Engaging Shumack: justice and the death penalty

I recently read Richard Shumack’s Fifty Years Without the Death Penalty, Australia Should be Grateful. It’s a well written article, which explores the important relationship between justice and punishment—a topic I’ve been fascinated with for a long time.

Shumack starts by explaining that he isn’t against punishment:

Anyone who has been seriously wronged knows that the deep intuitive longing for justice usually includes the offender “paying for it” in some sense.

I think he’s right that most people rightly long for justice, although it raises questions:

  • What exactly is justice?
  • How do we know when justice has been achieved?
  • How do we untangle the desire for retribution from the desire for revenge?
  • Should we leave retribution to God?

I’m glad he unpacks this further:

Rehabilitation is a noble goal for our justice system, but not in a way that ignores proper retribution.

What do I mean by proper retribution? I’m still not sure in practice. A simple “eye for an eye” is unworkable (how can the offences of a mass murderer carry a proportional punishment?), and fails to allow for clemency. Still, very serious crimes do seem to warrant very serious punishment.

Along those lines, I do think that a reasonable case can be made for the death penalty as a just punishment.

I think rehabilitation is part of God’s plan and so is indeed noble. Unlike God, we can’t see an offender’s heart, and so our rehabilitation sometimes disappoints because it isn’t complete. Rehabilitation and retribution are sometimes seen as mutually exclusive concepts but, as Shumack implies, I think they can overlap. Although getting retribution right in practice is difficult—possibly something only God can do.

Taking a step back, what if the aim of punishment was to help the perpetrator fully comprehend the physical and psychological damage done (e.g. the anxiety resulting from having trust violated)—to deeply understand their actions from the victim’s perspective? Ideally this authentic empathy would be achieved through educative rehabilitation but it seems that sometimes it’s only possible through personal experience… and I think this is where a particular type of retribution may play a role.

Consider someone who is caught vandalising and the types of retribution they could be given:

  1. Jail time or a fine.
  2. Someone vandalises something of equal value that belongs to the offender.
  3. The offender is required to see how the victims are impacted, and then helps to repair it.

I’d suggest that type 3. is the best as it most clearly demonstrates to the offender the damage done, and is the most natural consequence—most closely linked to the offense. However, if the offender still doesn’t fully comprehend, type 2. might be required or at least threatened (there’s room for clemency/mercy as the goal is comprehension, rather than simply trying to “balance the books”). Type 1. is the most disconnected from the offense and should therefore be the last resort.

Possible Path to Ideal Justice

But what about the case of the mass murderer that Shumack mentioned? Sometimes when the offender experiences gracious love from someone or undeserved forgiveness from the victims (e.g. Jesus, Mandela and Eric Lomax), it brings about genuine comprehension, repentance, and transformation of the offender (e.g. a resolute conviction to never kill again, and instead devote their life to helping victims and helping others to not become murderers). Sometimes educating the offender—say, showing them the awful hurt done to the victims—is enough to turn them around.

But what if all these responses have failed? Is there any type of retribution that would spur the offender to change? Perhaps—the attempts by our justice systems have had mixed results to say the least. Would executing an offender give them a fuller understanding of what it felt like for their victims? If it did, is it worth it when it denies the possibility of reconciliation, and possibly the victim’s healing, in this life?

It also seems possible that [the death penalty] could produce some good, even for the offender – by forcing them to face up to the wrong they’ve done, and so opening up redemptive possibilities. This is especially true if you hold that this life is not all there is. The dramatic transformation of Andrew Chan as he faced death in a Balinese prison is a case in point.

I think sometimes good can come from the death penalty, particularly if you believe justice and redemption are matters that go beyond this life. Although, as Shumack points out, any potential good still seems outweighed by other factors. First, the apparent inability of earthly justice systems to avoid executing innocents. Second, if someone on death penalty isn’t pardoned when they’ve had a dramatic transformation (e.g. Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran) the good being done by them is seemingly cut short. Having said that, their influence may continue—like a martyr’s—as Another Day in Paradise demonstrates.

Primarily, however, I am glad [Australia doesn’t have the death penalty] because, in a world of brokenness and violence, I want to be a person who hopes for better, and the death penalty radically diminishes hope …

For Dostoevsky, the death penalty was devastating because it eliminates all hope for continued physical life on earth. This is true, of course, but to me, it seems even more hopeless than that. In the condemned criminal’s situation, I would want to cling not just to life itself, but to the possibility of transformation, redemption, even reconciliation.

I want to be a person who hopes for the better too. While the death penalty diminishes hope of life, transformation, redemption, and reconciliation now, it doesn’t have to diminish the hope that all these will occur in the age to come. Christie Buckingham describes Sukumaran’s amazing hope—even at his execution—that “the better” was in the age to come (reminds me of Paul in Philippians 1:20-24).

Shumack reflects on the last person executed in Australia, Ronald Ryan:

… We cannot know the truth about Ryan’s conscience and whether it [the death sentence] had pricked this repeat offender towards redemption. My hope is that it had – but if not, his hanging certainly eliminated any chance it would.

I hope Ryan’s conscience was pricked during this life but even if it wasn’t, I suspect it probably has been by now as I don’t believe his hanging eliminated repentance and redemption in the age to come.

Often, of course, this sort of hope is against reasonable hope. It would be naive not to recognise the reality that some individuals simply will not be reformed – perhaps cannot be reformed. Still, I hope because I have seen miraculous turnarounds.

I think some individuals refuse to turnaround in this life but I don’t believe (partly because of miraculous turnarounds we’ve already witnessed) anyone is eternally beyond God’s ability to reform.

I have a friend who is a true sociopath. He was jailed for a nearly successful attempt to murder his father with a hammer while studying chemistry to engineer the explosive destruction of thousands. Beyond hope – most others’ and his own – he reluctantly recognised his spiritual poverty through being rudely confronted by the extraordinary love of a cell-mate who responded to his persistent malevolence, not with justice, but with patient humour and grace. This encounter, transcending the will of the justice system, set him on the pathway to deep rehabilitation.

Wow! This type of deep rehabilitation, brought about by love and grace, is what I’m hoping—by God’s grace—will ultimately occur for each and every person.

There’s an important clue in my friend’s story. Hoping for the redemption of the offender, hoping in justice or the justice system, is not enough. In the words of Nelson Mandela (who ought to know), “in the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.”

I heartily agree with that Mandela quote!

It may be in its favour that the death penalty satisfies justice, but if so, that is all it does. What goes against the death penalty is that it cuts off abruptly the possibilities for a wrongdoer to discover the sort of redemption that transcends justice.

I don’t think redemption and justice are at odds but that redemption is an essential step towards ultimate justice—that God’s justice/shalom is so much more than retribution (although retribution might need to occur before redemption sometimes, as I tried to articulate above). Because of this, I don’t think the death penalty alone ever satisfies justice—at most it might be a step towards it.

I am glad, then, to celebrate my half-century with the demise of the death penalty. Not because it is necessarily morally wrong, but because it shows that I live in a society that embraces hope, however remote, and the possibility of a second chance.

Amen brother! We all need second chances!

How, and to whom, do we show hospitality?

Continuing on from the last post, another reason for showing hospitality is that provides a place for God to work:

It’s good to be reminded that the table is a very ordinary place, a place so routine and everyday it’s easily overlooked as a place of ministry. And this business of hospitality that lies at the heart of Christian mission, it’s a very ordinary thing; it’s not rocket science nor is it terribly glamorous. … Most of what you do as a community of hospitality will go unnoticed and unrecognised. At base, hospitality is about providing a space for God’s Spirit to move. Setting a table, cooking a meal, washing the dishes is the ministry of facilitation; providing a context in which people feel loved and welcome and where God’s Spirit can be at work in their lives.
Simon Carey Holt, quoted in Tim Chester’s A Meal with Jesus, p96

This quote also makes the important point that hospitality doesn’t have to be a posh “dinner party”, indeed it’s actually better if it isn’t. Too much formality, pomp, and ceremony can create barriers. For example, rather than chatting with each other, guests and hosts will probably be stressing about what they’re wearing or which utensil they are using!

Hospitality doesn’t have to be complicated, you can simply share some chips at a local park. Having said that, there’s also nothing wrong with showing hospitality via a feast or party. The important thing is to try to create a relaxed, friendly environment where you can talk and connect with people.

Sadly, like many things in life, hospitality has been affected by consumerism. The media and the advertising industry pressure us to provide elaborate and “perfect” three course meals, in an immaculate setting, perhaps with mood lighting, ambient music, etc. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with doing something special but we should always ask ourselves, “Will my guests enjoy this?”, “Will it make them feel comfortable and relaxed?”, “Am I doing it for them, or to make myself look good?”

This is particularly important when you consider that our guests may not be as well off as us. Indeed Jesus encouraged us to show hospitality to people who can’t repay it:

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Luke 14:12-14, NIV

John Newton, author of Amazing Grace, commented on this passage:

One would almost think that Luke 14:12-14 was not considered part of God’s Word, nor has any part of Jesus’ teaching been more neglected by His own people. I do not think it is unlawful to entertain our friends; but if these words do not teach us that it is in some respects our duty to give a preference to the poor, I am at a loss to understand them.
John Newton, The Works of John Newton

When Jesus was around, you would bump into the poor, the crippled, the lame, etc. every time you walked down the street. But where do we find people like this? Where do we find strangers? It’s tricky. Our society tends to hide them from view (our detention of refugees comes to mind).

I listened to a helpful talk Tim Keller on hospitality. He made three suggestions.

  • People within our congregations whom we haven’t shared a meal with.
  • Our neighbours. Literally the people on your street (e.g. a Grand Final BBQ).
  • Volunteer for a charity who shows hospitality (e.g. Loui’s Van).

People enjoying a BBQ

Keller also says:

Gospel Hospitality is welcoming people into your living space, treating strangers as family so that God can turn some of them into friends [i.e. God can use your hospitality in unexpected ways].
Tim Keller, Hospitality and God’s Grace

He also notes that home is a place where you are restored—a harbour—although we need to remember that nobody has the perfect home. It’s about refreshing and recharging people but also that people get loved towards belief, they don’t get argued towards belief. That’s to say, hospitality naturally promotes the Gospel, often more effectively than words alone.

Now I couldn’t do a series on hospitality without looking at the parable of the Good Samaritan. In it Jesus made it clear that hospitality should be inclusive, that it crosses cultural and religious boundaries, and that it should be a priority. In response to the question, “who is my neighbor?”:

Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.

“By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.

“Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.

“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.

The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”
Luke 10:30-37, NLT

I think this parable also shows that we don’t have to show hospitality on our own—we can do it with the help of others (e.g. an innkeeper, or a barista at your favourite coffee shop, or simply asking friends to co-host a meal).

Series summary

  1. Fear of strangers is growing in the West, and we’ve sadly seen politicians capitalising on that a lot recently. To counteract the fear we need to love strangers—show hospitality.
  2. We recalled Jesus’ frequent hospitality: showed that God is down-to-earth, inclusive in grace and love, and is the Messiah; gave people a taste of the New Creation feast (which everyone is invited to).
  3. Hospitality is a very significant biblical theme, from the first chapter, through to the last.
  4. Why do we show hospitality?
    1. God shows hospitality and asks us to imitate it
    2. OT Law & Great Commandment
    3. Lots of OT examples of godly people showing hospitality
    4. NT exhortations
    5. It was central to Christianity for the first 350 years
    6. It is a great way to love God
    7. It provides a place for God to work
    8. It naturally promotes the Gospel, often more effectively than words alone
    9. Because Jesus saw it as a priority
  5. How do we show hospitality?
    1. Not too posh, can be as simple as chips
    2. Conducive to conversation
    3. Aiming to make guests comfortable and relaxed, not to promote yourself
    4. Welcoming people into your space
    5. Treating people as family
    6. With the help of others
  6. Who do we show hospitality to?
    1. Invite the widest range of people you can, prioritising those who can’t reciprocate
    2. People you don’t know at church
    3. Your neighbours on your street
    4. People who come to Loui’s Van
    5. Across cultural, ethnical, religious, and class boundaries

Thanks for reading. I hope you’ve found this introduction to hospitality helpful.

Why should we show hospitality?

2016—the year fear trumped hospitality?

This year, more than any I can remember, politicians have played on people’s fear of strangers to win votes. I can think of examples in the UK, US, and Australia, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this disturbing trend extends to other countries as well. Sure, the refugee crisis, people smuggling, trafficking, and immigration are complex issues but I think it’s fair to say that a lot of recent policies haven’t been motivated by hospitality

However, I don’t think we can just blame political leaders, as governments usually reflect the concerns of their citizens. Therefore, our fear of strangers will be amplified by our representatives. So if we want our governments to show hospitality, we must first show hospitality in our own lives—in our homes, in our churches, wherever we are. And it’s our hospitality that I’m going to focus on today.

Feast

To recap the last posthospitality wasn’t an afterthought for Jesus. No, He spent a lot of time showing and participating in hospitality. It also was a prominent feature in His teaching. So we have to ask, Why? What does it tell us about God’s character? I suggested that:

  • It practically helped people—it showed that God is down-to-earth, caring about even our most basic needs.
  • It demonstrated that God ignores our cultural, racial, and class boundaries—that His grace and love are inclusive.
  • It gave people a taste of God’s promised feast—literally. In the New Creation, God wants everyone to sit down with Him, to share and enjoy good things together. And He proved it to them by sitting down with them and sharing good things.
  • It proved Jesus was the Messiah—God come to rescue humanity—that He was greater than everyone who came before Him, even Moses and Elijah.

Last week I focused on hospitality, from Jesus, right through to the last chapter of the Bible. However, hospitality appears throughout the Bible, starting from the very first chapter. God welcomed humanity into existence, into His space, and out of love, He fed and cared for us—showed us hospitality.

Then God said, “Look! I have given you every seed-bearing plant throughout the earth and all the fruit trees for your food.

Genesis 1:29, NLT (cf Gen 2:8-9)

It’s also in the oldest book in the Bible—Job. Job says:

I have never turned away a stranger but have opened my doors to everyone.

Job 31:32, NLT

So why do we show hospitality? Well, the first reason is, because God’s shows hospitality and asks us to imitate Him. This is explicitly stated in Deuteronomy:

He [God] ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:18-19, NLT

And this isn’t an isolated passage, it’s a theme.

You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 22:21, NLT (See also Exodus 23:9)

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 19:34, NIV

Notice how similar Leviticus is to the Great Commandment:

For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.

Galatians 5:14, HCSB

Is it not [God’s desire] to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Isaiah 58:7, NIV

And the Israelites took hospitality very seriously:

In ancient Israel, hospitality was not merely a question of good manners, but a moral institution … The biblical customs of welcoming the weary traveler and of receiving the stranger in one’s midst … developed into a highly esteemed virtue in Jewish tradition. Biblical law specifically sanctified hospitality toward the ger (“stranger”) who was to be made particularly welcome … Foreign travelers … could count on the custom of hospitality.

Encyclopaedia Judaica, Hospitality

Encyclopaedia Judaica give some examples, but there are many more:

  • Abraham saw the three men [angels] of Mamre “from afar” and he hurried to invite them into his house, ministered to their physical comfort, and served them lavishly (Gen 18).
  • Laban was eager to welcome Abraham’s servant while Rebekah attended to the comfort of his camels (Gen 24:28–32).
  • Jethro the Midianite was particularly disappointed at being deprived of the opportunity to extend hospitality to Moses (Ex 2:20).
  • Manoah did not allow the angel to depart before he had partaken of his hospitality (Judg 13:15).
  • The Shunammite woman had a special room prepared for the prophet Elisha (2Kings 4:8–11).
  • The extreme to which hospitality was taken is shown by the stories of Lot and the old man of Gibeah (Gen. 19:4–8 and Judg. 19:23–24).
  • Rahab harbored Joshua’s two spies (Josh 2).
  • Barzillai extended hospitality to David’s men (2Sam. 17:27–29).

Turning to the New Testament, we see the author of Hebrews appeals to this tradition:

Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!

Hebrews 13:2, NLT

Likewise, the Apostle Peter encourages us to:

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.

1 Peter 4:8-10, ESV

And so does the Apostle Paul:

When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

Romans 12:13, NLT

These examples also show that hospitality should be both an action and an attitude.

For about the first 350 years of Christianity, Christians met almost exclusively in homes. This meant churches naturally revolved around hospitality, specifically sharing a meal. We see an example of this in Acts.

And day by day, attending the temple together [only those in Jerusalem] and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.

Acts 2:46, ESV

So it makes sense that one of the desirable qualities of a leader was to be hospitable.

but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, righteous, holy, self-controlled,

Titus 1:8, HCSB (see also 1Tim 3:2,5:10)

Another reason to show hospitality is because it’s a way to love God. We see this explicitly in the parable of Sheep and the Goats:

“For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“And the King [Jesus] will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!

Matthew 25:35-40, NLT

My next post will look at “How, and to whom, do we show hospitality?”, which happens to also give three more reasons to show hospitality.

What does Jesus’ hospitality tell us about God’s character?

Hospitality is a huge topic in the Bible so I’ve broken it up into two parts. Today I’m going to focus on God’s hospitality, particularly in Jesus, and next week I’m going to focus on imitating that hospitality. Before we can figure out the significance of His hospitality, we need to look at what hospitality is.

Broadly speaking hospitality can be defined as:

Google's definition of hospitality

It’s a nice concept. I think we all like friendly and generous receptions, and to be entertained by hospitable hosts.

It’s also worth looking at the word in the New Testament’s original language (Greek) that gets translated as “hospitality” in English:

philoxenos
philo (love) + xenos (stranger)
love of strangers

It is similar to:

philanthropy, which is the love of humanity

It is the opposite of:

xenophobia
xeno (stranger) + phobia (fear)
fear of strangers

Throughout the Bible there are countless passages that describe and command us to love others, even strangers—frequently this is done by showing hospitality, and hospitality usually involves meals. As Mike Breen says:

If you take the mountains and meals out of the Bible, it’s a very short book. In a world of competing church models and strategies … Jesus employed one practice over all others: sharing a meal with people. … grace, mission and community are never enacted best through programmes and propaganda, but rather through the equality and acceptance experienced at the common table. May our lives never be too busy to live this out.

Mike Breen, 3DM leader and author

This quote is part of Mike’s review of Tim Chester’s book, A Meal with Jesus: Discovering grace, community & mission around the table (AMWJ). I’ve drawn extensively from this book for this post, in some ways this is an appetiser for the book, as I highly recommend reading it.

Chester starts his book by pointing out an interesting connection between the three, “The Son of Man has come to” passages:

The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.

Luke 19:10, HCSB

The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life—a ransom for many.

Mark 10:45, HCSB

The Son of Man has come eating and drinking

Luke 7:34a, HCSB

Part of the way Jesus seeked and served was by eating and drinking—that is by either showing hospitality or participating in it as a guest. And we know Jesus did frequently eat and drink, as He was criticised for doing it.

Then they said to Him, “John’s disciples fast often and say prayers, and those of the Pharisees do the same, but Yours eat and drink.”

Luke 5:33, HCSB

“Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

Luke 7:34b, HCSB

And the Pharisees and scribes were complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!”

Luke 15:2, HCSB

So the first observation I want to make about Jesus’ hospitality is that it shows us that He is down-to-earth. That God values all creation, even common things, like food and drink, indeed hospitality plays an important part in His rescue mission.

Most of the Jews wanted and expected the Son of Man to come with a mighty army to seek and destroy their enemies, not to seek and save them! They were only expecting hospitality for themselves, not sinners and certainly not their enemies.

Jesus’ evangelism and discipleship often involved meals (Chester gives a list from Luke’s Gospel, AMWJ, p14). Jesus:

  • eats with tax collectors and sinners at the home of Levi.
  • is at a meal when He is anointed by the weeping woman.
  • feeds the five thousand in the wilderness.
  • eats at the home of Martha and Mary.
  • is at a meal when He condemns the Pharisees and teachers of the law.
  • is at a meal when He urges people to invite the poor to their meals.
  • invites Himself to dinner with Zacchaeus.
  • eats the Last Supper.
  • has a meal with two disciples in Emmaus after the Resurrection.
  • appears to the disciples in Jerusalem and eats fish with them.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.

Robert Karris, Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel, p14

But hospitality is more than just a meal. It is welcoming someone into your home or space, listening and sharing—a sign of friendship. It was one of the reasons the religious elite complained that Jesus was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners”.

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the table fellowship for cultures of the Mediterranean basin in the first century … Mealtimes were far more than occasions for individuals to consume nourishment. Being welcomed at a table for the purpose of eating food with another person had become a ceremony richly symbolic of friendship, intimacy and unity … [So much so that] when persons were estranged, a meal invitation opened the way to reconciliation.

Tim Chester’s quote of Scott Bartchy, A Meal with Jesus, p19

It’s also worth remembering that a significant part of the Jewish Law revolved around food, what you could and couldn’t eat.

[In] all cultures meals represent ‘boundary markers’ between different levels of intimacy and acceptance. [An] analysis of the laws in Leviticus about food … [showed that] … they concerned boundary maintenance. … Policing the human body was a way of policing the social body by maintaining a common identity. Jewish food laws not only symbolized cultural boundaries; they also created them. It wasn’t easy for Jews to eat with Gentiles … You couldn’t be sure you were being offered kosher food prepared in a kosher way. … Scholars believe that Jews rarely ate with Gentiles in Jesus’ day.

Tim Chester, A Meal with Jesus, p20

So you can see why the Pharisees were so angry at Jesus for breaking their rules and becoming unclean, from their perspective.

It’s not surprising that Jesus’ teaching also often included meals.

  • The parable of the narrow door warns that God may withhold hospitality to those who are apathetic.
  • The parable of the great banquet.
  • The parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin both end with the finder calling their friends and neighbours into their home to celebrate, presumably with a feast.
  • Similarly, the parable of the prodigal (lost) son ends with a feast to celebrate. Significantly, the turning point for the son was when he realised his father’s hospitality, even to the servants, was far better than the pig food that he was coveting.
  • The failure to show hospitality is condemned in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

But there’s more…

In the Old Testament, God revealed that:

In [the New] Jerusalem [when Jesus returns], the Lord Almighty will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat. There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears.

Isaiah 25:6-8a, NLT/NIV

It’s a wonderful promise and would’ve come to mind when Jesus described His Kingdom as participating in a feast:

People will come from east and west and north and south [i.e. everywhere], and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.

Luke 13:28, NIV

And just as my Father has granted me a Kingdom, I now grant you the right to eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom

Luke 22:29-30a, NLT

Peter Leithart explains the significance of this.

For Jesus ‘feast’ was not just a ‘metaphor’ for the kingdom. As Jesus announced the feast of the kingdom, He also brought it into reality through His own feasting. Unlike many theologians, He did not come [simply] preaching an ideology, promoting ideas, or teaching moral maxims. He came teaching about the feast of the kingdom, and He came feasting in the kingdom.

Tim Chester’s quote of Peter Leithart, A Meal with Jesus, p15

As does Chester:

The meals of Jesus represent something bigger. They represent a new world, a new kingdom, a new outlook. But they give that new reality substance. Jesus’ meals are not just symbols; they’re also applications. They’re not just pictures; they’re the real thing in miniature. Food is stuff. It’s not ideas. It’s not theories. It’s, well, it’s food, and you put it in your mouth, taste it and eat it. And meals are more than food. They’re social occasions. They represent friendship, community and welcome.

Tim Chester, A Meal with Jesus, p15

One of the crucial points I want to convey is that God’s hospitality gives us an insight into His character and shows us what He values. It is both practical and profound. It helps people now and points them to God and His future feast.

God’s hospitality also shows us how amazing and inclusive His grace is. As Isaiah said, this is “a wonderful feast for all the people of the world” and Jesus alludes to this when He says people will come to the feast from everywhere. Furthermore, He taught and demonstrated in His hospitality that our earthly categories didn’t matter—the invitation extended to everyone, even people the Jews elite rejected, like Roman centurions, Samaritan women, tax collectors, the poor, the sick, the blind, the crippled, and the Gentiles—which is most of us!

Finally we will look at how Jesus’ hospitality fulfilled the Old Testament and confirmed Jesus’ identity as God.

Luke 9:7-9: Herod asked if Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead, Elijah, or another ancient prophet returning (e.g. Moses).

Luke 9:18-19: Jesus asks who do people say I am? Again the options are: John the Baptist, Elijah, or another prophet.

The feeding of the 5000, which is placed between the repeated question, sheds light on why the answer given in the next verse is none of the above but actually “God’s Messiah!”—God come down to rescue. The feeding of the 5000 wasn’t just Jesus providing some fast-food to get the disciples out of an awkward situation! No, it’s far more than that!

In verse 11 Jesus welcomed them, and had them sit down, the Greek word there is literally recline, as they would’ve done at a feast. The location is significant too, they were out in the wilderness, just like the Israelites in the OT had been. And again, they complained about the lack of food! Last time God answered Moses with manna from heaven, this time Jesus looked up to heaven and was miraculously answered with an abundant feast—everyone was satisfied and there was plenty leftover. So we see Jesus was a bit like Moses but even better. And Jesus will lead a new exodus, saving people not just from the Egyptians but all earthly and spiritual oppressors—even sin and death itself! (this is reinforced at the Transfiguration, v31, where Jesus discusses His exodus)

That’s very exciting but the feeding of the 5000 would’ve also reminded the people of the feeding of the 100 in the Old Testament. Guess who did that? It was it was Elisha, the prophet who Elijah handed the batten too—he literally gave him his cloak—to show that Elisha was the new Elijah. Elisha told his servant to feed 100 men with 20 loaves. Jesus told the disciples to feed 5000 men (plus their families!) with 5 loaves and 2 fish. God miraculously provided for Elisha’s 100 men, and there were leftovers. God miraculously provided for Jesus’ 5000 men, and surprise-surprise, there were leftovers. So we see Jesus was a bit like a new Elijah but again, Jesus is even better.

Not only would the feeding of the 5000 remind them of Moses and Elijah, it would’ve reminded them about Isaiah’s prophecy of the great feast, which I mentioned earlier. Isaiah goes on to say:

Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink—even if you have no money!

Come, take your choice of wine or milk—it’s all free!

Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength?

Why pay for food that does you no good?

Listen to me, and you will eat what is good. You will enjoy the finest food.

Isaiah 55:1-2, NLT

And this scene is alluded to again, right at the end of the Bible, where God and Christians are united in extending hospitality to everyone who is thirsty.

The Spirit and the bride [Christians] say, “Come!” Everyone who hears this should say, “Come!” If you are thirsty, come! If you want life-giving water, come and drink it. It’s free!

Rev 22:17, CEV/NLT

Jesus provided for the 5000 without charge but we anticipate an even greater feast, one that will satisfy every physical and spiritual hunger and thirst. The feast in the New Creation is one we are unable to pay for but thankfully Jesus has paid for it so it’s free for everyone!

So to summarise:

What does Jesus’ hospitality tell us about God’s character?

  1. Hospitality is loving and welcoming people, particularly strangers or outsiders, into your home or space and usually involves eating and drinking.
  2. Tim Chester wrote a great book about hospitality called, A Meal with Jesus.
  3. The Son of Man has come eating and drinking to seek and save, to serve and give.
  4. Jesus spent most of time showing, receiving, and teaching hospitality.
  5. His hospitality displayed His:
    1. Friendship and grace
    2. Inclusivity/welcoming of everyone
    3. Invitation to reconciliation
    4. Valuing of creation, even common things, like food and drink
  6. Hospitality practically helped people, pointed people to God’s kingdom and feast, and indeed started God’s kingdom and feast.
  7. Jesus is a bit like Moses and Elijah but His provision of food/salvation is far greater and open to everyone because He has completely paid for it!

Are only Christians children of God or is everyone??—Part B

I’m doing a series on everyone being a child of God. I recommend reading part A for the context and the first response (based on the Parable of the Prodigal Son) to the common objection:

Doesn’t the NT talk about adoption, about Christians becoming children of God? Does that mean non-Christians aren’t God’s children?

I think the response in part A is reinforced by the approach George MacDonald takes in his Abba, Father! sermon, which is based on Galatians 4.

What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage [a child], he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father.

Galatians 4:1-2, NIV

The prodigal son didn’t have the status/place of son while he was disowning his father, similarly a child doesn’t have the place of a son/daughter (at least in terms of responsibilities, inheritance, and freedoms) while they are underage.

Underage Come-of-age
Subject to guardians 1 Adulthood
Place/position of a child Place/position of a son/daughter = “adoption” 2

However, when they come-of-age, they receive the place of a son/daughter. In many (most?) cultures throughout history, becoming an adult is celebrated as a significant milestone, be it an 18th/21st, an indigenous initiation ceremony, or a Bar Mitzvah.

But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.

Galatians 4:4-5, NIV84

God sent him to set the people free who were under the law. God sent him so that we would receive our rights as sons of God.

Galatians 4:5, WE

The Greek word translated “adoption”

I recently discovered something intriguing about huiothesia, the Greek word translated “adoption” in the NT:

The first half is huios, the common noun for an adult son. The latter half is thesia, a placement, an installation, a setting of a person or a thing in its place. So the whole word means not so much adoption as the placing of a son.

Barnhouse, God’s Heirs: Romans 8:1–39

I think it’s good to be cautious when it comes to discussing how words are translated. So I did some further research and found others who agree. For example:

As I see it, “child” teknon refers to a member of the family with our a necessary implication regarding age—whether a young child or an adult. A son is always a child [member of the family], but a child is not always a son. A child (teknon) by virtue of being a member of the family is an heir [albeit not yet actualised]. By virtue of being a son (huios) he is considered to be of legal age.

The Randall House Bible Commentary, page 217

And:

The word for “adoption,” … is a compound word made up of huios, “a son,” and tithemi, “a placing,” which means to place someone in the family who is already in the family, in order to recognize them as an adult son.

James H. Rickard Bible Ministries

And:

The word “Huiothesia” means “Son Placement,” and indicates the time when a male child reached what was considered to be the age of maturity… At this time, the father of the young man would place his hand on the head of his son and openly proclaim, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased! I bestow upon him now all of my riches and power and authority (through power of attorney) so that he might act on my behalf in all of my affairs.”

David Weber, The Adoption of Sons

And:

The etymology of the word suggests that it literally means “standing as a son,” … that the word refers to one who IS a son coming into a certain standing AS a son, but in NO case, simply BECOMING a son, equivalent to what we mean by being born, or adopted. In EVERY case, we think it is not “sonship,” per se, that is being considered, but the standing or position to which the sonship entitles one.

T. Pierce Brown, Born or Adopted

As you can see, translating huiothesia as “adoption” isn’t crazy, just too simplistic, especially given we understandably assume it’s identical to our modern definition. Rickard makes a similar point, although I think he overreaches a little, as I came across others who said Roman “son placement” could either be of a biological or non-biological child.

“Adoption” means one thing today but back in Roman times, when the N.T. was written, it meant something else. Adoption today means placing someone outside of the blood line legally into a family. A child who is not a natural child of the family, someone else’s child, is placed into the family. That is not what adoption meant in the Bible.

James H. Rickard Bible Ministries

Summary

Everyone is irreversibly an immeasurably valuable and irreplaceable child of God but needs to be placed/announced as sons and daughters—”adoption”—to delight in fully living as a son or daughter.

Bar Mitzah
Bar Mitzvah

1. In Galatians 3:24 Paul uses this as an illustration of how we were when under the law.
2. Galatians 3:26 tells us our coming-of-age is through faith, “for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (HCSB).

Are only Christians children of God or is everyone??—Part A

I’m doing a series on everyone being a child of God. My first post contains most of the biblical reasons for believing everyone is a child of God. My second post highlights some significant implications. My third post looked at what happens when our Father in Heaven is disowned. Now I’ll look at a common objection:

Doesn’t the NT talk about adoption, about Christians becoming children of God? Does that mean non-Christians aren’t God’s children?

I used to respond by saying that everyone is a child of God but only in some very limited sense—perhaps that everyone has an earthly/old nature but only Christians have a spiritual/new nature. While Paul does use the old vs new language, I was uncomfortable as I didn’t think the response did justice to the passages in my first post. So I was excited to discover two alternatives for addressing the conundrum. The first one I found in Spencer Boersma’s discussion of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and I’ll explain and build on it here.

I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”

Luke 15:18-19 (cf v21), ESV

While the son knows his father is still his father, and addresses him as such, he rightly sees that he hasn’t acted as a son should—that he doesn’t deserve to be called a son, nor treated as one. From his perspective, he feels he has forfeited his place in the family and can now only hope to be a hired servant. So when the father exuberantly welcomed him back into the family, the son understandably felt that he was being adopted.

To apply this to our question, everyone has walked away from God and hasn’t acted as children of God should—we haven’t been living in a healthy relationship with Him. However, given it’s impossible to lose our biological connection to our parents and siblings, I think it’s logical to believe it’s impossible to lose our supernatural connection to our Father and Brother. Therefore, each and every person remains a child of God.

But, like the prodigal son, we can only truly enjoy the benefits of being in His family when we come to our senses; when we realise our need for Him; when we return home. Our “adoption” is our home coming—when we act as His children (with the Spirit’s help), and can therefore be acknowledged and treated as such.

Lost Found
Dead Alive
Distant land Home
Anonymous stranger Heralded/introduced as the father’s son
No privileges/position Privileges/position of a son = “adoption” 1
Focused on self Focused on the father
Rebellious Obedient

In part B, I’ll look at related approach, which I think really reinforces the one above.

The Return Of The Prodigal Son by Harold Copping
The Return Of The Prodigal Son by Harold Copping

1. or huiothesia (see part B).

My Response to Phillip Jensen’s―What Joy in Hell?

Phillip Jensen
Phillip Jensen

Phillip Jensen has made a significant contribution to Australian Evangelicalism over many decades. Yesterday he wrote a Facebook post about Hell (quoted in full below) and a friend shared it. As I respect both my friend and Phillip (who I met about a decade ago), I thought I’d take the time to engage with him here.

What Joy in Hell?

There is no joy in hell.

I agree.

Its very existence reassures us of ultimate justice. Where else can the victims of the Holocaust find justice? But justice is little comfort when we consider hell’s horror.

Yes… but I think it does so in a different way than you think. It seems to me that justice is about righting wrongs, and that while punishment can be involved, punishment of a perpetrator alone cannot heal the victim, cannot restore the relationship to how God intended all relationships to be: a reflection of the relationship within the Trinity. That requires reconciliation of the estranged parties, which requires repentance and (self-sacrificial) forgiveness. All of which is only possible when the Holy Spirit works within a situation.

Hell is such a horrible concept that sensitive souls want to recoil from even considering it. Denying its existence can even be called a godly heresy. Godly – in that God does not enjoy the death of a sinner and nor should we (Ezekiel 18:23,32; 33:11, 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9); but – a heresy none the less because the scriptures teach the reality of judgement and hell (Matthew 7:13, 21-23; 10:28).

I agree that it’s not a pleasant topic―indeed I have friends who have been deeply scarred by having certain interpretations of Hell forced upon them as children (some to the extent that they can no longer trust God). Personally I don’t deny God’s judgement and Hell’s existence (although we differ on the nature, purpose, and duration), and I do consider both almost every day (which isn’t an exaggeration).

However, I don’t think everyone who denies Hell’s existence is just being “sensitive”, I know some people who do so for theological and philosophical reasons―although I think that unfortunately puts them outside orthodox Christianity, which means it is technically heresy.

I agree that God doesn’t enjoy the death of anyone and that we shouldn’t either.

Much of what horrifies people about hell is the vivid and imaginative presentation of it by preachers, artists and writers. When confronted by scary pictures, some people close their eyes while others bravely make fun and laugh at them. So we have the Christians who cannot so much as think of hell and the non-Christian who will parody the whole notion portraying Satan with horns and tail, pitchfork and opera cape, or boasting, with more bravado than sense, of sharing a beer and a joke with all their mates down there.

I agree, although to be fair, Christians often haven’t helped the situation by grossly misrepresenting the topic.

Both responses make speaking on hell difficult. On the one hand the preacher is accused of insensitively using manipulative scare tactics and on the other hand he is ridiculed for believing in childish ghost stories. But it is our Lord Jesus himself who used hell in his preaching, so we must not – and cannot – leave it out of our declaration of the whole counsel of God.

I agree, although I think He was often using it differently than modern preachers.

So what do we know about hell? The Bible itself spends very little time describing or even mentioning hell. The word only occurs 12 times in the Bible, all in the New Testament, all but once on the lips of Jesus. Based on usage of the word ‘hell’, there is only one hell fire preacher in the Bible – and that is our Lord Jesus Christ.

I agree hell isn’t the focus of the Bible but it depends a bit on how you define it… For example, passages that describe future punishment are often interpreted as speaking about hell.

The word itself referred to the valley of the sons of Hinnom, close to and outside Jerusalem. The valley had been used for human sacrifices to Molech but was intentionally ‘defiled’ in Josiah’s reforms (2 Kings 23:10, 2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6). The prophets (Isaiah 30:31-33, Jeremiah 7:31, 19:5-6, 32:35) spoke of it as the valley of slaughter and of its fire and vermin as the final end place and destruction of the wicked.

I agree.

The descriptions of hell are usually minimal but involve fire, corpses and vermin (Isaiah 66: 24, Mark 9:43, 48, Matthew 18:8 James 3:6). Other parts of the New Testament speak of the final state of judgement in terms of outer darkness, weeping and gnashing teeth, destruction, and second death. However, eternal fire is an image of God’s prepared punishment for the devil and his angels, to which sinful humans can be cast (Matthew 25:41, Revelation 14:10, 20:10).

I agree, except I don’t think the Bible says it’s the final state.

While the word ‘hell and any descriptions of it are used sparingly in the Bible, retributive punishment is widely taught and illustrated. Such punishment is not limited to this world and lifetime only; for both judgement after death and life after death are clearly taught in scripture. (Isaiah 66:22-24, Hebrews 9:26-28). Indeed the very concept of “the resurrection” is one of judgement as well as eternal life beyond the grave (Matthew 10:28, Luke 14:14, John 5:28-29, Acts 17:31).

I agree that judgment and punishment isn’t limited to this age but that it also occurs in the next. However, I think the type of punishment isn’t as clear as you think. There are certainly passages that sound retributive, and may well be. However, just because punishment is retributive doesn’t mean it can’t also serve a purpose. For example, Sodom and Gomorrah get burned to the ground but later we discover God restoring them.

I [God] will restore their fortunes, the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and those of Samaria and her daughters. I will also restore your fortunes among them, so you will bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all you did when you comforted them. As for your sisters, Sodom and her daughters and Samaria and her daughters will return to their former state. You and your daughters will also return to your former state.

Ezekiel 16:53-55, HCSB

A similar destruction followed by restoration occurs with Egypt, Israel’s architype enemy, in Isaiah 19. Likewise with the Israel in Romans 11―indeed I think Paul goes as far as saying that it happens with everyone.

For God has imprisoned everyone in disobedience so he could have mercy on everyone.

Romans 11:32, NLT

And that Christ brings this justification/mercy/restoration:

So then, as through one trespass [Adam’s] there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act [Jesus’] there is life-giving justification for everyone.

Romans 5:18, HCSB

Continuing with your post…

Both this life and judgement are talked of as ‘eternal’ (Matthew 25:46).

I don’t think that Matthew 25:46 describes either life or judgement as “eternal”. When pressed, most theologians usually admit that it actually says life and punishment “of, in, or pertaining to, the age to come”. It’s a significant, further interpretive step to deduce how long either will go for in the age to come. If I said:

The highlight of the year to come will be my long service leave and lowlight of the year to come will be my sick leave.

Does that mean my long service leave will be the same duration as my sick leave? I see no necessity to interpret it that way… Indeed it seems the probability of any two future events having identical durations is low. Therefore, why should I interpret the following any differently:

The highlight of the age to come will be my long service leave and lowlight of the age to come will be my sick leave.

I look at this in more detail in Is Aionios Eternal? and Pruning the Flock?.

The permanence of this judgement is emphasized in Jesus’ parable (Luke 16:19-31), as well as Paul’s language of “eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

I disagree and think:

The parable is more about Jesus and his mission to be the Israel that the Pharisees had failed to be, rather than a discourse on the afterlife.

Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (according to Parry)

Furthermore, there’s evidence it’s probably a “subversion” of a parable the Pharisees would’ve known e.g. there’s an Egyptian parallel, seven Jewish ones, and one from Lucian (Greco‐Roman) (see Bauckhman, The Fate of the Dead, chapter 4). There are other considerations too e.g. it’s talking about Hades (which comes to an end in Revelation) before Christ had died and visited it―unlocking it’s gates and bridging it’s chasm (I really should dedicate an entire post about it one day).

This morning I posted a post dedicated to 2 Thessalonians 1:9. I don’t think it gives much support to your position, partly because it’s relying on the word mistranslated as “eternal”.

Jesus teaches us about hell to warn us of behaviour that would take us there. In Matthew 5:22 he speaks of hating and despising our brother in such fashion as to be liable to the hell of fire. And in Matthew 5:29, 18:9 and Mark 9:43-47, he portrays the horror of hell in such terms that it would be better to lose an eye or a hand than ever to be thrown there. In Matthew 10:28 and Luke 12:5 he warns us to be more fearful of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell rather than the one who can only kill the body.

I agree, although I think we need to be careful not to take Matthew 10:28 out of it’s context, which is encouraging the disciples―that their persecution isn’t unexpected (v.22-25), that God cares deeply for them.

“Therefore, don’t be afraid of them, since there is nothing covered that won’t be uncovered and nothing hidden that won’t be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the light. What you hear in a whisper, proclaim on the housetops. Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent. But even the hairs of your head have all been counted.

Matthew 10:26-30, HCSB

Moving on…

Whatever we do or do not know about the details of hell, it is clear from Jesus’ teaching that it is so terrible and terrifying that we should do all in our power to avoid it.

I agree.

Our hatred of hell is but a pale reflection of God’s detestation of its terrors. It is why he responded to Amos’ prayers by holding back the judgement that was coming on Israel (Amos 7:2-6) and why his heart recoiled within him when faced with destroying Israel (Hosea 11:8f). It is this compassion of God that even now means he patiently endures sinfulness to give time and opportunity for us to repent (Romans 2:4f, 2 Peter 3:9f). And even more, it is God’s compassionate desire that none should perish, which moved him to give his only Son that we should not perish at all but have eternal life (John 3:16); and it is because of his Son’s similar compassionate desire that Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:4-6).

I agree, although I would suggest that the passages you quote here (as well as those in your 3rd paragraph) should prompt us to reconsider the nature, purpose, and duration of hell. That perhaps it isn’t solely retributive, that God has bigger plans, a higher telos, for each and every being He has created in His image.

I would also suggest that “God’s detestation of [Hell’s] terrors”, as well as His compassion, motivates Him to make Hell cease. I believe this is well within the ability of an all-powerful, all-knowing, infinitely resourceful and patient God. Indeed I think He promises to do so. I don’t expect you to be necessarily convinced by this response but I would seriously challenge you to read the Four Views on Hell: Second Edition, which has been recently published by one of the largest Evangelical publishers, Zondervan. It makes a strong case for Eternal Conscious Torment, Conditionalism, and Universalism all being legitimate, biblical, Evangelical positions.

Hell is a horrible topic but we must not avoid thinking about it or preaching it, for it is the basis of seeing not only the ultimate justice of God but more importantly the greatness of our God’s compassion and saving work in Jesus.

I agree, although I think hell isn’t the entire picture of “ultimate justice”.

There is no joy in hell but that is why there is such joy in heaven over every sinner that repents (Luke 15).

Amen!

Should I be silent for the sake of unity?

Sometimes people ask why I discuss the topics on this blog when it upsets some people― “Alex wouldn’t it be better to stay quiet for the sake of unity?”

I agree, unity is very important and that we don’t want division, especially over something that isn’t an essential doctrine of Christianity. There is some uncertainty about the future and I respect that many people prefer to spend their time and energy on other things. However, I’ll give a summary of why I bother, why I inadvertently upset some people when I occasionally bring up Universalism:

  1. I like it when people help me refine my views and so try to return the favour. As I think Universalism has more biblical support1 than either Annihilationism or Eternal Torment, I’d like people to at least understand and consider it. If they discover it’s mistaken I want them to point that out as I don’t want to believe a falsehood―truth matters a lot to me.
  2. I think some versions aren’t hallowing to God but bring His name into disrepute (e.g. if God doesn’t want to save everyone, then it’s questionable that He really is Love and The Father. Or if God can’t save everyone, then it’s questionable that He really is all-knowing and all-powerful. I’ve had Atheists point both of these out to me).
  3. Some doctrines of hell are an unnecessary (assuming Universalism is true) hurdle to non-Christians (an Australian survey2 found it’s in the top 10 reasons people reject Christianity).
  4. Some Christians insist their view of Hell is essential to being a Christian, which means they will try to ignore, silence, disown and ostracise Christians who hold a different view (e.g. despite being a member of a denomination for 15 years, I was asked to leave as I couldn’t be silent in public and private on these topics. Not only that, but the denomination convinced the next denomination I joined to do the same).I know many who have experienced this―this isn’t building unity and sadly results in some of our siblings becoming church-less or even giving up on Christianity.
  5. Some versions of Hell increase the “us vs. them” mentality (e.g. “some people out there are beyond hope, they can’t be helped or healed, not even by God” or “some people out there aren’t loved by God”) rather than unity (e.g. “everyone is loved and can―and will―be helped and healed”).
  6. I agree with people like John Dickson and Greg Clarke who say that, “Eschatology and ethics are intertwined”3 (e.g. if, contrary to Arminianism, one believes everyone can be saved and, contrary to Calvinism, is worth saving that affects one’s approach to practical things like mission, social justice and humanitarianism).
  7. I find the promise and prospect of seeing everyone saved inspires far more praise and worship (“the more saved the better”, implies seeing all saved would be the best).
  8. Like you, I am concerned about the fate of billions. On good days, we’re concerned about their fate more than our own. I find it encouraging (and I know others have been encouraged by this) to believe even non-believing loved ones aren’t lost forever.
  9. Sadly some of my friends have been psychologically damaged by fundamentalist teaching about Hell as children (I’m hoping to undo some of that damage).
  10. I think Universalism was the view of the Apostle Paul and many in the Early Church for almost 500 years, including the some of the greatest Church Fathers. I’d like us to reform back to their view.

Because of the points above, I’ve seen many people come back to Christianity and have their lives transformed, simply because they’ve found out there is a legitimate, alternative Christian view of Hell.

I believe Jesus revealed what we need to know of God. God’s incarnation joined Humanity to Himself so that everyone will eventually participate in His death, resurrection and ascension.

I hope that helps.


1. I think it also has far more support from reason and experience, plus a little from tradition, however as an evangelical, the biblical support is the primary concern.
2. Australian Communities Report 2012 by Olive Tree & McCrindle Research.
3. Dickson and Clarke, 666 And All That, p184.

Jesus’ Parable of The Sheep & The Kids

I think there’s more to the parable of The Sheep and the Goats than an illustration of Judgment Day. Jesus really seems to be focusing on our treatment of others, and His reason is startling. Jesus is so intimately connected to humanity, that:

as you [cared for] one of the least of these my siblings, you did it to me

Matthew 25:40

as you did not [care for] one of the least of these, you did not do it to me

Matthew 25:45

I’m guessing that even if we had perfect empathy for others, we still wouldn’t be as connected as He is!

Additionally He:

  1. incarnated into our earthly experience.
  2. spent His earthly life being an exemplar of empathy and caring for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick and imprisoned, and urged (commanded) His followers to do likewise.
  3. gave His life to redeem the whole world (1John 2:2).
  4. mercifully continues to sustain and care for everything (Matt 5:44-48).

After all the above, is He really going to leave some of us eternally hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned in hell?? Will He cease to have empathy and compassion?

I think this context should make us wonder why kolasis aionios (Matt 25:46) is often translated “eternal punishment”? Especially given translating aionios as “eternal” is an interpretive leap compared to “eon-ian” (“pertaining to the aion/aeon/eon/age to come”), which is a more literal translation. Here are three more reasons.

First, Jesus’ role in the parable is that of the shepherd, an analogy that He often used positively:

I am the living God, The Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his flock [not just the sheep].

John 10:11, Aramaic Bible in Plain English

The Lord is my Shepherd

Psalm 23, HCSB

Kid-goat-standing-on-sheep
Kid standing on a mature sheep (source)

Second, the Greek word eriphos/eriphion, which gets translated in the parable as “goats”, is translated as “young goat” in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This is the only other occurrence in the NT but as there are about 100 occurrences in other ancient texts, most Greek dictionaries say the word means “young goats” or “kids”. Even the conservative Pulpit Commentary acknowledges that, “The goats (eriphion or kids) [in this parable are] on the left.” Because of this, I think Jesus is deliberately contrasting mature sheep with kids who need a lot of maturing.

Third, it’s likely that “maturing” is associated with the Greek word kolasis, which gets translated “punishment” in the NIV. It only appears in one other place in the NT (1John 4:18) but it appears in a few hundred other ancient texts, so according to Perseus (online dictionary used by Logos―most widely used Bible software in the world) it means “checking the growth”.

Barclay, a theologian and author of popular NT commentaries, came to a very similar conclusion:

The word was originally a gardening word, and its original meaning was pruning trees. In Greek there are two words for punishment… kolasis is for the sake of the one who suffers it [i.e. correction to mature someone]; timoria is for the sake of the one who inflicts it [i.e. retribution]

William Barclay, The Apostles’ Creed

Some definitions include “maiming, cutting off”, probably as the correction can be severe (e.g. a surgeon may need to remove a gangrenous or cancerous limb to save someone’s life). Reminds me of Paul’s description of God cutting the Jews off for awhile, before grafting them back on again once the Gentiles had come in.

So in summary, I think it is fair to interpret Matthew 25:46 as:

And these [the immature] shall go into [God’s severe] eonian correction [until they are mature], but the just [the mature] into [God’s blessed] eonian life.

Updated 22/12/2015:

A friend made a helpful observation, “The other thing I like about this passage is that the kids are not creatures who don’t belong in the herd―they are the young of the herd. The word translated “sheep” can be a general word for small herded livestock―usually sheep and goats.”1

So maybe it should be called “The Parable of the Mature and Immature Goats”!


1. For the rest of the conversation see https://www.facebook.com/SoniaLJohnson/posts/10153734598621328
My friend Cindy also did a more thorough unpacking of this parable:
The Sheep and The Kids
What To Do With The Kids
Eternal Punishment & Eternal Life

Do we need Hell as a motivation?

The question of whether we need Hell as a motivation often comes up. As I think it’s an important and difficult question, I’m going to try to sketch out a response.

On the one hand, I think there are people who don’t believe in Hell at all, yet are still motivated to love God and each other. I think this is partly because, being made in God’s image, love, truth, beauty, life, light, joy, goodness, mercy, justice, hope, forgiveness, peace, and wisdom, are attractive and motivating things. Likewise, in the New Creation I believe we will remain motivated forever without the fear of anything1. Afterall, God identifies Himself as our loving Father, a relationship that should be taken into account. Because Hell can come across as the opposite of all these good things, for some people the idea that God would even consider Hell is repulsive, something that hinders them from loving God.

However it is hard, at least for Christians, to avoid noticing that Jesus did warn of fire, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, etc. While they do appear in symbolic literature, surely they indicate unpleasant experiences of some description. To some degree we are already experiencing the consequences of humanity’s selfish and destructive behavior. Most of us do desire for things to be put right but that probably involves correction, pruning and deconstructing some things first. Change usually isn’t easy.

When I talk about reforming hell, in particular that I believe one day everyone will be reconciled to God, there is a risk that people will use that as an excuse to postpone coming to Jesus. As I long to see as many people saved as soon as possible, this issue is a real concern. Indeed some who share my beliefs don’t even discuss them in public for fear that hearers will use it as an excuse to continue living in rebellion against God.

I should point out that this problem isn’t uniquely a universalist one. Anyone who is gracious, or tells people about God’s grace, risks people taking advantage of it. Sometimes people will use it as an excuse to be lazy and put off action—“I’ll convert when I retire or when I’m on my death bed”. Nor is the problem new. I think the Apostle Paul discusses this, “Shall I go on sinning so that grace might increase?” and “Do you spurn God’s grace?”. He emphatically says we shouldn’t, but that God’s grace should “lead us to repentance”.

And they're off! The last plane for the season departs and winter begins for those left behind (Photo: Gordon T)
And they’re off! The last plane for the season departs and winter begins for those left behind
(Photo: Gordon T)

Imagine you’re visiting Antarctica and become sick. A plane is sent to pick you up but you refuse to leave and so it departs without you. You will experience the unpleasant consequences until another opportunity to go home arrives. Both in the Old Testament and in Jesus’ parables, there are plenty of examples2 of God giving people opportunities that are rejected. After a period of consequences, thankfully God offers further opportunities.

Consider the Parable of the Prodigal Son3. When the son realises he is mistaken he doesn’t instantly appear at home, he still has to walk all the way home from the pigpen. Likewise, the further we run from God, the longer it takes to walk back. Or to put it another way, it’s easier to tear down than to build up. I suspect the longer you leave a disease, the more work the doctors will have to do and the longer the rehab and recovery will be. I assume the longer you’ve been addicted to a drug, the more severe the withdrawal.

I think the Apostle Paul captures the current tension between taking things seriously and being encouraged that God is working towards His good purpose4:

So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose.PHILIPPIANS 2:12-13 (HCSB)

In summary, I think we shouldn’t need Hell as a motivation but it is important to consider the consequences (which may include time in Hell) of wrong thoughts and actions.


1. Reminds me of “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” 1 John 4:18 (ESV)
2. Robin Parry gives some examples on p206 of “The Evangelical Universalist”
3. Luke 15:11-32
4. Hopefully wholeheartedly enjoying and praising and Him—together, forever! See Everyone Repents & Rejoices.