Conversation Guide #9: Hebrews, Deuteronomy, and Exclusion in the Early Church – by Bert Jan Lietaert Peerbolte

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author of which is unknown, several warnings are found that aim at keeping the believers attentive inside their group. One passage is rather explicit in passing judgement on believers who leave the community of the faithful: Hebr. 10:26-31. The NRSV translates this passage as follows:

For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgement, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy “on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know the one who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Hebrews’ warning against apostasy

The author of Hebrews combines several references to Old Testament passages to point out that God is a judging God, who does not know mercy when it comes to fallen believers. In the course of history, the quoted passage has given rise to many discussions. How can any biblical author speak so harshly and pass a judgement this stern about people who fall away from their faith? Can such a judgemental, hard picture of God be combined with the idea that God is love? How is the exclusion of apostates to be matched with other pictures of God in the Bible?

Some receptions of Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews contains quite a few calls and exhortations. On estimate, one third of the epistle consists of this type of admonition. Later ecclesiastical authors have picked up the warnings of Hebrews and interpreted them from within their own contexts. Clement of Alexandria and Origen, for instance, two important authors who wrote at the end of the second and beginning of the third centuries, took this passage literally and suggested a church in which there would be no place anymore for people who had “betrayed” Christ. Later, after Christianity in the fourth century first became a permitted religion and several decades later was even appointed state religion of Rome, authors have gone to great lengths to explain that apostasy is caused by the Devil: it is he who tries to lead people astray and keep them from living with God and Christ.

The exclusion of fallen believers in the Epistle to the Hebrews

From a modern perspective, Heb. 10:26-31 is a harsh text that raises numerous questions. Can believers in the twenty-first century still deal with this image of a judgemental God? Is possible at all to still use a term like “apostasy”? Can the borderlines of a faith community be drawn in the harsh style of Hebrews?

It may be a consolation to realize that this passage has been seen by many authors as problematic throughout the history of the church. Only a few authors have supported a literal interpretation. It is probably best to see these admonitions as a form of concern: concern that nobody may fall away from the community of believers. Yet this concern is phrased in a way that may be called sectarian: emphasizing the hard boundaries between the in-group and out-groups, between believers who stay in and those who leave is a characteristic that divides sects from other groups. This specific exhortation in Hebrews may, for that reason, be seen as sectarian in nature. Even this type of material is found in the Bible.



  1. Is the image of a judging God still to be upheld in the twenty-first century?
  2. Can we still use a term like “apostasy”?
  3. Hebrews warns the believers not to leave the community of faithful and threatens them with permanent exclusion from their salvation. Does it come as a surprise that a threat like this is found in the Bible?
  4. Should the Bible be interpreted literally or are their other ways of reading it?



This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Bert Jan Lietaert Peerbolte, which can be found here: Hebrews, Deuteronomy, and Exclusion in the Early Church.

Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.