DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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TRINITY 5

Conquering Death

Romans 6.23
  Sin pays its wage - death.


F
or some, an enduring puzzle is how easily the first Christians seem to have accepted an oppressive social system, and in particular, slavery.

How, they ask, can Paul talk about freedom and then advise his fellow-Christians, "Slaves are to submit themselves to their masters and please them in all things" (Titus 2.9)? Surely this is a contradictory approach from one who wrote that, " ... we wait for God to make us his children and set our whole being free" (Romans 8.23)?

The answer lies in the norms of Paul's society. Personal freedom as we know it today was, except for rulers and the very rich, relatively limited. For example, even though he was a Roman citizen, Paul could be whipped three times without what we would regard as a fair trial 
(2 Corinthians 3.25).

Slavery as an institution was not then often questioned. It was part of the backdrop of people's lives, largely taken for granted. To suppose that it was wrong in itself is like a person today saying that banks are wrong. These, like slavery then, are simply part of the system. Most of the time we don't question their existence, even though some of their business practices should perhaps be put to the test.

In short, slavery wasn't wrong in New Testament times. We are mistaken if we hold it against our Christian ancestors that they either kept slaves or failed to protest against slavery.

Paul can use the image of slavery to make a theological point precisely because slaves were part of the social backdrop of his time. In exactly the same way he uses religious categories of the first-century to put over what Jesus meant for him - images such as sacrifice to appease God's anger. Such categories were for him part of a normal and accepted way of interpreting life.

Just as we have to adjust our perceptions of what slavery and freedom meant in Paul's time so also, it seems to me, do we need to modify how we understand Paul's view of death. He uses the ancient tale of Adam and Eve to back up his assertion that "Sin came into the world through one man, and his sin brought death with it" (Romans 5.12). Hence his well-known phrase, "The wages of sin is death."

It's clear from his letters that Paul and (most probably) most Christians of his day hoped they would not die. They looked forward eagerly to what we today call "the end of the world." They expected Jesus to usher in God's new world-order in their lifetimes.

Two thousand years later our understanding of death has changed. We know with near-absolute certainty that we will all die. That fact has nothing to do with sin and everything to do with the way we have been created. Death is natural. And if we think that the universe is God's creation, then what is natural must also be good.

For me personally, this is a wonderfully reassuring affirmation. I need no longer link my death with something rotten in the state of humankind. Nor do I need to worry, as do so many Christians and others, in case something I do now jeopardises life after death for me. I may or may not live after death. For the time being I have no evidence one way or the other.

When I die, then, it is because that's what God has ordained for us all, and not because of some "spiritual" sin or moral illness at the core of my being. There is no link between sin and natural death.

It's true that I, like everyone else, fall short of perfection - what we today call maturity. Partly through my own fault, I am unlikely to fulfill my potential. That is, I won't turn out to be the person I might have been if my circumstances and personal choices had turned out differently. But that's not the same thing as being punished by death for not being "perfected". 

The implication of much traditional theology that I will die because of my sin and the sin of my ancestors is not true. Just as we should realise that Paul's idea of freedom differs from our own, so it makes good sense to recognise that we and he perceive death differently.

I for one feel liberated by that realisation. Death, even when premature, isn't to be feared - though the pain of dying may be - because that's the way God does things in nature. Part of having faith is, dare I suggest, to accept things the way God made them.

When I recognise that death is good and that it comes to me as God's gift, then I'm free to cease fearing it and to concentrate instead on living. To put it another way, living rather than avoiding death becomes my main priority. A positive takes over from a negative.

Paul, using categories familiar to him, spots a potential problem with this approach. He writes, "Shall we sin because we are not under the Law ...?" (Romans 6.15). In modern terms, if avoiding death is replaced by living life to the full, isn't that licence for any kind of behaviour? 

Not so, says Paul, because we have become "slaves of righteousness" (Romans 6.18). In other words, release from fear of death isn't also release from our uniquely Christian calling to "Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you" (Luke 6.27). 

Bernard Shaw wrote that "Liberty means responsibility. That's why most men dread it." I sometimes wonder if we tend to focus on conquering death in order to avoid full engagement with life in all its risks, compromises and joys. 

Freedom from the hatred and fear of death isn't an easy thing to grasp. For that freedom calls us to live in a particularly self-sacrificing way for the good of ourselves and others, to be "slaves of righteousness." 

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