“Born Again”. “Saved”. What do they mean? Do they have meaning? What do they connote for us today? What did Jesus mean by “gennao anothen“? Were these mysterious words spoken privately in Greek (or Aramaic) to Nicodemus meant for Nicodemus in particular or were they meant to be a formula for salvation for all of us? If the latter then why did Jesus – and the apostles- not use this formula on every occasion? Am I born again? Am I saved? How can I know? And what is expected of me if I am? What have I to fear if I am not? If a “terrifying judgement”, and condemnation and damnation are the wages of uncertainty, disbelief or doubt, then how is this “good news” good news? What did Jesus mean by being born of water and the Spirit? What does it mean to see the kingdom of God? Why the allusion to the wind?
The term born again is derived from a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, found in the third chapter of The Gospel of St. John:
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and 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. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”…
These are strange words indeed and I should like, in time, to explore them further (The term “born again” in the Greek is “gennao anothen” which in English means “born from above.” It does not actually translate as “born again” but implies born of God.). The subject of Hell is also deserving of our serious attention (interestingly “Hell” is neither a Hebrew nor a Greek word, nor did it primarily indicate “a place of torment.” Biblical translators actually derived it from a secular German word – spelled hel – meaning nothing more than concealed or covered. The concept of a demon regulated horror-house was indeed derived from that word, but it originally evolved from Teutonic mythology). Thus a careful hermeneutics and exegesis is vital to an understanding of the Christian position. Suffice for now to say that I am not contesting the biblical passage at hand, but rather thinking through the implications of the assertions made by christians who see in the words of Jesus not only a narrow gate to ‘slip through’, but a broad gate to perdition for the majority of humanity.
I find it morally reprehensible and repugnant to write off humanity “without Christ” like so many animals in a slaughter house.
One born again Christian wrote the following callous words on his blog:
“I have no doubt whatsoever that 90% of the people in this world are going to Hell.”
He went on to justify this:
“Why? For one simple reason friend, they do not have the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior. They have never believed the Gospel message. They have been deceived by Satan.”
You may accuse me of quoting this to make a straw man argument, but his statement is in fact common belief amongst evangelical Christians even if it is not expressed openly and with such crass smugness. In fact quite recently a fundamentalist Calvinist who – due to my having challenged his position on biblical inerrancy – simply assumed I was not a Christian – and assured me that I was going to Hell to be tormented forever by Satan and his demons – whether because of willful disobedience to God or a regrettable blindness. The belligerent Calvinist who insisted he had my best interests at heart had never even bothered to find out what I believed before he dumped his vicious little bit of doctrine on me.
If this claim – that one must be born again – as understood by born again christians in its most basic form as an essential formula of salvation – is true, then there is serious arithmetic to be done. The implications are devastating: of the world’s current population, 1.3 billion Muslims are going to hell. 900 million Hindus are going to hell. Somewhere in the region of 850 million Secular/Non-religious/Agnostic/Atheists will go to hell. 360 million Buddhists will spend eternity in hell. 225 million followers of Chinese traditional religion will go to hell. 150 million followers of indigenous religions will suffer eternal torment together with 95 million followers of African traditional religions. 23 million Sikhs will spend eternity in hell. 14 million Jews And 6 million Baha’i are eternally damned. 4 million Jains will suffer eternal torment, 4 million Shinto, 1 million Neo-Pagans And 700 thousand Rastafarians will be tormented forever, together with 150 thousand Zoroastrians. And these figures only address this generation of the damned: there have been 66 generations since the generation of Jesus Christ, Saviour. The arithmetic of the lost is impossible to comprehend in pure numbers, let alone in its deeper existential significance – in the incalculable depth of the tragedy.
Born again Christians will quickly remind you that “The way is narrow, and few are they who enter thereby”, as if this somehow justifies or mitigate the central horrific idea which has been posited not merely in the sort of horrid blog quoted above – but by the most famous and sincere evangelists. Let us not even contemplate the good men, women and children who will be cast into the place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth“.
But things get worse: many born again evangelicals cast half of christendom into hell too: Catholicism is seen as the whore of Babylon by many conservative evangelicals. So let’s commit 1.2 billion Roman Catholics to the satanic fires. And within the Protestant tradition there are somewhere between 20 000 and 30 000 denominations claiming the fulness of truth and casting doubt on the salvific efficacy of each others doctrines. I have attended fellowships where even in the same pew suspicion has been cast on fellow congregants’ legitimacy.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out…
The cults and sects represent another source of the damned (although each one claims it has The Truth and it’s members are bound for paradise while the rest of us – including born again Christians incidentally – are going to hell. There are some 14.8 million Mormons worldwide who are going to hell. There are more than 8 million Jehovah’s witnesses, close on a million Moonies.
By even the most conservative estimate, in every generation there are simply billions of souls who – after a brief appearance on this world – an appearance which inevitably would be characterised by suffering of one kind or another – are then cast into hell, the place of eternal suffering. (If this is the case it remains a mystery to me why every Christian isn’t employed tirelessly in rescuing non-believers from this terrifying fate and one must respect the enthusiasm of those who are).
Perhaps the most balanced disavowal of Christianity is to be found in Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian” and, although he is widely vilified in Christian academia, the writings of the once-christian, now-agnostic theologian, Bart Ehrman.
“Professing to be wise, they have become fools…” is a too-easy dismissal by too-comfortable Christians of people of great value and integrity wrestling with very real issues of faith. I have little respect for passengers on a sinking ship who rush to the lifeboat and smugly occupy a seat rather than spending the last frantic hour on board helping to warn and free those trapped below.
Perhaps we think to little about Hell, discuss it too infrequently. We need to know what is implied by the Gospel and what Hell implies about the Gospel and those who preach a narrow version of it. We need to contemplate what eternal suffering means – in the way that Heironymous Bosch in his nightmarish paintings or Dante in his Inferno did: the sadistic excesses of the torturer continuing unabated forever, with no hope of an angel’s intervention, no good samaritan to wipe our brow with cool water, no hope, no exit, no mercy.
There are alternative understandings of these ancient texts; the most profound, in my view, are to be found in the writings of the Russian Orthodox, existentialist religious philosopher, Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev.
But this is an area of fierce debate, even amongst believers.
A Catholic Perspective:
On the original Greek:
Sound interpretation of the passage requires understanding that “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” are not generic terms referring to “heaven, the destination of the saved,” but to the reign of God in the Messiah that arrives in Jesus’ ministry. (This is why Jesus speaks in Mt 11:11 of “the least in the kingdom” being greater than John the Baptizer, which would be nonsensical if “the kingdom” were supratemporal or ahistorical.)
This kingdom is something that can only be “seen” if (Jesus tells the teacher of Israel) one is “born again” or “born from above” (the Grk term means either or both, and John loves that sort of ambiguity).
Jesus says that this “rebirth” can only take place by “water and the Spirit.” Every Jew would have recognized the role of water, as it was used in all sorts of levitical baptisms; and while the Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly speak of various actions of the Spirit, preeminently, the Spirit is viewed with eschatological anticipation, reflected especially in such passages as Ezek 36–37 and Joel 2.
The former passage is particularly intriguing, as it depicts Israel as a valley of dry bones, who are brought to eschatological life when the “son of man” prophesies the “breath” (same word as Spirit) over them and they receive revivification. By taking the title of “Son of Man” to Himself (which Jesus frequently does in John including in 3:13, 14), one thing Jesus is doing is assigning to Himself the fulfillment of the role played by Ezekiel in his eschatological vision. Through His action, the eschatological Spirit will bring life to the dead people of God.
Along a similar vein to Ezek, Isa 32:15 foretells that in the time of the “king who will reign in righteousness” (32:1), the Spirit will be “poured upon us from on high,” bringing fruitfulness, righteousness, justice and peace.
The upshot of all of this is that Jesus appears to be using a birth metaphor in place of the resurrection metaphor of Ezek 37, but with a similar idea. He is claiming that the eschatological event long sought, the kingdom/reign of God in His Messiah, has now arrived—but that enjoyment of this kingdom is not something automatic; it requires (as foretold) the entrance into the kingdom by baptism, and correspondingly the life-giving gift of the eschatological Spirit. (The role of baptism in this text is further confirmed by the baptismal controversies in the passage immediately following, Jn 3:22ff; the baptismal theme continues through 4:2.)