Setting the Record Straight on Eternal Life

Basic instructions before leaving Earth” is a popular way to characterize the Bible among Christians.

It’s cute and clever, but it’s also ironic and misleading for several reasons.

The particular reason concerning us here is that, for a collection of works that supposedly provides instruction for how to get to the right place when we die, there is conspicuously little said about the afterlife. This idea of “dying and going to heaven” that is so essential to so many people’s conception of Christianity is actually nowhere to be found in all of Scripture.

In the first five books, collectively known as “the Torah” and regarded as the foundational narrative on which the rest of the Bible is based, there is no explicit mention to be found anywhere about the afterlife.

Tacitly, it teaches that humans were never supposed to die in the first place, but it wasn’t an intrinsic immortality, but was predicated upon access to the Tree of Life, and humans were made mortal by denial to it.

When the reality of death is first introduced, there is no hint of anything that might come after: man was formed from the dust of the earth and brought to life by the Spirit of God, and when he dies, he returns to his former state, “for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” So, being dead, according to this, is no different than the state of existence prior to conception and birth — you just don’t exist anymore.

The only concept of immortality that shows up in the Torah is the prospect of living on through descendants. When God promised to Abram his “very great reward,” Abram responded, “Lord YHWH, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

God’s answer was to assure him that his descendants would number like the stars of heaven, and that they would take possession of the land; nothing was said about anybody going to heaven, though. He made no promise to Abram of personal immortality, neither in the body, nor as a disembodied soul or spirit. He only promised an enduring lineage that would inherit a portion of this earth.

A provisional (not intrinsic) personal immortality was implied, according to Jesus, by God’s later declaration to Moses: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” He didn’t say, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” but “I am … ”, indicating that the patriarchs still existed in some sense, so He was still their God.

But, to take that to mean that they still exist in heaven, as disembodied spirits, is to both ignore the context of Jesus’ remark and to impose a foreign meaning upon the text, because it nowhere mentions anyone dwelling with God in heaven as bodiless souls or spirits, and Jesus was speaking specifically to the question put to him by the Sadducees about bodily resurrection from the dead.

What Dies Is Dead

For the vast majority of the biblical narrative between the time of Abraham and the time of Jesus, the only explicit discussion of the nature of death indicated only that it was the end: the body dies and reverts back to dust, and the person’s experiences are over.

“And the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it,” reads Ecclesiastes 12:7.

Someone might object, “Ah-ha! It says right there that the spirit returns to God! That proves immortality in heaven!”

But, reading it in context – both in the context of that chapter of Ecclesiastes and in the context of the Bible as a whole – it cannot mean that.

The chapter opens with, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come …”, and continues by listing a series of diminishing pleasures in life, culminating in death. The point is: remember God while you have opportunity, because those opportunities are finite. If death itself is meant to be understood by the writer as an opportunity in itself to know God, the meaning of the chapter unravels and is rendered nonsensical.

In ancient Hebrew thinking, “spirit,” or “ruach,” just means “breath.” It was the animating principle of the body. It is anachronistic projection to suppose that breath, after it has left the body, retains any individual personality or goes on to have experiences.

That certainly was not the thinking of the biblical writers, because they wrote in several places that there is no knowledge of God in death.   

“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten,” reads Ecclesiastes 9:5.

“Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?” wrote the Psalmist (Psalm 6:5).

“I call to you, Lord, every day; I spread out my hands to you. Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?” (Psalm 88:9-12)

The Final Enemy

Of course, that wasn’t the final word on death. The Bible is a progressive revelation through which God gradually revealed more and more of His plan for humanity.

In the earlier stages of revelation, while death was defined as the end of the person, there were glimmers of hope that it wasn’t final.

First, the idea of God’s judgment is found throughout the Bible, and it is a judgment that goes beyond the narrow confines of mortal life:

“And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. ‘Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.’” (Genesis 9:5-6)

In the immediate sense, this is understood to be a general prohibition against murder and the requirement that humans form governments and courts to impose capital punishment for the crime. But, it reads that God Himself will hold each and every individual person – and animal – to account for the lives of humans, which goes beyond mere legal consequences from human authorities. This implies an existence that transcends what is visible to us within the span of our mortal lives, since we see plenty of people escape or denied justice in this life.

As time went on and the biblical narrative progressed, death was still seen as an evil to be shunned and avoided, but there was nonetheless a general expectation of hope with regard to the death of the righteous – not that death was in any way good, but it was an enemy from which God would deliver them, in some undefined way: “You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand,” wrote David (Psalm 16:10-11).

As the revelation progressed still further, God’s promises for the future state of human existence grew more and more explicit. The eventual renewal of the Earth was hinted more and more, until the prophets foretold that God’s hiddenness would come to an end, there would be peace between all nations under the leadership of Israel and her King, all evil will be judged and destroyed, and nature itself would be transformed to remove all suffering and violence.

Included in these prophecies was the promise of the final defeat of death itself – eternal life through physical, bodily resurrection from the dead: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Daniel 12:3-4)

The Gospel Jesus Taught

When Jesus arrived on the scene, this was the common understanding of what God had in store for Israel when the Messiah arrived.

Modern readers typically think that, when Jesus said, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”, he was talking about how people could get into heaven when they died.

That wasn’t at all what he taught. When they heard, “the kingdom of God has come near,” they understood it to mean – and Jesus fully intended it to mean – all that the prophets foretold about God’s plans for Israel in this world, on this earth. He was talking about the rule of God on earth; he was talking about heaven coming here.

Many Christians acknowledge that this was the understanding they had at the time, but think that Jesus came to correct that notion – that the prophecies were only figurative and that it really is all about dying and going to heaven after all.

But, the apostles were still laboring under the former notion when they asked Jesus, just before his ascension, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

And, he didn’t correct them on the ultimate objective, only the timing: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” he answered them.

As in, God’s rule over the earth – Jesus’ rule as the Messiah – would extend into the world through them.

Indeed, the content of their testimony to the nations was that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead constitutes the validation of God’s promise to renew the earth. His resurrection means our resurrection, explained Paul (1 Corinthians 15:12-24). The renewal and perfection of his destroyed body is the initial step toward the renewal and perfection of the entire death-infected world, the apostles taught.

This idea we teach about how, if you “accept Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior,” you’ll “be with Jesus in heaven when you die” couldn’t be further from what they taught.

Note how Paul comforted the Thessalonian believers about their members who had died. He did not say, “They’re in a better place now.” He did not say, “They’re with Jesus now.”

No, he reminded them of Jesus’ resurrection, and that the dead in Christ will also be resurrected at his return to Earth, followed by the transformation and glorification of all believers who hadn’t died.

What Difference Does It Make?

“Does it matter what we believe about the afterlife? Won’t God just do what God is going to do, regardless? What harm is there in believing we go to heaven as spirits, as long as we believe in Jesus now?”

A comprehensive answer to this question is beyond the scope of my purposes of the moment, but I’m glad you asked.

The short answer is – It most certainly does matter. We can hardly claim that we “believe in Jesus” if we reject the entire narrative within which he taught and replace it with a totally different one. That’s the reason Christians, by and large, reject Mormonism and regard it as a heretical cult: they “believe in Jesus,” but they insert him into an entirely different scheme of salvation than what we find in the Bible. Which, sadly, is exactly what mainstream Christians also do. Our phony, unbiblical narrative isn’t any better than their phony, unbiblical narrative, just because it’s older and more widely mistaken as the “correct” phony narrative.

There are also practical ramifications to what we believe. What we believe about the Church, the world and our role within it – these are profoundly affected by what we believe the end result and ultimate purposes are.

But, those are ramifications we can explore another time.

My purposes of the moment are just to establish that there is, in fact, a tremendous error in mainstream, collective Christian thought.

As I mentioned in my previous installment, despite the narrative of the Bible quite explicitly teaching something different than the traditional “dying and going to heaven” paradigm of market-standard Christianity, there is still no shortage of passages that would seem, at first glance, to support that paradigm, if we’ve already made up our minds that it’s there, and I’d like to address some of the major examples.

I Go To Prepare a Place for You

Whenever I have this conversation in person, John 14 is almost always the first passage cited as an objection, which reads:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

It’s understandable – inevitable, really – to read this as being about “going to heaven,” if you’ve already got that idea in mind that that’s what the Bible is about.

But, what precedent is there in the Bible that should make us think this is what it’s about? Given that there is none, what is the likelihood that Jesus would introduce it for the first time here, on the eve of his execution, at the end of his ministry?

If we read John 14 without that presupposition and place this passage in its proper context within that particular dialogue, within John’s Gospel as a whole, and within the entire Bible, it becomes increasingly clear that Jesus is talking about something entirely different than this idea of going to heaven as disembodied spirits when we die. He’s talking about the Trinity, and the indwelling of the Spirit of God, not a literal place to which they would go in the afterlife.

First off – and again (because this cannot be overstated) – this would be the first mention of people going to heaven, if that’s what this passage is about.

But, it wouldn’t be his first mention of his “Father’s house.”

His “Father’s house” – that being God’s house – is how Jesus described the temple on more than one occasion. Indeed, in a Jewish context, “God’s house” would never be a reference to heaven or to some spiritual afterlife, but to the temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, because throughout the Bible, without exception, whenever mention is made of “God’s house,” that is the only meaning that phrase ever has. See Psalm 84, 2 Samuel 7, Ecclesiastes 5, Isaiah 2 and an endless slew of other passages besides these: “God’s house” only ever refers to the temple. (Genesis 28:10-22 would be an exception, but only in the strictest, technical sense, because it actually strengthens my overall point, because the place Jacob called “Bethel” was a place on earth that functioned as a temple.)

Also, within the temple, the innermost chamber, known as the “Holy of Holies” or “the Most Holy Place,” where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, was the place where the very Presence of God was understood to dwell.

So, when Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places,” they wouldn’t have initially understood that to mean dwelling places for them, but dwelling places for God, and they would have been puzzled at the notion of there being many dwelling places for God, and even more puzzled when Jesus followed that up with, “I go there to prepare a place for you.”

It is only because of our presuppositions that we read that as so “obviously” being about Jesus going to prepare a place for them in heaven. His meaning was not at all initially apparent to them, because the immediate connotation would have been about there being many places for God to dwell in the temple, and God’s dwelling place within the temple was not a place where humans were permitted to occupy. The high priest was allowed into the Most Holy Place only once during the entire year, on the Day of Atonement, and that only after extensive ritual cleansing and blood sacrifice, first for his own sins and then for the sins of the nation, and if any part of the ritual was incomplete or the sacrifice unacceptable for any reason, he would be struck dead by God upon approach.

Jesus continued with, “You know the way to the place where I am going” in verse 4.

Thomas, still thinking that he was talking about the literal place of the temple and knowing that the temple, as they knew it, did not fit Jesus’ description, responded, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

To which Jesus answered, “I am the way … no one comes to the Father except through me.”

So, the “place” that he’s talking about is the Father Himself, and he himself is the way to that “place.”

After that, he then went on to explain how he is “in” the Father and the Father is “in” himself, which led to his explanation that both he and the Father would be “in” them through the Holy Spirit: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (verse 23)

The word “home” in that verse is from the Greek moné, which literally just means “dwelling place.” Its appearance here in v. 23 is one of only two uses of the word in the entire New Testament, the other being in v. 2, from which “rooms” or “mansions” or “dwelling places” is translated.

So, yes – Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many ‘mansions’ … I go there to prepare a place for you,” but he also, in that very same passage, spoke of the Father and himself making their home with the disciples. Each will dwell in the other: they will dwell within God and God will dwell within them, through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

This accords with the themes that we find throughout John’s Gospel.

This idea of “residence” and “remaining” in said residence begins in the prologue.

In 1:14, it reads, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

The Greek word for “made his dwelling” is skénoó, which literally means “to tabernacle” or “to pitch one’s tent.”

Of course, we know it’s not saying that Jesus literally pitched a tent and dwelled among them as a nomadic wanderer. It evokes the time when God dwelled among the Israelites within the tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Covenant, which was the prototype for the temple planned by David and built by Solomon. He’s likening Jesus’ incarnation to God dwelling among them in the wilderness: the Word is comparable to the Glory Cloud of God’s Presence and Jesus’ human form is likened to the tabernacle in which the Presence of God takes residence. The implication is that Jesus is himself the “new tabernacle,” the “new Ark of the Covenant” by which God’s presence dwells in the midst of His people: in the national history of Israel, God first dwelled on earth through the tabernacle, then through the temple, and now through the person of Jesus.

This idea is reiterated in chapter 2, when Jesus cleansed the temple. When the religious leaders confronted him, he said, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days,” not meaning, of course, the literal temple building, but his own body – he was the temple, the place where God dwelled on earth.

This theme of “Jesus as the temple” is taken up again in chapter 4, when Jesus meets with the Samaritan woman at the well.

“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem,” she said (verse 20).

At the time, and for centuries going back to when Israel and Judah split nearly a thousand years earlier, there was a rival place of worship at Mt. Gerizim in Samaria. According to the Law of Moses, there could be only one true place of worship, where the Presence of God dwelled on earth, and so only one legitimate temple. The Jews claimed Mt. Zion in Jerusalem as that place, while the Samaritans claimed it to be Mt. Gerizim.

There was, of course, a correct side to the controversy raised by the Samaritan woman, and she was on the wrong side of it, but that was soon to be moot, according to Jesus.

“Woman, believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth,” Jesus answered her (vs. 21-24).

At that moment, “my Father’s house” referred to a literal house in a literal place, and genuine, acceptable worship was tied to that place and to that building. But, that was all soon to change. Worship would no longer be tied to any one location, because Jesus himself was the new temple, and his presence – God’s Presence in Jesus – would soon no longer be bound to one location, nor even one person.

That’s why the curtain in the temple was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death: the Holy of Holies was no longer the exclusive place where God’s Presence resided, because the sin that kept man alienated from God had been atoned for.

With the barrier of sin done away with, God’s Presence could now dwell in us, in the followers of Jesus Christ. Now we are the temple of God where His Spirit dwells. Just as God dwelled on earth through the tabernacle, and then the temple, and then through Jesus, now He dwells on earth through the Church.

We are the “house of God,” but not in the sense of being a building, but in the sense that we are God’s household, His family.

This is all building toward that state of existence we find described at the end of the book of Revelation:

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the One who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” (21:3-5)

This is the reversal of the curse of Genesis 3, prior to which God dwelled with man on earth in the Garden of Eden.

Paul alluded to the same idea when he wrote, “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:6-7)

Notice how Paul wrote that in the past tense. In Paul’s view, this is something that has already happened. We are already dwelling in those “many rooms” in the Father’s house that Jesus went to prepare.

He, as well as Jesus in John 14:1-3, was referring, not to us “going to heaven” when we die, but to Jesus’ ascension back to the Father after his resurrection. With Jesus at the right hand of the Father, humanity dwells representatively within the Godhead. And, with the descent of the Holy Spirit to dwell within the Church on the Day of Pentecost, the fullness of the Godhead now dwells within us. We are in God and God is in us.

As in, the Church is the beginning of that renewal of creation pictured in Revelation 21, which will be consummated when Jesus returns and we are resurrected from the dead as he was.

Today, You Will Be With Me in Paradise

Another frequent objection is from the conversation Jesus had with the condemned criminal on the cross next to him in Luke 23.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the man said, to which Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

This is typically understood to mean that the man would be with Jesus in heaven that very day after they both died.

And, if that’s what that means, it would certainly present a problem for my position.

But, it would also create problems for a lot of existing Christian tradition, including the biblical accounts themselves, while my position would actually resolve all of those problems.

There is a tradition that interprets 1 Peter 3:18-22 to mean that, between his death and resurrection, Jesus descended into hell in spirit to preach the gospel to imprisoned spirits.

I don’t think it means that at all. I think it’s saying that Jesus, through the Holy Spirit in Noah, preached to spirits now in prison (i.e., death), while they were alive on earth during the time of Noah. The idea that he did so in spirit during the time between his death and resurrection just doesn’t make sense, since the point of the passage is that Christ died in the flesh, but was made alive – i.e., resurrected – by the Spirit, and so it defies the essential premise of the passage to take it as describing something he did as a disembodied human spirit before the Spirit resurrected him. Rather, the point of the passage is that the Spirit of God who spoke through prophets and holy men like Noah through the ages is the very Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.

But, there is nonetheless an enduring tradition that understands this passage to mean that Jesus descended into hell, in spirit, before he rose from the dead, which cannot be the case if he was also with the crucified man in heaven during that time.

However, besides all that, Jesus himself said he wasn’t in heaven that day after his death.

When he appeared to Mary Magdalene outside his tomb after his resurrection, he said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

If he hadn’t yet ascended to heaven, then he wasn’t in heaven that day after he died.

So, what does Luke 23:43 mean? What did, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” mean, if Jesus himself wasn’t in paradise that day?

Well, let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that Jesus was talking about the man going to heaven in spirit or soul-form while his body was dead on the cross or buried.

What is a “spirit” or a “soul”?

Well, “spirit,” in Hebrew, is “ruach,” and in Greek is “pneuma.” They both literally just mean “breath” or “wind.” As I mentioned before, they speak of the animating principle of the body.

“Soul” is “nephesh” in Hebrew and “psyche” in Greek, both meaning “life” or “self” or “mind.”

There are a lot of nuances to each of these terms, but for the sake of brevity, there is nothing about any of these terms and their usage in Scripture to indicate that they are intended to convey the survival of consciousness apart from the body. The Bible simply does not teach any concept of the immortality of the soul or spirit. Maybe an argument could be made that the Bible leaves room for that (I don’t think it does), but it certainly doesn’t explicitly teach this.

But, just for the sake of argument, let’s say that it does.

Again – what is a “soul” or a “spirit”?

Of those who claim that they are immortal and can survive the death of the body, I’ve never met anyone who could tell me what they actually are. Those terms are just placeholders for “consciousness existing independently of the body.”

We do know what they are not, however.

They are not physical, by definition. They are not made up of matter/material. The body is physical. The soul and spirit are not.  

Not being physical, they have no form, no mass, no weight. These are physical properties, which souls or spirits, by definition, do not have.

These are also the properties needed to exist in space: in order to have location, something must exist within space, and so must have mass, form and weight, which souls/spirits do not have.

Modern physics understands space and time to be the same fundamental physical property of the universe, referred to as “space-time.”

That means that if something doesn’t exist within space, it doesn’t exist within time, either.

Also, we do not have souls. If “soul” means “consciousness that survives the death of the body” (or “consciousness” on any terms), we do not have souls, we are souls.

As souls, we experience the passage of time only through sensory input delivered to our brains by our sense organs. That’s why, when we’re in a deep sleep, we have no idea how much time passes outside of our own minds. Between the time we fall asleep and wake up, it seems to us as if no time passes at all.

All of this adds up to mean that, regardless of whether there is any such thing as a “soul” or “spirit” that can survive the death of the body, questions like, “Where was Jesus’ spirit between his death and resurrection?” are meaningless. His spirit wasn’t anywhere, because it has no form, mass or weight, and so it has no location in space.

The same goes for the thief on the cross, and for everybody else.

When we die, we don’t experience anything, because our eyes, ears and other sense organs are dead, as is the brain that would receive that information. So, it’s just like it was before we were born or conceived – nothing.

We don’t know that it’s nothing, though. It’s just like when we sleep. We don’t experience any passage of time. We close our eyes in death, and then less than a moment later, we open our eyes at our resurrection to meet Jesus at his return.

So when Jesus told the crucified criminal, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he was, of course, telling the truth. But it wasn’t “today” for Jesus. Jesus has returned to the Father, but he has not yet entered the paradise he promised to the man on the cross, because that hasn’t happened yet. That “paradise” will be here, on earth, when Jesus returns to renew creation and raise humanity from the dead. But, for that crucified criminal beside him, his “today” has yet to finish. When we awake at the resurrection, we’ll have been conscious of the past 2,000 years since Jesus’ crucifixion. For that man on the cross next to him, though, his crucifixion will have been only moments before.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Promised Land … of Confusion

No, That’s Not Christianity: Part 1

The word “heaven” shows up roughly 700-800 times in the Bible, depending on the translation.

Incidentally, the reason for that wide variance is that the two words from which the word “heaven” is translated – “shamayim” in Hebrew and “ouranous” in Greek – can refer to any of three distinct but related concepts that are not always best translated “heaven.” They can refer to:

1) the sky, as in Genesis 1:8; or to

2) the sun, moon and stars, collectively referred to as “the heavens,” as in Genesis 1:1; or it can refer to

3) the dwelling place of God and the angels.

(In truth, these were all essentially identical concepts to ancient readers, while our modern understanding of cosmology and astrology creates a distinction, but that’s of secondary importance here.)

Not so incidentally, in absolutely none of those hundreds of examples of the term “heaven” — in any translation of the Bible — is there a single mention of anyone going there as a disembodied “soul” or “spirit” after they die. It is never described as happening; no one ever asks for it, prays for it, hopes for it or even raises it as a possibility or a concept, and God never promises nor even hints at it.

The sole, rule-proving exception would be when Jesus said, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the One who came from heaven – that is, the Son of Man.” (John 3:13)

“Going to heaven” – as a concept of the afterlife (and this distinction is important) – is entirely foreign to the narrative of the Bible. You can scour the Bible from beginning to end and you will find it nowhere in all of Scripture. Not one verse, passage, chapter or book of the Bible ever makes any mention whatsoever of an afterlife in heaven.

That’s an idea native to Greek philosophy and Gnosticism, with its strict distinction between spirit and matter, and to Greco-Roman mythology: pick up the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Aeneid and other writings about the gods of Olympus and their dealings with mortals and you’ll find plenty there about Hades and Elysium and the disembodied spirits or “shades” who dwell there, or of the spirits of heroes ascending in death for apotheosis on Mt. Olympus.

But that idea is totally alien to the Bible. The Bible knows nothing of disembodied souls or spirits leaving this world in death to go to some other world to dwell among angels and departed loved ones. It’s just not in there, because that’s not what the Bible is about.

The Bible speaks instead about the eventual renewal of creation, and our physical, bodily resurrection to eternal life upon this earth, in this world, restored to paradise. Contrary to the aforementioned gnostic dualism of pagan thought, the biblical narrative insists that the material world is intrinsically “very good” (Genesis 1:31) and that its corruption by human sin and rebellion against God is a problem from which it is to be redeemed (Matthew 19:28; Acts 3:19-21; Revelation 21), not escaped and abandoned in favor of some other world. The overall narrative of the Bible is about heaven coming here, to earth, not dead humans going to heaven in ghost form. It’s right there in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven … ”

And, if I’m straining your patience as a reader by reiterating this claim to the point of redundancy, it’s not because I take your time or attention for granted. I want to make sure my argument is eminently falsifiable, with no room for qualification. That way, if I’m wrong, it should be surpassingly easy to prove me wrong: just produce one passage of the Bible that explicitly affirms this idea of “dying and going to heaven.” It can’t be done, though, because there is no such passage.

Sola Scriptura, Huh?

There is, however, no shortage of passages that would seem – at first glance – to accomplish this. But they only seem to do that, and that’s only because we bring that idea to the Bible. We would never get that idea from the Bible if we didn’t already import it from elsewhere before we ever picked up the Bible. If we read those passages in their historical and literary context and take the Bible on its own terms without imposing external expectations upon it, not only would that idea never occur to us, but we’d see plainly that those passages are talking about something else entirely – typically, they’re either talking about the indwelling of the Spirit of God in the here-and-now and our representative dwelling within the Godhead through Christ, or they’re talking about our eventual physical, bodily resurrection from the dead at Christ’s return.

I realize, of course, that winning this argument would be a hard-fought battle demanding far more than the few paragraphs I’ve written here so far, since this “dying and going to heaven”-paradigm is synonymous with Christianity itself for most people, and long-held religious beliefs die hard. It would require, at the very least, painstakingly going through the Bible, passage-by-misunderstood passage, and explicitly deconstructing longstanding and deeply-entrenched interpretations of those passages. That’s an exercise I quite enjoy for its own sake, actually, but it’s beyond the scope of my purposes here, so I’ve added that content as a follow-up to this. If you absolutely must be convinced of the error of our popular ideas about the afterlife before you can proceed, I explain that more comprehensively at the article linked above, but there is a more important point I’m trying to make here.

No, my purpose here is not just to convince people of this particular error of the market-standard version of Christianity. That error is toxic in itself, but it’s still only an emblematic symptom of a deeper, more fundamental problem within the Church. The present state of market-standard Christianity is bad enough and worth addressing, but it is the forces that have twisted it into that shape that are the real problem. We could try to hammer it into a more biblically-consistent shape today, but it will only bounce right back tomorrow if we don’t address those underlying problems first.

The biggest problem is that we just don’t follow the Bible.

We think we do, but that’s only an illusion brought about by groupthink and confirmation bias and culturally-inculcated presuppositions.

We use the Bible as a talisman, or a tribal totem. We swear oaths on it and we swear by it for our doctrines and dogmas. We quote-mine it for proof texts and maybe memorize the portions from which we derive personal comfort and inspiration. And we take what others say about it as a shibboleth for orthodoxy within whatever tradition to which we belong.

So, we make great use of the Bible, as a symbol and a tribal banner, a security blanket, and sometimes a weapon, or even an idol.

But … actually reading it, from beginning to end, to find out what it’s all about, and what God’s plan and purposes are, and how we fit into them and carry them out?

No, generally speaking and collectively – we most emphatically do not do that.

That’s not to say that no Christian ever reads the Bible from start to finish in its entirety. Most don’t, according to several polls and studies that have been done in recent years, but some do. But, most (if not all) people who do – myself included – were told by others what it teaches long before we were in a position to read it for ourselves. We get its supposed meaning primarily from sermons and Sunday school and only read it ourselves as a follow-up, if at all. If you were raised in church, this probably started happening before you even learned how to read. By the time a person does pick up the Bible to read it for himself, he is largely just projecting his already-formed beliefs upon the text and feeding them back to himself – reading within a broader narrative framework that has been presupposed, never noticing along the way that this framework is never justified by the text itself.

We get our religious beliefs from cultural conditioning first, and only then, after the fact, do we consult the Bible.

Our god Is Our Stomach

Our teachings are “biblical” in the same way the Devil’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness was “biblical”: he quoted Scripture, but out of context and on an ad hoc basis to divert Jesus from the overall purposes of God as represented in Scripture, namely, his own mission to save humanity.

Which is exactly what we collectively do, and our collective misconception about the afterlife is just one glaring example of this.

It’s an ever-present aspect of fallen human behavior.

A prime illustration is when Jesus fed the 5,000, and because of this, they determined that he was “the Prophet who was to come into the world,” and so tried to “make him king by force.” (John 6:14-15)

On a certain level, their response was undeniably “biblical.” If that happened today, no preacher, teacher or seminary professor on earth could definitively refute them, from a scriptural standpoint, if they were even inclined to try. Most churchgoers would probably join in and condemn as heretics and traitors anyone who opposed them – Jesus was, in fact, the Prophet who was to come into the world. He is and was the rightful king. There is no arguing with that.

Yet, when they caught up with Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, he rebuked them: “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (John 6:26)

They wanted him as king, but not because they saw God’s purposes at work in him and wanted to join him in those purposes. Their interest was in how he fit into their purposes – how he could gratify their appetites. And, many people – not just from the crowds, but from among his own disciples – deserted him when they realized that he wouldn’t be of any use to them.

And that’s the approach we tend to bring to the Bible as a whole. We don’t approach religion or the Bible with a mindset of seeking God’s purposes and plan and fitting ourselves into it. We fit God into our lives. Jesus Christ is an accessory to our lives, not the center. He’s not really our Lord and King; he’s our mascot – the imagined spokesman for all of our own ideas and cultural values and political preferences. If we don’t like the depiction of Jesus we find in our church, we shop around until we find a “Jesus” and a church better suited to us, who reinforces all the positions we would already hold anyway.

Most people just want to live their lives and pursue the things that interest them in this world. Christianity is largely just an add-on to what we’d be doing anyway if we weren’t Christians.

Consider the typical sermons preached today.

How often is the substance of a sermon about “how to be a better spouse” or “how to be a better parent” or “how to find God’s purpose for your life” (i.e., career advice), or even “how to vote,” or any number of other varieties of loosely “biblical” life-coaching, while the gospel itself is treated as an afterthought, if its mentioned at all?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a better spouse or with finding the best fit for a career. But, we didn’t need a Messiah for any of that, and trying to fit him into our purposes is a tacit rejection of his purposes.

And we don’t just do that in the moment, sermon by sermon. We’ve done that with the whole narrative – the whole religion.

We don’t have in mind the things of God, but the things of man. And our “Christianity” shows it.

The Ouija Board of the Religious Marketplace

And, we don’t do this, necessarily, as individuals, but collectively – as a marketplace of religious consumers.

As a marketplace of consumers, we don’t actually care about God’s purposes and plan. We care about our own. And, we all know we’re going to die, and we’re worried about it. How can Christianity help?

Of course, the true biblical narrative answers that with the promise of resurrection at the end of history, at the renewal of the earth.

But that’s a long way off. We don’t want to wait that long, and death is scary now, and so we want assurances that grandma “is in a better place” now. So, the marketplace meets that demand by supplying a supposedly biblical narrative with a solution.

And, to reiterate – I am not saying we do this as individuals.

The marketplace of religion is a lot like a Ouija board: theoretically, no single person is moving the planchette to land it in a particular place. The collective pressure from all the people touching it is what moves it, regardless of where any individual person wants it to go. But, the perceived effect is that the planchette moved on its own and was placed by otherworldly forces to supernaturally spell out a message from beyond. But, no – it was just the completely natural, collective subconscious will of humans expressed through the ideomotor effect.

The exact same phenomenon occurs, but on a much larger scale, to create market-standard Christianity: we collectively shape the message and direction of the Church, but we attribute it to God and so we submit to it as beyond our right to question or oppose. But, no. It’s just us.

I don’t believe most preachers are necessarily deliberately crafting their sermons to get the maximum number of butts in seats. Some do, and I think it’s pretty obvious who they are, but the majority of preachers who sincerely teach what people most want to hear – and the seminaries that train such preachers – are those who are most rewarded by the marketplace of religious consumers, and so they enjoy the greater market share, and so their brand of Christianity becomes the market-standard version to which all others are compared, and the outliers are regarded as weird and heretical.

And, while Jesus often deliberately drove off large crowds so that only the most fully devoted disciples remained, most preachers and churchgoers today, in contrast, take large or growing congregations as a sign of God’s approval, endorsement and anointing, with total disregard for Jesus’ warnings against wide paths and broad gates.

The result is what we might call “Lowest Common Denominator Religion”: a religion that masquerades as Christianity and proliferates by appealing to the highest number of people by meeting the most widespread set of demands, which is for a religion that requires nothing of them and promises everything they want, with no conditions.

A Gospel Without Power, A Church Without Life

Among other golden calves, the Church continues to teach this error about “dying and going to heaven” and presents it as the very essence of the gospel. The Church is teaching falsehood as “the word of God.”

We read in Scripture that the word of God is powerful, living and active, and that the gospel is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”

Is it any wonder, then, that the Church is dying in the West – that our influence is fading and our light is dimming in the world, as our culture races ever deeper into darkness and depravity and corruption?

It is because we bear a “word of God” that has no power, no truth. It is a “gospel” of our own making, with no power to save.

Consequently, God is not with us and does not bless our efforts as the Church, the Spirit of God does not empower us, and the life of Christ is not in us, because we do not operate under His authority, bearing His message and advancing His cause. Until we do, our church services are an empty farce and all we’re doing is playing “Christian.”

That’s the bad news.

The good news is … life is nonetheless set before us. The infinite power of God Himself – to effect miracles and bring life and enlightenment to ourselves, our neighbors, our families and our civilization – is ours for the taking.

All we have to do is read the Bible, teach what it teaches, and do what it says.

That’s easier said than done, I realize. But it can be done. It must be done.

Stay tuned.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Trinity: A Necessity to Monotheism

Depending on whom you ask, the concept of the Trinity is either the absolute worst offense that can exist in the sight of God, or it’s God’s all-important self-revelation upon which all existence and life and salvation depend.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about it, to say the least – among Christians, especially, no less – and that confusion adds a lot of fuel to the historically persistent controversy around it.

So, here’s my own humble attempt at resolving some of the confusion.

Monotheists who aren’t Christian (i.e., Jews and Muslims) see the doctrine of the Trinity as a denial of monotheism, the belief that there is only one God. The premise of this piece is that it not only is not a denial of monotheism, but it’s a necessary logical outworking of monotheism. In other words, if monotheism is true, then God must be a Trinity; if God is not a Trinity, then the “God” in view by monotheists isn’t really God at all.

Before I get into that, some background information is in order. If you’re already up to speed on the basics, though, feel free to skip ahead to the section with the subheading “In His Image.

And if you want a really quick, to-the-point, argument- and background-free explanation of why I think the Trinity is necessary to monotheism, without me “showing my work,” so to speak, for how I got there, skip down to the section with the heading, “God, the Word of God and the Sevenfold Spirit.”

The Doctrine

If you’re new to the planet, the term “Trinity” is shorthand for the Christian doctrine that God is Three-in-One: three distinct Persons who are singular in Being – “the Father, the Son and the Holy 2000px-Shield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-English.svgSpirit.” Each Person of the Trinity is distinct from the Others and is equally and fully “God,” yet there is only one God, not a triumvirate of separate “Gods.”

And (also if you’re new to the planet), according to Trinitarian theology, the Second Person of the Godhead, God the Son, or the Son of God, took on human form in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth and died for the sins of the world, rose again from the dead and then ascended back to his place at “the right hand of the Father” so that humanity could dwell representatively within the Godhead and, in turn, the Third Person, the Holy Spirit, could descend to dwell within humanity.

This arrangement is the essence of the Christian concept of salvation, hence the all-important, non-negotiable importance of Trinitarian doctrine to Christian orthodoxy. Much more on that later, though.

Historical Objections to the Trinity

As touched upon in the introduction, the other two monotheistic religions have something of a problem with this.

Muslims regard it as shirk – idolatry – which they hold to be the gravest offense anyone could commit before Allah, like ever. According to the Qur’an, Allah is super pissed off about this, hence the repeated emphasis on the “Oneness” of God throughout its pages.

“They have certainly disbelieved who say, ‘Allah is the third of three.’ And there is no god except one God. And if they do not desist from what they are saying, there will surely afflict the disbelievers among them a painful punishment,” reads Surah 5:73 of the Qur’an.

“And they say, ‘The Most Merciful has taken a son.’ You have done an atrocious thing. Would that the heavens be rent thereat and the earth split open and the mountains fall into the sea that they attribute to the Most Merciful a son. And it is not appropriate for the Most Merciful that He should take a son. There is no one in the heavens and earth but that he comes to the Most Merciful as a servant.” (Surah 19:88-93)

So Muslims see the doctrine of the Trinity as an outrage and an unpardonable blasphemy against Allah, hence the characteristic Islamic disdain for western religion and culture.

Although, it’s worth noting that the “Trinity” at which they take such umbrage isn’t exactly the Trinity of historic Christian theology. Based on Surah 5:116 of the Qur’an, Muhammed appeared to have been laboring under the impression that the Trinity consists of the three persons of Allah, Mary and Jesus, as a sort of “family of God”:

“And (beware the Day) when Allah will say, ‘O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, “Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah ?”’ He will say, ‘Exalted are You! It was not for me to say that to which I have no right. If I had said it, You would have known it. You know what is within myself, and I do not know what is within Yourself. Indeed, it is You who is Knower of the unseen.’”

As in, rather than “tri-unity” as an internal and eternal characteristic of the Godhead, as historic Christian doctrine holds, it is instead the adding-on of external, created beings to the Godhead, which would be heretical and idolatrous by the Christian and Islamic understandings of monotheism alike.

(Based on Surah 3:33-47, Muhammed also seemed to be laboring under the notion that Mary the mother of Jesus was the same Mary/Miriam mentioned in the Torah, who was the sister of Moses and Aaron and the daughter of Amram and Jochebed, who lived about 1,500 years earlier. But, that’s a discussion for another time. Suffice to say, the Qur’an’s author is a dubious authority on God and on biblical persons and events.)

*   *   *

Jews also hold the Trinity to be a denial of monotheism, but they’re not laboring under such a blatant misrepresentation of it like we see in Islam. Jews tend to think the doctrine of the Trinity is just a failed attempt by post-apostolic theologians to justify, within a monotheistic framework, the New Testament and its teachings about the deity of Christ. “Failed attempt” because they see it as a fundamental denial of the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: YHWH our God, YHWH is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4), as well as a denial of the commandment, “You shall have no other gods before/besides Me.”

“If God is One, He can’t be three,” they insist, so the Trinity adds “gods” beside Him, thereby violating the commandment.

Except, “YHWH is one” isn’t necessarily the correct translation. Some translators render it “YHWH is our God, YHWH alone.” And if all three Persons are rightfully “YHWH,” then it’s not a violation of the commandment.

But, even if “YHWH is one” is the more appropriate translation, the Hebrew word used for “one” is “echad,” which indicates “a united oneness,” as opposed to “yachid,” which indicates “a solitary oneness.”

An example of a “united oneness” would be in Genesis 2:24, where it reads about Adam and Eve that “the two became one (‘echad’) flesh.”

And there’s plenty more within the Hebrew Scriptures that – while not necessarily proving the doctrine of the Trinity in so many words – nonetheless speak to an internal plurality within the Godhead, rendering Jewish objections to the Trinity moot.

There are the “Us”-passages in Genesis (1:26; 3:22), and the specific mention of the “Spirit of God” in Genesis 1:2 as apparently distinct from “God” in the primary sense. And, there are numerous instances in which the Angel of YHWH/the Lord is referred to by God in the third-Person, and the Angel speaks of God in the third-Person, and then the Angel is afforded all of the worship and authority of God Himself (Exodus 23:20-22; Joshua 5:13-15; Zechariah 3, etc.).

024.Jacob_Wrestles_with_the_Angel

Jacob wrestling with the Angel of YHWH

So, while the unity of God is certainly insisted upon in the Hebrew Scriptures, there’s also plainly a plurality within that unity, so “unity” doesn’t necessarily mean a strict singularity.

But, if they don’t acknowledge the passages that explicitly identify the promised Messiah with God Himself (Psalm 45; Psalm 110; Isaiah 9:6-7; Daniel 7:13-14; Zechariah 12:10, etc.), these other, more nuanced passages aren’t going to sell them on the Trinity either, unfortunately.

A History of Heresies

There are quite a few popular attempts at explanations of the Trinity among Christians, some of which are more helpful than others at conveying the concept.

There’s the Water/States of Matter Analogy: Just as water can be liquid, solid or gas, but remains the same substance, so is God the three Persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, while remaining the same Being, according to this analogy.

Except, this is really just another form of the heresy known as “Modalism,” which is erroneous because it denies the separate Personhood of each member of the Trinity. As in, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are actually the same Person, but fulfilling a different role – wearing a different hat, so to speak – according to Modalism. It posits that “the Son” is just Who God is when He’s not being the Father or the Holy Spirit, which doesn’t fit with the Scriptures, since they depict the Father, Son and Spirit relating and referring to one another as distinct Persons (John 17; Romans 8:16 and 34).

Then there’s the Egg Analogy: an egg comprises the three components of a yolk, the white and the shell. This is an expression of yet another heresy – that of Partialism. None of the components of the egg can rightly be understood to be the egg in its fullness, as each Person of the Trinity is fully “God” (Colossians 2:9, 10).

The illustration attributed to St. Patrick – the shamrock, or three-leaf clover, is another version of the same heresy.

Then there’s the Sun Analogy: God the Father is like the Sun, God the Son is like the rays of light that emanate from the Sun, and the Holy Spirit is like the heat created on Earth from the Sun. This is the Arian heresy, which had it that the Son is a created being only similar to God the Father in substance, but not identical (homoiousion instead of homoousion, which is what the Council of Nicaea boiled down to), and not “God” in the full sense.

Trinityfull

Also not an orthodox and approved representation of the Trinity.

These have been condemned by various church councils, but some Christians would argue that they’re still useful, at the very least, as “elevator pitches” – quick, concise explanations you could make during the span of an elevator ride, just to get your foot in the door and get someone at least open to the possibility that God could be a Trinity.

I don’t know that I accept that. If they’re heretical versions of the Trinity, it isn’t actually the Trinity you’re getting them to entertain as a possibility, so I don’t know that they’re truly constructive to that end, except maybe to trick someone into considering it, which I don’t think is an advisable tactic.

*   *   *

A possible exception, though – and my own personal favorite quick illustration of the Trinity – is the Cube Analogy used by C.S. Lewis.

Imagine trying to describe a cube to beings who exist in only two dimensions. They’re familiar with flat shapes like squares and circles and triangles, but since they’ve never experienced reality beyond their two-dimensional frame of reference, they cannot conceive of cubes, spheres, cylinders or pyramids. Try to explain what a cube is, and they’ll only be able to imagine it in terms of six separate squares grouped together somehow, but not as a single, indivisible object.

Likewise, that’s sort of what explaining the tri-unity of the single God is like to beings who live only in three-dimensional time and space, in which every being is only a solitary person.

Now, the Cube Analogy suffers for being another variation on Partialism… if we take it as an illustration of the Trinity, that is. But, I think it’s less an illustration of the Trinity than it is an illustration of the limits of our perception as three-dimensional beings. According to String Theory, there are possibly 10 or 11 spatial dimensions to the universe, while we perceive of only three, and possibly more than the single temporal dimension we experience. And God, by definition, created the universe, so He exists beyond all of the spatial and temporal dimensions that constitute the space-time continuum itself, to say nothing of His transcendence of the limited corner of space-time of which we can perceive.

So, if we can see that two-dimensional beings’ inability to conceive of a cube doesn’t render the concept of a cube impossible or logically nonsensical, so our inability to conceive of three Persons who are one in Being doesn’t render the Trinity impossible.

So, that’s the elevator pitch I prefer, because the heretical aspects of the illustration aren’t the relevant aspects.

That’s just to get my foot in the door, though.

My ultimate goal isn’t just to convey that the Trinity is possible, but that it’s a necessary logical consequence of monotheism itself.

In His Image

In my view, the most compelling piece of evidence for the Trinity is human consciousness.

Or, I should say, the nature of Consciousness itself is our clue, of which human consciousness is our only firsthand example. According to Scripture, though, God modeled human consciousness after His own: “God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them…” (Genesis 1:27)

Whatever else that means (and it means a great deal), self-awareness is included in our being made in the image of God.

Being “made in the image of God” is what it means to be human and distinct from the animals, according to the book of Genesis.

According to evolutionary anthropologists, the defining characteristic that makes us human is our capacity for abstract, symbolic thought and communication, i.e., language. Anthropologists tell us that anatomically modern humans first appeared about 200,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until about 40-50,000 years ago that we became fully human – “behavioral modernity” is the term for it. The transition from bestial Anatomically Modern Humans to fully evolved Behaviorally Modern Humans happened through what they call the “Great Leap Forward,” by which humans suddenly (relatively speaking) developed the ability for complex language – Man could think in terms of abstract symbols and communicate those symbols through the use of sound.

Ancient Jewish mystics picked up on this long before the advent of modern anthropology, though, just by reading and contemplating the Bible.

“Abracadabra” is an Aramaic phrase believed by some to have been coined by ancient Kabbalists. It means, “As I speak, I create,” and it’s meant to convey the relationship seen in the book of Genesis between speech and creation, as first shown in God’s act of speaking the universe into existence, and second, in His image-bearer’s act in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:19-20): Adam participated in God’s work of creation by naming the animals. He didn’t create ex nihilo as God did, but by naming the animals, he brought another dimension of order to creation – he created the first system of taxonomy, just as we create institutions, art, paradigms of thought and systems of law and science and classification — often, through story and narrative– through our speech and language today. Things like the economy, governments, religions, ideologies, societies and social classes are real things, but they exist entirely as constructs of language and communication – they exist only because we speak them into existence. Our speech is the underlying basis for our ability to build civilizations and technology, which sets us apart as fundamentally different from the animal world.

You Can’t See Your Own Head

Speech is also the underlying basis for self-awareness.

It’s our ability to create by way of abstract symbolic thought that enables us to communicate with others, as well as to communicate and create internally. Just by virtue of being conscious, we create a symbolic concept of the self, and we see the self as a subject in the world, as well as a subject within our own mind. As in, we’re not just aware of the world around us – the sights and sounds and sensations reported to our brain by our sense organs; we’re aware of ourselves as subjects within the world.

Hopefully I won’t scandalize too many Christians (or other monotheists) by this, but the relevance of consciousness to the doctrine of the Trinity first occurred to me a few years ago while I was reading the Hindu Upanishads, a central topic of which is the internal makeup of the human psyche and what Consciousness actually is. The applications to monotheism don’t depend on acceptance of any Hindu-specific belief, though. It just so happens that it was Hindu mystics who were among the first to contemplate the interior dimensions of human consciousness a few millennia ago, and our acknowledgment of the truth of those observations doesn’t depend on acceptance of the overarching belief system.

The Hindu mystics who wrote the Upanishads recognized that our concept of the self is not identical with the actual self, though, and much of their contemplation was devoted to probing the mysteries raised by the disparity.

The Self, or Atman, to put it in Hindu terms, is the Thinker/Speaker. But the thoughts and words that originate with the Thinker are not the Thinker him/herself. So, while the Self is capable of thinking and speaking of the Self, the thoughts the Self has about the Self are not the actual Self, but the Ego, or Jiva, to again put it in Hindu terms

At issue is the ability of the Self to actually think about the Self in true and accurate terms.

“You can’t see your own head,” as summed up by Dr. Ed Wood, my Intro. to World Religion professor in college.

As in, the Self can no more directly perceive the Self than you can see your own head. You can see a reflection of your head in a mirror, or a photograph, but you can’t actually see your own head any more than you can turn your eye back in on itself to look at your own eye. Likewise, the Self can only make inferences about the Self, based on reflection – how the external world relates to the Self as another object in the world, and that’s how the Self becomes a subject in its own world.

This raises questions about what the Ego/Jiva actually represents. Does it truly represent the Self? Because if you try to speak about the Self in any concrete terms, what can you really say about your Self that’s actually about your Self?

And by “Self,” I mean your actual Self.

Your “actual Self” isn’t your body. The “Ship of Theseus” paradox shows that you can’t reduce the Self to your body, since none of the cells that constitute your physical form today existed a matter of years ago, and all the cells you have in this moment will be dust in a matter of years while you live on in your body. Yet, your Self existed then, now and will years from now when the constituent parts of your body are entirely replaced with new cells and new materials. So, you can’t point to the body or even your brain and say, “That is the Self.”

250px-Atman

This guy is trying to see his Atman, but it’s not happening.

And, you can’t point to the pattern in which those cells are arranged and say “That is the Self,” because identical twins have the same genetic pattern, but are distinct Selves.

And anything else you could say about the Self isn’t really about the Self, either. You could talk about where you’ve been, what you’ve done, whom you’ve met and interacted with, work you’ve accomplished, experiences you’ve had, but none of that information is actually about the internal Self – only the external experiences of the Self. All it does is skirt the outer limits of the Self, creating an outline of negative space in which the Self invisibly resides, but we still haven’t said anything about the Self.

And, even if the Self were capable of perceiving of the Self, in order for the Ego to be a true representation of the Self, the Self would have to recreate itself in thought, like a computer simulating a complete model of its own hardware and programming. For that model to be an accurate and complete representation rather than just a comparatively crude, abbreviated symbol of the computer, it would have to include all of that computer’s functionality, which would exceed its computational capacity – a thermodynamic impossibility.

Then, when you add on the Judeo-Christian element of sin and its attending shame, the Self would recoil in horror at its own shortcomings and excesses – its “nakedness” (Genesis 3:7), and the Ego it would create would be an inflated, idealized version of itself shaped by wishful thinking and insecurity.

So, as a necessary corollary to the fact of our consciousness, humans are self-aware, but only just, because our Ego-self is only an indirect caricature and distorted echo of our True-self, inflated by imagined virtues and glossed-over faults.

Which brings us to the subject at hand.

God, the Word of God and the Sevenfold Spirit

According to monotheism, there is an infinite and eternal Supreme Consciousness who is omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly holy who created the universe and all life within it: He knows all, is infinitely powerful and is without moral defect and is the Source of our own existence, life and consciousness.

All monotheists – Jews, Christians and Muslims alike – agree on that definition.

And, God is at least as conscious and Self-aware as we are.

I don’t think any Jew or Muslim anywhere would try to argue that God lacks the faculty of self-awareness that defines our own existence as humans. I would expect they would argue for that point as zealously as anyone – God is alive and conscious and Personal, and to say otherwise would be blasphemy, within both Judaism and Islam.

So if God is Self-aware, as we are, that means He has/is a Self, and He also has an “Ego” – an awareness of Himself as a Self.

And if God is all-knowing, then His omniscience would extend even to Himself. And if God is all-powerful, then His omnipotence would include the ability to perfectly perceive and to think comprehensively and accurately of Himself.

Which means – with none of the aforementioned limitations attending man’s self-awareness – God’s “Ego” would be a perfect and complete representation of God’s Self, lacking no attribute that God Himself possesses: His omniscience, omnipotence, holiness, His infinity and eternity. God’s “Ego” would not be a crude, abstract symbolic representation of God’s Self, as is a human ego, but an absolutely perfect representation of all that God is.

In other words, God’s “Ego” would be God in His own right. Yet, He would be distinct from God, as the Ego is distinct from the Self.

He would not be a creation of God – a creation is external and unnecessary to God, while self-awareness is a necessary fact of God’s existence. For God, to exist is to be self-aware, so – while God’s Self-awareness is contingent on God, He is not a creation of God, but is necessary and eternal to God’s own existence. Rather than God’s creation, He is God’s Son, who is like the Father in every regard, but has His existence from the Father.

Just as man’s ego is conjoined to our faculty of language and speech, so is God’s Self-awareness to His. His Self-perception, then, would be better described, not as His “Ego,” but as His Word. And just as man creates by his speech, so is the Word of God the Agent through Whom God creates.

*   *   *

Because the Word of God lacks no attribute of the Father, the Word is also Self-aware – He has an “Ego,” a Self-image, just as the Father has a Self-image in the Word.

The Self-image of the Word, however, includes – not just His understanding of Himself but His understanding of Himself in relation to the Father, as well as the Father’s understanding of Himself in relation to the Word.

The Self-image of the Word is the Embodiment in Consciousness of the mutual relationship between the Father and the Word. He is the Living Spirit of the fellowship between the Father and the Word, and He also is God in His own right, lacking no attribute of the Father and the Son.

And, of course, being an absolutely perfect and complete representation of everything that God the Father and God the Word are, the Third Person of the Godhead is also Self-aware, and aware of Himself as a Person in relation to the Father and the Son.

You can see where this is going, right?

The Third Person’s Self-awareness is also Self-aware and lacking nothing that is God, Who is also Self-Aware and lacking nothing, Who is also Self-aware and lacking nothing, etc.

There is an infinite progressive proliferation of Divine Persons proceeding from the First and Second Persons of the Godhead. The Father and Son are like two mirrors of Consciousness facing each Other, creating (well, “creating”) an endless repetition of reflections of each Other, and of each Other in relation to the Other. Except, because God is omniscient, omnipotent and infinite, nothing is diminished as the reflections repeat, because these are not, as in the analogy, mere light waves reflecting off a surface and diminishing in energy and focus with each iteration, but God’s Own Mind in His awareness of Himself. Light waves are finite quanta of energy that diminish and diffuse, making each successive reflection a lesser copy of the previous reflection. But, the Supreme Consciousness that is God is infinite and all-powerful. So, every single “reflection” is God in His own right. The two “mirrors” are God the Father and God the Son, and the infinite progression of Divine “reflections” are the Holy Spirit. Except, lacking nothing that is God, the “reflections” are also “mirrors” in their own right.

God is not a singular, solitary Spirit, but a united infinity of Spirit(s).

It boggles the mind, so one is inclined to dismiss it as too absurd to entertain.

However, is this not exactly what monotheism and the scriptures of every monotheistic religion teach, if only by implication? Is not God, by definition, infinite? And what does it mean – that “God is infinite” – if not what I have described?

This is consistent with the book of Revelation, which speaks of “the Seven Spirits of God,” or “the Sevenfold Spirit of God.” (Revelation 1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6)

Clearly, from those verses, the Holy Spirit is not a singular, solitary spirit, but a plurality of Spirit(s).

And, any student of ancient Hebrew culture can tell you that when the number seven is used, it doesn’t always literally mean “seven” – one less than eight and one more than six. The number seven in Judaism is a divine symbol, hence the seven-branched menorah which symbolizes this monotheistic religion, as well as all the other groupings of seven throughout the Torah and the rest of the Old Testament, like the seven days of creation, the seven weeks between Passover and Pentecost, Yom Kippur in the seventh month of the year, the Jubilee year occurring after seven sabbatical years, etc.

The number seven speaks of perfection and completion, but it can also mean “without measure,” like when God warned of avenging Cain “seven times over” (Genesis 4:15), and then Lamech exaggerated it to “seventy-seven” times over (v. 24). Or when God warned of punishing Israel’s sins “seven times over” (Leviticus 26:18, 21, 24, 28), and when He said Israel’s enemies would “flee in seven directions” (Deuteronomy 28:25). You see this idiom repeated in the New Testament, when Peter asked Jesus how often he should forgive, and Jesus told him, not merely seven times, but 77 times (Matthew 18:21, 22). Clearly, he didn’t mean to cut off forgiveness on that 78th offense, but that there was no limit. And, that was to reiterate that “forgive seven times” didn’t mean the eighth time was the last straw, but that there was no last straw.

Likewise, the seven letters to the seven churches (Revelation 1:18-3:22) weren’t intended just for those specific seven churches situated in Asia Minor, but were intended for the Church as a whole, for all of history and in all places, of which those particular seven were representative.

In the same way, the phrase “Sevenfold Spirit of God” is representative of the plurality of God’s Spirit in all of His completeness and limitlessness, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who are all coequally God.

So, if monotheism is true, then God is, primarily, a Trinity, but the Trinity is, in actuality, an Infinity (or a “Trinfinity”?).

The Word Made Flesh

It’s important to note that this isn’t just a theological abstraction– a philosophical exercise done for merely academic purposes, or to win arguments with Muslims and Jews. The doctrine of the Trinity has profound, life-changing application for every single human being.

While it is important for Christians to be able to answer Muslims and Jews when they object to the Trinity, it’s even more important that we understand the Trinity ourselves and grasp its centrality to our salvation and to our understanding of ourselves as Christians, and as members of the human race.

Christianity has it that the Word of God, the Second Person of the Godhead, entered into history in human form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

The prologue of the Gospel of John explains:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind…

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-4; 11-14)

Let’s consider what that means – that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, is the eternal Word of God incarnate in human form.

It’s often taught that, as the Word made flesh, Jesus represents God before humanity (Hebrews 1:1-3), and as “high priest in the order of Melchizadek,” he represents humanity before God (Hebrews 5-9).

And, of course, I agree with all that (who am I to disagree?), but that’s not the extent of it.

As the Word of God, Jesus doesn’t merely represent God to humanity, but he represents God to Himself. Again, He is God the Father’s Self-image – His “Ego-Self.” As God the Father thinks of God the Father, God the Son is what He thinks.
God the Son took on human form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Having died for the sins of the world and raised to life by the Spirit of God, after giving instructions to his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations” and thereby finalize and spread the Christian religion, Jesus ascended back to the “right hand of the Father” to resume his eternal place within the Godhead.dali-last-supper

God is eternal. He created time and space and exists without beginning or end beyond space-time. The distant past when the universe began in the first moments of the Big Bang and the far future when (or “if”?) the universe ends are equally “present” to Him – as present to Him as this very moment. He sees it all at once, as if it’s all happening now, because to Him, it is. With Him “a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day.” (2 Peter 3:8; Psalm 90:4)

If Jesus ascended to “the right hand of the Father,” that means there never was a time when there wasn’t a human man born of a mortal human woman in 1st-century Roman-occupied Judea with nail-scarred hands and feet residing within the Godhead.

And, if he is God the Father’s Self-image, that means God has always and eternally identified as a human being.

I am not saying, “God is a man.”

I am saying, “A man is God.”

As in, humanity is not a necessary, intrinsic property of the Divine Nature. Yet, humanity is a property God has taken upon Himself through the Incarnation and Ascension of the Son of God.

So, while humanity is not a necessary aspect of the Divine Nature, God’s Self-identification with humanity can certainly be seen in His creation of the universe.

And, as a layman who dabbles in popular scientific literature about physics and cosmology from time to time, I find it exhilarating to see even non-believing physicists flirt with this as they try to make sense of the apparent fine-tuning of the universe through the Anthropic Principle and its various iterations, such as the Participatory Anthropic Principle and the Final Anthropic Principle. It’s like they can almost see tGW375H271he face of God staring back at them as they probe the mysteries and origins of the universe, and they can see His intense concern for humanity spelled out in natural law.

But, I digress.

God personally identifies with humanity, because humanity is represented within the Godhead.

“And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,” wrote Paul (Ephesians 2:6).

This has profound implications for the dignity and inherent value of every human being who has ever lived. God identifies with humanity, as a human being, and so He is intensely, personally jealous for every single one of us, not just because He made us, but because He is one of us.

*   *   *

Just as humanity was raised up to the Godhead in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, so also, God in turn descended to dwell within humanity in the Third Person of the Godhead – “the Sevenfold Spirit of God sent forth into all the earth.” (Revelation 5:6)

Every person who belongs to Jesus Christ has no less than God Himself dwelling within us: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Godhead lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ,” wrote Paul (Colossians 2:9-10).

As in, we also participate in the Godhead.

That is not to say that we are members of the Godhead, but we participate, because we have the fullness of God Himself – the Third Person of the Godhead who embodies the fellowship between the Father and the Son – dwelling within us, renewing and transforming us into the likeness of the Son of God.

Of course, this isn’t immediately or always apparent to us – the Spirit of God dwells within the Self, and the Self cannot directly perceive of the Self. “You can’t see your own head,” after all. So, the human Ego-self doesn’t always represent the true reality of the Self, bad or Good.holy-spirit-best-best

But, if we trust in Christ and have committed ourselves to him, we participate in the Godhead and are thereby adopted as God’s own offspring.

“The Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by Him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory,” wrote Paul (Romans 8:15-17).

And, this is the entire point of God the Son taking on human form: to transform fallen mortals into gods.

We’ve moved pretty far away from this understanding within popular western Christianity, but this was how the Church fathers understood the gospel in the early centuries of Christianity.

They didn’t teach merely “Jesus died so we could be forgiven our sins and not go to hell.”

Yes, he did, but it hardly ends there.

As several of the early Church fathers wrote, from Irenaeus in the 2nd century to Athanasius in the 4th, “The Word became man that men might become gods.

Indeed, this was the entire purpose for which God created the universe.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Prime Radiant: A Simple Argument for the Resurrection

Contrary to popular misconception, Christianity is eminently and easily provable by simple logic and straightforward reference to a few basic, minimal and uncontroversial facts of history and reality.

I call this argument the “Prime Radiant,” after the central equation of psychohistory from Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series, because it’s the centermost tenet from which all else in the system of study radiates, and everything else is a consequence and corollary to this primary truth. If the Prime Radiant is valid, the larger body of thought is thereby generally true, even if all of the extremities don’t hold up equally well. If the Prime Radiant can be falsified, then all else falls with it, regardless of how useful or seemingly true the extremities appear.

And, it also has in common with Asimov’s concept that it is the central organizing principle by which all of human history can be understood.

The Prime Radiant is as follows:

Christianity exists because the disciples publicly proclaimed, “Jesus has risen from the dead and appeared to us.”

And they didn’t claim, “We hope he rose from the dead,” “We feel he rose from the dead,” or “We heard he rose from the dead.” Theirs was a claim to empirical experience (CEE), which is falsifiable, as opposed to a claim to subjective experience, which is not.

And apart from that CEE, there would be no Christianity today of which to speak, because every shred of information we have about Christianity’s origin tells us it came into existence as a consequence of the disciples of Jesus traveling throughout the Roman Empire, building communities around their CEE of having encountered Jesus alive again after his public execution and burial. That thesis and the circumstances resulting from it are corroborated by Roman and Jewish sources, along with the historical evidence within the New Testament itself for an early, formalized creedal statement about the resurrection as a CEE by the apostles.

Further, there is not a single ancient source even dimly suggesting any alternative explanation for Christianity’s origin.

This information, as a historical fact, is as well attested and certain as any fact of history. As such, it is barely even controversial.

In and of itself, it’s not controversial at all among historians and scholars. Controversy only sets in when its inevitable implications come into the discussion.

It absolutely necessarily logically follows that one of these three scenarios must be true of any CEE:        

                    1) The claimant is lying.

                    2) The claimant honestly believes it happened, but is mistaken somehow.

                    3) The claimant is telling the truth about something that actually happened.

Only one of these scenarios can be true, and one of them absolutely must be true. So if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however unlikely, must be true.

These implications apply universally, any time anyone anywhere makes any CEE, no matter how extraordinary or unlikely or seemingly impossible that claim is – be it an experience of miracles, aliens, ghosts, garden gnomes, encounters with Bigfoot or what – one of these implications must unavoidably logically follow.

Regarding the resurrection, there is every possible evidence one could ask for that the original Christians sincerely believed what they claimed. They were not lying.

The more acquainted a person is with the evidence – that is, the more familiar one is with the writings of the apostles and their immediate disciples collected in the New Testament and in the works of the Apostolic Fathers, and the more familiar one is with what Roman writers said about the original and early Christians – the more impossible it is to genuinely think they had anything but the most sincere confidence in the truth of what they proclaimed.

Also, if they were lying, they would have had to have conspired beforehand and come to unanimous agreement, not just about the story they would tell, but about what they wanted to get out of it – about their collective motivations and expectations in carrying out their hoax. When they had every reason to expect that the same fate that befell Jesus would come upon them as well, it is inconceivable that they all agreed on a plan to publicly lie about having encountered him risen from the dead, because there is simply nothing they could have gained by this that couldn’t be much more easily obtained by other, less costly, risky, difficult and painful means.

In the past 2,000 years, no plausible scenario has ever been proposed to explain how the original Christians thought they experienced the risen Jesus, but didn’t.

That’s not to say no scenarios have been proposed, but the more you consider them, the less tenable they become: the Mass Hallucination Hypothesis, the Swoon Theory, the Twin Theory, etc.

For someone well enough acquainted with the evidence to eliminate Scenario i., but still inclined to reject the resurrection, any of these might seem plausible at first glance, but they collapse under scrutiny because they defy everything we know from medical science and from straightforward logic: there’s no such thing as “mass hallucination,” there are too many reasons to list for why the Swoon Theory fails, and the Twin Theory is outright laughable, and of all the different scenarios proposed over the millennia, these three are the best skeptics have been able to come up with.

By process of elimination, Scenario iii emerges as the best explanation, and there is no reason to reject it, other than a philosophical predisposition against the existence of God and the supernatural.

….

To summarize the Prime Radiant:

Christianity exists because the disciples publicly taught, as a claim to objective personal experience (CEE), “Jesus has risen from the dead and appeared to us.”

It necessarily logically follows from any CEE that 1.) the claimant is lying, 2) the claimant is honestly mistaken, or 3) the claimant is telling the truth. One of these must be true, but only one of them can be, so if options can be eliminated, the truth is in whatever remains.

The weight of evidence is that the original Christians believed what they claimed, eliminating the first option.

No plausible scenario has ever been proposed to explain how they could have been mistaken, eliminating the second option.

Other than a philosophical predisposition against the existence of God and the supernatural (i.e., atheistic materialism), there is no evidence by which to eliminate the third option.

Therefore, the resurrection happened and Christianity is true.

Common Objections

Obviously, there are nuances to this far beyond what I’ve addressed here, though.

If you know the evidence, this is a compelling argument, but most people don’t know the evidence (which is why it’s imperative that learning the evidence become standard operating procedure in discipleship and evangelism).

Some will try to argue that the apostles didn’t intend for their claim about the resurrection to be taken literally.

Again, learning the evidence is the best vaccination against that idea, but for efficiency’s sake, it’s worth noting that the very same people who reject Christianity because of the supposed ignorance and primitive thinking of its founders will turn around and attribute “progressive” 20th/21st-century Postmodernist religious thinking to the original Christians when it suits their argument – which is essentially what the “non-literal resurrection” notion would have been. And there’s a lot you have to ignore to try to claim that the apostles weren’t being literal when they taught about the resurrection. The deaths they risked and suffered were pretty literal, because they expected literal resurrections. Also, “resurrection” as a concept was well established within 1st-century Jewish thought, and that concept was a literal, bodily resurrection.

…..

More often, though – particularly since the rise of the New Atheism movement – the difficulty comes from there just not being a lot of knowledge of history or of what’s written in the New Testament, much less in the works of the Apostolic Fathers.

Someone always naively argues that they lied “so they’d have something to believe in,” or because “they needed to validate Jesus’ message.”

As Jews, they didn’t have any religious vacuum that needed filling, and they already had a pretty well-established tradition of martyred prophets within Judaism, so they didn’t need Jesus to be resurrected or to be the Messiah for his message to be validated.

It might have taken some massaging to work a crucified prophet into that tradition, given the shame and stigma attached to crucifixion at the time, but it would have taken far less massaging than their message of a crucified and risen Messiah.

…..

The far-and-away most common objection I’ve encountered is simply, “I don’t find that convincing,” or “That’s not very strong evidence.”

Which is, essentially, a shrug and a “nuh-uh.” It’s not a refutation; it’s a lazy dismissal.

This is typical of the New Atheist “Flying Spaghetti Monster”-paradigm, which insists that the entire burden of evidence is on theists, since we’re making a positive claim.

While I agree that theists – and Christians especially – bear a certain burden of evidence for our claims, the atheist still has his or her own burden to meet. “Atheism” isn’t simply “a lack of belief about God or gods.” In the absence of a theistic belief, atheists are still holding out a positive belief about Ultimate Reality – about How the Universe/Reality Really Is. They’re claiming that the universe is a closed system and that absolutely nothing transcends nature and the material universe, which is in no way known with any certainty or presupposed with any rational justification. It’s a philosophical presumption no different than any other philosophical presumption. Insisting that theirs is the default position is just as faith-based and circularly-reasoned as they accuse Christians of being.

As it pertains to the Prime Radiant, a shrug and a blithe dismissal as “not enough evidence” exposes their bluff: when they say things like, “There’s no evidence for God or Christianity,” and then refuse to engage the points raised through the Prime Radiant, it just shows that they’ve never looked for evidence and don’t actually want any evidence. Their position is essentially, “Don’t bother me with the evidence, my mind is made up that there’s no evidence … I like being an atheist, and I don’t want to lose my justification.”

If they reject the resurrection, I turn it around with, “Well, what do you believe?”

Because if they reject the conclusion of the Prime Radiant – unless they’re being willfully ignorant and intellectually dishonest – they must hold some other belief about where its premises lead.

To that, I let them know that the burden is on them to provide an alternative, evidence-supported explanation for all those churches dotting the land, if they don’t accept the initial premise that the apostles claimed to have encountered Jesus alive again after his public execution.

Whatever attempts are made at overturning this point are usually short-lived, unless they veer off into the upside-down land of conspiracy theories like the Jesus Myth Hypothesis (which is easy enough to refute, but that’s a different discussion, and one that’s already been capably explored elsewhere), so I move on to ask how they meet the burden of arguing for options 1 or 2.

They’ll usually pick one of them, or keep their options for both, so I challenge them to make a case for either – not based on their assumptions, imagination or ignorance, but on the actual evidence.

If you can get them to commit to doing that, then you’ve won – nothing you can say, and no amount of knowledge you produce on your own will compare with what they’ll see on their own as they investigate for themselves what happened 2,000 years ago to give rise to Christianity. The more acquainted they become with the evidence, the more obvious and inescapable it is that Jesus, literally and truly, rose from the dead.

There simply is no other conclusion logically possible from the evidence.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Our Delinquent Messiah (Part II)

By now, the enormous contrast between what we read about the Church in the New Testament and in the early centuries of Christian history and what we see and experience of it in the 21st century should be shockingly conspicuous.

(By the way, if you haven’t read Part I, you might want to do that first, as none of this will be of any use to you otherwise. And, if you haven’t read the two previous entries about Fideism and the false gospel of Doctrinal Correctness, Part I won’t be of much use to you, either.)

Do we think of ourselves as “the Messiah”?

We have a doctrine we affirm with regard to the Church, and we use the expression “the Body of Christ” to refer to it/ourselves, but is that what we actually experience? Is that what we have in mind on Sunday mornings when we carry out this weekly exercise known as “going to church”?

The Church is indistinguishable from and identical to the Messiah if it is functional as the Church, but is it functional today?

And I want to emphasize that “functionality” is the operative concept here – I’m not talking about a perfect Church full of perfect people. I’m only talking about a Church that’s functional according to the New Testament. The churches in Corinth and Ephesus had some serious problems, but they were still true to the purpose for which they were founded, which was to actively train their members toward Christ-likeness – in their participation in the divine nature.

Does anyone think the Church today is doing that?

I don’t know many people who would seriously or honestly argue that it is, but for the rare few who would, there is plenty of statistical evidence accessible through a five-minute Internet search to conclusively demonstrate that, apart from our sheep’s clothing, we don’t actually live any differently than the wolves. We aren’t known for the agape we show one another or the world, nor for living lives any holier or better than our “lost” neighbors.

Subverted Definitions

We have a doctrine we affirm about what the Church is supposed to be, but as we discussed in my two previous entries, our popular definitions of the terms and concepts we find in the Bible leave much to be desired.

Instead of a trust based on the evidence of God’s past faithfulness, our concept of “faith,” as it relates to how we know things (epistemology), more often than not means blind faith.

Instead of a faith that leads to obedience and total investment in God’s promises and purposes, as it relates to how we’re saved (soteriology), “faith” typically amounts to mere doctrinal correctness, which is set in opposition to works, good deeds and action of any kind.

All of this adds up to a so-called “gospel” that tells us to believe for no reason and to do nothing about it in order to be “saved.”

And by “saved,” we typically mean “going to heaven as a disembodied ‘soul’ when we die instead of hell” – an idea we don’t actually find in the Bible. That’s something that crept into Christianity from Gnosticism and Greco-Roman mythology. If we already have the idea that “going to heaven when we die” is what Christianity is all about, there are plenty of passages that seem to reinforce it, if we don’t look too closely. But we would never get that idea from the Bible itself if we didn’t first import it from elsewhere.

When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians so they wouldn’t “grieve like the rest of men who have no hope” over those who had died, he didn’t assure them that their dead were “in a better place now.” No, the hope was resurrection – those who were “asleep” would awaken to life when Christ returns and raises them bodily, as he had been raised. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

It wasn’t about “dying and going to heaven” – it was about heaven coming here to earth. It’s right there in the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your Name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”

That’s what the Church is: the advance force of God’s invasion.

Our job is to transform this world into heaven, and it begins with ourselves individually and collectively as the Church, but continues by transforming society from within – not by taking control of the government and imposing so-called “Christian” laws or by electing “Christian leaders,” but by educating and persuading the world about the rightness of God’s ways and Christ’s teachings, largely by modeling it first in ourselves. The transformation happens from the bottom up, not from the top down.

It isn’t about passively waiting to die so we can go to heaven; it’s about resurrection, and according to Paul (Philippians 3:10-14), resurrection is something to strive for by working out our salvation with fear and trembling through our participation in the divine nature.

In order to participate in the world to come, we have to believe in itnow, which means investing in it. And it’s not a burden to invest in it: if we genuinely believe God raised Jesus from the dead in glory and immortality and promises the same to us, investing in it – investing in him – should be our highest joy… if we genuinely believe that.

So, why is there such an enormous contrast between the original Church and what we experience of it today? Why is it that – despite reading exhortation after exhortation in the New Testament urging us to action, warning us against complacency, instructing us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” and to spare no effort in striving toward the goal to which Christ has called us heavenward…

Why is it that we’re constantly hearing the opposite message from the pulpit?

There was an energy and urgency toward that effort that characterized the original Church, which leaps forcibly off the pages of the New Testament, yet all of our modern systematic theologies and Sunday-morning sermons seem to be geared to blunting and reversing that energy.

Passages like those I just referenced are acknowledged, except never without a “but…” attached. They’re always mentioned with various caveats and qualifiers that collectively say, “Well, sure – if you really, really believe, you’ll respond with good deeds… but you don’t have to. None of that is necessary to salvation. As long as the feelings are sincere, effort is optional.”

The Perennial Question of Fallen Man

So how did we get here?

The answer can be found in human psychology, basic economics and the Protestant Reformation Deformation, along with other instructive periods of history … (And no — before anyone asks in the comments, I’m not Catholic.)

People tend to follow the path of least resistance, and they tend to want the most value for the least cost: if we can get two of something for the price of one, or a bigger house for the price of a smaller one, a full-time salary for the effort of part-time work, etc., we will. That only makes sense and we’d be foolish to do otherwise when the opportunity arises.

It makes plenty of sense when we’re talking about commerce and economics, but it’s a deplorable way to conduct ourselves in interpersonal relationships.

If you love someone, you want to give the best of yourself, and you’ll want the same from them. A man who does the least expected to love and honor his wife – who does no more than snatch a rose from the neighbors’ garden as a token gesture on their anniversary so he can go back to fishing or watching football, satisfied he’s done his duty – isn’t a very good husband, to say the least. A friend who only sees you when they need something or who’s only around when the weather’s fair and nothing better comes up, is no friend at all.

When a “good enough for government work”-mentality characterizes a marriage or friendship, divorce and estrangement are inevitable, because giving the least you can for someone’s loyalty and affection isn’t love or friendship – it’s exploitation.

It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” is a common refrain among churchgoers, yet this mentality is precisely the attitude we bring to our religion:

What’s the least I have to do to placate God – to get Him off my back, so I can get to the stuff I’m really interested in without having to worry about what’s going to happen to me when I die?

That’s the underlying question behind much of our popular approach to religion.

That was the real question the rich young man had in mind when he asked Jesus, “Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16)

He wasn’t really interested in God or in what Jesus really had to offer – he just wanted to be able to enjoy the pleasures of this world afforded him by his wealth, free of concern about the next, which is why he went away grieving when Jesus told him to give all that up.

That was the mentality behind the religious leaders’ question about justification for divorce (Matthew 19:3). They weren’t interested in pursuing God’s original, perfect intention for marriage or His wisdom for Jewish family life – they wanted to know what they could get away with without being disqualified from the favored status they believed they had with God.

That was the mentality at work within the Reformation Deformation-era Catholic Church. Salvation (or the empty promise of it, at least) was literally sold: a certain quantity of money could get you released from purgatory, supposedly, and the price fluctuated according to the Church’s cash-flow needs at any given time, and it had absolutely nothing to do with getting anybody any closer to God.

Of course, it wasn’t packaged in such crass terms. Exploitation rarely is. No, giving “alms” (as they euphemistically called it) was a sign of deep contrition over sin, they said, for which the Church, in its great mercy and generosity toward weak sinners, granted the indulgence of early release from punishment in the afterlife. Packaged in such lofty, pious rhetoric, it sounded perfectly reasonable and appropriate, especially when it came from such trusted exemplars of virtue and godliness as the Roman Catholic priesthood. And it sold, because giving money is a less resistant path than repentance and personal growth.

Maxims of Modern Minimalist McChristianity

Sadly, this pattern hasn’t changed in 500 years, and the religious free market has met the ever-present demand for cut-rate fire insurance.

The Protestant Reformation was about rescuing Christianity from the legalism, empty ritual and priestcraft that characterized the Roman Catholic Church, and Reformed theologians developed what are known as the “Five Solae” as correctives against those abuses:

Sola Fide (Faith Alone)

Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)

Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)

Sola Christus (Christ alone)

Sola Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)

The Five Solae made a lot of sense within the context of the religious battles of 500 years ago. They make less sense now – at least, in the sense that we commonly understand and teach them.

When they’re used to answer that perennial question of fallen man, “What’s the least I have to do to get into heaven?” they become no different and no better than the “salvation-for-sale” extortion racket they were devised to correct.

We’ve already discussed Sola Fide at length, and how it’s been perverted by our erroneous definition of “faith.” We are justified by faith alone, but not by what passes for faith today.

We’ve likewise corrupted Sola Gratia.

We didn’t do anything to earn our salvation, so there’s nothing we can do to add to it” is a common refrain. Our concept of “grace” has it that if anything whatsoever is required on our part, then “it isn’t really grace at all,” but heretical “works-based salvation.”

Of course, this defies common sense, common decency, and the Scriptures.

In the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, it was by grace alone that the king brought in all the wedding guests, but they still had to abide by his terms in being there, lest they be thrown out.

It was by God’s grace alone that the rains came in season to water their crops, enabling them to feed themselves and their livestock (Acts 14:17). It wasn’t dismissed as “not grace at all” because they were required to sow and harvest and tend to their livestock in order to benefit from it. That they had the strength to work in the first place was also considered “by grace alone” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18).

Sola Gratia is true in that it is only by God’s grace that we can be saved. But the New Testament writers clearly didn’t think that because Christ’s work was “by grace alone,” nothing else would be required of them, and they would have been appalled at our reasoning today.

Contrasted against the papacy and the Catholic notion of the pope speaking ex cathedra, the maxim of Sola Scriptura was a necessary corrective, declaring that it is the Scriptures, rather than the Roman Catholic Church, where divine authority and instruction reside.

It’s ironic, then, that if you ask your typical American evangelical Protestant why it is that they accept the Bible as authoritative, rather than the pope or the Qur’an or the Bhagavad-Gita or the Sutras, he is very likely to tell you that it’s because it’s what he’s been told in church all his life (see the previous entry on Fideism for a more comprehensive discussion of this, though)…

But, the notion of Sola Scriptura (at least, as it’s commonly understood today) represents a false dichotomy.

There is no material difference between Church and Scripture – the New Testament is canonical precisely because its constituent writings were produced by and represent the thoughts, teachings and example of the original Church.

Much of the New Testament was written by the apostle Paul, but even as he gave us some of its most important components in the form of his letters, those writings were only a consolation in lieu of a personal visit. He thought being there in person would have been of more value than sending a letter, but since circumstances prevented that, he offered the next best thing (Romans 1:8-15 and 1 Thessalonians 2:17-19).

Contrary to what many within the Church today suppose, Paul was not a means to an end – the “end” being the production of holy writ. It’s the other way around: the holy writ is a means to get us nearer to the person of Paul, who is himself an avenue to getting us closer to the One who handpicked Paul as his personal representative.

The point is that the Scriptures must be embodied in us, because they represent the ideas and example embodied in the writers, in order to be of value. Otherwise, they’re just ink on paper – of no more significance or importance than a phonebook.

The dichotomy set up by Sola Scriptura is the equivalent of comparing the importance of blueprints against the building itself. Obviously, the blueprints are only important insofar as they’re used to construct and maintain the building, and without the building, blueprints only offer the idea of a building, with none of the shelter and function of an actual structure.

Likewise, separating Scripture from Church gives us only an abstract concept of Christianity, with no concrete reality.

Which brings us to the next Sola

Considering the sacerdotalism of 16th-century Roman Catholicism – the idea of a class of professional Christians known as “priests” who intervene with God on behalf of the larger body of believers, with the so-called “Vicar (substitute) of Christ” (the pope) as their head – it needed to be reasserted that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and man, hence the maxim of Sola Christus.

Yet, it should be glaringly obvious by now that there remains a great deal still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his Body, the Church, and that Sola Christus is a tragic error if it’s taken to divorce the Church and the individual believer from the work of Christ in the world.

And, in fact, it has. Christ is the only mediator, but as the Church, we are Christ. If we don’t mediate between God and the world, it will not be done.

Lastly, after centuries of appropriating pagan deities and rebranding them as “saints” as a marketing tactic (read about the origins of Santa Claus, for example, if you don’t know what I’m talking about), the Roman Catholic Church bore more resemblance to the polytheistic religions of ancient Rome than to the Church founded by the apostles, so Sola Deo Gloria was a necessary corrective to restore essential monotheism – to bring the focus back to God and His glory.

Yet, the Reformers Deformers might have overcorrected – or we overcorrected in our understanding of Sola Deo Gloria – and ignored one of the central promises of God.

The word “glory” (Greek doxa) shows up 125 times in the New Testament. Most often, as expected, it refers to the glory of God and of Christ. But in more than one-in-five instances, it refers to the “glory” that will come to us, Christ’s followers – his brothers and sisters who, as heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, will share in his glory.

We’ve largely ignored that promise, though, and in so doing, we’ve neglected a central, essential aspect of God’s promise of salvation and His plan for the Church, “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

In summary, our popular understanding of the Five Solae excludes much of what constitutes biblical ecclesiology, because it’s our common tendency to interpret everything through the filter of what I’ve called “the perennial question of fallen man.”

By identifying five elements and drawing a box around them, saying, “This and only this,” and declaring anything more as heretical, and then defining each element in the most restrictive, reductive manner possible, we’ve created a minimalist, fast-food version of Christianity – one shaped by market forces to demand as little as possible from the religious consumer.

In our popular understanding, Sola Fide and Sola Gratia mean all we have to do is believe and God does the rest. What we believe is determined – and with no rational justification whatsoever – by Sola Scriptura, and Sola Christus and Sola Deo Gloria mean we take no part, take no credit, and therefore, take no responsibility.

In other words, we relegate human beings to mere passive objects in God’s supposed plan of salvation.

Gepetto, or the Blue Fairy?

And this doesn’t present a particularly glorifying depiction of God.

As passive objects, we’re just puppets controlled by strings. Except, the God we see in the Bible isn’t like Gepetto at all. God creates life – not a crude facsimile of it. He created humans in His own image, to be active agents of history and of His plan.

The pattern we see in Scripture is that God never acts in history without doing so through human agency.

He created Adam to participate with Him in the work of creation, in a fashion, by naming the animals, and by filling the earth and subduing it.

It was certainly within God’s power to preserve animal life through the flood, yet He delegated that role to Noah.

It was within His power to reintroduce monotheism among the nations – He could have done it by way of angels, through signs, through a loud, booming voice from the sky. Yet, He anointed Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be the bearers of that message.

Likewise, He could have simply appeared outside of Egypt as a pillar of fire and announced the exodus of the Israelites directly and prevented Pharaoh from interfering. But He sent Moses to act on His behalf. Then Joshua, the Judges, the Kings, the Prophets, and finally, when His plan called for work impossible for any fallen mortal, He actually became a human being Himself, and then put His Nature into people to act on His behalf, giving us power on Earth and in Heaven.

Man severed the relationship with God. Unless God compromises His justice and becomes less than holy, it must therefore be man who restores the relationship and repairs the damage. Man corrupted the earth; it must be man who renews and restores it. And if we don’t do it, it won’t be done.

Of course, this runs directly contrary to accepted orthodoxy, which teaches that God does it all, and we do nothing, because we’re helpless – too sinful and fallen and corrupt for our works to amount to anything.

Yes, Paul said as much – because of the sin living in us, the good we want to do we cannot do, but the evil we don’t want to do we keep on doing.

Clearly, though, that’s not all he said. No one should ever read – and especially shouldn’t quote – Romans 7 without also including Romans 8: “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man,” he continued.

“You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you… And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of His Spirit who lives in you,” Paul also said.

Prior to salvation, we are helpless. We’re nothing but puppets moved by the strings of animal instinct and appetite.

After salvation, we’re sons and daughters of God – we are immortal, all-powerful, bearing the very Nature of God within us, which means we’re to do the things God Himself would do in our place, loving what He loves, hating what He hates,

That means we are the Messiah.

Rehabilitating Our Delinquent Messiah

Of course, all of this sounds impossible. But if we’re only doing what’s possible, aren’t we just faking our faith? If you’re not attempting the impossible, you don’t really have faith in the all-powerful, living God who raises the dead.

It was such faith that prompted Jesus to tell Peter, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.”

Gates, of course, were common features of walled cities back then. The illustration was of hell as a fortress, and the church breaking down its gates to conquer the city within.

In other words, we are meant to wage an aggressive war against the forces of darkness in this world.

That’s supposed to be the Church’s role: we exist to oppose the evil in the world and undo its damage.

We see a lot of that damage in the various social ills besetting our civilization, but the real problems are from human nature – not knowing right from wrong and not having the moral character to apply that knowledge in the first place.

“My people perish from lack of knowledge,” said the prophet (Hosea 4:6).

And as we look to our own country, leftists typically blame social evils like crime on external factors like poverty, and then blame poverty on rich people, thinking the answer is for the government to confiscate and redistribute wealth.

There are myriad erroneous assumptions about economics and about the proper role of government behind that mentality, but what concerns us is here is the erroneous assumption about human nature – that it’s basically good, and if we just had the right people in charge, the right system in place, and the right laws and government programs in effect, all would be well.

In reality, though, our increasing poverty, and all of the resultant social ills that come with it, come from increasing sin – sexual sin in particular.

An unpopular but glaringly obvious fact is that there is a clear link between out-of-wedlock births and poverty, and where the former increases, so does the latter.

And, out-of-wedlock births are on the rise, and will soon be the majority of births in many places in the western world. And that means poverty is on the rise and our way of life is going to decline… unless we do something about it.

And it falls to the Church to do that something, because no amount of government intervention can (or should) change people’s sexual behavior.

The Church’s role is not just to teach Christian sexual morality, though. It’s already doing that, and it’s not working, even (especially, actually) among self-identified Christians.

No, its role is to give people the New Life that enables them to live by that morality.

The symptoms of poverty have to be treated now, but ultimately, government handouts won’t help, nor, even, will Christian charitable efforts. What people need is to “escape the corruption of the world” caused by theirs and others’ appetites by participating in the divine nature.

Similarly, gun control laws will not stop or even curb violence and school shootings – at least, not without paying for it in other forms of violence. A transformation of human nature will.

Every single social problem we have can be traced back to our fallen nature and the Church’s failure to address it, and these problems threaten to overwhelm us.

If the Church were functional, though, not only could we save ourselves from the corruption threatening to overtake us, but we – the community of believers within the richest, most prosperous and powerful nation the world has ever seen – could pool our considerable resources and completely eliminate poverty in this country and beyond.

The engine for all of that is discipleship – mentoring people in their participation in the divine nature.

But discipleship – in the true, New Testament sense – requires absolute, unreserved commitment. And it’s a tough sell – impossible, really—getting people to make that level of commitment. At least, it’s impossible without some compelling, powerful reason.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a compelling, powerful reason, except … the Church doesn’t actually teach people why it’s true. They’re asked to suspend disbelief about it as a token of admission into church membership, in order to get their social needs met, and then told that as long as they’ve rendered that token, nothing else will ever be required of them to be “saved.”

Instead of “salvation by grace through faith, not by the works of the law,” so-called “faith” is reduced to just another kind of law – a law of doctrinal orthodoxy.

So, we don’t grow into Christ-likeness. We don’t know how. There are untold treasures of knowledge left to us by those who have gone before – Anthony the Great, the Desert Fathers, John of the Cross and countless other teachers in the ways of kenosis and theosis and of arête and agape. But, American evangelicals tend to dismiss this priceless body of knowledge as nothing but pre-Reformation Deformation “works’-based heresy,” because we don’t even understand why we need it, because we’re content to merely play “Christian,” complacent in our supposed doctrinal orthodoxy as long as we’re getting our social needs met at church. Our minds are set, not on the things of God, but on the things of man, because our god is our stomach and our attentions are on earthly things.

…..

Unless… we’re not content.

And, in fact, I don’t think we are, and that’s why people are leaving the Church in droves, many of whom are, unfortunately, turning aside to New Atheism with a vengeance.

For those who are still going to church, but feel the same sickening sense I felt for so many long years that Something Is Terribly Wrong, something is off, something just doesn’t smell right – pay close attention the next time you go to church.

Listen to the sermon and ask yourself, “Is this really the word of God? Is this conducive to the true purpose of the Church? Is this pertinent to the things of God, or merely the things of man? Is this to help me participate in the divine nature, or just my appetites?”

Ask yourself, and pray about it.

If you don’t like the answer, what will you do about it?

Will you keep living a lie?

Or will you risk not getting your social needs met by leaving the broad path for the narrow?

Will you try to “save your life” and thereby lose it? Or will you lose your life for his sake, and thereby find it?

If enough of us decide we’re finished tolerating a dead church, a phony Christianity and a false messiah – if we decide we won’t play “Christian” anymore – we can turn it all around. We have that power within us.

I know that Christ longs for his Bride to turn back to him – he’s pining for us to be faithful to him, so that we can be “one flesh,” one Body again.

What’s more, consider how in the 1st century, the vast network of Roman roads and the travel protections afforded by the Roman military provided the perfect circumstances for the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the western world. Now, consider what we could accomplish today, through the World Wide Web, if we turn back to him.

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

If we turn back to him, we can remake the world. We can have God’s Kingdom on Earth, within our lifetimes.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Our Delinquent Messiah (Part I)

When you think of the word “messiah,” what comes to mind?

Most people have a basic sense of the concept. Our culture provides plenty of examples, since messiahs are among the most oft-used character types in all of fiction, so there’s no shortage of literature and movies about them: “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter,” “Avatar,” “Terminator,” almost any given Keanu Reeves movie, and countless others most of us could name off the top of our head.

A messiah is someone chosen, guided, anointed by a higher power to lead, to save, to be an agent of transformation and renewal, an avenger of evil and redeemer from oppression, the “Hero With a Thousand Faces” – the original superhero, actually – and a liminal figure to usher in a new age. He’s foretold in prophecy and destined to embody some legendary archetype. His own are apt to reject him, though the world itself hangs in the balance, desperate for him to rise to his preordained role.

But let’s put a pin in that for a minute and come back to it later.

*****

Switching gears for a moment, what comes to mind when you think of the word “church”?

If you’re like many you probably think of a building of some kind: a chapel or a cathedral or a modern, stadium-sized megachurch replete with a coffee shop and a bookstore. A one-stop shop for weddings, funerals, baby dedications, seasonal holiday observances – a piece of cultural furniture for believers and nonbelievers alike.

You might also think of early-morning rock concerts, or little old ladies singing hymns off-key. Restless kids fidgeting in pews. And sermons – some inspiring, some insipid, few with much lasting impact.

You might also think of schisms, sex scandals, swindling televangelists, celebrity preachers exposed and disgraced for some hypocrisy or another, and fanatical cultists foaming at the mouth as they picket military funerals or pass around the cyanide-laden Kool-Aid.

The word “church” likely conjures up a wide range of connotations, some good, some bad, but mostly in the middle, I suspect, because decades of repeating the weekly Sunday-morning routine have reduced the word to a synonym for the banal and the mundane, at least for many.

But what if I told you that all of those connotations we attach to the word “messiah” should apply just as much to the word “church”?

‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High’

The Church, we are told, is the “Body of Christ” – God’s temple, His presence on Earth.

According to the Bible, God is present in the world through the Messiah, and the Messiah is present in the world through his Church.

“Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there am I with them,” Jesus said (Matthew 18:20).

Paul understood the Church, the gathering of Jesus’ followers on Earth, to be Christ’s hands and feet – the vessel through whom he continues the work he began 2,000 years ago, exercising gifts and powers bestowed through the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:1-16).

In fact, Jesus – the One who walked on water, gave sight to the blind, and raised the dead back to life – told his disciples they would do greater things, even, than he did (John 14:12-14).

And we can see how the Church lived up to its messianic role in the early days of Christian history:

“And now the Lord says – He who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to Him and gather Israel to Himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength – He says: ‘It is too small a thing for you to be My servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that My salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’”

This is an oracle by the prophet Isaiah (49:5-6) about the promised Anointed One: that the God of Jacob would, through the Messiah, become also the God of the Gentiles – the non-Jewish nations of the world, bringing salvation to the far-flung corners of the earth.

And now, in fact, “monotheism” is generally synonymous worldwide with worship of the God of Israel, precisely because Christianity – within a single generation – grew from a small sect from a backwater province of the Roman Empire into a major world religion, and is today the largest religion in the world.

Yet, Jesus never personally stepped foot outside of Israel during his earthly ministry. It was a prophecy about the Messiah, and the Messiah fulfilled it because the Church, as “the Body of Christ,” is in essence identical to Christ himself.

In short, we are the Messiah.

And that’s the entire point of the Christian plan of salvation:

“Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness – the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:24-27)

Being a “Christian” doesn’t just mean we believe in Christ or follow Christ – it means, in a very real sense, we become Christ. We mature into his likeness, because the Divine Life that was in him now animates and motivates and grows within us.

As the apostle Peter wrote:

“His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence (Greek arête). Through these He has given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them, you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption of the world caused by appetite (Greek epithumia).” (2 Peter 1:3-4)

That, in a nutshell, is What Salvation Is: our participation in the very Nature of God. Throughout the New Testament (as well as the Old, albeit less explicitly), we read about God’s own Nature descending to dwell within the believer in the Person of the Holy Spirit, remaking him or her from within, and it is this indwelling and regeneration by the Spirit of God that constitutes “salvation.”

This was accomplished, we read, by the Second Person of the Godhead becoming incarnate as a human mortal in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, so that he could die for the sins of all humanity. Having made atonement, God raised him to life again. After appearing to his disciples over a period of 40 days to instruct and prepare them to continue his work, he ascended back to God, resuming his place within the Godhead “at the right hand of the Father.”

Paul understood the significance of the ascension to mean that, through the person of Jesus, the human race itself was now represented within the Godhead – man now dwells within God:

“And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:6-7)

It is because our sins no longer separate us from God that humanity is now represented within the Godhead and, in turn, a Member of the Godhead has also descended to dwell within humanity, and it is the Holy Spirit’s dwelling within us that renews us, transforming us from fallen, bestial creatures into the sons and daughters of God Himself.

By being “born again,” we actually participate in the Trinity as adopted members of the Godhead. As Ireneaus of Lyons and Athanasius of Alexandria after him wrote: “The Word became Man that men might become gods.”

We are not “gods” in the sense that we are worshiped or become infinite, eternal spirits ruling over our own universes one day (as the Mormons heretically teach) – we’re “gods” in the sense meant by Jesus when he quoted the Psalms, which referred to those to whom the revelation was given as “gods.” (John 10:34-36; Psalm 82:6)

That’s how God saves the world: not by sending a Messiah, but by sending a multitude of messiahs. Jesus is Messiah Prime, and we are proxy messiahs individually, but collectively are indistinguishable from and identical to Christ himself – he is the Head and we are the Body.

As Paul summarized:

“For in Christ all the fullness of the Godhead lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off in the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:10-12)

Messiahs In Training

We read also in the New Testament that merely receiving the New Nature isn’t the finish line. That’s just the starting pistol.

What we receive is the Christ-Nature in seed form (1 Peter 1:23; Luke 8:4-8; 11-15). It falls to us to cultivate it, and there is an ongoing process to doing so.

After Peter spoke of our “participation in the divine nature,” he went on to exhort Christians, “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith excellence/virtue (Greek arête); and to arête, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection (Greek philadelphia, “brotherly love”); and to philadelphia, love (Greek agape). For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:6-8, which should be considered alongside John 15:1-10)

Faith is the sole condition of all of God’s promises: trusting His promises is the requisite of claiming them, and it’s through His promises that we “participate in the divine nature,” which consists of “making every effort” to add to our faith all the qualities consistent with His nature, the ultimate of which is the quality rendered in Greek as agape, which is the definitive characteristic by which disciples of Jesus Christ are distinguished (John 13:35).

Agape is typically translated into English simply as “love,” which is unfortunate because we tend to oversimplify it to the point of being misleading when we take it as just “love” and look no further.

“Love” can mean a wide range of things in English: “I love hot dogs!” “I love God!” “I love The Who!” “I love ‘The Walking Dead’!” It’s the same word there, but it means different things in different contexts, which leaves it wide open to a range of different and contradictory interpretations when it comes to its definition as the ultimate goal of Christian spirituality.

In Greek, there are four words we typically translate as “love,” and knowing what they are makes a tremendous difference in what various passages of Scripture actually mean. Eros, of course, being sexual and romantic love; Storge is familial love; Philos is affection, as between friends; while Agape, in the sense often used in Scripture to describe the love between God and His people, is the ultimate and highest form of love.

It’s the word used in John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world…” – and elsewhere in the New Testament and the Septuagint where God’s love for humanity is in view. It’s different from the other loves in that it isn’t based on the object of love – on what he or she or it can do for the one bearing the love. It isn’t like eros and storge, which are loves experienced and expressed by animals and humans alike, which spring from natural instincts and appetites and psychosocial need. Rather, it’s based on the nature of the one bearing the love.

In other words, God doesn’t agapeo us because we’re so lovable and we fill a hole in His life or because He is biologically-programmed to affection toward us; God loves us because He is love – it’s a love that emanates from His own Nature rather than a love that responds to ours.

In John 21:15-19 – the passage that records Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter after his three denials on the night of his arrest – we miss the real conversation when we read only the English translation. As we read it, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, Peter answers in the affirmative three times, but for some reason, Peter is especially hurt by Jesus’ third inquiry, and that’s that.

In the original Greek, referencing Peter’s earlier insistence that he, and he alone, loved Jesus more than all the other disciples (John 13:36-38; Matthew 26:33; Luke 22:33), Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you truly agapeo me more than these?”

“Yes Lord, you know that I phileo you,” Peter answers, downgrading his previous declaration of absolute devotion to mere affection.

Jesus repeats the question. Peter repeats the answer.

Then Jesus asks him, “Simon, do you phileo me?” – questioning even his affection, hence Peter’s emotional injury.

This is important because Peter himself later distinguishes between the two in his epistle, where he lists philadelphia as a lesser quality on the way to agape. Philadelphia isn’t uniquely Christian, nor are the other loves of eros and storge – street gangs, fraternities, wolves, howler monkeys, fans of the same football team, and innumerable other subcultures and animal species all display eros, storge and philos, simply as a matter of being alive and needing others of their kind to survive and thrive. There isn’t anything necessarily spiritual or transcendent about those loves. They’re merely the product of glands, stomachs and loneliness, not enlightenment or spiritual quickening.

Agape requires a new nature, though, which entails an ongoing process of transformation into Christ-likeness, which is why there are several other passages in the New Testament with similar exhortations calling us to strive, to work (Philippians 2:12), to spare no effort, lest we “believe in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:2), because that transformation into the divine nature isn’t just important to salvation – it is salvation.

We are initiated into the process through faith, and our maturation continues from that starting point by making every effort to add to our faith other qualities consistent with the divine nature, beginning with arête, which was a quality attributed to God Himself (2 Peter 1:3), as well as a broadly-nuanced concept in Greek culture: the word means “excellence” and “moral virtue” and it was the ultimate goal of a classic Greek education and a recurring preoccupation within Greek philosophy.

As Christians, in our effort to cultivate the divine nature within ourselves, we are to spare no effort in the pursuit of arête, along with all of the other qualities mentioned, which lead toward the attainment of agape, which ultimately culminates in our resurrection from the dead when Jesus returns.

And this is the gist of much of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

The famous “love” passage is chapter 13, which follows chapter 11, where he began by speaking about “the Body of Christ” in a different, albeit related sense by instructing them about the Lord’s Supper, which led into instruction about the proper use of spiritual gifts within the Church (chapter 12), all of which culminated in Paul showing them the “still more excellent way” of agape, because that was the purpose of everything that came before. Having put everything into perspective, he offers some final instructions about speaking in tongues and engaging in orderly worship before instructing them about the ultimate goal of it all: resurrection from the dead.

“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain,” he concluded (1 Corinthians 15:58).

As he wrote elsewhere:

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the         resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:10-14)

All of this, of course, is a difficult, demanding process, and it’s nothing anyone can undertake alone.

This is why the Church exists.

In fact, if it’s not facilitating this process by initiating and mentoring people in that personal transformation into Christ-likeness, there is no reason for the Church to exist.

Consider the following from Paul:

“The gifts (Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:11-16)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The False Gospel of the American Church

I don’t think most churchgoers actually know what the gospel is.

At the risk of sounding like an uppity, presumptuous layman blinded by the Dunning-Kruger effect (yes – I know how this looks), I’m pretty well convinced that the majority of preachers don’t actually know what it is, either.

And, of course, not knowing what the gospel is constitutes a major problem for American Christians and anyone we influence, hence my urgent contention that we have collectively strayed into apostasy.

The Mystery Kept Hidden

Of course, there’s no shortage of people who know the right words to say – everyone can quote the gospel, as Paul presented it in 1 Corinthians 15, in terms of Christ’s death and resurrection, and we insist that the saved and the unsaved are plainly identifiable as those who either affirm or deny those terms.

But that clearly wasn’t the gospel preached by Jesus himself at a time when he actively concealed his identity as the Christ (Luke 9:18-21), nor was it the gospel preached by his disciples (Luke 9:1-6), who couldn’t bring themselves to accept that he was going to die, much less announce it in a preaching tour (Luke 9:44-45).

And, we are told by the writer of Hebrews regarding the Israelites led by Moses: “We also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did.” (4:1, 2)

Yet, the particulars Paul laid out as “the gospel” were a “mystery kept hidden for ages and generations,” not revealed until the 1st century (Colossians 1:25-27; Ephesians 3:9; Romans 16:25-27). Prior to that time of revelation and fulfillment, they were mysteries the prophets themselves struggled to apprehend and into which “even angels longed to look” (1 Peter 1:10-12).

According to Paul and Peter, only God Himself knew about Christ’s death and resurrection and its implications and effects – neither the prophets and patriarchs, nor the angels and demons knew about it, until it actually happened.

Yet, we are told that “the gospel” was preached by Jesus and his disciples for years prior, and it was known also to Moses and the Israelites and, presumably, innumerable others who lived and died in the millennia leading up to the year 30 A.D.

Personally, I’ve rarely seen this apparent contradiction addressed from the pulpit, and when I have, I can’t remember a satisfactory explanation – one that didn’t introduce still greater contradictions and needless complications and hermeneutical gymnastics.

Typically, one of two preposterous scenarios are proposed to account for this: 1) Ancient people, going back to Adam and Eve, actually did believe and worship on much the same terms as modern evangelicals, but were somehow led astray by “legalism” in the time prior to Jesus – contrary to the plain teachings of the New Testament; or 2) the ancient Israelites were somehow saved to eternal life through some provision of the Law of Moses – those sacrifices of bulls and goats actually did save them, also contrary to the plain teachings of the New Testament.

And I don’t base my conviction that the American church has missed the gospel solely on its failure to address this apparent dilemma. I think this is only symptomatic of the fact that the church is working from the wrong paradigm of what the gospel actually is.

The dilemma resolves itself, however, when we read it within the right paradigm of what the gospel actually is:

Christ’s death and resurrection are the how of the gospel.

They’re not the what of it.

His death and resurrection are how the gospel was accomplished, but are not, in themselves, the gospel.

No, the what of the gospel is salvation by grace through faith.

Of course, that’s no big shock to anyone, and it might be a bit of a let-down after my big, audacious opening, because everyone already knows that.

The confusion comes when we start defining each of the operative terms in that phrase — we attach baggage to those terms never intended by the original biblical writers.

As I expound on that, though, consider replacing that exact phrasing with this baggage-free paraphrase: “Salvation by love, through persuasion, not coercion.”

Good News for Serial Killers, Bad News for Gandhi

As previously discussed, our definition of “faith” is often set in contrast to reason with regard to our epistemology, resulting in the self-lobotomizing error of Fideism, which masquerades as belief in Christ, all the while inoculating people against it.

Where our popular soteriology (our study of how we’re saved) is concerned, “faith” is typically set in opposition to works: in contrast to the notion of being justified by what we do, this concept of salvation says we’re justified by what we believe.

According to this understanding of the gospel, “faith” is defined as Doctrinal Correctness: if you believe X, Y and Z about God and Jesus, you’re “saved,” which is defined as “going to heaven when you die instead of hell.” You might get bonus points if you do good works, but God’s grace (as this “gospel” defines it) is such that you can safely live as you please and sin with impunity and presume upon His forgiveness, so long as you believe correctly. You might even live your entire life on earth as a serial murderer and child rapist, ignoring all appeals from your conscience and laughing from afar at the things of God, but then affirm the correct doctrines in the moments before your execution by “accepting Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior” and, according to this “gospel,” you’ll be assured a trouble-free afterlife, spared God’s punishment for all the evil you committed on earth.

On the other hand, if you never affirm X, Y and Z, it doesn’t matter how much good you do or what circumstances prevented you signing off on the required doctrinal checklist – you are going to hell, and no amount of good deeds or honorable character qualities will save you.

This is “the gospel” we celebrate and proclaim as the glorious expression of God’s grace and love for humanity.

Everyone doesn’t necessarily preach it precisely on those exact terms, and some offer various caveats, conditions and qualifiers to mitigate the galling vapidity of it all, and some might offer different values for what the X, Y and Z of minimal doctrinal affirmation are, but that’s the essence of “Christianity” as it is popularly understood, particularly among evangelicals: what you do doesn’t matter, only what you believe.

And this is why we have a church culture that admits actual debate over whether someone has to “accept Jesus as Lord” in order to be saved, or if it’s enough to just “accept Jesus as Savior” (take a minute and google “lordship debate” if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

The Killing Letter

Now, it’s true that Paul often set faith in contrast to works in his choice of wording, which has been used to support the phony “gospel” under discussion, as well as to suggest a contradiction between Paul and James’ respective teachings (“Just faith? Or faith and works?” –James 2:14-26).

Context is everything, though, and when we pay attention to it, there is no contradiction. When Paul spoke of “works,” clearly he just meant it as shorthand for “works of the law.” (See Ephesians 2, Romans 3 and Galatians 3, among a slew of other passages.)

And that makes a world of difference for our definition of “faith.”

“The law,” of course, refers to the Law of Moses – the requirements of the covenant God made with Israel. The Law of Moses was their national constitution: the basis for Israel’s government, with God Himself at its head.

A law, when you get right down to it, is nothing more than a threat to kill those who are subject to it for non-compliance.

Now, I tend to get a lot of resistance when I point this out to people. I find that many people, even conservative-leaning Christians, tend to have a relatively favorable view of government (not necessarily individual office holders, but “government” as a concept), and many even take it for granted that government programs are the answer to most problems in the world. When you see the government as a benevolent caretaker, the idea that everything about it revolves around its potential to kill can be grating to your sensibilities (especially when the people with the most favorable view of government also tend, ironically, to be most opposed to the death penalty).

But, everything in the New Testament – the entire Bible, actually (along with the study of civics, history, law, government, etc.) – hinges on this point, so it’s worth taking the time to drive home, even at the risk of belaboring what might, to some, be an obvious point in an already lengthy discourse.

The underlying principle all governments have in common in whatever form they take – the defining quality that makes it a “government,” be it a Bronze Age theocracy, an imperial autocracy, a liberal democracy or anything in-between – is violence, or the threat thereof, and nothing else.

Yes, governments generally do more than just execute people: they provide various services and infrastructure and administer less severe punishments, and they offer incentives for behaviors desired but not compulsory, like getting married or “going green.” But, none of those sticks and carrots would be possible without first establishing their monopoly on force – on violence. They have to levy taxes to be able to do all that (since governments produce nothing by themselves), and we don’t pay taxes because we want to – we do it because they’ve got all those people with guns. That’s why we pull over when the flashing lights appear in our rear-view mirror, and that’s why we obey court summons and pay fines or submit to detainment – because we know those people with guns will come after us if we don’t. No, they won’t shoot us on the spot if we don’t immediately comply (hopefully), but if we resist and keep resisting, the situation will escalate and our death is the inevitable result if we don’t comply at some point.

Government is the sword, and nothing else. Take the sword away and everything else we call “government” goes, too.

That’s why the apostle Paul said “the letter (of the law) kills” and called the Covenant of Moses “the ministry of death” (2 Corinthians 3:6-7).

And he wasn’t saying any of that as if it’s a bad thing – Paul was a fan of the law. He just understood what it is and what its limitations are.

Law isn’t bad, people are. That’s why we need laws. If it were something people could be counted on to do on our own, there’d be no need to threaten us into compliance: the fact that we need to be told, under pain of death, to obey things like “Don’t murder” and “Don’t steal” is a pretty good indication of our fallen nature.

And in the case of Israel’s national religious life, faithful worship of the God of Abraham wasn’t something they could be counted upon to do on their own. In order to create the society and culture within which the Messiah could emerge, within which his work and teachings could be understood, observance of God’s requirements had to be compulsory.

But, according to the Law and the Prophets themselves (Jeremiah 31:31-34), that was never intended to be the final state of affairs.

Because what good is compulsory worship? It means nothing to God if it doesn’t mean everything to us.

If it’s just because there’s a carrot in it for you if you do it and a stick at your back if you don’t, it’s not really worship. Genuine worship doesn’t need to be enticed or coerced. To know and trust God is to know He is worthy of worship and adoration, and rendering it is its own reward.

Likewise, obeying all of the other applicable aspects of the law is also its own reward, because those laws are a reflection of His character and values. If you have faith (in the genuine, biblical sense), you don’t do it because you’re afraid God will get you if you don’t. You do it because you love and trust Him and want to see His will done on earth as it is in heaven – you know He doesn’t give commandments just to ruin our good time or make life more difficult, but to benefit us and make our lives as fulfilling and dignified as possible.

And, in fact, genuine faith means doing it even when – especially when the situation is reversed: when the reward for faithfulness is a cross.

So, “salvation by grace through faith, not by the works of the law” doesn’t exclude works. There have to be works. The only question is why you’re performing them.

There’s obedience under law, which justifies and saves no one, and then there’s what Paul called “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5 and 16:26), which does.

The two resemble each other outwardly, because they both entail works, so it’s easy to mistake one for the other if you only look at the surface, but the differences between them are as great as the differences between marriage and prostitution.

The two resemble each other because they include the same acts, but one is the perversion and counterfeit of the other. The acts are done for their own sake within marriage, as an expression of mutual love. The wedding night isn’t a payment rendered in exchange for the courtship, it’s the consummation of the courtship. In prostitution, the rewards offered are unrelated to the act itself and the two parties are only exploiting each other for personal gratification, and treating something sacred as a mere commodity. So, we rightly condemn it as a perversion and mockery of everything beautiful and good about marriage.

The Life-Giving Word

Salvation by grace through faith – the eternal gospel – has always been implied, and there have always been people who have understood it.

That man is accountable to God for our wickedness, and that God is good and loves man and has the power and wisdom to provide a way to eternal life, despite our corruption has always been knowable to mankind, even though the specifics were not.

It was implied in the Old Testament writings, but it is also written into creation itself, we are told (Psalm 19; Romans 1:18-20; Romans 10:18), and in the human conscience (Romans 2:14-15).

Those who heed the message of creation and conscience, Paul said, can seek God and find Him, because He is not far from anyone (Acts 17:23-28).

Unfortunately, we are too often led astray by our own corruption and by the lies we tell each other, so the message goes unheeded, if we find it at all.

That’s why God had to reveal Himself in history by setting one nation apart from the rest and putting them under the supervision of His law – so that what could be inferred from creation, and what was implied in the Old Testament, would eventually be made explicit and clear through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Before, people always had reason to put their faith in God and to trust in His grace, and from that, to believe death wouldn’t have the final word over life – that God would, somehow, make a way.

The patriarchs and the people of Israel and Judah had even more reason to put their faith in Him, because of the way He intervened and revealed Himself to them through their prophets.

But now, because Christ’s death and resurrection are a matter of historical fact, the entire world has a much stronger basis by which to put our faith in Him.

“Through (Christ) you trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God,” wrote Peter (1 Peter 1:21).

“For God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice through the man he has appointed; he has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead,” said Paul (Acts 17:31).

To reiterate my point from my last entry (because it can’t be overstated): that’s why apologetics is so all-important. Faith is a gift from God, provided through the historical fact of the resurrection. But it provides no faith if it isn’t made known (Romans 10:14-15), and the terms by which we present it make a world of difference.

According to previously referenced passages of Scripture, people don’t necessarily need to know about Christ’s death and resurrection in order to have faith and be saved, but they’re in an infinitely better position to respond in faith if they do know about it.

Mother of Prostitutes

By now, there are likely howls of outrage over my last statement.

“People don’t have to know about Jesus’ death and resurrection to be saved?! That’s heresy!”

No, they don’t, and no it’s not.

Unless we’re to believe everyone who lived and died prior to the year 30 A.D. was automatically doomed, they didn’t have to. There was no portion in the Law of Moses that even mentioned a provision for eternal life (it was about earthly rewards and punishments), and Paul made it clear that people have always been saved by grace through faith, long before anyone could have known about Christ’s death and resurrection.

We’re in an infinitely better position to have faith than they were because we do know about his death and resurrection, but “faith” isn’t the same as knowing about his death and resurrection. Faith is a response to the evidence of God’s grace, and Christ’s death and resurrection are the greatest demonstration of His grace, but they are not the only demonstration.

But we’re so wrapped up in this idea that “faith” amounts to “doctrinal orthodoxy” that not only do we miss a lot of these obvious implications in Scripture, but we’re openly hostile to them.

That’s because we’ve turned “faith” into just another law by which to justify ourselves; instead of a law of works and ritual like the Jewish law, ours is a law of doctrine: “If you meet the minimal requirements of believing X, Y and Z about God and Jesus, you’ll be given eternal life in exchange.”

And skeptics rightly object to the idea that God would care so much about what people believe over what they actually do. They recognize the quality of prostitution in that idea: an exchange of benefits with no relation to each other, with something sacred exchanged as a commodity.

Now, it’s true that Jesus often used the language of reward and punishment, but that was typically directed to people who thought they were justified under the law. More often, though, he spoke in terms of wise and foolish investment: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it,” he said (Matthew 13:44-46).

“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29)

And there is no more clear expression of faith than investment. In fact, that’s the only real expression there is for faith: regardless of what you say you believe, where you invest your hope is where you believe you’ll reap the greatest benefit, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he said (Matthew 6:19-21).

So when Jesus said to believe in him for eternal life, he didn’t mean, “Affirm a doctrine about me in exchange for heaven.” He meant, “Invest in me – in my teachings, in my cause, and you’ll be a part of it when it comes to fruition. Invest elsewhere, and you’ll only benefit as far as that investment can offer a return.”

We can see by God’s raising him from the dead that Jesus is the best investment.

If you don’t invest yourself in Jesus, you’ve believed in vain (1 Corinthians 5:2). And, in fact, the Scripture has some dire warnings for people who know about Jesus, but invest elsewhere (Hebrews 10:26).

The Church exists for the sole purpose of guiding people in that investment. In fact, that investment consists of participating in the life of the Church.

Or, it would be, if the Church was preaching the true gospel and fulfilling its true purpose according to that gospel.

As it is, we have a broken, self-destructive epistemology, which leads to a false view of how salvation is accomplished, and so we have a Church with no sense of its true purpose and calling (ecclesiology), which I will address in what follows.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The American Church is Apostate

I thought about entitling this “The Upside-Down Tripod of Faith,” but that just doesn’t have the same hook or punching power.

I didn’t pick this title just for its click-bait appeal, though. I sincerely believe we are apostate. “Christianity” as we commonly know it in the United States (and elsewhere in western society) is a perverse, hollow caricature of the Christianity taught by Jesus and the apostles.

I almost want to say it would be unrecognizable to them, but that isn’t quite true. They were all too familiar with the assumptions, attitudes and practices of which popular American religion is now comprised, because (as we’ll discuss in what follows) they’re the same forces they fought in their own time.

Of course, telling people they’re living a lie and are invested in a false version of Christianity is a pretty tough sell, and it’s not likely to make me very popular. I get that, and I’ve prepared myself for all the rocks that are about to be hurled my way (and I’ve developed pretty thick skin from all the rocks that have already been lobbed at me).

And it’s difficult for most people to see, I realize. By all appearances, our beliefs are “Scripture-based,” and there are a great many clever arguments (“But the church is a hospital for sinners!”) for why most of the statistics we could look at – divorce rates, teen pregnancy and STD-infection rates, abortions, domestic violence, debt, poverty, addiction, etc. – demonstrate that Christians, in general, don’t really live any differently or better or holier than our “lost” neighbors.

However, I think the nature and extent of our apostasy – as well as our path to repentance and restoration – can be clearly illuminated in terms of three main categories:

1) Epistemology (how we know things).

2) Soteriology (how we’re saved).

3) Ecclesiology (how we understand the role and function of the Church).

These three areas together encompass the entire life of the Christian religion, and each informs and is informed by the other two.

They’re a tripod, and our concept of “faith” is the hub at which the three legs intersect and support each other, and everything we call “Christianity” rests atop that hub, supported by the three legs.

If our concept of “faith” is faulty, the tripod collapses and our understanding and practice of Christianity falls with it.

And, in fact, that’s precisely how we’ve strayed into apostasy, and correcting it is how we turn back and become a functional, faithful and effective Church.

Stop Lobotomizing the Church

The Church has effectively lobotomized itself through Fideism.

Worse than that, even – through Fideism, the Church actively prevents people from placing their faith in Jesus Christ. Christians are sabotaging their own cause and working directly against the purposes of God through Fideism.

Fideism, for those unfamiliar, is an epistemological approach that contrasts faith with reason as a path to knowledge.

If we’re “saved by grace through faith,” reason doesn’t factor, according to Fideism.

This is in contrast to Evidentialism, which is an epistemological approach that says a belief or conclusion is only valid if it’s supported by sufficient reason and evidence.

Because Fideism holds sway in most of the Church, Evidentialism is often eschewed as something antagonistic to faith and loyalty to God. And, even, credulity about the miraculous and supernatural is often held up as a virtue where Fideism holds sway, because “blessed are those who believe without seeing.”

“Just believe,” says Fideism, because “faith is the evidence of things unseen.”

Ask a fideist Christian why he believes God exists, why he believes the Bible, why he believes Jesus is the Son of God and rose from the dead, he’s likely to say something like, “…because it’s what I’ve put my faith in.

But that’s not an answer, obviously. That’s just a restatement of the question.

But, he has plenty of scripture verses he can reference to reinforce his Fideism as the more biblical epistemology over Evidentialism.

He didn’t get his Fideism from the Bible, though. Like every other popular error presently rotting the Church from the inside, he got it somewhere else and projected it onto the Bible. To put it in seminary-speak: he did eisegesis, not exegesis.

The Bible actually knows nothing of Fideism. At least, not as a virtue to be taught and encouraged.

When we use the word “faith” in every other regard besides religion – when we tell another person, “I have faith in you,” it does not mean, “Here’s a blank check guaranteeing my credulity.” It doesn’t mean blind faith.

No, it means, “I trust you – I believe you’ll do what you promise, you can accomplish what you say you can, and you won’t disappoint or betray me.”

And, we tend not to trust strangers – not to the extent that we trust a best friend or a faithful spouse, because we base our faith in people on the evidence of our prior experience with them. Unless we’re fools, we put our faith in people who have proven themselves, who have shown themselves worthy of our faith.

And, in fact, that’s exactly how the Bible uses the word as well.

When it reads “Abram believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15), let’s not forget that Abram had seen God. God had spoken to him, appeared to him, and directly intervened to help Abraham on multiple occasions. Abraham had faith, but it wasn’t blind faith.

The same is true for Moses and the Israelites. When they were condemned to wander the wilderness for 40 years in punishment for their faithlessness, it wasn’t God’s existence they questioned. His existence and power were beyond dispute at that point. It was His character and intentions they distrusted. (Deuteronomy 1:26-36)

And that’s the pattern throughout both testaments of the Bible: when the Israelites were expected to trust God to uphold His side of the covenant, when they were expected to trust that He would fulfill His promise to send the Messiah, that faith was not a blind suspension of disbelief despite all evidence to the contrary; it was a faith based on the evidence of what God had done before.

And that’s the sense meant by the writer of Hebrews when he wrote “faith is the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11).

All of the “things unseen” referenced in the passage pertained to promises for the future (except for creation, which no one was around to witness or document). It wasn’t a blind faith – it was based on what God had done in the past, as reported by the “great cloud of witnesses” (12:1). That verse is often interpreted out of context to mean a cloud of departed spirits watching the individual believer, but that’s upside-down and backwards. The “great cloud of witnesses” to whom the writer referred were the litany of biblical heroes referenced in the “faith hall of fame” immediately preceding that verse, who were bearing witness to the reader about God’s faithfulness. They were “surrounded” by those witnesses because they were steeped in Jewish culture and raised on those stories.

The writer of Hebrews was not holding up what we would call a Fideist approach to belief in God. He described what we would call an Evidentialist approach to Israel’s history, which was the evidence on which their faith in God was based.

When Jesus told Thomas “Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who believe without seeing” (John 20:29), that was only after Jesus explicitly told them he would rise from the dead, and that was only after Thomas had personally observed Jesus giving sight to the blind and raising the dead himself.

It wasn’t credulity and blind, unqualified acceptance of unsupported extraordinary claims that Jesus wanted from Thomas. He wanted him to trust him. And he’d proven himself worthy of that trust with what should have been overwhelming evidence.

In other words, faith is a relationship claim, not a knowledge claim. There might be some knowledge claims that are corollaries to the relationship claim – just as we have outside of religion when someone we trust tells us something we might not otherwise be inclined to believe. But, primarily, faith is not a knowledge claim, but a relationship claim.

….

And the apostles were perfectly consistent with that Evidentialist epistemology when they preached the gospel. They never asked for blind faith or suspension of disbelief. They argued, they proved, they persuaded:

“Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” (Acts 9:22)

“As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.” (Acts 17:2, 3)

“So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” (Acts 17:17)

“Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 18:4)

“(Paul) went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews.” (Acts 18:19)

“He vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.” (Acts 18:28)

“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)

The central feature of their message – the lynchpin for all of it – was the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

They never asked anyone to believe the resurrection because they had faith. They asked people to have faith because they believed the resurrection: the resurrection was never offered as an article of faith; the resurrection was the source of faith.

“For God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice through the man he has appointed; he has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31)

“Through (Christ) you trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Peter 1:21)

…..

In contrast to the original Church, today’s Church sees apologetics as an add-on. Apologetics and evangelism were one and the same for the apostles and the early Church fathers, but for us, it’s entirely optional. And, within our Fideistic paradigm of belief, I’ve too often seen it discouraged as an unhealthy distraction: “You can’t argue people into the kingdom of heaven,” they say.

Except, nobody told the apostles that, and Paul insisted on argument (in the sense of debate, not quarreling) as central to the function of the Church: the Church is at war with the forces of darkness for the soul of humanity, and argument and ideas are the weapons we use to bring people from darkness to light (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

So, to say, “Christians shouldn’t argue with unbelievers” is to say, “Christians should lay down their arms and abandon the war.” Consequently, today’s Church has been asleep on the front lines of that war, and an enemy that encounters virtually no resistance has overrun our position, and now our temple lies in ruins.

….

The Christian life – the genuine Christian life – requires absolute, unreserved commitment. Theoretically, we all know that – we’ve all read the passages about the all-or-nothing nature of discipleship. But we don’t really see that in practice.

Largely, that’s because we have an entire nation of “believers” who don’t actually believe.

How could they?

They’re rarely if ever taught why Christianity is true. And however earnest and well intentioned a person is, nobody can actually believe something they don’t, well… believe. We have plenty of people who believe that they believe, but what they’re calling “belief” just isn’t. It’s wishful thinking. It’s suspension of disbelief. It’s superstition. But it’s not belief. And affirmation of belief is not the same thing as belief, because (as we’ll discuss in the next two installments) there are plenty of inducements within the Church to affirm beliefs other than being persuaded of the truth of those beliefs.

Without good reasons rooted in strong evidence, it’s simply impossible to believe something so far beyond our normal, natural experience as the resurrection. The reasons and evidence are there, but much of the Church neglects the learning and teaching of those reasons, and even inoculates many against learning them because we prefer the easy path of indoctrination to the hard work of education, which doesn’t lead to the absolute, unreserved commitment needed to follow Jesus.

We have to crucify our Fideism. We have to denounce it and condemn it and eradicate it wherever we find it and make Evidentialism the epistemology of Christianity again. In so doing, we’ll restore apologetics to its rightful central place in our message, and the Church will be filled with believers again.

….

That’s not to say I think I’m the lone believer in a sea of apostates and phonies. There are other believers out there, too, and there is a growing emphasis on apologetics within the Church today.

It’s not growing fast enough, though, and it still seems to be relegated to the status of an “edifying hobby” instead of an essential, central feature of our message.

Even those of us who embrace it are just as much apostates as anyone else, though, because… What are we to do with all of this unreserved commitment arising from true belief?

What outlet do we even have for it within today’s collectively apostate Church?

To answer that, we need the other two legs of the tripod restored, which we’ll discuss in the next two installments.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Get ready to have your mind blown

I think I might have figured out UFOs.

I’m not offering this with any degree of dogmatism or certainty. It’s just a hypothesis. So if you like it, enjoy. If you don’t, ignore it.

My hypothesis is based on three main pillars of observation.

First pillar: You know all these stories going around about sightings of flying saucers and UFOs, and people getting abducted by aliens and probed and stuff…?  Of course you do. Well, I happen to think there are too many of them, with too many common details, and from too many isolated pockets of humanity to just dismiss them out of hand. I think there’s something happening. I think there’s something to those stories. Am I saying I believe all of them without reservation or qualification? No. But I think there’s something happening to give rise to them. I don’t know what, exactly, these people are experiencing, or if the experiences are exactly as they report them, but I think there’s something going on. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and there’s a helluva lot of smoke out there where these reportings are concerned…

Second pillar: most physicists, astronomers, and cosmologists agree that if intelligent life emerged here on planet Earth, there’s a high probability that it emerged somewhere else too, given the sheer vastness and complexity of the universe. However, given the vast distances between stars and the comparative rarity and isolation of the kinds of stars and planets that could support life, it’s so astronomically unlikely that one intelligent species could find a habitable world other than their own as to be practically impossible, to say nothing of actually traveling there. And, given Einstein’s maxim that nothing can travel faster than light, and considering that the nearest solar system to us is hundreds of light years away, it would take more time than the Earth has even been in existence for another intelligent life form to travel to us, even if they knew where to look for us in the first place. So, in short, I don’t think it’s remotely possible that extraterrestrial beings could ever visit our planet.

Third pillar: it’s been 66 million years since the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs. In that time, one of the surviving species– a small, squirrely lemur-like rodent creature called a “pleisiadapis” evolved into other species of mammals, then primates, and then us– humans, the only confirmed species of intelligent life in the universe. More than twice that amount of time elapsed between the appearance of the first dinosaurs and their extinction 66 million years ago, though. There is no positive evidence for this, mind you, but for all we know, we are not the first intelligent life form to have emerged on Earth, because there was plenty of time for it to have happened in the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. For all we know, intelligence evolved alongside the dinosaurs, but not along mammalian or primate lines, but along some other taxonomical branch– maybe reptilian or insectoid or any number of other forms of animal life that existed then. And, for all we know, this intelligent life had a civilization as prolific and as technologically and culturally advanced as our own, but all traces of it were eradicated by the extinction event.

So, my hypothesis is that these little green men in flying saucers we keep hearing about aren’t aliens from outer space. They’re earthlings who survived the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event. Maybe they saw the asteroid coming and evacuated the planet until the dust settled. Maybe they hid in the depths of the ocean, living within their flying saucer/submarines. Maybe they have subterranean lunar and/or Martian colonies. Who knows?

But, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that an advanced civilization existed on Earth prior to the end of the Cretaceous period, and this civilization would have the means to survive the extinction event that wiped out the vast majority of life on Earth. And, in my view, along with numerous more qualified commentators, it isn’t possible for extraterrestrial beings to visit us. It also strains credulity to believe hundreds of otherwise intelligent, rational people would simply fabricate identical stories of flying saucers and personal encounters with the strange, seemingly otherworldly beings inhabiting and operating them. So, my conclusion is that these beings are an ancient species of earthlings that have kept themselves mostly hidden from us, for purposes of their own.

Again, I’m not dogmatic about the conclusion. I’m pretty well convinced of the three points of observation on which the conclusion is based, but there are other rational conclusions that could also be drawn from them.I’m just throwing this out there, though, so that when the flying saucers land on the White House lawn and the little green men introduce themselves, I want people to know that I called it first.

Peace out, homies.

P.S. Nothing I’ve written here is in any conflict whatsoever with the Book of Genesis. See my last two posts for details.

UPDATE: It has since occurred to me that if they had the means to survive the extinction event, they would have likely had the means to prevent it in the first place, assuming it was an asteroid, as is commonly believed. But, that’s not necessarily the case, since our actual knowledge of how to avert asteroid strikes is limited to Michael Bay movies. For all we know, it’s a lot harder than Bruce Willis makes it look.

Posted in Uncategorized | 18 Comments

This.

Ben Irwin

Fifteen years ago, I landed my dream job. Well, OK… my dream internship, anyway. I was working for a conservative Christian lobbying group in DC. We were located just eight blocks from the White House, and we were on the front lines of the culture war.

When I arrived in May of that year, I was assigned to work in what they called the Cultural Studies department. As I soon learned, there was only one culture we studied: the gay rights movement. And we didn’t “study” it so much as fight it tooth and nail.

A few weeks into the job, I attended a strategy summit of like-minded lobbying groups. On the agenda: figuring out how to discredit one particular one group we all despised. The stakeholders around the table took turns proposing various tactics, most of which involved some effort to publicly humiliate or otherwise embarrass an important official associated with this group.

View original post 921 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment