Tag Archives: meaning

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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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.