The Universe and Our Bodies
No, this is not a Discovery Channel special. In my series of “Is Richard Carrier Wrong ....” posts I have focused on his arguments in support of the theory that Paul believed in a two-body “resurrection” of Jesus -- and by implication, Christians. Although this post is somewhat tangential, it fits the series. The subject is the end of the world, or rather how Paul envisioned the end times. This is relevant to his views on the resurrection because in Romans 8 Paul compares what happens to the universe to what happens to our bodies. In verses 19-21, Paul discusses the universes' desire to be free of corruption and its liberation from bondage:
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Then Paul proceeds to compare the “redemption of our bodies” to the liberation of the universe from bondage. From verses 22 and 23:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Paul describes a renewal of the universe (it is liberated, not annihilated; it is brought into glory, not replaced by a glorious universe) and the renewal of our bodies (as a redemption comparable to the liberation of the universe). Indeed, Paul again clearly states that the resurrection of the bodies of Christians involves the renewal of our old bodies rather than their complete obliteration.
Paul's Meaning Defined by Later Writers
Dr. Carrier makes other arguments that I will address in a later post, but the one that concerns me now is his claim that Paul could not have believed in the renewal of the universe because other Christians believed in its obliteration.
In a footnote that is found by reference to another footnote, Dr. Carrier argues as follows:
So there can be no doubt that the earliest Christians believed the present world would be annihilated and replaced with a new one, just as graphically described in 2 Peter 3:3-13, and clearly assumed in 1 John 2:15-17 and Heb. 12:26-39, 13:14. Paul must have shared this belief (why would he differ so radically from his peers), as he appears to have done.....
Carrier, The Empty Tomb, page 211 n. 160.
Dr. Carrier later mentions some other Pauline verses, but similarly insists they must be read “in light of” 2 Peter and Jude. This brings me to my first point: Carrier’s insistence that Paul must have meant what other, later Christian writers meant.
Setting aside Hebrews for the moment, on what basis does Dr. Carrier conclude that 2 Peter and 1 John represent the beliefs of the "earliest Christians"? Does the competent historian assume that every Christian agreed with every other Christian writer on every matter of doctrine? Indeed, today's Christians disagree about few things more strenuously and dramatically than the "end times." There are Premillenialists, Postmillenialists, and Amillenialists. Even within these broad categories with very different ideas about how the "end times" will unfold there is more diversity. There are Pretribulationists and Postribs. There are even Midtribs. Yet all of these differences rely on the same scripture and very often even use the same or similar terms. I may have reasons, as a Christian, to seek what agreement in early Christian writers I can find. But on what basis does Dr. Carrier assume complete unanimity on this particular doctrine?
Further, the majority of commentators, especially those with Dr. Carrier’s liberal leanings, would place 2 Peter and 1 John (as well as Jude) at the end of the first century or beginning of the second. Hebrews too is usually placed in the second half of the first century. Are these the "earliest Christians" to which Dr. Carrier refers? On what basis does Dr. Carrier rule out any development in Christian thought? I do not say that these ideas must have developed, but it seems to me that a reasonable historian would not assume that such development was impossible. So why does Dr. Carrier?
Let us turn this around for a minute. How would Dr. Carrier react if a Christian apologist simply insisted that Paul’s comments about the resurrection must be understood in light of the Gospel’s affirmations of bodily resurrection? After all, the Gospels are temporally closer in time to Paul’s letters than it is likely Dr. Carrier believes 2 Peter, 1 John, and Jude relate to Paul’s letters. So why would Paul differ so radically from his peers? As I am sure Dr. Carrier would argue, a reasonable historian must keep open the possibility that there were differences between different Christian writers, especially over different time periods. This is not to say that we should neglect the writings of other Christian writers when trying to understand Paul, but if two different writers seem to be articulating different ideas, we should at least be open to the possibility that they are not saying the same thing.
Lack of Ambiguity
If we focus on Paul’s discussion of creation, there seems to be little ambiguity about his view of the universe and its continuity with the next age. Paul writes about creation eagerly waiting for the end. What will happen at the end? Will the universe be completely annihilated and have no continuity with what is to come? No. The universe in fact will be “liberated from its bondage and brought into the glorious freedom of the Children of God.” Rom. 8:21. There is nothing in the text or the context that suggests that Paul equated being liberating and brought into glory to being completely vaporized and replaced by something else.
Further, the idea of restoration of creation at the “end times” was not a foreign concept to ancient Jewish writers. God made creation good, but it has suffered along with humanity since the fall. The new age, the end times, will usher in the removal of that curse and the liberation of creation from it. As stated by the Hermenia commentary on Romans, “The curse thus remains provisional, awaiting the dawn of a new age when nature will be restored to its original beauty and glory.” Romans: A Commentary, page 514. For example, Jubilees, dating from the second century B.C, discusses a time when “the heavens and the earth shall be renewed.” 1.29. 4 Ezra, dating to the early second century A.D., refers to the messiah coming to “deliver his creation.” 13:26.
Similarly, other early Christian writers communicated a belief in continuity between the present age and the one to come, though with an important transformation. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus states, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Matt. 5:5. In Acts, Peter states at the Temple, “Therefore repent and turn back, that your sins may be wiped out so that season of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and He may send Jesus who has been appointed Messiah for you. Heaven must welcome Him until the times of the restoration of all things, which God spoke about by the mouth of His holy prophets from the beginning.” Acts 3:19-20. According to Anthony A. Hoekema, “The expression ‘the restoration of all things’ suggests that the return of Christ will be followed by the restoration of all of God’s creation to its original perfection -- thus pointing to the new earth.” The Bible and the Future, page 282.
From this perspective, the complete elimination of creation would mean God’s will is frustrated. Its transformation and restoration is God’s victory. Paul’s articulation of the liberation of creation fits in better with the former rather than the latter.
As time permits, I hope to discuss the primary verses Dr. Carrier relies on for his end of the world analysis, including 2 Peter, Hebrews, and 1 John, as well as other verses in Paul's letters.