If I Had A Nickel…

…for every time I have heard it said “Jesus spoke more about hell than anything else” (or some such variant thereof), I would have a much harder time entering the kingdom than a camel would have going through the eye of a needle. But is this beloved saying of pop-culture Christianity true? Nope. Not even close. But c’mon, we already knew this… right?

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Quote

Damn, this is a juicy quote!

… a person who accepted promiscuously everything in Scripture as being the universal and absolute teaching of God, without accurately defining what was adapted to the popular intelligence, would find it impossible to escape confounding the opinions of the masses with the Divine doctrines, praising the judgments and comments of man as the teaching of God, and making a wrong use of Scriptural authority. Who, I say, does not perceive that this is the chief reason why so many sectaries teach contradictory opinions as Divine documents, and support their contentions with numerous Scriptural texts, till it has passed in Belgium into a proverb, geen ketter sonder letter — no heretic without a text?

—Benedict de Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise (Dover, 1951), p. 182.

The Deeper Magic

Traditionally, the doctrine of the Trinity has carried the mystery card. But compared to the doctrine of the Atonement, I think the Trinity is basic arithmetic (hmm, maybe that’s the wrong analogy here).

The doctrine of the Trinity–its development, formalization, and classical and contemporary expressions–can be understood with little intellectual toil. It’s basically a matter of coming to grips with important theological terms, concepts, and basic metaphysical distinctions. And, importantly, the Biblical data seem consistent with a wide variety of models of the Trinity.

The doctrine of the Atonement, on the other hand, is much less straightforward. The theological terms at its heart (e.g., “ἱλαστήριον”) are puzzling, no one model seems to give due justice to the central theological concepts (e.g., victory, satisfaction, substitution, etc.), and how the ethical machinery works is far from obvious (e.g., transfer of moral guilt). Every model seems to capture something deep and profound about the atonement, but it is exceedingly hard to see how to piece them all together to form a coherent, unified picture.

StoneTableFurther, it’s much harder (at least for me) to approach the doctrine of the Atonement in an intellectually dispassionate manner. Most of the time I can puzzle over the  concepts, terms, and the logic of the Trinity as cooly as I can a math or science problem (most of the time). But when I try to parse out the Atonement, I get the overwhelming feeling that there’s something profoundly deep and mysterious here, and we’re grasping at straws. If there’s any area of  Christian doctrine that deserves to carry the mystery card, it’s the Atonement.

There’s Deep Magic in Narnia. But there’s the even Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time.

On the ‘War’ on Christmas

war-on-christmasPastors who use the pulpit as a platform to engage petty verbal disputes in the realm of public discourse are not teaching God’s word, and are wasting the time of God’s people.

What do they think their passionate defenses of the quixotic norms of holiday discourse are supposed to accomplish, anyway? Do they think singing only carols that mention Christ instead of Jingle Bells and co., or saying “Merry Christmas” instead if “Happy Holidays” will bring us closer to realizing God’s will on earth? Do they honestly believe that this is how to fight a culture ‘war’? If so, it’s an unsuccessful strategy to win a losing battle that’s completely irrelevant to the actual war.

Or is it possible that they’re actually doing more harm than good, teaching by example that Christians ought to care about something not worth caring about (which, of course, only results in Christians appearing uptight and petty—a stereotype that the writers of The Office capture perfectly in the character of Angela)? Or is it possible that God’s Kingdom is much deeper, much more substantial than this pathetic annual quarrel fueled by a misbegotten form of Christian pride that is actually nothing but religious chauvinism?

Christians who get all plooped about whether the name “Christ” is mentioned enough in an ostensibly ‘Christmas’ song or story, or whether “Merry Christmas” is a politically correct salutation, somehow fail to realize that these things will not change the way anyone already celebrates Christmas, and certainly will not change anyone’s heart, mind, or life in any significant way for the better (it’s comical to imagine a scenario in which they would). And anyone who actually believes that these frivolous disputes are a matter of deep significance needs to heed 2 Tim 2:23 and reassess his or her priorities. Because the battles one chooses to fight reflects how shallow or deep one’s vision of the Kingdom is.

Clichés Christians Should Avoid Using

Christian Piatt has a good post on ten clichés Christians should never use. Be sure to also check out his ten more cliches Christians should never use. Piatt’s theology leaves some things to be desired, but the shallow clichés deserve exposing. Terminological quibble: the “never” is probably too strong. How about “n clichés Christians should avoid using”.

Love Wins

I just finished reading (OK, OK; I listened to the audio book version of) Rob Bell’s Love Wins.

love-winsBelow is a brief summary of main points of disagreement and agreement I made mental notes of as I listened. (Because I don’t have the text in front of me, I’m going on fresh memory and can’t cite page numbers or promise direct quotations). But before I do that, let me say something about the mindset with which I approached Love Wins

I have read, and am not terribly impressed by, Velvet Elvis and Sex God. The Nooma videos are positively annoying. So wrote Bell off as just a charismatic leader with a popularity cult (all too common among Christians). Although I was just as happy to write off the media frenzy over Love Wins as the familiar knee-jerk reactions from crusty old doctrinally-insecure Christians, I approached Love Wins with much skepticism nonetheless. Without further ado, some Pros and Cons:

Cons:

  • Bell often asks rhetorically and emotionally loaded questions like “Would a loving God really subject someone to infinite punishment for their finite sins?”, as if simply asking such questions, usually followed by an incredulous “really?!”, constitutes a veritable Sherman’s March through the traditional view of Hell. Needless to say, Bell does not so much as hint at the very good answers that are available to such questions. Relatedly, Bell does not avail himself of the strongest arguments—theological and philosophical—favoring universalism. But these facts, I suppose, are to be expected from a popular-level book.
  • Though often sympathetic to the points he makes, I couldn’t help but think that Bell sometimes selectively quotes passages to support his points. For example, in chapter 2, Bell argues that only the evil powers (i.e., demons) “knew exactly what Jesus was up to,” noting that demons always correctly identify Jesus as the Son of God, and quotes Jas 2:19 and parts of passages such as Mk 1:23-24 and Matt 8:29 to support the point. But the same passages make it clear that although demons seem to know who Jesus is (maybe), they don’t know exactly what he’s up to (in fact, they practically ask him “Wtf are you up to here?”). Indeed, the ransom theory of the atonement highlights this pervasive Biblical motif (see, e.g., 1 Cor 2:6-8).
  • Like many lay Christians who attempt to grapple with tough topics, Bell is all too ready to avoid hard intellectual toil by drawing lines marking the boundaries of human comprehension. For example, rather than explore possible solutions to the tension between humans’ awesome freedom and God’s infinitely patient and persuasive love, Bell avoids answering the question “Will God eventually get what He wants?” by saying we can’t know, due to the limits of human cognition, the answer. To that I say “bollocks.”
  • Bell sometimes seems inconsistent. Continuing with the above example: although Bell says we can’t know the answer to the question “Will God eventually get what He wants?”, he answers a resounding “Yes” to the question “Will we eventually get what we want?” seemingly unaware of the fact that this possibility suggests an answer to the previous question. And for all his emphasis on the power of God’s love, it’s odd why he’s so confident in his answer to this second question, but says the first is unanswerable.
  • Bell’s understanding of the resurrection leaves something to be desired. He says the concept of resurrection in the NT is not new, and appeals to cycles of life and death (e.g., seasonal change) as evidence. But this equates “resurrection” with “revivification,” an equation that simply can’t be made, especially by anyone familiar with N. T. Wright’s work on the resurrection.

Pros:

  • Chapter 2 is a full frontal assault on the “other worldly” or “pie in the sky bye and bye” concept of heaven so beloved by status quo Christianity. This chapter, along with chapter 7’s picture of God’s economy as just as confrontational to saints as it is to sinners, is worth the list price of the book, and can (hopefully) be appreciated even by those who have doctrinal insecurities about Hell.
  • Bell does well to emphasize the doctrinal liberty that exists, and properly so, within Christendom. I have little patience for the heresy-hunting, “who’s-in-who’s-out,” finger-pointing mentality pervasive among Christians.
  • In general, I appreciate Bell’s in-your-face approach to status quo Christianity.

I also want to note that Bell does not endorse universalism in the book. It’s safe to say Bell is friendly toward universalism, but we can’t say he is a universalist by what he says in the book. But who shouldn’t be friendly toward universalism? Isn’t this a possibility we all should hope for?

That I wrote more cons than pros should not be understood as meaning I didn’t like more than I liked. Quite the opposite! What I didn’t like simply stood out to me more. The rest was more or less a series of “amens”. Over all, I thought it was a good book. I am surprised by how much I found myself in agreement with what Bell says.