Hebrews 6:4-6 says that it is impossible for those who have “once been enlightened” to be restored to repentance if they should fall away. The key to understanding this verse is the word “fall away.” The verb παραπίπτω refers to someone who has not followed through on a commitment. It only appears here in the New Testament and is rare in the LXX, occurring 5 times in Ezekiel where it refers to the apostasy of Judah that led to the exile. This verb is cognate to παράπτωμα, the noun Paul uses to describe Adam’s sin in Romans 5:15. There writer does not have in mind some small offense against God, but rather a conscious defection from the truth.
Like the verbs used to describe salvation, this verb points to a decisive moment when an individual, having experienced “such a great salvation as this” stopped “being enlightened.” The person in view has moved from the light back into the darkness, intentionally. Louw and Nida 34.26 gloss the verb as “to abandon a former relationship or association, or to dissociate (a type of reversal of beginning to associate).” The word appears to focus on the initial disassociation, a reversal of the process of joining a group.
For example: there have been several congressmen who have “switched parties” in the last few years. Arlen Specter for example switched parties in 1965, from the Democratic party to the Republican party, and in then in 2009 switched back. In fact, since 1890 there have been 21 senators who switched parties (according to the US Senate website). What do you suppose the chances of someone that switched parties and backed the opponent’s candidacy being accepted unconditionally back into the old party? Likely it is impossible that someone who has once been an enlightened member of “our party” and has gone over to the “enemy” should return to their original party. Whatever the motive, their life as a Democrat or Republican is over; they will never completely win the trust of their party back.
The actions of the person in view in Hebrews 6 are more than simply quitting a church or shifting to another (more liberal) denomination. In fact, in the context of the first century Roman world, it is more than ceasing to believe in God or the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a conscious decision to turn ones back on God at a time of persecution. They are “switching sides” in order to avoid persecution as Christians. Given the context of Rome in the first century, the possibility of persecution makes this sort of reversal much easier to understand. This is not someone that is upset at God for their own miserable life, but a person that is standing before a man that can take his life and recanting, even perhaps causing the death of other believers by his reversal.
The death of Jesus is set before us as a pattern: he is not asking us to do anything he did not. The writer of Hebrews is clear that Jesus died on a cross for the sins of the world. For a person to participate in the blessings of God and recant under the pain of death is to not live up to the calling of Christ.
If this is the case, the writer is offering a strong encouragement to “suffer well” when persecution comes. This is immediately applicable in many parts of the world today, but perhaps not in the West – how should western readers of Hebrews use this text?