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!