Did Jesus forgive Judas?

Q. Did Jesus forgive Judas, or was he damned to hell?

There’s no question in my mind that Jesus forgave Judas.  On the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  This applied to everyone who was responsible for his crucifixion—not just the squad of Roman soldiers who actually put him on the cross, but also the crowds who shouted “Crucify him!”, the religious and political leaders who conspired against him, and yes, even Judas who betrayed him. Indeed, Jesus’ words also apply to all of us, whose sins put him on the cross.

The real question is whether Judas accepted the forgiveness of Jesus and so was saved.  I’d like to argue that he might have been.  I realize this is not the majority view among Christians. (In the Inferno, for example, Dante put Judas in the very mouth of Satan, in the lowest circle of hell!)  But hear me out.

The Bible tells us that once Jesus had been condemned to death, “When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’”

This, to me, sounds like genuine repentance.  There is open and specific confession of sin, and there is restitution—what John the Baptist once called “fruit worthy of repentance.”  If Judas had not been genuinely repentant, I don’t think he would have returned the money he got for betraying Jesus. But apparently Judas had not expected that the Jewish leaders would attempt, successfully in the end, to have Jesus put to death. He had only thought he was delivering him to arrest and detention. When he saw where his actions had led, he repented.

This, at least is the reading of many English translations—that Judas “repented.” (The KJV, ASV, RSV, NRSV, Good News Translation, and several others have this reading.)  But other English Bibles suggest instead that while Judas “was seized with remorse” (NIV) or “changed his mind” (ESV), he didn’t actually repent, he just felt regret.

The Greek term is metamelomai, and it does seem to mean something like “regret” or “change one’s mind” when it is used in 2 Corinthians (“if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it”) and Hebrews (“The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind”).  However, it clearly means “repent” when it is used a little earlier in the gospel of Matthew. Shortly before the passage about Judas, Matthew quotes Jesus as telling the chief priests and elders, “John [the Baptist] came to you to show you the way of righteousness,” but “you did not repent and believe him.”  (This is the NIV’s translation of the term there.)  So a good case can be made that Judas did repent of his sin of betraying Jesus, that he confessed it, and that he sought to make what restitution he could.

Unfortunately, the chief priests and elders, whose appointed role was to help shepherd repentant sinners like him back into the fold, turned him away, saying, “So what? That’s your problem.” In order to accept Judas’s confession, they would have had to admit that it was just as wrong for them to have conspired to put Jesus to death, but their pride and vested interests did not allow them to do this.

When Judas did not receive the spiritual counsel and restoration that he was seeking and desperately needed, in despair he went out and hanged himself.  But we should be very careful not to conclude that his suicide proves he went to hell in the end.  People tragically commit suicide when they lose all hope–not when they lose all faith.

And so I believe there is enough in the gospel narratives about Judas to conclude that he may have been a sincerely repentant sinner whom the religious leaders of his day unfortunately failed.  But God knows what was ultimately in his heart, and He will judge him on that basis.  One vital lesson for us is never to become so compromised by sin and pride ourselves that we cannot show the way to someone who, whether genuinely repentant or merely remorseful to begin with, might be led back to God through wise and compassionate counsel.

Some may read this post and wonder, “But didn’t Jesus and the apostles say it was predicted in Scripture that Judas would betray Jesus and be lost? Doesn’t that settle the question?”  I’ll take up that concern in my next post.

Rembrandt, Judas Returning the Thirty Silver Pieces

Is the United States talked about in the book of Revelation (or Daniel)?

Q. Is there any proof that Revelation talks about the United States (or that the book of Daniel does)?

Whether we see the United States (or any modern-day individuals, nations, or institutions) in the biblical apocalyptic books of Revelation and Daniel depends on the interpretive presuppositions we adopt as we approach these books.  As I explain in my Daniel-Revelation study guide in the case of Revelation (similar things might be said about Daniel):

The book of Revelation is interpreted in four major ways.  The futurist approach understands it to be a description of the events of the “end times,” at the end of human history.  (Works like the novels and movies in the Left Behind series follow this approach.)  The historicist view sees the book as a prediction of the whole course of history, from Jesus and the apostles down through the present to the end of the world.  The idealist interpretation is that Revelation depicts the struggles and triumphs that followers of Jesus will experience everywhere, but it doesn’t have any particular place or time in view.  The preterist approach is to try to understand the book by reference to the time and place it was written in–western Asia Minor towards the close of the first century.

I personally believe that a preterist approach is the most responsible one to take, as it is consistent with the way we approach every other book of the Bible, trying to understand it in light of its original historical and literary context.  From that perspective, the characters and symbols in Revelation have directly in view the resumption of imperial persecution of Christians under Domitian in the late 80s or early 90s A.D.  The visions in the book of Daniel, for their part, are initially envisioning the suffering of the Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who ruled from 175-164 B.C.

Applications to any other historical periods are secondary and need to be made by inference and analogy, although these biblical books can certainly inform us very effectively about what conditions are like, and what a faithful response should be, in comparable situations.  Certainly those who are suffering for their testimony to Christ in our world today can and should find encouragement and challenge in many of the admonitions in the books of Daniel and Revelation, for example, “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.”

I think we are better advised, in fact, to understand Daniel and Revelation as speaking to us today out of situations of persecution in the past, and so calling us to sympathy and solidarity with those who are suffering now, than we are to try to synchronize their characters and symbols with modern-day actors. That is a necessarily speculative exercise that may not lead to any response or action on our part.

A depiction of America as the “whore of Babylon” in the book of Revelation, from a recent blog post that follows a “futurist” interpretation. I would argue that a “preterist” approach is more constructive.

Was there physical death in God’s creation before the fall of humanity?

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Q. I’ve heard people claim on the basis of Paul’s statement in Romans–“sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin“–that physical death only entered the created world after the fall.  But others counter that Paul is merely referring to spiritual death, and that certainly plants and microscopic organisms had to have died before the fall. Would you say that Paul’s statement should be taken to refer to physical death?

This is another question (like this one) that is taken up at the end of the book I co-authored with Stephen J. Godfrey, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation.  (The passage I will quote from the book here is somewhat lengthy and it begins with a discussion of Genesis, so if you want to read just the part about Paul’s statements in Romans, you can start here.)  This is what we have to say.

Note: The format of this blog is not to use artificial chapter and verse divisions, but to reference the Scriptures instead by content and context, and by hyperlinks to the text on Bible Gateway (as above).  However, Paradigms on Pilgrimage has already been in print for ten years with chapter and verse references, so I have not changed this format below.

We may next take up the question of how death could have been active within the evolutionary process for billions of years before there were any people, if the Bible teaches that death first entered the world through the disobedience of humans. Our first response to this question must be to establish whether the Bible indeed teaches this.   When we study the Genesis account, we discover that it actually does not teach that no creature could have died, or that no creature actually did die, before the fall of humanity. It rather suggests just the opposite.

For example, at the very end of the story of creation and the fall we read, “Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’ – therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden” (Gen. 3:22-23). If God’s concern was that the man might eat of the tree of life after the fall and live forever, and took steps to prevent this, the clear implication is that if he did not eat of the tree of life, he would not live forever. But this would have been true whether or not he had fallen. In other words, not dying is shown here to be something that does not follow directly from having been created. It requires something further: eating of the tree of life. According to this account, therefore, it appears that if the humans had not eaten of this tree, they would have died, even in an unfallen state.

The fact that the food that humans and animals were to eat is specified in Genesis 1:29-30 also implies that they were not created immortal. Why would creatures have to eat, if they could not die? The clear implication is that this food was to sustain them and keep them alive, and that they would die of starvation if they did not eat. (For that matter, do we suppose that if Adam, when innocent, had fallen forty feet out of tree and broken his neck, he would not have died?) While we have Genesis 1:29-30 in view we should also specify that the fact that humans were not permitted to eat animals does not mean that the only way an animal could have died was if a human had killed it in order to eat it.

A further consideration is that the plants that humans and animals ate died when they were uprooted and consumed. If we are going to argue that there was no death before the fall, then it cannot have been the case that any living thing ceased to live before the fall. But the Bible itself describes the opposite. It suggests that innumerable plants not only died but were “killed” by people and animals for food in the Garden of Eden. It is sometimes argued that since vegetation is “insentient,” its “death” before the fall is not really significant. But this is to introduce a definition of death as “the cessation of consciousness,” and this would actually allow a great deal of the evolutionary process to have taken place without “death.” There will be varying understandings of where on the scale of complexity we should locate the least complex “sentient” beings, but it is doubtful that all animal life should be considered sentient. Thus creationists themselves would have to allow for the death before the fall of worms and spiders and perhaps even dinosaurs if they wish to discount the death of plants before the fall.

A final consideration from the Genesis account is this: the warning that God gave to the first pair of humans about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – “in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die” – would have been incomprehensible and therefore useless if death were an entirely unknown thing in the pre-fall world. Here the biblical account itself therefore suggests that death was part of the human experiential knowledge base even before the fall. In other words, humans were able to understand what God meant by “death” because they had already seen other creatures die.

• • • • •

In light of all of these considerations, we must recognize that the objection we are discussing here comes much more from the book of Romans than from the book of Genesis. It is there that we find such statements, frequently quoted by creationists, as, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all” (Rom. 5:12). This would seem to imply that before the fall of man there was no death in the world. But we must pay careful attention to the kind of “death” that is actually in view in chapters 5 and 6 of Romans.

It is probably most accurate to say that it is a spiritual death (separation from relationship with God) that leads, among other things, to physical death. This, we should note, is precisely the definition of death that literalist interpreters use to explain how it was that Adam did not die physically “in the day” that he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He died spiritually that day, they insist, and physically as an eventual result. (Otherwise, we would need to appeal to a “day-age” theory to explain Genesis 2:17!)

Recognizing that Romans 5 and 6 is speaking of a spiritual death with eventual physical consequences enables us to make the best sense of its teaching. For example, Romans 5:14 says, “Death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam.” What is in view here is clearly the reign of spiritual death over those who sin, that is, over morally responsible beings – humans. This is not a discussion of the progress of physical death throughout the created world.

That spiritual death, not physical death, is in view here becomes even clearer when we recognize that in the course of this argument, Paul restates what he says in Rom. 5:12 two different ways. This first statement is, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned . . .” (Rom. 5:12). But this is later restated, “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom. 5:18). And then Paul expresses his meaning another way: “Just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5: 19). We see from these parallels that coming under the reign of death is equivalent to being condemned and to being made a sinner. The death in view, in other words, is the spiritual death of separation from God.

We find final confirmation of this understanding in the exhortation Paul gives as the argument of these chapters reaches its culmination: “Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (Rom. 6:13). We see here that the “death” Paul has been talking about is a state we can be in even as we are physically alive, and which we can leave without being resurrected from physical death. It is thus, once again, the spiritual death of being under the power of sin, alienated from God.

We should therefore make no more appeal to the book of Romans than to the book of Genesis to argue that physical death only entered the world after the fall of humanity. Both books describe a spiritual death from which physical death necessarily resulted, but neither thereby excludes there having been physical death beforehand, from other causes.

How was Jesus from the line of King David if his real father was not Joseph?

Q. How does the genealogy of Christ work? Because if this is recorded in a patriarchal society, this is the line of Joseph, right? Doesn’t that mean none of this genealogy actually flows through Jesus’s blood? How is he from the line of King David if his real father is God and not Joseph?

The purpose of the genealogy in Matthew’s gospel is to demonstrate that Jesus is “the son of David, the son of Abraham,” that is, the legal heir of both of these men and thus the beneficiary (and ultimate fulfillment) of the covenant promises that God made to them.

All Jews were descended from Abraham.  But Jesus was not descended from David, who was from the tribe of Judah, through his mother Mary, because she was instead a descendant of Aaron from the tribe of Levi.  We know this because Luke’s gospel tells us that Mary was a “relative” of Elizabeth, who was a “descendant of Aaron.”

But when Joseph, who was descended from David, married Mary, this also constituted his legal adoption of the son she would bear. The language of Matthew’s genealogy reflects this legal understanding: “Joseph, the husband of Mary . . . the mother of Jesus.”

Later in Matthew’s gospel we see from the narrative that Jesus was considered to be Joseph’s son just as much as the other children that Mary and Joseph had together.  The people of Nazareth ask, after Jesus tells a series of parables, Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?”

Accordingly Paul can say of Jesus at the beginning of his letter to the Romans, “who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead.”

Luke says similarly in his genealogy that Jesus was “thought” or “supposed” to be the son of Joseph; the International Standard Version says that he was “legally calculated” to be Joseph’s son, and I think that’s a good way of expressing the meaning here.

So Jesus was the son of Joseph in the full legal sense, because he was adopted when Joseph married Mary, and thus Jesus is also considered to be a legal descendant of David.

If there are intelligent beings on other planets, are they saved by Christ’s death, too?

Q. If there are intelligent beings on other planets, are they saved by Christ’s death, too?

Any response to this question has to be highly speculative, of course, but let me share some thoughts.

When I was in college, this same question would sometimes be asked of speakers who came to share the gospel on campus.  (I guess it was an updated version of the question, “What about people who never get the chance to hear?”) The speaker would typically say, very confidently, “If there are intelligent beings on other planets, then God went to those planets, took on the form of those beings, and died for them, too.”  This response certainly reflects the relentless love of God, who comes to seek and save the lost, wherever they might be found, and so this answer is satisfying in many ways.

But in more recent years, I’ve been wondering whether Jesus’ incarnation on earth instead represented a unique entrance of God into all of time and space, just as it certainly represented a unique entrance into our specific world.  (Christ did not come to earth many times, to die separately for the people of different times and places.)  If that’s the case, then if there are intelligent beings on other planets, and we discover their existence, then it’s our responsibility to tell them about how God’s saving love has been shown definitively through the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and invite them to follow him, too.

And here’s one other possibility.  Since these intelligent beings on other planets, by definition, are not members of Adam’s race, perhaps they are not fallen.  (The premise of C.S. Lewis’s book Perelandra is that there are intelligent beings on Venus who have not yet fallen; the mission of the book’s central character, Ransom, is to keep them from falling.)  And if this extraterrestrial race is not fallen, then it is still enjoying unbroken fellowship with God.  But that doesn’t mean that those beings wouldn’t benefit from Christ’s death; it would just mean something different for them.  It would still be a revelation of God’s saving love, showing how far God would go to bring them back if they ever did fall away, and I’d like to think that as such, in some sense, it would have a “saving” effect by drawing their hearts even closer to God.

I realize that I’m getting into some murky theological waters here, specifically, the distinction between (1) the belief that the fall was inevitable because it was the means God had chosen to become the occasion of our salvation and (2) the belief that the fall was not necessary or inevitable; people could just as easily have used their freedom to choose obedience rather than disobedience.  But I won’t go into this distinction any further here, as I’ve discussed it in another post.

But I will acknowledge here that anyone who believes that the fall of the human race was inevitable will also conclude that any intelligent beings (free moral agents) on other planets have also fallen, too, and thus need either for Christ to come and die for them on their planet, or else for us to share with them the good news of what Christ has done definitively for the whole creation through his death on a cross here on earth.

Galaxy M51, photographed by the Hubble telescope.

Why did Jesus tell the women of Jerusalem, “Weep for yourselves, not for me,” when he was going to the cross?

Q. This morning I was reading Luke and was confused about Jesus’ response to the women who were following him, wailing and lamenting, as he walked towards his crucifixion. His remarks seem hard to understand at first glance and harsh. The women seem to be doing a very human and appropriate thing, that is, mourning the mistreatment of the Son of God. I see myself doing exactly the same thing. Yet he turns to them and says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and your children.” That’s confusing enough, but then he goes on to say, “Blessed are the childless women.”  His words seem very out of context with the events that are taking place.

I believe that even here, on his way to the cross, Jesus is looking ahead to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 at the end of the first Jewish-Roman War, and he is expressing his pity and compassion for the victims of that impending conflict.

This is actually the third place in the gospel of Luke where Jesus does this.  The first time is when he approaches Jerusalem on this final visit and sees the city in the distance. He weeps over it and says, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

In other words, by rejecting the understanding of the kingdom of God that Jesus brought, and by following other leaders into a political and military revolt, the Jewish people would put themselves on a collision course with Rome that within a generation would have this tragic result.

Then, when Jesus and his disciples are touring the temple, he predicts that it will be destroyed, so that “not one stone will be left on another.”  When his disciples ask when this will happen, he describes the destruction of the city in more detail. (This is in the so-called Olivet Discourse, a long speech that also looks farther ahead, at its end, to Jesus’ Second Coming ).  Once again Jesus expresses his compassion for the innocent people who will suffer: “How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land.”  This is a second reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in the Jewish-Roman war, in which Jesus recognizes the suffering it will bring to innocent people.

The statement Jesus makes to the women of the Jerusalem as he is walking towards his crucifixion is a third such reference.  The suffering will be so terrible, we discover, that people will consider women fortunate who have not had children who will have to go through it.

And so it’s not that reflecting on Jesus’ sufferings and expressing sorrow over them is a bad thing to do. It was appropriate for those women, and it is still appropriate for us today.  But Jesus knew that terrible sufferings also awaited them, so he both warned them and expressed compassion for their impending fate.

Showing concern for others’ sufferings, even as he was about to be crucified, demonstrates our Savior’s heart of selfless compassion for others.  And so I believe he is honored in this Lenten season not only when we meditate on his sufferings, even weeping over them as these women did (and as countless believers have done in the centuries since), but also when we show the same compassion for the suffering of the innocent that he did.

A modern icon of the “Eight Station of the Cross,” where Jesus speaks to the weeping women.

Can Satan hear our thoughts?

Q. Someone once told me that God hears our silent prayers, but that Satan can not, and that if we want to address Satan, we must speak the words to him out loud.  From what you know, is that a fair assessment?

My first thought in response to your question is, “Why would anyone want to address Satan?”  I know that in some circles there is a practice of “claiming authority” over Satan, commanding him to depart, etc., but I’d be very careful of that kind of thing.

I don’t recall any place in the Bible where a human being directly addresses Satan.  (Jesus said to Peter, who didn’t want him to go to the cross, “Get behind me, Satan,” but that was actually a reference to Peter’s motives—“You do not have in mind the concerns of God”—not a direct address to Satan.)

Jude warns us that even the archangels do not address the devil on their own:  “Even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil . . . did not dare to condemn him for slander himself but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’”  So I would not address Satan at all, either in spoken words or in silent thoughts.

A wise man, an authority on spiritual warfare, once told me that instead, “The best way to chase away the darkness is to turn on the lights.”  As he saw it, when our individual lives and community gatherings are full of love, joy, holiness, and praise, the forces of darkness simply don’t hang around.

But perhaps another concern here is whether Satan can listen in on our thoughts in order to get information he can use to tempt and entrap us.  Here’s what we need to realize:  Satan is a finite being.

We often speak of him as if he had infinite attributes like God—omniscience (knowing everything), omnipresence (being everywhere at the same time), etc.  When people all over the world address Satan as if he were present with them, that suggests omnipresence.  When lots of people say “the devil made me do it” they’re suggesting that he has comprehensive knowledge to use in temptation. But he doesn’t.  Satan’s knowledge and presence are limited because he is a finite created being.

So where is the devil, if he’s not omnipresent?  At one point the Bible depicts him standing before God and accusing us.  (The word for “devil” in Greek is diabolos or “accuser.”)  At another point the Bible says he “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  But no matter where he is at any given moment, he is finite, and so not able to be everywhere and know everything.

What we are probably encountering instead when we feel as if “the devil is tempting us” is the continuum that the Bible refers to as “the world, the flesh, and the devil.”  Wrong thoughts, attitudes, and actions are fueled by “the world” (the planet-wide conspiracy to value things other than as God values them), “the flesh,” (everything in us that resists the cross, that is, living a sacrificial life for God), and “the devil” (which to my mind includes all evil supernatural beings, in league with one another and their leader against God).

I don’t think we should spend a lot of time trying to tease out which part of the world-flesh-devil continuum we’re up against at any given point.  Instead, we should “turn on the lights” by using our wills to choose positive thoughts, attitudes, and actions.  As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

 

Does Paul’s argument that we are “in Adam” prove that Adam was a real historical individual?

Q. Tim Keller makes the argument that when Paul says we are “in Christ” or “in Adam,” he is talking about being in federation or covenant with them, meaning that their actions are essentially attributed to us. He then asks how we could be in federation with someone who never existed, and he concludes that Adam and Eve must have been real historical figures.  What do you think of this?

Let me say first that I have tremendous respect for Tim Keller as biblical interpreter, teacher, and pastor, so I hope that nothing I write here will be taken to disparage in any way his excellent ministry.

Personally, however, I do not believe it is necessary to conclude from Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians (“as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive”) and Romans (“as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous”) that the human race must have begun with a single, directly created individual named Adam.  And I believe I can say this on biblical grounds.

It could well be argued that in 1 Corinthians and Romans, Paul is indeed envisioning Adam as a specific historical individual.  I believe that to understand the Bible’s meaning, we must carefully consider the immediate context first, and the larger canonical context only second.  But once we do place Paul’s comments about Adam and Christ within the framework of the entire Scriptures, I think we can justifiably understand the phrase “in Adam” to mean “member of the human race,” rather than limiting it to “descendant of this named individual.”

This is because the Hebrew word ‘adam is used in an intriguing variety of ways in the book of Genesis, where it figures prominently in the opening narratives.  Sometimes it seems indeed to be the name of a single historical individual, as in this statement:  “When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.”  But in other contexts (in fact, in the immediately preceding statement), the term refers more generally to humanity as created in the image of God.  Note how ‘adam in this case takes both singular and plural pronouns, and embraces both male and female:

“When God created ‘adam, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘adam when they were created.”

Elsewhere in the book of Genesis, the term ‘adam refers to the growing human race.  The statement translated in the NIV as “when human beings began to increase in number on the earth” is more literally in Hebrew “when the ‘adam began to be numerous upon the face of the ground.”

So in light of the use of the term in the book of Genesis, I understand ‘adam to mean essentially the human race, at whatever stage of its expansion may be in view.  By putting Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians and Romans in conversation with the Genesis narratives, I understand his phrase “in Adam” to mean being a member of the human race.

I feel that I can do this fairly because I don’t think Paul’s argument depends on Adam being an individual who performed certain actions that are then attributed to us.  At least as I understand the way covenants work in the Bible, if A has a covenant with B, and C is “in” B (in covenant terms), then all of the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that B has with respect to A also extend to C.  But it is not considered that C has personally done for A everything that B has.

For example, David took care of Mephibosheth because he was the son of Jonathan, with whom David had a covenant of friendship, protection, and provision that extended to all of their descendants.  But it was not considered that Mephibosheth had personally performed all of the acts of friendship and kindness for David that Jonathan himself had.  Mephibosheth was rather the extended beneficiary of David’s response to those actions.

In the same way, as members of the human race, we are alienated from God because of the disobedience of our race.  Mercifully, I am reconciled to God through the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, if I join through faith in his covenant relationship with the Father.  But even then it is not considered that I have personally lived a sinless life and died on a cross for the sins of the world.  Jesus alone did those things.  Rather, I am included in the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that come with my covenant identification with Jesus, which include both forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God, and a duty to offer the same kind of loving obedience that Jesus did.

So, in short, I do not believe that Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians and Romans require Adam to have been a historical individual.  We need to make our mind up about that question on different grounds, and I think it’s fair and reasonable to bring scientific accounts of human origins into conversation with the Bible as we do so.  As I’ve tried to explain here, I think the language of the Bible can accommodate this.

If the Bible isn’t scientifically accurate, how can it be theologically accurate?

Q. I am very comfortable with the notion that the Bible isn’t a science textbook and that it reflects an observational perspective in the incidental “scientific” comments of its authors. It seems most plausible to me that God would and did accommodate his message based on where humanity was at. My question is this: since it’s clear that the biblical authors had at least some false beliefs about the world in general, “scientifically” or otherwise, on what basis can we say that the theology they communicated was 100% accurate? The fact that a lot of theological truth is not stated overtly in the Bible and that it took quite a while to arrive at fully worked out doctrines of the Trinity and so on seems only to compound the difficulty.

This specific question of yours is actually taken up at the end of the book I co-authored with Stephen J. Godfrey, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation.  Here’s what we have to say about it:

At its core the Bible is a story of relationships.  It is a story of relationships of faith and trust that people enter into with God and with one another (“covenants”).  And the world of relationships is one that we have access to freely, even if our knowledge of the natural world is limited to what we can discover through naïve observation.  The capacity for faith, through which we enter into relationship with God, is not one that human civilization has slowly cultivated and perfected over time.  Faith is something every human has always been capable of, just as every human, in every age, has had the potential to love.  We would not assert that the love described in the Bible was somehow defective compared with our own because it took place in a primitive culture, and we should not make the same assertion about the faith described in the Bible, either.

In other words:

While the human authors of the Bible would have had limitations when it came to their knowledge of the natural world, they would not necessarily have had similar limitations when it came to knowing God, relationally and experientially.

I hope this brief summary is helpful; as I said, it comes at the conclusion of the book (and specifically at the conclusion of the conclusion), so I encourage you to look at the whole book and see where these reflections fit in to the overall argument.

Why did Jesus say, “Mary has chosen what is better”? Wasn’t Martha’s hospitality a spiritual gift?

Q. I’ve always wondered why Jesus said that Mary sitting at his feet listening to him was “better” than Martha working to fix a meal for him and his disciples. Wasn’t that an important and needed form of service? Isn’t hospitality supposed to be a spiritual gift?

My understanding is that this was an informal occasion–travelers entertained spontaneously in a home along their route–for which a basic meal would have been sufficient. It was not a wedding or similar occasion that called for elaborate preparations. The “main event” was simply having Jesus in the house and having the opportunity to converse with him, and that was where the emphasis should have been placed.

But Martha apparently wanted to go “above and beyond” what the situation required and put on a really fancy meal. In fact, she wanted to do far more than she could do alone, and so she asked Jesus to tell her sister to help her. I think Jesus was saying, “It’s one thing if you want to go ‘above and beyond,’ that’s your choice, but you can’t also choose it for someone else who wants to give her attention to what should be the ‘main event’ here.”  In other words, when simple will suffice, if you want to do more, that’s on you, not anybody else.

This is not to say that the ministry of hospitality was not important to Jesus or to the new community he was founding.  In Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in the gospels, there’s great appreciation for those who receive traveling messengers of the kingdom of God into their homes, as Martha was doing here.  We find the same emphasis in the epistles. In his third letter, for example, John praises Gaius for receiving traveling messengers from his community, saying, “We ought to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.”

And Martha eventually did get to host a more elaborate banquet for Jesus and his disciples. She did this to celebrate the resurrection of her brother Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. (Now that called for a full celebration!) So Martha’s gift and ministry of hospitality did find a place for its appropriate expression within the life of the community of Jesus’ followers.  I hope that those today with the same gift and ministry will find and be given similar opportunities, but also that we will all recognize when an occasion calls for something simpler and a different focus.

Allesandro Allori, “Christ with Mary and Martha.” The Latin inscription in the background reads, “She has chosen the better part.”

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