Strangers on the Earth: Philosophical Perspective on the Promise of God

The acknowledgement that “we do not see all things in subjection to him” (Heb. 2:8b) addresses the cognitive dissonance of the first readers of Hebrews, whose experience conflicts with their confession. The author responds by reinterpreting the promise, making it the leitmotif of the argument. Unlike Paul, the author does not describe the promise as fulfilled in the coming of Christ (cf. Gal. 3:19) or in the inclusion of Gentiles (Rom. 4:16), but as “things not seen” (11:1), the heavenly city and homeland (11:14-16), which remain unfulfilled for believers. The example of the patriarchs, who never obtained the promise during their lifetime (11:13, 39), is a guide for the disoriented readers. Those who do not see all things in subjection to the son may, however, see the invisible (11:1, 26-27) in the distance (11:13). While believers have not obtained the promise, the death of Christ is the guarantee of their hope (6:19-20; 7:22). In the meantime, to be a believer is to be a refugee and a stranger on the earth. The author has reframed the community’s understanding of the promise with images derived from the philosophical categories of the first century. Middle Platonists recognized the distance between the visible and invisible realities, maintaining that one may see the invisible. Those who see the invisible will be “strangers on the earth” (cf. Heb. 11:13).  While the author maintains the eschatological hope of the earlier Christian tradition, he interprets the community’s situation with images drawn from Middle Platonism, pointing to the stable reality of the unseen in order to restore its confidence in the promise.