Tag Archives: repentance

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.

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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.’

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Repent of Bad Religion! Part 1

repentWelcome to a new series of posts about repentance. My purpose in writing these four or five articles will be to demonstrate that true “repentance” is not about shame and regret over personal misdeeds, but about exchanging faulty and fruitless ways of thinking and living for new ones that work. This can and often does involve clarifying or even jettisoning bad religious ideas, or at least badly conceived versions of them. To help illustrate how this kind of repentance works, the first Christian idea I want to reexamine is the very notion of “repentance” itself.

Repentance in Popular Christian Thought

Echoing many voices in the bible (most notably Jesus himself), Christians consistently call on their fellow humans to “repent!” And what they typically mean by “repent!” is something like “demonstrate sorrow and regret for your personal sins and turn to religion!” This version of repentance (which has even made it into our dictionary) carries many assumptions about the legal nature of sin guilt and an obligation to contrition and right behavior as a mechanism for belonging. Especially in evangelical and other conservative streams of Christianity, “repentance” is chiefly about casting off personal sins as a necessary prelude to spiritual advancement. It’s a religious/legal transaction that (at least temporarily) puts one in a right standing before God.

Problems With Repentance-As-Contrition

While most people would agree in a broad sense that those committing bad or harmful deeds should discontinue them, the popular Christian understanding of “repentance-as-contrition” has some real problems. On a technical level, it has a lot more to do with confession and guilt than it does with actual repentance (which we’ll define in a moment). And in practice, this “repentance” often has the effect of shaming and belittling people instead of liberating them, of driving them through hoops instead of setting them free. Why does this happen? Because, as we’ll see, our misguided and incomplete view of repentance is too narrowly focused on the abstract status of individual persons and not enough on their place within world and society.

Perspective: What Did Jesus Mean By ‘Repent’?

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

Because Jesus used the word “repent” in his mission statement, Christians feel justified and even obligated in carrying the torch and echoing his words. But what did “repent!” mean to Jesus? Did he go up on mountaintops to tell people to stop all that sinning so they could go to heaven when they die? Was Jesus in the business of shaming people into behaving properly so God might love them?

Of course, Jesus wasn’t a magic Christian who floated down to earth to give us the correct religion. He was a Jewish prophet who claimed to herald the “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God.” This “kingdom” was not a place but a reality, the “kingSHIP” or “reign” of Israel’s God on earth, as envisioned by the prophets of Israel whose legacy Jesus assumed. (See this podcast for more.) When Jesus called on his fellow Jews to “repent,” he was inviting them to “rethink” (the literal meaning of the word), to exchange one way of thinking and living for another.

A little non-biblical history might be helpful at this point. Titus Flavius Josephus was a Jewish scholar, born shortly after the death of Jesus, who worked as an historian and advisor for the Roman Empire. In his autobiography The Life of Flavius Josephus, he describes his work on behalf of the empire attempting to persuade would-be Jewish revolutionaries to suspend their anti-Roman inclinations and submit to the powers-that-be. In one instance, he pleads with an insurgent (named Jesus) to “repent and believe!,” the same Greek phrase attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in texts like Mark 1:15. Josephus isn’t inviting the brigand to get religion, but to give up his dead-end political agenda and trust Rome for a new one.

Of course, the Roman agenda was all about collusion, oppression, and domination, but Jesus’ “kingdom of God” agenda was something altogether different. In his “sermon on the mount” in Matthew 5-7 (sometimes called the “kingdom manifesto”), Jesus describes in detail what earth looks like when God is king. While typical kingdoms are dominated by the wealthy, violent and shrewd, God’s kingdom is a haven for the poor, the peaceful, and the meek. Those who “hunger and thirst for justice” are happy in this kingdom, and the sad and persecuted find a safe home there. Implicit in these details is a harsh critique of Jesus’ contemporaries. He accuses them of seeking the wrong kind of kingdom, a kingdom where the privileged dominate, the meek are put in their place, and justice is thwarted.

And it’s no small point of clarification that Jesus is not addressing irreligious or non-believing people. He’s not telling godless sinners to get religion, he’s telling believers to repent of their bad religion. Within the kingdom framework, this means not only abandoning personal and corporate sins, but adopting new ideas, agendas and beliefs that promote justice, peace, and humility. These are the attributes of kingdom people, of repentant people. Furthermore, we note that these are not attributes which can play out in doctrine or theory, or within the “soul” of an individual. The kingdom attributes can only manifest themselves in human relationships, and they can only find expression among communities. This kind of repentance doesn’t get people into heaven, it brings heaven to people.

Conclusion: Repentance As a Way of Life

Repentance might well involve a sense of shame or grief as we untangle ourselves from the bad ideas and agendas that pit us against our fellow humans and stunt our character. But no one should ever impose that shame on someone else as a fee for grace or a requirement for belonging. And far more important than guilt or contrition is the joy and freedom of adopting a new agenda that puts us in tune with God and in touch with our fellow persons.

True repentance will require us to surrender far more than our sinful personal habits, it might even cost us our religion.

NEXT TIME: Rethinking ‘Salvation.’  What is ‘the Gospel’?

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