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Death and Pain in the Created Order, Part 4

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November 24, 2012 Tags: Problem of Evil

Today's entry was written by Keith Miller. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Death and Pain in the Created Order, Part 4
John James Audubon (1785-1851). Plate 16 of Birds of America (1838): “Great-footed Hawks” or Peregrine Falcons preying upon a Green-winged teal and a gadwall.

Note: In this series, Keith B. Miller has explored "the problem of natural evil"-- the tension between our understanding of God's character as revealed in the Bible, and the fact of widespread pain and death among creatures on our planet. This vexing problem has been debated within the Christian Church throughout its entire history.

In parts 2 and 3, Miller evaluated several proposed solutions to the problem of evil, noting the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Today he suggests a possible synthesis that is faithful to what we know of God theologically, and of the world scientifically.

This paper first appeared in the American Scientific Affiliation’s journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith , and is used by permission.

Toward a Possible Solution

Taking into account all of the theodicies we’ve explored so far, the question that continues to arise and needs to be addressed is this: How might death, pain, and suffering accrue to the benefit of the individual animal life?

In my opinion, Austin Farrer comes closest to directly facing this issue. Farrer focuses on the experience of the individual animal life and its relationship to God. God cares for the life and activity of the individual animal—so God really does care for the sparrow. “God does not want his creatures for any ulterior aim; he wants them to be, for their sakes, not his.” The life of each individual animal is a work of God. So how does God care for the sparrow? Farrer responds:

God loves his animal creatures by being God to them, that is, by natural providence and creative power; not by being a brother creature to them, as he does for mankind in the unique miracle of his incarnation.1

What role then does pain and suffering have in the life of an animal? Farrer explains that

Animal existence is beset by goods and evils, things needing to be shunned and things asking to be embraced. But animal action is the shunning of the one, and the embracing of the other; and while the animal survives, it is successful rather than the reverse ... Living is its own justification, its own good.
Furthermore,
the God of nature gives his animal creatures pains out of love for them, to save their lives ... Again, out of love for them, God moves his creatures to shun their pains and mend their harms, so far as their sense or capacity allows.2

God is not just interested in the future of species, but is a participant in the lives of individual creatures. But I would argue that this is not the end of the matter. The “soul-making” theodicy provides a model for considering the fulfillment of animal existence. Like Hick, we can ask, “What would animal life be like in the absence of death and pain?”

It can be argued that it is the presence of death and pain that makes possible the fulfillment of individual animal lives. Death and pain are integral to the functioning of all ecological systems and animal lifestyles. Defense, protection, camouflage, pursuit of prey, and so forth are major forces that shape both animal biology and behavior. The drive to reproduce is one of the most fundamental features of life, yet would not be possible in the absence of death. Without the continued loss of individuals to disease, predation, or injury, the carrying capacity of the environment would be quickly reached and continued reproduction would become impossible. Consider how much of an animal’s life is devoted to reproductive activities such as attracting mates, defending territory, preparing nests, caring for young, etc.

What would remain of an animal’s life without the search for food, pursuit of prey, need for defense, or the drive to reproduce? In short, essentially all meaningful animal activity and interaction would be rendered meaningless or impossible if death were not a universal certainty. It can thus be reasonably argued that it is the presence of death and pain that make possible the fulfillment of individual animal lives. Natural “evil” thus seems to be a necessary component of the environment for “soul-making” in both the human and nonhuman creation.

The concept of animal fulfillment is one that Christopher Southgate also used in trying to develop a theodicy that applied at the level of the individual creature.3 Southgate argues that animal lives can be seen as “fulfilled,” “growing toward fulfillment,” “frustrated,” or “transcending self.” He defines “fulfilled” as “a state in which the creature is utterly being itself, in an environment in which it flourishes, with access to the appropriate energy sources and reproductive opportunities.” “Frustrated” animals are held back in some way from fulfillment, and animals that “transcend self” have explored new possibilities of their being.

Southgate envisions God delighting in the fulfillment of creatures, and “inviting” them toward transcendence. This is similar, I think, to Farrer’s view of God wanting creatures simply to be who they are. But what about those creatures whose lives are “frustrated”? Here Southgate speculates that “all that the frustrated creature suffers, and all it might have been but for frustration, is retained in the memory of the Trinity.”

Finally, many authors see a final and complete answer to the problem of suffering of the nonhuman creation only in the promise of a new creation in which all creation participates. The eschatological hope of a new heaven and a new earth points us to the final redemption of all things in Christ.

Conclusions

So what does all of this mean for us? How do we respond practically to the challenge of theodicy? I draw the following implications from this contemplation of the God-given character of the non-human creation.

  1. Creation is good, and the death and pain embedded within it are part of God’s will and purpose for it. Creation is not a fallen thing to be conquered and controlled, but a divine gift we are to serve and rule and enjoy as God’s stewards.
  2. Rather than focusing on the presumed fallen-ness of creation as the result of past disobedience, we need to recognize our present abuse of our creation mandate. We need to fulfill our calling to serve and care for creation as God’s image bearers.4
  3. Since the sole task of animals on this earth is to be, and when they die they can no longer glorify God in this manner, it is our task as stewards not to inhibit, but rather to aid them in being what they are. We are to encourage the fulfillment of animal existence.
  4. Most human suffering due to natural events or processes is a consequence of our free moral choice, or our disregard for natural processes.
  5. For the nonhuman creation, pain and suffering provide the context in which animal lives can be rich and fulfilled. For us, physical death, pain, and suffering are opportunities for the expression of Christ-like character. This is not to argue that we are to embrace death and suffering; rather, it is in the struggle to understand and overcome them that our most Christ-like and meaningful thoughts and actions are expressed.
  6. The crucified God participates in the suffering and death of his creation. God is not distant, but with us in our life’s journey toward becoming like him, and with the creature in its journey toward fulfillment.

It is this last point which I think is the most important. God is present with us, and with all creatures, as we each live out God’s call in our lives. It is only in that journey of life, including especially its pain and struggle, that God’s purpose for his creation (human and nonhuman) can be expressed. And most profoundly, God is a participant with us, and with the sparrow, in that struggle of life. “Then the universe for him is like a Crucifixion.”

Notes

1.Austin Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1961), 91–3.

2.Ibid., 74, 92.

3.Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 64–5.

4.The concept of actively “imaging God” in creation is developed by Douglas John Hall in Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1986).


Keith Miller is research assistant professor of geology at Kansas State University in the United States. He is editor of Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (Eerdmans, 2003), an anthology of essays by prominent evangelical Christian scientists who accept theistic evolution. He is also a member of the executive committee of the American Scientific Affiliation, an association of Christians in the sciences, and a board member of Kansas Citizens for Science, a not-for-profit educational organization that promotes a better understanding of science.

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Bilbo - #74666

November 24th 2012

Thanks for your thoughtful speculations, Keith.


Merv - #74694

November 25th 2012

Creation is good, and the death and pain embedded within it are part of God’s will and purpose for it.

I would love to unpack this a little more.  Many of us agree that *physical* pain and death are part of the fabric of creation because this does have mixed biblical support and is completely supported by observation which helps narrow down our interpretive choices towards that option.  So how does one then understand some of the passages that do portray death as an enemy.  The Corinthians 15 passage was already put forward by someone.  The same turn of phrase “where is thy sting?” is also given before Christ (in Hosea 13:14), interestingly enough—and can probably be interpreted as prophetic, though it’s in the midst of a rebuke to Ephraim for rebellion.  In any case, Paul didn’t invent the phrase.

One option is to see death as representative (archetypal?) of the ultimate problem or the ultimate finality, and when God shows himself supreme even over that then God is indeed revealed as the highest sovereign.  Since physical death has been our only universally empirical exposure to such a concept, that became our point of reference.  Is this accomodation as well?  “Death” is the best we’ve got for an arch-rival to the hero of the story so the confrontation is inevitable for God to establish turf and authority before our eyes.  In this case, “Death” could be a wider concept that includes, but is not limited to physical death. 

I think most here who adhere to Christian faith hold the resurrection as a non-negotiable, and along with Paul then (I Cor. 15) we see it as a *bodily* resurrection.  So at some point, then, it is literally physical death that is overcome and not simply an “accomodation” to an abstract concept.  Nevertheless there seems to also be an “other-dimensional” component to this as well—perhaps we can call it spiritual.  I also notice how this seems to run parallel the rhetorically dismissive questions levelled at TEs:  “So exactly where in the genealogies do people cease to be mythical and start to become historical?”  The perceived accusation in that question runs through our New Testament understandings as we read of death and resurrection.  Orthodox TEs feel at great pains to commit to that greatest of all miracles (as we all should be).  But how can we correctly apprehend and apply the historical accomodation that so clearly is present as God communicates to his people without triggering the same “slippery slope” fears that already beset so many? 

In other words, is there a legitimate and orthodox recognition of accomodation taking place in the New Testament (specifically with death) as so many of us have been willing to apply the same [accomodation] as a principle in understanding early Genesis?

This is addressed to anybody in general willing to flesh out the ideas.

-Merv


Joe Das - #74846

November 29th 2012

What is missing in this analysis is the points Paul makes about Creation as a whole in Romans chapter 8 (forgive me if I msised something) but there Paul explains tha the whole creation has been subjected to futility. This would put in a nutshell what Job and Ecclesiastes wrestle with. Now one Lutheran approach that has been brought to my attention is that the whole creation is subject to a process analogous to the individidual human body, which is in its present state subject to death and decay, but which will be raised and transformed for an eternal reality not subject to death.

Can we square these ideas with the articles? While we are to do whastever we do with all our might and enjoy what we have been given in our toil, there is a sense of what is there being subject to God’s wrath, but that this will be eliminated due to what Christ has done, is doing and will complete.

This post is getting a little late. Hope this isn’t turning into grave-digging. Feel free to challenge me to dig deeper, I am a pastor in my denomination.


Merv - #74695

November 25th 2012

In that last post, make every “accomodation” read as “accommodation”.

If I’m going to apply accommodation, I guess I’d better learn how to spell it.

-Merv


Seenoevo - #74701

November 25th 2012

“Many of us agree that *physical* pain and death are part of the fabric of creation because this does have mixed biblical support and is completely supported by observation which helps narrow down our interpretive choices towards that option.”

Is this referring to the idea of evolution/prehistoric life? If so, is “completely supported by observation” meant to be hyperbole?

 

“In this case, “Death” could be a wider concept that includes, but is not limited to physical death… So at some point, then, it is literally physical death that is overcome and not simply an “accomodation” to an abstract concept. Nevertheless there seems to also be an “other-dimensional” component to this as well—perhaps we can call it spiritual.”

Is not Scripture filled with people and events which have traditionally been considered to be historical and real but which also have been considered to have multiple levels of meaning and truth? (e.g. Israelites physically escaping through the parted waters of the Red Sea, also foreshadowing the spiritual escape through the waters of Baptism; Christ’s real resurrection, also a victory over spiritual death; “smashing Satan’s skull” – Genesis 3:15, Mat 27:33, Mark 15:22, Luke 23:33, John 19:17.)

But, in every case, is not a real, physical thing the springboard for the other meanings? Is it not always the case that “both/all” are important and true? Like the way the truth about a person is both physical and spiritual? Like the Incarnation?

Even like genealogies?


Merv - #74705

November 26th 2012

That death is part of the fabric of creation is completely supported by observation.  I don’t think this is hyperbole, nor does it even require one to delve into geological or evolutionary history (though it is supported there as well.)   Reproductive life could not continue without it.

But, in every case, is not a real, physical thing the springboard for the other meanings? Is it not always the case that “both/all” are important and true? Like the way the truth about a person is both physical and spiritual? Like the Incarnation?

In many cases, I agree that both physical and spiritual go together.  But the spiritual should not always be held hostage to the physical interpretation.  We shouldn’t demand that the prodigal son be a real historical figure before we take the spiritual lesson seriously.  So it is not always appropriate to demand that the spiritual be preceded by or predicated upon a physical interpretation.  And this (IMO) is applied more widely than only the explicitly labeled parables.

-Merv 


HornSpiel - #74707

November 26th 2012

Merv,

I like your approach. Certainly when Paul talks about Death in 1 Corinthians 15, it is the same death that came into the world in Genesis 2 and is defeated in Revelation 21 where

     There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.

I think that in order to discuss the problem of death and pain we need to consider the complete arc of Biblical history. What does it mean that there will be no more death? If from a natural historical point of view death existed before the Fall, then perhaps in the “end times” there will be natural death, but not the kind of death that was introduced by sin. I am not really familiar with TE understandings of Revelation, but I assume they would be mythic in the same way that Genesis is understood mythically

A problem for a mythic understanding of biblical history, is that it is difficult to understand. It does not play to the imagination as well as the Left Behind series version, which is the common American dispensational understanding of Revelation. That theological position hangs together quite well with a literal-historical Garden and Fall. It really works best with YEC.

So the issue of death must be considered in the context of eschatology. What is God really saying about the future of madkind and His purposes for the world? What does it mean that death will be defeated?


Seenoevo - #74714

November 26th 2012

“What is God really saying about the future of madkind …”

Is this not one of the most inadvertently profound typographical errors?


Seenoevo - #74717

November 26th 2012

“But the spiritual should not always be held hostage to the physical interpretation … So it is not always appropriate to demand that the spiritual be preceded by or predicated upon a physical interpretation.”

What is the “physical interpretation”?  Does this mean physical reality, from which meanings are interpreted?

 

“We shouldn’t demand that the prodigal son be a real historical figure before we take the spiritual lesson seriously.”

Who has demanded that the prodigal son be a real historical figure?

In his parables (e.g. the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan), why doesn’t Christ give names? In the parables, why doesn’t Christ give “dates” (e.g. genealogies)?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #74721

November 26th 2012

Romans 6:23  For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul is saying that Christians have eternal life, but we still must die, even though all of our sins are forgiven.

There are two kinds of death, physical death which all humans have experienced, because they are physical beings, and spiritual death, which is caused by sin and becomes permanent if humans are not saved before physical death. 

Physical death is often painful because humans are physical beings and because it causes physical separation from others.  Spiritual death is painful because it causes guilt and spiritual separation from others and God. 

Physical death is natural and in that sense is necessary and good.  Spiritual death is not natural and is unnecessary and evil.    


Merv - #74723

November 26th 2012

Who has demanded that the prodigal son be a real historical figure?

You did when you suggested earlier:  “But, in every case, is not a real, physical thing the springboard for the other meanings?”    And parables make a simple demonstration that this presupposition does not apply in every case.

In his parables (e.g. the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan), why doesn’t Christ give names? In the parables, why doesn’t Christ give “dates” (e.g. genealogies)?

Sometimes he did.  (Okay—I can think of one anyway).   Lazarus gets a name, along with Abraham.  The rich man, interestingly enough doesn’t seem to merit a name.  Probably shouldn’t read too much into that, though.  Obviously names (let alone dates) were not and would not have been central to the point in most parables.  

While we are asking leading questions, here is one for you:  How often did Paul, addressing the young and increasingly gentile church, impress upon them the importance of knowing the genealogies?  And when Paul does mention genealogy and the study of the same, is it in a positve or negative way?   While I have a pretty good idea what I expect the answers to both “questions” are above, I did not look this up in advance.   Maybe I’ll be surprised.

-Merv



Merv - #74724

November 26th 2012

Sorry—that third paragraph beginning “In his parables…” should have been in quotations too, from Seenoevo’s previous post.


Merv - #74727

November 26th 2012

Hornspiel, I agree that apocolyptic literature should certainly be in view in these discussions.  Revelation and Daniel seem even more laden with symbolism than other kinds of literature, would you agree?

Scott McKnight has a good blog about this on Jesus Creed linked below.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2012/06/28/immortality-is-still-a-divine-gift-rjs/

In light of Isaiah’s passage where it is noted that the man who lives to 100 will be thought a mere boy we may see a different picture of death’s role in good creation.  Knight elaborates on this and discusses Calvin’s [quite pre-evolutionary] views on the same.   

-Merv


Seenoevo - #74730

November 26th 2012

I demanded that the prodigal son be a real historical figure?

When everyone, including me, recognizes parables, including that of the prodigal, for what they are? When I clearly was talking about real history, not parables (“Is not Scripture filled with people and events which have traditionally been considered to be historical and real but which also have been considered to have multiple levels of meaning and truth? …  But, in every case, is not a real, physical thing the springboard for the other meanings?”)?

Although I make no case for the historicity of the Lazarus of Luke 16, and never considered this passage to be other than a parable, can you prove this Lazarus wasn’t real?

 

“How often did Paul, addressing the young and increasingly gentile church, impress upon them the importance of knowing the genealogies?”

Do not American students learn (or at least used to learn) the list of U.S. presidents? Does that mean they must often revisit that list in classes in every subsequent year of schooling?

 

“when Paul does mention genealogy and the study of the same, is it in a positve or negative way?”

Is this in reference to 1 Tim 1:4 [“nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith]?

If so, do you think Paul is instructing the believers to dismiss Scripture, the genealogies which would become part of Scripture? Or perhaps he was saying to dismiss myths of Adam and instead hold to the history of Adam?


Merv - #74756

November 27th 2012

The Socratic method works better if one is more subtle about their agenda.  Short of that, don’t be afraid to just state your views outright instead of trying to hide behind impregnated “questions”.  That brings you more quickly to the heart of any matter that needs addressing!

If so, do you think Paul is instructing the believers to dismiss Scripture, the genealogies which would become part of Scripture?

I recommend you read Galatians (especially around chapter 3) and let Paul speak for himself on this one.  Sorry about the brief answer, but I have a class starting to gather.

-Merv


Seenoevo - #74763

November 27th 2012

“The Socratic method works better if one is more subtle about their agenda. Short of that, don’t be afraid to just state your views outright instead of trying to hide behind impregnated “questions”.”

How do these statements make sense? The questioner is told to be more subtle about his supposed agenda yet is also told he’s being too subtle by trying to hide behind his questions? If the supposed but silent agenda is so obvious, would you like to state it for me?

 

“I recommend you read Galatians (especially around chapter 3) and let Paul speak for himself on this one.”

Could you be more specific and “just state your views outright”?


Merv - #74768

November 27th 2012

Regarding Galatians, you ask for my specific view.  Fair enough.  I believe that what Paul and his contemporaries referred to as “the law and the prophets” (what we call our Old Testament) is written to a wayward and stubborn people who need to be shown how they have strayed.  The law reveals our sin (Galatians 3:23,24).  We also now see how the law and the prophets point to Christ, the true fulfillment of it all.  So when we refer to the Word of God now we are referring to a “Who” not a “what”.  We may refer to the Scriptures this way occassionally because they point us to the true Word:  Jesus.  (John 1:1)  The Galatians were lapsing back towards becoming a people of the book with its prescribed customs and practices.  Paul will have none of it.  It isn’t that he repudiates the law (far from it, he repeatedly says).  But the letter of the law isn’t our stopping point.  The focus needs to be on WHO we are pointed toward and why we need Him.  

Any other points of study (Genesis and origins, for example) may be interesting and useful to spur us on towards better understandings of God and His work in our world.  But they need to be seen in the light of Christ.  That is my view.  You’ll have to let us know if any of it overlaps with your understanding with a statement or two (not just more questions) of your own.

-Merv


Joriss - #74781

November 28th 2012

Merv,
The command to the galatians in ch. 1 is not to be involved in fables and endlessgenealogies. So obviously these two “hobbies” went together. To take the genealogies in the bible seriously is a matter of taking the whole bible seriously and doesn’t mean having a weakness for fables. That’s not a “hobby”. So I think that’s other stuff than some galatians were involved in.
The bible authors themselves took the genealogies very seriously. They are used to show us that Jesus was a descendant of Adam - Luke - of Abraham - Matthew, and of David.
The author of Hebrews uses the genealogies to prove that Jesus’ highpriesthood is higher than that of Aron, a descendant of Levi, because Jesus is a descendant of Judah, which tribe had nothing to do with priesthood. Again Levi was a descendant of Abraham who offerered a tenth of all to Melchizedek. So Aron in Levi in Abraham offered to Melchizedek and was blessed by him, which makes Melchizedek more than Levi. Therefore Jesus’ priesthood after the order of Melchizedek was much more than the priesthood after the order of Aron.
So if the author of Hebrews had not had knowledge of the genealogies of Israel, he could not have made this very important point.
I fully agree with you that the old testament points to the true Word of God, to Jesus, not a “what” but a “Who”. Even the genealogies point to Him.


Joriss - #74793

November 28th 2012

Sorry, a slip of the mind, Merv. The command was given to the ehpesians, not to the galatians, in 1 Tim. 1.


Seenoevo - #74791

November 28th 2012

How does #74768 address anything being discussed (i.e. evolution/prehistoric life and whether it’s “supported by observation”, Biblical history characterized with names and “dates” vs. Biblical parables without names and dates)?


Merv - #74837

November 29th 2012

Thanks for your comments, Joriss.   The writer of Hebrews as you say, does make use of the genealogies.  And a further interesting point of observation out of that is that spiritual descent is not nullified by the absence of physical descent.  Of course we already knew this since Paul elaborates on all of us being heirs of Abraham through the promise and not through the law.  But Melchizedek (who wasn’t an Israelite at all) was nevertheless held up as being “of Christ’s order”.   I agree with you that physical genealogies were important, but only up to a point.  Besides, whatever import the genealogies had to NT church theology, they would have paled in comparison with circumcision.  The law is full of commands about circumcision.  Paul appears to push all that aside in Galatians 5—“If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you…”  Now we can all agree after studying Romans that Paul doesn’t really “dismiss” the law as unimportant.  But can’t you just hear all the Jewish Christians in Galatia sputtering back at Paul ...  “but…but…but…!”  as they point to multiple chapters and verses to cite exactly why Paul would clearly be wrong.  But Paul will have none of it.    And how much less of a case do we have today than those early Jewish Christians had when we search the Scriptures and genealogies for clues to make them fit our modern notions of what we think should be important?  (That is a criticism for all of us—not just YECs).

-Merv


Seenoevo - #74839

November 29th 2012

“they point to multiple chapters and verses to cite exactly why Paul would clearly be wrong. Paul will have none of it. And how much less of a case do we have today than those early Jewish Christians had when we search the Scriptures and genealogies for clues to make them fit our modern notions of what we think should be important?”

Regarding Paul and what should be important to Christians, am I asking too much (I’ve asked on another article blog here) to get a clear answer about something Paul clearly stated?

“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts” [1 Cor 6:9]

Considering also what Christ said in Mat 5:32, Mat 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18, what is the salvation status of a Christian who is divorced and remarried and continues in that remarried state?


Merv - #74845

November 29th 2012

Considering also what Christ said in Mat 5:32, Mat 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18, what is the salvation status of a Christian who is divorced and remarried and continues in that remarried state?

Probably the same as your status, my status, and everyone else’s as well:  in desperate and unending need of God’s mercy.

Romans 3:10 “As it is written, ‘There is no one righteous. No, not one.’ “

Add Romans to the list of books it would be profitable for you to study.

-Merv


Seenoevo - #74851

November 30th 2012

St. Paul, writing to the church in Corinth: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts.” [1 Cor 6:9]

Seenoevo: “Considering also what Christ said in Mat 5:32, Mat 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18, what is the salvation status of a Christian who is divorced and remarried and continues in that remarried state?”

Merv: “ Probably the same as your status, my status, and everyone else’s as well: in desperate and unending need of God’s mercy.”

Then, probably none of us will inherit the kingdom of God?


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