There is No War on Christmas

The time of year is approaching in which many loud opinions will surface, claiming that we need to “keep Christ in Christmas” or that there is “a war on Christmas” that needs to be fought. One thing worth noting is that this phenomenon is almost exclusive to the United States. While one may find small samples of this in places like Canada or UK, it by far the most pervasive in North America. Whenever conflict emerges in the arena of religion, it is important to delve beneath the surface and see if this conflict is even worth having at all.

In this case, I think the whole idea of the “War on Christmas” is a colossal waste of time and energy, primarily because Jesus was not even born in December. The tradition that Jesus was born on December twenty-fifth did not arise among Christians until the fourth century; speculated by church fathers such as John Chrysostom and Cyril of Jerusalem. There is nothing explicit in the Bible indicating when Jesus was born. One implied possibility is found in Luke 2:8-9, as shepherds were out in the fields, tending to their flocks. Based on the data we have, shepherds would only be out between the months of March and October. Also in Luke 2, it is written that Herod ordered a census of the entire Roman world. This would have been very unlikely to do in the winter (not impossible, but incredibly implausible). This also assumes that the content mentioned is what I call “history remembered,” as both birth narratives do not read as though they are pure history, but likely are instead “history metaphorized.” In other words, they contain some history, but that history was reshaped to emphasize various themes and ideas about who Jesus is as the Christ. So to say that can have definitive evidence of when Jesus was born at all, is, at best, dubious.

With this considered, it should be apparent that either the authors of the New Testament did not know when Jesus was born, or they did not deem it to be very important. But why is this such a point of contention for American Christians? Why does it matter whether someone says Happy Holidays, Jolly Junkanoo, Super Solstice, Killer Kwanzaa, or Merry Christmas? There are other holidays being observed during the winter season, so why do Christians care? I personally think it is due to the fact that American Christians have been in positions of privilege for so long that the appearance of other holidays alongside Christmas can be perceived as a threat. As multi-cultural societies are produced, it can be disorienting for many, but the adaptation or assimilation to the existence of diversity is important for social development and stability. For Christians to show benevolence toward people of other religious traditions and those who observe other holidays is not “a compromise,” it is to take Jesus seriously and be faithful to his call to love our neighbors as ourselves, because our neighbor can be anyone.

It is time for the alleged "War on Christmas" to end, because it has served no greater good. To opt out of the so-called “War on Christmas” is not a collapse into sterile political correctness, it is to stop fighting over things that are not only ill-informed, but it is to come to terms with the fact that people are creating an unnecessary conflict over things that absolutely do not matter. If we are going to “keep Christ in Christmas,” we should instead be concerned with feeding the hungry, serving those who are in need, giving gifts to those who have none, doing what we can to bring healing to those who suffer, and enriching the lives of those for whom the holidays are less than pleasant. To contentiously argue about whether or not someone says Merry Christmas is, in my opinion, embarrassing. There are many things that could be done with our energy during this holiday season that would be a much clearer reflection of Jesus to the world. So let us find them, and do them.

Bonhoeffer: A Rebellious Patriot

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a brilliant young man from Germany, and already held a doctorate degree by age twenty-four. He had opposed the Nazi regime since its inception; even within the same week that Hitler was inaugurated as Chancellor, Bonhoeffer hosted a radio address in which he warned his country against falling into nationalistic idolatry. He was taken off of the air mid-sentence. He held out this opposition because he loved his country, and could not bear to see it be soiled by fascism. Years later, Bonhoeffer left Germany and came to the United States in 1939 to come study and teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York. This would have been a great time to not be in Germany for obvious reasons. Bonhoeffer also could have had a very prestigious and comfortable academic career. However, in the same year, he decided to return to Germany, and wrote these words to his mentor Reinhold Niebuhr: “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”

Upon his return to Germany, he continued in resistance against the Nazi movement. Bonhoeffer was eventually imprisoned for this insubordination in 1943. During this time, he wrote many letters and essays that we still have today. On July 21, 1944, he wrote “It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith.” Within a year of writing this, he was executed. Bonhoeffer loved Jesus, he loved his country, and he was willing to die for both. I’m sure there were many times in which Bonhoeffer wished to escape all of the awful things he experienced, but his deeply rooted conviction in Jesus drove him to remain in the turmoil that was taking place. The seeds that he planted later grew into endeavors such as the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Apartheid movement, and other commitments to justice.

Bonhoeffer was an insubordinate patriot. Sometimes the most patriotic thing that can be done for one’s country is to resist dark powers that seek to exploit a country under the guise of nationalism. We Americans observe Veteran’s Day as multitudes of men and women have made sacrifices for the United States, many even giving their lives. The way of Jesus invites the world into non-violence, and yet we can and should still honor those who have made sacrifices and have seen horrific violence, not because they hate what is in front of them, but because they love what is behind them. We were not made for violence or killing, this is why people who survive combat often come back with PTSD. If we are to take Jesus seriously, we must honor and respect these people who have suffered, and do all that we can do in order to humanize and serve our brothers and sisters who have fought.

What could be more honoring to Veterans than doing what we can to defend equity and freedom in the United States for which so many have laid down their lives? Jesus does not want a Christian nation, but for people of all nations, tribes, and languages to work for healing, universal flourishing, and reconciliation. To follow Jesus does not mean to hate one’s country, but it does mean to oppose nationalistic propaganda that seeks to manipulate the lives and sacrifices of those in the military, and imperialistic agendas that aim to use military and violence for personal gain. Indeed, in the age of the American Empire, this is something that must be taken seriously by followers of Jesus. May we look to Bonhoeffer as we write this chapter of history.

Jonah: A Fairytale?

Some time ago, I heard a person say something to the effect of “In Pinocchio, a person is trapped in the belly of a whale, and it is a fairy tale. In the Bible, a person is trapped in the belly of a whale, and it is somehow not a fairy tale.” If you think the most crucial element of the story of Jonah is that someone was literally in the belly of a whale for three days, you have missed the point. The centerpiece of this story is not to communicate a one-dimensional recounting of history - it does not read that way at all. It reads like satire or a parable that demonstrates a more universally important idea.
 
God (Yahweh) calls Jonah to go to Nineveh (an Assyrian city) and tell them of God’s mercy. Jonah refused, because Jonah (like most of Israel at the time) not only hated Nineveh and thought they were terribly wicked, but also did not want God to forgive his enemies, so Jonah did everything in his power to suppress this. In his attempts to escape, he ends up being swallowed by a “great fish.” A detail that is often not explained is that the Ninevites worshipped a fish-god of the sea named Dagon, and thus a “great fish” would have been sort of icon or image for this Ninevite god. The irony and humor at this point of the story is that, in spite of Jonah’s disdain for the Ninevites and refusal to tell them of God’s mercy, God uses a representative of the Ninevite god as a vehicle to get Jonah to the city.
 
In the fifth century (probably when Jonah was written), many Jews felt that they could only retain holiness by keeping wholly separate from Gentile culture. Jonah sees God (Yahweh) as a national god strictly of their territory, Jonah exhibits xenophobia, and would rather have God destroy Nineveh rather than show compassion and change them. The main theme of this book is that God’s boundaries do not correspond with those created by religious establishment, and that God overrides these expectations. Jonah’s character illustrates the sort exclusivism and bigotry that pervades the world as we know it. The thesis made is that God is actively calling people to break down barriers of prejudice and intolerance that segregate humanity. This is the subversive challenge of the book of Jonah, and I cannot think of a more important message for the present.
 
If the book of Jonah is completely non-historical, I do not think that diminishes the value of its content. There is no way to really test the historical veracity of the story, so that should not be of primary concern. Rather, it should be asked what the story means in and of itself. Jesus refers to Jonah at a couple of points (Matthew 12:40, Luke 11:30), but again it does not seem that Jesus was concerned with its historicity; Jesus instead seems to use the story to reinforce his own message, which challenged the religious power structures of his time.
 
Indeed, the God found in Jesus practices consistent and surprising forgiveness. Forgiveness always frustrates those witness it, because when is forgiveness ever deserved? Yet, forgiveness is perhaps the strongest and most transformative experience a person can have. Few things can generate such deep change as being fully known with all your mistakes and failures and being accepted in spite of them. The message of Jesus (and of Jonah) is that God has such love not only for you, but for your enemies. It is this message that has survived throughout the ages because it is able to tear down dividing walls and bind humanity together, and that is Good News.

Biblical Inerrancy: A Conversation

I have witnessed (and been a part of) many arguments between the ardently religious and the passionately anti-religious over the nature of the Bible. Certain strands of Christianity contend that the Bible is without error, completely perfect, and directly from God. Many non-religious critics of the Bible take this as their starting point for criticism, and in pointing out inconsistencies or contradictions, believe that they have diminished the veracity and value of the Bible. For both sides, if the Bible is not “perfect,” then it is useless.

Where did this notion of the Bible being “inerrant” come from? It is widely assumed that Christians throughout history have always believed the Bible is inerrant, and thus, any criticism, whether historical, literary, linguistic, theological, or what have you, is perceived as a direct attack on the Bible. However, the concept of inerrancy is a relatively recent invention that was created in reaction to Modernity and Enlightenment ideologies. In the year 1881, two theologians from Princeton, Archibald Hodge and Benjamin Warfield, published a work that sought to present the Bible as being completely free of error. As they wrote: “The scriptures not only contain but are the Word of God, and hence all their elements and all their affirmations are absolutely errorless and binding on the faith and obedience of men.” Every statement and word made by the Bible was absolute “truth to the facts.” (See A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield, Inspiration, Presbyterian Review, pg. 2, 1881)

It should be noted that this phenomenon of inerrancy can only be found in recent Protestantism. However, this is something that even the Protestant reformers would not have endorsed. As Luther wrote “When one often reads that great numbers of people were slain - for example, eighty thousand - I believe that hardly one thousand were actually killed.” (See Luther’s Works, Volume 54, Philadelphia, 1967, pg. 452) Luther recognized that hyperbole was used in the writing of Scripture, and this did not deter Luther from seeing the Bible as sacred or holy, it was simply an acknowledgement that the Bible is more complex than just a mere presentation of “the facts.”

Another famous Protestant reformer, John Calvin, likewise noted that the Bible does not fit into simplistic categories. As he wrote almost mockingly “Who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is generous in measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slender capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.” (See Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 13, Section 1). In simpler language, Calvin saw that God accommodated to our weakness and finitude. The analogy he makes of nurses speaking to infants is accurate: God speaks “baby-talk” to us and communicates in terms that the authors of the Bible could understand and put into words.

This is not exclusive to the Protestant movements that emerged later in church history. We can find a similar perspective amidst ancient church fathers who were highly educated and extremely influential in the formation of the church. One being none other than Origen of Alexandria, who believed that whenever we find glaring inconsistencies in the Bible, this is not a road block to cause us to dismiss the Bible, but to force us to look deeper. Indeed, Origen wrote that the “impossibilities and incongruities [in Scripture] present a barrier to the reader and lead him to refuse to proceed along the pathway of the ordinary meaning.” (See Origen, On First Principles, 4.2.9) The point being that contradictions in the Bible are not somehow a “problem,” they instead show us that we cannot be superficial in our reading of Scripture, and when faced with a contradiction, rather than trying to twist two passages into say the same thing, we must ask better questions as to why the contradiction is there in the first place. There are myriads of apologetic movements that aim to downplay if not outright ignore contradictions in the Bible, and I believe this is a seriously misguided effort. If two different authors present conflicting information, we must ask “Why did they write different things?” More often than not, you will find that there is a significant reason why this is, and we will find that there are multiple perspectives attesting to truth, but fleshing them out in significantly different ways.

One example of this is in the New Testament, in 1 Corinthians 8, when St. Paul explains that eating meat sacrificed to idols is really not that big of a deal - it is something that can be done according to conscience. Conversely in Revelation chapter 2, the writer explicitly condemns eating meat sacrificed to idols. Surely there are interpretive gymnastics that can be done to “explain away” the alleged “problem” here. However, I think we should simply ask “Why did they write different things?” I think there is a plausible explanation.

St. Paul was working to unite Jews and Gentiles as followers of Christ - and the communities in Corinth were fighting and creating division over things that were not important. What Paul is saying here is that, essentially “This isn’t worth fighting over, if it doesn’t bother you, do it, if it does bother you, don’t do it. Don’t impose your personal conscience onto someone else and insist that they eat meat sacrificed to idols, even though you know that it is just meat, because they may have serious (albeit seemingly superstitious) reservations about eating it.” This letter of St. Paul was probably written in 53-54 CE. Revelation was likely written around 90 CE, in a completely different setting, to a different audience, experiencing different things. The author of Revelation may have been a Jewish Christian who survived the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 CE, and after the death of Nero, much of the persecution of Christians subsided for a time. Under the reign of Domitian, some Christians began to make compromises and accommodations to the Empire - this is likely what fueled the author of Revelation to write some of the scathing things that he did. When he condemns the eating of meat sacrificed to idols, it is because he saw followers of Jesus carelessly taking on characteristics of the Roman Empire, eating meat sacrificed to idols being one. Had the author of Revelation and St. Paul sat down to talk about this, they very well may have disagreed.

All this being said, there are still vital principles that we can take from both: St. Paul is calling people to be united and not to squabble and condemn one another over peripheral things. The author of Revelation is calling people to be faithful to Jesus and not accommodate themselves to the ways of the Empire. Paul would say “Look, it doesn’t matter what you eat, we are here to serve and follow Jesus.” The writer of Revelation would say “Don’t think that you can mimic the empire and fully follow Christ at the same time.” These are both true and important for us today.

This is only one example showing that Bible cannot be crammed into rigid categories of “inerrancy.” When I see people arguing about whether or not the Bible is inerrant, I can only think “You are completely missing the point.” When a Christian (such as myself) does not use a term like “inerrant” to describe the Bible, they are often decried as heretics. As we saw earlier, it is easy to find influential Christians throughout history that would have been shocked by this, and the notion that the Bible is “inerrant” is a rather new idea.

Letting go of the notion of inerrancy is often frightening and disorienting for many people. I can recall this part of my own journey being riddled with anxiety, terror, and much inner turmoil. When you are told that the Bible is “the only absolute truth,” it is very painful for this to be deconstructed. This raises the question, where do we go from here? I think as Luther once said is a good starting point, as he once wrote: “In the whole of scripture… there is nothing else but Christ, either in plain words or involved words.” The Scriptures serve as a sacrament in which we come into contact with the living Christ through the words of our spiritual ancestors. They inform our journey by continually challenging us, imparting wisdom, inviting us to ask questions and wrestle, and find encouragement on our own pilgrimage. As the words of Jesus read “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” (John 5:39) The Bible points beyond itself - when you find contradictions within the Bible or something that doesn’t line up with history or archeology, it important to not get lost in the labyrinth of questions that can be asked therein. Instead, it must be seen that the Bible is a witness to the living Word of God, who is Christ.

The Bible: Picking and Choosing

When I was a young Christian, Amy-Jill Levine came and spoke at our college. If you have never heard of her, she is one of the leading figures in North America in the arena of historical Jesus studies, and she teaches New Testament studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. At the end of her presentation, she began taking questions from the audience. At the time, my enemies were prosperity Gospel preachers (because when you are an evangelical Christian, you have to hate someone). I asked a question about how prosperity preachers could ever get their message from Jesus if Jesus was a homeless, middle-eastern man. I concluded my question, regarding the Bible: “Don’t you think they are picking and choosing?” Amy-Jill responded, saying “I think what they are doing is very wrong, and I disagree with them. But, it is important to remember that we all pick and choose.”

I was caught off guard by her response. Surely I do not pick and choose what parts of the Bible I want. It had always seemed to me like critics of the Bible had used that technique to write off the Bible, and angry Christians cited portions of the Bible that they wanted in order to dish out selective hatred. I didn’t want to be either of those, and I really believed that I accepted all of the Bible as equal. Eventually, however, I realized that this is not possible if one claims to be a follower of Jesus. Years later, I would now say I still love the Bible and hold deep reverence for the Bible, but it cannot be read like a cookbook. Certain passages must be given precedence over others if were are to draw any sort of sensible conclusions through our interpretations.

This was not easy for me to embrace until I found that this is something that the Bible does itself. As it is written in Isaiah 61:1-2, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, for the Lord has anointed me, to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed. He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favor has come, and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.” Jesus quotes this passage in Luke 4:18-19 when he speaks at a synagogue in Nazareth, and it reads like this “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

Did you notice the difference? Jesus left out the “God’s anger against their enemies” part. Why? Because Jesus was making an interpretive decision in what will take priority in his reading of Scripture. Jesus was creatively retelling the story in a way that gave compassion, justice, and restoration precedence over hostility, violence, and condemnation. In some sense, Jesus is picking and choosing. St. Paul does this as well in Romans 15:10, in which he cites the Hebrew Scriptures, “And again it is written, ‘Rejoice, O nations, with His people.’” St. Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 32:43, which reads in its fullness “Rejoice, O nations, with His people; For He will avenge the blood of His servants, And will render vengeance on His adversaries, And will atone for His land and His people.” Why did Paul leave out the part about vengeance and bloodshed? Because the living Christ had radically reshaped the way he understood human history. All of the nations will rejoice, but not because their enemies are being slaughtered. All of the nations will rejoice because God is reconciling the world to himself. This is why St. Paul wrote in Romans 15:7 “Accept one another, as God in Christ has accepted you.” If the ultimate end of the mission of Jesus is reconciliation, then we must reinterpret the violence and tribalism that we find in the Old Testament.

There was an ancient heretic from early church history named Marcion, who believed that the Old and New Testaments had two different gods, and that the Old Testament must be dismissed now that Christ has revealed the true God to replace the false demigod of the Old Testament. This idea was fought against and rejected, as Marcion aimed to throw out the entire Old Testament. While one can be sympathetic to Marcion for his awareness of the discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, to simply dismiss the Old Testament does not seem to be an option, as Jesus appears to have very much endorsed the Old Testament as authoritative. Instead, we must reinterpret the Hebrew Scriptures in light of how God has been decisively revealed in Jesus. This is what makes a reading of the Bible uniquely Christian - that we “pick and choose” Jesus to be the final word about what God is like.

The writer of Hebrews seemed to state very ardently the supremacy of Jesus over the writings of Scripture, as he writes “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power." (Hebrews 1:1-3) It was believed by early Christian communities that Jesus was the exact representation of God’s character and nature. It should be noted that the Bible never claims such an office for itself. Thus, the Bible is not the perfect revelation of God, but Jesus is. The Bible is a witness to Jesus, it points beyond itself to Jesus, and it is an unfolding story in which Jesus is the main character. How do we read the Bible in a truly Christian fashion? We must “pick and choose” Jesus to be the true and definitive expression of what God is like, we must reinterpret all things with Jesus being the decisive Word of God, and we must give Christ precedence over all things in the Scriptures. Because the Christian confession is that Christ is the fullness of God, and if God looks like Jesus, that is Good News for the whole world.

Hell Breaks Loose, Part III: Universalism

The topic of universalism is one of growing importance in American Christianity. It is something that has been a topic of recent debate ever since the maelstrom caused by the release of Rob Bell’s 2011 book Love Wins, even though the book is not actually a dogmatic argument for universalism by any means. In any case, people have been less afraid to ask the question “Could God actually save everyone?” There are growing numbers of people who seem more open to this possibility, but why? I think there are many reasons why, and I will spell out a few in this article.

First and foremost, universalism is not heresy. It is entirely possible that it could be wrong, but there is a large difference between being wrong and being a heretic. The way to determine whether or not something is heretical is by referring to ecumenical councils of church history. You cannot say “This is heresy because the Bible says ____.”  That is an incredibly asinine and immature thing for any Christian to say. You are not able to say “The Bible says this,” as the Bible must be interpreted; it is not a set list of brute facts. This is why, for example, in Catholicism, tradition is authoritative as well as Scripture and works in tandem with Scripture, because it provides the means through which the Scriptures are interpreted. Many Evangelicals do not understand that the Bible cannot be read without also being interpreted. At any rate, no ecumenical council has ever broadly condemned universalism as heresy. In the second council of Constantinople, Origen and his teachings were largely written off as heresy (and he did believe some weird things to be sure), and he also happened to be a universalist. But, again, this only condemned a narrow and unique presentation of universalism, not in general. This being said, the overwhelming resistance to universalism is a fairly recent development.

There have been ardent universalists throughout church history who were never condemned as heretics, and some were even canonized as saints. While universalism is certainly a minority voice throughout church history, is not some newly fabricated “liberal false teaching” as many ignorant Christians claim. Some of these include: St. Gregory of Nyssa (the final editor of the Nicene Creed), Clement of Alexandria, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Methodius of Olympus, St. Gregory the Wonderworker, as well as other ancient and medieval figures of the church. There are also more recent Christian theologians who have at least been open to the possibility that God in Christ could and/or would reconcile all people to himself. These include folks such as George MacDonald, Karl Barth, and even our beloved C.S. Lewis entertained the possibility that everyone could be saved through Jesus. Christian universalism is not new, and in various corners of the Christian tradition it has been accepted or at least considered without much controversy.

Upon granting that universalism has been within the Christian tradition since very early on, we must ask: How have people reached this conclusion upon their reading of the Bible? As we have examined previously in my blog on annihilation, there are passages that seem to indicate the God’s future judgement will be final, and annihilationists interpret that to mean that there are individuals who have not been reconciled to Christ, and their existence will be extinguished. However, there are other passages in the Bible seeming to indicate that God’s scope for salvation is for all people and all things. One passage being Colossians 1:20, which reads “Through him (Jesus) God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ's blood on the cross.” It would seem that “all things” (ta panta in Greek) has no qualifiers, nuances, or caveats. If God has made peace with all things through Christ, this seems to imply universalism. The real question is how to take this passage into context with other passages of judgement, and the interpretive challenge is whether the passages of reconciliation will take precedence over the passage of judgement, or vice versa. The annihilationist perspective would say that the total set of “all things” becomes smaller when all that is hostile to God is eliminated and removed from existence. This is a valid interpretive decision. The universalist perspective would say that the judgement of God is what sets all of creation right, and that nothing is lost or eradicated.

There are many other passages that seem to indicate God’s vision of salvation being for all things and all people. Such as the often-overlooked verse John 3:17 “God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.” Or 1 Corinthians 15:22, which reads: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Is the reality of Adam’s sin universal to all people? Then why would the victory of Christ not be universal to all people? People did not choose to be in Adam, why would people need to choose to be in Christ? Or in John 12:32, in which these words are attributed to Jesus “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” The Greek word for “draw” (helko) more literally means “to drag," seeming to indicate that God will eventually "drag" all people in. People object saying “all” does not actually mean all, and “the world” does not actually mean the whole world, but a simple question: What if it actually does mean what it says?

We could quote isolated passages all day, we could dispute what the best way to interpret them is, we could argue about the context of said passages, and so on. Instead, I think the greatest argument for universalism is the overarching motif of the Bible. God’s promise to Abraham begins in Genesis 12:3, which reads “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." The scope of God’s promise includes all of the world. The way Israel’s story begins is that they understand Yahweh to be a tribal deity, not that different from their neighbors’ gods. For example, in Deuteronomy 20:18, the Israelites were allegedly instructed to kill the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivite and the Jebusites. Here, God is presented as not wanting to bless them, but simply wants them to die. It seems that Israel believed God hated all the same people that they did. When you fast forward to the Psalms, we see something quite different. Such as Psalm 86:9, which reads “All the nations, whom you created, will come and worship you, O Lord. They will honor your name.” All the nations. This includes the Amorites, Canaanites, and the rest. Israel eventually began to see that Yahweh is not just a territorial god who only cares for a select group of people, but this God is universally connected to all people in all places. Similarly, another Psalmist writes “The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Psalm 145:9) God’s mercy is not selective or elitist; it is indiscriminately dispensed to all.

Another instance that this can be seen in is Israel’s relationship with Egypt. After the Red Sea closes and all of the Egyptians are killed, it reads “The Lord delivered Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.” (Exodus 14:30) It seems that God was not interested in blessing the Egyptians or saving them, at least from the perspective of the Israelites in how this story is told. However, down the timeline, the prophet Isaiah writes “There will be an altar to the Lord in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the Lord at its border.” (Isaiah 19:19) There will be an altar for Yahweh in Egypt? The oppressor of Israel will eventually come alongside Israel and worship their God? The theme here is that, God continues to expand beyond the borders of his people. This all comes to a head in Jesus, as St. Paul once wrote “Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us.” (Ephesians 2:14) There is violent hostility between many people groups today, and the universal rule of God in Christ calls us all to recognize our common humanity and divine image within each of us, and reconcile with God and one another. This could be called “universal reconciliation.” The universal promise made to Abraham ends up being solidified in Jesus.

The main point I am getting at here is that, although the Bible is not monolithic on hell, judgment, and punishment, the overarching motif is that God continually challenges the categories that we have of who is “in” and who is “out.” This should lead us to extend greater hope for all people, and rather than anticipate God condemning the majority of the human race, know that God has always been full of surprises. If God saves everyone, would you honestly be upset? If hell ends up empty, does that bother you? Would you be uncomfortable in God's new creation, sitting down at Christ's table to feast people who were murderers, sex offenders, war criminals, and terrorists? If God ends up not being that generous, then so be it. If God does err on the side of grace (which God has a track record of doing), should we not be glad?

In summation, universalism is, at worst, a strange fringe idea that could potentially be wrong. At best, it is a valid expression of orthodox Christian faith. Even if you are not a universalist, there are beautiful sketches and images of the heart of God that can be found therein. All Christians can gain things from Christian universalism even if they do not believe it to be correct. We should hold out hope that God desires for all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), we should affirm that God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11), and this does not negate the reality of consequence for sin, nor does it mean that we disregard passages about hell, judgement, or any such thing. It means that we must place all things under the living Christ, who is the final Word of God to all things and all people. It is in Christ that God has said “Yes” to all people, and it is in Christ that God has claimed all people as his own, and that is Good News.

 

Hell Breaks Loose, Part II: Annihilation

Last week, we examined the eternal torment perspective of hell, and uncovered how it is actually a foreign idea to the New Testament. If hell is not eternal torment, what are some other options for understanding it? There are a few, and one is annihilation. In brief summary, annihilation (or terminal punishment as it is sometimes called) contends that those who resist God do not suffer punishment forever, but they (eventually) cease to exist. This was believed by several important figures in the early church, such as Ignatius of Antioch, Athanasius of Alexandria, Polycarp, and others. That being said, I do not think this is the view of hell, but it was believed by some and accepted as a valid interpretive conclusion. There is a resurgence of this perspective that has been led by many recent Evangelical scholars such as the late John Stott, Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd, as well as others. But where is this present in the Bible? That is what we will look at today.

Let’s start with what is perhaps the most popular passage in all of the Bible - John 3:16, which reads “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” The Greek verb for “perish” is apóllymi, which implies permanent loss or complete destruction. To better understand this word, we can see how it is used throughout the New Testament, as it appears frequently. One occasion of such is Matthew 12:14, which reads “The Pharisees went out and plotted how they might destroy (apóllymi) Jesus.” Were the Pharisees aiming to eternally torment Jesus? No. They wanted him to die and be gone forever. A different form of the same verb appears in Matthew 8:25, apollymetha, when the disciples fear for their lives as they are tossed about in a violent storm while at sea. It is written “We are perishing! (apollymetha)” Did the disciples believe that they were being subjected to eternal torment? No, they believed they would die. Another form of this verb, apollymenen, is attributed to Jesus in John 6:27, when Jesus instructs his disciples not to work for food that perishes (apollymenen), but for food that endures eternally. Is the metaphorical food here being subjected to eternal torment? Of course not. While this is completely silly, it shows that this verb had a relatively consistent usage that was understood at the time the New Testament was written.

Where does this verb appear in places that speak directly to hell? One is Matthew 10:28, in which it is written: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy (apóllymi) both soul and body in hell.” If the previously described understanding of this verb is correct, then it would follow that this statement is describing “hell” as annihilation, not eternal torment. The annihilation perspective requires that this interpretive conclusion is correct, and it seems that the case can definitely be made for such.

The annihilation perspective also contends that humans are not innately immortal, which the eternal torment perspective requires. This draws from ancient Jewish theology, as it is not clearly indicated anywhere in the Old Testament that humans have immortal souls. Indeed, this is a Greek idea. The annihilationist would point to passages such as Romans 2:7, in which St. Paul writes “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, God will give eternal life.” Here, it is implied that immortality is something that is given to humans, not something that they already possess. St. Paul also writes in Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” The noun “death,” or thanatos in Greek, really simply means to die, there is no real profound secret to unlock here. Furthermore, in 1 Timothy 6:16 it is written that “God alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light.” The Greek (feminine) noun translated “immorality” is athanasia, which most rigidly means “freedom from death.” If “God alone” is free from death, what is implicit as that all other things, including humans, are not. Likewise, if immortality is not innate to humanity, but must be given, that would mean eternal torment is not possible (unless God instantaneously made people immortal solely for the purpose of torturing them, but there is no reason to believe that). If these passages can be legitimately read in this way, and it seems that they can, this also supports the case for annihilation.

Another area where annihilation succeeds where eternal torment does not is in eschatology, or the end of all things. One passage in Matthew 13:41-42, Jesus teaches that, at the end of the age, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evil, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire.” The imagery here is meant to convey the idea that everything that corrupts God’s creation will be eradicated. Indeed, wouldn’t God have failed if this were not so in the end? For the eternal torment perspective, evil is not eradicated, it is merely relocated. For annihilation, evil actually is brought to end because it is extinguished. Universalism also succeeds over eternal torment in this arena, in that it transforms what is evil and reconciles it to God rather than only storing it away elsewhere, but we will revisit and expand on universalism in a later post.

Lastly, one must ask the question “How can God punish someone forever in hell even though they only committed a finite amount of sins in their brief time on earth?” This is a serious moral question that cannot just be brushed aside. Some proponents of eternal torment respond in defense that “God is infinite, and any sins against him warrant infinite retribution.” The logic is consistent here, but this concept is completely absent from the Bible, and likewise is completely absent from church history until St. Anslem of Canterbury, who lived in the eleventh century CE. So this response seems to be invalid if it cannot be drawn from the Bible itself, and its stark absence from Christian writing for a millenia is also quite telling. Other Christians may respond “God does want God wants, and you can’t question that.” This is not only dangerous as it can cause people to be subjugated to religious falsehoods, but also seems to run contrary to the myriads of portraits of God in the Bible in which God actually engages people with their questions.

In summation, annihilation is a viable alternative to eternal torment, and also demonstrates a greater exegetical integrity when reading the Bible. Why then is eternal torment so popular, and why is annihilation treated as a fringe perspective? I think this is largely due to St. Augustine, who entertained the idea of universalism in his early years, but then strongly rejected it in his later writings, and become an ardent proponent of eternal torment. Augustine is so deeply influential for both Protestants and Catholics that this perspective is widely assumed to be the only way of understanding hell. It is also worth noting that, Augustine could not read Greek or Hebrew (the original languages that the Bible was written in). Thus, to say that Augustine made the best interpretive decisions regarding hell is dubious at best. This goes to show that, just because something is widely believed within a religious tradition does not mean that it is correct. All this being said, although I would not say that I am an annihilationist, I do believe it is a legitimate way to understand the concept of hell, engages the Bible and Christian tradition much more thoroughly, and does not commit the many errors that eternal torment is guilty of.

Now, what about universalism? Is it possible that God could save everyone? Well, you will have to come back next week for that.

Hell Breaks Loose, Part I: A Criticism of Eternal Torment

If someone rejects the eternal torment view of hell, accusations are quickly mounted against them. It is said that they “want to make God nicer,” that they “can’t handle that hard truth,” that they are “false teachers or heretics,” and the list goes on. However, perhaps the most common of all is that they “ignore the Bible.” I think this is patently false, as I will demonstrate here in this post. For me, this is not a question of whether or not I believe eternal torment to unjust, emotionally repugnant, or morally untenable. Rather, I very seriously do not think this concept can be found in the Bible at all in the first place. I believe there are only five main passages that proponents of eternal torment refer to, and I will expound on each of them in this blog.

The first and (in my opinion) most popular passage that is believed to teach eternal torment is Jesus’ parable of the Final Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. It is frequently pointed out that “eternal life” and “eternal punishment” in verse 46 are set up by Jesus in a way that seem to be parallel. With the defense for eternal torment being “If you say the punishment isn’t eternal, then the life can’t be eternal either!” However, as always, we must note that the Bible was not written in English, but in ancient Greek. Likewise, it is important for us to note that any translation from Greek to English requires an interpretative decision - it is not merely a matter of using Google translate and running with it.

The adjective translated as “eternal” used by Jesus is aionios in Greek, which is a form of the word aionion, and this most commonly meant “an age or a span of time.” In Jewish literature, it was generally used in reference to the future Messianic age, not just any arbitrary age. Thus, I would posit that a better translation of aionios is “of the age to come.” With this considered, we would better read these as “the life of the age to come” and “the punishment of the age to come.” How long is this punishment or life? That question is not answered here. All that is being indicated by Jesus in this parable is that there will be a future punishment and future life. Not to overlook the fact that Jesus uses the phase “eternal fire” in this passage as well, how should this be understood as “the fire of the age to come?” This same phrase also appears in Jude 1:7, in reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. How long did the fire at Sodom and Gomorrah last? One day. The punishment, life, and fire listed here do not include anything about duration, it is simply stating that they will take place in the future. In a nutshell, I do not think this passage teaches that eternal torment. I also do not think it teaches annihilation, nor does it teach universalism. It is strictly saying that there will be a future judgement, and nothing beyond that.

Next, there are two passages in the book of Revelation that are often used to strike fear into the hearts of people, and the first is Revelation 14:11, which reads “the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” Before we make judgements about how this is best read, we must first understand the kind of literature that it is. The book of Revelation is apocalyptic, and in the ancient world apocalyptic literature was written to criticize the corrupt and oppressive powers that ruled at the time, and also to create hope and inspire perseverance for those who were not compliant with these powers so that they might maintain faithful resistance against them. Another important detail about the apocalyptic genre is that it is by definition symbolic, and was never meant to be read literally. Indeed, if one tries to read the book of Revelation literally, it is at best slightly amusing and at worst akin to a horror film. When people insist that there is a literal lake of fire, one must ask, do you also believe in a literal giant prostitute riding a beast described in Revelation 17? Do you believe that a beast will literally be thrown into a literal bottomless pit as described in Revelation 9? (Where is the bottomless pit?) Do you also believe that God will literally dump a massive wine-cup of fury on people? (I’m not sure what that would even look like) I could keep going, but I’m sure you get the point. Revelation does not make sense if it is read literally, as the genre demands that it be read symbolically.

With all this considered, “the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever” is best understood as hyperbolic imagery, and this was commonplace in Jewish apocalyptic literature. We can find this in the Old Testament as well. One quick example is the apocalyptic description of the judgment of Edom in the book of Isaiah, which reads “This judgment on Edom will never end; the smoke of its burning will rise forever.” (Isaiah 34:10) I’ve never been to Edom, but I am willing to bet that the smoke of its destruction is not still rising. The reason it was written this way was to indicate the severity of the judgement, not the duration. Similarly, with Revelation, in its criticism of the Roman Empire, this passage is best understood as how the Roman Empire would fall in judgment for its oppressive rule (which it eventually did).

The second passage in Revelation 20:10-15, which includes the famous lines about the lake of fire, can be read in a similar light. When “Death and Hades” are thrown into the lake of fire, if this is attempted to be read literally, I can only picture a Grim Reaper and Hades from Disney’s Hercules being thrown into a burning sea. Instead, the lake of fire is God’s impending judgment on the Roman Empire, and those “who bore the mark of the beast” or “were not found in the book of life” are those who accommodated themselves to the way of the Roman Empire rather than the way of Jesus, and faced (or will face) the same destruction as the Empire.

The next passage, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, is viewed as being in support of eternal torment. Specifically verse 9, which reads “These will suffer the penalty of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” First, we should ask the obvious question: “How can something be destroyed eternally?” If a building is destroyed, it collapses once and that is all. If a vehicle is incinerated, this act cannot be repeated. If a dead body is cremated, this destruction only lasts for a finite period of time. Also, as we examined earlier, “eternal” comes from the Greek word aionios, which can best be translated as “the age to come.” We should also examine the Greek word for “destruction,” which is olethros. This in a more rigid sense would mean “ruin” or “death,” which only happen once. Most importantly, Paul is not writing this passage (or letter) to give us a systematic theology on hell, he is writing to this church explaining that they will be received from the persecution they were experiencing.

Lastly, we need to look at Mark 9:42-50. It is said that “hell” is an “unquenchable fire.” It is also said of those who go there that “their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” Since this passage is the only one we have looked at the uses the word “hell” explicitly, it is now worth expanding on what this means. The Greek word for “hell” is Gehenna, and for Jews, this was not a place at the center of the earth. Gehenna is a literal, physical valley on the southwest side of Jerusalem. You can still go there today. Gehenna is mentioned a few times in the Old Testament, as it is The Valley of Hinnom, which, when transliterated into Greek, is Gehennom. Gehenna was believed to be cursed as it was where apostates would go to offer children as sacrifices, as well as make other sacrifices to foreign gods (see 2 Kings 23:10). Now that we have a basic understanding of Gehenna (which we will examine in greater detail in a later post), we will return to this passage.

Where does Jesus get this imagery of “unquenchable fire” and immortal worms from? It is from Isaiah 66:24, which uses the same phrase referring to slain enemies and apostate Israelites: “the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched.” So why did Jesus feel the need to draw from this passage? Isaiah was written (at least in part) before the Israelites were exiled in Babylon back in 587 BCE. This passage warns of the judgment that violent Empires face, as well as those who are complicit with the way of the Empire. Jesus used this in a time when tensions were high between the Jews and the Roman Empire - and he used this phrase as a warning in hopes that judgment would not need to emerge once more for God’s people. Unfortunately, we know that this came to pass in 66 CE when there was a violent uprising against the Roman Empire, and then Rome came and completely destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE. In this passage, I do not believe Jesus is speaking about something that happens after we die, he is talking about something that happens in history when we fight violence with violence. We materialize hell on earth, we give birth to destruction, and we reinforce the spirit of Empire.

One final note about this passage is that the Greek word used by Jesus here for “quenched” is sbyennymi, which is generally used as a metaphor meaning “to suppress or stifle.” Jesus seems to not be saying that the fire will literally never go out, and will keep burning for every literal twenty-four hour day into an endless future, but instead Jesus seems to be saying that this fire will not be extinguished until it has done what it it is supposed to do, namely, burn up whatever has been set on fire. All in all, this passage does appear to speak of eternal torment either.

We have looked at the most popular passages in the Bible that seem to teach the notion that hell is conscious, eternal torment. With these things considered, I do not think they do. It seems reasonable to me that, although the concept of eternal torment is wildly popular within western Christianity, it is absent from the teachings of Jesus as well as the letters of St. Paul and Revelation. I think the idea of eternal torment likely emerged before or during the time of Tertullian of Carthage wrote most of his work, approximately around year 200 CE.

So, now, if hell is not eternal torment, what is hell? Well, you will have to tune in next week for that.

Abraham and Isaac: Killing for God?

Within the Bible, there are many passages that seem to be completely upside down relative to our moral compass. Why are these in the Bible at all? Surely we have all asked that question at some point or another. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, when Abraham believes he must kill his son to prove his faithfulness to God. It is a passage that causes great dissonance for many. After all, who could imagine God telling you to kill your own child?

The traditional reading of this passage in Genesis 22 is that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and once God sees that Abraham is faithful enough to kill his own son, God tells him to stop. Many consider this to morally reprehensible, akin to maniacal warlord Negan in the first episode of season seven of The Walking Dead. In this episode, Negan instructs Rick to cut off his own son’s arm. Once Negan sees that Rick’s spirit is finally broken enough that he is willing to hurt his own son, he tells him to stop. The methods of Negan are not anything that we would salute. Thus, we ask: Is God really like that?

Alternatively, there is a second (and not nearly as popular) way of reading this passage. First, a short lesson. In the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament), there are many names that the Israelites use for God. Yahweh is of course the personal and specific name that they use to talk about their own God in particular, which is translated as “LORD” in most English versions of the Bible. Conversely, Elohim is a much more generic name that is sometimes used for their own God, but also for the gods of other nations, angels, kings, and other divine beings; this word is much more flexible than how it can be translated into english.

It is worth noting that when Abraham is told to sacrifice Isaac, he does not ask any questions. Child sacrifice was likely common in his former religious belief system. In Genesis 22, it is Elohim (plural in Hebrew) that calls for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Elohim that shows Abraham where to go to do it, but it is an angel of Yahweh that stops Abraham from carrying out the sacrifice. This story could instead be read as Abraham’s old gods calling him to offer human sacrifice, but then Yahweh calls off the sacrifice. The picture painted here is not God testing Abraham’s obedience through a morbid request, but it is instead a decisive turning point in which Abraham leaves old conceptions of the divine behind in order to embrace a new perception of reality.

The Bible cannot be read coherently as an immutable list of static facts, but instead it is a series of dynamic changes as the story advances and humanity grows in their consciousness of who God is. This is the story that we are called to be a part of, as history moves forward into becoming a new creation, and it is in this ever-expanding story that we find Jesus being the one consistently advancing the plot. The Good News is that God looks like Jesus, and all other portraits of God need to be subject to and reinterpreted in light of Jesus.

When Authors of the Bible Change Their Minds

1 Thessalonians is widely believed to have been the first letter written by St. Paul in the New Testament, and is generally believed to be the earliest document in the New Testament that was written around the year 49 CE. 2 Thessalonians is also attributed to Paul, but over the past couple centuries, many scholars have doubted that this letter was penned by the historical Paul, and instead was written by a disciple of his. The reason for this doubt is that, in the first letter, Paul seems to anticipate the second appearing of Jesus to take place very soon, and indeed within his own lifetime, but in 2 Thessalonians, it seems that the coming of Christ is delayed. In 1 Thessalonians 4:15, Paul refers to “those of us who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord.” Yet, in 2 Thessalonians, the writer seems to be saying “Don’t quit your day job, we might be here awhile,” as they list events that must occur before the coming of Jesus (2 Thessalonians 2:3-12).

It is entirely possible that a disciple of Paul wrote this letter after his death, perhaps in attempt to correct some misunderstandings that people were having about his first letter to the Thessalonians. There are intelligent Christians who would say this, and that would not change a great deal for me. However, I think 2 Thessalonians likely was written by St. Paul, and marks a change in his thinking. He had to reshape his vision of the future in understanding that, perhaps Jesus would not appear during his lifetime. Rather than completely scrap everything, Paul (and all Jesus followers) had to reconfigure what it would look like to live sustainably for an indefinite span of time. Rather than saying a different author wrote 2 Thessalonians because the ideas are different, I would say that Paul wrote it, and the ideas are different because Paul changed his mind.

The reason I want to note this change of mind for St. Paul is to point out: Changing your mind about God is part of the journey. Once you experience something that challenges the way you see the world, there is no turning back. After you see something, you can’t un-see it. Upon the rupturing of your nice and neat belief system, things will never be the same. Perhaps you are going through a phase of deconstruction or change - it will be disorienting for awhile. You will feel as though you are hurdling through space, not knowing up from down, longing for the familiarity of the faith of your childhood. But eventually you will emerge more mature, more seasoned, and with greater depth to your being. The pilgrimage is worth it, and there is something on the other side. You may be in a church or religious community that will not accommodate your growth, and will try to keep you from evolving. This may be a prompting that it is time to find a new community of faith that will not shun your questions or give pat answers from books that you’ve already read.

As we follow Jesus, our understanding of God will perpetually be expanded, deepened, and paradoxically become clearer and more mysterious at the same time. Faith is not somehow obtaining certainty, but it is learning how to embrace mystery and live exuberantly in the midst of uncertainty. An indispensable element of this adventure is changing your mind; do not be ashamed of this. Indeed, as St. Paul wrote in Romans 12:2, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” May we do this and live.

When the Bible Doesn't Give You History

“If you can’t trust the Bible on one thing, you can’t trust it on anything.” This sentiment is popular amidst Christians, and it is the measuring rod by which the Bible is often evaluated. There are very specific standards imposed on the Bible, demanding that the Bible behave in accordance with certain expectations. The Bible is either facts, or it is fairy tales. There allegedly cannot be any other categories. What if the Bible doesn’t line up with history? Was Abraham really a camel herder when camels were not domesticated until several centuries after he would have lived? Did a literal two million Israelites leave Egypt without leaving a trace of evidence? Did Jesus die on the day of Passover, as Mark’s Gospel says? Or did Jesus die on the Day of Preparation, as John’s Gospel says? I remember facing these questions years ago and having an onslaught of anxiety, feeling the need to force the Bible to fit into my assumptions of how it ought to be. However, I realized that if the Bible is hanging on how the previous questions were answered, I was not allowing the Bible to speak for itself and be what it is.

In the ancient near-eastern world, people had a very different view of history than we do today. Instead of compiling lists of facts, they would take history and reshape it for didactic (or teaching) functions. I believe there is an historical core behind the Abraham stories, but he was probably a herder of donkeys, and the stories of Abraham were probably written down after camels had been domesticated. I affirm an historical core behind the Exodus narrative, but in the time it was written, hyperbolic inflation of numbers was commonly in writing used to express the significance of an event, so in my opinion, the Hebrews who left Egypt did so, but in a smaller number. Mark likely presented Jesus’ death on Passover to illustrate that Jesus was starting a new Exodus, in which people would be led into a new way of life under God’s rule, as where John wrote Jesus’ death taking place on the Day of Preparation because this is the day that Passover lambs were killed, and John claimed that Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)

The way the Bible is written will not fit into the categories that we would like as post-Enlightenment people, but this does not mean that we should toss it out. Instead of asking “Did this literally happen the way it is described or not?” We should ask “Why did anyone feel the need to write this down in the first place?” What I believe to one of the best examples of this can be found in a popular passage that is often referred to on Good Friday. In Mark 15:6-15, it is written that it was the governor’s custom each year during the Passover celebration to release one prisoner. Jesus is one prisoner that Pilate offers to release, and the other is a man named Barabbas, who was a murderer and insurrectionist. A popular way that this is often read is that, the guilty man goes free, while Jesus, who is innocent, is condemned to death. The way this is interpreted is that, we are Barabbas, and though we are guilty, because of Jesus we go free. I do not wish to deride this interpretation, as it is indeed very beautiful, quite powerful, and deeply meaningful for many people. However, this is almost certainly not why the author included this.

As it turns out, there is no evidence to indicate that there was an annual custom for Roman authorities to release a prisoner each year at Passover. So why did Mark include it? What I can tell you first, is that he was not just merely making things up to fill space. Mark was probably written between 66 CE and 70 CE. This is incredibly significant because during the year 66, a sect of Jews named the Zealots had launched an insurrection against the Roman Empire, hoping to overthrow them and become independent once more. They had a short run of success, but eventually, in year 70, Roman military forces came and completely destroyed Jerusalem, the temple, and claimed many lives. So Mark’s Gospel is written during this uprising, and as conflict escalated, those who followed Jesus knew that violence only begets violence. It seems that Mark included this episode of Barabbas and Jesus to say “You are choosing the way of violence, and you are rejecting the way of peacemaking that Jesus has shown you.” The writer of Mark goes to great lengths to even put Pilate on the side of Jesus, trying to release him, but the crowds insist that they would rather have a murderer than Jesus.

What I would tell you, is that Mark included this literary invention in his Gospel as a microcosm of what was happening at the time it was written, and also gives a timeless bit of wisdom for us. When we choose to fight fire with fire, and combat violence with more violence, we end up rejecting the way of Jesus. Did this instance literally happen? No, I do not believe so. But is this passage telling us something true? Yes, it absolutely is. Therefore, we ought to challenge our assumptions about how we think the Bible should behave, and loosen the grips of our “fact fundamentalism,” and let the Bible be what it is. When we do this, that is when we can hear the voices of our spiritual ancestors and meet God in the pages of our sacred book.

Leaving Behind Dying Religion For A Living Christ

Our good friend C.S. Lewis is probably best known for his Chronicles of Narnia series. I know many religious and non-religious people who have enjoyed these books. The allegorical flow of the story is of course that a group of kids stumble about a new dimension of reality, they meet Aslan (the “God” character), and the unfolding Narnia story symbolizes different elements of the Christian story. Regardless of what one may or may not believe, the tales told by Lewis are enthralling.

There is another writer who has adopted a similar approach to Lewis, but has told the exact opposite story. Philip Pullman (also from England) wrote a series called His Dark Materials, in which he tells the inverse of the Chronicles of Narnia. Instead of children finding God, Pullman tells a metaphorical story of people leaving religion behind as fantasy.

*Spoiler Alert*

In Pullman’s final book, The Amber Spyglass, Will and Lyra, the two main characters, find The Authority (the “God” character). They set him free from his crystalline chamber, but he immediately dies on contact with the outside world because he is so frail.

Pullman’s metaphorical objection to religion, at least as I take it, is that religion can only survive through insulation and tedious maintenance. If religion came into contact with the real world, it would dissolve and cease to exist.

Regardless of what you may think of the quality of his writing or the motives behind his work, I think this thesis is something to be taken seriously. If a form of religion lacks the fortitude and resilience to handle contact with the real world, what good is it? After all, isn’t the heart behind religion that it has something good to offer the world?

If the primary attitude of any religious movement is to build fences and walls to shelter its adherents, how could this religious movement ever be of benefit to the world? Oddly enough, Pullman’s first book of the series (The Golden Compass) was made into a movie and released in the United States in 2007. Without missing a beat, swarms of Christians protested and boycotted it. I never saw it, but I heard it was nothing like the book (don’t judge a book by its movie). Perhaps this knee-jerk reaction says something of the case Pullman makes.

Particularly in the Christian tradition, from which I come, I see the call of Jesus as a call on all people to be present within the world, to not fear contact with ideas and people who are different, to not feverishly try to retain cognitive certainty, to be okay with asking questions, learning to live within the questions, and preferring to have unanswered questions rather than unquestioned answers.

In Jesus, we see that God embraces people who are contrary to him. We see that God is not allergic to the world in its present state, but was willing to suffer and live within it alongside us. We see that God is not afraid of questions, but invites us to become inquirers. The God made known in Jesus shows the world that there is a way of seeing God that can live and breathe in the real world, and that we can follow this God as a new world quietly bursts forth in the middle of the old one, and that is Good News.

Genesis and Evolution

This is something that is largely considered to be “off limits” in many Evangelical Christian circles. I can recall in my first few years of becoming a Christian, I was told explicitly by others “Evolution has to be false if the Bible is true,” and there was immense social pressure to adhere to this claim. God created the universe in six twenty-four hour days, Adam and Eve were real, historical people who lived a few thousand years ago, and if you were to deny any of that, all of Christianity falls to pieces and the Bible is diminished into a book of imaginary stories. Eventually, this reading of Genesis no longer made sense to me, not only in light of established science, but just in reading the text itself and the troubling questions that emerged from trying to take it literally. How could there have been a morning and evening on the first three days of creation if there was no sun until the fourth day? How did Adam and Eve eating fruit lead to 30,000 children dying of starvation every day? How could two humans populate the entire world in only a few thousand years? When Adam and Eve hide, why does God ask “Where are you?” if God already knows everything?

In my study of church history, I came to see that the opening chapters of Genesis were not read literally until very recently. There has a been a growing resurgence of Christians taking the creation stories seriously without taking them literally, but they are frequently decried as “heretics” or “compromisers.” Yet, many of the ancient church fathers were committed to reading the creation stories in a non-literal way. Augustine, Irenaeus, Tertullian, as well as others all took non-literal approaches to these texts. Origen of Alexandria was one of the most important Bible commentators for the first few centuries of the the church’s existence, and he criticized a literal reading of Genesis as “foolish,” asking “What intelligent person can imagine that there was a first, second, and third day, evening and morning, without the sun, the moon, and the stars?” Origen concludes “I cannot imagine that anyone will doubt that these details point symbolically to spiritual meanings by using a historical narrative which did not literally happen.” (See Origen, De Principiis, 4.1.16) And yet, we have multitudes of Christians today insisting that it must be taken literally, or it must be discarded.

So how then should we read it? Here is what I would tell you. The first chapters of Genesis were not written to communicate history or science. Creation stories had an entirely different purpose in the Ancient Near East. They were written to give people a vision of their place in the world, and to help them make sense of existence. In other words, they gave people a narrative in which they could live their lives. This is not an outdated idea, as people today still live within functional narratives that cause them to see the world in a certain way. Perhaps the most powerful element of all creation stories is that they present a way of understanding what it means to be human.

One creation story that was written before Genesis is the Babylonian creation tale, known as the Enuma Elish. This story has its own way of explaining humanity. The god Marduk kills the goddess of primordial chaos, Tiamat, and forms the heavens and earth from her body. He then kills one of Tiamat’s sons, a rebellious god named Kingu, mixes Kingu’s blood with clay, and fashions humans from this bloody soil. Marduk creates humans to be slaves, in order to do the dirty work so that the gods could be free to enjoy leisure. The picture of what it means to be a person in this story is that human beings are innately worthless and consigned to endure the evil curse of labor without any meaning. Likewise, when Babylonians were asked why they were so violent and cruel, they would respond “This is the true nature of the universe. It was birthed out of violence.”

The Genesis creation stories were written in response to this story, saying that the heart behind the universe is not violent betrayal and the usurping of power, but a divine goodness that is instilled in creation. The format used in the opening chapters of Genesis clearly resembles the Enuma Elish, but it tells a completely different story. Instead of God mixing the blood of a dead god with clay to make people, the God in Genesis simply breathes his own life into humanity with no struggle. Rather than making them slaves, this God makes them his image-bearers, meaning that humans are to be his ambassadors, and that they bear irrevocable worth. Contrary to seeing work as a bad thing, this God works, creates, cultivates, and then creates humans to be his co-creators, stewards, and caregivers to the creation. This presents an entirely new way of being human.

When read this way, the power of the creation stories becomes much more evident. The writer(s) here did not give a scientific account of the creative process, but instead shows the reader how they should view the world. The whole of creation is sacred, all of the world is God’s cathedral, and we are called to be its caretakers. If we are good stewards of the earth, we reap the benefits. If we abused what has been entrusted to us, we will face the consequences.

But what about Adam and Eve? As always, the most important thing to determine about any literature before you attempt to draw conclusions is what kind of literature it is that you are reading. To put it simply, the Adam and Eve story does not read like history, it reads lyrically, as a parable or poem. The Hebrew word for Adam (אָדָם, adame) means “mankind, or humanity,” and the Hebrew word for Eve (חַוָּה, ha’vah) means “life, or life-giver.” These names are given to the characters because they are meant to represent something universal to the human experience, not because they were historical people.

We have all walked through situations where, we undoubtedly knew that boundaries were set up, and we decided to cross them anyway. We then experienced great trauma, estrangement, and regret. These instances or seasons altered our lives forever. Whether you are religious or not, it isn't difficult to understand that this is something integral to the human predicament. The point of this story with Adam and Eve is that we can find ourselves within it, akin to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan or Prodigal Son. It is not hard to find yourself in the Adam and Eve story - because it is meant to be everyone’s story. The Good News is that you can also find yourself in the person of Jesus, and continue becoming more fully human. The story doesn’t end with Adam and Eve, it ends with Jesus.

Sometimes, in order to take the Bible seriously, you cannot take it literally. Let us reconsider how Genesis should be read, and let us finally admit that it has been held captive by literalism for the past two centuries. Rather than feeling an irrational pressure to shun science, Christians can affirm science and let it inform how they interpret the Bible. Likewise, we ought to embrace the interpretive challenges that come with a continuously unfolding understanding (and lack of understanding) of our universe. The journey of following Jesus is not to somehow figure everything out, but to become fully alive, and that is Good News for us all.

Can Women Be Pastors? Yes.

There has been a great deal of upheaval among Christians in the west regarding the question of women in clerical leadership over the course of the last few decades. This question has been easily avoided for a long time due to the fact that the church has largely been dominated by males for centuries. But now, it is unavoidable. When you get right down to it, there are two main passages in the New Testament that people have often appealed to in order to keep women out of leadership. Based upon my own study of this topic, I think these passages have been largely misunderstood and misinterpreted.

The first verse that people often cite is 1 Timothy 2:12, which reads “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.” This letter was written to a community in Ephesus, and there was a popular religious movement called the cult of Artemis. In this religious cult local to the city of Ephesus, only women could serve as priests, and they would enslave men to be subjugated under matriarch-like authority. Many women were likely converting from this cult and joining Christ communities. The writer (whom I think was probably a disciple of Paul, not the historical Paul) is most likely speaking to this specific situation rather than making a timeless, universal claim and explaining to these women that men cannot be dominated in the way that they were previously accustomed to. It was understood that the only way to subvert patriarchy is not through matriarchy, but through egalitarian conviction that produces equality.

The second verse that people will usually refer to is 1 Corinthians 14:34, saying that Paul instructs his readers that “Women are to remain silent in church meetings.” Many scholars think that verses 34-37 of this chapter were not written by Paul, but inserted later by a scribe who sought to institutionalize Paul’s passion and tainted his work with sexism. This is certainly possible, as these verses do seem to break the flow of what is written before and after. More importantly, it starkly conflicts with what is said earlier in 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul gives guidance for women to pray and prophesy in church meetings. To state the obvious, this involves speaking, and a person could not do this in silence. Why did Paul instruct women to pray and prophesy in one chapter and be silent in another? I do not think anyone knows for certain. Perhaps there were disruptive questions frequently being asked, or random outbursts that interrupted everything. Or it very well could have been inserted later. There are many possibilities. But the baseline that I would return to is that if Paul instructs women to pray and prophesy and that is authentically considered to be Paul’s writing, and there is a questionable passage that is disputed as to whether or not it was written by Paul, the best approach is to let the authentic Pauline writing take precedence over what is questionable or doubtfully Pauline.

Following this, I often hear people say that there are no instances of women leading or holding positions of authority in the New Testament. However, upon closer inspection, this is not actually correct. One of the last places you would probably look for an example of this is Romans chapter sixteen, in which St. Paul essentially just sends greetings to a great number of people. If you have ever read the letter to the Romans, you probably stop paying attention by this point, because it is generally viewed as the “credits” of the letter. Yet, in Romans 16:7, Paul makes mention of a woman named Junia, and states that she is “prominent among the apostles.” The Greek word used to describe Junia, “apostolois” is the same word used to address the original twelve disciples of Jesus (Matthew 10:2), as well as other figures of authority (Acts 11:1), and the same word that Paul uses in reference to himself (Romans 1:1). This example is small, but the language is clear: Junia, a woman, served as a leader in the church. There are nine other women mentioned in Romans chapter sixteen who are mentioned as benefactors, ministers, and other roles similar to these. Paul did not challenge the concept of women in leadership; it seems obvious that he affirmed it.

It should not be seen as a radical or “liberal” idea for women to be in leadership positions within the church. It seems that this was normative in the days of Jesus and St. Paul. Likewise, there are many recent conservative scholars who have supported women in ministry for some time, such as N.T. Wright, Greg Boyd, Scot McKnight, Ben Witherington III, Stanley Grenz, as well as many others. Women can and should be pastors. Myriads of people have not been able to examine this more thoroughly for themselves, and many congregations consider this to be "off limits." The only way religious lies can be maintained is through insulating people from the outside world. What must be done is that conversations need to be started and people need to be exposed to ideas that will break them free from their retention. That will be the task for this generation if we are to rediscover what it means to follow Jesus.

Rediscovering Revelation

The book of Revelation is one of the least-read books in the Bible, and yet it is one that people seem to have the most opinions about. It is often referred to as some sort of map describing how the world will eventually endure multiple catastrophes, and then come to an abrupt and destructive end. Revelation has been used for a great deal of fear-mongering, and a gigantic enterprise has been built upon “end times” nonsense. However, this is not at all how the original author intended for the book of Revelation to be understood. In fact, the reading of Revelation as “the end of the world” is a fairly recent invention, no more than a couple of centuries old. While I once bought into the popular “end times” madness, I eventually came to find that Revelation is speaking of something much more profound, much more subversive, and much more helpful for us as modern people. Allow me to briefly recap my own journey.

In April 2010, there was a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; it was due to a drilling rig explosion. This has gone down in history as the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. At the time, I was completely convinced that this was the end of the world. In Revelation 8:8-9, the author wrote “The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.” If you were to do a quick Google of Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill under images, you would find that the burning oil rig looks like a mountain of fire, the thick oil in the water is a dark red (like blood), and you would see many tragic photos of animals suffering and dying. Needless to say, I thought this was it. I had been taught that the author of Revelation was describing visions of how the world would end, and that these visions were unfolding in our time. This is by far the most popular way of reading Revelation in the western world today.

Eventually, time passed, and the world did not end after that oil spill. “What else could this passage have been talking about?” I thought. Soon after this, I came to see all of the ludicrous predictions that others had made about Revelation, and how absolutely none of them were correct. If this book is about something as important as “the end of the world,” why is it so cryptic and hard to understand? This way of reading Revelation eventually fell apart for me, and I had no idea what to do with it.

A couple of years later, a new (but also old) way of reading Revelation emerged for me. The book of Revelation was not a series of predictions of strange things that would happen two-thousand years later. The author was writing for his historical audience, with things that would have been meaningful for them in a very immediate sense. What good would the book of Revelation have been for the original audience if it only talked about things in the distant future?

So, what is the book of Revelation if it is not a prediction of the end of the world? It is a symbolic, political criticism of the Roman Empire. Revelation is a specific genre of ancient writing called apocalyptic literature. When you hear “apocalypse,” you probably think of films like The Day After Tomorrow or shows like The Walking Dead. However, in the ancient world, this is not at all what people had in mind when they thought of an apocalypse. The Greek word “apokalypsis” means “to unveil, to lay bare, to make visible to all,” or “revelation” which is why the last book of the Christian Bible has the name that it does. The reason people wrote apocalyptic literature in the times of old was not to make dubious predictions about the end of the world. To be completely frank, no one really cared about that sort of thing until very recently. Apocalyptic books were written to criticize or “lay bare” the corrupt powers that were dominating the world at the time. These writings were mostly produced from places of oppression. They generally entreat others to endure, to have hope, to persevere in suffering, and to know that evil always collapses on itself when it is faithfully resisted. The book of Revelation is not about the end of the world - it is about the end of the hideous empire that is running the world.

In Revelation 8, for example, the first trumpet describes “hail, blood, and fire” falling from the sky. Rather than this being a vague description of nuclear warfare, the author is doing something that would have made obvious sense to his initial audience. In Roman mythology, raining blood was considered bad omen or a sign that the gods were angry. The writer is essentially saying “The gods of greed, power, violence, and imperialism that the Romans are worshipping will ultimately betray them.” Indeed, any system that runs on greed and violence will eventually erode and die. The writer continues other imagery to identify the Roman Empire. One personification that is used is “the great whore” in Revelation chapters seventeen and eighteen. Rome controlled the world of its time through a mixture of seduction, intimidation, and violence. “The great whore” is also referred to as “Babylon the Great.” Babylon had distinct meaning for Jews. It meant estrangement, coercion, oppression, corruption, sexual perversion, and other pejorative characteristics. The way followers of Jesus were experiencing persecution under Rome was akin to how the Jews had experienced persecution under Babylon centuries prior. This image can be understood as meaning “We as God’s people have been here before, but God delivered us, defeated our enemies, they fell, and we went free.” This was symbolism that sustained them in their oppression, and indeed, the symbolism of all apocalyptic literature carries the resounding theme that God is always on the side of the oppressed, and never the oppressor.

The criticism of the Roman Empire is the whole substance of the book of Revelation. So how can this be meaningful for us today? It shows us that all imperial power structures that resemble Rome will eventually disintegrate. Christians (and everyone for that matter) in the United States must ask, in what ways do we resemble the Roman Empire? In what ways has our Christianity become an imperial religion? How have we accommodated the spirit of the Empire that runs on greed, violence, and coercion? We must identify these defects and repent. The call to find this traits and create change is urgent, as any Christianity that has attached itself to an empire will eventually be destroyed with that empire, as all empirical power structures meet their demise sooner or later.

What is the message of the book of Revelation? The message is that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. In spite of what maniac might be in power, we are called to resist by creating an alternative way of life that is sustainable, by working to create change, and casting vision for a future without the powers that be, because all empires eventually collapse. Given the current political climate, I cannot think of a more important book of the Bible than Revelation. The Roman Empire eventually fell, just as the author’s critiques claimed it would, but the Kingdom of God is still up and running. Indeed, it will be forever, as the way of Jesus leads to life that lasts, and that is Good News.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Religious Fundamentalism: A Social Phenomenon

There is a brand of religious belief that expresses itself in a very ugly way. It is combative, divisive, out of touch with reality, and dangerous in some cases. A term coined for this is "religious fundamentalism." Religious fundamentalism is easy to recognize, as it has marked many points of history by impeding progress, denying science, refusing civil rights, as well as inciting violence, harming the environment, and damaging the mental health of multitudes of people.

But where does fundamentalism come from? We have all seen hideous expressions of Christian faith in the west, but how can this have emerged from the teachings of Jesus, who was committed to nonviolence, loving one’s neighbor, forgiveness toward enemies, and died at the hands of religious people? The fact in the matter is that the Christian fundamentalism we see in the western world has nothing to do with Jesus. Fundamentalism is created when a religious group is unable to cope with social change. Religious fundamentalist movements are always regressive because they insist on remaining in the past. It is always a product of its time, and almost always entirely disconnected from its own tradition. This is why, for example, the Religious Right is primarily concerned with retaining conservative social policies, but they have virtually no room for the teachings of Jesus in their agenda.

Fundamentalism is birthed out of fear, it causes religious people to invent new ideas and then claim that their novel ideas are the “only true belief.” One example of this are the creation stories in Genesis in relationship with Darwin’s theory of evolution. The Genesis creation stories were not read as literal history until a couple centuries ago, but some Christians reacted to Darwin’s ideas, claiming that if evolution is in fact true, then the whole Bible falls apart. This is not true of course, and it is a relatively new idea. The reactionary fear of and resistance to change is iconically displayed in the Scopes trial that took place in 1925, in which some Christians insisted that evolution should not be taught in schools. Ever since this event, faith and science have been seen as opponents, and many Christians today are taught to be skeptical of science at a young age, much to their detriment. It all revolves around fear. Most mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches have not had many qualms with science, it is primarily fundamentalist Christians that have caused this divide.

When some Christians see championing of women’s rights, the accelerating advancement of science, the pressing needs of various social issues, they are threatened by the rapid transformation of society. It is disorienting when the world as you know at suddenly changes, and some people recoil in fear. Rather than move forward with the flow of history, some religious people resist it, and insist that the world must stay as it is. This is why many fundamentalist churches are still operating as if they existed in the 1950’s, because they have demanded to remain in the past. In some cases, you’ll find that churches have adopted more modern styles of worship as well as more casual settings. Yet, the ideologies and beliefs of these churches are the exact same as their fundamentalist counterparts. This is why much of Evangelicalism is really just fundamentalism in hipster’s clothing.

Perhaps you have a friend or family member who is an ardent fundamentalist (Christian or otherwise), and you have tried talking with them, but they cannot be reasoned with. You may have grown weary of trying to maintain a meaningful relationship with them, and even though their beliefs are harmful, you do not know what approach to take. Here is what I would recommend: Have compassion on them in knowing that their beliefs are rooted in feeling threatened. Know that their aggression is caused by a profound fear of losing their sense of identity, and so they have used religion as a defense mechanism to retain stability. Instead of trying to defeat them in an argument, ask yourself, how can you help them overcome their fear? How can you effectively communicate that you are are on their side? What can you do to empower them to expand their mind? Depending on the situation, you may need to draw boundaries and say “We aren’t going to have this conversation again.” Sometimes, you have to allow this person to navigate their own journey, and you will not be a pivotal figure that changes their mind.

I can speak from experience - my own transition away from fundamentalism was very painful, and filled with a great deal of emotional and intellectual turmoil. The god that I once believed in had died, and I came to find a new way of seeing God. The Bible I once believed to be the inerrant owner’s manual to life fell apart, but I came to see the sacred Scriptures in a refreshingly different light. The Jesus that had once answered all my questions began to question all of my answers and overwhelm me with riddles. The way I once saw the world had been thoroughly deconstructed, and it was truly devastating.

But I am still here.

In the same way that I am still here, you will undergo painful struggles of change and growth, but you will still be here. That is part of what it means to be human. Religious fundamentalism will either die out or reform - there is no third option. We will live in a new world in which Christianity does not hold people back, but strengthens them to be all that they can be. Fundamentalism is not a pathway to the future, it is the dying breath of the past, and the Spirit of the living Christ is ceaselessly inviting us forward in history. Forward, where we will keep discovering, keep changing, keep improving, keep adapting, keep evolving, and continue to find out what it takes to make the world be what God desires it to be, and that is Good News.

 

 

The Good Samaritan

The parable of the Good Samaritan is perhaps Jesus’ most popular parable (right alongside the parable of the Prodigal Son). Unfortunately, despite its popularity, the provocative meaning of this parable is often diminished into a one-dimensional moral lesson of "just be nice." All joking aside, if you cannot figure out how to “be nice” to people, I’m not sure how to help you, and you shouldn’t need a religious experience to reach that point. However, the parable of the Good Samaritan is something so radical, boundary-breaking, and counter intuitive that its message must be reclaimed.

The first thing worth noting about this parable is that it only appears in the Gospel of Luke, in chapter 10. This is significant because each Gospel is written to a different audience, by different authors, and highlights different elements of Jesus’ teachings in order to communicate the Good News about Jesus most effectively to a respective audience.

Luke’s Gospel was written specifically for Gentiles, or more simply, it was written for anyone that wasn’t Jewish. What this means in short is that this collection of Jesus’ portraits and teachings are for everyone in order to communicate that this God revealed in Jesus has come to reconcile with all people of all kinds, not just the Jews.

The second thing worth noting is that the word “Samaritan” was actually a racial slur in first century Palestine. Its origins come from the Babylonian exile, when Israelites were taken captive into Babylon starting around 600 BC . Some Israelites had interfaith marriages with foreigners during this exile, this was looked down upon by Israel and seen as a compromise (Deuteronomy 7:1-5). In brief, the result of these marriage were Samaritans that developed as a people group. They were seen as traitors, half-breed heretics, or perhaps even “mud-bloods” if you’re a Harry Potter fan. In sum, Samaritans were very much hated by Jews.

So what Jesus is doing here is incredibly subversive: He is making a person who was commonly understood as the “bad guy” of His time into a hero. Importantly, this sketch of Jesus describes Jesus as talking to a lawyer (in verse 25), which means the man who drew this story out of Jesus was most likely Jewish. To state the obvious, this would have been offensive to Jews to make a Samaritan into a hero.

Next, in verse 30, Jesus seems to have chosen the phrase “half dead” very much on purpose for the sake of this story. During Jesus’ time, the dominant consciousness amongst Jews was that touching a dead body made one unclean or defiled (Numbers 5:2). So the priest and Levite that passed by this unfortunate fellow did so “on the other side of the road” in order to steer as clear as possible.

But the Samaritan does not operate within these confines.

The heart of Jesus’ story is that there is a love that is greater than the law; indeed, it is a love that fulfills the law.

At the front end of this parable, Jesus is asked by the lawyer what must be done to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds to the man by asking “What is in the law? Have you read it?”

The lawyer replies “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus says “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

The parable stems from the man’s second question “Who is my neighbor?” The subtle question beneath this question is “Is there a boundary for those to whom I should show compassion to?”

Jesus’ point in telling this parable is to answer “No.”

The half-dead man who would have been considered “untouchable” by the dominant consciousness of society at the time was saved by the traitorous and heretical half-bred Samaritan. The crux of the law is love for God and love for neighbor. This is why the Samaritan had no qualms about helping the man, because self-sacrifical love supersedes the law. As St. Paul once wrote, “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:10)

This also has implications for you and I. The Samaritan, as much as he may have been considered an outcast and despicable human being by his contemporaries, was an agent of the Kingdom of God by showing compassion to a person in need. This means when the question is asked, “What does a person need in order to belong to the Kingdom that Jesus is building and expanding?” The answer is simply: Nothing. Jesus spoke of the Samaritan in a context in which he clearly would have been understood as outside the boundaries of respect, but in God’s eyes, he is still very much able to be instrument through which God will bring about restoration in the world.

This also means very explicitly that the love of God which is definitively expressed in Jesus is not limited by race, social class, or any other category we can come with. One may say “I have done this or that, I have failed in this way, I have hurt this person, I carry such great moral deficit that I do not believe God could accept me.”

The message of Jesus is that He actually already has. That’s the definition of grace. You cannot merit the acceptance of God, so you are free to drop the religious bookkeeping and follow Jesus here and now.

In John 12:32, Jesus states, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to Myself.”

God’s heart really is for everyone, regardless of their moral status.

Likewise, in Revelation 5:9, a hymn that is sung to Jesus reads:

“You were slain, and Your blood has ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

This love of God is pursuing all people. It is a long-suffering love, it is a love that understands the pains and trauma of this world, it is a love that persistently and faithfully erodes stone hearts, and most importantly of all, it is a love that has put on flesh and blood, and has entered into solidarity with humanity through the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is indiscriminate, unadulterated, and altogether beautiful.

When we seek to emulate this love, this is how God’s new creation is birthed into this broken world, and people will see the face of Jesus as it is done, albeit imperfectly.

Thus, Jesus concludes the parable:

“You go, and do likewise.”