Seeing, Believing, and Charity

Seeing is believing, as the old saying goes. Or a common one on the internet, “if there aren’t pictures, it didn’t happen.” These sayings neatly present a simple reality of how we as human beings live in the world: we depend a lot on our eyes. What we see has enormous influence on what we think, feel, and believe. That’s nothing new. But today there is something new. Today, it is easier than ever to make pictures that aren’t what they seem.

AI pictures

For nearly as long as there have been pictures, people have made fake pictures. In days of old, it took a fair deal of creativity and skill to pull off a decent fake picture. But no longer. Thanks to developments in artificial intelligence image generators, it takes shockingly little effort to make a reasonably good picture. But how good?

Surely, you will be able to tell the difference. Why don’t you give it a try?

Check out this quiz.

You might be a little disoriented that it’s on a German website and in German, but you can handle this. All you have to do, is choose whether you think the picture is Fake, or a Foto (that’s German for “photo,”; I bet you figured that out because you’re clever). After each result, you’ll see a percentage pop up. That is the percent of people who guessed right.

Why don’t you go check it out?

Seeing and believing

Assuming you tried out the quiz (and if you haven’t, go do it—it is pretty fun), consider the following. At the time I took the quiz, the collective accuracy of people was right around 64%. To put that into perspective, that’s not much better results than the same amount of people taking the test would get if they just guessed randomly without looking at the pictures at all!

Naturally, this image is from an AI image generator. The prompt that elicited it: guessing with a blindfold, cartoon.

The results of this quiz suggest there’s a very high likelihood you will see fake pictures generated by artificial intelligence and not be able to recognize they are fake!!


No, the sky is not falling

Life will go on. You don’t need to invest all your savings in gold and go live off-the grid to try to avoid the computer apocalypse (at least not yet, anyway 😊).

But, it is time for us to start the long, slow process of preparing ourselves for living in a world where fake pictures are indistinguishable from the real, at least much of the time. Since what we see has such a strong influence on what we believe to be true, it’s going to take some work on our parts to live in this brave new world.

One key plank in our preparations for this high-tech world is the decidedly ancient Christian practice of charity. Charity is the effort to believe the best about other people and to assume that they act with consistent intentions and in ways consistent with their character. Of course, this “believe the best about people” can be grossly abused. Often people prove that we should not believe the best about them. But charity is going to become increasingly necessary. After all, it has never been easier to make a compromising picture or clip of someone and weaponize it against them. All it takes is a bit of time on an AI image generator. Anyone can do it.

Practicing charity with pictures we see online will better prepare us to treat the real people in our lives with charity. Jesus modeled a way of treating others that held together justice and mercy—a pathway of charity. A big part of charity is to see people not just for what they are now, but for what they can become through God’s grace. If having to wade through AI generated pictures helps us train in charity, then it won’t be all bad.

Even if it will be unsettling, confusing, amusing, and a little bit scary.

And just for fun

Here is the response ChatGPT spit out when I asked it to summarize this blog post in two sentences:

The article discusses the prevalence of fake pictures created through artificial intelligence and highlights the challenge of distinguishing between real and fake images. It emphasizes the importance of practicing charity in the digital age, as the ability to believe the best about others and treat them with grace becomes increasingly necessary in a world where manipulated images can be used to harm individuals.

Not bad. Although it feels funny to me to cite AI-generated text in a quote.

Adversaries and anger

young man yelling into pay phone

In Psalm 79 and 109 we see the psalmist crying out in anger against adversaries. Parts of each of these psalms sound pretty harsh. But they do address an important part of life: the reality of adversaries. We all have adversaries of some sort at points in our lives. The book of Psalms, wonderful for so many reasons, gives us guidance on how our hearts should move towards God and others when we are angry because of difficult people and difficult situations in life.

Responding to adversaries in difficulty

Adversaries come in many shapes and sizes. We can consider people bringing difficulties into life as “adversaries.” Maybe, like the psalmists, your adversaries are people scheming about how to kill you. More likely, they are people plotting your downfall at work, a family member who always manages to create chaos whenever they show up, a class bully, or a medical provider who doesn’t take you seriously. The list of possible adversaries is nearly endless. They all share in common the ability to elicit anger as they bring difficulties into life.

There are many ways we can respond to difficult people and difficult situations in life. Here are four ways we can respond to adversaries and the anger they inspire in life: (1) dreaming, (2) scheming, (3) bearing, and (4) moving.


By dreaming I mean the sort of wishful hoping for the downfall of your adversary. Maybe you silently wish your coworker would get fired; or that your obnoxious neighbor will get caught violating the city rules and be forced to change their ways. Whatever it be, dreaming involves a sort of curse: “I hope you choke.”


If dreaming is wishing for the downfall of your adversary, scheming takes it one step further. Here you are actively planning how to bring about the shame and/or downfall of those who have hurt you.

Scheming may take the form of passing around juicy stories—whether true or false—with the aim of exposing your adversary to ridicule. Or, in a more extreme form, scheming can involve creating traps that directly threaten the life and well-being of an adversary: political, financial, relational.

Scheming can feel good because it is taking initiative and using our power to fix the situation.


Often, the adversaries of our lives will pass by, if we are content to wait for a time. And if you are prone towards stubbornness, waiting emerges as an obvious approach to conflict. Bearing allows you to deal with your adversaries by not dealing with them. You may bear with your adversaries and the anger and frustration they bring into life because you are strong and can take it; you may bear with them because you feel like you deserve the difficulties they bring into your life. Whatever the reason, bearing concludes that it is better to put up with injustice than to try to do anything about it.


Another possible response to adversaries is to move. That is, moving towards God. Moving involves turning toward God in prayer about our adversaries, driven by the anger and frustration they cause within us. This is, I submit, the basic posture which Psalm 79 and 109 recommend in dealing with adversaries. Moving toward God in prayer while angry is an exercise in expressing ourselves towards God rather than towards our neighbor.

Responding by moving toward God in prayer differs in a couple key ways from the other responses above. It acknowledges that God is ultimately in charge of justice, it acknowledges that my resources for dealing with difficulties and difficult people are very limited, and it also acknowledges that anger is not a wrong part of how we function. Anger should drive us toward God, who is big enough to hear our anger, strong enough to bear it, and wise enough to patiently redirect our anger where it should be, rather than leave it in the misplaced directions we so often vent our anger in.


Life is full of adversaries. Most are small and passing; some are big and lasting. People and situations in life lead us again and again into anger by bringing difficulties and frustrations into life. The question is not, “Will you get angry?” but rather, “How will your anger play out?”

As adversity moves into your life, where does anger lead you? If it does not lead you to God in prayer, than your anger will certainly emerge as a force of destruction to you and to others. The Psalms guide us not only in how to praise God, but in how to respond in our anger towards adversaries in our lives: by moving towards God in prayer.

Photo by Alexandra Mirgheș on Unsplash

Did David Really write all those psalms?

King David playing the harp

When reading through the book of Psalms, one can’t help but notice how often the name “David” pops up. Of the 150 psalms, a full 73 have the following note in their introductions:

  • לְדָוִיד
  • lĕdāwîd
  • (belonging) to David

The Hebrew proposition ל־ (the letter lamed) which begins this phrase is used in a bunch of different ways. How should we understand the point of it here? Did David actually write all these psalms? Or, as Robert Alter’s translates it, does the phrase mean “A David psalm.” That is, it just tells us that somewhere along the line of history people believed that David was somehow associated with these psalms—maybe as author, maybe as inspiration.

These same questions apply—to a lesser extent—to the psalms which name other authors: Moses, Solomon, Asaph, Sons of Korah, Heman, or Ethan. Did they really write these psalms?

Here is the short answer: there is no definitive way to prove they did or they didn’t.

A longer answer is worth thinking about.

The “no, David did not write this psalm” arguments

To spare the long, winding, circuitous, and generally self-referential arguments scholars make about the issue, here is a brief summation of the main arguments people call upon to support the position that David didn’t write the psalms attributed to him:

The dating of individual psalms has long been a region of treacherous scholarly quicksand. The one safe conclusion is that the writing of psalms was a persistent activity over many centuries. The Davidic authorship enshrined in Jewish and Christian tradition has no credible historical grounding. It was a regular practice in the later biblical period to ascribe new texts to famous figures of the past. Although many psalms include the name David in the superscription supplied by the editors, the meaning of the Hebrew particle le that usually prefixes the name is ambiguous. It is conventionally translated as “of,” and in ancient seals and other objects that have been discovered, it does serve as a possessive. But le also can mean “for,” “in the manner of,” “suitable to,” and so forth. The present translation seeks to preserve this ambiguity by translating mizmor ledawid as “a David psalm.” David was no doubt identified by the editors of the collection as the exemplary psalmist because in his story, as told in 1 and 2 Samuel, he appears as a poet and the player of a stringed instrument, and at the end of the narrative is given the epithet “the sweet singer of Israel.” But the editors themselves ascribed psalms to different poets—Asaph, Ethan the Ezrahite, Heyman the Ezrahite, the Korahites, and others. One cannot categorically exclude the possibility that a couple of these psalms were actually written by David, though it is difficult to gauge the likelihood (and some scholars altogether doubt David’s historicity).”

Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, 13

In short, Alter notes it is technically possible that David did write some of these, but he (along with lots of scholars) view the evidence as strongly against such a conclusion.

The “yes, David wrote this psalm” arguments

There are three core arguments suggesting that David wrote the psalms attributed to him.

“of David”

First, consider the example from Habakkuk 3.1:

A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth.

In Hebrew, the “of Habakkuk” is the same construction as the “of David” we see in our psalms. One scholar notes:

“Habakkuk seems to have employed a recognized formula for designating oneself as the author of a psalmic prayer.”

James M. Hamilton, Jr. Psalms 1-72, 44

The prayer in Habakkuk clearly is Habakkuk’s prayer. Since Habakkuk is close in time and culture to the time when the psalms were composed, this serves as reasonable evidence that the “of David” formula intends to claim that David is the author of those psalms in whose introduction it appears.


Second, the superscriptions are part of the text. Most of the psalms have some sort of superscription. Like these:

  • Psalm 18: For the director of music. Of David the servant of the Lord. He sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. He said: (NIV)
  • Psalm 19: For the director of music. A psalm of David. (NIV)

You will note that in English Bibles these are not given verse numbers. The lack of verse numbers can give the mistaken impression that these superscriptions are not an original part of the text (in the Hebrew, they are numbered, as well as in every other language I have checked). So, what are these?

Simply put, every ancient version of the text of the Old Testament we have, in whatever language we have it, has these superscriptions in some form or another. While that does not prove that they are original to the poems they go with, it does strongly indicate that the book of Psalms as a canonical book of the Bible has never not had the superscriptions. Which means, among other things, that all the information in them is quite ancient.

That doesn’t prove that David wrote the psalms that say “of David.” But it does suggest that there was never a time, for as long as we can go back in recorded history, where people did not believe and pass on that David wrote those 73 psalms which say “of David” at the beginning. This ancient tradition supports that David was, in fact, the author of the psalms in question.

biblical evidence

Finally, the biblical evidence robustly supports understanding David as the actual author of these psalms (and likewise, the other listed authors). I bring this up last because the strength of this argument rests entirely on the general view of Scripture which you bring to the question.

Within the New Testament, we see various people claiming that David wrote various of the psalms which are ascribed to him in the book of Psalms. Jesus (Mark 12.35-37), Peter (Acts 1:16; 2.25), and Paul (Rom 4:6) all do so.

Of course, it is possible that they were passing on knowledge which they had learned and assumed and which everyone more or less agreed upon. And this evidence from the New Testament authors doesn’t mean that we can verify David as the author of those 73 psalms without a doubt.

For those of a confessional attitude that says, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it for me,” this information from the New Testament settles the question. At the very least, the information from the New Testament testifies to a long standing and continuous tradition amongst the Jewish and then early Christian believers accepting as true the superscriptions we find in the psalms.

Does it matter: no, and yes

In closing out this brief reflection on the superscriptions of the psalms, we ask ourselves, “does it really matter?” The answer to that question is no… And yes.

First, in one sense it doesn’t matter. Many of the books of the Bible are formally anonymous. Many of the psalms within the book of Psalms are anonymous. Whoever it was who spent the painstaking time to organize the whole book of Psalms remains formally anonymous. That we can’t pin a text to a specific historical person is not a deep problem.

In another sense, Davidic authorship does matter. While we often cherry pick psalms as disconnected praises or laments to God, the whole book is deeply and intricately structured. Noting the way that the psalms of David are spread throughout the book of Psalms suggests that the final editors put the book together to reflect the life of David. And especially to reflect how the life of David demonstrates the hope God’s people have in a coming king from his line who will bring God’s people into the full blessings of his covenant with them. James M. Hamilton, Jr., writes:

“The collage of the Psalter is not merely about David’s own life but God’s purposes in the world and how and where David fits in that wider project.”

Psalms, Psalms 1-72, 51

For my own part, I lean toward assuming the superscriptions are historical. That is, that they preserve for us through traditions across the generations actual notes about who wrote what and, on occasion, what the life circumstances of the composition were. I couldn’t dogmatically prove that, or a great many other things which I believe. But there is rational evidence which at least points in this direction both inside and outside the book of Psalms.

Psalm 145: God’s greatness from A-Z

King David praises God with lyre in field with animals

Psalm 145 is one of a handful of acrostic psalms. Acrostic psalms follow the pattern of the Hebrew alphabet, each line beginning with the next letter. You’ve probably written acrostic poetry in English in elementary school. Something like this:


Depending on your view of cats, you may or may not like that last line (being mildly allergic to them, when I am in a cat house “tormentor” is an appropriate word to use). That aside, the acrostic poem uses the pattern of letters as part of the poetry.

Hebrew acrostic poems seem to work in a similar way. They follow the pattern of the alphabet to lend a sense of totality and comprehensiveness to their treatment of theme. Psalm 119 is the most well-known of these acrostics. Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet gets 8 lines!

Acrostic poems like this work better in Hebrew than English. Virtually no one even bothers trying to mimic the alphabet structure in translation. Here are a few reasons why:

  • English word order is less easily manipulated than Hebrew;
  • Certain English letters—like Q and X—do not begin many useful words; and
  • There are more letters in the English alphabet (26) than the Hebrew (22/23, depending on how you count), meaning that you run out of Hebrew text to translate before completing the English alphabet.

But some intrepid translators give it a shot anyway. I’m not sure if the result is the same. The lack of completion in the English alphabet seems to hamstring the attempts, but they are interesting.

Check out this acrostic translation of Psalm 145 by Rabbi Sam Seicol.

A couple quick notes about what you will see.

  1. The text of Psalm 145 begins following the title (Psalm 145). Hebrew is on the left; English is on the right. Remember that Hebrew reads in the opposite direction from English, so the letter closest to the center of the screen in either language is where the line begins.
  2. The lines follow the order of the alphabet.
  3. What happened to the “N” line? In the standard Hebrew text from antiquity, this line is missing. That seems like a copyist mistake. Our ancient translations testify to a Hebrew line which somehow fell out of the main Hebrew text (called the Masoretic Text). We have since found at least one ancient Hebrew manuscript which has this “N” line as well. Modern Bibles all have it as the second half of verse 13.
  4. The psalm ends “and all flesh bless the holy Name forever and ever.” There are a couple lines after that which are part of the Jewish worship setting for the psalm, not the psalm itself.

This translation is a nice stab at providing an English translation which visually parallels the effect of the Hebrew poem. It also shows part of the reason why translators don’t do this: it’s hard, and the effect in English is pretty uneven. Finally, Rabbi Sam Seicol’s translation here is more like an aid for reading Hebrew than an attempt to render the psalm into an English translation which can stand strong on its own two feet.

Those weaknesses acknowledged, read it. Ponder it. Enjoy it. Whether acrostic psalms work in English or not, in Hebrew they remind us that praising God’s greatness fills up the alphabet, A—Z ,and still is unsearchable.

Jesus at the heart of Psalm 8

We recently tackled Psalm 8, focusing on how the question “what is man” plays a key role in God’s name being majestic in all the earth. The message to proclaim the majesty of God’s name by being benevolent overlords is an important one. Yet, there is more. Another important point we barely touched upon shines through when we consider Hebrews 2:6-8, a quotation from Psalm 8, pointing towards Jesus. As the author of Hebrews continues:

“But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

Hebrews 2.9, ESV

The author of Hebrews shows us that the position of humanity in general within creation testifies to the position of Jesus the Son of God in particular within his role of redemption.

Humanity in creation

There are several psalms celebrating creation (see, for instance, 33, 104, and 145). Psalm 8 is unique in that it positions humanity at a key position: as God’s agent of governance within creation. A thoughtful reader of Genesis 1-2 will arrive at that conclusion. David, the traditional author of this psalm, certainly was a thoughtful reader reflecting on those very passages from his Genesis scroll.

Yet it takes little imagination, then or now, to see that humanity is not the greatest choice for the job. The question “What is man?” (v. 4) no doubt involves a certain amount of disbelief. Why in the world, God, would you place us in this position?

But, there appears to be more. Because David was not just a thoughtful reader of his Genesis scroll, but also of God’s unfolding promises to his people—including the promise God had given him in 2 Samuel 7.12-16.

The enemy and avenger

Psalm 8.2 seems like an odd little detour from the rest of the psalm:

Out of the mouth of babies and infants, / you have established strength because of your foes, / to still the enemy and the avenger. (ESV)

There are no obvious connections between this verse and the rest of the psalm. None, that is, unless we read Psalm 8 against the background of God’s on-going work of redemption.

There is a consistent “enemy of God” throughout the Bible: Satan. And he wages a war against God in the realm of redemption. That is, Satan seeks to direct the heart of mankind away from God and toward destruction. The mention about God establishing strength “out of the mouths of babies and infants” could very well be a mediation on God’s promise to Eve, that her seed would successfully do battle with the serpent, Satan. There is a generally truism that in God’s work, he tends to use the weak to shame the strong, yet this also ties into looking for the Seed of Eve who will bring ultimate victory.

God’s battle is redemption and there is a babe who will defeat the Enemy.

Ending futility

As Hebrews reminds us, Jesus was for a time a little lower than the angels and is now crowned with glory and honor. God put humanity at center of creation account in Gen 1-2 because redemption through Jesus is the great action of God in the world. We might say that all the world’s a stage…for Jesus.

Psalm 8 reflects on the position of humanity within creation. Why is it that humanity plays a central role in creation proclaiming the majesty of God’s name? Because humanity is a placeholder for Jesus within God’s work. The “rule” of humanity over “all the works of God’s hands” is preparatory and partial…and is giving way to the complete rule of Jesus.

Brueggemann insightfully comments on this facet of Psalm 8:

“Human persons are to rule, but they are not to receive the ultimate loyalty of creation. Such loyalty must be directed only to God.”

Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 38.

Jesus is the man, the New Adam, who stands fully in both earth and heaven and is fit to receive the ultimate loyalty of creation because he is God, as well as man.

In Romans 8, we read about creation groaning for redemption from futility. Creation is longing for the true king. Its experience under humanity as ruler is a mixed bag and hardly anything to brag about. Yet, as Psalm 8 joins in the biblical reflection on creation and on the special place of humanity therein, it points us to the broader hope that through Adam and Eve a Redeemer will come. One who will enable all creatures and all creation to become what God intends for them.

Psalm 8 is well aware that a merely human king like David can’t pull that off. But one who is a little lower than the angels for a while, and is then crowned with glory and honor as God of the Universe?

Well, Jesus can do that.

Hurt and Hope

If you are following along on the read through the book of psalms plan during our sermon series on Psalms, then you are probably somewhere around Psalm 22 today/this week. Consider with me briefly a few verses from the beginning of this famous psalm: verse of hurt and hope.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
    you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
    they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
    in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

Psalm 22.3-5 (NIV)

Reading a little more will make one things clear: David trusts that God did great acts of deliverance in the past; David feels like God is not acting to deliver him in his moment of despair.

When ‘Faithful’ Hurts

The memory of past faithfulness comes up in the midst of present torment, of uncertainty, of pain. Allowing for poetic license on the part of David, things at the point of his life Psalm 22 reflects on must have been pretty low. The nations gathered against him, friends turned out to be enemies, enemies turned out to be stronger than expected. He feels as helpless as an emaciated, skeletal body going into the Octagon to fight MMA with the heavyweights.

Two reflections come up. First, this Psalm feels so true to life. We feel the punch of crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22.1). We know the times when sure hope of deliverance are distant memories, obscured behind the enemies, mountains of muscle, who are poised to rip us limb from limb.

Second, the language in this Psalm of desperate uncertainty and pain felt so literal for Jesus, as his enemies conspired against him, as the Roman soldier MMA-heavyweights tore his skeletal body apart.

Hope and Rescue: Past, Present, Future

What value is the hope and rescue of the past in such a time of present despair?

That is a fair question to ask and one which, we can only trust, our lives will force us to wrestle with again and again and again.

Psalm 22, like so many other psalms, completes the journey from past hope to hope for the future. While aspects of Psalm 22 are unique because of the way that it foreshadows Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection, the journey David travels in this Psalm is a familiar one.

The past gives way to the present which gives way to the future. In the verses we began with, we see the eye of longing gazing back to the past where things worked. Where God proved to be a deliverer in the time of difficulty. Reciting this history is not an intellectual exercise; reciting this history is a prop for faith. Sometimes no more than a flimsy prop for flagging faith, but a prop nonetheless. For when our eyes look around and see nothing but enemies and oppressors, failure and defeat, problems too great for us to deal with, where else shall we turn?

The Journey to Praise

The journey which Psalms teaches us to walk again and again is the journey back to the great acts of God. The journey back to God’s faithfulness in our past. And, in walking this journey, God cries out, sometimes forcefully, sometimes with a plaintive plea, “Hold on! The rescue of the past will be true again. Hold on!”

Reviewing God’s past faithfulness is not for the purpose of mocking our present pain, but of restoring our hearts to hope-filled praise. To praise for a God who became flesh to take on the tortures of humanity—and so much more—delivering hope to any who will join him “in the midst of the congregation” praising God (22.22).

How Mark ends

Today, Bible scholars widely believe that the Gospel of Mark originally ended at Mark 16.8, rather than 16.20.[1] Agreement among biblical scholars about most questions is a hard to come by as consensus in the senate, so this is an odd state of affairs. To restate the basic assertion, the near-consensus view among New Testament scholars and specialists in the Gospels is that all the stuff in Mark 16.9-20 in your Bible is based on Greek written by somebody else rather than Mark, the author of the rest of the Gospel.[2] In fact, your Bible likely has a footnote, or brackets, or different font indicating this point.

While the issue quickly gets far more technical than what belongs on a blog like this, the basics are easy for any interested party to understand. In this post I will summarize (1) the basic lines of evidence, (2) a few possible explanations for what might have happened, and (3) give a few thoughts about what this means for those who believe the Bible is God’s word.

the evidence for how Mark ends

There are a variety of lines of evidence which support the conclusion that the Greek text written by Mark ends at 16.8. Here is a summary of the main evidence:[3]

  1. The material in vv. 9-20 doesn’t appear in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Book of Mark. Remember, there is no one single “Gospel of Mark” manuscript which contains everything and has no issues. When you read a bible translation, or even a Greek New Testament, you are reading a text which has been carefully assembled from the mountains of textual evidence we have in the form of handwritten manuscripts. The best manuscripts we have don’t have Mark 16.9-20.
  2. There are a few different endings in the manuscripts, which suggests that none of the ones we have are original to the Gospel.
  3. In the Greek text, the connection between v. 8 and any of the following different forms of ending—there are 3 or 4 different endings in the manuscripts—is really awkward. Your Bible likely smooths it over, but in the Greek v. 9 carries on as though Jesus were the person being talked about just before it, rather than the women. This suggests that Mark 16.9-20 was not originally written to be here at the end of Mark; rather, it was added later.
  4. The style of the Greek writing in Mark 16.9-20 differs from the rest of the Gospel. This suggests it was written by someone else.
  5. The information in vv. 9-20 reads like a compilation of resurrection appearances from the other Gospels summarized together. This point is a stronger argument the more one accepts the idea that Mark was the first Gospel written, as a majority of Gospel scholars believe today. It may have been. If Mark was written first, it shouldn’t end with a summary of information found in the other Gospels and Acts.

Far more could be said about any of these difficulties, but these and other lines of evidence have roundly convinced the world of New Testament scholarship that the Greek text of the Gospel of Mark did not originally include vv. 9-20 of chapter 16. While it is old, probably already around in some form in the 2nd century (that is the years AD 100-199), putting it among some of the earliest Christian literary evidence, it was not original to the Gospel of Mark.[4]

what happened to Mark’s end?

So, what happened to the end? Or was there an end? Bruce Metzger, one of the most influential modern scholars on the original text of the Greek New Testament, suggests the three obvious possibilities:[5]

(1) Mark intended to end the Gospel here, (2) the Gospel was never finished, or (3) there was an original ending, but it was lost before the Gospel manuscript was copied.

More and more scholars are arguing for (1), that Mark intended to finish the Gospel at what we call Mark 16.8. That is certainly possible. The main argument against this is that the Greek of Mark 16.8 ends in a very abrupt and unusual manner. Further, the storyline of the Gospel anticipates a resurrection and Jesus meeting with the disciples again after resurrection.

I have personally never come across someone who argues (2), but it is logically possible.

Finally, it is possible that the original copy of the Gospel of Mark had a different ending and it was lost or damaged somehow before copies were made (or very early in the copying process). The multiple different endings which we see in the different manuscripts suggests that even in ancient times people felt the Gospel did not really end at what we now call Mark 16.8. If the Gospel of Matthew is based closely on the Gospel of Mark—as many scholars believe—then the ending of Matthew may very well testify something about the original ending of the Gospel of Mark, assuming there was one.

And that is the difficulty. What we can be very confident of is that Mark 16.9-20 was not written by the same person who wrote the rest of the Gospel. When we try to answer the question why that is or how it came to be, we are on speculative grounds.

What to do about how Mark ends

Rather than trying to explain all of the technical details, I want to take a minute to contemplate what we should think about how Mark ends. That Mark likely had a different ending than what is in our Bibles today is interesting as a statement of history, but raises many difficulties for those who confess the Bible as God’s word to humanity. How do we handle the reasonable conclusion that Mark 16.9-20 was not part of the original Gospel of Mark?

We can briefly think in terms of two different issues: the authority of scripture and the usefulness of scripture.

The authority of Scripture

Undoubtedly the text as it stands at the end of Mark is old, and most Christians for most of history have read it as the end of the Gospel of Mark, that is, as Scripture. If we are convinced that Mark 16.9-20 was not original to the Gospel, should we read it today as authoritative scripture?

To answer this question requires us to grasp an important point from the history of the various books of the Bible which hides in plain sight. When Christians talk about Scripture, we usually are referring to what we could more precisely call the canonical form of Scripture. The canonical form refers to all the books of the Bible (together call the canon) and to the particular form of the book which we have in the canon.

This second point may seem trivial until we observe that many of the biblical books show evidence that the canonical form is not the only form they ever existed in. Many of our books of the Bible we’re written in a variety of forms and what we have is not what was first written. Now let me carefully nuance that with two examples from the OT: Jeremiah and Genesis.

Two examples of canonical form

In Jeremiah 36 we read a brief story of how the prophet Jeremiah sent a scroll of his prophecy to King Jehoiakim. King Jehoiakim was less than thrilled with the prophecy. He made his displeasure clear by slicing the scroll up and burning it. Towards the end of Jeremiah 36, Jeremiah has Baruch, his scribe, write the scroll of his prophecy again.

This brief account from Jeremiah 36 tells us that Jeremiah had a written form of his prophecies that’s different than the final form of the written book of his prophecies. He still had years of prophetic ministry left to go. Yet even before it was done, his words were meant to be heard/read by King Jehoiakim as a message with divine authority. The scroll he sent was authoritative but it was not the canonical form of the book/scroll of Jeremiah.

As a second example, consider briefly Genesis 14.4:

When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. (ESV)

This verse appears unremarkable, and in most respects it is. But, if you ponder closely your biblical history, you may remember that when Abram/Abraham was alive, there was no tribe of Dan. Dan was one of his great-great-grandsons, born after his death. Thus, there was no geographic location “Dan” in the land latter to be called Israel that Abram and his 318 trained men to could go to.[6]

What does this show us? At some point, the text of Genesis was “updated” to reflect later geographical names not part of the original text.[7]

The point of these two brief side notes—and more could be added—is just to remind us that already within our Bible we have indicators that sometimes other people finish writing or updating a book in the Bible. We have the canonical form, which is not necessarily identical with the form exactly as written by the original author. The canonical form is the book we hold to.

The key to take away in the question of whether it is authoritative scripture or not is this: whether we ultimately accept it as such or not, it doesn’t add anything that we don’t know from elsewhere or that is inconsistent with the message of God to his people through his word.

The usefulness of Scripture

A second consideration is the usefulness of scripture. As I’ve already noted, the on the regional longer ending of Mark doesn’t really add anything that we don’t know from elsewhere. The one curious exception is 16.18:

18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

This is the verse that the “snake-handlers” appeal to to justify their practice of playing with deadly snakes as a show of faith. First, it need not mean anything like that…and it certainly does not call for followers of Jesus to go out of their way to hold snakes or drink deadly poisons. Second, it is possible that this verse, along with verse 17, is a sort of poetic summation of events from the book of Acts: Paul gets bitten by a poisonous snake without dying and the Apostles in Acts heal lots of people. Since the rest of the material in vv. 9-20 appears to be summations of events recorded in the other Gospels, this is not a bad suggestion.

More significantly, though, Mark 16.9-20 do doesn’t add any information about God’s aims and intentions for his people through Jesus that we don’t see elsewhere. So, is it useful? Yes, it can be. Whether we accept it and use it as scripture or not, it is good and useful, as the church throughout history has testified.

summary of using Mark as Scripture

What reverence and authority should we give Mark 16.9-20? Both our instinct to read the rest of what’s in our Mark chapter 16 and our instinct to stop reading at verse eight of Mark 16 find precedent in the long history of the church. I am personally inclined to say that we should not consider Mark 16.9-20 as part of the Gospel of Mark. But, more significantly than that conclusion, we recognize that it does not make any significant difference. The verse there can be useful; they may be authoritative. Whichever way we land on how we receive them, they are a beneficial part of the tradition of the church across the centuries which can be read with profit as the ending of the Gospel of Mark. That is how most people have read them throughout the ages, and how lots of people will continue to read them.

[1] There are very few things in the world of biblical studies which command close to universal assent, and the conclusion that the Greek text of Mark ends at 16.8 is one of those, as France notes R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), 685.

[2] Following the traditional identification of the Gospel author as Mark, probably John Mark, the traveling companion of both Paul and Peter.

[3] These points are a streamlined version of the lines of argument which can be found, in varying degrees of detail, in Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus: An Introduction to Jesus and the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 194, Figure 7.9; Andreas J Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2009), 239; Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1998), 103–6; France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Appended Note.

[4] No doubt, the material is old. France indicates there is some evidence putting the longer version of the ending in the 2nd century, which would make it some of our earliest extant non-canonical Christian literature. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 687–88.

[5] Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 103–6.

[6] One could argue that when Moses wrote, the land was “as good as divided” and he wrote from a later perspective. But Moses was dead when the land was apportioned, so this is weak. Of course, God could have prophetically shown him the boundaries of a later date. While we hold that as theoretically possible, it raises further difficulties—like why various authors of Scripture write with grammatical errors and different styles. Also, that various books contain reports of the death of their authors suggest that they were at the very least touched up by a subsequent writer.

[7] There are many more examples of this sort of updating in the book of Genesis. We could also add that all of the early books of the OT would have been written in a different form of Hebrew than we have them, at the very least because Hebrew was written in the paleo-script rather than the square script. Also, the general degree of standardization within OT Hebrew suggests that there was some “updating” of the language in the texts over the years.

AI chat: some thoughts after a week of playing with generative AI

God touches robots finger

If you have been living under a rock, or are a dedicated Luddite, perhaps you have heard little to nothing about the AI revolution sweeping the internet. Okay, that’s a slightly overblown way to describe it (which fits in with the generally overblown way people talk about AI, which naturally refers to Artificial Intelligence). Ever since ChatGPT passed the Turing test back in Dec 2022, it has been making story after story (along with its other AI pals which use a Large Language Model to do cool things). After so many stories, the natural thing to do was try the AI chatbots out and see what they could do. If these models prefigure the future of humanity and our interaction with computers, it makes sense to me to get a little bit of experience and see what the future might be. So over Spring Break I took a journey up the mountain to see the future, and now come to report a few thoughts on it. After playing with ChatGPT and Bing’s new AI-powered search, the results ranged from amusing to alarming, trivial to transformative, and everywhere in between. If this is a glance of the future, buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

A brief introduction: how they work (in really simple terms)

There are many places where you can read a more robust description of how these programs basically work.

For any interested in a more technical review of things, with many helpful descriptions and clarifications, check out this WIRED article.

In essence, the AI program has worked through reams and reams of written data from the Internet—things like encyclopedias, web pages, and even chats from reddit. What is it doing with all this data? finding statistical correlations between words. It is “learning” what sort of words go together in what sort of contexts. The result is that the Large Language Model AIs can predict words that should go together to form sentences in response to a prompt. Using this method, they are able to produce sentences which look and sound like a human wrote them. It is really a clever approach to the problem of getting computers to work with human language (because they are awful at it).

It is both really capacious and really limited approach, all at the same time. As one writer at WIRED notes,

“Both [ChatGPT and Google Bard] use powerful AI models that predict the words that should follow a given sentence based on statistical patterns gleaned from enormous amounts of text training data. This turns out to be an incredibly effective way of mimicking human responses to questions, but it means that the algorithms will sometimes make up, or “hallucinate,” facts—a serious problem when a bot is supposed to be helping users find information or search the web.”

Sometimes the writing they come up with is astoundingly good; other times it is ugly. More interesting, sometimes the information the AI spits out is accurate and useful; other times it is downright wrong.

After a week of messing around, here are a few thoughts on chatbots, the future, and humanity.

I. the soul of humanity: who are we?

How do we define ourselves and understand ourselves? While there are lots of interesting things to comment on about these chatbots, I’ll start with the most related to the normal scope of this blog: how will these chatbots affect the way we understand ourselves? Like every piece of technology, these AI chatbots are a partial mirror held up to us. Whatever the future brings, in the present, they force the question upon us in a new way: what does it mean to be human?

For most of human history, we were the only things in the world that could use human language. While other animals exhibit varying degrees of ability to think in abstract ways and even to communicate, human language is utterly unique.

Not anymore.

We have created a machine which utilizes human language in at times a stunningly proficient manner. Who are we? Do we matter? How do we understand ourselves? These questions have all become much more difficult to answer. And, I’m willing to predict, that they’ll become increasingly more difficult to answer as the abilities of artificial intelligence bots increase. Because they certainly will. Although, it’s unlikely that anytime soon they will have “human-like” abilities. Because even if it gets a lot better at handling language, the amount of energy and computational power required by a large language model AI chatbot makes it extremely unlike a human.

In my time interacting with these chat bots, I was reminded of a movie scene from the 2004 Will Smith movie I, Robot (based ultimately on the writings of Isaac Asimov, the godfather of modern Sci-Fi). You might be able to watch the scene here. While interrogating a robot, the human detective asks:

“Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?”

To which the robot, Sonny, replies:

“Can you?”

Stunned silence.

The detective takes some traits of humanity as a whole and points out that robots don’t fulfill them. Humanity as a whole is creative and certain people create symphonies and masterpieces. The obvious logical flaw, which the robot points out, is that most members of humanity don’t share in these apex creative abilities. If we define humanity by the best of human accomplishments, then most of humanity fails to be truly human.

This scene is apropos in that we have now created a robotic chatbot which appears to use language at a reasonable human level. What does it mean to be human when our creations begin to behave in distinctly human terms? Is an AI that can use language with reasonable fluency more human than a person who has lost that ability? While our intuitive answers at this point is probably, “no,” as the years go by it’s going to be harder and harder to simply make that assertion.

We have something significant to contribute to the world at this moment in history. As followers of God, we believe and confess that people have value and identity not based on their abilities and not based on any distinctly human trait that nothing else shares, but based on their created identity. The identity of human as made in the image of God is not based on superior intellectual abilities (even though we have those as compared to other creatures God made), it is not based on language abilities, or even on the trappings of civilization. It’s based on relationship to God the creator.

There will be lots of difficult questions and decisions for society in the coming decades. AI chatbots are already pretty neat; they will only get better and more pervasive. More and more often we will interact with computers in ways that are difficult to distinguish from interacting with people. We will have need of being able to assert with clarity and confidence that people—all people—are valuable simply because they are made in the image of God, not because of any abilities or skills that they have.

II. accuracy: and what is truth?

I was generally impressed at the accuracy of the AI models. I queried them over questions about Ancient Greek and was pleasantly surprised to receive competent answers in short order. Answers of the quality that few Greek learners would be able to quickly provide. In fact, I would suggest that the best way to envision the sorts of responses these chatbots give (at least currently) is much like what a topic expert would give you if you asked for 15-30 second answer from them on a given question. Short. Superficial. A good place to start.

But it also did not take long to see how inaccurate and misleading they can be. From giving a wildly inaccurate summary of the plot of the book The Neverending Story,[1] to a sophomoric and deeply misleading summary of the debate over a verbal aspect in the Greek verbal system, in more than a few places I found the answers wanting.

The difficulty, though, is that even when wrong, the chatbots “sound” like they know what they are talking about. Most human beings are incapable of fluently “lying” (making up things that they do not believe to be correct). We are often able to tell when a person we are talking to is fudging their answer. Or, people will just tell you, “I’m not sure, but here is what I think.” Chatbots don’t do that—at least not yet. Unless you are well-versed in the topic, you may not even notice that the chatbot is making up an answer “out of thin air.” To say that the AI models lie is, I think, inaccurate. They are not, after all, designed to tell the truth but to work with human language in a way that produces coherent sentences. Being able to produce coherent sentences and paragraphs is a very different discipline from understanding and speaking truth.

How AI bots navigate this distinction in the future will be deeply important.

III. creativity: combining or creating?

The chatbots really shine at producing de novo compositions where the concern is creativity rather than truthfulness. A prompt to write a paragraph about a plywood door in the style of various authors—from Alexandre Dumas to Gregory McGuire to Patrick McManus, and everywhere in between—resulted in some paragraphs which would easily pass for excellent human writing. In fact, writing which, if you encountered it outside of the context of a query for an AI bot, you would be forgiven for thinking was laden with deep symbolism and life experience. Writing which is much better than most people will ever write in their lives. And yet, sometimes the response was flat and predictable and, for lack of a better word, lame. As though just adding the word “rune” to a string of otherwise insipid and poorly connected sentences is enough to make a paragraph in the style of J.R.R. Tolkien.

AI chatbots traffic in borrowed creativity.

But then, isn’t all creativity borrowed, in some sense or another? We learn to become creative in dialogue with others. The endless advice for aspiring writers is, after all, to read other writers and write more in response to them.

What exactly is creativity? And how would we know if and/or when a chatbot moves from clever imitation of human creativity through aping patterns found in writers to having its own? In fact, couldn’t we suspect that the algorithms currently in use are themselves an expression of creativity (human creativity), given to the chatbots by people? Questions about the nature of creativity will just be one of many which will become increasingly difficult to answer as large language model AI chatbots become more and more proficient.

In the meantime, good luck to you teachers who are trying to figure out what it means for students to write a paper in a world where they can get a unique paper generated in a matter of seconds (but probably a pretty poor one).

IV. economics: who pays for all this?

In the hoopla over AI chatbots, a noticeable lacuna deserves further attention: Who is going to pay for the internet?

We take it for granted that websites are (mostly) free. While we pay for an internet connection, and sometimes pay for access to certain parts of websites, most websites in the world are free to access and use. That works because behind every website is an individual/group paying to keep the website open and functional. They are either paying for it on their own or using adds.

Adds. The Faustian bargain of the internet. We love to hate them, yet the internet as we know it would not exist without the integration of adds. Advertisers (and, by logical extension, people who buy stuff which advertisers are advertising) pay for much of the internet. We get to use products like Google (or Duckduckgo), Gmail, yahoo, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, 4Square, Twitch, SnapChat, etc., for “free” because they generate the lion’s share of their income through advertisements (and selling data to interested buyers, which is, I suppose, sort of like advertisements).

Currently, the AI chatbots do not have adds. They make no (little) real money (though, monetization is already underway, and will proceed apace). People are expecting these things to make money (especially Microsoft who dropped $10 billion into Open AI).

How will AI be financed, and how will the internet of the future be financed? AI is more expensive to use than traditional searches—devouring tons of energy and computational resources by comparison.[2]

And, along with that, how will the financing mechanisms affect the accuracy and fairness of these AI large language models? Thoughtful users of the internet are already aware of this basic problem: if you don’t make the top page of the Google results, you don’t exist. Just 0.63% of people ever look at the second page of results. So, if First Baptist Church of Manistique doesn’t show up on the first page of Google results for “churches in Manistique,” virtually no one will find it through the internet—and that is where almost everyone looks for a church these days. This holds true for business, churches, you name it. Websites are largely in thrall to the whims of a search engine.

While no one knows exactly what logic stands behind Google’s search results (or those of other search engines), what is clear is that the decisions Google makes about what is important for internet searchers to see have huge implications for what people see. As advertisers and others look for ways to monetize these AI chatbots, who is going to make these decisions? Will Chatbot search results become corporate sponsored advertisements like the soap operas of yesteryear?

V. learning: what is going to change?

Teachers of all sort have to figure out how to integrate AI chatbots into the learning process. To the degree that people using these things—especially students—view them as aids to learning rather than means to evade learning, they present a great tool. But that is a difficult thing to navigate. For those who already don’t see much point in learning, the idea that a robot can “give the right answer” after just getting asked will certainly make the learning process more difficult. One way to use them at this point: get the chatbot to give an answer and then go through and find all the ways that the answer is wrong, or could be improved. The chatbots are good tools for provoking creativity.

We already perform a lot of learning today in tandem with computers to achieve answers that were not possible before the digital age (or were so time-consuming as to be improbable to the extreme). My own dissertation fits in this stream of work. Without searchable computer databases, my project would have been impossible. Having computers as tools opens up certain sorts of questions and ways of attending to knowledge which are impossible without. Yet it also closes other ways of attending to knowledge. We have certainly lost something which humanity through much of history has had in that we spend so little effort building a well-stocked and well-functioning memory.

There are difficult questions ahead; there are interesting times ahead.


If you have read this far, congratulations, you should win an award. As someone who has now spent a good amount of time talking at a computer (I regularly use Microsoft Word dictation and voice-to-text features) and who has been working with computers for most of my life, the whole interaction with an AI chatbot did not seem that strange. It’s a little weird that they often refer to themselves as “I.” If it were up to me, I would write that anthropomorphism out of the responses. However, it’s not up to me, so you know.

These are interesting technologies with interesting potential and will certainly be influential. But just how remains to be seen. There’s going to be a wave of legal cases in how they are employed. There’s going to be all sorts of practical and technological limitations. They’ll be fun to use and there’ll be ways in which they fail and are hurtful. As I reflect on this new technology from the perspective of a follower of Jesus, the big thing which it leads me to is contemplating the nature and value of people. It seems as though we’re still many years, likely decades, out from artificial intelligence that can competently and widely interact in a human way. Who knows? Maybe they’ll be here sooner or maybe never. But in an age of rapid technological change, becoming secure in how we understand ourselves as humans created in God’s image is probably more important than ever.

[1] I asked both Bing and ChatGPT to summarize the story under its German name, Die unendliche Geschichte. The results were amusing. Sometimes the answers in German, sometimes in English, without any obvious reason why one language or the other.

[2]We’re getting a better idea of AI’s true carbon footprint,” Melissa Heikkliä.

Evangelism, the church, and you

The outward facing relationship of the church to the world should involve evangelism and pursuit of biblical justice in society. The church is made up of people. What is the relationship which the people in the church have to that broader vision? While the church corporate must be evangelistic and pursuing justice, it is important to realize that each follower of Jesus ought to be evangelistic in their relationship to the world.

Evangelism as a church

The church ought to be evangelistic. If a church gathered is not engaging with the core truths of the gospel regularly and does not have concern for the spiritual welfare of the community it is in, then there’s big problems. The church, as a body of gathered followers of Jesus, ought to be evangelistic.

That means preaching and teaching on gospel truths. That means having programs and activities which are open to people who need the gospel. That means praying for people to put their lives into submission to Jesus. That means all this and more. The church needs to be evangelistic.

Personal evangelism

And the people in the church need to be evangelistic. It is great to be an evangelistic church and our church has lots of room to grow in that. But if we identify the responsibility for evangelism with just the church, we run into a significant practical issue: people who need to be evangelized almost never come to church.

Whatever else we talk and debate about regarding different ways the church should engage with non-churched people and be evangelistic, this practical issue is an issue. There was a day and time in the past when people flocked to massive evangelistic crusades (think Billy Graham), when people would come to evangelistic events at churches, and when people not associated with a church would come into the church with reasonable frequency. Evangelistic crusades and events were fine and good and God did some amazing work through some of those movements and efforts. But the simple pragmatic reality is that today that’s not happening.

Regardless of what we wish were happening, more often than not people aren’t coming to church. We’re a small enough congregation so that it’s pretty obvious when you look around that not a whole lot of new people show up with great regularity.

No matter how evangelistic we are as a church gathered, we have this simple and practical problem that that people needing to be evangelized aren’t showing up. Of course, there may be things we can do and ways we can change to encourage people to come. And those are concerns to pray over. But the fundamental issue remains that for most unchurched and non-churched people, going to church is a non-priority.

If the people around us are going to be reached, they need a point of contact. That point of contact is unlikely to be an advertisement for a church service. It is unlikely to be a neat social media marketing campaign, and it is unlikely to be a mass-mailing. Even though those efforts all are commendable. The most likely point of contact which may jar someone out of spiritual apathy is…you!

What to do

Living evangelistically is harder than not living evangelistically—which is why so many of us do it so little of the time. But it does not have to be that different. Here are a couple ideas:

  1. Pray (and read Scripture). The power for proclaiming the good news of Jesus ultimately comes from God. Nothing better directs and equips our hearts towards evangelism than consistent prayer. Pick a few people or groups and pray regularly that God will give you opportunities to point others to Jesus.
  2. Invite people to church. Sure, many people may not come, and inviting people to church is not the only part of evangelizing, but it is a worthwhile thing to do. Invite people to church events—Pioneer Club, winter reading challenge, picnics, etc. These are a chance to make a connection that may last.
  3. Go out to where people are. Where are you connecting with people in your life? What do you already do? What do you enjoy doing? Who are you connecting with doing what you do? People are more likely to connect with you rather than with the church. You can be a gateway and a guide to bring people in, to share truths, to teach people the basics about God. That can happen when you are with other people doing what you already do.

Moving forward

I don’t have the gift of foresight, but my assumption is that there is not going to be a time in the near future where lots of people in the community will one day decide, “Let’s all go to church.” The evidence suggests that more and more people are concluding, “Let’s not go to church.” To minister to the world around us is going to require more than just being present and having the church building here and open. That is a great starting point. But unless and until we take it upon ourselves to bring gospel hope to where it is needed, it is not going to get there.

“how then will they call on him and whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10.14)

God’s judgement and hell: restorative and retributive justice

painting of the Last Judgement

Is God just? This question is bound to come up when considering what the Bible says about human destiny. After all, the Bible claims that those outside of Jesus will be punished in hell with no chance of change. While the exact scope and form of that punishment is not clear, there is no doubt that it is fearful, awful, and horrifying. How can God be just if he condemns people to hell? That’s a multi-layered question and here I will take a stab at one part of it: the difference between restorative and retributive justice.

At the outset, note that defining “justice” is notoriously difficult. I like to say that justice is “that state of affairs when perfect love of God and love of neighbor will no longer move our hearts to anger or sadness.” While a pretty idea, it is rather vague in practice. Further, most of the discussion about justice in our culture doesn’t give a hoot about theology. As we think about justice, here is a good touch point for how the concept of justice is commonly understood:

The most plausible candidate for a core definition [of justice] comes from the Institutes of Justinian, a codification of Roman Law from the sixth century AD, where justice is defined as ‘the constant and perpetual will to render to each his due’.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Justice as a moving target

To start making sense of how God can be just if he condemns people to hell, we do well to acknowledge that there is no agreed upon idea of what justice is. We have many different options for what we mean by justice today. When we try to make sense of God’s justice, we need to be careful. We can easily decide what justice ought to be and then blame God because he does not act like we tell him he should. It may be the case that our idea of justice is out of sync with God’s justice. Maybe our trouble with hell is due, in no small part, to God’s justice not making sense to us anymore.

We could call this relativity. A quick glance across societies from the past and present shows a wide variety of ideas regarding justice and judgment: do we chop a thief’s hand off, put them in jail, or make them pay restitution? Some people believe that justice demands each one of these judgments (and that the others are unjust). In practice, people tend to operate as though our idea of justice and judgment is both universal and obvious. In the US, we send criminals to jail because it is the just thing to do. Doesn’t everyone agree?

Recognizing that our idea of justice is neither universal nor self-evident is a good start. Knowing that there are different ideas of justice should caution us from absolutizing our current notions and demanding that God conform to them. To make sense of hell demands that we are willing to check some of our own assumptions about what must be right at the door.

God’s justice

To make sense of God’s justice, we need a proper frame of reference. A framework that does not simply assume the way we do things in the US in the 2020s (over which there is much debate in the US) is just. If we are to have any hope of making sense of the biblical teaching on hell, we have to realize that God and hell do not function according to the dictates of the US penal code. God’s justice is not dependent on the standards of behavior, payment, and consequences which our society decides are just at this point in time. God’s justice fits within the special relationship he has with all people as Creator and Covenant-Maker.

The biblical conception of God depicts him as one who is just or righteous, and who as such remains faithful to the demands of a relationship with human beings that is divinely established and constitutive of human well-being. God’s justice may be expressed in deeds that liberate the weak and vulnerable from bondage, as well as in judgment on the unfaithfulness of the people; yet both expressions reflect God’s role as Lord of a covenant relationship. Correspondingly, the justice of human activity is measured by its faithfulness to the covenanting God, who may be identified in creation and history, in the Law and the Prophets, and ultimately for Christians, in the story of Jesus Christ.

William Wepehowski, Dictionary of Christian Ethics, 330

In short, justice is whatever God does to set all things right (for more on the idea of justification and righteousness, see justification by faith and the courtroom). Justice is whatever puts things back into the pattern of how God created the world. And human activities are just insofar as they reflect the way God has ordered the world. Judgment and hell fit within God’s justice as the proper response to those who refuse to submit to God’s ways, who refuse to live in the divinely established ways of the world which ultimately lead to human well-being.

Justices observed: restorative and retributive

At this point, I find it beneficial to build upon two different notions of justice and judgment to help us see how judgment—including the judgment of hell—fits within God’s commitment to the world he created and to human well-being within that world. These ideas are restorative and retributive justice.

Restorative justice

In contemporary society, the idea of “restorative justice” is gaining more and more sway. Restorative Justice

is a response to wrongdoing that prioritizes repairing harm and recognizes that maintaining positive relationships with others is a core human need. It seeks to address the root causes of crime, even to the point of transforming unjust systems and structures.

Three Core Elements of Restorative Justice

Restorative justice finds justice in fixing and maintaining rather than punishing. The idea is to bring about a state of justice through releasing the tension, anger, fear, etc. which stands behind the act of violence in the first place. At issue here is the question, “What good can come out of the wrongdoing that happened?”

Restorative justice has been making inroads in areas like how discipline should be handled in schools all the way up to criminal cases.

Retributive justice

Retributive justice is more what we are familiar with in the context of the US legal system. The phrase, “I paid my debt to society” summarizes the basic idea of retributive justice: those who commit certain kinds of wrong acts morally deserve to suffer a proportionate punishment. The punishment is good and right regardless of whether any good comes to the person who was wronged. The death penalty is the ultimate form of retributive justice. The death penalty exacts justice by rendering a punishment deemed proportionate to the crime upon the guilty one, even though there is little to no demonstrable good which comes either to those who were wronged or to society at large. Retributive justice says that the just demands of good and right be upheld because they are good and right even if no one derives immediate benefit.

Of course, there are many ways which society can benefit from the quick and effective execution of retributive justice. They may not be immediately obvious, though, and the benefits may not accrue to those immediately affected by the crime/injustice at hand. The idea of benefits coming from justice is a useful low-level way to distinguish restorative and retributive justice, but it is not the whole story.


Much more could be said on either of these, as well as alternate theories of justice. Note, though, that justice is not the same as punishment. Sometimes justice moves in to restore a relationship; sometimes to restore stolen property; and sometimes to punish more directly. We embrace a mixture of different views of justice and believe that different ones should be used at different times. These different ideas of justice provide a helpful way to see what God’s justice is up to.

God’s program of justice: a both/and

The Bible, I submit, exhibits both these types of justice in action. God remains faithful to the demands of a relationship with human beings on the terms he has established as Creator and for the good of people. Both those must remain true.

God the Restorer: restorative justice

God is interested in bridging the brokenness between him and the world. Even though God is the aggrieved party—after all, humanity rejected and rejects God, not the other way around—he moves heaven and earth to make connection possible again. The good outcome he is looking for is relational connection to people whom he has created.

The entire gospel program is the ultimate program of restorative justice: God aims to bring his kingdom into the world through Jesus. In reaching out to humanity through Jesus, God seeks to short-circuit the system of sin, effect rehabilitation, address the suffering of victims and perpetrators alike, and create an environment where the marginalized are cared for. God exemplifies restorative justice. This is the easier part of God’s justice to deal with.

God the Avenger: retributive justice

However, God’s judgment is not exhausted by restorative justice. It contains a significant measure of retributive justice as well. God will exercise retributive justice most clearly at the end of all things. He will move into the world as an Avenger, bringing punishment where it is due.

What is God avenging in the punishment of hell? I submit that he is avenging his world. And, more profoundly, he is avenging himself by setting all things back to the way he created and intends them to be. For as long as God is reaching out to world in the move of restorative justice, he is choosing to bear with creatures who reject him and his intentions for them and the world he made. Restorative justice aims to redress those harms while there is still time. The attempts at restorative justice, though, have a limit.

The limits of restorative justice

There are at least two reasons why restorative justice is always limited: (1) temporal and (2) the integrity of the person.

Temporal limit of restorative justice

Temporally speaking, once one party in the victim/victimizer set is gone (whether dead or no longer present), any hope for restorative justice is gone. If a thief empties your bank accounts, spends all the money, then dies, restorative justice is simply not on the table. While the factors are a little different in that God is eternal and human beings will have an eternal existence, there is a temporal limitation. As the Bible lays it out, the time to engage with God in restorative justice is now. Not later. Death is the threshold past which all opportunity to turn towards God and engage his restorative justice in Jesus ceases.

There are some who argue for a postmortem evangelization, as if Jesus shares the gospel with everyone after they have died. While I sure hope that is the case, it is pure speculation. Nowhere in Scripture is such a thing revealed.

And so, if God is going to exact justice (set all things back in order)—and he has made it quite clear that he will—restorative justice ceases to be an option when the sinner dies.

Integrity limit of restorative justice

The second limit on the effectiveness of restorative justice is the concern for (2) the integrity of the person. Eventually, attempts at restorative justice will either work and effect change in the relationship between victim and victimizer, or they will not. There is no guarantee that people will change if just given more time. Like the habitual liar whose identity is so deeply wrapped up in their lies that they can no longer admit the truth and also remain true to who they believe they are, people who identify themselves as foes of God seem to lose the ability to enter into restorative justice with God.

In the case of sinful humanity, the basic grievance all human beings have against God is that he exists and that he has rights over us as God and Creator. Unless we are willing to drop our grievance against God, there is no way that he could enter into restorative justice with us. Unless he were to fundamentally destroy some part of us.

It seems possible that God could unmake and remake everyone by force. Then they would acknowledge him as God. But that would involve marring his creation at a fundamental level. God is committed to the integrity of his creation. Destroying our human ability to turn to God in love—which requires also the ability to turn away from God in spite—would be to destroy the very human well-being which God is committed to protecting in his justice.

And so, we reach the crucial point of the matter: God is committed to his creation the way he created it to be. God reaches out to wayward humanity through his restorative justice, but if anyone refuses that, then God must either: (a) give up his claim and rights as God to establish the world as he sees fit, or (b) bring justice through a fitting judgment against the rebel to his will.

Retributive justice ultimately acknowledges the integrity of the being who says to God, “Justice cannot be served so long as thou art.” Retributive justice—condemning to hell, in whatever exact fullness of details that means—is God yielding up such people to their own settled choice. In rejecting restoration, they choose retribution.

Hell and God’s justice

As we try to make sense of hell and its role in judgment and justice, there are many difficult questions to balance. It is important to remember that the point of judgment is not to let God blow off a little steam when he gets frustrated with how things are going on earth. The point of judgment is to channel humanity back towards God and the well-being for which he created us.

Judgment is meant to be restorative, bringing about restorative justice. It aims to bring people into relationship with God. Yet, many people refuse to submit to God on his terms and find the human well-being we were created for. Key to the reality of hell, though, is that our refusal does not change God’s commitment to the integrity of his creation. Whatever exactly hell entails, it is the removal of rebels to God’s will from within his creation. God’s retributive justice flows from his commitment to justice (setting the world in order as he created it) and his commitment to the integrity of human beings as he created us.

if we refuse God as God, then justice. And the final act of justice can’t be anything other than retributive.