The author of the epistle to the Hebrews was possibly but not probably St. Paul. It was probably but not definitely one of Paul’s friends and disciples in Italy – perhaps, Priscilla or Barnabas or Apollos or even Timothy himself – but, in any case, though the name of the author is most likely lost, it is an indelible part of Pauline theology, and since Christian antiquity we have attributed the letter most often to Paul, and I will do so here for convenience.
In the epistle at one point, this is what Paul writes:
… it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened and tasted the heavenly gift and shared in the holy Spirit and tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to bring them to repentance again, since they are recrucifying the Son of God for themselves and holding him up to contempt. Ground that has absorbed the rain falling upon it repeatedly and brings forth crops useful to those for whom it is cultivated receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is rejected; it will soon be cursed and finally burned.
(Heb 6:4–8 NAB)
So… one who’s been converted—who has tasted heaven and known God’s truth—and then fallen away, cannot come again to repentance, for such one is recrucifying the Son of God, knowingly this time, and is lost forever. A soul is like soil. Any soil is wasted in a drought, but after a rain it will come alive again and produce good fruit—yet this soul brings forth only thistle even when nourished. Let this soul burn.
I wish to take issue with Paul. I hear him, and everything in me rebels against every word in this passage. I believe that his understanding of conversion is too shallow, his treatment of forgiveness is not faithful to his own teacher’s, his approach to human nature is simplistic – but let’s start with my conviction that his analogy is flawed, and there is in this a principal problem for his argument.
To begin with, a poor crop is not the fault of the soil. The soil produces the fruits of whatever is planted in it, according to the conditions also of the weather and to the degree of care from its farmers. Granted, there exists a soil so impoverished of nutrients that little but thistle will find the strength to survive in it, but that too is because it hasn’t had the benefit of fertile layers accumulating into it for years. Because for years either nothing has been given to it or too much has been demanded: this is the soil exhausted by the harshness of the world.
And here is another problem I have with Paul’s analogy: The thistle he talks about, I imagine, is weakness and evil, the whisper of Satan; the good crop is faith and love, the Word of God. Is Satan really this much stronger than God? Does evil really need this much less to thrive than good that it will choke out true faith in a converted heart? Is the power of the Spirit so wobbly that, once already grown and blossomed, it can wither in a soul that’s tasted heaven? I do not – cannot – believe that. I am a convert myself, a convert from a kind of evil called “despair,” and the metaphor of a desiccated desert place nourished back to life with living water speaks volumes to me. But with every fiber of the being that I am, I know one thing: no one who’s tasted heaven is going back into that desert, and if they do – if they are able really to forget, turn away or turn against – then whatever they’ve tasted, it wasn’t heaven. Whatever they’ve been filled by, it wasn’t the Spirit. Whatever they heard, it was not the voice of God. No one who fits Paul’s description in Hebrews 6 will “hold him up to contempt.” “Recrucifying the Son of God”? What is Paul talking about?
Well, what he is talking about, in his on-the-ground, elbow-grease and brow-sweat pit of the first century, is, of course, apostasy. The cardinal and common crime of early Christianity.
Nothing in this convoluted world is linear or simple, and all things happen. Having poured our hearts out at the foot of the cross and mixed our blood with His blood, we don’t stop being human, and on the journey that is now in His footsteps we stumble, we fall, and we spill our intentions all over the muck under our feet. We sin, recoil, confuse right with wrong and back with forward, freeze in terror and leap before we look. In Paul’s time, being Christian meant persecution rife with life-or-death risk, and there are places on Earth today where it is still true. We take up our crosses big and small, but even Jesus dropped his a few times. We fall on the way to Calvary, and we fall from grace. We are human.
When Paul talks of those who fall away, he means traitors, who recanted their faith. It happened not very uncommonly, in the pagan and in the Jewish world. Early Christians often faced a choice: denial or death, denial or torture, denial or worse than death. This is the origin of our sacrament of reconciliation: When sincere believers who denied their faith under unbearable pressure returned, repentant, to their communities, not everyone was as harsh as Paul, and eventually a process developed, a kind of ritual. The guilty confessed their sin before the assembly and were allowed to stand at first away at a distance, then in the back, then after a while to re-join the church at the Lord’s table, having performed their penance. It took a long time, but the elders of these churches were taking rather to heart the Christ’s exhortation to forgive. Forgive not once, not seven times, but seventy times seven, Jesus said to Peter. Forgive your brother seventy times seven. Or, in other words, forever.
As long as God keeps forgiving us, we keep forgiving those who repent. As long as God keeps taking us in, we keep taking back those who come back repentant. What can be wrong with that? Burned soil cannot be unburned. Scorched earth cannot be made fruitful again. But all an exhausted field needs is time and a little fertilizer.
I’m with Jesus on this.
Oh, by the way: thistle is a beautiful little flower, I think, bursting with color and life, gladdening the heart where sometimes little else does. It’s called a weed only because it clings to life with impressive tenacity, and it annoys people because it clings to other things, too. But let’s not dismiss the thistle. God’s gifted it in its own special way, and there’s nothing wrong with it outside Paul’s metaphor. Are you with me?