Saturday 3 June 2023

Water and the Spirit - this-world and the-next in the Fourth Gospel

In the early Chapters of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus repeatedly tries to explain the nature of his 'mission' - what he brings - using a contrast between water on the one hand, and that which water becomes through following Jesus after death: spirit or some other. 

More exactly; Jesus uses "water" to mean this life, this temporary life in this mortal world - and contrasts it with what he offers - which is "not of this world". 

Indeed, throughout the Fourth Gospel, involving everybody from the disciples through to Pilate, we can see Jesus struggling (over and again) to make people understand that what he offers is not of this world; that he is not a would-be "king" who claims to offers a better life in this realm of "water" in which everything is temporary... 

Instead of that; Jesus describes the Kingdom of life-everlasting coming after death, and only after death: to reach it we must first die, and then be 'reborn', born-again - that is resurrected.  

In Chapter 1, John says that he himself baptizes with water - but Jesus's is a baptism of the spirit - which refers to the distinction between this and the next world, the spirit being from Heaven:

And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.

In Chapter 2, the contrast is given in the nature of the water-to-wine miracle of Cana; where water is perhaps understandable as this-worldly life, and "wine" may be taken to stand for the transformed life after death. 

In Chapter 3; Jesus talks to Nicodemus about being "born again" - which means first to die and then to be resurrected - i.e. a kind of rebirth, but into an everlasting condition: 

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Here we see "water" of this life, again contrasted with the "Spirit" of the next. And again that the Spirit must be preceded by the water. Man must first be born into this mortal world (of "water") if he wishes ultimately to enter the eternal kingdom of God. 

Jesus also introduces a further "analogy" for this mortal life as "the flesh" - to explain that there is no possibility of achieving the Kingdom of God on earth and in this mortal life; but only by passing-through death and re-birth ("Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God)

A man that is born into this mortal world of the flesh can only be mortal ("the flesh is flesh"); but he that is re-born (i.e. resurrected) into the world of Spirit, beyond death, will himself partake of the immortality of that life-after-life ("the Spirit is spirit"). 

In sum; for a man to become eternal he must be born (that is, re-born; which entails mortally-dying first) in the eternal world.  

Chapter 4 describes Jesus at Jacob's well, talking with a Samaritan woman who is drawing water. 

Again Jesus contrasts the water of this mortal and temporary life which the woman draws from the well, with what He Himself brings to the world: which is everlasting water ("living" water - i.e. by analogy life that is eternally-self-renewing) - for those who desire it, and ask for it. 

Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.

The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water? Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?

Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

In Chapter 5, Jesus goes to the pool at Bethesda, where the "impotent" seek to enter the water and be healed. The "impotent" implies all men in this mortal life and world. 

In this world, therefore temporarily. Jesus heals the man ("Take up thy bed, and walk") but Jesus explains that what he has come to do is not about temporary healing in this temporary world; but is about "sin" (by which, in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus mostly means death without resurrection).

Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more...

I think that Jesus's admonitions - here, and sometimes elsewhere - to sin no more, or not to sin, make no sense if understood as ordering people to cease from moral transgression - which Jesus knew (as we know) to be an impossibility in this mortal life. 

"Sin no more" - in the Fourth Gospel - means (more or less) that people should die no more; that is, that they should instead understand, believe, and accept Jesus's gift of eternal resurrected life. 

The instruction to sin no more is therefore roughly equivalent to Jesus urging people to accept the gift of resurrected life eternal, through believing and following Him.

"Sin no more" actually means therefore - as we might say it - "convert to Christianity". 

In Chapter 6 Jesus varies the symbol, somewhat: 

[The people said:] Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.... 

[Jesus replied:] Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. 

Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread.

And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

Again the contrast is between the only temporarily-satisfying "bread" of this world, and the eternally-satisfying bread from heaven after-which we will never hunger (and also the drink which permanently abolishes thirst, presumably "living water") - that shall be given - after death - to those who "come to" Jesus. 

Chapter 7: In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.

Here there is again implicit the earlier idea (from Jacob's well) the idea of ordinary water versus "living" water - to mean resurrected life everlasting. The man who thirsts is one who desires eternal life in the Kingdom of God. 

And the path to that life leads through death via "believing-on" Jesus - implying "belief" entails trusting and following the person of Jesus, at, and after, our death. 

Other similar passages can be cited, where contrast is drawn between, on the one hand, this-worldly and temporary ameliorations (such as Moses's provision of manna); and, on the other hand, the eternal and transformative life-beyond-life that Jesus brings and offers. 

It seems to me that there is a pattern through the Fourth Gospel of Jesus repeatedly denying that His business is to offer what we might term secular improvements - e.g psychological and sociopolitical benefits; and instead many attempts to explain (with various 'analogies', or symbols) that his message is not about this, but about the next, world. 

Now, of course, belief-in and desire-to-accept, Jesus's offer of eternal resurrected life in the Kingdom of God is almost certain to have effects on this mortal life... But any such effects on this-life are secondary to expectation of the-life-to-come. 

This is worth emphasizing, because I think many or most Christian get it the wrong way around - and thereby fall into the error Jesus strove so often to correct. They assume that Christianity is about doing particular stuff in this world in order to get to the next world. 

Indeed, some Christians put so much emphasis on the particular stuff that must be done in this world; that they hardly ever even think-about the next world. 

Some even ignore the primary promise of Heaven; and instead focus almost-exclusively on the quadruple-negative life purpose; of not-doing stuff that must be eschewed, in order to avoid-Hell!  

But Christianity is primarily about resurrected life after and beyond this mortal life; therefore, the effects of Christian belief on this mortal life are secondary to, contingent upon, the anticipated fact of resurrection in a mortal life.

Effects of Christian belief on this mortal life are thus a secondary consequence of the expectation of eternal life.

Any changed behaviours ought-to derive from the different perspective on this-life that results from belief in the life-to-come.  


Note: Then there is a long-running disputation about whether we can, or should, be confident about the life-to-come - i.e. "salvation". 

Many Christians have believed that salvation is difficult, complex, rare, only possible via a church and its requirements...

But that is not what comes across in the Fourth Gospel. In the Fourth Gospel; it seems that salvation is something like a decision and a commitment; and that those who have chosen salvation (by means of following Jesus) ought to be confident of salvation (so long as they continue to remain committed to it); and then... live their lives on the basis of this confident expectation. 


Deogolwulf said...

‘it seems … that those who have chosen salvation (by means of following Jesus) ought to be confident of salvation (so long as they continue to remain committed to it)’.

Is it niceness, forgetfulness, damnatio memoriae, or something else that leads you not to mention the flipside? Namely: that the Christian ought to be confident that the non-Christian is damned to annihilation or everlasting torment.

As one amongst the countless men and beasts who—according to the Christian—has chosen or been chosen to be damned to everlasting torment or annihilation, I must wonder how the Christian would remain undisturbed in his state of heavenly bliss whilst still in the light of his knowledge that these countless men and beasts suffered in vain in life and are now in a state of torment or have been annihilated simply because they did not follow the one the Christian calls his lord. Would the light be shut out? Or would his lord grant him perfect callousness? It is good that you emphasise choice, free-willed choice: no excuses, no letting oneself off the hook. I would not choose bliss as the gift of my forgetfulness or my callousness. Would you? I would choose the hell that would be my everlasting sorrow. In light of such things, if light be allowed, how confident should the Christian be that he has chosen to follow the divine and not the demonic?

Francis Berger said...

Excellent post!

"They assume that Christianity is about doing particular stuff in this world in order to get to the next world. Indeed, some Christians put so much emphasis on the particular stuff that must be done in this world; that they hardly ever even think-about the next world."

I believe this theme -- for lack of a better way of putting it -- is central to Christianity going forward, and I have tried to address it countless times in my own clumsy way. Christians will either return to and accept the simplicity and clarity of Jesus's original message, or they will continue to adhere to a socio-political model of Christianity with its primarily this-worldly aims and objectives. This is the definitive line of demarcation, as far as I'm concerned.

I always return to Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor and the GI's accusation that Jesus overestimated people and expected too much from them. Jesus's message is clear, but Christians have struggled and continue to struggle to make Christianity primarily about resurrected life. As you note, for too many, resurrected life barely rises to the level of an afterthought. To top it off, when it is thought of at all, it is often interpreted as a sign of despair!

The most glaring example are Christians who excessively worry and rant on about the evil world their children will inherit, yet rarely, if ever, express hope or confidence that their children will choose to follow Jesus into resurrected life.

The Grand Inquisitor declares that he and his ilk have worked to correct Jesus's work. I think it's way past time for Christians to correct the Grand Inquisitor's work and revisit just what Jesus offers and what Christianity promises.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Frank - Thank you!

I became "a Christian" for what I now regard as the wrong - i.e. sociopolitical-type - reasons. Indeed, I was hazy about what Jesus did and why he was necessary - and I had hardly thought about Heaven or what 'resurrection' implied (I implicitly thought eternal life was as a spirit, not with a body).

These were seldom contradicted by church experience or my wide reading across at least four major denominations (Anglican - including evangelical/ nonconformist, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox).

Mormon theology is very supportive of the idea of putting eternal life at the core of Jesus's teaching, and solid on the reality of resurrection. But the actual practices of converting and being an devout/ active Mormon and the work of the CJCLDS are extremely sociopolitical and full of this-worldly "stuff" - which is why, for all my respect-for and love of their theology, I never started on that path.

So I do not underestimate the difficulty of making this change of focus! Indeed, when I first began to read the Fourth Gospel seriously (I have always loved it as literature, for decades before I was a Christian) - I thought I must be misunderstanding what it said, over and again, clearly and in many different ways. My understanding, seemed too simple and clear in its simplicity - and Very different from what so many people claimed for Jesus - and indeed for the Fourth Gospel itself.

(The IV Gospel is often supposed to be a 'mystical' work of an esoteric neo-platonic type! And written *after* the other three. I now regard it as almost the exact opposite of these common claims.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - Some of your points are unreasonable! I can't cover everything in every single post - but I have covered these questions (repeatedly) in other posts over the years.

On the other hand, I don't like to emote in this blog, nor do I encourage that in commenters (I very seldom publish 'confessional' comments, for example). For that you would need to look elsewhere.

"the Christian ought to be confident that the non-Christian is damned to annihilation or everlasting torment."

But surely one can be confident about one's own desires in a way that one can never be confident about another's - except for the few people we really love and know well? And, even then, my understanding is that the 'final decision' about resurrection is made after death - so there is always time for people to change their minds, it is never too late in this mortal life.

But I do believe that many people have chosen to reject resurrection into Heaven - but these have different reasons. If they reject it because they think it is impossible - but they would want it if it was possible - then these people will be 'saved' after death, when they discover that Jesus is real and his offer is real.

The main 'worry' is the large numbers of people who genuinely seem to loathe or fear the idea of resurrected life in Heaven - and who actively embrace the idea of their own annihilation at death. They are set to reject resurrection even when they know it is true.

Our loving, merciful God will (I think) allow them what they ask - which is not to resurrect, to become an oblivious spirit, unaware of anything. Maybe there is some way such a Being can later change his mind, but I don't know - this seems like a genuine human type.

Another common type is one who wishes to cease to be self-aware (or aware of others), cease to think, cease to be an individual - but to assimilate to 'the divine' in an abstract way - a state of bliss. This state is approximately the goal of 'eastern' religions - and if that is really what such individuals want, then I expect God will give them it.

And there are those who give every appearance of having chosen the side of active evil, of alliance with demons - and who serve the demons (or allow/ invite demonic spirits to inhabit them) - these would be the ones whose hatred of God and creation would lead them to choose 'hell' - which is on this plane of existence (in 'this world'), and which many people know already and do not attempt to repent of. We know them, and how their minds work.

As for Christian in Heaven experiencing sorrow over those who do not choose Heaven - yes, this is a reality. Heaven is wholly *good* but that does not mean 100% happy all of the time.

For instance, the Bible says that Jesus wept and had a large range of 'normal' emotions - and much the same is attributed to God the Father throughout the Bible - I would expect the same to apply to Heaven.

I regard Heaven as a situation without evil (and without 'entropy'), and of love and creation - but in terms of emotions, I think there would be the full range of *non-sinful* emotional experiences. An absolutely 'human' place - albeit the best of the mortal human condition, and even more.

(ie. In Heaven there would be no fear, resentment, spitefulness or despair - there would always be love and hope - but there would be joy, sadness, excitement, even hatred! - albeit not (as so often in mortal life) hatred tainted by sins such as envy, resentment, sadism etc - if such hatred can even be imagined)

Deogolwulf said...

Unsurprisingly I hold that the unreasonableness in this case lies in the beliefs I oppose, beliefs that I see as starkly blasphemous. Naturally I am capable of unreasonableness (and blasphemy!), and I am aware that you are very heterodox in your Christianity. I also appreciate that you are not obliged to swat away the bees in other people's bonnets. (A very tiresome aspect of being a blogger.) And perish the thought that you emote in these pages! I am sorry, then, for striking you with words unbefitting, or rather, for calling upon your apiarian skills.

'But surely one can be confident about one's own desires in a way that one can never be confident about another's - except for the few people we really love and know well?'

Surely. But your generous approach to salvation (in which free will is unviolated) doesn't seem to have much scriptural backing, and so it is quite understandable why the idea of getting to choose salvation (instead of it being a gift of God) goes against all mainstream Christian teaching, whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. For instance, Jesus could have said in a parable: ‘all are invited but few will choose to come.’ But he didn’t. He said in the parable he told: ‘many are invited, but few are chosen.’ (Matthew 22:14 [NIV]) Restrictive and passive: not all are invited and few are chosen. No mention of anyone—let alone everyone—getting to choose. You may wish to read the whole parable as saying: whoever chooses God will be chosen by God. Fine. (Yet the problem of not all being invited to choose remains sticky.) But such a reading would tell me more about you than it does about Jesus. The Calvinist would say—upon a stricter reading—that the many (some of whom didn’t even get invites!) never stood a chance at salvation.

I share your bafflement—if bafflement it is—at those who seek annihilation at death or at least don’t seem too bothered at the prospect that they or their loved ones (or indeed all creatures) will be annihilated. This includes those who seek absorption of their selfhood into the divine. How would it make any difference to the person, or make it any less of an annihilation, if he is lost by absorption into the divine rather than into matter? But assimilation means something different. Plato was keen on upholding belief in personal immortality, and personal annihilation isn't what he meant by assimilation to the divine: ὁμοίωσις θεῷ κατὰ τὸ δυνατόν—likeness to god as much as possible. Being annihilated is not being like God …

For some reason I am less surprised by those who seem to choose the side of deep and active evil, but I still don’t understand them. The glamour of the demonic? Losing the self in self-righteousness? A granted feeling of power? I don’t know.

Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful reply.

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - If you want to understand the way that I approach Biblical evidence, then just read the first few pages of Lazarus Writes (linked in the sidebar) where I explain my assumptions.

I think that the author of the Gospel by Matthew got Jesus fundamentally wrong, I'm sorry to say - from the POV of one who regards the Fourth Gospel as most authoritative. I can see why you are put off by much of that Gospel.

I don't suppose the details will ever be known, and it doesn't really matter by now - but it seems obvious that the simple and next-worldly 'message' of Jesus, and what he fundamentally *did*, was seized upon by many people who fitted this into their prior philosophies and agendas. The result is an incoherent mess - which nonetheless contains truth.

This is why I feel a clear conscience about setting aside any 'evidence' or 'authority' that is not sustained by my profoundest intuition.

And, after all, it is clear that 'we moderns' do not, and are not going to, stake our livelihoods and lives on the accuracy of historical reports, or the conclusions of Bible scholars - or trust to the reasoning of theologians, or the rightness of church authorities.

If we don't *know* - each for himself - we will not be motivated sufficiently to stand against a civilization in the grip of evil.

I suggest you keep-going on your honest and reflective questioning quest - which is a far better life path than seeking something external to 'believe in'.

Deogolwulf said...

Thanks, Bruce, I shall read it.

Luke said...

'The IV Gospel is often supposed to be a 'mystical' work of an esoteric neo-platonic type!'

I don't know about 'neo-platonic' but if you believe that the IV Gospel contains the mystical/esoteric scene of a marriage between Christ and Mary Magdalene, wouldn't the IV Gospel deserve the description of 'mystical' out of all the Gospels for that reason, or wouldn't the high beauty and rich passages be enough to suffice that description? The most explicitly mystical passage in all the gospels, a passage that has been the source for major mysticism in the Catholic tradition (Sacred Heart devotion, Divine Mercy devotion), is in the IV Gospel.

John 19:34
[34]But one of the soldiers with a spear opened his side: and immediately there came out blood and water.

Maybe 'mystical' Gospel is inaccurate but it's certainly the most deep and contemplative of all the Gospels, and therefore will end up just getting a label of 'mystical'?

For example, we also get the beloved disciple on the breast of Jesus, which as an idea is so powerfully contemplative it of course contains the potential seeds of mysticism. And there's other passages like this.

John 13:25
[25]He therefore, leaning on the breast of Jesus, saith to him: Lord, who is it?

Or have I misunderstood you?

Bruce Charlton said...

Luke - My point is that the IV Gospel's different account of Jesus and his work from the Synoptics is explained-away by saying that it means something other than it says - that it is written in an esoteric language. Similarly, the bizarrely fixed idea of most 'scholars' that that IV was written later than the Synoptics.

As I said in Lazarus Writes, the IV Gospel was written soon after Jesus's ascension, and would originally have been read by those who knew the author, and the life of Jesus, so not everything needed stating explicitly - but that is not being mystical.

Further, there have been what looks like several deletions (when the text jumps, incomprehensibly) and insertions - especially Chapter 21, which was obviously added later, and by another hand. That these changes are readily detectable from internal evidence, is because the large bulk of the Gospel is so well integrated and coherent.

Matias F. said...

Luke: I have read a lot about the Shroud of Turin and in the literature, the passage in 19:34 about blood and water flowing from the wound is understood and explained literally as the gathering of some kind of fluids as a consequence of Jesus' torture. The Shroud and the gospel corroborate each other, as the writer could not have had the medical knowledge to describe the event without being an eye-witness.

Miu said...

>it seems that salvation is something like a decision and a commitment; and that those who have chosen salvation (by means of following Jesus) ought to be confident of salvation (so long as they continue to remain committed to it)

hello i am confused. this commitment to salvation... what does being committed to salvation look like in practice? is it that i will choose to follow Jesus upon my death, it is that simple?

if so, what does this commitment imply that we should do with the rest of our time here on Earth? does it matter what we do, provided we choose to follow Him once we die?

thank you friend.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Miu - "is it that i will choose to follow Jesus upon my death, it is that simple?"

Well yes and no.

Obviously a Man's life cannot be reduced to a sentence, nor values to a single principle.

On the other hand, *maybe* that "simple" insight could, on reflection and through learning, lead to a whole new framework for life - with multiple implications deriving from it.