Are God’s Words Absolute?

Many fundamentalists, evangelicals, and conservative Christians act like the Bible’s words are absolute, with no flexibility whatsoever. When they read that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, they take that to mean that it will never be forgiven (ever). They are also absolutist on hell. “The Bible is clear that non-Christians will burn in hell forever and ever,” they say. “There is no wiggle room, no second chance in the afterlife, no hope for the lost after death.” It’s hard to believe that, especially when you’re trying to comfort people who’ve lost unsaved loved ones.

Such a view offends many people’s sensitivities about God. George MacDonald, whom C.S. Lewis called his “master,” speculated that God tries to ease the sufferings of those in hell. For MacDonald, a loving God does not sit back and allow people to be hopelessly tormented. He is love, after all.

Judges 10:13-16 makes me wonder how absolute we should be in our approach to the Bible. The passages states the following:

“[God said to Israel, ‘Y]ou have abandoned me and worshiped other gods; therefore I will deliver you no more. Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress.’ And the Israelites said to the LORD, ‘We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you; but deliver us this day!’ So they put away the foreign gods from among them and worshiped the LORD; and he could no longer bear to see Israel suffer.”

God said he would deliver Israel no more. Yet, he changed his mind after Israel repented, and he spared her out of his love for her: he couldn’t bear to see her suffer.

But God said he would deliver Israel no more! Where’s the flexibility in those words? Can you find any hope in what God says? It looks pretty bleak! But God turns out to be more flexible in his actions.

Similarly, the biblical passages about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and hell also seem hopeless and bleak. But should we see them as absolute? Should we allow them to deprive us of hope?

At the same time, do we want to say that God doesn’t say what he means, and mean what he says? Do we want to rob God’s warnings of any teeth, giving sinners an excuse not to take them seriously?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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5 Responses to Are God’s Words Absolute?

  1. Izgad says:

    There is a concept in Judaism (sorry I cannot give you a specific source) that a prophecy of bad things to come is always subject to repeal pending repentance, but a prophecy of good things to come will never be changed even if people sin. For example Jonah and Nineveh; God spends the entire story forcing Jonah to go to Nineveh and prophesize about its coming destruction yet God “changes” his mind and saves the city in the end because the people repented.
    So I do not see this as a contradiction. Every prophecy about coming punishments de facto comes with the caveat that it can be changed if people repent.

    I like Lewis’ understanding of Hell. People can repent even after they die. The only people in Hell are those who actively choose to reject heaven and embrace hell.

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  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Izgad,

    That concept makes sense in certain areas. For Israel and the Davidic dynasty, for example, God’s covenant was unconditional, meaning that good things will come for them eventually. For, say, Saul, however, God did reverse the good things he promised on account of Saul’s sin.

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  3. Izgad says:

    God never promised Saul that he would have his kingdom forever. God gave him his kingdom and then God took it away. No promise was actually broken.
    Samuel trashing Saul, telling him: behold listen rather then a good sacrifice, is one of my favorite parts of the Bible.

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  4. James Pate says:

    I agree, Izgad, Saul wasn’t given an unconditional promise. But Saul would have been blessed had he done rightly. God says in I Samuel 13:13 that he would have established Saul’s kingdom forever. And the same went for Jeroboam. God would have given him an enduring house–like David’s–if he had only obeyed (I Kings 11:38). So I guess what I’m saying is this: I agree with the Jewish concept you mentioned when it comes to unconditional promises. But there are times when God makes good things conditional on obedience, so, in those cases, I have a hard time saying that “a prophecy of good things to come will never be changed even if people sin.”

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