This week, long time Two Rocks resident, Josie (Giuseppina) del Bene, teaches us how to make crosses out of palm leaves for the Palm Sunday procession. Watch her step-by-step on this YouTube video:
This week, long time Two Rocks resident, Josie (Giuseppina) del Bene, teaches us how to make crosses out of palm leaves for the Palm Sunday procession. Watch her step-by-step on this YouTube video:
This week I will continue answering a question from one of the readers of these posts, this time focussing on the middle section, concerning whether the Christian Bible condones rape:
Why don’t Christians condemn the parts of their Bible that instruct non-believers must be killed. While they are at it they could do the same about the bits that condone rape and the bits that say gays must die.
I was somewhat bemused by the claim that the Bible condones rape, as most people understand the Bible to be strongly opposed to sexual sin, so I had to resort to consulting an atheist website with the congenial and obviously impartial name, The Bible is Evil, to discover our reader’s likely sources. It turns out that this website lists a number of examples from Judges, Deuteronomy, Numbers and Exodus which, according to the author, support rape. I will take just one of these by way of illustration and look at some general principles of interpreting Scripture, and leave some references which deal with the other examples.
The first example involves a rollicking yarn from Judges 21, concerning the rape of the daughters of Shiloh by the men of the tribe of Benjamin. Most Catholics who are not regular readers of Scripture are probably unfamiliar with this story, as the Catholic Lectionary for Sundays and Major Feasts includes not one snippet from the Book of Judges, and the weekday readings cover less than 10% of the entire content of the book (Lectionary Statistics by Felix Just, S.J.). This leaves Catholics somewhat unarmed for assaults from atheists on some of the more intemperate parts of the Old Testament.
To answer our reader’s question and provide some context, I will give a brief(ish) synopsis of the tale, which begins back in Judges 19.
The story begins with an unnamed Levite from Ephraim who has a slave wife – or concubine. Although concubinage was common in the Ancient Near East, in the Bible it is never described with approval. Jewish readers would understand immediately that the fact that the Levite has a concubine is a blemish on his character. This concubine has made an escape from her master to return to her father’s home – in Bethlehem of all places – and after a leisurely four months, the Levite finally decides to make the journey to recover her. We get a hint of why she might have run away from her master as his character is revealed in the story. To cut a long story short, the Levite gets along swimmingly with the concubine’s Dad, and the two of them spend the next several days eating, drinking and making merry far into the evening (while the concubine seems to be completely ignored). Finally, the Levite manages to tear himself away from the insistent father and makes his way back to Ephraim, together with the concubine, a servant and two donkeys.
When they start off, it is already late, and the light is failing as they approach Jerusalem. The servant sensibly suggests they stop there for the night, but the Levite turns up his nose at staying in what was at this time a city occupied by Jebusites – non-Jews, and moreover, descendants of the cursed line of Canaan (see Genesis 10) – and opts to head to the next Israelite town of Gibeah, in Benjamin. By the time they reach Gibeah, night is falling, and as they wait in the town square for someone to offer them hospitality, their chances of finding it are slim. Remember street lighting was not a given at this period in history. As luck would have it, an old man comes along and offers them a place in his house. Levitical law made it obligatory for Jews to offer hospitality, even to foreigners: “If you have resident aliens in your country, you will not molest them. You will treat resident aliens as though they were native-born and love them as yourself – for you yourselves were once aliens in Egypt.” (Lv 19:34)
But just when they have settled down to dinner indoors, we discover that Gibeah is not the safe place the Levite thought it was. In a scene reminiscent of Sodom, an unruly band of men surround the house, wanting to pack-rape the Levite (as one does). The old man and the Levite prove themselves cowardly in the extreme, for to get themselves out of this tricky situation, the old man suggests they substitute his daughter, while the Levite ends up giving them the concubine to do with as they please.
They had intercourse with her and ill-treated her all night till morning.
In the morning, the concubine, after a night of being violently gang-raped, drags herself to the door of the house, where in great distress, she dies “with her hands on the threshold”.
Meanwhile, the Levite, astounding us with his indifference to her plight, appears to have had a good night’s sleep! The tranquillity of the Levite is masterfully juxtaposed with the horror of the scene that has just occurred:
In the morning her husband got up and, opening the door of the house, was going out to continue his journey when he saw the woman, his concubine, lying at the door of the house … ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘we must leave!’ There was no answer. (Judges 19:27-28)
This is all the more appalling when we remember that Levites had a sacred calling and were the tribe set apart for service of the sanctuary. Jesus himself is not above criticising the hypocrisy of certain Levites (Luke 10:32), and perhaps this Levite is typical of those priests and Bishops who in our own age have been indifferent to reports of sexual abuse or even complicit in such activities. But I digress.
Without feeling a ounce of self-reproach, the Levite hauls her body home on his donkey, and proceeds to cut her up into twelve pieces, distributing the parts countrywide to each of the twelve tribes, with the message,
Has anything like this been done since the day when the Israelites came out of Egypt until today?
Instead of examining his own conscience, his purpose is to stir up the vengeance of all Israel against the men of Benjamin, and he succeeds, as representatives from all the tribes (except Benjamin) gather at Mizpah and declare that they will not let this injustice go unpunished.
When the Benjaminites refuse to hand over the rapists from Gibeah, full scale war breaks out, and to cut a long story short, after two days where Benjamin appears to be getting the upper hand, the Israelites get strategic and draw the Benjaminites away from Gibeah to a place where they can be hemmed in and massacred, while in the meantime other Israelite troops ambush Gibeah, killing the inhabitants and setting the town alight. Only 600 men from Benjamin remain, having escaped into the desert.
With all the mishegoss of a Woody Allen movie, the Israelites are suddenly struck with Oy vey iz mir about the fact that they have practically wiped out one of their own tribes,
Yahweh, God of Israel, why has this happened in Israel that a tribe should be missing from Israel today?
One imagines God going *ultimate headdesk*. (Er … because you killed them, stupid.)
So the Israelites decide that they need to ensure they provide wives for the remaining Benjaminites in order that the tribal remnant might not die out. Well, they can’t provide wives from among their own daughters, as they have previously made an oath not to contaminate their families with the murderous Benjaminites, so they come up with a plan to steal all the virgins from the one town in Gilead that had not gathered in Mizpah – having slaughtered everyone from that town outside the category of virgin – but this provides only 400 women for 600 men. They make up the balance by telling the men of Benjamin to seize the girls from Shiloh as they come out to dance at the annual festival (these are the rapes mentioned by our reader). Having done this, the Israelites all return home, and the Benjaminites are free to rebuild.
What are we to make of this unedifying story?
Atheists and anti-theists tend to think this way:
But to the Biblical exegete, that’s not what the book of Judges is about. One has to understand the intention of the author, and in this case, he is quite clear. We have the repeated verse regarding good leadership:
The generations after Joshua have forgotten God, are lacking good leaders, and have resorted to doing whatever they like. The entire book of Judges describes a repeated cycle of the Israelites turning away from God to worship the gods of the Canaanites, being humiliated by their enemies, being rescued by the Judges, having a brief period of peace, and then falling back into sin.
The Israelites then did what was evil in the Lord’s eyes and served the Baals. They deserted Yahweh, God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt, and they followed other gods, from those of the surrounding peoples … He delivered them to the enemies surrounding them, and they were no longer able to resist their enemies … so that they were in dire distress. Yahweh then appointed them judges, who rescued them from the hands of their plunderers … But once the judge was dead, they relapsed into even worse corruption than their ancestors. They followed other gods; they served them and bowed before them … (Jg 2:11-19).
Our reader asks why Christians don’t condemn the rape that is described in this book. A better question would be, “How did you, dear reader, manage to miss these repeated sentences condemning evil?”
Perhaps the atheists who ask these questions are just indulging in the straw man fallacy, relying on the ignorance of their audience. Or perhaps I am being cynical and the reader genuinely wants to know the true interpretation. In fact, we could say with today’s reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans,
People who are interested only in unspiritual things can never be pleasing to God. Your interests, however, are not in the unspiritual, but in the spiritual, since the Spirit of God has made his home in you.
When it comes to active atheism versus total indifference, active atheism wins hands down, because at least it cares about asking the important questions.
At any rate, the point of Judges is to warn us about the consequences of evil and to show what happens when a society abandons God and does whatever it likes. In fact, it is a book that is most applicable to our own time when relativism is the prevailing standard and everyone ‘does as they see fit’, without reference to God.
As far as the other claims go regarding rape verses in the Bible, I will refer you to Jimmy Akin’s treatments here:
Stay tuned for next week, when I will tackle part three of the question.
Today I’m going to depart from the usual format of commenting on the Sunday readings and take up a question from a reader of my Facebook page. The question is this:
Why don’t Christians condemn the parts of their Bible that instruct non-believers must be killed. While they are at it they could do the same about the bits that condone rape and the bits that say gays must die.
Firstly, I’d like to thank Bill for asking the question, and say that I had similar questions when I first took up the Bible to read it cover-to-cover. But I found that the deeper I delved into Sacred Scripture, with the help of commentary from the best scholars, the more miraculous and life-changing the Bible became.
Today I will focus on the first part of Bill’s question, and I’ll take the second half next week.
With reference to ‘the parts of the Bible that instruct non-believers must be killed’, I’m not sure which particular passage Bill had in mind (sorry, Bill, I should have asked), but let’s take, for example, Deuteronomy 20:16-18:
But as regards the towns of those peoples whom the LORD your God is giving you as your heritage, you must not spare the life of any living thing. Instead you must lay them under the curse of destruction: Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the detestable things which they do to honour their gods: in doing these, you would sin against the LORD your God.
Sounds pretty violent? Here are some thoughts on how to interpret this:
We need to understand the context of the story in order to understand why it says what it says. This is not an instruction to us NOW to go out and lay anyone under a curse of destruction, and I have never encountered anyone suggesting such a thing (except non-believers telling Christians how violent the Bible is). The Bible spans at least 2,000 years of history, and the parts of the Bible which have the most violence occur early in the history of the Israelites. But still, it’s legitimate to ask, “Why is this violence there at all?”
The Bible is really a collection of books in different genres which trace the story of God’s revelation of Himself to mankind. Now it’s not an easy task to teach humans anything, so God, in his wisdom, decided to select one particular nation – the Jews – and lead them gradually by methods that they could understand, to a fuller knowledge of Himself. When we read Scripture, it helps to think of the question, “What is God trying to achieve?” He wants the Israelites to be in a Covenant relationship with him – as children to a loving Father – and he wants them to learn how to listen to him and live good and holy lives. It’s essential that we understand the covenantal love of the Father if we want to understand the Old Testament – God is creating a bond with creatures he wants to elevate to the level of family.
During the period described in the Deuteronomy passage above, the Jewish nation is still in its infancy. Like toddlers, they are having great difficulty learning to listen to the voice of God, their Father, who, like a good parent, knows what is best for them. By the time we get to this passage in Deuteronomy, we have seen numerous examples of the peaks and troughs of the Israelite journey. One minute they are trusting in God with wholehearted self-abandonment, and are rewarded with blessings, next minute they are a nation of grumblers and mutterers who forget God’s help during the good times and are now backing away and suspicious of God’s intentions. The Israelites have an unfortunate habit of thinking their own ideas are better than God’s.
The Israelites of this period are like spiritual toddlers, who are embedded in a culture that is not very nuanced or morally sophisticated, and so God has to achieve his purpose of returning them to the Promised Land by talking to them in the only language they can understand – the rather unsubtle Deuteronomic Law.
For more on this and how to understand the Bible generally, I would recommend reading Walking with God by Tim Gray and Jeff Cavins.
God had previously given peaceful instructions to Moses for re-entering the Promised Land (remember this is the land they had left about 500 years earlier, when they had relocated to Egypt during a famine), but they had failed to obey orders. What, specifically, were these directives?
Look, I am sending an angel to precede you, to guard you as you go and bring you to the place I have prepared … I shall send terror of myself ahead of you; I shall throw all the peoples you encounter into confusion, and make all your enemies take to their heels. I shall send hornets ahead of you to drive Hivite, Canaanite and Hittite out before you. I shall not drive them out ahead of you in a single year, or the land might become a desert where wild animals would multiply to your cost. I shall drive them out little by little before you, until your numbers grow sufficient for you to take possession of the land. (Exodus 23: 20, 27-31).
So this re-entry was meant to be accomplished without warfare, but merely through the Israelites trusting in God to drive the enemies of Israel out little by little as they were (a) thrown into confusion and (b) discomfited by something as relatively mild as an outbreak of hornets.
But, just when the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, they got cold feet! The reconnaissance party that had been sent out to assess the land, returned in fear, and their negative report caused the whole nation to waver and lose trust in God’s promise to be with them.
They began disparaging the country they had reconnoitred to the Israelites, saying, ‘The country we have been to reconnoitre is a country that devours its inhabitants. All the people we saw there were of enormous size. We saw giants there too … We felt like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them’
The whole community then cried out in dismay, and the people wept all that night. All the Israelites muttered at Moses and Aaron, and the whole community said to them, ‘Would to God we had died in Egypt, or even that we had died in this desert!’ (Numbers 13:32-33, 14:1-2)
The consequence of the lack of fidelity shown by Israel, is that they have to wander in the wilderness for forty more years, before they can have another crack at the Promised Land.
Now this is where the book of Deuteronomy comes in (the violent passage quoted at the beginning). What we have to understand about Deuteronomy is that it’s not God’s first choice – the name itself means, “second law” (Deutero = second, nomos = law). The only law that is universal and continued into the New Covenant under Christ is the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) – and the principles derived from it. Jesus himself gives a critique of Deuteronomic law when he talks about divorce in Matthew 19:8:
They said to him, ‘Then why did Moses command that a writ of dismissal should be given in cases of divorce?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard hearted, that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but it was not like this from the beginning. Now I say this to you: anyone who divorces his wife … and marries another, is guilty of adultery.’
Referring back to Deuteronomy 24:1, we can find out what ‘Moses’ command’ was.
Suppose a man has taken a wife and consummated the marriage; but she has not pleased him and he has found some impropriety of which to accuse her; he has therefore made out a writ of divorce for her and handed it to her and then dismissed her from his house; she leaves his home and goes away to become the wife of another man. Then suppose this second man who has married her takes a dislike to her and makes out a writ of divorce for her and hands it to her and dismisses her from his house or if this other man who took her as his wife dies, her first husband, who has repudiated her, may not take her back as his wife now that she has been made unclean in this way.
See how different Jesus’ version is from that of Moses’ Law? The Deuteronomic law was given for people whose hearts were already hardened to God. Therefore the teaching about killing the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, and any other recalcitrant tribes, is also a ‘limited edition’ instruction which falls away under the New Covenant.
But why does Moses say, “You must not spare the life of any living thing”? The reason that the Israelites must not contaminate themselves with Canaanite culture is made clear:
so that they may not teach you to do all the detestable things which they do to honour their gods: in doing these, you would sin against the LORD your God.
The thing that many people don’t appreciate is just how horrific and obscene the practices of the Canaanites were. Think of it from God’s point of view – for the Jews simply to blend in with these Canaanites would be like your conscientious, God-fearing and well-behaved son getting involved with a bunch of drug dealers and sex traffickers. Once his mind has been twisted by the wrong sort of friends, it will be very difficult for him to extricate himself. Similarly, if the Israelites start intermingling with the deplorable Canaanites, soon their close, distinctive and holy relationship with the one true God will be so diluted as to be unrecognisable.
So what sort of things did the Canaanites, Hittites, and the rest of them get up to?
The Storm-god [Baal] came to El-Kunirsha, the husband of Ashertu [Asherah], and entered El-Kunirsha’s tent … Thus said the Storm-god. “When I entered thy house, Ashertu sent out her maidens to me, saying, ‘Come, sleep with me.’ Ashertu is impugning thy virility. Although she is thy wife, she keeps on sending to me: ‘Come, sleep with me.’ El Kunirsha began to reply to the Storm-god: ‘Go sleep with her! Lie with my wife and humble her!’
There is one custom amongst these people which is wholly shameful: every woman who is a native of the country must once in her life go and sit in the temple of Ishtar [Venus] and there give herself to a strange man. The History of Herodotus, Book 1, 199.
Mightiest Ba’al obeyed.
He loved a heifer in the pasture,
A cow in the fields by the shore of the realm of death;
he did lie with her seven and seventy times,
she allowed him to mount eight and eighty times;
and she conceived and gave birth to a boy. (Baal and Mot 5, v, vi)
and worst of all,
You will not allow any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, thus profaning the name of your God.
Cleitarchus describes the Phoenician method of child sacrifice:
There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos [the Phoenician equivalent of Moloch], its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the ‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic laughter,’ since they die laughing.
The commentary in the Jerusalem Bible says, “In Canaanite ritual, children were sacrificed by being made to pass through fire, i.e. by burning … The rite found its way into Israel, notably at the burning-place in the valley of Ben-Hinnom (‘Gehenna’), just outside Jerusalem. The origin of the word Molech is Phoenician and designated a certain type of sacrifice.”
All Christians know that, whatever is said in the Old Testament, the fullest expression of the heart of God the Father is contained in Jesus Christ, the ‘icon of the invisible God’ (Col. 1:15). Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, the Word of God, who has assumed human nature and come to us to reveal the Father more fully. Therefore the definitive guide for Christian behaviour is seen in the New Testament and explained by the Church which Christ established on earth. The Church has clear teachings on the killing of others, grounded in Christ. If atheists don’t hear Christians proclaiming these teachings week after week, it’s probably because they’re not in Church or looking in the right place. In fact, today’s Gospel reading is perfect for illustrating Jesus’ method of approaching those who do not share Jewish beliefs.
… because all Scripture has been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and describes how God has revealed Himself to mankind over the course of at least 4,000 years. Without God’s preparation of the Jews described in the Old Testament period, without their strengthening as a distinctive race with a distinctive Covenant relationship with God, the teaching of Jesus would have been incomprehensible, and his many fulfilments of prophecy would have been invisible.
(See here: Prophecies fulfilled by Jesus Christ)
Bill, I hope this has answered at least the first part of your question. Stay tuned for next week, when I will tackle the second part.
Have you ever wondered why Catholics have priests, but many other Christians have ‘pastors’ or ‘ministers’ and shun the idea of priests because they equate them with the dreaded Pharisees and the teachers of the Law?
At the amazing ecumenical Bible Study I attend in our little seaside community north of Perth, we have been studying chapters 13 to 21 of the Gospel of John, or the ‘Book of Glory’ as this section is called. This has given me the opportunity to delve deeper into the reading we will have on Holy Thursday: Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. On the surface Jesus is talking about humility, selfless love and service to others, but when we start looking at the typology, a whole new world of meaning opens up.
In fact, Jesus himself tells us there is more under the surface when he says: “At the moment you do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.” This reminds us of other times the disciples didn’t know what Jesus was talking about – Luke 18:34, for example, “But they could make nothing of this; what he said was quite obscure to them, they did not understand what he was telling them.”
They were at supper, and the devil had already put it into the mind of Judas Iscariot son of Simon, to betray him. Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God, and he got up from table, removed his outer garments and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘At the moment you do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ ‘Never!’ said Peter, You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus replied, ‘If I do not wash you, you can have no share with me.‘ ’Simon Peter said, ‘Well then, Lord, not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!’ Jesus said, ‘No one who has had a bath needs washing, such a person is clean all over. You too are clean, though not all of you are.’ He knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said, ‘though not all of you are.’
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments again he went back to the table. ‘Do you understand’, he said, ‘what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.
‘In all truth I tell you,
no servant is greater than his master,
no messenger is greater than the one who sent him.’
So what points can we make to demonstrate that during this scene, and in the chapters following, Jesus is transforming the status of the disciples to that of priests and carrying out a mystical and sacramental act? In fact, this would have been much clearer to the disciples and early Christians than to us, because they were familiar with the language and significance of the Old Testament.
The Washing of the Disciples’ Feet (John 13)
|Common elements||OLD TESTAMENT
The Great Day of Expiation (Leviticus 16:23-25
|… he got up from table, removed his outer garments||The High Priest takes off his outer vestments.||When he has sent the goat into the desert, Aaron will go back into the Tent of Meeting and take off the linen vestments which he wore to enter the sanctuary and leave them there.|
|… and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.||The High Priest carries out a washing ritual – but Jesus transfers the washing to the disciples.||He will then wash his body inside the holy place …|
|When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments again he went back to the table.||Re-robing after the washing.||…put on his vestments and come outside …|
|Jesus is about to offer his own life as the ultimate expiation for sin.||Expiation||… to offer his own and the people’s burnt offering. He will perform the rite of expiation for himself and for the people.|
Now this vesture was not composed of two pieces, nor was it sewed together upon the shoulders and the sides, but it was one long vestment so woven as to have an aperture for the neck; not an oblique one, but parted all along the breast and the back. A border also was sewed to it, lest the aperture should look too indecently: it was also parted where the hands were to come out.(Antiquities, Book III, Chapter 7, 4.)
You will also make a bronze basin on its bronze stand for washing. You will put it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar and put water in it, in which Aaron and his sons will wash their hands and feet. Whenever they are to enter the Tent of Meeting, they will wash, to avoid incurring death; and whenever they approach the altar for their service, to burn an offering for Yahweh, they will wash their hands and feet, to avoid incurring death.
Note that John takes for granted that his readers would understand that the disciples would have washed their hands during the course of the Passover meal anyway. There were three ritual hand washings during this meal: before drinking from the second cup during the reading of the Haggadah (Exodus story), before the unleavened bread was distributed, and after eating the roast lamb. Only the feet remained to be done, and in fact Jesus may have replaced one of these hand-washings with the foot-washing instead.
The LORD then set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the LORD’s covenant, to stand in the presence of the LORD, to serve him and to bless his name, as they still do today. This is why Levi has no share (μέρος) or heritage with his brothers: the LORD is his heritage (μέρος).
So when Jesus says, “If I do not wash you, you can have no share (μέρος) with me,” (Ἐὰν μὴ νίψω σε οὐκ ἔχεις μέρος μετ’ ἐμοῦ), Simon Peter gets the reference to the ordination of Aaron and his sons, the priests, and wants to be anointed feet, hands and head!
no servant is greater than his master,
No messenger is greater than the one who sent him.
the word doulos (δοῦλος) in Greek means both servant and minister, and the word for messenger is, of course, apostle or apostolos (ἀπόστολος), so Jesus is talking about appointing these apostles in a particular role as a ministerial priesthood.
Consecrate them in the truth;
As you sent me into the world,
I have sent them into the world,
and for their sake I consecrate myself
so that they too may be consecrated in truth. (John 17:17-19)
A lot more could be said on this topic than will reasonably fit into a blog post, but let me recommend Scott Hahn’s study, John, the Sacramental Gospel, particularly part 6, which covers the section from chapter 13 onwards, as well as Dr Lawrence Feingold’s treatise on the Typology of the Old Testament Priesthood, which goes into the comparison between the threefold model of High Priest, Priest and Levite in the Old Covenant, with the offices of Bishop, Priest and Deacon in the New Covenant.
The first reading today goes to the heart of why we need a Saviour. How many of us really understand Original Sin and can explain it to others? I know I have trouble. I have rewritten this blog post about four times and have almost given up.
One of my sons once asked me, “Why would I want to believe in a God who sends people to Hell for all eternity just because they don’t believe in him?” That kind of misses the point. And is heavy with irony, because this particular son loves gaming and you can virtually guarantee that most games on the market are replete with rules that reward with eternal consequences (within the confines of the game) the characters living in them.
But somehow, despite my efforts at catechesis, he has appropriated this distorted interpretation of Scripture, so amusingly described by the incomparable Edward Feser:
Many people seem to think that the doctrine of original sin says something like this: Adam and Eve were originally made for the eternal bliss of Heaven, but because they ate a piece of fruit they were told not to, they came to merit instead eternal torture at the hands of demons sticking pitchforks into them as they roast over hellfire. Though Adam and Eve’s descendants had no part in their fruit-stealing, they are going to be held accountable for it anyway, and merit the same eternal torture (demons, pitchforks, hellfire and all). For they have inherited a kind of guilt-carrying gene, which will automatically transfer them into the custody of the pitchfork-carrying demons straightaway upon death unless God somehow supernaturally removes it. For some reason, though, this gene doesn’t show up in biological research, and its existence must be taken on faith.
The way my son has framed the question suggests that he has created in his mind an image of God that is petulant, angry and shallow. It’s easy enough to get this sort of God-caricature from our increasingly secularist culture (which itself is growing increasingly petulant, angry and shallow), but it’s not what the Bible actually teaches.
A careful reading of the Genesis narrative (and the Catholic church does not ask you to take it literally) shows a God who has been exceedingly generous and loving to the first humans who have been ensouled. First he has woven all of space, time and evolutionary history together to set up the conditions favourable to the existence of this Paradise in which he has placed them, and then he generously says:
God blessed them, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful …
Be masters of the fish of the sea …
To you I give all the seed-bearing plants …
The Catechism tells us that God created man in his image and established him in his friendship (CCC 396).
God created man in the image of himself,
in the image of God he created him,
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
There’s a building and a gathering in these lines that suggests a circle of love and communion between God and the man and the woman. Ed Feser again:
… According to Christian theology, God offered to our first parents more than what was “owed” to us given our nature. He offered us a supernatural gift. Here it is crucial to understand what “supernatural” means in this context. It has nothing to do with ghosts, goblins, and the like. What is meant is rather that God offered us a good that went above or beyond what our nature required us to have. In particular, he offered Adam and Eve the beatific vision– a direct, “face to face” knowledge of the divine essence which far transcends the very limited knowledge of God we can have through natural reason, and which would entail unsurpassable bliss of a kind we could never attain given our natural powers. He also offered special helps that would deliver us from the limitations of our natures – that would free us from the ignorance and error our intellectual limitations open the door to, the moral errors our weak wills lead us into, the sicknesses and injuries our bodily limitations make possible, and so forth.
By definition, none of this was “owed” to us, precisely because it is supernatural. Hence while God cannot fail to will for us what is good for us given our nature, He would have done us no wrong in refraining from offering these supernatural gifts to us, precisely because they go beyond what our nature requires for our fulfillment. Still, He offered them to us anyway. But this offer was conditional.
Indeed, God places limits on these first humans:
You are free to eat of all the trees in the garden. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat; for, the day you eat of that, you are doomed to die. (Gen. 2:17)
The death referred to is spiritual death, a separation from that friendship with God that is engendered by trust, obedience and submission to God’s wisdom and authority.
So how did Eve succumb to the serpent’s temptations so easily? What on earth was she thinking?
Anyway, getting back to how Original Sin is passed on:
The penalty was the loss of the supernatural gifts they had been given and that their descendants would have been given, and a fall back into their merely natural state, with all its limitations. In particular, it was a loss of all the helps that would effectively have removed those limitations — and worst of all, loss of the beatific vision.
Similarly, we inherit the penalty of original sin, not in the sense that we’ve got some “original sin gene” alongside genes for eye color and tooth enamel, but rather in the sense that the offer of the supernatural gifts was made to the human race as a whole through their first parent acting as their representative. Inheriting this penalty from Adam is more like inheriting your father’s name or bank account than it is like inheriting his looks or his temperament. (Modern Biology and Original Sin)
I would like to emphasise the effects of sin even more strongly than Professor Feser, because I myself have often wondered about why God can’t just take us all to heaven without all the palaver of atonement – and I have prayed for Him to give me more understanding in this area. [This is the wonderful thing about being a Christian. We’re not just believing something from 2,000 years ago, but are having real live conversations with Jesus in the present.] And every time I have done so, God has in the few days following, made me acutely aware of some sin or other of mine which has caused great damage. Suddenly all the trauma of some situation from the past has been dredged up and re-presented to my mind, to the point where I have called out to God, “OK, ok, stop. I get it now.”
So if we don’t understand Original Sin, or even bog standard everyday sin, neither will we understand why it was necessary that Christ should offer his life in atonement for us. When I say ‘necessary’ I don’t mean it in the logical sense, because God is not constrained by this or that method of saving us, but God is perfect Justice, and therefore something has to offset the debt that has been racked up by our sins. St Thomas Aquinas explains it perfectly:
That man should be delivered by Christ’s Passion was in keeping with both His mercy and His justice. With His justice, because by His Passion Christ made satisfaction for the sin of the human race; and so man was set free by Christ’s justice: and with His mercy, for since man of himself could not satisfy for the sin of all human nature, as was said above (III:1:2), God gave him His Son to satisfy for him, according to Romans 3:24-25: “Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God hath proposed to be a propitiation, through faith in His blood.” And this came of more copious mercy than if He had forgiven sins without satisfaction. (Summa III:46:1)
… or as St Paul puts it in our second reading for this Sunday,
If it is certain that death reigned over everyone as the consequence of one man’s fall, it is even more certain that one man, Jesus Christ, will cause everyone to reign in life who receives the free gift that he does not deserve, of being made righteous … As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.
Trust me, we can’t make ourselves fit for heaven, we can only get there by holding on to Christ’s hand.
New for Lent (and maybe beyond!) Come and experience the power of prayer. Join us on Saturday mornings for 8.30 a.m. Mass at the Presbytery at 3 Blaxland Ave, Two Rocks, preceded by Rosary at 08:00. If you can’t join us, send us your prayer intentions and we will pray for you!
(Photo: By Daniel Tibi (Dti) | daniel-tibi.de – http://www.daniel-tibi.de/rosenkranz_gebetskette.html (own work), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=516637)
Having trouble finding an Ash Wednesday Mass which fits with your work schedule? We have the solution – Masses arranged by time for the Perth far northern suburbs.
|06:45||Our Lady of the Mission, Whitfords (in the Church, not the Chapel)|
|08:00||St Andrew’s, Clarkson|
|08:30||St Simon Peter’s, Ocean Reef|
|09:00||Our Lady of the Mission, Whitfords|
|09:00||Presbytery, 3 Blaxland Ave, Two Rocks|
|09:05||St Luke’s, Woodvale (with the Primary School)|
|12:10||Holy Spirit Chapel, Joondalup|
|19:00||St Luke’s, Woodvale|
|19:00||St Andrew’s, Clarkson|
|19:30||Our Lady of the Mission, Whitfords|
Thank you to everyone who attended the Yanchep Church BBQ last Sunday! It was a great way to get to know each other better and farewell Fr Demetri who had been helping us out while Fr Augustine was on holiday. Thanks especially to Cathy who hosted this at Seatrees Bed & Breakfast!
This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Whenever today’s Gospel reading comes up it takes me back to 1991. This was the year my beloved father died and my daughter was born. We had taken the decision that I would be a full time Mum some years earlier with the birth of my first child, so making ends meet was difficult, since my husband was in the process of building up his own business, with every spare cent being reinvested back into the business and Australia still suffering a loss of confidence following the 1987 share market crash. But after Elinor’s birth, life was further complicated by my developing post-natal depression.
The winter of 1991 was probably a perfectly ordinary winter, as winter’s go, but inside my head, the landscape was bleak and, at times, terrifying. It seemed to rain constantly so that I spent much of the time cooped up indoors with a two year old and an infant, and no support family within two thousand kilometres. Odd things happened, like the Water Corporation invading the park behind our house to fix a sewerage problem, and the whole neighbourhood being filled with noxious odours for days on end, adding to my general feeling of malaise. Then I had a great fear that I was going to develop a mental condition that was present in my extended family. And of course I was grieving for my Father who had wasted away over five years until every breath was a struggle.
But God uses these moments of interior misery to bring us back to him. The children and I had joined the local playgroup which was run by some of the young mums from the Neo-Catechumenate group. On one particular day, when our bank account was down to about $3 and I was wondering how we were going to manage until payday, the ‘Neocats’ invited me round for some Italian macchinetta-brewed coffee as well as prayer round their kitchen table. By chance, their Bible reading for the day was this:
‘That is why I am telling you not to worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and how you are to clothe it. Surely life means more than food, and the body more than clothing! Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap or gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they are? Can any of you, for all his worrying, add one single cubit to his span of life? And why worry about clothing? Think of the flowers growing in the fields; they never have to work or spin; yet I assure you that not even Solomon in all his regalia was robed like one of these.
Now if that is how God clothes the grass in the field which is there today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, will he not much more look after you, you men of little faith?
So do not worry, do not say, “What are we to eat? What are we to drink? How are we to be clothed?” It is the pagans who set their hearts on all these things. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all. Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow: tomorrow, will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble if its own.’ (Matthew 6: 25-34)
Sometimes you just know God is trying to tell you something. I went home and thought about it. Depression is different from other medical conditions, in that there is a certain amount of control one can have over it merely through the choices one makes. No, really. (I can hear people disagreeing with me.) I have met people who seem almost to identify with their depression to the point where they describe it as being part of their genetic makeup, and love-love-love telling you about how they and all the members of their family are living on anti-depressants due to congenital deficiencies in their parietal lobe. Fiddlesticks to that, I say.
The reason I have my doubts is that we are humans who are free agents, and free agents can choose at each moment how they are going to behave. We might not always be able to control how we think, but we can control how we behave. I can remember thinking while I was depressed, that I was ever so bored with my brain which seemed to want to go round and round in an endless monologue over the same subject matter. The trick seemed to be actually to do something which would change the subject. What helped me escape from my depression was meditating on the above reading, telling God that I needed a hand and then going outside myself to think about other people who were in situations far worse than my relatively mundane and self-centred situation. At one point, I remember seeing a picture in a newspaper about a young boy from Vietnam whose face had been terribly disfigured through burns, but who was coming to Australia for plastic surgery. These things made me realise I needed to get out of my own head and start doing something positive, even if emotionally I didn’t feel in the mood. I decided the cure for feeling miserable and broke was to start helping other people who were even more down-and-out than I was. I looked up the nearest St Vincent de Paul Conference and went to their next meeting. Soon I was in training with a senior member, learning how to discern whether someone required a food voucher or other assistance. I had always been a Mass-goer, but now prayer and scripture reading became more of a daily feature of my life. And the more I concentrated on helping others, the smaller my own problems seemed. In addition to this, over time, God helped us to prosper our business and manage on our budget. I look back on this period as my first great re-conversion to the Faith.
This didn’t just happen once in my life – over the course of decades, there have been several occasions where things have gone pear-shaped and I have been tempted to slip into depression and self-centredness. And every time, God has reached in and shown me the way forward – because Jesus Christ our Saviour is the Light of the World, He cares about our individual situations, He wants us to come into a right relationship with Him, and He wants us to be filled with an unshakeable joy in the midst of life’s trials.
Lent is about to begin on Ash Wednesday. This is a perfect time to pre-empt Satan’s plans for our misery by deepening our prayer life, coming close to God and asking Him to place in our path those people whom he wants us to help and encourage.