Archive for November, 2016

Atonement as Blood Covering, A Fresh Understanding? 17 November

November 17, 2016

On Sunday evening I was talking ‘Atonement’ with assorted Derby clergy who do beer and theology once a month. I was presenting an understanding that the central problem with sin is the wounds we inflict on others. God deals with this by a covering of blood like a scab covering a wound to enable healing and prevent festering.

‘There goes my theology!’ said one Minister half-joking. He described himself as less Conservative Evangelical than he has been. He recognised that the ‘Blood Covering’ understanding has claims to be more Biblical than the classic Evangelical view.

‘Why haven’t I heard this before?’ asked a fired-up Minister’s spouse. He was aghast that he was hearing a Bible truth which he thought many others needed to have heard before. 

This understanding comes from Leviticus 16, the instructions for the Annual Dealing With Sin – Yom Kippur. ‘Kippur’ means, simply and literally, ‘covering.’ The blood makes a Covering, v 27. (‘Kippur’ was spread over the inside and outside of Noah’s Ark to prevent it leaking. There kippur is usually translated ‘pitch.’ A covering which protects, preserves, makes good.) When Wycliffe was translating into English he didn’t want to translate kippur as ‘covering’ (not sure entirely why not) so he invented a new word: ‘at-one-ment.’ For years we have thought that the blood ‘makes atonement’ whereas the Hebrew is more literally that the blood is ‘for covering.’ This has been known in theological circles for a long time. 

Where do we see blood covering? Blood is released by a wound and then covers the wound to form a scab. This covering by blood enables healing, repair, reconstruction, to take place under the covering. The covering by blood stops infection from entering the wound and hindering healing. (Similar to the pitch-covering stopping the waters of chaos from seeping into and damaging the ark.) Is this the fundamental understanding of what is happening to the sins of the people? Their wounds, especially the wounds they have inflicted on others, are covered by God-given blood so that healing and repair can happen, without the world, the flesh and the devil hindering the process of healing? This likening of the Covering by blood to the formation of a scab is probably a new insight.

A further insight from the Hebrew, which I have not fully thought through, is that the covering happens in the Holy of Holies, the blood being placed specifically on the top to the covenant box. We are used to this top as the ‘mercy seat.’ The Hebrew word is ‘kaporet.’ The same ‘kpr’ root as ‘kippur.’ The NRSV translation rightly notes that the Hebrew is literally the ‘cover.’ The blood–covering is placed on the cover. Does the blood renew the cover, annually? Is this like a damaged scab being renewed with more blood, covering the parts which have become exposed? 

Implications of ‘Blood Covering’ as how God deals with sin:

The primary focus is on what the blood covers rather than on the relationship between humankind and God. The primary problem with sin is that humans wound each other. This damage provokes God to anger, as any parent is angry against someone hurting their child. The anger means that there has to be a distance between God and the wounder. But the rift with God is not dealt with directly, even by an intermediary, leaving the wounds untouched. The rift with God is dealt with by the blood which covers and heals the wounds. Once the wounds are on the way to being healed, God’s anger can pass and the relationship with Him is restored. 

On the cross Jesus was pouring out His blood to cover all the wounds inflicted by humanity, thereby bringing healing, repair, to those wounds. By Hs stripes we are healed. The blood which oozes from cuts all over Jesus’ body, covers not the wounds to His skin and tissue, but the wounds we have inflicted on other people. On the Cross Jesus was extending His ministry of healing. He had demonstrated Himself as the Healer par excellence. As he died, His blood, His life, was made available for wound/injury-healing for everyone, everywhere. There is a clear connection between Jesus ministry and death, which are often separated in other understandings of the cross.

The world, the flesh and the devil try to make wounds fester. Festering wounds, in people’s bodies, hearts, communities, nations, are the work of evil, trying to hinder the work of God through Jesus. How much do we see this in our world, our news?

The blood stops the forces of festering. The wounds are then healed gradually. Jesus’s blood covers once and for all. ‘Under the blood’ the Holy Spirit works gradually to heal, repair, sanctify. The work of the Holy Spirit in cooperation with Jesus is seen to be integral. Other understandings of the cross don’t see the Holy Spirit as integral to the process.

The primary focus on the wounds we have inflicted (rather than on the rift in our relationship with God which is a consequence of the wounds) is the same as the Biblical focus in Judgement on ‘according to their deeds.’ (Mth 25:31-46 Sheep and goats, Rev 20:12,13 and many other places.) We are not judged for what we believe or how we have related to God. We are judged according to what we have done. (This goes against the understanding that idolatry is the central problem in humanity.) All of us have injured some people. That is our central problem to which we have to face up. (Our good deeds are irrelevant. The common view that the good deeds outweigh the bad is like making a defence in court on a stabbing charge by saying ‘I’ve donated millions to charity.’ What else we have done is not the point.) Have we inflicted injury? Was it our responsibility? How are we going to put it right? Those are the central questions. We need Jesus to put it right, heal the wounds we have inflicted, by faith in His blood shed on the cross. (Idolatry can and does lead to us wounding others and thinking it is justified for the sake of all kinds of false gods. Idolatry is a malign influence, but the wounds which idolatry justifies are the core problem. Think someone walking by on the other side because their understanding of religious purity, or of bad events being God’s will / punishment, trumps the need to help the injured traveller.)

This understanding answers the exact question ‘What does it mean that Christ died for our sins?’ ‘Christ died to cover our sins, the wounds we have inflicted on others, like a scab covers a wound, ensuring that, in the end, the wound is healed. Christ’s death, Christ’s blood, means that all sins are covered, ultimately healed.’ The classic Evangelical understanding says ‘Christ died for me. He died in my place. He took the anger of God so that it doesn’t come to me.’ This is answering a slightly different question: ‘What does it mean that Christ died for me?’ The Evangelical answer says my sins caused God’s wrath but leaves me in a good place and my sins untouched.

The primary focus on the wounds we have inflicted also echoes the ‘Life Review’ in Near-Death Experiences. This Review enables us to see and to feel all the wounds we have inflicted, so that we can acknowledge responsibility for them and have them healed by the Being of Light.

Is the Blood Covering understanding a fresh insight? Has the connection between covering by sacrificial blood and covering by a scab been made before?

Can the Blood Covering understanding be said to be more Biblical than the classic Evangelical understanding?

Please comment!

Roger Harper

 

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Rethinking Hell in London: 10 November

November 10, 2016

Rethinking Hell in London was a great conference with stimulating speakers, interested and perceptive attenders. Much fascinating talk about the subject at meal times, not usual at Christian conferences. We would have liked more people to share the truth-seeking. I left heartened and energised by gracious engagement with an important subject.

My message was that the traditional Hell is a distortion of the Biblical message of Hades and Gehenna. Part of the distortion is talking of one place instead of two, assuming that when Jesus used two names, He meant the same place.

This distinction was new to many there and challenged by one of the other speakers. Some said that the most useful part of my presentation was to chart the differences between Hades and Gehenna:

Hades                                   Gehenna

Torment                                Destruction

After death                            After Judgement

Has gates and keys                Is a fire, a lake of fire

Presence of Jesus                   Away from Jesus

Presence of holy angels          Same place as beast, devil, false prophet

No fear                                  Fear

Gospel preached                     ?

Jesus risen as first fruit           No resurrection from this second death

Ends at Final Judgement         ‘Eternal’

Part of the distortion is that on entering Hell, understood as after death, wicked people are supposedly told ‘Abandon hope all you who enter here.’ Jesus, in contrast, says ‘Don’t be afraid… I have the keys of Death and Hades.’ This means that Jesus has the power and authority of entry and exit to Hades, where the wicked go when they die. Jesus can go in and out of Hades and take people in and out of Hades. I consider Jesus not only can, but does. Jesus can and does seek and save the lost even in Hades. This is why we are not to fear.

You can hear me explaining this at the first, 2014, Rethinking Hell Conference in Houston, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyNeF4CF8hU

This year, as requested, I talked about responses to the message of Hades and Gehenna.

Complexity: An honest response might be: ‘One hell, that of endless torment, was bad enough. Now you are talking about two hells!’ We are so used to thinking that eternal life begins the moment we die. It takes time and effort to take in that there is life after death before Final Judgement and more, or no, life after Final Judgement.

Clarity and Confidence: ‘I have got really excited about the whole thing. Now you wouldn’t expect someone to get excited about hell, but you might understand someone getting excited about there being no hell…’ The words of David Munby to his congregation in Barnsley, Yorkshire. A Church Warden wrote: ‘Now there is more clarity and less mystery, more appreciation of Jesus as my Saviour and the Saviour of others, more connection with God as my loving Father.’

Comfort: One elderly woman in a Malaysian home group had tears in her eyes as she thought about the hope of Jesus using his keys for her good non-Christian parents. She is far from alone.

One man in my prison was much disturbed by being inside when his mother, not a Christian, was terminally ill and then died. He had had sessions of bereavement counselling but was still distressed. As his release approached, the issue became more acute. I talked with him of Jesus being able to take messages to people who have died, (because He has the keys of Hades and came to serve us.) The man wrote a letter to his mother with all he wanted to say. We placed it on the Communion table. I told him that this was not only a symbol. Jesus really was taking those words and delivering them to his mother. A few weeks later the prisoner considered that he had no further need of talking about this either to myself or the bereavement counsellor. He was simply less distressed than before and could face his upcoming release in a better frame of mind.

Talking to Jesus, asking Him to pass on a message, is much better than the common, unhealthy, practice of talking directly to the dead, either at the grave or when looking at the stars.

Repentance: When our emphasis is ‘Don’t be afraid. Jesus has the keys, even after death,’ this feels like ‘Don’t be afraid. Jesus has the keys to unlock a better future for you in this life as well.’ There is always a point in repentance. All will need to do it, and the sooner the better. It is never too late.

Disturbance: Many people, particularly in the UK, believe that ‘we all’ (except maybe the few really wicked people) go to heaven because we’ve led decent lives. The message of Hades and Gehenna can make these people uncomfortable, disturbed. When talking in churches it is best to begin with the more comforting message of Paradise and the New Universe. The words of Jesus, and of John the Baptist, however were deliberately disturbing to those who considered they were basically all right on their own.

Being ignored: David Hilborn, Principal of St John’s School of Mission and Editor of the Evangelical Alliance Report The Nature of Hell wrote of my book The Lie of Hell ‘it deserves serious attention and a serious response.’ Instead there has so far been virtually no response.

Why carry on with the message of Hades and Gehenna?

Because it is Jesus’ truth.

Because it can unite Christians. Traditionalists who hold to the idea of ongoing torment for the wicked after death can see that this happens in Hades. It is ‘for ages and ages’ but not eternal. Universalists who hold to the idea that most, maybe all, people will eventually reach ‘heaven’ can see that Jesus having and using the keys of Hades makes this likely, though not certain.

Because it might unite Protestants and Roman Catholics. Can Protestants accept Hades as Biblical, separate from and preceding Gehenna, the Hades to which Jesus has the keys and to which the Church has access, the gates availing nothing? Can Catholics accept Hades as the lost ancestor of Purgatory, the truer, more original, teaching of the Church founded on the revelation given to Peter? Protestants would have to learn what is the role of the Church beyond this life, instead of dismissing the idea of any such role for the Church. Catholics would have to learn the true nature of Hades, of which Purgatory is an artificial shadow, and from which release is not earned through penance or prayer, but given as free gift through the gracious forgiveness of Jesus and to which the Church bears witness.

Because it might improve society. Sociologists have shown a link between a general belief in an ‘or else’ after death and both lower crime rates and economic growth. See https://rogerharper.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/hell-on-the-net-controversy-and-crime-july-22/

With the message of Hades and Gehenna we help the Church, and the nations, to be transformed by the renewing of our understanding. We spearhead a unity that the Church has not known for hundreds of years. We annihilationists become redundant because there are no more conflicting schools of thought but one Church built on the foundation of Jesus’ teaching, Hades and Gehenna. We are agents of renewal in faith and hope and love for everyone.