10 Popular Re-interpretations of The Great Commission

  1. “Go therefore and make fools of yourselves, building up walls to protect your children from hearing anything that you disagree with; shoe-horn the Ten Commandments in every public school and set up a Nativity scene on every government property.”
    • Because we all know that Jesus’ Kingdom is of this world, right?
  2. “Go therefore and make cheap, unoriginal parodies of popular music and movies, making Christianity look fun in the name of entertainment, teaching people to expect fog machines, light-shows, and emotional ecstasy during worship…”
    • I am not opposing all Christian music here; there are a number of truly original Christian artists – but there are many “baptized” versions of secular artists as well…
  3. “Go therefore and make the world a better place, joining hands with general humanistic morality, teaching people to live more peacefully with one another and to observe the general tenets of secular humanism…”
    • I have nothing against many social causes – I actually think Christians should be doing many of those things! But these are not the Great Commission; we cannot confuse the message with good deeds.
  4. “Go therefore and make friends with non-believers, acting very nice and hoping that one day they will ask you why you are different…”
    • There’s nothing wrong with making friends and doing “relational evangelism” – except that some of your friends may feel that you’re treating them like a project (because you are). Alternatively, it might only be a relationship without any evangelism. I’m all for choosing the right moment and being wise, but let’s face it: it’s difficult to evangelize, and it’s way more easy to just sink back into a comfortable friendship than it is to actually get the message across. We simply don’t get to be off-duty Christians. We are either all about Jesus Christ or we are slacking off.
    • I don’t mean that every single moment is supposed to be some sort of explicit “Jesus teaching moment” – far from it! But I do mean that every single moment is an on-duty moment. If we are truly being transformed by the gospel, then it transforms all of our lives; it means that it should not even be possible for someone to become your friend without it being really obvious that you’re about Jesus Christ. It should drip off you; it should be both implicit and explicit – according to wisdom in the Holy Spirit. We don’t get to pretend that we’re not Christians.
  5. “Go therefore door-to-door and tell people how evil they are, threatening them with the torments of hell in the name of love, teaching them to fear all that I have commanded you…”
    • I’m not against door-to-door ministry (I admire that boldness!); rather, I am against using fear as a primary motivator for bringing people to faith in Christ. Yes, we need to be honest about God’s holiness, justice, and judgment – but that really isn’t the whole message of the Cross, now is it? Jesus talked about hell, but he talked about a lot of other things, too.
  6. “Go therefore and tell people that God is just love (not really holy), making them feel accepted in the name of community, teaching them to ignore all that I have commanded you…”
    • Loving acceptance is a key component of Christian love – but it is not supposed to be motivated by an “I’m okay; you’re okay” mentality. Rather, it should be motivated by the knowledge that neither of us is “okay,” but that because of Jesus we can be redeemed. We accept others because we have been accepted and redeemed.
    • It is possible to be more liberal than Jesus.
  7. “Go therefore into your homes and have nothing to do with the world, protecting yourselves from the evil around you in the name of holiness, teaching outsiders that you are better than them…”
    • It is possible to be more conservative than Jesus.
    • If you think that avoiding all situations with alcohol, for example, is more important than getting out there and interacting with non-believers, then you are more conservative than Jesus. If you think that you cannot be friends with a non-believer, you are more conservative with Jesus. You cannot plant any seeds (much less harvest) if you’re afraid to go to the field.
  8. “Go therefore and make yourselves rich, teaching people that God will bless them in this life in the name of health, wealth, and prosperity…”
    • Frankly, I don’t even know how this one gets off the ground. Just read about Paul’s life in the Bible – he was probably one of the best Christians ever and yet he suffered greatly.
  9. “Go therefore and prove scientifically that God exists, showing that the world is definitely only a few thousand years old and that evolution is false in the name of Enlightenment Rationalism, teaching them about the conspiracy in modern science…”
    • And its corollary:
      • 2 Tim. 3:16 – All Scripture is inspired [verbally dictated] by God [according to modern, twenty-first century, English-speaking, North American standards of rigid exactitude] and profitable for teaching [science and modern historiography], for reproof [of all non-conservative understandings of Scripture], for correction [of historical allegations], for training in righteousness [rationalistic apologetics];”
    • I have nothing against apologetics per se. But the Great Commission is not about asking people for their intellectual permission to preach the gospel. Apologetics should help remove obstacles to hearing, but it can never finally establish the credibility of the gospel – it cannot and must not pretend to provide a rationalistic foundation for belief. (See more on this here.)
  10. “Go therefore to seminary and learn all the theology you can, posting on Facebook everything you’ve learned in the name of truth, teaching people that they need to think critically about what they believe, forgetting to actually invite people to take a positive step of faith beyond the reach of critical thought…”
    • This is mine. This is the one that I struggle with all the time – both online and in person. I am willing to discuss apologetics with everyone, but I am often fearful to actually say to someone, with confidence, “Listen, Jesus is the Creator and Lord of everything; he can forgive you for the wrongs you’ve committed against him – against God – and he will give you new life. He has died for your sins and for my sins! He is the point of this life, and any way of doing life without enshrining him as Lord and following him is a wasted life. He will come back to judge the living and the dead.
      • Please pray that I would move past mere rational appeal into the realm of confident witness. For all of my opposition to the rationalistic approach I described above, I often fall into the same sort of thing (only not in terms of Creation Science). The fact that my method is perhaps more sophisticated (or needlessly complicated) does not excuse me from the basic charge that I do, in fact, try to make an excuse for the Word of God. But we do not need to make an excuse for the Word of God; we need to be silent and heed it.

Matthew 28:19-20 (the real one) “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

 

Book Review: Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ – by Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace

Bock, Darrell L and Daniel B. Wallace. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007. 237 pages.

Dethroning

Darrell L. Bock is Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. His postdoctoral work in Luke-Acts and in Jesus’ examination before the Jews has earned him international recognition, and he currently serves as corresponding editor at large for Christianity Today. Daniel B. Wallace, also a Professor of New Testament Studies at DTS, has done postdoctoral work in Greek grammar, syntax and textual criticism. Wallace is founder of an organization that works to ensure the digital preservation of all known Greek New Testament manuscripts.

Summary

Dethroning Jesus differentiates two competing stories about the historical Jesus. Christianity maintains that “Jesus was anointed by God to represent both God and humanity in the restoration of a broken relationship existing between the Creator and his creation” (4). “Jesusanity,” in contrast, calls him a prophet or wise religious teacher—a good example to follow; “the key is that Jesus inspires others, but there is no throne for him” (5). Bock and Wallace investigate the competing merits of each view of Jesus by analyzing and responding to six of Jesusanity’s major public claims.

1. The original New Testament has been corrupted by copyists.

World-class New Testament (NT) scholar Bart Ehrman presents three lines of argument in his 2005 best seller, Misquoting Jesus: 1) our copies of the NT are so late that the message of the originals is uncertain. Bock and Wallace reply that both the dating and number of NT manuscripts are much better than all of the other ancient texts that today’s historians accept as trustworthy. 2) There are many differences (errors) between NT manuscripts. However, ninety-nine percent of these involve wording and spelling differences and do not viably affect the meaning; the remainder do not affect any orthodox doctrine—e.g. “We have peace” vs. “Let us have peace” in Romans 5:1. 3) Orthodox scribes changed the NT text, altering its basic message. While Bock and Wallace grant that there were insertions, such as Mark 16:9-20, John 7:53-8:11, and 1 John 5:7-8, they counter that Evangelical scholars have known about these “for more than a century, yet no theological formulations have been altered” (64). They conclude that Ehrman has a penchant for publicly inflating these issues, making them more sensational than they really are.

2. Secret gnostic gospels, such as Judas show the existence of early alternative Christianities.

For Ehrman, this fact “reverses everything we ever thought about the nature of true Christianity (99); “orthodoxy” was merely the winning alternative among many. Bock and Wallace agree that Judas is authentic ancient Gnostic text: it centres on secret knowledge and dualism, in which the spiritual is good and the physical is bad—and so is the inferior god who created the physical realm. Here Jesus is a secretive, disdainful figure who speaks ill of the disciples except Judas—whom he instructs to hand over “the man that clothes [him]” (96) to be crucified. There is certainly an alternative Christianity here, but Bock and Wallace point out that this is a second-century text while the canonical gospels are from the first century. Moreover, the anti-Jewish nature of Judas would have disqualified it because the early Christians accepted Hebrew teaching: the one true God had created the physical world. They conclude that Ehrman’s claim is a “historically false…misleading and anachronistic attempt to write a revisionist history” (103).

3. The Gospel of Thomas radically alters our understanding of the real Jesus.

In her 2003 book, Beyond Belief, Elaine Pagels expresses her dismay that the Gospel of John rejects any “divine spark” within humanity—it rejects the “good news” of Thomas. Bock and Wallace’ contentions are similar as with Judas: 1) as a collection of 114 alleged sayings of Jesus, Thomas lacks any narrative that may have aided in its dating; it is most likely a second-century text—partly because it appears to borrow heavily from the Synoptic Gospels and 1 Corinthians. 2) Early Christians would have disqualified Thomas for its disdain for apocalyptic prophecy and its elevation of knowledge above faith, among other things. This Jesus performs no miracles, appears to teach panentheism, and says things such as “every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of Heaven” (125). 3) That scholars would treat Thomas as more trustworthy than the Gospel of John bewilders Bock and Wallace because this Jesus is “virtually untouchable by historical investigation” (128): Thomas himself is explicitly affirmed as “the only one with [secret] reliable information about Jesus” (128)—information that is so cryptic that it cannot be openly communicated. The Gospels, far from being non-falsifiable, were written anonymously and “give us earlier material, written in a way that subjects the narrative to historical inquiry. And what these gospels say about Jesus is not said in a corner: it is the memory of Jesus of the earliest Christian communities” (130).  

4. Jesus’ message was actually (only) political and social.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan make this claim in their 2006 book, The Last Week. They make a number of number of arguments with which Bock and Wallace take exception: 1) Jesus’ central message of economic and political reform incited his crucifixion. Bock and Wallace agree that Jesus’ most basic theme was the kingdom of God, but they insist that he presented himself as king-messiah—not merely as prophet-messiah. Bock and Wallace agree that the details of Jesus’ execution attest to this much, but Borg and Crossan insist on an either-or approach: “Jesus [either] speaks against the leadership, or…about himself” (This is Bock and Wallace’ summary–not a quote from Borg and Crossan. 140). Bock and Wallace point out that the church would not have invited persecution by needlessly emphasizing Christ as king-messiah; Hebrew teachings on the Messiah anticipate a “ruling or transcendent figure” (139). It is also curious that Jesus is not recorded as saying much about Rome at all, or even as visiting the Roman cities nearby—if his mission were purely political. 2) Jesus’ death was not understood as being “for sins” until Anselm popularized the idea in AD 1097. This claim is simply false. Paul taught Jesus’ death for our sins as the teaching he had received (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). Here is another either-or: either “one participates with Jesus in the Cross, or one is substituted for by Jesus’ act on the cross” (145)—but the NT actually teaches both. 3) The resurrection is best understood as a parable. A plausible case is made for a mere vision of the risen Christ, but this ignores that many people saw him at once, and that Thomas’ doubt was remedied by physical contact. Bock and Wallace agree with Borg and Crossan that “Jesus is against egoism and injustice and for personal and political transformation…[but they insist that] Jesus is the key to this transformation, not just his teaching” (168).

5. Paul hijacked the Jewish reform movement of Jesus and James, creating one that exalted Jesus and included the Gentiles.

In his 2006 book, The Jesus Dynasty, James Tabor teaches that Christianity began with Jesus and John the Baptist’s teachings, in which “Jesus’s person or work wasn’t a central concern” (180); only later did Paul’s teachings, based on his “visionary experiences of a heavenly Christ” (174), become synonymous with Christianity—a very different movement than that of James. Bock and Wallace praise Tabor for some solid historical work, but his key assumptions are flawed: 1) he has an anti-supernatural bias; Tabor decries the virgin birth “dogma” but substitutes his own dogma that “all human beings [including Jesus] have both a biological mother and father” (175). He suggests that Jesus’ real father was likely a Roman soldier named Pantera since Mark does not mention Joseph (among other things). However, this ignores Mark’s literary emphasis on Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 1:1); to focus on Jesus’ earthly father—apparently dead during the events in Mark—might have undermined this. 2) Bock and Wallace also note that Tabor excessively contrasts Christian texts. It is true that there were differing emphases in early Christianity, but this does not imply different faiths. Bock and Wallace also find this tendency in Ehrman, who accepts report of a “divisive” conflict with Peter in Galatians 2 but not the affirmations of unity in the same letter. Moreover, Paul speaks teaching that he has received: “When Paul saw the exalted Jesus and was converted, he had to have known the church’s teaching in order to understand the experience” (190).

6. Jesus’ tomb has been found; his resurrection and ascension were not physical.

In March 2007, the Discovery Channel aired “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” documentary, with Tabor as the primary historical advisor. It suggested that the names found in a tomb unearthed at Talpiot, Israel, linked it to Jesus: “Jesus, Mary…Mariamne…Matthew, Jose (a variation of Joseph), and Judas, son of Jesus” (196). Bock and Wallace point out “a series of historical, cultural, and sociological problems…[,] ones most historians could readily spot” (198): 1) Either this is Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, who offered his tomb for Jesus’ burial, or “Jose” is Jesus’ father; the former squares with the gospel accounts, but only the latter supports the documentary’s claim. If the disciples stole the body and put it in this second tomb, as the documentary suggests, then they later knowingly preached a lie to the point of their own martyrdoms. Neither is there any explanation for why Mathew (not related to Jesus) would be in the family tomb, and not Jesus’ other brothers. 2) The documentary argues that Jesus and Mariamne were husband and wife on the basis that their DNA did not match. This simply cannot be proven by a DNA test; one wonders why they did not instead “test Judas, [supposed] son of Jesus, to see if he matched either or both” (206). 3) Bock and Wallace estimate that about 76,000 different Jesuses were alive in the area at the time—1,500 of which could have been the one in this tomb. 4) The documentary depends on the very late, fourth-century Acts of Philip in order to identify Mariamne as Mary Magdalene, but this conflicts with the first-century Gospel of John. Bock and Wallace also decry the documentary’s “naïve handling of the issue of resurrection” (208), which was presented as not being physical in nature—only spiritual. This ignores the Jewish backgrounds of the apostles, specifically of Paul, “a former Pharisee who held to a physical resurrection, as 1 Corinthians 15:1-58 makes clear” (210). Bock and Wallace conclude that when sensations like this come into the public eye, the underwriters should be more scrutinous and the public should let the controversy play out before passing judgment.

Historical investigation leads Bock and Wallace to conclude that Jesusanity misunderstands historical Christianity; it is “unlikely…that the earliest expression of Christianity had a less-than-exalted view of Jesus” (220). But a negative case against Jesusanity alone does not prove Christianity to be true, so they make three positive cases: 1) the early teaching of an exalted Jesus; 2) Paul’s teaching of an exalted Jesus as received from the church; and 3) a link between the root gospel (Mark) and Peter. Thus they end their book, observing that, historically speaking, “the earliest Christianity taught about the spiritual and personal benefits of knowing the exalted Jesus. An enthroned Jesus, not a dethroned one, is most able to lead us into the knowledge of God—and of ourselves” (227).

Critique

Bock and Wallace offer a readable, well-organized, and concise summary and rebuttal of six popular arguments aimed at undermining Christianity’s connection to the historical Jesus. They do so with class by acknowledging the expertise of opposing scholars—even conceding on certain points. Examples of this include agreeing that some passages have been added to the Bible (60-71) and acknowledging that Tabor is likely correct about Jesus having been a follower of John the Baptist before beginning his own ministry (180). They also handle the tension between social and doctrinal concerns quite admirably, given the sensitive nature of the topic.

Some minor concerns include the incongruity of speaking against Jesusanity’s “swallowing up” of the First Great Commandment to love God with all one’s being “by the second…to love one’s neighbour as oneself” (27) while, at the same time, using James’ affirmation of this second commandment as the “royal law” (2:8) as a point against Jesusanity (184); it seems they could have written more to resolve the apparent conflict between (1) denying Jesusanity for its tendency to make the Second Great Commandment the whole show while (2) James seems to do this very thing (on surface). Also, although Bock and Wallace consider the widespread evangelical ignorance of inserted passages as a “bomb waiting to explode” (63), their discussion of Paul and James’ unity (184) may have been a good time to acknowledge and discuss a similar “bomb”: Martin Luther himself considered James to be an “epistle of straw.” But these are minor complaints – the book is aimed at a popular audience, and it is unreasonable to expect them to nail down every possible loose thread.

My primary apprehension with Dethroning Jesus is Bock and Wallace’ apparent contention that Jesusanity is a monolithic movement aimed at dethroning the biblical Jesus. While they are correct that each of these six claims can be used to support Jesusanity, the idea that “Jesusanity” is some sort of driving force behind each of these movements is assumed. If they mean to say that this is the spiritual conspiracy of Satan to present a false Christ, then a brief discussion would have been welcome. But Bock and Wallace claim that “we cannot understand the public discussion about Jesus without understanding that the discussion entails [Christianity and Jesusanity]” (5). Thinking in these terms is a helpful grid for organizing these public claims, but this alone does not prove its reality as a unique movement apart from general sin and spiritual darkness in the world. They may be right, but such is not the case they have made in this book; rather, they seem to have assumed Jesusanity’s existence and interpreted these six claims accordingly. As a result, they may leave the impression that all of these scholars agree with all six claims—but this is surely not the case: if the “Lost Tomb of Jesus” was as bad as they claim, it’s difficult to believe that Borg, Crossan, and Ehrman would take it seriously. If “Jesusanity” is taken to loosely mean “any view that relegates Jesus to a mere teacher” then there is no issue, but Bock and Wallace appear to have taken great pains to establish it as a sociological reality. This runs the risk of having the reader think that there really is some Jesusanity committee somewhere, whose expressed purpose is to spread misinformation about Christ.

Ministry Application

Dethroning Jesus has much to offer in an educational context: its rebuttal of contemporary arguments against the Christian faith in the public square may be useful to both bolster the faith of some and to equip them better to answer questions from outsiders. Apologetics is generally well received by evangelicals, so opposition to this book is unlikely, but there are two related issues to be discussed: 1) a significant portion of evangelicals may be termed “recovering fundamentalists.” For these folks, admitting that certain portions of the NT were added later might as well be heresy; they need to deepen their faith and centre it on Christ rather than on modern ideas about what biblical inerrancy entails, but this book may not be the best way to enter that process: it seems to move on from the issue too soon after raising it. 2) Care must be taken to avoid feeding existing arrogance and triumphalism among evangelicals. Otherwise, those who learn about Thomas’ Jesus being sexist, for example, will simply gain an offensive fact to wave around whenever they speak disdainfully of these other texts. Instead, the goal should be to answer challenges to the Christian faith with “gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” (1 Pet. 3:15-16).

Worship, Reverence, and “Jesus Is My … “

Can you finish the sentence?

For at least some readers, the word homeboy readily comes to mind.

Now, I realize that for someone to call Jesus his or her homeboy is probably not meant to be quite as shallow and irreverent as it comes across to my ears. For example, urbandictionary.com (I have fixed spelling and grammatical errors) defines homeboy as “closest friend,” “the epitome of a friend,” “a close friend,” “a person who always has your back,” and “long-time friend”; none of these are particularly troublesome for me. After all, Jesus did say to his disciples, “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). It is good and right that disciples of Jesus Christ would consider him their friend, and if that were all that homeboy meant, I would take little issue with it.

However, look at these other things that urbandictionary.com has to say about homeboy:

  • “Guy to chill with.”
  • “It is more commonly used now as a term to mean a friend from the neighborhood or a gang member.”
  • “One of your peeps — a good friend. Derived from the Spanish hombre
  • “Used to establish a mutual relationship between the individual using the term, the person described by it, and a third person.”

Now things are a little more problematic. I think that last definition hits the problem most squarely: “a mutual relationship.” Do we have a mutual relationship with Jesus? Mutual means that the relation is is reciprocal; it means that both people are on equal footing. Is this where we have arrived in twenty-first century, western evangelicalism? Look at the verse right before the one I quoted earlier:

You are My friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).

Does that sound mutual? Are we on equal footing with Jesus? Perhaps surprisingly, the late Tupac Shakur seems to come the closest to orthodoxy when he says, “You ain’t nothing without your homeboy” (if the urbandictionary quotation can be trusted). That’s a definition of homeboy that I could use with Jesus: I am nothing without him. As a good friend of mine likes to say, I am totally “up a tree without a paddle” apart from Jesus Christ. I don’t recommend the 2006 movie School for Scoundrels at all — but there is one line from the trailer that rings true: “You can’t help yourself because your self sucks.” Of course, instead of Billy Bob Thorton, it is Jesus we need to help us, as he makes clear earlier in the same chapter we’ve been looking at: “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Of Course We Must Avoid Empty Religiosity

I am not saying that everyone who says “Jesus is my homeboy” is consciously saying that his or her relationship with Jesus is mutual. Surely most would say something like, “No, of course I’m not saying that I’m equal with Jesus or anything; I’m just emphasizing the closeness of our relationship. Jesus is someone I can kick it with, you know? I’m trying to get away from that stuffy, religious approach that makes God far away and inaccessible. After all, the Bible does say that we come to God saying ‘Abba! Father!,’ which was a familiar term of endearment in biblical times.

It is certainly true that Abba is a familiar term of endearment, and that we must avoid the imbalanced approach to God that only emphasizes his distance from us and stifles all sense of fellowship with God through his Holy Spirit. Of course we must resist that imbalance. But Christian living is not like physics: the answer to one imbalance is not the opposite imbalance. The answer to sexual promiscuity is not forced celibacy for life; the answer to drunkenness is not a legalism that demonizes any Christian who drinks; the answer to legalism is not a cheap-grace, anything-goes, lawlessness. No, the answer is always to be more like Jesus instead. If we only run from a specific problem, we might end up going anywhere! But if we run to Jesus, we can leave a problem behind without creating another.

If we don't run to Jesus, we might end up anywhere: in some cult, in a worse form of sin and imbalance, etc.

If we don’t run to Jesus, we might end up anywhere: in some cult, in a worse form of sin and imbalance, etc.

 

The Emotions Need to Be Discipled, too.

Now, what is really good about the “homeboy” approach, is that it holds our affection and closeness with Jesus in high regard. However, even our affections — our emotions — need to be discipled; not just disciplined — but discipled.

Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism” (C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Chap. 1).

Until I read the above C. S. Lewis quote, I had never really thought about my emotions as something to be trained. I had always thought of them as something to be ignored, controlled, subdued — but trained? It makes sense, now that I think about it. We are called to be like Jesus, not like Spock: the emotions — just like the intellect, the will, the body — are also meant to be discipled.

This means that when my feelings are not in accord with what is right — when they delight in evil (cf. 1 Cor. 13:4-7) — I am supposed to submit them to Christ and grow in that area. Although we all differ in our personalities, the goal should be that we take every feeling captive and make it obedient to Christ (not just every thought)!

Not too long ago, I was sitting in a public space (not a library), trying to study. Soon, a girl showed up with a guitar and started softly playing and singing a worship song — Can you believe it? The nerve! I was trying to read! How dare she!!?? — and I glared at the back of her head. This, I think, is an example of a feeling that needs to be denied and re-trained. Instead, I should be happy that someone is worshipping God; I must train  my emotions to be happy that someone is worshipping God. That is entirely new to me. In the past, it was “Just ignore that feeling”; now, it is “Take that feeling captive and train it — make it obedient to Christ.” It used to be “Just ignore that inclination to lust”; now it is “Stop it. See that woman as a creation of God, and pray for her. Now.” It used to be “Just be patient and stifle your anger at that jerk who just cut you off”; now it is “Pray for him. Pray that God blesses him and draws him to Jesus Christ.” Do you see the difference? Do you see the potential for spiritual growth? I must train my emotions to delight in what the Lord delights (see Eph 5:10).

You Cannot Worship without Reverence

What the “homeboy” approach totally forgets, I would argue, is reverence for God as God. (Even if we don’t call Jesus our homeboy, it might still be the case that we don’t revere him properly.)

The idea for this blog entry came to me as I was listening to a message by Ravi Zacharias called “The Foundation of Contemporary Discipleship“:

In Greek (the language of the New Testament), there are a few words for worship:

  • Proskuneo, which means to kneel down or prostrate yourself in paying homage to someone.
  • Latreuo, which means to serve or to give religious homage as a servant.
  • Threskeia, which basically just means worship, but also has ceremonial and discipline connotations.
  • Sebomai, which also means to revere.
  • Eusebeo, which means to dutifully give someone his due reverence or regard.

None of these words suggest that you can worship God without revering him: Ravi argues that “you cannot worship [God] without reverence. We have lost this aspect in our time.”

Consider Malachi 1:6: “‘A son honors his father, and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My respect?’ says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests who despise My name. But you say, ‘How have we despised Your name?’”

There is no reason to think that in New Testament times we are any less bound to give God his honour and respect as Father and Master. Jesus is not just your homeboy — he is Master, Lord, Saviour, Redeemer, Creator, Almighty God, the King of Kings!

You might have the chance to be on familiar terms with some powerful world leader some day, but will you get chummy with him or her? Will you disregard his laws, violate her etiquette, or give him a half-baked gift? Will you fall asleep while he speaks? Ignore her letters? Will you disobey direct orders?

At the Same Time, You Cannot Worship without Emotion

Not emotionalism but emotions.

I find evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch (1928 – 2010) to be very helpful on this matter:

“I fully concur with … [a] critique of contemporary music that makes the praise of God serve the satisfaction of the human heart, thereby transforming worship into therapy. But we must not be too hasty in [removing] from our hymnals gospel songs and chorales that celebrate Christ in us, for we are then emptying the faith of its mystical content, and a faith without a small dose of mysticism can only grow cold and formalistic. It is surely not our goal to become God’s frozen chosen” (The Holy Spirit, 339).

Frozen chosen!

If we are to love God with all that we are, that must include the emotions. We must not idolize them and make them the centre, but neither can we ignore them. Just as I want the churchgoer to disciple his or her mind, using it for God’s glory, so too must the logical, Spock-like believer like me learn to allow his or her emotions to not only be killed but resurrected to the glory of Jesus Christ.

I have to admit, I didn’t know what “sacrilege” meant until now — not really. Ravi quotes G. Campbell Morgan’s book on Malachi: “Sacrilege is defined as taking something that belongs to God and using it profanely. …the worst kind of sacrilege is taking something and giving it to God when it means absolutely nothing to you.” So if we are just singing along (or just serving along, or whatever it is), for show, that is actually worse than having no reverence. He continues quoting Campbell: “You will never be able to worship him without giving him your best; the best of your time, the best of your intellect, the best of your substance, the best of your gifts.” “You cannot worship God without emotion; you cannot worship God without reverence; you cannot worship God without sacrifice … you cannot worship God without the purity of heart.”

There are two errors to avoid here: having no reverence, and only appearing to have reverence — without any personal commitment / cost. The first falls into emotionalism; the second jettisons the emotions altogether.

“When you don’t have that love,” Ravi goes on, “when you don’t have that reverence/obedience, when you don’t have that sacrifice … you have also sniffed at it and what a weariness it is: worship became a boring exercise for them — ‘what a weariness it is’ (Malachi 1:13). Can you imagine when the purpose for which you are created becomes a boring exercise for you? You know what it’d be like? It would be like embracing the wife you were wedded to in the love your youth, and finding no enchantment, no comfort, no thrill in it.”

Putting out a Fire with a Flood?

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis suggests that it is the business of the Devil to have Christians “running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under” (Letter no. 25); that is, to have those in the church forever making themselves busy in the wrong direction — emphasizing seemingly good things in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

In his seventeeth-century classic The Reformed Pastor Richard Baxter (1615-1691) makes a related point when he laments an “an epidemical malady”  — what he calls the “temporizing of ministers” (chap. 3, sec. 1, 3, (1)); this is the natural tendency of those in church leadership to align their message and approach with the ethos of their surrounding culture. In doing so, they are appealing to that which is politically, socially and, indeed, economically expedient, at the expense of being truly faithful to their calling to preach the word of God.

These two points — one from Lewis, one from Baxter — together illustrate the necessity of taking heed of those outside of our own socio-historical context (that is, we should humbly read sources from outside of our own time and place). Care must be taken to assess whether we find ourselves in a time of “fire” or “flood” — to borrow from Lewis’s analogy.

One flood of our time, I think, is irreverence: we’re so focussed on putting out the fire of stuffy, detached legalism, that we are now drowning in irreverent emotionalism. Reading older works can help to give us balance.

At times, Baxter’s writing might sound unduly harsh and puzzling:

“Of all preaching in the world, (that speaks not stark lies) I hate that preaching which tends to make the hearers laugh, or to move their minds with tickling levity, and affect them as stage-plays used to do, instead of affecting them with a holy reverence of the name of God” (ch. 2, sec. 2, 11.).

I don’t know about you, but that sounds kind of crazy to me! — and perhaps with good reason; hermeneutics today suggests that Christ himself used humor to illustrate important truths (see Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ). Yet before we rush to the other side of Lewis’s “boat” — saying that Baxter is just wrong and we are right — I think that Baxter says something important here. (It might surprise some that this same author also instructs us to avoid all “harsh, discouraging language” (ch. 3, sec. 2. part 3, art. 2, 11, (7)), or that he advocates personal, relational evangelism over and against the “austerities of monks and hermits” (ch. 3, part 1, art. 1, 13.) — all of the sudden he sounds like us!)

Baxter’s real concern, I think, is that people will not be misled by the humor employed by those in leadership, and he is actually advocating a proper balance between mildness and severity, appropriate to each situation: “If there be no severity [that is, seriousness], our reproofs [rebukes] will be despised. If all severity, we shall be taken as usurpers of dominion, rather than persuaders of the minds of men to the truth” (ch. 2, sec. 2, 7.). This is actually pretty balanced — more balanced than we often are. Even if Baxter and his generation misplaced their sense of humour, we have certainly lost our sense of reverence. For example, when I was a volunteer youth leader, I recall when one of the teens jovially began throwing around the word “Yahweh” as a nickname for a physical object as it was tossed around. Why aren’t we teaching reverence?

Going even father back in Church History, Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule (c. AD 591) also makes some comments very different from anything you’d hear today: he teachers pastors to encourage grief over sin, godly sorrow, (cf. 2 Cor. 7:10-11) and even fear (cf. Luke 12:5) in churchgoers! Whereas some modern preaching resembles self-help books on how to feel good about life, Gregory warns the rich to fear being in high spirits (III.2); the joyful are to think about “sad things that follow upon punishment,” and are to be harshly warned “what to be afraid of” (III.2); “levity of mind” (silly, non-seriousness) must be “guarded against,” because it leads to “inconstancy of the thoughts” (III.18); we ought to bewail our sins—even those that we have ceased to do (III.30).

Again, it is worth pausing to apply some balance to Gregory’s own words here, since Jesus Himself made use of humour: we need to avoid a “misguided piety” that makes “us fear that acceptance of [Jesus’] obvious wit and humor would somehow be mildly blasphemous or sacrilegious,” because “Christ laughed, and…He expected others to laugh” (Trueblood, The Humor of Christ, 15). At the same time, Gregory might have an important point that “levity of the mind” can carry us away. The Bible tells us to “become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning” (1 Cor. 15:34) and to be “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). The point is that we should remember to disciple our emotions — neither abolishing them nor letting them carry us away!

The Holy Spirit was still active in the church of the sixth century; they were still Christians. Even if Gregory errs on the side of being too serious, he still provides a corrective for our own lack of reverence, and our tendency to focus on meeting felt-needs of seekers instead of actual needs of disciples.  Gregory repeatedly calls a pastor a “physician of the heart.” It seems to me that a physician “of the heart” cannot simply focus on what feels good (or joyful) any more than a medical doctor can. Oftentimes, we see Jesus as more of a “homeboy” than a holy God, and sin is certainly not bewailed. Gregory rightly emphasizes the reverence that we lack.

A Solution?

Not to be one to just complain and leave, I suggest two ways in which we might recover a healthy sense of reverence for the things of God. First, we need to be educated about the importance of reverence for God. Since many of our popular analogies for understanding our relationship with God make use of a tender father-child relationship, I suggest that we begin here; central to such a discussion will be the exposition of verses like Romans 8:15 (“…by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’) versus those akin to Luke 12:5 (“…Yes, I tell you, fear him [God].”).

Although the whole “I don’t have a religion; I have a relationship” stance is flawed, belittling the great Christian Tradition overseen by the Holy Spirit (although never over and against Scripture), we would do well to take a page out of Gregory’s book and address the more grievous vice first (III.39), and start by educating Christians on the concept of reverence in relationship. In another blog entry, I argued that one of the reasons you can’t go to heaven by just being a good person is that you are not being a good creature if you do not relate properly to your Creator. But the same goes for Christians: sure, we have a relationship with God, but we must relate properly to God.

Second, we must address our use of humor, which is one of the primary ways we are letting emotions lead us. Clearly Christ’s use of humour should prevents us from disposing with it completely; however, I believe that we would do well to strictly dispatch with both “filthy joking” (Eph. 5:4) and with making callous jokes about Hell and other spiritual things (2 Pet. 2:10) (and flippancy in general, but I think I will write another blog entry about that). Regrettably, these things are common among evangelicals — especially youth and young adults (they were particularly present in myself until about 2008) — these things sometimes even manifest among those in leadership positions. Whenever such things are confronted, the response is usually along the lines of “don’t be so legalistic.” Since so many are sensitive to legalism as the antithesis of grace and relationship, I suggest that we begin by explaining how such forms of humour do not befit our relationship with God. We need reverence in relationship. A woman will not suffer her husband to make a joke about cheating on her, for example—it is to disrespect both her and their relationship. And our God? He will not be mocked.

Lecture Review: “Reflections on the Bible, Evolution, and the Journey of Faith” by Peter Enns

This is a response I wrote to a lecture given by Enns on October 9, 2013 in the Northwest Auditorium at Trinity Western University. I originally wrote this as an assignment for Ministry of Scholarship 803, but, in an effort to blog more, I am reproducing it here, with expanded commentary and greater interaction. It should go without saying that all of my views are my own, and that none of my views necessarily reflects the positions of TWU, ACTS Seminaries, my church, Enns, or anyone else one way or the other — that goes for all my blogs.

Summary

Peter Enns is adamant that the issue of evolution and Christianity is “challenging, vital, and not going away anytime soon.” In response, he urges us to “accept the challenge of evolution and embark on a journey of faith.”

There is a “non-negotiable need” to account for two things:

  1. the current evolutionary model of origins
  2. modern biblical scholarship

Enns calls these “two destabilizing factors” — they do not challenge Christianity, but only our current understanding/interpretation of Christianity. (All quotations are from Enns’s powerpoint.)

For Enns, a literalist approach to Scripture “assumes that the mark of divine inspiration is to isolate itself from cultural context” — Enns doesn’t agree; therefore, we cannot simply “graft” evolution onto evangelicalism — by suggesting that Adam and Eve could have been some early hominid couple chosen by God, etc. The first gene pool was no less than about 10,000 humans, and this must be accounted for (see, for example, Dennis Venema’s article, “Genesis and the Genome.”). But Enns is quick to point out that even on biblical grounds, assuming that Adam and Eve were literal people raises the following “three red flags”:

  • “Even without evolution, biblical scholarship is enough to do away with a naïve literalism.”
  • “We should not superimpose some kind of hominid over Adam” — this is equally unfaithful to Scripture.
  • “The ad hoc ‘it’s possible’ argument” is weak: the fact that it’s possible that God could have picked a pair does not by itself make it true that he has done so.

At the same time, Enns doesn’t see this as “putting science ‘over’ the Bible”: “none of us comes to the Bible with a blank slate […] Outside information can ‘Calibrate’ our expectations for Scripture” — specifically, “Science shows us that science/history cannot be our expectation for the Bible.” Rather than stick to the “theological non-starter” of biblical inerrancy — which requires an ad hoc “constant vigilance” to maintain, Enns recommends an “incarnational model”:  “Just as Jesus bears the full marks of humanity, specifically that of ancient first-century Palestine, the Bible fully bears the mark of the historical trappings in which it was written.”

He quotes C. S. Lewis here:

“[There] is one argument which we should beware of using…: God must have done what is best, [I feel] this is best, therefore God has done this. For we are mortals and do not know what is best for us, and it is dangerous to prescribe what God must have done — especially when we cannot, for the life of us, see that He has after all done it” (Reflections on the Psalms, 111-112).

So we must pay attention to historical context, canonical context, and Christian tradition, and remember that “We see things provisionally, not as they really are… History is important — even when it challenges our theology.”

Evaluation/Reflection

Enns makes a compelling case for why evangelicals should be engaged in the discussion about evolution — whatever we are going to do about all this, sticking our heads in the sand is not an option. My only critique is that Enns seemed to just “talk about evolution and Christianity for an hour”; he didn’t clearly delineate a thesis for his talk (I had to decide on one for my assignment). Also, I think he ought to have actually dug into the meat of the issue a little more: it’s one thing to say that we need to revaluate our interpretation, but it’s quite another to actually show what that might mean. I was hoping to actually get into the issues of how we might understand Jesus and Paul’s references to Adam and Eve in the NT. Also, I don’t see why Enns has to set his view up in opposition to biblical inerrancy. For myself, I believe that the Bible is infallible and inerrant in what it intends to teach — it simply doesn’t intend to teach science.

In the Q & A, I asked, “Did Jesus and Paul understand — together with their audiences — (unlike us) that Adam was not historical when they talked about him? Did they know that Adam and Eve were not historical; is it only we moderns who misread Genesis 1-11 as history?”

Enns gave an interesting response to this: “Well, I don’t know what they were thinking” (the audience laughed at me here, and I deserved it). But essentially, Paul was an ancient man in an ancient context, and a historical Adam was part of the heritage he had received. (He was reluctant to speak about Jesus). It is “messy,” he said, but “an incarnational view of Scripture is unafraid to see the mess for what it is.” When God reveals infallible truth, he does so by “incarnating” his message in the thought patterns of the time; one author says that “God let his children tell the story.”

I think Enns makes a number of very important points, but “ground zero” for me is whether or not we should think of Jesus as being — ultimately — misinformed/wrong about the historicity of Adam. I would prefer to think that He was actually consciously accommodating His audience when He spoke of Adam. However, I talked with my Exposition of Genesis professor regarding all of this, and he says that he really has no problem with the idea that Jesus and Paul were men of their times, believing and using the categories of their times to express divine truth. He pointed out Philippians 2:3-11, where it says that Jesus “emptied himself” (the Greek word for this is kenosis); the idea is that in the Incarnation, the second person of the Trinity gave up his omniscience  in becoming human. (J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig suggest that Christ possibly “subliminally” suppressed his omniscience into his subconsciousness. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 610-13.)

C. S. Lewis has no problem with this idea:

“it might be argued that when [Christ] emptied Himself of His glory He also humbled Himself to share, as man, the current superstitions of His time. And I certainly think that Christ, in the flesh, was not omniscient — if only because a human brain could not, presumably, be the vehicle of omniscient consciousness, and to say that Our Lord’s thinking was not really conditioned by the size and shape of His brain might be to deny the real incarnation and become a Docetist. Thus, if Our Lord had committed Himself to any scientific or historical statement which we knew to be untrue, this would not disturb my faith in His deity” (The Problem of Pain, chap. 9).

(Docetism was a Gnostic heresy, holding that Jesus only appeared to be a real human. Against this the Council of Chalcedon in 451 argued that Jesus had both a fully human nature and a fully divine nature: one person with two natures. It was held that in order to fully redeem humanity, Jesus had to be fully human, and I agree.)

Now, it might alarm us to think that there are scientific “errors” in the Bible, but ask yourself this: could God have ever written a book of science for all generations of humanity? It seems to me that it would either be hopelessly beyond their understanding, or it would eventually become obsolete. If he had written a book of science for Newton’s time, then Einstein would have made it obsolete; if he wrote it for our own time, no doubt it would be obsolete by the 2200s — if not well before! No book could satisfy all generations, because science progresses. It would be far better just to leave science aside and communicate divine, infallible, inerrant truth in categories that we could understand (and I think he did).

So Jesus thinks that the mustard seed is actually the smallest seed; so the Pentateuch reads as if rabbits chew the cud (they don’t); so Joshua has a geocentric solar system; so Paul thinks that there is an underworld (Denis Lamoureux points out that the Greek word Katachthonios literally refers to the Greco-Roman idea of the underworld. Evolutionary Creation, 106-11.); so what? It is no error at all if God never intended to make scientifically authoritative statements in the Bible; in fact, the error would be with those who assume that God was making statements about science.

We need to understand that even if God had been incarnated in the twenty-first century and spoke in terms of our current understanding of physics, chemistry, botany, astronomy, biology, etc. even that would still be an accommodation: science is never final; there is always more to learn.

I have read Enns’s 2012 book, The Evolution of Adam, and I am currently working through his commentary on Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary, 2000). I find that Enns does not at all compromise on a theologically conservative, Christ-centered, understanding of the Christian gospel. For those concerned that Enns’s evolutionary creationism is a “slippery slope,” I happily quote this bit from Enns’s commentary on Exodus:

“It is often simply stated that if what the Bible says happened did not happen, then the truth claims of the Bible are rendered suspect and we have little reason to trust it. Defense of the Bible’s historicity is, of course, important, but it is not the goal of biblical interpretation. To use an obviously relevant example, you have not understood the book of Exodus when you have successfully defended the historicity of the events of the Exodus. There is more to interpreting the book than demonstrating that this or that happened.
The Old Testament is not a journalistic, dispassionate, objective account of events. Its purpose is not just to tell us ‘what happened’ so that we can ‘look objectively at the data’ and arrive at the proper conclusions. The Old Testament is theological history. It has been written to teach lessons. The primary lesson I would argue is to teach us what God is like and what it means for his people to live with that knowledge” (p. 24).

Now, there is certainly a slippery slope of liberalism, which thinks that the whole Bible is only a human book. We must of course reject theological liberalism. My point is that there is another slippery slope: the slippery slope of thinking that everything in the Bible was written with modern, twenty-first century, Western, English-speaking people in mind and forgetting the central message. To expect that the biblical authors were concerned with our way of seeing the world — with our standards of science and history — is not only to misread the text, but it is just as absurd as if an ancient man were to travel forward through time to our century only to read all of our literature/media through his worldview. How would such a man interpret an episode of Star Trek? His interpretation would probably miss the point entirely. He would have to be educated in our culture before he would be able to understand the message of the show (which, although I enjoy the show, is basically optimistic secular humanism).

This hidden slippery slope of expecting the Bible to be a modern book has dire consequences:

  • Many young people, hearing that Genesis *must* be taken literally, will grow up, attend post secondary, and feel that they must choose between the Bible and honesty (this is a false choice). This is actually the same mistake that theological liberalism often makes: both (some forms of) liberalism and fundamentalism think that if the Bible does not teach science, then it is not from God. This is a false choice.
  • The church laity will believe that there is a world-wide conspiracy in science, and they will appear cultish and backward to the world. This keeps honest, thinking, seeking people from considering Christianity. We often look to them like we believe the earth is flat. (Of course there are necessary, offensive stumbling blocks — such as the Gospel itself — but is this one of them?)
  • Persons who have studied these things historically, theologically, scientifically, and philosophically, will be seen as “liberal” and “deceived,” even though their faith is truly evangelical and they believe in all of the central tenets of the historical Christian faith. They will be kept out of leadership, prevented from serving, and the Body of Christ will suffer that much for it. Enns himself was dismissed from Westminster Theological Seminary.
  • Evangelicals will continue to simply not understand science and nature and miss out on understanding God’s creation to that degree.
  • Even worse, we will read Genesis wrongly to a certain degree, and, to that degree, we will miss out on the gift of God’s self-revelation. Is anything worse?
  • Yes, one thing is worse: putting our faith in “Jesus + the-Bible-is-a-book-of-science” instead of putting our faith in Jesus alone.
    • The modern evangelical impulse to take everything in the Old Testament as absolutely literal “or else” is not the historical Christian position. Instead, it is a product of modern rationalism, which thinks that everything must be understood in modern categories of science and history or else it is not true. Rationalism is just as alien to Christianity as gnosticism or some other heresy. In a word, imposing Enlightenment Rationalism on the Bible is actually a form of worldliness.
    • For myself, I say that everything must be made obedient to Christ or it is not true. I believe that there is a way to have everything that true, historical, traditional Christianity has to offer without looking like we think that the earth is flat — thereby turning thinking people away from Christ. In fact, since both nature and Scripture are from God, they can never finally contradict (when they are each interpreted correctly).
    • If our faith is in Jesus *plus* a modern, scientific interpretation of Genesis (an interpretation that neither Moses nor the Israelites would have even imagined), then we are not just on a slippery slope, but we are building a house on the “sand” of modernity. But I say that faith should be Christ alone.
  • So, this is the slippery slope that the North American evangelical church has already been on for over 100 years, and we are now seeing the fruit of it: young people are leaving the church in droves, and atheists like Richard Dawkins also think that evolution makes the Bible false — we are giving Dawkins ammunition and helping to alienate our own young people when we insist that the Bible must be a book of science in order to be true.

I am not totally settled on how we should understand Adam and Eve. Is there any sense in which Genesis 1-11 is historical? Is it entirely an ancient origins account that God used to reveal himself? How do we understand the NT passages about Adam?

Now, whatever we end up saying, I think Ken Ham goes way too far in says that taking Genesis as anything less than entirely literal history “destroys the gospel” (speaking of even “old earth” creationism). There are options, here, if we are to “accept the challenge of evolution and embark on a journey of faith”:

  • We could say that the Fall in Genesis is a representation of something that really happened in ancient human history — that somehow, our ancestors (all 10,000 or however many) really did fall into sin. This would preserve the doctrine of original sin — everything would be the same; we still need Jesus.
  • We could get rid of original sin (it was Augustine’s invention in the late 300s/early 400s anyway — not explicitly in the Bible), and still be Christians who believe that Jesus saves us from the fact of *universal* sin. This is what the Eastern Orthodox believe, and while I might disagree with them on many things, they still affirm that Jesus’ sacrifice was absolutely necessary for salvation from sin.
  • And, of course, that fact that the Gospels are a totally different genre (Greco-Roman/theological biographies) from Genesis 1-11 (Theological ancient-near-eastern origins account) means that we are in no danger whatsoever of saying that Jesus’ miracles or resurrection did not happen. I believe Jesus really performed miracles, rose from the dead, is active in the church today via the Holy Spirit, and will return to judge the living and the dead.

Undoubtedly there are more options we could hold to and still be orthodox in our understanding of the gospel. For example, Justin Martyr — the second-century Christian apologist — thought that God had created the world using pre-existing matter. I disagree with Justin on that point, but he defended the true gospelThe point is that how we think of Genesis 1-11 does not need to undermine the gospel so long as we believe what Genesis 1-11 is actually teaching: God is the Creator, we are made in his image, we are made for relationship with him, and we are in rebellion against him. Certainly I have more reading and thinking to do, and I could be wrong about any of this; I am only married to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I see everything — including both the Bible and modern science — through that lens (anything less is not a Christian worldview).

I’ll leave you with this C. S. Lewis quote:

“When the author of Genesis says that God made man in His own image, he may have pictured a vaguely corporeal God making a man as a child makes a figure out of plasticine. A modern Christian philosopher may think of a process lasting form the first creation of matter to the final appearance of this planet of an organism fit to receive spiritual as well as biological life. But both mean essentially the same thing. Both are denying the same thing — the doctrine that matter by some blind power inherent in itself has produced spirituality” (“Dogma and the Universe,” God in the Dock).

Public Lecture Review: “How to Be a Universalist” and “The Best of All Possible Stories: Can It Be True?”

How Not to Argue for Universalism

Hi everyone, sorry for the lack of posts–I got married. I originally wrote this for the Trinity Western University newspaper, the Mars Hill, but they are unable to publish it this issue. They might still publish it in a future one, but I have permission to post it here.

Universalism holds that salvation through Christ will apply, ultimately, to all sentient beingfireflame(maybe even Satan and his demons): Hell will be empty—if it even exists.

In a public lecture on Universalism on February 13, both Trinity Western University’s Myron A. Penner (Ph.D. Philosophy) and celebrated documentary filmmaker Kevin Miller (Hellbound?) agreed that it is difficult to understand the traditional doctrine of Hell and damnation:

For a Calvinist, why wouldn’t an all-powerful, all-loving God elect everyone? For an Arminian, is it really loving to respect someone’s “freedom” to choose Hell? Shouldn’t a loving parent override the freedom of a child who disobeys a warning keep away from danger (how much more so with God)? Moreover, are those who “choose” Hell cognitively aware of it? Surely they would not oppose God if they understood the consequences. More generally, it just seems “out of proportion” for finite sin to merit infinite, conscious, eternal punishment.

In the end, Penner rejects Universalism because there is “no good way to tell what counts as sufficient information and rationality for a morally culpable free choice of this magnitude”; Universalists would need to prove that “perpetual, free rejection of God” is impossible; otherwise, “it is possible that hell is populated.” But Miller pushes back, seeing the full restoration of sinners as morally superior to eternal punishment—even worse, if God allows people to perpetually reject him in Hell, then he is allowing sin to persist for eternity!

So we have three sets of difficulties concerning Hell: emotional unease, philosophical difficulties, and theological misgivings.

Regarding the first, something is of course wrong if we hope that there will be people in Hell. After all, the Lord himself “take[s] no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ez. 33:11). At the same time, I am wary of allowing emotions to influence my doctrine. For me, if theology is nutrition, then emotions are sugars and sin is trans-fat: Scripture teaches that that our hearts are “deceitful… [and] desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9); they are the source of “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries…” (Matt. 15:19); “There is a way which seems right to a person, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12). If emotions were crowned king, we would probably arrive at something like secular humanism: people are basically good; don’t harm or judge anybody; do what makes you happy; make the world a better place.

As a student of Apologetics, I was surprised that Molinism was ignored (named for the Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina [1535-1600])—which is essentially a Calvinist-Arminian, middle-ground position that William Lane Craig uses to suggest that there simply might not be any “feasible, possible world” that God could sovereignly create, in which everybody freely chooses him (reasonablefaith.org). (Probably Penner finds this view unhelpful in resolving the issue.) Although I think Molinism can show that Christianity is not necessarily logically incoherent, I cannot sit through Dr. Archie Spencer’s classes without sensing the Reformed-Barthian critique that Molinism trades too much of God’s sovereign freedom away. Certainly we can use Molinism as an apologetic response to charges that divine sovereignty and human freedom are logically contradictory and therefore Christianity is incoherent. But for theology, it seems best to say that Scripture doesn’t teach precisely how divine freedom and human freedom interact—only that both are meaningful realities. If we were to make philosophy king of the discussion, then I think we might end up ruling out God’s transcendence, the Incarnation, the Atonement, any “objective” meaning of Scripture, and reality itself—depending on how far down the postmodern rabbit-hole we care to tumble.

This brings us to theology’s relationship with philosophy. Now, I appreciate Penner’s defense of the traditional doctrine (It’s great apologetics!), and I recognise that he spoke as a philosopher at a philosophically-themed event; yet, along with Karl Barth, I think that philosophical concepts/categories must be informed by Christian meaning before we can use them in theology (Church Dogmatics III.3.49.2). Donald Bloesch is also helpful here: “The question is whether philosophical concepts and images are baptized into the service of the gospel or whether they alter the apostolic interpretation of the gospel” (The Holy Spirit, 255. I recognize the irony in citing Barth when some think that he himself was a universalist; Spencer thinks that Barth’s universalism has been exaggerated by Donald Bloesch.). Otherwise, philosophy forgets its place. It’s one thing for philosophy (or science, linguistics, archaeology, etc.) to help us distill and understand Scripture’s teaching; it’s quite another for philosophy to “correct” that teaching once it is properly understood. The difference is subtle: science can help alert us to the possibility that Genesis 1-11 isn’t meant to be taken literally (there is evidence for an old earth, etc.), but science certainly cannot deny the Resurrection just because it cannot account for it (what possible scientific evidence could there ever be–apart from discovering the corpse of Christ–that the Resurrection has not happened?). Likewise, just because philosophy cannot account for divine/human freedom does not mean it can correct the doctrine of Hell; philosophy must not “paint its own problems onto the sky,” as it were. Properly informed, Holy Spirit-serving exegesis comes first. (I’ve no reason to think that Penner would disagree.)

(I do appreciate what philosophy can do; Penner’s argument is a great apologetic argument in defense of the traditional doctrine. I’m not trying to set up a theology-vs.-philosophy dichotomy here. I’m only saying that when we discuss doctrine, we are doing theology, and we need to use theology’s toolset– which includes theologically-informed philosophical reflection but primarily relies on sound exegesis as its bedrock. It must do so if we are to avoid simply relying on the “wisdom of the world” (1 Cor. 2).

I appreciate Miller for upholding the centrality of Christ, and I found his observation that “Chronological snobbery is a two-way street” to be particularly insightful and helpful: we should not evaluate any idea simply on the basis of how old or new it is. What I don’t appreciate is that (intentionally or not) he seems to subtly caricature people who believe in Hell as angry and unforgiving–I picked up on this in both his popular documentary Hellbound? and in his talk at this public lecture. (This is no better than if I were to caricature Miller as a bleeding-heart, liberal extremist who wants to throw away the Bible and Christian Tradition.) I don’t want there to be a Hell any more than I want there to be cancer, poverty and war, but I am convinced that the Bible teaches that there is such a place. Miller warns against following majority opinion, but, ironically, his own Universalism is much more palatable to popular culture (with its religious pluralism, humanism, etc.) than the traditional doctrine of Hell is.

However, it is Miller’s subordination of theology and exegesis to philosophy and emotional unease that really strikes a chord with me. It may seem that restoration is morally superior to eternal punishment, but—despite Miller’s (correct!) warnings about how worldview lenses can distort our understanding—he seems to gloss over just how limited and contingent our misgivings really are. This was particular noticeable when he made the comment that we could “put on Augustine’s lens” in addition to our own, so that we have an advantage over the Fathers–What!? we can never put on Augustine’s lens or even each other’s lenses. We don’t have Augustine’s lens–only his books; we can’t breathe the fourth/fifth century air; we can’t visit ancient Hippo; we can’t talk about a gladiator fight as if we can seen one for ourselves; etc. (In fairness, I may be pressing Miller’s words too hard: he seems to be more balanced in his blog.) Take the postmodern critique regarding objective certainty and add to it the Bible’s scepticism about the human heart: we are both blind and biased, utterly impoverished apart from divine revelation; we are not in any position to correct special revelation (once it is properly understood)—if we were, it couldn’t really be divine revelation. Who are we, at all, to say what the “best” story is? Moreover, if we agree with the Reformed conviction that God’s being and his action are unified (cf. 2 Tim. 2:13), then to ask for a God who decrees different things is to ask for a God with a different nature.

Before Jesus, there was no clear articulation of the afterlife. If Universalism were true, wouldn’t Jesus be an exceptionally poor and misleading teacher, given that he basically introduced the idea of Hell? If an eternal punishment seems out of proportion, isn’t an eternal reward also so? If many early Christians were Universalists, as Miller holds, doesn’t that mostly just show that we are prone to downplay God’s judgment in any age?

During the Q & A, I asked Miller how we could make sense of the urgency in the New Testament if there weren’t anything ultimately at stake. His response (if I understood correctly) was that the gospel could do much-needed transformative good here and now. But can that fully explain why the apostles (and others) suffered disgrace, persecution, and martyrdom? Why would Paul warn against false teaching “with tears” (Acts 20:31) and wish to be accursed instead of his Jewish countrymen (Rom. 9:3)? Why should I suffer even one awkward moment for a gospel that doesn’t need to be believed? Why not pretend to be secular humanists (to avoid offense), do some social good while we can, and preach the gospel privately to those who need additional transformation? Do you see how the priority gets reversed? Traditionally, getting right with God was most important, and the results of being transformed–good deeds–were secondary. But if Miller is right, then our only urgency comes from a desire to make the world a better, more peaceful and loving place now–it’s a worthy goal, but is it more important than repentance and belief? Universalism subordinates the gospel to social concerns. Now, if Universalism is true, then, fine, it seems the gospel should be subordinated to social concerns–after all, everyone will be saved anyway, and there will even be situations where preaching the gospel will cause hate, division of families, social rejection of stubborn sinners, and invite persecution, so it is clearly better not to preach the gospel at all when it will cause these socially negative things–if Universalism is true.

People often ask, “How could a perfectly loving God send anyone to Hell?” They rarely ask, “How could a perfectly just and holy God allow anyone into Heaven?” Both questions are answered at the Cross: philosophy and emotions cannot answer them. The Greeks scoffed at Paul because the Resurrection offended their philosophy that matter and bodies were bad; the doctrine of Hell offends our own philosophy and culture—but neither of these is an appropriate starting point for formulating Christian doctrine. A good argument for Universalism must begin with Scripture, not only highlighting the verses that seem to support it (and there are some), but also dealing squarely with the many (I would say the overwhelming majority) that do not, as well as the entire missional, urgent tenor of the New Testament.

Easter: Extraordinary Claims and Extraordinary Evidence

tombAround Easter time, it is pretty common to hear sermons defending the historicity of the Resurrection, and I think this is a good thing. It is a good thing so long as we understand the difference between the reliability of the Christian message, and the Christian message itself – that is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The reliability of the Gospel, is something we humans measure using our tools of historical-critical analysis, philosophical reasoning, archaeology, theology, science, etc.; it is a project on which we embark as humans, which is subject to our own fallibility and only has as much authority as we do – we can make mistakes, we can chase red herrings, and we can be wrong. The Gospel itself is a message that aims at the human heart with the authority of God, and has a self-authenticating property to it; it directly addresses one on a personal, spiritual level, convicting him or her of sin and calling him or her to belief and repentance. It is not subject to human mistakes or limited to human authority. (I am not addressing theories of inspiration at the moment; yes, I believe that Scripture is written fully by God and yet fully by man, not unlike Christ’s nature being fully God and fully man – see B. B. Warfield’s ideas regarding the divine concursus if you wish to learn more about this.)

As you may have noticed, this is a very sticky situation, for there are two very dangerous mistakes we can make:

  1. We can mistake our own human projects for the Gospel itself, and endow our own theology, philosophy, biblical interpretation, science, etc. with divine authority and think them infallible – which sets us up for a crisis of faith if one of these human projects should fail in some way;
  2. We can mistake God’s message for a merely human one – or worse, we can discount the possibility of any message from God altogether.

Two important questions come on the heels of these observations: an important Christian question, and an important Atheist or sceptical question:

Christians may ask, “Since the message itself is from God, with His own authority, why should we even bother with our own projects? What is the point?”

My answer is that we do so for a number of reasons, all of which are for the sake of service to God, intellectual integrity, and truth:

  1. We do so because we are servants of God – not that He needs us to do so, but because it is right; it is and always has been the Christian practice to respond to arguments made against our faith:
    • 2 Cor. 10:5 (NIV): “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
    • 1 Pet. 3:15-16 (NIV): 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
  2. We also do so for the sake of truth itself, because it is our vocation as Christians to follow the truth wherever it leads, with a heart full of faith and a mind fully open to the truth:
    • Prov. 18:13 (NASB): “He who gives an answer before he hears, It is folly and shame to him.”
      • Notice that this means we must listen to Atheists, those of other faiths, etc. before we respond. This is kindness, this is gentleness, this is loving, and this is wise: do not go to atheist conventions to start a fight; go there to listen, learn, and seek truth better, and engage in fruitful, respectful dialogue. Sadly, it often happens that many of the most out-spoken among us Christians – or at least the loudest Christians – are (sometimes) the least thoughtful, the least kind, the least respectful, and the least wise. If Jesus is who He said He is, then we have nothing to fear from seeking Truth, and being civil as much as possible (cf. Rom. 12:18).
    • We must follow the truth wherever it goes, whatever the cost. We are free to do this because Jesus self-identified Himself with the truth (Jn. 14:6), and said that everyone on the side of truth listens to Him (Jn. 18:37); therefore, following the truth wherever it leads, with all your heart, is an essential part of following Jesus (although not an exhaustive description). We must be committed to being open-minded, and open to being convinced of truth; we must lay our pride, opinion, interpretation, and theology on the altar every time – all the time – and trust Jesus when He said that the Spirit will guide us in all truth. The only thing we must not lay on the altar is truth itself – for that is to fall into excessive scepticism; neither must we lay evidence on the altar, for that is to fall into excessive gullibility.
      • But we must also be vigilantly aware of our limits so that we will not deceive ourselves. We must take the warnings in Scripture seriously: we cannot trust our hearts completely (Jer. 17:9); there is a way that seems right, but leads to destruction (Prov. 14:12); many will surround themselves with false teachers, who tell them what they want to hear (2 Tim. 4:3); “woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26); “all men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). Additionally, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).
        • (Side point: thus, I have a sort of “default position” that, generally, the way of Christ will often be at odds with the way of the world. Not always, of course: humanism, for example, has much in common with Christian love, even though it rejects the doctrine of sin. But we have to point out that even humanism has Christian roots, and that ideas of compassion, the dignity of people, etc. were not always widely-held in Western society before Christianity – just look at the gladiator fights! But that’s a different conversation.)
      • So we are in the peculiar position of having to hold that (1) we must always be open-minded and critically-thinking, and yet (2) aware that if the Bible is true, then we aren’t perfect truth-testers either: things like pride get in the way. As Ravi Zacharias often says, “Intent is prior to content.” But the sceptic should not balk at this second point too much, for it is, in some ways, a watered-down, moral version of postmodern scepticism – except for that postmodern scepticism knows no bounds: blindness to the Gospel is specific to morality and God, but hard-core postmodern scepticism is intellectual hemophilia: it bleeds out uncontrollably all over the carpet, causing us to lose any trust of our senses, giving way to unstoppable doubt that causes us to wonder if the physical world even exists. Whatever you want to say against the moral blindness proposed in 2 Cor. 4:4, the same and worse must be said about postmodern scepticism. (So, it’s rather ironic that any postmodern sceptic should be offended at 2 Cor. 4:4, because, leaving aside the fact that he or she doesn’t believe there is any meaning in the text at all – so why should it offend him or her? – the postmodern sceptic already believes that he or she is far more blind and isolated to everything than 2 Cor. 4:4 suggests.) All that moral blindness is saying is that we are blind to the truth about God and the human condition until God opens our eyes through the Gospel. If the transcendent God really exists and really communicates, then it follows that He must initiate the communication, for we cannot reach Him on our own; He must contact us first. I believe this is what happens in the preaching of the Gospel, and in all other special and general revelation.
        • I am convinced that it is unto God’s good pleasure that we be willing to hear any argument, investigate anything, and refrain from elevating our own understanding above scrutiny – this is the very thing of which Atheists often accuse us.
  3. We do so because we love God, and want to respond to accusations of Jesus’ being a liar, a madman, or a legend. To do this we have to be open – at least theoretically – to saying, “If Christianity isn’t true, then I don’t want to believe it; I’m willing to go to the church barbecue, but I will not suffer for something that is false. I am free to say these things because Jesus self-identified Himself with the truth, and if I find that Christianity is false, then Jesus is a liar we should not follow Him.”
    • But this is not us “putting Jesus on trial”; rather, it is the other person who has put Him on trial. It is as if someone had presented you with evidence or argument that your spouse had cheated on you: you wouldn’t just throw out the relationship, or put it on hold. But you would feel obligated to clear his or her good name – to defend your spouse. Well, in doing so, you would have to be open (theoretically, for intellectual integrity’s sake) to the idea that your spouse had, in fact, cheated on you, but that doesn’t mean you love your spouse any less. I do not love Jesus any less while I do the apologetic task; rather, it is because of my love for Him and the Truth – knowing that they are One and the Same – that I do this, and it must be done with the utmost honesty and integrity.
  4. We do so for the sake of our friends and family who need Jesus. While it is true that no one can come to Jesus without the Father drawing them (John 6:44), we should not assume that this is some sort of mechanical process that operates apart from Christians serving God. I think that in very much the same way that Scripture is 100% written by man – through his real thoughts and real personality freely expressed – and yet 100% written by God – through His sovereign providence and Fatherly care over His creation – people are brought to Christ 100% through the Father’s drawing, and 100% through creaturely means within God’s providence. This includes the witness of the Church, the Body of Christ, which, sometimes involves human-presented evidence and argument. It might help to look at this in terms of logic. People often seem to make the following error in their thinking:
    Logically valid but false, since the second premise is false: No C is B.

    Logically valid but false, since the second premise is false: No C is B.

    Premise 1: no one comes to Jesus without the Father drawing them. (All A is B)

    Premise 2: human arguments and evidence are something other than the Father’s drawing. (C is not B)

    Conclusion: therefore, no one comes to Jesus through human arguments and evidence. (Therefore, C is not A.)

    This is an false conclusion. Although the reasoning is valid (the logic is fine), the second premise is false: it assumes that the Father cannot not draw people through – and even speak through – our words, which is biblically false (c.f. Matt. 10:19-20). So the conclusion is biblically false, too.

    Rather, this is a correct syllogism on the matter:

    Some C is B.

    Some C is B.

    Premise 1: no one comes to Jesus without the Father drawing them. (All A is B.)

    Premise 2: some people have come to Christ through human evidence and argument, such as C.S. Lewis. (Some A is C.)

    Conclusion: therefore, some human evidence and argument coincides with the drawing of the Father. (Some C is B)

    • Notice that this means that some evidence and argument is not necessarily the drawing of the Father – only some is (we cannot say that all C is B). Also, notice that we cannot say (on the basis of this one verse) that all people drawn by the Father come to Jesus (we cannot say all B is A) – some people might be drawn, but not respond; nor can we say that all people must come through argument and evidence (we cannot say all A is C) – some people may be drawn by the Father through other means, such as friendship, visions, profound conviction of sin, emotional experiences, love, music, etc. All we can say is that sometimes, human evidence and argument coincides with the drawing of the Father.

     

Atheists/Sceptics may ask, “Why should we accept that the Gospel is from God, or that God even exists or tries to communicate? Those are extraordinary claims, which require extraordinary evidence.”

extraordinary-claims-require-extraordinary-evidenceWe must be open-minded about these things, and consider what the picture would look like if God exists and communicates with us. We must have our minds sufficiently open to think about how that might look and what sort of evidence might support it – otherwise we have decided beforehand that He does not exist and/or doesn’t communicate with us, and that is not critical thinking: to be excessively sceptical about these things is no more along the lines of critical thought or open-mindedness than it is to be excessively gullible. (← I am loosely quoting someone with this last sentence, but I cannot find the reference at the moment.)

Let’s think about it logically:
Premise 1: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Premise 2: X is an extraordinary claim.
Conclusion: Therefore X requires extraordinary evidence.

Fine, no problem here. But we have to determine what extraordinary means.

For example, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (July 1, 1818 – August 13, 1865), a medical doctor, made the extraordinary claim that if doctors would wash their hands, infection rates among patients would go down. He had this extraordinary notion that microbes were passed between patients by doctors who did not wash their hands, and that this was causing infections. This was an extraordinary claim for which many thought extraordinary evidence was necessary to establish. Over time this was eventually established, but not before Semmelweis endured all manner of ridicule:

Semmelweis“Although hugely successful; Semmelweis’ discovery directly confronted with the beliefs of science and medicine in his time. His colleagues and other medical professionals refused to accept his findings mainly because they did not find it convincing that they could be responsible for spreading infections. The reaction reflected on his job as well when he was declined a reappointment in 1849.” Read more: Semmelweis’ Germ Theory – The Introduction of Hand Washing

Semmelweis’ claim would have been extraordinary back then, but it is not extraordinary at all, now. But for some reason, Semmelweis’ colleagues did not think that the extraordinary claim warranted any kind of extraordinary investigation. Why? I submit that something more is going on, here; it seems that sceptical logic goes more like this:

Premise 1: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Premise 2: X (Microbes, God, etc.) is an extraordinary claim.
Conclusion: Therefore X (Microbes, God, etc.) is not true and we should not bother to take it seriously.

This, of course, is an unsound conclusion. This is not critical thinking, but it simply – dare I say it – dogmatic scepticism. (In fact, I personally suspect that 2 Cor 4:4 has something to do with it, when this flawed logic is used to reject God, but as far as the apologetic task is concerned, that “evidence” is merely circumstantial.) What one group of people finds to be extraordinary may be trivial to another group, and vice versa. Atheists love to say, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” in order to dismiss the idea of God – I believe this quote comes from Carl Sagan in his 1980 book, Cosmos. But, in fact, I find many anti-Christian claims to be extremely extraordinary. Here is an extraordinary anti-Christian claim that requires some truly extraordinary evidence:

Twelve first-century working-class Jews left everything and followed one of the many charismatic messiah figures who gained a following only to be executed around that time in Roman history. But when these particular men realized that their leader was a fraud, who lied to them about things like the kingdom of God and that he would rise – when they realized that he was just another man who made empty promises and then was executed – they did not disperse and hide, or return to their old lives. Instead, they got together and fabricated a crazy story about him rising from the dead – an idea wholly alien and unbelievable to both Greek/Roman and Jewish sensibilities at the time, for which they had no evidence at all – and then these would-be cowards became bold figures, proclaiming their own lie as the truth. They continued to do so under torture, until they were executed for doing so. They were killed for telling a lie that they themselves had made up – a lie that betrayed and blasphemed the culture and religion into which they had been born, and also invited the wrath of the reigning Roman empire.

That claim is psychologically unrealistic, and is very extraordinary. We might tell our kids that Santa is on the roof, but no one would die for that belief, because we all know that it is false. (Sorry, kids.) A suicide bomber dies for his belief, but, he thinks it is true – this is not the same as dying for a lie that one has personally invented. If anyone claims that twelve men would die for a lie that they invented, I think it requires extraordinary evidence, as I have never met a person who acted that way. Think about it: I don’t know about you, but if I were duped into following some guy who made all sorts of promises to me if I would leave everything and follow him, and even said he would rise from the dead, but then, in fact, didn’t rise from the dead, I would not proceed to worship him, pray to him, write religious scripture about him and spend my life telling everyone that he rose from the dead – and then die for that message! Rather, I would become very angry that I had wasted time and resources following him, and I would go back to my old life, and say very nasty things about him on occasion. The idea that the disciples made up the resurrection story is very extraordinary! And thus far, all of the evidence I have encountered in both sympathetic and non-sympathetic sources has pointed to the real, physical resurrection of the man Jesus, which also happens to fulfill prophecies in Jewish literature, going back at least 500 years (if not more like 1500 years, depending on who’s doing the dating) before His birth, not to mention that it is consistent with the words He Himself said – not to mention that the Gospels are more historically reliable than anything else from that time period – not to mention that the teaching in those Gospels relates a self-evidently higher ethic than any other religious teacher in human history: “Love your enemies; do good to those who persecute you” – not to mention that it fills all life and the whole universe with meaning and purpose, and explains all of the happy-accidents of science and philosophy. So, I’m looking for some really extraordinary evidence to overturn all of this. Where is it?

The alternative offered to me by Atheism is basically this:

Life is about nothing; your morals are ultimately a subjective illusion; person-hood is an illusion; meaning is an illusion – so stop asking; natural selection has given us minds that are not simply wired for survival, but are somehow able to produce reliable beliefs and reasoning faculties such that we are able to reason about metaphysical ideas like the fact that God does not exist; the fact that the physical universe accords with mathematical laws is a happy accident – piled on top of the happy accident that humans are able to understand both mathematics and physics *and* notice that they work together *and* think about what that might mean, but, it means nothing; the fine-tuning of both the physical constants of the laws of nature *and* the initial amounts of matter and anti-matter in the big bang is another happy accident – without which planets and galaxies would never have formed, let alone any planets that could support life, let alone any life, let alone intelligent life, let alone intelligent life that can notice these things and appreciate them, let alone any such intelligent life that would also develop a set of morals that seems to be 180 degrees opposite what we would expect if survival of the fittest were our only instinct (like rape being a good thing, and protection of the weak being a bad thing); no, this is all a happy accident because, actually, in reality, there are an infinite number of universes, and of course we find properties that support our existence, because, we’re here aren’t we? But don’t concern yourself with religious claims, because morals, meaning, ethics, person-hood, right and wrong, truth, and anything else you cannot find in a test-tube is ultimately an illusion, so, there is no such thing as sin or accountability, or anything really wrong. Well, actually, one thing is wrong: religious intolerance. Those religious folk who talk about God and meaning are deluded; they don’t know how to think critically, and they appeal to miracles when they encounter something they don’t understand. We know better: life is about nothing, and we are just animals – but it is wrong to kill humans of course, so, don’t do that; we are special animals.

Meaninglessness makes grumpy cat grumpy.

Meaninglessness makes grumpy cat grumpy.

My initial reaction to that is, “Thank God for Jesus.” The above is an even more extraordinary claim; I cannot think of anything more extraordinary than the idea that life is about nothing. We need meaning; we crave it. We would not pay money see a movie with no meaning. (Although, I guess people do pay money to look at modern art – but that is another discussion.) What other animal will go so for as to end its own life for lack of meaning? What evolutionary advantage does a need for meaning afford? The Christian position that we are endowed with the image of God and are subject to universal sin explains our experience far better than the standard naturalistic explanations – especially since we share so much genetically in common with chimpanzees: how can you explain so big of a difference, when there is so little different on the physical level? Christianity’s answer: there are spiritual realities at play, here. All of a sudden, we can explain the origin, morality, meaning, and destiny of humanity (to use Ravi Zacharias’ often-cited formula for evaluating worldviews); Atheism, however, tells us nothing about the actual origin of life or the universe (only the process of its development), nothing about the morality of humans (only that it is an illusion, subject to our evolutionary past, which may have turned out differently), nothing about meaning (there isn’t any), and nothing about our destiny, except for that eventually everything will die with the heat death of the universe.

I do not mean to be unnecessarily uncharitable toward Atheists, but just as Christians perhaps do not always realize how crazy we sound to those who find our claims extraordinary, I think Atheists also do not always appreciate how extraordinary their claims are to us. The fact that Atheism is extraordinary to me does not, by itself, mean that Atheism is false; rather, it simply is a measure of my own “intellectual distance” from the claims of Atheism, just as they are at a great intellectual distance from the claims of Christianity, and just as Dr. Semmelweis’ colleagues were at a great intellectual distance from the ideas he had about hand-washing. The point is that the degree to which one finds a given idea X to be extraordinary is directly proportional to one’s intellectual distance from that idea – i.e. how far removed it is from his or her current worldview – and is completely unrelated to the truthfulness of X itself.

Therefore, let us substitute the words “intellectually distant” for “extraordinary.” Also, we must distinguish between important ideas, and unimportant ones, otherwise, we cannot distinguish between investigating the Santa theory and investigating the Resurrection. I take it as self-evident that if people are getting together and having debates about something, writing books about it, and arguing about it for a sizable part of human history, that it is important. Thus, I propose this logic:

Premise 1: Important, intellectually distant ideas require intellectually distant evidence. No, that can’t be right. Let’s keep thinking:

Premise 1: Important, intellectually distant ideas require extraordinary open-mindedness and careful investigation. (That’s better!)
Premise 2: The Resurrection is an important, intellectually distant idea to some.
Conclusion: The Resurrection requires extraordinary open-mindedness and careful investigation, for some. (And the same is true of Atheism, or any other important and intellectually distant idea.)

Rather than stopping the conversation and investigation, and ruling out possibilities, extraordinary (intellectually distant) claims should invite extraordinary open-mindedness, and careful, critical thought. Otherwise, we would never have discovered the benefits of hand-washing, the fact the universe is expanding, the finer points of quantum physics, a heliocentric solar system, the moral truth that slavery is wrong, and a myriad of other important truths that originally seemed extraordinary in their respective intellectual climates.

Something happened to Jesus of Nazareth that changed the course of human history. It’s worth taking a closer look.  

One helpful and very readable resource I’ve read on this is Gary R. Habermas & Michael R. Licona. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004.

(I should mention this, here: I accept the big-bang, a 13.88 billion year-old universe, and a 4.54 billion year-old earth; I accept evolutionary creation; I think the universe was intelligently designed, but I am agnostic about whether science or philosophy can actually detect that design in a way that can be proven to sceptics – although I do think that a person can existentially recognize and identify the work of another Person; I accept postmodernity insofar as I think it rightly calls us to intellectual humility – but I do not accept the false humility that often comes with it, which undermines all knowledge and common sense. Many of those ideas were once very intellectually distant from me, and it took humility and honesty for me to investigate them. But the same humility and honesty lead me to think that there is far, far more going on than any of these human projects can tell us; specifically, I think that the Bible – God’s self-revelation – tells us of those things which cannot be known through any human project. The same honesty and humility lead me to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and I think also that I have the Spirit of God drawing me to Him.)

Isaiah 9:6-7 (NIV), penned at least 683 years before Jesus was born:

“6 For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.

Praise be to the Eternal King and God, our Lord Jesus Christ, whom God raised from the dead two thousand years ago, in whom our eternal hope is placed, who will not fail us, but is faithful to complete the work He has already started in rescuing us from all sin and death, and in doing so, rescues us from ourselves.  Hallelujah and Amen.