Q&R with Brad Jersak: “Condemnation in Mark 16?”

  • “God our Father, we find it difficult to come to you, because our knowledge of you is imperfect. In our ignorance of you, we have imagined you to be our enemy; we have wrongly thought that you take pleasure in punishing our sins; and we have foolishly conceived you to be a tyrant over human life. But since Jesus came among us, he has shown that you are loving, that you are on our side against all that stunts life, and that our resentments against you are groundless.” —Augustine of Hippo

Question: “How do we read ‘condemnation’ in Mark 16:16 as other than juridical?”

Hi Brad,

I was wondering about Mark 16:16: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

The word katakrima is translated damned or condemned. How can we understand that as other than juridical [a legal/courtroom metaphor]? It sounds so blunt, so mechanical.

 I read John 3:16-19 again and now I am much more confused because Mark alone leaves so much room for interpretation and projection while John clearly says that condemnation is intrinsic to unbelie and not an active part of God.

Response:

Very good! You’ve discovered an important shift in the apostles’ understanding of judgement from Mark to John!

Because John had another full generation to abide in Christ and reflect on the meaning of Christ’s life and teachings, I would take his revelation in John 3 as a definitive approach to understanding the words recorded in Mark. In fact, for John the Beloved, the Cross is itself the final and forever finishing judgment seat! 

Some would point out that this section of Mark was not in the earliest version of the book, but that hardly matters. The church received this version in its final form as sacred Scripture (it’s cited by Irenaeus in the 2nd century), so we ought not try to skirt it. 

Now back to the verse in question: yes, we foresee in this text a warning of coming judgment for those who’ve not welcomed God’s grace revealed in Christ. Some translate the term katakrima “damned,” though that’s excessive. More precisely, at least through juridical eyes (let’s start there), it relates to a guilty verdict, condemnation, and the execution of that verdict.

“Condemned” … okay, but to what? The “hellions” (a cheeky term for those who dogmatically preach eternal conscious torment) will say, “condemned to everlasting torture in the Lake of Fire.” But that is by no means the only sense of judgment (katakrima or krisisthat we see in Scripture. 

We see ample evidence in both the Old and New Testaments that the Judge’s “sentence” can be to a cleansing judgment that purifies the gold of our true selves and consumes only “that which is not of love’s kind” (to use George MacDonald’s phrase). I’m thinking specifically of the “launderers soap and refiners fire” in Malachi and the purifying fire of 1 Corinthians 3. In other words, the judgments of God are not necessarily retributive–indeed, in my view, they are necessarily not retributive. The fiery judgment of God is directed solely at every fetter that binds us to self-destructive and others-destructive ways. Imagine a judge sentencing an addict to an enforced course of rehabilitation in an addiction center (a common occurrence in Canada).

But having said that, we discover in Hebrews 12 that all the judgments of God are only every that of a loving Father, applied for our good to make us whole. Is this only for the believer and only for this life? Some would say so. I would not. Many ancient and contemporary theologians and Bible scholars would not. And why not? 

Because in his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has transformed death and hades from a destiny of non-being into a passageway to life … that passage includes a katakrima of purification in the furnace of divine love. In other words, “condemnation” is no longer ultimate. Mercy triumphs over judgment and now, only the love of God for his creatures is ultimate and eternal. Could one forever reject such love? In principle (the principle of human freedom), it’s possible, but I believe it’s infinitely unlikely, given the ravishing beauty of Christ’s radiance.

Back to the question of this term “juridical,” an adjective which relates to the legal metaphors of criminals and lawyers, courtrooms and judges, convictions and sentencing … in short, retributive justice). When we speak of “non-juridical atonement,” we are not denying the reality of divine judgment or that Christ presides as the all-merciful judge. We’re not ignoring the Day of the Lord in which Christ renders his judgments. But here are two all-important caveats:

First, judicial imagery is metaphorical. It has a rhetorical function, especially as applied to confront complacency and defiance. Biblical metaphors and rhetoric are never empty, but they are limited and mustn’t be totalized. And this metaphor is only one of many salvation themes. There are many: ransom from slavery, redemption from debt, healing from a fatal disease, to name just a few. In every one of them, Christ is always the hero, sent by his Abba to rescue us, heal us, free us, etc.  

But more importantly, we reject any theory of juridical atonement that says God cannot freely forgive, that God is beholden to wrath and that our release depends on the appeasement of God’s anger through the violent punishment of his Son. That is a paganized perversion of biblical judicial terms. In other words, my theological revulsion is not to juridical terms such as katakrima per se, but rather, to deriving from them blasphemous conceptions of God that require a brutal child sacrifice (his own) to assuage his fury before he can ‘forgive.’ [That’s not forgiveness at all!]. That narrative is more accurately aligned with Molech. 

While some scholars, such as Fleming Rutledge (The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ–GREAT book!), hold a much more nuanced view of juridical atonement and indeed critique my critique as a reactive caricature, the evidence shows that the crass version of penal substitution I reject is the overwhelmingly dominant vision preached across our continent. If I’m describing a caricature, then rather than dismissing my critique, the nuancers should put their energy into exhorting those who preach it … as I once did. Only when I was held to account for my heresy as heresy was I able to turn the final corner to a more beautiful, ancient and yes, biblical gospel.

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