Tag Archives: repent

TL;DR Version of “End Times Insanity”

My recent post on eschatology was, it has been point out to me, a bit too lengthy for casual online reading. Many thanks to those of you who read it all way through. And for the rest of you, here’s a TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) version that I posted over the weekend on Twitter:


Hope that helps!


Repent of Bad Religion! Part 5: End Times Insanity

True “repentance” isn’t merely confession or contrition, it’s a constant and radical reconsideration of all things, a willingness to reject old and bad ideas and to embrace new and better ones. In this (final?) installment of an ongoing series, I apply the spirit of repentance to the Christian notion of eschatology, what many refer to as the “end times.” This is a long post, based in part on work I did in seminary. I hope this will surprise and intrigue both long-time believers and spectators alike.

Introduction: Defining Eschatology

Eschatology is one of the most divisive and volatile topics within Christian theology, and the subject of much debate, confusion, and distress. “Eschatology” is often flatly defined as “the study of the end times” or even “the end of the world.” Indeed, the Greek word means “the study of the late things,” but perhaps a more appropriate encapsulation of the eschatological material in the bible would be “a hope for God’s future.” A broad, positive definition like that is a good first step to navigating the chaotic and often lopsided map of contemporary Christian beliefs about the future. Before we take further steps toward a solution, however, we have more to say about the problem.

The Problem: Making It Up As We Go Along

I have sat in church services, bible studies, and even seminary classes where the following statements (and many more like them) were confidently made by Christian pastors and teachers:

“When we get raptured our new angel bodies will be huge, at least thirty-feet-tall, since heaven is so big and there will be so few of us there!”

“Every night I pray that if Obama is the antichrist, someone will assassinate him. And for good measure, my wife prays that he’ll get saved.”

“The bible reveals the exact date when all of the stadiums in America will be converted into concentration camps to hold all of us Christians!”

“I can’t wait until Jesus comes back and gives me a sword so I can fight some demons!”

These are extreme and ludicrous examples, of course, but in each case no one objected, and in fact many people were feverishly taking notes! (For my part I was flummoxed but said nothing. Until recently I had little to say about eschatology that was constructive.) These statements may be nutty, but they are all just imaginative variations on mainstream “dispensationalist” teachings cherished by many fundamentalist and evangelical churches. The world will soon meet a violent end, Jesus will return to fetch his few and faithful followers to take them away to heaven, and all of this, they say, is clearly laid out in the bible.

But is it? In reality, most contemporary Christian eschatology is anything but “biblical.” It plays fast and loose with bits and pieces of bible text, but its form and logic generally spring from other sources: nineteenth century dispensationalist theology (Darby by way of Scofield), popular culture, and whimsy of the speaker. A bit of biblical data is taken out of context and synthesized with personal ideology and pure imagination to produce some assertion about “the end.” The claim is “based on” words from the bible so it is presented and often accepted as “biblical,” but typically it reveals much more about the speaker’s personality and politics than it does about the bible or the future.

It’s easy to see through bad eschatology (e.g. Left Behind, Harold Camping). What is not so easy is to know how to move forward with eschatological thinking that is constructive and authentically biblical. The solution, I propose, is an open-minded approach which takes into account the history and literature of the whole bible (not just Revelation or the New Testament). In my experience, this kind of holistic approach makes it very difficult to proffer specific predictive claims about what MUST or WILL happen in the near or distant future. In fact, the more I have studied the diverse witnesses of the ancient writings on these topics (biblical and apocryphal), the more agnostic I have become regarding any specific eschatological expectation. What I hope will emerge from a study like this is not a timeline or a list of answers, but an overwhelmingly bright and hopeful spirit, an orientation, a new and better way of thinking about tomorrow.

Thesis: A Holistic Biblical View To God’s Future

The full category of things “eschatological” is far too broad to cover in a single blog post. I will focus instead on three central eschatological doctrines: the Resurrection of the Dead, Judgment, and Heaven. My thesis is this: The doctrines of resurrection, judgment, and heaven are best understood in the full light of their foundations in the Hebrew Bible as well as their reconfiguration by the Jesus movement. In each case we will attempt to avoid the typical speculation, boil the doctrine down to a fundamental question, and examine the biblical responses from Ancient Israel, First Century Judaism, and Early Christianity. This may result in uncomfortable confrontations with some of the more popular beliefs and assumptions of the church in our day, but it also affords us the opportunity for illumination and discovery.


“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake…”  (Daniel 12:2)

“Thus says the LORD God to these bones: ‘I will breathe into you, and you will live.’” (Ezekiel 37:5)

“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in tombs will hear his voice and come out…” (John 5:28-29)

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:20)

Christians tend to think about resurrection primarily in terms of something that happened once to Jesus, and perhaps as a vague description of the believer’s future experience “in heaven.” In the full context of the bible, however, resurrection concerns the question of the future of humanity. The question might be put like this: What will happen to the living and dead bodies of humans in the future? That is not a particularly poetic question, but it is important that we frame this discussion properly. As we will presently see, the bible’s response involves the notion of physical bodily resurrection to some new kind of earthly life, not simply a metaphor for some spiritual journey or celestial escape.

A. Resurrection in the Hebrew Bible and First Century Judaism

The resurrection tradition appears to have its origins in Israel’s horrific experiences in exile. While ancient Hebrew wisdom taught that justice would be done in this life (Proverbs 3:33, for example), the brutality and trauma of exile were such that the traditional view was called into question. When the survivors began to despair, prophets offered a new vision. If justice wasn’t being done on this side of the grave, it would have to happen on the other. Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel offer three imaginative and contextually unique illustrations of this new way of thinking and hoping. Daniel 12 sees the victims of exilic violence physically raised back to life and rewarded, and their abusers punished. Isaiah 24-26 envisions a sort of death and resurrection of the entire world, with special attention to the happy fate of Israel and its citizens. And Ezekiel 37 finds the prophet in a valley filled with the bones of his fallen brothers and sisters, which spring back to fully incarnated life before his eyes. In each case the circumstances and details are different, but the purpose and effect of resurrection is the same: vindication for those unjustly cut down by enemies who seemed to “get away with it” in the present.

These (and other) historically-located visions of vindication evolved over time into a spectrum of Jewish beliefs about the resurrection of the dead on the “day of YHWH,” the day when Israel’s God would show up to put the world right (more on that in section II). It’s impossible to say “here is what all Jews believed” about any number of theological questions, but in the pre-Christian, Second-Temple world of the First Century as depicted by the gospel authors, we find evidence that resurrection had become an assumption among many Jews. First, in John 11:24, Martha takes (some small) comfort in her belief that her recently deceased brother Lazarus will “rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” and Jesus does not correct her but takes the opportunity to associate himself with “the resurrection.” Matthew 22:23 concerns an exception which proves the rule; the Sadducees “who say there is no resurrection” interrogate Jesus about his belief in it. This, of course, implies a common and pervasive belief among some Jews of this time in the bodily resurrection of humans at “the end.”

B. 1 Corinthians 15: Jesus and Resurrection

The New Testament has much to say about resurrection, and while modern Christian interpreters have not emphasized a connection between the resurrection of Jesus and the ancient resurrection expectation, it is actually the climax of the apostle Paul’s message in his first letter to the Corinthians. And while we have typically used the Hebrew Bible to “prove” assertions about Jesus, Paul actually moves in the opposite direction. Consider this, from 1 Corinthians 15:

20 But in fact the Messiah has been raised from the dead, as the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since it was through a human that death arrived, it’s through a human that resurrection from the dead has arrived. (1 Corinthians 15:20-21)

The big deal about the resurrection of Jesus, says Paul, is that it fulfills all the old hopes and proves that they were true. Nobody imagined that a single human would be raised from death in the middle of history, but for Paul this is the heart of his “good news.” Jesus is the “firstfruits” of the resurrection, just the first of many, and his followers have assurance that death is not the final word. In the context of 1 Corinthians, Paul uses this to encourage a church full of screw-ups to get their act together. Because of the renewed hope of resurrection – Jesus’ resurrection as a preview of their own – they can get busy doing things that matter. For the apostle, resurrection is the opposite of escaping this world or “going to heaven,” it’s the hope that human existence and the work of the Kingdom on earth will go on. He closes the resurrection passage like this:

58 So, my dear family, be firmly fixed, unshakable, always full to overflowing with the Lord’s work. In the Lord, as you know, the work you are doing will not prove worthless.

(For more on the broader context and eschatology of 1 Corinthians, see this podcast.)

C. Summary – Resurrection Not Rapture

The hope of resurrection grew out of the injustice and terror of exile, and evolved into a general belief that even death couldn’t keep Israel from God’s blessing and purposes. After Jesus, influential Christians like the apostle Paul preached that this hope had been spectacularly affirmed and inaugurated. At its essence, resurrection is not about escaping from this world but about discovering new and continued life within it. The “rapture” anticipated by dispensationalist Christians is a foreign concept to the bible (based almost entirely on an interpretation of a single verse in 1 Thessalonians which we’ll look at in an upcoming podcast). Resurrection is the prevailing expectation of New Testament authors and figures, with many colorful and diverse interpretations, from Jesus in Matthew 25 to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 and John of Patmos in Revelation 20. Each of these moves thematically toward the next eschatological category we will examine: judgment.


“Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.” (Psalm 96:12-13)

“O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge…?” (Rev 6:10)

We struggle with the bible’s talk about resurrection because it sounds too good to be true. For most of us, the same cannot be said about judgment. We (in the West, at least) live in a very different world from that of the bible’s authors, with very different notions of justice and security. As a result, the bible’s vision of God judging the world seems to us either terrifying or ludicrous. But if we take the time to appreciate how these ancient people conceptualized judgment, we might realize that it is actually meant to be most excellent news. While our version of “divine judgment” typically involves a distant deity invading our space and doling out arbitrary punishment, the biblical picture (often cloaked in parable) is that of this world’s rightful owner and caretaker coming home to tidy up and put everything right.

They lived in a brutal world and, OK, so do we. But they had no police force or door locks or credit cards or firewalls, no banks or insurance or Better Business Bureau. Violence, corruption and every kind of abuse could run rampant unless a strong and noble authority figure showed up to settle disputes, side with the oppressed, and make sure the widows and orphans were looked after. Kings and emperors operated under a pretense of this sort of justice, but sadly almost always (according to the authors and prophets of the bible) betrayed the expectation. The prophetic/eschatological notion of God as the true and noble judge of the world grows out of this very problem. It’s a hope for long-awaited rescue, not a threat of retribution. If it sounds scary or silly to us, it’s because we’re seeing it outside of the broader context of the bible’s story. In particular, the hope of judgment is rooted in two major biblical themes: creation and covenant.

A. Creation and Covenant in the Hebrew Bible

One could easily write an overlong essay just on this two-pronged topic alone, but for now an overview will suffice. When we talk about creation in the Hebrew Bible, we’re talking about more than the assertion that elohim made the world, as opposed to some other god, gods, or natural processes. Israel’s creation story is about the inherent order and goodness of the natural world, and God’s role as the founder and sustainer of that good order. This was never just a fact or a cultural truth-bomb to be lobbed in the faces of unbelievers, it was the basis for hope and positivity in the face of disasters both natural and human. It was also the basis for the expectation that God could and would rescue his beloved creation from those disasters. It is the foundation of God’s judgment – his rescuing, restorative judgment – of the world he loves.

Meanwhile, covenant is the bible’s ancient way of describing how God interacts with the humans that populate his creation. A “covenant” is a treaty or a contract, an, arrangement between ruler and subjects. At crucial points in Israel’s history (and prehistory), YHWH is depicted entering into a series of covenants with the Hebrew patriarchs. Noah, Abram, Jacob, David and Solomon each have covenant-renewing encounters with God. Each time the circumstances and terms are unique and contemporary, but the central promise from God is the same: to make his name, presence and blessing known to the whole world through his special relationship with Israel. By the time of the exile, prophets like Jeremiah (see Chapter 31) are rethinking the notion of covenant altogether, anticipating a radical new type of arrangement between God and all people (not just Israel). While creation describes the ancient, unchanging love relationship between God and the natural world, covenant concerns the ongoing and ever-evolving love relationship with human beings. To see how both come together to inform the hope of judgment, consider a passage like Psalm 96:

11 Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice;
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
12 Let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before YHWH, for he comes,
for he comes to judge earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the people in his faithfulness.

B. Jesus and New Creation, New Covenant

Christians have historically been fixated on “judgment day” and the eternal fates of individual sinners, with little consideration for the fate of the world or – worse yet – an assumption that the world as we know it has already been scheduled for demolition. We have lost the threads of creation and covenant, and in so doing imagined a scenario of final judgment which is detached from the bible’s own vision of global hope and justice. Does the New Testament abandon the Hebrew Bible’s vision of God the good judge, rescuing and redeeming all creation? Certainly not. Romans Chapter 8 and the concluding chapters of John’s gospel are two prominent texts that connect the resurrection of Jesus with the advent of a new creation, as the natural world itself prepares to be reborn and refreshed. (See here for more on Romans and new creation, and here for more on new creation in John.) The stunning announcement of these texts is that, along with Jesus, the entire world that God loves is now bracing itself for long-awaited rescue.

Elsewhere, Jesus famously picks up Jeremiah’s new covenant language (see the Last Supper narrative in Luke 22), indicating that his own prophetic announcement (and imminent death and resurrection) is the herald of God’s “new deal,” a new type of arrangement between humans and the divine, an arrangement not written on stone tablets or in law books, but “written on the hearts” of human beings. Creation is renewed, and so are humans, no longer obligated to laws, rituals and religion, but free to know God and join with all creation in anticipation of judgment and rescue.

C. Summary – Restoration Not Retribution

Bleak “judgment day” scenarios are usually extrapolated from parables (like Matthew 25) and visions (like Revelation 20) that are taken out of their immediate contexts and the broader context of creation and covenant. God’s judgment of human beings, according to the bible’s own voices, is not an arbitrary and vindictive crashing of our earthly party. It represents one aspect of a much wider and more wonderful vision of rescue and redemption for every rock, tree, bird, squirrel and human being that God created and loves. But if, as we’ve considered and demonstrated, biblical eschatology is chiefly concerned with new and improved life here in this world, what are we to make of the bible’s talk about heaven?


“I have lifted my hand to YHWH, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:22)

“YHWH is in His holy temple; YHWH’s throne is in heaven;” (Psalm 11:4)

“And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:22)

It may seem odd to frame a discussion about heaven around the question of God’s future, but this propels us quickly to the heart of the matter. For too long we have thought about “heaven” strictly in terms of location. Our notion of heaven is typically that of a compound in outer space where God lives, and where we hope to go ourselves someday if our salvation is true. This is not how heaven is conceptualized in the bible.

A. The Hebrew Bible: Heaven Is Where God Is

One of the major surprises when we start paying close attention to Hebrew Bible’s presentation of heaven is that the dead people are not seen going there when they die. A few lucky individuals are “taken up” into heaven (e.g. Enoch and Elijah), but these are rare instances of passing from the one dimension directly into the other. The dead instead are collected in sheol, the abode of the dead, to join with their ancestors and await resurrection on the “last day.”

The ubiquitous phrase “heaven and earth” has two possible connotations in the Hebrew Bible: It can refer to the sky and the land, the physical contents of the created world, or it can refer to the two realms of creation: “earth,” the physical reality in which you and I are hanging about right now, and “heaven,” the realm of elohim and his reality. Elohim’s heaven is the place from which he rules over all of creation, the “administrative offices.” And while we have often imagined heaven in terms of an extreme (and unbiblical) dualism wherein heaven is the good place far far away from this bad place, the biblical language about heaven describes a reality much closer and more immanent. Heaven is a place which pushes up against earth, and which promises one day to overtake it.

Occasionally the thin curtain between the realms of earth and heaven is pulled back, and we get a glimpse “backstage.” A dramatic example of this is Jacob’s experience at Bethel and his dream of a “ladder to heaven” in Genesis 28. Elsewhere, in the Torah and the Prophets, the Temple emerges as the point at which the two dimensions meet, where God dwells in His created world and rules over it. Ezekiel goes so far as to envision the power and presence of God – which constitute “heaven” itself – flooding the abandoned Temple and flowing outward to fill the whole world with new life (Ezekiel 43). This is an explicitly eschatological dream that heaven will ultimately overwhelm the earth.

B. The New Testament: Heaven Is Already Invading Earth

The language of our English New Testaments may feed our confusion on the topic of heaven. We read Jesus’ announcement of the “Kingdom of God” (In Mark and Luke) or (more confusingly) the “Kingdom of Heaven” (in Matthew) and we envision a giant castle floating in the clouds. God lives in a kingdom, and someday I hope to go there. Once we adjust our understanding and hear “kingdom” as “rule” or “reign,” we immediately discover the connection between Jesus’ announcement and the eschatological hopes of his Jewish compatriots. The expectation was that God would arrive to rescue Israel and redeem the world, and Jesus announced that this was happening during and because of his prophetic campaign.

The picture of heaven colliding with earth is even more stark in the New Testament than we might recognize. In 1 Corinthians 15 (again) Paul speaks of “our heavenly bodies,” which we might take for a reference to “the bodies will have when we are in heaven,” but which in context seems to mean “the bodies we will inherit at resurrection which will come from heaven,” from God’s realm into the newly recreated world. Furthermore, in Romans 8 the apostle describes creation as “longing to be set free from its bondage to corruption.” This is a world waiting to be redeemed, not abandoned or destroyed! But perhaps the most vivid depiction of heaven’s “marriage” to earth is found at the very end of the bible, in Revelation 21 and 22, where the holy city of “New Jerusalem” comes down from heaven and is established on the earth. We are struck with the fundamental similarity between this and Ezekiel’s eschatological temple vision, with the important distinction that in Revelation there is “no temple,” for God’s presence in the world IS its temple.

C. Summary – Oh, Heaven Is a Place On Earth

The overwhelming sense of these and many other bible passages is that somehow, at the end (or rather, the new beginning), God and all of his restorative power is going to be unleashed from heaven onto the earth. With this will come resurrection, judgment, victory, redemption, and new creation. Every eschatological hope we have considered and many more are swallowed up inside this one. When heaven comes to earth, this hope maintains, the whole world is judged and set right, and its inhabitants discover a vibrant future instead of a bleak end.

CONCLUSION: Back to the Future

This is merely a framework for beginning to talk and think constructively about Christian eschatology. Many distinct biblical voices imaginatively explore these hopes and possibilities for their own times and circumstances. Israel’s prophets answered the horror of exile with the hope of divine rescue. Jesus announced judgment and vindication that would come “before this generation passes away.” Paul expected a messianic “appearance” (Greek parousia, what we call the “second coming”) that would bring resurrection  and new creation within his own lifetime. John of Patmos configured his eschatological Revelation around the fall of the Roman Empire. Thinking “biblically” about the future isn’t as simple as opening the book and reading the predictions, imagining them to be for and about us and our circumstances. There is no explicit “blueprint” in the bible for what will unfold in our future. What we discover is a wild and pervasive sense of hope and longing, a diverse collection of visions, poems, dreams and prophecies which manage to come to the same crazy conclusion: that this world has a bright, God-centered future. That what we do now matters, because the world and each of our lives will echo into eternity – not in a vague, disembodied, spiritual sense, but in some kind of redeemed, ongoing, embodied, terrestrial existence. Our best way forward is to find new and creative ways to express this same hope in our own moment, to embrace the expectation of resurrection (new life), judgment (rescued world), and heaven-on-earth in a way that speaks to the crises and fears of our modern world. This would be far more “biblical” and Christian than any doomsday prediction.


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.’


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’?