Monday, March 26, 2012

Does Jesus Save us From God?

How do you see the death of Jesus? 

In this little sketch, the death of Jesus is presented as something that God requires Jesus to do (a popular view), not something that God himself did in and through Jesus (the New Testament view- see, e.g., 2 Cor. 5:19; Rom. 5:6-8). Even though this video is made by a non-Christian to poke fun at Christianity, there is a reason why he describes the cross in this way: many Christians talk about the cross as something that a loving Jesus did to save us from a vindictive God. Nothing could be further from the truth! Jesus' death on a cross didn't change God's heart toward us. It revealed God's heart to us! God is willing to take on the worst that we can dish out and still offer us the best love that he can give. 

This coming Sunday we'll be exploring a biblical way of thinking about the cross that doesn't describe God and Jesus as being at "cross-purposes" with one another. We will seek to understand what Jesus' role as a prophet has to do with his death, and what his death has to do with how we see God and ourselves.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Jesus Loves Goats?

The following is an excerpt from my book project on rethinking hell. It is a section within a part of a chapter that looks at the belief in Christ's descent into hell and what that means.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, with a goat on his shoulders.
The Apostles’ Creed for much of its history has included an affirmation of this belief: “..he was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose from the dead…” The line concerning Christ’s descent has unfortunately been removed from many modern editions of the creed, and so is not affirmed in the worship of a lot of Christians. There has always been debate about this line in the creed. The Apostles’ Creed, unlike the Nicene Creed, was never affirmed and codified at an ecumenical council. In all probability, it began its life as a baptismal creed in Rome in the mid-second century, and evolved over a period of several centuries. Church historians point out that this line is not included in many of the early versions of the creed,[1] and when it was included there was always some debate about exactly what it meant. Some interpreted it as simply describing the hellish suffering Christ endured on the cross, while others interpreted it as just a redundant way of saying that Christ really died, without implying an actual “visit” to hell.
It is highly unfortunate that this line has simply been removed because of its interpretive difficulties. For much of church history, this was seen as an affirmation of the all-encompassing nature of Christ’s victory over the forces of evil and sin. Not even in hell are people outside the rescuing and saving power of Christ. One of the pieces of evidence that the early Christians held to this hope in the power of Christ to break through the gates of hell is found in the catacombs in Rome where the dead were buried. Christians often drew art on the walls of the catacombs to express their faith, and several paintings have been discovered that depict Christ as the Good Shepherd. What is startling is that some of them depict Christ, not with a sheep on his shoulders, but a goat.[2] Although the significance of this shouldn’t be overblown to say that this necessarily reflects the belief of most Christians at that time, it also shouldn’t be underestimated. The belief in the Christ’s power to save “goats” in the age to come was a live option for the early Christians, and a belief in Christ’s descent into hell was one of the ways they expressed that hope.

[1] Although, some argue that the early Roman baptismal creed on which the Apostles' Creed is based might have contained such a line. This line of argument depends on 1 Peter being written in Rome and influencing the development of the baptismal creed. See Scaer, “He Did Descend To Hell,” 94.
[2] Hanson, Universalism, 21.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Response to Questions about Salvation

Hi friends,

We didn't have any questions from yesterday's message, but we do have a few from a couple weeks ago that I just became aware of. Also, the guy in our office with the camera is out this week, so I'll offer some short written responses instead.

What are your thoughts on whether the afterlife begins when we die or whether there is a period where we wait for Jesus' return? 

Yes to both. I believe that when we die we are with the Lord (Phil. 1:23, 2 Cor. 5:8), but we still await God's final consummation of his plan to bring all things together in Christ (Eph. 1:10) at his return. I think the best book on this subject is N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.

Why is it so much easier for us to act like Pharisees than like Jesus when we interact with others?

Interesting question. I guess I can only answer from my experience of why I am tempted to act more like a Pharisee (judgmental and self-righteous) than like Jesus (compassionate and welcoming). I am most tempted to act like a Pharisee towards others when I am feeling insecure about myself and my standing with God. One of the ways we can make ourselves feel “right” is by pointing out how “wrong” others other. Setting boundaries of exclusion is how we solidify our sense of self-worth and identity- this happens in every area of life, from playgrounds to battlefields. I act like a Pharisee sometimes because I lose sight of the grace of God, and the fact that my relationship with God isn’t grounded in what I do for God (or don’t do for God), but in the reality of what God has done for me, and for all people, in Christ.

Baptists say, "once saved always saved". Do u agree? 

Baptists say a lot of funny things, don’t they? (I am married to a Baptist, btw.) I wish I could give a simple straight-forward answer, but I can’t, because this question presupposes some things that I don’t agree with. First, it assumes that until we are “saved,” God is angry with us and will subject us to eternal conscious torment if we do not believe the right things. In the book I am working on now, I am contending that this is not how Jesus and the NT authors saw things. Second, it assumes that salvation is only extrinsically connected to the way we live our lives. In other words, “salvation” is like getting a cookie for being good. The prize is not inherently part of being good, but rather is extrinsically added on. I think of salvation as being more intrinsically connected to our way of life. To keep with the analogy above, salvation is like the reward of the pleasure that comes from being good and living in harmony with God through Christ. The way the phrase “once saved, always saved” is often used implies that no matter how you act, you always get the cookie. A better way to think of salvation is that it is the joy and wholeness that is intrinsically connected to living in harmony with God. On this view, you can lose your salvation in the sense that if you turn away from God, you can stop knowing the peace that comes from having a heart that is open to God and the sense of wholeness that comes from living in tune with God. But I would be quick to add that we do not lose our salvation in the sense that God turns away from us. In our unfaithfulness, God remains faithful. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Jesus, Scripture, and Divine Violence

John the Baptist thought that Jesus should come with the fire of divine vengeance on the enemies of God. He introduced Jesus as a kick-butt Messiah who would unleash the shock and awe punishment of divine judgment.

Luke 3:7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ ...15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

Jesus didn't exactly bring the heat the way John thought he would. John ended up getting thrown in prison, and seriously doubted if Jesus was the real deal.

Luke 7:18 The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples 19and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 20When the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”’ 21Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. 22And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

Jesus' response draws from three passages from Isaiah (29:18-20; 35:4-6; 61:1-2):

29:18 On that day the deaf shall hear
   the words of a scroll,
and out of their gloom and darkness
   the eyes of the blind shall see. 
19 The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
   and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. 
20 For the tyrant shall be no more,
   and the scoffer shall cease to be;
   all those alert to do evil shall be cut off.

35:4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
   ‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
   He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
   He will come and save you.’ 
5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
   and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
   and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
61:The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,                                                                                            because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.
Each scriptural passage contain threats of vengeful condemnation and exclusion, and promises of abundant blessing and liberation. Jesus picked out only the promises of blessing and liberation to describe his mission. When Jesus read what Scripture said about God's appointed agent of deliverance and salvation, he refused to accept the descriptions that portray God as violent, retaliatory, and bent on the destruction of God's enemies. He picked and chose only those parts that portray God as longing to bring healing and restoration to people.

So, here is a question worth pondering deeply: How should the way Jesus handled Scripture influence the way we handle it? When, for example, we read and try to interpret texts in the Old Testament that portray God as violent and vindictive, shouldn't we ask ourselves, "What would Jesus do?"