As I am taking a mental break from working on my dissertation, I saw in the news today that Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and popular teacher in the 2000s, no longer considers himself a Christian. There are many questions to ask as to what lead to this, such as the role of repetitive public shaming and pressure in guilting a person for his failures by people who refuse to accept his admission of his failure. However, what has drawn my interest is a post by Michael Brown asking if a person who has fallen from faith an ever return based upon Hebrews 6.4-6. It this question I seek to explore.
But firstly to clarify, this is intended as a time to try to criticize Harris or figure out what he did wrong. In fact, I think he has gone through a struggle that, in some way, resembles the type of struggles that the recipients of the letter (or sermon!) to the Hebrews faced. While I grieve the news, I don’t want to start heaping onto Harris, as the instruction of the Hebrews is to build up those who have been going through a period of persecution, not to judge them.
Nevertheless, there are reminders about judgment in Hebrews that should not be ignored. But, does Hebrews 6.4-6 actually teach that once people fall away that they can never become restored again? Here is the passage in the NSRV:
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.
Now Brown suggests that this passage is related to a pressure to return to a Temple-based sacrifice system that no longer saw Jesus’ sacrifice as necessary or salvific. He then suggests that Hebrews 6.4-6 is describing a specific state that they remain in insofar as they continued to rely on the sacrificial system.
The problem I find with this interpretation, which isn’t from Brown but from the commentaries I am sure, is that we nowhere get a glimpse of the preacher of Hebrews dissuading the Christians from relying on a sacrificial system. The problems seem to be the audience’s sustained faith in Jesus and continued faithfulness seems to be in question, not specifically what they are tempted to turn to in response. The stream from which Brown’s interpretation comes from echoes too much the false idea that early Christianity was a religion that was built on the rejection of the Torah, and in the case of Hebrews its sacrificial system. Put differently, it treats the struggle of Paul in Galatians and in the situations of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 as the all-defining disagreements that early Christianity was always defined by.
Now, part of the reasons for this interpretation stems from the fact that there are a litany of references to sacrifice in Hebrews. But to construe this as a warning against going back to the sacrificial system overlooks the more explicit purpose of Hebrews, to point towards Jesus was one has suffered and in virtue of that can offer help to the audience. The themes of atonement are rather in service to how Jesus is an aid to the believers, which can enable them to face their own persecution. Hence Hebrews 12.1-4 can speak of Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of faith and then remind the audience that they have not gotten to the point of shedding their own blood. Jesus’ sacrifice serves as an analogy for believers own lives, although their own sacrifice doesn’t have the redemptive significance of Jesus, who inaugurates a new covenant through His obedience.
Another explanation is to be offered. I would suggest a better explanation is that Hebrew 6.4-6 is describing those persons who have grown and matured in Christian faith to the extent that they understood the significance of Jesus and the powers of the age to come, but then they abandon their faith. This is not a new believer who fell away, but this is a person who finally got it and understood the true power and significance of God in Jesus Christ. For a person to have grown and matured that far and then to fall away is tantamount to an absolute betrayal. Hence, the preacher’s words describe such an action that in effect re-crucifies and treats Jesus as a disgrace; this is a language more describing of a traitor. So much has been provided to them and yet they spurn their faith in Christ.
I think this is best situated with a potential temptation by these believers to resort to the worship of angels. Paul makes a reference to the worship of angels in Colossians 2.18. I would also hypothesize that the early Christians in trying to understanding who Jesus was connected Jesus to the “messenger” who went before Israel and in whom God’s name was in (Exodus 23.20-21), which Paul connects to Jesus in 1 Corinthians 10.1-13. While the language of a messenger (מַלְאָךְ) in Exodus 23.20 doesn’t have to refer to what is described as later in Jewish history as angels, the early Christians identified Jesus as κύριος in part due “my name is in him” in Exodus 23.21. However, such a tradition could have veered differently in some circles and developed the idea that Jesus was an angel rather than One who is identified with God. One possible motivation for this belief was the role that angels regularly played in apocalyptic literature as figures of power and ones who brought revelation. While it is pure speculation, my hypothesis is that would-be “prophets” associated with some of these specific apocalyptic traditions were responsible for what 1 John is resisting in people who deny that Jesus was human and is from God (1 John 4.2-3). In short, an angel Christology seems to be lurking in the wings for the early church that regards Jesus as some sort of revered angel, which would in their eyes make Jesus powerful but not the all-powerful God.
This heresy, which we can safely call it, is evident in the first chapter of Hebrews. There, the preacher of Hebrews begins by establishing that Jesus is identified with God as one who reflects God’s glory and the direct, visible expression of God’s very nature (Hebrews 1.3). Then, he proceeds to establish a distance between Jesus and the angels by pointing to some passages deemed messianic that describe his exalted status. The point is to remind the audience of Hebrews that Jesus is someone more than just an angel. He is the very presence of God, yet also human in every way we are.
So, the audience seems to be tempted in some way to downgrade their view of Jesus and His power and status. The motivations for this can be complex, but we might imagine some it may stem from the experience of oppression and persecution that leads them to ask, “why isn’t Jesus saving us?” Downgrading Jesus to an angel, in which case his death wasn’t a real human death with real human consequences and struggles, would be to limit the shape and power of Christ’s redemption to the apparent reality of the present circumstances. But the preacher of Hebrews endeavors to teach that that what Jesus did on the cross as deep, pervasive power and impact upon them and their lives and future. In addition, the way of life of following Christ would be difficult under such strenuous circumstances: be hospitable? Don’t take vengeance? Be willing to suffer? IF one downgraded Jesus to an angel, one could then justify taking matters into one’s own hands to better one’s circumstance and leave that particular ethos behind.
So then, I would suggest falling away in Hebrews 6.4-6 was in reference to the idea of downgrading Jesus to simply an angel and the rationalization that would provide to engage in sinful behaviors rather than to continue the pathway of faithfulness. To have experienced the depth of God’s power and then to fall away with such an idea was tantamount to treat Jesus’ death as superfluous, a mere mirage, as unimportant, and thus an act of betrayal that brings contempt upon Jesus once again.
Though, to be clear here, though, this is a question about who Jesus is and His power; it isn’t, strictly a question about why Jesus allows bad things to happen and the struggles that come with that. I don’t want to connect falling away here with struggles with one’s faith and understanding, but rather to be the type of person who has experienced and understood the power of God in Jesus Christ and to then downgrade their view of Jesus. This is what the preacher of Hebrews is referring to.
But, allow me to go a bit further here: the preacher isn’t referring to the idea “once you reach such a level and then fall away, you can never come back.” Rather, he is painting an image of a fully constructed building that has then collapsed. In Hebrews 6.1 he refers to the elementary teachers as a building foundation, with the idea that the rest of the instructions constitute the building as a whole (compare this to Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 3; this is one of the reasons I think Apollos is the preacher of Hebrews). The word for falling away in Hebrews 6.4, παραπίπτω, conveys the image of the metaphorical building toppling over on its side.
With this image in mind, I want to suggest the meaning of the phrase restore again to repentance (ἀνακαινίζειν εἰς μετάνοιαν) in Hebrews 6.6 (although the NRSV and other translations put in n Hebrews 6.4 for the ease of understanding) is best understood as a metaphorical renovation. If the building has toppled over, there is nothing there to renovate and restore. The implication being that a person who has grown so far and collapsed in their faith can’t just engage in repentance of some sin and be restored to the community but otherwise, their faith is still solid. Their entire faith has been toppled. There is nothing left to salvage.
This doesn’t mean, however, that such a person can not return to faith. The purpose of the image is to exhort the audience of Hebrews to continue further in their faith amidst the difficult times they are facing rather than just give up at this point. To give in to what to the tempting heresy they are facing would be to lose all that had been given to them. The preacher of Hebrews doesn’t want all that they have gone through to have gone to waste, essentially. Fall away now, and they will lose everything and will be liable to God’s judgment for receiving the good things from God and not bearing any fruit (Hebrews 6.7-8). It isn’t falling away here, and you can never return, – it is falling away here, and you have nothing to stand on.
So, in other words, the preacher to Hebrews isn’t saying, “once you fall away, you can never return.” Rather, his point is closer to the idea that if you destroy your faith, you can’t just do a little repentance here and there and then be good as new.
How applicable is this passage to Joshua Harris? I don’t know, nor do we really need to focus on that. Whether Harris is going through a dry spell that has made him no longer consciously identify with Jesus but still retains a deeper connection to Him or he has fallen away closer to the sense of Hebrews 6.4-6 is not for me to know from a distance. But, I would hope you, after reading this, would no longer read Hebrews 6.4-6 as describing the inevitable judgment of those who have fallen away, but as describing the implications of losing faith in Jesus as the one from God that abandons all that one has been given and grown from.