worldview, because pagans believed a dead person was gone forever. You only live once, they say. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and for this reason they pursue all kinds of debauchery (1 Peter 4:2-4). But according to the Bible, no one dead is gone forever, for all will one day be raised again to be judged. That's why we preach the gospel to people even though they die. And those who believe the gospel, although they die and so appear condemned in the flesh, are in fact accepted by God and will live in the spirit. This recalls John 11:25: "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies." Read 4:6 again with perspective, and it should click.

Thanks so much for the great question, L---. It's one that many people have, and our difficulty in comprehending these texts is because we think they're way more mysterious than they really are. We just need to notice at the outset that Peter assumes his readers know what he's talking about.

Please let me know if you have any questions about what I've said.

The Lord bless you and strengthen your faith in His Son.
With love in Christ,

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Matthew 24:34 - This Generation Shall Not Pass Away...

Hello brother T---,

I'm finally writing a response to your now grey-haired question. Please forgive my slowness. A good answer needed time, and that was something I have not had thus far this semester, but as I'm now on Springbreak (praise the Lord!), I've come up for air, and hopefully the long wait won't disappoint, and you'll find here some helpful things to chew on.

Your question is an important one. Matthew 24:34 is a crossroads of interpretation (fancily called a crux interpretum), because how one understands these words of Jesus basically affects one's whole eschatology, and eschatology shapes one's understanding of the entire flow of Scripture. Many think eschatology is a relatively unimportant appendix to theology, but it actually is the capstone, and as such it is influenced by, and influences, everything else we believe about the broad story line of the Bible. And this verse does much by way of determining our eschatology.

Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 all contain this saying. Together these make up what's been called the Olivet Discourse, which is Jesus's instruction to his disciples while they were on the Mount of Olives one evening as they walked from Jerusalem to Bethany. It deals with the destruction of Herod's temple, the end of the age, and was prompted by some questions the disciples had for Jesus after He predicted the razing of the temple. This context is all crucial for understanding the "this generation" saying, as I hope to show.

You probably know this already, but it's helpful to state the common interpretations of the saying. These fall under the categories of Preterist (past) and Futurist (future).

"Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place."  (Matthew 24:34)

Preterist Interpretation: In the generation of Jesus, during that particular interval of time, all the things spoken of in the Olivet Discourse (the birth pangs, the persecutions, false prophets, abomination of desolation, and coming of Jesus on the clouds, etc.) took place. All was fulfilled in AD 70 when the temple was destroyed.

  • "This generation" = the time of Jesus's contemporaries.
  • "All these things" = everything spoken of in the Olivet Discourse.
  • Status: the prophecy is fulfilled.
  • Advantages: a plain interpretation of the words of Jesus. Everything in the verse is taken straightforwardly.
  • Disadvantages: it is not obvious how all things spoken of in the Olivet Discourse were fulfilled in the 1st century.

Futurist Interpretation 1: The "generation" spoken of by Jesus is not a reference to time, but to posterity or seed (like in Acts 8:33, or Matt. 23:33). The seed is usually taken as the Jewish people, and therefore Jesus is understood to be saying that the Jewish people will not pass away until all things spoken of in the Olivet Discourse are fulfilled.

  • "This generation" = the seed of the Jewish people.
  • "All these things" = everything spoken of in the Olivet Discourse.
  • Status: the prophecy is still in process (all things haven't happened yet, and the Jewish people haven't passed away).
  • Advantages: it accounts for the obvious fact that not everything in the Olivet Discourse has been fulfilled.
  • Disadvantages: this interpretation of generation is not very convincing, contextually nor semantically ("generation" almost always is a time reference, and there is nothing in the context that would indicate this is an exception).

Futurist Interpretation 2: The "generation" spoken of by Jesus is a time reference, but it refers not to the generation of Jesus's day, but to the generation at the end of the age, i.e., this generation, the one that will go through all the things detailed in the Olivet Discourse, will come and will certainly not pass until everything prophesied happens. Basically a statement of the certainty of the fulfillment of the discourse.

  • "This generation" = the last generation/time before the end
  • "All these things" =  everything spoken of in the Olivet Discourse.
  • Status: the prophecy is still in process  (all things haven't happened yet, but the last generation hasn't passed away).
  • Advantages: it accounts for the obvious fact that not everything in the Olivet Discourse has been fulfilled. It also retains the idea of time in "generation."
  • Disadvantages: it is not an obvious interpretation of "generation" (not a plain reading), and is not supported by the context.

Of course, there's also the infidel interpretation, which thinks that Jesus was simply wrong (because everything spoken of in the Olivet Discourse didn't happen during that generation; a variation of the Preterist view), but these are the main Christian interpretations, and needless to say, I like none of them. Desirably, our interpretation should be a plain reading of the text, but should also deal fairly with history and prophecy without tortuous gymnastics. The Preterist view satisfies the plain reading of Matt. 24:34 but fails badly attempting to fit history with the prophecy. The two Futurist views stumble at the plain reading of the text, but their strength is that the details of the Olivet Discourse have not yet been fulfilled. Most Futurists (and I am one of them) are certain that the Olivet Discourse hasn't been fulfilled yet, and so while they might not know what to do with Matthew 24:34, and might offer some weak explanation, they know it doesn't mean what the Preterists say it means!

Preterists must explain how the gospel has been preached to all nations, how the end has come, how the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel (and all the attendant prophecies recorded there), how the great tribulation, the shaking of the powers of heaven, the lightning-like coming of Christ, the mourning of the nations, and the angelic gathering of the elect, all took place in AD 70. To be sure, they attempt to, but I find them utterly unconvincing. And so do most Christians, as they should.

Despite the Preterist's real advantage of reading the verse plainly, Futurists have the stronger position, since their big picture makes more sense, and all they have to do is explain the verse in a reasonable and plain manner. I don't think the two Futurist interpretations above succeed in explaining the verse, but there's another Futurist option, though it is not common. Let's call it,

Futurist Interpretation 3: In the generation of Jesus, during that particular interval of time, the temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed. The phrase "all these things" is limited to Christ's prophecy concerning the destruction of the temple and the judgment on Israel spoken of in Matthew 23:34-39 and Matthew 24:1-2. It does not refer to all things spoken of in the Olivet Discourse.

  • "This generation" = the time of Jesus's contemporaries.
  • "All these things" = the destruction of the temple and judgment on Israel.
  • Status: the prophecy is fulfilled.
  • Advantages: with the Preterists it reads "this generation" plainly as being a reference to Jesus's time,  and with the Futurists, it accounts for the obvious fact that not everything in the Olivet Discourse has been fulfilled.
  • Disadvantages: it isn't immediately obvious that Jesus limits the meaning of "all these things."

This view possesses the strengths of both sides, and while it has its own unique disadvantage, this disadvantage is by no means fatal. It just requires us to think a bit harder about the verse in context. I am convinced that once you understand the verse in context, it becomes more obvious that Jesus limits the meaning of "all these things."

First, we need to notice that Matt. 24:34 is not the first time Jesus makes this prophecy! He actually first makes it in Matthew 23. After excoriating the scribes and the Pharisees for their corruption and hardness of heart, Jesus pronounces a series of woes upon them and prophesies their judgment: "Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation" (Matt. 23:34-36).

In the verses immediately following, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and predicts the destruction of the temple:

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’" (Matt. 23:37-39).

And again in the very next verses that start chapter 24:

"Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down" (Matt. 24:1-2).

Matthew 23 and 24 are one narrative, not to be disconnected. When Jesus pronounced the woes and judgment against Israel, He was referring to the destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple, and this in fact happened in that generation, during the time of Jesus's contemporaries! In AD 70 the Romans destroyed the city and the sanctuary, and Israel was sent into exile. It came to pass during that generation, the very same generation that Jesus predicted it would. Jesus uttered this prophecy before He uttered the Olivet Discourse! He even used the same phrase, "all these things" in Matt. 23:36! If, in Matthew 24:34, Jesus is simply repeating this prophecy (as I think he is), then the content of "all these things" has already been fixed before the Olivet Discourse had been given.

Second, note that the Olivet Discourse was a response by Jesus to some questions asked by the disciples. After hearing Jesus predict the destruction of the temple (Matt. 24:2), they came to Him when they were on the Mount of Olives and asked, "Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age" (Matt. 24:3)? I believe there are two questions here. And I think these two questions can be discerned not only by the disciples' words, but also by the answers that Jesus proceeds to give. Question one is: "When will these things be?" That is, "When will the destruction of the temple, and judgment on Israel, be?" It must mean this in context. And notice the plural, "these things," which I think corresponds to "all these things" in Matt. 23:36 and Matt. 24:34. The Olivet Discourse has not yet been spoken, and the disciples are asking about when (a time question) these things (plural: referring to the destruction of the temple and judgment on Israel which Jesus predicted in Matt. 23:34-24:2) will be. Thus, in Jesus's answer we should expect a timing answer to this question.

Their second question is: "And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" I take this as one question. This is clear from the Greek, where Granville Sharp's rule applies (two nouns being subordinated under one article), and it is also clear from the disciple's theology, because they would have understood Christ's coming as the end of the age. The disciples want to know what they are to look for in order to discern the end of the age. To understand the Olivet Discourse, the reader has to keep in mind that the disciples have asked two questions: The first is a time question: "When will these things (the destruction of the temple, and judgment on Israel) be?" And the second is a sign question: "What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" These are two very different questions, and Jesus will give two very different answers. The entire discourse is an answer to their questions ("And Jesus answered them..." Matt. 24:4). The reader now needs to detect where in the text Jesus answers them.

As we begin to read the Olivet Discourse, the careful reader will notice that Jesus proceeds to answer the second question first, and that He takes a long time answering it. Here, I think, is His entire answer to the second question. Notice the connections with the second question concerning the sign of Christ's coming and of the end of the age:

Mat 24:4  And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray.
Mat 24:5  For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.
Mat 24:6  And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.
Mat 24:7  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.
Mat 24:8  All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.
Mat 24:9  “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake.
Mat 24:10  And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another.
Mat 24:11  And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.
Mat 24:12  And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.
Mat 24:13  But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Mat 24:14  And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
Mat 24:15  “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand),
Mat 24:16  then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.
Mat 24:17  Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house,
Mat 24:18  and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak.
Mat 24:19  And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days!
Mat 24:20  Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.
Mat 24:21  For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.
Mat 24:22  And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.
Mat 24:23  Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 
Mat 24:24  For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.
Mat 24:25  See, I have told you beforehand.
Mat 24:26  So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 
Mat 24:27  For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 
Mat 24:28  Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
Mat 24:29  “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Mat 24:30  Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
Mat 24:31  And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
Mat 24:32  “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near.
Mat 24:33  So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.

In this lengthy passage, Jesus is clearly instructing them on what signs to look for (and not to look for) regarding His coming and the end of the age. This is a direct answer to their second question. He says: "Don't be deceived by false signs pointing to false Christ's and to false ends. Wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, and even persecutions, are not the signs of the end (it is fascinating that Jesus says this, because it is precisely these things that tend to stir up expectation of the end, and false prophets are always pointing to them). Rather, the disciples are to watch for: 1) the gospel being preached to all nations, which ushers in 2) the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel, which ushers in 3) the great tribulation, and immediately following that 4) the glorious, unmistakable coming of Christ. Jesus then illustrates his point with the lesson of the fig tree. When you see "all these things" (just mentioned above), then you know the end is about to happen.

The very next thing Jesus says is, "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place" (Matt. 24:34). I believe that Jesus finished answering question two at Matt. 24:33, and then, having finished, proceeded to answer the first question in Matt. 24:34, by simply repeating (with slight variation) what He had already said in Matt. 23:36. Yup. It is abrupt, and I understand why people get tripped up and think v. 34 belongs to the section that goes beforehand. After all, v. 33 has the phrase "all these things," and so does v. 34. However, as sympathetic as I am of this, I am convinced it's an inattentive and hasty interpretation. We are not without precedence for this kind of abrupt shifting of the foci of conversation, in which Jesus, without warning, suddenly picks up from an earlier point, and says something that is not directly connected to the verse immediately prior (e.g., Mark 3:28-30, John 6:47, and John 13:20). Even when the same word or phrase appears in verses near each other, we are warranted to understand them differently if we have good contextual reasons for doing so, and here, I'm convinced, we do. I have already mentioned the greater context of Matthew 23. Consider now the following.

The verse following Matt. 24:34 is: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Matt. 24:35). This sounds like a concluding statement. It sounds, in essence, like Jesus is saying: "I have answered your questions and have made known to you hidden things about the future. My words are true and will certainly not fail." It signals that Jesus has finished answering their questions.

The remaining part of the chapter, Matt. 24:36-51, adds interesting light on our investigation. Jesus returns to discuss the sign of His coming and the end of the age, i.e., the second question. Only this time He isn't talking about what the signs are that they should watch for (since He already answered that in vs. 4-33). Rather, here He emphasizes that no one knows the day or the hour of His coming (not even the Son knows when the time will be!), and therefore exhorts His disciples to be alert and watch at all times (for the signs He has given). This is a development within the discourse, but it's not answering either of their questions, since He has already answered them. He's simply adding: "Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming" (Matt. 24:42).

This raises two problems. First, if the phrase "all these things" in the saying "this generation will not pass away until all these things take place"  (Matthew 24:34) applies to Jesus's second answer (i.e., the sign of Christ's coming and the end of age), then it appears to contradict the idea that no one knows when the coming of Christ will be. Jesus would be simultaneously saying: "My coming will be in this generation. Actually, no one knows when the coming of Christ will be, not even me." Jesus both knows and does not know when He will return? This, I think, is a problem.

The other problem with taking the saying, "this generation will not pass away until all these things take place," and including it in Jesus's second answer is that, in that case, nowhere in the Olivet Discourse does Jesus answer the first question! In that case, the entire Olivet Discourse, from v. 4 to v. 51, is devoted entirely to the second question, and the first question is ignored. This is a problem, since Matthew distinguishes two questions. Where does Jesus answer each question? If Matt. 24:34 is not the answer to the first question, there is no answer anywhere.

Therefore, Matt. 24:34 must be the answer to the disciples' first question because:

  1. If it is not, Jesus gives no answer to it in the Olivet Discourse.
  2. It is the only verse that could be the answer.
  3. It matches the statement Jesus made in Matthew 23:36 concerning the timing of the destruction of the temple.
  4. It takes the language of "this generation" in its plain sense, and avoids saying that everything in the Olivet Discourse was fulfilled in the 1st century.
  5. It avoids the contradiction of saying that Jesus both knows and does know when He will return.

I think this interpretation of Matt. 24:34 makes good sense of the entire context and flow of thought, and while admittedly not immediately obvious, neither is it forced. It's the fruit of careful attention to the function of the verse in context, and when due attention is given, I think it is actually quite natural. It is clear that Jesus answers the second question first, wrapping it up in v. 33. Verse 35 is a concluding statement, underscoring the authority and truthfulness of Jesus's answers, and vs. 36-51 is a final, supplementary exhortation about how no one knows when the end will be. What is v. 34 doing, then? It is repeating Matt. 23:36 and answering the first question. It is not the focus of the discourse. Jesus is clearly more interested in their second question than their first.

The beauty of this interpretation is that it maintains the advantages of both the Preterist and the Futurist views, avoids their disadvantages, and is able to overcome its own immediate disadvantage. It alone makes best sense of all the data (the plain sense, history and prophecy, and literary context).

There's lots more to say. For example, I only dealt with Matthew, and didn't discuss Mark and Luke. But this is a good start. Read the passage over several times, with my structure in mind, and see if it makes sense to you. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

May the Lord bless you, brother.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Universalism: Is it Biblical?

C-- and M---, let me start by saying that I am appreciative of the fact that my position seems illogical, or hard if not impossible to fit the pieces together. As M--- said, the New Testament clearly teaches that God desires the salvation of everyone (let's register this glorious fact together. We agree on this!), for Jesus died on the cross to save the world, even every man (we also agree on this. Even Calvinists can). How then can this truth fit with the idea of eternal damnation? It seems eminently reasonable that God, who doesn't want anyone to perish, would therefore not allow anyone to perish. I get it that the idea of universal salvation, where everyone is saved in the end, appears to make sense of at least that truth in Scripture (it makes sense to me). I understand that the view is simple and elegant and attractive at one level, and that my view is not so. I got that.

But nota bene that the universalist position is an inference. It is posited by the human mind as it seeks to reconcile certain truths. It is nowhere taught in Scripture in any kind of clear and unambiguous way (all statements about Jesus being the savior of the world, etc., notwithstanding). What I must emphasize is that when we go about seeking to fit together the "disparate parts" of Scripture we have to reckon with all the parts. The truth that God wants all to be saved is not the only part to reckon with. My position is that the Bible also teaches plainly that not all are saved. Thus the biblical theologian has to do justice to all biblical truth, including both the truth that God wants all to be saved, without minimizing that in the least, and also the truth that not all will be saved.

The biblical theologian's foremost concern is to be biblical, even more than to be simple, elegant, and reasonable. When C-- says that my view is incongruous, because "how can God, who desires the salvation of all, send people to eternal damnation?," that argument isn't weighty enough for me. That's just the reasoning of men. Reality may be more complicated. What matters to me is not primarily, "Is it reasonable to men" but "Is it biblical?" Exegesis is key for me. If the Bible teaches that God desires the salvation of all, and that not all are saved, I must accept that, since it is God's word, even if it's hard if not impossible for me to understand. I hope we all have that attitude, that if God declares a thing we should believe it and not think ourselves wiser. Not that reason doesn't have a say: If the Bible taught an unmistakable logical contradiction I believe that would be a problem. But in this case I don't see A., God desires all to be saved, and B., not all will be saved, as an unmistakable logical contradiction. Actually, I think there is loads of room for resolving factors, even if we cannot at the present wrap our minds around them or conceive them. It is conceivable that there is some good reason (or many good reasons) that God permits the damnation of the ungodly even though He doesn't desire it. There's a difference between contradiction and paradox, as you are well aware; paradoxes being things that appear contradictory but are not actually. It is entirely possible that God's desire for the salvation of all, and the eternal damnation of unbelievers is a paradox. But the key for me is exegesis. If C-- wants to convince me of universalism (or convince the world responsibly), he has to do it by Scripture and not by human reason primarily. Like the Bereans in Acts 17, our mandate is to examine the Scriptures diligently to see if it is so.

And it's precisely in the Scriptures that universalism falls short. There's no clear case for it, but there is a pretty clear case for eternal damnation. I will keep insisting on this until C-- can prove me wrong (and I welcome the discussion). Just consider the Book of Revelation. If any book in the Bible should teach universal salvation, this book, which is all about eschatology and the final state, and which gives us the definitive picture of the consummation, would. And yet what do we see? We see the theme of judgment throughout, continuing right on to, and into, the very end. We hear some of the most frightful pronouncements of judgment ("If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name"). Its final picture of the consummation does not in the slightest give the impression of universal redemption, but of separation and exclusion of the ungodly ("He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death"). Any honest juryman here has to admit that the Book of Revelation is not on the side of the universalist, and that it is at least very understandable why a person would think that B., not all will be saved, is a part of the biblical data that must be reckoned with.

I really appreciate you guys discussing this with me. Thanks to all.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

On the Book of Enoch and New Revelations

A reply to a question about the Book of Enoch, the canon, and new revelation.

Thank you for sending me this. I must confess, I've been reading over them and still have been unable to see any reference to the Book of Enoch in Jesus's words, though I freely admit that there is a lot in common with the world of the Book of Enoch in Jesus's words--that is, Jesus lived in a context that shared much of the ideology of that document. That much is clear, and so to see a shared way of thinking and speaking is unsurprising. But I can't see direct reference. All the sayings are conventional enough to make a claim of dependence unwarranted. Example: to say that Enoch's "all the thirsty drank, and were filled with wisdom" is the background to Jesus's "the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life" is quite a stretch, considering how ubiquitous water/thirst language is in all religion, let alone Judaism. So, I don't buy it!

As for Jude's quote of Enoch, that is definitely more compelling. I am much more intrigued by the Book of Enoch on account of this piece of evidence. Jude clearly thinks the saying came from Enoch the seventh from Adam. My conviction, therefore, is that the pseudopigraphical Book of Enoch preserves the true words of Enoch in that passage. Does this mean we ought to accept the entire Book of Enoch? Not necessarily. There are various things to consider. Perhaps the pseudopigraphical book was constructed upon that genuine prophetic saying (it is found in the first part of the book). Perhaps Jude and earlier Israelites had access to a document or tradition that we no longer possess, which they were confident preserved the saying of Enoch. Through this connection the saying may have ended up in the pseudopigraphical book. I don't know. But I don't think it is wise to jump at the entire Book of Enoch with unquestioned acceptance simply on account of Jude 1:14-15.

Your question about the canon in class was a good and important one, and I'm sorry we had no time and that I wasn't prepared to discuss it. I would recommend for your study Michael Kruger's works on the canon. That being said, I do sense that you are antsy about this issue of the canon, and you want to be open to more revelation than what is found in the Bible. I get this strong vibe from Mormons and people affected by Mormonism--it's one of the defining marks of Mormonism, I think, one of the keys to understanding the religion and what makes LDS people tick. They don't want to feel limited (bounded, straitjacketed, confined?) by ancient Scripture; they fear there's more truth out there and an exclusive reliance upon the Bible keeps us from knowing that truth. Better to be open then closed lest we miss the way, right?

Well... yes and no. I don't believe the Bible is anywhere against new revelations, the idea that God can speak to us now and can say new things. But it is everywhere against tampering with, ignoring, or nullifying old revelations. You don't mess with holy Scripture. Period. I say again, you don't mess with holy Scripture. God is a God truth, and always speaks the truth. The apostolic Christians were at pains to show that what they were teaching about the Christ and the law was in accordance with the Scriptures, not against them (Acts 17:2, 11, 24:13-14, 28:23, Romans 1:2, 3:21, 16:26, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, et al. See especially Acts 24:13-14). They never dared suggest that the Scriptures had somehow been corrupted. In Christianity, all is in accordance with the Scriptures, or else it is not true Christianity nor of God (Isaiah 8:20, Matthew 5;17-19). If an apparent new revelation contradicts or undermines what is written, that revelation is not and cannot be holy. Thus, from where I sit, Joseph Smith's prophesies were false, not because prophesying per se is false, but because his prophecies patronizingly patted Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul on the head while throwing their words into the shredder. A bad man, and one for whom the solemn curse of Revelation 22:18-29 justly applies. "I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book." If this doesn't apply to Joseph Smith, it has no meaning and can apply to no one. And let me be clear and answer a common objection: I don't believe this verse is referring to the whole Bible, nor to adding to the canon (as it is sometimes interpreted to mean). It's talking only about the Book of Revelation. It is saying that you don't tamper with the prophecies in the Book of Revelation. Why? Because they are the very words of God (Revelation 1:1-3). And behold! Joseph Smith fiddled with the prophecies of the Book of Revelation (there's JST surgery). He is guilty and therefore cursed. Yet the greater point is that the principle of this curse applies to all of the Bible (to all the words that came to down from heaven in the manner of Revelation 1:1-3), for the one who tampers with any holy Scripture is tampering with the inspired, holy words of God. The principle of the thing is present everywhere; it is simply made explicit here in Revelation 22 (a fitting place, too, no doubt).

Thus, I think we should be open to new revelation, sure. But we should be more concerned about past revelation, revelation that we know is revelation, making sure that we hear and obey it. Isn't that the flavor of the Old and the New Testaments: hearing and obeying? God has spoken. Shouldn't we be heeding what has been spoken more than searching for more? If we aren't taking seriously and obeying past revelation, our lust for new revelation will be dangerous, and will probably contribute to our damnation.

Spoken in love. I hope to see you again soon!