Tag Archives: paul

Repent of Bad Religion! Part 3: Rescuing Salvation

The premise behind this series of posts is that true “repentance” is not about feeling sorry for your misdeeds and trying to do better. (You should do that, but it’s not repentance.) Nor is it a display of shame and contrition that wins you favor with God or your religious overlords. Real repentance is both a forceful rejection of bad ideas and an embracing of better ones. I’m applying this definition to some of the central tenets of Christian religion and suggesting that some radical repentance is in order.

Please note that I’m not simply exploring arbitrary new ways of conceptualizing Christianity as some kind of thought experiment or act of contrarianism. I honestly believe that we can and should get closer to the true biblical and historical essence of these ideas and farther away from the often poisonous mutations of them to which the modern church clings. We started the series with a clarifying look at repentance itself, and then we tackled the all-too-often bad news of “the gospel.” Today I hope we can rescue the idea of salvation.

What is “Salvation”?

Traditional American Christianity really wants everyone to get saved. After all, the bible itself enthusiastically announces that “salvation” comes through the name of Jesus Christ alone, and so job one for believing Christians has been to pound the pavement and make with the savin’. Problem is, it’s not always clear what exactly this “salvation” is, on a technical or practical level. Questions abound: Is it literal? Is it a metaphor? What are we saved from? What are we saved for? Who decides who’s saved and who’s “lost”? How do I know when I’m saved enough? Can salvation be lost once it’s unlocked? Do we have to dress and think and act and vote alike once we’re all saved? And, while we’re at it, will you save me some pie?

Traditional answer to these questions are problematic to say the least, and betray a host of muddled assumptions. Let’s briefly examine two bad models from the Greatest Hits collection. (They’re ultimately two versions of the same bad model, but please indulge me…)

Bad Model #1: “Saving Souls”

The classical European and American model is all about “saving souls.” Even though the bible only uses the words “save” and “soul” once in the same sentence (James 5:20), this has been the official way of talking about salvation for centuries. It goes something like this: Your body is mortal, but inside of it resides an immortal spiritual object or essence called a “soul.” When your body expires, your soul will live on for eternity. Because of original sin, all souls are doomed by default, and getting saved is the only way to guarantee a pleasant journey on the other side. This model boils down to a toggle switch inside of you that must be switched from the factory setting “lost” to “saved” before it’s too late. This is typically achieved by praying a prayer, professing to believe certain things about Jesus, getting baptized, and/or joining the right kind of church.

In addition to a less-than-compelling view of humanity and spirituality, this model has a much bigger problem for Christians: it’s not at all biblical. The notion of an immortal, immaterial “soul” that will exist forever in a state of either compromise or perfection is Greek philosophy, not bible theology. It’s Plato, not Jesus. To be fair, it’s easy to see how these Greek ideas might have been imported into early Christianity, as the word “soul” is indeed pervasive in both testaments. But in the (very diverse) world of biblical thought – that is, in the worlds of Ancient Israel, Second Temple Judaism, and First Century Christianity – “soul” meant something very different.  In both Hebrew and Greek, with a great deal of range and nuance, “soul” means something like “life” or “breath,” and is a poetic way of referring to an individual mortal person, a “self.” I had a seminary professor who summarized the biblical soul as “the whole you as only God knows you, body, heart and mind.”

When we strip away foreign and anachronistic ideas from our understanding of biblical salvation, we move away from the first “bad model” but perhaps closer still to the second:

Bad Model #2: “Saved From Hell”

OK, so the “immortal soul with a toggle switch” model isn’t plausible nor is it biblical. But the bible does say that unsaved sinners are going to burn in hell (right? probably?), and so for many Christians this is the primary motivation for “sealing the deal” of salvation. Despite its popularity, however, this model has numerous serious problems. For a start, the word “unsaved,” ubiquitous in conservative Christianity, is completely unknown in the bible. It’s a silly non-word that betrays a wrongheaded adherence to the “salvation as status” model. (Not to mention how arrogantly dismissive it is of billions of human beings.) Meanwhile, setting aside the huge question of how the hell language in the bible actually works (something I had a lot to say about elsewhere), it turns out that the link between “salvation” and a “ticket out of hell” is not as clear as we assume it to be. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the bible never explicitly links salvation to the avoision of eternal punishment.

In the gospel texts, salvation is always a positive promise of rescue for Israel and the world through Jesus, never a threat. Jesus came to “save his people [Israel] from sin” (Matthew 1:21), to “save the world” (John 12:47), and to “save” countless individuals by healing and liberating them (eg. Luke 7:50). Nothing is ever said about salvation from hell or punishment. The Book of Acts is an account of the earliest Christian evangelists and their mission to bring the gospel of Jesus to all corners of the Roman Empire. The salvation they preach is the same positive, rescuing, life-renewing salvation that Jesus preached. It’s never “become a Christian or you’re going to hell!” Not once. Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul in his letters does use language of life and death when arguing about the power of salvation, but he never once invokes the threat of hell. If the bible never makes this connection, we should probably stop making it ourselves.

There’s a lot more to be said about this model and its problems, but I’m eager to move on and very briefly unpack just what I believe the bible is really getting at when it talks about “salvation.”

Salvation In The (Whole) Bible

First, a surprising fact: forms of the words “save” and “salvation” appear exponentially more often in the Hebrew Bible than in the New Testament. To be sure, the HB is a much much bigger collection than the NT, but the point is still important. “Salvation” isn’t a Christian innovation, it’s an ancient, biblical, Jewish idea. And like so many ancient biblical Jewish ideas, it is rooted in a specific historical reality, the event we know as the Exodus. Salvation was what happened when Israel’s God showed up and rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. This salvation became a metaphor for the rescue of individuals from dangers both temporal and spiritual (Psalm 35:3; Psalm 42:5), and the template for anticipated national rescue during times of exile, invasion, and occupation (Psalm 14:7; Isaiah 62). And by the time of Jesus, Roman oppression and internal division were so devastating that hopes were high for a “New Exodus,” for a new act of salvation from above. Jesus’ message was that the long-awaited salvation had finally come in the form of the kingdom of God.

Meanwhile, the Roman Imperial cult had its own ideas about salvation. The package of benefits promised to compliant subjects of the empire was rhetorically said to bring “peace” and “salvation,” available exclusively through submission to Caesar. This brings many New Testament statements about Jesus and salvation into sharper focus (eg. Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.”). Rome promised to “rescue” you even as their noose tightened around your neck. Jesus and his followers proclaimed a salvation of true peace, of real rescue from the violence and sin embodied by Rome.

In light of these examples, a few observations about biblical salvation: 1) it is something everybody was already waiting and hoping for, 2) it affects individuals, nations, and the entire world, and 3) it involves physical and temporal rescue as well as spiritual liberation. In the bible, salvation is the too-good-to-be-true news in answer to the hopes and dreams of people who desperately needed to be rescued. It was never a mechanism for soul preservation or belonging to the correct religious group, it was always rescue and renewal and new creation and happy feelings and kittens and powerful God stuff, and it was all unleashed in the words, deeds, life, martyrdom, and resurrection of Jesus.

And there’s nothing we can do about it. The dam has broken and the unstoppable force of God Rescue™ is oozing through the cracks in our world. The bible invites us to embrace this new reality. The first step to embracing salvation is to accept the impossibly ridiculous notion that a kingdom of peace and love and joy could actually be a real thing, and that it could actually take over this world. That’s the Jesus way, the way of salvation. Only religious people could turn this amazing proclamation of unbridled hope into a burden, or worse, a weapon. God save us.


Repent of Bad Religion! Part 2: Dismantling the Bad News Gospel

This is the second in a series of posts about repentance. In the first post we clarified the notion of “repentance” itself, using Jesus’ message as recorded in the bible to demonstrate that true repentance means embracing good ideas and killing off bad ones, even (or especially) bad ideas about God and religion. Today I want to focus on a central but often poorly-defined element of Christian religion: “the gospel.” [NOTE: I teased last time that we would be talking about “salvation” in part 2, but I changed my mind (repented?) and chose a different topic. “Salvation” and “the gospel” are not the same thing, which is one of the points I will be pushing here!]

“The Gospel” in Contemporary Christian Parlance

In Christian nomenclature, “the gospel” is a phrase that carries a lot of weight but is often very flexible in its meaning. Most people in the church and outside know that “gospel” means something like “good news,” but what precisely that good news is changes radically depending on whom you ask. For most evangelical Christians (my people, that’s why I pick on them so much), the gospel is something like this: “You are a depraved sinner with a grim future but God loves you so much he provided the possibility of salvation!” Not only is this a specious representation of some important biblical ideas, the biggest problem is that this news isn’t very “good” at all!

Many factors (biblical misunderstanding? individualistic Western worldview? obsession with legal sin guilt and personal morality?) seem to have conspired to weaponize our gospel. The “good news” is actually the worst news you’ve ever heard: the universe itself is against you and we’ve got a bunch of hoops you’ll have to jump through if you want a shot at the “free gift of salvation.” In practice this gospel is little more than a burden we place on our neighbors, or worse a club with which we pummel them in the name of God.

Meanwhile, in the church, the meaning of “gospel” is stretched even thinner and it becomes a tool of destruction among those who consider themselves its ambassadors. Inside Christian culture “the gospel” has become a codeword for everything that will be lost or compromised if your terrible ideas and preferences win out over my terrible ideas and preferences. Don’t agree about which people should be excluded from our church? You’re compromising the gospel! Disagree with my stance on a social issue? There’s a hole in your gospel! Think the napkins should be blue? That’s an affront to the gospel!

When it comes to “the gospel,” some clarification is in order. If only there were some ancient documents we could consult…

The Gospel of Jesus

According to the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), Jesus’ “gospel” was a single simple (but huge) idea:

15 “You’ve waited long enough!” he said, “God’s kingdom is here! Turn back and believe the good news!” (Mark 1)

17 From that time on Jesus began to make his proclamation. “Repent!” he would say. “The kingdom of heaven is here!” (Matthew 4)

43 “I must tell the good news of God’s kingdom to the other towns,” he said. “That’s what I was sent for.” (Luke 8)

The gospel according to Jesus of Nazareth was the “kingdom of heaven” or “God’s kingdom.” As we’ve noted elsewhere, this is not a reference to a far off supernatural location but a present reality. God is becoming king of the earth. A million and one things pour out from this declaration, but if we want an authentic and pure definition of “the gospel” as Jesus understood it, here it is.

Of course, Jesus’ proclamation is only good news if the God it envisions is good. An angry and retributive God taking over the world is not terribly good news, and many before and since Jesus have imagined just that type of hostile takeover. But in his “kingdom manifesto” (in Matthew 5-7), in his “kingdom parables,” and in his boldly selfless life and death, Jesus insists that the God of this kingdom is a God of peace, love, forgiveness, and inclusion. In direct contradiction of the modern Christian sensibility, Jesus says that his gospel is good news for sinners and screw-ups and normal people – their rescue is here! – but bad news for the religious gatekeepers who would force others to jump through hoops to obtain God’s grace. Check this out:

13 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” Jesus continued. “You lock up the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces! You don’t go in yourselves, and when other people try to enter you stop them!” (Matthew 23)

So Jesus’ gospel isn’t good news for a small number of devout VIPs and horrible news for everyone else. It’s excellent news for all of creation, and bad news for anyone who doesn’t want to live in a world where peace and forgiveness flow like a waterfall. Most of all, it’s bad news for religious spoilsports who would wield “the gospel” as a weapon against their fellow humans.

But what about the apostle Paul? Most contemporary Christian defense of “the gospel” appeals to the thoughts and writings of Paul. Notwithstanding our tendency to overemphasize and even absolutize Paul’s message to the point where it threatens to eclipse even that of Jesus, the question is pertinent: what is “the gospel” according to Paul? Is it different from the one proclaimed by Jesus?

Paul’s Gospel

The temptation with Paul is to allow Reformation theology (and its many modern mutations) to put words into the apostle’s mouth or to perform origami on his epistles until they say what we’re expecting them to say. Most of us who grew up in the American evangelical church have been trained to think that Paul’s message is about “justification by faith, not works” according to a multi-step “plan of salvation” that moves the individual from the “damned” column into the “saved” column. As a result, it has been difficult for some of us to reconcile the radically simple and joyous gospel of Jesus with the seemingly technical and burdensome “gospel” of Paul. Are the two really so different?

We don’t have room in this short essay for a full exploration of Paul’s thinking and writing (though something like that will happen soon on the podcast). For now, however, it’s quite possible to get a handle on Paul’s understanding of “the gospel,” as he was kind enough to spell it out for us in the opening verses of his letter to the Roman church:

1 Paul, a slave of King Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for God’s good news, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the sacred writings; 3 the good news about his son, who was descended from David’s seed in terms of flesh, 4 and who was marked out powerfully as God’s son in terms of the spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead: Jesus, the king, our Lord! (Romans 1)

Paul’s gospel is Jesus himself, the embodiment of the good God he proclaimed, and the king of the good kingdom he announced. The message is the same, though the focus is different. In historical context, it’s as if Jesus said “God’s kingdom is here, you don’t have to live in the Roman empire anymore!,” and Paul said, “Jesus is king, you don’t have to serve Caesar anymore!”

Paul does go on to craft many complicated arguments about life in the early church, mostly about how Jews and Gentiles could possibly live together and get along as followers of Jesus. But these arguments and their details should not be mistaken for “the gospel.” Paul’s gospel boils down to the same news as Jesus’ gospel: the peace, love and forgiveness of God himself have been unleashed into creation and it’s time to celebrate!

Conclusion: What Do We Do With This Gospel Today?

The way many Christians “preach the gospel” is actually antithetical to the good news found in the pages of scripture. Having clarified the fundamental goodness of the news proclaimed by Jesus and echoed by Paul, we might ask: how do we embrace, proclaim, and live this gospel today, here and now? Jesus himself gave us a beautiful glimpse at what life in God’s kingdom looks like. There is no anxiety (Matthew 6:25-34). Neighbors choose to love rather than condemn one another (Matthew 7:1-6). Evil is non-violently resisted and enemies are loved (Matthew 5:38-48). These things don’t come easily or naturally, and so this “gospel” manifests as a life-long journey rather than a forced, one-time decision.

The gospel of the Good Kingdom of the Good God calls everybody to repentance. But this is not the shallow, burdensome contrition imposed by religious hypocrites. It’s a rejection of that poisonous gospel, that bad news, and all “gospels” of shame and domination. If it’s not good news that sets captives free – here, right now, today – then it’s not the gospel.

NEXT TIME: Rescuing ‘Salvation.’


Attack of the False Prophets!

sheepdog-wolfOne of Christian culture’s favorite things to do is reappropriate the ancient language of the Bible for whatever it is we’re trying to accomplish at the moment. We’re not just constructing a new building, we’re “taking possession of the land of promise.” I’m not hogging the copier, I’m “doing kingdom work under the anointing of the Spirit.”

And if what you’re trying to accomplish at the moment is warning your own tribe about a bad seed from another, you’ll find plenty of ammunition in the text. The language of “false prophets” and “false teachers” gives our criticism an air of authority and an edge of supernatural danger. These people aren’t just misguided or unhelpful, they represent an evil force of opposition which is as wrongheaded and wicked as we are correct and righteous. The Christian Internet is standing-room-only when it comes to this sort of name calling. A Google search for “false teachers” unearths countless warnings and accusations, but very little about the context and meaning of these phrases in the Bible.

In the interest of constructive discussion, I offer brief glimpses at these two labels in specific scriptural settings.

False Prophets! Run!

“15 Watch out for false prophets. They will come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are hungry wolves. 16 You’ll be able to tell them by the fruit they bear. You don’t find grapes growing on thornbushes, or figs on thistles, do you?” (Matthew 7)

This is a big one because it comes from Jesus, and if Jesus said it then I can throw it as hard as I like in your face and you just have to take it, right? One of the unfortunate ways we’ve abused the legacy of Jesus is to assume that everything he did and said was for and about the church, that is, us. Jesus’ primary vocation was not to be the founder of the church and a new religion called Christianity, it was to be a Jewish prophet in the tradition of the great prophets of Israel and Judah. (For more on this see my recent podcasts on Matthew’s Gospel.) Getting Jesus’ context and self-identity wrong has led to widespread misunderstanding regarding his words and deeds. Some examples:

  • Matthew 18:15-20 is read as a primer on church discipline rather than a plea for peacemaking among neighbors (modern translations complicate this by using the word “church” instead of “assembly”).
  • Jesus’ parables are read as pep talks about evangelism and the “second coming” instead of announcements of YHWH’s return to Israel in Jesus’ own time (see Matthew 13 and parts of 21-22).
  • And his prophecies of imminent judgment and destruction on Jerusalem are read as descriptions of the “end of the world” (see Matthew 24-25 and the related discussion in this podcast).

In the same spirit, we’ve heard Jesus’ warning about “false prophets” as a divisive and ominous declaration that there are bad guys among us who must be exposed and expelled. Was Jesus really trying to fill us with anxiety and suspicion, or is there something else at the heart of his message? It just so happens that the immediate literary context of Jesus’ “false prophets” teaching is the “Sermon on the Mount,” wherein he admonishes his listeners not to worry and not to judge others. So what is his point about these “wolves in sheeps’ clothing”?

The collection of teachings we call the “Sermon on the Mount” was Jesus’ way of fleshing out his core message, the coming of the “Kingdom of God” to earth and what life, religion and (what we call) politics would look like within that new reality. It was an overwhelmingly positive – even joyous – message, but it carried with it a harsh critique of the status quo in Jerusalem. In Messiah, God was returning to his children Israel, and he found them mired in anxiety and greed, prone to violence, suspicious and judgmental. Jesus was calling his fellow countrymen to repent of those old ways and to join him in a new way, a “narrow way” chosen by few.

It’s at the end of this “Kingdom Discourse” that Jesus issues his warning about “false prophets” and their failure to produce “fruit.” On the one hand, he is calling out his nation’s leadership for failing to produce the fruit of the Kingdom of God (peace and justice), but he’s also doing something remarkable that gets to the heart of this whole matter: he is offering himself up for scrutiny. Jesus invites his listeners to follow him and trust him that, in the end, his way is truly God’s way and will produce real fruit.

Jesus isn’t just calling names or drawing a line in the sand, he’s calling all eyes and all judgment onto himself and his message, onto his every word and deed. Are we prepared to put ourselves in the same position when we point the finger at others?

Behind You! It’s a False Teacher!

“1 Now the spirit declares that in the later times some people will abandon the faith and cling to deceitful spirits and demonic teachings 2 perpetrated by hypocritical false teachers whose consciences are branded with a hot iron.” (1 Timothy 4)

So maybe Jesus wasn’t talking about the church, but these dudes certainly are. The epistles are a collection of letters written by the apostles and leaders of the early church movement to various colleagues and congregations. They give us glimpses into the lives and challenges of the first Christians, where the chaos of Jewish/Gentile relations and the specter of persecution often led to strong rhetoric and fierce division. And so today, when many in the church are eager to set boundaries around acceptable beliefs and practices, passages like the one above provide a convenient template for condemning and dismissing an offending party. Hey, the Bible warned us there would be “false teachers” with “demonic teachings!” But if we do our homework and learn to appreciate these incendiary passages in context, well, we learn some stuff. You know the drill.

First, it’s very important to remember what these epistles represent. These are not catalogues of universal teachings to be memorized and obeyed for all time. This is ancient correspondence, letters between apostles and elders and congregations. When we read 1 Timothy or Ephesians or 2 Peter or Judah, we’re literally reading someone else’s mail. They reveal much and may even teach much, but they are not designed to function outside of their natural habitat.

Some of Paul’s letters (like Romans and 1-2 Corinthians) were intended to be read aloud to a specific congregation, and they address crises and challenges faced by that group. In the case of 1 Timothy and the passage quoted above, we’re reading a private letter from Paul to one of his younger colleagues, one that may have never been intended to be read by anyone else. Try reading the letter with this in mind, and you might be surprised how candid and even how negative Paul comes across. He insults members of Timothy’s congregation by name and condemns various groups inside and outside the church using the harshest of terms. This is not a criticism of Paul, but simply an attempt to be as honest as possible about the text as it really is, not necessarily how tradition has handled it.

So, in a brutally honest and private communication, Paul warns Timothy about “hypocritical false teachers.” And what “demonic” things were these false teachers teaching?

“3 They forbid marriage and teach people to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by people who believe and know the truth.”

The “false teachers” in Paul’s world are the ones who are placing boundaries around “acceptable” beliefs and practices! Specifically, these were Christians who insisted that Gentile believers had to adopt certain Jewish observances or be excluded from the “family of God,” which Paul insisted was open to everyone. It’s very ironic, then, that Paul’s warnings would be co-opted today by those seeking to impose boundaries of their own.

The language of “false” or “heretical” belief is more often than not employed today to stifle or condemn differences of opinion that fall well within the spectrum of historical “orthodoxy.” But it’s much easier to (literally) demonize a different point of view than to engage with and be stretched or challenged by it. Instead of imposing boundaries and stifling faith, Paul fiercely defended the simplicity and openness of his gospel message. In the opening of this same letter he described it like this:

“5 The goal of such teaching is love – the love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1)

False teachers, then, like false prophets, are the ones who fail to produce real fruit like love and sincerity. And, like Jesus’ warning, Paul’s carries a positive inference: if false teachers impose boundaries and divide God’s people, then follow me for the way of true love and unity and freedom. We are probably never justified in using the “false” labels on our ideological enemies. If we dare, we’d better be ready to back it up with some fruit of our own.