Infinitely Entangled: A Story of a Murder and a God Who Cried

She was stabbed to death on a sunny, Saturday morning in a suburb near Austin, Texas. It was April 18th 2014.

Having sold some shares he owned in a company, her husband had just returned from Chicago with a hundred thousand dollars in cash. Allegedly, he wanted to escape somewhere after “the deed.” That morning, he had breakfast with his family, which included his wife and his wife’s sister, who was barely fourteen. Their two little kids were present, probably frolicking around in excitement in the presence of daddy. His wife sat across a dining room table, eating pancakes, while repeatedly stroking her pregnant abdomen. Everything seemed fine. His wife was busy sharing her morning with her friends on social media, putting on display a family committed to an ideal: “those who eat together, stay together.” The world must have thought everything was fine.

The husband, without a sign of disturbance, suggested to his wife, kids, and sister-in-law that they head to a park. You know, “for a morning stroll.” And so, the park it was.

In a matter of minutes, after he placed his two kids in their brand new Lexus, he returned to the house to find his wife alone. (The sister-in-law was probably in a nearby room preparing for the stroll.) Without skipping a beat, he grabbed a kitchen knife, put his pregnant wife in a headlock, and shoved the large knife into her throat. Surprised by this behavior, the wife didn’t seem to fight back.

A small commotion must have disturbed the sister-in-law, since she promptly returned to the dining room only to find her sister covered in blood, being stabbed repeatedly to death by her own husband.

In a state of utter dismay, she called the police.

He didn’t even bother to pull the knife out. He just left it standing there, stuck in her womb, an erect witness to the crime he had just committed.

Calmly, the husband got back into the car and went to the park with his kids.


But the story doesn’t end there. In fact, it hasn’t even begun.


Before Rachel ever married Matthew, she was in love with his cousin, Tim. After things didn’t work out with Tim, she had begun dating Matthew with the hopes that she could get Tim back by the sheer force of jealousy. Things didn’t turn out that way, and so, she ended up marrying Matthew.

Several kids later, Rachel found herself stuck in a marriage she did not want. Oh, her husband loved her—one merely needed to see the large diamond she wore on her ring finger—but it was a love she did not return. The inevitable was to rise to the surface in due time: Rachel was having an affair with Tim.

Now Matthew was not entirely an idiot. He had attended a prestigious university and had graduated with honors. It didn’t take long for him to suspect that his beloved wife (whom he’d casually beat during sex every once in a while) was cheating on him. When his wife announced that she was pregnant, Matthew, in his heart of hearts, refused to believe the child was his.

Incidentally, the cheating became less tacit. Rachel had a tattoo inked on her skin, just under her left breast, saying something that could be interpreted along the lines of Matthew’s suspicions. She became addicted to alcohol, drinking one too many glasses of wine with dinner. The baby growing in her bosom only fueled Matthew’s imagination: there was no way in hell the child was his. His wife wasn’t happy with him. He knew it; she knew it, and she no longer tried to hide it.

“The deed” committed, then, was a crime of passion. It was premeditated, conceived in the most intelligent of minds; being acted out by a man who knew what he was doing and why.

After the funeral, friends of Matthew, who were still enraged by his deed, visited him in prison. In his prison clothes, surrounded by fellow thieves and murderers, Matthew expressed no remorse or regret; he only wished he had done it sooner.

With Rachel murdered and buried, and her husband facing life in prison, the two kids were returned to her parents. Maybe they still had a future.

Rachel’s fourteen-year-old sister was no longer herself. She was a witness to a crime no one should have witnessed at that tender age. The psychiatrists placed her on large doses of antidepressants, anxiolytics, and hypnotics. Maybe she, too, had a future, however demented and guilt-ridden it would be.

For most of the surviving members of the family—be it the friends, the relatives, or the church members—the questions haunted them: where was God in all of this? Could God not have intervened? What purpose did it serve to have had a little girl witness such brutality? Was there really any “good” that could come about from the experiencing of such a violent scene? What about the children? Who’s going to raise them? And when Rachel’s daughter grows into a woman, what sort of stories will she tell on first dates regarding her father? Will she tell the guys how “Daddy just flipped out and stabbed mom to death”? Or will she invent something more readily digestible? (I assume one would invent some fanciful tale about one’s origins which one could psychologically deal with.) The question I wish to pursue is relatively simple: How does one live in a world of suffering, a world God allegedly claims as His own?


Before Rachel was ever murdered, before there was such a thing as her cheating and her husband’s rage, there was a concept of God and a concept of how the world ran that infiltrated every aspect of reality. The questions her family members ask, and the questions her little sister will ask as she matures, are undoubtedly asked from a particular vantage point. And what is that vantage point? In the following pages, I wish to articulate a view of God and His relation to the world that may help explain some of the suffering human beings experience.

For many people, the idea that God exists in a world of suffering poses problems. In the classical framing of the issue either (a) God is omnipotent and does not wish to eliminate suffering (hence making God malevolent) or (b) God is benevolent but cannot eliminate suffering (hence making God impotent) or (c) God does not exist. In any of the cases, God is certainly a major subject. It is to this noun “God” that I now turn.

Who or what is God? What does it mean for something to be “god”? The Bible presents us with a strange God. In the Old Testament, for example, YHWH suffers a great deal. In the New Testament, God also suffers—this time on a cross. In both Testaments, God functions as a Being who experiences suffering. In Psalm 78:40, it is said of God: “How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert!” In many ways, according to the Old Testament, God grieved due to relational issues. He grieved due to “forsakenness (Isa. 54:6); mourning (2 Sam. 19:3); distress and anger (Gen. 45:5); [and] injury (Ps. 56:6).”[1] In addition to these remarkably human emotions, the Old Testament relates how God suffers within the context of metaphors. For example, God’s relationship with Israel is seen within the context of a marital metaphor: God is the husband and Israel is the wife. The feelings God verbalizes are romantic:

“I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jer. 2:2).

In such romantic, marital recollections, what is being relayed is, according to Terence E. Fretheim, “a picture of the pain and anguish of God.”[2] In what seems like a hopeless romantic’s last-ditch-effort, God comes to Israel begging helplessly for attention.

“I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me…” (Isa. 65:1).[3]

The metaphors do not stop there. God is a mother (Hos. 11:3-4; Isa. 66:13; Ps. 131:2; Luke 13:34), a father (Isa. 1:2-3), a shepherd (Ps. 23), etc. In all these cases, God is relating to humans. It is the relationship that is at the center of the anguish and the pain of a suffering God. The image of God as a hopeless romantic may not be one that many of us would be familiar with—especially a suffering romantic at that! Our images of God, like the idols of old, are detrimental to theology.

The OT tells us that the people of God were often guilty of worshipping idols, of making up their own god, of creating gods, or even Yahweh, in a certain image. We oversimplify this matter if we think of such images solely in terms of wood or stone; the plastic image conveyed a particular way of understanding these gods or Yahweh. And, we have learned over the years that idolatries do not need the plastic form to qualify as such. One can move directly to mental images which construct a false image of God and have the power of wreaking havoc in people’s faith and life. Metaphors matter.[4]

And what is our image—our mental construct, our “idol”—of God today? In the words of Douglas J. Hall, we like the image of God as warrior-king:

The language of our religion had been so consistently informed by the spirit of might, winning, success, and related concepts that it is difficult to use any of the scriptural nomenclature of glory and triumph without conjuring up the whole ideology of empire.[5]

Citing C. S. Song, he writes, “[W]e have been handed a ‘high-voltage God’ and a ‘high-voltage theology’ by our tradition.”[6] The idea that God actually suffers too—that we are like God, having been made in His image—is as foreign to our ears as the oft-repeated phrase imago dei. We’ve heard it so many times, we’ve forgotten what it all means. The words are hidden from our eyes, “hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity” (§129), wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein.[7] Our God, instead, is no longer the God in whose image we have been made. It is a God who is “high-voltage,” like the narcissistic dictators some of us—who are clearly deranged—dream of.

Hall continues:

“The Judeo-Christian tradition does not deny the power of God, but neither does it magnify this attribute; moreover, and more to the point, it does not abstract the divine power from the divine-human relationship. The relationship qualifies—radically—the nature and deployment of power on God’s part.”[8]

And it is here that we’ve come to the crux of the issue. God suffers—and that is alright. But what if His suffering is predominantly contingent upon a relationship? If so, is God’s nature, then, somehow qualified by the relationship? The Bible suggests that this may indeed be the case: God cannot do anything willy-nilly—He is bound to the promises made to human beings.

If God makes a promise to a person, is He not limited by it? That is, if God says that He would do something no matter what, is He free to not do what He said He’d do? It appears that the idea of God being totally all-powerful is wrong. Not wrong in the sense of “God is omnipotent” but wrong in the sense of “God’s power is of such a case that He can do anything and everything no matter what.” Our conceptions of “power” are inherently tied to our conceptions of dictators, kings, and nuclear-capable nations. But is that really power? Is it really “powerful” to bomb another nation? Is it really powerful when you lock someone up in order to prevent them from doing what they so desire? “Who, through power tactics, can eliminate the self-destroying habits of a son or daughter who has fallen prey to hard drugs?”[9] In Frederick Buechner’s novel Lion Country, the protagonist, Antonio, makes the following remarks regarding his sister’s suffering, who was dying from a bone disease:

When Miriam’s bones were breaking…if I could have pushed a button that would have stopped not her pain but the pain of her in me, I would not have pushed the button because, to put it quite simply, my pain was because I loved her, and to have wished my pain away would have been somehow to wish my love away as well.[10]

To wish away relational pain, a pain watered by love, is to wish away the love also. And to wish away love…well, what else does one live for anyway?

We live in a world in which we want to wish away many things. All too often we deny the reality of suffering by failing to accept it as such. We want to reject suffering. We want to reject the pain we feel when a loved one is sick or dying. We want to reject a suffering God—for a suffering God has little to offer humans who have rejected the very nature of the God they claim to worship. And yet, this God is caught up in the cobwebs of intimate relations. This God does not live in a vacuum, detached from human freedom. Humans have the freedom to do all kinds of things. They can build or they can destroy; they can create life or they can take it. Somewhere in the mess of things, God finds Himself—from the biblical perspective—merely[11] involved. God is not, to use colloquial expressions, “in control.”

In the words of the physicist-turned-theologian John Polkinghorne, “A world in which God perpetually intervened in this magical way would also not be a creation that was allowed freely to be itself.”[12] He continues: “[S]uffering and evil of the world are not due to weakness, oversight, or callousness on God’s part, but, rather, they are the inescapable cost of creation allowed to be other than God, released from tight divine control and permitted to be itself.”[13]

According to Polkinghorne, the freedom that we have to exist is necessary for us to be able to truly be ourselves. Without it, we’d just be God on a different day.

But separation from God is not the only thing one could discuss. Separation is necessary for freedom. But what about all of God’s pain? What about all of our pain? This pain comes from involvement, from entanglement. Even reality itself is “built up from relationships.”[14] For example, the EPR experiment in physics[15] shows us that once two photons interact with one another—and begin sharing a single wave function—and are later separated, they will continue to share the same wave function no matter the distance between them. In addition, if anything is done to photon X (let’s say it is measured by a tool which places it into a spin-up state) then photon Y, however far away, will be put into a spin-down state. If mere photons have such “quantum entanglement,” how much are human beings entangled in the world and God? It is a deeply frightening question. Are we so entangled in God’s world that any action we take has virtually eternal and limitless repercussions? If this is, indeed, the case, this puts human beings in a very serious situation: the responsibility that falls on our shoulders may then be likened to Paul’s “weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).

There is a “togetherness in separation”[16] in the quantum world. How much more is there “togetherness in separation” in the real world! Returning to some of our initial thoughts, I do not think God is infinitely removed from reality. If God exists, it would certainly be a God who is a hopeless romantic “entangled” in us. On the flip side, our relations with God and neighbor, with wife and brother, are also gravely important. And what we do shapes and changes history. We have the freedom to love and the freedom to kill. But in any case we are, as it were, infinitely entangled.

If Rachel’s little sister were to ask a theologian about God, and God’s relation to the world, what would he or she say? In light of our brief discussion, mostly centered on the issue of relationships and pain, what does one say? I don’t have the answer—but I think we have a number of answers[17] we could ruminate on.

What was the meaning of Rachel’s death? Could God have done something about it without changing Rachel’s life-story? I don’t think so. In a sense, Rachel was the architect of her life. (And I am not in any way denying influences such as genes, family, friends, etc.) She chose this man—and she committed her share of sins. There is no need to deny the responsibilities that fell on Rachel, her lover Tim, and her husband. All three figures played their cards in this thing called life. None were “without blood,” so to speak. Could God have intervened? I don’t think so. To limit Rachel’s freedom—or what little freedom she had—would have meant to eliminate Rachel’s existence itself. The suffering of God was not, even in God’s own case, eliminated. To hearken back to my mention of Buechner’s work, God did not “push the button.” Like a parent watching a child die slowly from the consumption of illegal drugs, so does God watch—in the most pathetic of manners—the death of His beloveds. In freedom, in letting God be God and humans be humans, there is also the possibility of love and hate, of intimacy and loneliness, of life and of death. “Morally honest joy must be joy had while our eyes remain open to evil,” wrote the philosophical theologian William Greenway.[18] To experience love in all of its grandeur and in all of its tombstone-glory, one must keep one’s eyes open to evil. The beloved remains—always remains—one final exhalation away from death. To deny this is to deny the wholeness of love. To deny the pain that is and the pain that is to come is to deny what is central to love: a pain that aches secondary to, and in proportion to, a love that burns.

Where was God in all of this? Was He distantly removed, somewhere safe in the environs of His Ivory Tower. Or was He deeply immersed in the suffering of Rachel, in the rage of Matthew, in the tears of friends and family? The biblical portrait of God—whether it is the YHWH of the Old Testament or the Jesus of the New—is one: God suffers with. The suffering is not always suffering “for”; sometimes it is simply a suffering “with.” Returning to our earlier analogy of God as hopeless romantic within the metaphor of marital love, God may have simply been present. There is a reason why couples that say their traditional vows invoke the possibility of evil and suffering. It is because it is a very real possibility—and sometimes all one needs is a partner in suffering. “In sickness and in health, till death do us part.” The relationship brings with it the promise—and I do think it is a promise—that you two will suffer. The suffering may be caused by none other than that arch-villain itself, Love. You may lose someone you deeply love in a car accident. You may worry if your spouse is ever late. You may care endlessly about your spouse’s wellbeing. All in all, there will be some level of heartache involved—if one has a soul, that is.

Maybe C. S. Lewis was right:

To love anything is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”[19]

If one wants to avoid tragedy in general, or the loss of a spouse in particular, one must simply choose not to engage in any loving endeavors at all. Where there is no such love; where there is no such freedom to love (or not to love); where there is no possibility of intimate relations, there you will find a god who does not cry. But here we are on earth, in the most earthly of manners, infinitely entangled in the arms of a God who cries…


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to Terrence E. Fretheim—for all of the outbursts in class and for our conversations regarding God & suffering…




[1] Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 111.

[2] Ibid., 115.

[3] Also cited in Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 118.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Douglas John Hall, God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), 106.

[6] Ibid., 96.

[7] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. and eds. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, rev. 4th ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 57.

[8] Hall, God and Human Suffering, 97. Italics original.

[9] Ibid., 98.

[10] Cited in Hall, God and Human Suffering, 99.

[11] I use the word “merely” here quite loosely. That is, I am setting this vision of God in contradistinction to a vision in which God functions as a warrior-king that rules by might.

[12] John Polkinghorne, Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2005), 60.

[13] Ibid., 61.

[14] Ibid., 75.

[15] Ibid., 70-2.

[16] Ibid., 70.

[17] I use the term “answer” here very loosely. I sympathize with Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. That is, I don’t think I’d accept God’s invitation to go to the theater in which God provided “an explanation” of suffering. I’m pretty sure I’d turn down the offer. No, I’m certain I would.

[18] William Greenway, The Challenge of Evil: Grace and the Problem of Suffering (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 31.

[19] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1988), 121.

A History of Virginity: Purity Culture’s Ideals, Feminist Critiques, and a Philosophy of History; Or, How in the Hell Did We Go From Virginity to Hymens to Purity Balls?


It’s a Saturday night somewhere. A warm summer breeze caresses a chiseled male jaw. The middle-aged man with grey streaks splattered in rusty patches on his head walks hand-in-hand with a younger lady. In fact, she’s drop dead gorgeous, dressed to kill, and much younger than he. They make their way to the entrance. It’s a late night and they’re going to a party. No, it’s more like a fancy-pants dance. The speakers are undoubtedly playing Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” And, to be sure, this is about love: it’s about true love. Banners above the entrance read, like those awful planes-in-the-sky carrying messages, the following: True Love Waits. They enter the building, grab some drinks, and begin dancing. They are dancing away in celebration of the young lady. She’s doing something special: she’s keeping her virginity. And the man dancing away with her is her father. How sensible and how sweet.

Such dances are real. They happen in small towns and big towns just like yours. The evangelical Christians like to call them “purity balls.” It’s like the whole Cinderella story except it goes like this: “Once upon a time there lived an intact hymen. And Cinderella promised to keep it intact. And so one night…” But, of course, nobody really begins the fairytale of Cinderella like that. Instead, we use cute, sanitized words like “purity” and “virginity.”

While such balls may actually be fun—and maybe a little creepy?—they are intimately connected to their culture. The concept of virginity has a history; it has a past, a present, and, almost certainly, a future. It’s a living tradition. Purity culture, an outshoot of the conservative Christian evangelical movement, has some rather black-and-white lines drawn when it comes to defining virginity. In other words, they seem to know virginity’s history and its relationship to the present moment. On the other hand, you also have the feminists criticizing this purity culture stuff. Feminists such as Jessica Valenti have a lot of troubling words to say when it comes to the concept of virginity. To be sure, they’ve even written entire books on the subject. And—oh boy!—believe it or not, does virginity have a past! It’s as creepy as Frankenstein’s bastard child; as beautiful as the Mona Lisa; and is as raw-fully detailed as Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica, an early textbook on human anatomy.

In this paper, I will trace ancient and modern perceptions of virginity. I will then examine how both purity culture and feminism view the concept of virginity, especially paying close attention to the way history intersects with modern culture, and how such a coalescence may have helped each of them shape their unique views on the subject of virginity. I will then examine virginity’s history, as it is treated by purity culture and feminism, from Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy of history.

One of the earliest texts that we have specifically dealing with virginity comes from none other than the good old Bible. In Deuteronomy 22:28-29, we encounter the following passage:

“If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.”[1]

A virgin, once de-virginized by a male is told to immediately marry her rapist. This passage makes perfect sense in an age where birth control and abortion did not exist. The virgin may have gotten pregnant from the rape, gave birth to a child, and would have needed support raising the child. And so, as punishment for the crime, and as a way to serve the rape victim some justice, the Bible prescribes marriage certificates when a female victim is diagnosed with rape. And, as far as we know, this sort of legislation may have prevented males from raping virgins. If you rape her, you marry her. And, as if to settle the case in eternity, the male is not allowed to ever divorce his rape-victim-turned-wife. In other words, here’s to a once-upon-a-time Cinderella story told in epic biblical proportions. Cheers.

The Bible doesn’t stop there. Apparently, the ancients even knew how to verify that a human being—specifically a female—were a virgin. Enter the “magic bed sheet.”

“Suppose a man marries a woman, but after going in to her, he dislikes her and makes up charges against her, slandering her by saying, “I married this woman; but when I lay with her, I did not find evidence of her virginity.” The father of the young woman and her mother shall then submit the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate” (Deut. 22:13-15 NRSV).

The “evidence” that the parents of the bride would submit would be, it is theorized, the bed sheets from the wedding night.[2] Blood and the loss of virginity apparently go hand-in-hand, according to ancient Jewish customs. However you look at it, the ancient Jews were certainly concerned with the concept of virginity. It was a very important subject, hence it being mentioned in the Bible. The concept of virginity, at least as it stands in Deuteronomy, is not necessarily about notions of purity or morality. It is, rather, about property and economics. The commandments concerning female virginity “see[k] to protect the honor of the father and make the seduction or slander of an Israelite virgin an expensive proposition.”[3] To lose one’s virginity in ancient Israel was to lose one’s socioeconomic standing. Males sought female brides who were virgin. And if you weren’t a virgin daughter, you were an expensive long-term inhabitant of your father’s household. You were not marriage material by any means.

The New Testament, likewise, has some things to say about virginity. One well-known story is the tale of the Virgin Birth. Apparently, being a virgin—and giving birth—resulted in the birth of a god (or demi-god). While the New Testament itself doesn’t describe in detail Mary’s virginity, an apocryphal text that was extremely popular in the second-century, the Protoevangelium Jacobi, does. Bart D. Ehrman, a famous biblical scholar, summarizes the text’s tale:

The midwife is astonished at the miracle and goes off to another midwife, named Salome, that a virgin has given birth. Salome, however, is doubtful and indicates that she won’t believe until she herself gives Mary a postpartum inspection to see for herself. Really. They come to the cave, and the first midwife tells Mary, “Brace yourself.” Salome performs an internal inspection and becomes an instant believer. Mary has not only conceived as a virgin, she has given birth as a virgin: her hymen is still intact.[4]

For various reasons, virginity is seen as something good. To have it even after giving birth is a supernatural event. And, this should be noted, apparently there was an objective referent one could resort to when seeking out whether a woman was virgin or not. (Ehrman thinks this was the hymen, but, as the research shows, we cannot be too sure.) I will later show how even the prized hymen, so well known in today’s culture, was not discovered until the sixteenth century!

In ancient Greece, virginity was prized likewise. One Athenian archon gave his daughter to a “hunger-crazed horse” for nourishment after discovering that she had been de-virginized by some male.[5] In fact, the social custom under Solon was that a father, upon discovering that his daughter lost her virginity, would immediately disown her. “It was the single circumstance in all of Solon’s legal code in which a freeborn Athenian could be forced into slavery.”[6]

Why this obsession with virginity? Why did the ancient Romans, for example, have the Vestal Virgins? Why did Christianity produce an enormous amount of celibate monks, who lived in the desert, battled lustful thoughts and maintained their virginity? Why did the second-century theologian, Origen, castrate himself? Was sex really that bad? While the focus of this paper is not Origin’s psychological status in regards to his perpetual virginity caused by self-castration, this paper is interested in examining how, from a historical perspective, virginity was defined, tested for, and discussed. To that I now turn.

Virginity in females did not always have a relationship with the hymen. In fact, in the past, a good portion of the population believed that virginity had something to do with a tight vaginal canal engulfed by arteries and capillaries. One trailblazer seeking evidence for the hymen concluded that it was a mythical thing, something akin to Ponce de León’s fountain of youth.

In som virgins or maidens in the orifice of the neck of the womb there is found a certain tunicle or membrane called of antient writers Hymen…But I could never find it in anie, seeking of all ages from three to twelv, of all that I had under my hands in the Hospital of Paris.[7]

Those were the words of Ambroise Paré, a French surgeon and anatomist. Apparently, even the professional medical doctors of the day had trouble finding the elusive hymen. The word hymen comes to us from the Greek. It was used by Aristotle to mean “membrane.” “The thick membrane around the brain that we call the dura was one such hymen. The mesentery, which anchors all of our intestines in place inside the abdominal cavity, was another. So too with the sac around the heart we call the pericardium…Hymens, hymens everywhere.”[8] In other words, “hymen” was, in the ancient days, a catchall term for “membrane.” So, if you ever run across it in the ancient literature, it may—or may not—refer to what we now call the hymen.

The first time in the historical literature that we find the use of the word hymen in the sense that we use it occurs in Michael Savonarola’s Practica maior (writing sometime in the 1400s). For Savonarola, “the cervix is covered by a subtle membrane called the hymen, which is broken at the time of deflowering, so that the blood flows.”[9] After Savonarola, the word appeared in the English dictionary produced by Thomas Elyot. He defined it as “a skinne in the secrete place of a maiden, which whanne she is defloured is broken.”[10]

Prior to the discovery of the hymen, some ancient anatomists thought that the blood that sometimes resulted from first-time sex came from the vaginal canal itself. The earliest text describing this comes from third-century Rome, Soranus’s Gynecology.

In virgins the vagina is depressed and narrower, because it contains ridges that are held down by vessels originating in the uterus; when defloration occurs, these ridges unfold, causing pain; they burst, resulting in the excretion of blood that ordinarily flows. In fact, the belief that a thin membrane grows in the middle of the vagina and that it is this membrane that tears in defloration or when menstruation comes on too quickly, and that this membrane, by persisting and becoming thicker, causes the malady known as “imperforation,” is an error.[11]

And there you have it: no such thing as a hymen. But, of course, in retrospect Soranus was wrong. Dead wrong. In 1543, Vesalius finally found empirical proof of the hymen. He dissected a couple of stolen bodies and found it. It was right there in front of him in all its membrane glory.

History has a strange way of interacting with us. On the one hand, we clearly want objectivity when discussing it. On the other, it seems that all too often we simply see what we want to see. For example, purity culture believes in the existence of the hymen because it exists (a) today and (b) existed in the past. The Bible, along with the ancients, apparently knew about the hymen and its relation to virginity, so the thinking goes. But then, as you examine history, and dig through the historical texts, the truth may not be so simple. We now know that not everyone believed in the hymen. In fact, when reading the Bible, and its discussing proofs of virginity, even the Rabbis weren’t so sure that all virgins bled on that fateful wedding day. This is why the Talmud contains debates regarding this matter precisely.[12] They, too, were not sure testing for virginity in females was that simple, that black-and-white.

In the fourth-century, the church father Augustine of Hippo was faced with a particular dilemma. He believed that virginity was physical. It probably had something to do with hymens or capillaries in vaginal canals. But a historical situation—in his day, it was a modern one—caused him to rethink his notions of virginity. Christian virgins were being raped. Were they still virgins even though they were raped, and clearly did not consent? Augustine thought so. The reasoning went that if you resisted with your heart and soul, you did not lose your virginity. For Augustine, virginity was an attribute of the soul—it wasn’t merely physical.[13]

Purity culture has its own particular way of engaging with the concept of virginity. For the mostly evangelical Christian population, virginity is pretty much a female thing. Girls must have an intact hymen on their wedding day. Males, on the other hand, have no such “physical” requirements. They simply must not engage their penis in vaginal sexual intercourse. That seems to be the broad, working definition. For males, there’s no physical proof that they are “virgins.” Women, on the other hand, it is thought, have such proof. In fact, there are even theological arguments made discussing God’s design of the hymen and its theological functions. Dannah Gresh, author of And the Bride Wore White: Seven Secrets to Sexual Purity, writes, “You see, God created you and me with a protective membrane, the hymen, which in most cases is broken the first time that we have intercourse…When it breaks, a woman’s blood spills over her husband. Your sexual union is a blood covenant between you, your husband, and God.”[14] No commentary is needed here; God has spoken: your hymen serves as the crux of a blood covenant.

Gresh may be an unheard-of author, but Joshua Harris is not. It is he, after all, who wrote the best-selling, controversial book I Kissed Dating Goodbye; he, too, places big emphasis on virginity and first-time sex. He begins his book with the following “dream”:

It was finally here—Anna’s wedding day, the day she had dreamed about and planned for months. The small, picturesque church was crowded with friends and family…But as the minister began to lead Anna and David through their vows, the unthinkable happened. A girl stood up in the middle of the congregation, walked quietly to the altar, and took David’s other hand. Another girl approached him and stood next to the first, followed by another. Soon, a chain of six girls stood by him as he repeated his vows to Anna. Anna felt her lip quiver as tears welled up in her eyes.

“Is this some kind of joke?” she whispered to David.

“I’m…I’m sorry, Anna,” he said, staring at the floor… “They’re girls from my past… I’ve given part of my heart to each of them.”

“I thought your hear was mine?” she said.

“It is, it is,” he pleaded. “Everything that’s left is yours.”[15]

As Harris sees it, the stakes are enormously high. The threshold for having the perfect marriage, the perfect wedding night, is set so high, so far up in heaven, even Stephen Hawking with all of his telescopes is having trouble seeing where it all ends. And if you make a mistake—God forbid!—if you even dare lose your virginity (whatever that means), your future is damned: you have effectively rendered yourself useless. “[E]ven the most innocent form of sexual expression outside of marriage could be dangerous.”[16] With teenagers reading such books, and the stakes so high for women with their hymens, it’s a surprise that a majority of them don’t resort to some kind of prison-like state of complete isolation from the male species in solitary confinement.

This obsession with the hymen in particular leads to strange things. This results in young Christian college girls engaging in all kinds of sex acts—oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, implementation of dildos and vibrators, etc.—while remaining virgin. How? One sex act was missing from my list: vaginal sexual intercourse. As long as vaginal sexual intercourse is not engaged in—and the hymen remains intact—one could, theoretically speaking, consider oneself a “virgin.”

The way purity culture has valued virginity, and its notions of virginity, has also influenced the “science” of virginity. Since males are taught, incorrectly, that females almost always bleed upon their first sexual encounter, the males have assumed blood along with pain are good indicators of virginity. The problem is that a good portion of the population does not bleed and experiences no pain during first time sex. One study found that 63% of women experienced no blood after their first act of vaginal intercourse.[17] This is nothing new. Males have been duped all these years. They have believed in “blood and guts” because they so wanted to find them. Women have been using all kinds of tricks to maintain this illusion of virginity. For example, we have ancient texts instructing women how to bleed on their wedding night in order to make certain that the male believes in their virginity. The ninth-century Persian physician Rhazes recommended inserting the intestines of dove’s into the vaginal canal, along with the warm blood of the animal, to make the vagina tight and, of course, bloody.[18] I was not kidding when I said “blood and guts.” Literally. And even women today get what they come looking for. In one study conducted in Germany on 669 patients coming in for a gynecological exam, they found a direct correlation between anxiety and the experience of increased pain.[19] That is, if a girl is taught from a young age that first time sex is painful and bloody, it may not be bloody, but it will almost certainly be painful. Not in an objective sense, of course, but in a subjective sense. You will experience pain because you have duped yourself into thinking it’ll be painful. Hanne Blank writes, “A woman is also more likely to have a painless experience, as well as a more positive impression of losing her virginity overall, research tells us, if she is not coerced or pressured, feels safe and secure with her partner, and is not worried about being interrupted or discovered during sex.”[20]

Reality alone will not change Gresh’s “blood covenant’s theology of the hymen.” If the data is accurate, a majority of women will not bleed during first time sex. I guess God doesn’t bless their intercourse. (Such may be the theological response.) Oh well. However, this is not the only case in which the concept of virginity, as it has been traditionally understood by purity culture, has been scrutinized. The feminists have also criticized this extensively. It is to the feminist critiques that I now turn.

As in Augustine’s time, so today, a real modern issue forces one to rethink traditional concepts. With the rise of homosexuality and the invention of condoms, all kinds of sex acts are now, well, sex acts. Heterosexuals can engage in anal sex in a safe manner by using condoms and some lubricating jelly. Lesbians can use various phallic-shaped devices, be they dildos or vibrators, and engage in, well, sex acts. Gay men engage in anal sex. Traditional conceptions of virginity—that is, no vaginal sexual intercourse either passively [female] or actively [male] engaged in—have been usually accepted because heterosexuality has been accepted as the norm. Jessica Valenti points out how absurd the traditional conception is: “If it’s just heterosexual intercourse, then we’d have to come to the fairly ridiculous conclusion that all lesbians and gay men are virgins, and that different kinds of intimacy, like oral sex, mean nothing.”[21] But, of course, most of us here would be inclined to consider anal sex to be sexual intercourse. So, yes, a virgin with an intact hymen having anal sex with her boyfriend three times a day is, by the modern definition, not a virgin. Did I make myself clear? Or should I say “not” again?

And it’s not only homosexuality that has challenged traditional conceptions of virginity. With the rise of various sex toys, I think it’s high time we reevaluated what it means to be a virgin. If a male, without prior vaginal sexual intercourse, has sex with a blow up doll, isn’t he no longer a “virgin”? On the flip side, what if a “virgin” female with her hymen intact “loses” her “hymen intact-ness” to a dildo, is she still a virgin? (She did, according to the traditional conception of virginity, “lose” her intact hymen. But, in a strange way, a penis attached to a male never penetrated her.) Such scenarios make our heads spin. But it all makes sense. This is why Hanne Blank’s modern definition of “virginity” is so vague and broad. She defines it as “a human sexual status that is characterized by a lack of any current or prior sexual interaction with others.”[22] According to her, losing your virginity occurs when some kind of sex act—whether vaginal, oral, or otherwise—takes places between two (whether gay or straight) individuals. The requirements, then, for being a virgin are: (a) no sexual activity with (b) another human being. (Sexual activities, such as masturbation and/or the use of a dildo in a private setting, do not constitute a loss of virginity.)

The rise of homosexuality, various forms of birth control, and sex toys have not been the only thing that have forced moderns to reevaluate what they mean by “virgin.” Another fact has come to light: all hymens are not created equally. If the traditional conception is to be maintained in the modern era—which I don’t think it can be—it must address the problem the objective science presents us with. Hymens, we now know, are not all the same. They come in various shapes and sizes. Some women, for example, are born with imperforate hymens: that is, hymens that cover the entire vaginal opening. This presents menstruating women with a difficulty, so, naturally, the surgeons have to incise the hymen.[23] “Hymenal tissue itself appears in a number of forms. It might be fragile and barely there, or resilient and rubbery.”[24] Some hymens disintegrate on their own; others are “so resilient that they endure years of sexual intercourse quite handily…”[25] As far as hymenology goes, I think it is safe to conclude that it is unscientific and irrational to make an intact hymen bear the crux of “proof” when it, by no means, can do so. The hymen is not as “universal” as the ancients may have imagined or as “theological” as purity culture may have believed. It’s a piece of tissue that comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and, in an odd way, takes on a life of its own: disintegrating, at times; at other times, remaining intact throughout years of sexual intercourse.

The strangest thing, however, is that even animals have hymens. So, they’re nothing special. Yes, you heard me correctly: “llamas, guinea pigs, bush babies, manatees, moles, toothed whales, chimpanzees, elephants, rats, ruffed lemurs, and seals all have them.”[26] God must have been having nasty thoughts the moment He decided that a female rat needed to seal her “marriage” to another rat with a “blood covenant.” Strange gods, those guys.[27]

We have seen how conceptions of virginity were construed in the past, and how such historical conceptions were employed by purity culture only to be criticized by feminism. In both purity culture and feminism, traditional conceptions of virginity—as found in ancient texts, for example—guided the modern discussions. One question we have not addressed yet is the question of how we as people read and understand history. How is it that the history of virginity could be, in some ways, shaped by our own prejudices? How is it, for example, that we perpetrate the myth of “blood and guts” in association with first-time sex? Paul Ricoeur, a philosopher, has some interesting things to tell us.

For Ricoeur, all history is, essentially, an act of living interpretation. In the modern era, prior to Immanuel Kant, people generally believed in an objective world that was “out there,” one which they had access to. They were relatively certain in our ability to grasp the objective. After Kant, a shift occurred: people began recognizing their subjectivity. The mind was limited by its very nature. The world “out there,” the noumenon—that is, the thing-in-itself—was not to be confused with the way we perceived it to be; the perceptions were the phenomena, the thing-as-it-appears-to-us. There lie a vast chasm between the noumenon and the phenomenon. In the modern era, an era in which the philosopher Descartes worked, history was viewed as a collection of objective facts—a collection of noumena—to which we, the people, had access. After Kant dropped his atomic bomb in philosophy, and having initiated civilization into the post-modern era, historians began to recognize how un-objective the historical enterprise itself was. Ricoeur welcomed this more balanced-yet-critical approach towards history. For Ricoeur, a good method was one in which “[a] deep distrust for any simple reductive explanation of man or culture remains constant.”[28] The historical data should not just be seen as objective; no, humans who have subjectivities are engaging the historical data. But the historian must not stop there. Ricoeur believed that we should go even further than Kant: we should not merely criticize objectivity, while emphasizing subjectivity, we should criticize subjectivity too! There are methods and counter-methods, subjects and objects, one must not place greater emphasis on one or the other; instead, Ricoeur argues that they must together remain in dialectic tension, “the dialectic of oppositions.”[29] Out of this tension, Ricoeur was forced to discuss the elephant in the room: language. Language—“words”—are the things we use to write history. Ricoeur became increasingly aware that language should be carefully scrutinized. “The word is my work; the word is my kingdom.”[30] It is only within the sphere of a given language that a historian operates, hence his having called “the word” his “kingdom”—it is the place in which one lives and breathes and does history. Ricoeur takes language to mean a system that incorporates the use of “symbols.” The symbols function as pointers to objective things in reality, myth, etc. Such symbols have multiple meanings, and, hence, can confuse interpreters. And, ultimately, all acts in which the reading and understanding of texts—which use symbols—occurs are inevitably going to end up being interpretations. “I define symbol as: any structure of signification in which a direct, primary, literal meaning designates, in addition, another meaning which is indirect, secondary, and figurative and which can be apprehended only through the first.” Moreover, he goes on to define the process of “interpretation.” “Interpretation, we will say, is the work of thought which consists in deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning, in unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning.”[31]

As one can readily tell, the concept of “virginity” undoubtedly has some grounding in objective fact. There are women who have some form or another of hymenal tissue, which can, at times, be torn during first-time sex. But, as our discussion has revealed—as we have lunged into the issue of history, meta-history, language, and the human experience—we have seen how problematic, how complex the symbol of virginity in our language really is. In fact, it is by no means absurd to conclude that we still have issues with grasping virginity’s “hidden meaning in the apparent meaning.” We are onto something but we cannot seem to grasp it. As Blank remarks in her own work, concluding a chapter on the history of “virginity testing”:

There is no single virginal body, no single virginal experience, no single virginal vagina, not even a single virginal hymen. There is only the question, how doe we know whether this woman is a virgin? The answer has been written innumerable times, with alum and doves’ blood and urine and decoctions of mint and lady’s mantle, with charts and graphs and clinical photography. But no matter how many times someone attempts to inscribe it, no matter how firmly they press the pen to the paper, we are left forever with the same blank page.[32]

In a rather strange turn of events, the history of virginity had become biography. As documented earlier, a woman who believes first-time sex would be painful, experiences pain. A woman who believes she will bleed excessively will, by all means, bleed—probably a little—but she’ll end up exaggerating the event.[33] “Sociologist Sharon Thompson’s research has shown that in telling their virginity-loss stories, some women seem to positively revel in gory (and in some cases clearly exaggerated) details…”[34] The males who expect their “virgin” wives to bleed, end up seeing blood on the wedding night because their new brides plan wedding days when they would be on their menstrual periods.[35] The history of virginity, then, is not really history so much as it is our own biography. We want to see blood, so blood we see. Why? Because we want to see it. And if we don’t see blood, somebody bring me dove’ intestines—or, better yet, make sure coitarche (first-time sex) occurs during a woman’s period! And so the “history” of virginity continues. It continues to write its story in blood and guts. But what were we expecting to find anyhow? Weren’t we all in it for the blood and the guts in the first place? As Ricoeur correctly points out:

The purpose of all interpretation is to conquer a remoteness, a distance between the past cultural epoch to which the text belongs and the interpreter himself. By overcoming this distance, by making himself contemporary with the text, the exegete can appropriate its meaning to himself: foreign, he makes it familiar, that is, he makes it his own. It is thus the growth of his own understanding of himself that he pursues through his understanding of the other. Every hermeneutics is thus, explicitly or implicitly, self-understanding by means of understanding others.[36]

In such a way, we, too, have made the foreign familiar; we, too, have made the gory stories in times past our very own. We, as a people, as those who engage in the task of interpreting history, make the text into something that speaks to us—so long as it speaks to us in a domestic language. We want it all for ourselves.

Objective facts—what happened and how—are less important than communicating symbolic truths. The stories that we tell say less about what was literally experienced than they do about how we felt about the experience, how we wanted to feel about it, and how our culture expects us to feel about it.[37]

From Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye to Valenti’s The Purity Myth, virginity, and its shady history, played a central role. How it was understood in the past—be it in the Bible or in ancient medical texts—shaped and informed the modern discussions. However, as we have seen, the task of understanding history involved engagement with human subjectivities, even as Ricoeur philosophically theorized and as the science now suggests. What was theory in Ricoeur has become a working method in this paper. I hope I have, as Ricoeur suggested, examined the history of virginity while engaging in “the dialectic of oppositions.” Having said that, I do not think that virginity, either as it has been traditionally understood or otherwise, is going to stop engaging us as a culture. Sexuality is here to stay, for better or for worse, and we will continue to read ancient texts, medical texts, and blogs, allowing them to shape how we think about the concept of virginity. For the female, it may remain inextricably linked to her hymen; in males, it will probably remain something abstract, ambiguous and immaterial. Jesus was onto something when he slit the connection between physical adultery and “adultery of the heart.” “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28 NRSV). Even in the ancient past, a thinker such as Jesus recognized that sexuality was more than just “of hymens and dildos.” There was, perhaps, a spiritual element to the sexual. One could engage in adulterous behavior merely by looking at some woman and imagining a sex act. Jesus—like Augustine after him—must have considered the possibility that sexuality cannot merely be reduced to intact hymens; that virginity—and this is per Augustine—is a characteristic, a virtue even, of the soul. If the ancients could think along ambiguous lines—that is, they were willing to think about more than just the physical—so should we be willing to critically examine our own culturally influenced conceptions of virginity.

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and the philosophy of language. 




Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior. New York: HarperOne, 2016.

Hanne, Blank. Virgin: The Untouched History. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Harris, Joshua. I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 1997.

Ihde, Don. Hermeneutic Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971.

Knust, Jennifer. Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire. New York: HarperOne, 2011.

Lundbom, Jack R. Deuteronomy: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.

Ricoeur, Paul. “Existence and Hermeneutics,” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work. Edited by Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978.

Valenti, Jessica. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009.


[1] New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Jack R. Lundbom, Deuteronomy: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 633. “Other texts dealing with cases similar to the present one—one Old Babylonian and another from Qumran—report (trustworthy) women being called in to inspect the bride and hopefully to settle the matter. A similar procedure is attested among the Arabs. The whole procedure is admittedly primitive and could easily bring unjust verdicts, since women do not always emit blood on their first intercourse, hymens could have been broken for other reasons, and so on” (Ibid.).

[3] Jennifer Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 62.

[4] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (New York: HarperOne, 2016), 33-4.

[5] Hanne Blank, Virgin: The Untouched History (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 124

[6] Ibid.

[7] Quoted in Blank, Virgin, 42.

[8] Ibid., 44.

[9] Ibid., 45.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 46.

[12] Ibid., 30.

[13] Ibid., 7-8.

[14] Quoted in Blank, Virgin, 112.

[15] Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 1997), 13-4. There are so many things wrong with this immature paragraph that I will express what I think, at the very least, in a footnote. Harris was young when he wrote this. And, by all means, it sounds very much like an adolescent writing this, with an inability to see the world outside of hard-drawn black-and-white dichotomizing lines. No, Harris, people don’t give their wives “what’s left.” It is life itself that has created them in the present. Their past is a part of what made them, at any given present moment, who they are. Life is, as Søren Kierkegaard and Heidegger point out, “a becoming.” You never “are” anything. You are always in the process of “becoming.” What the fictional David is giving Anna is who he has become—up until that point. But he won’t remain static. He will continue to grow, develop, share history with others—be they male or female—and continue to “become” something of his choosing. To say that spending time with others is somehow immoral or wrong is idealistic and arrogant. People can’t read the future, neither can we know beforehand whom we are going to marry. In a perfect world, hell, I, too, would prefer to spend my youth on my future wife. But in this world—with all of our limitations—spending time with girls that won’t end up with me comes with the territory. I don’t know which world you live in, but on planet earth, people are not omniscient, do not forecast the weather, and—and this point is important—they make mistakes. But only in retrospect. Hindsight. We don’t always know something is a mistake in the present moment. I, for one, have no such crystal ball.

[16] Ibid., 96.

[17] Blank, Virgin, 89.

[18] Ibid., 91.

[19] Ibid., 114.

[20] Ibid., 115.

[21] Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009), 20.

[22] Blank, Virgin, 6.

[23] The traditional conception of virginity as being directly related to the status of the hymen must, I assume, have problems with a surgeon “taking” a patient’s virginity.

[24] Blank, Virgin, 37.

[25] Ibid., 40.

[26] Ibid., 23.

[27] I’m rolling my eyes so much typing this; they are beginning to feel like bowling balls.

[28] Paul Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, eds. Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 98.

[29] Don Ihde, Hermeneutic Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971), 16.

[30] Cited in Ihde, Hermeneutic Phenomenology, 24.

[31] Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” 98. Italics original.

[32] Blank, Virgin, 95.

[33] Believe it or not, but there have been studies done on this too. And women make up “blood and guts” tales about their wedding nights all the time. See Blank, Virgin, pp. 111-3.

[34] Blank, Virgin, 111-2.

[35] Ibid., 91.

[36] Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” 101.

[37] Blank, Virgin, 103.

The Ethics of Virginity: The Bible, Purity Culture, and Feminist Critics

Is purity culture correct when it assumes that premarital sex is immoral due to a loss of virginity, which is thought to be something that should be “saved” for marriage? In this paper I will examine some claims Christians make—from a purity culture perspective—regarding virginity and its intricate link to premarital sex. Next, I will submit purity culture’s claims to a feminist critique. I will then reflect upon the definition of virginity. Finally, I will attempt to synthesize a view of human sexual relationships in which human beings are not reduced to “virgin” or “non-virgin,” where a holistic human being, particularly females, are not reduced to what happened between their legs (or, as in the case of females, specifically their hymens). My synthesis will be predominantly engaging with Helmut Thielicke’s The Ethics of Sex.

In her book Why Wait?: A Christian View of Premarital Sex, Letha Scanzoni summarizes early Christianity’s stance on the subject of virginity. “Virginity was praised with fanatical zeal.”[1] After spending several pages discussing how early Christians essentially abhorred the profane thought of sex, Scanzoni’s comment is fair. Sex, being viewed a degree removed from sin, was relegated to the dustbin of a secular age—for asceticism and self-control were the fruits of the spirit which ascetic monks and hermits cultivated. From Origen’s act of self-castration (a repudiation of sex and the male sex symbol) to Augustine’s claim that if Adam and Eve had not sinned, the “embarrassing” sex act would have resembled something more holy like plant pollination, this ideology infiltrated mainstream Christian thinking.[2] Since asceticism preached a renunciation of sex—something that was propagated as early as the second-century pseudepigraphal Acts of Paul and Thecla—the inevitable culmination of such thinking was virginity as a virtue. But was such a zeal for virginity to be found in the Bible? According to Scanzoni, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Scanzoni, in her piling of one biblical citation over the other, mentions the oft-cited “virginity text,” Deuteronomy 22: 28-29. “If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives” (NRSV). Scanzoni, commenting on this text, writes, “[S]exual relations between two persons who were unmarried (and unbetrothed) required that they must marry one another.”[3] For Scanzoni, virginity is to be maintained up until marriage for the simple fact that premarital sex was forbidden in the Bible. Of course, she marshals all kinds of other evidence—citing Ephesians 5:3-5, Matthew 5:27-30, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, etc.—however, reasons for maintaining virginity are not given. The entire argument hinges on an acceptance of divine command theory: the Bible is the word of God, and humans ought to act according to its precepts. A primary principle undergirding her argument is the principle of obedience to God, which is self-evident in her willingness to cite biblical commands even while dismissing reasons one might have for not following them (e.g., they are obsolete, irrelevant, un-loving, anti-homosexual, etc.).[4] She admits, “[T]his book is not addressed to those who do not desire to place their lives in Christ’s hands. Such individuals cannot be expected to understand and embrace the philosophy of sex outlined here.”[5] This is strange for a book that claims, in other sections, to provide “reasons” for “the modern generation’s search for meaning and reasons behind moral-ethical decisions…”[6] Scanzoni appears to contradict herself. On the one hand, she is trying to convince a generation that is obsessed with “reason” that premarital sex is immoral and virginity up until marriage is the moral thing to do, while simultaneously on the other hand recognizing that her book will not convince those who do not accept the Bible as the Word of God. If you do not subscribe to divine command theory, then you cannot buy her arguments. To be fair, Scanzoni is at least honest about “reasons” other Christians present when trying to dissuade young adults and Christian youth from engaging in sexual intercourse prior to marriage. For example, some resort to scare tactics. “[F]ear of contracting venereal disease does not seem to work very effectively as a deterrent to premarital sex.”[7] Moreover, she recognizes that science and medicine is well on its way towards providing treatment options for venereal diseases; hence eliminating the fear that they had once inspired. Another commonly stated deterrent to premarital sex is the risk for pregnancy. “Christians who cite the risk of pregnancy as the chief reason for abstinence before marriage may find their moral standards threatened by such developments [i.e., development of birth control].” In other words, the chief reasons for refraining from premarital sex—such as contracting disease or the risk of pregnancy—are increasingly becoming irrelevant in the post-modern age. And Scanzoni is honest enough to recognize and mention that fact.

So where does that leave us? Why should young people maintain virginity? Scanzoni says, in tout court, “For the Bible tells me so.” Scanzoni writes regarding a sexual ethic, “[T]he Bible does provide clear guidelines and commandments in this important area.”[8] Is that true? Jennifer Knust, a biblical scholar who specializes in sexuality, says that such a statement is not true. For example, when discussing the sexual poem Song of Solomon, Scanzoni unjustifiably describes it as an “exaltation of married love.”[9] For Scanzoni, the Bible is a text singing one message: no sex before marriage; and if there is sex, it’s married sex. Even when there’s no reason to suppose the text is describing married love, Scanzoni imposes her views on the text, committing the sin of eisegesis. Knust, citing the Song of Solomon, suggests the complete opposite: the poem is relating in positive terms premarital sex. “My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him” (5:4).[10] She goes on to ask the rhetorical question, “Can the Bible be used to support premarital sex, even for girls? The answer, I have now discovered, is yes.”[11] The point here is that the biblical text does not necessarily sing one message, a message sung by Scanzoni. As Knust points out, the Bible has no single, sexual ethic. For example, the issue of prostitution in the Bible is not explicitly condemned in the case of Judah and Tamar. “According to Genesis, a woman who sleeps with her father-in-law can be a heroine.”[12] Polygamy is the norm in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Exodus 21:10 relates that if a man takes another wife, “he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife” (NRSV). One final, disturbing example: Exodus 21:7 encourages a “master,” after having purchased a woman as a slave, to marry the woman himself or to his son. Apparently, one could essentially own a contractual sex-slave[13]—and that was okay, according to the Bible. In short, sexual encounters that we moderns would probably dismiss as “immoral” are found as the norm in certain “biblical” books. The Bible, therefore, contra Scanzoni, does not produce a sexual ethic; instead, it provides us with a wide-range of various—and often times contradictory—sexual ethics. This sets before us a strange problem: if one even, theoretically speaking, accepts divine command theory, and accepts the Bible as the Word of God, is one able to come to Scanzoni’s “clear guidelines and commandments”? As Knust insists, marshaling biblical evidence, this is simply not the case. What, then, are we to make of the laws regarding virginity?

The concept of virginity, at least as it stands in Deuteronomy, is inextricably linked not necessarily to notions of “purity” as much as it is linked to whom gets paid and how much. The laws around female virginity “see[k] to protect the honor of the father and make the seduction or slander of an Israelite virgin an expensive proposition.”[14] In other words, the laws dealing with virginity—or lack thereof—are questions of economics and not morality per se. The woman, again, has not much say in whom she marries or how she is treated—she is, ultimately, the father’s property. And, may I remind you, the Bible is okay with that, too. The sexual ethic embraced by purity culture is essentially a form of divine command theory: the Bible says that you must be a virgin on your wedding day. That’s how they interpret it. This leads to a strange morality in which women and men are so preoccupied with keeping hymens intact that all forms of sexual expression—such as anal and oral sex—are given the blind eye. So where does that leave us? Having laid out the mostly evangelical Christian case for the maintenance of virginity, being inspired by purity culture, and having articulated at least one view that criticizes the biblical scholarship for maintaining it, I will now turn my gaze towards a feminist critique of purity culture and its cozy relationship with virginity.

Jessica Valenti has a problem with purity culture. In attempting to de-emphasize the sexual in inter-sex, heterosexual relationships, it has perpetrated—in a rather profoundly ironic way—the sexual. Valenti points out how having sex is tantamount to being immoral in purity culture. “Idolizing virginity as a stand-in for women’s morality means that nothing else matters—not what we accomplish, not what we think, not what we care about and work for.”[15]The mostly evangelical, mostly Christian Right, continues to reduce all inter-sex relationships to the sexual. When a male who was born and raised in purity culture engages in a relation with a female, he is, in fact, taught to be interested in one thing, and one thing only: is the female a virgin? If so, she is a “godly” (read: “ethical”) girl; if not, she is a slut/whore/cunt (read: “unethical”) girl. Morality is reduced to sexology; the moral human, female agent is reduced to what happens “down there.”

Valenti laments how women think that what happens “down there” is tantamount to being “moral.” For Valenti, this is a patriarchal reinforcement of women’s “ethics of passivity”; that is, women are only able to be ethically passive—all that matters is that they don’t allow active penetration of their vagina by a man’s hyperactive penis. She condemns this ethic of passivity by stating: “[R]estraint does not equal morality.”[16] If a woman chooses not to have sex—for whatever reason—that does not make her a good or bad person, a virgin or a slut. What matters, instead, is whether she is, indeed, a good or bad person morally—just like a male is judged.

One of the larger problems that we have avoided articulating until now is the definition of virginity. In her groundbreaking book Virgin: The Untouched History, Hanne Blank details her findings concerning the concept of virginity. “What we mean when we say ‘virginity’ is as ephemeral, as relative, and as socially determined as what we mean when we say ‘freedom.’”[17] Having said that, Blank broadly defines the term to mean “a human sexual status that is characterized by a lack of any current or prior sexual interaction with others.”[18] Notice that her definition has nothing to do with a hymen, blood stains on the bed sheets, or females. For, as Blank points out, the moment we begin throwing in hymens and such, we are left with strange consequences. For example, if “virginity” is reduced to “having an intact hymen,” then all males are immediately virgin, whether sexual or not. Moreover, this implies that all gay men and lesbians (who have only resorted to cunnilingus) are also virgin. If you define the term to mean sexual intercourse with the opposite sex, you likewise lose all the homosexual people. And you fail to include the couples that engage in non-vaginal sex acts like anal sex, cunnilingus, and oral sex.

Trying to think about the concept of virginity is nothing new. Augustine of Hippo, in thinking about Christian virgins who were raped by pagan men, could not help but redefine virginity. For him, “being raped did not constitute a loss of virginity, providing one had resisted with all one’s heart and soul.”[19] Without having the space to relate the mass amount of research Blank relates, it should be quite obvious that “virginity,” however one looks at it, is a very elusive term. When purity culture invokes it, they usually mean “a human who has not had[20] physical, vaginal sexual intercourse.” Fantasizing about sex—as in Jesus’ saying[21]—does not constitute the act of sex. You can fantasize about sex day and night, and still be a virgin in today’s mainstream evangelical culture. And we haven’t even begun discussing masturbation, vibrators, dildos, and other sex toys. This leaves us in the precarious position of having to articulate an ethics of sex in which virginity is taken to mean something that we cannot quite grasp. It remains a term that is both vague and elusive. Despite that, I will now attempt to articulate a view that embraces feminist critiques and allows us—both secular and Christian people—to move the discussion forward on virginity and premarital sex.

Helmut Thielicke, in his masterful The Ethics of Sex, believes that the Christian sex act must never be reduced merely to the biological. “[I]f sexuality were merely a function, we would hardly be able to understand why the partners should not be exchangeable at will and why promiscuity should not be legalized and made a social institution.”[22] This leads him to conclude, “[O]nly the ‘being’ of a person is unique, irreplaceable, and unrepeatable.”[23] For Thielicke, a human being must be encountered as a holistic individual, full of emotions, a history, characteristic traits, and, ultimately, as someone who was “bought with a price” (1 Cor.6:20; 7:23).[24] Theology plays a very particular role here: it forces one to view the Other as an individual who is important to God; it forces one to see the imago dei in the Other. “He who seeks only the partial—only the body, only the function, and again possibly only a part of this—remains unfulfilled even on the level of eros, because, having lost the wholeness of the other person, he also loses the other person’s uniqueness.”[25] In addition to engaging with the Other in his or her wholeness, as a being created by an Almighty God, Thielicke also believes that the Bible gives us its own way of interpreting the sex act: in the Bible, sex is a method of “knowing” the Other. Thielicke argues that in the Bible the euphemism for “to have sex” is “to know.” Hence we have the phrase: “Adam knew his wife, Eve” (Genesis 4:1). Why was the verb יָדַע ([yada‘] “to know”) chosen to signify “to have sex”? For Thielicke, this was simply because the act of sex itself was viewed as a process of knowing the Other. Thielicke contrasts this method of sexual knowledge, calling it “knowledge ‘from the inside,’” with mere knowledge of sex, calling it “knowledge ‘from the outside.’”[26] He writes, “Sexual knowledge is qualitatively different from knowledge about sex.”[27] What is important in human relations, from a theological perspective, is to remember what sex is: it is more than just a biological function. To have sex is to engage in the mystery of unveiling secrets—it is about getting to know, to really know, the other human being. It is knowledge of the Other “from the inside.”

The driving factor in Thielicke’s ethics of sex is this irreducible view of it. He wants to continually reinforce the idea that there is something more going on here. He calls it “the mystery of sex.”[28] But there is also another implicit verb running through the book: agape.[29] “[A]gape brings out, ‘loves’ out, as it were, the real person within the other human being.”[30] In the process of knowing the Other, in the process of “loving out” the real person, one encounters the face of God. It is this—and not virginity per se—that makes sex sacred, that makes the mystery of sex a μυστήριον (mustérion). In fact, virginity virtually plays no role in Thielicke’s work. He mentions it briefly on roughly two pages.[31] The reason for maintaining virginity in Thielicke’s opinion is because he believes in the now-discredited view of “the formative power of the first sexual encounter.”[32] Having said that, Thielicke is not reducing the mystery of sex to merely the physical. One could argue that, when discussing female virginity (which usually has to do with the physically intact or non-intact hymen), purity culture is mostly reducing sex to biological function. In contrast to this, Thielicke allows the act of sex to be seen in its totality, in its relationship to everything human beings touch—be it the physical, the biological, the ethical, or the romantic. Perhaps this is why he failed to write a book on hymenology. Instead, he wrote a book on what it means to engage in sex from a theological and ethical perspective.

Whether one is secular or religious, one cannot help but stand in sheer appreciation of Thielicke’s poetic views on the ethics of sex. Yes, if one were to idealize sex, this would be what it would look like. It would be an act of agape coalescing with the act of knowing the Other “from the inside.” Whether his view is “biblical” or not is open to debate, I do not know. What I do know is that whenever a church or a couple want to meaningfully discuss the ethics of virginity—what, how, and why we should remain virgins until marriage—his thoughts on the subject must surely be engaged with. If the purity culture route is taken, one is, as the feminist critique has shown, prone to reducing the human relationship to biological functions and hymenology. That is, one is left merely describing physical traits of the Other. “She is a virgin; her hymen is intact; she must be an ethical person.” Such stringently descriptive accounts of the Other are seldom useful. Moreover, purity culture tends to reduce ethics to sexology. As Thielicke has shown us, the sex act is about knowing the Other on an intimate level. Merely describing what a female’s hymen looks like at any given moment does not imply we have engaged in intimate knowledge of the Other. In fact, it’s probably shallow at best. As Hanne Blank has demonstrated, the idea of what it means to be a “virgin” is a great deal of culturally relative speculation. It is not something set in stone, something we can easily pinpoint and manipulate. The Bible itself, as a collection of books written over many centuries, does not offer us “clear guidelines and commandments.” Likewise, in the spirit of the Bible, this paper concludes by offering no such clear guidelines and commandments. All I can offer are thoughts influenced by the Bible, culture, reason, and science. Pick and choose as you please. It seems to me that the principle of love is more important than naïve adherence to the Bible and some of its obsolete commandments.[33] I would like to close with the following quote from Augustine: “Love…and then do whatever you will.”[34]

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and philosophy of language. 




Blank, Hanne. Virgin: The Untouched History. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Bloch, Ariel and Chana Bloch. The Song of Songs: A New Translation, with an Introduction and Commentary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Burt, Donald X. Day by Day with Saint Augustine. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006.

Knust, Jennifer. Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire. New York: HarperOne, 2011.

Thielicke, Helmut. The Ethics of Sex. Trans. By John W. Doberstein. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

Scanzoni, Letha. Why Wait?: A Christian View of Premarital Sex. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975.

Valenti, Jessica. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009.


[1] Letha Scanzoni, Why Wait?: A Christian View of Premarital Sex (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), 30.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Ibid., 79. Italics original.

[4] For example, the modern ethical discussion surrounding gay marriage and gay relationships are not considered by Scanzoni. Why? Because the Bible “clearly” instructs against such relations. The principle of obedience to God over-rides concerns such as the principle of “love.” What if two gay people want to have premarital sex in a loving relationship, is that permissible? Such questions are dismissed a priori simply due to the fact that the over-riding principle of obedience to God, being the practical application of divine command theory, stands in direct contradiction to the sort of ethic one may discover when applying other principles, such as love.

[5] Letha Scanzoni, Why Wait?, “Introduction.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 50. Italics original.

[8] Ibid., 21.

[9] Ibid., 99.

[10] Some scholars, however, dispute Knust’s interpretation of the Song, see Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation, with an Introduction and Commentary, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). “Some commentators have attempted to understand this verse as a euphemistic account of sexual intercourse. This is implausible…” (Ibid.). In addition, I’m not sure that Knust is correct in making the assumption that this poem is describing premarital sex. It’s possible the lover and the beloved are married—nothing in the text suggests that they aren’t. (Knust is over-zealous in her want to demonstrate how strange, liberal, and non-evangelical the Bible is even when it isn’t [as it may be in this specific case].)

[11] Jennifer Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 5.

[12] Ibid., 7.

[13] The slave woman does not appear to have any say in what happens to her. “When it comes to their sexuality, the consent of women, slaves, and foreigners was not sought” (Ibid., 63). The marriage to her master or her master’s son is, presumably, not something she has a say in. Hence, my calling her a “contractual sex-slave” is probably fair—for, at least in the modern world, marriage without consent is not valid. So, contra the Bible, I wouldn’t call her “marriage” to her damn master (!) a marriage! In fact, I am calling this contractual arrangement what it is: sex slavery with some benefits.

[14] Ibid., 62.

[15] Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009), 24.

[16] Ibid., 25.

[17] Hanne Blank, Virgin: The Untouched History (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 5.

[18] Ibid., 6.

[19] Ibid., 7.

[20] The verb here conveys one of two things: (1) the male having sex with his penis penetrating a female’s vagina; and (2) the female having sex with a male who’s penis is repetitively penetrating her vagina. This sounds redundant and maybe unnecessary but that is not the case: one could come up with all kinds of scenarios in which some exception to this rule is created (for example, a man only “sticks it in” once and then abandons the girl, does that constitute the vaginal sex act?).

[21] Matthew 5:28 says, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (NRSV). Apparently, having sex with someone else “in his heart” is not really sex. But try having sex physically and without one’s heart, that’s sex!

[22] Helmut Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 23.

[23] Ibid., 24.

[24] Ibid., 25.

[25] Ibid. Italics original.

[26] Ibid., 67-8.

[27] Ibid., 66.

[28] Ibid.

[29] In the New Testament, agape (“love”) is usually the verb used to describe God’s love for humanity. It is a theologically loaded word.

[30] Ibid., 98. Italics original.

[31] The pages are 67 and 83.

[32] Ibid., 85.

[33] I can only make such a bold claim because there are plenty of biblical scholars who have written massive tomes dealing with ancient customs that are, by all means, obsolete (I am thinking of such things as sacrifices and slavery, for example). In this paper, I cited one such scholar: Jennifer Knust. For evidence of contradictions in the Bible and some of its strange stances on human sexuality, I refer my readers to her book.

[34] Quoted in Donald X. Burt, Day by Day with Saint Augustine (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006), 4.

From “Behold the Man” to “Jesus the God”: An Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism and the Corruption of the Bible

Ancient copies of the New Testament attest to the fact that humans, as always, exaggerate the deeds and actions of their loved ones. Just like George Washington became the man who would not tell a lie—remember, that fictional cherry tree story where George sawed down a tree and admitted it—so Jesus Christ became not just ‘Jesus the Anointed’ (the literal meaning of the Hebrew word we commonly translated “Messiah”)[1] but “[Jesus] Christ, namely God” (as one ancient Old Latin manuscript has it).[2] We went from Jesus the Man to Jesus the God.

You see, it is so difficult to understand this textual change when most of us have grown up in a nation that teaches us from day one that Jesus Christ is God (within the Holy Trinity). Most of us have been taught that Jesus is, in one way or another, God in the flesh. It is precisely because of this that we cannot totally appreciate, and see the impact of, a scribe who changes “Jesus the Messiah” to “Jesus the God.” Most of us would shrug and say, “So what? Big deal. There is no difference between Jesus the Son of God and Jesus the God.” The problem is that there is a difference. A huge difference. Imagine for a second that the biographer of George Washington’s life started his story a bit differently. Suppose, for a second, that Mason Locke Weems— Washington’s first biographer and inventor of the cherry tree fable—started off his biography by calling Washington “the King.” If Washington was Jewish and living in ancient Israel, he would have been labeled, as Cyrus the Great was before him (Isa. 45:1),[3] “Washington the Anointed One.” And no Jew would even flinch. George would be called King.

Let us further speculate, suppose that a later author edited the text of the biography to read “Washington the Son of God” or, even more simply, “Washington, namely God.” What would the effect be? Obviously, we are dealing with some highly problematic textual changes! It is one thing to call George a king (even an “anointed king” at best), but completely another to call him God!

I am not suggesting that Jesus Christ is to be put on par with Washington, far from it. I am only trying to get the reader to understand the significance of such textual changes. According to the textual evidence, Jesus Christ was certainly the greatest Man (if it be appropriate to call Him a Man) who ever lived. In similar words, Flavius Josephus can say, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was Christ.”[4] I agree with Josephus on this point. The point that I am stressing here, however, has to do with what I call “progressive exaggeration.” Progressive exaggeration is a part of human nature—we have seen it with George Washington. Early Christians tried to edit the text of the New Testament by making simple statements about Christ cheesier. They would take something as simple as the common name Jesus (also known as “Joshua”) and turn it into “Jesus the Messiah our Lord and Savior.” There is nothing wrong with this per se, but it is most definitely elaborative. Christian scribes would constantly highlight the fact that Jesus was not just an ordinary Joshua, but actually “the Lord.” Where Hebrews 13:20 once read “our Lord Jesus” the Old Latin changed it to “our God Jesus.”[5] One may argue that this is insignificant, but the problem is that it happens throughout the entire New Testament! Almost any space where an additional “Lord” or “God” could be added, it was added. The scribes made sure of it.

The problem with Christian (and heretical) scribes was the fact that they did not just make Jesus sound better—they went the extra mile, as Jesus ironically commanded, and eliminated things that made Jesus look human. One interesting change has to do with the text of John 19:5, the text about Jesus prior to His crucifixion.

Jesus Christ is standing before Pilate all wet in tears, saliva, and deep red blood. He is soaked in His own bodily fluids and is wearing a purple robe. Bearing the sins of the world, this God-Man looks more like a carcass than a once-living human. Jesus is crowned with thorns. He is crowned. Pilate presents Jesus the Messiah to the Jewish crowd by saying, “Behold the man.” Some ancient manuscripts totally eradicate this sentence.[6] It is not in the text. What is wrong with the text? Can anyone guess? Jesus Christ was obviously more than a man, thought a scribe. So, he deleted the fact that Pilate ever said such a thing. Matter of fact, it never happened. One of our oldest Biblical authorities, Codex Vaticanus, reads, “Behold a man.” This appears to have been another reading—it never got a wide audience. Anyone’s guess is as good as mine.

It should be obvious to the reader that Jesus Christ was being shaped by the crowd of scribes. He was being recast, so to speak. A scribe placed his ideas into the biblical text; be it out of love and affection, or out of need for correction (or so he thought…). I want to take a closer look at more such changes in the NT. It is my purpose here to reveal the textual evidence and to try to come to a decent conclusion that can do justice to the text.

The God Who Would Not Be

From the very beginning, if we are to take the Gospels as trustworthy literary accounts, Jesus denied the idea that He was God. The Gospel accounts do state in some places, or at least imply, that Jesus is, in fact, God, but even there we must go by mere implication. Because Jesus was such a radical figure, His image was distorted by the crowds and He was greatly misunderstood. Today, we have four Gospels that present us with slightly modified views of Jesus—Mark’s Jesus is human through and through; Matthew’s Jesus is Jewish and Law-abiding; Luke’s Jesus is a Mother Teresa figure out to help the poor; and John’s Jesus is the most divine figure of all time: his Jesus is none other than God Himself sometimes. But even with the most greatly divine Jesus—as He appears in the Gospel of John—Jesus denies the fact that He is God (the Father?). According to John’s gospel, Jesus tells the Jewish crowds, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30 ESV). But then He also tells them, “[T]he Father is greater than I” (14:28). Obviously, Jesus appears to have some sort of ‘schizophrenic’ existence in relation to God the Father. In no way am I being derogatory here—it, quite frankly, appears that Jesus wants His identity to remain sort of foggy and shrouded in mystery. Even in John’s gospel— which has the highest Christology in the entire NT—Jesus is still not completely and openly God. The text of John 5:18 clearly states that the Jews thought that Jesus was “making himself equal to God.” But even here, again, the disciples do not state openly that He is God; it’s almost as if they do not know exactly what He is—they know He has something divine about Him, but they cannot quite pinpoint it. In John 6:45, Jesus seems to imply that He may be God by stating, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (ESV). If Jesus is the so-called “Rabbi” and the so-called “Teacher,”[7] is He not, then, saying that He is God? (For they shall be taught by God—and He is the One doing the teaching!)

The problem is more magnified later in John’s gospel—after Jesus’ resurrection. In John 20:17, Jesus tells Mary, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (ESV). What is so ironic about this is that Thomas, a few verses later, worships Jesus and calls Him, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). Jesus either accepts the honorific titles or seems to shrug them off and ignore them—the text does not tell us what Jesus thought of Thomas’ statement. But, we must not quickly forget—in the air of such elaborate statements as Thomas’—that Jesus just called God the Father His God also!

In such an atmosphere of mystery and controversy, we come to the textual problem of John 1:18. The English Standard Version reads thus: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Clearly, in conjunction with John 1:1—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—John appears to tell us, on the surface, that Jesus (the Divine Word) is God. The text seems to differentiate between both God the Father and God the Son. Nevertheless, both are Gods. That is the keyword here: God. Both are God(s).

The problem that concerns us is that John 1:18 has suffered damage at the hands of the scribes. To be blunt, the majority of manuscripts read differently. They read: “No one has seen God at any time, but the unique Son who is in the bosom of the Father, that one has made him known.”[8] It is the Alexandrian text-type that the translators of the ESV (and other translations) are following. This is ironic, since many fierce inerrantists—who solely adhere to the Byzantine (Textus Receptus) text-type—follow the “corrupt” Alexandrian text-type when it suits their purposes! This textual variant appears to have been corrupted by later orthodox scribes. Of course, one could argue that it were the heretics who corrupted the “original” text—which read “God” in place of “Son”—but that is not entirely the point. The point is that scribes were modifying the Scriptures to suit their theological beliefs.

We can take a closer look at this passage in light of what we know about the Gospel of John. In John, Jesus and God the Father are sort-of like two Beings that are equal sometimes and at ends with one another at other times. If, according to the text, Jesus was the “unique God” how is it that the Father also existed? By “unique” (Greek: μονογενης) John is trying to say that “God the Son” is somehow unique. The problem is that if God the Son were “unique,” would not that imply that no other God exists? It makes more sense to have “unique Son” in the text because it implies that Jesus Christ is a “unique son”—in the sense that He is not like the other so-called “sons of God” (Rom. 8:14) or “gods” (John 10:34). Matter of fact, for John, then, Jesus is the unique Son of God. Thus, it appears that scribes were taking “Jesus the Son of God” and making Him into “Jesus the Unique God.” And, by the way, there is a world of difference.

We’ve already seen how scribes wanted to exalt Jesus from Man to God (and now to Unique God). This will become more evident as we look at a few more good examples. What is of importance here though is for us to look at how heresy and ‘orthodoxy’ were involved in these scribal changes. It is one thing to talk about changes in the text, but an entirely other thing to see them come to life when you discover the character of their very producer.

Docetic Gnostics and Textual Variants

Many Gnostics believed that Jesus Christ did not actually suffer and die. According to The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus Christ did not die on the cross. He merely “appeared” to die—the Greek word for “appear” is dokein (“to seem,” “to appear”). We call such Gnostics “docetists”—they are the Gnostics who believed in the absolute divinity of Jesus Christ. Not bad, right? Well, the orthodox did not think so. Christ could not be the human of the Ebionites nor the ultra-divine God of the Docetic Gnostics. Because of such reasons, The Second Treatise of the Great Seth could have Jesus explain His insignificant “death”:

And I did not die in reality but in appearance, lest I be put to shame by them because these are my kinsfolk. I removed the shame from me and I did not become fainthearted in the face of what happened to me at their hands. I was about to succumb to fear, and I (suffered) according to their sight and thought, in order that they may never find any word to speak about them. For my death, which they think happened, (happened) to them in their error and blindness, since they nailed their man unto their death. For their Ennoias did not see me, for they were deaf and blind. But in doing these things, they condemn themselves. Yes, they saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was another upon Whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the wealth of the archons and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance.[9]

Jesus is saying that He never really died. It was Simon of Cyrene who did! Because the Docetic Gnostics held to this belief relatively strongly, they could not allow Scripture to speak about a Jesus who “died.” More to the point, they could not speak about a Jesus the Christ who died. The Messiah, who was probably the Good God Himself, could not have been bloodily crucified by evil and murderous human beings. This was absolute blasphemy for the Docetic Gnostics.

The orthodox (the so-called “majority” opinion) held to the idea that Jesus died on the cross. They stressed the fact that Jesus not only died human, but He was both human and God. In John 19:40, Jesus’ body is taken from the cross in preparation for burial. According to one of our most ancient authorities, Codex Alexandrinus, Joseph of Arimathea no longer takes the body of Jesus but the “body of God.” Because in ancient manuscripts (1st to 3rd century) the sacred names were contracted, this textual variant may have resulted from an innocent mistake. The nomina sacra (as they are called) would have been a ΘΥ (contracted possessive name of God—theou, Θεοῦ). On the other hand, the nomen sacrum (singular for nomina sacra) for Jesus would have been ΙΥ (contracted possessive name for Jesus—Isou, Ἰησοῦ). Because of the similarities between God (ΘΥ) and Jesus (ΙΥ) this textual variant may have been a mistake, but it is definitely a good mistake; something that makes the text say something completely different! Mistake or no, we now have an authoritative Greek manuscript saying something that is rather radical.

A similar textual variant occurs in 1 Timothy 3:16. Modern translators translate it thus: “He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels…” (NIV). The “he” in the text is translated from the Greek word for “who.” What we have seen with the nomina sacra, we see here again. The “who” in Greek is OΣ (hos) it looks almost exactly like the nominative nomen sacrum for God (theos, contracted to ΘΣ). All that is missing is a “dot” in the center and a dash above the theta and sigma for the name of God. Thus, some manuscripts, most notably Codex Alexandrinus,[10] substitute “God” for “who.” Now, instead of Jesus appearing in the flesh, it is “God appeared in the flesh.” This is a relatively radical idea, once again.

In 1 John 3:21-23 we are told that if we have confidence before God anything we ask will be given us. That is, if we “believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ” and love one another (v. 23). Some ancient manuscripts, like Codex Alexandrinus, lack the words for “son” (in Greek it would be tou uiou). Now the text simply tells us that we must believe in his name, Jesus Christ, and love one another in order to get what we want from God. The text makes Jesus’ name be equivalent to God’s name.[11] This, again, may be an innocent slip of the pen, but that is debatable.

Separationist Gnostics and Textual Variants

In early Christianity there were the “separationists” who believed that Jesus was just a regular born-of-a-woman man and that He was thoroughly fleshly. Some such separationist Christians were found amongst the Gnostic schools of thought. These Gnostics believed that some divine Spirit entered Jesus at His baptism. The spirit was actually a piece of the divine Godhead. It could have been in the form of a dove but, because of the textual variants, no one really knows for sure. The real “christ,” according to the separationists, actually used Jesus’ body only as a vessel—He was not really born or raised human. This “christ,” then, left Jesus prior to His death—that is why Christ said with His dying breath, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” According to the separationists, Jesus (the human) only said that because the “christ” (or that piece of the Godhead) left Jesus right before His death. The Spirit/“christ” that entered Jesus at His baptism had now left Him because the “christ” could not die. Since the separationist “christ” was a piece of the divine Godhead, it was impossible for a piece of God to die.

The reason the separationists stressed this is relatively simple to understand. For them, the Creator was actually a demiurge or lesser/inferior deity[12] who trapped pieces of divine sparks in only some human bodies (carcasses). Some fleshly carcasses contained this divine spark, and the humans that had this spark needed to be saved and freed from this fleshly prison. All the while, a greater god was planning to save us: a piece of this “good god” was someone known as “christ.” The “christ” was here to save the “chosen few” who had remnants of these divine sparks. Therefore, Jesus’ body was only used as a vessel to pass on secret and special divine gnosis to the few elect. The elect would respond positively to Jesus’ message (it was actually the Gnostic “christ” speaking through Jesus). They would respond and in turn be saved from this world and flesh.

It is no wonder that Christ could not have come in the flesh. Yes, He could have been a phantom (as the Docetic Gnostics held) but a Christ who separated Himself from the flesh appeared to be most logical for the separationists—He came and went, so to speak.

The majority of manuscripts for 1 John 4:3 read “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” Some ancient witnesses read something vastly different. In these texts, it is “every spirit that looses Jesus is not from God.” The difference in Greek is striking, too—the words are either may homologei ton Iasoun (“not confess Jesus”) or luei ton Iasoun (“looses Jesus”). This is most obviously not a slip of the pen. The problem is that this text which speaks about false spirits “loosing Jesus” is not found in our best manuscripts. It appears to have been corrupted by some proto-orthodox scribes in the second century; Origen, Irenaeus, and Clement all know of this text. But what was the point of the change? It appears that “loosing Jesus” meant something like “separating Jesus.” This is probably a text that was changed in order to attack more openly the separationist claim that Christ entered Jesus, and before His death “separated” from Him.[13]

Another interesting variant is Luke 1:35. According to most ancient authorities, Luke’s gospel reads thus: “the child to be born will be called the Son of God” (NIV). On the other hand, according to some other manuscripts, the text inserts two words ek sou (“from you”). We get our word “exit” from the Greek root word ek (which means “out” or “from”). Now, with this addition, the text reads thus: “the child to be born from you will be called the Son of God.” But why would the text need to be changed to read “from you”? It should be obvious: Jesus was born not “of” Mary, but actually from Mary. Jesus was a flesh and blood human. Because this longer text hardly features in the textual tradition, it is virtually always condemned as addition by the scholarly community.[14]

The orthodox Christians were obviously having a field day with the text of the New Testament. Although such variants may appear to be a burden, they are not much so. Most such variants are quickly recognized as additions and quickly dismissed. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge these changes and come to terms with them.

The God That Did Not Know

One professor would always begin his lectures by telling his eager conservative students that Jesus was ignorant. He would quote Mark 13:32, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” He would then grin and emphasize how ignorant Jesus was, according to the very Word of God![15] In Matthew 24:36 this phrase is repeated. The textual problem with this verse is rather self-evident: how could Jesus, the very God of orthodox Christianity, not know about the end of the world? Well, the orthodox scribes had a solution: make Jesus more knowledgeable concerning “the times.” Most of our most ancient authorities—Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean traditions—include the phrase “nor the Son” (in Greek that would be oude ho uios). In these most ancient manuscripts, Jesus apparently does not know all things, like the omnipotent god(s) of Greek philosophy. For many Christians, raised in the Greek tradition, this did not, and could not, make any sense. If Jesus was God, even a lesser god, how could He not know something? Greek philosophical presuppositions would not allow such a god to exist. Therefore, orthodox scribes went into the text and changed it—they erased three words: “nor the Son.” This time, no heretic could claim that Jesus was not entirely God by using Matthew 24:36. A good amount of (later) manuscripts do not have this phrase. Even the so-called “inspired” text of the fundamentalist inerrantists—namely, Textus Receptus (almost identical to the Byzantine text-type)—has this phrase, “nor the Son,” omitted. Most of the Byzantine manuscripts lack the phrase, along with most of the Syriac and Coptic texts, including the Latin Vulgate.[16]

A few scribes managed to also delete this phrase from Mark’s gospel (at least two manuscripts have it removed: X and pc). It is almost self-evident that scribes were taking liberties when working with the text of the New Testament. That this phrase “nor the Son” created problems for later (orthodox) theologian-like scribes is more magnified by the textual history of one of our oldest biblical manuscripts: Codex Sinaiticus. The original writer of Matthew’s text in Codex Sinaiticus included this phrase, a second scribe (“Corrector #1”) erased it, and a third scribe restored it (he was “Corrector # 2”). To say that this phrase was not problematic for some Christians would be utterly misleading. In fact, it is still, to this day, extremely problematic—most of us would rather worship a Jesus that did know.

The Heretical Scribe’s Pen

It was not just the orthodox scribes that were focused on correcting and modifying the Scriptures. The heretic had much to offer too. The deletion between Luke 22:42 and 22:45 is still viciously being disputed by scholars today as to whether it is the original text of Luke or not. Bart D. Ehrman argues that it is an addition while von Harnack argues that it is the original text of Luke.[17] To me it appears to be original to the gospel of Luke—it was later edited out early in its textual history due to its portrayal of a human Jesus. Luke 22:43-44 reads, “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (NIV). Because Jesus was seen as being in anguish and sweating (human) blood, some scribes felt it necessary to edit out such descriptions of Jesus. For example, a Docetic Gnostic would never accept such a portrait of Jesus; this was impossible. And so, just like Marcion of Pontus, the Docetic Christians deleted verses that appeared to be problematic for them. Nay, they were correcting a mistake that orthodox scribes (obviously) added to the text! (Ehrman argues that Luke 22:43-44 was fabricated by the orthodox in response to Docetic heresy.)

Since Alexandria, Egypt was the breeding ground for Gnostic Christians, it is significant that this deletion features almost solely in the Alexandrian text-type! Clement and Origen, along with some early Greek manuscripts, eradicate this passage. Nevertheless, some very famous ancient manuscripts have the addition (Codex Bezae, for example). What should concern us here is that this passage is not found in the Alexandrian Church Fathers and the Alexandrian manuscript family. Since Gnosticism was the form of Christianity in Alexandria, it is almost certain that the Gnostics of Alexandria edited this passage and made it conform to their ideologies. In the middle of the second-century, both Justin Martyr and Irenaeus were already familiar with this passage.

Nonetheless, because Luke edits his Markan source in a few key places, some scholars believe that Luke could not have envisaged an agonized Jesus. For, where Mark has Jesus praying in agony and distress in Gethsemane, Luke silently omits that. Mark 14:33-34 reads, “He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch.’” (NIV). Luke only mentions Jesus leaving the disciples to pray (22:41). Where Mark has Jesus “falling” (14:35) to the ground, Luke has Jesus solemnly “kneeling” (22:41) to the ground. Where Mark has Jesus praying that the “hour might pass” (14:36), Luke, again, has nothing—he simply omits this phrase when copying Mark. When Jesus utters the godless, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” phrase in Mark 15:34, Luke simply has Jesus say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (23:46 NIV). Because of such variations, and there are many more, some scholars have decided that Luke 22:33-34 is an addition—Luke constantly makes Jesus appear calm and under control, how could he have included a bleeding, agonized, sweating Jesus? These scholars, nevertheless, stress a “relaxed” Jesus where there certainly is no relaxed Jesus. We know that Jesus’ death is horrible and that He does, even in Luke’s narrative, pray to have the cup taken from Him (22:42). Thus, I conclude, somewhat tentatively, that Luke 22:43-44 is a deletion made by the Gnostics of Alexandria.

Summarizing Textual Corruptions

There is no doubt that the New Testament has been corrupted with the passage of time. There is also no doubt that the NT has also suffered negative restoration (a scribe alters a passage because of an assumed previous mistake, which ends up being a mistake nonetheless!). There were scribes altering the text due to their integrity. They firmly believed that some previous scribe made mistakes in the manuscript. They were dead-set on “correcting” those mistakes. If a Gnostic scribe came across the passage in Luke 22:43-44, he clearly knew what happened here (!)—it was the orthodox scribe next door who added that passage into the text! It was that filthy orthodox scribe who wanted to make Jesus look human; as if He really did come in the human flesh! Imagine what the Gnostic scribe would think to himself, “Aha! I got him! That rascal, he must have added this passage. He must have. Jesus could not possibly have bled and sweated. No way!”

But then we must picture the worldview of the so-called orthodox scribe.[18] He, too, must have reacted in similar terms. He must have eyed every “divine,” anti-human passage with utter suspicion. If Jesus appeared to be the “invisible God,” that must have been an addition. If Jesus is called “man,” that must be an addition. The orthodox scribe had a most difficult task, in comparison to the heretical Gnostic scribe. The orthodox had to strike a balance between a divine Jesus and a human Jesus. How do you do that? Do you eliminate a passage that makes Jesus God? No? Maybe? What about a Jesus that is a bit too human? No? Maybe? The questions must have haunted the scribes even in their sleep.

We have already seen the additions. The next question that should be answered is How do we make sense of this data? Should we trust the New Testament? Do we continue to believe that somehow this entire process had been guided by the very Hands of God? Do we believe that the scribes were guided by God? Or do we just lift our hands in surrender and say that we do not know anything? Is it even possible to believe in the unifying Spirit of God when such a mess exists? Do we simply dismiss these textual variants? Do we simply close our eyes and wish that they would disappear? I suppose. Nevertheless, we must remind ourselves that most variants are not entirely important to our faith. In fact, most obnoxious variants can be properly eliminated via textual criticism. I believe that textual variants such as these must have needed to occur. What would we think of a perfect Bible? Would not we just discard it on the grounds that it was “recently compiled”? Would not a coherent text reveal its own youthfulness? I think it would. Had the New Testament been so detached from the fierce theological battles of past eras, it would have been viewed as a “text of recent composition.” Had it not suffered at the hands of human scribes, it would have become quickly disposed of. But because the New Testament was so powerful, so entrenched in history, it suffered. Because the New Testament was written by humans, for humans, and through humans, it suffered. Had the NT come from God directly, it would have been irrelevant to us humans. (I do not mean to say that God is irrelevant.) Much of the NT text can be restored with great certainty—there are those few scattered verses that have been tampered with. In spite of it all, the NT remains God’s Word. In a very real and human sense. In a historical sense.

Because Jesus was seen as super-God by some early Christians and super-human by others, it makes sense for us to allow some room for simple diversity. Maybe this exercise will allow us to be more loving towards other denominations. Maybe we can now understand the difficulty of establishing precisely who Christ was and is. In fact, according to Mark’s “messianic secret,” Jesus wanted His identity to remain a secret. Maybe it is fitting to end a discussion on Jesus identity by simply stating that it is still a secret/parable. “He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables’” (Mark 4:11 NIV).

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1] מָשִׁיחַ (Māšîaḥ). We transliterate the word into the English “messiah.” In Greek, it was translated as Χριστός (Khristós), which means “annointed one.” The Greek is correct in the sense that the Hebrew originally meant “one who is anointed” (i.e., a king). Later, as some Jews awaited the coming of some King and High Priest that would save them, the term “anointed one” (and Jewish kings were anointed at the “induction ceremony”) came to mean more than just “anointed one” or even “king,” but “messiah” and “savior.”

[2] See Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effects of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (New York, NY: Oxford University P, 1993), 85. The Old Latin manuscript ff2 for Luke 2:26 has Simeon being told that he will see “Christ, namely God” before his death.

[3] Cyrus the Great was called “anointed” many times by Isaiah the prophet. He was a gentile king who was viewed favorably by most peoples; being democratic and peaceful in spirit.

[4] Antiquities of the Jews, 18.63.

[5] Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 87.

[6] Ibid., 94.

[7] John 1:38; 3:2;8:4; 11:28; Matt. 8:19;26:25 Mk 9: 5,17; Lk 20:39. These verses, and many more, clearly demonstrate that Jesus was known as the “Rabbi” and “Teacher” by both the disciples and His own enemies. It is also interesting to note that in the gentile Gospel of Luke, the name “Rabbi” never occurs—this reveals Luke’s bias.

[8] Ibid., 78-82. This entire exercise is dealt with in-depth by major commentaries and by Bart D. Ehrman. My text closely follows Ehrman.

[9] Selection taken from James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library, revised edition (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990), 193.

[10] I will admit that the evidence that Codex Alexandrinus originally read theos instead of hos is relatively poor. If one examines the manuscript closely, one sees that a later scribe used a more modern ink and turned the hos into theos. Nevertheless, this is still relevant to my argument that scribes changed Scripture to suit their purposes—be it in the fourth or fifteenth century.

[11] Ibid., 83-84.

[12] For other Gnostics, the angels were the ones who created us. This view was espoused by Simon Magus, according to most of our ancient sources.

[13] Ibid., 125-135.

[14] Ibid., 139-140.

[15] This anecdote I got from reading Thom Stark’s excellent book on biblical inspiration, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011), 160.

[16] This entire argument is more detailed in Ehrman’s, Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 91-92.

[17] Cf. Bart D. Ehrmann and Mark A. Plunkett, “The Angel and the Agony: the Textual Problem of Luke

22:43-44”, CBQ 45 (1983/3): 401-416. Also Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 187-194.

[18] I speak with natural human limitations—there is simply no evidence for a coherent form of Christianity in the first two centuries. No reputable historian should make the claim that “orthodox” Christianity was easily separable from “heretical” Christianity. The NT is evidence itself of the diversity of “unified” Christianity. Paul’s words in Romans 14 must constantly remind us that there will always be those “weak” Christians. Not to mention the fact that 1 Corinthians 12-14 clearly demonstrates the fact that each member had different functions and possibly even beliefs (Rom. 14). I only use the words “orthodox” and “heretic” in extremely vague and general terms. Paul admired diversity, remember the battles between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Here “orthodox” just means what is most likely the “correct” view, and what was eventually considered by the majority the correct view. Thus, “orthodox” is synonymous with “majority opinion.”

Marcion and Tertullian: A Tale of a god Who Wouldn’t Be

In the middle of the second-century there developed within Christianity a rival movement that would consume virtually the whole of nascent Christendom. Christianity would employ some of its greatest intellectuals in order to defend itself against this enormous and all-consuming heresy. Irenaeus would write scathing critiques of it. Justin Martyr would mock it. However, the death blow to this movement would come from the pen of Tertullian of Carthage. He would write lengthy volumes covering virtually every aspect of Christian existence—whether it would be issues concerning baptism or the veiling of virgins. Of all the lengthy works that he had written, the longest one of all—which consumed his energies for a number of years—was Adversus Marcionem. It was his five-volume work that would take Marcion of Sinope to task, forever carving notches on Tertullian’s theological pistol. This work, almost single-handedly, responded to Marcion’s theology and killed it; it was thorough, fought Marcionism on its own terms, and engaged in dialogue with various Marcionite responses to orthodox Christianity’s critiques. Tertullian had the advantage of watching Marcionism flourish for over half a century—he was a giant standing on the shoulders of giants who, too, had written critiques of Marcionism.

Marcion of Sinope originated from a region situated on the south shores of the Black Sea called Pontus. He was born around the year 85 C.E.[1] and would later bring his version of the gospel to Rome around the years 140-150. He may have come from a Jewish background, as the city that he came from was also home to Aquila, the great Jewish biblical translator. According to Adolf von Harnack, Marcion was familiar with Jewish interpretations of the Old Testament (OT) and was rooted in a very literal approach—which is not to be surprising since Aquila also translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek very literally, following a word-for-word approach. [2] Christians were apparently in Pontus since the beginnings of Christian evangelization. The First Epistle of Peter presupposes Christians in Pontus, as do the famous letters written between Pliny the Younger and the emperor Trajan around the year 111. Not only was Marcion familiar with Judaism, he appears to have been brought up a Christian from his earliest years. His father, according to Hippolytus, was the bishop of Sinope.[3] His father would later excommunicate Marcion from his own home; thus forcing Marcion to flee to Rome. When Marcion came to Rome, he did not come as a poor outcast; he came loaded with money, donating 200,000 Roman sesterces to the Roman church. He was a shipbuilder and probably sailed into Rome on his own ship. Before coming to Rome, he experienced a number of unsuccessful attempts to preach his version of the gospel message to Christians located in Asia Minor. It may have been at Ephesus that Marcion encountered Polycarp, as reported to us by Irenaeus, and was rejected by him as the “first-born of Satan.”[4] Within a period of time, Marcion probably began to infiltrate the Christians at Rome with his teachings. It appears that he took a modest approach at first, giving people the necessary time to digest his teachings. We have reason to believe that the Roman church probably was initially sympathetic towards him, as he donated a large sum of money, came with letters of recommendation from his brother, and was the son of a Christian bishop. Notwithstanding all of the above, once Marcion had summoned key leaders of the Roman church and presented his version of the gospel, he was immediately excommunicated and his money was returned. The Christians of Rome wanted to have nothing to do with the likes of his teachings. The break with the church most likely happened around the year 144.[5] Apparently, Marcion had presented to the leaders of the Roman church a version of the gospel that sounded a little bit too Gnostic and dualistic.

Marcion took as his point of departure Luke 6:43. He believed that, if Jesus is to be taken seriously, the “good tree” produced good fruit and the “bad tree” produced bad fruit. Since the Creator God created human flesh, which is obviously evil (with all of its sinful inclinations), Marcion believed that Jesus’ saying implied that the Creator God created bad fruit (i.e., human flesh). Since the fruit was bad, the Creator, too, was bad. This implied a whole lot theologically. If Marcion was to be taken seriously by the Roman church, the Christians of Rome would have had to eliminate the OT as sacred Scripture and would have had to do away with references to the Creator God in the New Testament (NT). The presbyters that were gathered on that fateful day decided that Marcion was wrong.

Marcion took his money and began his own Christian world mission. His was the first massive, world-scale religious proselytizing mission rivaling the work of the Apostles. Within merely five years of his break with the Roman church, Justin Martyr was able to say that Marcion’s gospel had flooded the entire human race.[6] Fifty years or so later, Tertullian would likewise remark, “Marcion’s heretical teaching has filled the whole world” (Adv. Marc. V. 19).[7] Despite what anyone thinks about Marcion’s theological credentials, he was a man who was energetic, productive, extremely smart, and an able leader. The church that he would produce (called the Marcionite church) would inundate virtually the entire known-world and would have a united theology and united front. Whereas the early Christians of the time were too busy bickering amongst one another about peripheral matters like veiling and whether or not one should add vanilla flavoring to the Eucharist wafer,[8] Marcion was out conquering the world in an Alexander-the-Great manner. What made Marcion’s church so great? How did Marcion set about preaching his gospel and what were the contents of what he preached? To this I now turn my attention.

Marcion appears to have recognized the existence of at least two gods: the righteous/bad Creator God and the loving/good father god of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was the Son of God in the Marcionite sense that He came from a father who was not of this world: Jesus’ father was not the Creator God but an alien god. This alien god was completely unknown and would always remain unknown. The only thing people could know about this god had been revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth. Marcion believed that the OT contained the actions and story of the bad Creator God, while the NT contained the actions of an alien god. Because of this strong and mutually-exclusive dichotomy which Marcion had set up, the OT and the NT had virtually nothing to do with each other. They should not both be read at one and the same time as sacred literature. Marcion, inevitably, removed the OT from his canon; in the process, he was the first known Christian to have had created a definite canon of Scripture. Moreover, if the Creator God gave the Jews a canon of Scripture, why weren’t the Christians in possession of one? “[F]or a littera scriptura must be available, and if the creator of the world had provided such, then the alien God must all the more do so.”[9] His canon of Scripture was authoritative, set-in-stone, impenetrable, and theologically “all-consuming” in the Hegelian sense—for his canon was “truth” that would “swallow” everything else up. His canon would filter all Scripture through its own highly-idiosyncratic microscope. Marcion comes across as an all-or-nothing type of man: either you accept his canon as truth or you go to hell! Theologically speaking, the lines that he drew between “Law” and “Gospel” were permanent, bold, and huge. Where did Marcion get this idea of breaking with the OT? Apparently, according to Marcion, from Jesus Himself.

Marcion believed that Jesus broke the law again and again in His lifetime. In the words of Harnack, “Did he [Jesus] not declare war against the teachers of the law? Did he not call the sinners, while those teachers desired only righteous men as their pupils?”[10] Jesus was starkly set against the OT from the beginning. Moreover, did not Jesus Himself preach that you could not patch up old wineskins with new? (In Marcion’s mind, this was Jesus declaring that His teaching not be mixed and “patched” onto the OT.) “[F]or [Marcion] the God of the Jews, together with all his book, the Old Testament, had to become the actual enemy.”[11]

Marcon’s hero also happened to be Paul the Apostle. Reading his Epistle to the Galatians, Marcion was able to discover that Paul battled Judaizing apostles. Who were these Judaizing apostles? Marcion believed that they were, most likely, Jesus’ original disciples themselves. Doesn’t the Gospel of Mark in particular portray the Apostles as a bunch of ignorant hillbillies who misunderstood Jesus all the time? Marcion connected the dots and formed the “original idea” that only Paul truly understood Jesus because Jesus had to commission him after His Resurrection (Adv. Marc. IV. 21, 22). To Marcion’s mind, it seemed somewhat ridiculous that Jesus would need to bring in another apostle into the fold had the original disciples been doing their job. So why did Jesus call Paul? “Aha!” Marcion probably thought, “Jesus called Paul because the original disciples had misunderstood Jesus and had not taken His words seriously about the bad Creator God.” Marcion believed that only Paul could be trusted out of all of the disciples, as he alone claims that his gospel came not from man but from Jesus Himself (Gal. 1:12). But Marcion faced an enormous textual problem that would consume the rest of his miserable existence: Paul’s very own letters.

Paul had written some 10 letters which Marcion appeared to be aware of (excluding the Pastoral Epistles). In those letters, any reader finds Paul citing OT texts left and right. He sees Jesus Christ fulfilling the OT. Marcion was dumbfounded. How did this all happen? Why would Paul do away with the OT, as Jesus had secretly commanded, and yet cite the OT? Marcion searched his brains for an answer—and found one.[12] He believed that the letters of Paul were corrupted by Judaizers. In his opinion, these Jewish opponents of Paul were so good and so thorough, they even edited the letters of Paul and made them look as if Paul were Jewish. Not only that, Marcion believed that “the entire apostolic age had been moved exclusively by one major topic, that of the struggle of the Judaistic Christians against the true (i.e., Pauline) gospel.”[13] Marcion also saw that the Christians read roughly four gospels. He looked at them and found none of them appealing. He decided that, since Luke was Paul’s companion, Luke’s Gospel must have been more original to the authentic gospel message. But even Luke’s version of things has way too much Jewish material in it. Marcion was not moved by this: the Jews got to it before he did! He believed that the Gospel of Luke must have been corrupted by these same Judaizing false apostles. But Marcion was not as arrogant and autocratic as he initially seems to be; you see, he was actually somewhat of a modest man. Marcion wanted to have an authentic gospel and suffered the “temptation to write such a gospel himself”[14] and yet it is “[h]ere in particular there is shown with special clarity and remarkable interweaving of criticism and fidelity to history.”[15] Marcion did not write a gospel on his own authority, though he certainly could have, but worked tirelessly to “restore” the texts he had before him. Marcionites were, as Origen would later put it, “slaves to pure history” (Comm. XV.3 in Matt., T. III).[16] He worked hard to restore the biblical texts he set out to restore—he would later leave the task of “restoring” to his devoted followers. The texts he had chosen to include in his canon were eleven in number: ten of Paul’s epistles and the Gospel of Luke (all of which were combed for “corruption”; thus being, to our mind, “highly-edited”).

Marcion saw himself as a restorer of the text and felt that this was his special calling in life—he truly was a man that “thought with his blood.” He was, arguably, the first protestant reformer in Christian church history; albeit, a heretical one at that! Being a self-proclaimed textual critic, he set about editing the texts before him in a thorough-going manner. References to Peter and Paul in Galatians 1:18-24 were excised wholesale; Peter could not be seen as in agreement with Paul.[17] The text about Abraham and all that “Old Testament gibberish” was removed from Galatians 3:15-25. The reference to the “seed of Abraham” in verse 29 was also deleted. Since the alien god of Jesus Christ was non-judgmental, loving and good, he would not— as in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:17— “destroy” any man. Where the text read “God will destroy him” Marcion felt obligated to convert this phrase into “he will be destroyed.” There simply was no room in Marcion’s theology for a “destroying” God who was tied to Jesus.[18] In 2 Corinthians 7:1 Paul writes “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit.”[19] Marcion would have nothing to do with this—he changed “spirit” into “blood.”[20] References to the OT like phrases such as “as it is written” in places like Romans 1:17 were deleted; how could Paul, who knew that the OT was from the bad god, cite the bad god’s text?[21] Marcion believed that Jesus was not born of Mary since He could not participate in the Creator God’s matter. So in Luke 8:19 the reference to Jesus’ mother and brothers was deleted.[22] Many such emendations were made to the Marcionite Canon.

But why did Marcion refuse to believe that Jesus took on a human physical body? The reason was simple: Jesus had come from an alien god and He was not about to put on any bad “fruit” created by the bad Creator God. Marcionite ethics were as radical as Marcionite “textual criticism.” Marcion’s theology had huge implications for human daily activity. For example, if a couple were interested in getting married, Marcion would object and tell the couple to refrain from the evil inclinations of the flesh. In fact, to participate in communion, Marcionite Christians had to either be widowed, eunuchs, or single virgins; one could not be married.[23] To participate in sexual union was to obey the commands of the bad Creator God who had said, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Moreover, to reproduce would be to produce more human beings that would be trapped in this evil world and evil body. One could not satisfy the flesh in eating habits also. For Marcion, even enjoying created food was sinful; how could a true Marcionite Christian enjoy the “bad fruit” of the Creator God? Impossible! This meant that Marcionite Christians would, essentially, be extremely ascetic. They rejected wealth, marriage, family, sex, enjoyment, bodily pleasures, etc. After learning about such ascetic manners, modern western-raised Christians may find such asceticism and hate for human life repulsive. One is pressed to ask the question: Why was Marcionism so attractive to the second and third-century mind? It is to this question that I now turn.

During the first-century, there arose a movement within Christianity that would later become known under the umbrella term Gnosticism.[24] (Though “full-blown” Gnosticism is recognized—by predominantly American scholars—as coming on the scene in the second-century.) It was a dualistic religion that emphasized the dichotomy and separation between good and evil. The world was ultimately evil and the spirit was ultimately good. The Gnostics were preoccupied with the problem of evil and pushed it “upstairs”; they believed that evil originated with the evil Creator God. Moreover, the Gnostics lived in the problem and paradox of human existence; they saw themselves as exiles in an unknown and foreign land. This was not home. The spirit was good and it was trapped in our created body. And not only that, there could simply be no resurrection of the human body: the good god would not suffer to raise the flesh—that would be unnecessary. From an ethical perspective, the Gnostics generally fell into two groups: libertines and ascetics. Both groups had the same premises but vastly different conclusions. Both believed that everything in the world was created by a bad (lesser) god; however, the ascetics argued that a true Gnostic Christian must abstain from the evil pleasures of this world, while the libertines argued that since the good god did not create the flesh and that only the spirit mattered, one could do anything while being in the flesh. Already in the NT we find Paul battling Gnostic thinking in his epistles. Whether it be the question of food or resurrection, the Gnostics were a thorn in Paul’s side.[25] In 1 Timothy 6:20, Gnosticism is out-rightly named and attacked mockingly as “gnosis so-called.” The Epistle of 1 John is adamant about attacking a movement within the congregation that claims that Christ did not come in the flesh (cf. 4:2). Because Gnosticism was already either a nascent faith in the first-century or somewhat more fully developed, it was most probably the launching pad for Marcion’s thinking. Tertullian relates that Marcion was taught by a certain Cerdo. Taken at face value, this indicates that Marcion’s ideas were not second-century at all and neither were they innovative and “new” in their entirety. Marcionism came into a world that was already very familiar with the problem of evil, fleshly inclination, dissatisfaction with human life, and the problem of marriage. Women were often times left to the wills and whims of their husbands—seeing themselves as restrained, they joined the Gnostic movement and bought into it hook, line and sinker. Why? Because Gnosticism was very women-friendly. The author of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, undoubtedly a Gnostic (contra Tertullian), reveals to us just how “liberating” Gnosticism was. Marriage is seen as a barrier to progress in an individual woman’s life, so Thecla is told by “Paul” not to marry her fiancé—she is rather to escape with Paul and preach the gospel. It is against such Gnosticism that the author of 1 Timothy writes the following words: “She [i.e., woman] will be saved through childbearing (2:15). The author here was combating a form of Gnosticism that forbade marriage (which is why the author reminds woman that childbearing is both good and actually salvific!). All of these things would eventually come into play when Marcion came around. He was not exactly the “new kid on the block”; he came pulling baggage from the first-century. So what made Marcionism so attractive? Its familiarity. Marcionism was a variant form of Gnosticism. Whereas the Gnostics retained the OT and reread it in light of the coming savior Jesus Christ, Marcion did away with all of the so-called “Jewish myths.” In other words, Marcion was bolder than his Gnostic contemporaries and predecessors; he alone was willing to single-handedly remove the OT from the canon of accepted Christian Scripture—and he almost succeeded. But in removing the OT, he did not reject its contents entirely; no, he believed that his followers should continue reading it in order to know what the bad Creator God was up to.

Seen in its entirety, being set within its own historical context, Marcionism is a religious philosophy and way of life that helped explain away some of man’s greatest fears. In the second-century, children were being left “exposed” on a Roman hillside. Mothers would die in labor. Marriage was seen, at least for woman, as a threat to existential freedom. In such an environment, Marcionism seemed like a very enticing option. It reduced all of the world’s problems to a series of pithy categorical imperatives: do not get married, do not have sex, do not have children, do not enjoy pleasures, do not worry about this world, do not be concerned about wealth, etc., etc. All the things people had trouble obtaining (health, children, food, etc.) were rejected as unnecessary. All of man’s hopes and dreams for a better life were rendered useless. Marcionism offered an explanation for this world’s evil. It preoccupied itself with the problem of evil because the world was seen at that time as being predominantly evil. Gnostics roamed the streets the world over. And along came Marcion. He was not an outcast in any usual sense of the word; he was an ordinary individual who thought mostly like half of the other population populating earth in the second-century. Because evil appears to have been on everybody’s mind, Marcionism was welcomed in. As a bonus, it did away with the issue of race, class and sex. If the Creator God was wrong in creating us, He too was wrong in making us black, white, male, or female. Marcionism was able to provide people with a sense of complete unity and identity. There was no longer an us-against-them mentality—anybody and everybody could and should be welcomed in. It did not matter whether you were a Jew or a pagan: Jesus came to save us from this world. (Of course, many people chose to ignore this message, but they were merely “deceived.”) If ever a problem was presented to a Marcionite Christian, one could simply resort to excision: excise the verse (or problem or whatever) out! All this goes to show that Marcionism was very much at home with a large portion of the second-century population. However, despite its attractiveness, an equally large amount of people found problems with Marcion’s thinking. It is now that I turn my attention to Marcion’s greatest critic: Tertullian of Carthage.

Tertullian was a fiery second and third-century writer who composed his five-volume work against Marcion around the first few years of the third century. He was allegedly a lawyer, well-trained in philosophy and rhetoric. He may have begun his first edition around 198 C.E. but would not have completed the entire work—entering its third edition—until April 207 or 208.[26] His work drew upon his predecessors Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and maybe Theophilus of Antioch. Tertullian’s originality is brilliantly distilled in the fourth and fifth volumes of the work, where Tertullian goes practically verse-by-verse through Marcion’s Antitheses and biblical canon (with all of its deletions and corruptions). Tertullian summarizes what his thesis is in book in the following words: “I have set before you Jesus as the Christ of the prophets in his doctrines, his judgments, his affections, his feelings, his miracles, his sufferings, as also in his resurrection, none other than the Christ of the Creator” (Adv. Marc. IV. 43). Tertullian sets out to argue a number of things concerning Marcion’s theology: (1) Jesus of Nazareth was prophesied in the OT; (2) Jesus of Nazareth is the Creator’s Messiah; (3) The Creator is good; (4) Jesus is judgmental too; and (5) Jesus may, at times, appear more harsh than the Creator and His prophets. All of this goes to show that Tertullian is willing to accept Marcion’s theology on its own terms and then he finds multitudes of problems with it. In the five-volume work, simply known as Adversus Marcionem (“Against Marcion”) and being written in Latin, Tertullian attacks Marcion’s theology and ethical system in the first three books. In the fourth volume, he writes an anti-Marcionite commentary on Marcion’s version of Luke’s gospel, and in the fifth volume he does the same with Marcion’s ten edited Pauline letters. With that being said, I would like to examine the contents of the five-volume work and summarize its basic arguments. (As a note of caution I would like to add that my presentation of Marcion will, inevitably, follow Tertullian’s representation of him. For example, if Tertullian’s version of Marcion contradicts Harnack’s, then you must use scholarly judgment to ascertain who is in the right, be it Harnack or Tertullian.)

In the first volume, Tertullian begins by poking fun at Marcion’s birthplace and heritage. Using his usual wit, he situates Marcion amongst the cold, winter peaks of Pontus. He introduces Marcion to us with the following description: “Marcion was…more unsettled than a wagon dweller…darker than fog, colder than winter, more brittle than ice…” (Adv. Marc. I. 1). He relates to us that “Marcion had an unhealthy interest in the problem of evil—the origin of it—and his perceptions were numbed by the very excess of his curiosity” (I. 2). Marcion, according to Tertullian, argued that God creates evil. Citing Isaiah 45:7 as his proof text, he demonstrates that the Creator God, therefore, must be evil. Tertullian will argue that “evil” here should be taken to mean punishment for sin. There are “two sorts of evils” for “not only sins but also punishments are described as evil”; that is, Christians “take note of the difference between evils of sin and evils of punishment…” (II. 14). Moving on past this argument, Tertullian develops his idea of the oneness of God. He argues that “God is an entity supremely great” and that “Christian verity has decisively asserted that if God is not one only, he does not exist” (I. 3). Tertullian believes that if the definition of “God” is “supreme being,” then there cannot be two “supreme beings”—either one is supreme or none are supreme. If one is supreme (as is the Christian God), then He is one and He is alone in His supremacy. Moreover, “[t]he reasoning which could admit two could admit also a great many: for after two comes a multitude, once unity had been exceeded.” (I. 5). Thus, for Tertullian, the supremacy and unity of God must be maintained in opposition to pantheism. He does not believe that other gods exist beside the Creator God within the Trinity. Tertullian points out that if the OT speaks of other so-called “gods” it is merely mocking so-called gods. “[T]here are large numbers of worthless slaves who bring discredit on the names of kings, being called Alexander or Darius or Holophernes: yet this will not degrade the kings from being what they are. Also the idols of the heathen are gods to the vulgar, yet none of them is a god simply by having the name of ‘god’” (I. 7). Tertullian then goes on to argue that “All new gods are false gods” (I. 9). Because Marcion’s alien god appeared so late in salvation history, he must, admittedly, be false. Tertullian sees God—the true God—as always being present in the minds of men; the knowledge of Him being innate. “The knowledge inherent in the soul since the beginning is God’s endowment, the same and no other whether in Egyptians or Syrians or men of Pontus. It is the God of the Jews whom men’s soul’s call God” (I. 11). He argues that the alien god could not be God since our knowledge of God had existed prior to his so-called revelatory work in the person of Jesus; no, Tertullian believes that Jesus preached the same God that we innately worshipped since the beginning of time. Marcion’s alien god is not God. “God can never keep himself hidden, can never be unattainable: he must at all times be understood, be heard, even be seen, in such manner as he will. God has his evidences, all this that we are, and in which we are. Such is the proof that he is God, is the one God, this fact that he is not unknown, while that other one is even yet struggling after recognition” (I. 11). Not only is God known, but he is known through nature (i.e., natural theology). As for Marcion’s god, “[o]ne solitary little chick-pea of his own ought Marcion’s god to have brought to light, and he might then have been proclaimed a sort of new Triptolemus”[27] (I. 11). This then brings us full-circle: “And so it follows that just as no one doubts that the Creator is God—for he has created all this—so no one has the right to believe the godhead of that other, who has created nothing…” (I. 11).

After demonstrating that God is one and that He was known before Jesus’ coming, Tertullian sets out to demonstrate the Creator’s goodness. He exclaims, “[L]ook at man, within and without[,] at least this work of our God will obtain your approval, a work upon which your lord, your superior god, has set his affection…” (I. 14). Not only that, Marcion’s alien Jesus has “not even yet rejected the Creator’s water.” Moreover, even in his rites and ceremonies, the alien Jesus “cannot do without things begged and borrowed from the Creator” (I. 14). All of this goes to show how dependent Marcion’s alien Jesus—sent from an alien god—was upon the Creator’s products. The Marcionites were not only interested in the Creator’s material things, they also, apparently, guided their lives according to the Creator’s stars—being amateur astrologers (I. 18).

Tertullian goes on to show that even where the Gospel (NT) appears to contradict the Law (OT), the Creator God Himself had already foretold such changes. The Creator had issues with sacrifices and Sabbaths already in the OT (cf. Jer. 7:22, Ezk. 20:25-26, Isa. 1:14, etc.), therefore, the fact that the Gospel stands in stark contrast to the Law was already prophesied and instituted—not by some alien god—but by the Creator Himself! Paul the Apostle was not preaching a different God either. “[The] Creator had long ago rejected all these [i.e., sacrifices and Sabbaths], and the apostle’s pronouncement was that they must now be rejected, evidently the fact that the apostle’s judgment is in agreement with the Creator’s decrees, proves that no other god was the subject of the apostle’s preaching…” (I. 21). Not to mention the fact—but Tertullian does!—that Marcionite Christianity appeared late on the scene and was not apostolic in origin. “[Y]ou will find no church of apostolic origin whose Christianity repudiates the Creator” (I. 21).

Tertullian also finds problems with Marcion’s claim that this alien god—the alleged “father” of Jesus—is any better than the Creator God. If the alien god was really “good” in any meaningful sense of that word he would have come and saved the whole of humanity. Why does he only save a few, Tertullian asks? Moreover, why is this alien god only doing his salvific work now? Why didn’t he come earlier—let us say, at creation? Either he was powerless to overcome the creator (which would make him a lesser god) or he was evil and wanted to see humanity suffer under the alleged “cruelties” of the Creator God (I. 22, 24). Tertullian puts it succinctly: “What would your opinion be of a physician who by delaying treatment should strengthen the disease, and by deferring remedy should prolong the danger, so that his services might command a larger fee and enhance his own repute?” (I. 23). Moreover, once this idiotic construct “Jesus” of Marcion’s—coming from a stupid alien god—breaks into the Creator’s world to save human life, what does he really save Marcionites from exactly? “[T]he Marcionite still gets malaria, and the aches and pains of his flesh still bring forth for him those other thorns and briers: he is exposed not only to the Creator’s lightening, with his wars and pestilences and other chastisements, but even to his scorpions. In what respect do you suppose yourself set free from his kingdom, when his flies still tread upon you?” (I. 25).

Tertullian saves his best critique for last before ending his first volume: if this alien god is good and non-judgmental, “[w]hy does he forbid the commission of an act he does not penalize when committed?” (I. 26). For example, if I was to join the Marcionite church, learn about this non-judging, all-loving, heavenly Santa Claus—and I was, at the same time, to get married and have sex—what would this non-judging god do? Punish me? Since Marcion’s god forbids marriage, sex, riches, reproduction, etc., this means that he, too, is a judge (just like the Creator God). “For by not wishing it he forbade it. And has he not also become a judge, by wishing it not to be, and therefore forbidding it? For that it must not be done was a judgment, and that it must be forbidden was a sentence. So then he too is now a judge” (I. 27). In other words, “he forbids you to sin—but only in writing” (I. 27).

Not only is this alien god a judge, it appears that Marcionites fear him too. “Why also during persecution do you not at once offer your incense, and so gain your life by denial? On no, you answer, far from it. In that case you are already in fear—of doing wrong: and by your fear you have admitted your fear of him who forbids the wrong” (I. 27). But even in his judgments, this alien god is idiotic—for “he washes a man never to his mind defiled [in the waters of baptism]” (I. 28). “Not even a rustic will go and water land which is to return no fruit—unless he is as stupid as Marcion’s god” (I. 28). And, last but not least, even Marcion—that alien god’s favorite human being—was born of marital intercourse. “How can he show affection to one of whose origin he does not approve?” (I. 29). This “god” of Marcion’s has as many paradoxes and contradictions as Marcion’s version of the Creator God. In fact, one could say that this alien god is stupid and more so bewildering in his actions!

In the second volume, Tertullian further develops the idea that God the Creator was good (II. 4) and that evil is to be found in human freewill (II. 6). “[O]nce God had granted the man freedom he must withdraw from his own freedom, restraining within himself that foreknowledge and superior power by which he might have been able to intervene to prevent the man from presuming to use his freedom badly, and so falling into peril. For if he had intervened he would have cancelled that freedom of choice which in reason and goodness he had granted.” Then Tertullian continues, “[S]uppose him to have intervened, suppose him to have cancelled that freedom of choice, by calling the man away from the tree…” (II. 7). Tertullian wants Marcion to say “Yes!”— for he knows that the moment the Creator cancels out freewill is the moment that Marcion would exclaim “Look! A god full of contradictions! He gives freewill only to take it back again!” This Tertullian does to show that God could not be blamed for the evils of mankind. Even in breathing into us, when God gave us His Spirit, this did not make us insusceptible to evil. “You yourself do not by blowing into a flute make the flute into a man” (II. 9). Just because God, a sinless being, breathes into a man and gives him life does not mean that the man would be sinless too—all because of freewill. God has the right to judge sin because He has given man the ability to fulfill His commands. When man sins, God can function as the judge; He is a just God. Criticizing God for judging people is stupid. “Justice is an evil thing only if injustice is a good one” (II. 12).

After making such arguments, Tertullian tries to synthesize a theology of the OT. “One should rather see there that careful interest by which, when the people were prone to idolatry and transgression, God was content to attach them to his own religion by the same sort of observances in which this world’s superstition was engaged, hoping to detach them from this by commanding them to do these things for him, as though he were in need of them, and so keep that people from the sin of making images” (II. 18). Tertullian, in a way, agrees with Marcion that the laws and commands of the OT are not what God desires; however, he believes that God commanded these things out of genuine concern and love for His people. When Marcion attacks the OT God as being evil for commanding the theft of Egyptian gold, Tertullian wittingly responds that—since God is just, and since the Egyptians had not paid the Jews for four hundred years of labor—God was simply commanding the Hebrews to take their wages (II. 21)! Remember: the laborer is worthy of his wages (Luke 10:7). And not only that, but even where God commands the Hebrews to “work” on the Sabbath (as on the day when they marched around Jericho), Tertullian differentiates between doing “man’s work” and “divine work” (II. 22).

After answering these Marcionite critiques of the OT, Tertullian looks at God “repenting” in the OT. Tertullian believes that God doesn’t “repent” in the sense of committing a sin and then trying to change sinful behavior; that is, God doesn’t change His mind because He “sinned.” Rather, Tertullian suggests that “[i]t is to be understood as neither more nor less than a simple reversal of a previous decision” (II. 24). In fact, if Marcion is blaming the OT God for repentance—when He acts in a certain way and then changes His behavior—Marcion is actually condemning his own alien god. For this alien god at first did not care for mankind for thousands of years; he came only in the 15th year of the emperor Tiberius. This means that he, too, “repented” and changed his previous decision not to save mankind from the bad Creator God. “For the fact that he did at length have respect for man’s salvation was an act of repentance for his initial disregard—such repentance as is owed to an evil deed” (II. 28).

In the third volume, Tertullian turns his attention to the fact that Marcion’s alien god came so unexpectedly. He argues that God should come announced and expected (III. 3). Not only that, Tertullian believes that a son of god should come after a father god. In Marcion’s theology, you have a son figure coming before a father figure (who remains unknown and unannounced throughout). Tertullian then looks at Marcion’s hate for allegorical readings of the OT. He points out that even Paul, Marcion’s favorite apostle, used allegory in his own epistles (III. 6). Tertullian calls Marcionitic theology “antichrist” because it denied the fleshly reality of Jesus’ body. “[L]et him [i.e., Marcion] from now on belch forth the slime of his own particular devices, as he maintains that Christ was a phantasm: except that this opinion too will have had other inventors, those so to speak premature and abortive Marcionites whom the apostle John pronounced antichrists, who denied that Christ came in the flesh…” (III. 8). Marcion, according to Tertullian’s report, denied the fleshly body of Jesus Christ. He chides Marcion for preaching a Christ who “being flesh and not flesh, man and not man, and in consequence a Christ [who was] god and not god” (III. 8). Tertullian then argues that such a phantom Christ could not have actually bore our sins and suffered. “[T]he sufferings of Marcion’s Christ will fail to find credence: one who has not truly suffered, has not suffered at all, and a phantasm cannot have suffered at all (III. 8). Throughout his entire discussion, Tertullian cites generously from the OT texts. He wants to ground the Creator’s Christ in the OT. For example, at one point in his argument he writes, citing Psalm 96:10, “The Lord hath reigned from a tree,[28] I wonder what you understand by it…why should not Christ be said to have reigned from the tree?” (III. 19). He argues that Jesus of Nazareth was the OT Christ prophesied by the Creator God. Marcion, on the other hand, believes that the OT Messiah is yet to come. According to him, he will be a Jewish Messiah who will merely save the Jewish race and not be concerned with the whole of humanity (III. 21). After debunking Marcion’s “two Christ theory” and his idea of a docetic Christ, Tertullian concludes his third book by saying, “As things are, you are giving invitations to dinner, but not showing at which house: you are telling of a kingdom, but not pointing out the palace. Is this because your Christ promises a heavenly kingdom when he has no heaven, in the same way as he made profession of humanity without having a body? What a phantasm it all is!” (III. 24).

The fourth volume is essentially commentary on Marcion’s version of the Gospel of Luke. Tertullian points out textual emendations that Marcion made and objects to Marcionite interpretations of the Gospel. Tertullian points out that, despite what Marcion thinks of the so-called “Judaizing corruptions” of both the Gospel of Luke and the Pauline letters, Paul himself is guilty of “Judaizing.” For example, “Paul himself made himself all things to all men so that he might gain them all” (IV. 3). For Tertullian, then, if Paul sounds Jewish it is because he himself assimilated for the Jews! This implies that nobody corrupted his epistles! Making his way to the Lukan text, Tertullian reminds Marcionites that “it was only when Marcion laid his hands upon [the Gospel of Luke], that it became different from the apostolic gospels, and in opposition to them” (IV. 5). It was not “corrupted” and emended by Judaizing Christians; rather, it had been Jewish all along. Tertullian points out that if the alien god of Jesus was adamant about destroying the Jewish Creator, why, then, did he send Jesus to the Jews first? Isn’t it idiotic to believe that Jesus was not a Jew when He was a Jew (IV. 7)?

Surveying the gospel text, Tertullian looks at how Jesus cast out demons. He examines Luke 4:16-43 and points out that even in the Marcionite version the demons still flee in fear and trembling. But doesn’t this make Jesus a God to be feared? “Yet how did he expect them to come out—a thing they would not have done except from fear?” (IV. 8). Tertullian points out that even in Marcion’s gospel, Jesus still remains silent when people He heals go and fulfill the OT law by offering gifts in the Temple (IV. 9). Moreover, the Jewishness of Jesus does not stop there: He also calls Himself by that Jewish epithet “son of man.” Why would an alien Jesus—who came to destroy the OT law—take up an OT name? Tertullian is baffled by this (IV. 10). To top it all off, this Jesus of Marcion’s does not look any different for Tertullian than the Creator God: He forgives sin as well. Tertullian reasons, if Jesus forgives sin, has He not also “judged” something to be a sin in order to call it sin? Marcion also liked to play the “Jesus-broke-the-Sabbath” card: he would point out how Jesus healed on the Sabbath. Tertullian’s response is that “the work of healing or of rescue is not properly man’s work but God’s” (IV. 12). Therefore, Jesus did not do any of His own (human) work on the Sabbath, but God’s work.

Coming to Luke 8:16, Tertullian cites Jesus saying about the hiding of a lamp in a jar. How could Jesus have said that? “I wonder how one can talk about a lamp never being hidden, who through all those long ages had hidden himself, a greater and more essential light: and how can he promise that all things secret shall be made manifest, when he is all the while keeping his god in darkness, waiting I suppose for Marcion to be born” (IV. 19). Recalling that Marcion blamed the OT God for being “ignorant” in the Garden of Eden, when He asked Adam “Where art thou?” (Gen. 3:9), Tertullian responds by pointing out that in Marcion’s gospel, Jesus too asked the woman who was hemorrhaging, “Who touched me?” (IV. 20). Using such an approach, Tertullian is able to apply Marcion’s own logic to Marcion’s very own scriptural canon and destroy it. He grounds Jesus in the OT and reminds his readers that what Marcion has said about the OT God could just as easily be said about Jesus. This, however, should only lead to the conclusion that Jesus and the Creator are actually of one and the same nature. With such argumentation, Tertullian goes through the Gospel of Luke and concludes his fourth volume.

In his last and final fifth volume, Tertullian comes to the highly edited ten Pauline epistles. He begins by pointing out that Paul the Apostle was prophesied in Genesis under the code name “Benjamin,” the one who would come like a ravening wolf during the morning and would distribute food at night. Tertullian argues (V. 1) that this is Paul; he came killing Christians in the beginning of his life (i.e., morning) and then would repent and spread the gospel (i.e., the food) at the end of his life (i.e., night).[29] Tertullian begins by examining Marcion’s interpretations and emendations of Galatians. Apparently, Marcion interpreted 1:8 (“if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you”) as referring to a “gospel of the angels”—the “angels” in this case belonging to the Creator God. Thus, Marcion saw in this passage a Paul who foresaw that the Creator God would even send His own angels to proclaim a gospel message contrary to Paul’s (this message being the message of the Jewish false-apostles). Tertullian, quite naturally, responds that Marcion’s approach to this passage is coming straight out of his rear-end (V. 3). For reasons unknown to us, Marcion apparently left Galatians 3:11, which has Paul citing Habakkuk 2:4 (“the just shall live by faith”). Tertullian takes this passage and points out that Paul was “expressing agreement with the prophets” (V. 3). Marcion deleted the reference to Abraham in 3:29 and had the text read instead “you are all sons of faith” (V. 3)—it should have been “sons of Abraham.” At 4:3 Paul writes that “while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.”[30] Marcion took this passage to mean that the OT was given to the Hebrews by the god of this world, who used evil “elemental spirits” as his mediators (allegedly Moses would have been in contact with them). Tertullian responds by arguing that the phrase “elemental spirits” actually means “early instruction” (V. 4). Such elements are equivalent to “that early schooling in the law.” The OT law would then be seen as a guardian that kept the Hebrews safe from any extreme errors. Yes, Tertullian would agree with Marcion that the OT law was not perfect; no, he would not agree with Marcion that it was given by a different god and inherently evil.

When Tertullian comes to the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Marcion’s entire worldview comes undone. In this epistle, we have a direct critique of pro-Gnostic thinking and, most probably, an attack upon the docetic Gnostics of Corinth. What is bewildering to the modern mind is that—despite all of the deletions and emendations of Marcion—he kept this particular epistle somewhat intact. It still dealt with marriage and resurrection. Tertullian criticizes Marcion for not allowing marriage when Paul allows it and so does Jesus (V. 7). Regarding the resurrection, Marcion apparently had to reinterpret the whole of chapter 15 in the epistle through the phrase “flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” He took this as his point of departure and filtered the rest of Paul’s writings on the afterlife and resurrection through this phrase. Tertullian makes ingenious comments regarding the entire episode, trying his best to point out how stupid Marcion’s canon within a canon really is. For example, Paul uses the analogy of wheat falling into the ground, dying, and then rising up again. Tertullian argues that if Paul was preaching an escape from the evil flesh, why then was he using examples given us by the Creator (V. 10)? Using this form of argumentation, Tertullian goes through the entire Pauline corpus, as found in Marcion’s canon, and concludes his research by pointing out that only Philemon, Paul’s shortest writing, was left untouched by Marcion.

Tertullian wrote his five-volume work because he felt an urgent need to combat a heresy that was in some ways ridiculous and yet so captivating. “By the year A.D. 200 Marcionitism had called forth attacks in three languages—Greek, Latin, and Syriac.”[31] Marcionism was in some ways very much rooted in the NT, and yet—from an orthodox perspective—completely in opposition to it. Christians living in the second and third-centuries would not have been as informed about Marcionism as we are now. Many could not see the differences. “The content of the Marcionite divine service must have been very similar to that of an orthodox one, so much so that orthodox Christians had to be careful not to go into a Marcionite church by mistake.”[32] Upon examination, one could see the world of difference between Marcionism and orthodox Christianity, but to the untrained eye, they were the same thing. Moreover, in a world of hierarchy and subjugation—where slave was set against master and husband against wife—Marcionism gave the lower class folk a sense of heightened equality and importance. Tertullian obviously felt obligated to respond to this growing threat within Christianity. As someone who was educated amidst a people who were predominantly illiterate (90-95 percent of the population were illiterate), Tertullian had the advantage of reading Marcion’s Antitheses first-hand. He wrote because they wrote. But what if he had not written his five-volume set? What if he chose to ignore Marcionism as too stupid to hold its own? Marcionism would have, most likely, died out nonetheless. What began as a quest for knowledge of the problem of evil, ended in the abyss of infinite evil itself. “If Marcion’s god is good and kind, why did he ignore human suffering for so many centuries? thereby showing that the problem of evil still exists for Marcion.”[33] The problem of evil never disappeared—sadly, even for Marcion. The whole of human existence was filtered through Marcion’s lenses—and yet they, too, failed. “He did not realize that his own rigidly literal exegesis might also miss the truth, and that it was possible to fail to see rightly a whole picture because parts of it were viewed in too great detail.”[34] Marcion’s theology, with its emphasis on evil, turned a beautiful picture—with a small scratch in it—into one that was holocaustically horrendous and terrifyingly evil: only the “scratch” became visible in Marcion’s theology. In all of this, “Marcion is a typical representative of Gnosticism.”[35] He may have thought he was somewhat innovative, but he ended up being just another Gnostic looking out for God, trying to solve evil. And when he was confronted with the problem of sin and why Marcionites still avoided it (if the alien god was never going to punish and judge anyhow), Marcion replied, paradoxically, “Absit, absit” (“God forbid! God forbid!”).[36] Anybody who would have confronted this sort of religious philosophy would have found problems with it at some point. A god who didn’t punish and yet forbade you to sin sounded…strange (to say the least). “Marcion’s thinking is superficial; to the deepest things in religion he is insensitive. He is the slave of dualistic presuppositions, seeing everything antithetically, incapable of perceiving the subtleties which are the very essence of human experience and which cannot be pressed into a rigid classification, dualistic or otherwise. His temperament fitted him to be an organizer and a textual critic, but not to be a prophet or pastor or comforter of sin-sick souls.”[37] And so, Marcion has died twice: he died when he died and he died when his philosophy was incapable of sustaining the human individual living in a world full of beauty, good food, beautiful marriages, children swinging on trees, flowers blooming in May, and all of that other stuff that makes life worthwhile. Marcion is no longer remembered because his philosophy could not sustain itself—it simply could not stand on its own two feet (for it was ghostly and had none!).

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to Jerry Sittser (of Whitworth University) – for being “the monk who wouldn’t be”!


Blackman, E. C. Marcion and His Influence. London: S.P.C.K., 1948.

Bultmann, Rudolf. Theology of the New Testament. Translated by Kendrick Grobel. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951.

Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.

Harnack, Adolf von. Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God. Translated by John E. Steely and      Lyle D. Bierma. Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1990.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Viking, 2009.

Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. Translated by Robert McLachlan            Wilson. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983.

Schmithals, Walter. Gnosticism in Corinth: An Investigation of the Letters to the Corinthians.        Translated by John E. Steely. New York: Abingdon Press, 1971.

Schmithals, Walter. Paul and the Gnostics. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972.

Tertullian. Adversus Marcionem: Books 1 to 3. Oxford Early Christian Texts. Translated and       Edited by Ernest Evans. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Tertullian. Adversus Marcionem: Books 4 and 5. Oxford Early Christian Texts. Translated and    Edited by Ernest Evans. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.


[1] Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, trans. John E. Steely and Lyle D. Bierma (Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1990), 15.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Ibid., 17-18.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The vanilla flavoring is not to be taken seriously; it is “scholarly humor” that probably has some truth to it.

[9] Harnack, Marcion, 28. Italics original.

[10]Harnack, Marcion, 22.

[11] Ibid., 23. Words italicized in the original.

[12] According to Tertullian, Marcion had no brains. “Evidently you could more easily discover a man born without heart or brains, like Marcion, than without a body, like Marcion’s Christ” (Adv. Marc. IV. 10). Translation taken from Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem: Books 4 and 5, Oxford Early Christian Texts, trans. and ed. Ernest Evans, vol. 2, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 304-305. All following citations from Tertullian’s Adversus Marcionem come from Evans’ 2 volume translation.

[13] Harnack, Marcion, 26. Italics original.

[14] Ibid., 28.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 46. Citation taken directly from Harnack.

[17] Ibid., 31.

[18] Ibid., 32.

[19] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

[20] Harnack, Marcion, 33.

[21] Ibid., 34.

[22] Ibid., 37.

[23] Ibid., 72.

[24] For scholars who think that Gnosticism can be traced to the first-century see Walter Schmithals, Gnosticism in Corinth: An Investigation of the Letters to the Corinthians, trans. John E. Steely (New York: Abingdon Press, 1971); Paul and the Gnostics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972); Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, trans. Robert McLachlan Wilson (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983), see esp. pp. 299-306; Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel, vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), see esp. pp. 167-183.

[25] “The troubles at Corinth over the resurrection and enthusiastic spiritual gifts have also been traced to Gnostic thinking” (Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993], 292.

[26] Ernest Evans, introduction to Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem: Books 1 to 3, Oxford Early Christian Texts, trans. and ed. Ernest Evans, vol. 1, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), xviii.

[27] Triptolemus was a hero sent to teach men agriculture (Ovid, Metam. V. 645 sqq.).

[28][28] Ernest Evans writes a footnote here that reads: “’From the tree’ is not in the Hebrew or the LXX or Latin Vulgate of Ps. 96:10: but it was known to Justin, apol. i. 41, 42; dial. 73; and the epistle of Barnabas (8.5) seems to be aware of it” (Adversus Marcionem: Books 1 to 3, 227).

[29] This tradition was already present in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.

[30] NRSV.

[31] E. C. Blackman, Marcion and His Influence (London: S.P.C.K., 1948), 3.

[32] Ibid., 7.

[33] Ibid., 73.

[34] Ibid., 82.

[35] Ibid., 85.

[36] Ibid., 97.

[37] Ibid., 106.

Schleiermacher’s Doctrine of Atonement: An Historical Introduction and Examination of Schleiermacher’s Sermon The Dying Savior Our Example

Friedrich Schleiermacher was a late 18th century and early 19th century theologian and philosopher. He was born into a Prussian household of Reformed pastors; his parents later became Moravians and sent their son to a Moravian Brethren school in Niesky on June 14, 1783. While there, he successfully studied Latin and Greek, later becoming a well-known translator of Plato’s writings into German.[1] He labored tirelessly in theological and philosophical literature throughout his life, attempting to make sense of his Christian faith. During his lifetime, Kant’s critical philosophy had wiped away any hope for traditional Enlightenment views of God and Christ, and atomically destructive work would later be carried out by the likes of David Strauss on the historical Jesus.[2] Adding to this critically poisonous atmosphere, Schleiermacher began his lifelong affair with Baruch Spinoza, flirting endlessly with his pantheistic philosophy (which later, understandably, had his critics wrongly accuse him of being a pantheist—err, practically an atheist).[3]

Two years later, he and ten other graduates left Niesky for Barnaby, a small community where the Moravians had their theological seminary.[4] While there, he read Goethe’s Werther and Wieland’s writings. His teachers also introduced him—from a polemical perspective—to Semler’s biblical criticism. It wasn’t long before the youthful Schleiermacher, along with his group of “independent thinkers,” had a falling out with the Moravians, resulting in his leaving to attend the liberal Halle University, where he would encounter the critical musings of Johann August Eberhard, a philosophy professor and disciple of Christian Wolff. He taught Schleiermacher Kant’s philosophical system, along with Kant’s “rational” religion—who, as many know, was probably committing the logical fallacy of false equal by making “religion” and “God” essentially identical to ethics.[5] Schleiermacher’s leaving of the Moravian seminary did not come without existential angst. His father, whom he loved dearly, argued passionately with his son, trying to convince him not to ever leave the faith. Schleiermacher’s father saw in his son “only pride, a defective love for Jesus, and a worldly longing,” as succinctly summarized in the words of Martin Redeker.[6] Despite his father’s wishes, Schleiermacher allowed doubt and despair to settle in; years later, he would recount “I have again become a Moravian, only of a higher order.”[7] His father would not live to hear his son say those words.

After two years at Halle, Schleiermacher stopped studying at Halle and instead retreated to Drossen (living with his uncle Samuel), where he began leisurely reading works in philosophy, despite the pleadings of his father to finish his theological education.[8] It is at this point in his life that Schleiermacher began thinking of religion along mostly ethical lines. He wanted a theory of virtue—something like Kantian ethics—to replace Christianity. What was important was how one lived—and Kantian ethics, surely, was in complete accord with Christian teaching. Schleiermacher found holes in Christian teaching about the afterlife too. He refused to accept that a hope for a hereafter as a motivating factor in an ethical theory was valid; doing good simply because Jesus told you that you will be rewarded in heaven brought what Redeker calls “a false eudaemonistic motive into Christian ethics.”[9] However, with his eyes inflamed from too much reading, Schleiermacher reluctantly agreed to complete his theology examinations in Berlin at the Directorate of the Reformed Church in the year 1790.

After becoming a tutor to the Count Dohna family, Schleiermacher’s spirit began a period of rejuvenation from youthful arrogance, rebellion, and disillusionment. It was here at Schlobitten that he, only within a mere two years, began preaching. He wrote his father on August 6, 1791: “Here my heart is properly nurtured…Here I enjoy the family life for which man is made and this warms my heart…You surely must thank God with me for his gracious providence and send me your blessings that I may widely profit by them.”[10] Here was a maturing theologian—a man who had come to terms with his God, his philosophy, and his religious past. One of his sermons in the year 1792 was an exercise in moral philosophy and theology, dealing with happiness and unhappiness as false definitions of a well-lived life. “The young preacher was filled with a vigorous sense for the moral ethos discovered in Kant’s concept of duty.”[11] At this point in his life, Schleiermacher believed that the telos of life was to become morally perfect, like God.

After completing his second theological examinations at Berlin in 1794, he became an assistant pastor in Landsberg. By 1796, he was appointed a pastor of the Charite Hospital in Berlin, a post he kept for six years, until the age of thirty-four.[12] After these years, he would begin writing some of his most well-known works, teaching classes first at Halle then at the University of Berlin (which he helped found), all along preaching sermons. Schleiermacher

“created the classic theological statement of liberal Protestantism in The Christian Faith and ushered in a new period of systematic theology by applying to theology the method of transcendental philosophy. He was an untiring academician and teacher, lecturing almost every morning from 7:00 to 10:00. Nearly every Sunday for forty years he devoted himself to the service of the Christian community as a preacher of the gospel.”[13]

This summarizes Schleiermacher’s life as a thinker. His life was essentially a reflection of a man thoroughly committed to preaching the Gospel and attempting to build bridges between those who despised religion and Christianity. He tried his best to make Christianity palatable to his hearers. With that being said, I would like to briefly examine Schleiermacher’s theology, later specifically focusing on his views of Christ and atonement.

Schleiermacher’s theology is somewhat difficult to explain for the uninitiated. Despite this fact, I will attempt clarity possibly at the expense of robust depth and accuracy. Schleiermacher obviously believed that God existed. God, for Schleiermacher, was that Being upon whom all life depends. The universe is absolutely dependent upon God. Redeker relates how Schleiermacher “referred to God as the ultimate power active not simply in a supernatural realm but permeating the whole of reality.”[14] God was, quite literally and biblically, “all in all” (see Ephesians 4:6). But could humans possibly know this God? Could they somehow come to know God by natural theology or by means of reason alone? Schleiermacher thought not. He did not think—and here he seemed to agree with Kant—that knowing God was possible. Schleiermacher viewed God, to use an anachronistic term over-used by Karl Barth, “wholly Other.” God was out there to our sinful, unredeemed minds. But in reality, God was omnipresent: He was everywhere. Space did not confine Him. Schleiermacher accepted “the basis of critical transcendental philosophy” in which “God cannot be the object of human knowledge, since human knowledge is bound to space and time and the categories of reason, i.e., the finite world.”[15] Here lies a most crucial point in understanding Schleiermacher’s theology: God is infinite and we are finite. Between the two lies a vast abyss of absolute nothingness. Our reason cannot cross over from the realm of the finite into the realm of the infinite. All we can do is hope to God that God does something. God, being infinite, cannot be understood by finite creatures. The reason being, for Schleiermacher, quite simple: God is not a part of the space-time continuum. God is infinite, thus time does not exist for Him, and neither does space. This also brings us to Schleiermacher’s next point: for God there are no subject-object distinctions. In the realm of the infinite “reality is not yet divided into subject and object.”[16] Human beings usually deal with past, present, and future—being bound by space-time—and objectification of the Other, being bound by subjectivity and the limitations of human reason. Essential to Schleiermacher’s theology, therefore, is the utter “non-objectifiability of God.”[17] The question then arises: how do we know God? Schleiermacher responds: we don’t. We never know God nor do we know anything about God. To talk about the “about-ness” of God is ridiculous; the moment we do this, we are immediately objectifying God, the infinite, and wrenching Him into the realm of space-time finitude. No, God is to be left alone. All Christians can do is participate in “God-consciousness,” which is strictly different than what we would call “consciousness about God.”

But then a miracle happens.

God decides, graciously (and please do note my use of “grace-filled” terminology), to instill in human beings a feeling. Note that this is not God instilling a particular logic or a particular form of reasoning; no, God instills in human beings a feeling. This is Schleiermacher’s most oft-cited phrase: “the feeling of absolute dependence.” In its entirety, Schleiermacher actually wrote in The Christian Faith: “The feeling of absolute dependence is in and of itself God’s co-presence in self-consciousness.”[18] But what did he mean by that phrase? Redeker sees, at the very least, two truths being conveyed here: (1) “God, as Creator, creates and preserves our human existence and instills in us the religious feeling of creatureliness”; and (2) “In this feeling of creatureliness we became certain that God vitally permeates the entire world.”[19] Our ability to feel dependent upon God arises from God Himself. We do not feel anything on our own at all. All humans can do is participate in “universal God-consciousness.” In some ways, for Schleiermacher, God-consciousness is to be understood as encompassing this “feeling of absolute dependence.” Without participating in God-consciousness, one cannot feel anything towards God. God exists and is conscious, and for us to be a part of that consciousness, we must participate in revealed God-consciousness. It is revealed because it comes only from God and to whom God chooses. And how do we come to participate in this so-called “God-consciousness”? Jesus Christ. Jesus is the embodiment of the fullness and perfection of God-consciousness here on earth. As “Jesus” is the answer to most Barthian questions, so is Jesus the answer to restoring our lost God-consciousness. And how did we lose God-consciousness?

Schleiermacher believed that the Fall marked a period in human history in which humans had damaged their God-consciousness. We started sinning. Sin was defined by him as being the “complete incapacity for the good.”[20] Once humans began sinning, they became less and less dependent upon God; their thinking and feelings became clouded by sin. They lost the ability to feel that feeling of absolute dependence. Moreover, in Schleiermacher’s theology, there was even room for original sin. Redeker succinctly defines original sin, as Schleiermacher saw it, as “the internal and timeless predisposition toward sin.”[21] Schleiermacher’s theology, which still accepted sin, did not sit well with many a Romantic. Sin was a nasty subject to be taught by primal man; it was not supposed to be peddled by such a cultured man as Schleiermacher. “His teachings of the need for redemption and the sinfulness of men contradicted the optimistic, moralistic self-regard of the Enlightenment as well as the prevailing philosophy of humanity.”[22] Precisely because of this belief (i.e., that men were ultimately sinful), Schleiermacher’s theology had room for a savior: enter Jesus Christ.

For Schleiermacher, Jesus was the embodiment of tangible God-consciousness. Jesus came to earth to help restore our God-consciousness. He did this by allowing us to participate in Him (in participating in Christ, Christians participate in God-consciousness). Once that occurs, three things happen: (1) The person is immediately aware of his or her state of sin; (2) The person becomes aware of the need for a savior and the need for grace; and (3) The person then responds by having the feeling of absolute dependence restored. Redemption occurs only by means of God’s grace and His revelation. His revelation of Himself is entirely gracious. Our response must be nothing but humble thankfulness.

To recapitulate: God, through Jesus Christ’s incarnation, allows human beings to witness God-consciousness in all of its glorious fullness, and, in response, humans participate in God-consciousness, becoming aware of their sinfulness, their need for redemption, and their dependence upon God.

Schleiermacher believed that both sin and grace were, in a sense, “created” by God. “[S]ince we never have a consciousness of grace without a consciousness of sin, God has ordained the reality of sin with and alongside grace,” comments Redeker.[23] This means that sin must only be seen in relation to grace. “God has ordained sin not in and for itself but only in relation to redemption.”[24] It may be better to think of the dichotomy between sin and grace as being separated by a wall which has a one-way street. That is, sin is contingent upon grace, but grace is not contingent upon sin. Humans have chosen sin—hence sin exists. Yet, grace could exist apart from sin, while sin could not exist apart from grace. Moreover, Schleiermacher added the qualification that sin was, at the end of time, to be completely annihilated into white hot nothingness. Sin will not prevail against God’s act of creation and redemption; at the end of time, when all is said and done, it will be God who reigns over all—not sin.[25] Finally, it would be good to note that Schleiermacher, because of this view that God ultimately wins (even with all the nasty warts of sin), refrained from talking much about God’s wrath. Redeker cites Schleiermacher as saying, rather dryly: “Nothing need be taught concerning the wrath of God.”[26] Such a statement makes sense only in light of a Schleiermacher’s belief that sin is only a temporary stage in human development. It is all transitory. If God, being a loving God, sees human beings, running around like chickens with their heads chopped off and sinning, He would not speak of wrath. He would mostly speak of perfection. God understands that humans are merely, to use Kierkegaard’s and Heidegger’s word, in a state of “becoming.” We are not perfect. We do not have our God-consciousness fully restored yet. Only in Jesus do we see a fully operational God-consciousness. In participating in Christ, we, as Christians, are merely “becoming” like Christ. Given this reality, sin should be viewed as (a) evil and (b) temporary. This would further suggest that wrath is, in some ways, probably unnecessary. God will conquer sin whether sin likes it or not. God will turn sin into nothingness. Becoming perfect presupposes that nasty and brutal fact that one is not perfect…yet. Given this, Schleiermacher can, when viewing history from a holistic perspective, in which sin is merely a bleep on God’s radar, do away with wrath and spend time lecturing his students and parishioners on imitating Christ.

However, Schleiermacher’s theology did demand a savior, for, as Redeker notes, “where God-consciousness has not been restored through redemption, the destructive consequences of sin continue.”[27] Schleiermacher ultimately believed that Jesus had come to leave behind a legacy, a legacy we should all imitate. The world-renowned historian Diarmaid MacCulloch summarizes Schleiermacher’s theology in the following manner: “The unique gift of Christianity was the person of Jesus, who revealed his own divinity by representing the most perfect consciousness of God that there could be.”[28] Jesus was ultimately sent to have followers. Followers after God’s own consciousness. Schleiermacher, then, viewed Jesus’ death not as substitutionary but as exemplary. But not—as some interpreters wrongly assume—only exemplary. Schleiermacher criticized those who viewed Jesus’ death as merely exemplary. The feminist theologian Mary J. Streufert points this out succinctly. “Schleiermacher’s criticism of exemplary christology [was the following:] if Jesus is divine because he does good earthly activity, are those who do good among us divine?”[29] For Schleiermacher, then, salvation-redemption was a process that was ongoing; it was not something to be identified with a singular event which occurred in the past—like sacrificial appeasement. “[R]edemption is a present process and is no longer located in a single act of sacrifice in the past.”[30] Because of this, some theologians are right in noting how Schleiermacher’s view of atonement and salvation has more in common with Paul than with, say, the author of Hebrews. He understands redemption as being “mystical” and sees it “as a union with Christ through the redeemer’s ‘influence’ (Wirkung).”[31] Hence, while Schleiermacher certainly has more affinity with a “moral influence theory of atonement,” it is also just as certainly wrong to see him as endorsing only an “exemplary” view of atonement.

Given the aforementioned views regarding Jesus, Schleiermacher could certainly point to Jesus as being a life we should model—without getting rid of the need for a real savior. Jesus lived a life in which because he was God, he was humble. And yet, as one of the earliest Christian hymns so beautifully states, “he emptied himself, taking the ‘form’ of a slave…” (Philippians 2:7, my trans.). Paul also admonishes his readers to “have the same mindset as Jesus Christ” (v. 5). If Paul could ask his hearers to imitate Christ, surely Schleiermacher was orthodox in doing so likewise. In my own words, I would say that, for Schleiermacher, Christians who accepted Jesus, along with his God-consciousness and ethical system, accepted God-conscious ethics. Hence, it followed that they, too, should live a life worthy of their savior’s. With that being said, I now turn my attention to Schleiermacher’s sermon.

The Dying Savior Our Example was preached in the presence of the King possibly sometime in 1799. In this sermon, Schleiermacher set out to do three things. “I desire, then, that in dying we may all have, in the first place, the same sorrow over unaccomplished deeds; secondly, the same calmness under the unjust judgments of the world; and thirdly, that we may be in the same way surrounded by tender and faithful friends.”[32] As strange as it sounds, Schleiermacher took Christ’s death—an event few Christians today look to for ethical recommendations, to say the least—and placed it on display before his congregants eyes. It is as if Schleiermacher had said, “Look! Here is Jesus Christ on the Cross before you. Imitate Him even in His death!” But what did Schleiermacher mean by imitation? I think he meant it literally. “[W]e all set before us His life even to death as the pattern which we seek to follow; yes, His life even to death, not even excluding the last experiences of His holy soul.”[33] Schleiermacher could not help but see Christ’s life as a model for our own. “[L]et us learn to die in seeing Christ die! It is no small thing that I expect from you in calling on you to do this; for it is with the death of the Saviour as it was with His life; let him who seeks only happiness and joy shun likeness to Him.”[34] Schleiermacher even had time to sneak in a little bit of his anti-utilitarianism—“let him who seeks only happiness…shun likeness to Him.” For Schleiermacher, Kantian ethics were still better tasting than utilitarian ethics, though in his later life he focused on a final telos in which ethics, being goal-oriented, arrives at a summum bonum (“the highest good,” to be identified with participating in God-consciousness by becoming like Jesus).[35]

After clearly stating his thesis and his beliefs about following Christ’s pattern of life, Schleiermacher returns to his first claim (i.e., having sorrow over unaccomplished deeds). This claim, Schleiermacher holds, is grounded most poignantly in Christ’s almost final cry-out: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” In these words, Schleiermacher saw the God-man sorrowful not over God’s inability to bring about His Kingdom and His Glory; rather, Schleiermacher sees these words as reflecting Christ’s sorrow over his failure to accomplish the work which he set out to do. Christ died young. And that sucked. “He loved His duty with His whole heart; the thought of the great work to which He had devoted His life still filled His soul. And when He reflected how far that work still was from completion…[He began experiencing sorrow].”[36] Christ died of a broken heart. Schleiermacher, instead of talking about blood and guts, as most modern theologians and preachers would, immediately begins discussing practical matters, such as ethics.

Are you servants of the State, administrators of public regulations; may you grieve that you cannot still reform abuses and introduce improvements! Are you independent and wealthy; may you grieve that you cannot set agoing one more benevolent institution, or do this thing and that for the unfortunate whom you protect! Are you scholars and philosophers; may you be reluctant to interrupt an instructive presentation of your thoughts, or to turn away from a new field of human knowledge! Are you artists and workmen; may it grieve you that you are not to bestow on one more piece of work at least the new perfection that you have planned or practised![37]

Schleiermacher took one of Jesus’ final cries and turned it into an ethical imperative: Go and do likewise.

Schleiermacher’s second point need not much commentary. He wishes for his congregants to leave the world in a state of calmness. “It is therefore with good reason that I wish for us all in this event the Saviour’s calmness and equanimity; for it is the result of the most mature wisdom and the most genuine piety.”[38] He recognizes that Christians will be persecuted. And, despite this, he asks them to suffer with joy.

Schleiermacher’s third and final point is, perhaps, his most brilliant, original, and ecclesiological: Be surrounded by friends, for friendship is the greatest gift one can give and receive. For Schleiermacher, friendship was axiomatic both for his life and theology. In fact, he even seen the Church as nothing less than a great gathering of friends. “We could all desire to die surrounded, as the Saviour was, with loving and suffering friends.”[39] For Schleiermacher, the imperative to have friends became an absolute demand, and rightly so.

“[T]his love and faithfulness, enduring even to death, were the best testimony that He, with His loving heart, had enjoyed in His whole sphere of work the highest happiness of life. And it is for such reasons that I wish for ourselves, above all things, to die in such company; nay, as much as lies with ourselves, I demand it of every one.”[40]

The “highest happiness” was dying surrounded by friends. Schleiermacher’s love for human friendship is soberly summarized in his comment on the loss of a friend: “It is true, a friend whom you have lost will never be replaced.”[41] Outside of friendship, to mimic Paul’s language on love in 1 Corinthians 13, lies nothing but a “resounding gong or clanging cymbal.” Hold on to friends, says Schleiermacher, for you never know the day of your death. “Even in happy youth does not the feeling of the transitory nature of all earthly things arise? Are we not often involuntarily seized by the thought that each joy may be the last [?]”[42] Indeed, this may be our very last joy shared together: the joy of friendship. And, finally, in his most sentimental moments, Schleiermacher concludes his sermon by returning to the reality of congregants inhabiting church pews.

“And what should be the nursery of sincere and faithful friends, if not the Church of Christ, the association of men with whom unselfishness and benevolence, sympathy and helpful love are natural sentiments, among whom every kind of wisdom and perfection ought to exist and to be ready for the service of each?”[43]

Can Schleiermacher teach us something about sermons, churches, and Jesus? Most certainly! As I’ve already pointed out, Schleiermacher’s concerns about friendship within the body of Christ (formally known as “the Church”) are as relevant today as they were over two-hundred and sixteen years ago. The modern experience of “church” in America on any given Sunday is about as detached as one can get. The point of many modern churches is precisely detachment. If we had the will to experience friendship in church, we wouldn’t be so desperately seeking to be lost in the non-existent Kierkegaardian “crowd.” As Kierkegaard so cogently reminds us: “In eternity you will look in vain for the crowd. You will listen in vain to find whether you cannot hear where the noise and the gathering is, so that you may run to it. In eternity you, too, will be forsaken by the crowd.”[44] We run into the crowd to avoid responsibilities. We seek crowds in order to be hidden. Like modern terrorists who wrap their bodies in dynamite sticks, large coats, and hoodies, we run into the safety of the crowd so that our true identities—along with all of our sins and insecurities—may remain forever hidden. And so the world never knows us. Schleiermacher knew all too well the nothingness of “the crowd” (even a “church crowd”). He wrote:

“Today the sermon is the only means of having a personal impact on the common outlook of a large number of people. In reality its effect is not great for it does not achieve much. But if one takes up and deals with the matter as it should be—not just as it is—and if there should be only two or three who really listen, even then the result may still be beautiful.”[45]

Schleiermacher was acutely aware of the fact that crowds cannot be taught, neither do they listen. Only individuals—two or three at best—are taught. To allow ourselves, as the body of Christ, to disappear in the nauseating dizziness of the crowd, would be equivalent to denying Jesus the one thing that he demanded of his followers: “Love one another.” But how can we love if we don’t even know who you are?[46]

Schleiermacher’s own theory of atonement, which could easily—with noted qualifications—be identified under one of the subsets of a “moral influence theory of atonement,” reflects not only the reality of the categorical imperatives which are embodied in Jesus Christ but also the reality of the Church. Richard Niebuhr coined the phrase “Christo-morphism”[47] in order to explain the general thrust of Schleiermacher’s theology. That is, the point of Schleiermacher’s theology was to get people to morph into being Christ-like. (This term can just as easily be applied to his own, unique theory of atonement.) Christ was in the business of “person-forming” work.[48] The Church, which should also be a reflection of this calling, needs to continue creating new persons in the image of Christ. That is the point of Christian theology. It is the very reason why a Church even exists. If Christo-morphism is not going on in churches, if person-forming work is not being carried out, we have not only failed Jesus, we have also failed to heed the voice of one of the most important theologians of the 18th and 19th centuries: Schleiermacher.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to Karen Petersen Finch (of Whitworth University) – for being a good theologian and scholar.


Kierkegaard, Søren. Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. Translated by Douglas V. Steere. New York: HarperOne, 1956.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Viking, 2010.

Niebuhr, Richard R. Schleiermacher On Christ and Religion: A New Introduction. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964.

Redeker, Martin. Schleiermacher: Life and Thought. Translated by John Walhausser. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Selected Sermons of Schleiermacher. Translated by Mary F. Wilson. 1886. Reprint, Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2004.

Streufert, Mary J. “Reclaiming Schleiermacher for Twenty-First Century Atonement Theory: The Human and the Divine in Feminist Christology.” Feminist Theology 15/1 (2006): 98-120.


[1] Martin Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, trans. John Walhausser (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), 9.

[2] Schleiermacher accepted the fact that the Bible was corrupted (to some degree) and that myth was present in it. Niebuhr, reflecting the scholarly consensus in a post-Enlightenment era, correctly summarizes what Schleiermacher (and those following him) certainly felt (and feel); namely, “No one today will contest the presence of myth in the New Testament” (Richard R. Niebuhr, Schleiermacher On Christ and Religion: A New Introduction [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964], 223, n. 17.

[3] An affair that would not begin until he had become an assistant pastor at Landsberg in 1794. When Schleiermacher was appointed a professor of theology at Halle University in 1804, Eberhard, his childhood philosophy professor, would remark: “It has not come to the point that an open atheist has been called to Halle as a theologian and preacher” (cited in Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, 77). To call this infantile caricaturing would be an understatement. It is no wonder that Schleiermacher’s personal friends were forced to come to his defense. Henriette Herz, for example, would come out arguing for his orthodoxy: “Schleiermacher is far removed from rationalism and genuinely believes in God and the Savior…He does not adhere to the letter, not to the dead word—he believes rather in the living spirit” (Ibid., 28-29).

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Ibid., 9.

[8] Ibid., 16.

[9] Ibid., 17.

[10] Ibid., 19-20.

[11] Ibid., 21.

[12] Ibid., 25.

[13] Ibid., 5.

[14] Ibid., 39. Perhaps it is this particular belief of Schleiermacher’s which is responsible for his being called a “pantheist” and, later, an “atheist.”

[15] Ibid., 38.

[16] Ibid., 39.

[17] Ibid., 120-21.

[18] Cited in Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, 42.

[19] Ibid., 123.

[20] Cited in Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, 125.

[21] Ibid., 125.

[22] Ibid., 125.

[23] Ibid., 127.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 128.

[26] Ibid., 130.

[27] Ibid., 126.

[28] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking, 2010), 832.

[29] Mary J. Streufert, “Reclaiming Schleiermacher for Twenty-First Century Atonement Theory: The Human and the Divine in Feminist Christology,” Feminist Theology 15/1 (2006): 116.

[30] Ibid., 102.

[31] Ibid., 105.

[32] Friedrich Schleiermacher, “The Dying Savior Our Example,” in Selected Sermons of Schleiermacher, trans. Mary F. Wilson (1886; reprint, Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 54.

[33] Ibid., 53.

[34] Ibid.

[35] For a discussion of this see Richard R. Niebuhr, Schleiermacher On Christ and Religion: A New Introduction, 93-97. He writes that Schleiermacher “rejected the Kantian-Fichtean accent on duty as the principal phenomenon of the moral life and of our sense of humanity and instead organized his own ethical reflections around the idea of the highest good” (pp. 93-94). Moreover, Niebuhr believes that “Schleiermacher chose to identify the highest good with the content of ethical activity and to deny that reason can entertain a pure, a priori idea of it” (p. 94). Though Niebuhr does not explicitly state this, Schleiermacher seems to have understood the highest good to be identified with God-consciousness which permeated the whole of reality. Since Jesus embodied that consciousness, it is safe to say that, for Schleiermacher, a life patterned on Jesus’ own would reflect, at the very least, the highest good.

[36] Ibid., 55.

[37] Ibid., 55-6.

[38] Ibid., 60.

[39] Ibid., 61.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid., 63.

[42] Ibid., 64.

[43] Ibid., 65.

[44] Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, trans. Douglas V. Steere (New York: HarperOne, 1956), 191.

[45] Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, 73.

[46] It may be good here to point out that Schleiermacher believed in a world where the I stood in relation to the Thou (and was, in some ways, dependent upon it). This implied that human beings must be social creatures. A church should exist made up of Is and Thous. “We may also recall at this point Schleiermacher’s observation in his psychology of the fact that the consciousness of being an “I” always presupposes a “thou,” since memory cannot reach back to the absolute origins of the individual; and, therefore, beyond the point at which memory falters, the individual is dependent on the descriptions of himself furnished by others” (Richard R. Niebuhr, Schleiermacher On Christ and Religion: A New Introduction, 239). Given this reality, a “you” cannot exist in isolation (read: hidden) from the view of others. This further implies the fact that, at least for Schleiermacher, the Church could not exist as a detached community.

[47] Ibid., 215. Niebuhr also notes—in relation to our discussion regarding Schleiermacher’s theory of atonement—how “Schleiermacher speaks of Christ as the exemplar (Vorbild) of perfected human nature” (p. 218, italics original).

[48] Ibid., 214.

Karl Barth an Anti-Semite?

Karl Barth was accused of anti-Semitism when he preached a sermon titled Die Kierche Jesu Christi, “The Church of Jesus Christ.” It was preached on Advent, 1933. Weeks earlier, on November 13th, a radical German Christian by the name of Dr. Reinhold Krause delivered a “rousing speech” in the Berlin Sport Palace in which he called all German Christians to purge their Bibles of the Old Testament, Paul, and of any Jewish elements in the New.[1] The German Christians who shared Krause’s theological and political convictions, demanded the Arierparagraph be applied to the Prussian church, the segregation of Germans and non-Germans, and the freeing of worship and confession from the Old Testament’s “Jewish ethics of reward.”[2] With this rise in overt anti-Semitism, Barth was forced to respond to these recent “theological developments” in German Christianity. And so Barth preached a sermon.

Despite the sermon being utterly pro-Jewish, with conniving logic and some large doses of taking quotes out of context, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen was able to have Barth call the Jewish people “an obstinate and evil people.” Of course he failed to mention the fact that Barth was primarily quoting Exodus 32:9 (for the first part of the statement) and referring to Exodus 33:3-5, 34:9, Deuteronomy 9:6, etc. (for the second). In fact, to be completely fair, the text of Exodus 32:9 actually calls the Jewish nation “stiff-necked” (read: obstinate) and deserving to be “destroyed” while God’s anger “burned.” Had Barth quoted the verse in its entirety, maybe Goldhagen would have stood a chance at being called a judicious and sober scholar. (Instead, he chose to quote-mine and, hence, serves as a perfect example of how not to do scholarly work.) So what, in fact, did Barth say in his sermon?

Barth’s thesis seems pretty clear: Christians are to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us.[3] And, furthermore, since Christ was thoroughly Jewish, and Jesus came as a fulfillment of the Old Testament, we, too, must welcome Jews and the Jewish traditions. As Barth overtly puts it: “salvation comes from the Jews” (citing John 4:22).

Right off the bat, Barth begins by saying that “Christ has been a servant of the Circumcision.”[4] In other words, Christ was for the very thing the German Christians have completely denigrated. Barth reminds the German Christians that Christians are called to be a “community,” using the old German word Gemeinde. There has to be a certain level of togetherness. Not any segregation.

Barth also demolishes any ideas of a Church that is completely aligned to a given State. “The fact that there is God’s Word in the Church is not established in human spiritual life, nor is it a cultural achievement, nor does it belong to the nature and character of any particular people or race…”[5] For Barth, then, a German Christian Church is really no church at all—since it is not really a universal community, but a racial community! (And Barth already annihilated that in his comment.)

Midway through the sermon, Barth really gives the German Christians something to think about: “Christ belonged to the people of Israel. That people’s blood was, in his veins, the blood of the Son of God. That people’s character he has accepted by taking on being human…”[6] There appears to be nothing anti-Semitic about any of this. In fact, it sounds almost elitist. Jewish-elitist. Barth is saying what most historical Jesus scholars know (post-Sanders): Jesus was a Jew.[7]

Then, after making those statements, Barth says that even that people’s characteristics were “stiff-necked and wicked.”[8] But aren’t the Jews the ones who killed Christ? “[A]ll peoples of all times and lands would also have done in its place.”[9] For Barth, the Jews did what all humanity would had done anyway: crucify Christ. Moreover, Barth is also quick to point out that all of us are “stiff-necked and wicked.” Goldhagen is wrong again. Barth did not only call the Jews stiff-necked and wicked, he called all of humanity that. Citing Romans 11:32, Barth said: “God imprisoned all in disobedience, so that he might have mercy on all.” And, as if that weren’t overt enough, Barth continues by adding that the Heathen, who were later accepted by God, were not any better than the Jews.[10]

So there we have it. Goldhagen was wrong and Barth was right. “[W]e perceive [faults] in each other much too seriously.”[11] This ability to deny goodness in others; to exaggerate evil in others; to annihilate the Other simply by reducing the Other to a cruel word or phrase—this is what Barth was against. He said this was what the Germans who agreed with Krause were doing in 1933. And this, precisely, was not “welcoming one another.” In doing that, we were not being a Church. In doing what Goldhagen does, we are submitting ourselves to infantile caricaturing and annihilation of the Other through false documentation. Goldhagen is not merely doing bad scholarly work; he is perpetrating the myth of the power of labels. He labels Barth, then proceeds as if nothing really happened. But something did. Barth—from a reasonable perspective—said no such thing (e.g., “obstinate and evil people”). If one finds anti-Semitism in an anti-anti-Semitic sermon, one can find a bag of shit in a non-existent diaper. Goldhagen should not merely be corrected; his methodology in this particular endeavor should be actively denounced and called what it really is: the comments of a scholar doing scholarship-gone-awry. (And such an evaluation is thoroughly justified.)

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1]John Michael Owen, “Karl Barth’s Sermon For Advent 2, 1933: Introduction and Translation,” Colloquium 36/2 (2004), 170.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 179.

[4] Ibid., 172.

[5] Ibid., 174.

[6] Ibid., 175. Italics original.

[7] I am referring to the influential (and game-changing) book by E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984).

[8] Ibid., 175.

[9] Ibid., 176.

[10] Ibid., 177.

[11] Ibid., 178.

Sin, Guilt, and Atonement in Judaism: Why Jesus is Not the (Jewish) Answer

Sin—and its ugly cousins, guilt and atonement—are not very popular topics. Christopher Hitchens called the atonement—that “ancient superstition”[1]—Christianity’s most immoral sin. He succinctly put his thoughts on atonement into clear words, probably reflecting the views of many modern people:

“Once again we have a father demonstrating love by subjecting a son to death by torture, but this time the father is not trying to impress god. He is god, and he is trying to impress humans. Ask yourself the question: how moral is the following? I am told of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, without my wishing it and in circumstances so ghastly that, had I been present and in possession of any influence, I would have been duty-bound to try and stop it. In consequence of this murder, my own manifold sins are forgiven me, and I may hope to enjoy everlasting life.”[2]

Hitchens is not alone in viewing the vicarious death of Jesus as morally repulsive. Many secular moderns feel very similar emotions. The atonement sounds like a bunch of hogwash. But why are the concepts of atonement, both within Judaism and Christianity, so morally repulsive? I believe this increase in disgust towards religious concepts of atonement is inevitably linked to modern man’s denial of the concept of sin. And the concept of sin is further denied because sin is impossible without God. A secular man who denies God is a secular man who denies sin; a secular man who denies sin is a secular man who denies any such thing as atonement. The Jewish theologian, Michael Wyschogrod, acutely aware of this problem, correctly writes that “sin is so difficult for modern, secular man to accept.”[3] Moreover, those concepts which are most closely related to sin—namely, guilt, punishment, and atonement—are rendered meaningless once sin itself is eliminated. Therefore, there is a “reluctance to speak of guilt and punishment, concepts that many today find psychologically unhealthy.”[4]

In light of the comments made above by Hitchens regarding the idea of atonement—predictably coming from a man who has zero training in theology and is an anti-theist—I believe that a more nuanced approach towards sin, guilt, and atonement must be taken. In what follows, I will look at these three concepts from a Jewish perspective, mostly engaging with Wyschogrod’s illuminating essay “Sin and Atonement in Judaism,” which, I hope, will further deepen our understanding of Christian understandings of these concepts (having sprouted out of Judaism anyhow).

Wyschogrod begins by observing that Judaism has long been on the defensive regarding sin, guilt, and atonement. He sees Jewish theology obsessively slaving away under the pressure of Christians and secular people. The Jewish theologians were too busy trying to make distinctions between that which was Jewish and that which was Christian; that which was Jewish and that which was secular. Instead of taking this approach, Wyschogrod takes a thoroughly Orthodox Jewish approach in which he mostly engages, first and foremost, with the biblical texts themselves. Wyschogrod is mostly trying to address the issues of atonement and sin from a thoroughly Bible-centered perspective.

Regarding sin, Wyschogrod writes that the Jewish theologians had to compose their theology reacting to Christianity’s stance. In Christianity, especially early Christianity, the idea that flourished was the sinfulness of humankind at the expense of God’s mercy. That is, the Christians were more prone to elaborating upon humankind’s absolute sinfulness before God than they were at speaking about God’s mercy and the beauty of God’s creation. In such a way, Judaism was seen to take a more positive view of the world; whereas Christianity took a more negative view towards the world. Where the Christians exalted celibacy, the Jews exalted marriage; where the Christians preached rejection of material goods and their (almost) inherent evil, the Jews saw everything material as being good because God said it was (Genesis 1:31). “[C]ondemnation of the material came to Christianity from Platonic and Gnostic sources which were and are in sharp conflict with the life-affirming realism of Judaism, for which celibacy is not only not a virtue but—if the word can be used—a sin.”[5] Wyschogrod sees Christianity as essentially deviating significantly from its Jewish roots. Moreover, the Jews, by recognizing that the Christians rejected this world (or, at least, that is what the Jews perceived Christians were doing) were rewriting their own theology—they began downplaying the sinfulness of humanity and the goodness of marriage and the material world. Wyschogrod argues that, still later, the Jews accepted secularism’s anti-sin stance hook, line, and sinker. “It is the secular spirit of our time that finds talk about sin objectionable.”[6] in modern times it is this culmination and combination of various factors which have led to modern, liberal Jews taking an anti-sin position—sin no longer is a popular or even a “gentleman’s” topic. Sin is something that our dumb ancestors came up with; it is high time to shed such superstitious beliefs.

But what exactly is sin, and why is it something which “liberal” Jews and secular men find repulsive? Wyschogrod believes that sin is contingent upon God’s existence. Once we eliminate God out the picture (as Hitchens does) it is impossible to speak of sin. No such thing exists. He writes that sin is, simply, a “violation of the command of God.”[7] Moreover, Wyschogrod believes that secular folk commonly assume that sin is to be identified with wrongdoing and vice versa. However, sin is not wrongdoing per se. Sin is only possible when there is a violation of a command which came from a lawgiver. That is, sin is an attack on the personality of God; it is an attack on God’s authority. It is to say to God, “I know you personally, I know what you hate, and I choose to do that which you hate.” Sin is committed only against those who have personalities. On the contrary, the secular folk, who deny God’s existence, simply exchange sin with the word “wrongdoing.” For them, any kind of technical error is wrong and hence is a “wrongdoing.” But this makes “sin” (i.e., “wrongdoing”) analogous to committing an error when solving a mathematical equation. It is paramount to claiming that sin is nothing more than just a human error. Big deal? A man answered the question What is 2+2?with 5.The problem with secular conceptions of sin should now be obvious: the principles underlying such conceptions are inherently atheistic and presume the nonexistence of divine commands coming from a personality. Wyschogrod argues that the secular conception of sin can only lead to “regret” not (religious) guilt. How could a person solving an objective mathematical equation incorrectly feel guilty? Such a person feels mere regret. That’s it. “[S]uch a violation does not constitute sin.”[8]

In what ways does a Jewish conception of sin, which is inherently religious, differ from a secular conception of “wrongdoing”? We have already noted how Wyschogrod makes a distinction between religious sin/guilt and secular wrongdoing/regret. We have also already looked at the importance of God and personality. I will now attempt to synthesize a thoroughly Jewish and biblical perspective on sin—the gospel according to Wyschogrod.

Wyschogrod takes us back to the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, God gave Adam and Eve a divine command which was rooted in Him—rooted in His divine personality—“Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for on the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17 KJV). Wyschogrod succinctly summarizes this narrative theologically:

“The implication clearly is that eating of the forbidden tree will result in man obtaining knowledge of good and evil. Instead of simply obeying the divine lawgiver, he will then be in a position to know why the good is good and the evil, evil. It seems that God does not wish man to have this knowledge. He is to obey God in order to obey God and for no other reason. And when he disobeys God, he has not violated a law that has an autonomous claim on his conscience and which therefore puts him in the wrong in an objective sense, but he has rebelled against God, whose command he has broken. The violation is, then, directed at God. And because it is directed at God, it constitutes a break in a relationship between God and man and requires remediation.”[9]

Now that Wyschogrod had defined sin according to the Hebrew Bible, he has laid the foundation for us to what will now follow: the concepts of guilt and atonement.

Because sin is a transgression of (1) a divine command issued by (2) God who has (3) a personality, this means that sin inevitably leads to a broken relationship, which further results in (a) guilt and, later, (b) (possible) atonement.

In the Garden, “[m]an’s first sin is thus an act of disobedience whose aim is to obtain a knowledge that will make man God-like.”[10] Apart from this knowledge, prior to the eating of the fruit, humankind was entirely dependent upon God, both for morality and guilt. If God did not tell you to feel guilty, you couldn’t possibly feel guilty. Humankind had been given the choice to live according to God’s idea of right and wrong, and, ultimately, God’s idea of good and evil. However, humans had decided that God was acting capriciously when handing down commands. In this way, “[m]an not only disobeys God but signals his determination not to accept permanently the status of a creature of God dependent on God for instruction as to what is permitted and forbidden. He is determined to make his own judgment as to what is good or bad and thus become God-like.”[11]

Once Adam and Eve decide to make their own morality, not grounded in God but in their own (limited and sin-stained) reason, they discover that they are naked and feel ashamed (i.e., guilty). They start to think that there is something wrong with being naked. But how could they know? “God immediately recognizes that Adam and Eve are making independent moral judgments that are not derived from any divine command, and that can only mean that man has disobeyed God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit.”[12] Here is the decisive moment: Adam and Eve had discovered their own morality, grounded in nothing but capricious disobedience to God their Maker. Here they were at the epitome of reason!

On the one hand the seculars have their Platonic doctrine of “sin.” That is, humanity is essentially seen as comprised of knowing beings who act according to what they know. Moreover, they generally tend to do that which they know to be good. In Plato’s conception of reality, sin is merely a person doing that which they do in ignorance or ignorantly, again, confuse the good with the bad. In Plato’s conception of sin, those who commit it are not necessarily “evil,” they are merely “ignorant.” If ignorant, one may not necessarily be punished; rather, one is to be pitied. Clearly, Plato’s conception of sin is not what the Bible has in mind. The Bible does have things to say about sins committed in ignorance (Num. 15:22-24), however, the Bible sees sin as ultimately disobedience to God. God alone is Good and Just; he is the one who ultimately knows what is good for you, for He has made you. Wyschogrod argues that, contrary to Plato’s idea of sin, the Bible’s approach is very different. “The focus of attention is not on the particular nature of the act, its inherent wrongness or immorality. The focus is on the giver of the command and the damage that the sin has done to man’s relationship with the being who is behind the command.”[13] On the flip side, “obeying his command is to honor God, to recognize his authority, and to proclaim oneself dependent on him and subject to his will.”[14]

Now we must ask the simple question which many are probably dying to hear: is God in charge of reality or does man have free will? Wyschogrod makes a brief comment here that tends to give us a sense of what the Bible seems to be saying holistically. “[I]t is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Bile understands that, by and large, people do what they do because they want to do it and that they could have done other than what they in fact ended up doing.”[15] Given this underlying presupposition, it is easy to see why the Bible could place so much punishment upon humankind for their sins. This retributive justice, inevitably, brings to mind feeling of guilt, shame, and remorse. Only a man facing his own very real sin can claim to feel repentant and, ultimately, guilty. In this way, Christianity brings guilt upon humankind in full force and with unabated fury. While Wyschogrod agrees with the Christians that humans are sinful and should feel guilty, he believes that this sort of approach is extreme. He also is weary of the Jewish counter-reaction which resulted in sin being downplayed, along with guilt and shame. Summarizing his views of Christianity, he writes:

“Since the fall, man is naturally depraved and headed for damnation, from which only faith in Jesus as the messiah can save him. The net effect, at least to the Jewish observer, has been that Christianity seems to have emphasized the sinfulness of man far more than does Judaism.”[16]

In this way, “Christianity tends, far more than Judaism, to generate feelings of guilt and worthlessness.”[17] In such a way, the Jews believe that Christians have a “rather unhealthy view of human sexuality.”[18] Because the Jews wanted to present their faith as being different from Christianity, they made sin virtually nonexistent in Judaism (unfairly, according to Wyschogrod). “[S]in in Judaism plays a much less central role than it does in Christianity…”[19] Wyschogrod argues that Judaism’s response was not fair to biblical theology, especially prophetic conceptions of justice, sin, and atonement. “The dreadful possibilities of sin and the catastrophic consequences of sin are integral and fundamental parts of Judaism, both biblical and rabbinic.”[20] Despite Wyschogrod’s comments about the centrality of sin in the Bible, he believes that Jews are, nonetheless, much more optimistic when it comes to thinking about human nature. “The terror of total damnation, of total rejection by God is thus absent, and it is perhaps this, more than anything else, which enables Jewish optimism to coexist with profound understanding of the sinfulness of man and the reality of punishment.”[21]

But is Wyschogrod fair to Christians? After all, as a Christian, I can interpret the Hebrew Bible along the exact lines Wyschogrod does. I can further add that humans are worth so much in God’s eyes that God had sent His only Son to save them. Isn’t that more optimistic than Wyschogrod’s claim that only the Jewish conception can be so “guilt-free” and “optimistic”? Personally, while I agree with Wyschogrod, I do not think his observations regarding Christianity are entirely fair and correct. While he may be right about some (or even many) Christians, his statement is certainly not the last: the Christians can have certainly just as much optimism (if not more) than the Jews. For the Christian has the same Hebrew Bible as Wyschogrod…and then some.

We now come to the subject of atonement. Why is atonement theology in so much disgrace amongst the secular people, liberal Jews, and liberal Christians? The answer, according to Wyschogrod, is relatively straight-forward: we have succumbed to a thoroughly rational ethical system—we love Kant a whole lot. “[B]ecause the moral law is not a person, it cannot forgive anything, just as mathematics cannot pardon those who add incorrectly or drop an integer in a subtraction.”[22] With an objective moral framework, sin simply is impossible. Humans are seen as rational beings who merely make mistakes vis-a-vis the moral law. “The past can be learned from and the repetition of the mistake can be avoided, but the past mistake cannot be erased.” Because this is the case, “there is no place for a doctrine of atonement in autonomous human ethics.”[23] Once a human makes a mistake within a strictly Kantian moral framework, one is simply aware of how wrong one was; one is not obligated to feel guilty or shameful. One merely says, “Oh well, I committed adultery and I do not wish this act to become a universal categorical imperative. Next time I will not commit such an act.” In such an ethical system, there is no need for atonement. In fact, atonement would be impossible where sin does not exist. But with God all ethical systems change. The rules change. The game changes.

With a personal God who has a personality, wrongs committed against Him in disobedience to His divine commands constitute sin. And God, if He so chooses, can, as a personality that has relations to His creatures, forgive. “God tells sinning man that, in a sense, the past can be changed.”[24] According to rational ethics which do not have a personal God with a personality, sin is impossible and hence forgiveness is not really an option. However, in a religious framework, sin occurs and so does forgiveness. But how is one forgiven? How does one atone for one’s sins?

In Judaism, after the destruction of the Temple in the year seventy, the Jews were faced with a dilemma: they could no longer offer sacrifices to God. What were they to do? Wyschogrod shows us that the Jews went back to the Hebrew Bible and found texts which emphasized the point of sacrifices. The point was not the mere external act of offering God a sacrifice; the crux of the matter lie in the issue of whether such sacrifices were offered in a state of repentance. That is, a good sacrifice was good in so far as the heart offering the sacrifice was repentant before God. The Christians, on the other hand, responded by pointing out the contingency of Judaism—being useful only with a standing Temple and endless sacrifices. They thought that Judaism surely would collapse. After all, the Jews no longer had a way to become “at one” with God; without the sacrifices and the Temple, they were always in the wrong with God. The Jews responded to this: “Not so fast,” they said. They began “to stress the power of repentance.”[25] They turned to the “prophetic texts that spoke with very little admiration of sacrifices unaccompanied by the turning of the heart.”[26] In such a way, repentance was sufficient for atonement of sins. God accepted a repentant heart. In this way, the Jews were able to maintain their faith, its distinctions, and were able to refrain from falling prey to the clutches of the Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ. Who needs the atonement of Jesus when one has (sufficient) repentance?

This is the gospel according to Wyschogrod; in short, these are his reasons for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah—Jesus is not necessary for salvation. However, contrary to the opinions of the secular folk, he maintains the existence of sin, guilt, and atonement (by means of repentance). In a very memorable sentence, concluding his article, Wyschogrod writes:

“By pronouncing ‘It was very good,’ God takes responsibility for the totality of his creation in which sin, as well redemption, becomes possible.”[27]

Wyschogrod is content with Judaism, so long as it is grounded in the Hebrew Bible in an authentic way. He believes that dialogue with Christians is possible—and should continue. Likewise, dialogue with those secular folk should continue as well. While he may not convince me regarding the so-called “pessimism” of Christianity, he does partially persuade me that Jesus may not be, by necessity, the answer for Torah-observant Jews.[28]

All in all, Wyschogrod attempts to think both critically, sincerely, and robustly regarding sin, guilt, and atonement both in Judaism and Christianity. He tries to formulate a theology that is relatively fair (with some objections) both to Christians and Jews. In this sense, perhaps, his article is of utmost importance. He engages Christianity, he seems to understand good portions of it, and still stays faithful to his own Jewish convictions. His article is illuminating to Christian readers, those who may find it difficult to understand why a Jew rejects Jesus. Moreover, his clear presentation of the nonexistence of sin and guilt in modern ethics is very brilliantly and succinctly written. For this I do commend him. I have yet to read a better rejection of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah than this.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2009.

Wyschogrod, Michael. Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations. Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key. ed. by R. Kendall Soulen.Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.


[1] Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2009), 209.

[2] Ibid. Italics original.

[3] Michael Wyschogrod, “Sin and Atonement in Judaism,” in Abrahams Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key, ed. R. Kendall Soulen (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 55.

[4] Ibid., 60.

[5] Ibid., 54.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 55.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 56.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 57.

[13] Ibid., 59.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 63.

[16] Ibid., 67.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. Italics mine.

[21] Ibid., 68.

[22] Ibid., 69.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 70.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 74.

[28] See his article “”Paul, Jews, and Gentiles” in Abrahams Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key, ed. R. Kendall Soulen (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 188-201.

The Søren Kierkegaard You Never Knew: Unscientific Philosophical Fragments on “Love’s Hidden Life” in Works of Love

Works of Love is, perhaps, the greatest single piece of literature written in the history of humankind. Astonishingly, it has been greatly ignored by philosophers, laymen, and theologians alike. Unlike its predecessors, Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, or The Sickness Unto Death, Works of Love has largely remained unknown in the Western world. In an attempt to introduce my parents to this masterpiece, I discovered that the Russians had not even bothered to produce a translation to this very day! Reading recent reviews written by modern readers—a bare dozen or so—I recognized in their writings precisely how I felt about the book: mesmerized and changed. Most reviewers were both disturbed by the fact that such a life-altering book could have been given a cold shoulder, lasting a swiftly-approaching two centuries. I, too, could subjectively relate to that experience; I wanted to share my love for this work with someone—anyone—but there were none to be found. It is out of this frustration that I write; my presuppositions and inevitable biases are self-evident. I will mostly engage with the book’s profound first twelve pages (in the Hongs’ English translation). My purpose is modest: to briefly summarize Kierkegaard’s thoughts and provide some of my own unscientific remarks.

Kierkegaard begins his masterpiece by (re)introducing his reader—“that single individual”—to a well-known verse out of Luke’s Gospel: “Every tree is known by its own fruit, for figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush” (6:44). Immediately he launches an attack on all reductionist empirical physicalism: If “we should believe nothing that we cannot see with our physical eyes, then we first and foremost ought to give up believing in love.”[1] He wants nothing to do with naturalistic approaches to reality; he slams his book shut in the face of all such readers. If one is to proceed reading his book on love, one must first begin by assuming the critical[2] position that reality as we know it with our empirical senses should be doubted. This is not all there is to life as we know it. Kierkegaard clearly sees love as something that falls, in some mysterious way, out of the ordinary—it is not to be entirely reduced to physical processes which can be observed with the human eye and mind. This point must be pressed if modern readers, who are almost always grounded in scientific naturalistic approaches to anything and everything, are to understand where Kierkegaard stands on this issue—he would have atomically blasted the likes of Helen Fisher’s Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love[3] out of its turbid waters, no questions asked. Kierkegaard sees those who reduce everything to atoms as incapable of robustly understanding and subjectively embracing love. For such people, love is an “eternal loss, for which there is no compensation…”[4] Those who live such lives are ultimately “deceived.”[5]

Modern readers may find this anti-physicalism to be something which inherently makes Kierkegaard’s conception of love wrong-headed. Is not science the greatest asset humanity has had, well, in a long time? But Kierkegaard is very careful with what he chooses to say and what he does not. He foresees that his approach presupposes the existence of God and that Love is to be ontologically grounded in God. “[A] human being’s love originates mysteriously in God’s love.”[6] Love, which is in God, is the source which fuels all other so-called loves. Kierkegaard makes some further axiomatic statements: Love “connects the temporal and eternity” and is, therefore, “before everything and remains after everything is gone.”[7] Simply put: love is eternal. Why, then, cannot empirical physicalists (or, materialists, if you will) actually really love? Kierkegaard believes that because love is eternal—and since the eternal is what the physicalist disbelieves—he or she has “an enormous relief to cast off this bond of eternity.”[8] The physicalist, in his rejection of the supra-natural eternal, is, by inference, rejecting true love. Christian love, Kierkegaard argues, which is to be identified as the true form of love, has nothing to do with those aesthetic poets. Christian love is eternal and, therefore, never perishes. The poets write about a love which blossoms—if something blossoms, it must die. “What the poet sings about must have the sadness, which is the riddle of his own life, that it must blossom—and, alas, must perish.”[9] In a paradoxical way, in denying true Christian eternal love, the physicalist, who rejects eternity, is stuck recycling “blossoming love” in an ever-increasing state of “sadness”—while he rejects suffering and sorrow, he still ends up wallowing in it! (In this perfect example, one can paraphrase with Kierkegaard, “Do it or do not do it—you will regret both.”)[10] Granted, some of us may disagree with Kierkegaard, but that is all beside the point. (For atheist and theist alike can benefit from his through analyses of love.) However, Kierkegaard does consider these presuppositions important—despite what one ultimately chooses to do with them.

In several tightly-packed sentences, Kierkegaard comments, regarding the physicalist who gave up on love, “That he ‘has seized to sorrow’ we shall not deny, but of what benefit is that when it would be to his salvation to begin in earnest sorrow over himself!”[11] This sentence, if superficially skimmed over, can lead to disastrous results. Kierkegaard is clearly and concisely stating that love is equivalent to sorrow. This observation of his is not to be missed; it is one of the key marks of Christian love. Kierkegaard is here identifying for the readers what the physicalist knew all along: to love someone truly is to suffer, to have sorrow. But from whence did such an idea arise? Kierkegaard, as many already know, was a devout Christian, a reader of the Gospels. And in the Gospels, Kierkegaard saw what it cost God to love the world. He saw what it meant to lay a life down for somebody else. Somebody effectively unworthy. Kierkegaard instinctively knew the price one had to pay to really love. Love has an inverse relationship with power and control: those who have more power and control usually have less love; those who love most have the least amount of influence and power in a relationship. And where exactly does one find such a self-less love?

Kierkegaard insists that “Every tree is known by its own fruit.” He wants the readers to realize the importance of loving intentions, amplified by sound waves used to carry loving words, which result in loving actions. Herein lies the secret to Works of Love. In a similar vein, probably inspired by Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, and I will quote him at length:

“There is an old argument about whether only the will, the act of the mind, the person, can be good, or whether achievement, work, consequence, or condition can be called good as well—and if so, which comes first and which is more important. This argument, which has also seeped into theology, leading there as elsewhere to serious aberrations, proceeds from a basically perverse way of putting the question. It tears apart what is originally and essentially one, namely, the good and the real, the person and the work. The objection that Jesus, too, had this distinction between person and work in mind, when he spoke about the good tree that brings forth good fruits, distorts this saying of Jesus into its exact opposite. Its meaning is not that first the person is good and then the work, but that only the two together, only both as united in one, are to be understood as good or bad.”[12]

Like Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard is not entirely a Kantian deontologist, neither is he a J. S. Mill consequentialist/utilitarian; he is both. He refuses to dichotomize and pit one against the other. He refuses to call “love” that which results in evil. He refuses to call “love” that which is done out of evil, which happens to result in what appears to be a loving action. He refuses to take that step. He sees love as both being done out of a loving heart (deontological approach), spoken with loving words, resulting in loving actions (consequentialist approach). That, for him, is love par excellence. “Every tree is known by its own fruit.” Love must produce fruit; it must result in what is perceived to be a loving action. Kierkegaard, ever the skeptic, rightly delves into the subjectivity (or, inter-subjectivity) of love. What if one is deceived by someone into thinking the fruit is “love” when it is not? What if someone is self-deceived into thinking the fruit is “love” when it is not? How does one know what is love? Do not all of our subjective worldviews come into play? Kierkegaard is completely aware of such subjective elements. It happens “when a person makes the mistake of calling something love that actually is self-love, when he loudly protests that he cannot live without the beloved but does not want to hear anything about the task and requirement of love to deny oneself and to give up this self-love of erotic love.”[13] “Can love be reduced to a particular phrase or word?” Kierkegaard asks. “Words and phrases and the inventions of language may be a mark of love, but that is uncertain.”[14] He continues: “In one person’s mouth the same words can be so full of substance, so trustworthy, and in another person’s mouth they can be like vague whispering of leaves [with no fruit found on the tree].”[15] He believes in speaking loving words, but he is aware of two things: (1) the subjectivity of understanding the spoken and (2) the inability of any human to reduce love to a single word. Kierkegaard asserts that “you should not for that reason hold back your words,” for “ whoever is an object of your love has a claim upon an expression of it also in words…”[16] Kierkegaard sees duty-based (i.e., deontological) ethics at work here. He believes that if one is so moved inwardly to love somebody else, one is bound to express verbally his or her feelings. The object of your affection already has a deontological claim upon your words. What if love results in nothing but Taylor Swift’s lyrics? What if love is nothing but a love song, a poem, a whispered verse from Shakespeare in the ear of the beloved? What if love is only a word? “[I]mmature and deceitful love is known by this, that words and platitudes are its only fruit.”[17] Kierkegaard outright rejects any so-called Taylor Swift approach towards love, which is grounded in nothing but temporal sensuality, obsession with sex, and objectification of the “other-self.” Such verbalizations and erratic gesticulations are nothing but the bastard child of the whore, self-love.

“There is no word in human language, not one single one, not the most sacred one, about which we are able to say: If a person uses this word, it is unconditionally demonstrated that there is love in that person. On the contrary, it is even true that a word from one person can convince us that there is love in him, and the opposite word from another can convince us that there is love in him also.”[18]

Earlier, Kierkegaard remarked that love is “invisible” and that it must simply be “believed” in.[19] Precisely because of its “invisibility,” love cannot be reduced to a particular word or even action. When dealing with the question of reducing love to a particular work, Kierkegaard states that everything “depends on how the work is done.”[20] He rejects the idea that love can be reduced to one, single work.

“[E]ven in charity, visiting the widow, and clothing the naked do not truly demonstrate or make known a person’s love, inasmuch as one can do works of love in an unloving, yes, even in a self-loving way, and if this is so the work of love is no work of love at all.”[21]

Here, precisely, those who ignorantly accuse Kierkegaard of a pietistic works-righteousness approach fail miserably. For Kierkegaard does not believe that works in and of themselves are “good”; they must be done with right intentions, gracefully reflecting the “Initial Love,” which flows eternally from God Himself. Moreover, those who want to accuse Kierkegaard of strict consequentialism or Utilitarianism also fail miserably: no such thing is present in any absolute form here. No, what is of utmost importance is: “How, then, the word is said and above all how it is meant, how, then, the work is done—this is decisive in determining and in recognizing love by its fruits.”[22]

The question then arises: What if somebody’s love is not recognized as such? What if, in loving somebody else, that certain somebody misunderstands me and my actions, and takes them to mean something other than love? Kierkegaard believes that such a person must not “work so that love will be known by the fruits but to work so that it could be known by the fruits.”[23] He is not saying that your love, as such, will be recognized; he is saying that it could be recognized. This is not an imperative to make love known to the other; this is, rather, a statement in the subjunctive: works of love must be done in such a way that they might bring about works which are interpreted to have been done in love. There is no guarantee that such works will be labeled “love.” There is uncertainty here.

What if somebody reads the Gospels and then starts judging how much others love, is that appropriate? Kierkegaard responds with a resounding “No!” For “the one who is busily occupied tracking down hypocrites, whether he succeeds or not, had better see to it that this is not also a hypocrisy, inasmuch as such discoveries are hardly the fruits of love.”[24] In judging others, we are judging ourselves. The Gospel is not a weapon to be used against others; rather, it is a mirror in which one examines oneself.

We are, finally, back to where we initially started. “The first point developed in this discourse was that we must believe in love—otherwise we simply will not notice that it exists…”[25] Here, Kierkegaard insists that only the believers see love; only those seeing love believe.

“Therefore the last, the most blessed, the unconditionally convincing mark of love remains—love itself, the love that becomes known and recognized by the love in another. Like is known only by like; only someone who abides in love can know love, and in the same way his love is to be known.”[26]

Kierkegaard is insisting that love requires the acceptance of this axiomatic statement: believe that love exists. For only in believing that it exists will it actually spring into existence.

To conclude this somewhat lengthy look at only a few pages of the text, I would like to briefly reflect on the overall impression this particular chapter made on me. I am thoroughly convinced that Kierkegaard is right in arguing immediately that love is subjective. That does not mean that love is not absolute. It is absolute, and has its grounding in an objective God. However, love is subjective in the sense that we can all be hearing the same thing from a particular person and only one of us may react in a loving reciprocal manner. That is, only one may actually subjectively feel love being conveyed. Romeo may objectively be verbalizing feelings of love—feelings which none of us could subjectively relate to. An objective event may be taking place (in fact, it is) but not all of us have subjective access to that objective reality. We all know that Romeo directed his loving words, carried on sound waves, to one person and one person only: Juliet. While those sound waves could have been recorded and examined objectively by a team of empirical scientists, love would never be conveyed in their thorough analysis. Not a single scientist would fall in love with Romeo. Not a single scientist would intuitively and subjectively know and experience the love contained in those words. In this sense—in this thoroughly Kierkegaardian approach—the love which is ejected from the innermost part of a human being is specifically directed, like a beam of light, at a particular person in a particular moment. Apart from all of these tautological statements (e.g., statements such as “loving is believing, believing is loving”), at least that is how some may view them, Kierkegaard correctly observes that, paradoxically, love begins with belief. One begins by believing in love—one presupposes that love exists in the other human being. Once love is presupposed in the other, then love is experienced by the one presupposing. “Like is known only by like.” If you want to see love in another human being, first believe that he or she is loving. If you want to receive love from another human being, first believe that he or she is capable of loving you. In such a way, love is an act of faith. If there is one thing Kierkegaard wants you to walk away with from reading the first chapter, it is this: believe in love. Apart from belief, there is nothing but poetic “sadness.” If you want to remain stuck in a never-ending cycle of self-love and a refusal to really love, then you can feed on the “blossoms” of temporal “love.” As for me and my household, we are taking a leap of faith.

Works of Love goes on to develop other ideas about love. Kierkegaard deals with self-love and its inherent problems, the categorical imperative and the “You shall love” command, the problem with preferential love (such as erotic love and friendship), the importance in distinguishing between true “others” and the “other-self,” etc. He does all of this in merely the first few chapters of the work. If you enjoyed this paper, please go out, do yourself a favor, and buy a copy. Read it.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6. Trans. by Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.

Fisher, Helen. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love: Some Christian Deliberations in the Form of Discourses. Kierkegaard’s Writings XVI. Trans. and Ed. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Either/Or. Trans. by David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Küng, Hans. On Being a Christian. Trans. by Edward Quinn. Garden City: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1976.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love: Some Christian Deliberations in the Form of Discourses, Kierkegaard’s Writings XVI, trans. and ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 5.

[2] Hans Küng correctly observed that naturalistic approaches, which deny any other reality other than that which could be perceived by the senses empirically, are essentially not critical enough. In an ironic manner, they deceptively believe and accept all that which the senses receive. On the other hand, the theist, generally speaking, believes in the possibility of another reality; this implies that the theist is more critical and, therefore, more doubtful—he is more willing to criticize and scrutinize the empirical data (something which the uncritical naturalist simply cannot a priori allow himself to do [for all we have is the natural world, he thinks]). “Belief in God as radical basic trust can therefore point also to the condition of the possibility of uncertain reality. In this sense it displays a radical rationality—which is not the same thing as rationalism” (Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, trans. Edward Quinn [Garden City: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1976], 76. Italics original.

[3] Helen Fisher, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Ibid., 6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 8.

[10] This quote does not occur in Kierkegaard verbatim, contrary to those who repeatedly cite it. It is found in Either/Or in the following form: “If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry, you will regret both…” [trans. David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971)], 37.

[11] Ibid., 7.

[12] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 51. Italics original.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 11.

[15] Ibid., 11-12. Words in brackets are my own added for contextualization purposes.

[16] Ibid., 12. Italics mine.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 13.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. Italics original.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 14.

[23] Ibid. Italics mine.

[24] Ibid., 15.

[25] Ibid., 16.

[26] Ibid.

Predestination and Free Will in Islam and Christianity: A Comparison

People the world over like to know about ultimate meaning in life. They want to know whether God exists, whether life has some ultimate end-goal (i.e., telos), whether there is life after death, etc. But if God—whichever God that may be—exists, they want to know whether He/She/It influences their lives. If God is driving history—all history—to some greater ends, some yet-to-be-seen Grand Finale, where is God now in all this? If there is some sort of final end point at which God is driving all history, how is God accomplishing all that in the here and now? To put the related question in different terms: is God influencing
my day-to-day existence? If so, how much of the influence is out of my control (that is, am I being predestined?) and how much of my life is of my own free will (that is, free of God’s, or anybody else’s, control)? Both Islam and Christianity attempt to address that issue. Both have things to say about predestination and free will. And, finally, both, I dare say, do not offer an absolute, universally agreed upon answer. What we have are various attempts at answering the question. We have various ways both Islam and Christianity attempt to make sense of both God’s omnipotence and humankind’s autonomy. In a world which appears hectic, inexplicable, utterly evil, and full of useless suffering, people everywhere ask the question: where is God in all this? Am I damned to suffering? Did I create this hell I’m living in? Was it chance? I will begin by looking at Islam’s attempt to answer some of these questions. After looking at Islam, I will look at Christianity’s response to the issue. Finally, I will compare and contrast the two religions, and, ultimately, offer my own theological reflections.

Islam on Predestination and Free Will

Islam teaches that Allah created the world out of water (30:21) and humans out of clay (32:7). (It should be noted that some commentators combine the different statements and amalgamate the texts to teach creation from both water and clay.) Humankind, then, is seen as a creation of Allah. Being Allah’s creation, Allah had given guidance to humankind—from Moses’s Decalogue, to Jesus’ Beatitudes, to Muhammad’s final miracle: the Quran, the concrete guide for all life on earth. In the Quran one finds what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself”; the Quran is the epitomizing definition of Jesus’ teachings. The devout Muslim sees the Quran as the inspired word of Allah. By it he lives, breathes, and guides all his actions. But from whence do these actions arise? Does Allah cause a man to be a good Muslim or does a man simply, on his own, using rational reason, choose to follow Allah (by means of following the Quran)? A devout Muslim, naturally, would, again, turn to the Holy Quran for guidance. What does the text say about Allah’s will and how it relates to humankind?

There are numerous verses in the Quran that speak precisely to this issue. In 18:28, for example, the Quran states:

And keep thyself with those who call on their Lord morning and evening desiring His goodwill, and let not thine eyes pass from them, desiring the beauties of this world’s life. And follow not his whose heart We have made unmindful of Our remembrance, and he follows his low desires and his case exceeds due bounds.[1]

The verse addresses, paradoxically, both issues. On the one hand, Allah is commanding the readers to follow those who are desiring His goodwill. This implies that humans have the ability both to hear the word of Allah and do it. However, in the second part of the verse, notice the paradoxical phrase “[a]nd follow not his whose heart We have made unmindful of Our remembrance.” So Allah is the one who, like the YHWH of Exodus, “hardens the heart” of Pharaoh. So do those who do evil have a choice? I mean, the text does say that “We have made unmindful” of the commands of Allah those who are evil. (The “we” is known as a “royal plural,” which is used in Semitic languages when a king or a god speaks, even though the speaker is singular.) What appears to be most mind-boggling is the following verse, which continues the illogical paradox:

And say: The Truth is from your Lord; so let him who please believe, and let him who please disbelieve. Surely We have prepared for the iniquitous a Fire, an enclosure of which will encompass them. And if they cry for water, they are given water like molten brass, scalding their faces. Evil the drink! And ill the resting-place!

Not only do the evil have Allah (We=Allah) intervening and causing them to be “unmindful,” they also have Allah serving them canisters of molten brass! In an understandable move, the sectarian[2] commentator Mualana Muhammad Ali refrains from commenting on predestination and free will in both verses; however, to his credit, he does elaborate theologically on the torments of the Quran’s “hell.”

These two verses from Surrah 18, known as The Cave, are not the only ones one finds about predestination and free will. In 76:29-30 the Quran states:

Surely this is a Reminder; so whoever will, let him take a way to his Lord. And you will not, unless Allah please. Surely Allah is ever Knowing…

Here, again, one finds two apparently contradictory ideas being made back-to-back. On the one hand, Allah is allowing the readers to “take a way”; on the other hand, you will not actually will to do anything unless Allah allows you to will. So who or what is ultimately responsible for humankind’s actions? If those who choose the wrong path are ultimately caused by Allah to make that evil choice (and are later punished for it), why are humans responsible for their evil actions? In this case, Muhammad Ali is somewhat helpful. “The meaning is that true and sincere believers have so completely submitted themselves to the Divine will and are so completely resigned that they have no desires of their own, and all their desires are in accordance with Allah’s pleasure.”[3] Muhammad Ali is on the free will side in his commentary (in opposition to a deterministic interpretation). He argues that “man has not been constrained by God to adopt a particular course, whether for good or for evil.”[4]

Are we even reading the same text? Because I am honestly baffled. Does he ignore Allah’s complete and sovereign omnipotence? Al-Ajurri, for example, disagrees with Muhammad Ali. He takes a strong deterministic (=predestination) interpretation. The renowned Islamic theologian Binyamin Abraham writes concerning al-Ajurri, “[W]hen dealing with the problem of predestination and free will, al-Ajurri is very careful to select verses which fit his doctrine of predestination which is very probably dictated by the traditions.” [5]Abrahamov sees this sort of theologizing as being more grounded in Hadith and tradition rather than Quranic theology. Al-Ajurri virtually ignores verses that contradict his deterministic view of history. Verses such as 2:26, 14:27 and 40:74, all which tend to emphasize human free will, are ignored. For example, 2:26 reads:

…Then as for those who believe, they know that it is the truth from their Lord; and as for those who disbelieve, they say: What is it that Allah means by this parable? Many He leaves in error by it and many He leads aright by it. And He leaves in error by it only the transgressors.

Muhammad Ali, commenting on this verse, writes: “It is a plain fact that Allah guides people or shows them the right way by sending His messengers, and therefore He could not be spoken of as leading them astray.”[6] By “plain fact” what Ali really means is “that which accords with my own opinion.” As is evident, people like al-Ajurri vehemently disagree (and rightly so!). The Quran does speak of predestination, whether you like it or not. In fact, al-Razi, a 13th century Islamic philosopher, “considers the Qur’an a weak device for attaining certainty with regard to theological problems in general and on the issue of predestination in particular.”[7] More pointedly, he considers such verses as “contradictory.” Despite these contradictory verses, al-Razi believes the Qur’an is inspired with mere uncertainty regarding such peripheral matters as predestination and free will. Here is certainly an interpreter one can respect. A man who calls the bluff on those who believe they have found a “solution.” He says it clearly: no certain solution exists.[8]

“Free will inside a radius of determined environment creates an obscurity,” wrote L. Housman.[9] Despite all of these problems, some scholars and theologians continued trying to figure out Quranic theology on this issue. Abd al-Razzaq wrote that “the act, which is decided upon, is free; but in so far as the totality of causes, named the complete cause…its production is determined.”[10] If I understand him correctly, using what seems to be Aristotelian philosophy, al-Razzaq is suggesting the nuanced but absurd idea that individual acts are “free,” whereas their collective totality is somehow predetermined. That is, while I may choose freely different routes to drive home (individual actions) the fact that I arrive at home is determined (i.e., this being the “complete cause”). Allah is in charge of “complete causes”; I am in charge of choosing freely. This really pushes the problem forward. One could then ask, what point is all of my free will (let us say that I am attempting to lead a peaceful life), if Allah had already predestined me to some murderous “complete cause”? Am I really free to lead a peaceful life if I had been predetermined to murder somebody at some final point?

Against the above view, another theologian, Wasil b. ‘Ata, offers a different approach:

“The Creator Most High is wise and just, so that it is impossible to attribute to Him evil, or wrong, or that He will for His creatures the opposite of what He commands, and judge and punish them for that. The creature is the doer of good and evil, belief and unbelief, disobedience or obedience, and is requited for his action. The Lord Most High has enabled him…for it.”[11]

In this view, it appears that Allah had made man rational, he is able to competently do the good or the evil. Given this presupposition, humankind is then judged accordingly. God is not responsible for where humans ultimately end up. All evil is on their hands.

With all of these various approaches, where does that leave the devout Muslim, the one who is aching and pining away in the trenches of existential reality? Is he or she responsible? Allah? Both?

I do not think that Quranic theology gives us a concrete answer. As we will later see, in Christianity one is faced with relatively similar problems. Theologians there have come up with ingenious ways of “solving” the issues.



Christianity: Free Will and Predestination

Christianity presents us with problems very much similar to problems examined earlier in Islam. Predestination and free will feature much in today’s Christian discussions. In fact, in my experience, whether one has any theological training or not, almost everybody has an opinion on this issue. As Adam Neder once said, “There’s good theology and there’s bad theology, but there’s no such thing as no theology.” Growing up, I found passages such as Exodus 9:12, where the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart, perplexing.

וַיְחַזֵּ֤ק יְהוָה֙ אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֲלֵהֶ֑ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶֽׁה

“And YHWH made strong the heart of Pharaoh and he did not listen to them [and] the word which YHWH said to Moses.”

While we all know the ending of the story—Pharaoh ends up drowning in the waters of the Reed Sea—not all of us think about the potentially implied injustice being done: God punishes Pharaoh after “hardening” his heart. The question then becomes: is God responsible for Pharaoh’s death? There seems to be one potential catch here, however. The word commonly translated “hardened” is the Hebrew word חָזָק (“to make strong, harden”), occurring in the intensive Piel verbal form. Using some liberty, one could paraphrase the text to read: “YHWH made Pharaoh’s heart firm in its own resolution.” That is, YHWH merely made firm that which was already present in Pharaoh’s own heart. In this translation, Pharaoh is not seen as being controlled entirely by YHWH; YHWH is merely making firm that which already there.

While many, if not most, lay readers see this passage as ultimately describing YHWH’s sovereign reign over humanity (he is the one totally in charge of your destiny), passages like 2 Kings 20 seem to add more confusion to the mixture. In this text, Hezekiah prays to YHWH after he is told that he would die. YHWH had decreed Hezekiah’s coming death. Hezekiah responds with petitioning YHWH and YHWH ends up “changing his mind.” Hezekiah, in the end, ends up living fifteen additional years. Here, at least in this chapter, biblical theology points in the direction of free will. For his acclaimed book—being endorsed by the likes of OT scholar Walter Brueggemann and the philosopher C. Stephen Evans—Gregory Boyd begins discussing “open theism” with this passage.[12] He argues that God chooses not to know outcomes and allows humans to exercise complete and total free will. This view, however, does not dismiss God’s sovereignty (God is seen as ultimately giving up his power in a sacrificial, Christ-like manner). Open theism is essentially an “open view” of God—God has left the future completely open. He does not “know” it.

In opposition to this view is the so-called classical view, popularized by John Calvin. In this view, God does not change throughout eternity, neither does his knowledge change, his will change, nor any past, present or future outcomes. Everything is set in stone in unchangeable eternity. God is impassible, too. (In ironic contrast to Christ’s humiliation on the Cross.) God is not affected by human petitions in any real sense (they really don’t change what the Islamic scholar called the “complete cause”). Summarizing this view, Boyd writes: “[W]hatever takes place in history, from events great significance to the buzzing of a particular fly, must take place exactly as God eternally foreknew it would take place.”[13] In the classical view, God’s foreknowledge determines the future (Augustine and Calvin) or, according to Arminius, the future determines God’s foreknowledge. In the end, both takes of the classical view result in a set future. One way or another, God had predetermined a certain occurrence of events. The open view accepts some claims of the classical view, disagreeing that all the events are known and controlled. For example, one could know that tomorrow one would go to the dentist at ten o’clock. Knowing this (a set future) does not mean that one “knows” everything that would take place in between now and the future. The open view, therefore, cherry-picks from several approaches and creates a synthetic approach that makes (almost) everybody happy. One could think of Deuteronomy 30:19, which reads, implying free will, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life (NRSV).” But how does the open view, in which free will is given almost complete free reign, deal with biblical texts that make the future set in stone?

In Isaiah 46:9-10, YHWH declares that he declares “the end from the beginning and from the ancient times things not yet done.” Christ’s ministry itself was “destined before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20, NRSV). While there are multitudes of such passages that deal with this issue, these select and concrete verses do reflect the totality of the views in the Bible; that is, these verses give us a taste of both extremes. For example, the open view interprets Isaiah 46 as essentially saying that God, in knowing what he wills to bring about, will have his way with many uncontrolled, unknown factors. Taking Romans 8:28 seriously, one could argue that God is the one who is “working all things for the good.” God is not saying that all things are good—He is saying that, in this chaos, that is his goal (i.e., the accomplishment of that which is good [the “complete cause”]). He guides history where he wants it, working within a chaotic and unset system. In fact, as Boyd points out,[14] a God capable of dealing with chaos is a much greater being than the being Calvin believes in—a detailed perfectionist incapable and incompetent in dealing with chaos and free will.

Furthermore, take Jeremiah 18:7-10, for example.

If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it (NIV).

As plain as day, God is “relenting,” or, to accurately reflect the Hebrew term, “repenting.” God is changing his mind, so to speak. While this, in fact, is the straightforward reading of the Hebrew text, Calvin and the classical theologians used ingenious ways to make the text say something it never said. They “usually argue that texts that attribute change to God describe how he appears to us; they do not depict God as he really is. It looks like God changed his mind, but he really didn’t.”[15] The problem with the classical view, whichever form it appears in, is impossible to disprove. With all the weasel-wording, distortion of ancient texts, and hedge-creation, it is simply impossible to disprove the classical view. “Suppose, for the sake of argument, that God wanted to tell us in Scripture that he really does sometimes intend to carry out one course of action and that he really does sometimes change his mind and not do it. How could he tell us this in terms clearer than he did in this passage?”[16] Well, reading the Bible, one should get the impression that God changes his mind and that the future is not—entirely—set (cf. Gen. 6:6-7; Ex. 32:14; 33:1-3, 14; Deut. 9:13-29; 1 Samuel 2:27-31; 1 Kings 21:21-29; 2 Chronicles 12:5-8; Jer. 26:2-3; Ezekiel 4:9-15; Amos 7:1-6; Jonah 3:10; and scores of other passages).[17]

How then does one go about dealing with the issue of predestination and free will? Personally, I am not sure that the Bible gives us a clear picture. While the verses dealing with an open view (in favor of free will) completely outnumber, anecdotally, verses that imply or support predestination, one is still left quite baffled by the texts when viewed as a whole. For these and other reasons, I believe it is probably safe to say that while an open view may have me and some philosophers happy, it certainly isn’t the final word that is to be said regarding Christianity and its stance towards free will and predestination.

Concluding Remarks

In this brief look at a relatively basic approach towards the issue of free will and predestination in both Islam and Christianity, we can easily see many similarities. Both religious traditions have unanswered—and maybe even unanswerable—questions. Both appear to suggest, at least tentatively, the existence of both predestination and free will. Both may even allow the two to exist in tension. However, both also have unresolved issues; things that many a theologian and philosopher will probably continue to dispute for many years to come.


[1] The Holy Quran: With English Translation and Commentary, trans. Maulana Muhammad Ali, new 2002 ed. (Ohio: Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Islam Lahore Inc., 2002).

[2] Going with the Lahori-Ahmadi creed, Ali did not accept miracles, had an immense hatred for the West, Christianity and Judaism, all features which I, the subjective reader, can attest to being found in his notes, translation and commentary. Most Muslims do not like this particular translation. However, it is the definitive translation to those of us in America, since a large Muslim population here belongs to the Ahmadi sect. Moreover, as a final remark, I do not believe this particular translation skewed the texts that I will be dealing with.

[3] Mualana Muhammad Ali in The Holy Quran: With English Translation and Commentary, 1163.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Binyamin Abrahamov, “Theology,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Quran, ed. Andrew Rippin (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 424.

[6] Mualana Muhammad Ali in The Holy Quran: With English Translation and Commentary, 16-17 (26b).

[7] Binyamin Abrahamov, “Theology,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Quran, 429. Italics mine (added for emphasis).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cited in William Thomson, “Freewill and Predestination in Early Islam I,” The Muslim World, 40: 207–216. 207.

[10] Ibid., 207.

[11] Ibid., 211.

[12] Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 7.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] Ibid., 128-129.

[15] Ibid., 77. Italics original.

[16] Ibid., 77-78.

[17] Ibid., 83-87 and 157-169.