Myth in the Scriptures

Would an inspired book necessarily be historically and scientifically inerrant? There is no particular reason to think so. One could not be sure, as fundamentalists would like to think, that an inspired book would not contain inspired myths and legends, even fiction. There are other non-factual genres in the Bible, after all, like the Psalms. Who is the theologian to tell God that he cannot have included certain genres in his book? If we know God’s literary tastes in such detail, then I suggest the Bible is altogether superfluous. We already know the very mind of God before we even open the Bible! – Robert M. Price

Today I’m writing about mythology as it relates to the scriptures.

First of all, let me clarify that when I say “myth” I don’t mean what it means in popular usage, namely a story or belief that is simply false. Rather, I mean the very specific meaning it has as a genre of ancient literature.

Historians of the Near East didn’t use the word “myth” to mean untrue or made-up. These ideas may be included, but it is actually used to get at something deeper. Peter Enns defines myth as “an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from?” Another good definition, given by Alan Dundes, is, “A sacred narrative explaining how the world and humankind assumed their present form.”

As the quote at the beginning explains, we have no good reason to assume that the scriptures do not contain any mythical accounts. This is true even if we grant that the scriptures are inspired. There is nothing about the category of myth that could inhibit God’s ability to speak to us through it.

On the contrary, God speaking to people according to paradigms that were already held would significantly help their comprehension; otherwise his communication would have been incomprehensible (e.g. if God communicated to people thousands of years ago with our modern worldview, which, unfortunately, many people read back into their interpretation of the scriptures).

Many assume that a modern recording of history (with an emphasis on factual accuracy) is more valuable than myth, and therefore that’s what God did in the OT. But is God really concerned about us getting our facts straight? What if he only cares about our beliefs to the degree that it affects how we relate with him and others? What if he’s interested in the message that is communicated more than making sure the statements recorded are true propositions?

Ancient peoples did not attempt to describe the universe in scientific terms. Myths in the scriptures would not have the goal of telling historically and scientifically accurate stories; they wouldn’t derive value from catering to what is merely our modern worldviews and academic practices. Rather, myths have value because they have analogues in other civilizations. It was in the differences with those analogues, and thus in comparison, that the myths spoke its message. (So what happens when we lose sight of the analogues and there is nothing to compare it to? We simply take everything in it, enforce concepts of modernity on the text, and say “well, I guess all of it must be true.” This misses the purpose of the myth and therefore what it tries to communicate.)

Let’s look at some examples of myth in the scriptures.

The land Abraham came from (Mesopotamia) and that he was called to (Canaan) both expressed stories of origins in mythic categories for a long time. What makes Genesis unique is not that it is historically accurate unlike the similar mythic stories of its time but that it begins to reveal the God that is different from all the gods before him.

God adopted Abraham as the forefather of a new people, and in doing so he also adopted the mythic categories within which Abraham – and everyone else – throughout. But God did not simply leave Abraham in his mythic world. Rather, God transformed the ancient myths so that Israel’s story would come to focus on its God, the real one. – Peter Enns

Since the  ancient Near Eastern stories are myth and the Genesis stories are extremely similar to them, Genesis should also be understood as myth. This is expected since Genesis is an ancient document, not a modern one. Just because our culture does not understand origins in terms of myth doesn’t mean that we can make something that was written as myth fit our modern perspectives or judge them based on standards of modern historical inquiry and scientific precision.

The literal interpretation [of Genesis] is only about a hundred years old, and that approach to the Bible came out of the Enlightenment, which requires a Eurocentric post-scientific-revolution worldview that none of the writers of the Bible ever considered. I more favor a literary interpretation; understanding not only the cultural context but also the genre and style that certain sections of the Bible were written in. And the first eleven chapters of Genesis are written in the genre of a creation myth: fantastic imagery used to package the explanation of how we got here. I think reading the Bible like a textbook full of facts is not only quite silly, but also sucks out all the enjoyment of reading the Bible. – Andrew Love

Jesus’ claims are another good example (although perhaps not exactly myth in and of themselves, they were definitely derived from myths). Put simply, they weren’t unique. Indeed, Jesus wasn’t trying to be. He was making a comparison between himself and other people or objects that were the subject of the claims. When Jesus said the things similar to what others had previously claimed, he did so knowing that when he did so those people or objects would be brought to the minds of his audience.

The point isn’t that Jesus’ claims are false. Rather, their meaning is only revealed in light of their prior uses and meaning to which he was making comparative statements. And, truth be told, most people are ignorant of the historical contexts of certain phrases in the scriptures such as “so-and-so is Lord” or “such-and-such is the light of the world.”


Also see:

Genesis and the Myth of Enuma Elish

The Good News According to Rob Bell

10 Christ-like Figures Who Pre-Date Jesus

WTF – The story of Jesus isn’t unique? Of course it isn’t.

Is Jesus Unique?


The Historicity of Universalism

Many christians think that universalism, the idea that no one will end up in an eschatological hell for eternity and that everyone will eventually experience salvation, is a recent invention of men who twist the scriptures and succumb to their own wishful thinking and has no historical basis. Simply put, such people are ignorant of history and have not done their homework.

The purpose of this post is to put such ignorance to rest and to open the minds of readers to begin to consider the possibility that universalism might be true (unless you’re already convinced).

I understand that historicity is not the only relevant criteria in determining whether an idea is true or not, so I’m not saying that the list of quotes below proves that universalism is true. For example, whether an idea is logical and scriptural are also relevant criteria (and I think universalism is both…but that’s a topic for another post). The quotes below do demonstrate, however, that universalism has always had a solid historical basis and has been held by a significant number of significant people throughout church history.

Quotes by early church fathers

There are very many in our day, who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments. – Augustine (354-430)

The mass of men (Christians) say there is to be an end to punishment and to those who are punished. – Basil of Caesarea (330)

For the wicked there are punishments, not perpetual, however, lest the immortality prepared for them should be a disadvantage, but they are to be purified for a brief period according to the amount of malice in their works. They shall therefore suffer punishment for a short space, but immortal blessedness having no end awaits them…the penalties to be inflicted for their many and grave sins are very far surpassed by the magnitude of the mercy to be showed to them. – Diodore of Tarsus (320-394)

And God showed great kindness to man, in this, that He did not suffer him to continue being in sin forever; but as it were, by a kind of banishment, cast him out of paradise in order that, having punishment expiated within an appointed time, and having been disciplined, he should afterwards be recalled…just as a vessel, when one being fashioned it has some flaw, is remolded or remade that it may become new and entire; so also it happens to man by death. For he is broken up by force, that in the resurrection he may be found whole; I mean spotless, righteous and immortal. – Theophilus of Antioch (168)

Wherefore also he drove him out of paradise and removed him far from the tree of life, not because He envied him the tree of life, as some dare assert, but because He pitied him and desired that he should not be immortal and the evil interminable and irremediable. – Iraneaus of Lyons (182)

These, if they will, may go Christ’s way, but if not let them go their way. In another place perhaps they shall be baptized with fire, that last baptism, which is not only painful, but enduring also; which eats up, as if it were hay, all defiled matter, and consumes all vanity and vice. – Gregory of Nazianzeu (330-390)

The Word seems to me to lay down the doctrine of the perfect obliteration of wickedness, for if God shall be in all things that are, obviously wickedness shall not be in them. For it is necessary that at some time evil should be removed utterly and entirely from the realm of being. – Macrina the Blessed (-340)

The wicked who have committed evil the whole period of their lives shall be punished till they learn that, by continuing in sin, they only continue in misery. And when, by this means, they shall have been brought to fear God, and to regard Him with good will, they shall obtain the enjoyment of His grace. – Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428)

Do not suppose that the soul is punished for endless eons (apeirou aionas) in Tartarus. Very properly, the soul is not punished to gratify the revenge of the divinity, but for the sake of healing. But we say that the soul is punished for an aionion period (aionios) calling its life and its allotted period of punishment, its aeon. – Olnmpiodorus (550)

That in the world to come, those who have done evil all their life long, will be made worthy of the sweetness of the Divine bounty. For never would Christ have said, “You will never get out until you have paid the last penny” unless it were possible for us to get cleansed when we paid the debt. – Peter Chrysologus (435)

In the end and consummation of the Universe all are to be restored into their original harmonious state, and we all shall be made one body and be united once more into a perfect man and the prayer of our Savior shall be fulfilled that all may be one. – Jerome (347-420)

I know that most persons understand by the story of Nineveh and its king, the ultimate forgiveness of the devil and all rational creatures. – Jerome

In the end or consummation of things, all shall be restored to their original state, and be again united in one body. We cannot be ignorant that Christ’s blood benefited the angels and those who are in hell; though we know not the manner in which it produced such effects. The apostate angels shall become such as they were created; and man, who has been cast out of paradise, shall be restored thither again. And this shall be accomplished in such a way, that all shall be united together by mutual charity, so that the members will delight in each other, and rejoice in each other’s promotion. The apostate angels, and the prince of this world, though now ungovernable, plunging themselves into the depths of sin, shall, in the end, embrace the happy dominion of Christ and His saints. – Jerome

The nations are gathered to the Judgment, that on them may be poured out the wrath of the fury of the Lord, and this in pity and with a design to heal, in order that every one may return to the confession of the Lord, that in Jesus’ Name every knee may bow, and every tongue may confess that He is Lord. All God’s enemies shall perish, not that they cease to exist, but cease to be enemies. – Jerome

Our Lord descends, and was shut up in the eternal bars, in order that He might set free all who had been shut up… The Lord descended to the place of punishment and torment, in which was the rich man, in order to liberate the prisoners. – Jerome

While the devil thought to kill One [Christ], he is deprived of all those cast out of hades, and he [the devil] sitting by the gates, sees all fettered beings led forth by the courage of the Saviour. – Athanasius (296-373)

While the devil imagined that he got a hold of Christ, he really lost all of those he was keeping. – Chrysostom (398)

Mankind, being reclaimed from their sins, are to be subjected to Christ in he fullness of the dispensation instituted for the salvation of all. – Didymus the Blind (370)

In the liberation of all no one remains a captive! At the time of the Lord’s passion the devil alone was injured by losing all the of the captives he was keeping. – Didymus the Blind

The Son “breaking in pieces” His enemies is for the sake of remolding them, as a potter his own work; as Jeremiah 18;6 says: i.e., to restore them once again to their former state. – Eusebius of Caesarea (265-340)

Our Savior has appointed two kinds of resurrection in the Apocalypse. ‘Blessed is he that hath part in the first resurrection,’ for such come to grace without the judgment. As for those who do not come to the first, but are reserved unto the second resurrection, these shall be disciplined until their appointed times, between the first and the second resurrection. – Ambrose (340-397)

For it is evident that God will in truth be all in all when there shall be no evil in existence, when every created being is at harmony with itself and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord; when every creature shall have been made one body. – Gregory of Nyssa (335-398)

Gregory of Nyssa described: “The annihilation of evil, the restitution of all things, and the final restoration of evil men and evil spirits to the blessedness of union with God, so that He may be ‘all in all,’ embracing all things endowed with sense and reason. – Gregory of Nyssa

When death approaches to life, and darkness to light, and the corruptible to the incorruptible, the inferior is done away with and reduced to non-existence, and the thing purged is benefited, just as the dross is purged from gold by fire. In the same way in the long circuits of time, when the evil of nature which is now mingled and implanted in them has been taken away, whensoever the restoration to their old condition of the things that now lie in wickedness takes place, there will be a unanimous thanksgiving from the whole creation, both of those who have been punished in the purification and of those who have not at all needed purification. – Gregory of Nyssa

Wherefore, that at the same time liberty of free-will should be left to nature and yet the evil be purged away, the wisdom of God discovered this plan; to suffer man to do what he would, that having tasted the evil which he desired, and learning by experience for what wretchedness he had bartered away the blessings he had, he might of his own will hasten back with desire to the first blessedness …either being purged in this life through prayer and discipline, or after his departure hence through the furnace of cleansing fire. – Gregory of Nyssa

For it is needful that evil should some day be wholly and absolutely removed out of the circle of being. – Gregory of Nyssa

Our Lord is the One who delivers man [all men], and who heals the inventor of evil himself. – Gregory of Nyssa

So then, when the end has been restored to the beginning, and the termination of things compared with their commencement, that condition of things will be re-established in which rational nature was placed, when it had no need to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; so that when all feeling of wickedness has been removed, and the individual has been purified and cleansed, He who alone is the one good God becomes to him “all,” and that not in the case of a few individuals, or of a considerable number, but He Himself is “all in all.” And when death shall no longer anywhere exist, nor the sting of death, nor any evil at all, then verily God will be “all in all” – Origen (185-254)

Stronger than all the evils in the soul is the Word, and the healing power that dwells in him, and this healing He applies, according to the will of God, to everyman. The consummation of all things is the destruction of evil…to quote Zephaniah: “My determination to gather the nations, that I am assemble the kings, to pour upon them mine indignation, even say all my fierce anger, for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy. For then will I turn to the people a pure language that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one consent”…Consider carefully the promise, that all shall call upon the Name of the Lord, and serve him with one consent. – Origen

We think, indeed, that the goodness of God, through His Christ, may recall all His creatures to one end, even His enemies being conquered and subdued…. for Christ must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet. – Origen

When death shall no longer exist, or the sting of death, nor any evil at all, then truly God will be all in all. – Origen

In the present life God is in all, for His nature is without limits, but he is not all in all. But in the coming life, when mortality is at an end and immortality granted, and sin has no longer any place, God will be all in all. For the Lord, who loves man, punishes medicinally, that He may check the course of impiety. – Theodoret the Blessed (387-458)

We can set no limits to the agency of the Redeemer to redeem, to rescue, to discipline in his work, and so will he continue to operate after this life. –Clement of Alexandria

All men are Christ’s, some by knowing Him, the rest not yet. He is the Savior, not of some and the rest not. For how is He Savior and Lord, if not the Savior and Lord of all? – Clement of Alexandria

Quotes by historians

The belief in the inalienable capability of improvement in all rational beings, and the limited duration of future punishment was so general, even in the West, and among the opponents of Origen, that it seems entirely independent of his system. – Geisler

The doctrine of endless punishment was not believed at all by some of the holiest and wisest of the Fathers, and was not taught as an integral part of the Christian faith by any even of those who believed it as an opinion. – Henry Nutcomb Oxenham

The ultimate restoration of the lost was an opinion held by very many Jewish teachers, and some of the Fathers. – Pfaff

In proportion as any man was eminent in learning in Christian antiquity, the more he cherished and defended the hope of the termination of future torments. – Johann Christoph Doerderlin

Universalism in the fourth century drove its roots down deeply, alike in the East and West, and had very many defenders. – Dietelmaier

The doctrine of a general restoration of all rational creatures has been recommended by very many of the greatest thinkers of the ancient church, and of modern times. – Reuss

In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa, or Nisibis) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked. Other theological schools are mentioned as founded by Universalists, but their actual doctrine on this subject is not known. – Schaff-Herzog

Since 1800 this situation has entirely changed, and no traditional doctrine has been so widely abandoned as that of eternal punishment. Its advocates among theologians today must be fewer than ever before…. Among the less conservative, universal salvation, either as hope or as dogma, is now so widely accepted that many theologians assume it virtually without argument. – Richard J. Bauckham

The list of quotes above is by no means exhaustive. If you’re interested to read more quotes from universalists, particularly those who came after the early church fathers (who often happen to be prominent people), see the links below.

The Origins and Canonicity of the Scriptures


Were the scriptures really handed to humanity by God on a silver platter as a divine book to help us get our theology straight? Considering the way most christians describe bibles as the “word of God,” infallible, inspired, authoritative, etc., as well as the way they spend enormous amounts of time meticulously studying them, you might have been led to think so, although that may have only been so on a subconscious level.

Yet history seems to tell us otherwise.

In this post I explore the origin and canonization of the scriptures and what they can tell us about what the scriptures are (especially what they are not) for us today.


Let me state at the outset some things I am not saying.

Throw away your bibles.

Don’t read the scriptures.

The scriptures have nothing to teach us.

God doesn’t care about the scriptures.

The scriptures are no different than any other book.

With that said, I may be questioning some commonly-held beliefs about the scriptures. So get ready to be challenged, and perhaps surprised, by the information I present and its implications.


Belief in any doctrine related to sacred texts is not included in any of the earliest creeds

The creeds, such as the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, were summaries of the most fundamental beliefs of the early church. In essence, they communicated what the believers of that time considered to be essential. They included beliefs about the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, their natures and relationships with each other, the life, death, resurrection, descent, and ascension of Jesus, the Church, eternal life, etc.

Interestingly, however, not a single one of the early creeds (or if I am simply unaware of some, certainly not the major creeds) contain any reference to sacred writings, let alone to the collection of writings that are now referred to as the scriptures. What this tells us is that, regardless of whatever significance they may have attached to the scriptures, the early church did not consider a certain view of the scriptures to be indispensable.

Some might say that this is irrelevant because the New Testament canon had not yet been formed. That no mention of sacred writings is made in the early creeds is true, however, of creeds written after the canonization of the scriptures at the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) as well (for example, the Nicene Creed (381 A.D.) and the Athanasian Creed (500 A.D.)). Further, the early church did have the Old Testament. If it was as important as it is made out to be today (the so-called “word of God”), why didn’t the early church at least include a statement of the importance of the Old Testament in the creeds? Probably because it really wasn’t that important, at least in the way people nowadays often consider it to be important.

Thus, beliefs about sacred writings, such as inspiration, infallibility, or authority (if they even existed at all) were not essential to the early church.

That the canonization of the scriptures was a God-inspired event has to be assumed

Neither God nor the scriptures ever claimed that the Council of Nicaea would be THE council to decide the authoritative writings. Thus it is not necessarily true that God superintend the council or its decisions.

If you would like to assume that God did indeed superintend the councils and its decisions, that’s fine. But recognize that it is also fine to reject such an assumption. Indeed, everyone chooses which councils and which decisions of which councils to accept as authoritative for themselves, and, concerning this topic, there is great variety among believers. I have written about this in detail here.

Some might object that the matters concerning the scriptures were a collective decision, not the opinions of individuals. But since when has majority vote been a reliable guide for the church? Never, really. There are plenty of points in history where the majority of believers believed doctrines that are now commonly considered to be heretical.

Some might also appeal to the biblical canon being a long-held tradition. But acceptance by many over a long period of time doesn’t validate anything; there are plenty of mistaken doctrines and beliefs that were and still are like that. It’s merely an appeal to the majority opinion and the duration of that opinion across history. If people had always faithfully adhered to such ways of thinking, slavery would still be a worldwide reality.

The canonization of the scriptures is a tradition of man, and to take it to be anything more than that is a personal choice. If you believe God intended the councils, their decisions, and the whole event of canonization to take place, that’s fine. But please be intellectually honest enough to say that that is an assumption that you hold to, and it makes sense and is okay for other people to not hold that same assumption.

There have always been different groups of believers with different canons

At the most basic level, there is variation as to which books are considered to be a part of the biblical canon. You can check out a number of different canons among different christian traditions here and here.

Yet that is not all.

It is also uncertain whether certain parts of books should be included. For example, Mark 16:9-20 is believed by some to be a later addition to the original gospel written by Mark and thus believe it should be excluded from the canon, while others believe it was part of the original and should thus be included.

There is also the question of which manuscripts should be translated. For example, the Eastern church (the Greek and Russian Orthodox) believes that the Septuagint is the inspired version of the Old Testament, unlike Protestants who consider the Hebrew version to be inspired.

There has always been diversity, even in Judaism before and during Jesus’ time on earth, as to how the scriptures were inspired, what constituted the canon, what was considered authoritative, and methods of interpretation. Should we really think that it should be any different now?

The canon was created not to determine what writings people should exegete truth from but to combat heresy

Contrary to what is commonly stated in ignorance, the Council of Nicaea did not focus on the New Testament canon.

Creating a canon was the idea of the heretic Marcion. He was the first christian in recorded history to propose and delineate a uniquely christian canon (c. 140 A.D.). Other christians created different canons to combat heresies that Marcion was promoting. But the battle against Marcionism within christianity ended long ago. This calls into question the necessity and purposefulness of the current biblical canon.

The purpose demonstrated by the early church for canonization was to choose writings that promoted what they considered to be good theology and, in addition, to counter what they considered to be heresy. Yet the canon is nowadays used in the opposite way; instead of deriving a canon from good theology, theology is derived from a canon.

This is a chicken and egg problem – which comes first, a canon or theology? I won’t attempt to answer this question here.

I will mention, however, that theology has undergone significant developments since the times of the early church. Is it too much of stretch, then, to suggest that we, following in their footsteps, can choose a canon that suits our own theological paradigms?

The people who chose what writings would be canonized did not necessarily choose them with the intention of giving them the status that is nowadays commonly attributed to the scriptures

The early church fathers did choose and accept books, but as what? As writings that are infallible, inspired, and authoritative? Hardly.

As was mentioned in the previous section, the purpose of selecting certain writings was first and foremost to promote good doctrine and combat heresy. This can be done without ascribing lofty characteristics such as infallibility, inspiration, and authority to them.

Further, there’s a difference between “authoritatively truthful” and “not heretical.” Was the canonization a divinization of a few writings for all subsequent times, or a rejection of the others that were promoting heresy at that particular time in history? Perhaps it was neither. It could have only meant, “these are the books we will use for public reading in our gatherings.” It could have only meant, “these are the books that are not blatantly heretical.”

It certainly wasn’t, however, to choose writings from which everybody from that point on would look to to exegete truth and figure out what to believe.

I don’t know enough to say be able to confidently say exactly what the early church fathers were declaring in choosing the texts that they did, but it does seem clear what they were not claiming, which, ironically, is what indeed is claimed in our time.

The canon of scripture was never universally set in stone

I have commonly heard an argument in favor of the canonization of the scriptures that goes something like the following:

“The church councils did not choose a canon. Church leaders simply acknowledged what the church had already come to accept.”

In that case, if the general church populace ever comes to think differently, leaders should acknowledge that. In other words, the canonization status of scriptures is not, and indeed never is, set in stone.

The canon of scripture was decided by majority vote, a method which has historically been demonstrated to be unreliable

The majority vote of the early church councils acts as christianity’s “democratic pope.”

But the opinion of the majority is not and never has been a reliable guide to truth. Jesus and the early christians held minority opinions during their times, and there are plenty of examples throughout history in which the “majority of the church” believed heretical doctrines.

Some will be quick to say that what was expressed was not the majority opinion but a consensus. I debunk this idea here.

Even if it was consensus, the consensus of the church is always changing. Thus, we could have a different consensus than what they had back in the day. Why should we think that their consensus is more reliable?

Full dogmatic articulations of the canons of christian traditions were not made until the 1500s or later

It was not always believed that defining a canon was necessary. Some early church fathers were practically unconcerned about canonicity and made use of open canons. The eastern churches in particular generally had weaker feelings compared to those in the west about the necessity of making sharp delineations regarding a canon.

This is even more significant than that different believers had and still have different canons, as mentioned above, because it calls into question whether the idea of even creating a canon is necessary or even something God wills.

Until the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church had never officially drawn the boundaries of the biblical canon. Doing so had not been considered necessary because the authority of the scriptures was not considered to be much higher than that of tradition, papal bulls, and ecumenical councils.

It was not until the Protestant Reformers began to insist upon the supreme authority of scripture alone (the doctrine of sola scriptura) that it became necessary to establish a definitive canon. So was the establishment of such a definitive canon really necessary? Only if one holds to the doctrine of sola scriptura, a man-made doctrine of the 16th century.

There are books included in the biblical canon that, based on modern scholarship and information that the early church did not possess, would not be included in the canon of scripture according to the criteria set forth by the early church fathers. On the other hand, there exist writings that, although are not included in the biblical canon, would be included according to the criteria

Many point to the following four “criteria for canonicity” to justify the selection of the books that have been included in the New Testament.

  1. Apostolic origin – attributed to and based upon the preaching/teaching of the first-generation apostles (or their close companions).
  2. Universal acceptance – acknowledged by all major christian communities in the ancient world (by the end of the 4th century) as well as accepted canon by Jewish authorities (for the Old Testament).
  3. Liturgical use – read publicly when early christian communities gathered for their weekly worship services.
  4. Consistent message – contains a theological outlook similar to or complementary to other accepted christian writings.

Yet it is sometimes difficult to apply these criteria to all of the books in the accepted canon, and one can point to writings that are outside current canons that would fulfill these requirements.

For example, Hebrews was only accepted after Paul was adopted as the author (in order to fulfill the criteria for “apostolic origin”). Modern scholarship, however, largely agrees that Paul is not the author of Hebrews. Thus, its apostolic origin is put into question and thus does not necessarily fulfill the criteria for canonicity. Should we therefore remove Hebrews from the canon?

On the other hand, if we found another authentic letter written by Paul, could we in our right minds exclude it from the canon? It cannot pass all the tests of canonicity (because it would have had to be known by the early church fathers to fulfill the criteria for “universal acceptance” and “liturgical use”), but that is only because it wasn’t known about when the canon was formed. Is the ignorance of the early church really a good enough reason to reject such a letter?

In fact, such a letter (although there is disagreement as to its authenticity) actually exists: the epistle to the Laodiceans. It bears striking similarities to the epistle to the Philippians, and it is mentioned in Paul’s epistle to the Colossians: “When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16). You can read it here. (There may be other writings we have now that are of apostolic origin that I am not aware of.)

Putting the issue of fulfilling these criteria aside, how do we even know that these are the “right” criteria? They are, after all, criteria chosen by human beings, not divinely pointed out by God.

Further, how do we know that these criteria weren’t chosen after the books were chosen? Through such a scheme, people could effectively choose which books they wanted to stay in, and make enough criteria to keep any other book out. This would have probably seemed like an acceptable thing to do to the early church fathers since their motivation for canonization was the promotion of what they considered to be good doctrine anyways.

Most people who support the legitimate canonicity of the scriptures have never even read any apocryphal books – they simply believe what they do because that’s what they’ve always been told. If you are one of those people, I would encourage you to expand your reading horizon.

Specifying a canon places an artificial limit on what (we believe) God can and will do

Declaring a canon is basically saying, “God no longer divinely inspires christian writers” (it at least puts a limit on the degree to which God can inspire people). God never said that, not even in the scriptures. Saying that the “canon is closed” is primarily not a claim about sacred writings but a claim about God himself – what he can and can’t do. It is putting him in a box that says “he can’t give authoritative revelation to anyone anymore like he used to.”

It also places a limit on church authority. If another council of church leaders was formed from all around the world and chose a different canon, why shouldn’t that become authoritative? Why is it assumed that the older and the closer to the time of Christ (for writings as well as people), the better? The 12 apostles didn’t have great theology as we know of at least one case where Paul had to correct them on a basic yet significant issue (the inclusion of Gentiles in salvation), and Paul got his revelation directly from Jesus. Are we “less led” by Holy Spirit than the people back then? I don’t think so. They did not have anything that we do not, and our relationship with God is in no way inferior.

Objection: You just need to have more faith in the workings of God in bringing about the scriptures in history

I bring up this objection because someone actually said it to me.

It’s not that I don’t have faith that God could do that; it’s just that I don’t have any compelling reason to believe that he indeed did. On the contrary, I have reasons to believe that the bible isn’t God-ordained. For example, it and its interpretations are the greatest source of division in the body of Christ today and throughout history.

Here’s another one I hear a lot.

But the Bible is the book that has had the hugest impact on the world throughout history.

That’s like saying, “I drove this car and it went 100km/hr; therefore it must be the fastest car on the planet!” This is silly because every car in the world needs to be tested before anyone can make that kind of claim.

Sure, perhaps the scriptures have had the greatest impact out of all known books. But that doesn’t prove that it is God-ordained. What about a canon that includes all the books of the Bible minus the book of Hebrews plus the letter to the Laodiceans? What if that canon has a greater impact? Well, we don’t know, and we can’t know. We would have to test that out over 1000+ years.

In fact, the argument is circular. If the largest religious group at some point in history claims that a certain book is divinely chosen and perpetuates that idea as correct doctrine (which is exactly what happened), of course that book is going to have the greatest impact! But the argument was that because the scriptures had a great impact, surely they must be divinely chosen (while the truth is that the church chose them).


I hope to have made it clear that the canonicity of the scriptures is not a simple matter that is easily settled by merely referencing the Council of Nicaea, as is commonly done today.

I encourage you to think about these things, talk about it with Jesus, and decide for yourself what you believe.

Punished For Us?

kill my son

I previously wrote on the topic of punishment in The Abolition of Sacrifice (particularly as it relates to sacrifice as hinted by the title). There turned out to be a bunch of people who gave me feedback that didn’t like it.

One concern was my claim that the cross was an accident (i.e. that it was humanity that murdered Jesus and that God did not cause it or bring it about, and yet that God brought about good through the evil plotted by people). This issue was addressed in an exchange in the comments section of that post.

Another concern was that by rejecting the notion that God is required to punish sinners and that the cross was not necessary for God to be able to forgive sinners, I was undermining God’s justice. (Let me repeat the clarification I made in What I Am Not Saying; Although I believe that the cross was unnecessary for God to be able to forgive us, I do maintain that it was necessary for our salvation.) In The Union of Justice and Mercy I explained how the scriptures describe justice as restorative, not retributive, and how mercy and justice are not in conflict with each other but rather are one and the same.

Something at the heart of this issue that I have not yet addressed is the penal substitutionary theory of atonement. This is the idea that Jesus took the just punishment we deserved as our substitute to save us from God’s wrath.

In this post I will deconstruct this idea and explain why I have become convinced of what I consider to be a much better and accurate conception of who God is.

My Experience with Believing Penal Substitution

I grew up being taught penal substitution. I was never told that alternatives existed, so I thought that it was the only possible and correct interpretation of the scriptures. Consequently, I read bibles through my interpretive lens of penal substitution. It wasn’t hard to find verses that seemed to support the beliefs I already held.

(Let me point out that just because we see the language used in penal substitution also used in the scriptures doesn’t mean that the scriptures are endorsing that way of thinking. There are plenty of false ideas that people invent that are formulated using biblical language but do not accurately reflect the truth.)

I also preached penal substitution when I shared with others what I considered to be the gospel. Yet I distinctly remember a sense of uneasiness whenever I did, because I could sense an uneasiness in the hearers. Really, who wants to get acquainted with an angry God, even if his wrath had been “satisfied”?

Of course, by no means does that automatically disqualify the theory. It did, however, plant the first seeds of doubt in me.

The Unreasonability of Penal Substitution

In college I started to question my long held belief.

Where in the scriptures does it say that God is required by his nature to punish sinners? Nowhere does it say that God is constrained by retributive justice. To the contrary, God says that he will have mercy and compassion on whoever he wants to (Romans 9:15).

Or where in the scriptures is it expressed that we all deserve to be punished by God? It is clear that punishment comes with sin, but only as a natural consequence, not something God inflicts.

If Jesus “paid the penalty for sin,” then it seems that God isn’t forgiving at all. If I pay off my student loans in full, did the loaning institution forgive my debt? Nope. Since I paid it all off, there is nothing left to forgive. On the other hand, Jesus taught unconditional forgiveness, regardless of what was “deserved.” Is God telling us to act more forgivingly than he himself does?

Jesus’ suffering was only temporary and finite. But if the punishment we deserve for sin is eternal suffering, then Jesus didn’t pay the full price.

Penal substitution pits the Father against Jesus in what looks like a schizophrenic deity. Our greatest ally is Jesus, and our greatest enemy is not the devil, but God and the wrath he brings against us. It makes God the author of death, dealing it out to sinful humanity because they deserve it according to his justice. Jesus bearing the cross brings not us but God to repentance, changing his mind about how he will treat us.

Sacrifices are made by an individual or a group to a different individual or group; it is nonsensical for someone to sacrifice something to themselves, because that is not a sacrifice at all, merely a killing of something.

Ironically, the picture of God as a retributively just judge dealing out punishment does not do justice to the biblical picture of what justice is. As the early church fathers emphasize, there was nothing just about the crucifixion of Jesus. God has zero interest in hurting people, no matter how much of a “right” he might have to do so. All he wants is reconciliation.

Other objections to penal substitution exist, but just because there are questions which we perhaps cannot find satisfactory answers to doesn’t disqualify a theory either. So I dug deeper.

Alternative Theories of the Atonement

Half way through my college years I came across a number of different understandings of the atonement for the first time in my life. (I won’t explain any of them in depth, but you can get a pretty good overview of them on Wikipedia.)

Christus Victor is a model in which Christ’s death is the means by which the powers of evil that held humanity in their grip were defeated. The moral influence model teaches that Jesus came to bring positive moral change to humanity. In the recapitulation model humanity is recreated by Christ becoming what we are so that we can become what he is.

Biblical justification can be given for each view with verses that, at least prema facie, seem to support them. The same is true of the penal substitution model. So there are various interpretations of the atonement, none of them are necessarily mutually exclusive, and it is difficult to quickly rule any of them out.

I decided I needed to go even further down the rabbit hole and take a look at the history of the idea of penal substitution as well as of the other theories of the atonement.

The Lack of Historicity

I won’t take an in depth look at the writings of the early church fathers here but only mention themes that were prevalent as well as lacking overall. (If you would like an in depth analysis of the writings of the early church fathers as they relate to penal substitution, I recommend Substitutionary Atonement and the Church Fathers and The Abolishment of Retribution in the Church Fathers).

Prevalent themes include healing, restoration, recreation, freedom, substitution, and the destruction of the curse and death. Lacking themes include appeasing a wrathful God and the need for punishment by God.

The problem that the atonement addresses is never presented by the early church fathers as an angry God but a sick and dying humanity.

I like how the Wikipedia article on penal substitution put it: “In scholarly literature it has been generally recognized for some time that the penal substitution theory was not taught in the Early Church” (and then gives 8 references, which is a lot for Wikipedia lol…they must pretty sure about this one). Incidentally, the three alternative views I mentioned above can be found in the writings of the early church fathers.

Let me clarify one particular element of the atonement, because many of us have only ever known one way of thinking about Christ being our substitute, and that is to view him as substitutionally taking our punishment.

The theme of substitution is frequently seen in the writings of the early church fathers and is clear within the scriptures as well. The question that must be asked, however, is how was Christ’s death substitutionary?

When the early church fathers spoke of substitution, they didn’t mean Jesus took our punishment from God (although some said that Jesus took our punishment that sin brings with it through natural consequence). They meant that Jesus became the substitute for all humanity on the cross, taking our curse, sin, corruption, condemnation, death, etc. upon himself in order to destroy them.

Even those who are popularly cited as proponents of penal substitution, such as Augustine (354-430), Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), and Aquinas (1225-1274), deny the idea of condemning the innocent to free the guilty that is central to penal substitution. They did develop their own theories of the atonement that departed from what was taught before them, but even in their own theories they did not teach penal substitution.

Penal substitution as we know it today did not arise until the time of John Calvin (1509-1564). Did Calvin uncover a truth that had been missed by all who had gone before him? Methinks not.

(Some might claim that Calvin only reached a destination on the trajectory of progressive revelation that was set by those who had gone before him (like Calvinists tend to do for other doctrines developed by Calvin such as predestination and limited atonement). In other words, that penal substitution is simply a development in theology. I disagree, but that’s a whole nutha topic that I don’t want to get into here.)

Concluding Thoughts

The lack of historicity of the doctrine of penal substitution pretty much settled the issue for me. I can’t view penal substitution as anything other than a human invention that emerged hundreds of years after Jesus’ time. (I’ve also considered the issue from a biblical perspective and have found it to be wanting.)

There are, of course, plenty of arguments in favor of penal substitution. This has been a topic of hot debate for centuries, and I am aware that this post does not conclusively put the theory to sleep. I wrote this post for those who, like myself previously, don’t know that there are good reasons to doubt penal substitution and that viable alternatives exist.

What I’ve written above is highly intellectual and analytical, but taking a step back from all that, I want to take a moment to point out that, if what I am claiming is true, it’s really good news! It makes the gospel a message of a ridiculously forgiving God. He forgives people even before they ask, never requiring anything from them for or in return for his forgiveness. Wow! That’s forgiveness like the world has never known.

Some people might say that I am making God out to be a big fluffy marshmallow. I would have to agree. I would add that the marshmallow is perfectly roasted and is sandwiched between chocolate and biscuits. God is way better than any of us can imagine, and his goodness cannot be exaggerated.


Also see:

The Penal Substitution Atonement – Greg Boyd

Punished “for” or “by” our sins – The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 – Santo Calarco

Penal substitutionary atonement – Steve McVey

Sin and punishment – Steve McVey

An illustrative story about punishment – Steve McVey

Propitiation for sin – Steve McVey