Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Fear of the Devil

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Biblical scholars and Christian theologians were quite embarrassed at the presence of the devil in the gospels. [E1] For the most part, they were proud of the gospels, for they saw them as texts that showed great insight into the loving nature of God, the dignity of human life, God’s concern for the poor, etc. But they had to admit their belief in the devil represented a lapse into mythology, an unsophisticated way of making sense of natural disasters and mental diseases, the inability of the early Christians to get out of “primitive thinking,” etc. This concern was understandable. Even now, when you look around and see the way that the devil is portrayed in the media and by some fundamentalist groups, it’s hard to take the devil seriously. He is either (1) given his horns and pitchfork, (2) depicted as the King of the Underworld who reigns in “hell” and orders demons around like troops, or (3) described as an omnipresent, omniscient, and omni-malevolent force who is lurking behind every corner, planting evil thoughts in our heads, and partially responsible for every bad thing that happens. No wonder scholars wanted to run from this “myth.”

But in their eagerness to distance themselves from the myth of the devil, modern Christians plunged themselves more deeply into their own culture’s myths, such as the myths of individualism and will power, which I described in my last post, “Why Will Power Doesn’t Work.” Recently, Biblical scholars have discovered that the language of the devil and demons offers a corrective to this individualistic way of thinking, to the extent that the early Christians developed a political and sociological awareness that modern thinkers completely lack. [E2] In what follows, I will try to draw the connection between the demonic realm and this sociological awareness.

Let’s start with the concept of demon-possession. Unfortunately, Hollywood has sensationalized this phenomenon, so that we are immediately creeped out whenever we think of exorcisms. But the New Testament description of demon-possession is not meant to be “creepy.” Instead, it serves to show that people can find themselves under the influence of forces greater than themselves. Consider Mark 5, where Jesus encounters a man who is possessed by a demon. This person was plagued with violent self-hatred (v.5), and he was impossible to restrain in social settings (v.3-4). When Jesus asks for the name of the spirit that was plaguing him, the demons answer, “My name is Legion.” (v.9) Legion, it should be noted, was the term for a unit of the Roman militia. Now, we can only speculate about what kind of relationship this man had to a Roman legion. Perhaps he was formerly a member of a legion and his past haunted him? Or perhaps, as a citizen of a country that was oppressed by Rome, the very presence of legions drove him crazy? We can’t know exactly what he was thinking. But the entire passage (not just this one verse) consistently uses marital language [E3], which suggests that this “supernatural” phenomenon was deeply associated with the reality of violent political oppression.

Unfortunately, I can think of plenty of modern examples of good people coming under the possession of “Legion.” Sometimes, you hear stories of groups of soldiers committing horrific acts – whether the Nazis in Poland or the recruits of LRA in Sudan or even US soldiers at Guantanamo – acts that they would never have committed as individuals. [E4] You sometimes hear soldiers come out of these situations with tremendous remorse, but it’s not always because they acted out of orders or complied out of fear for their lives. More commonly, psychologists have coined the term “groupthink” to describe what happens. This is a phenomenon of a “group spirit” taking over the wills of the individual participants. [E5] As a Christian, I would name this spirit, “Legion.” And I would say that Christians have been resisting this problem for centuries.

But the New Testament insight goes further still. It does not limit demon-possession to individuals in highly stressful situations, but it claims that the whole world has come under the influence of an evil force. For example, Revelation 13:8 says, “All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb.” The beast represents both a supernatural force and a political force, one that causes us to relate to one another in a spirit of distrust, violence, greed, ethnocentrism, and fear. One of the consistent themes of the last book of the Bible is that our social, political, and economic structures have been unwittingly shaped by this force of evil. Thus, Ephesians 6:12 says that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Notice, this text equates political forces and demonic forces. Contrary to the modern perspective, the Bible does not describe world as a neutral place where individuals walk around and rationally decide how they want to live their lives. It is a possessed environment where we have been influenced to compete with each other; to protect ourselves with walls and boundaries; to draw destructive alliances along the lines of race, gender, class, and nationality; and worst of all, to live in fear of one another. This is the greatest force that keeps the world in bondage: the fear caused by the devil. [E6]  

For the first thousand years after Christ rose, Christians believed that salvation meant that Christ saved us from the devil. [E7] Perhaps this isn’t as silly as it sounds. By coming to the earth as a human being, Christ showed us how humans were truly designed to relate to one another: not in a spirit of competition and self-defense but in a spirit of sharing and mercy. By invoking his power as the Son of God, Christ rescued people from the spirit of demon-possession and empowered them to live whole and healthy lives. By resisting the devil in the desert, Christ was able to found a community that would not be corrupted by the forces of evil which controlled the rest of the world. And by subjecting himself to an unjust trial, to shaming torture, and to capital punishment, Christ undermined and exposed those pressures and fears that control us. Consider these words from the epistle to the Hebrews:

“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death, he might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is the devil, and free those who all their lives are held in slavery by their fear of death.” [E8]

As it so happens, I am writing this post on Halloween, on a day that Americans often associate with devil worship. However, “All Hallows Eve” actually celebrates quite the opposite. “Hallows” are saints, people in Christian history who have lived, suffered, and died to show us that we don’t have to live under the rule of the devil any longer. I’m looking forward to celebrating this evening with my family tonight by remembering that Christ defeated the devil and established the Church so that we – the saints – no longer have to be under his possession.

[E1] Adolf Harnack, Albrecht Ritschl, and Rudolf Bultmann are three classic examples of Christian thinkers who fit this description.

[E2] See especially Walter Wink, The Powers that Be.

[E3] I translated Matthew 5:1-13 as a final project for one of my Greek courses, and I tried to offer a translation that called more attention to the martial elements. Let me offer you my reading of verses 9-13. I bolded the words that allude to the military presence of Rome: “And Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’  And he said to him, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” And they begged him earnestly not to send them outside of the region.  Now there on the hillside was a large herd of swine that was feeding.  And the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Order us to go into the swine so that we may enter them under your command.’   And he granted their request.  And after the unclean spirits came out, they entered the swine and the herd – numbering about two thousand – and charged down the steep bank into the lake and drowned in it.”

[E4] This is by no means to say that everyone who joins the military is under the spirit of “Legion.” There have been some armies and many individuals throughout time who have shown great moral sensitivity, despite the pressure of their vocation. Nevertheless, it happens with disturbing frequency.

[E5] For an example of “groupthink” affecting Japanese soldiers during WWII, see  

[E6] Here, I am using “the devil” in a symbolic way, to refer to all of those forces of evil that keep us in bondage. A number of scholars today appreciate and use “demonic” language to describe the kind of sociological/political bondage I am describing, but they still reject the idea that demons are real creatures with distinct personalities as mythological. I don’t know how fruitful it is to engage in this debate, but I haven’t come across any compelling reasons not to believe in an actual “devil.” Most of the ideas that we have of angels and demons that make the devil seem ridiculous do not actually come from the Bible. But more on this later (unless you have a burning desire to ask me now).

[E7] A scholar named Gustav Aulén argued for this convincingly in his book, Christus Victor. Although some of his particular points our outdated, his greater point is generally acknowledged by scholars today: that the first millennium of Christianity did not see salvation primarily in terms of “Christ paying the price of sin” but in terms of “Christ defeating the devil through the cross and resurrection.”

[E8] Hebrews 2:14-15.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why "Will Power" Doesn't Work

Have you ever been unable to live up to your own standards? It’s quite a frustrating experience. Many of us have attempted to go on diets, to stop swearing, to eliminate our negative attitude, etc. only to discover that we just can’t do it. Despite our best efforts, we cave in and revert to our old ways. When this happens, it feels like something is preventing us from succeeding, because we genuinely want to change. But what could possibly be preventing us? When I fail to keep diet, it’s not as though a cruel tormentor ties me to a chair and stuffs junk food down my face. I myself am responsible for my actions. I choose to eat food that I shouldn’t, knowing that this contradicts my values. Nevertheless, I feel incapable of making the decision that I set out to make. To describe and make sense of this puzzling experience, our society has adopted the metaphor of will power.  [E1]

This metaphor teaches us to think of “the will” as a machine that requires “power” to work. Following this metaphor, we might compare our decision-making to driving a car. I (the driver) may be doing a perfect job steering toward my goal, but if I run out of gas (will power), then my efforts come to a grinding halt. This is how we tend to interpret our ethical failures, as scenarios in which we don’t have enough motivation/drive/energy to stick to our values. When we think of ourselves in these terms, it causes us to respond in a couple of ways. One is that we try to use hope, fear, or shame as “fuel” to keep us going. But in my experience, these “fuels” rarely make a lasting difference, except insofar as they make me feel less hopeful, more fearful, and more ashamed about my life. Another effect of this metaphor is that it encourages us to envy rather than study people who are morally successful. Because we attribute their success to their having more “will power” than us, we don’t think it has any value for us.

This is very different from the way Jesus describes our ethical failures. Instead of using the metaphor of “will power,” he prefers to describe moral actions in terms of “bearing fruit.” [E2] For example, he says in Matthew 7:17-18, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” [E3] The point of this metaphor is that our actions (fruit) naturally grow out of our character (the tree/branches). But this raises the question, what determines whether we have good or bad character? To answer that, Jesus extends the fruit analogy: “I am the vine, you are the branches. If people remain in me and I in them, they will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing.” [E4] Jesus says that our character “flows” out of what we are “rooted” in. If you are rooted in Jesus, then you will develop good character and bear good fruit/behavior. Otherwise, you won’t be able to produce the changes you aspire toward.  

Now here’s the million dollar question: What does it mean to be rooted in Jesus? Evangelicals claim that it is having “personal relationship with Jesus,” by which they mean assuming that Jesus is invisibly present in every moment of your life, then praying to him frequently throughout the day and looking for “signs” – such as strong intuitions and intriguing coincidences – by which Jesus communicates his will for your life. The problem with this interpretation is that it has little basis in Scripture. [E5] A more biblical definition of “being rooted in Jesus” is to immerse oneself in the community that Jesus founded, the church. [E6] By spending time around Christians who are themselves following Jesus, we begin to absorb their values and character to the point that our behavior starts to change. [E7] Evangelicals are right to claim that prayer is a part of the process. The Christian community prays in order to stay “rooted” in Jesus, who is himself “rooted” in God. [E8] But to talk about a “personal relationship with Jesus” is to try to cut a link out of the chain, to go from God to Jesus to the individual, without going through the body of Christ.

Individualism is precisely the problem with the “will power” metaphor. By conceptualizing ourselves as independent machines, we fail to see how our actions flow from the societies in which we participate. However, we get a glimpse of our deeply social nature in those moments when we experience a radical shift in our community. For example, I got a job with a sales company one summer, which I never intended to embrace as a part of my identity. For this job, I spent a lot of time around other salespeople, I attended regular sales meetings, and I practiced and performed sales pitches on a near daily basis. As the summer went on, something strange began to happen. My sales mentality began to infiltrate every aspect of my life, so that I interpreted all human relationships through the lens of sales transactions. This phenomenon happens to people in all kinds of careers – our personalities change when we join the military, attend medical school, go to Hollywood, etc. It also happens when people move into a radically different culture or when they join/leave an intense religious community. You see, it’s not our “will power” that determines our actions as much as the habits we have inherited from our communities. Thus, the most important moral decision to make is what community to join. That’s how obese people succeed in losing weight on the Biggest Loser, it’s how rowdy young adults become disciplined and organized in the military, and it’s how people overcome addictions in twelve-step groups. [E9] It’s not that these communities fuel us with greater will power; they plant us in different soil.

Now, the reason I raised this discussion is because I’ve been asking the question, “What does it mean to say that Jesus saves us, if heaven and hell are simply self-inflicted realities that flow from our own moral character?” An important piece of the answer is that Jesus provided the soil that we need to grow into good people; he created a community – the Church – in which it is possible for individuals to join and be transformed into good people. [E10] Of course, this depends on a particular definition of goodness. All communities, in fact, aim to shape their members into a certain ideal, a vision of the “good” person, but this ideal looks different in the military than it does in the world of sales or in the medical community. So, in his earthly ministry, Jesus had to both teach us “What It Means To Be a Good Person from God’s perspective and create a society that we could join to become good.

But there’s one more element to salvation that I have to describe before this picture is complete. Even the decision to plant yourself in Jesus’ community is not an easy one to make because there are forces in the universe that try to keep this from happening, forces that struggle to uproot us even after you’ve been planted. Consequently, as a third component to his earthly ministry, Jesus had to defeat those forces to make our moral transformation possible. This will be the subject of my next post.



[E1] My approach of critiquing the metaphors we use to interpret reality was inspired by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). Lakoff and Johnson argue that metaphors form the structure of all of our thoughts, and my speculative proposal here is that “will power” is one of these foundational metaphors. I am aware that other medical, psychological, philosophical, and theological concepts further influence our thinking on this issue, but in the American setting, I would argue they are all dependent on a prior metaphor like will power.

[E2] Philosophically, this interpretation of morality is called virtue-ethics and is often attributed to Aristotle. For a good Christian introduction to this concept, see N.T. Wright, After You Believe (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).

[E3] For other uses of the “bearing fruit” metaphor, see Matthew 3:7-9, Galatians 5:22-23, Colossians 1:6, and James 3:9-12.

[E4] John 15:5. See also “The Parable of the Sower” in Matthew 13:3-23, Mark 4:2-20, and Luke 8:5-15.

[E5] The Bible certainly supports the notion that we should cultivate a healthy prayer life, both with others and by ourselves. However, Evangelicals frame this in highly individualistic terms, which is what is foreign to Scripture. Phrases like “a personal relationship with God” aren’t found in Scripture because Scripture does not privilege a private relationship with God over a communal one. Similarly, it is not highly concerned with establishing “God’s will for your life” as an individual, but only what gifts you can contribute to the body of Christ. In fact, most of the commands in Scripture are given to communities rather than individuals, but this is obscured in English because the pronoun for “you plural” is the same as the pronoun for “you singular,” and we just assume that God is speaking to each of us rather than all of us.  

[E6] See Matthew 18:19-20, John 17:20-23, Romans 12:4-5, Ephesians 2:19-22.

[E7] See 1 Corinthians 11:1, Hebrews 13:7, 1 Timothy 4:12-15.

[E8] See John 17:20-23, 1 Corinthians 3:11-14, Ephesians 2:19-22.

[E9] Of course, we hear examples of people making radical changes without the clear influence of a community. For example, some people claim to have quit smoking cold turkey and others say that they lost a ton of weight by their individually-devised program. While there is some truth to these stories, I would argue that the only way such changes can last is if these people quickly find others who share their new values. The former smoker must find non-smoking friends and the dieter must find health nuts, or else they will revert to their previous modes of existence.

[E10] “But what if a particular church or even the Church has become morally corrupt, so that the Christians there do not act like Jesus and the environment is not conducive to the kind of moral transformation you describe?” This is an excellent question, and one that is not hypothetical, as there are quite a few American churches that fail to look anything like Jesus. However, I wouldn’t do it justice to answer it in a footnote, so you’ll have to wait for another post for my full response to that one.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

What It Means to Be a Good Person

The view of the afterlife that I offered in my last post, “Heaven and Hell Reconsidered,” is both liberating and troubling for many Christians. It is liberating because it makes it possible to say, “God loves everyone,” with a straight face. Such a statement is hard to believe if you also think that God designed hell as an eternal torture chamber for those who disobey Him. However, according to my interpretation of Scripture, hell is the experience of being trapped in one’s own sin for eternity. [E1] Thus, it is the sinner - not God - who creates hell, whenever he or she lives a life that is envious, self-absorbed, vengeful, etc. The reason that God wants to stop people from sinning is not because God is offended by sin but in order to save people from their own, self-inflicted hells. With this view, one can genuinely believe in a loving God and the reality of hell at the same time.

However, a number of Christians find this view of the afterlife to be troubling because it contradicts the standard account of salvation. [E2] Let me explain. My view of the afterlife denies that God demands a penalty for sin. Instead, I claim that the only penalty for sin is sin itself; God freely forgives anyone who prays for forgiveness with genuine repentance. [E3] But for Christians who believe that Jesus “died on the cross in order to pay the penalty for sin,” this claim undermines the entire Christian message. They reason that if there is no divine mandate requiring sin to be punished, then Jesus’ death didn’t really accomplish anything. Thus, they accuse people like me of preaching a watered-down gospel, one that teaches that the only thing you have to do in order to end up in heaven is to be a good person.

Actually, this accusation is mostly true. I do believe that the only thing you have to do in order to end up in heaven is to be a good person. But I wouldn’t call this a “watered-down gospel” because I also believe that it’s impossible to be a good person without following Jesus. In fact, if Jesus had not come to the earth, I suspect that all human beings would have ended up in hell. [E4] In my view, Jesus’ earthly mission was to make it possible for us to be good people. In order to do this, he had to do three basic things: he had to (1) show us what “goodness” really looked like, (2) defeat those forces which held us captive to sin, and (3) create a new community that could shape us into good people.

I will talk about #2 and #3 in the next two posts, but for now, let me address #1. Christians are right to object to the idea that being good people will lead to salvation when the phrase, “being a good person” is used in a generic sense. Sometimes, you will hear people say things like this: “I don’t really think it matters what religion you follow so long as you are a good person.” The problem with that statement is that it assumes there is a universal definition for “being a good person” that people of all religions accept.  Unfortunately, this isn’t true. You may think that “being a good person” simply means showing respect to everyone you encounter, but the people at Westboro Baptist would disagree with you. They would argue that being universally respectful is irresponsible because it gives approval to all sorts of sinful behaviors. So, you may back-peddle a bit and suggest that “being a good person” simply means not harming innocent people. But Muslim extremists would disagree with you: they might argue that sacrifices sometimes need to be made in order to advance the will of Allah. My point here is not to pick on fundamentalists, but to show that every definition of goodness depends on a particular moral perspective. It may not be a religious perspective, but it is a moral perspective nonetheless. So when I say that you have to be “a good person” in order to end up in heaven, I don’t mean it in the sense that the American pluralist means it, that you have to be generally pleasant, tolerant of others and loyal to family and country. Instead, I am advocating a particular understanding of goodness; I am saying that in order to enjoy eternal life, you have to be molded into the image of Jesus.

In order to save humanity, Jesus had to live among us to show us what kind of lives God wanted us to live. [E5] Unfortunately, many Evangelicals scoff at this notion, claiming that it reduces Jesus to a moral teacher. [E6] But to claim that Jesus came to teach us does not reduce his status as the Son of God. On the contrary, no human teacher would have been able to reveal God’s true nature to us. This revelation is the first step of salvation.

The importance of Jesus’ teaching ministry has been obscured by a widespread myth called, “natural theology.” [E7] Natural theology claims that God has given each one of us a conscience that teaches us the difference between right and wrong. According to this view, every human already knows what the right thing to do is; the problem is simply that we lack the “will power” to pursue it. At first, this sounds like a Christian perspective, [E8] but on closer look, it deeply conflicts with the testimony of Scripture. The Bible teaches us that people sin without having any clue that they are sinning. [E9] According to Paul, this is because human sin has given us “a depraved mind.” [E10] Thus, all of us tend to delude ourselves into believing that we are “good people,” that the conflicts we get into are not our fault, and that the consequences we experience are unfair. [E11] We don’t even know what “goodness” looks like, but we are influenced by cultural definitions, which are always biased in favor of the society’s well-being.

In the fourth century, there was an important theologian named Athanasius who argued that Jesus saved humanity by showing us what goodness looked like. He says it much more beautifully than I do, so I would like to quote some of his words below:

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, in the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself.” [E12]

If Jesus hadn’t come and taught/showed us what goodness looked like, it would be impossible for anyone to live out the kind of lives God had intended because we didn’t know what these looked like. [E13] But this is only one of the ways in which Jesus saved us.  I will consider some others in the ensuing posts.



[E1] As I explained in the last post, this isn’t really “my” view of Scripture, but it is one that is widely held in the Eastern Orthodox Church and which has made its way into Western Christianity through the influence of C.S. Lewis. For other Christians who hold this view, see Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation, and Rob Bell, Love Wins.

[E2] By “the standard account of salvation,” I mean the satisfaction paradigm for the atonement. Over the course of Christian history, there have been a number of different models for understanding salvation have been offered. In the book, Christus Victor, Gustav Aulen showed that the early church embraced a Christus Victor model of salvation, which suggests that Christ brought about salvation by having victory over the devil. I consider my own view a variant of that one (and most closely related to the one offered by J. Denny Weaver in The Nonviolent Atonement). Over time, other models have been offered, including the deification model of the Eastern Church (which technically isn’t “an atonement theory”), the moral influence theory of Abelard, and most significantly, the satisfaction theory of Anselm. Anselm was a twelve century theologian who argued that Jesus’ death satisfied the debt of sin and made forgiveness possible. The atonement theory of penal substitution, which is pervasive in American culture today, is a direct descendant of Anselm’s satisfaction theory.

[E3] In Psalm 32:5, 65:3, 78:38, and 85:2, David claims that God forgave sins when asked. Some people claim that this forgiveness was only possible because it anticipated the sacrifice that Jesus would make in the NT, but this is nowhere to be found in the text itself. Similarly, Jesus forgave the paralytic before he died and made no reference to his future death in Mark 2:5/Matthew 9:2/Luke 5:20. Although Jesus frequently preached about forgiveness in his ministry, he rarely connects that teaching with his impending death.

[E4] I say “suspect” because no one has access to the full mind and/or will of God, and it is rather presumptuous to claim to know what God “would have done” in different circumstances. Nevertheless, we do “have the mind of Christ,” (1 Cor 2:16) which allows us to make some presumptuous claims about the nature of God.

[E5] Ok, it’s true. I learned this principle from Karl Barth. For Scriptures that make this point, see 2 Cor. 4:4 and Hebrews 1:2-3.

[E6] Although I love C.S. Lewis book, The Great Divorce, I have become less thrilled with his apologetic text, Mere Christianity. In one famous passage, Lewis says, “You must make your choice: Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse… But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” Of course, I agree with Lewis that Jesus is God, but I would counter with John 13:13, “You call me teacher and lord and rightly so, for that is what I am.” Jesus did see his teaching role as a central aspect of his identity and mission.

[E7] “Natural theology” is often attributed to Thomas Aquinas, who offered five proofs for God’s existence in the Summa Theologiae . However, Stanley Hauerwas has argued that Aquinas was not really a natural theologian, and that the proofs for God’s existence are the exception rather than the rule. I’m not a Thomistic scholar, so I am probably not qualified to meddle in this debate. But however it came about, natural theology was widespread during the Enlightenment, when people began to believe that distinguish between right and wrong was just a matter of “reason.” Of course, if any cultures disagreed with their definitions, they wrote them off as barbaric or irrational. We are still inheritors of the Enlightenment tradition today. “Postmodernity” has not fully disabused us of natural theology.

[E8] I will offer a more extensive critique of the concept of “will power” in the next post.

[E9] To mention just a couple of pertinent examples, David prays for forgiveness for his “hidden sins” in Psalm 19:12-14, and on the cross, Jesus asks God to forgive the soldiers who crucified him, “for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) These show that you can be sinful without knowing that you’re doing anything wrong. Even then, you need forgiveness and restoration.

[E10] Ironically, this term comes from Romans 1, the chapter that is most often cited in defense of natural theology. But if there is any ambiguity about what it means, Paul makes is case with even greater clarity in texts like 2 Corinthians 4:4 and Ephesians 4:17-19.

[E11] Here, I am not trying to deny that many people suffer unjustly or that suffering is evidence sin. However, there are many times when we do suffer as a result of our sins, and in those cases, we’re inclined to blame it on something else.

[E12] Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, translated and edited by C.S.M.V. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 41-42. For the record, this is not his only or even primary understanding of salvation. He is most deeply associated with the divinization soteriology of the Eastern Orthodox church, and one can even detect antecedents to Anselm in his legal metaphors for salvation.

[E13] "So what about people who lived in times and places who never even had the opportunity to hear about Jesus?" That is a great question, so great, in fact, that it would be an injustice to try to answer it in a footnote. It will have to wait for another day...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Heaven and Hell Reconsidered

Heaven and hell are central aspects of my belief system, but I understand them quite differently than most Western Christians do. [E1] Unfortunately, over the course two thousand years, the Christian teaching about heaven and hell has gotten deeply entangled with the mythologies of the cultures it has engaged. [E2] This entanglement has produced a horrific blend of belief systems, in which the Christian God is committed to retributive justice and therefore tortures anyone who does not submit to Jesus Christ. [E3] The story of how we got to this troubling perspective is long and complicated. For now, I just want to look at one piece of it: what we have absorbed from Germanic mythology.

In the ancient mythologies of the Germanic world, the universe was divided into three basic parts. The upper part is where the gods live. It is a place of great luxury in the sky.  The middle part is the earth, where humans live.  It is distinct and separate from the two other parts. The lower part is underground. It is the shadowy place of the dead. The name for this place is Hel, which is the word Christian missionaries used to translate their concept of the afterlife into German, and subsequently, English. In fact, the King James Bible translated a number of different biblical words, including Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, and Tartarus, into a single word: hell.

Unfortunately, in borrowing this language, Christians ended up absorbing the three-tiered vision of the universe associated with it. We consider earth to be the place of the living, and then after you die, we imagine that God sends you either "up" to heaven or "down" to hell. But that is not what Jesus and his disciples taught. Remember, Christians believe in the general resurrection, a doctrine that teaches that every human being will be resurrected in the same place, i.e. the earth. [E4] This includes those who have done good and those who have done evil. [E5] Consequently, heaven and hell do not ultimately name the places where we will reside. Instead, they describe the kinds of experiences we will have when we are resurrected. For some people, resurrected life on earth will be so wonderful that the best language to describe it will be heaven. For others, it will be extremely unpleasant. It won’t be an exaggeration for them to call it hell.

But why will it be unpleasant for some people and not for others? Why can’t God make it wonderful for everyone? Although God wants to do this [E6], the Bible teaches that our afterlife experience will largely depend on us. Whether it is joyful or miserable will be based on the kind of people we have become. Let me explain with an example. Picture that glorious moment when everyone is mysteriously brought back to life on this planet. When everyone wakes up and looks around them, they will see the masses of people with whom they will share eternity. For racists, this won’t be a pleasant moment. When they look around, they will see people “from every tongue and tribe and nation” around them, [E7] and they will immediately feel resentful, bitter, and hateful about having to live in this situation. Thus for them, eternity will be hell.

God does not punish us for our sins by sending us to a torture chamber; the punishment naturally flows from the sin itself. The Bible talks about this over and over again. Consider, for example, Proverbs 19:19, which says, “A violent-tempered person will bear the penalty; if you effect a rescue, you will only have to do it again.” The point of this verse is that people who can’t control their anger will be miserable wherever they go. You can try to “effect a rescue” by bailing them out of jail or moving away from those whom they dislike. You could even put them in a place where they live in a mansion and walk on streets of gold. But even then, they would “bear the penalty” of their sin, because something would undoubtedly tick them off. Violent-tempered people, like people with every other type of vice, want to blame it on the circumstances, but the problem is actually rooted in them.

Numerous other passages make the same point. Galatians 6:7 argues that a person will reap what they sow. Titus 3:10-11 explains that a divisive person is “self-condemned.” Even those passages which seem to depict God as angry and vengeful, when you take a closer look, are really only claiming that God lets people experience the consequences of their own actions. Look at one of the most “vengeful” passages in the New Testament, Romans 1. This is the one that says, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all godlessness and wickedness of people who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” So, in this quintessential verse of divine judgment and anger, what does God do in this rage? Three things: “God
gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity,” “God gave them over to shameful lusts…” and “God gave them over to a depraved mind.” The only action that God takes in this chapter is to hand sinners over to the consequences caused by their own sins. However, this is a great punishment indeed.

This isn’t always clear because the Bible usually talks about it in metaphorical terms. We usually associate hell with one particular metaphor, “the lake of fire.” [E8] Although it’s not incorrect to think about hell like this, what people don’t usually realize is that heaven is described in terms of fire too. In 1 Corinthians, Paul says that the life of a Christian “will be shown for what it is, for… it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.” Just as fire has a different effect on different materials – melting some and hardening others – so the “fire of God” will create a different experience for different people. It will be heaven for some and hell for others.
But if is ultimately our character that determines what the afterlife will be like, wouldn’t that mean that we should just try to be good people? Why would our beliefs matter in this understanding of heaven and hell? What does Jesus have to do with our salvation? I’ll consider these points in the next post.


End Notes (You don’t have to read these)

[E1] I say “Western Christianity” because for the most part, the Orthodox Church has preserved the understanding of heaven and hell that I am presenting here. Fortunately, it is slowly making its way into the West through C.S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce, which was the book that influenced me in this direction.

[E2] The relationship between Christian teaching and mythological teaching on the afterlife is very complex, especially since the New Testament occasionally uses Greek terms like Hades and Tartarus to describe hell. However, it is especially clear in texts like Dante’s
Inferno that Greek mythology has intruded into Christian thought in non-biblical ways.

[E3] Christians would rarely describe God as a “torturer,” although this implication if God both designed hell and sends people there. In some traditions, God does this reluctantly because of the demands of justice while in others, God does it quite willfully, and we sinful mortals are simply not capable of comprehending the justice of this action. The Mennonite critique, articulated especially well by figures like J. Denny Weaver, is that this account of retributive justice that is articulated by both sides of this continuum is precisely the model of justice that Jesus subverts in his parables.

[E4] This is not to deny that there may be physical separation between people on earth. The Bible certainly talks about a separation of the wheat and the chaff, the sheep and the goats, etc.

[E5] Cf. John 5:28-29.

[E6] Cf. 2 Peter 3:9, which says that God does not want anyone to perish but all to come to salvation.

[E7] Cf. Revelation 7:9, and really the whole chapter.

[E8] This metaphor is drawn from Revelation (cf. Rev. 20:10) and is similar enough to Jesus’ description of Gehenna (cf. Matt 5:22) that the two are often assumed to be identical.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Brief Detour: The Presidential Debates

Having just started this blog, I’m afraid that I haven't said enough about my religious perspective yet to articulate my political convictions in a meaningful way. So unfortunately, I cannot respond to the specific points that were raised in the first presidential debate tonight. Nevertheless, I think it is worth raising a question that was not asked in the debate or in the analysis that followed: How does watching this debate shape my character as a viewer? This is the question that matters most to me as a Christian.  

To address this question, let’s begin by reflecting on the ritual of the presidential debate itself. It is very appropriate to think about the debates as a national ritual and to understand ourselves as participants in it. After all, there is no law that mandates that the presidential candidates should debate. However, ever since the 1960 debate between Kennedy and Nixon, it has become a hallmark of the presidential race. Presumably, the function of these debates is to give us greater clarity on where the candidates stand regarding the most important issues. And the debates do have the potential to provide such clarity. To this extent, I applaud them. However, in the process of providing this “clarity,” a few other things happen along the way.

First, they encourage us to accept the topics being debated as “the most important issues.” Rather than calling attention to an example from tonight's debate, let me anticipate an omission that I expect to see in the near future. In the foreign policy debate, I doubt that the use of torture methods to extract information from enemies of our nation will be addressed by either of the candidates. If I am right (and I hope that I am not), then opponents of torture will be drowned out by those "more important issues" that receive national televised attention. This is a problem.

Second, this ritual gives us permission to wait until the debates to really start paying attention to what’s at stake politically. If we want to be viewed as “informed citizens” (and most of us who watched the debate do), then all we have to do is watch a few hours of T.V. to feel like we’ve done our part before voting. Now, this desire to be seen as informed can have positive effects. If we have already done some research and we pay critical attention to what’s being said, the debates can assist us in sorting things out, which is a good thing. For example, I thought that the exchange between Obama and Romney on health care cut through a lot of the sound bites and clarified where each candidate really stood on that issue. However, on the other hand, we may find ourselves paying more attention to the competitive element of the debate. In fact, part of our desire to be seen as informed viewers includes a desire to give our opinion about who won. For example, we may focus on whether the candidates were too aggressive or too passive with the moderator, how clever their catch-phrases and comments were, whether they accomplished what they needed to accomplish in a strategic sense, etc. (I will be the first to admit, I am very guilty about doing this!) Negatively, this distracts us from the issues and shapes us into personality-oriented voters. To suggest that “Candidate X won the debate” is to suggest that they are a better candidate. That is a bit troubling.

Third and finally, the most troubling issue for me is the way watching these debates and discussing “who won” shapes our own views about what winning and success look like. If you think, “Romney was successful because he was aggressive and didn't let the moderator push him around,” then this will train you to think that being a patient listener will set up you for failure in this world. Instead, you will find yourself being more aggressive in the world. On the other hand, if you think, “Obama made Romney look pathetic by smiling at him when he kept interrupting everyone,” then you may be inclined to think, “The best way to deal with obnoxious people is to smile or laugh condescendingly.” You will be more inclined to adopt a haughty attitude, which is also troubling.

All in all, I’m not suggesting that watching the debates is a bad thing. In fact, I would encourage it for people who are trying to sort through the sound bites on specific issues. However, we also need to think about how watching these affect us as viewers. We cannot accept the questions that are asked and the points that receive attention in the media to define what "the most important topics" are. Moreover, I would highly recommend NOT discussing who won and/or lost the debate, because this trains us to engage those who disagree with us as opponents to be defeated rather than friends to be taken seriously. And that is an ethical problem.