The Righteousness of the Pharisees


In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables, each relating to something which is “lost” and then “found” again. The point of each parable is to highlight the way in which God loves to seek and save the lost. But what of the things in each parable which are not lost? The “ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (v7), the older son who is “always” with the father and shares everything with him (v31)? Do they represent the righteous, who are already in favour with God? Or do they represent the Pharisees, who had only an appearance of righteousness?

Common Interpretations

To answer this question, we need to consider first the two most common ways of understanding this passage, which I believe both fall short. The first, and perhaps more common, is that the things which are not lost represent a kind of pretended, outward “righteousness” of the pharisees. Statements like “need no repentance” or “always” with the father are taken to refer to a false belief the pharisees had about themselves, one which doesn’t actually reflect reality.[1] The problem with this interpretation is that it over-psychologises the meaning of Jesus’s words. Jesus is not telling these parables to flatter the pharisees, but to correct their false beliefs (v1-3).

The second most common way to understand the passage is to take the “righteous” to represent actual righteous persons in good standing with God. Within the scope of Luke’s Gospel, this would include people like Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon and Anna. The problem with this interpretation is that there is nothing in the context to suggest that such righteous persons are intended. The parables are told as a response to the pharisees grumbling against Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors. What’s more, this attitude of the pharisees is clearly reflected in the protests of the older son in the third parable (v28-32).

A better solution is to understanding the “righteous” persons referred to as the pharisees, but to recognise that there was a real, objective sense in which they were “righteous”. Not in a moral sense, since they were hypocrites who treated others with contempt (Luke 11:37-54). But with respect to their objective standing within Israel, they were undoubtedly at the top of the chain, and thus were “righteous” in the sense of being blessed with such a status.[2]

Redemptive History

In order to understand the parables properly, it’s important to consider them in the context of redemptive history. Jesus was not in the business of dispensing timeless morality tales about God – he came to bring into being a new era in history, one in which social outcomes would be reversed in a drastic way (Luke 6:20-26). Those who were presently “poor”, “hungry”, “weeping” and “hated” would be blessed, whereas those who were “rich”, “full”, “laughing” and spoken “well of” would be cursed. This “kingdom of God” came crashing into human history, bringing down the strong and mighty and lifting up the weak and weary.

It’s in this context that Jesus refers to the pharisees as not needing repentance, as having a high status before God. And they actually did have a high status. They were the teachers of Israel, knowing the law and being close to the temple authorities. They enjoyed a sort of ‘ceremonial’ closeness to God that no ordinary Israelite could ever enjoy. But instead of leading them to act in a way befitting this high status, they acted wickedly towards other people.

It’s for this reason that Jesus teaches that they “need no repentance” and that they are close to God. They were God’s representatives in a real, objective sense. Elsewhere, in defending his ministry to those with sinful reputations, Jesus uses the analogy of a doctor treating patients and says “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32). In other words, Jesus regarded the pharisees as possessing a genuine status of righteousness before God.

Called to Account

But this status was not to last. Straight after Jesus told the three “lost” parables, he told two more parables which shed further light on the situation. Both parables serve as a warning to the pharisees, that if they refused to repent, they would be stripped of their current status and come under judgement. The new kingdom of heaven had arrived and the old leaders were about to be called to account.

In the first parable, the pharisees are represented as a middle manager who is about to be fired (Luke 16:1-9). In order to secure his own position, he cuts deals with his master’s debtors in order to secure their favour after he is sacked. In response to this, the master reinstates the manager. Jesus uses this to draw an analogy with the situation of the pharisees. Their time is up and they are about to come under judgement. But if they act quickly, by acting merciful towards the poor and releasing the burdens of others they might be able to win the favour of God. Essentially, this is them being offered a second chance.

In the second parable, the pharisees are represented as a rich man who refuses to help a poor beggar (Luke 16:19-31). He ends up in a place of judgement, whilst the beggar ends up in a place of blessing with Abraham. The rich man tries to ask for relief from his suffering and gets none. This is a warning to the pharisees: if they do not repent now, they may never get another chance.

Conclusion

The pharisees were the teachers of Israel. They enjoyed a special favour with God, and possessed unique authority as those who sat “on Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). They had an objective status of “righteousness” which others lacked. But the kingdom of God was coming. And this meant that their time was up. If they refused to repent, they would come under judgement.

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)


[1] Of course, this is not to deny that the pharisees really were hypocritical. But their hypocrisy is highlighted by the fact that their outward status is not consistent with the way that they lived their lives.

[2] This strikes many as odd, because we are so used to thinking of “righteousness” in a purely moral sense (either in a positive or in a hypocritical way). This could have something to do with the individualism of modern society.

The Dietary Laws of Israel

Why did God command the Israelites to eat some animals and not others? Was it for health reasons or for purely symbolic reasons? Within this article I shall be considering the issue of the dietary laws, with the aim of better understanding God’s rationale in giving them.

Health or Sacrifice?

To begin with, let’s consider the popular notion that the dietary laws were given for health purposes. I believe that this notion is mistaken, for a number of reasons. For starters, the dietary laws only concerned meat and meat formed a relatively small part of the ancient diet.[1] Secondly, in contrast to other laws such as the Sabbath commandment, the dietary laws did not apply to Gentiles living within the land – only to the Jews as a unique people. Thirdly, the dietary laws ceased with the coming of Christ (eg. Colossians 2:16), but this would have made no sense if they were based upon an ongoing practical principle such as good diet.

But perhaps most significantly of all, the distinction between clean and unclean animals existed long before these laws were given, long before Israel was even founded as a nation. Back in the time of Noah, we see the instruction to take only a pair of every unclean animal, but seven (or seven pairs) of every clean animal onto the ark (Genesis 7:2). This was so that Noah could offer sacrifices of clean animals to God after the flood (Genesis 8:20). Before being a dietary distinction then, the clean/unclean distinction had to do with sacrifice. By eating only clean animals, Israel was eating only the meat that God ate on the altar.

Diet and Holiness

To understand better though why God designated some animals as clean and others as unclean, we need to gain a better understanding of Leviticus 11, the passage in which the relevant laws are recorded. As noted by Mary Douglas,[2] the chapter is framed by an inclusio in the use of the Hebrew verb ‘alah’, which means “to bring up”. The first use of the term in verse 3 is in describing one of the key criteria which makes a land animal clean, namely that it must “bring up” the cud, that is, to re-digest its food a second time.[3]

The second use of the term is at the end of the chapter, and is framed as a rationale for the entire chapter: “For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” (v45). Note how holiness is defined here in terms of being separated from something. Israel is holy precisely because she has been separated and brought up out from the land of Egypt.

How does this principle relate to the dietary laws? Upon close inspection, all of them appear to reflect this principle. A land animal is considered clean if it fulfils two criteria (v2-8). It must ‘bring up’ the cud, distinguishing itself from its food more sharply than other animals which simply swallow their food once and it becomes part of themselves. It must also have a split hoof, a more fully-fledged hoof which separates and distinguishes the animal from the ground upon which it stands (and also by definition, a hoof which is itself separated into two parts).

A similar observation can be made with regard to the other classes of creatures considered in the chapter. Sea creatures are clean if they are covered in fins and scales, creating a barrier between them and their watery environment (v9-12). Birds[4] are clean if they are not carnivorous, separated in diet from the rest of the animal kingdom (v13-19). Winged insects are clean if they have jointed legs, lifting them up and separating them from the ground upon which they walk (v20-23).

Symbolic Separation

So then, the Israelite diet was intended to reflect their separation from the nations, their holiness. As re-iterated later on in Leviticus:

“You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 18:3-4)

Israel was to be a people set apart for God, and this meant living lives worthy of such a status. It meant reflecting the holiness of God in their actions, being holy as God is holy. And this is represented in the food that they were to eat. They were a set-apart people and their diet was to reflect this symbolically.


[1] Until recently, for the vast majority of people, meat was a luxury to be enjoyed only on special occasions. Modern industrial farming has completely changed this, and now the majority of people in western nations eat meat all the time.

[2] From her fascinating work, “Leviticus as Literature”. Mary Douglas is writing as a cultural anthropologist and so is sometimes able to notice things which other commentators miss.

[3] Some of the listed animals don’t actually bring up the cud, but they make a similar motion with their mouths and so appear to be chewing cud. The dietary laws are symbolic; they are only concerned with appearance.

[4] The Hebrew term actually means something like “winged creatures” and includes bats. The ancient Hebrews classified living things differently than we do today.

Made in the Image of God

When God created human beings, he made them “in his image” (Genesis 1:26a). What does this mean, and how is it related to (i) the commission to exercise dominion over the rest of creation and (ii) humanity’s creation as “male and female” (v27)? In this piece, we will explore the relationship between these themes.

Image as Dominion

In its immediate context, Genesis 1 unfolds the concept of “image” in terms of exercising dominion over the rest of creation. Both times the “image of God” theme is mentioned (v26a, v27), it is immediately followed by a commission to exercise dominion over the rest of creation (v26b, v28). Just as God exercises dominion over the world he created, so too does he call humanity as his second-in-charge, as a ruler under him.

Notice how it’s not individual human persons being discussed, but the human race as a corporate entity. Clearly not all human beings exercise dominion in the same way, but there is a chain of hierarchy, with judges and kings exercising dominion in the most direct, immediate sense. This doesn’t mean that we can’t speak of individual human persons as being made in the image of God (eg. James 3:9), but we should view “the image of God” as primarily referring to the human race as a whole, as opposed to individuals.

This brings into question a modern understanding of human nature. In modern thinking, human beings are conceived first as individuals and then secondly as families and societies. The biblical vision is completely different from this. It begins by conceiving of the human race as a corporate entity (“Let us make humanity in our image”) and only secondarily relates individuals to this corporate understanding of humanity (“male and female he created them”).[1]

Male and Female

How, then, does this commission to exercise dominion as “the image of God” relate to humanity’s creation as “male and female” (v27)? One implication is that men and women do not exercise dominion in the same way. Men primarily exercise dominion in a more direct way, through strength and the development of technology for farming and construction (eg. Genesis 2:5). Women, on the other hand, exercise dominion in a more indirect way, through bearing children who will “fill the earth and subdue it” (v28).

These are broad generalisations and it shouldn’t need to be pointed out that men also raise children and women also engage in technological development. But in terms of emphasis, men and women are oriented differently. Men’s bodies produce significantly more testosterone than women’s, which tends to produce greater physical strength and a greater sense of outward drive towards the world. Women’s bodies, by contrast, are able to bear children and nurture them through breastfeeding, which tends to produce a more internal, domestic focus.

These differences should be affirmed and celebrated as part of God’s creation design. Within the wider context of Genesis 1, “male and female” is one example of a number of creational pairs which are highlighted. You have day and night (v3-5), the waters above and the waters below (v6-7), land and sea (v9-10), plants and trees (v11-12), the sun and the moon (v14-18), sea creatures and birds (v20-22).[2] This suggests that the creation of humanity as male and female is a deeply significant aspect of the way that God made the world.

The Dominion Mandate

So, then, the image of God is about dominion. It concerns the human race as a corporate entity, with male and female emphasising different aspects of the dominion mandate. But how does this relate to the rest of the bible?

The answer is that this dominion mandate is re-iterated in the later covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:1-2) and once again in the covenant made with Abraham (Genesis 22:15-18). It forms an integral part of God’s plan for the human race. Throughout the bible, there is the promise of dominion over the world and this promise is ultimately fulfilled in the new covenant, in which the nations of the earth are to be discipled and baptised in the name of the Triune God (Matthew 28:18-20). All of this is made possible through Christ, who is the “image of God” in the highest sense, having total dominion over all things in heaven and on earth (Colossians 1:15-20).


[1] This also challenges how we think about modern notions of “equality”. Since the theme of “the image of God” is primarily corporate rather than individual, any notion of “equality” which implies that individuals are more important than families and societies must be false. However, if “equality” simply serves to set limits on the behaviour of individuals towards one another (respect one another’s life, property etc) then it can be a useful principle (see for instance Genesis 9:6).

[2] One interesting parallel between “male and female” and the sun and moon is Joseph’s dream later on in Genesis, in which he sees a vision of “the sun, the moon and eleven stars” bowing down to him (Genesis 37:9-11). The sun and moon represent his father and mother respectively (Jacob and Rachel) and the eleven stars represent his brothers, with himself as a twelfth star.

Do People have Souls?

Within this piece, I will be considering the question of whether or not humans have souls. I won’t be exploring this question from a philosophical, but from a biblical angle, taking into consideration terms like “soul” and “spirit” as they are used in scripture. My position is that humans don’t have souls or spiritual natures, but rather become souls when they die.

“Soul” in the Old Testament

Let’s begin by considering the term “soul” as used in the Bible (this is the Hebrew word nephesh and the Greek word psyche). In the old testament, this term is basically synonymous with the physical life of a person. For instance, consider the following passage in Ezekiel:

“The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20)

The word “soul” here clearly does not represent a part of a person’s nature, distinct from their physical body. It means their person, their physical life. In this verse, you could easily substitute the word “person” and it would make perfect sense. Consider also this passage in 1 Samuel:

“the souls of Jonathan and David were knit together” (1 Samuel 18:1)

This clearly does not mean that their respective ‘spiritual natures’ became entangled. It means that the life of Jonathan, including his passions, became closely interlinked with that of David. It means that they became extremely close friends. So then, the term “soul” used in the old testament (nephesh) means a person’s physical life and not a separate, spiritual nature.

“Soul” in the New Testament

But what about the new testament? How does that use the related Greek word (psyche)? Consider the following passage from Matthew’s gospel:

“For whoever would save his life [soul] will lose it, but whoever loses his life [soul] for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

Most English translations tend to use “life” rather than “soul” as the translation of choice in this passage. That’s exactly what the word means here. It doesn’t mean a sort of ‘spiritual nature’ – how could you lose an immaterial soul in order to gain an immaterial soul? Instead, it means that you have to be prepared to sacrifice your life in this age in order to inherit life in the age to come.

Unfortunately, the translators of the ESV (the translation I’m using here) were not consistent in their approach and translated the very next verse as follows:

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

A single verse later and the same Greek word is used, yet this time “soul” is chosen instead of “life”. Such a sudden change of meaning is unwarranted – it would make much more sense for the word to mean “life” throughout the passage, maintaining the contrast between this age and the age to come.

There are a few passages in which it could be argued that the word for “soul” does refer to a sort of ‘spiritual nature’. One of those is Revelation 6:9, which is speaking about those who have died and become souls.[1] The other is Matthew 10:28, which I quote below:

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

I would argue that the word for “soul” here once again simply means “life”. Matthew is drawing an opposition between this age and the age to come. He is saying that we shouldn’t fear those who merely kill the body in this age but cannot affect our life (or our body) in the age to come. This is confirmed by the use of the word “hell” (Gehenna), which is used only for the final judgement and is not to be confused with “hades” (the realm of the dead).

“Spirit” in the Old Testament

There is another word sometimes associated with a spiritual nature in humans, and that is the word “spirit” (ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek). This word is used to refer to the Spirit of God, but also to other “spirits” (such as angels or demons) and to the “spirits” of people. It can also mean “breath” or “mind”. What does this word refer to in reference to human beings?

This word has a different meaning to the word “soul”. Whereas “soul” simply denotes the physical life of a person, “spirit” stands for the divine breath which gives life to all creatures. When God forms Adam, he breathes the breath of life into him: “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7).

However, it isn’t just human beings who are given this life-breath. Animals are also made alive through this same life-breath (eg. Genesis 6:17). This life-breath is surrendered whenever a creature (human or otherwise) breathes its last breath. In a sense, the life-breath is loosely identical with the Holy Spirit, or is at the very least an operation of the Holy Spirit. The one Spirit gives life to both humans and animals and also takes that same life away (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20).[2]

At other times though, the term “spirit” used in reference to a person is more synonymous with their thoughts or their attitude. For instance, consider Psalm 51:10 – “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” The “spirit” here means a person’s thoughts, their mind. This is still not quite the same as a ‘spiritual nature’ but it’s conceptually closer.

“Spirit” in the New Testament

The new testament uses the related term (pneuma) in similar ways. Sometimes it refers to the life-breath which people receive from the Holy Spirit and give up when they die (eg. Matthew 27:50, Acts 7:59, James 2:26). At other times, it denotes a person’s character or their mind in general (eg. Matthew 26:41, Acts 17:16, 1 Corinthians 2:11). And at other times it denotes the Holy Spirit, evil spirits, angels as spirits, and so on.

Sometimes you also see a kind of ‘multiplication’ language in the new testament. For instance:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 27:37)

This passage doesn’t actually use the word for “spirit”, but you can see the effect. Jesus is not saying that people have three parts, a heart, a soul and a mind. Rather, he is multiplying terms in order to create emphasis – to show that the fullness of a person must be engaged in loving God.

A similar effect can be seen in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, which refers to “Spirit and Soul and body”. It’s just another way of emphasising the fullness of a person. You could say ‘life and breath and body’ but the point is the emphasis being created through multiplying terms. It’s not that human beings are made up of two (or three, or four) distinct parts; such ‘multiplication’ language is simply highlighting a number of different aspects of human nature.

Conclusion

So, having examined the two key terms typically used to refer to a person’s spiritual nature or “soul”, they don’t seem to mean what they are often taken to mean. Instead of teaching that human beings have a sort of ‘spiritual nature’ alongside their ‘bodily nature’, they actually teach that human beings are living creatures who receive their life from God.

All of which suggests that human beings do not have souls, as we would commonly understand them. Rather, human beings become souls (or ghosts) when they die, a shadowy echo of their former selves awaiting the resurrection yet to come.


[1] The “souls under the altar” in this verse are righteous martyrs. The word “soul” (life) is used to highlight the life-blood sacrifice that they have made in their deaths: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” (Leviticus 17:11)

[2] Verse 21 complicates this by having the spirit of human beings go upwards (to God) and the spirit of the animals go downwards (towards the earth). This can be explained by the key differences between animals and humans. Humans, being made in God’s image, have a more direct relationship with him than animals do. When an animal dies, the life-breath returns to the ground to produce more animal life. But when a human dies, the life-breath goes up to God as a memorial, since God remembers human beings and will raise them one day (eg. Matthew 22:31-32).

Classical Apologetics 2 – A Better Approach

In my last instalment, I interacted with and critiqued a number of classical arguments for the existence of God. Within this piece, I intend to put forward an argument for God’s existence rooted in history and revelation, instead of metaphysical speculation.

The Gods

Once upon a time, there were the gods. Practically every ancient near eastern culture had their gods. The Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, each of them had a pantheon of gods which they offered sacrifices to. What’s more, each nation recognised the gods of the other nations and sometimes made sacrifices to each other’s gods. When one nation conquered another, it was viewed as the gods of one nation defeating the gods of the other.

Pretty much everyone seems to have agreed that the gods existed, intervened in history, performed miracles and so on. Even within the Israelite religion (in which Yahweh alone was to be worshipped), there was still a recognition that other gods existed. For instance, the first commandment of Yahweh reads “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Not “there are no other gods”, but “worship me and not the other gods”.[1]

Now, it’s certainly possible that all of these nations were deluded and that none of their gods existed. But this seems extremely unlikely. It’s far more straightforward to believe that the gods existed than that they didn’t. The alternative would involve such an extreme scepticism towards human understanding that nobody could ever trust any of their basic cognitive faculties, even down to the present day.

The God-Slayer

It was into this world that Jesus of Nazareth entered. And what did he do? He drove out the old gods. He would wander into a city, identify those who were possessed by demons and tell the demons to leave. In one infamous story, he drove several thousand demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs only for the pigs to be sent into the sea to drown (Mark 5:1-20).

Jesus’s repeated conflicts with the religious leaders of his day ultimately led to his crucifixion. But, as it turned out, this was part of the plan all along. By subjecting himself to death Jesus was able to declare victory over the gods of death. In his resurrection from the dead, Jesus disarmed the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms:

“He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (Colossians 2:15)

The disciples of Jesus claimed that in rising from the dead, Jesus ascended into heaven to reign over all things. They believed that he had now been enthroned over all things and called everyone on earth to submit to his rule by being baptised and living in accordance with his commandments (see Matthew 28:18-20). They claimed that he poured out his Spirit upon all who submitted to him, enabling them to also have power over the old gods.

The New World

The historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ is strong. Many of the earliest disciples of Jesus claimed to have seen him and spoken with him after his resurrection. They continued to teach this and refused to renounce it, even in the face of violent persecution and martyrdom. They were ready for death, since they claimed to have encountered the risen Christ and believed that there would be a resurrection for them too.

The early Christians were sometimes called “atheists”, since they refused to worship other gods. And even today, the main places where atheism and agnosticism seem to have had a home (aside from under Communist regimes) is within cultures with a historical legacy of Christianity. This would have been virtually unthinkable in the old world, since essentially everyone recognised and worshipped the gods. But the new order appears to have swept away all of the old gods (or at least stripped them of their power).

The early Christians’ refusal to worship the gods was viewed as a threat to the social order. Because of this, they were often heavily persecuted. Despite such intense persecution, the early Christian movement continued to grow and spread until it became the official religion of the Roman Empire several hundred years later. Even today, at a time in which Christianity is in decline in the Western world, it’s flourishing across Africa and Asia.

Conclusion

Considering all of the evidence, Christianity seems to be the best explanation for the way the world is today. It seems to fit best with what we know from history. And of course, the central question revolves around the person Jesus of Nazareth.

By contrast with a “metaphysical” argument for God’s existence, this account is much more directly historical and evidential. It doesn’t merely attempt to prove that some form of generic “God substance” exists, but specifically seeks to demonstrate that the God revealed in Jesus Christ exists. The character of this God is not then deduced from abstract principles but from historical revelation.

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2)


[1] In one incident recorded in 2 Kings 3:27, a Moabite god breaks out in wrath against the Israelites in response to the king of Moab’s child sacrifice. There are actually a number of instances of other gods exerting their power in the Hebrew scriptures. See for instance Genesis 6:1-2 and Psalm 82.

Classical Apologetics 1 – A Critique

Within this piece, I will be considering some of the classical arguments for God’s existence, namely the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the moral argument and the ontological argument. I believe that most of these arguments are inherently flawed and rely upon deeply questionable metaphysical assumptions. In a future instalment, I will put forward what I would consider to be a much better argument for the existence of God.

The Cosmological Argument

This argument can be framed in a number of different ways, but here I will interact with one of the simplest ways in which it is articulated.

  1. Everything which begins to exist must have a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause

From this, the classical apologist will often then discuss the properties of this “cause” – immaterial, timeless, and so on. The implication is clear: the cause of the universe is God. But there is a huge problem with this argument. The notion of “causation” being invoked is a notion derived from within the universe. To take a concept like “causation” derived from within this universe (with all of its spatio-temporal connotations) and to then try and apply it at a meta-level to the universe as an entity in itself is unwarranted. One could simply re-phrase the first premise as “everything in the universe which begins to exist must have a cause” and the entire argument would collapse.

Even if it is possible to generalise beyond the universe in speaking of causation, there are still many other ways of resolving the question. You could have a loop of causes causing other causes, for instance. Once you go beyond the universe, you lose concepts like space and time so a concept like cyclical causation isn’t as strange as it might sound.

The Teleological Argument

This argument in its older forms would point to various features of the world or of the human body and deduce that they must have been designed rather than developed by chance. However, most modern proponents of this argument instead point to the universe itself. They would argue that a number of the fundamental constants and properties of the universe needed to be exactly right in order for the universe as we know it to be formed. Had even one of these fundamentals been slightly different, then either the various early formations would have spread out too fast and dissipated, or spread out too slowly, leaving the universe to collapse in on itself. In other words, the universe appears exactly fine-tuned for life to emerge.

The implication drawn from this is that therefore these constants must have been set up by some form of intelligent agent right from the start, in order to have a universe where life could form. Unlike the other arguments used, this one seems valid. One could also point to other interesting features of the universe, such as the uniqueness of earth. What are the odds of a planet having the specific conditions exactly right such that intelligent life could appear?

The Moral Argument

This is one of the most popular arguments for God’s existence in use today. Here is a straightforward formulation:

  1. If objective moral truth exists, then God exists
  2. Objective moral truth exists
  3. Therefore, God exists

The main issue with this argument is that premise 2 is either false or poorly defined. The notion of a universal moral law, popular in western enlightenment-influenced societies, cannot be demonstrated through any kind of logical reasoning. Now of course, there are practices which work better at holding a society together and enabling it to flourish (eg. prohibition of murder). Societies which lack such common-sense survival principles aren’t likely to succeed in the long-run. But that does not imply the elevation of these principle to a kind of objective moral law.

The only examples of ‘objective’ moral values that we can point to are either those found in religious texts such as the Bible, or the law codes and constitutions of political institutions. But these are objective in the sense that they are actually written down and codified somewhere. They do not represent a kind of ‘natural law’ written into the fabric of the world and so in this sense are not universally objective.

The Ontological Argument

This argument is a bit harder to understand since it appeals to the notion of “possible worlds”. However, one popular formulation goes like this:

  1. A maximally great being is one which, if it exists in one possible world, exists in all possible worlds
  2. It is possible that a maximally great being exists in some possible world
  3. Therefore, a maximally great being exists in all possible worlds (from 1)
  4. Therefore, a maximally great being exists

The problem with this argument is that it inverts the burden of proof through linguistic cleverness. One can simply turn the argument on its head as follows:

  1. A maximally great being is one which cannot exist in any possible world, unless it exists in all possible worlds
  2. It is not certain that a maximally great being exists
  3. Therefore, a maximally great being does not exist in all possible worlds
  4. Therefore, a maximally great being does not exist (from 1)

So, depending on how you phrase the statements, a maximally great being either does or does not exist. Given that such a stark difference in outcome can be obtained simply by slightly changing the second premise, I would question whether this argument is of any use.

Conclusion

For the reasons given above, I do not find any of the classical arguments for God’s existence compelling, aside from certain forms of the teleological argument. All of them fail insofar as they begin by adopting an abstract metaphysical being as the God whose existence requires demonstrating. The cosmological argument beings with God as an “uncaused cause”. The moral argument beings with God as “the good” in a Platonic sense. The ontological argument begins with God as “a maximally great being”.

The only argument which has any merit is the teleological argument, since it makes no assumptions about the nature of God, besides that God is some form of intelligent creator. In the next instalment, I will put forward another argument for God rooted in history and revelation, rather than metaphysical speculation.

Is Apostasy Irreversible? On Hebrews 6:1-8

Hebrews 6:1-8 is a difficult passage which has divided commentators. Is it speaking of truly converted believers falling away? And is the “falling away” in question irreversible? I don’t pretend to have all of the answers to these questions, but my aim here is to situate this passage in its original Jewish context, which sheds some light on the historical situation being considered.

The Elementary Doctrines

The passage begins with the author describing a series of foundational doctrines which the audience needs to move beyond (v1-2). He lists six doctrines, namely:

  1. “Repentance from dead works”
  2. “Faith toward God”
  3. “Instruction about washings”
  4. “The laying on of hands”
  5. “The resurrection of the dead”
  6. “Eternal judgement”

Given that the intended audience of the letter in question is Jewish, it would make sense for each of these doctrines to be standard teachings of first century Judaism. And all of them are, provided one takes “washings” to refer to Jewish ceremonial washings and “the laying on of hands” to refer to acts of consecration such as the ordination of priests, or the setting apart of sacrificial animals.[1]

Why would the author refer to these beliefs and practices as “the elementary doctrine of Christ”? I think this has to do with the fact that in the book of Hebrews, Jesus is viewed as the fulfilment of the law and all its ceremonies. This is seen most clearly in chapters 8-10 of the letter, in which the author explains in great detail how Jesus fulfils the role of the high priest, particularly as seen in the rituals of the Day of Atonement. So then, these “elementary doctrines” are Jewish doctrines.

The Light of the New Covenant

This list of “elementary” doctrines is contrasted in verses 4-5 with a series of experiences. These are listed below:

  1. “Been enlightened”
  2. “Tasted the heavenly gift”
  3. “Shared in the Holy Spirit”
  4. “Tasted the goodness of the word of God”
  5. “[Tasted] the powers of the age to come”

All of these are ways of speaking about the blessings of the new covenant, contrasted with the old covenant realities spoken of previously. Those who have been “enlightened” are those who have entered into the light of the new covenant and tasted of the resurrection life which is available to all believers under the new covenant, the life of the Holy Spirit.

Why is the author drawing this contrast between old and new covenants? He does it to show the superiority of the new covenant over the old covenant. Who, having experienced the blessings of the new would want to return to the old? The answer, implicitly, is some of those reading the letter. The author is warning his audience that to reject the new thing that God has done in Christ and to fall back onto the “elementary doctrines” of the old covenant as a rejection of Christ would be extremely foolish.

The Transience of the Old Covenant

Based upon all of this then, the permanence of the apostasy in question has to do with a unique set of circumstances particular to first century Judaism. When verse 6 refers to those who have “fallen away” after experiencing the new covenant realities, it’s speaking specifically of Jews who fall back upon the old covenant ceremonies as part of their rejection of Christ. The reference to them “crucifying once again the Son of God” may be an allusive nod to the irony of using ceremonies intended to depict gospel realities in place of a living faith in the gospel.

Those who clung to the old ceremonies and refused to embrace Christ would find themselves left behind. Not only would they miss out on the blessings of the new covenant – the presence of the Holy Spirit and the joy of the gospel – but even those ceremonies in which they trusted would disappoint them. In 70 AD, the armies of Titus Vespasian burned down the city of Jerusalem and its temple. Those who rejected the life which Christ offered and clung to old covenant ceremonies lost not only the hope of eternal life, but even lost access to the old realities in which they trusted.

“For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”
(Hebrews 6:7-8)


[1] Some take the “washings” to refer to Christian baptism and the “laying on of hands” to refer either to an early rite of confirmation or to the consecration of church leaders. However, “washings” in this verse is a plural noun so it makes most sense as a reference to old covenant cleansing rites. Given this, the “laying on of hands” is likely a similarly generic reference, incorporating a number of different old covenant consecration rites.