“We must go through many hardships…” Really?

Acts 14: 22 Paul and Barnabas encouraged the believers to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.

I have often heard this verse discussed as if Paul meant that in order to get to heaven, we would have to endure hard many difficulties and trials in life, as if what Jesus did on the cross isn’t enough to provide the way for us to enter heaven when we die. (By the way, that’s outrageous heresy – as far back as the Apostles’ Creed Christians would decry that kind of thought, not to mention Paul’s epistles themselves). Some translations make it out explicitly like that: “We must suffer a lot to enter the kingdom of God” (Names of God translation,) or “We have to suffer a lot before we can get into God’s kingdom” (Contemporary English Version).

There’s an unspoken (but sometimes spoken) theology-of-the-masses in contemporary Christianity that it will be hard to be a Christian and it is set up that way to see if we are worthy, blah blah blah.

I think there’s some very bad, unhealthy theology in there. “We MUST go through MANY hardships” to simply come home to where we were made for? What kind of Father would that make God? Certainly not the one in the story of the Prodigal Son! That Father (whom Jesus clearly means to be seen as a metaphor for God Himself)  is much more loving than that – he doesn’t require the Son to go through all kinds of stuff once he has been accepted and forgiven! When people experience hardship, they may comfort themselves with this verse, but I think that creates a warped view of what kind of god God is. I think there is a much better way to understand this verse.

Take it like this:  to cause God’s kingdom to happen on earth (something Jesus talked continually about), it will take effort and difficulty to push through and cause change. It’s long, slow, sometimes difficult work – just like gardening or farming, both images Jesus used for the Kingdom often. Gardening is sometimes easy and natural processes are rolling; other times, if you are going to succeed, you need to put some real effort into it… not give up if it gets strenuous. Like giving birth, – some of it happens once things get going, and other parts require hard pushing through. To work for the flowering of the Kingdom on earth, the leaven working its way through the whole batch of dough, we will sometimes face resistance and even counter-attack by systems and unjust social constructs, not to mention the people and philosophies entrenched in them, reflective even of the real presence of evil. But the quintessential Christian methods of love, mercy, forgiveness, and prayer (to mention some of the biggies) are the tools we reach for in the patient, sometimes difficult, working for God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. And we know that God works through these methods to bring about change and new life. (And, thank God, sometimes it isn’t terribly hard, and people embrace the Kingdom with joy).

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This is Classic NT Wright !

If you have any doubt that some major theological themes need reworking in our time, read NT Wright’s Justification. It’s an incredibly enjoyable read, and well done. Here’s a classic bit of his writing:

“The theological equivalent of supposing that the sun goes round the earth is the belief that the whole of Christian truth is all about me and my salvation…. That the central question is, ‘What must I do to be saved?’

Now do not misunderstand me. Hold the angry or fearful reaction. Salvation is hugely important. Of course it is!  Knowing God for oneself, as opposed to merely knowing or thinking about him, is at the heart of Christian living. Discovering that God is gracious, rather than a distant bureaucrat or a dangerous tyrant, is the good news that constantly surprises and refreshes u. But we are not the center of the universe. God is not circling around us. We are circling around him. It may look, from our point of view, as though ‘me and my salvation’ are the be-all and end-all of Christianity. Sadly many people – many devout Christians! – have preached that way and lived that way…. It goes back to the high Middle Ages in the Western church… But a full reading of Scripture itself tells a different story.

God made humans for a purpose: not simply for themselves, not simply so that they could be in relationship with him, but so that through them, as his image-bearers, he could bring his wise, glad, fruitful order to the world.  And the closing scenes of Scripture, in the book of Revelation, are not about human beings going off to heaven to be in a close and intimate relationship with God, but about heaven coming to earth. The intimate relationship with God which is indeed promised and celebrated in that great scene of the New Jerusalem issues at once in an outflowing, a further healing activity, the river of the water of life flowing out from the city and the tree of life springing up, with leaves that are for the healing of the nations.

….we are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around. If the Reformation tradition had treated the Gospels as equally important to the Epistles, this mistake might never have happened.”

– Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (2009; InterVarsity Press) p. 23-24

A Different Understanding of ‘Gospel’

Maybe we are witnessing a shift in what we understand ‘the Gospel’ to be about. I’m coming across more and more examples of orienting Christian theology around the Creation narratives and the question ‘What was God’s original intent for Creation?’ Instead of starting with 16th century questions regarding how to get to heaven, the questions center around what the Creation narratives, and subsequent Scriptures,  tell us about God’s desire for how the Creation/Earth should look now. What His will is NOW on Earth (aka the Lord’s prayer).

This gives us a different starting point than what we traditionally think of in Western Christianity. We usually characterize the starting point of the Gospel as “How do I get to heaven?” This shift starts us by asking “What is God’s will for Earth?”

Instead of the controlling question being about life after death, it’s about life before death.

Instead of the controlling question/metaphor being “there’s a hell to shun and a heaven to gain,” this is “heaven is vacation between death and resurrection BACK ON EARTH – which is the centerpoint of God’s interest and redemption.”

This also casts the point of Jesus’ coming differently:  In the first case ‘Why did Jesus come?’ is answered with: “to get me to heaven.” In the second: “to enact God’s will on Earth – to restore shalom and Original Intent of the Creator for his humans and world.”

This might be why some of my Reformed/Calvinist friends are so upset by some of today’s shifts. It changes the narrative entirely. And if you are holding onto the Reformation’s narrative with both hands as if it is the sine qua non of the Gospel, then this shift in perspective is not one you like. It may explain the Reformed antagonism vs NT Wright regarding his work on the meaning of justification – because Wright reaches for a much larger biblical narrative than the Reformation question of ‘how am I justified?’

I wonder if this is a shift in Christian theology in general?  If it is, it’s big.   It changes what the whole gospel is about! Instead of the whole point being ‘getting to heaven,’ this conceptualizes the Gospel to be about  restoring God’s will for life on Earth – bringing our lives, and every aspect of life on our planet (ecology, politics, human rights, relationships, etc etc etc), under the Lordship of Jesus and God’s original intent for life on our world.

Some people have called this a bigger Gospel than the one most of us have grown up with. It looks more and more to me that you can legitimately demonstrate this understanding of ‘Gospel’ in the New Testament when you take off the glasses of theological assumptions you’ve grown accustomed to reading with. I am very confident that this is how the Old Testament characterizes humanity’s problem.

 

Reading Paul differently than the Protestant Reformers

The Protestant Reformers of the 15th and 16th centuries have handed down to us a way of reading Paul which basically boils down to “Romans and Galatians give us the framework for what Paul really wanted to say; the other letters fill in the details here and there.” Said that way, it’s quite an assumption, isn’t it?

The Reformers were hunting for answers to questions which perplexed them in their day. And they found answers. They calibrated those answers according to the thought systems and categories of their own day and age. The question is, were the answers they found actually what Paul was talking about himself, in his own day? Once you assume that what is on your mind is what was on the biblical writer’s mind, you start reading everything through the  lens of those assumptions; you start hearing and seeing things in the text the writer was not actually saying.

The world’s leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright proposes a thought experiment. What if we DIDN’T assume that Romans and Galatians are what REALLY count, and that the other letters are second-place  fillers?  “Suppose we come to Ephesians first… Colossians close behind, and decide we will read Romans, Galatians and the rest in light of them (Ephesians and Colossians), instead of the other way round.  What we will find, straight off, is nothing short of a (very Jewish) cosmic soteriology. God’s plan is ‘to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth’ ….and as the means to that plan God’s rescue both of Jews and Gentiles …now coming together in a single family… the sign to the principalities and powers of the ‘many-splendored wisdom of God’. [1]

If this unity of all mankind, Wright goes on, Jew-and-Gentile as the sign of God’s coming reign over the whole world, had captured the Reformers’ hearts and minds, and they only THEN went and started fitting in Romans and Galatians, what would we have gotten? “…the entire history of the Western church, and with it the world, might have been different. No split between Romans 3:28 and 3:29. No marginalization (in Reformation theology) of Romans 9-11….” Wright goes on to list much more.

In short, we’d end up with a different theology and a different picture of the Gospel. (And, I might add, the Reformers’ teachings would not have been used in anti-Semitic persecution of Jewish people!)

So, should we just assume Romans and Galatians are the real deal and the other letters take second place? Or should we be trying to hear Paul all over again? And if we do, will we find that the Reformers were answering questions in their day, but not necessarily accurately describing what Paul was talking about?  These are the kinds of questions that lead many of us to contend that we continually need new theology, up to date with everything we can learn about the Scriptures, and what the writers were talking about in their own time and situation.

 

 


[1] N.T. Wright Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. IVP 2009.

A Now-Oriented Salvation, Part Two

I’ve noticed among emergent/postmodern Christian authors a consensus for a now-oriented salvation. Part One of this subject is here:  https://toddrisser.com/2013/11/06/a-now-oriented-salvation-part-one/

Last time I ended with these two questions that Nazarene pastor Dana Hicks finds more useful today than asking if someone died tonight would they go to heaven?

1”If you knew you were going to live another forty years, what kind of person would you want to become?”

2. “If you could know what God is doing in the world, would you want to be part of it?”

Regarding this second question, Dana says “I like this question, because it focuses evangelism on God’s agenda instead of our tendency to get God to focus on our agenda. I also like this question because it opens the door to talk about what Jesus talked about the most –the Kingdom of God breaking in to our world right now” (Dana Hicks, Postmodern and Wesleyan, 77).  Rob Bell’s ‘Nooma’ video called Trees highlights this postmodern search for a faith for today, not just my eventual salvation after death. My perception is that it would be accurate to say that, theologically, most emerging/Emergent/postmodern pastors have bought into the idea that the Kingdom of God was the thrust of Jesus’ message… rather than a judicial, legal approach to forgiveness.

When the 2004 Tsunami hit, I heard a Christian speaker on national television say “It doesn’t matter that they died, what matters is: did they know Christ?” The sheer lack of human compassion it portrayed, (ignoring, among other things, the thousands of children left utterly orphaned), the hyper-focus -as if the entire message of the Christian faith was just get to heaven when you die- horrified me, and most postmodern Christians share that sentiment.

I think this turn in the orientation of salvation to the here and now is a good thing.  It’s high time we made sure we aren’t making Christianity out to be just another gnosticism designed to help us escape the physical world of woe. Seeing salvation as akin to God’s shalom restoration is a return to biblical orthodoxy. While the emerging church needs to make sure they don’t under-emphasize what the Scriptures say about salvation after this life, they are, I believe, reacting to what they’ve experienced in many modern churches as an under-emphasis on salvation in this life. While you may feel that your particular church has achieved a good, solid, biblical balance of this dynamic, it is the obvious impression of the postmoderns that there’s been (in far too many churches) an overemphasis on heaven and a neglect of the call of Jesus to work for Kingdom realities here and now, as in the parable of the sheep and the goats.