Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. And this we will do, if God permits.
For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.
For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.Hebrews 6:1-8
This is another of those deep, scary passages in Hebrews that have caused many discussions and disagreements over the centuries. I am not qualified to give a final answer on this one. But I can give some of the main possibilities mentioned by those better qualified than I am, and can describe how I’ve distilled their ideas for myself.
Before I start, I’d like to point out that “fall away” implies more than just “plain” sin. It is more a deliberate choice to reject the faith despite knowing it to be true.
You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.James 2:19
That dramatic of a rejection would naturally make it very difficult to even desire to repent and return. That’s not because of God’s rules; it’s just because of human nature’s stubbornness.
I find three major interpretations of this passage.
1. Christians can lose their salvation, becoming “un-saved” again with no hope of return
That would contradict the rest of the Bible, with its many promises that God is holding onto me (not the other way around, where I have to hold onto Him). Think of Peter, even denying that he ever knew Jesus, yet being forgiven and continuing as a leader of the church (Matthew 26:33-35, 69-75; John 21:15-19).
That would also contradict the entire Old Testament history, where God was faithful to His chosen people even though the Israelites were very often NOT faithful to Him. He may have disciplined or punished them; He “turned His face away” from them for a time; but He never, ever, completely gave up on them.
Whatever it means, this interpretation cannot be the correct way of reading this passage.
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.John 10:27-29
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…Romans 8:35, 38-39
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among My people, and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.2 Chronicles 7:13-14
For if you return to the LORD, your brothers and your sons will find compassion before those who led them captive and will return to this land. For the LORD your God is gracious and compassionate, and will not turn His face away from you if you return to Him.2 Chronicles 30:9
2. This is a hypothetical argument that assumes such a thing would never really happen.
To me, that doesn’t match the apparent clear meaning of the text. But that may be because I look for English cues in a Greek writing. I don’t see an “If, for instance….” or “Imagine, if you will…” phrase that would normally introduce a hypothetical point in English. Maybe that is what “In the case….” means?
However, I have also read a good case that it is an argument similar to a hypothetical. That would be a “reductio ad absurdum” argument, taking something to its obviously-ridiculous conclusion in order to show that the premise is false. “Everyone else is doing it? Well, if everyone else is jumping off a cliff, then you should also!”
Here: “You’ve seen what Christ has done — how He fulfilled all the Law and the Prophets, gave His life as the ultimate sacrifice, then rose again in victory over death — and that’s not good enough for you? Then God has failed: You need a new kind of repentance, and His Son needs to die again.” Since the whole argument is that Jesus is the ultimate answer, the thought of a different (i.e. better) repentance and sacrifice is ridiculous.
3. This refers to those who have only gone through the motions, and were never really saved in the first place.
The descriptions — “enlightened”, “tasted the heavenly gift”, “partakers of the Holy Spirit” — seem to apply only to authentic Christians. The thinking in this interpretation is that those on the fringes who participate in the group without letting it apply to them personally would also match that description.
This interpretation has some support from Jesus’ own words. At one point, He said that some would call Him “Lord, Lord” and talk about doing great things in His name, only to be told “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23). His “Parable of the Sower” (Matthew 13:3-8, 18-23; see also Mark 4 and Luke 8), describes where some seed — His words and the knowledge that He is God’s long-promised Redeemer and Messiah — fell on a packed-down path, or into very shallow soil, or in among weeds and thistles, and did not truly become the intended crop. Only the seed that fell onto good, fertile soil became what it was meant to be.
This interpretation warns against “cultural Christianity”. Growing up in a Christian home, or going to church regularly, or doing good deeds, is not the basis for a relationship with Jesus. Rather, that relationship depends on choosing to depend on Him, trusting Him to reconcile me to God. Once I trust Him, I can also trust that He will never let me down.
I did some research, reading articles in the vein of “I’ve decided to no longer be a Christian”. In the several articles I found, the writers all talked about “Christian beliefs” or things their family did in church when they were children. When those beliefs ran into the difficult world of grown-up real life, the writers decided that Christianity was the problem. However, none of the articles I read started with “I once accepted Jesus as my personal Savior, but now I don’t trust Him”. Even those who had started as most devout were rejecting a belief system, not a Person whom they knew.
This brings me to the sad story of Charles Templeton. He was once a well-known preacher, even sharing events with Billy Graham. Then he turned his back on Christianity, and started arguing against it as vehemently as he had once argued for it. In the interview mentioned in the link above, he ended by knowing what he had thrown away, but being unable or unwilling to turn back to it.
Perhaps he is the picture presented by this passage. Did he lose his salvation? My belief is “No”. If he truly put his life into Jesus’ hands at one time, then Jesus continues to hold him no matter what. He did, however, lose all the joy he could have had in this life. On the other hand, if he had never really accepted Jesus, then his preaching was all hypocrisy and he had no salvation to lose. It’s not my place to say which is the case. God knows, and He is the only one who needs to.
My blend of the interpretations
This book is addressed to Jewish converts to Christianity, during a time of persecution. For one of them to say “Never mind, I’ll go back to following only the Jewish law” would invalidate everything they knew about redemption through Jesus. It would also do them no good, since they were already aware that redemption was not possible via Jewish law. The whole point was that Jesus fulfilled that law, that He was the One the law had always pointed to.
A major purpose of the book is also to encourage the readers to grow and mature in their faith. Remember the bracketing verses: Verse 1 says “leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity“; verse 9 says “But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way.“.
These in-between verses are expanding “Don’t keep re-learning the basics, grow forward instead. And, certainly, don’t go backwards, returning to what has already failed. If you do, you’ll be rejecting what you know to be true. Worse, you’ll be treating Jesus’ sacrifice as worthless. And, since there is no higher or better answer than Jesus, there will be no alternative remaining for you.”