Mysteries about “Mysteries of the Bible–Jesus”

As always, a good read by Larry Hurtado. Every Easter, magazines and television shows drag out the latest installments of bad reporting on the life of Jesus. Even if you’re not in the UK and aren’t watching the show to which he refers, the issues he addresses apply broadly to these popularized accounts of the life of Jesus. This recent post from Hurtado’s blog is well worth a read:

Larry Hurtado's Blog

Last Friday evening here in the UK the TV programme, “Mysteries of the Bible–Jesus” showed (Channel 5, 9 pm), and already I’ve had one commenter asking why I allowed myself to be included in the programme.  So, a few comments are in order.

First, when you’re approached by researchers for such a TV programme (at least in my experience), you’re not usually told the larger storyline or sweep of the programme.  They simply say they have some particular questions that they’d like to interview you about. So, you can deal with those questions but never know in advance where the rest of the programme is going, or even if they’ll use all or any of your own interview.  I, therefore, have no responsibility for this or other programmes for which I’ve been interviewed.

But let me now turn to some matters that made me feel glad not to be responsible…

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Are all religions basically the same?

A friend recently asked me about religious pluralism. I thought I’d share here what I shared with him.

Religious pluralism is the idea that all religions are basically the same. Implied in this idea is that there exists a certain similarity between the world’s religions that places them ontologically on level ground. The religions of the world are all thought to be culturally conditioned ways of encountering the same “Reality,” a reality which Christians happen to refer to as “God.” Usually, claims regarding pluralism are described using a vague concept of “common morality.” But what are we to make of these claims?

First, no one who has seriously undertaken a comparative study of world religions could possibly say (at least not with a straight face) that all religions are basically the same. They exhibit fundamental differences, not just at the periphery, but on major theological issues such as the nature and existence of God, definitions of good and evil, and the afterlife. For example, many Buddhists are atheists and don’t believe in “god” at all. Many Hindus are polytheists and worship a whole pantheon of gods. Some world religions don’t believe in heaven at all, and among those that do there are fundamental differences regarding how one gets there and regarding what “there” actually means. How can these wildly divergent beliefs then be described as “basically the same” in any legitimate way when they are so obviously and fundamentally different? The answer is they can’t and only the willfully ignorant would ever claim otherwise. Plus, if one wishes to talk about cultural conditioning as it relates to religious beliefs, then surely the very notion of pluralism itself is subject to its own critique. Pluralism is a very western idea and one that is rarely held in most other parts of the world especially among those who have not been influenced by western thinking. Thus the claim that religious beliefs are all culturally conditioned is itself a culturally conditioned religious claim, and, therefore, the argument is self-defeating. In other words, if all religious claims that are a product of their culture should be held lightly and suspect, then so too should pluralism because it exactly fits that description.

In reality, claims to religious pluralism are intellectually lazy because they exhibit an unwillingness to consider the weight and veracity of various religious claims. In other words, just because other religions exists, why should we assume thereby that they are all equally valid? The answer is we shouldn’t. Religious claims can be weighed and evaluated if one is willing to do the hard intellectual work of actually investigating them. Pluralism is simply reductionism and intellectual laziness at its very best.

Is the Church called to non-violent protest?

sider book

I recently completed Ronald J. Sider’s latest book, Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Most Christians Have Never Really Tried (BrazosPress, 2015). Here are my thoughts.

First, few people have as much authority to write on the subject of non-violent action as Ron Sider. He is more than an academic who has theorized about this (though he is no less than that). He is someone who has embodied his beliefs in the power of nonviolent action, and his account of his experiences in Nicaragua (pp. 47-48) testify to this. So, when Sider calls both pacifists and Just War proponents alike to put their lives on the line for the sake of peace, he does so with some authority.

This text is a moving account of how non-violent protests have brought ends to bloody conflicts and government corruption the world over. I found myself moved to near tears reading about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and, equally, of the way in which the women of Liberia played a key role in ending the civil war there through non-violent action. These stories need to be read and read again.

As someone who has at times been horrified by fellow Christians who sometimes seem all too eager for the US to engage in another war, I found these stories deeply challenging and am inclined to think that most evangelicals could benefit from reading this thorough account of how non-violent action has succeeded in place after place around the globe.

But I have a couple of criticisms of this book. My biggest criticism relates to the subtitle: “what Christian ethics demands but most Christians have never really done.” In this text, Sider makes a very good case that non-violent action often succeeds. But, oddly, he never makes the case that Christian ethics requires this. If Sider hopes to convince the evangelical community of the rightness of his argument, he will have to do more than stack up case studies. He will have to provide a biblical argument. Given the strong statement of his subtitle, it is surprising that he never actually does this in the book. As a result, one never comes to understand what Christianity uniquely contributes to non-violent action. Indeed, a few of his examples are of those who had no specifically Christian commitments at all. And so my question is, where does the uniquely redemptive message of Christianity fit into all this? Where precisely does the Prince of Peace fit into these efforts, as surely the church that is called to protest is equally called to proclaim. This needs to be clarified.

Finally, Carl F. H. Henry once said that the church is called to “a moment of protest.” Henry’s point was that in certain times of crisis the church must oppose governments when those governments have lost sight of their God-given roles in upholding justice. But Henry’s emphasis was that this was only to be momentary. Protest cannot become the central feature of the church’s life and practice. But some of the ways in which Sider seems to envision the church’s non-violent action seem to move in the opposite direction.

Sider declares at the outset that this book is not meant as a contribution to the ongoing debate over Just War Theory vs. Pacificism. Yet, I do think it shortsighted to not more fully address this very complex topic. What I mean is that at times Sider appears to give the impression that “if we would just give peace a chance,” it would work most if not all the time. But this seems very naïve. Yes, some nations were able to use non-violent protest (e.g. Finland) and refuse to deport their Jewish populations, but non-violence had no hope of pushing back the German Army that had taken over Europe. To do that it took a brutal, bloody, and yet necessary war—a war that, furthermore, likely saved thousands upon thousands of lives that would have otherwise been destroyed by Hitler’s aggressive and racist agenda. Sometimes, war is the most compassionate and humane option. The same could be said of the US Civil War. How many millions of African American lives were saved by ending slavery, through a very bloody, and yet, seemingly necessary war. My point here is just to say, that at times war is the best worst choice. Sometimes it is simply the only viable option.

Having said that, I also remain solidly convinced that the contemporary church (perhaps especially in America) needs to be reminded of the power of non-violence and also of the church’s biblical mandate to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). And this book does that very, very well. I highly recommend it.

“But they are our children”: The Crucial Role of Women in Development

I’ve been reading Ron Sider’s new book on non-violent action (see my review here), and in it Sider provides a beautiful quote that perfectly captures the essence of development and community building. This statement well captures what we do in Africa and why the local church is so crucial, primarily because a local church focus maximises and values the insights of local peoples. The following quote is by Leymah Gbowee, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work toward ending the civil war in Liberia primarily through the empowerment of women. Gbowee writes:

Organizations like the UN do a lot of good…but there are certain basic realities they never seem to grasp…Maybe the most important truth that eludes these organizations is that it’s insulting when outsiders come in and tell a traumatized people what it will take for them to heal. You cannot go to another country and make a plan for it. The cultural context is so different from what you know that you will not understand much of what you see. I would never come to the US and claim to understand what’s going on, even in the African American culture. People who live through a terrible conflict may be hungry and desperate, but they are not stupid. They often have very good ideas about how peace can evolve, and they need to be asked.

That includes women. Most especially women. When it comes to preventing conflict or building peace, there’s a way in which women are the experts…we know our communities. We know our history. We know the people. We know hot to talk to an ex-combatant and get his cooperation, because we know where he comes from. To outsiders like the UN, these soldiers were a problem to be managed. But they were our children.

1. See Ron Sider, Nonviolent Action (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2014), 114; and Gbowee, Mighty Be Our Powers, 171-172.

Why I don’t like going to church: Confessions of a Theologian, Part I

I’m a theologian. The study of the Bible and the nature of the Church lie at the very heart of everything that I do and hold dear. Yet, honestly, I sometimes don’t like going to church. I’d rather just stay at home, and here’s why.

First, for a theologian, attending church can be mentally exhausting. It’s my nature (and indeed the way God has wired me) to critically analyze most things. I used to feel terribly guilty about this, until one day a fellow theologian counseled me saying, “you just have to realize that this is the way its going to be for you for the rest of your life. It’s not a bad thing. It’s simply part of your calling and you just have to discover how to manage it with grace.” Since then I’ve tried to live by those words and it has helped tremendously. But still, sometimes I just don’t feel like being gracious and would rather just stay at home.

And then there’s the people.

Churchy people can be especially difficult to handle sometimes. For example, every church seems to have that one lady who lives on Planet Jesus and who believes that every one of life’s challenges can be overcome with a simple cliché and a clack of the tambourine. “You just gotta keep praisin’ brother!” Clack-ity-clack.

But when I think about these things in light of the Gospel, I’m reminded of the real reason I sometimes don’t like going to church. All of these things, the parts of the sermon or parts of the worship service which I wish were different, the people whom I wish I could change and make them someone other than who they are, all point to one thing. They all point to the reality of my own sinfulness. They declare with a load voice that I, the theologian who has made a career out of studying the Bible, have yet to fully abide by its most central precept. Namely, “you shall love the lord your god with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8).

In other words, everything I don’t like about church is in reality a reflection of my own self-centeredness. In fact, the word “like” itself suggests that I tend to see church as existing primarily to meet my needs. My lack of grace toward the tambourine lady flows from the fact that I’ve never really tried to get to know the tambourine lady and understand what makes her tick. To put it simply, I’ve never really loved her as I love myself. My dissatisfaction with the music or with the sermon, though sometimes might reflect real issues that need to be addressed, more often testify to the fact that I came to church not to serve, but to be served. Odd behavior, to say the least, for one who follows Him whose whole life was described in exactly opposite terms (Matt. 20:28).

In short, all the reasons that I sometimes don’t like going to church declare with a loud voice that I absolutely need to be there. They declare that I need to continue to grow in the grace of loving others and bearing with them in their struggles. I need to discover and rediscover and discover all over again that Christian community is not just about getting fed (thought it is about that). But there comes a time when we have to stop bellying up to the banquet table and instead find our way to the kitchen, and begin to labor for the nourishment and strengthening of others.

The more I do this, the more I find that church can be infinitely rewarding.

 

No actually. The Bible doesn’t say Christians shouldn’t judge.

keep-calm-and-don-t-judge-43 (1)

It is sometimes claimed that the Bible commands Christians to not judge. Often we hear this from those who wish to silence Christians on the supposed grounds that their faith forbids any critical assessment at all of others. “Don’t judge, lest you be judged!” comes the retort. Apparently, some think the Bible commands Christian to never object to the attitudes, behavior, or activities of others in any way, shape or fashion. We are just supposed to take everyone as they are, and never think anything negative of their actions or find any fault in their behavior. But is this true? Does the Bible tell Christians not to judge, understood in this way?

In this essay, I will argue that this idea is only partially true, but mostly false. Yes, we are to take folks as they come. We are to welcome sinners for we are all sinners dependent on the grace of God. But, Jesus simply did not teach his followers to never judge the behavior of others. In fact, he taught the exact opposite.

The relevant passage on this issue is Matthew 7:1-6, which comes at the tail-end of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus says, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” Now, if this were the end of the matter, then it might be accurate to think that Jesus commanded his followers not to judge anyone, ever. But of course, as is always the case, this verse has a larger context (and one which is almost always ignored by those wishing to silence their Christian friends). In fact, if we continue, we see that Jesus has in mind a very specific type of judging, and not only does He not forbid judgment in the broad sense, but he goes on to describe how one can better judge rightly. In verse 5 of this same text, Jesus says, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Notice how this verse closes: “to take the speck out of your brothers eye.

Jesus is making a couple of important points here relating to how we reflect on the actions of others. First, self-criticality must be extravagantly greater than our critical thoughts directed toward others. The differences are massive: our faults being a plank, and faults of others described comparatively as a speck of dust. Those we wish to criticize may indeed have a bit of sawdust in their eye. We have a 2×4. Work on the 2×4 first, then you can address the speck. The word “hypocrite” is key. Jesus is addressing those who are content to pass judgment on others, but have no ambition for considering their own shortcomings. And He will have none of it. But in such a context, one might have thought that Jesus would have told such persons to never judge at all. But he doesn’t. Rather, he gives them guidelines on how to have sounder judgment. The key is to begin not with the sins of others, but with one’s own sins. Then, the self-examined life that has presumably repented and turned to God, will have the resources and the credentials with which to approach others, not for the purpose of condemnation, but for gentle correction (Paul says exactly the same thing in Gal. 6:1). In fact, Jesus Himself says something very similar in John’s Gospel, when He says, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). Notice here again, Jesus does not say don’t judge. He simply says judge fairly and righteously.

Second, the word “brother” in this passage (vv. 3-4) signifies that the audience in question is Jesus’ disciples. Jesus is talking about how his followers are to address their grievances with one another, not issuing a blanket statement about never judging anyone, anywhere, anytime. In other places, Jesus explicitly tells His disciples to be wary of others. For example, He says, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 16:6). How could Jesus’ disciples carry out this command if they were supposed to go around willfully ignorant of the activities and motives of others, as this idea of non-judgmentalism suggests? The answer is they couldn’t, nor did Jesus expect them to.

To say that the Bible plainly forbids Christians from making judgments about others is simply absurd. First, it is a practical impossibility, as we all make hundreds of judgments every day about others. We have to judge if the person who works at the daycare is fit to care for our child. Do they have the proper background checks and clearances? We judge whether the person knocking at the door claiming to be selling vacuum cleaners is really who they say they are, or not. We make judgments about whether the news we watch is trustworthy, about whether politicians are telling the truth or not (of course they’re not!), and whether or not the dozens of people we encounter every day are dealing fairly with us or whether they’re trying to take advantage of us in some way. One would have to become a hermit in order to never make any judgments about anyone’s actions or behaviors (and even then it seems highly unlikely).

The point here is, beyond the point already made that Jesus never taught his followers to never judge anyone, that no one can or should live a life in which no judgments are ever made about others. Rather Jesus taught his disciples a way of dealing with their differences that started with self-examination and not making light of one’s own sins. Then, when that is embarked upon wholeheartedly, one can offer gentle corrections to others out of love and concern for their well-being.

John Wesley (eloquently) put it like this:

Cast out the beam of love of the world! Love not the world, neither the things of the world. Be thou crucified unto the world, and the world crucified unto thee. Only use the world, but enjoy God. Seek all thy happiness in him! Above all, cast out the grand beam, that supine carelessness and indifference! Deeply consider, that “one thing is needful;” the one thing which thou hast scarce ever thought of. Know and feel, that thou art a poor, vile, guilty worm, quivering over the great gulf! What art thou? A sinner born to die; a leaf driven before the wind; a vapour ready to vanish away, just appearing, and then scattered into air, to be no more seen! See this! “And then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” Then, if thou hast leisure from the concerns of thy own soul, thou shalt know how to correct thy brother also.[1]

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]John Wesley and Charles Wesley, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount,” Selected Works of John and Charles Wesley, Accordance electronic ed. (Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, 1997), n.p.

Should Evangelicals Believe in Purgatory?

Walls

A Review of Jerry L. Walls’ Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: A Protestant View of the Cosmic Drama (Brazos Press, 2015). Reviewed by Jerry M. Ireland

This excellent text by Jerry L. Walls, professor of philosophy and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, is a more popular-level treatment of his trilogy on hell, purgatory and heaven, which emerged from his PhD dissertation at Notre Dame (p. 16). His basic argument can be summed up as follows: Heaven is necessary in order for life to have real meaning. Hell is necessary in order for there to truly be libertarian free will. Finally, purgatory is a logical possibility and even likelihood that flows from an optimal view of God’s goodness and mercy. Surely, most evangelicals will heartily affirm the first two of these propositions, but at the very least, raise an eyebrow at the last. So, the crucial question is, does Walls make a solid case for purgatory, one that can or even should be accepted by evangelicals?

In what follows, I will briefly argue, first, that Walls has made an intriguing case for a recovered doctrine of purgatory that is compatible with orthodox doctrines of God and eschatology. Second, I will argue that Walls has in this book presented an interesting enough case that many readers (myself included) will be inclined to study these matters further. That said, though, let me clarify one point. I have here described Walls’s argument as “an intriguing case,” and “interesting enough.” However, these, for me, do not add up to entirely convincing. To say something is compatible with orthodoxy doesn’t mean that it is orthodox. For me, the jury is still out, and here’s why.

Walls’ discussion of purgatory centers around a couple of interrelated ideas. First, he argues that the concept of purgatory fits well with the Christian doctrine of sanctification (ch. 4). Specifically, he argues that most protestants believe that since perfection is a necessary condition for entering God’s presence, God will perfect humans instantly upon death. Walls though prefers a sanctification model of purgatory (versus a satisfaction model; p. 98). To make his case, he leans heavily (perhaps too heavily), on C. S. Lewis, who rejected the idea of imputed righteousness and understood purgatory as a necessary period of purification in preparation for entering the presence of God (p. 110). It is “the transformation of our character” as we open ourselves to divine love. The general idea here is that love demands contrition and a genuine desire to love God more fully, and this can only be realized if one consciously and willingly moves and allows themselves to be moved by God in that direction. On this view, the process of sanctification is as vital after death as it is before.

The reason that I am intrigued but not quite convinced is two-fold. First, I think there needs to be more interaction with the biblical text on this issue. Though, I think Walls is correct to note that the Bible does not rule out the possibility of purgatory understood in this way, there does seem to a good bit of speculation at work. For example, when the word “perhaps” is repeated five times in one paragraph (p. 115-116), I’m inclined to think that we are on tenuous ground. Granted this paragraph is not the heart of Walls’ argument, but it well sums up the essence of it. Second, the talk of “process” to me raises the question of whether time itself and the concepts of both instantaneity and process can even be made sense of in any real way, when we are talking about the things that transpire after death. In other words, I wonder if Walls is not looking at non-temporality through a temporal lens and thereby drawing false conclusions. I don’t know that he is, and I would be the first to admit that the philosophy of time is a bit outside of my wheelhouse. But all of this is simply to say that the text has raised a number of questions for me both exegetically and philosophically that are not answered. Perhaps they are (I hope!) in his trilogy.

Beyond this provocative and thoughtful discussion of purgatory, though, Walls raises another issue that is worthy of at least consideration. Specifically, he argues that salvation might be possible even after death. Essentially, Walls puts forth the idea that if purgatory as he has described it exists, then it seems logical and consistent to assume that God could allow for some to repent and be saved, even after death. He again here turns to C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. He makes use, as he often does in this text, of Lewis’s claim that the door to hell is locked from the inside. That is, those who will spend eternity in hell are those who refuse at every opportunity to turn toward God. They are in hell not because they have been forced to be there, but because they have chosen to be there. Central here is the idea that God will afford each person a genuine opportunity to fully understand and respond to the Gospel. But perhaps some, during their lifetime are too emotionally handicapped, for example, to have been able to respond to God’s grace. Does it not seem logical, asks Walls, that God might give them an opportunity after death? Essentially, this argument for Walls is built on the belief that God will afford every person “optimal grace,” and that we only have to look around us to realize that some have not experienced optimal grace during their earthly life.

As someone who has lost a family member whose eternal destiny was uncertain at the time of his death, I find myself hoping that Walls is right on this. But, again, I’m not fully convinced because his argument seems to presume that C. S. Lewis, on whom Walls depends heavily, is correct, without much critical assessment of his theological assumptions. For instance, some have accused Lewis of having a more platonic view of the afterlife than a biblical view and Walls simply does not address this. Again, I would hope that these issues are addressed in his more scholarly tomes, but some minimal discussion of these issues here would have been helpful. Plus, if he hopes to convince evangelicals, Walls will need to build his case on the positive statements in Scripture about the afterlife, and not on what is ambiguous.

To conclude, any book that encourages evangelicals to dig a little deeper is one that must be counted a roaring success. And this book does that on multiple levels. I suspect in the near future I will purchase his trilogy for that purpose. On the whole, I heartily recommend this text for those wanting to explore these issues. For professors of theology, this text makes an excellent catalyst for generating lively conversations among students. It is well-written (Walls’s description of hell is worth the price of the book!; see p. 89), engaging, and even if one disagrees with Walls’s conclusions, his ideas are well worth considering and sure to stir things up.