Did Paul and Moses Prioritize Mission over Joy in God?
Both Paul and Moses said they would rather be personally damned in order for others to be saved — a sort of trade. So doesn’t this imply that their vision of mission was a higher priority than their personal and eternal joy in the presence of God? In other words, didn’t Paul and Moses prioritize mission over joy in God? Wow. The question is from Josiah in Michigan.
“Dear Pastor John, when I first heard of Christian Hedonism, I was put off. I recognized that with God, the concept of altruism breaks down, but I still considered it virtuous for the biblical examples of Moses and Paul. Moses, while trying to make atonement for the sins of the Israelites — the golden calf — offers to God the option of blotting himself from the book of salvation rather than fully punishing the people (Exodus 32:32). And the apostle Paul said he wished he were ‘accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh,’ the unbelieving Jews (in Romans 9:3).
“As I work through your book Desiring God, I have become more fond of the theology. But I still don’t see how it works with the above two passages, which seem altruistic. My question: How could a Christian Hedonist, with a properly ordered mind, accept eternal separation from his greatest delight for the sake of achieving some other end? Aren’t Paul or Moses suggesting a personal end in which the salvation of the lost, not God, is their higher concern?”
Longing for the Lost
No, I don’t think that is what Paul and Moses are suggesting — namely, that the salvation of the lost has a higher value to them than the glory of God. I don’t think so. Let me deal directly with Paul and his words in Romans 9:2–3, since I think they are more difficult than the words of Moses in Exodus because they have a direct reference to damnation, not just death.
“God doesn’t send anyone to hell who values him so highly as to put their fellowship with Christ above his own.”
Paul is talking about his love for his Jewish kinsmen and says, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish” — we’ll come back to that wording; it’s very important — “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”
Christian Hedonism, my view of the Christian life, says we ought to aim at maximizing our eternal joy in God in everything we do — in God as our supreme treasure, our supreme value. We should seek this eternal joy in God’s presence even if it means selling all that we have and giving it to the poor; being persecuted for righteousness’ sake; returning good for evil with no hope of any reward in this life for all the good we do; and finally dying through torture, or nameless in a strange and foreign land. Whatever it costs, we’re going to pursue our joy in God maximally forever.
In Romans 9:3, Paul expresses his willingness, it seems, to be damned for the sake of his Jewish loved ones. He says, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”
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The ESV translates the imperfect Greek tense of the verb wish as “I could wish.” That tense implies incomplete action, which I think is a very good translation here. “I could wish” implies that something is standing in the way of Paul carrying through this wish. In other words, the action is still in process and can’t get through. What can’t get through? “I could wish” — namely, his willingness to be cut off from Christ. It’s hindered and can’t be carried through.
Indeed, it cannot. God is not the kind of God who damns a man for loving God’s reputation and lost people. Being damned because you are supremely loving is not going to happen. That’s not the universe that God created and runs.
Here’s the problem: Paul is apparently willing — if he lived in a universe like this — willing to be cursed and cut off from Christ. The question is, Is that acting as a Christian Hedonist? Is his heart responding like a Christian Hedonist?
You Make the Choice
Let me try to put myself in Paul’s place. This is what I’ve done to try to be as honest with myself and my theology as I can be. Here we go. I’m going to imagine myself before God in this situation. Suppose I were standing before the Lord with my wife, whom I love very much, more than anybody else on the planet. Suppose God says to me, “One of you may enter heaven to be with me forever. Only one. The other, to hell. John, you choose which it will be, yourself or your wife, Noël.”
Now, this is a very dangerous hypothetical situation to imagine because it will never exist. The Lord does not put us in that situation. It would be virtually blasphemous for him to be putting us in that situation. He does not send any person to hell who values him so highly and loves others so deeply as to put their fellowship with Christ above his own.
Even though this hypothetical situation is dangerous, Paul seems to go there. He’s doing this to make it as clear as he can to his Jewish kinsmen how much he loves them and wants their eternal good. I’ve tried to be as honest as I can be in answering the Lord’s question: “You or your wife — which will it be, Mr. Christian Hedonist?” I believe my answer would be, I hope and pray my answer would be, “Let her into heaven.”
When Heaven Becomes Hell
As I have tried to get inside my head at that moment, imagining what would go through my mind, it would go something like this: if I say, “Let her go to hell and let me enter heaven,” everything in me, as a lover of Jesus and all that God is for me in Jesus, everything in me would want to curl up in a ball and groan and scream and chew my hands with shame.
“Romans 9:3 is not the Achilles’ heel of Christian Hedonism. Christian Hedonism is the key to Romans 9:3.” T
Everything in me would want to run away and hide from the face of the Lord. There would be no dreams of everlasting joy. No, no, no. There would be only everlasting shame for John Piper. This is not heaven. This is no sweet communion with Christ forever and ever. This is moral horror to live with myself, knowing I made that decision.
Not only that, but when I ponder on the other hand the possibility of seeing Noël absolutely, utterly, sinlessly whole, never again to feel pain or depression or sorrow, but only breathtaking happiness and radiance in the presence of Christ, greater than she has ever known, everything in me says that would be a glorious sight. Oh, how I would love to see that sight. That sight would make my soul explode with gladness.
In other words, if I chose for Noël to be damned, heaven would be hell for me. If I chose for her to be saved, my hell-bound heart would sing in the flames. Heaven’s joy of love would be with me in hell, which means that heaven would not be heaven and hell would not be hell.
It is impossible that heaven be filled with hellish shame and that hell be filled with heaven’s joy. I suspect that impossibility is precisely why Paul wrote Romans 9:3 with the exact wording that he did: “I could wish.” He’s thought it through: “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ,” or literally, “I was wishing, but the impossibility of the hypothetical situation made the wish unfulfillable.” The wish cannot be carried through in a world where the God of the Bible exists.
The upshot seems to be this. It’s kind of surprising. Paul’s willingness to be cut off from Christ for the sake of his Jewish kinsmen, like my willingness to be cut off from Christ for my wife’s salvation, is rooted precisely in the commitments of Christian Hedonism.
“When we face a painful sacrifice of love, we should remember that it is more blessed to give than to receive.”
I shrink back from the heaven of moral horror where I would experience eternal shame, and I embrace hell where my conscience is clear and the joy of my wife’s salvation makes me glad.
In fact, I would argue that it is precisely the impulses of Christian Hedonism that make Romans 9:3 work the way it does. Christian Hedonism believes passionately the words of the Lord Jesus, that when we face a painful sacrifice of love, we should remember that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
That’s what was happening at that moment, remembering that, imagining that, tasting that. Christian Hedonism shrinks back with loathing from the selfishness that kills that blessedness. Therefore, Christian Hedonism drives Paul to flee from the remorse and self-loathing and horrors of conscience and divine disapproval that would come to him if he chooses his own rescue over the rescue of his kinsmen.
My conclusion is that Romans 9:3 is not the Achilles’ heel of Christian Hedonism. Christian Hedonism is the key to Romans 9:3.
By John Piper