What I Believe: Eschatology

Eschatology is the study of the “end times.” There are many opinions about the end times. For myself, I think the world entered the end times with the Incarnation of Jesus. At that time a new reality of human history began and everything that has happened since and will happen until history is long past is founded on that event.

If my thinking about the end times is right, the whole Christian period on earth is part of the end times and all that is in Scripture concerning this period may apply to us or to Christians who have come before us, and after us. The four gospels and the Book of Acts tell us the history of the beginnings of Christianity. The book of Revelation tells us the rest of the story. It is a very complex book because that is the way history is. Another difficulty is that we cannot know where we are on the time-line if there is one. A third problem arises from the fact that John had to describe spiritual entities in terms of physical images.

All in all, I believe the end times we live in are complex mixture of physical and spiritual events of which most occur outside the realm of our human understanding unless their meaning is revealed to us by God.

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What I Believe: Election and Divine Calling

The problem here for me is how to reconcile election and divine calling with the freedom of human will. This has been a problem in theology for a long time. As for me, I am very fond of election because I know I never would have had a chance to become a child of God without it.

Election

Election is always for God’s purposes but it is not always about redemption, as we normally think of it. The Old Testament contains numerous examples of elections in both directions. Joseph was elected to save Israel from starvation while Nebuchadnezzar was elected to destroy Jerusalem and send the Israelites into exile. In turn, another pagan ruler, Cyrus, was elected for the return of the exiles, and the rebuilding of the city and the Temple.

Eleven of the twelve apostles were elected to do Christ’s work on earth and then go on to eternal glory. One was elected for infamy on earth and annihilation as his eternal destiny. Jesus said of Judas that it would have been better for him if he had never been born.

Those who are elected will eventually do what God wills them to do. Even if as in the case of the Egyptian pharaoh, it takes ten plagues. Or as it was with Jonah a whale of an adventure.

Apparent Contradictions

Election and divine calling do not negate human will. No one comes to Christ or rejects him except by his or her own choice. So how can God ensure that people make the choice he means them make. This seems a hard problem unless we believe that God is active in our world. Once we accept that, we can see there is no limit to the forms of persuasion that can be applied to convince one of the elect to choose what he or she had always been meant to choose. Human will is malleable not sovereign. On the other hand God can leave those who reject him to have what they desire—the absence of God. In either case, God’s will is certain to be accomplished. Thus we rightly pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven and, sure enough, it is.

Universal Offer

As to the question of why Christ’s work needed to be sufficient for all humanity although not everyone would avail their selves of the offer. I believe this is to ensure that no one who rejects God or willfully believes in false religions, philosophies or ideologies can claim that they were not able to be redeemed.

Jesus’ work on earth in its power and scope was sufficient that anyone who seeks God will find redemption. This is because they are one of the elect. This means that those who refuse to seek God, as they should because of the evidence of God’s work and creation all around them, are responsible for their earthly and eternal destinies.

The gospel and the entire message of Christ are to be brought by Christians to as many people as possible that they might be encouraged to do in regard to God what they are responsible for doing. Those who do not have an opportunity to receive the gospel will be, I believe, judged rightly according to how each of those persons would have responded to the gospel. Justice will be done in each case.

Effectual Divine Calling

Each person who comes to an effective faith is Christ arrives there by a different chain of experience. This is not to say all paths lead to God. There is one Way and each of us walks on our own portion of that narrow road.

It is the work of the Holy Spirit that gets us on the right road by convicting us of our sins and enlightening us in regard to the actually of Jesus. Then, at the proper time, I believe, we are brought to offer our lives to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Our offering will be accepted, as Jesus promised, and we will be received, redeemed, and reconciled. The other good things of the Christian life will start happening at that point.

Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

I think I am going to use the same conceptual approach to the gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ that Frederick Buechner did in his book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. My ideas will differ from his as he was writing to preachers and I am writing to everybody, Christian or non-Christian. Buechner’s categories stuck me as strange at first but as I read his book I realized he was writing what I wanted to say in a different idiom than that to which I was accustomed.

The Good News as Tragedy

The central tragedy in the good news of Jesus Christ is his crucifixion. Never has a human being suffered more in the way of injustice, humiliation, physical pain, and psychological agony, and in the end God his Father turns his face away from him. It is fashionable among people who do not believe in God to cite the crucifixion as an example of God’s cruelty. How would they know, since they know nothing of God? Not even that that he exists. If they had looked up the verse in the New Testament John 3:16  that frequently shows up at sporting events, they would see that the Apostle John, who was there when it happened, came to regard the crucifixion as the ultimate sign of God’s love for humanity.

The crucifixion of Jesus was the first step in providing a remedy for another tragedy, the almost entire absence of communication with God. This second step occurred on the third day after the crucifixion. It was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his talking with his disciples on that first Easter. Ever since Adam and Eve were ejected from the Garden of Eden communication between people and God was rare and awkward. When God sent angels to speak to people, the first words of the angels are always “Do not be afraid.” When God talked face-to-face with special people such as Moses and Elijah, mountains shook. Since that first day of Jesus’ new life, the lines of communication between God and believers in Christ have been open.

Full-bore atheists and happy hedonists may be content with the absence of communication with God. To tell the truth, most of the rest of us, Christians included, are somewhat comfortable with the absence of direct messages from God. We prefer to have the message mediated by a religious institution. But this is just part of the tragedy of the good news. Most of humanity will not accept the offer of a partial return to the days of Eden and the loving relationship with God that existed way back when. God offers us the ability to be brothers and sisters of Christ and share in the love of God the Father for God the Son and yet most people reject the offer. It is an ever-growing tragedy that most people will live and die without ever experiencing the good news of Jesus Christ as a personal experience.

The Good News as Comedy

Buechner tells us tragedy is inevitable, even though we wish it were not. On the other hand he writes that comedy is the unforeseen. We are not used to finding comedy in the good news of Jesus Christ but it is there. This is because much of what Jesus did and taught during his three years of ministry was 180 degrees away from the common thinking of the Jewish people. And much of his thinking is still radical, though not in the way many people think. Jesus told Pilate his kingdom was not of this world, so all the attempts to turn him into a political leader or social activist fail to encompass the spiritual reality of his commandments to us to love God and other people.

Comedy results from turning normal things upside down. Jesus told us that in the kingdom of heaven the least of those who believed in him would be the greatest and the greatest would be the servants of all. This turns our world of status and position on its head and makes a joke of our ambitions and achievements. The underachievers who believe in him like little children are the ones who will receive the most from their faith, and will be still joyful at the end of their lives, while the high achievers, who have the most from this world, will learn at their final breath that everything in this world is nothing.

At first the reactions to the things Jesus said was shock and then, I think, came laughter. Think of the reaction when Jesus told the people walking with him through a grain field that the Sabbath was made for people and not people for the Sabbath. Fifteen hundred years of Sabbath rule-making was turned on its head so that Sabbath observance could be a joy and not a burden. Some of the people whose lives were made freer by his teaching must have laughed at the joke.

Not all comedy provokes laughter. Think of the woman with her “female problem” working her way through the crowd so she could touch Jesus’ cloak and be healed. Think of her faith, think of her persistence, think of her shyness, think of her embarrassment when Jesus turned and said, “Who touched me?” It is a funny story—of the kind that can bring tears. Perhaps most of the stories of the people who come to true faith in Jesus Christ are stories much like this. They are stories of hesitation, resistance, discomfort, of coming closer and drawing back, until finally the voice of Jesus speaks and the healing comes.

The Good News as Fairy Tale

The new life that comes to us through faith in Jesus is like the kind of transformation that comes in fairy tales. The frog does not just become a better, happier frog; he is transformed into a prince, an entirely different kind of creature. Buechner uses the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as one of his illustrations. The wardrobe is the doorway to a different existence. Jesus used an earthy image to convey the same idea. He told Nicodemas that to get into the kingdom of heaven he would have to be born again. Nicodemas was shocked but did not laugh. Instead he raised a logical objection. “How can I return to my mother’s womb?” It was then that Jesus told him the beginning of the good news as fairy tale. He would have to be blown into a new life by the breath of the Holy Spirit.

Fairy tales tell of both personal transformations and of entries into different realms. The good news tells the same kind of story. In fairy tales a powerful extra-human person typically provides the transformation. New worlds are entered through various types of portals, such as Alice’s looking glass. The inhabitants of the new place are like humans but not quite. Fairy tales only have the power to energize our imaginations. The good news has the power to make us immortal beings. That is why it is not wise to regard the good news of Jesus Christ as something people have invented, even though Buechner and I have opened that option in trying to describe things outside our normal existence.

In fairy tales someone takes notice of somebody. The good news tells us that the God who exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, will, if we seek him, take note of us and bring us into a new form of existence and eventually to a new place where we will live in bliss forever. This is not the situation if we only have the universe as our home. Buechner uses a short poem that Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage, wrote in 1899 to illustrate what it is like for people without the good news of Jesus Christ. It goes as follows: A man said to the universe:/“Sir, I exist!”/”However,” replied the universe,/”The fact has not created in me/A sense of obligation.”

It is better for us to accept the love shown in the reality of the fairy tale God has written for us than to accept ideologies that exclude God. All they can promise us is a short life that at its best is filled with an emptiness that only the good news can fill and at its worst is nasty and brutish. It is far better for us to receive the new life Jesus spoke about with Nicodemus. As we seek it, it will come to us through the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. Then we can live forever in the good news of Jesus Christ.

 

 

American Christianity after Its Reformation

It is easier, I think, to criticize than to provide useful means of improving a given situation. It is easier to tear down than to build up, easier to find fault than to overlook minor errors. With this in mind, while my post “The Reformation of American Christianity” could be expanded into a book if I had the time and interest, I think I should present some ways American Christianity after its reformation should differ from the present version.

A friend once told me his church’s doctrines rested on a three-legged stool. One leg was Scripture, another tradition, and the last, reason. I refrained from telling him his denomination had knocked all three legs out from under the stool and in its present version rested on egos and opinions. A truly reformed (note the lower case r) American Christianity must stand on a renewed and higher view of Scripture than is presently held almost anywhere. Traditions, meaning common practices or supposedly authoritative interpretations, must be looked upon as nonessential differences. And the mind we bring to understanding Jesus Christ must contain the whole potentiality God has given us—not just reason but imagination, intuition, emotion, empathy and all the other facets of grace-fueled thinking.

It is evident that a renewed understanding of Christianity will require new theology. Theology at present is essentially philosophy. An early Christian, Lactantius (who tutored the Emperor Constantine’s children), noted that philosophers all had different opinions and spent their time arguing with each other. He thought Christians should not bother arguing with them. His advice would seem to apply to us today. Theologians of the reformed American Christianity should be mining a corrected view of Scripture to tell us ordinary Christians all that we can understand about the nature of Christ, how we can become more like him (in his human nature), and how we can come to live, think, and act in ways that glorify God.

Our reformed Christianity will have a difficult time returning to the original proclamation of Christianity “Repent of your sins and believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” The most difficult part will be convincing contemporary people they have any sins of which to repent. Sins, both physical and mental, have been sanitized by the secular world, and by many Christians, through lowering standards of behavior (while being totally intolerant of those who are politically incorrect). The idea behind this attitude is that if some unfortunate attitude or behavior cannot be eliminated by prohibition then it can be legalized and thus made no longer a problem. This fits right in with the advocacy of social chaos and personal dysfunction so prominent in our culture.

The apostle Paul had to speak across a huge cultural divide such as we face when he preached to the Athenians in the Areopagus. Hughes Oliphant Old, in volume 1 of his series The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, described the situation, after the sermon Paul preached in Acts 17:22–31, in these words. “Polite apologetic has been put aside here. There was nothing diplomatic about telling the Athenians, of all people, that they were ignorant. To threaten the day of judgment was to reveal oneself as being hopelessly beyond the pale of humanism, and to affirm the resurrection was to kiss enlightenment a fond farewell.”

Unless reformed American Christianity is totally convinced of the truth of the Word of God, it will not be able to change minds that are immersed in a secularized society. The goal should be to bring people who are confused by all the godless ideas of our time to the point where they will say, as George MacDonald had a woman redeemed by the Holy Spirit say in his book The Curate’s Awakening. “I would like to be loved as an immortal woman, the child of a living God, and not as a helpless—a helpless bastard of Nature!” MacDonald back in 1876 saw the issue clearly. People could be children of God or the fatherless products of nature. He had Helen Lingard make the choice we can hope more and more people make as a result of a clear proclamation that there is a choice to be made.

It would probably not be enough to make an impact on our culture if our renewed Christianity only resulted in a spiritual unity. It would probably not be enough for us. We are, at this stage of our existence, physical creatures and we receive many benefits from being together in groups of various sizes. God knew this and so provided in the Mosaic Law for three national one-week feasts each year. These gatherings are called the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Through all sorts of circumstances these feasts kept the Israelite people united in their corporate identity, even when they did not have their own nation.

We Christians do not have any instructions on how and when and where and for how long we are to be gathered. Yet we probably have a need for doing so and are actually told in the book Hebrews not to forsake doing it. Christians coming together began before the Day of Pentecost and continues to this day, not only in weekly services, but in such events as processions, retreats and on many other occasions. A renewed Christianity would find in the leading of the Holy Spirit, and as a result of the love of Christians for other Christians, ways to express their unity in events of various styles and purposes.

The message of a renewed Christianity will include the kingdom of God as a focus of loyalty. The present diverse and diffused Christianity is neither centered on Jesus or on his kingdom. Renewed churches will see their role as servants of Christians and not as their “owners.” There is enough work for renewed churches to do in proclaiming the gospel, healing damaged Christians, leading in the sharing of resources, and so forth so there will be no need for them to try to limit the unity of the Body of Christ and/or oppose allegiance to the kingdom of God.

The Protestant Reformation produced a variety of new understandings of Christianity and also continuing divisions. Nevertheless, these different ideas of what was right, working together in ways not planned by humans, lit a flame in Europe that, although it is now close to burning out, changed the lives of individuals, the shape of cultures, the destiny of nations and has now spread virtually all over the world. We can only hope that a reformed American Christianity will light in us a fire that will illuminate our darkened world.