Tag Archives: angels

ancient-cosmos

Follow-Up to “Do You Have to Believe in Hell and Angels…?”

This is a brief follow-up to last week’s post “Do people have to believe in hell and angels before they can follow Jesus?” I’ve been thinking a lot about the questions I raised in that post, and had a few good conversations with Christian friends about it. My overall feeling after much consideration and thought is this: it is surely much better to remain agnostic concerning the supernatural than it is to doubt (or forfeit) values like compassion and mercy. This is particularly true given that the church has often erred in the opposite direction, certain about details of the afterlife and apocalyptic schedules but cautious and dubious about grace and inclusion. And after all, one of the major revelations of the New Testament is that God accepts all those who “do His will” regardless of who they are and what they believe (Acts 10:34-35).

But there is a big “gotcha” in this discussion, one which I didn’t address in the original post. That is the question of the resurrection. Isn’t it necessary that one must believe in the miracle of the resurrection to be a Christian who is “right with God”? This seems to be a juncture where belief in the supernatural becomes absolutely bundled up with Christianity. And here’s the thing: in no way do I wish to sidestep or deny the centrality of the resurrection to our faith. This is the heart and soul of what we believe! However, the fact that this comes before us as a divisive question about faith versus skepticism, belief versus exclusion, indicates just how far we’ve strayed from the essence of the gospel, and how hard we’ve worked to separate the ethos of Jesus from the pathos of his story.

A major misstep by both sides of the “religion vs. science” debates is this violent division between the sacred and the mundane, between the miracle and the message. The traditional camp has been all too happy to distinguish the miracles and passion of Jesus from his life and ethics, and to emphasize the former at the cost of the latter. Skeptics then engage them at their point of emphasis, and the central issue becomes whether or not modern/postmodern people can bring themselves to believe in these sorts of claims anymore. But without their original narrative contexts and resonance, without the story, miraculous and supernatural claims are just arbitrary and kind of empty. If you believe them, you are in. If you don’t, you are out. But what does it benefit one’s character or the world around them which side of the divide they happen find themselves on?

In the story, Jesus’ miracles are not random magic tricks, they are “signs of the kingdom.” He heals human lives as a sign that peace and forgiveness have come to Israel. In the story, Jesus doesn’t die to satisfy God or become a theological hero, he is killed by a corrupt empire because influential people were unsettled by his teachings about the kingdom. In the story, Jesus isn’t resurrected as a tacked-on happy ending or so that Christians can belong to the correct religion. God raises him up in full public vindication of his prophetic message about the coming of the kingdom. There is no point in the story at which the events and claims surrounding Jesus’ life are not directly connected to his teaching about a loving God and a kingdom of peace. The story is not “these things happened and so Christianity is true,” it’s “these things happened and so grace and reconciliation and freedom and mercy are true!”

This is why I reject the rigid and literalistic belief/disbelief binary that uses supernatural claims and miracles as a litmus test for belonging to a religious tribe. We are invited into a story, and the story means something. You can choose to believe every detail in the narrative with all of your heart without ever being affected or transformed by their meaning. Or, you might find yourself struggling with the details of the story but gobsmacked by their implications. You might find yourself drawn into hope and discovery and illumination, even though you’re not sure what you believe. If we embrace the miracles but not the meaning, we’re no better off than we were. But if we embrace the meaning, the miracles are not far off. 

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ancient-cosmos

Do People Need to Believe in Hell and Angels Before They Can Follow Jesus?

This is a serious question, though my concern is that it will be seriously misunderstood. Stick with me, please.

It has been a basic assumption of western Christianity that evangelization begins with informing “unsaved” people of their imperiled status within a certain cosmology; there is heaven, there is hell, you are headed in one direction and need a boost in the other. After all, people have to understand the problem before they can accept the solution, right? But today, few people hold to the ancient worldview that simply took for granted certain segmentations of earth and sky, heavens and underworld, and the hosts of spiritual beings which inhabit them. As a result, there is a major disconnect between those who would package the gospel of Jesus along with the ancient cosmology of the biblical world and those marked for evangelization who passively assume a modern understanding of the universe. If people struggle to believe in (for example) heaven, hell, angels, or young-earth creationism, does this disqualify them from understanding and responding to the message and challenge of Jesus? Is Christianity primarily a willful acceptance of a particular ancient cosmology, or is it first and foremost an ethical or moral worldview?

Here’s where I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’m not raising the question of whether or not hell and angels, etc. are “real,” nor am I questioning whether or not they are significant to Christianity. These things are inescapable, indelible, and how we come to understand and engage with them is very important. My question is about the heart and essence of Christianity, not about faith vs. science. I’m not asking if we, as Christians, really need to bother with all of that supernatural stuff anymore, I’m asking whether or not this ought to be a barrier or a checkpoint that prevents newcomers and outsiders from understanding and knowing Jesus as prophet, teacher, and lord.

Consider: Jesus was a prophet of peace and grace in the religious world of first century Second Temple Judaism. From within that matrix, using its assumptions and language, he announced a gospel of repentance, empathy, and forgiveness. He wasn’t on a mission to convince anyone that God or angels or hades existed – granted, he didn’t need to! Indeed, everyone he encountered already assumed the cosmology of their day. This is part of my point, that Jesus didn’t propose a new set of religious beliefs to his listeners, but he DID subvert and challenge the implicit meanings and presumptions of their common beliefs. He didn’t have to convince anyone that there was a God in heaven. But he did go against the grain and insist that God was a loving and endlessly forgiving Father, not a space tyrant who inflicts sickness and calamity to punish sinners. He didn’t build an apologetic case for the reality of hell and judgment. But he did step on many toes by teaching that judgment is universal and based on charity and personal integrity rather than class or religion. Rather than teaching people that they must assent to certain religious propositions or supernatural claims in order to be saved, Jesus was, in a sense, “unteaching” certain bad and pervasive religious ideas, and inviting his listeners on a path of open hearted trust and faith – faith in himself and in a way of life.  

Back to our question: Is it conceivable that this heart and ethos of Jesus – this trust in grace and “the things that make for peace” – might transcend issues of cosmology and religion and find an expression that resonates with our twenty-first century worldview, even as it surely subverts and challenges it? It is possible that this gospel might ignite imaginations and win hearts whether or not they have also embraced a first century understanding of the universe? Do not violence and sin and exploitation and self-interest and retribution pose the same threat today that they did then? By trying so obtusely to change what someone else believes about the sky or the planet or the future or the afterlife, do we not risk obscuring or stifling the voice of the prophet calling us all to love God by loving each other?

Again, I am not advocating that we dismiss or forsake the unique religious, supernatural, or apocalyptic trappings of the Christian tradition. I have not rejected them, even as I often struggle to understand and engage them in fruitful ways.* Anyone who is drawn to Jesus will be invited into this strange and sacred world. But to make these things intellectual prerequisites to faith and inclusion seems absurd and counterproductive. Instead of simply speaking the truth about love and peace, we are obsessed and pedantic about the precise language in which it must be communicated. And while we are so busy rehearsing and reconstructing an ancient mindset, our neighbors are outside starving and homeless. If the only hope for humankind is that everyone might intentionally adapt an ancient understanding of the material universe, then our future looks pretty bleak.

But consider these observations about the earliest Christians:

Ancient Christians were known for being nonviolent, not for arguing about creationism.

Ancient Christians were known for their brotherly and sisterly love, not for believing in hell more intensely than everyone else.

Ancient Christians were known for charity and service to the poor and outcast, not for being the most religious people around.

In fact, ancient Christians’ apparent emphasis of charity and fellowship over ritual and sacrifice, along with their regard for only a single deity, resulted in them being labeled “atheists” by some of their pagan observers.

And I suppose this gets to the heart of what I’m clumsily suggesting here: Throughout history, Christians at their best have been identified as people who believe in transcendent things like repentance, peace, compassion, and forgiveness, not religious or cosmological ideas like creation, hell, or angels. There are elegant and productive ways of talking about those things, but they should not be in the forefront of our mission and message if they will distract from the gospel. Our world needs “the things that make for peace” more than ever.

For my part, from now on, when someone asks me if I “believe in hell,” my stock answer will be “no, I believe in Jesus!”

* I should note for the sake of disclosure that I do reject doctrines of “young earth creation” and “rapture,” both of which I understand to be aberrations built on the misapplication of Bible texts. For more about my views on hell and angels and such, see posts like these

the-satan

Three Bible Words That Don’t Mean What We Think They Mean

OK, so the headline isn’t fair. More and more Christians are educating themselves in the origins and contexts of the Bible, and no one can pretend to have any special secret knowledge that isn’t readily available to anyone. At the same time, in mainstream American Christian culture, these words (and many more) are often locked into unhelpful, non-biblical settings that obscure their true depth of meaning. These concepts are long overdue for some clarification. This isn’t “everything you know is wrong!,” I simply offer a few educated considerations.

1. Angel

What We Hear: Thanks in large part to the imagination of medieval Europe, most people in the western world today envision angels as shimmering, winged Caucasians who live up in the clouds. When our English Bibles say, for example, that “an angel” or “the angel of the Lord” appears in a narrative, we immediately picture a flying Osmond in bleached robes. Some Christian traditions teach that there are classes of angels, like archangels, seraphim, and cherubim, each with different stations and privileges. Clarence Odbody, AS2.

But Consider This: The Hebrew and Greek words translated “angel” in our Bibles simply mean “messenger,” or “one who brings tidings.” In these texts, “angels” are just people, at least in appearance, and they are usually on a mission to deliver important news. These are the “men” who visit Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18, or the messenger Gabriel who comes to Mary in Luke’s nativity. These angels are never said to have wings, and usually appear in broad daylight among people in the real world.

In quite a different category we have strange creatures like seraphs (beings made of flame), cherubs (winged lions), and various “beasts” which inhabit visions and apocalypses. These beings often have wings but are never called angels. Our inherited readings of the Bible have conflated both categories into a single race of heavenly sprites. In reality, they inhabit a wide range of meanings, contexts, and genres.

2. Satan

What We Hear: Satan, or the Devil, is the personal enemy of God, the supernatural lord of evil who rules over hell, thwarts God’s plans, and tempts boys and girls to sin so they won’t get into heaven. Many Christian traditions maintain that Satan was once an exalted angel named Lucifer who rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven along with his legions of demons. Most people assume that this is part of the Bible’s storyline, but apart from a few possible cryptic references, it’s not actually there. It grew out of Jewish legends, literature like the Book of Enoch, and the biblical interpretations of church fathers like Origen.

But Consider This: “Satan” in the text of the Bible is never a proper name, but always a descriptive title with a definite article: “the satan” or “the accuser” in Hebrew, “the devil” or “the slanderer” in Greek. This label is applied to many things in many contexts. In the book of Job, the accuser is one of God’s heavenly employees whose job is to prosecute and torment humans. The satan only appears a couple more times in the Hebrew Bible, as in 1 Chronicles 21 where it’s a negative spiritual influence that causes King David to make an unwise decision. (Though in the alternate telling of the same story in 2 Samuel 24, it is God who incites David to make the same decision.)

In the New Testament, “the slanderer” appears to Jesus in his desert vision quest, tempting him to abandon his earthly ministry before it begins. Jesus calls one of his closest friends, Peter, a “satan” for doubting him. In the book of Revelation, the accuser is depicted as a great red dragon which corrupts and manipulates the Roman Empire until it is defeated and destroyed once and for all. In each of these different formats and contexts, the one thing connecting all depictions of “the satan” is a spirit of condemnation and shame. Whether the satan is a singular figure, a spiritual reality, or a state of mind, it always brings accusation and oppression. It is the opposite of mercy and forgiveness.

3. Apocalypse

What We Hear: The end of the world! An apocalypse, according to its modern usage, is a cataclysmic event that brings either society as we know it or the entirety of space-time to an end. Zombies, aliens, horsemen or climate change, something inevitable is coming and all we can do is hope to survive and be on the winning side when it’s all over. When it comes to the Bible, the apocalypse will be the holy war to end all holy wars, a series of trials and battles that are already preordained to the smallest detail. There is nothing we can do to stop it from coming, but we should still accuse everyone we don’t like of hastening its approach.

But Consider This: In biblical terms, an apocalypse isn’t an event but a type of text, a genre of literature. The word “apocalypse” means “hidden,” and these texts employ visual metaphors and poetic imagination to “reveal” the hidden spiritual reality behind an earthly crisis in the author’s own time. The first biblical apocalypses (eg. portions of Ezekiel and Daniel) emerge after Israel’s exile in Babylon and later Persia. Both of these cultures produced apocalypse-style texts, suggesting perhaps that Israel’s artists and prophets were subverting the cultures of their captors and adapting them for their own purposes. And those purposes, despite the connotation of “apocalypse” today, always involved bringing hope to a people in trouble.

We might think of apocalypses as the political cartoons of the ancient Near East. They are certainly more serious and consequential, but they function in a similar way. In Revelation, the only extended apocalypse in the New Testament, Rome is satirized as a monster and a whore, while Jesus is depicted as a slain lamb. The metaphors are mixed and the images are impossible, but the coded message of hope in the face of political turmoil would have been crystal clear to its original readers. None of this precludes apocalypses from being spiritually inspired or communicating timeless truths, but it does suggest that they are products of ancient historical crises and that they will always speak louder in those contexts than in our own. And when they do speak, their true voice is one of expectation and rescue, not inevitable doom.

Break Your Bible: 2 Thessalonians 1 and the Revenge of Jesus

The first post in this series examined Numbers 25 and religious zeal, a troubling text from the Hebrew Bible and the equally troublesome strand of biblical theology that it inspired. The second post explored Jeremiah 7, a text which seems to openly contradict one of the central tenets of Torah law. Those posts were intended to dramatically illustrate real conflicts between Bible texts and to highlight the problems with forced assumptions of biblical homogeny.

For this third (and final?) installment, I want to undertake something even more potentially unsettling for Christian Bible readers: I want to assess the moral integrity of a standalone passage of scripture, and one from the New Testament, no less.

“In Flaming Fire, Inflicting Vengeance”

Let’s get to it. Here is the text of 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 (ESV):

[5] This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering — [6] since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, [7] and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels [8] in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. [9] They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, [10] when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

I hope the difficulties in this text are as obvious to you as they are to me. Even if you feel compelled to affirm everything you read in the Bible, I truly hope that the content of this passage gives you pause. There is a gleeful attitude of retribution, vengeance, and an appetite for divine violence in these verses that is unbecoming of a Christian, much less of a prominent apostle like Paul. Am I out of line for suggesting this? Are we permitted to make moral judgments like these about what we read in scripture? If not, why not? Does this author get a pass because he is writing scripture? Is scripture good by virtue of being called scripture, or because it says good things?

The Impulse to Make Excuses

As an amateur Bible scholar, I am tempted here to offer up some caveats. 2 Thessalonians is a contested book, understood by some to be the work of an unknown author writing in Paul’s name. But this doesn’t get us off the hook. The letter is received into the canon as a genuine work of Paul, and whatever the case it is Christian scripture. It is ours, but what shall we do with it?

Another possible caveat: These early church texts often reflect a context of persecution and fear, wherein Christians faced brutal dangers at the hands of Rome. Given these realities, isn’t it understandable that they might write a desperate text like this? The premise may or may not be true; the level of persecution facing the church in this early stage appears to have been minimal, though specific campaigns against Christians were not unknown. The question persists: Even if we can discover a context that helps us understand the reason for the bloodthirst apparent in a text like this, must our sympathy make space for acceptance and approval? Are the expectations and attitudes displayed in this passage normative for all Christians?

Clarifying The Text

It is helpful (and necessary, in a case like this) to be as precise as we can about what the passage in question is actually saying.

Our author says that Jesus will return in fiery judgment against unnamed enemies of the community to whom the letter is addressed. This divine act of vengeance will be “just,” since the enemies deserve it for the way they’ve treated God’s people. Jesus himself and his “mighty angels” will dole out this punishment, which will apparently involve obliterating the enemies of the Thessalonians before Jesus is received and celebrated by his true followers.

Some aspects of the judgment envisioned by this passage may align with general Christian expectations and teachings. Jesus the king will return, whatever that looks like, and he will “judge” the world and dwell with his people. Jesus himself described a judgment scenario in the form of a parable (Matthew 25:31-46). The judge in Jesus’ parable, the “son of man,” doesn’t personally unleash a violent attack on those judged unworthy, but he does send them away into (parabolic) “fire.” At first glance, this seems at least somewhat compatible with Paul’s shocking oracle in 2 Thessalonians.

On closer inspection, however, the basis and standard of Jesus’ judgment are completely different from those implied by this passage. The coming judge, says Jesus, will judge people from all nations, not just enemies of this church or those who oppose them. And that judgment will be based on ethical standards of personal integrity and charity, not on how badly they persecuted his friends. It’s about human decency, not petty revenge.

Jesus’ parable of final judgment, in addition to being universal and ethical in nature, was meant to challenge his hearers and call them to repentance, not to give exclusive comfort to “us” while guaranteeing the destruction of “them.” In this way, the judgment scenario imagined by the 2 Thessalonians passage seems to profoundly misunderstand and misrepresent Jesus’ vision of judgment, and to misapply it as tribal rhetoric to rally and rattle an insular community. This is judgment not as a clarion call to all humanity, but as a screed against a hated enemy.

Reading The Bible With Moral Discernment

We might give Paul a pass for the fear and aggression which informed a text like this. He was a human being, and clearly wanted to instill his readers with hope. But where his words clash with the teachings of Jesus – regarding love of enemies and the nature of God’s judgment – I conclude that we must read them through a Jesus-shaped lens and acknowledge their folly.

Wrestling with a passage like this is not about “undermining the authority of the Bible” or “questioning God.” I simply suggest that we do not numb our minds or hearts when we read scripture just because we consider it sacred. In fact, its sacredness ought to demand our full sensitivity. A major Christian value is discernment, paying attention to whether something bears good fruit or bad. Why should this not apply to our reading of the Bible?

This might be the test of a vision of judgment: does it present the same challenge to me and my community of “true believers” that it does to all humankind, or is it designed to target those I hate the most while giving my tribe a free pass? The latter type has been pervasive in American Christianity in the last century. While Jesus emphatically decried the “us versus them” mentality, his followers throughout history have found it irresistible, and Bible passages like this one have fanned the flames.

2 Thessalonians is ours. We cannot mute it or snip it out. We can, however, face it head-on and look to Jesus to help us understand and interact with it in a constructive or even a cautionary way. It simply won’t do to read a text like this without discernment, allowing it to temper or compromise the message and legacy of Jesus. Protestants have a history of doing this, especially with the writings of Paul. Learning to read the Bible with spiritual and moral sensitivity in pursuit of divine revelation is our best and only hope. We may need to break our Bible open to get at its heart.