Saturday, July 27, 2013

Faith, Reason, and Mystery #1

            The term "mystery" as used positively in the New Testament relates to a cognitive dissonance—that is, to the disconnect between faith and reason.  Positively used, it describes the incomprehensible working of divine power, which the early followers of Jesus struggled to understand rationally.  At least six issues perplexed them; oddly some of these same issues remain rational problems to the modern Christian mind.
The mystery of the failure of the Jewish mission: Paul was perplexed about the failure of the Jewish mission.  Why hadn't the Jewish people as a group embraced the "good news" about Jesus that Paul preached?  In Paul's view it had always been God's plan (Rom 9:1-5) to save the world through the sacrifice of Jesus.  Why didn't the Jewish people understood the Scripture, their own holy books, which early followers of Jesus believed "testified of Jesus" (John 5:39)?  That "a hardening had come upon Israel" until the proper number of Gentile had "come in" was a "mystery" according to Paul (Rom 11:25-29).  Paul appealed to the Jewish Scripture showing that this "hardening" had always been part of God's plan (Rom 11:8; Deut 29:3-4; Isa 6:9-10).
            The mystery that gentiles are heirs of the promise of Christ: After Paul's day the historical situation changed and a new problem was created by the failure of the Jewish mission.  At this later point Judaism and the church were recognized essentially as two different religions.  From the later perspective the question became: how is it that Gentiles (of which the church was then mostly comprised) are also heirs of the promise of Christ (Eph 3:3-6)?  They had come to recognize that the inclusion of the Gentiles was a promise made to Israel in the new covenant spoken of by Jeremiah (Heb 8:8-13; Jer 31:31-34).
Today the church no longer considers either of these a "mystery." From the perspective of history it is clear that by the middle first century the movement represented by Paul had already turned the corner.  Judaism and the early followers of Jesus actually represented two distinct social and religious groups, and Paul was too close to the situation to recognize it.
            The mystery of the spirit body: Paul also considered the resurrection of the believer, which involved the transformation of the physical body into a "spirit body," a mystery (1 Cor 15:51-52).  How could such a thing as the transformation of a physical body into spirit body occur?  How could the perishable become imperishable in "the twinkling of an eye"?  He never answers the question "how," but simply calls it a mystery—signaling by this term that it was something he did not understand.  His arguments for understanding the resurrection as a spiritual experience (1 Cor 15:35-50) are analogies rather than substantive logical arguments.  What he clearly does understand, however, is that the fleshly, physical, and perishable "cannot inherit the kingdom of God," which is innately imperishable and spiritual (1 Cor 15:44, 50). Later Pauline disciples reinterpreted his idea of the spirit body by arguing for the ascent of the spirit or the soul apart from the body (Treatise on the Resurrection 45:14-46:2; 47:30-48:6; 49:9-16) rather than for a "spirit" body.  Why should a spirit need "embodiment" anyway?
            The resurrection still remains a mystery to the Christian mind.   In an age of reason and scientific thinking a resurrection in whatever form is a problem for many.  But many modern believers persist in believing in the resurrection of the physical body and simply ignore Paul's view, arguing instead that the resurrection will be physical (i.e., the resuscitation of the natural body), a view that is encouraged in the gospels (Matt 28:9; John 20:17; 21:12-13; Luke 24:30) and 2 Clement (9:5).
Here is a curiosity question:  Do you "believe" anything that you would consider a mystery?
(End of the first installment—three more early Christian mysteries to come)
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


  1. Hello Charlie,

    That’s an interesting blog with interesting mysteries. Regarding the first one: as to why the Jewish people didn’t understand the Scripture, their own holy books, which early followers of Jesus believed "testified of Jesus." Isn’t the standard answer that the Jewish leaders—chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, elders—held too much power over the people, and these leaders were the ones entrusted with interpreting the Scriptures? They didn’t want their monotheistic religion to be changed into one in which a Messiah would be worshipped as equal to God himself. They didn’t want to consider that Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy may have turned out to be true, in which Immanuel would be the hope of the Gentiles and a Mighty God (Isa. 9:6). If they were to have a messiah at all, he should be one who would restore Israel to greatness and not end up being hanged on a tree. So these leaders interpreted the Scriptures otherwise.

    On the other side one might ask, why did early Christians believe Jesus was the messianic fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy that a child born of a young woman would be named Immanuel at birth if he had been named Jesus instead?

  2. May I try Mystery #2 now?

    It can be explained if Isaiah was correct in his prophecy that Immanuel would be a beacon for Gentiles ( Isa 9:1-6, 11:10), and if Jeremiah (31:31-34 as you pointed out) indeed implied that in the new covenant the ALL who would know the Lord (God? or the Messiah?)-- if these referred to all peoples and mot just all Jews. So if those if’s were fulfilled (and perhaps some other OT prophecies), then Immanuel/Jesus did indeed preach and teach a universal message that applied to Gentiles as well as Jews. However, we don’t necessarily know from Paul’s epistles and the Gospels what that universal message was, since there was so much cause for misunderstandings and redactions. Although Matthew contains a Jewish perspective (God was the God of Israel, and Gentiles were to be treated as taxpayers etc.), I do believe that certain sayings in Matthew, such as the Golden Rule, do reflect the original universal message.

    Don’t you think that Paul did pretty much come to realize that he shouldn’t waste further time trying to proselytize the Jews, but rather, with Barnabas, just proselytize the Gentiles (Gal 2:9) ?

  3. Let me now address Mystery #3 also, while it is still up front in your blog, Charlie. Like you say, it is a mystery to the Christian mind, and so it is natural to turn to non-Christian findings for answers. And so one immediately comes upon modern studies of past lives and near-death experiences. These all require or imply that each of us embodies an immaterial spirit before birth, which remains with us throughout life and beyond and into the next life (as we’ve discussed a bit before).

    Hence the modern (and ancient also) answer to your question: “How could such a thing as the transformation of a physical body into spirit body occur?” is that it doesn’t occur. Thus it could seem like a mystery. Instead, as the material body dies, the research indicates that its associated immaterial spirit finds its way into the “other world” or “spirit world” or “heaven.” However, one could indeed say that this takes place in the twinkling of an eye, since when the spirit leaves the body for good, death of the body occurs at that very instant almost by definition.

    Evidently the writer of the Treatise on the Resurrection, and perhaps Paul also, was closer to this modern view than were the Pharisees, most of whom believed in a resurrected body after death that was the same physical body as before.

  4. Hi Jim,
    A brief comment on your #1 reply: As you know early followers of Jesus were Jews and regarded the Hebrew Bible as special religious literature--it was the only "Bible" they knew. So they continued using it as "Scripture" and "found" themselves and their new faith in its pages by using allegory and typology. In a sense they disregarded a historical reading and read themselves and their faith into texts whose authors were talking about something entirely different. Consider Paul's egregious reading of Torah in Galatians 4:21-31! They abused historical texts by their imaginative creative fictions--something the church and conservative Christian scholars still do today.
    To answer your question in your #2 response: Paul never turned away from a Jewish mission even though he was the great apostle to the gentiles. The Jewish people were always and would be the people of God (Romans 9-11). He thought that when "the full number of the gentiles" had come to faith then "all Israel would be saved." A passing strange idea!

  5. Hi Jim,
    A few thoughts on your reply #3. I am glad that you are willing to engage these likely-off-the-wall ideas that appear in the blog. Responses always drive me back to square one. I have not been convinced by the "proofs" offered in modern studies of past lives and near death experiences for the continuation of spirit after death--granted I have not made a close study of all of them (personal disclosure: I read one book by a man who believed in such phenomena and his negative results led me to that conclusion). But even allowing that the spirit continues I find the disagreement between you and Paul to be "nit-picky." You say that the transformation of the physical remains after death into a spirit body does not occur--Paul of course thought it did. How exactly is your immaterial and formless spirit different from Paul's immaterial but formed-like-a-body spirit? I suspect that he knew as well as you and I that physical remains of a death still had to be dealt with (1 Thess 4:13-17)and either immolated or buried. I gather the thrust of his argument was that the spirit was not a gaseous element but had body shape to it (probably associated with the fact in his mind that the first man Adam had been created as a "living spirit" [Gen 2:7] rather than a creature inhabited by spirit, as human beings were seen in the Greek world). So I am left to choose between a Greek concept (your formless spirit that escapes the body at death) and Hebrew thought (Paul's "spirit body" was required because Adam was fashioned a living spirit from the dust by the breath of God). I am not sure that I see any real difference between the two.

  6. Hi Charlie,
    You ask, “How exactly is your immaterial and formless spirit different from Paul's immaterial but formed-like-a-body spirit?” All the evidence of the existence of past-lives come from memories, whether occurring spontaneously or under hypno-regression. Memories can’t be sensed by sight, sound, touch, taste or smell. and so are immaterial. The essence that carries these memories from lifetime to lifetime is identified as the human spirit or soul, which thus is immaterial and invisible. I should add that to be considered bona fide, the identified past-life memories have to be confirmed beyond reasonable doubt
    But evidently Paul’s formed-like-a-body spirit is visible, since a form or shape is something that can be seen, is it not? So whatever Paul had in mind there, which sounds like a “ghost” to me, wasn’t the invisible human spirit or soul (which some people distinguish a bit from each other). But in Jesus’ various post-crucifixion appearances mentioned by Paul in 1 Cor 15:5-7 he must have had a physical body in mind, if those to whom he appeared and spoke could identify him by sight and sound. Hence I think Paul’s idea of a resurrected person was more like that of the Pharisees – a reconstituted physical body that looked and was the same as before, and whose vocal cords were the same as before. With that view the spirit only serves the purpose of providing a link between the dead decaying body and the body & brain that are later assumed to be reconstituted from it. The concept of evolution of the spirit then doesn't enter in.

  7. Hi Jim,
    I think we are coming to the discussion from two different views of the nature of reality. I know of no quantitative conclusive proof that demonstrates the existence of a human spirit that exists independently from its human host as a resident within the body (and that includes other spirits: evil spirits, demonic spirits, good spirits, lying spirits, unclean spirits, or Holy Spirits, etc.), and departs for better "digs" upon the death of its human host. I know the human spirit is widely believed in ancient and modern religious traditions to survive the body. But those anecdotal testimonies only prove that such ideas are widely believed. To which the counter is: Just because you believe something does not make it so! Hence to be debating kinds of spirit "forms" as though we were talking about something substantive or real is like middle age theologians debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. On the recognition of departed spirits: there are many stories which feature the recognition of departed spirits from Homer to the Hebrew Bible, so it seems to be a common motif in antiquity (and probably modernity as well) that the spirit surviving the body's death can be recognized as the departed person. That seems to put Paul's view in harmony with the accepted view of surviving spirits in antiquity. With regard to memories triggering recall of past lives, you will just have to regard me as the hopeless skeptic. Such anecdotal testimony does not rise in my view to the level of quantitative proof of past lives. How is it possible to test quantitatively what exists only in the mind? With regard to Paul's "spirit body" being a ghost: "Ghost is the translation usually given to the Greek word "fantasma" (Mark 6:49 = Matt 14:26). In Luke 24:37 Codex Bezae changes Luke's spirit into "fantasma." The English word phantasm (specter, apparition, etc.) is derived from the Greek and its synonyms are numerous.

  8. Dear “Hopeless Skeptic,"

    Most of us are in the same boat as skeptics on a topic that may at first seem surprising, unless enough information comes along to change our outlook. Regarding the past-life evidence, we have to be satisfied with verification of past-life memories as the basis for substantive belief in the reality of some invisible means which can convey incidents from a particular past life into the occasional spontaneous memories of a particular living person who was born after the past life had died. It’s only if one gets interested in the matter and starts checking out the verifying evidence, documented by researchers, that one may become convinced. So I included a brief bibliography of such research in a previous blog of yours. The integrity of past-life remembrances has been checked out quantitatively. It becomes proof only as more and more of it accumulates; there is over 40 years of it now.

    Suppose you remember some events that occurred in your childhood, for example, and tell them to a skeptic who doubts their veracity. This skeptic then independently checks up on your past and finds that most of it indeed was correct. Wouldn’t that skeptic then agree with you about the reality of those events you remembered? He would also then agree for the most part in the veracity of your “anecdotal” memories (especially if there were 30 or 40 of them, and they were quite detailed, even though you may have mis-remembered some details of a small fraction of the events.

    The one theologian (and philosopher of religion) I know of who has looked into part of the reincarnation evidence is John Hick (in _Philosophy of Religion_, p. 136; _Death and Eternal Life+, p. 306; _J. Religious Studies_ 3, 1971, 56-69). He looked into some of Prof. Ian Stevenson’s “Childhood cases of the reincarnation type,” and admitted how impressive the evidence is. However, from the start he dismissed “the connecting thread of memory” as a viable way in which a person might deduce that he or she is the same person in essence as one who lived before. Perhaps he had a material thread in mind? Hick went on to explain the “conceptual difficulties” he has with the concept.

    Thus one can often choose to believe what one wants and disbelieve what one wants.

  9. Good Rainy Afternoon Jim,
    Thank you for including for readers Hick's evaluation of Stevenson's childhood cases. My problem is one of control. There is no way that I can see that the researcher can eliminate the possibility of self-delusion on the part of the testifier--even though the testimony may be given in good faith by the testifier. That is he/she truly believes that s/he is the person who lived the former life. I also do not see how to rule out the shrewd but devious testifier who has made an extensive study of the person s/he claims to be. "Past life memory" is precisely what I do not find convincing as a proof of past life. Memory always plays tricks on us and we remember things about ourselves all the time that are simply untrue. The aggregate accumulation of such proofs I find no more convincing than the testimony of the hundreds of persons in a crowd who are absolutely certain that they have seen simultaneously an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Such testimony does not lead me to the judgment that the Virgin Mary "exists" on a higher plain of reality. All this is not to say such phenomena are not interesting and deserving of investigation. But it does not justify a leap into the supernatural to find answers for the phenomena. With regard to your last sentence : Do not all of us "choose to believe" and disbelieve what we want? If we did not, we would be controlled by every recent -ism that comes along.
    I remain
    The hopeless skeptic