Friday, December 23, 2016

The Eschaton


Our culture seems to have a genuine fixation on the apocalypse, or the “end of days,” as of late. Post-apocalyptic, dystopian stories fly off the shelves faster than you can say “exclusive movie rights.” Popular Christian culture isn't getting left behind either. A steady stream of best-selling book series and movie adaptations have given us a fanciful, modern interpretation of Jesus' Revelation. And why not? The end of a story is arguably the most important part. Everyone understandably wants to know what's going to happen on the last page. Will the hero defeat his enemy or overcome his obstacle? Will he finally get where he's going and achieve what he's after? How we see the ending of the story—what we identify as the point of it all, the culmination, the climax—will greatly inform how we read the whole story. It will inform how we see our part in the story, how we live it out in our everyday lives, and how we tell the story of God to others who have yet to hear.
I don’t plan to get into the nuts and bolts, the nitty-gritty, of all the various eschatological positions. This probably comes as a great relief to many and perhaps a disappointment to some. If you find yourself among the latter, we’ll have to set up a time to sit on my porch with our tea and pipes in hand to gleefully deliberate for hours about the eschaton (I’ve never actually smoked a pipe, and I’m not much for tea, but it just seems like the thing to do when one is having a deep and nerdy theological discussion). My aim in this post (and in all my posts) is to speak primarily of the Gospel, and hopefully to let that which is of “first importance” frame our understanding of biblical eschatology.
I think we have to approach this topic, as we should all theology, with a humble and teachable spirit. As human beings, we are extremely susceptible to marrying ourselves so completely to a way of thinking, or an ironclad theological model, that we may end up inadvertently imposing our beloved framework on the biblical text (creating theological tunnel vision). We should be very alert, even reasonably terrified, of this all too common and mostly subconscious behavior. The Jewish theologians of Jesus’ day, for example, held to a specific and finely tuned eschatological model that didn’t line up with the young Galilean prophet who stood before them. Ultimately, when faced with the contradiction, it was their Messiah and not their misconstrued model that they foolishly abandoned. These were learned men. They spent their lives studying the Scriptures. Many of them could quote entire books, replete with messianic prophecy, just as readily as we could rattle off John 3:16. It’s unnerving to think that we can arrive at a place of extreme biblical familiarity only to find ourselves, due to our theological presuppositions and hard hearts, still incapable of perceiving the heart of God as it’s dancing off the pages. We are each of us undoubtedly wrong about something, probably a great many somethings. We must be willing to learn what those somethings are.
While one can easily get bogged down in the details (and I’m not saying they aren’t important), we simply can’t afford to miss the broad strokes of the story. We must, at the very least, be able to see the forest for the trees. So by all means, study the various barks and leaves within, become a master of the theological flora and fauna, but God forbid that while doing so we fail to connect the dots, to appreciate the cumulative sum of the individual parts, and to grasp the overall lay of the land (How's that for a hearty mixing of metaphors?).
As best as I can see, the overarching story that the Bible is telling is of an all-powerful, all-knowing, timeless, just, loving, hyper-personal, and completely self-sufficient spiritual Being who (for reasons only fully known to himself) decides to create an incredibly vast and beautiful physical universe (comprised of space, time, and matter). Within this universe, he fashions an ideal world and populates it with all kinds of amazing life. He then establishes one set of his creatures above the rest as his uniquely crafted image-bearing representatives to creation. Heaven (what we now think of as “God's space”) and earth (“our space”) seem to harmoniously coexist in this early state, characterized by perfect communion between the Creator and his image-bearers. Curiously, this all-powerful Being intends to rule his creation through these fragile human creatures. But the first humans, of course, reject the Tree of Life and abandon their noble vocation. All of his once-good creation suffers the harmful effects of these unwilling, and now unqualified, administrators. Earth is, in a sense, torn from heaven (though God is of course ever-present, our ability to perceive him, to experience his life-giving fellowship, and to benefit from universal human submission to his reign, is at this point tragically constrained). Undaunted by this colossal setback and unwilling to wipe the board clean, the Creator patiently works through flawed human messengers and broken leaders—committed as ever to his original intent for humanity—to reveal his heart for reconciliation and to foretell his plan of restoration (an extremely truncated summary of thousands of years of human history). The culmination of these efforts is finally seen in the dramatic and miraculous appearance of a divine human in 1st Century Palestine. According to the story, this humble God-man is the Creator’s only Son, the perfect image-bearer, the promised King, and the sort of human we were all meant to be. He alone is uniquely qualified to reclaim humanity's birthright and, in so doing, to return to God what is rightfully his, as well (The Creator certainly knows how to untangle a knot). God then takes back his rebel world through this man, Jesus, and gives birth to his everlasting and long-promised kingdom (as he begins to mend the tear between heaven and earth one person at a time). Previously disqualified humans are now scandalously invited to resume their original vocation as “ambassadors” and “priests” of God and to participate in his redemptive work in the world. By way of his death and resurrection, Jesus counterintuitively wins a decisive victory over his enemy and purchases a costly citizenship and adoption for once-rebels who now acknowledge him as their rightful King. His kingdom-people are empowered with God’s own Spirit and commissioned to share the good news of his reign. Like a tiny mustard seed, his kingdom steadily grows and will continue to grow into a mighty tree that fills the whole earth. No human kingdom will be able to overthrow it or even resist its advance. And yet it will not spread by the typical human means of violence, hollow propaganda, or coercion but by a diverse army of sacrificial servants and martyrs who follow their Founder's example (as a Spirit-filled extension of him) and faithfully demonstrate and declare his better kingdom. In many cases, the illegitimate powers of this world will not even notice his subversive kingdom's liberation movement until it's too late. Though all authority in heaven and earth is already his, there are still many who do not know, or simply refuse to accept, that Jesus is now King. His rule will therefore be complete upon his physical return to earth, at which point evil will be permanently eradicated from his restored universe, he will judge the living and the dead, death will be swallowed up by Life, heaven and earth will be once again seamlessly and fully reunited, and we will see him face to face. All of human history is leading up to this climactic moment when death and decay—the results of human rebellion—are forever undone and God's good and perfect will is at long last carried out consistently and effortlessly here “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Our hearts should ache for this (Rom. 8:23). The heart of God—including his Spirit who resides within his people—longs for this steadily-approaching future (“The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!'” -Rev. 22:17a). All of creation groans, as well (Rom 8:22). Jesus instructs his followers to regularly pray that God would essentially bring heaven to earth (Matt. 6:9-10). The Lord's Prayer should cause our anticipation for the reunification of heaven and earth (both incrementally in the present and universally at the eschaton) to build into a fever pitch. In his well known Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to live as if it were already so, even when living this way will presently cost us dearly.
There are numerous popular predictions about the eschaton that I would disagree with, but I don't feel the need to vehemently debate every potential error (although, we'll certainly leave no stone unturned if you happen to hit me up for the eschatology-fest on my porch). There is undoubtedly a hierarchy of errors, and we should always give greater attention to the errors that erode (either directly or indirectly) the core elements of the Gospel. If one is unfamiliar with the common use of metaphor in apocalyptic genres, for example, then one may be very sincere in their expectation of seeing a literal, scaly, fire-breathing dragon at some point near the end. They also may be racking their brain in a good faith effort to creatively figure out how all the stars will literally fall from the sky or the moon will turn to blood. They may even take a certain pride in their remarkable ability to believe such absurdity. Many of these hyper-literal conclusions (when the biblical author is clearly attempting to convey something else), in my estimation, are extremely misguided but arguably benign to a point. However, regularly divorcing apocalyptic prophecies (such as Jesus' colorful predictions in Matthew 24 and his subsequent elaboration in the Revelation to the seven churches) from their clear biblical antecedents (like Isaiah using similarly cataclysmic language and hyperbole to predict the 539 BC judgment of Babylon—Isaiah chapter 13) can also lead to egregious error (It's easy to see how some small exegetical errors naturally produce greater errors down the road. In arithmetic, for example, if we misstep early in the process, our initial miscalculation is magnified as we continue on).
One popular interpretation of God's story (with multiple eschatological implications) insists that God has “two distinct people” and subsequently “two distinct plans.” This teaching has led many evangelicals to conclude that there are two ways to be reconciled to God: one (for Gentiles) being to trust in the finished work of Jesus and the other (for sincere, ethnic Jews) to simply be genetically related to Abraham's grandson, Jacob. This grave error (which essentially undermines the exclusivity and sufficiency of the cross, a core tenant of the Gospel) is not often expressly taught, but, given what is commonly taught, it is easy to see how the laity within this camp arrive at this erroneous conclusion. On this point, I would say shepherds and teachers are responsible, to some extent, not only for what they say but also for what the flock hears. According to the story of God, there is decidedly only one Seed of Abraham with the power to save, only one ancestry that affects our standing at the eschaton, and, by the grace of God, anyone can become related to him. I've also heard well-intentioned Christians of this persuasion express how they think it would not only be a “good idea” but perhaps even a moral imperative for Christians to help rebuild the Jewish temple (right where a high-profile Muslim mosque now stands, no less). This sort of thinking reveals catastrophic ignorance about pivotal developments within the Gospel story (i.e. Jesus as a better Temple, a better Priest, and a better Sacrifice). Rebuilding the temple and re-instituting the sacrificial system are dangerously regressive endeavors for a Christian and completely at odds with Christ's clearly articulated kingdom agenda (Check out Galatians and Hebrews for more developed warnings).
Rapture” theology plays heavily into this eschatological model as well. A fascination with being “caught up” has certainly caught on among many evangelical Christians (as clearly seen in the numerous book sales and movie adaptations of rapture themed fiction). I really think Paul’s beautiful picture of believers being lifted into the sky to greet the returning King (1 Thessalonians 4) has been commonly misinterpreted as a mass evacuation, but, if so, it’s probably a misinterpretation of the mostly harmless sort. Something to be cautious of, however, is the resulting escapist perspectives that can arguably be traced back to rapture theology. Some of these rapture-centric Christian traditions have at times produced a very pessimistic, “duck and cover” outlook on the world within their respective church cultures. The story they're telling seems to go something like “everything is getting worse all the time, but if you'd like to say this prayer to 'accept Jesus as your personal savior' then we can all hunker down in my basement together and watch the news for subliminal clues to which world leader may or may not be the 'antichrist' this week while we're waiting for Jesus to come back.” “When he gets here, he'll get us out of this hellhole—right before he torches the whole thing—and we'll finally be able to live with him forever in heaven.” This may be an extreme characterization of this camp, but, even in its milder forms, it starts to sound far more Gnostic than Christian (i.e. “the physical world is inherently evil and irredeemable, therefore God's endgame is to eventually extract me so that I can live with him forever in an ethereal, spiritual realm”). I've written about this elsewhere, so I'll just briefly recap here: Resurrection (which is, by definition, a physical event) is an essential element of the Gospel, as is the eventual complete restoration of creation. These repeated themes of the physical universe being redeemed and restored are not “unimportant” details that we are free to overlook or outgrow—they are bedrock to the biblical narrative (Rom. 8:19-23). Contrary to what many may think, the story the Bible is telling is not of a great escape from earth to heaven. It's a story about God bringing heaven back to earth through the person and work of Jesus (Rev. 21:3).
Some of this retreating from “secular spaces,” accompanied by extreme pessimism about the state of God’s kingdom, and trends toward spiritual escapism (marked by an abandoning of the physical world) now commonly seen in American evangelicalism is due in part to a long history of bad examples and failed attempts at “kingdom expansion.” Centuries of European “theocracies” have contributed to the reluctance most modern American Christians presently have in referring to “God’s kingdom,” as Jesus did, as something that is happening (or at least starting to happen) now. The rise and fall of Christian Triumphalism and movements like the “Social Gospel” of the early 20th Century, which is often criticized for merely focusing on societal reform and scientific advancement (perhaps over-emphasizing the demonstration while neglecting the clear declaration of the Gospel), has contributed to a far dimmer outlook of the future for those who are left in the wake of these flawed movements. The response tends to be one of overcorrection. Many of today’s church cultures have, with their theological traditions, completely neutered the dynamic and world-changing kingdom of which Jesus passionately spoke; Instead, promoting a merely internal and harmless, spiritualized version of God’s kingdom message. It’s both equally wrong to pursue a man-made utopia (in which Jesus is conspicuously absent) as it is to abdicate or abandoned the real-world implications and demands of God’s all-encompassing kingdom agenda.
My purpose here is not to mock, malign, or conversely promote a specific eschatological model (though adherents to some versions of Premillennial Dispensationalism may feel like they’ve taken some lumps in many of my cautionary examples. I only bring up so many issues resulting from this theological camp, however, due to its extreme popularity within the evangelical circles in which I run. If I were fellowshipping more often with mainline traditions, I would probably have more to say about the potential pitfalls of Preterism, and so on). Ultimately, I think it’s helpful to hear multiple perspectives from a variety of studied and Spirit-filled brothers and sisters. I’ve routinely disagreed with many of my closest and dearest spiritual family members on secondary theological issues. In spite of our differences, we’re able to live, learn, and serve together in a spirit of deep mutual respect due to our shared love of the God his story reveals. The conversation within the church regarding what story the Bible is telling, including sub-conversations about the ending, has been going on for some time now (with great saints of the past and present contributing much to the collective effort). As such, there’s really no need for us to start from scratch, nor should we.
So be a proud Premillennial, Postmillennial, Amillennial, or even eschatologically undeclared follower of Christ. But also be alert to elements of these eschatological models that might undermine core tenants of the Gospel by becoming extremely familiar with the broad strokes and governing themes of God’s epic story, as it plays out from Genesis to Revelation (i.e. Be able to distinguish between primary and secondary elements of the narrative). Be aware that your understanding (or misunderstanding) of the story’s ending will inevitably affect how you live. Be inquisitive and willing to surrender your most beloved theological presuppositions and cherished church traditions if they turn out to run contrary to the higher authority of God’s word. Be reasonably informed about our brothers and sisters who came before us and who tackled many of these same complex questions. More than this, be genuinely excited about the return of Christ, and be about your Father’s business.
I would respectfully suggest that if you're more enthusiastic about “blood moons,” implanted micro-chips, and stocking up your personal bomb shelter than pursuing the mission of God (by meeting the neighbors, welcoming the stranger, serving the least, and declaring and demonstrating the good news of God's kingdom in numerous other ways throughout your everyday life) then you're tragically missing the heartbeat of the redemptive story that God has been telling—that he's even now telling. Likewise, if you find yourself at the other end of the spectrum, with the crowd who smugly allegorize everything to the point of meaninglessness, or who reject the resurrection, the physical return of Christ, and the ultimate supernatural restoration of the cosmos, and instead seek generic social justice and man-made utopia, then you are also telling a different story of your own making (in which Jesus and some of the language of his Gospel has merely been appropriated in order to promote a secular humanist fantasy). The Gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus preached has an amazing third act. Let's learn the story right, live the story well, and tell the story often.

Yes, I am coming soon” —Jesus (Rev. 22:20)

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Hellfire and Damnation


I can't think of any other biblical teaching more distasteful to modern, “enlightened” folks than the traditional stance on hellfire and damnation—the “wrath of God”—his final and shocking solution for evil. Ironically, just about everyone has a strong sense of justice (what I would argue springs from our shared stock in the Imago Dei). Only we can't seem to agree on how justice should play out (“fairness,” for example, will usually involve a lot of special consideration and mercy in my own circumstances while of course looking more like sevenfold vengeance for the other guy). Those who criticize God's handling of evil, find him at the same time to be doing “too much” and “not enough.” Why doesn't he immediately dethrone the despot, prevent children from being murdered, and bring his vengeance upon the jerk who just cut me off in traffic, we wonder? And yet how can he—with perhaps Hitler and the like being exceptions—condemn human beings to an eternity of unrelenting torment? We should take note that it's Jesus, more than any other biblical character, who speaks most frequently and urgently about the horrors of hell. The certain, coming judgment of God was the pressing reality in which his good news was announced. As such, the unpleasantness of hell can never be divorced from the gospel. We can hardly understand what all the fuss is about regarding Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection apart from comprehending the alternative had he never heroically stepped into our broken world.

Thanks to Dante and numerous others, we may have a picture of hell in our head that looks something like cavernous dungeons set aflame with demonic, reptilian or half-goat, pitchfork-wielding tormentors roaming the halls. But I don't think even Jesus' story about two men who share a post-death exchange on the other side was meant to describe the spacial layout and architecture of the afterlife (Luke 16:19-31). I would argue that hell—and heaven, for that matter—is often mischaracterized in our minds as a place rather than understood as a relational proximity to God. More on this later. It seems clear that the imagery of being cast out of the warmth and protection of a city into deepest darkness, complete with wailing and gnashing teeth; or the thought of being thrown on a heap of decaying waste, where abandoned corpses are burned or left to rot (as in Jesus' vivid example of the accursed Gehenna); or the vision of a lake perpetually aflame with the infinite wrath of God are all graphic metaphor. However, this should in no way alleviate our reasonable concerns about such an existence. The flames, devouring worms, death, and darkness are best attempts at describing something far worse.

The Bible often depicts the same thing in a number of different ways. We tend to gravitate toward one analogy or another. Reformed/Calvinist traditions, for example, connect more strongly with the gospel metaphors that emphasize God's sovereignty (i.e. a lamb or a lost coin found by a shepherd or searcher, a dead man brought back to life, or varying soils that receive the same seed, etc.) while Arminian thinking brothers and sisters tend to make their home in the stories that highlight human choice (i.e. an open invitation to a lavish banquette, a wayward son who comes to his senses, and so on). God's sovereignty plays heavily into what unnerves us the most about hell, so we'll certainly have to explore it further. For now, though, I merely want to point out the multifaceted way in which God patiently communicates complex ideas to us. The Creator, humanity, and what went wrong between us is effectively described in terms of a rightful King and a mass rebellion, a Judge who must address heinous criminals, or a great debt looming over bankrupt debtors. It makes no difference which biblical example drives the point home for you (I imagine certain individuals and even whole cultures may respond more readily to an analogy of economic debt as opposed to one involving disloyalty to a monarch, for example, or perhaps the other way around) Thankfully, he's come at it from a number of angles. He wants us to get it.

Jesus viewed himself, among other things, as a physician who came to treat sick people (Mark 2:16-17). In this analogy, humanity is suffering from a universal, debilitating, and eventually terminal, illness. Some may recoil from the sin-as-illness simile simply because illnesses beset us generally through no fault of our own (but I suppose that's another reason we have more than one analogy to work with). Jesus presents himself as the Cure—the only Cure—for what's killing us (John 14:6). He claims that he didn't come to condemn the world but to rescue and restore (John 3:17). Furthermore, he explains that the world is already condemned, that we're already dying, or even dead in a sense (John 3:18). Anyone who opts out of his restorative work in the world is simply left in the tragic state of decay in which he initially found them. Of course he means to set the whole universe back to what it was, what he always intended it to be, and, though our participation in his cosmic redemptive process is voluntary, he cannot leave the treasonous non-participants to continue wreaking havoc in his universe indefinitely. It is his universe, after all, and sin is destructive and contagious. According to the Genesis story, the harmful ripples of human sin are somehow felt throughout the entire cosmos. In eventually quarantining—removing from his physical universe—those who have refused his costly offer of help, God will have granted them what they persistently demanded: an existence devoid of him.

Depart from me,” will be his final words to those who defiantly refuse to be made well (Matthew 25:41). They will then experience the furthest relational distance possible from their Creator. Relational proximity—their lack of communion with God through Jesus—was their trouble all along. Their tragic banishment, in Jesus' own words, is resulting from the fact that he “never knew” them (Matthew 7:22-23). As it turns out, to reject communion with the Tree of Life is to inherit a death of the worst kind.

At this point the agnostic and atheist may think, “What difference would that be from my current existence?” “I've never given him a second thought in this life.” “Why would it be so horrible to exist apart from him in the next?” This flawed line of thinking fails to see the numerous echos all around us of a Creator who holds the exclusive patent on justice, beauty, and love. This once-good universe we now inhabit still possesses, even in its broken state, the warm reflective glow of its Creator, as well as the persistent memory of what was and the lingering hope of what could be again. The loyalty of a friend, family bonds, the world's most beautiful art, sacrifice and heroism, even the simple joy of holding a newborn baby—all of this originates with a remarkable God who dreamt it into existence. There is much we mistakenly think is ours, when in actuality it is only on loan from him and only functions as a reflection of his essence. We also know from Scripture that God is everywhere, but there are certainly lesser and greater degrees to which we can perceive his presence. Sin creates a relational distance between God and humans—a rending of heaven and earth. However, Jesus—the exact imprint of the invisible God, a temple of flesh and bone—through his death and resurrection brings heaven crashing back into earth (with the ultimate and complete reunification of heaven and earth yet to come). As mentioned, his restorative process is already incrementally underway, and “new creations,” in which his Spirit dwells, are becoming little pockets of heaven-restored all around us. Whether we're aware or not, we're all of us in this life adrift in an ocean of his grace. All this to say, it's impossible to even imagine what it would be like to be completely excluded from all that's of God—even forfeiting the image of God that we presently bear. What would be left, what we can rightly claim as “ours,” cannot even still be called “human.”

What a cruel tyrant he is,” say many of God's critics, “to extort our friendship with the dangling promise of 'eternal life' and threaten us with 'hell' if we won't comply.” “If he was truly 'loving,' he would simply give us the eternal life, no strings attached, and let us be on our way.” Anyone who thinks in these terms unfortunately knows nothing of “eternal life.” God cannot give eternal life—he cannot give heaven—apart from giving himself (John 17:3). And there is nothing left but what we call “hell” for those who will not partake of him. We might not like the fact that a branch once severed from the tree withers and dies. But there's really no use in wishing, hoping, or demanding that the branch goes on living independently of the tree. That's not how trees and branches work.

In our discussion of hell, we tend to fixate on all the wrong things. “Why isn't he doing a better job of rescuing us,” we wonder? “Why isn't he overriding our foolish rejection of Life and our subsequent pursuit of death?” The real scandal of the story, however, is not his final confrontation of evil. The real jaw-dropping part of the whole thing is that he has miraculously and at great cost to himself crafted a way—even after everything we've done, after everything we've become—to redeem us, transform us, and reattach us to the once-rejected Tree of Life. In light of the story of God, hell makes perfect sense. It's the shocking twist of the cross, however, that should leave us dumbfounded.

If God can do anything, can he make a rock so big that even he can’t lift it? Can he carry out an evil act and still be pure good? Can he make a square circle? These aren’t actually questions of substance. A square circle, for example, isn’t a complexity for omnipotence to solve. It’s a logical contradiction. It’s a word game that doesn’t amount to anything. In our conversation on God’s sovereignty, we must be able to tell the difference if we’re to get anywhere.

To put it mildly, Christians don’t quite agree on how God’s sovereignty plays out. It’s been a topic of debate for thousands of years, and we certainly won’t be resolving it here. But I’d suggest that as we wade into these undeniably deep waters we can’t afford to lose sight of two biblicaly revealed truths about God: First, he is indeed sovereign (i.e. completely in control of his creation and himself); and, second, he has a genuine, heart-rending desire for reconciliation with all of his wayward, image-bearing creatures. As we build sophisticated theological systems that attempt to make sense of the interplay between God’s sovereignty and human choice, we’ll inevitably be tempted to erode either of these two key truths. But we mustn’t. In an oversimplified binary system these can’t both be true (Either he doesn’t actually want to be reconciled with all of his creation, or he lacks the ability to accomplish it). However, if we plan on staying true to Scripture, then we must consider a truly sovereign God who doesn’t always get his way.

Theologians try to describe this paradox by distinguishing between God's “perfect” and “permissive” will. I'll attempt to illustrate this tension by referencing a typical trip to the grocery store with my young children (although I'm neither omniscient nor omnipotent, so, like all analogies, this one will break down sooner rather than later). From the start, I have various hopes and goals for how our errand will go (my “perfect will”). I hope, for example, they will refrain from grabbing at everything in reach, that they will mind me, stay near, and not sound like blood-curdling banshees as we go (we've certainly had plenty of conversations and consequences to this effect). Despite my sincerest hopes, however, experience has taught me that there will undoubtedly be course corrections along the way. I could forcefully ensure my initial hopes—my supreme will for their behavior—by bringing them to the store in straitjackets, taping their mouths shut, and placing them securely in the grocery cart next to the milk and eggs (Before calling CPS on me, remember we're still safely in the realm of the hypothetical). But this ultimately isn't what I'm after. I'm aiming to raise mature adults who understand their innate sin-illness and look to Jesus for forgiveness and restoration. I want to address their hearts and wills, not just command their mechanical obedience. To this end, I'll have to trudge through the occasional grabby klepto-hands, a measure of sass, wandering off, and inhumanly shrill volumes (call this my “permissive will”). Even after this patient process, my children may grow into adults who reject me and all that I've taught them. Such is the nature and inherent risk of somewhat autonomous souls who are gifted with the ability to choose.

Damnation is the worst possible outcome imaginable. Could God have made genuinely free creatures who were incapable of wandering, incapable of rejecting the Tree of Life? I think this would be something like a square circle. Well then, is it worth it? Is having authentic relationship with creatures like us who are free to love as well as hate, not to mention everything else that comes with a real world as opposed to a toy one, worth the loss and rejection of so many (and he does feel every agonizing loss resulting from his wager)? It's no mere game to him. He has literally poured his blood, sweat, and tears into this endeavor—held nothing back. So is it worth it? Only he, as the omniscient Creator, can answer the question. And indeed he has.

For the joy set before him he endured the cross...” —Hebrews 12:2b

...he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” —2 Peter 3:9b

Saturday, October 15, 2016



It's troubling how polarized our society has become. What's more, the church hasn't been immune to this alarming cultural trend. Christians on the Left and the Right often champion a one-dimensional God who affirms all their preferences and pet peeves, while simultaneously turning a deaf ear to other aspects of God's heart that don't appeal to the prevailing conservative or liberal narratives. 

The God of the Bible cares immensely about the dignity and sanctity of human life, even at its most humble and fragile beginnings. He has a divine purpose for gender, marriage, and human sexuality, and he's deeply grieved when we deviate from his good design. He's in favor of a fair government that administers justice and carries out unbiased sentences against criminals. He commands his people to love their countrymen, honor their leaders, and faithfully fulfill their civic duties.

The God of the Bible also cares about the environment. He gave ancient Israel specific instructions to tend to the health of the soil. At one point he warned them not to unnecessarily destroy trees during warfare because the land and everything on it belongs to him, and he expected them to behave as "stewards”—not "owners." He eventually expelled them so, among other things, the land could "rest" for the 70 years he had incrementally mandated. He cares about fair wages for laborers and justice for the marginalized, minorities, immigrants, homeless, people of other religions, etc. He names himself their avenger and warns us not to ignore or exploit people who are voiceless. He requires us to willingly lay down our rights as we selflessly serve others. He condemns economic greed and unbridled excess. He loves charity and mercy. 

It should concern us when we, as Christians, approach our world with very partisan/tribal lenses—when we see issues in regard to their red or blue, Right or Left, appeal instead of viewing them through God's eyes. It's shameful when we irrationally deify or demonize political candidates, propositions, or ideologies due to our tribal affiliations. The resulting cognitive dissonance will make fools out of the best of us. If after personal introspection we find that we typically embrace or outright reject things simply because the spokesperson has an “R” or a “D” next to their name, then we have fallen into this trap.

We increasingly live in artificial worlds of our own making which contribute to our ever-growing polarization. On social media, we can surround ourselves with or “un-friend” people, for example, that agree or disagree with our preconceptions until all we hear is a single note. While this may make for an initially easier existence, it ultimately produces ignorance of the universes next door and eliminates the opportunity to grow in Godly wisdom and understanding. Multiple “news sources,” editorial blogs, infotainment, and quasi-journalists are also available to cater to our insatiable desire for affirmation of what we already believe to be true about the world. Confirmation bias runs rampant in the “information age.” If we happen to hear something that challenges us or, God forbid, makes us angry, we can quickly banish it from our digital world. However, I would strongly encourage my brothers and sisters to resist the urge to take the easy way out. We can only live in our comfortable, artificially affirming worlds for so long before we inevitably collide with numerous other “hostile” worlds, which we are now, due to our own censorship, unequipped to understand or engage. Such is the tragedy of much of what has been labeled the “culture war.” What if we were to instead invest in friendships with people who are very different from us, and genuinely consider opposing views? Perhaps our current perspectives will be made more certain, or maybe our misconceptions will become apparent to us upon review. Either way, we win. 

God is even now taking back his rebel world through the person and work of Jesus. True Gospel transformation—not legislation—will revolutionize the way we view culture, politics, economics, human life, sexuality, immigration, healthcare, environmental conservationism, race, foreign policy, mercy and justice.

Jesus doesn't fit comfortably into the Right or Left's agenda. He's certainly not a Republican or a Democrat. Those who claim to follow him haven't joined a political party, we've offered up our unconditional surrender to a servant King and his counterintuitive kingdom. All of our preferences and pet peeves are to be unreservedly relinquished and superseded by his all-encompassing agenda. American Christian, decide now. There simply is no other way to follow him.


“[The devil] always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors.” ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.” — Ecclesiastes 7:18b

Tuesday, September 20, 2016



I met Stan at a coffee shop. He was a jovial retired life insurance salesman who would frequently come in to the downtown location to have his morning cup of joe and to read his paper. His navy blue World War II Vet cap was his daily uniform, and he always had a smile and joke for the baristas. My brother-in-law Mike and I used to meet every Monday morning before work to read Scripture together, so we would often see Stan carryout his morning routine along with the other regulars. 

One morning he walked right over to our table, introduced himself, and asked what we were reading. We told him we were followers of Jesus, and we met weekly to read Scripture together and pray for each other. He proudly declared that he was Jewish and that he didn't believe Jesus was the Messiah. I always appreciated Stan's frankness. He grew up in Brooklyn and didn't waste time getting to the point. Before we left that morning, we let him know he was always welcome to join us. He came back the next week and the week after.

He sat with us just about every Monday for months as we went through the Gospel of John. We got him a large print Bible so he could read with us. He would bring it along with his Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, and would read for us when we discussed Isaiah or some of the other prophetic messianic passages. We had many conversations about the promised Messiah. I think Stan debated just about every verse we read, but he kept coming back. 

Stan was raised to distrust Christians. He explained how his immigrant parents viewed the church in Europe as being complicit with or indifferent toward anti-Semitic politics and the eventual murder of millions of Jews. I’m reminded how our political affiliations—our failure to clearly speak out against evil—can potentially create lasting and formidable barriers to Jesus.

Stan shared with us that he had a close friend who became a Christian. He noted that his friend's life was chaotic before meeting Jesus and drastically transformed for the better after. Stan seemed to brush his friend's transformation off as little more than the results of a powerful placebo. Still, he had great respect for him. I wondered if his friend's new birth had sparked a curiosity in Stan that compelled him to want to know more about Jesus. 

Stan knew a lot of the shop’s patrons, so just having him sitting at our table opened the door to some conversations we wouldn’t have otherwise had. I remember how a colorful construction worker, an acquaintance of Stan’s, who apparently had been listening to our conversation, would join in from time to time. We had a few interesting discussions about life and God with this guy who usually sat at a nearby table across the way from us. I pray the seeds of the good news were cast wide in these public conversations, amidst the hustle and bustle of the coffee shop’s morning traffic. 

Stan was very proud of his Jewish heritage. He told us how his kids, when they were young, would invite their classmates and neighborhood friends to join the family at Passover and other celebrations. I loved how Stan and his wife enjoyed explaining the meaning behind the traditions and welcoming strangers to their table. He once invited me to visit his synagogue and warmly introduced my daughter and me to his wife and friends. He also gave me an honorary “Jew Card” (seriously, it's a personalized card that grants me “all the rights of being Jewish”) which was characteristic of his sense of humor. 

We would often conclude our time with prayer. Stan regularly asked us to pray for his wife's arthritis pain and his daughter who had led a troubled life. It wasn't common for Stan to make a request for himself. Characteristic of his generation, he didn't like to fuss about his own personal woes. With a heavy heart, he let us know one Monday morning that his daughter had passed away. He invited me to join his family for the memorial service in his home. I felt a little out of place in such an intimate setting of shared grief, especially since I had never met his daughter, but I was incredibly honored to be included. 

We spoke about death and divine judgement from time to time. Stan said his dad told him when he was young that he would one day have to answer to God for everything he had ever done. He didn't elaborate, but he indicated that he had sinned against a holy God on more than one occasion. He found the thought of substitutionary atonement, Jesus dying in our place, repugnant. “Each person should answer for his own sins,” is what he would say. Like most people, Stan hoped his good would outweigh the bad. 

Stan had missed a few Mondays, so I stopped by his house to check in on him. We sat in his study, surrounded by trinkets and family photos, as he told me he hadn't been feeling too good. His doctor had found a spot on his liver that they were concerned about. He brushed it off as if it was no big deal, but I could see he was worried. He once told me that he didn't believe in resurrection. There were also moments when his no-nonsense, tough exterior gave way to brief and honest confessions of his fears about dying. But he didn’t linger there. He showed me some old pictures of the B-25 he flew in during the war. He was a turret gunner if I remember correctly. He would really come to life as he shared stories and photos from his time in the service. I asked if I could pray for him (in Jesus' name, as he knew was my custom) before I left that evening. He gave me permission, so I asked God for healing and that Stan's test results would be favorable. That was the last time I saw Stan. 

I dropped by his house a few weeks later, and his wife greeted me at the door. I asked for Stan and was shocked as she informed me that he had passed away suddenly. The spot turned out to be an aggressive cancer that took him days after it was discovered. She apologized for not inviting me to his funeral (she didn’t have my contact information). I felt the weight of routinely carrying on my life the last few weeks, unaware of my friend's passing. I also felt unavoidable regret that I had just casually asked his grieving widow where he was (forcing her to fill me in on Stan's fate). I wish he told me how near he was to the end. I wish we had finished John's Gospel together. I wish that God had healed him and we had more time. I wish I could have said a better goodbye. I wish there was a better end to Stan's story. 

I believe the Spirit of God was drawing him to Jesus, but I will not presume to know the inner workings of Stan's heart. I will not ascribe to him more than he himself disclosed. God seems to honor and sustain our ability to choose, and Stan never indicated that his opinion of Jesus had changed. I still believe God has purpose in seemingly mundane interactions, and it's cathartic for me to write about Stan (Some three years after his passing). I search for meaning in regard to my time with him. I can find no meaning, however, beyond this: Stan was my friend, and death took him. Jesus came to rescue and restore. He is the only Physician—the only Cure—that can effectively treat the fatal illness afflicting us all. 

And we don’t have half as much time to get the word out as we pretend.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

How to More Than Just Survive the Zombie Apocalypse

My wife and I have kinda been binge-watching a zombie show the last few weeks. After we get the kids to bed, we're like two codependent junkies. “Just one more episode,” has become our notorious last line. The story is driven by a group of average people who find themselves in the midst of a global zombie outbreak. Their old lives are only a distant memory, as they are now preoccupied with the more pressing and all-consuming task of staying alive. In many cases the individual members of the group have nothing in common beyond their catastrophic circumstances, but they are firmly unified and mobilized by their shared objective. They must work through their differences, forgive, and resolve their conflicts because their weightier task compels them to band together. Their marital conflicts, parental teaching moments, and occasional leisure times and impromptu celebrations must happen in community and on the go, while scavenging for supplies, defending each other against the undead, strategizing, and constantly moving forward. Throughout their extraordinary ordeal they inevitably become family. Those of us who have succumbed to the gospel are similarly caught up into something far bigger than ourselves (and there really is no way to smoothly transition from zombies to the gospel). Our entire outlook should be completely shifted. According to Scripture, we live in a world filled with the walking dead, but we’ve also been entrusted with the Cure for the zombie apocalypse. 

Most Christians are familiar with Jesus’ Great Commission (recorded in Matthew chapter 28). There is some discussion among Greek scholars as to whether Jesus is commanding his disciples to “go” or if he is just assuming that they will be going (something like “as you go...”). I am unqualified to settle this linguistic debate, but it seems irrelevant to me if in either case Jesus is expecting forward movement. What comes after is, I think, very clear (and only a heart of disobedience could muddy it). We are told to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything [Jesus has] commanded [us].” Thankfully Jesus promises to be “with [us] always” in this endeavor. Far from mere survival or escapism (like in the zombie show), we are given a triumphant and redemptive kingdom task. We are charged with declaring and demonstrating the victory and boundless jurisdiction of our liberating King—who is waking the dead to life—and his coming kingdom. The urgency and the centrality of the mission are similar to that of the folks in the zombie saga, but the rewards and dangers are infinitely greater. 

As followers of Christ, we are not to be consumed (totally fits with the zombie theme) by the cares of the world. We are instead to be captivated by his better kingdom and driven by his heartbeat to seek and save the lost. Like the folks in the zombie show, we find ourselves in extraordinary circumstances. We must recognize the dangers of being complacent or unengaged. “The time is short,” says the Apostle Paul. “From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7:29b-31). Likewise, Jesus explained to his would-be followers, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Are Jesus and Paul telling us to neglect and/or despise our families, to just suck it up when we’re grieving, and to never celebrate or smile in the good times? Clearly they are not. Elsewhere Jesus famously commands us to love even our enemies, and Paul says that husbands should love their wives as “Christ loved the church” and warns that Christian men who fail to provide for their family are “worse than unbelievers” (Ephesians 5:25 and 1 Timothy 5:8). Jesus also wept with those experiencing grief and celebrated with those who were rejoicing. It seems then that Jesus and Paul are describing a devotion to Christ and his kingdom that supersedes all other relationships and obligations, a kingdom perspective that causes us to hold loosely to our physical possessions and personal safety. Jesus warns, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Our families, jobs, finances, and leisure time can be huge blessings and potential assets on the journey, but they are not to become distractions or idols that draw our hearts away from the mission. 

It's so easy for our schedules to become filled up with school activities, soccer practice, work deadlines, hobbies and leisure (this is coming from a guy who just confessed to binge-watching a television show). Our hopes and dreams start revolving around our upcoming family vacation, a new car, promotion at work, a sport’s season, or retirement. With our short-sighted vision, our prayers also become limited to requests for parking spaces when we're running late, escape from suffering and illness, clarity from God regarding which new house he wants us to buy (and that he'd give us a great deal), and a miraculous transfer to another division for our hard-to-get-along-with supervisor or coworker. How silly (not to mention dangerous) it would be for the zombie show’s survivalists to go about their lives as if nothing had changed, to pretend that they weren’t surrounded by immense death and decay. 

I think our intentions are good. In many cases, we just don't know any other way. We tragically may not even know what we said “yes” to when we decided to follow Jesus. Several of us responded to another gospel—the popular Americanized gospel of personal salvation, isolation, and eventual extraction—instead of the gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus and his apostles preached. The latter gospel, the true gospel, is a bigger story that doesn't end after we say “the prayer.” It's a story of rescue and restoration, in which we not only become recipients but also participants in his ambitious redemptive plan for our neighborhood, our city, and the world. It’s about Light heroically crashing into a dark world, transforming once-agents of darkness into his light-bearers, and commissioning them to spread out and shine in every dark corner. It's an extraordinary story that requires the presence and power of the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. There are important rights and responsibilities that accompany our kingdom citizenship. The Holy Spirit was not given to us merely so we would have a supernatural leg-up while investing in all the same mundane things that our not-yet-believing friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers are pursuing. “Something is wrong,” says Francis Chan, “when our lives make sense to unbelievers” (Crazy Love). 

It's not that we will no longer be participating in any of these things. We still need to work, raise our kids, and buy stuff. Rest and leisure are also useful blessings from God. But these ordinary rhythms of life have the potential to be dramatically transformed when our vision aligns with his. The Holy Spirit will begin to organize our time and resources in a way that promotes his agenda and not ours (After all, we’ve died to ourselves, right?). We’ll start seeing great opportunities to make room at our dinner tables and to open up our homes to those who are presently far off (holidays, birthdays, and various other celebrations become natural occasions for this to happen). We will notice how we can actively bless our kids’ classmates and their classmates’ families, teachers, and coaches by serving and inviting. In God's story, there is a “good infection” (to borrow C.S. Lewis' term)–the Cure—that can be transmitted in close proximity from the living to the dead. We may begin to view ourselves as “disciple-makers” who work for FedEx, “priests” who are also dental hygienists, “ministers of reconciliation” who tent-make as contract lawyers, and “ambassadors” of his better kingdom who are assigned to teach kindergartners. Once we've caught his vision, there's no going back. Our aspirations, prayers, priorities, hopes and dreams will quickly and organically start reflecting our changed hearts. 

The 1st Century followers of Christ seemed to understand what they were saying “yes” to. They certainly weren't perfect. The Holy Spirit had his metaphorical hands full dealing with their deeply entrenched prejudices, legalism, bad theology, and immorality (pretty much the same stuff he's still working with the Church on today). But they seemed to have caught the vision of God's kingdom and Jesus' radical agenda. Ordinary and unnamed followers of Christ, tent makers, merchants, tanners, soldiers, slaves, and business owners banded together to carry the good news of God's kingdom to the ends of the earth. The ground they covered, the obstacles they overcame, is nothing short of miraculous and a testament to the Spirit-led life. Aquila and Priscilla were among many Jewish Christians who were expelled from Rome by an unjust edict. They lost their home and business and became wandering refugees. But they didn't let these setbacks stop them. They didn't lose sight of their calling. They continued to share the good news in everyday life as they rebuilt in Corinth. We're told in Acts how they partnered with Paul and opened up their home for ministry. And they didn't get too comfortable. We read how they packed their life up and moved on again when an opportunity to serve with Paul in Ephesus presented itself. An anonymous multitude of transformed Christ-followers stubbornly stayed the course amidst extreme persecution. They gave generously and recklessly out of their poverty. They practiced lavish hospitality both to their spiritual family and to outsiders. They were clearly not living for anything this world had to offer. Their prayers were not for comfort or safety but for boldness to preach the gospel, for courage to suffer well, and for power to take more ground. As a result, they “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). 

I know there are times when we feel like we're barely surviving. We may feel the zombie hordes pressing in on all sides. The weight of living in a dark world, of “fighting the good fight,” can seem overwhelming. Our own fears and failings can be crippling. But this is not the time to abandon the mission. Something has gone horribly wrong when the living start envying the dead. In these times we must press in even more to Jesus, and rally with the church. We must remind ourselves that our inheritance is not of this world. “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead,” says Jesus (Matthew 8:22). The concerns of the living should be drastically different from the concerns and preoccupations of the dead. 

This is what I want for my family, my church, and my neighborhood. I want to live this paradoxical life-abundant in community through service to others and death to self. As Jesus said, it is only when we give our life up that we truly live. Ironically, it is in “wartime living,” when we are giving of our time and resources sacrificially, that the celebrations become sweeter, the bonds of friendship deeper, and the victories more meaningful. I have what I think is a healthy fear of slipping into apathy, so I beg my fellow Christ-followers to keep me on track when I lose the vision, when I settle for the things of the world. We need each other. I also want to partner with my spiritual family members who are urgently seeking the kingdom of God among the unreached and unengaged in cross-cultural contexts around the world, and I want to see our interconnectedness as we labor together toward the same end. I know that I could hunker down, wait for the return of Christ, and live an empty life full of common things. But I will have missed out on the adventure of a lifetime. It's the one who seeks to save their life, explains Jesus, who loses it in the end. Those who have yet to meet Jesus are still dead in their sins and stumbling around aimlessly, pursuing their destructive and insatiable appetites for lesser things (my last zombie reference, I promise). How confusing it must be to them when our lives resemble theirs. I don't want to work the kingdom into my busy life; I want to let Jesus build my life around his kingdom agenda.

“…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (from Hebrews 12:1 and 2).

Friday, September 2, 2016

Shadow of Doubt


I’m a natural born skeptic. Those who know me can confirm that cynicism runs through my veins. “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” and all that. It’s to God’s credit, however, that he can effectively transform a very selfish person into a servant of others, a violent person into a gentle soul, a greedy materialist into a philanthropist, or even a confirmed skeptic into a believer. After all, it’s in our weaknesses that his power is made perfect. And so we become his trophies, monuments to his ability to overcome any barrier that the human heart can erect. As a believer, I still regularly wrestle with doubt, and it’s this internal and near constant struggle that has largely come to define me.

C.S. Lewis describes faith as “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods” (Mere Christianity). I’ve noticed that my doubt is often tied to my emotional state. This was hard for me to accept at first because I consider myself a very rational person. It’s humbling—yet extremely helpful—to know that my critical faculties can be so easily influenced by my fleeting brain chemistry. I’m frailer than I first imagined.

It seems that belief to a certain extent is a matter of choice. Hear me out, as I’m not suggesting that one could choose to believe against one’s better judgement that, for example, the moon is in fact made of cheese or that the tooth fairy is actually open for business and ready to trade with the children of the world. Regardless of the incentives, I simply cannot believe these things. However, we regularly make choices about how we will process/file/believe the numerous evidences that our world offers. Confirmation bias—the human tendency to seek out evidences for that which we already believe to be true—is present in atheists, believers, and everyone in between. Otherwise reasonable people will regularly choose to believe any number of outlandish things regarding vaccines, conspiracy theories, political candidates, etc. despite the ample existence of compelling contrary data. The resulting cognitive dissonance is more obvious in some than others, but I would put forth that none of us is completely immune to this human phenomena.

I’m not suggesting that truth is relative, only that our ability to arrive at truth is very much related to our subjective perceptions and emotions. We must be aware of the intellectual pitfalls common to the human experience if we’re to steer clear of them in our journey toward truth. It’s ultimately an unwavering love of truth that allows one to reject fiction, regardless of how emotionally entrenched it may be.

The broad strokes of the biblical narrative are widely known within Western culture: An all-powerful, timeless, and good being makes humanity in his image and places them in a beautiful and vast universe as his administrators. Humanity quickly rebels and condemns the universe to death and decay. The merciful creator then interacts with fallen humanity through human messengers to reveal his heart for reconciliation and to promise a rescuer. At long last, the creator miraculously comes as a human to bring the good news of God reclaiming his rebel world. He accomplishes this by living a perfect life, dying an excruciating death at the hands of his creation, and rising from death victorious. This divine human claims to have power over life and death and offers pardons and adoption to all rebels who acknowledge him as king. Before ascending to another dimension, he instructs his followers to go tell the rest of the world about the good news of his kingdom. He promises to one day return, eradicate evil, raise the dead, and punish his enemies. Along the way there’s water turned to wine, pillars of fire, invisible supernatural beings for and against the creator, a guy who gets swallowed by a giant fish and lives to tell about it, and a one-time talking donkey.

I don’t think we should pretend that the story isn’t odd, that it isn’t at first hard to believe. An extraordinary claim of this scope and magnitude must reasonably come with proportionately compelling evidence that it’s true if anyone is expected to believe it. Oddly enough, though, it’s the strangeness of the story at times that causes it to smack of authenticity (strangeness alone, of course, couldn’t be the sole criterion for determining the truth of something). The human authors of Scripture don’t seem to be overly concerned with the strangeness of their testimony. They often recount things that would’ve been more easily accepted had they omitted certain details or slightly altered things to be more palatable to the hearer (such as their ancestors' and their own personal failings, less than ideal witnesses of key events, etc.). The fact that they didn’t, however, is one small marker for me on the road to accepting their credibility. I believe Lewis in Mere Christianity discusses how we could easily in a short time manufacture from our own minds a simple religion which could quickly be understood if that’s what we set out to do. Real things, however, aren’t always how we would’ve first thought them to be and often have a complexity, a strangeness even, that naturally requires time and effort to comprehend.

Ancient mythology, animistic religions, and such have their obvious earthly antecedents. The Greek pantheon, for example, is clearly made up of humans like us, what we think we might want to be, only magnified times ten, ultimately more passionate, petty, and insecure than any single human and with greater propensity and capacity to pursue the basest of human desires for an indefinite period of time. The God of the Bible, on the other hand, isn’t what we could’ve imagined. He is clearly not what we would have imagined. His counterintuitive thinking seems to even confound his prophets, who sometimes must reluctantly convey his strange messages only at his emphatic insistence. His revealed triune nature alone is enough to make your head spin, but it points to a truth about an allegedly transcendent being that is both confounding and confirming. I’ve heard it rightly said that the deity described in Islam, for example, couldn’t be accurately called “loving” apart from the existence of something or someone else. There must logically be an object of affection, something besides the lover, for love to exist. The most that could be said for Allah (along with numerous other deities) then, before he allegedly created the universe, is that he had the potential to be loving. His very nature is philosophically contingent on his creation (the Greeks were at least more up front about this facet of their gods’ reliance on humanity). Do not misunderstand my noting of this ontological difference as a petty expression of “my deity can beat up your deity.” I don’t think in those terms. My aim is always to follow truth wherever it leads. It’s the God of the Bible, who uniquely is said to exist as a harmonious community—Father, Son, and Spirit—unto himself, who alone could truly be complete and loving without the necessary existence of anything beside himself. He’s not merely us magnified (after all, we’re said to be made in his image and not the other way around); His divine personhood is logically more sophisticated than our own. That an infinite being, who is more of a person than you or I, possessing hyper-personhood, would exist in this complexity is both impossible to have figured and yet obvious once it is revealed to us. The way he wields infinite power is also like nothing a human could have thought up. His clever and startling solution for reclaiming and restoring his rebel world is at the same time elegant and horrific, the product of a moral genius who has yet to encounter a truly no-win scenario and who fully demonstrates the necessary fortitude required to bleed out his costly and innovative rescue plan.

If we’re entertaining the idea of a transcendent being that’s capable of architecting the universe from nothing, then we immediately realize that he will have to initiate any potential interaction between us if it’s to occur. This is where divine revelation comes in (most frequently delivered to/through human messengers). Truth be told, I thoroughly dislike the method this infinite being primarily chooses to communicate with his finite creation. No doubt, he has his reasons. Still I would much rather have my own earth-shattering vision of God seated on his throne then have to experience it vicariously through the prophet Isaiah’s alleged encounter. And I’d have preferred to see Jesus, with my own eyes, raise Lazarus from the grave then have to merely read the testimony of those who did. Thomas’ famous need to confirm an outrageous claim with his own senses really resonates with me. I’m not saying that God refuses to speak to most of us directly. I’ve had some personal and what I think are remarkable encounters with him. But I cannot through these personal encounters know what the first humans were like when the world was young, surmise what went wrong, and piece together what he’s even now doing to correct things. Like it or not, I must look to the authors of Scripture, who were said to be “carried along by the Holy Spirit,” for the larger narrative (2 Peter 1:21, 2 Timothy 3:16). As it turns out, God did not think it necessary to consult me on how I would like to be contacted. And it does no good to go on endlessly about how we wish things were. We must instead consider things as they are. I think it would be truly unfortunate if someone refused to examine an important message simply because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, accept the way in which it was delivered (especially since God is said to intentionally use seemingly “foolish” and “lowly” things to accomplish his objectives – 1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

The Biblical story of a Syrian commander named Naaman comes to mind (2 Kings 5). His initial snobbery toward divine revelation almost cost him a miraculous healing, not to mention a life-changing encounter with a living God. Naaman had heard about the powerful God of Israel and had sought out his prophet Elisha with the hopes of being healed of his untreatable and degenerative, flesh-eating disease. While Naaman was still on the way, Elisha sent his servant to instruct the commander to bathe seven times in the, apparently unappealing, Jordan River. Naaman was indignant. He was expecting Elisha to “stand before him” (instead he would receive the revelation from the messenger of the messenger—twice removed from the divine source), “call on the name of the LORD,” and “wave his hand” (God was not offering anything so flashy). Furthermore, the proud commander could think of several “superior” bodies of water back home from which his rescue could just as easily come. It was Naaman’s own servant who finally exposed his master’s prejudice and convinced him to not discount the revelation of God simply because it was not the message or method he was anticipating. Had Naaman not considered and acted on the revelation given to him by God through the prophet Elisha, had he left in search of a “better” revelation, one more palatable to his preconceptions, he would’ve eventually succumbed to his flesh-eating illness. Had Naaman thought that washing in a river would be a good idea, only a different river other than the humble Jordan, then he would have died just the same (the river of course had no intrinsic healing properties, but, by the will of God, it became a conduit of his grace). Had he consented to wash but insisted that he would only wash six and not seven times as God had clearly instructed, his terminal disease would have continued its work. Naaman’s rescue was contingent on his willingness to accept divine revelation on the Revealer’s terms. I have come to realize, though I may have in my mind what I think would be a better way for God to have revealed himself to humanity, or to me in particular, this is not itself a good enough reason to outright reject the method he has allegedly employed (humble as the method may be).

There are numerous internal and external indicators that point to the human authors of Scripture being credible eyewitnesses. The existence of many of the places, people, and events, for example, can be confirmed by ancient historians and modern archeology (with additional corroborating data unearthed all the time). The multiple instances of fulfilled prophecy point to an unearthly vantage point that can’t easily be ignored. However, my skepticism compels me to take seriously every reasonable case against the supposed witnesses (accusations that the story was compiled/constructed generations after the events mentioned by unknown authors with unknown agendas, innocent corruption of core parts of the story due to early oral transmission, and so on). Even prominent critics of the Bible acknowledge the authenticity of many of Paul’s 1st Century letters (several external historical documents make this case). In Paul’s 1st letter to the infant church in Corinth, which was written in the mid-50s AD (Paul was executed by Nero sometime before the emperor’s suicide in 68 AD), he perfectly and succinctly recounted the gospel story’s key events, referring to these events as being of “first importance.” Likewise, Luke the physician wrote his gospel and sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, based on eyewitness testimony and almost certainly before Paul’s death (Acts, which heavily features the life of Paul, concludes with Paul’s eventual fate yet to be determined). John, knowing the extraordinary nature of his testimony, emphatically reassured his readers that he had “heard,” “seen,” and “touched” this “Word of Life” that has now consumed him. One might question whether the author of John’s gospel actually saw water turned to wine or shared a meal with a once-crucified Galilean, but one can be reasonably certain that the author had firsthand knowledge of an early 1st Century Jerusalem (significant due to the city’s decimation shortly after in 70 AD during the Jewish-Roman Wars), including the layout of the city, and specific structures like the now-excavated pool of Bethesda (described in John chapter 5), as well as local politics and personalities. Several other examples exist, but this post isn’t meant to be a comprehensive argument for the reliability of Scripture. I can choose to disbelieve their testimony, but I must admit that their odd story seems to have remained consistent since the beginning, even in the face of torture and death.

Few things that we now know were established by way of our firsthand experience. I have never been to Australia or the moon, for example, but I have no trouble believing that they are real places. The facts surrounding Australia, the moon, and millions of other things, have been firmly settled in my mind on the basis of credible authority. Our task then is to determine what sources of information are credible, reliable, and trustworthy. If we will not receive truth on the basis of credible authority, then we must resign ourselves to never knowing very much about anything. This necessary expression of faith is an unavoidable and unpleasant reality for a skeptic like me. But it is said that God's own Spirit is ready and willing to help any of us—those who are humble enough to ask—sort all of this out.

I hope the reader doesn't conclude that one can from the safety of their armchair simply analyze their way into communion with God. At some point we must conclude our reasonable deliberation and actually decide whether or not we will get into the water. Jesus tells a story about two sons who are asked to work in their father's vineyard (Matthew 21). The first son initially refuses, but then later reconsiders and eventually obeys his father's instruction. While the second son quickly and emphatically agrees he will go, but then never makes it. The sort of belief that God is after is not the talking kind. I think he takes great pleasure in the one who, despite uncertainty, finds themselves waist deep in the Jordan, half way through their seventh consecutive bath. After all, he invites us to “taste and see” for ourselves (Psalm 34:8).

I’ll admit to not having everything resolved to my complete satisfaction (or even anywhere close). This is a post about doubt, after all. My unrelenting skepticism ultimately compels me to keep searching for answers. There are several passages in Scripture that I’ve wrestled with for years, some that I’ll probably never fully understand. But I can attest that God has shown himself to be true and trustworthy in certain significant instances, so much so that I sometimes find myself extending great leeway to him in other areas that confuse or concern me. This is, I think, the essence of faith.

The Word of God became flesh and lived among us.

A somewhat nondescript, homeless, Middle Eastern man from 1st Century Nazareth is said to be God’s greatest revelation to humanity, the clearest picture of who he is and what he’s up to. Attempt, if you can, to temporarily bypass the cultural familiarity and preconceptions you have regarding this now well-known character (complete with his pale skin, flowing hair, and red sash). That this man, of all people, is the “Son of God” is nothing short of scandalous, and we should not so quickly overlook the oddness of his bizarre claim. If one was ever going to be put off by the humble packaging of a divine revelation, this would probably be the time. But ordinary as he may seem, this divine man resembles the first humans in his untarnished perfection while at the same time pointing forward to a restored humanity, and a seamless reunification of heaven and earth, which he is ushering in. The story of God can only be understood in its entirety when viewed through the lens of this person Jesus. He is a better Adam, a better Israel, a better temple, a better high priest, and a better sacrifice—truly “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End(Revelation 22:13).

What would the perfect human being, God’s image bearer as he intended, be like? Said another way: What would happen if the Creator gave us a living breathing commentary on humanity (addressing both what we are and what we could be) and simultaneous revelation of himself by becoming one of his creatures and walking among us? I find the Bible’s answer to this intriguing question extremely compelling. There are a few things we could guess without knowing anymore of the story. If humanity is as broken, as out of step with God, as the previous prophets let on, then we’d expect that God’s commentary on humanity would not be entirely welcomed by his wayward creatures (to say the least). In fact, this perfect human would be so out of step with everyone else that he’d almost certainly be met with unequaled hostility. His very presence would threaten to expose cherished fantasies as the fiction that they are. Those who thought humanity was mostly fine, that they themselves were mostly fine, would undoubtedly be his greatest adversaries. While those who miraculously agreed with this perfect human’s estimation of things would be drawn to the revealed God who compassionately and humbly came to help.

The extraordinary evidence we have been waiting for, that we reasonably need to corroborate the spectacular story of God, comes chiefly with the physical resurrection of Jesus. A man who publicly predicted his own death and subsequent resurrection, was subjected to arguably the most excruciating and humiliatingly public death imaginable, and ultimately was seen publicly by hundreds after he stepped out of his borrowed grave. These remarkable events did not take place “in a corner” (Acts 26:26); they were a matter of public record and became common knowledge (rippling out from Jerusalem and quickly buzzing in every province of the known world). The amazed witnesses went forth in the power of God’s Spirit and “turned the world upside down” with their simple testimony (Acts 17:6). They freely gave their possessions to those in need, cared for the poor and marginalized, and willingly surrendered their bodies to be brutalized and destroyed, singing as their murderers sadistically tried in vain to extinguish their light. Hundreds quickly became thousands and then millions. As a skeptic, I of course realize that rapid growth and a willingness to be martyred do not alone prove the validity of the story. However, these powerful indicators, taken along with numerous other sign posts (some of which were mentioned), are difficult to ignore. In light of this compelling information, I would agree with Paul that our otherwise bizarre behavior as Christ-followers is more than “reasonable” given the extraordinary circumstances (Acts 26:26).

Most days I believe the whole story. Some days I am overcome by the oddness of it all, and I can hardly believe any of it (even questioning my own unexplainable encounters with him). I have experienced both the crushing weight of doubt and the ecstasy of having that unbearable weight miraculously lifted off my shoulders by a patient Savior who never stops rescuing me. I often repeat the plea of a desperate father who famously cried out to Jesus, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24b). I feel a kinship with John the Baptist, who was appointed to be the Messiah’s herald even though he would later express uncertainty about Jesus’ identity. I also appreciate that Matthew records how even among the eleven, and on their way to hear their resurrected Lord deliver the Great Commission no less, “some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). In my most lucid moments, I recognize that he is more real than I am—that he is more alive than I am—and I even sometimes chuckle at the absurdity of someone who has only existed for 35 years questioning the existence of someone who has always been. He is the dreamer, and we are merely his dream. He is the source of life—He is LIFE: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
So count me among the “fools” who will bathe in the muddy Jordan, give up our lives in order to truly live, pursue an invisible kingdom, and hope in a 1st Century homeless guy who claimed to be “the resurrection and the life.”