Tag Archives: bible

Isaiah 14 and the Real “Lucifer”

It’s not unusual that people disagree about the interpretation of a Bible text. It is very strange, however, that a biblical inerrantist might argue for a meaning which contradicts what is on the page. Yet this happens with some frequency. Here is a case study from personal experience.

Classic Western Christianity reads Isaiah 14 as if it narrates the story of Satan (the angel “Lucifer”), his rebellion, and his fall from heaven. Verses 12-15 in particular might seem to tell the whole story, presented here in the King James Version for maximum impact: Continue reading

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Let’s Talk About John 14:6

The question of religious identity and exclusivity is the source of much unrest among Christians here in the twenty first century. While some are turned off by culture war posturing and struggle with Christian claims of superiority, others have doubled down on such claims, embracing exclusivity to a degree of militancy. At the heart of this question are apparent biblical proclamations of religious supremacy. Such passages seem to be numerous, but few are as succinct and popular as John 14:6 in which these words are attributed to Jesus:

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

For a major segment of the Christian population, this verse represents a triumphal pronouncement of religious superiority; Jesus is the only way to get to heaven, therefore Christianity is the only true faith. The verse adorns t-shirts and stickers as a public challenge to members of other religions and traditions, and a sort of “high five” to other believers. Meanwhile, in light of Christian culture’s proud application of John 14:6, an increasing number of Christians are uneasy and secretly dubious. Several friends of similar age and upbringing have confided in me that this verse in particular has engendered doubt or even a crisis of faith. Continue reading

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Why Two Christmas Stories Are Better Than One

As a citizen of America, I’m almost done with Christmas. We’re living in a century where the cultural defense and political exploitation of Christmas as an institution have become more obscene than the holiday’s ongoing commercialization. On the other hand, as a Christian and a big fan of Jesus and hope, I still admire and embrace the season of Advent and the holy day (that’s right, just a day!) of Christmas. There is much to love, from ancient traditions to recent memories.

Meanwhile, my falling out with Christian culture and my journey through biblical scholarship over the last several years has really complicated and ultimately transformed my relationship with Christmas, particularly with the nativity traditions found in the Bible. Our notion of a singular, harmonious, “biblical” Christmas story runs into all sorts of trouble when we read the texts attentively. Continue reading

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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

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In Defense of Guru Jesus

For evangelical kids like me, the worst thing anyone could ever say about Jesus was that he was “just a teacher.” That was a tactic of liberals and academic types and secularists to keep Jesus human, to prop him up as a guru but not a savior. As a result, Jesus’ teaching was relegated to a lesser status and his “saving work” on the cross was amplified. Proto-fundamentalists like Moody and Scofield went so far as to place the sayings of Jesus into a closed “dispensation” wherein they no longer applied to the church. We didn’t go that far, but we emphasized some of Jesus’ words and all but ignored others. We believed that Jesus taught good things, and with authority, but what he really came to do was die for my sins. We could read Jesus’ words for inspiration, and especially for handy predictions of his death and resurrection, but dwelling too much on the stuff about “peace and love” was a distraction from what really mattered. This was and is a huge mistake!  Continue reading

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

The response to my first “Bible words” post was quite positive, and so I offer this exciting sequel. Here are more words that have taken on new layers of meaning throughout the centuries and which may carry some unhelpful and counterproductive assumptions for many American Christians. Or, as in the case of our first word, we might have simply lost our view to the origins of an over-familiar term.

1. Christ

What We Hear: This is an example of a word that has taken on such a heavy load of theological meaning that its original setting is easily overlooked or forgotten. There are actually two extremes when it comes to a modern understanding of “Christ.” For most Christians, Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, the object of Christian belief and worship. For others less familiar with Christianity, it might as well be Jesus’ last name: Jesus Christ, son of Joseph and Mary Christ, the Christs. The former is Christian doctrine, the latter is a misunderstanding. But the native context of the term “Christ” is not the Greek-influenced world of early Christian interpretation, but the Jewish world in which Jesus himself lived, operated, and died. “Christ” may now mean much more than it did in its ancient Jewish setting, but it can never meaning anything less. If we proclaim that Jesus is “the Christ,” we should probably do our homework and understand the term as fully as we can.  Continue reading

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Between the Lines: John 3:16

John 3:16 is probably the most well-known verse in the Bible. It is succinct and easy to understand, and many consider it to be a complete encapsulation of the Christian message. But it occurs to me that the words of this verse are just ambiguous enough to carry a wide variety of meanings and presuppositions, and so I present a small thought experiment. Continue reading

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Reading the Bible: A Helpful Guide to Picking and Choosing

The final post in the “Errant Notions” series was scheduled for today. It is written but for several reasons I’m going to hold it for a week. Instead, here is a brief post based on deleted material from that forthcoming post.

One of the worst accusations Christians can level at one another regarding Bible reading and interpretation, right up there with being “smarter than God,” is that of “picking and choosing.” This is the unforgivable crime of believing only some of the teachings and ordinances of scripture while dismissing or ignoring others. It’s the game of liberals and sinners and compromisers who can’t bear to face the full reality of “biblical truth.” Meanwhile, those who make this accusation implicitly claim that they have diligently and thoroughly read, understood, believed, and obeyed all of the teachings and standards of the Good Book. At least they have tried very hard.

Of course, if we’re honest with ourselves, there is no approach to the Bible that is not a fundamental “picking and choosing” of commands, themes, ideas, and perspectives. Given our own cognitive and imaginative limitations and the massive scope and conversant diversity of Bible texts, no one can claim with any credibility to understand, affirm, obey and/or follow every word of the Bible. It may work as a posture or aspiration, but as a practice it is literally impossible. We all “pick and choose,” the question is how we will do it. If we deny that we’re doing it, it will still happen, but we will remain unaware of the subconscious standard we have adopted.  Continue reading

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Smarter Than God

Christians who explore scholarship or otherwise demonstrate curiosity and a willingness to question tradition are often met with disapproval and suspicion by other Christians. I’ve experienced this myself since attending seminary and even more since blogging about issues of Bible interpretation. I see it happening to others all the time, especially online. One particular phrase that comes up again and again and encapsulates the pushback experienced by curious Christians is “smarter than God.” As in, “you think you’re smarter than God?” It’s a religious variation on “too smart for your own good.”

Publicly question the traditional reading of a Bible passage, dissect the logic of a Christian aphorism, or voice an unpopular political opinion and you’re likely to run up against this warning. But is it actually possible to understand too much about your religion, or about anything? Is it really dangerous to seek deeper understanding or to change your mind about important issues? Is there a threshold of knowledge or intellect beyond which God can no longer guarantee your safety and well being? Of course not. What a dumb idea.  Continue reading

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It’s (Never) Bible Clobberin’ Time

Christians who condemn LGBTQ persons typically do so on the basis of six short Bible passages. These have come to be known as the “clobber verses,” authoritative biblical injunctions believed to decisively end all debate and discussion regarding sexual identity. The passages in question are Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:10. None of them actually says “being gay is a mortal sin,” but they all give the sense of unequivocal disapproval or prohibition of some manner of same-sex practice. The meaning of each text has been and will continue to be researched and debated, and I think that is appropriate and important. But that’s not what this post is about. My point is that “Bible clobberin’” is an irresponsible and specious way to engage with both Bible and neighbor. Here’s why it’s wrong, no matter what the verses say.  Continue reading

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