Parkrun theology?

Parkrun has become a global movement. After starting in 2004 in London there are now something like 3 million runners in over 20 countries. The concept is brilliantly simple – join others at 9.30 on a Saturday morning in running 5k around an open public space. It’s a timed run, it’s free and volunteer led.

Here’s a map of parkruns in Ireland (from the Irish Parkrun website)

Parkruns ireland

I am a Parkrun novice but get to my local venue when I can. My aim is modest – try not to die and keep moving until it’s finished. The ethos is non-competitive and friendly. There are young children running with parents, dogs on leashes, and even mums running while pushing a buggy complete with baby (good for the humility to be passed out by such a pair – I should know!).

Why talk about Parkrun on a theology blog? Well, as I was ‘running’ around the course this morning it struck me that there are parallels to baptism and the community of the church.

Better explain how before you think I have lost the plot.

A Radical Levelling

At a Parkrun everyone comes as they are. The ‘uniform’ is some sort of running gear. Participants are stripped down to bare essentials. It is just each person facing the same physical challenge. The only ‘resource’ each one has is their body.

Pretty well all the trappings of the modern world are left behind (apart from those running with headphones on). Practically all markers of status, wealth, achievement and distinction become irrelevant. There is a certain vulnerability in having those ‘protective’ layers removed. Whoever you are ‘in the world’, here you are just another runner. For each person, it is just ‘the course and me’. But – and this is the genius of Parkrun – ‘me’ is able to join with others in a community of runners sharing the same task together.

In the early Church, there was a different type of ‘levelling’ experience linked to community – that of baptism. Ben Myers describes it in his wonderful little book on the Apostle’s Creed (from a 3rd Century document called the Apostolic Tradition).

When the rooster crows at dawn, they are led out to a pool of flowing water. They remove their clothes. The women let down their hair and remove their jewelry. They renounce Satan and are anointed from head to foot with oil. They are led naked into the water. Then they are asked a question: “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?”. They reply, “I believe!” And they are plunged down in the water and raised up again.

Two further questions are asked – about their belief in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and in the Holy Spirit. Each time they are immersed after their affirmative reply. Then

When they emerge from the water they are again anointed with oil. They are clothed, blessed, and led into the assembly of believers, where for the first time they will share in the eucharistic meal. Finally they  are sent out into the world to do good works and to grow in faith.

Now, I’m not advocating that modern baptisms (or Parkruns for that matter) should be done naked! But the symbolism is powerful. Believers bring absolutely nothing of their own status and achievements to baptism. They come utterly dependent on the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

And this radical levelling is permanent. From now on there are to be NO distinctions in status and treatment of believers based on their status and wealth. James is the most outspoken but it is a consistent theme in the NT.

Wealth and status are irrelevant before God – indeed they are most likely to be severe hindrances to the Christian life. Take this warning in 1 Timothy 6: 6-10 that I’m studying at the moment.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

And this is where (the admittedly loose) parallel to a Parkrun begins to break down. For at the end of the run the hundreds of runners return to the car park (yes, some irony about driving to a run) and get into their cars.

Immediately the world’s obsession with status and achievement comes rushing back – for few things in modern Ireland proclaim those values than our licence plates numbered by year of production attached to famous brand names – whether Mercedes, Audi, BMW or whatever.

Comments, as ever, welcome.






Descendit ad inferna (3) theological and pastoral questions

Catherine Ella Laufer’s book Hell’s Destruction: an exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead is a great example of how to use a narrow lens (the descent clause in the Apostle’s Creed) to magnify and expand a plethora of profound, important and controversial theological questions.

Whether you agree with where she ends up, she integrates the historical story of the descent clause and critical theological analysis with aplomb.

What she does do is raise big questions about hell, justice, grace and love. Christians need to be thinking about these things because these are big public questions floating around post-Christendom cultures.

What are your answers to these questions?

1. What is your theology of hell, universalism and the justice of God?

Can humans endlessly resist the redeeming love of God? Who will have the last word?

Rob Bell [she never mentions Bell, I’m just bringing him in as a conversation partner] had an empty hell as a strong possibility, but he had too central a place for absolute libertarian free will to say with any certainty that hell would be empty. If anyone was there, it was determinedly self-chosen and wasn’t God’s doing.

Similarly Laufer tends to distance God from hell rather than have an emphasis on the retributive justice of a holy God against evil and sin.

For me there is simply too much in the Bible about God’s retributive judgement of sin and evil to believe in universalism. Sin and evil aren’t just ideas, they are child soldiers, torture, rape, violence, exploitation, ruthless greed, hatred of the Other, cynical disregard for the poor and vulnerable, arms traders dealing in death,  ad infinitum …

She isn’t as strong as Moltmann on universalism but is sympathetic to his universalist image of God’s transforming grace emptying hell.

At one moment she says

‘If he [Jesus] has gone through death and hell for each and every soul ever created, and been raised from thence, then we can hope that ultimately, his work will be complete.’ (189).

This is optimistic universalism, not dogmatic universalism.

But this is vague on the basis of such salvation ….. how does each and every soul come to share in the complete work of Christ?  Is it some sort of endless post-mortem opportunity to come to faith? How does this fit in with very ‘terminal’ images of judgement in Revelation 20 and the final destruction of all forces of evil, death and sin? Where does the atoning work of Christ come in?

Yet she also speculates that the presence of God in heaven will be hell for the wicked. ‘The only hell is the hell of our own making’ (203)

I’ve a couple of problems with this. First, it seems to contradict her optimistic universalism. Second, it is proposed as a possible solution to the impasse between biblical texts that point to both universal salvation and eternal punishment.  I’m not convinced that Hitler & co experiencing heaven as hell actually solves the impasse. Hell still exists and God is still ‘on the hook’ for making possible the existence of hellish experience.

Linked to this is a second big question:

2. In the midst of suffering, what sort of God do you believe in ?

Christianity does not believe in a distant transcendent deity. I found Laufer really helpful here on the pastoral implications of how the descensus clause speaks of the real human death and suffering of the Son.

We do not suffer alone. Christ is with us. Laufer gives examples:

Heidelberg Catechism Question 44:

Q. Why does the creed add,
“He descended to hell”?

A. To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation
that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul,  on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment

Bonhoeffer: ” Only a suffering God can help”

Luther: In Christ’s descent to hell, we can know our hell is defeated

Pannenberg: ” But since Jesus dies, no one who lives and dies in communion with Jesus and in trust in him need die this death any more.”

Moltmann of course wrote The Crucified God and is opposed to notions of an apathetic God. Laufer quotes him in History and the Triune God as saying ” … the Son of God who died forsaken by God, helped me … in a messy concentration camp in 1945, tormented and forsaken by God ..” (123)

Laufer goes as far as arguing that ‘God’s presence in the grave’ is the controlling motif of the gospel. It is Christ’s descent to the dead, she argues, is the place to begin gospel proclamation in a broken and fearful world.

Well, I wouldn’t go all the way with her there, the gospel is the good news of the victory of God in Christ over sin and death and Jesus is the risen Lord. It is more than Jesus died our death.

But neither is it less than the good news of the immeasurable self-giving love of God who ‘died for our sins’.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Descendit ad inferna (2) ‘Heaven may be hell for Hitler’


In the promo video for Love Wins, Rob Bell asked a very old question – what about those who die outside of faith in Jesus? Are they all damned to hell – even people like Ghandi?

Over 40 years ago Wolfhart Pannenberg also asked

‘What is to happen to the multitude who lived before Jesus’ ministry? And what will become of the many who never came into contact with the Christian message? What. Finally, is to happen to the people who have certainly heard the message of Christ but who …. have never come face to face with its truth? Are all these people delivered over to damnation? (The Apostle’s Creed in the Light of Today’s Questions (London: SCM, 1972) 94. Quoted in Laufer 201.

What Pannenberg did, and Rob Bell did not, was to turn to the descensus clause in the Apostles’ Creed to begin to answer his questions.

Laufer raises this because Pannenberg gives answers similar to those she is arguing for in Hell’s Destruction (clue in the title here).

Laufer (following Pannenberg) suggests that the conquest of death in Jesus points to the universal scope of salvation. It is universalism that ‘answers our demands for justice’ yet at the same time affronts our desire for right punishment for evil. (201)

What way is there around this impasse?

Laufer argues that Jesus’ death, descent and resurrection ‘proclaim that Christ has gone through death and hell for each and every soul ever created, and has been raised from thence.’ To believe that any are left behind seems to her to be ‘a denial of the efficacy of Christ’s death, descent and resurrection’

She does not deny the reality of hell. But hell here is reinterpreted to mean an experience of our own creation. Everyone will end up in the presence of God but “if one has lived one’s life in hate, in cruelty, in total opposition to love, then to be in the presence of perfect Love may be to experience hell. Truly ‘heaven may be hell for Hitler’ and his ilk.” 201.

This has echoes of, but is different from, C S Lewis’ image of the doors of hell being locked on the inside. Both have hell as self-chosen separation from God that leads to just (self) punishment.

N T Wright cautiously suggests something similar in Surprised by Hope: those who choose darkness eventually become so consumed by that choice that they lose their humanity of being made in the image of God. God’s just judgement collides with self-destructive choice.

It is, Laufer argues, what Eastern Orthodoxy has always said: God does not condemn the wicked to hell, but the wicked perceive the presence of God as hell while the righteous experience his presence as light, warmth and love.

She links to Moltmann’s universalist ideas that ‘through his sufferings Christ has destroyed hell’. Human will will not have the last word for no-one will be exempt from God’s redeeming grace.

I guess you could say that this is another way of saying love wins.

‘May we say that, as Christ descended to Hades and was raised from there, releasing the captives, so he will continue to be present in Hades until all are released, for he loves all?’ (206)

I’ve read these pages several times and it seems to me there is an unresolved tension in what Laufer is proposing. On the one hand, hell as an experienced reality exists (eternally in heaven?) for the impenitent. On the other hand, there’s a full-blown universalism that God’s love and grace conquer all and hell is empty. (The latter emphasis being much the stronger).

Comments, as ever, welcome

Descendit ad inferna (1)

What do you make of the creedal statement that Jesus ‘descended to the dead’? A bit weird and rather irrelevant; something to be safely ignored as a bit of a diversion from other more important doctrines? Ever heard a sermon on this ‘descensus’ clause?

The idea that Jesus, after his death, ‘descended to the dead’ is found in two Western Creeds, both written in Latin: the Apostle’s Creed (probably mid 4th C) and the Athanasian Creed (probably mid 5th C).

The Latin inferna meant the underworld, the realm of the dead or Hades (equivalent to Sheol in Hebrew). Later translations said that Jesus ‘descended to hell’, but the more accurate way of putting it is that he ‘descended to the dead’.

Catherine Ella Laufer’s very good book on this is Hell’s Destruction: an exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead

The NT texts from which the idea is derived are fascinating and often contentious. She surveys the evidence:

1 Peter 3:18b-20a: He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive,he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.

Clement of Alexandria (late 2nd Cent) was the first to link this passage with Hades. There has been little consensus on it ever since and especially whether it is talking about Christ descending to the dead at all. While there is long tradition linking it with descent, the sway of modern scholarship is that it may actually be referring to his ascent the ‘lower heavens’, the place of imprisonment for fallen angels. The cosmology here being a series of ‘heavens’ from the lower to the higher.

1 Peter 4:6: For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

Another text that has spawned a myriad of interpretations. She comes down on Dalton’s view that is refers to the normal preaching of the gospel to those who have since died – fitting in with Peter’s context of a suffering marginal and persecuted church.

Ephesians 4:9: What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions (or depths of the earth)

A descent is in view here, but from where and when? Is the descent the incarnation, or a descent into Hades after death or something else like the descent of Christ’s Spirit at Pentecost? Tertullian and Irenaeus and others go for Hades, as do Reformation voices. Other patristic and later voices go for incarnation – Theodore of Mopsuestia (5th Cent) and many modern interpreters. I’d go for incarnation but as Laufer says, the jury is still out.

Acts 2:24-27:But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. 25 David said about him:“‘I saw the Lord always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.
26 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest in hope,
27 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead [Hades],
you will not let your holy one see decay.

Peter applies Ps 16:10 to Christ – through the resurrection he is not abandoned to Hades and thus fulfils the prophecy of David. Jesus is shown to be God’s anointed Messiah. This implies that Jesus had been in Hades [Sheol] and God had raised him up. Or could it suggest Jesus is freed from death and the fate of going to Hades? (Laufer does not include this possibility).

Matthew 12:40:For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

What is the sign of Jonah to which Jesus refers? Is it an allusion simply to the grave? Is it a reference to a limited time in Sheol before resurrection? It seems to be likely to be the latter – Jonah’s own experience is of going to Sheol (2:1, 6). This verse is so far the best evidence for Jesus’ descent to the dead.

Romans 10:6-7: But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

Paul is quoting Deut 30:11-14 which talks about the nearness of the word of God which is not ‘beyond the sea’ nor ‘up in heaven’. The depths of the sea was a place of chaos and death, synonymous with Sheol [Hades]. Does this suggest Paul believed that Jesus descended to Hades? The evidence is thin here – Paul’s stress is on the nearness of the word for all who believe that the resurrected Jesus is Lord. He likely isn’t making any point about the descent of Jesus to the dead.

So there is some limited NT evidence that Jesus ‘descended to the dead’ but you wouldn’t be wanting to wager your house on it.

It is a strong theme in Patristic writings, the ‘harrowing of hell’, the idea that at his resurrection and ascension, Jesus rescued and took with him the saints of the old covenant who had been in Hades. This is a major theme in Eastern Orthodox theology.

Laufer traces the history and meaning of the doctrine through this period into Medieval theology, the Reformation and up to contemporary debates. Along the way, all sorts of fascinating stories and characters emerge, as well as significant theological issues such as hell, conditional immortality, universalism, theodicy and so on, discussed in reference to people like Calvin, Barth, Balthasar and Moltmann.

She argues that

‘the descensus clause is essential to Christology, specifically to the doctrine of the incarnation. If we are to affirm that in Christ God became truly human, then we must affirm not only that Jesus was born and died but also that he descended into Hades, that is, he shared in the state of being dead that is the ultimate consequence of being human. He was incarnate to death. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus: ‘that which He has not assumed He has not healed’.  (2-3)

While there is limited biblical support for Christ’s descent, it is not absent. And more, she proposes that without the descent of Jesus to the realm of the dead we are left with an incomplete incarnation and the possibility of a pseudo-resurrection. Jesus is not really ‘one of us’ in other words, the Apollinarian heresy rewritten.

I’m not altogether convinced by the necessity argument: the NT emphasis is on the fact that Jesus, a real man, really died ‘for our sins’ and was really raised from the dead. It doesn’t seem essential theologically to his full humanity, real mortality and real resurrection that Jesus had to descend to the realm of the dead. But I can’t see huge objections to the descent clause either – as long as it is understood as the realm of the dead [Hades] rather than ‘hell’.

Laufer summarises it this way: it is in Hades that Jesus suffers separation from the Father. It is through the Spirit that the Father raises Jesus from the dead and exalts him to his right hand. At the resurrection “the souls of the faithful departed share in Christ’s resurrection life in the communion of the saints but await the fullness of the resurrection of the body at the parousia.” (190).

In other words, the victory of God in Christ witnessed at the resurrection, affects the faithful dead who are brought into the presence of Christ as he ascends from the realm of the dead. This gives hope for all who die in Christ – they join this communion with Christ prior to the future resurrection.

So her closing words on the implications of this neglected doctrine,

We can truly sing the words of the eucharistic affirmation, ‘dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life’, for our hope is in the atoning work of Christ our Saviour who, for us and our salvation, not only died and rose, but also descended to the dead. (213)