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.

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John Wesley: the world will not be destroyed

The Left Behind version of Christianity claims God will destroy the world. (As if John 3: 16 read “For God so hated the world he sent his only Son into it to snatch a relatively few people out of it and then burn it to a cinder… not to save it through him!”). Here are John Wesley’s comments on Romans 8, and the whole Creation longing with eager expectation to be set free, liberated, when the sons of God come into their own, from the bondage to death and decay. As in our day, many people in Wesley’s time thought the world itself will end. In contrast to that, Wesley understood the great biblical expectation of God mending Creation, what Jesus and his generation called ‘the renewal of all things’ (Mt. 19:28) in the age to come. Wesley argues that a woman in labor doesn’t long to be destroyed, she longs to give birth to new life! And whatever is destroyed isn’t delivered at all – so it’s not the Creation itself that will be destroyed, but rather delivered from sin, death and decay.

“For the earnest expectation – The word denotes a lively hope of something drawing near, and a vehement longing after it. Of the creation – Of all visible creatures… each kind, according as it is capable. All these have been sufferers through sin; and to all these (the finally impenitent excepted) shall refreshment redound from the glory of the children of God. Upright heathens are by no means to be excluded from this earnest expectation: nay, perhaps something of it may at some times be found even in the vainest of men….

The creation itself shall be delivered – Destruction is not deliverance: therefore whatsoever is destroyed, or ceases to be, is not delivered at all. Will, then, any part of the creation be destroyed?     Into the glorious liberty – The excellent state wherein they were created.

22. For the whole creation groaneth together – With joint groans, as it were with one voice. And travaileth – Literally, is in the pains of childbirth, to be delivered of the burden of the curse. Until now – To this very hour; and so on till the time of deliverance.”

–       Founder of the Methodists, John Wesley (1703-1791) Commentary on Romans 8

 

Earth is Not Detention Hall, Part Two

Part One can be read here  https://toddrisser.com/2013/11/12/earth-is-not-detention-hall-part-one/

The tikkun olam (repairment of the world) is a doctrine so lost in American evangelicalism, most modern Christians have never even heard of it. In fact, it is very common for life-long church-goers to say to me at funerals “I get the heaven thing, but what’s this about the resurrection of the body?” Resurrection and repairment of the world are two doctrines that go inseparably hand in hand in the Scriptures. Somehow we’ve lost track of some major parts of the Bible’s story.

I find it difficult to enumerate in a small space the vast, profound difference between believing earth is a short rehearsal before we leave forever, and believing that earth is the locus of God’s redemption, now and forever. This has profound effects on how we view the Creation, the scope of salvation, environmental and foreign policy, and a host of issues in our lives here and now, and tomorrow.

Seeing the world as God’s beloved creation, emerging/postmodern Christian faith has a stake in the state of this world. They realize atheist Sam Harris asks a good question when he asks “Can people who believe in the imminent end of the world really be expected to work toward building a durable civilization?” (Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, xii).

Rapture theology and end of the world despair is a two hundred year old rabbit trail that gained lots of traction in American folk theology, but that earlier Christians never believed. Getting back to a biblical eschatology is in itself a good thing, and of course affects our soteriology and morality here and now. Postmodern Christians, not longing to jet away to some ethereal heaven, have theologically compelling reasons to engage this world’s problems and conundrums with the Way of Jesus, and thus bring about more of the justice,  reconciliation and shalom God desires for His creation, which longs for the Day (Romans 8: 19-22).

Earth Is Not Detention Hall, Part One

“Left Behind” theology and other questionable bible exegesis (confusing ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ with a place away from earth where we spend eternity, etc) have  created a view of this world as detention hall. Having a long and thorough personal knowledge of detention hall, I can tell you that all you want to do in detention hall is successfully get out of there. The modern evangelical Christian attitude toward earth has been boiled down to “get me out of this run down trailer park of a planet before God’s tornado touches down.” (I think I owe Rob Bell for this turn of phrase). Or, in the words of Mark Driscoll, “fortunately, the pastor told us about the rapture, and how, if we don’t watch television and do vote Republican, we can fly to heaven just before Jesus opens a can of whoop in the end. This man was on a mission, but it wasn’t very missional. His mission seemed to be simply to get off the planet as soon as possible, which didn’t sound very incarnational to me.” (Mark Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformission Rev., 50). Believe it or not, I have actually had a missionary say to me the best thing he could have done for some ‘natives’ in his area, was mow them down with a machine gun after they received Christ. Is there any more glaring example of a heaven-focused, earth-denying salvation?

Drawn back to Scripture’s story  by such New Testament scholars as N.T. Wright, more and more mainstream Christians (led initially by the emergent movement down this road), have left off these “tired old theologies of abandonment and escape” (thanks again Rob Bell for this phrase), to embrace the biblical doctrine of ‘the renewal of all things’ (Matthew 19:28; Acts 3: 21, Romans 8: 19-25 etc), the call to doing the works of the Kingdom now (Matthew 25: 34ff), and the encouraging promise that none of that will have been in vain (I Corinthians 15:58). We are not oiling the wheels of a car about to go over a cliff. In fact, the Bible’s story ends with us here on earth, not far away in heaven. Heaven, it turns out, is vacation in between death and resurrection. Not our final home.

This is a dramatic theological shift: Postmodern Christians don’t see earth as a temporary and unfortunate part of God’s plan. With the early Christians, they don’t understand the Scriptures to say God is planning on tossing the earth in a scrap heap while we all jet off to some spiritual / non-physical heaven. They read in the Scriptures of God redeeming and restoring His good creation on the Day of the Lord and a resurrected life here on earth in the Age to Come.

The Biblical vision of the Renewal of All Things

In America the last couple hundred years Christians have by and large traded the Bible’s hopeful vision of beauty and salvation in a world redeemed by God Himself for an alternate story about Earth. We’ve traded a story of hope and beauty and salvation for a story of abandonment, destruction and hopelessness. But “ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself” (N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. 2012). Genesis tells us earth is where God placed humanity. This is our home. It is not some detention hall, waiting for school to be over. It is not a dress-rehearsal. All such images are unworthy of the biblical narrative.

 Often overlooked by American Christians, the story of the Bible ends with humanity and God dwelling on earth, not humanity flying off to strum harps forever in some faraway disembodied heaven. The Bible’s vision is of the world being fully healed and set right in the Age to Come. Charles Spurgeon, one of most famous and beloved pastors from the 1800s understood this:

 “ I wish you now to observe that we are linked with the creation. …. Now, God will one day change our bodies and make them fit for our souls, and then he will change this world itself. ….We expect to see this world that is now so full of sin … turned into a paradise, a garden of God.   ….earth will be renewed in more than pristine loveliness.”

–  1868   (Sermon 788  “Creation’s  Groans and Saints’ Sighs”)

Martin Luther, when asked what he would do if he knew the next day was the Day of the Lord,  said “Plant a tree.” This is the biblical vision Jesus is referring to when he says in Matthew 19:28  “… at the renewal of all things…” He also reminded us “The meek will inherit the earth.” Acts 3: 21 refers to “the final restoration of all things.” Here’s a few of the many Scriptures in the Bible about this joyful vision:

Romans 8: 19-21 For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. 20 Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, 21 the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.

Revelation 21:  the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth and the abode of God is with men.

–           “And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

–            “…and all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city”

This is the fulfillment of the OT expectation expressed in places like Habakkuk 2: 14 “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” and “On that day Yahweh will become King over all the earth—Yahweh alone, and His name alone”  (Zechariah 14: 9). And don’t forget  Isaiah 2: 2-4

In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house
will be the highest of all—
the most important place on earth.
It will be raised above the other hills,
and people from all over the world will stream there to worship.
People from many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of Jacob’s God.
There he will teach us his ways,
and we will walk in his paths.”
For the Lord’s teaching will go out from Zion;
his word will go out from Jerusalem.
The Lord will mediate between nations
and will settle international disputes.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
nor train for war anymore.

The Scriptures tell us God will make all things new. Not make all new things. Rock on, Pine Creek Gorge. The God who made the universe delights in you.

I just backpacked Pine Creek Gorge with my son

Every year before he goes back to college my oldest son and I go backpacking somewhere for two or three days. This year we climbed the West Rim Trail of Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon/ Pine Creek Gorge into the Natural Area and then packed down to the creek and camped under the hemlocks beside the stream. Juvenile Common Mergansers, a bald eagle and perhaps the nicest smallmouth bass I’ve ever caught were some of the creatures we shared the Gorge with.

Each year we take along a couple copies of a recent theology book and have a blast reading it simultaneously laying in the tent at night and talking back and forth about it.  This year we took N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian, a book that’s been out for quite some time, but which Tanner had never read. I heartily recommend it:  it’s one of the best introductions to what we really mean by Christian spirituality for the postmodern world. Wright is the leading New Testament scholar on the planet, an Anglican who has been at the forefront of both Pauline and historical Jesus research for more than two decades.

As we were soaking up the extreme beauty of the Gorge we talked about the bizarre Left Behind version of Christian eschatology in which they imagine God abandoning  His good creation – the earth – and destroying it. “Why would anybody be attracted to such an ugly and disheartening  story?” I asked my son rhetorically as we stood in the creek. We commented what a joyful addition to our lives the biblical doctrine of the renewal of all things has been for us. That is, the Bible teaches that, rather than betraying it, God intends to renew the world, healing Creation of all its ills – and all of the mountains, rivers, dolphins, bluejays, wildflowers  et etc  will still be around for us to thrill to enjoy in the Age to Come. What a better, more Gospel “Good News” story than the toxic, twisted Left Behind plotline.

In the next blog I’ll cite the biblical references for the healing of all Creation.