Tag: Love

Does God coerce people into loving Him?

No, “coerced love” is an oxymoron… but most people who ask the question already know that, so why do they ask? In my experience, as soon as I say, “God will save everyone”, people assume I’m saying God will have to use coercion to make that happen. However, if the person is a Christian, I’d want to ask them, “Did God coerce you into loving Him?” I suspect the answer will be “No”, so why do they think God has to do something different when it comes to other people?

They might object, “It must be different, as most people reject the Gospel that I’ve accepted.”

Only God really knows someone’s mind but I think that the reason that most people don’t want to be saved is that they are currently not fully experiencing their “choice”** of “independence from God”. God is blessing the rebellious in this age with “sunshine and rain” (Mt 5:45, cf Psalm 145:9, Luke 6:35, Acts 14:17, aka “common grace” ), patiently giving them an opportunity to turn to Christ (2Pet 3:9)—ideally today (2Cor 6:2).

However, for those who insist on being Prodigals (Luke 15:11-32), they will use up their inheritance (common grace) in the foreign land (this life) and end up with nothing in a pigpen (hell), where they’ll become hungrier and hungrier (perishing), until they realise even being a servant for the father (God) would be far better than the pigpen. Amazingly, not only will God accept their return, He forgives, washes, and restores them so that they come-of-age and begin to act as sons and daughters ought (I explore this in greater depth in Are only Christians children of God or is everyone??).

Withdrawing undeserved common grace isn’t coercion, it’s simply allowing someone to fully comprehend the reality of what “independence from God—Truth, Beauty, Love, Goodness, Joy, Light, Life, Mercy, and Justice” is actually like. The Bible repeatedly says that it won’t be a nice experience, and sometimes we get a taste of that now in our own lives. History is full of examples of what starts to unfold when people discard God.

I think one of the reasons God gives us our lives now is that He wants to spare us hell—learning the hard way that cutting off the branch that holds us up is catastrophic! There is a real opportunity for people to heed what God has already kindly revealed.

** I said “choice” but I think desiring “independence from God” only occurs when someone mistakenly thinks that there’s something worthwhile outside of God. When someone discovers there actually isn’t anything worthwhile apart from God, to continue on that path would then be irrational, especially as the further they went from the Light, the darker it became. A will that is enslaved to sin always rejects God, conversely a will that is freed always chooses God as it truly knows that is the only worthwhile path. Therefore, whenever God frees someone’s will, they start being in harmony with Him—the eternally and infinitely Free Will.

You could argue that I was not a free agent [when I converted], but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom…

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 224

"Ram It Down" by Judas Priest

Was Bishop Curry preaching Universalism at the royal wedding?

Bishop Curry’s royal wedding sermon caused quite a stir—many loved it (e.g. Bishop Michael Curry reached two billion souls with the love of Christ), some condemned it (e.g. A star-turn offers the world ‘Christianity-lite’). One thing that caught my attention, was that he repeatedly said that Jesus “died to save us all!” (he also tweeted it) Was he promoting Universalism, the belief that Jesus will save each and every person who will ever exist?

If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, just tell the love of Jesus, who died to save us all!

To figure that out, first we must ask, did he exclude anyone from the “all”? For example, did the “us” before it reduce the scope? Probably not, as he said:

God is the source of us all

And based on passages like Colossians 1:16, most Christians believe God is the source/Creator of everyone who will ever exist. It was also unlikely he was just thinking of the 2 billion people who were listening, as in the next sentence he said that God’s love embodied will result in:

a new world, a new human family

In fact, he mentioned human/humanity ten times in a 13-minute talk:

Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in all of human history … fire was one of the great scientific and technological discoveries in all of human history. Fire, to a great extent, made human civilization possible … made human migration around the world a possibility … the human ability and capacity to take fire and use it for human good … one of the greatest discoveries of all of human history … if humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love, it would be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.

So assuming he thinks God wants “to save” everyone (1Tim 2:4), does that mean he thinks God will actually succeed? That’s harder to figure out but I think there are clues. Will our enslavement to sin stop God? Well, Curry sounded very optimistic when he said:

There’s power in Love to … liberate when nothing else will.

Will our spiritual and psychological delusions stop God? Again, Curry doesn’t seem to think so:

There is a balm in Gilead [Love] to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul… There is power in Love to help and heal when nothing else can.

Remembering that when Jesus healed during His ministry, He was primarily interested in people’s spiritual health—their “sin-sickness”—although He healed people physically too to demonstrate that He could do the former.

Are death and hell a hurdle for God? Probably not, as Curry said:

There’s power in Love to lift up [John 12:32] … when nothing else will.

Maybe Curry forgot about God’s justice? Well, five times he said love can be redemptive and four times he mentioned its sacrificial nature (1John 3:16)—explicitly in regards to Jesus’ death, which traditionally Christians see as fulfilling justice. He also proclaimed:

let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.

Additionally, he talked about hospitality and addressing poverty—both commonly associated with justice in the Bible.

What about those who don’t want to be saved? Curry talked about Love transforming everything (you, your neighbours, the entire world) and even quoted Jesus who said: “you shall love God … with all your mind” (Mt 22:36-40, noting that “shall” implies something will happen in the future).

He also sees Love bringing Shalom.

we will lay down our swords and shields—”down by the riverside to study war no more”

However, that Shalom can only fully arrive when the last person in hell stops hating God.

There was one other statement that Curry made that I thought was at least suggestive of Universalism:

We were made by a power of Love. Our lives are meant to be lived in that lovethat’s why we are here. Ultimately, the source of love is God himself—the source of all of our lives.

If a luthier creates a guitar to play music, then the assumption is that it will fulfil its purpose. Likewise, as God created humans to love, it is perfectly reasonable to think that will happen eventually.

Rather than Universalism, was Curry actually preaching Pluralism—the belief that sin doesn’t matter for “every road leads to heaven”? I don’t think so. He made statements such as Jesus “died to save us”, “Love is the only way”, our “sin-sick soul” needs healing, and we need to be liberated by God (the Bible says we are enslaved to sin). Similarly, he discussed the need for transformation, which implies that all “roads/states-of-being” aren’t equally good.

So was Curry preaching Christian Universalism at the royal wedding? For the reasons I’ve given, I think he was, although it may not have been intentional. Often enthusiastic preachers who promote both God’s love for everyone and God’s infinite ability, end up preaching what is essentially Universalism.

Royal Fire, Love, & Wedding

Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.

Song of Solomon 8:6-7a, NRSV

Bishop Michael Curry’s amazing 13-minute royal wedding sermon began with the verses above followed by this quote:

We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

He explained that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of that love because its source is God and its why we are here:

There’s power in love. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even over-sentimentalize it. There’s power, power in love. If you don’t believe me, think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to center around you and your beloved. There’s power, power in love. Not just in its romantic forms, but any form, any shape of love. There’s a certain sense, in which when you are loved and you know it, when someone cares for you and you know it, when you love and you show it, it actually feels right. There’s something right about it. And there’s a reason for it. The reason has to do with the source. We were made by a power of Love. Our lives are meant to be lived in that love—that’s why we are here. Ultimately, the source of love is God himself—the source of all of our lives.

He backed this up with a quote from John:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

1 John 4:7-8, NRSV

Sometimes the way forward seems impossible but because love is from God:

There is power in love to help and heal when nothing else can. There’s power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will.

As someone who believes that God’s love will succeed “when nothing else can”, I take the “died to save us all” (which Curry repeated) to literally mean that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, each and every person will be saved—healed, liberated, and lifted up.

[Jesus] sacrificed his life for the good of others, for the well-being of the world, for us. That’s what love is.

The highest good and well-being of others is to be in a mutually loving union with God. As Jesus demonstrated, this is a voluntarily self-sacrificial relationship.

When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.

Setting things right (justice) and right relationships (righteousness) will flow out of this love.

When love is the way, there is plenty of good room for all of God’s children. Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all and we are brothers and sisters, children of God. My brothers and sisters, that’s a new heaven, a new Earth, a new world, a new human family.

I agree that one of the implications of each and every person being a child of God is that we should try to treat people as family (see Everyone is a child of God).

Curry concluded by going back to the initial passage and reflecting on the why love is like fire.

There was no Bronze Age without fire, no Iron Age without fire, no Industrial Revolution without fire. The advances of science and technology are greatly dependent on the human ability and capacity to take fire and use it for human good. … Fire makes all that possible. And de Chardin said that fire was one of the greatest discoveries of all of human history. He then went on to say that if humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love, it would be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.

God—the ultimate Royal—is often associated with fire in the Bible. Like God, fire is immensely powerful, it is essential to human civilization, it invigorates, it transforms, and it purifies (Surprising Fire). Praise God that the royal wedding proclaimed to the world that the Royal’s redemptive Love is unquenchable!

Bishop Michael Curry's captivating sermon at The Royal Wedding

Parry—Augustine’s Prison

Augustine believed that everlasting damnation is the clear teaching of the divine revelation given in Scripture (Civ. Dei XX–XI) so he felt obliged to fit it into the jigsaw. I am not objecting to his attempting to do this, given his convictions on the teaching of Scripture. My point here is simply that he failed to make it fit, which propels us to consider again whether he was right in his interpretation of the Bible on this matter.

So what is the problem? In the first instance, this: those in hell are sinners—humans with broken and defective souls. But with Augustine’s hell, God keeps such sinners in existence as sinners for eternity. God actively perpetuates the existence of sinfulness and evil in his creation world without end. Now Augustine believes that those in hell do not continue to perform sinful acts—their power to continue sinning is removed (Ench. ad Laur. 111). Nevertheless, they remain sinful—with the dispositions of their souls disordered and oriented away from God. (If this were not so, they would be among the redeemed and so not in hell.) And God maintains them in this condition, not (a) allowing sin to corrode them into non-existence nor (b) annihilating them nor (c) redeeming them. As such, Augustine’s God would rather have a world in which sin and evil was forever perpetuated than one in which they were eradicated.1 It is somewhat ironic that the theologian who was so effective is critiquing the Manichaean dualism of good and evil locked in eternal conflict ended up crafting his own, albeit different, eternal dualism of good and evil. For Augustine, God purposed from before the foundation of the world that creation should forever fall short of its own telos. God intends that only some parts of creation will achieve the goal of eschatological completion.

Why? Because hell is an everlasting public display of divine justice, which is a great good. A world in which sin exists forever and is perfectly balanced by retributive punishment is a better world than one in which there is no permanent sin and no permanent display of divine punishment.

One is reminded of Jonathan Edwards’ claim, reflecting his panentheism, that the reprobate suffering in hell form a part of the infinite complex beauty of God’s being. Such a complex beauty requires “irregularities” and “deformities”—his words, not mine—and the damned, says Edwards, are these “deformities” in God. Strong words, and for a Perfect Being theologian like Edwards they ought to have caused some sleepless nights (or at least some dreams about red flags). John Bombaro comments on Edwards: “God is simple because His ideal essence of an infinitely complex beauty is perfectly and totally integrated into all that God is and does. For this reason Edwards admits no distress with God purposely orchestrating the Fall, decreeing sin and evil, and facilitating pain, suffering, and damnation.”2 The tormented damned as part of the beauty of God? That’s a ballsy move!

We don’t have time to pick apart all the problems hanging out in the bars near this proposal, but let me suggest that we should at very least find it an odd and unexpected ending to the plot we traced earlier. The jigsaw piece certainly does not seem a comfortable fit. To make it fit better, Augustine and Edwards work hard on modifying the other parts of the jigsaw, but this has the awkward feel of generating what Barth called a “God behind the back of Jesus Christ”—a secret God hidden behind the one revealed in the gospel; a God whose secret will differs from the will of God manifest in Christ. Red flags?

Augustine claims that his theology has a friend in divine justice, but I beg to differ. I have a serious problem with the claim that everlasting hell is a display of justice. I think that Augustine so inhabits Roman views of justice, he has not appreciated that biblical understandings of justice are much wider, reaching beyond mere retribution. So I do not think that everlasting hell is a display of biblical justice. In addition, I do not think it is even a display of simple retributive justice. Augustine’s defence of the everlasting nature of the punishment is, in my view, hopelessly inadequate,3 as is Anselm’s later (very different) attempt to do the same.4 But that’s a discussion for another time. If Augustine is after retributive justice then he’d have been better off being an annihilationist—and he’d have had the added benefit of the eradication of evil from creation had he gone that route.

So divine justice was the one theological friend Augustine’s view of hell had to play with and it turns out, or so I think, that even that friend has turned its back on him.

And Augustine has another problem—his view of hell threatens to incinerate the revelation of God’s love. The idea is simple enough: if God is love then God’s disposition towards the other—his creation—is loving. To love someone is to desire what is best for them. So if God is love, God desires what is best for his creatures. And what is that? Union with God in Christ. Now, I believe that the instincts in this argument are entirely biblical, but, again, as with much else, that is an argument for another day.

For Augustine, loving creation is entirely optional for God. God could, if he wanted, love and redeem all his creatures. He does not do so because he does not want to do so. He could show love and compassion, but decides not to. Hell, for Augustine, is nothing to do with God’s love, for God does not love the reprobate. Hell only displays God’s love for the elect by giving them a vivid display of what they deserved so that they will better appreciate and enjoy their redemption.

Now Augustine would never deny that God is love—indeed his doctrine of the Trinity is rooted in the notion of inner divine love. However, I would argue that if Augustine is right on hell then God is not love in his very essence. And that is a problem. Big red flag! It’s a problem because it arguably messes up Augustine’s own trinitarian theology. It is a problem because Augustine’s God ceases to be what Anselm called “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Even I can conceive of a greater God than the God of Augustine’s scheme—i.e., the God who is love. To be frank, I don’t want to risk screwing up my doctrine of God just to hold onto my doctrine of hell: certainly not if there are better alternatives on the table.

Perhaps Augustine should have reconsidered his biblical arguments for everlasting hell—which are not bad, but are not that great either. They need to be a lot better given the heavy theological burden he wants to place on their back.

In sum, Augustine’s view is at best a hard sell and deserves to be greeted by raised eyebrows.

St Augustine of Hippo, early 14th century. Artist: Lippo Memmi
“St Augustine of Hippo” by Lippo Memmi

1. Why? God “would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil” (Ench. ad Laur. 11). So presumably eternal evil must be something that God only permits because he can bring some eternal good out of it. What possible goods may these be?
—First, the good of God’s perfect justice on public display. In hell evil is perfectly balanced with just the right amount of retributive punishment and this is a good thing. Augustine says that God could, if he wanted, redeem everyone and heal the whole creation. However, he thinks it is better to create a world in which evil exists forever so that his justice in punishing it can be permanently displayed. After all, they have no grounds to complain—they do deserve their fate: “if not a single member of the race had been redeemed, no one could justly have questioned the justice of God” (Ench. ad Laur. 99). Whether God loves his creatures is entirely up to Him: “there is no injustice in God’s not willing that they should be saved, though they could have been saved has He so willed it” (Ench. ad Laur. 95).
—Second, the good of making the wonders of salvation clear by contrasting them with what the redeemed are saved from. Evil, he said, is never good, but it can enhance our appreciation of the good. We value good things even more when we compare them to evil things. And the redeemed appreciate the joys of undeserved salvation far better by contemplating the damnation of the majority.
2. John J. Bombaro, Jonathan Edwards’ Vision of Reality: The Relationship of God to the World, Redemption History, and the Reprobate. Princeton Theological Monographs Series 172 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 179.
3. In Augustine’s scheme, the basis of punishment being everlasting is not the sins that we commit, but the sin that Adam committed. Adam’s sin was not like our sin in that he knew God and his will was genuinely free. The sinful decision that he made was unspeakably horrific and warrants everlasting punishment. We sin “in Adam” and inherit the guilt of his offence. Thus, any unredeemed human, whether a serial killer or unbaptized baby, will deservedly face everlasting punishment. This does not make all sinners equally bad. The severity of our everlasting punishment will vary a lot, depending on the actual sins that we commit. So the unbaptized baby will be cooked on, say, gas mark 1, while the serial killer will roast on gas mark 5. In addition, there are questions about the justice of God forever destroying sinners who could never have done anything other than sin. No other options were open to them, apart from divine assistance—assistance that was deliberately withheld.
4. I.e., that a sin against the honour of an infinite God incurs an infinite demerit and warrants an infinite punishment.


Above is the eighth section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.

Parry—The Victory of Divine Love over Evil

Doctrines of hell—in both Augustinian and freewill versions, and both eternal torment and annihilationist editions—have more problems than a hedgehog has spikes. It is hard to know how best to handle the issue in so short a time. So I thought I’d use the “Rethinking Hell” triangle as my guide on the journey and use the issue of God’s victory over evil as a way in.

Hell Triangle created by Rethinking Hell

First, a word on the ontology of evil. Here one of my part-time heroes, Augustine, offers some helpful insight. He argued that all created things come from the goodness of the Creator and are good (Ench. ad Laur. 9–10). Evil itself is not a substance, not a thing, but an absence of good.

 

In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present—namely, the disease and wounds—go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance—the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils—that is, privations of the good which we call health—are accidents. Just in the same way, what are called vices in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good. And when they are cured, they are not transferred elsewhere: when they cease to exist in a healthy soul, they cannot exist anywhere else.

Augustine, Ench. ad Laur. 11.

The ontology of evil that Augustine articulated here was in fact a widely shared Christian view by his day. The Christian Platonist tradition prior to Augustine held firmly to the notion that evil was not ontologically essential to creation and that God would defeat it. But defeat it how? Two options have been considered by Christians: you can either (a) imprison it or (b) annihilate it. And there are two very different ways one can annihilate evil: one can either annihilate the substance that has been corrupted by evil or one can heal the substance that has been corrupted by evil, thereby eradicating the evil. This yields the three basic options of the hell triangle.

  1. The Prison: forever balance evil with perfectly proportioned retributive punishment.
  2. The Guillotine: annihilate evil by annihilating those infected with it.
  3. The Hospital: annihilate evil by healing those afflicted with it.

Or, as we better know them: everlasting torment, annihilationism, and universalism. (I ought to add that Jerry Walls has his own hybrid version and the following analysis does not do justice to it.)


Above is the seventh section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.

Engaging Orr-Ewing: How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?

Amy Orr-Ewing
Amy Orr-Ewing

Amy Orr-Ewing, in her article How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?, begins by pointing out that many people are shocked that anyone still believes in hell. Despite that, she says there are serious questions we need to consider:

Is it part of the profile of a loving God to punish people? How could that be fair?

To answer these questions, Orr-Ewing rightly notes that:

Most people want to live in a society where administrators operate the legal system justly and fairly. When we are victims of a crime, we long for justice. Our loved ones want justice on our behalf if they care for us.

Similarly, when our loved ones are victims of crime, we cry out for justice for them and Orr-Ewing shares an example from her own life. Reflecting on this, she makes a profound statement:

Love and justice are inseparable. To ignore evil or injustice would not be loving, so a loving God must also be a just God.

Yes, but doesn’t this also imply that a just God must also be a loving God—that His justice includes the ultimate good of the ones being judged?

“The problem of evil is the problem of love.” If love is to exist, we must freely give and receive it, or else it is not love. If this freedom is possible, withholding love is also possible. Selfishness, violence, and injustice are the result of the abuse of love’s freedom.

I think this is a strong argument.

Why must God’s judgment involve retribution and punishment in hell? Is this not outmoded and vindictive?

I think some theologians and preachers sadly do express a retributive punishment that is vindictive. However, I think retributive punishment can be non-vindictive when the punishment is done for the ultimate good of both the victim and perpetrator—namely their reconciliation.

Retribution is an important factor because, in a real sense, it connects the punishment with the sin. It means that punishment is not arbitrary or random, but rational and consequential.

I’d also add, that retribution should be purposeful—aiming to achieve something worthwhile.

If one of my boys hits his brother over the head and then bites his leg, he knows I will remove him from the room for time out. He endures this separation for a minute or so because he has acted aggressively. Even as a toddler he understands that his actions lead to punishment.

While this example shows that wrongdoing rightly has consequences, it’s already more developed than a simplistic “eye for eye” retribution. I suspect that Orr-Ewing would also encourage (or even insist upon) an apology from the offending toddler. Because her goal is not just to punish the toddler but to heal the relationship between the siblings.

Wrongdoing must be recognized as such both by the perpetrator and the world around us. This is the function of punishment.

I think punishment can be involved in achieving genuine comprehension (see Engaging Shumack: justice and the death penalty).

Hell is the ultimate punishment. It is the destination of those who refuse to recognize their own sin for what it is. Their assertion of the self over others and God, defies divine justice. Hell is the ultimate consequence of egotism.

I think Hell is an inevitable—very sobering—consequence and punishment for the egotism Orr-Ewing describes. At the same time, I don’t think it’s “ultimate” because God doesn’t allow the evil of egotism to continue unaddressed forever. Instead God hides everyone (including Himself) from the egotistic person (“Outer Darkness”), which shatters their delusion of superiority and independence.

The idea of eternal suffering as a result of temporal sinning seems disproportionate if people do not fully appreciate the seriousness of sin. But a biblical view of sin positions it as serious. The worth of people, created as we are in the divine image and given the capacity and opportunity to make moral choices, shows how serious it is to abuse this human dignity by sinning. This applies to one’s own life, to others, and ultimately, to defying the Maker himself. We underscore further the seriousness of sin in the Christian worldview when we reflect on the cost Jesus paid to deal with it.

I think sin is so serious that Jesus died for everyone so that sin won’t eternally infect His creation, particularly all His immeasurably valuable and irreplaceable image bearers!

Orr-Ewing’s appeal to free will being the cause of evil, including people egotistically refusing God, suggests she would agree with C. S. Lewis’ statement, that “The doors of hell are locked on the inside” (The Problem of Pain, 130). However, his “Checkmate” chapter (below) reveals there is much more to the story.

Title titled
C. S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 247

He describes his own conversion, which demonstrates that even when people make free moves, God will always checkmate them in the end.

I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England … a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape. The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood [my emphasis], they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. … His compulsion is our liberation.

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 228–29

Looking back he realised that because he chose God it was free choice—an overwhelmingly superior choice. Had he rejected God, it would’ve have been because he was enslaved to a sick, sinful delusion.

… before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. … You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom…

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 224

Imagine a firefighter at the top of a ladder imploring someone to escape the flames. Surely if the person “chose” not to come, they’d be considered insane—not pejoratively but literally unable to make a rational free choice? Because of this, the firefighter may need to drag them to safety so that they can come to their senses. Likewise, our loving Father doesn’t abandon us to our own misguided “choices” but instead shatters our delusions, frees us from our enslaving sin, and heals our minds. In doing so, God comes inside, lifts us up so together we can unlock the door. (I highly recommend reading the article Free-will Theodicies of Hell, where Thomas Talbott fleshes this out).

Jesus is a king because his business is to bear witness to the truth. What truth? All truth; all verity of relation throughout the universe—first of all, that his father is good, perfectly good; and that the crown and joy of life is to desire and do the will of the eternal source of will, and of all life. He deals thus the death-blow to the power of hell. For the one principle of Hell is “I am my own…

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons—Kingship (emphasis mine)

Lastly, consider the context of Lewis’ MacDonald quote at the start of his “Checkmate” chapter. Before MacDonald wrote, “… the one principle of Hell is ‘I am my own'”, he explained that Jesus reveals all truth universally, including the truth that the glorious goal (“the crown”) of all life is to choose (“desire and do”) the will of God, thus defeating hell—all the deluded, sinful, egotistic pride.

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!