Archive for the ‘General Theology’ Category

Christianity, particularly of the evangelical brand, has in the last few decades used John 3:16 as the go to verse for what the gospel is, what Jesus is all about, and how one can be saved. But what if we looked at scripture with a different lens? What if instead we chose a different verse to represent the gospel, what if for instance we chose 1 John 3:8?

 Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.

This verse conveys much of the same essentials as John 3:16. It affirms that because of sin we are children of the devil and in need of a change to be with God. However, God doesn’t give his Son so that whoever believes in Him might be saved. But rather the mission of Jesus is to destroy the works of the devil. This warfare perspective is subtly but profoundly different that John 3:16. In John 3:16 Jesus came to separate the world into two groups, those who believe and those who do not. Here in 1 John 3:8 the primary mission of Jesus was to defeat the enemies of God and man. If we read back through the gospels and all of scripture with the idea that Jesus was revealed to destroy the work the devil has been doing from the beginning, I think we might arrive at very different conclusions than we do understanding the framework of the gospel in John 3:16 terms.

“The New Testament consistently describes Jesus as the conqueror of the inferior powers, including Satan. If Satan desires to steal souls from Christ, and ultimately succeeds in bringing about the permanent damnation of the majority, then how is this viewed in any sense as Christ’s victory? If a team of Navy Seals were dispatched to safely recover a thousand people taken hostage by pirates, and they returned from their mission having permanently lost all but ten to the enemy, that mission would be an embarrassment to the team, not a victory to be heralded.” –Steve Gregg, “All You Want To Know About Hell” pg. 264


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I recently saw the theatrical version of Les Miserables and I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised. Now, I am not the biggest fan of musicals, especially ones with nearly no dialogue and all song, but I loved the movie because the music really tapped into the raw emotions of the story. The story of Les Miserables focuses around the characters of Jean Valjean and Javert who each have opposing views of God. Javert’s god is the divine lawmaker whose law separates good people from bad people. Javert’s god keeps score and enforces rules with perfect justice. The God of the priest and of Valjean however, is a God of perfect love and mercy. He doesn’t keep score, doesn’t separate people into categories, reaches into the dark alleys of prostitutes and behind the barricades of revolutionaries. His love doesn’t condemn the thief or execute the double agent. Rather, it sets them free, and values even those who are against Him.

The two views play out in the interactions not only of Javert and Valjean together, but also their interactions with everyone else. Javert’s commitment to ‘justice’ restrains and makes people despair and even hate the world around them. But the God of the priest and Valjean liberates, heals, sacrifices, and restores. The musical draws out this key parallel just as effectively as the novel and was one of the main strengths of the movie.

The movie not only delves into the difference between these two views of God, but also the authenticity and value of human love. The love that drives Valjean to the barricade to save Marius and the love that drives Eponine to help Marius find happiness even though it ruins hers. The power of romantic love and family love is contrasted also with the motivations of Javert and are shown in compliment to the love of the God of Valjean.

The revolutionaries are praised in spirit by both the novel and the movie. Their desire to rise above the systematic oppression of the lower classes of society and their genuine desire to make a better world closely mirrors the God who seeks to save and heal the oppressed. But the revolution is crushed and its cause emptied because they, like Javert, believed that they needed to defeat their oppressors to create balance and justice, just as Javert believed Valjean ought to have killed him in the alley. The god of justice brings a mentality of retribution and balancing of power that does not have the transforming effect of the grace of the God of Valjean. I found the movie did a good job in portraying the revolutionaries in this light with the empty chairs song followed shortly by the finale song which shows the revolutionaries singing the song of a God of love.

My favorite element of the movie however was a somewhat less noticeable choice of always placing crucifixes in the area when Valjean is singing about or to God, and placing bare crosses in the scenes when Javert is singing about or to god. And this I thought was the most powerful way of making the distinction between the two clear. The cross is a symbol of roman power that in Christianity is seen as a symbol of divine power and God’s victory. It emphasizes the power and station of God. The crucifix however, draws forth feelings of empathy and emotion, it symbolizes human cruelty and the divinization of the victim and oppressed. It also draws forth emotions of the suffering of God for all human beings and value of all human individuals.

The story of Les Miserables is one of the God of the cross versus the God of religion. And it is a story that plays out in the minds of all Christians, some holding the false idol of Javert’s view and some the pure view of the priest and Valjean. Most however, are somewhere in the middle of struggling between the radical grace of perfectly loving God and the security of conceptions of a holy ruler god. I highly recommend the movie to everyone because it very powerfully shows the redemptive power of God. It challenges believers to choose between the god of Javert and the God epitomized in the phrase of the movie’s finale, “To love another is to see the face of God”.

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The Gospel

This was a presentation of the gospel as I understand it that I posted to someone in a facebook group. I think it is well worth sharing on my blog as well.

In the beginning God created everything. Humans, in particular though were created with what the Hebrews called the image of God. Which in the context it is used in Genesis simply means that we are co-creators/managers of creation. And this is not something unique or counter-intuitive we know that humans have an unparalleled effect on their eco-system, and thus an intrinsic responsibility that sets us apart from all other creatures. Now God intended for this image of God to be utilized within the state of Eden (which Christians now call the kingdom of God, more on that later). Which is not a state of perfection, but a state of relationship, trust, a walking and talking with God. Within this context God calls humanity good, and together with God we continue(d) to make and maintain good. However, humanity (through the typology of Adam and Eve, and possibly even an actual existent group of first conscious humans) came into contact with evil already present in creation. And this should not be a surprise to the modern mind since we know that what in philosophy is commonly called “natural evil” pre-dates humanity on earth. In the Hebrew telling this encounter with ancient evil (the serpent, or lizard of sorts since it had legs) is the story of the temptation and the eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. What the encounter means for the human situation is that humanity already knowing the goodness of God and coming into contact with evil decided that we had a pretty good grasp on this whole good and evil thing and we don’t need God to carry out our responsibilities as creators and managers. And so through this act of “original sin”, rejecting God and assuming our mantle alone we set out on the creation of our Tower of Babels and sprawling civilizations that are being criticized and punished by God all throughout Genesis.

But more than that in Genesis we are told that within Eden was also a tree of everlasting life. And in our expulsion from Eden we are also removed from the source of life (God). And this is what Paul is getting at with sin bringing the dominion of death. Removed from our relationship of God we are made fully aware of our mortality and are fearful of death. And our fear of death is what drives our survival instincts which lead us to exploit the world and one another for security and comfort in the face of death. We even join in exploitations of others simply not to be the one being exploited. The works of psychologists like Ernest Becker have demonstrated that the majority of human behaviour is centered around death avoidance. And these survival instincts are born within us, transmitted in our very DNA. Removed from God we are born sinful and evil. And while we might think we really aren’t that bad psychology has shown pretty conclusively that the real difference between a Nazi and ourselves is just external circumstance.

And to add to our evil from our “slavery to death” (as it is called in Hebrews), our setting out to take up our mission without God also left us in a state of uncertainty about God. Is He angry, will He punish us, does He even like us? This anxiety further keeps us from God and Eden, and is the root of the creation of our religions. Religion sprung up to give us security about God’s disposition toward us and also allow for us to properly scapegoat those who we were exploiting due to our fear of death.
The Genesis story accurately depicts the human condition as one apart from the Eden which we were created for. It reveals that humanity is in a state of horrible and depraved misuse of our responsibilities toward each other and the entire planet, and it is a state which is transmitted through generations and which humanity is trapped in.

But I believe there is hope, and there is good news. Because God came down to us through Jesus and said “He who knows me knows the Father”. And Christ showed us that God loves us, and that God loves His enemies, and that God even particularly loves those whom we have exploited and whom we have told that God doesn’t love. And this love persists whether we oppose Him, whether we betray Him, and even if we crucify Him He will still pronounce words of forgiveness from the cross itself. Jesus brought us the news that we don’t need to fear or have anxiety toward God. He loves and no matter what and we can trust Him. And if we do, we can return to Eden (the kingdom of God) and begin using our unique status as creators and managers for good rather than evil. We can experience joy and renewal instead of vanity and destruction. And Jesus rises from the grave to say that we need no longer need to fear death, it has no place in our biography any longer. We can do the work of God even if it costs us our material and physical security because we are secure in the hands of God Himself who holds the keys to hell and is the source of life.

Paul writes that we are to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God who works with in us.” And that is exactly the freedom Christ is working in the hearts of those who return to Him. He is setting them free of the constraints of their anxieties and allowing them to do good, to be perfect, instead of be an instrument of destruction. And for those who do not turn to the kingdom He warned, like the prophet Jeremiah, that they would be tossed into Gehenna as burning corpses, which is exactly what happened to the Jews who rose up to liberate themselves from the Romans. They were fighting for security, and the return of their land. And these cycles of our Darwinian struggle for material and physical security always end in Gehenna, in torment, and pain, and blood. Because that is not how God intended us to be. This is the gospel that has been entrusted to me and I entreat to you. God is good, and only through trusting Him and having a relationship with Him can we ourselves be healed and the entire world from the depravity that exists in it.

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A lot of people don’t believe in a personal God. Some think the God is merely a force (perhaps one of some generic unity and love) but not personal in a ‘being’ sort of way. Others tend to imagine God as more of a government or system, a Divine lawmaker that set creation and morality in motion and perhaps even in the end will give some form of final justice but they don’t believe that He is available as a friend or a mentor. And so as I look to myself I also see that I too tend to push God into abstraction, to avoid prayer and communion, and I ask myself why that might be?

The truth that I discovered is that a personal God is too demanding of a God. Not in the sense that He literally demands certain things of me and when I fail I am punished or He is disappointed (that god is back to the divine lawgiver and not much in the realm of being personally accessible). But that genuine experience with a perfect God convicts and reveals one’s shortcomings. God’s perfect love, forgiveness, passion, and seeking after me, leaves no room for me to not be like that with others. If I am daily experiencing a relationship marked by God’s agape

{Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.}

I cannot easily and certainly not in good conscience be envious toward others, or be resentful, or doubt, or put down, or not forgive. God’s perfection demands personal perfection by its mere presence. If I experience perfect love how can I will dysfunctional or bad relationships on others?  It is not a demand marked by any form of compulsion but is an even greater burden simply because it is not. The light of God reveals the parts of me that hide in darkness. And so I think it is because we wish to avoid the necessity to change, and become good, that we also de-personalize or abstract God. The perfect God who wants a relationship with us is too hard to bear so we change our perceptions in order to stay comfortable with our depravity.

In Matthew 5 Jesus says “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect”. Many just gloss over this as some form of hyperbole but in context Jesus is talking about loving even your enemies with an agape type love. And He says that we are to love our enemies because God loves His enemies. Because God loves you even while you are His enemies. He doesn’t say love your enemies or God will punish you, or love your enemies because the universe is actually harmonious in the background and you need to overcome the illusion that makes you believe others are enemies. He says love your enemies as God does. Recognize perfection, experience God’s perfection, and you will manifest that perfection to others.

The demand of a perfect personal God is not a demand that stems from Him, but from us. And so when we reject Him we do so in order to protect ourselves from ourselves. It is not God who expects too much, or God that is unreasonable, or God that is a tyrannical bully. It is we who are cowards, who are depraved, who live in darkness and will do whatever it takes to avoid communion with the revealing light that is God. We would rather remain comfortable in our darkness, keeping God at arm’s length, than embrace the uncomfortable vision of ourselves that a relationship with the Light brings.

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A while back I wrote a pair of posts on the idea of “hating the sin and not the sinner”. However, both of those focused on how God does not hate sinners or particular types of sinners. In this post I want to explore a different aspect of the phrase: its Christian usage as it applies to us. In practice it is often demonstrated that Christians are notoriously bad at hating the sin and not the sinner. They discriminate against certain types of sinners (for example homosexuals, fornicators, etc.) both socially and politically while claiming the groups’ sinfulness as a reason. So we ought then to ask ourselves, why is it the case that it is so difficult to hate the sin and love the sinner?

The answer to this question in my mind requires us to look at why we believe this statement to be valid in the first part. Obviously the “love the sinner” part we can agree is very Christian, but what about the “hate the sin”. Why should we hate sin or “the sin” (meaning a particular sin)? The first problem is that we are separating out one sin as especially worth hating, something we are not called to do as Christians. But the second more relevant problem is the very question of why we should hate sin. I think the common answer would be that we should hate sin because God does. But why does God hate sin? He hates sin because its damages and defaces His creation. He hates sin because He loves his creation. When we say God hates the sin and not the sinner it is because loving the sinner is the predicate of hating the sin. However, when we use this phrase, what we really mean is “love the sinner in spite of their sin.” And this thought is the ungodly and unnatural viewpoint which causes us to inevitably hate the sinner as well as the sin. For when we hate the sin it is not born of loving the person committing it, it is an independent belief that the sin is bad and we can only manifest that belief by also speaking out/hating the sources and causes of that sin.

If you think about it, it is much like many friendships we have probably experienced. When a friend is making bad decisions and perhaps even unintentionally destroying aspects of their life, we feel a natural inclination to be angry about the choices they make, but we don’t start hating our friends because of it. We love our friend and that is why we feel the anger toward their bad decision making. This is how God is and is why “hating the sin not the sinner” works for God. For us however, we need to not hate the sin. So in a perhaps counter-intuitive sense we need to refrain from moral judgments of others rather than trying to say that it is nothing personal but I just believe that such and such behavior is sinful. Because ultimately it is personal to those hearing it and it is something we will always have an awareness of when dealing with the people committing that or those sins which we believe to be wrong. Instead we need to learn to love others and the sin part works itself out naturally in such a way that it does not lead to us feeling ambivalent or persecutory toward another group.  For Christians, we have only one part of the statement to worry about, and that is, love the sinner. And I think we can admit, that part is plenty challenging enough.

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This post is sort of a sketch of my own answer to the question, What did God accomplish through Christ? But I am hoping it might be interesting to all of you as well. To organize the work of Christ I have first set up the “unholy” Trinity (the enemies of Christ) in the way the New Testament authors describe it.

As the New Testament authors understood things, Satan (in some sense co-operatively) brought death into creation. This is link ‘A’. Death brought us under the “slavery of death” which is that because of our mortality and fear of death we have both biological and psychological tendencies toward survival and with that selfishness and competitiveness. The slavery of death (our drive toward selfishness and competition) is what locks us into sin. This is link ‘B’. Then depending on how the particular author portrays atonement theory link C consists of…

Ransom Theory- Our Sin causes us to belong to Satan (think Chronicles of Narnia where the Queen lays a claim toward Edmund which Aslan cannot override)

Penal (substitution) Theory- Our sin separates us from God ontologically and must (but cannot by us) be paid for. And so we are cast with Satan into the fire.

I’m not going to deal with others here because these are the two main ones, with the exception the Christos Victor model which is going to encompass my whole idea. Humans return to link A again through Satan’s reminding us of death and our conscious/unconscious selfish tendencies.

This cycle model is where humanity lies prior to Christ.


Post Christ

In the post-Christ world, a significant amount has changed in the cycle (at least for those who believe). The first major change is that death has been defeated by Christ’s resurrection. Christians now have hope and trust in the non-finality of death and so at least the conscious elements of the slavery of death are defeated. Christ’s resurrection and also Christ’s ethical teaching allow us to severely weaken the link between death and sin. Moving on to sin, it no longer moves us toward Satan and away from God (this plays into the various models of atonement again). Instead we get a process of sanctification that eventually leads us to God. In looking at the whole diagram we can see that Satan has been defeated in that he is no longer connected to the circle. Atonement and the atonement of Christ have removed him from the causal chain. This is really what the Christos Victor model of atonement is about, it is about Christ’s victory over Satan, Death, and Sin. It is not incompatible with other theories of atonement, but too highly stressing another theory of atonement can obfuscate and lessen the full works of what Christ accomplished with his life, death, and resurrection.

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