The un-Gospel

To hear many evangelicals today, the Gospel goes something like this: “For God so hated the world that, in his white-hot fury, he sent his only Son to save a relatively few lucky souls out of it (the lucky mice who find Jesus the cheese in the maze), and then, when the oil runs out in the Middle East, Jesus is coming back with our grandmothers who already went to heaven. Up in heaven, our grandmas have developed quite a violent streak while spending time with Jesus, plus learned the arts of war, and Jesus will be done with all that talk of forgiving your enemies, so He is returning with our grandmothers to kill everyone who hasn’t figured it all out yet, probably starting with the Muslims, but maybe also the Soviets. Once the battlefield is six feet deep in his enemies’ blood, God will burn everything He ever created on this planet to a cinder, including everyone and every place and everything you’ve ever loved. You see, even God himself can’t fix his world without resorting to the same kind of violence used by Rome against his Son, and used by IS in Syria today. And all those people who didn’t hear about Jesus or figure out the truth about which religion was right are going to have their lives sustained over trillions of years while they burn on fire. But those of us in heaven won’t mind, because we will forget anything sad about Earth. The End.”

It’s stunning we’ve had the audacity to actually call this “good news” when in fact it’s bad news for almost every person God ever created, and terrible news for all the living beings in all the world. This isn’t the Gospel, it’s the un-Gospel. And it’s what tons of people in church in America actually think the Bible teaches.

It’s no wonder people in our culture today, both modern and postmodern, hear a story told like that and say “I want nothing to do with something as sick, toxic, and twisted as that. I want to be a better person than I am right now. And do good in the world. I want to believe a beautiful story, not a dark and awful one. I will go check out Buddhism.”

I’m so glad that’s not the gospel, although for many years I thought it was. Most of historic Christianity has not believed this dark, terrible tale. The Bible tells a much better story than this, we just need to take off the 19th-20th century American evangelical glasses and learn to read the Bible for what it says. God, it turns out, has a long range project going on to heal and restore and redeem the world. He is not going to burn it to a cinder, our translation of 2 Peter is terrible, check most commentaries. As is made clear across Scripture, God plans to rescue all creation, the planet Earth itself, as all creation longs for the day of its liberation. See John Wesley’s comments on Romans 8: 19-22. We have every reason to be optimistic about the future, because God is at work in the world, and Jesus has triumphed over sin, death, and hell. Everything: economic systems and governments, societal justice and the environment, individuals and nations, is called to be transformed under the Lordship of Jesus.

That’s the Gospel.

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The NT doesn’t support our Western doctrine of Original Sin

In Luke 5:31-32 (HCSB) – Jesus says “The healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” It’s very clear here that Jesus considered some people in his generation to be in right standing with God already, before the atonement on the cross. The Book of Hebrews lists many, many heroes of faith who were righteous long before Jesus came. But the way most of us understand the idea of original sin is that everybody on the planet has some sort of cosmic evilness in them that makes God furious and the only way to get out of an eternity of hell is to be lucky enough to hear about Jesus and say the sinner’s prayer.  So, the point of Jesus’ coming is this: everyone in the world is born with a condition God is furious at, so he is sending everyone in the world to hell, (like punishing a kid for having Down’s Syndrome) and Jesus comes as the medicine so you can go to heaven.

It’s like we’ve changed stories. Because you would never read the Old Testament cover to cover and come away with that idea: that the point of the story is that God is sending everyone to hell due to original sin, unless they confess the Messiah, whereupon the can go to heaven.  You would never even remotely come away with that idea from reading the Old Testament. The storyline in the Old Testament is that Yahweh created the world and it is being despoiled by violence and idolatry and evil and God wants people to live rightly in His world. So it’s like we’ve switched storylines in between the Testaments.

So the question is, is there a change of story, or are we mis-reading our New Testaments? Logically, Jesus the Messiah came to solve the problem presented in the Old Testament: to put God’s world right. Much Protestant theology, however, acts as if Jesus came to solve the problem OF the Old Testament: as if the problem is the way people related to God in the Old Testament (the Law) which now has to be remedied (by grace).

While grace and the atonement are certainly central realities in the New Testament, I think we’ve gotten mixed up about the storyline. I will say it again: the Old Testament never remotely suggests that the central story of the world is that all humanity is sinful and going to hell and can only go to heaven if they accept the Messiah. No, the Messiah is coming to set the world right, including the people in it. This is a story about this world, not an insurance policy for lucky insiders regarding the afterlife.

Why this blog?

The reason for this blog is because I believe that Christianity is once again moving through a phase change, shifting, morphing, as it has many times in the past 20 centuries. At this intersection of the modern and postmodern ages, many people are trying to reassemble a Christian theology that makes sense to them and takes into account the new things we are learning (as happens in every century of rapid discovery). They are trying to hold onto (or find for the first time) a Christian faith that has new answers because the answers we inherited from modern evangelicalism do not actually work satisfactorily. Doctrines like original sin, hell, the Bible, other world religions, predestination, Greek ideas about omniscience, what the Gospel IS, atonement, eschatology and many more are all in play. And they need to be, because this is what Christianity does, it responds in new ways of faithfulness to the time in which that group of Christians is living.

The idea that Christian theology has always been this beleaguered set of doctrines, now under attack from liberals is simply untrue to history. Christian theology has morphed and changed dramatically down through the centuries, always integrating new insights, new things learned by experience, in symbiotic relationship with the culture around us or the new ones we enter, just like Jewish theology was doing before and after the time of Jesus.  An easy example is atonement theory. Western Christianity has cycled through at least six major atonement theologies in the past 20 centuries. Each of them made plenty of use of Scripture and each of them made sense in the culture of their time. Old ones gave way to new ones when the old ones no longer made sense in the culture of the day. Wherever Christian theology ends up in 50 or 100 years, it is of course not the end of the process. We are simply swimming in the part of the stream we are in at this time in history.

And that’s the point of this blog. To be part of that process, part of the conversation, give people a chance to read and think through some of the things that friends and colleagues of mine are talking about these days. It’s part of loving God with all our mind.

Some Christians will refuse. They will plant stakes in the ground and hold to whatever theology was last compiled in their tradition, as if it were the finale, the sin qua non, the age-old perfect expression of True gospel (even though it was compiled 500, 200 or 100 years ago!)  That’s ok, no use fussing with them all day. In the mean time, there’s work to do.

Cheers

 

The NEW Test for Christian Orthodoxy!

In my last post, I listed the ten commitments of the emergent ‘Mesa’ group, here  https://toddrisser.com/2014/04/23/the-mesa-list-of-ten-commitments/

One word in that list will jump out to many evangelicals who I know these days: sexuality. It will trump, override and cross out everything else in the document.

Evangelicalism has a new test for orthodoxy. This is how you see if someone is a Real Christian or not. It’s how you tell if they love Jesus. Like a grocery store scanner scanning a bar code, all you have to do is check their brain for one issue: How do they interpret the verses in the Bible about homosexuality?

Never mind that the Nicene Creed has been the standard for orthodoxy for around 16 centuries. That’s not good enough. A Real Christian is now determined by ideas or questions someone has about homosexuality and how to interpret or apply those seven passages of Scripture.

Forget about if they have repented of their sins and become a follower of Jesus. Forget about placing all their hope and trust and faith in what Jesus did on the cross, and on Him daily. Forget about loving God and loving neighbor. Forget about doing justice, loving mercy or walking humbly with God. Forget about Matthew 25 and what it says about the Great Judgment. No, none of that matters. The new test for a Real Christian is how you exegete and apply seven pieces of Scripture about homosexuality.

It’s not the only New Nicene Creed. About 30 years ago Jim Dobson declared that the moral equivalent of a human being is when a sperm fertilizes an ova, even though it hasn’t attached to the uterine wall (and isn’t viable until it does, I might add). And so, that too became the new test of Real Christianity: your position on when life begins, or when it has the moral significance of a human (the question was never that life is sacred in the womb – Christianity has always agreed on that – the question became your view of scientific theory on whether that moment was fertilization, ovulation,  attachment to the uterus, or later). Though I land in the relatively conservative end of these conversations on sexuality and life in the womb, I find it ludicrous that we’ve now substituted these questions for the Nicene’s summary of faith-assertions about Jesus as the New Christian Orthodoxy.

But before that there was another. The Nicene Creed wasn’t enough for the fundamentalists in the 1920s. They made up a new list of doctrines you had to sign on to be a Real Christian.  Even though one of those doctrines (penal substitution) wasn’t around the first 1000 years of Christianity.

It seems evangelical Christianity is bored with the Nicene Creed and we need other, more interesting tests for Real Christianity than just how we respond to Jesus.

Hebrew good vs. Greek perfect

More thoughts about Platonic assumptions and the World to Come. (I started these musings with https://toddrisser.com/2013/12/30/can-lack-exist-in-the-world-to-come-un-doing-platonic-assumptions/

I wonder if, when we think of things the way they ought to be, we tend to think in terms of Greek, Platonic ideas of ‘perfect’, rather than Hebrew concepts of ‘good’. After my last post my friend Butch texted me and said that when God created the world He said it was “good” not “perfect.” He said he always thought of the Genesis garden narratives taking place in a good area, not a perfect one.

When we confuse good with perfect, I wonder if we are importing ideas into our concepts of how God intends the world to be. Do we start labeling things as wrong with Creation when they aren’t? A Lutheran friend of mine this summer said about the goodness of Creation “Ah, but that was before the Fall…” How much of nature’s Created characteristics, which we look at everyday, do we assume are tainted by sin and less-than-they-should-be, because we are thinking with Platonic ideas about perfection rather than Hebraic ideas of Good?  If we do this with Nature, what other areas are we confusing?

When God rolls out his resume in Job and the Psalms – what does he talk about? His creating and sustaining work in Creation. And he talks about providing food to nature’s animals, including the carnivores. Isaiah talks about lions and lambs, but should we really make that literal biology? No hunting in the Age to Come?  What a disappointment to Native Americans hoping for the Happy Hunting Grounds!  Is this an area where we have strayed too far into Greek philosophical ideas, and off the narrative of Scripture…?

How do you judge a denomination?

After two glorious weeks of doing something more important than thinking theology – deer hunting in the Pennsylvania mountains with every bit of my spare time – I am back. Here’s a thought: how do you judge, “size up,” or evaluate a denomination, church, tradition, or even other religion?

I get asked this all the time. Someone will say to me “what do you think about the _______ (fill in the blank) – Methodists? Mormons? River Brethren? Episcopalians? Catholics ? You get the idea. And that usually evokes something like the following musings.

How do you “judge” a group? Do you evaluate them by their official, published theology? Or do you evaluate them by what their current working theologians actually believe (which is often different than their published ‘official’ line on a subject. Those kinds of official changes take time).  Or do you evaluate them by what their top-tier leader(s) believe? Or, do you evaluate them by what the majority of their members believe? (This is often different than what their published theology says, what their theologians currently think, AND what their leaders say!) Alternately, do you drop all of those tests-for-orthodoxy, and come at it from a different approach – evaluate a group by the kind of Christians they produce? Churches, denominations, etc. often produce better Christians than their theology would logically lead to! Or, to put it another way, their theology may be wide of where yours is, but the quality of the Christians they develop is nevertheless fantastic.

A couple thoughts about this: contrary to what we would assume, poor theology doesn’t necessarily result in poor following of Jesus. It doesn’t necessarily result in low returns in love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, humility and self-control.  Weird doctrines and strange practices don’t stop people from loving Jesus and living how he says. Said another way,  strange ideas are not able to keep the Spirit of  Jesus out of the room. And they can’t stop Jesus from working in someone’s life. This is axiomatic. Just as high prices do not actually mean high profits, poor theology doesn’t actually mean people follow Jesus poorly. Obviously by the existence of this blog, I am deeply interested in theology. However, we need to recognize that judging a group by its theology, at whatever level, does not give us a picture of something even more important: how its members follow Jesus, and how their hearts reflect the characteristics His Spirit develops in us.

On Working Out a New Theology

Last year a bright friend of mine who is a missionary in Jordan found himself realizing that big parts of the theology he grew up with could no longer be sustained by the Bible. This was causing him a pretty grueling experience of trying to sort it all out. I sent him this note:

On theology: several times in my life large chunks of my theology exploded in front of me. It felt like safety to run back and dive in to what I had formerly believed, but it would have been intellectually dishonest and fake, because I knew it had too many holes in it. I couldn’t “unlearn” the new facts that had shot holes through my former theology. It’s ok for it all not to come together again right away. Some times it took me several years. I stuck doctrines (or how several fit together) in the “pigeon hole of suspended judgment” and kept reading, talking and thinking and let it take as long as it took to piece together something new. Sometimes it was several years. Each time a piece clicks into place it’s very encouraging. I know the (for me frustrated) feeling of not being able to express what I believe about something even to close people like my brother in law, because I’m not sure what to say and how to even fit it together or even what it is. That’s all fine. Growth takes time. Wiser, smarter men than us have been through this in other generations and now it’s our turn to be faithful to go thru it. As long as you keep loyal to Jesus throughout the process, the doctrines can wax and wane, come and go, piece together or be full of gaps – I think it’s all fine with God. He knows if I love Him or not.  People get loving God and loving doctrines confused. It’s easy to feel like a heretic when you are on your way to a new theology. It’s not heresy, it’s just that you are still looking for what the new theology is that takes into account the “externalities” that blew up your former one. The road to a new, honest theology that brings glory to God is pretty cloudy and foggy while you walk it (unless it’s not for geniuses, but I’m not one). Stuff will start fitting together as time goes by. What I would hate to see you do is shut down the process out of anxiety and “go back” to believing something that you may have seen has some serious holes in it. It’s an understandable psychological move people make – but it’s dishonest about what they’ve learned about the bible – sort of like sticking their head in the sand in order to avoid the tough work of sorting something new out. You are too gifted, too bright, too all kinds of things to be wasted doing that.