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Faith and Certainty

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Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων.

Hebrews 11:1 (Original Greek)

The New Testament makes very clear how damaging doubt can be to faith. For example, Jesus tells his disciples that they can move mountains with the smallest amount of faith, provided their faith admits of no doubt. What is less clear, however, is that certainty can also damage faith.

The author of Hebrews is a careful reasoner who leads his readers step-by-step through an argument to show that Jesus’ sacrifice for sin makes the Jewish sacrificial system obsolete. By the time he gets to the end of chapter 10, he is applying what he has taught to the lives of his readers, and he is exhorting them to persevere in their faith despite ongoing suffering and persecution. This leads him to consider the nature of faith and how it has influenced the behavior of believers who have gone before. He starts chapter 11 with a definition of faith: “Faith is what supports our hopes, what proves matters that can’t be seen. (My translation).”

He identifies two areas where faith is essential: things that don’t yet exist because they are future events, and things that exist now but can’t be discerned by our five senses. He then lists several champions from Jewish history, all of them commended for holding on to what they believed despite opposition from those around them and despite having no tangible proof. He says that they were “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” and “looking for a country of their own.” They were holding on to hope for a better world, a better future which they glimpsed by faith but which they never attained. Instead they were

tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

Hebrews 11:35-38

In a word, they suffered without obtaining what they hoped for. He goes on to refer to them as a “cloud of witnesses,” like spectators at a marathon, cheering and encouraging the participants to keep going no matter how hard it might seem or tempting the desire to throw in the towel.

Faith, because it grasps what doesn’t yet exist and perceives what is invisible to the senses, is essential to every creative endeavor. Creating something—anything from composing a symphony, to writing a novel, from proposing a new philosophy to propounding a new theory—requires faith, a grasp of the not yet, a vision of the invisible. Faith will endure suffering, even face setbacks and failures, to procure a better future that the believers themselves might never see.

Certainty, by contrast, is thoroughly grounded in what is. It focuses on the past, on what has always been true, on what is incontestable, on what can be seen and touched and heard and smelled and tasted. In Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees and religious leaders, we can see their certainty, their conviction of their own rightness. They have devoted themselves to meticulously keeping the law, structuring their lives to maintain the smallest observances like tithing their mint, dill, and cumin because they believe that flawless adherence to the legalistic requirements of the law is the way to have life. In their myopia, they give their attention to minutiae and completely miss the main point of the law, which is love.

When Jesus healed a man born blind on the Sabbath, the religious leaders were divided by their certainties. Some, starting from Jesus’ violation of the Sabbath, declared him to be “not from God.” Others, beginning with the incontestable fact of the healing, asserted that such miracles could not be performed by sinners. The one thing they did not do was question their own preconceptions about what constitutes godliness. Yet that is precisely what Jesus’ miraculous healing invited them to do. Jesus had already told them that the sabbath was instituted for the benefit of people, not to force people into honoring God’s rest after creating. In doing so, he put human needs ahead of legalistic proscriptions of the law. But for those leaders, the law was holy, and any infraction was dishonoring to the law and to the Lawgiver. That is why they plotted to kill Jesus: they were certain that he was dishonoring God.

Certainty is empowering because we will fight for what we believe is true and right. We will commit violence. We will hate. We will kill, as long as we are certain that what we are doing is right, perhaps even God-ordained. Faith is empowering because we will suffer for what we believe is true and right. We will endure violence and still love those who persecute us. We will die rather than give up our hope for a better future and a better kingdom. The devil loves certainty because he is risk averse. God loves faith because he accepts risk in order to access possibility. Certainty is content to leave mountains where they are, accept the status quo, and deal with reality as it is. But faith imagines mountains cast into the sea, yearns for a better world, and reaches for a reality that is still to come.

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jesus law religion righteousness salvation sin spiritual life

Fulfilling the Law

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“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

Matthew 5:17-18

One of the charges leveled at the early church—and indeed at Jesus himself—was that they taught people to ignore the demands of the Torah, referred to here as the Law and the Prophets. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contrasts the behavior expected of his followers with the behavior demanded by the Law. He makes it clear at the outset that his intention is not to get rid of the Law or supersede it. Instead, he is going to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.

What does it mean to fulfill the Law and the Prophets?

Of course, the immediately obvious answer is that the Old Testament contains numerous references to a coming Messiah, so Jesus could be proclaiming himself to be that Messiah. But Jesus doesn’t refer only to prophecy. He refers also to Law, to the rules God gave through Moses for governing human behavior. He claims that he has come to fulfill those rules. What can it mean to fulfill the Law?

One of the repeated themes of the Old Testament is that no one is righteous. Paul summarizes it in Romans 3 where he quotes eight Old Testament passages about the universal depravity of human beings. No one, Paul claims, keeps the Law. Is it because the demands of the Law are too difficult to be kept? Is it because, as many of the poor in Jesus’ day apparently believed, only the wealthy can afford to meet the Law’s demands? Regardless the reasons, the Torah is clear that everyone is guilty of not keeping the Law.

Despite these warnings from the Torah, the Pharisees and religious leaders in Jesus’ day thought of themselves as keeping the Law. They were confident that by keeping the commandments and doing pious acts, they were meeting the requirements of the Law and would be saved. Jesus again and again exposed their hypocrisy and pointed out that they were deluding themselves. In fact, far from being righteous enough on their own merits, they were actually in worse shape than the “sinners” they so despised.

Jesus fulfilled the Law by keeping it, not as the Pharisees kept it by assiduously following the rules to the letter while gratifying their own lust and greed and desire for power. No, he kept it as it was intended: as a guide to loving God and other people. He kept it by doing good. In the end, he fulfilled the Law by meeting its demands for justice in his own body, a blameless, unblemished Lamb sacrificed for human beings’ inability to fulfill the Law on their own. To those who by trusting in him accept his sacrifice, he gives the ability by his Spirit to see him as he is and become like him, doing good wherever they go.

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complacency hell jesus life punishment religion sin spiritual life theology

Fear of Hell

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Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.

Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man”

To me this sounds more like hell than home, but that could be because I grew up in a loving home where I almost always found comfort and security. Still, for those who believe in heaven and hell, heaven has entrance requirements; hell has none. Hell accepts all comers. Maybe that’s why Jesus said the way to hell was broad, but the way to heaven narrow. It takes no special effort to get into hell. It’s the landfill of the universe. You end up there unless you take care not to.

The word Jesus used for hell, Gehenna, was a valley near Jerusalem where certain Israelite Kings had practiced child sacrifice, burning their own sons on altars to Molech or even to Yahweh. It was associated with fire, judgment, death, and apostasy. Several times in the synoptic gospels, Jesus commented on the extravagance of efforts one needs to make to avoid Gehenna. If your hand or foot or eye hinders you from entering the kingdom of God, cut it off and discard it. It is better to enter life maimed than to be whole and cast into hell. He may have had a more literal meaning in mind given how imminent the destruction of Jerusalem was and how strongly he urged his followers to avoid lingering in the city when invading forces were marching against it. It could be that Christian doctrines about hell rest on instructions to first-century followers to flee the coming destruction and to join not the resistance.

Jesus spoke of that destruction as a judgment upon the Jews. After all, their long-awaited Messiah came to them, but they did not recognize him, and instead trumped up charges of blasphemy against him and had him executed by the Romans. In the same vein, he inveighed against the Pharisees and religious leaders, implying that they were children of hell and that they could not escape being condemned to hell for they’re utter indifference toward the suffering of their own people. None of the passages that mention hell represent it as a place of eternal damnation for sinners. They represent it as a place of judgment for the complacent and self-righteous.

Of course, there are other passages that do not mention hell but nevertheless imply judgment or condemnation. There are the parables of the ten virgins, the talents, and the sheep and goats—all found in Matthew 25. Each of these ends with some person or groups of persons left out. The door keeper tells the five foolish virgins he doesn’t know them. The master takes the money from the wicked servant and gives it to the servant who has ten bags, then he tells those standing by to throw out the worthless servant into the darkness where there will be frustrated anger and regret. Those sorted to the Lord’s left go away to eternal punishment. Even in these stories, however, Jesus seems to be critical of complacency rather than sin. The five foolish virgins are not fornicators. The servant with the one bag of gold is no thief. The people sorted to the left claim not to have neglected their duty; they just never saw it.

It’s interesting to think about hell as punishment. We use punishment in two ways: as discipline and as retribution. As discipline, the aim is instruction. As retribution the aim is justice. Hell, conceived as a place of eternal punishment, can only be retributive. It has no disciplinary purpose. Surely an eternity of torment cannot be justified for just going with the flow! What is so bad about complacency, about not making an effort?

I think the disciplinary aspect of punishment offers a clue. We punish children so they will not experience the natural consequences of their bad actions. For example, the natural consequence of playing with fire is getting burned. We do not want our children to get burned or to burn someone else, so we punish them for playing with fire. The punishment is not as bad as the natural consequence. It is light and temporary and meant to instruct.

What if hell is the natural consequence of complacency? What if going with the flow is something only dead fish do? What if spiritual laziness leads to spiritual death as surely as physical laziness leads to poverty? Maybe God, rather than actively chastising the damned forever—and without reason, merely stops impeding their headlong rush toward self-destruction. Maybe, as C. S. Lewis once noted, there really are only two kinds of people in the world: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God in the end says, “Thy will be done.”

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