Wednesday, March 29, 2017

An Analysis of Paul’s Olive Tree Parable

Romans 11:13-24 (CLNT)
13 Now to you am I saying, to the nations, in as much as, indeed, then, I am the apostle of the nations, I am glorifying my dispensation,
14 if somehow I should be provoking those of my flesh to jealousy and should be saving some of them.
15 For if their casting away is the conciliation of the world, what will the taking back be if not life from among the dead?
16 Now if the firstfruit is holy, the kneading is also; and if the root is holy, the boughs are also.
17 Now if some of the boughs are broken out, yet you, being a wild olive, are grafted among them, and became a joint participant of the root and fatness of the olive,
18 be not vaunting over the boughs. Yet if you are vaunting, you are not bearing the root, but the root you.
19 You will be declaring, then, "Boughs are broken out that I may be grafted in."
20 Ideally! By unbelief are they broken out, yet you stand in faith. Be not haughty, but fear.
21 For if God spares not the natural boughs, neither will He be sparing you!
22 Perceive, then, the kindness and severity of God! On those, indeed, who are falling, severity, yet on you, God's kindness, if you should be persisting in the kindness: else you also will be hewn out.
23 Now they also, if they should not be persisting in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.
24 For if you were hewn out of an olive wild by nature, and, beside nature, are grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much rather shall these, who are in accord with nature, be grafted into their own olive tree!

Paul evidently didn’t see it necessary to explicitly interpret each of the details of his olive tree parable for his readers. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that a number of different interpretations have been suggested and defended over the centuries by students of scripture. While this fact shouldn’t dissuade us from trying to come to as accurate of an understanding of Paul’s parable as we can, it does cast some doubt on the possibility that any definitive and conclusive exposition on this subject will ever be put forth. Nevertheless, I hope my own contribution to the ongoing scriptural discussion of what, exactly, Paul intended to convey through this intriguing parable will be found helpful by some readers.

The Natural and Wild Olive Boughs

I’ll begin my analysis of Paul’s parable by considering the identity of the “natural boughs,” since they seem to be the least controversial element of the parable (we’ll consider the identity of the “wild” olive bough at the end of this section). Quite simply, the “natural boughs” of the parabolic olive tree collectively represent the nation of Israel, as a whole. This can be inferred from the fact that the two general categories into which the natural boughs are divided in the parable (i.e., those that are said to have been “broken out”/“hewn out” of the olive, and those that were allowed to remain in the tree) represent the two general categories of Israelites referred to by Paul earlier in this chapter. These two categories of Israelites represented by the “natural boughs” of the olive tree collectively constitute “all Israel.”

In Romans 11:7-8 Paul referred to the unbelieving Israelites of his day (who were in the majority) as simply “Israel,” and contrasted this larger group with another, smaller group of Israelites whom he referred to as “the remnant” and “the chosen.” The “rest” (i.e., the majority of Israelites constituting the nation of Israel) are said to have been “calloused” and given “a spirit of stupor, eyes not observing, and ears not to be hearing, till this very day” (from the context, it is evident that this “calloused” condition was one in which an Israelite had been made insensitive and unreceptive to the truth concerning Jesus’ identity as the Christ and the Son of God). That both the “calloused” majority and the “un-calloused” remnant together constitute “all Israel” is evident from Romans 11:25-26 (where we’re told that “callousness, in part, on Israel has come,” and that – after the time of callousness on part of Israel has ended - “all Israel shall be saved”).

So, the “natural boughs” that were “broken out”/“hewn out” of the “cultivated olive tree” are to be understood as representing the majority of those Israelites constituting the nation of Israel (and what could be referred to as “non-remnant Israel”). Again, it is this category of Israelites that is referred to by Paul in Rom. 11:7 as simply, “Israel” (cf. Rom. 9:27, 31; 10:19, 21; 11:2). Moreover, it should be noted that Paul was not saying that individual boughs represent, or are to be equated with, individual persons (that is, we aren’t to understand one “bough” as representing Peter, another as representing John, another as representing James, etc.). Rather, the broken-off natural boughs collectively represent a single category of Israelites (the majority of Israelites constituting Israel, who were in unbelief), while the natural boughs that remained in the tree collectively represent the chosen, believing remnant. The broken-out natural boughs represent the “part” of Israel that was calloused (“non-remnant Israel”), while the natural boughs that remain in the olive represent the “part” of Israel that wasn’t calloused (“remnant Israel”). Thus, figuratively speaking, the nation of Israel is what “branched out” from the cultivated olive tree.

That all of the natural boughs of the tree collectively represent the nation of Israel (and are themselves divided up into two separate categories of boughs) is a key point to keep in mind, because Paul does something rather unexpected with regards to how he represents the “nations” in this parable. It is, perhaps, the unexpected nature of this representation that has caused most readers to overlook it (indeed, it’s something I overlooked myself, up until relatively recently). Rather than representing the nations as multiple boughs from an “olive wild by nature,” Paul represents the nations, collectively, as a single wild olive bough that had been grafted in among the remaining natural boughs. This is evidenced by Paul’s consistent use of the second person singular “you” (or “thou”) rather than the second person plural “you” when addressing the “wild olive branch” (beginning with v. 17 and continuing to v. 24).

Paul’s use of the singular “you” is, unfortunately, not as obvious in most English translations (including the CLNT), but the Greek is unambiguous here. Although Paul could’ve easily used the second person plural “you” when addressing the wild olive bough (making “it” multiple boughs), he didn’t. Instead, the wild olive bough is always referred to as “you” (singular) while the multiple, hewn-out natural boughs are always “they” (plural). Thus, when Paul wrote, “yet you, being a wild olive,” he wasn’t addressing any one individual gentile - whether actual or hypothetical - but rather the single wild olive bough that represents the nations as an entire people-group distinct from the nation of Israel (we’ll return to this important point when we consider what it means for the wild olive bough to “stand in faith,” and for it to be “hewn out” of the cultivated olive tree due to its not “persisting in God’s kindness”).

The Root of the Olive

Thus far we’ve seen that Paul’s olive tree parable involves a “cultivated olive tree” from which natural boughs were hewn out, and a single “wild olive bough” that has been grafted in among the remaining natural boughs. The natural boughs that were hewn out of the olive tree can be understood as representing calloused, non-remnant Israel, the remaining natural boughs represent the chosen Jewish remnant, and the engrafted wild olive bough represents the nations, collectively.

Now, in v. 17, Paul wrote that the wild olive had become “joint participant of the root and fatness of the olive.” This brings us to the subject of the “root” (which has proven to be more controversial among students of scripture than the identity of the boughs). Before I suggest what the “root” likely represents, it should be noted that, when Paul referred to the “root” of this figurative olive tree, he may have had in mind both the part of the tree that is underground as well as what we’d call the “trunk” of the tree from which the branches grow, and into which shoots could be grafted (see Isaiah 53:2 for an example of this “broader” meaning of “root”). In any case, Paul only explicitly mentions the boughs, the root and the “fatness” of the tree, so these are the only elements of the parable that we need concern ourselves with.

Although Paul doesn’t explicitly tell us who (or what) is represented by the “root” of the “cultivated olive,” I think that the most likely and contextually-informed view is that it represents the patriarchs of Israel (i.e., Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). In v. 16, Paul introduces his parable with two illustrations, both of which can be understood as representing the relationship that the “fathers” of Israel have to the Jewish nation. The first illustration is that of a whole batch of dough (or “kneading”) being consecrated, or made holy, by virtue of the “firstfruit” of the grain harvest being offered to God (Num. 15:17-21). In the second illustration (which leads directly into the olive tree parable), the boughs of a tree are said to be holy (set apart or consecrated) by virtue of their having a holy root. This imagery seems to correspond well with the relationship that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have to the nation of Israel. Having existed prior to the emergence of the nation of Israel but also inseparably connected to it as its “holy source,” the fathers of Israel are good candidates for the “root” in Paul’s parable.

The broader context of the parable (chapters nine through eleven) seems to support this view. Paul had previously made reference to the “fathers” of Israel in Romans 9:5 and even referred to each of the patriarchs by name in verses 6-13. Most significant, however, is what Paul went on to write in Romans 11:28 concerning those Israelites who constituted the calloused, “non-remnant” part of the Jewish nation: “As to the evangel, indeed, they are enemies because of you, yet, as to choice, they are beloved because of the fathers.” This strongly suggests that the “root” of the “natural branches” in Paul’s parable represents the fathers of Israel. Just as the hewn-out natural branches remain “holy” (or set apart by God) by virtue of their having grown from a tree with a holy root, so the unbelieving, non-remnant part of Israel remains “beloved because of the fathers.”

Notice, however, that the same thing is not said concerning the nations or of the “wild olive” bough that represents them. The nations are not said to be “beloved because of the fathers” (since they do not bear the same relationship to the fathers as does the nation of Israel), nor is the wild olive bough said to be “holy” (either before or after being grafted into the cultivated olive tree). And unlike the “natural boughs” that were hewn out, there is no indication that the wild olive bough will ever be grafted back into the cultivated olive tree after it has been hewn out (it’s being grafted into the cultivated olive tree is said to be “beside nature,” since it doesn’t naturally belong to the tree, as do the “natural boughs”). Although it benefits from the “root and fatness” of the cultivated olive while grafted in, it does not bear the same “natural” relationship to the root as do the other boughs.

This is a key point to keep in mind, for there are some who have mistakenly believed and tried to argue that the grafting of the wild olive bough into the cultivated olive tree represents gentiles becoming Israelites. However, a wild olive bough would not lose its identity and cease to be a wild olive bough simply by virtue of being grafted into a cultivated olive tree; although it would begin receiving sap (and thus life) from the tree into which it was grafted, its inherent “wild” nature would remain unchanged. It would continue to have the same nature as the wild olive tree from which it was cut (just as the “natural boughs” would remain such even after being hewn out of “their own olive tree”), and it would continue producing the same kind of leaves and fruit that it would’ve produced had it never been hewn out of its parent wild olive tree.

Given this fact, Paul shouldn’t be understood as implying that some or all of the gentiles represented by the wild olive bough had somehow become Israelites. But if that’s not the case, then what truth is being figuratively represented by the wild olive bough’s being grafted into the cultivated olive tree? This question brings us to the subject of the “fatness” of the olive.

The Fatness of the Olive

If the “root” is best understood as representing the fathers of Israel (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), then a natural interpretation of the “fatness” of the root (i.e., the sap by which the branches are nourished) is that it represents the covenant promises that God made to the fathers. “Fatness” implies blessing, and, of course, the promises made to the fathers involved certain blessings.

If this is the meaning of the “fatness” of the root, then we can see the following picture begin to emerge: the nations, collectively, had been placed into a position in which they were given direct access to (and began receiving blessing by virtue of) the promises made by God to the patriarchs. Just as the wild olive bough is said to have been grafted in “among” the remaining natural boughs to become “joint participant of the root and fatness of the olive” (v. 17), so the nations, as a people-group distinct from Israel, had been placed in the privileged position of being able to receive blessing that is associated with the promises made to the fathers just as directly as the believing Jewish remnant.

This means that the promise-based blessing made available to the nations has to be understood in such a way that, although closely associated with the fathers of Israel, it could be received by the nations apart from the mediation of Israel (the natural boughs). That is, it would have to be a blessing that the nations, collectively, were able to receive apart from its having to come to them through the nation of Israel. This is in stark contrast with what we find prophesied concerning Israel’s role and status during the eon to come. According to Israel’s “prophetic program,” the holy nation will function as a “royal priesthood” in relation to the rest of the nations, and will be the channel through which the nations receive spiritual blessing. As was the case before and during Christ’s earthly ministry, salvation will, after Israel has been restored to her place of national privilege, be “of the Jews” (John 4:22). Thus, the state of affairs represented in Paul’s olive tree parable (in which the nations are able to receive blessing apart from the mediation of Israel) is not something that any Israelite - whether unbelieving or believing – would’ve expected to take place.

But what blessing(s) did Paul have in mind as being made available to the nations apart from Israel’s mediation? An examination of the promises made to the patriarchs reveals the nature of the promise-based blessings which are available to the covenant descendents of Abraham. But did Paul have anything to say concerning a blessing (or blessings) that (1) had become available to the nations in his day apart from the mediation of Israel, and which (2) was/were “contained” within the promises that God made to the fathers of Israel? Yes, he did. In fact, Paul had a lot to say about this blessing earlier in Romans, as well as in his letter to the saints in Galatia. In Galatians 3:5-9 and 13-14, we read:

“He, then, who is supplying you with the spirit, and operating works of power among you-did you get the spirit by works of law or by the hearing of faith, according as Abraham believes God, and it is reckoned to him for righteousness? Know, consequently, that those of faith, these are sons of Abraham. Now the scripture, perceiving before that God is justifying the nations by faith, brings before an evangel to Abraham, that ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So, that those of faith are being blessed together with believing Abraham…Christ reclaims us from the curse of the law, becoming a curse for our sakes, for it is written, Accursed is everyone hanging on a pole, that the blessing of Abraham may be coming to the nations in Christ Jesus, that we may be obtaining the promise of the spirit through faith.

In light of what Paul wrote in the above passage, I submit that the promise-based blessing made available to the nations in Paul’s day is simply justification by faith (which, of course, is one of the key doctrines taught in Paul’s letter to the saints in Rome; see Romans 3-5). Paul clearly viewed the justification of the nations by faith as the fulfillment of the promise that “in [Abraham] all the nations” would “be blessed” (Gen. 12:3; 18:18), and this explains the connection that the nations have to the patriarchs of Israel and the promises that God made to them.

Significantly, the eventual fulfillment of this promise made to Abraham involving “all the nations” is said to have been secured by Abraham’s obedience to God (Gen. 22:18), and in accord with this fact, Paul wrote that the wild olive bough was not “bearing the root,” but rather the root was bearing it (Rom. 11:18). Moreover, this promise concerning “all the nations” being blessed was not only repeated to Abraham but was further confirmed to both Isaac (Gen. 26:4) and Jacob (Gen. 28:14).

That Paul had justification by faith in mind as the promised-based blessing made available to the nations, collectively, is further suggested by Romans 11:11. There, Paul wrote that in Israel’s “offense” is “salvation to the nations” and that Israel’s “offense” and “discomfiture” is “the world’s riches” and “the nation’s riches.” The blessing of justification by faith undoubtedly involves “salvation” (and could appropriately be described as “riches” for the nations). Justification is, in a sense, the first phase of the salvation of those who believe Paul’s evangel and become members of the body of Christ. It is what “qualifies” those who are called to an eonian allotment “in the heavens” and “among the celestials” for this allotment.

“The Conciliation of the World”

Another piece of evidence suggesting that Paul had justification by faith in view as the promise-based blessing available to the nations is in Romans 11:15, where we read that the “casting away” of the non-remnant part of Israel is “the conciliation of the world.” It’s evident that Paul closely associated justification and conciliation (Rom. 5:6-11), and it’s likely that he understood them to be inseparably linked (either as causally related or as being two different ways of referring to the same status or condition). The same people who are justified - and thus no longer under condemnation (Rom. 8:1) - are those whose offenses are no longer being reckoned to them by God (2 Cor. 5:19). [1]

In 2 Cor. 5:18-20 Paul wrote, “Yet all is of God, Who conciliates us to Himself through Christ, and is giving us the dispensation of the conciliation, how that God was in Christ, conciliating the world to Himself, not reckoning their offenses to them, and placing in us the word of the conciliation. For Christ, then, are we ambassadors, as of God entreating through us. We are beseeching for Christ's sake, ‘Be conciliated to God!’” Then, immediately after this emphasis on “conciliation,” we read, “For the One not knowing sin, He makes to be a sin offering for our sakes that we may be becoming God’s righteousness in Him (v. 21). “Becoming God’s righteousness in Him” is an undeniable reference to justification, and the “for” at the beginning of this verse suggests that justification is either the basis for one’s conciliation to God, or that conciliation and justification are simply two different ways of referring to the same status of those who are in Christ (i.e., to be conciliated to God is to become God’s righteousness in Christ).

With regards to human-to-human relationships, “conciliation” or “reconciliation” involves a change from relational estrangement to relational union and harmony (1 Cor. 7:11). With regards to our relationship with God, being conciliated (or reconciled) to God involves God's no longer reckoning our “offenses” to us (2 Cor. 5:19). Like justification, conciliation/reconciliation is an objective fact. It is not merely subjective in nature (that is, being conciliated to God does not merely mean that a person feels “at peace” with God, or that one feels that one’s offenses aren’t being reckoned to them by God). Being conciliated to God is a state of affairs that is true irrespective of how one happens to be feeling - or thinking - at any given moment.[2]

Whether we understand justification and being conciliated to God as having a cause-and-effect relationship or as being “two sides of the same coin,” it seems clear that Paul did not see conciliation/reconciliation as something that could exist between God and human beings apart from their being justified. Conciliation implies justification, and vice-versa. Thus, when Paul referred to the “conciliation of the world” in Romans 11:15, it can be inferred that this state of affairs involved (and involves) people among the nations being justified by faith in Paul’s evangel.

“Neither will He be sparing you!”

Paul seemed to believe that the removal of the wild olive bough from the cultivated olive tree is just as inevitable as was the removal of the natural boughs, for in vv. 20-22 he wrote: “By unbelief are they broken out, yet you stand in faith. Be not haughty, but fear. For if God spares not the natural boughs, neither will He be sparing you!” Since unbelief is said to be the cause of, or occasion for, the natural boughs being hewn out, some have mistakenly understood Paul’s warning here as being addressed to the believers to whom he wrote. However, this cannot be; Paul could never have entertained the possibility that the justification of anyone in the body of Christ might be nullified by unbelief, bringing them into a state of condemnation.

According to Paul in Romans 8:39, there is nothing that is able to separate those in the body of Christ from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord - and in the immediate context of this verse, the “love of God” involves our being justified by God and our receiving a future allotment (vv. 31-32; cf. 8:15-17). Just as all who were designated beforehand by God are inevitably called, so all who are justified will be glorified (v. 30). If our justification could possibly be undone by a lapse into unbelief, then this would not be the case; since it is, our justification (and eonian salvation) is secure. But if Paul didn’t have individual believers in view in Rom. 11:20-22, what did he mean here? Who is it that “stands in faith,” and who was Paul warning to “be not haughty,” but to “fear?”

It must be kept in mind that Paul is not addressing any actual, individual gentile(s) in Romans 11:16-24; rather, he’s addressing a personified wild olive bough that represents the nations, collectively. It is this personified wild olive bough that Paul represents as declaring, “Boughs are broken out that I may be grafted in,” and it is this same personified wild olive bough that Paul warns not to be haughty, but to fear (and subsequently warns of being “hewn out” of the cultivated olive tree in v. 22). The truth that Paul is conveying through this imaginary dialogue between himself and a wild olive bough is, I believe, this: although the nations, collectively, are presently in a privileged position (having direct access to the promise-based blessing referred to in Galatians 3, apart from the mediation of Israel), this shouldn’t be understood as a permanent, unchanging state of affairs. As noted at the beginning of this section, Paul wrote as if the future removal of the wild olive bough from the cultivated olive tree was just as certain as the previous removal of some of the natural boughs.

By representing the nations, collectively, as a single wild olive bough, Paul made their inclusion in the cultivated olive tree an “all-or-nothing” state of affairs. Thus, it is simply not possible for any among the nations to be “hewn out of the olive tree” while others remain “grafted in.” Being represented by a single wild olive bough, the nations are either in the cultivated olive tree as a single unit, or they aren’t in it at all. And since the present standing of the nations depends on something that the majority of gentiles don’t even have (i.e., faith), the nations are in a pretty precarious position. It’s no wonder that Paul told the wild olive bough that it needed to “fear!”

The faith in which the wild olive bough is “standing” is the faith of those among the nations who have been called through Paul’s evangel of the uncircumcision (or who will be called through Paul’s evangel), and who are thus “of faith” and are “being blessed together with believing Abraham.” The fact that there remains some among the nations who have been designated beforehand by God to be called, justified and glorified is what is keeping the entire “wild olive bough” grafted into the tree rather than suffering God’s “severity” and being “hewn out.” Thus, the “wild olive bough” holds its present privileged position in the cultivated olive tree by virtue of the fact that some gentiles are believing - or will be believing - Paul’s evangel and being justified by faith. But this state of affairs is not permanent; its end has always been “right around the corner,” so to speak.

“…Until the complement of the nations may be entering”

In 2 Corinthians 6:2 Paul declared, “Lo! Now is a most acceptable era! Lo! Now is a day of salvation!” In this verse Paul is referring to the “era” and (figurative) “day” in which the “word of conciliation” is going forth to the nations, and when those among the nations may still be conciliated to God (and, by implication, justified) by faith in Paul’s “evangel of the uncircumcision.” It is this un-prophesied time period of unknown duration that Paul likely had in view in Romans 11:15 when he referred to “the conciliation of the world.” However, Paul himself prophesied that this “acceptable era” and “day of salvation” for the nations is, at some future time, going to end.

When the event prophesied by Paul in 1 Thess. 4:13-17 comes to pass – i.e., the removal of the body of Christ from the earth - the faith by which the wild olive bough remains grafted into the cultivated olive tree will permanently vanish from the earth, and there will no longer be any among the nations who are “of faith” (or who will be “of faith”), in the sense of believing the evangel by which a gentile can be justified and conciliated to God. And when this faith vanishes from among the gentile world, the “wild olive bough” will be “hewn out.” All direct access to the promise-based blessing of justification by faith will end for the nations, and (as was the case before Paul’s administration began), all blessings for the nations will once again have to come through Israel.

We are guaranteed by Paul that, at some point, the unbelieving “boughs which are in accord with nature” will no longer be persisting in unbelief. In Romans 11:25-27, Paul prophesied concerning calloused, non-remnant Israel as follows:

“For I am not willing for you to be ignorant of this secret, brethren, lest you may be passing for prudent among yourselves, that callousness, in part, on Israel has come, until the complement of the nations may be entering. And thus all Israel shall be saved, according as it is written, Arriving out of Zion shall be the Rescuer. He will be turning away irreverence from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them Whenever I should be eliminating their sins.

In other words, the state of affairs that Paul referred to as “callousness, in part, on Israel has come” is to continue until “the complement of the nations may be entering.” What did Paul mean by the “entering” of the “complement of the nations?” By the “complement of the nations” Paul probably had in mind the last of those among the nations who are to believe his evangel and become members of “the ecclesia” that is the “body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:13, 27-28; Eph. 1:23). If that’s the case, then the “entering” of which Paul spoke likely refers to believing gentiles entering into the ecclesia/body of Christ. When the last of those among the nations who have been designated beforehand to become members of the body of Christ believe Paul’s evangel and are justified by faith, the time will come for the removal of the callousness that is “in part, on Israel,” and for the broken-out “natural boughs” to be grafted back into their own, cultivated olive tree.

Just as the grafting in of the wild olive bough depended on the prior removal of some of the natural boughs (Rom. 11:19), so the wild olive bough must be hewn out to “make room” for the natural boughs to be re-grafted. And when the body of Christ has been completed, it will mark the end of this present “acceptable era” and “day of salvation” for the nations, and will allow for the resumption of Israel’s “prophetic program” (when God begins to prepare his people for the return of the One who is going to be restoring the kingdom to Israel). Just as the commencement of the present “acceptable era” involving the nations being conciliated to God depended on the prior “casting away” of Israel (Rom. 11:15), so the “taking back” of Israel will require the termination of God’s present dealings with the nations.

Another strike against the “Acts 28:28” theory

Before concluding this article, I would be remiss not to mention how the content of Paul’s parable undermines the “dispensational” theory commonly referred to as the “Acts 28:28” (or simply “Acts 28”) view. According to this theory, Israel, as a nation, was “set aside” or “placed in abeyance” by God at the end of the “Acts era.” This is believed to have taken place shortly after Paul arrived in Rome as a prisoner. While speaking before a group of prominent Roman Jews in his place of house arrest, Paul (after having spoke “from morning till dusk” only to receive a mixed reaction from his audience) dismissed them by quoting from the prophet Isaiah and then making the following declaration: “Let it be known to you, then, that to the nations was dispatched this salvation of God, and they will hear.”

For proponents of the Acts 28:28 view, the time at which Paul spoke these words marks a “dispensational boundary line” for Israel and the nations that involves Israel being “set aside” by God, and the beginning of salvation being dispatched to the nations that involves a new “hope” or expectation distinct from Israel’s “prophetic program.” In another article I’ve argued that this episode in Paul’s ministry (and the words declared by Paul at this time) in no way support the theory that Acts 28:28 marks any sort of “dispensational boundary line” (whether for Israel, the nations, or both). But with regards to Paul’s olive tree parable, the problem with the Acts 28:28 theory can be stated as follows: According to the Acts 28:28 theory, Israel was not “set aside” by God until after Paul had arrived in Rome. However, according to Paul’s olive tree parable, the “natural boughs” that represent non-remnant Israel (the majority of Israelites) had already been “hewn out” of the olive tree (and the “wild olive” bough representing the nations had already been “grafted in”) before Paul even stepped foot in Rome.

Even if Paul hadn’t made it clear that some of the natural boughs had already been broken out of the olive tree, one could infer this from the fact that the “wild olive” had already been grafted in. As even the original recipients of Paul’s letter would’ve known (or at least those who had some knowledge of the horticultural technique that Paul was alluding to), a graft cannot be made in an olive tree until one or more of the “natural boughs” of the tree have been removed; this is “step one” of the grafting process. But that “some” of the natural boughs had been broken out in order to “make room” for the grafting in of the wild olive bough does not need to be inferred by the reader, for Paul has the wild olive bough make this very point in v. 19: “Boughs are broken out that I may be grafted in.” Notice that Paul does not deny this fact, but rather affirms it (“Ideally!”). Had the “natural boughs” not been “broken out,” the “wild olive” bough could not have been “grafted in.”

Since the breaking out of some of the natural boughs undoubtedly represents what Paul earlier called “their [non-remnant Israel’s] casting away” (v. 15), we can conclude the following: the state of affairs involving the nations that is being figuratively represented in Paul’s olive tree parable was made possible by the “casting away” of non-remnant Israel. And since “the blessing of Abraham” (i.e., justification by faith) began to come to the nations - and the nations began to be conciliated to God – no later than at the time of the events referred to in Acts 13:44-48 (and probably earlier than that, at the conversion of Sergious Paul in Acts 13:6-12), it follows that the “casting away” of non-remnant Israel took place no later than this time.

Thus, with regards to this state of affairs involving Israel, nothing changed after Paul arrived in Rome as a prisoner. “Callousness, in part” continued on Israel, and continues to this day. The only “part” of Israel that was not calloused and “cast away” by God when Paul wrote Romans was the chosen remnant, and, therefore, if any part of Israel was “set aside” by God after Paul arrived in Rome it would have to have been this group of believing Israelites. But there is no indication in Scripture that the events involving Paul that we find recorded in Acts 28:23-28 had any effect at all on those believing Israelites who constituted the remnant in Paul’s day. 

[1]  It’s significant that Paul used the words translated “sin” and “offense” throughout Romans 5:12-21 to describe the same condition or state into which mankind was introduced when Adam sinned, and spoke of justification as the single solution to the problem of mankind’s sins and offenses (this is especially noteworthy given that Paul had just been writing of the justification and conciliation that had been secured by Christ’s death, in Romans 5:9-11). From this it can be inferred that God “deals with” sins and offenses in the same way. For God to resolve man’s “sin” problem is for him to resolve man’s “offense” problem as well.

[2] If being conciliated to God means that God is no longer reckoning a person’s offenses to them, then one could be conciliated to God without feeling “at peace” with him (or without feeling anything positive at all). On the other hand, a person could feel (or think themselves to be) “at peace with God” without actually being at peace with God. Just as it’s possible for a religious person (whether a Christian or someone belonging to some other theistic religion) to feel or believe that they are "righteous" before God without actually being so, so it is possible for a person to feel or believe that God is not reckoning their offenses to them while being mistaken about this (and if they have never believed Paul’s evangel then I believe they would be mistaken about this).

Sunday, March 5, 2017

An articulation and defense of what I believe concerning the “second death” and “lake of fire”

The subject of the “second death” and “lake of fire” (as referred to in Rev. 2:11, 19:20, 20:6, 14, 15 and 21:8) has become something of a “hot topic” lately among some believers (which is largely due to the attention it has received in recent episodes of Martin Zender’s “Zender on Revelation” show). Whilst most within Christendom seem content believing that these verses of scripture (among others) reveal that the "final destiny" of most human beings will involve eternal pain and suffering outside of God's presence (in a place, or state, of either literal or figurative fire), those who've come to understand the character and power of God a little better know that these verses are perfectly consistent with the truth of the ultimate salvation of all and their reconciliation to God. For this latter category of people (among whom I count myself), the debate is not over whether or not the "second death" and "lake of fire" is consistent with the ultimate salvation of all, but rather whether these expressions should be understood literally or figuratively.  

Before the aforementioned controversy broke out, it had been a while since I’d really thought much about the subject, and reflected on why I believe what I do concerning it. But I’m glad it has come to the forefront lately - and in the rather controversial way that it has - as it has forced me to think more about it and reevaluate what I believe concerning it (which is always a good thing). Sometimes reassessing a doctrine leads me to realize that some or all of the reasons I had for coming to believe it were not quite as compelling or as sound as I thought they were at the time I came to believe it. On some occasions, the reassessment of a subject has led to a complete abandonment of what I used to believe concerning it (or at least a radical modification of it). Other times, I may simply find myself “refining” and “tweaking” my position a bit, making whatever adjustments necessary to incorporate other scriptural data that I may not have considered (or adequately understood) previously.

In the case of the subject under consideration, the “reassessment process” has proven to be a matter of “refining” rather than radically changing my view. Having spent some more time studying and reflecting on this subject, I cannot help but continue to believe that a literal interpretation of the expressions “second death” and “lake of fire” is to be preferred to the more figurative and symbolic views that are affirmed or suggested by some. Although there have been several objections raised against the “literal” understanding (by those who find the more plain and straightforward meaning of the expressions “second death” and “lake of fire” problematic), I have yet to come across an objection that, in my view, successfully undermines the literal interpretation. While some of these objections are, I believe, better than others, I think all of them can be met. Before I respond to these objections, however, I will first articulate what I believe concerning the second death and lake of fire (all scripture quotations will be from the Concordant Literal New Testament).

I believe scripture reveals that death is a state or condition into which human beings and animals enter when their life ends, and in which they must remain until God restores them to a living existence (1 Cor. 15:54-55; Heb. 5:7; Acts 2:24). Death is, essentially, a state of lifelessness. And in accord with this straightforward understanding of death – and the consistent application of the “literal if possible” principle of scripture interpretation - I believe that the “second death” is the second state of lifelessness into which everyone not found written in the “scroll of life” will enter after being judged at the “great white throne” (and in which they will remain until death is abolished at the "consummation," as referred to by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:22-28). That is, I believe that the second death is simply the state or condition entered into by all who must die a second time after being judged.

I also believe the “lake of fire” (referred to in Rev. 19:20, 20:10, 14 and 15) should best be understood as a literal place that will exist in the future (if it doesn’t already exist somewhere now). It is a place that will be used for the quick execution (and incineration) of those not found written in the scroll of life, as well as the means by which certain “spiritual forces of wickedness” who will be playing a central role in the drama that is to unfold at the close of this eon will be chastised and incarcerated before the time comes for them to be reconciled to God (Rev. 19:20; 20:10).

We’re told in Rev. 20:5 that “the rest of the dead do not live until the thousand years should be finished,” and in Rev. 20:11-15 it’s revealed what will happen to the “rest of the dead” after they come back to life: they’re judged by God. We’re also told that the second death has no jurisdiction over those having a part in the “former resurrection” (v. 6). Why is this the case? Because, having been part of the former resurrection, they’ve been made immortal, and (therefore) cannot die anymore (Luke 20:34-36). The fact that this is true of those who will have a part in the “former resurrection” suggests that this will not be the case for the “rest of the dead” referred to in Rev. 20:5. That is, they are not raised immortal (or “vivified”) by Christ at this time. And for those in this category of humans who are not found in written in the “scroll of life,” the second death will have “jurisdiction over them.”

Notice the above contrast: if one is not in the scroll of life, the second death has jurisdiction over them. Is it not the case, then, that those written in this “scroll of life” are those who will be able to live on the new earth, eating from the “tree of life” and drinking from the spring of the “water of life?” I’m not sure how this can be denied. And would it not be reasonable to understand the “death” in view as the absence of the “life” in view? Again, I’m not sure how one could (or why one would want to) deny this. If being written in the scroll of life means that one gets to live on the new earth (and partake of that which will enable one to continue to live), then those who will not be found written in the scroll of life are those who will not be able to live on the new earth in the “paradise of God” (see Rev. 2:7; 3:5).

However, with regards to those who aren’t going to be cast into the lake of fire (those who, in Rev. 21:3, are referred to as God’s “peoples,” and with whom God will be “tabernacling”), we read that “death will be no more” (Rev. 21:4). Thus, those who will be found written in the scroll of life will get to live on the new earth in a state of happiness until death, the “last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26), is abolished at the consummation, when all will be vivified in Christ. At this time, the lake of fire (if it still exists) will cease to be the "second death," for there will no longer be anyone in a state of death.

Objection 1: “After being told that those standing before the throne are to be judged in accord with their acts, we’re then told that death and the unseen (hades) were cast into the lake of fire. But how can intangible concepts (“death and the unseen”) be cast into a literal, physical place? If death and hades can’t literally be cast into a literal lake of fire, then wouldn’t this mean that the lake of fire is not a literal place?”

Response: Although I don't doubt the sincerity of those raising this sort of objection, I can’t help but question their consistency. On the one hand, they view as an insurmountable problem the idea that two intangibles (“death and the unseen”) could be described as “cast into” a literal lake of fire. On the other hand, they don’t seem to have any problem at all with literal, physical human persons being “given up” by two intangibles and then figuratively “cast into” a figurative “lake of fire.” In accord with this sort of reasoning, why should we believe that any literal humans are in view in this passage at all? For how could literal, physical human persons exist “in” two intangible concepts? And how can such intangible concepts then “give up” the literal, physical human persons who were “in” them?

The fact is that “death and the unseen” refers to a literal state, or condition, that cannot be said to literally exist apart from something that has died. The first time the expression “death and the unseen” appears in Revelation is in 1:17-18: “And when I perceived Him, I fall at His feet as dead. And He places His right hand on me, saying, "Do not fear! I am the First and the Last, and the Living One: and I became dead, and lo! living am I for the eons of the eons. (Amen!) And I have the keys of death and of the unseen. In saying that he has the “keys of death and of the unseen,” Christ simply meant that he has the authority to release every person who is (or will be) in the condition from which he himself was released when he was resurrected by God (cf. Acts 2:24, 31-32).

Just as death and the unseen are figuratively represented as if they are the sort of things that can be “unlocked” with keys, a similar figure of speech is being used in Rev. 20 when they are described as “giving up” those who are in them. In both cases, a figure of speech is being used to convey a literal truth involving literal human beings who are (or will be) in the literal state or condition of those who have died. When we’re told that “death and the unseen give up the dead in them,” it simply means that those humans who are dead (and thus are in that state of lifelessness and invisibility referred to as “death and the unseen”) are being restored to a living, visible existence, and ceasing to be in the lifeless and unseen state they were formerly in, while dead.

To conclude that the lake of fire can’t be literal just because death and hades are represented as being “cast into” it would be like denying that those over whom death “reigns” are literal, physical people (Romans 5:14, 17, 21; 6:12). Consider the following objection, based on this type of reasoning: “An intangible, impersonal thing like ‘death’ can’t literally reign over literal people, so Paul must have had figurative people in view in these verses.” Do we have to understand either death or those who have died in a non-literal sense (i.e., as signifying something else) in order to understand how death can figuratively be said to “reign” over them? No. What about in Romans 7:11, where we read that sin (after “getting an incentive through the precept”) deluded and killed Paul? According to the reasoning of those who deny the literal nature of the second death/lake of fire, we should deny that Paul was a literal, physical human being (after all, an intangible and impersonal concept like sin can’t literally "get an incentive through the precept" and then delude and kill a literal human being). Numerous other scriptural examples like this could be given, but I hope my point is clear.

When we’re told in Rev. 20:14 that death and the unseen were cast into the lake of fire, death and the unseen are being portrayed as having certain attributes or qualities that they don’t literally possess in order to convey a certain idea (just as they were in the previous verse, where we’re told that they “gave up” the dead who were in them). Instead of denying the literal nature of death and the unseen as being a literal condition/state - or denying the lake of fire as being a literal place - we should instead ask ourselves, “What truth was John trying to convey by means of this figurative imagery?”

Notice, first, what’s not said in Revelation 20:14. We’re not told that, by being cast into the lake of fire, death and the unseen were destroyed, eradicated or expunged from the universe. That is, there’s no indication from the text that the lake of fire should be understood as putting an end to death and the unseen. But if that’s the case, then the implication is that the state or condition that “death and the unseen” refers to is to continue in the lake of fire. It means that casting those persons not written in the scroll of life into the lake of fire will be the means by which they are returned to the lifeless, unseen state they were in before death and the unseen “gave them up” to be judged. Again, “death and the unseen” refers to a state or condition that cannot be said to literally exist apart from that which is dead; thus, for death and the unseen to be cast into the lake of fire means that the human beings who will be cast into the lake of fire will be returning to the condition or state they entered into when they died the first time.

Thus, I submit that, in saying that death and the unseen were cast into the lake of fire, John was simply conveying the idea that the lake of fire is going to become the sole location where death and the unseen (the state of those who are dead) will be found during the final eon. That is, the lake of fire is to become the place where (and the means by which) those who must die a second time will be returning to the same state they were in before they were restored to life to be judged. According to this understanding, the lake of fire is where death and the unseen will be confined until the consummation. This means that, for those on the new earth (those with whom we’re told God will be “tabernacling”), “death will be no more” (Rev. 21:4).

Objection 2: “If the second death involves literal death (a state of lifelessness), why would it be called the “second death” rather than just “death?””

Response: Because it’s the second time that the people who are to be cast into the lake of fire will be entering into (and temporarily remaining in) a state of lifelessness or “death.” The word “second” simply emphasizes the fact that everyone who will be cast into the lake of fire will have already died (and been in a state of death) once before – i.e., at the end of their mortal lifetime on earth. In fact, the first death will have ended for them shortly before the time of judgment that concludes with their second death (since they are restored to life in order to stand before God for the purpose of judgment).

Just as the expression “former resurrection” in Rev. 20:5-6 implies the occurrence of a “latter resurrection” (without suggesting that one resurrection is literal while the other is figurative), so “second death” implies a “first death.” And if the first death is a state that people are in after dying a first time, then the most natural, reasonable and straightforward meaning of “second death” is that it is the state that people will be in after they’ve died a second time. There is simply no good reason to understand the implied “first death” as literal death while understanding the “second death” as something figurative.

Objection 3: “If the second death refers to people literally dying a second time, how can anyone be only “injured” by the second death (Rev. 2:11)?”

Response: Like the English word “injure,” the Greek word translated “injured” in Rev. 2:11 (adikeo) is a general term that refers to any kind or degree of damage or harm (and it should be emphasized that it need not involve the conscious experience of pain or suffering; see Rev. 6:6; 7:2; 9:4). Being a general and relative word, the type or degree of “injury” in view must be determined by the context.

Since, in Rev. 2:11, the “injury” (damage or harm) in view is caused by the “second death,” the exact nature of the “injury” (damage or harm) should be understood accordingly. The “injury” inflicted by the “second death” is, quite simply, death. When we keep in mind that the word “injure” is general and relative (and thus able to refer to any kind or degree of damage or harm, depending on what’s in view), its use in Rev. 2:11 is perfectly consistent with the second death/lake of fire being literal.

Significantly, Paul referred to death as having a “sting,” which is sin (1 Corinthians 15:55-56). The word translated “sting” refers to a pointed instrument. The same word is found in Rev. 9:10 in reference to the supernatural locusts that will be released during the day of the Lord: “And they have tails like scorpions, and stings, and their license is to injure mankind five months with their tails” (the same word for “injure” found in this verse is used in Rev. 2:11). Just as these locusts will have a “sting” (or pointed instrument) with which to injure mankind, so death is represented by Paul as having a “pointed instrument” (sin) by which it “injures” mankind (cf. Rom 6:7; James 1:15). And since to be “injured” by death is simply to die, to be “injured” by the “second death” is simply to die a second time.

Objection 4: “The idea of God casting people into a literal lake of fire is unsettling, to say the least. For God to do this just seems cruel and barbaric - akin to the pagan practice of human sacrifice. How can we possibly reconcile the apparent cruel and merciless act of casting living people into a lake of fire with what we know of the loving and merciful character of our God and Father, or of his Son, Jesus Christ? And who, exactly, is casting them into the lake of fire? Is it Jesus, God, the angels, or believers? Would God tell those who believe in his mercy and grace to cast living humans into a literal lake of fire? “

Response: First, it needs to be kept in mind that we have no idea how, exactly, this event will unfold, since we aren’t given much detail. John provides his readers with just enough information for us to know that at least some who are to be judged at the great white throne will, after being judged, be cast into the lake of fire, and that this (the lake of fire) “is the second death.” We don’t know if anyone will actually be conscious when they’re cast into the lake of fire; for all we know, God will cause them to lose consciousness sometime before they are cast in. We simply don’t know. What we do know is this: however this event is to unfold, God will be the one in control of the details.

With that said, let’s assume for the sake of argument that those cast into the lake of fire do not lose consciousness before being cast into it. Let’s assume, in other words, that those not found written in the scroll of life are (after being judged) brought to the lake “kicking and screaming,” and that they don’t lose consciousness until they die. Even if this is to be the case, I’m not sure how this could be considered somehow “out of character” for God. Was God “cruel” when he drowned nearly every living human being and animal on earth by means of a flood? Was God “cruel” when he destroyed the inhabitants of several cities by means of raining fire and sulfur upon them? Was God “cruel” when, after having already brought nine terrible plagues upon the inhabitants of Egypt, he killed the firstborn of Egypt? Should these (and numerous other) instances of divine judgment involving both human suffering and the termination of human life be considered similar to the pagan practice of human sacrifice?

What about every “natural” disaster and death that has occurred throughout human history? If God “is operating all in accord with the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11), then God is the one who is ultimately and absolutely responsible for each and every death that has already occurred, no matter the circumstances or how young or old the person was when they died. In light of this fact, I’m not sure one could, with any consistency, argue that God’s having certain humans returned to a state of death by means of casting them into a lake of fire is any more “cruel” or “less merciful” than everything God is already responsible for. If every human death that God is already ultimately responsible for shouldn’t be viewed by believers as cruel – or as somehow akin to pagans trying to appease their gods by means of human sacrifice (a blasphemous charge to bring against God, for sure) – then why can’t the same be said for any future termination of human life as well?

Moreover, in contrast with Satan, the wild beast and the false prophet, there is no indication that God will be casting mortal humans into the lake of fire to torment them. With regards to humans, the purpose of the lake of fire is clearly to return them to a state of death (it is, after all, referred to as the “second death”). So we have good reason to believe that, as far as humans go, there won’t be any life or living taking place in this lake. That is, we have no reason to believe that any human cast into the lake of fire will remain alive (even for a few seconds) after being cast into it. Instead, we can reasonably infer that the lake of fire will “do its job” by instantly returning those mortals who are to be cast into it to a state of death (rather than keeping them alive for any length of time).

As far as the question of who will be responsible for casting people into the lake of fire, John doesn’t say. So, although we can speculate, we can’t know for sure. However, we do have scriptural precedent to believe that God’s holy angels/messengers could very well be the ones responsible for this task (there are numerous examples in scripture of angels/messengers functioning as “agents of judgment” on behalf of God; the following are just a few examples: Gen. 19:13; Psalm 78:49; Isaiah 37:36; Acts 12:22-23; Matt. 13:49-50; 2 Thess. 1:7).

Objection 5: “The oncoming eons will be a time when God’s grace is on display (Eph. 2:7). How can a time of such transcendent grace be consistent with anyone’s having to die a second time by being cast into a literal lake of fire?”

Response: Since Ephesians 2:7 is referenced in the objection, let’s take a look at it (I’ll include verses 4-6 for context):

“…yet God, being rich in mercy, because of His vast love with which He loves us (we also being dead to the offenses and the lusts), vivifies us together in Christ (in grace are you saved!) and rouses us together and seats us together among the celestials, in Christ Jesus, that, in the oncoming eons, He should be displaying the transcendent riches of His grace in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

According to Paul, God will be “displaying the transcendent riches of His grace in His kindness to US in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s “us” in this verse is not a reference to every human or celestial being who has ever lived. Rather, Paul’s “us” is a reference to everyone who is to be vivified together in Christ and seated together “among the celestials, in Christ Jesus” – i.e., everyone who is a member of “the ecclesa which is [Christ’s] body, the complement of the One completing the all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). It is, therefore, God’s kindness to those in the body of Christ that will be putting the “transcendent riches of [God’s] grace” on display during the “oncoming eons.”

Does this mean that no one else will be receiving and enjoying, to some degree, God’s kindness and grace during these eons? No. God’s grace will, to a much greater extent than in any past eon, be displayed in his kindness to the inhabitants of the earth during the oncoming eons as well. This will, of course, be especially true for Israel, but even the nations will be the recipients God’s kindness during this time (primarily during the last eon). But what needs to be emphasized is that Paul did not have in mind Israel or humanity in general when he wrote Ephesians 2:7.

Since Paul was not saying that God will be displaying the transcendent riches of his grace in his kindness to ALL (or even most) human beings during the oncoming eons, there is simply no reason to think that Ephesians 2:7 is somehow inconsistent with a plain, straight-forward reading of Revelation 20:15. Death - the “last enemy” - is not to be abolished until the consummation (1 Cor. 15:22-28). Only when all have been vivified in Christ, all have been reconciled to God and God becomes “all in all” will God’s grace become a universally enjoyed attribute.

Objection 6: “We’re told that three beings who are to be cast into the lake of fire (the dragon, the wild beast and the false prophet) are to be ‘tormented day and night for the eons of the eons’ (Rev. 19:20; 20:10). However, in Rev. 22:5 we read that “night shall be no more” during the final eon. How can the lake of fire be in existence (and the torment of these three entities be occurring) during the final eon if there will be no night during this time?”

Response: In Rev. 22:5 John is referring specifically to the conditions within the new Jerusalem (compare with Rev. 21:25). It is for those dwelling in the new Jerusalem that “night [a “daily period of darkness”] shall be no more,” and it is in this city that there shall be “no need of lamplight and sunlight.” John gives us the reason why this will be the case in 22:5: “the Lord God shall be illuminating” everyone who will be living in this city. This fact does not mean that day and night will not continue or be experienced by those living or travelling outside the walls of the city.

Moreover, we’re specifically told just three verses before (Rev. 22:2) that the “log of life” will be “producing twelve fruits, rendering its fruit in accord with each month.” “Each month” implies that day and night will continue during the final eon, since a “month” is a measure of time that corresponds to the period of the moon’s revolution (the CLNT Keyword Concordance defines “month” as “the period from one new moon to the next”). There will simply be no “daily period of darkness” (or “night”) in the new Jerusalem, since it will be continuously illuminated by the light radiating from God himself. However, this doesn’t mean that the rest of the earth (i.e., everywhere outside of the new Jerusalem) will be equally illuminated by God's glory.

Thus, what we read in Rev. 22:5 concerning the duration of the torment of Satan, the wild beast and the false prophet in the lake of fire is perfectly consistent with their torment occurring (and thus the lake of fire existing) during the last eon, and not terminating until the consummation (although it’s quite possible that one or more of these beings will be delivered from their state of torment in the lake of fire before the last eon concludes).