Monday, August 11, 2014

You Shall Be With Me In Paradise

Christ's words in Luke 23:43 are commonly believed to support the position that Christ and the malefactor to whom he spoke went to "paradise" on the day they died (or rather, on the day their bodies died, as most Christians see it). By "paradise," most Christians believe Jesus was referring to either heaven (where God sits enthroned) or to a mysterious region in the "netherworld" where the "disembodied souls" of the righteous dead were thought to temporarily reside. But is this interpretation required by the original inspired text? Or are Christ's words consistent with the position that the dead are actually dead (and must be restored by God to a living existence in order to consciously go or be anywhere)?

In the Concordant Literal New Testament we read:

Luke 23

39 Now one of the hanged malefactors blasphemed Him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!"
40 Yet answering, the other one, rebuking him, averred, "Yet you are not fearing God, seeing that you are in the same judgment!
41 And we, indeed, justly, for we are getting back the deserts of what we commit, yet this One commits nothing amiss."
42 And he said to Jesus, "Be reminded of me, Lord, whenever Thou mayest be coming in Thy kingdom."
43 And Jesus said to him, "Verily, to you am I saying today, with Me shall you be in paradise."

The original Greek manuscripts had no punctuation, and so commas must be provided by the translators. In the case of this verse, the placement of the comma is just as much a matter of interpretation as it is of grammar, so the fact that most English translations place the comma after "truth" (or "you") instead of "today (or "this day") simply shows the preferred interpretation of the translators, and not how the Greek has to be translated in order to be grammatically correct. The Greek adverb translated "today" or "this day" (sēmeron) may qualify either legô ("I am saying") or esomai ("shall you be").

Because either is grammatically possible, the question of where the comma should be placed when translating the verse into English must be determined by other considerations. Christ's words, "Truly, I say to you, this day you shall be with me in paradise," may just as legitimately be constructed as, "Truly, I say to you this day, you shall be with me in paradise." By placing the comma after "today" instead of "you," the fulfillment of Christ's promise need not be confined to the day in which they died, but may be understood as having its fulfillment at some time in the distant future. This translation is not only grammatically valid, but it makes Christ's words consistent with what the rest of Scripture teaches (as well as what Christ himself said) concerning the state of the dead.

In addition to the Concordant Version, J.B. Rotherham (in his Emphasized Bible) translates Luke 23:43 as follows: "Verily, I say unto thee this day: With me, shalt thou be in Paradise." It's interesting that Rotherham included a footnote giving the more traditional reading, even though he disagreed with it. Of course, he didn't have as much to lose as the people working on modern translation committees (who likely would not have been on the committees in the first place were it not for their commitment to "historic evangelical orthodoxy"). While holding a belief that the dead are actually dead (and thus functionally inactive and unconscious) would not be considered as serious an error as, say, a rejection of the doctrine of hell or of the trinity, this belief is still considered inconsistent with "historic evangelical orthodoxy," and would likely disqualify someone from being on the translation committee to begin with.

Objection: "Don't these translations make the word "today" redundant and unnecessary?"

Answer: Not at all. The word "today" (or "this day") was often used by the Hebrew people idiomatically, to introduce a solemn and important statement. According to this Hebrew/Aramaic idiom, "today/this day" often follows a verb of declaration, testification, command or oath, and emphasizes the solemnity and importance of the occasion or moment. Paul used this idiom in Acts 20:26: "Therefore I testify to you this day (semeron) that I am innocent of the blood of all of you" (Acts 20:26). This idiom occurs about 70 times in the Bible, with 42 instances being found in the Book of Deuteronomy alone (see, for example, Deut. 4:26, 39, 40; 5:1; 6:6; 7:11; 8:1, 11, 19; 9:3; 10:13; 11:2, 8, 13, 26, 27, 28, 32; 13:18; 15:5; 19: 9; 26:3, 16, 18; 27:1, 4, 10; 28:1, 13, 14, 15; 29:12; 30:2, 8, 11, 15, 16, 18, 19; 32:46; cf. Josh 23:14). Moreover, semeron appears in the LXX (the Greek Old Testament) and the NT 221 times. 

In 170 of these places, the adverb follows the verb it modifies (some examples of this in the NT are Luke 2:11; 5:26; 22:34; Acts 20:26; 22:3; 24:21; 26:29; 2 Cor. 3:14, 15). There are thus 170 witnesses against 51 in favor of placing the comma after "this day." Therefore, it would not only be grammatically legitimate to punctuate Luke 23:43 with the comma after "this day" (so that the adverb follows the verb it modifies) it would also be consistent with how the word semeron is most frequently used in Scripture.

When we take the Hebrew idiom into account it becomes evident that, in response to the malefactor's request (which could very well have been a good-intentioned attempt at humoring a man that he believed to have been sincere and innocent but likely mistaken and/or delusional), Christ was in effect saying in response: "I give you my solemn word that you will be with me in paradise." Christ didn't say when they would be in paradise together - only that they would be.

Moreover, the earliest translation of the Greek New Testament was in the language of Israel's nearest neighbor, Syria. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, which most scholars believe Jesus spoke at least on occasion, if not regularly (for example, Jesus' words on the cross, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani" appear to be the Aramaic form of the words of Psalm 22:1). So it is a reasonable inference that in his reply to the thief on the cross Jesus spoke in the idiom that was common to both his own Aramaic language as well as the Hebrew language of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is therefore not surprising that in one of the oldest Syriac manuscripts of the Gospels (the 5th century Curetonian Syriac) the Hebrew/Aramaic idiom was evidently recognized by the translator. In this ancient manuscript the verse is translated so that the adverb "this day" clearly qualifies the verb "say" (and not "will be"): "Amen say I to you today that with me you will be in the garden of Eden."[1] 

By introducing the word "that" the translator removed the need for any punctuation to determine the sense of Jesus' words. And while it's true that the Syriac Sinaitic (the only other Syriac translation of the 4 Gospels that is thought to predate the standard Syriac version, the Peshitta) has the more common translation, the Curetonian Syriac (which, like the Syriac Sinaitic, predates all the English versions by hundreds of years) is still a very ancient witness for this interpretation of Luke 23:43.

Objection: "Nowhere else is Christ's frequently-used formula, "Truly I say to you" modified by an adverb of time. Thus, semeron should be understood as most likely being part of the expression that follows the "Truly I say to you" formula."

Answer: This objection loses its force when we take into account the well-known Hebrew/Aramaic idiom that uses "today/this day" to emphasize the significance and solemnity of an occasion. And who can deny the profound importance and solemnity of this occasion? This was one of the last things Jesus said before he died, and was possibly the last thing the man being crucified next to him heard anyone say to him before he died. It would therefore make sense for Jesus to speak in such a way on this highly exceptional and solemn occasion.

Objection: "In the instances where this idiom appears in the LXX we do not find the same verb word used in Jesus' "Truly I say to you" formula (legô)."

Answer: While this is true, this argument is undermined by the fact that the Hebrew idiom exhibits some variation in the verbs used; the only constant in the idiom is that the word "today" modifies a verb of declaration, testification, command, oath (etc.). In Luke 23:43 Jesus simply employed an idiom with which he and the thief would have been very familiar, and in a way that was most consistent with how Jesus normally declared things to people (i.e., using the word "legô").

The fact is, there is no reason to reject a certain translation based upon the premise that a particular construction must be found in other texts in order to be valid grammar. And it is not improbable that Jesus might have, on occasion, modified the introductory formula that he used most often during his earthly ministry. This is, in fact, the case in Luke 4:25. Here, Jesus modifies the expression and says "ep alhtheias de legô humin" ("I say to you in truth"). Here, "ep alhtheias" adverbially modifies "legô humin." As a result, it seems reasonable to conclude that the expression is not to be taken as an inviolable grammatical mantra.

[1] F. C. Burkitt, "The Curetonian Version of the Four Gospels," Vol. I, Cambridge, 1904.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man

In my two-part series entitled "Life After Death" (, I advanced the position that the Bible reveals that human beings are (presently) mortal beings who do not - and cannot - exist apart from their physical bodies. According to this position, people are not "immortal souls" who "live on" after death in either heaven or "hell." Instead, death marks the end of all functional activity (or "life"). When a person dies they become a corpse rather than a "disembodied spirit." We do not continue to consciously exist anywhere, and the only way we can experience "life after death" is by being resurrected (i.e., restored to a living, embodied existence).

Despite all that has been said in defense of this position, most Christians remain convinced that there is "life after death" apart from a resurrection. One of the main "proof texts" given in support of their position is the story of the rich man and Lazarus (found in Luke 16:19-31). I don't think I've ever been in or observed a discussion of this particular subject without this particular text being brought up. But does this passage contradict the position I've defended? Was Christ narrating a true story when he spoke of the post-mortem fates of Lazarus and the rich man? While this passage is frequently referred to by Christians as if it were an actual historical account of two men's post-mortem fates, both the context and the content of the story indicate otherwise.

Consider the following: If one were to understand this story literally, and as describing the actual experience of two deceased persons, one would have to conclude that dead people can be "carried" by angels. Now, there would be nothing problematic about this if one believed (as I do) that dead human beings are corpses. But most Christians believe that, at death, human beings are introduced into an immaterial, "disembodied state" of existence. But is it even coherent to speak of a non-physical, disembodied thing being "carried" anywhere by other beings? It would certainly seem that for something to be "carried" somewhere implies that it has mass and corporeality. A literal reading of this story would also entail that non-physical, disembodied persons have eyes, bosoms, fingertips and tongues (and apparently nerves if they can experience the burning sensation that the rich man thought a single drop of water would momentarily alleviate). It would entail that, in spite of the "great gulf" that is said to be between them (which was evidently so wide that no one could cross it), Lazarus and the rich man were close enough to see and converse with each other. And finally, it would entail that Lazarus was literally in "Abraham's bosom," even though Abraham was said to be dead and buried, and sleeping with his ancestors in the grave (Gen 15:15, 25:8), and in need of being restored to a living, embodied existence through the resurrection.

But for the sake of argument, let's assume that this story is to be understood as a literal, historical account of two people's actual, post-mortem experiences. If this is the case, are we to believe that Lazarus is going to stay at "Abraham's side" for all eternity? And is the "rich man" going to be tormented in Hades for all eternity? I doubt this is what any Christian would confess to believing, when pressed. In fact, if anyone were attempting to use this passage to try and prove that Lazarus and the rich man aren't going to be resurrected (but are instead going to remain in Hades for all eternity), most Christians would probably point them to passages in Scripture that teach a universal resurrection and the ultimate destruction of death. But if that's the case, how then does this passage teach "an eternal state of punishment for the lost," as so many Christians understand it? Even if one understands this story literally, the place in which Lazarus is in comfort, and the place in which the rich man is in torment, are only temporary states! Even the "great gulf" will no longer exist after the place in which it exists has ceased to be.

Furthermore, Hades must be a pretty hellish place for those more godly and tender-hearted souls who cannot help but feel compassion for those undergoing such torments, while being unable to do anything to alleviate their suffering! One must wonder whether it is even conceivable that our heavenly Father would "reward" the righteous by confining them to a place where, for ages, they would have to see the agony, smell the smoke, and listen to the shrieks of tormented souls as they begged for relief while being burned in fire (though exactly how an immaterial soul can be burned with fire is indeed a mystery). For those who have been made perfect in agape love and truly love their neighbor as themselves, the very experience of having to watch their neighbors writhe and moan in fiery torment without any hope of relief would itself be a cruel punishment. Fortunately, there is no need to interpret this passage as teaching that this has ever been, or ever will be, the case. When examined more closely, we find that Jesus intended this story to be understood as a parable, not as an actual historical account.

That this story is a parable has been noted by a significant number of mainstream Christian scholars both past and present. For example, Robert W. Yarbrough (an advocate of the traditional doctrine of hell) concedes in his essay, "Jesus on Hell," that it is "widely accepted that this story is parabolic and not intended to furnish a detailed geography of hell." He goes on to refer to the story as a "parable" in the same paragraph (Hell Under Fire, pg. 74). But what is a parable? The word "parable" is a transliteration of the Greek para bole’ ("cast beside"), and means, "a statement parallel to (or "cast beside") its real spiritual significance; a figure of likeness in action." It is essentially a short and simple tale based on familiar things meant to convey a much deeper and profound spiritual truth. As a parable, it is neither literal nor historical; as soon as we try to make a parable literal, it ceases to be a parable, and loses its intended purpose and meaning.

What is the context of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus? This parable is closely connected to the preceding parables Jesus told, beginning in chapter 15. There, Luke tells us the reason for these parables: "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them!" So he told them this parable, saying…" (Luke 15:1-2) Jesus then proceeds to give them a series of parables. Each story pertains to the original situation in Luke 15:1-2, to which Jesus is responding. Notice the transitional word that Jesus uses before the parable of the lost coin, which connects it to the previous parable of the lost sheep (v. 8). Notice also the first verse of chapter 16 ("And He said also unto his disciples..."). The word "also" refers back to all that went before in this series of parables, and now Jesus is continuing with the same train of thought with the fourth parable. Notice also the introduction of the third and fourth parables (cf. Luke 12:16):

"There was a certain man..." (15:11)

"There was a certain rich man..." (16:1)

Just a few verses later (after an interruption by the Pharisees and a few words regarding the Mosaic Law) Jesus concludes with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as a final rebuke toward the self-righteous, money-loving Pharisees. Notice the strikingly similar way Christ begins this final parable in the series:

"There was a certain rich man..." (16:19)

Any objection that this story is not specifically called a parable is invalid, since only 11 of the 26 parables recorded in Luke's gospel are actually named parables by Luke. It may also be objected that Christ uses a person's name ("Lazarus") in this sixth and final parable. However, there is no rule that says a parable can or cannot contain the mention of an identifiable person. A named character is simply not the test of a parable. Seeing that "Lazarus" is the only character who is named, it is likely that this is meant to convey something that is important to the message of the parable.

Being true to the nature of a parable, all of Christ's parables were based on things with which his first-century Jewish audience would have been very familiar, and contained recognizable elements of first-century Jewish society, culture and beliefs. Though the spiritual message of the parable was hidden to those without eyes to see and ears to hear, it was, on the surface, a story to which his audience could immediately relate. This is a significant point to keep in mind when reading this parable. This means that Christ told the story of the rich man and Lazarus with the full understanding that his target audience (i.e., the Pharisees) would have been well acquainted with the details and imagery of the storyIn other words, it was a story to which they could relate, with specific details they would understand and certain happenings with which they would be familiar. But this begs the question: How could the Pharisees have been familiar with a story like this? How is it possible that they could relate the fantastic imagery and details of this story to something of which they were already knowledgeable?


The word "Hades" is used by the authors of both the Septuagint (or LXX) and the NT as the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word "Sheol." As any well-read student of the Bible would know, there is nothing in the Old Testament that speaks of Sheol as containing a place of torment for the wicked, and a place of comfort for the righteous. There's not a single word in the books of the Law and Prophets about Sheol being a place in which disembodied souls reside, or as having two compartments for good and bad persons that are separated by an un-crossable gulf, or about angels whisking righteous people off to a special location called "Abraham's Bosom" after they die.

Far from teaching this idea, Sheol was used by the inspired writers to refer to the grave in a general sense. It is the "domain of the dead," where those whose life has left them reside and eventually return to dust. If what the Old Testament teaches concerning Sheol (Hades) is true, then either (1) Christ was very much mistaken when he told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, or (2) Christ did not intend this parable to convey any truth about what actually happens to people after they die. Since option (1) should be considered out of the question for the believer (and would be for most Christians), it follows that (2) must be correct. Christ simply did not intend this parable to teach what many Christians think it teaches.

Jewish Myths

In light of what the Hebrew Scriptures taught (and especially of what they're silent), how could the Pharisees have been acquainted with the content of this unusual story told by Jesus? Jesus knew the Old Testament scriptures, and never strayed from them. Since he certainly didn’t get the content of the parable from anything in the Old Testament, did he just pull the content out of his head? Did he make it all up? Or did he perhaps reveal something to them that was completely new to their ears? No; the Pharisees knew what Jesus was talking about. They were very familiar with the imagery and subject matter. However, their knowledge was not based on anything in the inspired Scriptures. And that is precisely the reason why this fictional story proves their understanding of the afterlife to be unscriptural and of non-divine origin.

The content of this story was not based on anything found in the Law and the Prophets, but was instead based on the Pharisee's beliefs concerning the afterlife - beliefs which were derived from extra-biblical sources and traditions that had become part of the Jew's religious tradition during the intertestamental period. The New Bible Dictionary says the following: "Probably the story of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:1-9) is a parable which makes use of current Jewish thinking and is not intended to teach anything about the state of the dead" (New Bible Dictionary, Eschatology, page 388). In The Gospel of St. Luke (Penguin Books, p. 191), G.B. Caird comments that Jesus was "using a familiar folk-tale." Caird adds, "the story of the wicked rich man and the pious poor man, whose fortunes were reversed in the afterlife, seems to have come originally from Egypt, and was popular among Jewish teachers." Concerning this story, F.W. Farrar declares: "It is inconceivable to ground the proof of an important theological doctrine on a passage which confessedly abounds in Jewish metaphor" (Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 2, p. 1038).

Similarly, the Scotch Presbyterian commentator, James Macknight (1721-1800), has this to say on the parable:

"It must be acknowledged that our Lord's descriptions are not drawn from the writings of the Old Testament, but have a remarkable affinity to the descriptions which the pagan poets have given. They represent the abodes of the blessed as lying contiguous to the region of the damned, and separated only by a great impassable gulf in such sort that the ghosts could talk to one another from the opposite banks. If from these resemblances it is thought the parable is formed on the pagan mythology, it will not at all follow that our Lord approved of what the common people thought or spoke concerning these matters, agreeably to the notions of Greeks. In parables, provided the doctrines inculcated are strictly true, the terms in which they are inculcated may be such as are most familiar to the people, and the images made use of are such as they are best acquainted with."

J.L. Mosheim, in his legendary Church History (Century 1, pt. 1, chap. 2), describes the permeation among the Jews of these fables during the period between the testaments:

"Errors of a very pernicious kind, had infested the whole body of the people. There prevailed among them several absurd and superstitious notions concerning the divine nature, invisible powers, magic, &c., which they had partly brought with them from the Babylonian captivity, and partly derived from the Egyptians, Syrians, and Arabians who lived in their neighborhood. The ancestors of those Jews who lived in the time of our Savior had brought from Chaldaea and the neighboring countries many extravagant and idle fancies which were utterly unknown to the original founders of the nation. The conquest of Asia by Alexander the Great was also an event from which we may date a new accession of errors to the Jewish system, since, in consequence of that revolution, the manners and opinions of the Greeks began to spread among the Jews. Beside this, in their voyages to Egypt and Phoenicia, they brought home, not only the wealth of these corrupt and superstitious nations, but also their pernicious errors and idle fables, which were imperceptibly blended with their own religious doctrines."

Quoting the Evangelical Alliance (UK) report on Hell, author and theologian Robin Parry makes the same point:

"From a literary critical perspective, most now recognize that it is based on a well-established Near Eastern folk tale, of which several versions has been produced in Jewish Literature at the time, and in which the central concerns were avarice, stewardship and pride rather than the mechanics of heaven and hell." (The Evangelical Universalist, 146)

The truth is that the parable incorporates Jewish views of the afterlife which likely developed sometime after the Babylonian captivity. Concerning the beliefs of the Pharisees in Jesus' day, the Jewish historian Josephus states: "They believe that souls have an immortal rigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or according to vice in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison (eirgmon aidion), but that the former shall have power to revive and live again" (D. Ant. 18.14-15). Here we find that the Pharisees believed the subterranean place of punishment for wicked immortal souls was an "eternal (aidion) prison." And in another place (B. War 2.162-64), Josephus states that the Pharisees "say that all souls are imperishable, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment" (the the words translated "eternal punishment" are aidios timoria, and should not be confused with the words kolasin aionios in Matthew 25:46, which are also rendered "eternal punishment" in a number of English translations).

In contrast to the doctrine of the Pharisees, Josephus states that the Sadducees "take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades."

From these quotes it is evident that the rewards and punishments which the Pharisees thought would be meted out to people in the afterlife would take place in Hades. So evidently the Pharisees to whom Christ spoke would have heard Jesus as saying that the rich man went to a place (Hades) that they believed was an "eternal prison" where he would undergo "eternal punishment."

Jesus was neither teaching the Pharisees something new, nor endorsing as truth what they already believed. He was simply incorporating their own unbiblical beliefs (which they'd derived from pagans) into a fictional parable directed against them. Even if the Pharisees to whom he spoke continued to believe that the wicked were punished in Sheol/Hades, we have no reason to think Christ would have attempted to correct their mistaken view. It simply wasn't Christ's mission to personally and directly correct the superstitions and erroneous beliefs to which the Jewish people held in the first century. It's also unlikely that the disciples would have understood Christ to have been putting his "stamp of approval" on the Pharisaic opinions on which the parable was based, especially once they realized it was a parable directed against the very persons who believed and taught such things. By formulating a parable out of their own erroneous beliefs about the intermediate state, Christ more forcefully rebuked his unbelieving opponents. It is as if Christ said to the Pharisees, "Since you believe the dead are rewarded and punished in Hades (contrary to what is said in your own inspired Scriptures), then allow me to introduce the testimony of your beloved patriarch, Abraham, to condemn you according to your own false beliefs." And that is just what he does when he represents the rich man as pleading with Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers to warn them of this "place of torment" (vv. 27-28). Christ has Abraham respond to this request with the following words: "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them."

What's especially ironic is that Moses and the Prophets don't utter one syllable about Sheol/Hades being a "place of torment" for the wicked. The idea that anyone in Sheol/Hades was in a state of torment would have been foreign to anyone whose belief regarding man's postmortem state was based on what God had revealed to the Jewish nation up until this point. Aside from a few figurative references to those in Sheol, it would've been thought to be a state of utter unconsciousness (and even in the non-literal references to Sheol, the dead are not said to be in torment).[2]The rich man seems to recognize this fact, for he decides this plan of action wouldn't be effective (v. 30). When the rich man declares that his brothers will repent if someone goes to them from the dead, Abraham responds, "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead." And of course, when the real Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus later during his ministry, that's exactly what happened. Rather than this miracle leading to their repentance, the unbelieving Jews were strengthened in their resolve to have Jesus put to death (John 11:45-53).

Some may take exception to the idea that Jesus would use a false idea as a basis for his teaching, since they think it would mean Christ was sanctioning the false teaching. However, the truth or falsity of the story in a parable is irrelevant; it is the lesson conveyed through the story that is the intended point (for example, the Old Testament parable of Jotham in Judges 9:7-15 does not require that the trees of the forest literally entered into political discussion and finally invited a bramble to be king). Moreover, Christ sometimes made reference to false beliefs without any disclaimer that they were false. For example, in Matthew 12:27, Jesus could make reference to "Beelzebub" (literally "lord of the flies") for the sake of argument, without committing himself to a belief that this pagan god of Ekron (2 Kings 1:2) had a literal, personal existence. Nor did Jesus always make it a point to correct erroneous beliefs held to by his contemporaries, even when it was his own disciples who held to the mistaken belief (such as the idea that someone could sin and bring judgment upon themselves before they were even born; see John 9:1-3). Furthermore, the nature of all parody is to demonstrate faulty thinking on the part of the persons parodied. Having become more familiar with what the Pharisees likely believed in Jesus' day, we can reasonably conclude that it is the beliefs which are being criticized just as much as those who held to and taught them.


The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable. This means it is a non-historical, fictional story that conveys a deeper truth.[1] To read this parable as if it's teaching us anything about what happens when people die is to cease to read it as a parable. It would be no different than reading a morality tale featuring talking, anthropomorphic animals existing in a fantasy land and thinking that the author is trying to tell us something about what animals are actually like. Christ told this parable without the slightest suggestion that he believed that Hades was a place of torment for deceased, disembodied persons. The fact that Christ made use of a certain Jewish belief (a belief which likely originated during the intertestamental period of Israel's history and was a part of the Pharisee's oral tradition in Christ's day) for the purpose of a satirical parable directed against the Pharisees is no evidence that Christ sanctioned as true the unbiblical beliefs on which the parable was based. Jesus wasn't telling this fictional story to teach the Pharisees doctrine. By framing a parable based on the Pharisees' own beliefs regarding the intermediate state of the dead, Jesus condemned not only their covetousness and self-righteousness, but also their unwillingness to "hear Moses and the Prophets." For with regards to the state of the dead, there is nowhere in "Moses and the Prophets" that the beliefs of the Pharisees are taught or revealed.

[1] The following is an example of how this parable may be understood: Jesus casts the self-righteous, money-loving religious elite of Israel (represented by the scribes and Pharisees) into the role of the "rich man," and the degraded and spiritually poor "tax collectors and 'sinners'" into the role of "Lazarus." The rich man's descent into torment - and Lazarus' welcome into "Abraham's Bosom" - speaks of God's covenantal rejection of those who thought of themselves as heirs of God's covenant blessings while self-righteously excluding others and rejecting their own Messiah, and his gracious acceptance of those who, in full recognition of their sinfulness, humbly embraced Jesus as the Messiah and received the gospel of the kingdom with joy (i.e., those whom Jesus said were entering into the kingdom of God before the scribes and Pharisees – Matt 21:31-32). It was the former group who would ultimately prove themselves unworthy of entrance into the much-desired "age to come," while the latter group will be graciously welcomed into Christ's kingdom.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Critical Look at the Christian Doctrine of "Free Will"

"Free will is the modus operandi of destiny." C.S. Lewis 

It would not be an exaggeration to say that, for most Christians (especially those outside of the "Reformed" branch of Christianity), the doctrine of free will is vitally important to their theological system. Whether they realize it or not, this doctrine is one of the primary pillars upholding their particular religious worldview. Without this doctrinal pillar in place, their entire religious worldview would begin to collapse. Because of its great importance to so many Christians - as well as its bearing on the conflicting doctrines of eternal torment and universal salvation - I believe it behooves us to carefully examine it. 

Before I begin, however, a few words of clarification are in order. Among philosophers, the kind of free will in which most Christians (and many non-Christians) believe is known as "libertarian free will" or "libertarian freedom." This rather redundant-sounding terminology is intended to distinguish the kind of "freedom" in view from notions of freedom that are thought to be compatible with "determinism" (a philosophical position which holds that everything that happens is caused by a prior event or state of affairs, and thus has a sufficient, antecedent cause and an understandable reason for its taking place). 

In contrast to the freedom that is thought to be compatible with determinism (i.e., "compatibilistic freedom"), libertarian freedom is understood to be "indeterminist" in nature, meaning that the outcome of a future choice that is free in a libertarian sense is thought to be a probability rather than a certainty. To most people, the commonly-used expression "free will" basically means what philosophers mean when they speak of "libertarian free will." Thus, I will be using the expressions "free will" and "libertarian free will" interchangeably. 

I will also, on occasion, refer to the theological position held to by Christians who affirm free will as both the "Free Will" position as well as the "Arminian" position. The theological position known as "Arminianism" is named after 16th century Dutch theologian, Jacob Arminius, who, in contrast with the French theologian and Protestant Reformer, John Calvin (a near-contemporary of Arminius), affirmed that human beings have the free will to either believe the gospel or not, and taught that God elected people for eternal salvation on the basis of his foreknowledge of their faith. Because of his (and especially his followers') opposition to the theology of Calvin, any Christian viewpoint which affirms and emphasizes free will is commonly labelled as a form of "Arminianism."[1] 

What is "Free Will?" 

After coming to reject the Reformed theology I'd grown up believing, I began exploring the non-Calvinistic branches of Protestant Christianity, hoping to discover and know the true God, and to quench my thirst for truth. I was thrilled by the idea that such a large number of Christians believed that God really did love everyone, and that Christ had died to save everyone. Having already become convinced that God truly desired that everyone be saved - and that he had sent Christ for this purpose - I decided to make the "Arminian" theological camp my home. At the time, I didn't know of any other option; I had come to believe that if one wasn't a Calvinist or an Arminian, then one was either just uninformed, inconsistent or confused. 

Despite my eagerness to get as far away from Reformed theology as I could, I never quite felt at home in the free will-affirming camp of evangelical Christianity. While I found the emphasis that Arminian theologians tended to put on the universal love and mercy of God refreshing, I often found their interpretations of certain verses and passages (e.g., those which I'd formerly viewed as affirming God's complete sovereignty over all people and their destinies) somewhat strained and contrived. I also found the concept of free will extremely puzzling, and always thought I was missing something whenever I would read free will-affirming Christian theologians attempt to explain and justify their belief in it. 

For instance, in his book Most Moved Mover(2001), the late Clark Pinnock wrote (p. 127), 

What I call 'real freedom' is also called libertarian or contra-causal freedom. It views a free action as one in which a person is free to perform an action or refrain from performing it and is not completely determined in the matter by prior forces - nature, nurture or even God. Libertarian freedom recognizes the power of contrary choice. One acts freely in a situation if, and only if, one could have done otherwise. Free choices are choices that are not causally determined by conditions preceding them. It is the freedom of self-determination, in which the various motives and influences informing the choice are not the sufficient cause of the choice itself. The person makes the choice in a self-determined way. A person has options and there are different factors influencing us in deciding among them but the decision one takes involves making one of the reasons one's own, which is anything but random. 

In this passage we read of "contra-causal freedom" and of "choices that are not causally determined by conditions preceding them." And then Pinnock goes on to say that such a choice is "anything but random." But is this really the case? In response to Pinnock, one could ask, "Why does a person choose one reason over another when 'making one of the reasons one's own'"? According to Pinnock, the answer to this question cannot be because of any given factor or influence. It cannot be because of the circumstances in which the person happens to be at the time they're making their decision. According to the Arminian position, two people could, hypothetically, share the same exact motives and have the same exact influences operating on them when faced with the same exact decision, and yet they could still use their "libertarian freedom" to make two completely different decisions

Is there any rational explanation that could be given for why two different decisions could be reached in this hypothetical situation that does not involve pure randomness? I can't think of one. To say that a person has the "power of contrary choice" means that, given the same exact influences operating on them, and the same exact motives being present, a person could have made a different choice than the one that was actually made. But what, other than a purely random and inexplicable event taking place in a person's mind, could possibly account for a different outcome resulting? 

Consider the conversion of the apostle Paul. All Christians will agree that, as a result of his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul became a changed man. Instead of continuing in hard-hearted rebellion against Christ, he became humbly and joyfully submitted to him. But let's say that Paul's decision to submit to Christ was "free" in the sense that Arminian Christians believe our choice to believe the gospel is "free." If that were the case, then it would mean that Paul could have chosen otherwise. That is, in an identical state of affairs and with all things being equal (i.e., with the same exact influences being present and operating on Paul), a different outcome could have resulted

Think of it this way: if God were to "rewind the tape" of Paul's life and allow him to choose again, he could've made a completely different choice, given the same exact circumstances. But how could such a change in outcome be explained and accounted for? If nothing new enters into the equation immediately prior to Paul's decision, then this theoretical change in outcomes would be completely arbitrary and random. The only thing that could account for a different outcome taking place would be a purely random event occurring in Paul's mind. Thus, it follows that, if the choice Paul actually made was "free" in this sense, then it, too, was a completely arbitrary and random event. 

In Why I Am Not A Calvinist(2004), Arminian philosopher Jerry Walls writes (p. 103): 

The common experience of deliberation assumes that our choices are undetermined. When we deliberate, we not only weigh the various factors involved, we also weight them. That is, we decide how important different considerations are in relation to one another. These factors do not have a pre-assigned weight that everyone must accept. Part of deliberation is sifting through these factors and deciding how much they matter to us. All of this assumes that it really is up to us how we will decide.

In response to Walls, one could very well ask, "But why does a person 'weight' one factor more or less than another factor when coming to reach a decision?" When "sifting through the factors," why would a person decide that one factor means more to them than another if they have no "pre-assigned weight"? According to his view, Walls might answer, "Because I chose to weight this factor more than the others." But in response to this, one could then ask, "But why did you choose to weight one factor more than the others?" And I believe the answer to this question exposes what the doctrine of free will really amounts to: things being determined by random, irrational and inexplicable events. For what non-circular answer could Walls give that is consistent with his position except, "I chose to just because." 

It would be circular (or else lead to an infinite regress) to respond with, "I chose to because I chose to." That's no different than saying, "It happened because it happened." According to his position, the real "reason" for his choice would ultimately have to be, "just because." But to say that something happens or occurs "just because" is simply to say that there is no reason for its occurring, and that it has no explanation. It's just a random, irrational and inexplicable event. And that is what a "free" choice (in the libertarian sense) would essentially be: a random, irrational and inexplicable event. 

In his book Making Sense of Your Freedom (1994), philosopher James W. Felt writes (p. 81): 

After the antecedent conditions have all been considered, as well as the temperament and motives of the agent, there is still room for freedom inasmuch as there is no strict necessity that one of the possible outcomes rather than another must emerge. Yet there is an outcome. A choice is made; a decision is reached. The mind in its drive toward intelligibility asks, "What is the ultimate reason why this rather than that outcome has resulted?" (Why did Lee, for instance, decide to go ahead and attack entrenched Union forces at Gettysburg?) If the act is free, then the only possible answer - admittedly still perplexing, yet perfectly adequate - is this: the sole, ultimate reason, given a variety of enabling motives, is the acting person, the agent. There is no possibility of looking farther, but then there is also no need. Given all the requisite circumstances, it is the agent who is explanation for the act and its outcome, in such a way as not to stand in need of further explanation. 

Here Felt asserts that the sole, ultimate reason why one outcome results rather than another is the person making the decision. In view of his answer to the question he poses, let's imagine a teenage girl asking her mother, "Why did you and dad get divorced?" According to Felt, a "perfectly adequate" (yet "still perplexing") answer to this legitimate question would be, "Your dad and I. We are the only explanation, and there is no need for any other." But what exactly does this mean? According to the libertarian free will position, it would mean that their decision to get divorced has no rational explanation. It "just happened," inexplicably. 

When we keep in mind that a choice that is free in the libertarian sense is essentially an inexplicable, random event, we can conclude that what Felt calls the "acting person, the agent" is (at least, at the time a decision is made) akin to a "random number generator," with the only difference being that what's being randomly generated are choices rather than numbers. Thus, when Felt says that "there is no possibility of looking farther" for an explanation, he is correct. If the choices that we make are being randomly generated by us (as the free will position entails), then the only possible explanation for any "free" choice is the "random choice generator" itself - i.e., "the acting person, the agent." 

Does Love and Moral Accountability Require Free Will? 

It is often argued by free will-affirming Christians that without free will human beings couldn't love, and that it is for this reason that God gave us free will. Christian author and theologian Dr. Gregory Boyd sums up this position in the first thesis of his "Warfare Worldview" as follows: 

By definition, love must be freely chosen. We are able to program computers to obey our commands perfectly, but we don’t consider them "loving." They lack the capacity for love because they have no choice but to do what we program them to do. Humans would be in the same category as computers if God merely "programmed" our actions. In order for creatures to be loving, they must have the freedom to do otherwise (to not love).[2] 

By "freely chosen," Dr. Boyd does not merely mean that a person loves because their heart is such that this is what they truly want and desire to do, and is (for this reason) what they choose to do. Rather, the kind of "freedom" that Dr. Boyd has in mind is libertarian freedom - i.e., the "power of contrary choice." That is, Dr. Boyd believes that, whenever something is "freely chosen," it means that a different outcome could have been effected given the same exact circumstances in which the choice was made, and given the same exact influences the person was experiencing at the time. 

In other words, if my decision to propose to my wife was "freely chosen" in the sense of which Dr. Boyd speaks, then I could've chosen not to propose to her. If God were to "rewind the tape" of my life, I could've made a different decision if my decision was "free" in the libertarian sense. But if everything leading up to my choice (i.e., the various influences and factors involved in the circumstances) remained unchanged - if everything else remained the same - then the only possible, non-deterministic explanation for a different outcome being realized is that a truly random event took place in my mind and changed the outcome. So if love truly "requires freedom" (i.e., libertarian freedom), then it would mean that what love actually requires is the occurrence of an inexplicable, random and irrational event. Thus, for Dr. Boyd, our love for one another is actually a result of pure chance. 

In addition to asserting that love requires free will, it is commonly claimed by Christians that free will is the only basis for which people could be held morally accountable by God for their choices and actions. But as we've seen, a choice that is free in the libertarian sense is actually a completely random event - and how such bizarre randomness can possibly be a prerequisite for a person's being held accountable for their actions is just as inexplicable as "free will" itself. 

Ironically, then, it is the Free Will position which, by ultimately reducing our choices to random, irrational and inexplicable events, eliminates any meaningful way of accounting for moral accountability. To quote philosopher J.J.C. Smart, "Indeterminism does not confer freedom on us: I would feel that my freedom was impaired if I thought that a quantum mechanical trigger in my brain might cause me to leap into the garden and eat a slug."

Is the God of Free Will Christianity Loving? 

According to Arminian Christians, the faith by which believers are saved and avoid being "eternally lost" is the result of the exercise of their free will. Thus, they can blame the unbeliever - rather than God - for the lack of faith that (they believe) will ultimately send them to hell if they die in their unbelief. For most Christians, it is mankind's God-given free will that "lets God off the hook," so to speak, from being responsible for people dying in unbelief, and for the supposed eternal consequences of their "free" decision. However, as we've seen, the kind of free will in which most Christians believe is akin to a random number generator. It is a mysterious power by which choices are randomly and inexplicably generated by a person. A choice that is free in the libertarian sense is essentially an irrational event that has no explanation for its taking place. Whether one outcome results rather than another would, if the free will position were true, be a matter of pure chance. But remarkably, it is on just such a chance event that most Christians believe God has suspended the eternal destinies of all of his human and angelic creatures. 

For most Christians, that which will determine where and how people will "spend eternity" is how they exercise their free will during this relatively brief lifetime (with some lifetimes being much briefer than others)! At some point - either sometime before death, or at the point of death - the "window of opportunity" closes, and there is no "second chance" to make the right decision and be saved.[3] And according to those Christians who believe this to be how things really are, whose ultimate decision was it that this would be so? Who is responsible for the existence of such a bizarre and nightmarish state of affairs in which the eternal destinies of billions of created beings is essentially left to chance? Answer: the God who chose to give his creatures free will, of course! Thus, the "loving" and "wise" God in whom most Christians profess to believe would, if he existed, actually be a depraved being who has decided to let chance determine the eternal destinies of his human (and angelic) creations. 

If this seems too hard to believe, simply ask any Christian who believes in free will the following question: "Why did you make the eternally-significant decision to believe the gospel, while so many others don't?" If the free will-believing Christian is being consistent, he or she will not be able to answer in any of the following ways: 

"God gave me the desire to know him, but he has not yet given this desire to everyone."

"God drew me to Christ, and Christ made God known to me, but he has not yet drawn all." 

"God opened my heart so that I could believe the truth, but he hasn't yet opened the hearts of everyone." 

"God granted me repentance so that I could come to a knowledge of the truth, but he has not yet granted this repentance to all." 

"God gave me the faith to believe the truth, but he has not given faith to all." 

What do all of these responses have in common? Answer: They all acknowledge God as the ultimate explanation and reason for why someone is a believer rather than an unbeliever. And this, I believe, is consistent with what Scripture teaches. According to Scripture, God is completely sovereign over all that takes place. We read, for example, that God "declares the end from the beginning" and accomplishes whatever he purposes (Isaiah 46:9-11). Paul sums up the extent of God's sovereignty when he declares that God works "all things according to the counsel of his will" (Eph. 1:11).[4] 

In view of God's sovereignty, it is evident that, apart from his graciously bringing about faith in our hearts, no one would believe. It is ultimately because of God's sovereign will and purpose that anyone becomes a believer or remains an unbeliever in this life. The faith that distinguishes the believer from the unbeliever is not something that the believer originates by his own "free will," and for which he or she can take any credit. According to Christ, no one knows God except those to whom Christ has chosen to reveal him (Mt. 11:25-27), no one knows the "mysteries of the kingdom" or can receive Christ's teaching except those to whom it has been granted (Mt. 13:11), and no one can come to him unless they have been drawn [lit. "dragged"] by the Father (John 6:44). We cannot receive even one thing unless it has been given to us from heaven (John 3:27). God alone is ultimately responsible for whether one receives the truth or not. 

According to Paul, a person becomes a believer rather than an unbeliever because God chose them before the foundation (or "disruption") of the world and predestined them for adoption as sons through Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:4). Those who believe were chosen beforehand as the "firstfruits" to be saved (Rom 8:28-30; 2 Thess. 2:13). It was granted to them by God that they should believe (Phil 1:29), and thus God graciously assigned to them a measure of faith (Rom 12:3). In order for one to come to a knowledge of the truth and escape the snare of the devil, they must be granted repentance by God (2 Tim. 2:25-26; cf. Acts 11:18). Paul understood that it was God's grace - not his own innate goodness or willingness - that was the source of his faith and love (1 Tim 1:13-14). When a person believes and becomes a "new creation in Christ," this is no less the sovereign work of God than the creation of the heavens and the earth. It is all God's doing (2 Cor. 5:17-18). 

Although God certainly works through the instrumentality of human beings in reconciling people to himself, it is God alone who "gives the growth" (1 Cor. 3:5-9). There is nothing that we contribute to our salvation that does not ultimately have its source in God. Apart from God's Spirit at work in one's mind and heart, one would have no interest in spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14). Our hearts must be opened by God just so that we will pay attention to what is being said when the gospel is proclaimed to us (Acts 16:14), and those who hear and believe the truth do so only because they were appointed by God for this (Acts 13:48). No one becomes a believer or remains an unbeliever apart from the divinely-controlled circumstances that God is using to accomplish his redemptive purpose in the world. 

Now, let's return to the question we posed earlier to the free-will believing Christian: "Why did you make the eternally-significant decision to believe the gospel, while so many others don't?" If they are consistent, they will have to answer something like this: "Because I chose to, and they didn't." In other words, "I chose to because I chose to, and they didn't because they didn't." And if you then ask them, "But why did you choose to, when so many others don't?" they will most likely either shrug their shoulders or say something along the lines of, "I don't know why; I just did, and they just didn't." 

And they would be correct. For if their faith (and someone else's unbelief) was a result of a choice that was free in the libertarian sense, then the choice was a completely random event that simply can't be explained or accounted for. The fact that they chose one way (to believe the gospel), while someone else chose another (to remain in unbelief), would be due to chance alone. And so it is chance which their "loving God" decided would determine who will, and who won't be, eternally saved. 

But it gets worse. Not only has the God of Arminian Christianity left the eternal destiny of all people up to pure chance, he (according to most Arminian Christians) foreknew before the creation of the world who would and who wouldn't choose to believe. In other words, the God of Arminian Christianity - before he ever created anything - knew full well that billions of his creatures (both human and angelic) would fail to exercise their "free will" properly, and yet he callously brought them into existence and allowed them to "freely" damn themselves for all eternity.

Consider the following argument: 

1. The God of Arminian Christianity foreknew before creation how every created person would exercise their free will in response to his grace if he were to create them.

2. The God of Arminian Christianity foreknew that some (most) created persons would fail to meet the requirement(s) of salvation if he were to create them.

3. The God of Arminian Christianity created - and will forever sustain in existence - those whom he foreknew would never be saved, and who will spend eternity in hell.

4. Any being who would do this is depraved and malevolent.

 The true God is not depraved and malevolent, but perfectly good.

6. The "God" of Arminian Christianity is not the true God.

But let's be generous and say (as some Arminians do) that God does not have foreknowledge of any choices that are free in the libertarian sense, and thus did not have certain knowledge of who would and who wouldn't be eternally saved. This position within the Arminian camp is known today as "Open Theism." But with this view, we still have a God who has suspended the eternal destinies of his creatures on pure chance by giving them "free will" and making them the arbiters of their eternal destiny. And there is absolutely nothing "loving" about this. Only a depraved God - a "God" who was completely indifferent towards the best interests of his creatures - could gamble with their eternal destinies in such a way. 

For God to actualize such a state of affairs would be entirely inconsistent with the best interests and ultimate well-being of his creatures, since he would have no way of knowing which of his creatures (if any) would exercise their free will in such a way that they would become eternally happy rather than eternally miserable. A truly good and benevolent God would never actualize a state of affairs having a possible outcome that is inconsistent with the best interests and ultimate well-being of his creatures. 

Consider now the following argument against the Open Theism position: 

1. Before creating, the God of Open Theism would've either expected that all would be saved or he wouldn't have had this expectation. 

2. If it
 was his expectation before creation that all would be finally saved, and all are not finally saved, then he would be a fool for expecting this outcome, and would not be worthy of our trust and confidence.[5] 

3. If it
 wasn't his expectation before creation that all would be finally saved, then the God of Open Theism would be malevolent for bringing persons into existence whom he had no expectation of being saved. 

4. The true and living God is neither a fool nor malevolent, but is worthy of our full trust and confidence.

5. The "God" of Open Theism is not the true and living God.


So what's the final verdict? In view of the above arguments, I cannot help but conclude that the "God" of Arminian Christianity - no matter how attractively he may be presented by those who profess (and desire) to love and trust him - is just as much a fraud as the "God" of Reformed Christianity. Although he is said to love everyone and to genuinely desire that everyone be saved, the reality is that he is no more loving (and no more sane!) than the depraved, tyrannical being whom the Calvinists believe has predestined a select few for an eternity in heaven while the vast majority of his human creatures are doomed to an eternity in a place of eternal conscious torment. The "God" of Arminian Christianity (who so callously gambles with his creature's eternal destinies and lets chance decide their fate) is neither Christ's God nor Paul's God, and he should not be our God, either.

[1] It should be noted, however, that the free will-affirming theology of Jacob Arminius did not in any way originate with him. Most of the post-apostolic "early church fathers" of the first few centuries - along with most Catholics throughout church history - strongly believed that all human beings have the "free will" to do or believe whatever is necessary for salvation. See, for example, the well-researched appendix in God's Strategy in Human History, by Roger Forster and Paul Marston (the appendix can be read online here: 

The most well-known exception to this widely-held belief in human free will within the post-apostolic church was Augustine of Hippo, who (in famous opposition to the free will-affirming theology of the British monk, Pelagius) believed that it was God - rather than man - who decided who would be eternally saved and who wouldn't. If Augustine's position sounds familiar, it's because John Calvin was heavily influenced by the works of Augustine, and the "Reformed" theological position that bears his name is really "Augustinianism," repackaged.

[3] It's telling that one of the most common responses by Christians to the doctrine of universal salvation is that there is no "second chance" after death.

[4] If by "free will" one meant the ability to make choices that are not constrained by circumstances external to oneself, then we could say that God is the only being who has free will. For it is God who is the Author and Creator of all the circumstances in which creatures find themselves. However, even God's freedom to choose is constrained - not by circumstances external to himself, but by his own nature. We are told that "God is love" (1 Jn. 4:8). Assuming this refers to his divine nature or essence, we can conclude that all God does is constrained by a perfectly loving disposition. This would explain why God cannot lie (Titus 1:2), since lying would be inconsistent with God's loving nature. 

[5] As my friend Phillip Garrison noted after reading an earlier draft of this article, the God of Open Theism would, in this case, be like the foolish man of Christ's parable who decided to build a tower but, after having already laid the foundation, realized he did not have enough money to finish what he started (Luke 14:28-30). Such a "God" would be deserving of mockery and pity rather than our devotion and worship.