Saturday, June 18, 2011

Check out our new site!

Just a reminder to those of you who follow this blog, that we've established our own domain and moved Nailing it to the Door to  There, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter as well as just checking out our new posts.

Recent posts include:
We look forward to seeing you carry on with us as we continue Nailing it to the Door!

Grace & peace,


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Nailing it to the Door has moved!

As of May 24, 2011 we are moving the content of Nailing it to the Door... to a new location.  Please find us now at  Archived posts and comments have been moved as well; it is our hope that the new configuration will permit us to grow the site!  Please come check us out!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

For all of you who've been "Left Behind"

I encourage you to pop over to my friend Kurt Willems' blog and read his post If You're Reading This Post, You've Been "Left Behind."  Kurt does a beautiful job of casting what our role must be in the current "Tribulation" of this world.  Borrowing nearly every catchphrase of an eschatology neither one of us can stand, he's got a masterful call to live as the Kingdom-of-God subversives we must be.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Nailing it to the Door is becoming a joint venture!

I want to take this opportunity to introduce my readers to my dear friend Ben Bajarin.  Ben and I have been spiritual relief valves for each other for the better part of three years now.  Though we attended the same church for over a decade, it took nearly nine years before we met each other and discovered that God had stirred some common--though unusual--thoughts in both of us, and we've found great refreshment in exploring theology together.  More than once, we've also encouraged each other when bashing up against entrenched doctrine and rhetoric that may be familiar to the church, but we believe flies in the face of the Biblical message.

Today Ben joins me as a co-author of this blog, and as you can see from his first post on the Rapture-that-wasn't, his contributions are a valued addition.

Keep an eye out, as you're going to see a few changes in design and presentation soon...and hopefully an increase in the frequency of posts, which has never been my strong suit.  Ben's also going to increase our visibility on Facebook with a fan page and a few other gadgets.

The result, we hope, is not primarily increased readership or statistics...those have never been the point.  But Ben and I share the conviction that the church is in desperate need of a new reformation, and we hope in some small way to ignite those fires in a few of you.  Come along for the ride!

Why The Rapture Didn’t Happen Today and it Probably Never Will

I suppose, because of my post title, the cat is out of the bag on my eschatology. So I’ll start this post right off the bat saying, it’s my conviction that there will be no rapture of the Church. I believe the overwhelming weight of biblical evidence in no way shape or form supports a phased approach of the coming of the Lord. Let me explain why.

Firstly (I love that word) if we study the history of this idea we will find that this whole notion of the rapture is a relatively new idea, this fact alone should cause us to pause.

There is some debate as to who came up with this idea originally but most credit it to John Darby. Darby revealed his eschatological view and outlined his idea on this so called “rapture” at the Powerscourt Conference in 1831.

It is very difficult to find any evidence of ”rapture” eschatology prior to Darby’s teaching it beginning in 1831.

So why has it become mainstream?
Well the answer is simple. The Christian church has lost its foundation and connection to the roots of Judaism. Most of our modern Christianity has taken a direction influenced highly by the enlightenment age. Because of this the Christian story has been disconnected from the Jewish story. Something God never intended.

So the challenge and the question we are faced with is, if for almost a thousand years after Jesus showed up not a single person believed in this “rapture” idea, why do so many believe it today?

Again it goes back to the story. The bible has within its construct a meta-narrative. To highly summarize the meta-narrative within Judaism it’s this:

God created all things Good, Satan and the powers distorted that good, God in His grace and mercy has not abandoned His creation to destruction and chaos but instead put a plan in place that would eventually lead to the reconciliation and redemption of all things. That plan began with Abraham.

In Judaism this is referred to as the "Tikkun Olam" or the repair of the world.

Jesus and the Church flow out of this reality, which will end up with heaven coming to earth, the original place God intended to dwell. This was the goal from the very beginning. That God would dwell with man and the whole of creation would be a holy temple.

So the flaw in Darby’s theology and the one this absurd end of the world talk is wrapped up in, is rooted in a non-biblical belief that all of reality is about somewhere else and not about this place, this earth, and this humanity. The idea that we will all go off to a distant spiritual reality is an idea we get from Plato not from the bible.

We have a guarantee from the creator that he will put it all back together, or as N.T Wright states “put the world to rights.” He doesn’t need to exile his church to do this, in fact that would be counter to the way God has always done things.

God uses “agents” to accomplish His purposes, to remove His followers and Kingdom agents would fly in the face of how he created things to work in this world. The way He created things to work was that His followers are His hands and feet in the world and the mechanisms by how his will gets done. His will is to reconcile and renew all things, this earth, this humanity not to destroy it. Therefore we have a job to do, participate in new creation, rush the future renewed world into the present anyway we can. Love Wins!

The only thing that gives me concern, that I hope I am wrong about, is that in my thinking it would seem logical that the world is probably going to have to mess itself up quite a bit more. In essence things may have to become much worse before they get better.

To quote Martin Luther “If I knew Jesus was coming back tomorrow I’d go plant a tree.”

So let’s embrace the greater reality to participate in new creation, this Tikkun Olam, right now in this present reality. Let's let God worry about the future and more importantly let's make those people's lives around us better instead of worse.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Food for thought - Greg Boyd on why Determinism must be false

I've said before that Greg Boyd has produced some really good arguments on the Open View of God.  Greg's got a great post on his blog from about a month ago (OK, so I'm a little behind) briefly outlining three really good reasons why determinism (a la Calvinism) is logically untenable.  Go check it out!

Greg is actually responding to a previous New York Times article entitled Do You Have Free Will?  Yes, It's the Only Choice.  This amusingly-titled report looks at some recent psychological experiments that suggest that people seem to believe in a moral responsibility for one's actions that only works if one had, at least at some level, a choice whether to do them or not.  They have shown that people who are convinced they have free will, tend to behave better (that is, more socially-acceptably) than people who are convinced they have no choice.  It's an interesting study.

Of course, my favorite summary of the whole argument is:  "You have chosen to believe in predestination, and I am predestined to believe in free will."  Drives my Calvinist friends nuts!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Does God Change? Part 2 of 2

In my previous post on this subject, I examined a number of Biblical references commonly used to promote the idea that God is unchanging.  We saw in those scriptures, that the issue being addressed centered largely on the premise that God can be depended upon to keep his other words, unlike humans or other gods of legend, he's not capricious or fickle.

On the other hand, however, there are numerous accounts throughout the Old Testament, in which God is clearly stated to have changed his mind.  One of these is the verse that first gave my good Calvinist friends heartburn and ignited this series:  1 Sam. 15:11, in which God states "I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments."  My friend stated that God could not possibly really regret having done something, because it all took place according to his will, and because regret would mean God was changing his mind.  And yet this is what the passage says...God made Saul king, Saul did not live up to God's expectations, and now God is sorry that he chose Saul for a king.

This is not the only place we find this sort of language, either.  In Genesis 6:5-6 we learn that God saw such evil in human behavior that he was "sorry" he'd ever made man.  The clear sense of both texts is that God experiences genuine regret for the outcome of actions that he himself had originally done (these texts have impact on the Open View of God as well as his immutability, but that is another, though related, discussion).  In both texts, God clearly changes his assessment of a man, or a group of people, about whom he previously had a different, more positive, opinion.  And lest we think this is a translation error, the word in Hebrew that is translated "repented" or "was sorry" is the word nacham, which also appears in Job 42:6 when Job states "I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes," and in 1:Sam. 15:29 where it says "God is not a man that he should repent" (we addressed this verse in Part 1).

We find some interesting insights into how God does change his mind, in the story of the exodus and the Israelites' sojourn in the wilderness.  A good example of this is found in Exodus 32, where God is prepared to destroy the Israelites for their idolatry with the golden calf, but Moses intercedes and convinces God to spare them.  Exo. 32:14 says that God "relented" (both KJV and ASV say "repented"--it's nacham again) of the disaster he had said he'd bring on the people.  But what's fascinating here is that God's change of heart or intention comes as a direct result of the intercession of Moses.

We begin to find some clarity in the confusion, however, when we look at Jeremiah 18.  This is the prophecy that Jeremiah tells when God has prompted him to go observe the work of a potter:
Then the word of the Lord came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the Lord, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’
The meaning becomes perfectly clear in this passage.  God's promise of both good and ill is conditional.  When God says he's going to do something in punishment, if the cause of the punishment is remedied, God will relent (nacham again) of the punishment.  Same with blessing.  And why should this surprise us?  God said as much in the blessings and curses that make up Deuteronomy 28-30.  Simply, he said, "if you obey, you will be blessed.  If you disobey, you will be cursed.  If you return to me, you will again be blessed."

So, finally, we come to the summary answer to our question "Does God change?"  Our answer has to be "of course, yes" and "of course, no."  Yes, God changes his opinion of and behavior toward humans as their own behavior toward him changes...and God may further change his intent or behavior in response to his people's intercession.  But God does not change his basic character, and God can certainly and always be counted upon to keep his promises...but don't forget, even those promises often come with conditions, they are seldom unilateral.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Did God really abandon Jesus on the cross?

Today is Good Friday, the day we honor the supreme sacrifice Jesus Christ made when he went to his execution on the cross.   While I have argued before that Christians tend to spend too much energy and emotion on Jesus’ death and too little on his resurrection, it is still right and good that we soberly and gratefully acknowledge the suffering Jesus voluntarily accepted on our behalf.

There is, however, an element of the typical story of Jesus’ death that needs to be re-examined.  According to popular accounts—particularly fueled by the penal-substitutionary-atonement crowd—the stain of all our sin, heaped upon Jesus at his sacrificial death, was so horrible that holy God the Father, who in his holiness cannot look on sin, turned his back on his dying son.  This, they say, is why Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as told in Matt. 27:46 and Mark 15:34.

Trouble is, they’re likely wrong.

First of all, the Bible doesn’t teach that God can’t look at sin.  Preachers do, but the Bible doesn’t.  God clearly looks on sinful people all the time, or he couldn’t see Earth at all.  Secondly, Jesus is crying out in extreme suffering…he probably felt forsaken at that point (who wouldn’t?).  But nowhere does scripture teach that God actually did forsake Jesus, just that he cried out in desperation while suffering a tortuous death.

Most compellingly, however, Jesus was probably quoting the beginning of Psalm 22, bits of which are associated with Jesus by the gospel writers on numerous occasions.  Take a look, for example, at Ps. 22:16-18, which John the Evangelist clearly associates with Jesus (see John 19:24 and John 19:36-37).  Whether Jesus was in fact tying this psalm to himself in a prophetic sense, or whether he was turning to a hymn of comfort in his affliction, we cannot know, although we do know that Psalm 22 ends with these words (vv. 28-31):
For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
even the one who could not keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it.

Not a bad declaration of the coming victory, for one who appears to be in the throes of defeat by the very powers who will yet be forced to acknowledge his rule!

But God saw it.  He’s not in the habit of turning his back on anybody!

And don’t forget, in the words of the inimitable Tony Campolo, “it’s Friday, but Sunday’s a-comin’!”

Monday, April 18, 2011

Misplaced Passion

In recognition of holy week, I’m going to resurrect a piece I wrote five years ago at Easter, after I saw the film The Passion of the Christ.  Released in 2006, the film itself is clearly not news; however, as recently as this month I’ve heard fellow Christians speaking positively—almost reverently—of the film and its portrayal of Jesus’ suffering.  Notwithstanding the excellent work on Jesus’ resurrection by N.T. Wright (Surprised by Hope – 2008), that subset of the church that I’ve seen still seems to be firmly in the grips of an affliction we might term hyperchristemia—an excess of Christ’s blood (or, more accurately, an obsessive focus on his blood). 

Passion aroused no small amount of controversy when it was released.  No shock there; the figure of Jesus Christ seems rarely to inspire indifference.  I remain troubled, however, by precisely which subjects became the lightening rods of the controversy—and perhaps even more disturbed by those that did not.  I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose.  Public controversies rarely center around key issues, and this one was no different.  A consideration of the person and history of Jesus should definitely arouse passions, but not—I submit—primarily because of his so-called "Passion."

I object to the content of the Passion movie, but not for the usual reasons.  Not because of the graphic brutality, though the sadistic orgy of Jesus’ flogging is certainly disturbing.  Nor do I consider the arguments over Mel’s perceived anti-Semitism, or the degree of historicity of his portrayal, to be issues of more than peripheral concern.  I object, rather, to the very notion that Jesus' suffering and death comprise the central story at all.  I object to the line on some of the Passion posters:  "He lived to die."  The message of the Christian gospel is nothing of the sort.  It is Jesus' resurrection, not his death, which claims that central focus.

Though the film was neither unique nor original in this regard, Passion’s central message is that Jesus’ intense physical suffering and barbaric death comprise the ultimate climax of His life and redemptive work.  The film opens with a quote from Isaiah 53:  “He was wounded for our transgressions. . .by His stripes we are healed.”  The remaining two-plus hours appear to me primarily to demonstrate just how many brutal stripes were required to effect that healing.  Even the symbolic portrayal of Satan recognizing defeat comes at the very moment of Jesus’ death.  This doctrine, while common in both Catholic and Protestant Christianity, is fundamentally at odds with the Scriptural portrayal of our redemption.

It's not Mel's fault—not entirely, anyhow.  I do think that if he had embarked on this project of converting a book to a film script with anything like the care Peter Jackson lavished on "The Lord of the Rings," we would have seen a vitally different movie.  Mel's portrayal is very likely a faithful representation of the dogmas he's been taught all his life, in churches where bloody crucifixes occupy a central point in the sanctuary, and where the ritual "sacrifice" of the Mass is observed daily.  In fact, I saw in the film far more influence from extra-Biblical church traditions than from the actual gospel accounts.   Several scenes portray events that led to the purported creation of certain famous relics (such as the cloth that purports to bear an imprint of Jesus’ bloody face) or the involvement of saints not mentioned at all in the New Testament account.  Even the graphic—dare I say gratuitous?—portrayal of Jesus’ flogging, which figures prominently in the film, merits only the barest of mentions and almost no detail at all in the four gospels.

Lest I be tarred with an anti-Catholic brush at this point, let me hasten to add that Mel would have learned no better in an Evangelical or Protestant church.  The standard definition of faith in nearly every church service I've ever attended involved acknowledging that "Jesus died for my sins."  The core message of evangelistic crusades throughout the last century revolved entirely around the sinfulness of man and the atoning death of Jesus.  When my children come home from Sunday School and tell me what they have learned, it is the death of Jesus on the cross that claims center stage.  Even the traditional church calendar allots forty days to observe Lent—that period leading up to Jesus’ death—and only one Sunday to celebrate Easter.

Missing from all these traditions, nearly missing in the film, and—most tragically—missing from the meditations and dialogs of far too many Christians, is the most central element of the entire gospel—the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Oh, we believe it. . .Catholics and Protestants, Evangelicals, liberals (well, many liberals) and conservatives:  nearly all give assent that Jesus' resurrection took place.  We all sing celebratory songs at Easter, and we all recite the traditional "He is risen indeed!"  But it's not the part of the story on which we dwell.  It is almost as though the resurrection were the happy ending God appended to the "important" drama of Jesus' suffering and death.

By contrast, the Christian scripture shows the resurrection to be central to the gospel—so much so that the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Jesus was not raised from the dead, our faith is useless and we are "still in (our) sins" (v. 14 & 17).  In Romans 5:10 Paul states that it is Jesus' resurrected life which saves us:  "For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by his life."

The New Testament writers portray Jesus' resurrection as the cause of our justification (Rom. 4:25), evidence of God's power (Eph. 1:19), and a surety pledge against our own future resurrection (Acts 17:31).  In Revelation 1:18, Jesus himself uses His death and resurrection as credentials certifying His identity.

The centrality of the resurrection is nowhere clearer than in the Scriptural definition of faith itself, Romans 9:14:  "If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."  Nothing about our sinfulness, nothing about Jesus' atoning sacrifice. . .the defining elements of faith are Jesus' lordship and his resurrection.

I am not for one moment attempting to devalue Jesus' incredible sacrifice.  The mystery of "when God, the mighty Maker died for man, the creature's sin" is a paradox of unfathomable proportions.  Scripture is full of references to the power of Jesus' death, as well, for that matter, as of his sinless life.  Nor may we overlook the fact that, during his brief earthly life, Jesus taught a great deal in his own words.  We must attend to all of these things, for without any one of them our faith is the less.

I am saying, however, that our language and our emphasis are desperately out of balance.  Far too many Christian teachers throughout history have allowed the death of Jesus to attain a centrality of focus that has all but eclipsed either his life and teachings or his resurrection.  This is why it has been so easy for Christians to embrace as gospel, a movie that portrays virtually nothing of Jesus' teachings, and only nods to his resurrection a scant few seconds before the credits begin to roll.

Christians of all stripes need to go on the offensive proclaiming the living Christ.  Jesus' defeat of humanity's greatest enemy—death—is "good news" if anything ever can be.  Through Jesus' death and resurrection we are provided the means to live here and now, without fear of death; and consequently without fear of those for whom death is their greatest weapon.  In every worship service, in every evangelistic message—for that matter, in every interaction between two believers—we should proclaim from the housetops that our Lord died and lives again!

The forty days of Lent on the church calendar should be balanced, not with one Sunday to celebrate Easter, but with the entire remainder of the year exulting over the stunning victory of the empty tomb.  We should have been those irritating people in the theater who spoil the plot because we can’t contain our excitement:  we’ve “read the end of the book” and we know who wins!  Only then will our passion truly honor the Lord Jesus.

He is risen indeed!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Recommended reading on nationalism and peace

I just learned of a fellow who goes to my folks' church in North Carolina, who has written some interesting stuff on the flag in church, the Kingdom of God, and related topics.  I encourage you to take a look at his site,  In particular, I was intrigued by this comment in his post on "Patriotism:"
When people say “Freedom isn’t Free,” what they’re actually saying is: “Freedom isn’t free - it requires killing and dying, human sacrifice, as if to the gods of old. It is not a gift from God. Gifts are free. Grace is a gift. Freedom, on the other hand, is earned. And because freedom is earned, we deserve it. We bought it (and continue to pay for it) with our blood, fair and square. We need thank no one but ourselves. Our perseverance and superiority over others have given us a reward worthy of a great people.”
Scott has actually developed a proposed "Kingdom of God flag" to use in lieu of the current "Christian flag" when one wishes to symbolize the universal nature of the Kingdom.  He has, I think, put some serious thought into the meaning of the symbolic elements of that flag, and this, too, is worth a read.

Check it out!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sola Scriptura -- Really!

Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone).  It's a phrase originally made famous by the reformer Martin Luther.  I'm not clear on the historical precedent, but today I hear it most often from those who consider themselves part of the Reformed tradition--which now seems largely to mean modern Calvinism--when they recite it as one of the Five Solas.  Aside from the irony of having five "onlys" in anything,  the claim of Sola Scriptura is that only the Biblical texts are authoritative for matters of doctrine/dogma in the church.

Sola Scriptura.  Not "Scriptura et magisterium," scripture plus the authority of the church.  Not "scriptura et patres," scripture plus the authority of the early church fathers.  Not "Scriptura et Aquinas," "Scriptura et Augustine," not "Scriptura et Calvin" (and sorry, I don't know how to make those names properly Latin).  Not Scripture plus John MacArthur or John Piper or Mark Driscoll or N.T. Wright or Rob Bell or Greg Boyd either (and I hope I have enough "liberals" and "conservatives" to satisfy the reader that I'm not taking aim at a "side" here).  And not "Scripture and my pastor or my bishop or my elders," for these are merely a part of the local incarnation of the Body of Christ, and while we should seek to understand Scripture together in the local body, there is no valid hierarchy or authority among human leaders in biblical interpretation.  To the contrary, these and all of the body should have their words evaluated over against Scripture, by all their hearers.

Sola.  Scriptura.

No doctrine or dogma or teaching or credal test dare be claimed with certainty, that is not clearly derivable solely from the properly-exegeted text of the Bible.  My choice of the word "derivable" is deliberate.  It's not enough to determine that a doctrine is not inconsistent with scripture.  It's not even enough that the doctrine, once framed, can be supported by scripture, although in reality I find such claims often fail to withstand careful scrutiny anyhow.  I suggest rather that any doctrinal claim should be subjected to the following thought experiment:

Imagine we could find a reader who knew nothing about church history or who had never heard of the various heresies and controversies and schisms of the church throughout the century.  Imagine further that, though ignorant of the faith, this reader was fluent in Biblical Hebrew and Greek, and was able to read the texts and study them carefully.  Would this hypothetical reader be able to come up--solely from studying the biblical texts--with the doctrine at hand?  If yes, then we can and should ascribe it serious weight.  If no, then however helpful it may be in understanding a difficult passage or concept, it must be considered optional and not core to the faith.

(Even with "core" doctrine, I caution the reader with my previous warning about creeds).

Though it may seem counterintuitive, it is precisely this approach that has led me to dispute the common doctrine of biblical inspiration.  Among the areas where I believe scripture must have sole and unchallenged authority, is over the texts' characterization of themselves.  So when the text states "thus saith the LORD," we take it seriously as the word of God, but conversely when it says "this is a praise song written by King David," we accept it as a praise song and don't extract doctrine from it any more than we do (or ought) from a hymn by Watts or Wesley, or a chorus by Michael W. Smith or David Crowder.

It's also why I reject credal definitions of the Trinity, eschatology, and many of the other contentious issues that have been used to draw lines and divide people over the stained history of the church.  I contend that these dogmas cannot be derived without significant reliance upon extrabiblical authority, and in matters of dogma, there must be no such thing as an extrabiblical authority.  Sola Scriptura, taken seriously, leaves one with far fewer certainties and "essentials" than most statements of faith will countenance.  And if that makes me another in a long line of church-defined "heretics," well then, I'll just quote Luther again:

"Here I stand.  I can do nothing else, so help me God."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

So, do you trust the Holy Spirit, or not?

The recent debate around the blogosphere as to whether or not Rob Bell is a universalist, has got me to thinking.  There seems to be a substantial contingent within conservative Christianity, that is extremely dedicated to the notion of a hell where those who do not "believe" will suffer unending, conscious torment.  Many of these people--dear friends of mine, some of them--are not angry, vindictive people in real life; in fact some of them are downright compassionate.  So why, I wonder, do they get so upset about the suggestion that there might NOT be eternal torture awaiting those who do not believe the right things about Jesus?

The simplistic answer, of course, is that they are passionate about the literal truth of the Bible, and since the Bible speaks of a literal hell, to discount it is to disrespect the rest of Biblical truth as well.  As I've pointed out before, however, the scriptural case for eternal, conscious torment is far too thin to support a dogmatic claim, and in fact a legitimate case can be made in scripture for annihilation or conditional immortality (a term I only recently encountered, but which accurately characterizes a perspective I found in the gospels).  The same can be said for the other simplistic answer: "that's what the church has always taught," because in fact a survey of church fathers reveals a far more nuanced and diverse perspective than that on display today.

So why the obsession with hell?  Although I have absolutely no proof for this speculation, I wonder if it really comes down to salesmanship.  I have known a number of "believers" whose initial entree to Christianity was a fear of the condemnation they believed awaited them if they did not believe.  I still remember the first time a Christian (this one was a Baptist missionary in Honduras) explicitly told me "If I did not believe there was a hell, I wouldn't be a Christian."  Combined with the definition of faith as assenting to certain truths, and the doctrine of eternal security to keep those who have "believed" in the "saved" column, it becomes reasonable to try to convince people to "believe," as Malcolm X said of a very different struggle, "by any means necessary."

The paradox in all of this is that those who most vociferously insist on the doctrine of hell tend also to be Calvinist in their broader perspective, and often believe something to the effect that only those to whom God gives the gift of faith are even capable of believing.  Here my comprehension starts to break down:  if faith only exists as a gift from God, then why do we have to worry about the particulars of the sales pitch?  Even more, if those who are predestined for heaven or hell are already determined, what's the point in trumpeting a hell that's irrelevant to those predestined for salvation, and the hopeless-but-inevitable destination of those who aren't?

And for those who aren't Calvinist predestinarians (emphatically including me), the question still stands.  Jesus called us to make disciples, not to rescue hellbound infidels.  He called people to follow him in an active life of love and service, not to rearrange their thoughts so they had the right concepts about him.  Certainly we all have plenty of screwed-up thoughts that need to be straightened out--no denying that--but the place and time to get those straightened is (and in fact can only be) AFTER we have joined ourselves to Jesus and his church, not before!

Jesus calls anyone who is thirsty to come.  When we come, he does invite us to take on his yoke, and elsewhere to take up our cross.  There's plenty to be corrected and redeemed and saved in all of us.  But that is the work of the Holy Spirit--and the fellowship of believers--to be accomplished in and upon and through us once we have believed.  It's certainly not a precondition of salvation.

So, do you trust the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of confused, mixed-up, doctrinally-heterodox people who've nonetheless dedicated themselves to Christ and his church?  Or do you think God is not up to the job of handling our doctrinal sloppiness?  Do you trust the Holy Spirit, or not?

Monday, February 28, 2011

No one comes to the Father but by me...

I am the way , and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

There are, I suppose, a variety of possible candidates, but today I submit John 14:6 as the single most blatantly misquoted saying from Jesus' entire ministry.  Lifted completely out of context, Jesus' statement is usually presented as "Exhibit A" for Jesus' establishment of the exclusive religion of Christianity as the sole route out of hell...and the reason everyone who doesn't acknowledge the speaker's version of orthodoxy is clearly hellbound.

Someone once said "a text out of context is merely a pretext," and nowhere does this statement apply more forcefully than to John 14:6.  The context is a long heart-to-heart that Jesus had with his disciples at the Last Supper (see the beginning of John 13), on the subject of his impending crucifixion.  This particular discourse actually begins at John 13:31 and continues unbroken through chapter 17.  In it, Jesus is talking about his death and encouraging his disciples to stay strong, faithful, and together through the trials that are coming.  His disciples aren't exactly tracking with his message, least not at the beginning of chapter 14.  Having just told the disciples he's going to prepare a place for them, Jesus reminds them that they know where he's going and how to get there (John 14:3-4).  Thomas, not so much "the doubter" as the guy who's willing to admit his lack of clue, blurts out that he has absolutely no idea what Jesus is talking about:  "Lord, we haven't a clue where you're going, how could we possibly know the way?"  It is in response to Thomas' spoken (and, I supect, the others' unspoken) question that Jesus states "I AM the way..."

Jesus did NOT say "I am starting a new religion with you guys, and this religion is the only way to avoid hell."  Hell's not even part of the discussion.  Nor did Jesus say "no one can be saved unless he thinks in his mind that I am the son of God and I am dying for his sins."  No, Jesus says "I AM the way" directly in the context of his having just told his disciples "you know the way."  The life they have lived with Jesus during the past three-plus years of his earthly ministry, the jobs he has set them to do, the miracles they have witnessed, the teaching they have absorbed; all these things wrapped together have taught them "the way" to the Father, which is the person of Jesus himself.  When Jesus goes on in John 14:11-14 to encourage the disciples to believe that the Father is in him, even this is not for "salvation" the way we think of's so they can do what they've seen him do and more, "so that the Father may be glorified in the Son."

Jesus' words in John 14 (really, all the way through John 17) were spoken not as a warning to unbelievers, but as a comfort to those who already believe!

When Christians loudly proclaim "no man cometh to the Father but by me," they are not talking about following Jesus.  They're not talking about obeying Jesus.  They're certainly not talking about staying faithful under hardship and persecution.  No, they're talking about how wrong Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Liberal Christians, Humanists, and sundry other "infidels" are.  They're usually talking about their certainty that all of the above are destined to burn forever in hell.  (For a current example, take a look at the discussion on my friend Kurt's blog today!)

The gospel of Jesus Christ claims things about him that are true of no one else.  Nobody else is Jesus, and no other teaching holds the stunning uniqueness of the One who rose from the dead.   I am not advocating for the feel-good universalist straw man so often the target of the self-righteous quoters of John 14:6.  But to properly frame those places where Jesus' words confront society, or other faiths, or the Christian church, we have got to start by representing Jesus' own words faithfully.  Using John 14:6 to club "unbelievers" and universalists over the head is categorically NOT faithful to Jesus' message.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Every Christian ought to be a muslim (but not the way you think)!

OK, take a deep breath.  Trust me when I say I'm not asking anybody to throw away their Bible and start planning their pilgrimage to Mecca.  I am, however, going to attack some truly damaging language that I hear from many of my fellow Christians on the subject of Islam...language that I maintain is neither edifying nor honoring to God, and actually flat-out wrong.  There are many issues that need to be addressed in Christian attitudes toward Muslims (and, I'm sure, vice-versa), but one of the first we need to face is our sloppy language.

So I repeat my title statement:  Every Christian ought to be a muslim.  Note, first of all, that I used a lower-case "m" in the word "muslim."  I am not suggesting that any follower of Jesus should change faiths.  In fact, I hope it's clear to any reader of my blog that I wish for more, not fewer, people to follow Jesus.  But while capital M "Muslim" is the name for a follower of the organized religion of Islam, lower-case m "muslim" means simply "one who submits;"  by implication, one who submits to God.

I don't speak Arabic.  I do, however, speak Swahili, which has significant Arabic roots, and while I'm going to explain in terms of the language I actually know, friends of mine who do speak Arabic have confirmed the truth of what I'm about to say.  In Swahili and in Arabic, if you take a verb and put either an "m" or "mu" prefix onto the front of it, the resulting word is a noun that means "a person or creature who does that verb."  So for example, the Swahili word "kuzunguka" means "to spin or turn around," so "mzungu"  means "one who spins around" (which hilariously is the term Africans coined to describe white Europeans and Americans).  In Arabic, the word "islam" simply means "submission."  A "muslim" is just a person who does "islam," that is, a person who submits.

Islam is, of course, not the only faith that calls its followers to submit to God.  In the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the original temptation and sin of Adam was not the fact of eating the forbidden fruit, it was the desire to " like God, knowing good and evil." (Gen. 3:5)  In deliberate contrast to the human desire to usurp God's position in Genesis, followers of Jesus are exhorted to "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped" (Phil. 2:5-6).  Jesus' example is further illuminated in Phil. 2:8 to be his humility and obedience even "unto death on a cross."  Jesus is our ultimate example of submission, "islam," to God.

Of course, the objection many Christians will immediately raise leads me to my second point of language:  submission to WHICH God?  While this may be a hard truth for some to grasp, the answer is "the God of Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammad." 

Time for another deep breath, folks.  Please note that I have not said that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all equal, identical, one religion, or anything of the sort.  There are plenty of places where Jews, Christians, and Muslims disagree, and some of them are highly significant.  But Christians have got to get off their pigheaded high horse (dare I mix animal metaphors?) and face the reality that, whatever other important differences exist, the God of Islam is NOT a different God than that of Christians and Jews.  He is the God of Abraham; among his names are Elohim, YHWH, Father, and Allah.  Do you notice that "Elohim" (a plural of "El") and "Allah" actually have a similar sound?  There is a reason for that...both Hebrew and Arabic are Semitic languages; that is, they come from a common ancient root.  The names "El" and "Allah" are the same.  Furthermore, Arabic-speaking Christians (at least those who haven't been corrupted by fundamentalist American ideologues) have been using the name "Allah" to refer to the Father for many centuries.  When Christians in America make the claim (and I heard this in a church as recently as a month ago) that "Allah is an idol and a false God," they are at best displaying breathtaking ignorance, and at worst blaspheming the very God they claim to worship.

Many Christians will raise the objection at this point "well, Muslims say Allah is not the Father of Jesus, so he must be a false god."  Funny thing about that claim, it doesn't seem to apply to Jews, who also do not believe that God is Jesus' father (unless they're what we call "Messianic Jews").  If that criterion renders Islam a false religion, it must do the same for Judaism.  You can't have it both ways...and yet the most conservative Christians do not doubt that Israel in particular and Jews in general are still God's special, chosen people.  That's another discussion, and not for this time, but for now, accepting the deity of Christ cannot be a criterion for otherwise worshiping the "right" God unless the same criterion is applied equally to both of the other Abrahamic faiths.

There is much more to say with regard to Muslim-Christian relations, and I expect some day to take on more of it.  But at the very least, let us please acknowledge that Allah is the God we Christians also worship, and may we all strive to be small-m "muslims" to Him.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tempted as we are?

A study group I've been meeting with has been asked to memorize Hebrews 4:14-16, and it's dug up an old, nagging irritation for me.  The writer of Hebrews states that our High Priest, Jesus, "in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin."  I'll come right to the point:  at least as that sentence reads in English, I cannot accept it as true (please read to the end of this post before freaking!).

I accept the teaching of scripture that Jesus lived a sinless life.  There are many witnesses to back up this claim, and frankly no serious evidence to challenge it.  But I am unable to reconcile the notion of a sinless life with the Hebrew writer's claim that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are.  There are too many ways in which "missing the mark" (ἁμαρτία, "hamartia") in one area is simply not a temptation unless one has well and truly screwed it up in a related way already.  No one can be tempted to theft, who is not already guilty of covetousness.  No one is tempted to adultery or sexual misconduct, who is not already guilty of lust.

One might attempt to parse the desire from the deed, and say that only the latter is sin.  To do so would be downright comforting, and frankly, to some extent I think most of us believe it (and those who don't, are likely burdened with massive guilt or depression).  Unfortunately, Jesus himself demolished this particular rationale pretty decisively in Matt. 5:27-28.  And if looking lustfully at a woman not one's wife is adultery, then the vast majority of straight men I've ever known, are adulterers (I do not therefore suggest we should just give up and do the deed).  And if, by his own definition, Jesus wasn't guilty of mental adultery, than he certainly wasn't tempted in all respects as we ordinary males are.

OK, so what do we do with this apparent contradiction?  I see three possibilities:

1)  The writer of Hebrews may be wrong.  The notion of Jesus' sinlessness is indispensable to a substionary atonement doctrine, but it's also pretty important in any understanding of the incarnation.  But the idea that he was tempted just as we, though it could be a comfort, is not so central.  Maybe in his quest for an appropriate simile the Hebrew author went overboard and misrepresented Jesus' earthly experience.

2) The Hebrew writer could be right, with the proviso that he was talking about Jesus' actions, not what might have gone on in his head--that is, for example, Jesus may have gotten an eyeful of a pretty girl as much as any guy, but never given in to that temptation by making an advance (or worse) on her.  This is more palatable, for sure, but in order to swallow this interpretation, we are then stuck with Jesus' own statements referenced above.  Although Jesus' standard is the harder one to handle, it IS the words of Jesus over against those of the author of Hebrews, and if I have to choose which to accept, Jesus' own words have to take precedence.

Either of these two options slam squarely into the notion of Biblical inspiration.  Readers of this blog already know I do not accept a flat-book dogma of verbal inspiration, but many Christians hold this teaching dear.  Is this one of those cases where God deliberately put a paradox in place to test whether we'd trust him over the brains he gave us?  (for the record, I don't believe God plays this sort of "belief trick," but some folks seem to give the idea credence--think young-earth creation vs. the fossil record).

3) There is, of course, a third option.  We could take a look at what "temptation" actually means.  The usual working definition of "enticement or desire to sin" may be our real problem here, and actually, I think this is the case.  According to Young's Analytical Concordance, the original word here (πειράζω, peirazw) occurs in some form about 38 times in the New Testament.  Twenty-eight of those times it's translated "tempt" or "temptation" in the King James version (I don't have statistics for other versions), but in several others it's translated something like "test" or "prove."  It's actually easier to understand if we think of the old English metallurgist's concept of "trying" an ore; that is, applying heat to it in order to see how much gold comes out.  This idea of "trying" can be described as applying difficulty in order to reveal the content, or character, or purity of a substance.  It's no leap of logic to go from assaying an ore ("assay" is another way peirazw can be translated), to assaying human character, and in fact that's what is often meant.

For example, the same word peirazw is used in John 6:6, where Jesus suggested to Phillip that he procure bread to feed the five thousand.  John tells us he did this to "try" Phillip...Jesus already knew what he intended to do.  2 Corinthians 13:5 is another example, where Paul exhorts believers to "examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith."  The word translated "examine" is the same word as the one in Hebrews 4!  I hope no one thinks Paul is suggesting that it's healthy to put ourselves in a position where we could be induced to sin, just to see how strong our faith is!

To wrap it up, then, the Hebrew writer is not suggesting that Jesus had the same problems of temptation humans wrestle with to varying degrees.  What he is saying is that Jesus understands the tests and discouragements of life, because he went through them too.  This is why the first half of the same verse states that we " not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin (NRSV)."  Change "without sin" to "without failing the test" and we're probably closer to the actual meaning of the text.  Or as my Mom put it last year, "he didn't flunk!"

This, of course, fits nicely with Philippians 2:5-11.  It was because Jesus remained faithful--obedient--to death, that God has highly exalted him.  The glory follows the passing of the test...and that's why he's now our High Priest.  This, I have no trouble believing.