Peace on earth

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The New Testament promises peace to the disciples of Jesus.  In St John’s gospel, it is acquired by discovering the presence of the risen Lord (John 20: 19,21,26), and the presence of his Holy Spirit (John 14: 25-27).  Disciples of Jesus do not have to rely upon their own inadequate resources to live good lives. Jesus, through his words and Spirit, is there to comfort, guide and strengthen them.  Nor need Jesus’ disciples fear God’s wrath when they fail.  As St Paul says, with faith in God’s forgiving love, they can live in peace, hope and joy (Romans 5: 1-2).

The peace I have just described comes from knowing the constant presence, support and love of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  This gives believers great comfort throughout their lives.  But there is another dimension to the peace of God which is not often recognized.  That is the peace that lies in the mind and heart of God Himself.  With his Spirit we are able to see the truth plainly, and His will for us is usually simple, though following it can be difficult and taxing.  The saints can tell us more about this I expect, though the Bible talks about “the peace of God that passes all understanding.”

What about peace on earth, for non-believers?  Does the New Testament offer us hope of that?  It hints at three paths to peace on earth, one mediated by Jesus, a second through the lives of his disciples, and a third a relying upon the power and authority of the state.  It seems to me that none of these, by itself, is enough to promote much peace on earth, but together they could have substantial impact.

Isaiah, foretelling the coming of a Messiah, hailed him as “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9: 6).  But when Jesus as Messiah rode into Jerusalem on an ass, Luke says, he wept over Jerusalem because it did not know what would bring it peace.  If it had accepted him as its king, its history might have been different. (Luke 19: 41-44.)  His failure to bring peace to Jerusalem, however distressing to Jesus, must have been no surprise to him. He is also quoted as saying :  “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but division.” (Luke 12: 51 // Matt. 10: 34-6.)  He was always aware that his call to discipleship and his new message of God’s love and forgiveness would antagonize traditional authorities, who would try to suppress both him and his followers.

However, neither Jesus nor his disciples thought his death on a cross was the end of his mission.  It seems that Jesus accepted the vision of the Messiah at the end of Isaiah as one who would establish peace on earth by force (Isaiah chs 62-63).  Each of the synoptic gospels records his promise to return soon with mighty power to destroy the wicked and establish a kingdom for his disciples of peace and justice.  The horror of those end times is elaborated in detail in the book of Revelation.  According to this teaching, Jesus will ultimately bring peace on earth by force.

A second way of bringing peace to the earth suggested in the New Testament is via the agency of Jesus’ disciples.  In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus said:  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (Matt. 5: 9).  This call to be peacemakers is repeated by St Paul:  “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”  (Romans 12: 18.)  The contexts of these passages make it clear that this is done by loving others, even one’s enemies, forgiving them any harm they might have done and meeting their needs as well as one can.

Forgiveness and love are powerful instruments for peace between individuals.  However it is not always enough to keep the peace in society.  When people are intent upon hurting others severely, or exploiting others through criminal organizations, individual gestures of forgiveness and pleas for good behaviour are generally ineffectual.  Then it is that the church turns to the state for help.  The state formulates  laws people must obey to respect and aid one another, and it enforces them by means of police, courts and jails.  If the threat to peace comes from without, the state raises, equips, trains and deploys armed forces to protect itself from aggressors.  Jesus allowed that church and state had different important functions (Luke 20: 22-25), and St Paul said that Christians should respect the state authorities as placed over them by God (Romans 13: 1-7).

How effective are these ways of bringing peace on earth?

Fear of the Last Judgement and fear of punishment by the state have been effective to a certain degree in curbing violence and lawlessness.  After two thousand years, however, belief the Last Judgement is not widespread, so it is much less effective than it was in the Middle Ages.  Fear of the state seems to be the main instrument for keeping the peace today.

There are two main problems with relying on the state to keep the peace.  The first is that when those in charge of a state are not committed to justice, the power of the state is not used for godly purposes.  In the Middle Ages in Europe the church and the state agreed that they were meant to support one another in the service of God.  These days, however, many states are run by people in the interests of themselves and their supporters, often for financial gain at the expense of others at home and abroad.  The pretend, and sometimes believe, that their own interests are those of the nation they rule.

How can this misuse of state power be checked?  A world body to enforce human rights might be the answer.  Until that is widely respected, however, I think the consequences of policies of unjust leaders should be examined and exposed in detail, so that people come to see how bad they are.  Of course states will prevent such exposure as much as possible, by refusing to provide information about their activities, and even by censoring the press.  Luckily mobile phones and the internet can sometimes circumvent these restrictions.  The importance of freedom of information and freedom of expression should be explained to all citizens, as essential for exposing unjust acts of government.

The second problem with relying on the state to keep the peace is that the state seldom goes to the heart of the problem.  The state limits crime largely through fear of punishment.  But it is not usually equipped to tackle the causes of crime, which are social, psychological and spiritual.  It can, however, use some of its income to support experts in these fields, and the programs they recommend.

Do Jesus and the church have a role, then, in fostering peace on earth?  Unless the individuals who have responsibilities in the state, or who lead research into the causes of crime, are themselves dedicated to the creation of a just and loving society, they will not use their positions for peace, but for other ends. Christians, in whatever group or organization they belong to, should formulate and support policies that express God’s love most effectively.  They should act, not just in their own interests or the interests of their organization, but in the interests of all who are affected by their organization’s activities.  Christians will do this because they have committed their lives to Jesus, to doing his will in helping to meet the needs of others.

The Church used to coerce kings and magistrates to act justly through fear of the Supreme Judge before whose tribunal they would be held to account.  Today, church members, guided by the Spirit of Jesus, must act within civil institutions, guiding them to act justly and generously, and in that way extend peace on earth.

Fear should still play a part in keeping the peace. Not fear of the Last Judgement, perhaps, nor just fear of the state’s punishment of criminals, but fear of the conflict that is the alternative to peace, conflict within the home, within a society and between states.

The world must learn that the greatest instrument for peace is not military might, but the love of God delivered through members of his church.

Peace Be With You

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I expect we all know people who often suffer pain or distress. A dear friend of mine has severe arthritis in her feet. When I am with her, I am always anxious that her pain does not become excruciating. I have another friend who is poor and prone to depression, and I am anxious that he remains able to cope.

We not only worry about other people, but can have quite legitimate concerns about ourselves—about our health, our work, even about whether we are serving God as well as we ought.

Should Christians be worried about themselves and others? In our church services we regularly say to one another “Peace be with you.” But peace is not always easy to find.

Jesus warned his disciples that they would experience strife and persecution: “You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father…” and so on (Matt. 10: 34-6) Jesus taught his disciples to expect the same sort of hostility and violence as he received. In his farewell discourse, according to St John, he said: “Remember what I said: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ As they persecuted me, they will persecute you…” (John 15:20)

Then what should his disciples on earth expect? Perhaps they should expect to enjoy peace of mind, peace within, yet a measure of hostility from those without who oppose the values they hold. The Bible seems to endorse this view.

Indeed, according to the Bible we can enjoy the peace of God himself. St Paul promised the Philippians the peace of God which surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4: 7). According to St John, Jesus offered his disciples his own peace: “my peace I give you” (John 14: 27), and again “in me you may have peace” (John 16: 33). Finally, according to St Paul, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit is peace (Galatians 5:22).

What peace is to be found in God, and how can we find that peace for ourselves? Here are a couple of suggestions.

First, God, being wholly good and wise, is not torn by temptation to act badly or foolishly, as we often are. Rather, his will is always good and right. We can enjoy that single mindedness to the extent that we turn away from the temptation to follow our own desires, and listen to God and obey him.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote a work entitled “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.” He points out that it is not enough to seek God’s will for the benefits that might follow from doing so, for that is what he calls “double mindedness.” He also explains that to find God one must be still and listen. He writes that God’s presence in us

is like the murmuring of a brook. If you go buried in your own thoughts, if you are busy, then you do not notice it at all in passing. You are not aware that this murmuring exists. But if you stand still, then you discover it. And if you have discovered it, then you must stand still. And when you stand still, then it persuades you. And when it has persuaded you, then you must stoop and listen attentively to it. And when you have stooped to listen to it, then it captures you.

In this way we can draw near to God, and discover his word for us. Here is one way to find peace of mind

Another experience of peace comes from discovering God’s love for us. Augustine famously wrote of God: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” We not only long for God’s guidance, but also for his love. God’s nature is loving. There is the love of the three persons of the Trinity for one another. And there is the love all three have for us, expressed in creation, revelation, salvation and sanctification. We become particularly aware of God’s love for us as He guides and supports us in His service. St Paul was right to identify our peace of mind with our knowledge and love of God (Phil. 4:7).

But does our awareness of God’s word to us and of his love for us ensure our peace of mind? In our love for others, we feel distress when things go badly for them, and anger towards those who harm them. Jesus wept over Jerusalem when it failed to recognize him as its Messiah; and he was angry with religious leaders who failed to love the people in their care. When Jesus knew that his friend Lazarus was dead, we are told, “he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” and indeed “Jesus wept.” (John, 11:33, 35)

To find complete peace of mind we would have to follow the teaching of the Stoics, who advised people to detach themselves from all their emotions, both selfish and compassionate. Instead, they said, we should act purely rationally, loving others as a matter of duty. Even Bertrand Russell, who was not a Christian, found such teaching abhorrent. He writes of

a certain coldness in the Stoic conception of virtue. Not only bad passions are condemned, but all passions. The sage does not feel sympathy; when his wife or his children die, he reflects that this event is no obstacle to his own virtue, and therefore he does not suffer deeply. …It has not occurred to him to love his neighbour as himself; love, except in a superficial sense, is absent from his conception of virtue. (History of Western Philosophy, Allen and Unwin: London, 1946, pp.278-9).

God puts wisdom in the service of love. He does not call us to a life of emotional detachment, but to a life lived in love of himself and others. As we love others we are bound to be distressed, anxious and sad and times. This is part of the price of love, of the cross we have to bear. But in loving others, our pain matters little to us beside the suffering of the people we love.

We are promised perfect peace only in heaven, where “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21: 4)

Meditation on the Cross

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Do this in remembrance of me

What does the broken bread and wine that we receive at Holy Communion mean to us? It is a symbol of the broken body and blood of Jesus. But how do we remember those?

We are taught in Sunday School that “he died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good, that we might go at last to heaven, saved by his precious blood.” That is an excellent summary, and in response we feel immense gratitude for his great, costly love. The main, appropriate response to Jesus’ death is one of humility and deep gratitude.

Unpacking the clauses of the Sunday School song is an intellectual exercise, but I want to suggest that it can be spiritually valuable as well. It is when we move from thinking about Jesus’ crucifixion in a theological manner to identifying with him empathetically that we are changed, and enabled to live a more godly life.

Let me illustrate these two forms of inspiration. People have been inspired by historical reports of the way in which Florence Nightingale tended sick soldiers during the Crimean War in 1854, and the way John Simpson saved wounded soldiers at Gallipoli, bringing them away from the front to safety, sometimes under fire, on his donkey. One can make an intellectual judgement that these people behaved in a very brave, selfless, caring way, that this behaviour was admirable and worthy of imitation. However, when one considers what they did in more detail, one can begin to sense their compassion and courage, to be moved by it, even to share it to some extent. Florence, “the lady with the lamp”, faced the horrors of an army hospital to bring comfort to suffering soldiers, lifting their morale and caring for them as best she could. Simpson, careless of the danger, trudged up and down rescuing wounded soldiers from the front line trenches for three weeks until he was shot by a Turkish sniper in May1915.

Notice, by the way, that empathy alone is not enough for a good life. People can be stirred to share the enthusiasm of leaders to act badly, destroying property and harming people without good reason. For a good life one must reflect upon one’s plans, to check that they are good.

Now consider the three statements in the hymn, first in an intellectual way, and then more empathetically.

First, “he died that we might be forgiven”. It is common to think of Jesus’ death as the sacrifice that had to be made to enable a just God to forgive sinful men and women.

There are problems with this understanding of the cross that are well known. In particular, if God is perfectly just, as the Jews believed, it was clearly impossible for Him to punish the innocent and forgive the guilty, no matter how much he loved them.

It is easy to see why the early Jewish Christians thought that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice to appease God. Their tradition emphasised the importance of obeying the laws God had given to Moses, and it also stressed the justice of God as one who rewards those who obey him but punishes those, like Adam and Eve, who do not. Furthermore, the Jews had a tradition of averting God’s wrath by offering him sacrifices of pure lambs and other animals. The early Jewish Christians had to find an explanation for the crucifixion of the Messiah, an event contrary to all that had been expected. How natural it was for them to think that Jesus’ death was the ultimate sacrifice, of a man without blemish, eternally acceptable to God.

However, there is a more plausible theory to account for Jesus’ crucifixion. When someone deeply offends us, there are basically two responses available to us. The first is one of anger, expressed in a desire to hurt the offender in return, by either legal or illegal means. The second is a willingness to suffer the pain the offender has inflicted, without retaliation, perhaps even continuing to love them. Parents often have to suffer the insults of their children in this way, bearing the pain without retaliation, in order to continue loving them.

When Jesus suffered unjust insults, humiliation, suffering and death on Good Friday, he demonstrated God’s willingness to endure all the pain we could possibly cause him, and his willingness to forgive us. In this way Jesus revealed a depth to God’s love much greater than the Jews had imagined. With this actual demonstration of his loving forgiveness, people now have objective grounds for believing that God will suffer and forgive their sins. We think that God is saddened by our sins, the acts by which we harm ourselves or others, because of his great love for us. Recall that Jesus wept over Jerusalem for its evil ways. But thanks to the crucifixion, we no longer believe that our sins, and the sadness they give God, prevent him from continuing to love us.

That is an intellectual appreciation of what it means to say that “he died that we might be forgiven.” However there is an emotional response to Jesus suffering people’s sins against him that is also very important. As we consider the events of Good Friday in detail, perhaps via the stations of the cross, we might well be moved by Jesus’ willingness to suffer men’s sins right to the point of death. Then, when we are tempted to respond in anger to the offences of others, we might recall Jesus’ willingness to suffer rather than to condemn, to love rather than to punish. Identify with him helps us to bear the pain others have inflicted on us, and to go on loving them. In personal relations, this is the only path to peace.

“He died to make us good.” First here is an intellectual appreciation of how Jesus’ crucifixion helps to make us good. St Paul understood this blessing very well, but we often ignore it. The story of the cross is one of Jesus setting aside his own wishes in order to obey God, even unto death. He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that God would spare him, but always added, nevertheless not my will, but thine be done. He showed us that while those who obey God act well, they sometimes do so contrary to their own desires, and at great cost to themselves. That is the nature of altruistic love.

Here is a pattern of coping with temptation that we can follow. But St Paul did not stop with this intellectual judgement. He encouraged us to identify with Jesus, to share his determination not to put his own desires ahead of God’s. This involves the sort of empathy I have been discussing. St Paul wrote of this in Romans chapter six. He writes: “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?…count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (NIV, vv.2-3, 11.) Just as Jesus “died to sin”, i.e. remained inert to the temptation to disobey God, so we with him must remain inert to sin too, so that we can be free to obey God.

I suspect that Christians often ignore this blessing because they do not believe that God has a particular will for them each hour of the day. Consequently they are usually unaware of any conflict between their normal, everyday desires and God’s will for them. So the need to die to temptation does not often arise for them. However, when we pray for God’s guidance, we often find it is to do something we had not considered.

When we receive the broken bread, we identify with the broken body of Jesus, broken as a condition of continuing to love those who hated him, and broken in continuing obedience to God. This is the price of discipleship, the cross Christians, with Jesus, have to bear.

“That we might go at last to heaven.” The third blessing from meditation upon Jesus’ death is the realization that pain, suffering and death are unable to defeat God’s eternal life-giving Spirit. If God was able to raise Jesus from the dead, then it is possible that he will raise us too. St Paul was confident that this would happen. He wrote: “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Ch.8, v. 11.) This is the intellectual conviction that St Paul arrived at from considering Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In this case, the emotion we share is not that of Jesus, but that of his disciples and authors of the New Testament. They rejoice at the prospect of being rewarded for their faithful discipleship after death by life with God in heaven, where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” (Revelation, ch.21, v.4) Many godly men and women suffered for their faith, and have done so down the centuries. Faith in life after death with Jesus gave comfort to the Negro slaves in America, who sang of it in their passionate spirituals. It is a hope that has rescued many people from despair.

Just as blood is a source of life, so the wine that symbolizes the blood of Jesus can remind us of his life-giving Spirit, whom we accept as we drink it. St John writes: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (ch.6, v.54.) He adds: “The Spirit gives life.” (v.63).

Clearly our main response to Jesus’ crucifixion is one of humble gratitude. But thoughtful reflection upon the story can move us to love our neighbours more profoundly, to love God more completely, and encourage us to believe that God’s eternal life-giving Spirit will carry us through death to a new life with Him.

C. Behan McCullagh


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Christians are people of faith.  But let’s face it:  there is good faith and mad faith.  Good faith is believing in God, trusting the word of his Holy Spirit and obeying his will.  Mad faith is believing in unnecessary contradictions simply because they are part of one’s religious tradition.  Some contradictions are credible, when there is good evidence for both sides of the contradiction.  For instance there is good reason to believe that an electron is both a wave of energy and a particle, as it can appear in both forms. However, if one of two contradictory propositions can be shown to be unworthy of belief, then it is mad to continue holding them both to be true.

There are several contradictions, or paradoxes as they are often called, in traditional Christian teaching.  Those who enjoy a religious life within a framework of traditional beliefs are normally untroubled by its contradictions as they focus on what they value, namely life with a wonderful, loving, inspiring God.  But those considering Christian faith from the outside often find the contradictions so baffling as to be unintelligible, and consider holding them to be not just foolish but entirely misguided.  They reject a good life of faith because of the mad contradictory beliefs that it seems to entail.  They throw out the precious baby with the murky bathwater.

Jesus said that good shepherds will leave their flock for a while to go in search of a lost sheep.  If we love those who lack Christian faith, our love will drive us to remove all the obstacles to their faith that we can.  This means attending to the contradictions in traditional Christian teaching and endeavouring to resolve them.  For instance, how could a truly loving God consign any of the people he has made to the everlasting torment of Hell?

This is not a purely academic question.  I was surprised recently when a friend asked me whether I thought members of his family and friends who were not Christian would go to hell. We don’t hear much about hell these days, so I hadn’t given the question very serious consideration.  But he was clearly very concerned about the fate of his loved ones.

In the gospels Jesus is recorded as warning his followers about hell from time to time.  The rich man who failed to show compassion to Lazarus was sent there (Luke 16: 19-31), and those who ignored the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison were consigned there also (Matthew 15: 31-46).  If we take such teaching seriously, then we have good reason to believe in the possibility of hell.

Before responding to my friend’s question, however, I thought about a central message of Christianity, that God so loved us that while we were still sinners he sent his Son to die for our sins, in order that we might be forgiven.  In more concrete terms, Jesus was noted for welcoming sinners, and when he was unjustly insulted, tortured and crucified, from the cross he prayed that his Father would forgive those who killed him, not send them to hell.  To forgive those who harm us, we must accept the pain they inflict upon us and offer them love in return.  We know that God forgives us our sins as we see Jesus doing precisely that:  suffering the worst that humans could wish upon him, yet praying for their forgiveness.

How could Jesus, who suffered so much to demonstrate his love towards those who hated him, also come again as their judge and send them to hell?  You might punish someone from a loving wish to reform them.  But the punishment in hell that Jesus described in his parables is eternal.  It’s function is not reformative but retributive, the just desert for those who dare to oppose God.  Such punishment is logically and psychologically inconsistent with forgiveness.

I told my friend that the love of God revealed in the life and death of Jesus was so perfect that I could not believe He would send unbelievers to hell.  I also pointed out that those condemned to hell in those two parables were judged for their lack of compassion, not for their unbelief.  That fact did not resolve the contradiction between Jesus’ loving forgiveness of sinners and his teaching about justice, but it did suggest that anyone who shows loving compassion towards those in need might be on the path to heaven.

As a result of this encounter, I began to wonder where Jesus might have got the idea that the Messiah would come again with mighty power to reward the righteous and punish the wicked.  I can recall two Old Testament texts that vividly portray such an event, one in Isaiah and the other in Daniel, both books that Jesus quoted.

The Isaiah passage begins in chapter 59.  The writer despairs of the waywardness of Israel, and argues that God himself will have to intervene to cleanse the nation.  He begins by noting the wickedness and injustice of the people of Israel (“… justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us..” v.9), and then he points out that as no-one seems able to establish justice in the land, God himself will have to do it:

“The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice.  He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;  so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. He… put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.  According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies and retribution to his foes…” (vv. 15b -18).

In the following chapters Isaiah repeats his conviction that God will mercilessly punish the wicked.  And he also declares that God will create a new Jerusalem that fulfils his desire for justice, peace and prosperity, a place that will glorify his name.

Isaiah could not believe that a God of justice could possibly tolerate the injustice of wicked people indefinitely.  In Daniel there is a different reason for invoking the justice of God.  Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) became ruler of Palestine in 175 BC, and he tried to repress the religion of Israel, requiring the people to worship a golden statue of the Greek god Zeus.  He cruelly punished the Jews who refused to worship the statue by killing and exiling thousands of them, and by desecrating their temple, forbidding their regular sacrifices.  Daniel foretells the destruction of unholy kings, and adds that in the end “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake;  some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” (ch.12: v.2)  Commentators tell us that this verse refers to the faithful Jews who had suffered and died at the hand of Antiochus, and to those who oppressed them.  The faithful Jews will be raised from the dead and rewarded with a new life, and those who harmed them will be raised and punished.  How could a just God do otherwise?

Both Isaiah and Daniel think that God will punish the wicked because he is essentially just.  The justice of God is enshrined in ancient Jewish tradition.   Back in Deuteronomy chapter 28 God promises the Israelites that if they are obedient “your God will see you high above all the nations on earth” (v.1), but if they are disobedient “the Lord will send on you curses” (v.20), which are described in dreadful detail.

Later the psalmists frequently lament the injustice of their suffering (e.g. Psalms 10, 35, 69, 79, 83), but they do not seriously doubt the justice of God.  Rather they appeal to him to execute justice more thoroughly. For example, from Psalm 10:

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?

Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?…

Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.

Do not forget the helpless.

Why does the wicked man revile God?

Why does he say too himself, “He won’t call me to account.” (vv.1,12-13.)

It is little wonder, then, that Jesus, being thoroughly familiar with Hebrew scriptures, believed the Messiah would bring justice on earth, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked.  The problem for Christians is that his life and death, and most of his teaching, express an unqualified love for the good and bad alike.  He established a new kingdom by fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy that a time would come when God would replace the Israelites’ sinful thoughts and inclinations with a knowledge and love of God’s law (Jer.31:31-34).  Christians, having died to sin, enjoy a knowledge and love of God’s will through his Holy Spirit.  Jesus’ established a kingdom of righteousness, not by force but by sharing the life of his Holy Spirit.

So will the wicked by consigned to hell?  It is hard to know what will happen to their souls after death.  People are free to ignore God if they wish, so perhaps as C.S. Lewis suggests in The Great Divorce, they will abide in a lonely place of their own making.  St John seems to think that those who are not animated by God’s eternal loving Spirit will simply die, saying that those who are not related to Jesus’ life will wither on the vine.  Whatever happens, Christians cannot say that Jesus is willing to punish the wicked by sending their souls to hell, for that would deny his unqualified love.

Isaiah and Daniel believed that God would punish the unrighteous and reward the faithful because they were convinced of his justice.  A system of rewards and punishments is of great value in motivating people to keep the laws of the land.  But from our perspective we must ask whether there is much evidence either in natural events or in historical events of God acting justly.  As the Psalmist lamented, good, faithful people suffer and wicked people prosper, and this has been true throughout all ages.  The life and death of Jesus, on the other hand, reveals that God’s loving mercy has no bounds.

God’s justice and love

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From beginning to end the Bible portrays God as both just and loving.  In the Old Testament it is said that he will reward the righteous, but although the wicked deserve his wrath, in his mercy he often refrains from punishing them, in the hope that they will turn back onto the path of righteousness.  In the New Testament, Jesus lovingly forgives sinners and encourages people to repent of their sins, as the prodigal son did, but he promises that one day he will return to judge people justly, to punish the wicked and establish a New Jerusalem of peace and love for those who honour him.  In the letters of St Paul and others, while Christians are encouraged to love God and one another, the fear of hell and hope of heaven are repeatedly offered as a motive for submission to Jesus.  Finally, the book of Revelation depicts the ultimate triumph of justice in the destruction of evil and the creation of a New Jerusalem for the faithful.

What evidence is there of God’s justice in human history?  The Psalms repeatedly lament the way in which the wicked prosper while the faithful suffer, and call upon God to bring about justice.  When the Israelites, the Chosen People, suffer, for example their destruction by the Assyrians and Babylonians, it is always possible to interpret this as just punishment for their sins. But how are God’s faithful prophets and people rewarded?  Daniel was protected, but Elijah and Job had a tough time.

Historical evidence of God’s justice in the Old Testament is at best ambivalent.

In the New Testament things get worse.  The perfect Son of God suffers the most dreadful injustice, out of love for sinners.  The apostles suffer difficult lives and often horrible deaths.  God’s justice is postponed to the second coming, which Jesus and the early church believed was only a few years away.  But it has not yet come.

The problem with the Second Coming, in which all the wicked will be punished, is that it is inconsistent with Jesus’ love and forgiveness of those who hate God.  One might punish a wicked person in the hope of reforming them and deterring others, but justice requires retributive punishment, in proportion to the crime.  And crimes against God, it is said, deserve death, which is promised to wicked people when Jesus comes again in power.  Jesus cannot both loving forgive and justly execute people at the same time.  To forgive is to absorb the other’s offence and offer love in return.  It is not to desire the death of sinners.

The belief that God is just in handing out extraordinary rewards and punishments is both implausible, because the evidence is that this is false, and it is inconsistent with the passionate assertion that God loves sinners and forgives them their sins. These are two compelling reasons why Christians should deny that God is just in the material sense just outlined.

Are there any ways in which God could be said to reward people when they are faithful and punish them when they depart from His ways?  There are indeed, and they are familiar to the saints.  St Paul summarized a lot of them in Galations 5.  The Faithful enjoy the fruits of God’s Holy Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity and self-control.  When people are wicked, they suffer from impurity, quarrels, rage, ambitions, jealousy, and the like.  St Paul also writes about enjoying the wisdom of Jesus’ mind, and power in doing his will, and unexpected events that support one along the way.  In short, although a Christian life is not rewarded in obvious material or social ways, it is a good life, directed, encouraged and warmed by the love of Jesus.  Despite its hardships, St Paul would not have it any other way.

The other reward that Christians enjoy is a consequence of their love of Jesus.  By His Spirit they are moved to love others, and often they are loved in return.  When others love us, they share our lives, affirm our value, and offer us their support in a most encouraging way.

What about punishment?  St Paul contrasted a Christian life with a rather dissolute one, which suffers from uncontrolled passions.  It could also be contrasted with a rational life, in which people set their own goals and pursue them with their own wisdom and strength.  If their goals are selfish, they will probably exploit and even harm others, so that the community suffers even if they do not.  If their goals are good, contributing to the welfare of others, then such lives are admirable.  Indeed, if such a life is full of love for others, then according to St John, it is indeed a Godly life (1 John 4: 7-8).

These personal and social rewards and punishments are regularly provided by God to the faithful and the wicked, as we are all aware.  It is right to fear evil, for it can destroy one.  It is right to yearn for good, because it is rewarded with a life of peace and value.  There is no need to posit a Second Coming to motivate people to lead a Christian life.

An idea of the Kingdom of Heaven has been an inspiration to faithful Jews and Christians down the ages.  The picture of a New Jerusalem in Revelation 21, of a community of saints enlightened and warmed by Jesus, is of an ideal that we believe God wants us to enjoy.  However, to portray it as the outcome of Jesus’ Second Coming, in which wickedness is defeated by mighty power, is to remove it from human responsibility.  When Jesus taught his disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 ff.), he envisaged it as a kingdom of his disciples on earth, bound in their allegiance to him and His Spirit of self-sacrificial love.  This is an image of heaven on earth, not heaven hereafter.  And it is a heaven created by humans in cooperation with Jesus through love, not by Jesus alone through force.  It is a misleading distraction to imagine the New Jerusalem as a consequence of the Second Coming.

So God is both just and loving.  His justice is not to be found in material or heavenly rewards for the faithful, nor in the earthly or final destruction of the wicked.  Rather it lies in the personal and social blessings enjoyed by his disciples, and in the fear and destructiveness of life without him.  Jesus came into this world, not with a sword to enforce justice but with self-sacrificial love to create a new community of love, centring on himself.

Gifts from God

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In the book of Revelation (chapter 4), St John depicts the glory of God.  His throne shines with the colours of gems, flashes of lightening and thunder witness to his awesome power, all living things acknowledge his greatness as creator, and finally, in the centre of his throne is a Lamb, “looking as if it had been slain.”  Both God and the Lamb are praised by the saints.

Must we wait for heaven to witness God’s glory?

The Christian life has often been represented as one of service and suffering, with a promise of glory to come.  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is the archetype, describing the life of faith as a long and turbulent journey with the new Jerusalem glimpsed at its distant end.  The book of Hebrews paints a similar picture in chapters 11 and 12.  The patriarchs and prophets led tough and often painful lives, and Christians are encouraged to run the race of life with courage, like Jesus, “for the joy set before him”.

But even Jesus, while on earth, saw God’s glory in a flower.  And we glimpse it from time to time in nature, in the infinite splendour of the stars, in peaceful pastures and rippling streams, in magnificent sunsets, and in the animated features of beautiful young men and women.

People of all cultures have been inspired to celebrate the beauty, life and power of nature in poetry, art and ritual.  Buddhists and others enjoy contemplating nature, and some identify with it, seeing their lives as involved in the cycles of the birth and death of beauty all around them.

Should we regard such glimpses of beauty as merely natural events or as epiphanies, as manifestations of God?  Plato said that things that radiate beauty had their origin in heaven, and that through them we have an idea of the perfection which informs them.  But Plato’s heaven was not the creation of a single god.

If we believe God created the universe, then it follows that the beauty it contains is his creation, a gift for us to enjoy.  Believing this to be the case, we appreciate not just the beauty of things, but also God’s love of them and us that their creation expresses.  They are wonderful, undeserved gifts that give us a hint of His glory.

It is surely right to remind worshippers of God’s glory in the art and architecture of our churches, and to celebrate it with flowers and music and song.  These remind us of His amazing, endless creativeness, so that we lift our hearts to the Lord.  There is no need to wait for heaven to glimpse God’s grandeur, and to praise him for it.

But the beauty of nature is always transitory.  A splendid sunset evolves, and then fades into a black night.  So are the gifts of God transitory, here one moment, gone the next?

St John’s Revelation supplies the answer:  in the centre of God’s throne was the crucified lamb, the symbol of God’s unending love for all the people He has made.  He sent his Son to live and die for us, and to be with us until the end of time.  And He has sent his Holy Spirit, to guide, empower and animate all who love him, without ceasing.  As St Paul said:  nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 8: 39)

But where do we find this love, in a world so torn with greed, pride and hatred?  We often find it in families and among friends.  We can find it in Christian communities that are focussed on Jesus.  And some find it in the gift of the Holy Spirit, who guides their thoughts, motivates their actions, and comforts them in times of trouble.  In these ways we experience God’s love, and are enabled to love others.

The beauties of nature are fleeting expressions of God’s love.  But the steadfast love of people, and of God’s spirit, are what sustain us through difficult times, indeed lighten our load and provide cause for rejoicing. No wonder people say that the marriages of those who truly love one another are made in heaven.

Are there any other expressions of God’s love for us that should be acknowledged?  Is a free space in a crowded car park ever a gift from God?  The story of David, in the Old Testament, is interesting.  It suggests that God assisted and protected David to enable him to establish a just and godly kingdom.  The Psalms repeatedly praise God for his aid to those who honour him.  Christians also witness to prayers for minor blessings being answered against the odds.  So there is some reason to think God does bless those who love him by meeting their needs in his service.

However, as Hebrews reminds us, faithful servants of God have also suffered dreadfully, as Jesus did.  Sometimes, it seems, God’s plans are not what we imagine them to be and He does not give us what we ask for.

We can only pray for God’s blessings, and thank Him when our prayers are answered.

Christian doctrine of salvation

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Protestants usually present the Christian doctrine of salvation in personal terms:  believe that God forgives you, honour Him and His Son, and you will go to heaven.

But St Paul saw salvation in cosmic terms, and perhaps others in the early church did too.

He knew that, according to Genesis, all the evil in the world was the divinely ordained punishment for sin.  Because of their deliberate disobedience, Adam and Eve were excluded from the Garden of Eden, which was presumably a perfect creation, and from the Tree of Life, which was the eternal life of God himself.  Instead they suffered pain and hardship, nature produced “thorns and thistles”, and they would die. (Gen. ch.3).

Paul also knew that throughout the rest of the Old Testament, when dreadful things happened to God’s chosen people, it was always interpreted as God’s punishment for their sin.  Indeed, in Deuteronomy etc it is written that those who obey God’s commands would be rewarded, and those who disobeyed would be punished. (Study the details of the rewards and punishments:  making sense of their daily experiences.)  The most famous cases of national punishment, of course, were the invasions of the Assyrians and Babylonians.  (Did they later see the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in AD 70 as punishment?)

So Paul, and indeed the Jews in general, saw all natural, national and personal suffering and death as punishment for sin.

Paul, steeped in Jewish tradition as a former Pharisee, was also familiar with a sacrificial system as the means of assuaging God’s wrath against sinners.  It is not surprising, therefore, that he regarded the crucifixion of the perfect man Jesus as a perfect sacrifice, that would reconcile God and humanity for ever.  He explains his theory clearly in Romans.  For instance Rom.5:18:  “just as the result of one trespass [Adam’s] was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness [Jesus’ sacrifice] was justification that brings life for all men.”

In the early chapters of Romans, Paul explains how those who know themselves forgiven, through faith, can come to enjoy the eternal life of God’s Holy Spirit.  But later in the letter he expects that, thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice, the whole of creation will be redeemed.  E.g. in 8:21 he writes of his “hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

This is where the resurrection of Jesus comes in.   Paul saw the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as the first sign of God’s plan to reverse the condemnation meted out to Adam, the condemnation of all people to death.  “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (v.22)  He goes on:  Jesus will return [as the promised Messiah] to put everyone and everything under his authority.  “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (v.26)

Just as Jesus was given a new resurrection body, so, Paul says, those who follow him will be given a special body, not subject to death. (vv.50-53).  I Thess. 4:13-17 makes it clear that Paul believed Jesus would return within his lifetime, to establish his new kingdom on earth.  In II Thess. Ch.1 he elaborates on the judgement Jesus will execute against the wicked on earth “in blazing fire with his powerful angels.” (v.7)  As the years passed, and Jesus did not return, Paul seemed less certain of the time but no less certain that it would happen.

So, according to Paul, through Jesus’ “sacrifice of atonement” (Rom.3:25), those who believe that God forgives them will avoid the punishment of Adam and all sinners who lived after him, and enjoy eternal life.  And just as Jesus was given a new body after death, so too will all who believe in him. This will occur when he comes again to judge both the quick and the dead, destroying the wicked and establishing a new kingdom upon earth not subject to death, suffering and decay.

This doctrine is not really credible, for several reasons.

1.            Jesus has not returned as predicted.  The creation continues as it always did. If God is reconciled to the world through the death of Jesus, why delay in setting up the new kingdom?

2.            The doctrine of substitutionary atonement is unintelligible:  it assumes a God who both hates us for our sins and would kill us for them, and a God who love us so much that he will suffer ours sins and forgive us.  It also assumes that God is just, in wanting to punish the wicked, but is unjust in that he accepts the punishment of a perfectly innocent person in place of the wicked.  I have offered an alternative interpretation of the cross elsewhere.

3.            It is not true that those who disobey God suffer punishment in this world, and the obedient are rewarded.  Often wicked people flourish, and the good suffer.  Look at the fate of Jesus and his disciples, many of whom were cruelly killed.  The doctrine that interprets death and suffering as punishment for sin is absolutely implausible.

I should develop an alternative theory of salvation.

Mine would focus upon the process of spiritual regeneration outlined by St Paul, but see that as driving a transformation of social relations on earth.

God’s loving Spirit is ennobling and transforming, enabling us to value people as they deserve.

If our souls survive death, I cannot imagine what form they would take, or how they would relate to one another and to God.


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For all who believe in heaven and hell, it is important to know what you have to do to get into heaven. Protestants are often reminded of St Paul’s teaching in Romans, so important to Martin Luther, that people are justified by faith, not by works (Romans 3:28), that is not by simply keeping God’s law. Thanks to Jesus crucifixion and resurrection, we know that God is willing to suffer our sins yet forgive us, and offer us his friendship and Holy Spirit. The word “justified” implies “not guilty”: people who believe in God’s forgiveness discover that they are treated as friends by God, as though they were not guilty of sin. Of course they are guilty of sin, so “justified” is a slightly misleading term. I would say they are forgiven, rather than justified. God’s love is expressed in his forgiveness of sinners.

If people are justified by faith, that also suggests that they qualify for heaven. Surely only the truly guilty go to hell. But even Luther knew that more was needed for salvation, for example, baptism—of which more soon.

I prefer to talk about atonement rather than salvation, because it refers to being at one with God here and now, rather than being focussed on judgement in the hereafter. Forgiveness removes the barrier of guilt that keeps us from approaching God, but what about the barrier of sin that prevents us from accepting his will? To be at one with God we clearly need more than faith in His forgiveness. We need “sanctification”, which involves repentance: acknowledging our sinful nature and dedicating ourselves to the will of God. That is where adult baptism is so important: a public act of repentance followed by a symbolic act of cleansing and thus renewal, with the promise of grace to come. It commits one to a lifetime of repentance and renewal.

Will those who believe in God’s forgiveness but refuse to repent get into heaven? I have no idea. But if people reject the love and lordship of God, they would hardly be willing to worship him, so they would not be comfortable in heaven. So perhaps repentance as well as faith in God’s forgiveness is needed to enjoy heaven.

All this is quite familiar to most Christians. What is seldom explained are the verses in the Bible that say more is required. These are the verses that say God will not forgive people their sins unless they forgive those who sin against them. For instance Matthew 6: 14-15: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Cp. Mark 11: 25) This teaching is supported by the parable of the unjust steward, who, having obtained forgiveness of his debt from his master, refused to forgive those who owed him money, so that his master changed his mind and put him in prison (Matthew 18: 21-35).

If God in his love forgives all sinners, only wishing them to turn from their sins and live well, will he not forgive those who fail to forgive others? Clearly the message here is that it is not enough to commit oneself to God, for example by and act of repentance or by saying the Lord’s Prayer. People must also obey his will to love others as themselves, and as much as possible, live by his Holy Spirit. The intention professed in an act of repentance must be followed by action, by seeking out God’s will for oneself and obeying it. In trying to obey God, Christians find themselves depending more and more upon the guidance and strength of his Holy Spirit. In that way they come to share in the life of God himself, and to express his will, his Word if you like, in their lives.

This interpretation of the challenging passages in Matthew is supported by other parables about who is admitted to heaven., the one about the sheep and the goats, and the other about Lazarus.(check)

So, if people fail to honour God in their deeds, they will perhaps act contrary to his will, causing more destruction and distress than God intended. Although God might forgive sinners, he would not be very happy with the behaviour of those who fail to do his will.

It looks as though admission to heaven depends on works after all, contrary to St Paul’s teaching. However, St Paul’s teaching on how to get to heaven is much more profound than some Protestant teachers have noticed. Entry to heaven depends upon being blessed with God’s life-giving Holy Spirit. He could not put it more plainly: “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Çhrist from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Romans 8: 11)

So faith in God’s forgiveness is important, and repentance is important, but these are simply prerequisites for life in God’s Spirit. That is the grace that God most wants us to enjoy. St John interprets the sacrament of Holy Communion as an act of accepting Christ symbolically by receiving symbols of his flesh and blood, adding “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.” (John 6: 63). His parable of the vine confirms his conviction that unless a person is “in Christ” and “bearing fruit”, he or she will be discarded (John 15: 1-17).

The Christian gospel is about the love of God and his forgiveness of people’s sins. But it is more than that: it is also, and essentially, about the possibility of spiritual transformation, of holiness, and an eternal life. It is about being swept up into the loving life of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.