This is to be a series of blog posts for the Christian believer whose beliefs are a little unorthodox, and who wonders how she or he might fit in to God’s family.
Below are links to each blog post.
Ghandi’s in Hell? He is?
A God who would send anyone to hell is a God one might fear, but not a God one could love.
Nevertheless, the Christian faith has traditionally been perceived, both by many outsiders as well as Christians themselves, as embracing the belief that God condemns people to hell if they don’t accept the only Way to heaven, Jesus. Many known fundamentalist theologians take that position. One of the most recent, Francis Chan, in his book Erasing Hell, insists that God is retributive, and he cites a number of Scripture references to “prove” it.
I have often heard believers speak of a family member who was a “heathen” until they found themselves at death’s door. Then, the believing relative joyfully relates the fact that this non-Christian loved one, only minutes before they took their last breath, confessed their faith in Jesus Christ and was saved at that moment. On hearing such a tale, I have often cynically assumed that the dying person was actually making a last-minute effort to avoid hell. Not that I do not believe in deathbed conversions, I just have questioned whether many such conversions were genuine. Yet as the years passed and I heard more and more stories of deathbed conversions of loved ones, my assumptions have changed. Perhaps the loved one was not really converted at all, nor was his or her motivation the escape of hell. Chances are, the dying unbeliever did not believe in hell or heaven at all, but the motivation was actually to leave the family with the peace of knowing their loved one was not to forever live in misery and torment! I really think that is an honorable reason for one to fake a Christian conversion.
It is common for “enlightened” Christians today to say they do not believe that a loving God would send a person to hell. That God is in the business of rescuing people from hell, and if a person goes to hell it is because they chose to reject God’s grace.
Ask yourself, what do you believe about heaven and hell? Do you think that the notions some Christians have about heaven and hell actually hinder the acceptance and living out of the Gospel? And how do you respond in conversations about the hereafter, particularly in discussions where one or more fundamentalists are very vocal in their beliefs about the afterlife? Here are a few thoughts that might guide your expression and perhaps clarify what you believe.
What are the different beliefs people hold about heaven?
Belief in a meaningful afterlife was not a part of Hebrew/Jewish religion until after the Babylonian exile. The first evidence of this belief in our Bible is in Daniel 12:2: Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Before this time, the Hebrews had believed only in a nondescript land of the dead called Sheol (Haides in Greek, in the New Testament). By the time of Jesus, the Pharisees Jewish sect were teaching that at the end of time, all the dead will be raised, while some Jews, the best known being the Saducees, insisted that there was no resurrection. Throughout the New Testament we find not only references to a resurrection of the dead but also a final judgment, and in the gospel of Matthew (chapter 25), Jesus describes Himself (Son of Man) as the judge, separating the “sheep” from the “goats,” inviting the sheep to an eternal life in fellowship with God.
The Apostle Paul, himself a Pharisee, viewed Jesus’ Resurrection as a foretaste of what was to come for all when He returns, which was part of his letter to the Corinthians that is recorded in 1 Corinthians chapter 15.
Without a doubt, the concept of bodily resurrection of the dead was the primary Jewish belief in life after death. It was most likely what Jesus Himself believed.
Many Christians today maintain that the resurrection at the end of the age will be coupled with a Rapture, where the faithful are caught up in the clouds together with (the dead in Christ who have risen) to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever (1 Thessalonians 4:17). While the term “Rapture” does not appear in Scripture, the belief that there will be a rapture comes from this passage in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, as well as Jesus’ own ascension following His Resurrection.
The common idea that many Christians hold today, that immediately after death one’s spirit or soul ascends to heaven, is not a Jewish idea. It was probably not a part of Jesus’ concept of eternity, and the roots of the idea are not Jewish but are in the philosophy of the Greeks and Persians, which became a major influence on the Jews after Cyrus the Persian allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. This philosophy really became a major influence on early Christianity as the early church spread throughout the Mediterranean world. We do find evidence of this teaching in the New Testament, but we do not find much of it there. But because a few scripture passages allude to it, some modern Christian theologians mix the doctrines together, maintaining that there is a temporary heaven that we go to immediately, and a permanent future Kingdom of God where we reside after our resurrection.
The Persians told of a special place that souls go after death called Paradise. Their word for paradise was also their word for garden. This image appealed to many Jews who thought of the Garden of Eden which according to their Scripture was the place God gave Adam and Eve to live in perfect harmony with Him. Some Jews began to think of Sheol in a new way, no longer a watery and neutral place but divided between a place of punishment and a place of reward that they sometimes called the “Bosom of Abraham.” Some folklore emerged, including a tale of a rich man who died and went to the place of torment and a poor man who died and went to Abraham’s bosom. Of course we recognize this as the tale Jesus built upon to prove the point in Luke chapter 16, that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor and humble and not to the rich and greedy. Given the fact that He was building on a folk tale, it is doubtful that Jesus believed or was trying to communicate that the story was literally true.
But the most compelling references to heaven as immortality of the soul appear in Paul’s writing. He wrote to the Corinthians of how he and fellow followers of Jesus yearn to be with Him and away from the mortal body, at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:1-10). And he wrote to the Philippians my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better (than living in the flesh). (Philippians 1:23). Did Paul actually believe in the immortality of the soul, or did he simply use this imagery in order to communicate effectively with Greeks? I believe that Paul frequently borrowed some Greek concepts in order to relate to his audience, such as the Greek dualistic thinking that contrasted flesh and spirit, and the reference to the Athenian “unknown god,” which Paul used to introduce the Athenians to the one true God.
Resurrection or immortality of the soul? Or both? And there is yet another alternative way of believing. That one does not have conscious life after death at all.
What are the different beliefs people hold about hell?
There is no clear reference to hell in the Old Testament. The word Sheol and its New Testament equivalent Haedes mean the realm of the dead, a nondescript place of neither reward nor punishment. As I pointed out earlier, the Persian influence caused some of the Jews by New Testament times to think of Haedes as divided between two separate realms, one being a place of suffering and the other a place of reward. But in the New Testament, the word Gehenna is translated into English as “hell,” and it definitely refers to a bad place.
Gehenna literally refers to the Hinnon Valley near Jerusalem, which at one time was a place where bodies of wicked persons were cast. Later, the valley was a smoldering garbage dump. Gehenna and indirect references to hell such as “outer darkness” and “lake of fire” when used in the New Testament undoubtedly refer to a place of suffering and punishment for the wicked.
But what is hell, really? What do people believe about hell? Is it really a place of unending suffering, of punishment, of no hope? Or does it exist at all? Surveys nearly always show that more people believe in heaven than believe in hell. Understandably, the idea that there is a place of extreme suffering and no hope of connecting with God is problematic. And some people believe that hell is only a condition that may exist for some people in this life.
Not long ago, two very different Christian writers published books that led to many interesting dialogs on the subject of hell. In his book Love Wins, Rob Bell maintains that hell is not a place of everlasting punishment, and that God pursues us until He wins us, even past the gates of hell. Francis Chan wrote an answer to Bell’s book, titled Erasing Hell. Chan writes that hell is a permanent place of punishment for the “unsaved” after death.
It seems that a key word that is used to describe the purpose of hell is “punishment.” Shall we explore the different meanings of punishment to see if any fit in with our concept of God and His dealings with us? I believe there are three. One is retribution. You hurt me, so I’ll hurt you. I believe that when a loving parent “punishes” their child, it is not for retribution. However, Chan argues that retribution is indeed an attribute of God’s judgment and indeed, God has a right to punish us in retribution. Another meaning is discipline. You made a mistake, so you need to learn something so that you will not make the mistake again. I can see a loving parent “punish” their child for this purpose. By the way, I put the word in quotation marks because I really do not think that “punish” is the correct word to refer to the actions of a loving parent toward their child. Punish always implies retribution. Finally, a third meaning is to allow the person to experience the natural consequences of their actions, including their mistakes. For instance, if a person drives a vehicle under the influence of alcohol they could have an accident and be hurt and killed. The parent allows the child to grow, lets go, and encourages him or her to make independent choices. And some of these choices are “punishing.” This meaning also holds open hope that the person will learn from mistakes.
I am convinced that discipline and natural consequences are the only forms of “punishment” that could come from a loving parent God. And of course, if hell is a place of discipline and learning, then it is not forever. There is a way out.
On the other hand, going to hell may have nothing to do with an act of God. It may simply be a state of being completely apart from God, and a state that people choose because of their rejection of God’s grace. If this is the case, hell could be a place or state of permanent separation from God.
If we assume that God loves us completely, though, we must assume that an everlasting, permanent hell would be a realm that God is unable to enter. Not unwilling but simply unable. Because a God who loves us completely would pursue us as far and as long as possible. No good parent, and we might assume God is the perfect parent, would allow their child to suffer forever if it was in their power to rescue the child.
So, who is saved?
There are three categories of Christian belief about who is saved. Actually, four.
The first is the exclusivist view. According to this view, no one is saved unless they profess belief that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God and trust His death on the Cross for their salvation. Everyone else goes to an eternal hell after death.
The second is the inclusivist view. According to this view, while Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross is the only thing that brings salvation, God in his omnipotence has ways to apply Jesus’ sacrifice to save others who might have never heard the Gospel of Jesus’ sacrifice presented to them. Or who know about the Gospel but for an understandable reason do not embrace it.
The inclusivist view might take several forms. Inclusivists might be labeled as “liberals” or “heretics,” but in truth, few Christians are pure exclusivists. For one thing, an exclusivist cannot believe that infants go to heaven, because infants cannot hold a belief in Jesus’ death on the Cross for salvation. So many Christians who claim to be “fundamentalists” say that there is an “Age of Accountability,” before which God will admit one to heaven even though they are too young to have formed a belief about Jesus. Okay, that makes logical sense, but there is no “Age of Accountability” cited in the Bible. Furthermore, a fundamentalist, a believer in biblical inerrancy, cannot be a pure exclusivist because Hebrews chapter 11 tells of a number of Old Testament characters, including Abraham, Enoch, and Noah, and declares that because of their faith, God has “prepared a city for them.”
A third view is the universalist view. This means that everyone eventually ends up in heaven. The appeal of this view is the logical assumption that because God is all loving and all powerful, He always gets what He wants, and what He wants is for everyone to live eternally with Him.
There is one other view, and it is that there is no conscious life after death at all. I believe that a Christian might have this view. That is because the Christian might believe that this is not something God owes us, anyway. And there are interpretations of the biblical concept “Eternal Life” that might lead one to an understanding that it means something other than “forever life.” Indeed, a more literal translation of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus that whosoever believes in him will have eternal life is that it means “a life of the ages,” which might be understood as a life not bound by an age of time, or not bound by time at all. After all, if God is outside of time (see my blog post God and Time), then it makes sense to think of our eternal life with God as outside of time. It might be difficult to wrap our brains around that, but certainly, it is nothing similar to life in the earthly realm.
What all this should mean to you is that there are different ways to understand heaven and hell. If you know a Christian whose view is different from yours, perhaps you can understand that view in the light of some of the information presented in this post. Listen to that person. Respect that person’s views and try to understand where he or she might be coming from. Realize how difficult it might be for a Christian exposed to the idea that there is just one view, to respect you and understand where you are coming from.
Do you have trouble believing that Jesus really rose from the grave? If you do, you are not by yourself. And assuming that it did happen, what did it mean? What does it mean to the believer today?
Do you have trouble believing that Jesus really rose from the grave? If you do, you are not by yourself. After all, resurrections are scientifically impossible, and resurrection has never happened to anyone, at least not since about 30 A.D. But, your doubt or disbelief might bother you, because as the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Cor. 15:17). It appears, at least according to the Apostle Paul, that belief in the Resurrection of Christ is essential for Christians.
Did it happen?
One can argue, of course, that the Resurrection of Christ is a miracle, and that if there were a scientific explanation, it would not be such a big deal. We would have no reason to celebrate Easter. So if one acknowledges that the Resurrection was a miracle, if it did indeed occur, overcoming one’s doubts about it might require taking a huge leap of faith. Or one might find meaning in the Resurrection as a myth. Or settle for a Gospel that ends with Jesus’ death.
But even if one is willing to accept that God performs miracles, the accounts of the Resurrection in the four gospels throw us several curves that make those accounts especially hard to accept. All four gospels describe the disciples and women finding an empty tomb on Sunday morning. Then the gospels tell of the resurrected Jesus suddenly disappearing from sight (Luke 24:31), eating (Luke 24:41-43), and walking through locked doors (John 20:19-20, 26).
Perhaps the Apostle Paul’s account is easier to believe, because he does not describe such preposterous acts. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is actually believed to be the earliest account of appearances of the risen Christ: For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephus, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. The scriptures Paul referred to are the Jewish scriptures, mostly what Christians today call the Old Testament. The word for “appeared” is the Greek word used to describe visionary experiences, such as the vision of the risen Christ that Paul had on the road to Damascus. For some, it might be easier to believe in the Resurrection if one thinks of it as manifest in visions. This kind of thinking does not necessarily deny that the Resurrection was miraculous. Paul certainly regarded it as miraculous. There are several interesting things to note about the above passage. There is no mention of appearances to women, except for their inclusion among the five hundred witnesses that came after the appearances to Cephus (Peter) and the twelve. Another thing that is puzzling is Paul’s mention of “the twelve,” suggesting that Judas Iscariot also might have been one to witness an appearance. There is no mention of an empty tomb anywhere in Paul’s writing, nor is there a mention of the Ascension. Indeed, Jesus’ appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus would have occurred after the Ascension.
What the scriptures really tell us about the Resurrection and the Ascension is that no one has decidedly figured out exactly what happened. Or what kind of substance Jesus’ resurrected body contained. Let us we simply let that mystery be.
While there is understandable doubt among modern, scientifically minded people that Jesus’ Resurrection actually occurred, what is clear and almost irrefutable is that Jesus’ first followers, including some who had been close to Him before His death, believed in it beyond a shadow of a doubt. One wonders why they would have been so convinced and so passionately engaged in the Gospel ministry had the Resurrection event not really taken place.
You may doubt the Resurrection. I have my doubts sometimes, too. And you may choose to dismiss it as a historical event. Perhaps you just find meaning in the myth. I believe that it was real a historical event. And that it is real (present tense).
Now I think there is a crucial question that takes us beyond the certainty we might have that the Resurrection really did happen. That is, assuming that it did happen, what did it mean? What does it mean to the believer today?
What does it mean?
We might start by asking what the Resurrection might have meant to the Jews who witnessed it, who heard about it, and who made up the early Christian Church. The Jews of the first century were familiar with the idea of resurrection of a body. While the early Hebrews did not believe in a life after death, the idea of a resurrection in the Last Days began appearing in Jewish apocalyptic literature during or after the Babylonian Exile. Early references to resurrection in the Old Testament appear in Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2. By the time of Jesus, many Jews believed there would be a resurrection of the dead at a future time. The Pharisees believed in it, and Saul of Tarsus (who was later called Paul) was a Pharisee. This resurrection was not thought of as a return of one’s spirit but a transformation of one’s body. Hebrew tradition did not make a marked distinction between body and spirit.
The meaning of the Resurrection of Christ to the earliest believers is probably reflected in the Apostle Paul’s account of the Resurrection that appears in the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then come the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. (vs. 20-24).
This indicates that to Paul, Christ’s Resurrection was the first of many that would occur at the end of the age. And it is through His Resurrection that death is conquered so that we who belong to God might rise as well.
It is worthwhile to note that Paul regarded the Resurrection as an act of God, not as something Jesus did on His own. The theology that Jesus was God incarnate had not crystallized among believers by the time this epistle was written, which was around 55 AD. Paul’s point is that God raised Jesus, and God will certainly raise us. It is tempting to say that it was the Resurrection that convinced early believers to regard Jesus as God, but that argument is weak because the Jewish Christians believed that we too will rise one day, just as Jesus did. And we are not God.
Recall from an earlier blog post, Making Sense of the Cross the mention of the “Christus Victus” or “Victory” theory of Atonement, and note how Paul hails the Resurrection as accomplishing victory over death and evil.
In writing this post, I had to ask myself what the Resurrection means to me. It was not an easy question to answer, because I have not spent a lot of time thinking of its meaning. I have probably spent much more time just questioning and convincing myself that the Resurrection really took place. But if it is so important to me that it really happened, it must also have great meaning for my faith.
What if one cannot believe that it really happened? What if one believes the resurrection stories are myths? Is it still possible to find meaning in them? I asked several people that question.
One person said that like many myths, the resurrection narratives reflect a need we have to get reconnected at the end of the story with the divine. A need for seeing victory of good over evil.
Another person said that to her it represents a commitment to non-violence. After forgiving His enemies, Jesus arises in victory over them, although not with any interest in revenge. Instead, disciples are told to spread the Good News.
One person found meaning in how the Resurrection is manifest each day in the lives of humans. How people whose spirit is virtually dead can become transformed and alive with energy and renewal.
Finally, one person pointed out that in many facets of life on earth, death leads to life. If a seed dies, it sprouts new life. And the deaths of some organisms allow them to become food. And modern medicine has made it possible for some persons to donate organs for new life in others.
So what does the Resurrection mean to me? For one thing, since I believe that God did raise Jesus, I can believe that God is able to resurrect me. This is a comfort, because I find death to be very scary. It also means that Christ Jesus is alive! Now this might sound very trite to you. But I do not think of Jesus as a child might think of an imaginary playmate, an invisible figure that shadows my every step. To illustrate what I mean, please allow me to tell a couple of stories.
One of my former pastors, Brian Erickson, told of how he once spent a summer volunteering in one of Mother Teresa’s missions in Calcutta, India. When he first traveled to the mission he said he was filled with passion for “bringing Jesus to the suffering people of India.” That summer was a life altering experience for him, and what he saw turned his perspective around. He said he met each day with workers and volunteers in a prayer chapel for devotions and worship. Windows in the chapel were opened, so that the sounds from the street, including cries and moans of distress, could be heard. On the wall above the altar was a mural showing the wounded head of Jesus hanging on a cross. And the caption below the mural stated what is known today as one of the last words of Jesus before His death, “I thirst.”
Having morning prayers in that chapel while looking at that rendering of Christ’s passion caused Brian to think about the suffering on the streets outside, and how for so many people a simple cup of water would be a glorious token of the love of Christ. He also recalled Jesus’ words recorded in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, “I was thirsty, and you gave me drink.” While working in that mission, Brian came to realize that his passion for “bringing Jesus to the suffering people” was misguided. Indeed, by showing compassion to these people, he was meeting Jesus. Jesus was there already. And alive.
Now when I heard Brian tell this, I had been involved in Kairos Prison Ministry for about a decade. While we ministry volunteers often traced our purpose back to Jesus’ words in Matthew 25, “I was in prison and you visited me,” I still mostly thought of my work as bringing Jesus into the prison. But listening to Brian tell his story caused me to rethink my ministry’s purpose. Several years before I had met an inmate at a maximum security facility, and he had told me that the crime that had landed him in prison was raping a twelve-year-old girl. While we ministry volunteers are counseled to never ask an inmate why they are in prison, we know that sometimes they will choose to tell us without our asking. I do not know why this man told me about his crime, but his telling me kindled an anger greater than I would have felt had he confessed murder or rape of an adult. I understood that I was supposed to show love to the prisoners. In order to show love, it is necessary to forgive. I did not feel love, nor did I feel like forgiving this man, so I prayed at that moment for God to make it possible for me to forgive this inmate and love him. God answered my prayer, and I explained to this person that it was difficult for me to hear his confession, but that I still knew that there was nothing that God could not forgive, and that God loved him and so did I.
After hearing my pastor tell his story about Calcutta, I thought back to the time I had met this prisoner. I discovered that despite the nature of his crime, I saw Jesus in him. This criminal actually ministered to me by causing me to allow God to take my own weakness and supply His power to love and forgive someone who I was not capable of loving by my own strength. Jesus was alive in this man. Now I know that Jesus is alive in the prisons and is waiting for me to bring myself and submit to his great and mighty love.
We seek to bring Jesus to the world, but Jesus is already in the world. He is not only in the nice bright parts of the world, but He is also in the dark corners of the earth. And He is alive. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:5).
If you ask people what the Resurrection means to them, you will encounter people, some identifying as Christian, who simply do not believe in it. You will find some who believe it really happened in history, and you will find some who recognize it as a myth. Too often, persons who embrace an interpretation variant from the traditional view taught by their church are ridiculed, viewed as heretics, and warned of being deceived by Satan. The important thing for us to remember is, regardless of what we think, to listen to these points of view, respect them, learn from them, and encourage the person to continue his or her quest for truth and meaning.
I try to respect everyone’s beliefs, but fundamentalist Christians have abused me so much that I don’t feel like ever setting foot in a church again!
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19).
Christians have long regarded this verse, known as the “Great Commission,“ as one of the most important sayings of Jesus. Clearly, He commanded His followers to make disciples, but the way believers interpret the verse varies. What, specifically, the believer might ask, am I commissioned to do? Preach? Teach? Go to a foreign country as a missionary? And as non-fundamentalist Christians, we might ask ourselves, just what is our commission?
I once read a book by John Shelby Spong titled Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (HarperOne, 1992). I was disturbed by his statements that widespread belief in biblical inerrancy was an enemy of the Christian faith. My view was that there is nothing wrong with believing in biblical inerrancy, and non-fundamentalists should respect the beliefs of those who take that position, since we expect them to respect our views. I still feel that way. However, I have recently become aware of the dangers of carrying fundamentalism to the extreme. This often involves spiritual abuse and discouraging people from being Christian disciples, instead of making disciples.
I recently joined an Internet group for non-fundamentalists. It is made up of two types of people: those who consider themselves non-fundamentalist Christians, and those who are so disgusted with fundamentalism that they have decided to leave the Christian faith altogether. The group has made me sadly aware of how many people have been abused and wounded because their church, their families, or a significant other, were so militant about their fundamentalist views that they attempted to indoctrinate or force them on the person. As a result, people have found their self-esteem deflated, their marriages destroyed, their children exploited, or they have been disfellowshiped or excommunicated from their church, simply because some people or person of influence took their fundamentalist views to the extreme and used them as a means of power.
Christian believers, regardless of denomination or theological camp, are to be in the business of building up disciples, not tearing down disciples and making them hate the church. To encourage disciples, particularly those who find that they cannot accept dogmatic fundamentalism, there needs to be an open conversation about the issues Christians disagree on. Perhaps our specific commission is to promote conversation and civil disagreement, and rescue people from the dangers of extreme fundamentalism.
So what are the dogmas of extreme fundamentalism that are dangerous when one attempts to use them to control others? Below I suggest several.
You must have the blind faith of a child or you can’t enter Heaven.
I told my family that I had doubts about the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Christ. They told me I must simply believe. They explained that Jesus said unless I have faith like that of a little child, I would go to hell.
It seems that many people from fundamentalist families are chastised for questioning the Bible or their church’s teachings. They are taught by parents or their church or both that doubt is a sin. Sometimes the teacher invokes the image of Jesus with a little child, with Jesus saying that one must have faith like a little child or one cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Continual confrontations like this might result in one abandoning the Christian faith, believing that he or she cannot call themself Christian if they doubt that certain statements in the Bible are true. Worse, though, are cases resulting in the person feeling tremendous guilt, berating oneself, struggling in vain to believe things that to this person are untenable. All this for feeling guilty about using the brain that God gave them.
But consider what Jesus is actually recorded as saying:
Truly I tell you. Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a child will never enter it. (Mark 10:15).
According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gets more specific about what this means:
He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2-4).
Jesus calls for humility, not blind faith. Indeed, while childhood is a humble state, children tend to be very curious and ask many questions. They are not characterized by blind faith. They trust, but they trust those who have shown them love.
While there are a few places in Scripture where we find people rebuked for doubting specific things, there is no general condemnation of doubt. Although some will point to a verse in the letter of James:
But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. (James 1:6).
But this verse follows one that encourages people to ask God for wisdom. Verse 6, then, tells us not to doubt that God will give us wisdom if we ask for it. It is not a general condemnation of doubt.
Doubt has always been a friend of Christian believers. Religious people who refused to doubt have through history been the gullible victims of dangerous cults such as Jim Jones‘ The People’s Temple. It is through doubting that we discern the truth and learn new things. We know that it is even healthy to doubt what we read in Scripture, because only if we know that it is okay to doubt it, can Scripture become real to us rather than oppressive.
You are a worthless sinner.
Amazing Grace had always been my favorite hymn. Until I really thought about the words; “Amazing Grace . . . that saved a wretch like me.“ Me, a wretch? That started me thinking about some of the ideas I had been hearing in church. That I’m not good, because only God is good. That I deserve to go to hell. Really?
Most every single young man has had these thoughts: he feels attracted to a lovely young lady, but because she is so lovely in his perception, he assumes “She is out of my league. I am wasting my time if I think of asking her for a date.“ Now imagine how this young man feels if this young lady approaches him and says that she likes him and wants to go out. The young man suddenly feels as if he is on top of the world! He feels unworthy of this lady’s affection. Perhaps because he is shy, or he doesn’t have money, or if he is in school his grades aren’t that good, but he certainly does not feel worthless! He feels like he is worth a million dollars!
Now imagine that this young man is the average human, and the young lady is God who wants an intimate relationship with the man despite his failure to measure up. That is exactly how it is with God and man. We are sinners, which simply means that we don’t measure up and God is out of our league. See my blog post “But It’s Not Cool to Talk About Sin.“ Sin is simply missing the mark. Rebelling. Our imperfect human nature would put us out of the league of God if He didn’t want us so badly. But since He does, we are far from worthless. We are valued more than a million, more than a zillion dollars, by God Himself! The Bible does not teach that we are worthless. On the contrary, according to Scripture we are made in His image, a little lower than heavenly beings, and so much the object of His love that He sent His Son to us so that we could be His forever! Does that sound like the Bible teaches that we are worthless? Of course not!
Still, a major vein in Christianity, commonly known as Calvinism, after the teaching of reformist John Calvin (1509-1564), teaches that the natural state of humans is “Total Depravity.“ Calvinists point to scriptural references which describe humans who have not accepted the Salvation of Christ as “dead“ in sin. If the word “dead“ is to be taken almost literally, then the sad state of the unsaved human is indeed total and depraved.
While I respect everyone’s right to their own belief system, I am moved to say that this way of thinking is very dangerous. It has been used to destroy the self-esteem of many impressionable people, and it has driven many others away from the Christian faith. It is much too easy for advocates of Calvinism to dismiss this loss by saying “They were just not a part of God’s elect.“
We are all worth much, because God created us and loves us. All of us. Without limits or consideration of whether we are “good enough“. This should be the Gospel message that we preach. We are all precious and chosen by God.
Wives must submit to their husband’s authority.
My husband and I were having problems, so we went to our pastor for counselling. After hearing us, the pastor said one problem was my unwillingness to submit to my husband’s authority. I told the pastor and my husband that was not going to happen. The pastor said therefore there was nothing he could do to help us.
Modern day Christians who believe that wives should submit to their husbands are quick to point out that according to the Christian model of the family, the husband should put the wife’s needs and desires first, and then he should make the final decision. I wonder how often it really works like that. It still leaves the man as having authority over the woman.
For generations, in fact for hundreds of years, the normative pattern for nuclear families in the western world has been for husbands to have authority over other family members, including their wives. Of course, there have been kind and gentle men with this authority, such as my own father. And then there were men who used their authority to control and/or abuse their wives. But most men never questioned the notion that they were the head of the marriage. And perhaps most women never questioned it either. Seemingly, it worked, as today many people nostalgically look back to a simpler time and call it “The Good Old Days“ or “The Golden Age of Marriage and the Family.“ Was it really that good or golden? Not until 1993 was it a crime in all 50 states for a man to rape his wife!
Whether our age-old normative patterns really worked for everyone or not, things have changed. While in bygone days people rarely questioned whether men should rule in homes, we have drifted into an era of passioned reaction to the movement of Women’s Liberation, perceived by conservative Christians as liberal, anti-Christian, and anti-family. Male headship and female submission have therefore been raised above being a folkway and promoted to being a demand, a dogma, a belief something is very wrong if a Christian couple is not practicing it. And women are actually being counselled by clergy, even female clergy, to submit to their husbands in order to fix the problems of their marriage. It doesn’t work, and it’s very dangerous.
All of this is a result of a misunderstanding of ideas put forth in the epistles of the New Testament attributed to Paul and Peter. And the fact that through the history of the church, and even today, most persons who have power and authority in the church have been men.
It is very doubtful that Paul or Peter, or God for that matter, cared about who “wore the pants“ in the family. Men did. In the cultures of the Hebrews as well as the Greeks and Romans, that was never questioned. In fact, in Hebrew culture women were at least respected as humans. In Greek/Roman culture, women were considered property. The biblical writers felt no need to persuade couples to let men have the authority. Even if they cared about such an arrangement, they didn’t have to tell people to practice it. The interest of Paul and the early Christian church was to persuade men to love their wives, rather than regard them as property or as someone to control (Eph 5:25, Col 3:19, 1 Pet 3:7).
I personally cannot understand why a husband would even want a submissive wife.
The body is shameful.
I got a job as a nude model for an art class. My family told me that a Christian should not have a job like that. When I explained that it was not about sex but about art, my family said that whenever I expose myself to any man other than my husband or my doctor, it was shameful.
How the idea that the body is shameful became a part of Christian teaching is beyond my understanding. According to the third chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve became ashamed of their nakedness and hid from God supposedly because they were naked. But it is made clear in the story that this shame was a result of their fall, of their sin. The shame was not part of God’s plan.
Probably the most well known scripture concerning the body and its value is Romans 12:1. I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. This obviously means that this body that has such value should be cared for and not abused. The author of this passage, Paul, came from the Jewish/Hebrew tradition which emphasized oneness of the body, soul, and spirit. Of course, much of Paul’s teaching seems to follow the Greek philosophical tradition of duality between flesh and spirit. Many Pauline passages admonish us to live by the Spirit and not gratify the desires of the flesh. I see this as Paul’s effort to speak to the Greek and Roman world in terms they could understand. But nowhere in his biblical writings did Paul call the flesh evil. He taught that the flesh should be under the control of the Holy Spirit.
There are definitely biblical teachings that warn against sexual immorality, but these teachings do not say that sex itself is shameful. And there is something to be said for modesty of dress and refraining from exposing private parts of the body in public. These restraints follow cultural norms and there is nothing necessarily wrong or shameful about these folkways and mores. But shame of the body is in no way biblical, and it has no place in what the church should teach.
Homosexuality is an abomination.
My friend’s son confided to his parents that he thought he was gay. My friend took him to see the pastor of their church. The pastor advised the parents to get the boy into conversion therapy as soon as possible. Before they could do this, it was too late. Their son commited suicide.
Homosexuality has two meanings. It often refers to sexual preference for members of one’s own gender. Most people today accept the fact that one’s sexual preference or orientation is not something one has control over.
Homosexuality can also refer to sexual activity involving members of the same gender. Of course, homosexual activity does not have to involve people with a homosexual orientation. And people with a homosexual orientation might be celibate, just as heterosexual people might be celibate. Some conservative Christians teach that if one discovers that he or she is gay, they can still live a moral life if they remain, with God’s help, celibate. And most who teach this are heterosexual. I am sure this includes refraining from lustful thoughts and sexual fantasies about members of the same sex. Alledgedly, some gay Christians are successful in being voluntarily celibate. I find it doubtful that this is a realistic goal for many people.
Christians who believe that homosexual behavior is immoral can point to scant scriptural evidence that supports their position. Of course, as far as we know, Jesus never said a word about it. But does that mean that a person does not have the right to believe and teach that homosexual behavior is wrong?
I would say that the issues of homosexuality, including same-sex marriage and the ordination of gays as clergy, should be a subject of open conversation within the church. All Christian churches, with the probable exception of the Metropolitan Community Church, have a majority of heterosexuals in their membership. As a heterosexual, I feel that I have a right to my own beliefs about what is right and wrong, but I know I am standing on shaky ground if I condemn a behavior that I have never even been tempted to indulge in. It is far too easy for me to refer to the sexual behavior of gays as an abomination, yet regard my own sexual sins as benign. I might believe that homosexuals should be celibate, but I do not know what it is like to be gay. Nor would I be receptive if my church told me that as a heterosexual that I should be celibate. I have enough on my plate trying to stay away from the wrongs that I am tempted to commit.
When religious people come down strongly against homosexual behavior, the results can be devastating for making Christian disciples. The Trevor Project (www.thetrevorproject.org) reports that LGB youth contemplate suicide almost 3 times more than straight youth. LGB youth from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to attempt suicide as LGB youth from families with low levels of rejection.
Whether homosexual behavior is immoral should be a matter of personal conviction and conversation within the church. Many churches have official statements condemning homosexual behavior. One might shrug that away, saying that these churches also have statements condemning other behaviors, including premarital sex, which their members have violated for generations without much guilt or animosity toward their church. There is a difference, though. One might partake of premarital sex and simply hear their church say that what they are doing is wrong. It is easy for one to just say they disagree with the church’s stance. But when a Christian denomination condemns homosexuality, it sends the message to homosexuals that the church not only condemns what they are doing but who they are, as sexuality is so much a part of one’s very self-identity. Few teens would take their own lives because their youth pastor tells them what they are doing with their girlfriend or boyfriend of the opposite sex is wrong. But the condemnation of their homosexual behavior is often seen as a condemnation of ones very nature.
Our Rescue Mission
I earlier stated that one should respect the beliefs of others, unless others believe they need to compel persons to have the same theology as they, or they do the others use their beliefs to control or oppress. We have many brothers and sisters in the faith who believe that the Bible is inerrant, whose theology is acted out in love, compassion, and respect of others. We should in turn respect them.
Recall that I mentioned the need for conversation about issues Christians disagree on. A healthy conversation involves people listening to each other, being willing to learn from each other, and respecting each other. Different sides of issues are considered. Unfortunately, there are many conversations among Christians where the different views are not expressed, either because conversants aren’t aware of these views, don’t have these views, or disdain these views.
I think that one important calling of non-fundamentalists such as yourself, if you share my views, is to be a part of the conversations of Christians. To gently let people know that there are different ways of believing within the family of God. To encourage others who are feeling shut out of the church because their theology is different. To offer reasons that it is healthy to have beliefs that are a little bit different.
Making disciples is a continuous project, because disciples need to grow and mature. When disciples encounter stumbling blocks that cause them to question what they might have been taught to believe, or what others in their community of faith seem to believe, they need encouragement to continue in their quest. I suggest that such encouragement is something people like us can offer.
If God does indeed have a right to destroy us, was His inclination to do so satisfied because His Son volunteered to be destroyed instead? And will God send us to Hell if we do not believe that myth that He sent His Son to die? I just do not think that is what a loving Father would do.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18).
After choosing the title “Making Sense of the Cross,” I had second thoughts about it. I realize that the Cross is central to the Christian faith. But to be honest, I cannot make sense of it. There is no way that I can figure out why it is essential for our salvation. God is able to save us simply because He loves us unconditionally and wants a relationship, right? And we know that what God wants, God gets. Well, maybe not. And perhaps making sense of the Cross should not be about figuring out the formula of how it worked to save our souls, but just about how we can find a handle to hold on to the mystery of what theologians say is one of God’s most essential acts.
Just why did Jesus die on the Cross? Historians would tell us it is because He was perceived as an enemy to the Romans and therefore to the Jews who desired relative peace with Rome. Many Jews in Jerusalem, particularly those in high religious positions, knew that rebels had in the past incited the Romans to attack and massacre not only the inciter of revolution but thousands of innocents who were suspected of sympathizing with the rebel. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, and to many this sounded as if He was calling for a replacement of the Empire of Rome. The Jewish leaders knew that Jesus had been collecting a large following, because word of His healings and other miracles had spread. Perhaps the triumphant entry into Jerusalem just a week before His death was the last straw for them. If Jesus’ Jewish enemies had believed that Jesus might indeed be successful in overthrowing Rome, things might have been different. But other “messiahs” weren’t successful and ended up being put to death by Rome, leading to the ransacking of entire Jewish towns and the deaths of many Jews. Why should this Jesus be any different? Jesus was a dangerous man. The Romans did not crucify people for teaching others to be kind and to love one another. They crucified people who were perceived as dangers to the Roman Empire. That is why Jesus was crucified.
But is that all there is? It is overwhelmingly evident that the Cross has central to the Christian faith throughout the two millennia of Christian history. You find crosses everywhere you go within the modern church. You are told that if you say you believe in the Gospel, you believe that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins and our salvation.
Jesus died on the Cross for my sins. Or so it is said. Another way of saying it is that the Cross accomplished atonement. At-one-ment. Reconciliation to God. Just how does that work? The Jesus of the four gospels really does not address the question of why he had to die. He simply tells His disciples that He must die and will rise on the third day. John’s gospel records Him giving a vague hint of the reason for His death: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23-24). He died so that the fruit of the Gospel could multiply. That still leaves us with many unanswered questions. Most of our theology of the Cross comes from Paul’s epistles and traditions that evolved through the history of the church. While there are several theological models for understanding atonement and the Cross, you might find it hard or impossible to make sense of them. If you Google “Theories of Atonement” you find a number of ways they are classified. But they do seem to fall into three major categories:
One, the theory that because of our sin, Satan owns our destiny, but Jesus’ obedience and death on the Cross, Christ won the final victory over Satan’s power. It is not really clear how this victory was accomplished. Perhaps by the Resurrection, which of course was an overcoming of death. This is called the “Christus Victus,” or simply the “Victory” theory. It might be a modification of a similar model, called the “Ransom” theory, which says Jesus’ death paid to Satan the ransom that Satan required in order to free us from bondage to him. These theories are both believed to be among the earliest and are usually attributed to the early church founders. If you are accustomed to attending western Christian churches, you have probably heard it proclaimed that “Jesus’ death accomplished victory over Satan.” You may not be familiar with the “Ransom” theory, but you have come across it if you have read C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In this story Aslan the Lion, who represents Christ, wants to rescue the boy Edmund from the White Witch, who represents Satan. Edmund has betrayed Aslan and the other children in the story. But the White Witch reminds Aslan of the great magic that was set up at the very beginning of time, that he who betrays Aslan will belong to the White Witch. Therefore, the White Witch claims Edmund as her own and plans to kill him. After a long session of negotiation, Aslan gets the witch to agree to release Edmund if he, Aslan, is killed in his place. The White Witch just cannot resist the opportunity to put the great Aslan to death, and so the lion is killed. The children and their friends mourn, knowing that their beloved lion is dead, but eventually Aslan comes to them, resurrected!
The second group of theories include the “Satisfaction” and “Substitution” theories. They are similar to the first group but claim that God, not Satan, required something in order to accomplish atonement with humanity. While the “Satisfaction” theory is sometimes attributed to Anselm of Canterbury, who lived from 1034 until 1109, the theory is really rooted in the traditions of sacrifice among the Jews. The Israelites were commanded in the Law of Moses to make offerings and sacrifices, for various reasons, to appease God. These sacrifices did satisfy God, but His people believed they were obligated to make them on a regular basis, until the early church proclaimed that the final and sufficient sacrifice had been made by Jesus on the Cross. I find this theory very rich in biblical tradition, but many people of the modern era, including myself, would have difficulty finding meaning in it. But as the ideas of justice, payment for wrongs, and punishment continued to be a part of western culture, theologians of the 16th Century came to the rescue with a similar theory, “Penal Substitution.” It suggests that because of our sin, God’s justice required our punishment, but God in His mercy sent His son to take that punishment instead of us sinners. This is probably the most common theory taught, preached, and set to music in the Western church today. When I researched it, though, I could not find much biblical grounding for it. While it seems to be a cousin of the Hebrew-Jewish sacrifice tradition, nowhere in the Scripture do I find a suggestion that the object being sacrificed is being punished. And little if any suggestion that in the Crucifixion, God the Father was punishing His Son. And of course one naturally wonders why a loving father would have his son killed because of his anger at those who are not his children.
Finally, a third theory says that Christ died in order to influence humankind toward moral betterment, and to show how much God loved us. This is usually called the “Moral Influence” theory. It was formulated by Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and became popular during the Enlightenment. In this theory, no principle of Justice was satisfied, but humankind was shown the extent God was willing to endure suffering because of His great love for humankind despite its sinfulness. And it is a call for all of us who would follow Jesus to take up our own cross daily (see Luke 9:23).
There is yet another theory I want to mention, the “Recapitulation” theory, which does not clearly fall into one of the above three groups and is not well known in the Roman Catholic or Protestant Churches. This theory states that Christ, by His obedience, undid the effects of Adam’s disobedience. As the “New Adam,” Jesus changed the nature of man from fallen, disobedient, unrighteous, to righteous. This theory has traditionally been popular in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
I personally struggle to make sense of any of these models. Paul wrote that the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but is the power of God to those of us who know Christ. I would add that while it may not be foolishness to us believers, it is confusing. And through the centuries, theologians have come up with these theories of atonement in order to explain it. But none of them adequately answer for me the question of why Jesus had to die on the Cross so that I can be saved.
I was nearly grown before I ever really wondered why Jesus died. Like any child who grew up in the American Bible Belt, I saw many churches, and I saw crosses in every one. I learned early that the most important symbol of our faith was a cross. I learned that Jesus was nailed to one. I never wondered why: it was just obvious to me that He had enemies. And I certainly did not imagine the pain that Jesus endured while He hung on that cross. Since we were Protestant and lived in America, the crosses I saw were empty. When I first noticed a cross showing a crucified Jesus, my mother explained that while these were popular in the Catholic Church, we Protestants like empty crosses, because we believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Mama added that while Catholics also believed that Jesus rose, we Protestants like to emphasize that by displaying an empty cross. This explanation satisfied me at the time. And through my developing years, I cultivated the idea that how Jesus died did not really matter. The fact that he was resurrected was what really made the difference in who He was.
Then one day I asked a Catholic why their church liked crosses showing a crucified Jesus. I was told that was so we would not miss the fact that Jesus was really human, that He was threatening to the officials in government and in the Jewish religion, and that He really suffered greatly for us. Not only did He rise for us and go to prepare a place for us, He suffered and died for us. I then began to consider the possibility that we American Protestants missed something by displaying all our crosses empty, cleansed from all the pain and death.
There have been attempts by writers and other artists to make us more aware of Jesus’ experience of rejection and pain. One of the best known today is the 2004 film by Mel Gibson The Passion of the Christ. This movie showed enough blood and gore to earn an “R” rating. It was probably as good a portrayal of what crucifixion was like as was possible on the screen. It was painful to watch, so painful to some that they were not able to watch it to the end, or they chose to forego seeing it altogether. I heard reports of non-believers being won to Christ by having seen the film, but this surprised me. I thought that while the film did a pretty good job showing what Jesus went through, it never answered the question of “Why.” And that is the question that must be posed in order to proclaim the message of the Cross.
Now when I reflect on the question of why the Cross is important, I remind myself that I believe that it is part of the whole reason God came as Emmanuel in the first place. God came to be one of us, but He did not come to be one who is privileged, or even one who has a pretty good life. When Emmanuel came, he was born to one of the poorest families, and He had to endure rejection by the most prominent members of His society, the label of a terrorist, and the horrible death that terrorists against Rome at that time were subjected to. Of course, all of this was a product of sin. The sin of imperial power and oppression, and the sin of acquiescence to this power. So when He became one of us and identified with the human race, he not only came to share with us the agony of urgent temptation, the pain of poverty, of imperial oppression, of loneliness, and of rejection, but also the pain of violence and death which was the pain of the Cross. And since I can believe in the Resurrection, I can believe that He was victorious over all this. It was God’s act of identifying with us and enduring with us all that we are subject to that saves us. That is how I try to make sense of the Cross.
But I suppose the early Christians in the Roman Empire had a greater ability to appreciate what the Cross meant than we moderns do. Most of the crosses they saw were ugly and fearful, and sometimes dying people and dead bodies hung on them. We moderns think of shiny objects made of gold or brass, jewelry or adornments in a house or church. Perhaps to really understand what Jesus went through in order to be one of us, we need a story that resonates with our own experience of love, rejection and sin.
There are some stories and films that are truly Christian stories that will never find their way into a Christian bookstore or be shown as part of a church sponsored Bible study. The 1979 film Hardcore tells of Jake Van Dorn, a successful businessman in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the single parent of a teenage daughter named Kristen. Kristen goes on a church youth trip to California and inexplicably does not return. The distraught Van Dorn hires a private investigator to try to find her, and the investigator finds a pornographic film featuring Kristen and two men. Van Dorn first endures the pain of having to watch the film and identify the girl as his daughter. Then he has to wait while neither the private investigator nor the police can turn up further clues on Kristen’s whereabouts. Van Dorn assumes she was kidnapped by members of the porn underworld. So, Van Dorn himself embarks on an odyssey, visiting porn shops and massage parlors in Los Angeles, actually hiring prostitutes just to have an audience and show Kristen’s picture, asking if they had seen her. When it became apparent that this would turn up nothing, Van Dorn himself poses as a pornography producer and goes through the motions of recruiting casts and crews for pornographic films. And of course, as Van Dorn rubs elbows with members of this sinful, sleazy underworld, we feel the pain he must be experiencing as he sees what his daughter is embroiled in. Finally, he finds Kristen and tells her he has come to rescue and take her home. But Kristen rejects him, saying that she joined the porn industry voluntarily and wants to stay. A physically and emotionally exhausted Jake Van Dorn finally tells her that he will not force her to leave. Finally, Kristen relents, says that her father can stay, and the film ends with hope that father and daughter can repair their relationship.
When I first saw this film I liked it, but until recently, the fact that it describes something about Jesus never occurred to me. Then one day as I was thinking about how Jesus might have born our sin for us, I suddenly remembered seeing this film about 38 years earlier. What Van Dorn walked through because he loved his daughter must be like what Jesus endures because He loves us. The ugliness of our sin. The pain of realizing that this is the world in which God’s son or daughter is imprisoned in. The driving will to rescue that son or daughter at any cost.
Okay, here is what I have to conclude, or at least what I choose to conclude. Reader, you may choose not to see the Cross as significant to your faith. It is the power of God to me, but, that is only true for me when I give up trying to figure it out. All of these theories of atonement were human attempts to analyze Jesus’ death and what it accomplished, and they were developed years after Jesus’ actual death. And I must add that this did not begin after the end of the biblical period, but it began with Paul and his writings, some of which became accepted as Scripture. Christians understand them in either of two ways. One, as formulas, definite answers to burning questions about why the Son of God had to endure crucifixion and what it accomplished. Or two, as metaphors that we humans with our limitations might use in order to better relate to God and His grace. It seems to me that when one regards them as formulas or explanations of God and what He does, they fall way short. Not one of them has emerged as the explanation of the Cross that Christianity accepts. That is not only because of their limits as man-made conjecture, but also because Scripture does not clearly support one over any of the others.
In Kee Sloan’s novel Jabbok, Jacob (Jake) Jefferson, a character who might be modeled after Jacob of the Old Testament, remarks that “Being faithful has more to do with asking questions than having answers.” Jake explains that people think they need answers so that they can control things, not so they can have faith. As a faithful believer, I will continue to have questions, and the doctrines and theology of the Cross will guide my questions rather than provide answers. To be willing to live life with many unanswered questions, yet trust God with these questions, takes a tremendous amount of faith and courage. In the final analysis, the power of the Cross is mystery. I do not understand it. Even Saint Paul did not thoroughly understand it. Only God understands it. And He loves us so much that He is willing to rescue us at any cost.
Does God really get mad at us when we do something to offend Him and think He has a right to destroy us? Are most of us really that bad? I certainly don’t think I am. To me, this notion that I am a sinner is just baloney.
Have you ever been given a Gospel tract? Chances are that when you opened it, if you got that far with it, you read a sentence that said “You are a sinner.” If you can remember a time when you were not a believer, try to see yourself at that time opening this tract and reading that you are a sinner. Do you read any further? Or do you throw the tract in the trash?
In truth, I believe that the fact we are sinners is the starting point of our faith. When Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome, he was writing to a people he was yet to visit. They had not yet heard him teach or preach, and as far as we know, they had never received a letter from Paul. Therefore, in his letter to the Romans, Paul strove to give them a synopsis of Christian theology as he saw it, from start to finish. From the beginning, Paul reminded them that whether they are Gentile or Jew, they have sinned.
But as we know, in the twenty-first century, it is very difficult to convince non-believers that they are sinners. And that is probably because the popular definition of “sin” is false. We think that “a sin” is something we do, that is often a lot of fun for us, that pisses off an anthropomorphic God and makes Him want to punish us, but He has to forgive us because that’s His nature. With that definition of “sin” in mind, it is no wonder we don’t take it seriously and don’t even want to talk about it except in a joking way. Most people can remember things they have done that violated a commandment from the Bible. Perhaps they used God’s name in vain when they stumped their toe. Or they looked at an attractive person and thought about sex. But it is easy to rationalize such behavior, concluding that no person was hurt or offended. Certainly God was not offended! And almost anyone can come up with instances where they have offended another person. But most of the time, the notion that they offended God never occurred to them. After all, He is a forgiving God.
So how do we convince others that they need a Savior? For that matter, how do we convince ourselves? Perhaps, we are tempted to conclude, we don’t need a Savior. After all, from what do we need saving?
Let’s begin to explore this by setting aside the idea that our sins offend God. Not that they don’t. But if God is offended, we might ask why it would concern us. Let’s approach the subject by examining our own need to love, to be loved, and to escape separation, aloneness, and meaninglessness.
See if you can think of a time when you really felt bad about something you chose, thought, or intended. I will share with you two stories from my own past.
When I was very young, before I was old enough to begin school, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house. One day I found a pair of scissors and for some reason decided to experiment with them. I found that my grandmother had laid out one of her dresses on the bed, and she was out of the room. I picked up a section of the dress to feel the soft fabric. For some reason I thought that cutting a hole in it, one too small to notice, would be a harmless act. As harmless as seeing a cake on the counter and taking a bite. So, I took the scissors and snipped off a little piece. My grandmother came into the room and discovered what I had done. She was very upset and told me it was one of her favorite dresses. All I could do was sit on the side of the bed and be very sad while I watched my grandmother bury her face in the dress and weep bitterly. I don’t remember being punished for my action, but seeing my beloved grandmother cry like that was its own punishment. It made me feel so lonely, so separated from her love, so longing for the assurance of it that I was used to having.
The other story I want to share was about an incident that occurred when I was in high school, far too obsessed with being accepted by others and liked by girls. Being accepted was a struggle, and I had very few dates. But one guy who I thought really liked me had a reputation of being so wild that my parents forbade me to hang around him. His name was Roger. One day Roger asked me to hang out with him on a certain evening, because he said his girlfriend wanted to fix me up with a girl who was really hot looking and really easy. I could not resist the invitation! I didn’t tell my parents I was going anywhere with Roger, but I told them I had a date and needed to borrow the car. I figured I had told them the truth. But when they asked me the name of the girl I was dating, I had to make one up. The awaited night came, and Roger and I went to his girlfriend’s house. Sonja, the girl I was to be with, was to meet us there. (Sonja was not her real name. I made that one up, too). But when we arrived at the girlfriend’s house, we learned that there had been a mix-up in communication. Sonja already had a date for that night. But she did come by, I met her, and we made plans to get together on another night, one month from then. And Sonja did look fine! And Roger told me she was really easy! I could hardly wait. Sonja left, and Roger and I spent the rest of the evening cruising around town, not really doing much of anything, having fun but avoiding trouble. Of course, the next day my parents asked me how my date went, and I had to make something up.
About a week later, I was sitting in “study hall” class and noticed a photo in a newspaper that a student who sat in front of me was reading. The picture was of a girl who looked very familiar, and when I drew closer for a better look, I could see that it was a photo of Sonja. Underneath the photo was her name. I pointed to the picture and remarked, “I know that girl.” My fellow student looked at me grimly and said, “You do?” She turned back to the front page that ran the story so I could see the headlines. Sonja’s mother had murdered her with a baseball bat!
The effects this incident had on me came gradually. First, I had to keep my secret for the next few months while the horrible murder was one of the main topics of conversation in the city. My parents talked about how tragic it was. I could say nothing. How I wanted to! My lies had created a wall between me and my parents.
Besides hurting my relationship with my parents, my actions made me feel really bad about myself. Haunting memories of the incident lingered. When I was older, I came to the realization that many women are promiscuous because they are desperate for love. Sonja had to be desperate. And of course sexual promiscuity does not bring love but instead drives one deeper and deeper into disappointment and desperation. Sonja may have been easy, but there was probably a tragic reason, and I was haunted by the fact that my intentions had been not to give her the respect and companionship that she needed but to exploit her vulnerability for my own pleasure. Ideally, I might have helped her. She needed to know that she was loved. Instead, she died. I needed to extend love to another person. Instead, I kept a secret and came to feel that I had played a part in her death. Separation, aloneness, and meaningless were the victors.
I have just given you a picture of sin, not as an act but as a human condition. It is a rebellion against the God who loves us, and it threatens to sever our relationship with Him. As Papa, the character who represents God the Father in William Young’s novel The Shack said, “Sin is its own punishment.” Tell people they need to be saved from sin and they may not listen to you. Start by listening to them. Help them find salvation from aloneness, meaninglessness, and despair, and they respond. Love them, and then tell them they are loved unconditionally by God. People will come to realize that it is the attitudes they have and the choices they make that cause them to not fully experience this unconditional love.
There is no better biblical picture of sin than the stories of the Original Sin, of the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Now, please don’t let your unbelief in the historicity of these stories prevent you from grasping their true meaning. They tell of the reason for our sin nature and its consequences. I do not believe that God created humans with the intent that they be sinful, and I do not believe that there was a brief time in history when humans were sinless. I don’t see the fall of humankind in terms of time. When I speak of Original Sin, I am not speaking of the “first” sin but the “basic” sin.
Humans were created in the image of God. No one really understands what this means, but the writer states it in Genesis 1:26-27: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. Then in the second account of creation, God tells the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:15).
What happened after that, it seems to me, was inevitable. Humans, sensing that they were special creations, the image of God, decided they wanted more. They wanted to be God. While God intended for them to serve and have fellowship with Him, they decided to usurp His power. So they partook of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In other words, they adopted a lifestyle of determining for themselves what was good and what was evil, instead of submitting to God. Isn’t this basically what the sin condition of humankind really is, both today and in history? Isn’t it basically our insistence on being God, rather than submitting ourselves to Him? As John Eldredge wrote, in his classic book about manhood Wild at Heart, “There’s a part of us fiercely committed to living in a way where we do not have to depend on anyone—especially God.” We talk about our sins, as the plural form of the word suggests, acts that are against what God would have us to do. But “sins” are really symptoms, or behavioral manifestations, of something far deeper—sin. Sin, in the singular form. Sin, the insistence on living in a way that we do not have to depend on God.
And what does this insistence on independence do? It severs a relationship. When we wrong another person, it hurts our relationship with that person. When we wrong God, it hurts our relationship with God. Ultimately, it leads to aloneness. Meaninglessness. We no longer have fellowship, we are no longer partners, and we no longer serve God.
It is common today for Christians to believe that God created humans for a relationship with Him. This might be true, although I do not see this clearly in the Genesis accounts. It seems that according to one of the Genesis writers, God created humans to have dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26). Yet God definitely had a relationship with Adam and Eve in the Garden. But nowhere does the Bible say that after they were expelled from the Garden, they ceased to have a relationship with God. God’s desire for an intimate relationship with us is expressed throughout the Bible. While the quality of this relationship varies among individuals and circumstances, it is evident to me that the major factor that hinders the relationship is man’s rebelliousness and disobedience. And the major factor that restores it is God’s forgiveness and human’s repentance.
She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.” (John 8:11a)
My problem with forgiveness is that I take it for granted. Because indeed it is granted, absolutely free of charge to me! My exposure to Christianity has been so skewed toward the “Grace” end, as opposed to the “Judgment” end, that it is difficult for me to think about forgiveness as a serious issue. If I do something wrong I might worry that others might not forgive me. But of course, God will forgive me! God does not want to punish me. I never believed He did.
I am coming to a new appreciation of forgiveness, though, as I learn to see sin as a hindrance to relationship. I believe God has emotions. In many places, the Bible describes God being angry, sad, and taking pleasure. I don’t think God has emotions in the same way that I do. The ways God’s personality is described in the Scriptures is metaphorical, I believe. However, I also believe that metaphor is a very useful and true way to think of something that is as big and mysterious as God. So if God gets angry sometimes and sad sometimes, it follows that these emotions are triggered by the sin of those He loves. I picture God weeping over my sin, as my grandmother did after I cut her dress. I remember how her weeping made me feel that day. It made me wonder if she would send me home, tell my mother, never let me come see her again, or simply ignore me for the rest of the week. These fears really bothered me. Imagine the relief I felt when soon after the incident, Granny made it clear to me that she loved me as before. That our relationship had not changed. While I never forgot that “sin” against my grandmother, I also will always remember the joy I felt that our love for each other continued. That was a forgiveness that I did not take for granted!
I am learning to see God and His reaction to my sin as I remember the way my grandmother wept that day. I broke Granny’s heart. I break God’s heart. I picture God weeping the same way that my grandmother did. Granny didn’t punish me. She didn’t tell my mother. Seeing Granny weep so bitterly as she covered her face with that dress was its own punishment. And the relief of experiencing the relationship restored has become the way I am learning to think about God’s forgiveness. I also picture God weeping as Sonja was used and abused, even weeping over my intention of using her, though the intention was never carried out. It still broke God’s heart. And today I rejoice that I am aware that though I’ve broken God’s heart, He still loves me and calls me into a relationship with Him.
I am also beginning to see God’s forgiveness as the essential element of my forgiveness of self. The Bible does not really contain a commandment that we forgive ourselves. But failure to forgive oneself is toxic, and it is essentially failure to accept God’s forgiveness of oneself.
“Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:11b)
Repentance means turning away. Intending to never go there again. If breaking God’s heart troubles me, it only makes sense that I would decide to turn away from whatever caused His heart to break. However, repentance has been something I have struggled with even more than forgiveness. Desiring to turn away is not difficult. But sometimes I find that though I decide to turn away from an area of sin, I know that soon I will sin in the same way again. Apparently, I desire the sin more than the turning away!
I think that most Christians can point to an area of sin in their life that they know that they can’t stop. For some this area might be not forgiving someone who has wronged them. For others it might be greed or envy. There is sin that haunts me as well. I don’t like it, I can turn away from it, but I know that I will be back.
It is not easy for me to make myself vulnerable like this. Many people turn away from listening to Christians who seem to know for sure what they believe and live it effectively. Especially those who say they believe everything in the Bible without question. But if you are willing to be vulnerable and admit that you struggle with a sin issue, many people, including many who are unsure whether they want to believe in Christ, will see you as a lot like they are and will find it refreshing and encouraging!
I, like many I think, have taken comfort in Romans 7:15-20: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. This passage gives many Christian sinners a feeling of relief, that though there are sins that they are addicted to and cannot resist, they are no different from the Apostle Paul himself.
I have really come to doubt whether the Christian should understand the passage in this way. When one studies other writings of Paul, including other sections of his letter to the Romans, it is evident that Paul believes that a person who is in Christ, who lives not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit, is no longer a slave to any kind of sin. The person might sin, but sin does not enslave the person. The person feels remorse, asks forgiveness, receives it, and repents.
Let us return to the passage in Romans chapter 7. Read through the end of the chapter and realize that in verses 15-20, Paul is not describing all of himself. He is describing what he often refers to as the “old man,” the “flesh,” or the “sinful self.” Verses 24 and 25 say, Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Paul, then, does not leave us with only a description of his sinful self. Paul says he has been rescued! Not by his own willpower to resist sin but by Jesus Christ. His message in this and other letters in the Scripture is that a true follower of Christ Jesus can indeed be rescued from the body of death which is slavery to sin.
This does not make me feel good about my own journey of faith. I am able to repent and largely stay away from many things that are wrong. But there is at least one area that I often decide to turn away from, knowing all the time that I will be back. I feel that I am a slave to it. It makes me wonder if I have the right to call myself a Christian at all. The Bible says that I can be free, and it says that I cannot rescue myself. Only God can rescue me. Sometimes my attitude has been to simply give up and wait. Since I cannot stop myself, all I can do is continue to sin and wait for God to act!
Now I see three major points of view among Christians concerning freedom from sin. One view is that while a true Christian will occasionally sin, a person who is in Christ can never be a slave to sin. This means that true Christians are not alcoholics, porn addicts, or drug addicts. Because an addict is a slave. A second view is that after one accepts his salvation through Christ Jesus, a lifelong process of sanctification sets the person free. There are some passages of Paul’s writing where he seems to take this approach: Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:12). Finally, there is the view that freedom is simply accepting the grace of God’s forgiveness, rejoicing that because of this grace on can have an intimate friendship with God.
A starting point for my understanding of repentance and freedom was a study of Paul’s letter to the Romans, titled The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee. I started reading the book because I felt a hunger to understand Paul and if he really meant that Christians are free from the bondage of sin. Paul’s writings are confusing to me. Nee helped me see something I had neglected. There is a factor evident in Paul’s writing that stands between believing in Christ and His Grace, and allowing that Grace to free us from the bondage of sin. Paul talks about submitting to the Holy Spirit and being led by Him instead of being led by the flesh (our interest in our own happiness and success). I realized that while I had believed in the Holy Spirit and allowed Him to influence me, I had not allowed the Spirit to be number one all the time. I had not allowed Him to lead me. And there is no sugar coating this: when one allows something other than God to be one’s number one leader, it is idolatry. And it became clear to me. Only believers who give charge of their lives to the Holy Spirit can claim to be free from the bondage of sin.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. (Galatians 5:16-17).
God’s Bait and Switch
The things other than the Holy Spirit I was allowing to control me were my marriage, my sexuality, the success of my son, what others thought of me, and the success of my career. These are things that delight most Christians. But it seems that they become sinful when one gives them control over one’s life and one’s choices. It seems that most sin comes from seeking temporary solutions to our fulfillment and forgetting that full, complete fulfillment can come only from one’s relationship with God. Then the temporary solutions—marriage, family, money, career–become idols. Their evolution to idolatry can be very subtle. We might be led to believe that God wants our marriage to be happy, for us to be fulfilled sexually, for us to be wealthy, and for others to think well of us. Some are even attracted to the “Prosperity Gospel” of “Christianity” because it teaches that God wants us to have success and will give it to us. Perhaps God does want us to be successful. God does help us with our marriages, with parenting, and with our careers. God knows we desire these things. But we are mistaken if we assume that this is the ultimate abundant life that God assures us that we can have.
There is a verse in Psalm 37 that is comforting to me, but when I contemplate its meaning, it haunts me:
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4).
I recently commented on this verse in a conversation with my wife, and I remarked, “Of course, one’s desires might be very different after one decides to take delight in the Lord.” Burma, in her wisdom, said, “That sounds like a ‘Bait and Switch’ to me!” It is! I know that many seek God because of His promise of abundant life and eventually eternal life with Him. They are won over by the prospect of God making their marriage happy, or giving them success in business. But those who become mature in Christ find that these pursuits can lead to idolatry if they become things a person demands from God. And when marriage becomes an idol, one is vulnerable to seeking romantic and sexual fulfillment elsewhere when marriage doesn’t deliver. When career success becomes an idol, one is vulnerable to engaging in dishonest or predatory practices when hard work and intelligence alone do not deliver. What God really wants is an intimate relationship with us. It is in this relationship and in serving Him that the desires of our hearts are fulfilled.
So I am left with a disturbing question. Does the fact that I sometimes worship idols mean that I am not really a Christian? Well, read the two verses below and decide for yourself. I do not like what they imply. But that does not mean they are not the Truth.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24).
I am not yet to the point where I exclusively love and serve God. I am growing. And some days I get really frustrated. I think that is because truly submitting to God is the most difficult thing that a person is called to do! It requires trust that God will really do what He says He will do: give us through His grace everything we really need for fulfillment, which is to walk in close relationship and partnership with Him each day. And it requires that we give up our desire to control the other sources of happiness and fulfillment.
Now there is a major tenet of Christian doctrine about where this grace comes from that trips many of us up! While the starting point of sin is Adam and Eve desiring to be their own god, the starting point of freedom is God desiring to be human and experiencing humanity with us, even death on the Cross. The Cross is a theological stumbling block for many Christians and non-Christians alike, because we don’t understand it. Maybe the problem isn’t so much that we don’t understand it, but that we try too hard to understand it! But it is such a cornerstone of the Christian faith, that we cannot ignore it. That will be the subject of my next blog post.
If God is a person, or three persons in one, how can He personally love me and hear my prayers, at the same time He has relationships with and hears the prayers of billions of others? And am I just lucky to have been born at a time in history after God sent a Savior to save me from the horrible condemnation of humans that was caused by Adam and Eve? What if I had been born long before the time when Jesus came? Why would God leave humankind hopeless for thousands of years, just because of the disobedience of one man and one woman? These things just do not make sense to me.
Humans and other creatures live and move in time. The Greek word used in the New Testament that describes time that is most familiar to us is chronos, which means time according to the calendar, or a clock, or a sequence of events. Another word used is Kairos, which is used to refer to the “fullness of time,” or the “right time,” or “God’s special time.” The meaning of Kairos is mysterious. Many people understand it to mean a time in history when God chooses to act, or to do something very important. But, if it is God’s special time, is it just within history? Many theologians argue that God is outside of time, and that we perceive His actions as being a part of history, simply because that is the only way that humans can perceive His actions.
Because we are so accustomed to thinking in terms of time, most traditional Christian theological threads follow a time frame of reference. At a certain point in time, humans were all that God created them to be—good, and in close relationship with Him. Then at a later point in time, the humans committed a sin and severed this relationship. At yet another point in time, God came to us as Jesus to die on the Cross for our sin, and after three days Jesus rose from the dead. Therefore, when a human who puts his trust in Jesus dies, he will live forever in heaven. Then, at yet another point in time, Jesus will return to earth.
It is very evident to many Christians, and it is biblical, that God is active in history; in the history of His people as well as in our individual lives from our conception until our death. We have to live in a time framework, at least in this life. Our decisions and our actions are all in the context of time. We ask God to provide for our future. We ask Him to help us to get through circumstances we deal with in the present. And we trust Him because we remember what He has done for us in our past. The view that God acted in history is very clear in the writings of the Israelites, and some of the Psalms celebrate His actions. These writings and poems helped sustain their faith and trust. A wonderful example is Psalm 105:
He is the Lord our God;
His judgments are in all the earth.
He is mindful of his covenant forever,
Of the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations,
the covenant that he made with Abraham,
his sworn promise to Isaac,
which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant,
saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan
as your portion for an inheritance.” (vs. 7-11).
It goes on to describe many other events in history where God worked to save His people and keep His covenant with them. Scripture leaves no room to doubt that God is active in history.
Yet a theology that is based completely on this time and history frame of reference raises a number of questions, and some Christians have difficulties embracing it. God is certainly active in time. But is He bound by time, as we are? Time has a beginning that scientists today call the Big Bang. God has no beginning. And does God change through time, as He seems to through the history of the Bible? Or, is it His people and what is revealed to them that change? Theologians are still debating this. One difficulty in arguing that God operates outside of time is the fact that biblical writers had no concept of anything not being bound by time. So, some theologians argue that the view that God is not limited by time is unbiblical. They are right. The closest the Bible comes to saying He is outside of time is the word usually translated as “eternity,” or “eternal”—olam in Hebrew, aeonios in Greek, which does not mean “forever” but means “of the ages.” Still, an age is a period of time with a beginning and an end.
But what we know today convinces me that God, though he is active in our history, is not bound by time. Time is not an absolute measure of anything. As a youngster, I became fascinated with the theory that people on a spaceship approaching the speed of light will experience time and age much slower than humans back on earth. Astronauts on an interstellar voyage would return to earth to find their former peers much older than they are, or they might even return to find that their great-grandchildren are older than they are! Now we know that time and aging progresses differently even for people who live on earth at different altitudes. Modern physics tells us that in order for there to be time, there must be matter. God is not matter (although He voluntarily took on matter in the Incarnation). In fact, God created matter. And so, He created time. I am very comfortable with the theory that the universe began with the Big Bang, which is essentially the same as “God speaking the universe into existence.” But the amateur scientist is led to speculate “But what was before the Big Bang?” The question is asked simply because we humans tend to see everything within our experience of time. In truth, the phrase “Before the Big Bang” is meaningless. There was no “Before.” There was no time. Only “After the Big Bang” is meaningful. However, the beginning of God cannot be put anywhere in history. Nor can any of God’s truths.
If we recognize that God operates both in and outside of time, we can better grasp a theological world view that does not restrict God to some of the rigid structures of fundamentalist theology.
Obviously, the Bible was written about a period of history (as well as about a particular part of the world and a particular ethnic group). Many who form their theology through a time and history frame of reference are led to the conclusion that God changed over time. There is the jealous, judgmental, violent God that we see in some of the Old Testament, and then there is the kind, loving God that is also found in the Old Testament and that Jesus exemplified. Of course there are problems with the view that God changed, so theology is sometimes developed to show that while God Himself did not change, the way He relates to people changed. For instance, Jesus said “No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6b), but it is noted in Hebrews 11 that many characters of the Old Testament were saved by their faith. A school of theology called “Dispensationalism” maintains that in different ages of time, God administered His plan differently. “Dispensation” means an administration of affairs, or a way of dealing. Dispensationalists might argue that the statement in John 14 applies only to people living during and after the time it was spoken. In other words, beginning with Jesus, God required belief in His Son in order to enter heaven. So, God changes his requirements. God changes His mind. He changes His very nature.
This just doesn’t make sense to me, and it is confusing to many people. A case in point is the story of the flood in Genesis. God (though He knew that He would eventually redeem humankind by sending His Son), is sorry that He created people and decides to blot them out. He saves one family, the only one that found favor with Him. (Years later, of course, He chooses to save humans who do not find favor with Him through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross). I suppose that most Christians today do not find the flood narratives (Most scholars believe there were actually two narratives combined into one story) confusing, because we are so accustomed to them. But what about those who are not so familiar with the story? What about those who have only begun their faith journey and all they have read is the Gospel of John, which reads “For God so loved the world”? And what about impressionable children?
Before I even learned to read, my mother bought me a Bible story book and told me she would read the stories to me. I examined the book and saw that Mama had torn out some of the pages. She explained that there were some stories she thought would be confusing to children as young as I, and she did not want me to ask that she read me these stories. I later learned that these censored stories included those about Noah’s Ark and David and Goliath, two stories that we know are very popular with children. And inevitably, it wasn’t very long before I picked up these stories from other children, Sunday school, television, etc. My mother explained to me that she did not believe that God really killed people or wanted us to kill others. Her view was that the writers of these stories did not completely understand what God is like, and after Jesus came we understand Him better. Mama’s explanation made sense to me.
But consider the questions raised by a theology that says the flood narratives of Genesis are historically and literally true. Did the same God who created humans later change His mind and regret His decision? Did the same God who destroyed almost all of humankind later save all of humankind? And is the God who was interested only in saving the righteous (Noah and his family) later interested in saving those who are unrighteous?
Of course, theological camps have evolved that attempt to answer these questions. Dispensationalism is an example. I’m not saying that these views are wrong, but those that hold to a literal, inerrant interpretation of the Bible do not resonate with me. They may not with you, either, and certainly they do not for all people. My theology is much like that of my mother, whose views I have described. And I must say that my own perspective is but a human attempt to make sense out of the stories in the Bible. I must humbly admit that it is impossible for us humans to completely know the thoughts of God. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). However, I have developed an understanding that works for me.
A Christian theology that is not confined to a time and history frame of reference can teach that God and His nature are timeless. The Son of God is timeless. The Cross is timeless. The Resurrection is timeless. These simply emerged as events in history and are often perceived as new dispensations of God. God does not change, but people’s understanding of God changes.
God’s requirements do not change, but there is a sense in which I believe that through history God has changed the way He relates to His people. That is, God meets us where we are. And where we are changes through history and is also different among various cultural groups. Abraham did not know Jesus. He had never heard of a cross. However, he knew the same God known by both early and modern day Christians, which was the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (even though didn’t think of God as three persons). God could not save Abraham through his awareness of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but He chose to save Abraham by his faith. His faith was, as we know, demonstrated on Mount Moriah, where first God gave him the faith to sacrifice his son Isaac, and then showed him that only his faith was important, that Abraham did not need to follow through with the sacrifice of Isaac. He, God, would provide the sacrifice. Hebrews chapter 11 says that Abraham was saved by faith. I marvel at how little Abraham understood the way in which God really would provide the sacrifice! But Abraham simply believed. I think, in this way, Abraham was saved not by the sacrifice of his own son, but by the sacrifice of the Son of God. By the Cross. You may or may not believe that the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah is historically true. Regardless, I hope you see the Truth in it!
If the Truth of God is timeless, then He is not limited to acting one event at a time. He is not limited to listening to my prayer, then the prayer of my neighbor, then the prayer of someone in Africa, and so on. Indeed, millions of prayers are lifted to him simultaneously, within one human moment. The Son of God, the Cross, and Salvation through the Cross were in Eden, on Mount Moriah, in Babylon, in the early great civilizations of Asia and the Americas, and of course in Jerusalem the day Jesus was crucified. Acts of God that are timeless often simply make themselves visible at a specific place and time, and they are viewed only by those who are there to witness them, and they are known as history only if they are recorded as such.
In this writing I use the word inerrancy to mean that the Bible contains no errors. That every event it describes as history happened exactly the way it is written. That everything it says is fact, including those statements that contradict modern science. That everything the Bible says to do, we should do, and everything it tells us not to do, we should not do. Inerrancy is often seen as different from infallibility. Infallibility can be defined as the view that in matters of faith and practice, the Bible is true and completely sufficient. That this Bible can be trusted as a guide for faith and living a God-centered life. According to this understanding, I agree with infallibility but not inerrancy.
When I was a child, my mother told me where babies came from. Her explanation lacked detail, but it was the truth, and it was all I could handle or understand at that age. The story went something like this: “A husband and wife lie down together and feel so much love for each other that they decide to have a baby. A seed is planted in the mother’s tummy, where the tiny egg is, and the egg starts to grow into a baby, until months later the baby comes out through an opening at the mother’s bottom. The husband plays a part in planting the seed.”
While that was all true, my childhood imagination augmented the process. If I had been asked to write an account of baby making, I would probably have described how the husband got out of the bed, got the packet of baby seeds that he had ordered from the baby store, placed one in his wife’s bellybutton, and watered it.
I tell you this story, because I think it is a good analogy of how God gave us His Word, which was recorded in the Bible. Nowadays, there are many children’s books about where babies come from, and those meant for small children are similar to my mother’s account. They are truthful, and they are what children that age can comprehend. I think of the Bible as a children’s book, because the ancient Israelites were babes in their understanding of God, and in many ways we still are. God’s detailed thoughts could never have been recorded precisely in words, at least not words that humans could understand. Instead, God gave us the Truth in a form that we could comprehend. Can you imagine God telling the writers of Genesis about the Big Bang, the expansion of the universe, and the scientific principles of natural selection and how He used these to create the world? (That is assuming that these were the processes God used). The writers would be so confused that they either couldn’t write this down, or they would be bound to get it wrong!
I would like to help people understand my faith, but I have found that many people do not. One of the biggest misconceptions of people like me is that we accept parts of the Bible that we like and discard parts that we dislike. I will address this issue later. Right now, I’ll just say that some of the parts I don’t like have brought me the greatest blessings. And if you read the Bible with an open mind, you too will find that the more disturbing and difficult passages are those that speak most effectively to you. Do not accept people’s judgment that just because your theology is left of center that you discard parts of the Bible that you dislike.
Non-Inerrancy is a legitimate and reasonable view for Christians, and I wish to point out a few reasons why.
Inerrancy is not the predominant view of Christians in the U.S. Of course, that does not mean that there is anything wrong with belief in biblical inerrancy. Many people argue that very few of those who call themselves “Christians” truly are Christians, anyway. I wouldn’t disagree with this assertion, but I certainly do not think that inerrancy is what determines who is a Christian and who is not. Gallup polls from 2005-2007 reveal that 31% of Americans believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, but 41% agree with the statement “The Bible is the inspired Word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally.” Jeffrey Hadden, in a poll of 10,000 American clergy in 1987 found that in some denominations, 67-95% of clergy answered “No” to the statement “Do you believe that the Scriptures are the inspired and inerrant Word of God in faith, history, and secular mattersWhat this reveals is that those who see a belief in inerrancy as evidence of a strong faith would have to draw the boundaries of their fellowship pretty tight.
What we know about the Scriptures, science, and history suggests that non-inerrancy is a reasonable point of view. There is nowhere in the Bible where the text says that written Scripture is the Word of God. There is no place where it says it is inerrant. Of course, we could not expect the Bible to say that about itself, because what we know as the Bible was not canonized (compiled into one book that was considered authoritative) until several hundred years after the last Scriptures were written. When the Bible refers to the Word, it is referring to one of 3 things: 1) The Law, or the Torah (as in Psalm 119); 2) The direct communication of God to a person (as in Jeremiah 1:1 The words of Jeremiah to whom the word of the Lord came), or 3) Jesus the Incarnate Word (as in John 1).
Another reason for doubting the inerrancy of Scripture is that a few Scriptural accounts are contradicted by all of the non-Biblical sources. For instance, Matthew declares that the birth of Jesus occurred during the reign of Herod the Great, who according to historical documents died in 4 BC. Luke says Jesus was born during a census ordered by Augustus at a time that Quirinius was governor of Syria. Quirinius was not governor of Syria during Herod’s kingship.
Some Scriptures contradict each other. In order to resolve this problem, believers in inerrancy sometimes go to acrobatic lengths to smooth them out, but the most logical conclusions about the inconsistencies is to simply accept that somebody got it wrong. For instance, Luke’s gospel says that the Holy Family returned to Nazareth immediately after Jesus underwent the ritual of purification in the Temple (which would have occurred when he was 40 days old. See Luke 2:39). Matthew, however, has the family still in Bethlehem when visited by the Wise Men, and from there fleeing to Egypt where they stayed until Herod died (4 BC).
My personal faith has evolved to the point that I accept the Bible as authoritative, and human errors in it are not essential to my faith. My suspicion that there were human errors in the Bible was confirmed when I took college courses in Old and New Testament. This was in a United Methodist college. Through this, though, I never lost my belief that there was something special about the Bible. Since my college years, my belief in the Bible has grown to the point where despite the problems and criticisms presented by moderate and liberal scholars, the Bible is not just a book. Although it contains some human error in minor areas, and although it was influenced somewhat by cultural bias, its story, commandments, and message are the Holy Word of God. Its words should be doubted only with fear and trembling.
But why not, people ask me, believe that God gave us the Scripture, at least in its original form, as a pure, inerrant gift that one need not have any doubts about? Wouldn’t God give us something that we would and should never have to question? Why can’t I believe that? Well, I do not know why, but it is obvious that He did not. In truth, most people do not believe that, once they are questioned on a few issues that come up in Scripture. Everyone, even the most conservative fundamentalist, has a way of making a decision about what things in the Bible are literally true and applicable to us, and which things are not. Consider levirate marriage, which the Torah instructs God’s people to practice, and is described in our Bible in Deuteronomy 25. Does anyone you know practice that? That means that if your son dies and widows his wife before he has given her a son, you and your family are responsible for providing her another husband. And that husband is ideally one of your other sons who is still living. This was the commandment that Jacob’s son Judah violated when his daughter-in-law Tamar was widowed without a son and Judah refused to give her his last son Shelah. Of course Tamar tricked her father-in-law into having sex and impregnating her. The resulting son Perez was an ancestor of Jesus, and without a doubt, the villain of the story was not the incestuous trickster Tamar but Judah, who violated the commandment of Levirate marriage. Of course, virtually all Christians today have decided that this teaching does not apply to them because today a widowed woman without a son is not destitute, as she would have been during the time of the early Hebrews. True. But don’t you see? There is a method at work in which one (even one considered a flaming fundamentalist) makes a decision about a passage of the Bible not applying to us today.
Obviously, my own way of deciding what passages of Scripture are literally true and applicable differs from the ways of some other people. So, you might be wondering, how does one go about deciding? Well, I tried to think of a formula, but I could not. All I can say is that we have two sources to help us.
The first is a large body of research, history, science, and biblical scholarship that helps us interpret the Bible. As we well know, Biblical scholars disagree. It is good to study a wide variety of perspectives.
The second is the Holy Spirit. I am not saying that the Holy Spirit makes it easy to understand the Bible. The Holy Spirit literally makes it possible. What do I mean? Allowing the Holy Spirit to guide me in understanding and discerning Truth in the Scriptures first requires humility (certainly not the arrogance and intellectualism that “liberals” are accused of), and listening and waiting for God. It sometimes requires waiting, saying to God that I do not understand something and will wait for His revealing, which may not come in this life. It sometimes requires giving the Scripture the benefit of the doubt, where I am not sure if what the Bible tells me to do or not to do is truly from God, but I’m going to obey it anyway out of a strong desire to honor God.
Does all of this sound easy? Of course it doesn’t! Perhaps it would be easy to just give in and take the view of Biblical inerrancy. Still, even viewing the Bible as inerrant, it is only through the Holy Spirit (at least in my view) that it is even possible to understand the Scriptures without a high probability of being misled. I must humble myself, pray, and submit. To me, the Bible is not “just a book,” nor can it be described as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” It is much more complex than that. It is to me the basic source for making the decisions that are important in my life. Even many of the decisions that are not so important. And it contains the words of eternal life!