Humanity’s spiritual problems
The number one priority of human beings – typically but not necessarily – is our individual survival. This is generally taken for granted and considered incontrovertible. Whilst we want and may believe in love and faithfulness, we nevertheless may dissolve any alliance and turn on those who were once our most intimate partners if we think our individual interests have diverged sufficiently. When frightened we will act to preserve our lives at all cost. Indeed, our societies give us permission to kill another human being if our own lives are sufficiently threatened – the justification in law is called “self-defense.”
In addition all fully functioning nations on Earth claim the right to kill both their own population “if necessary to keep the peace” or war against any other party which seriously compromises its “national interests.” Is there any fully independent nation which does not teach its population these doctrines? Is there any fully independent nation which does not obtain and train for such purposes police and military forces, which will unquestioningly follow orders to use lethal force?
We generally don’t begin to imagine how it could ever be otherwise! How could we, individually or corporately, exist without each of us giving prime allegiance to the particular nation we are born into?! The reason for this lack of imagination – and the reason for the vast majority of trouble in our lives – is that we don’t much trust in the goodness and the love of God. We are oblivious to the huge storehouse of heavenly grace, which absolutely guarantees our basic welfare now and for eternity.
Jesus shows us the way to real life!
Coming to shatter this bleak worldview is Jesus, who by His Incarnation, His teaching, His miracles, His submission to unjust execution, and His resurrection shows us the God of love. He emptied Himself to come as a human baby. He grew into an insightful boy in favour with God and all who knew Him, “annoited with… joy beyond His companions.” Out of His great knowledge of and trust in God, He taught us to “turn the other cheek.” At His execution He was like a lamb about to be sheared (that’s right “sheared” not “slaughtered”). And by laying down his life for his enemies He provided a glimpse of the loving Father and His plan for us all – including bodily resurrection to immortality! From the Resurrection Event of Calvary in particular, we see that a key aspect of God’s love and plan for us includes – and transcends – our own personal deaths.
The message of Jesus – what He revealed about God – transforms our view of death. From the start of the Bible in the Book of Genesis we are informed that our deaths became necessary because of our sin. God told Adam, “Don’t eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because if you do, in that day dying you shall die.” The phrase “dying you shall die” is an translation of a repeated Hebrew word (“mu?th mu?th”). “Mu?th” means “to die” and the repetition of the word is alternatively translated as “surely” – “surely you will die.” However, I believe “dying you shall die” is the better translation and suggests that our deaths will be the culmination of a process of dying, a process that began on the very day Adam sinned.
This link between sin and death is repeated in Romans 6:26, where we read “the wages of sin is death.” Curious that the plural “wages” and yet the singular “death” – as though one sin is enough for death and no matter how many other sins are committed the final “wage” is the same – physical death. But Paul also uses “death” figuratively to refer to movement away from real Life in God: e.g. Rom 6:4, 6, 13; Rom 7:10, 13, 24; 8:2, 6. In this vein, the use of the plural form “wages” suggests multiple payments bringing us a little more spiritual death each time we sin, leading up to the eventual payment of our one-time, final physical death.
Does our physical death put us beyond sinning? If so, surely Death will be for us the gateway to life without sin and into the bliss that we can rightly expect of a God of glory and love – a bliss that most people with alleged death-experiences consistently report! If so, then, surely, from Eternity’s perspective, we will view our deaths as marvellous transitions: from a process of ageing whilst desperately, but vainly, attempting to hold on to our physical lives (with an accompanying unbelief in God) – to being WITH God and fully alive in Him! If this is true, why the constant Scriptural exhortation to faith? Could the real imperative of faith concern both this life and the next around how close to God we (corporately) can get?
When I think of sin, I don’t just think of narrow categories of sexual and family-oriented mores. Jesus tells us to be truthful and to love even our enemies. The greatest motivator to fail to do what we ought is surely fear. Fear of the consequences if we do what is right in every instance. So we pick the instances to do right in and we fear the light if our other deeds are evil. We also fear recognising that without God’s Spirit we are evil. We fear the loss of our families, capacities, peace, personal privilege and health. We fear anything that threatens these and death is the ultimate threat. Fear of death encapsulates and surpasses all the other fears.
What, then, does it mean that Jesus came to deliver us from both “bondage in the fear of death” (Heb 2:15), and from being “slaves to sin” (John 8:34, 36)? I think these two facets are connected in this way: our fear of death causes us to sin! Could the root cause of all anxiety, selfishness and homicide (resulting in an out-of-control world containing so much unnecessary suffering, poverty, terrorism, war..) be everyone’s fear of death? Is the requirement for a person to be set free from their sin simply that they be delivered from their fear of death by an absolute faith in the God of grace? I think so! I think that, when Jesus delivers a person from their fear of death, they are not only free from fear but also free to not sin! Surely, this is what Jesus is teaching us by saying “Anyone who sins is a slave to sin” and “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!”
So, to no longer be a slave to sin means to no longer sin. And the freedom from fear and sin that Jesus offers by the Word of God must be received by faith. It starts with Jesus’ knowledge and faith of the Father lived out before the world resulting in our faith. Paul says it like this “from faith for faith” (Rom 1:17). Faith in God is the antidote to fear e.g. 1 John 5:4. We gain entrance into God’s grace not at the level of “law” (involving behaviour & consequence) but at the level of “faith” – i.e. what core beliefs about God we live by. The righteous one lives, is free and sins not because of their great faith in the Father. In Jesus’ story, the Gospel, God’s own righteousness is shown and shared “apart from law” on the basis of faith (Rom 3:21, 22).
The core and most wonderful part of this new way of living starts now and is of course communion with God. Our deaths – and in particular this present period of dying leading up to our deaths – provides us with the best possible preparation for our eternity with God. Aging, suffering, and not being able to see the next life – all while God hides Himself (at least for as long as we prefer the ways of the world) – provides the ideal context in which to grow our faith (trust) in God. Trust, is the key ingredient in all relationships, and hence the requirement on us for faith in God. In turn this requirement for faith has much to do with both why God hides and why we suffer at times (more on these themes later).
Jesus saves us from the fear of death!
I look to early church history for evidence that Jesus’ message relates to our attitudes to death… In the first two hundred years of Christianity thousands of Jesus’ followers were willing martyrs (many more were willing but not killed) because of their experience of the wise and loving God to Whom Jesus had introduced them. Since then, even today, there are some people who, believing in the God of supreme love and wisdom, no longer feel compelled by paranoia about their physical survival to commit unloving acts. This is precisely the kind of paranoia that Jesus came came to release us from:
Therefore, since the children have flesh and blood, he himself also shared the same things, so that by his death he ….. might free those who were slaves all their lives because they were terrified by death. Heb 2:14,15 (ISV)
To review, fear of death makes us slaves. When we fear death, we are not free to live the lives we’d rather live, not free to love purely, noblely, extravagantly and genuinely as we’d rather; not free to fully reach our potential and have the characters we’d rather have. Fear of death makes us regard and hang onto physical life as though it’s the most important thing. This is the fundamental problem that Jesus came in flesh and blood to free us from, as per the quote above.
However, the Apostle Paul gives some good news in Rom 6:17-23 : when we believe the new perspective brought by Jesus we can’t keep ourselves from doing the right thing! that is, we go from being slaves to sin to being slaves of right living! To be free of the fear of death as Jesus, Paul and the thousands of early Christian martyrs were, is to be free of suspicion of God, to be confident of His love for eternity, to be able to risk all in this life, to know His sweet presence near and in us, and to love everyone, including our enemies! This is the Gospel!
Jesus saves us from individualism
What is love? I believe that love is the willingness and ability to identify with another, such that the priority of “I” gives way to the priority of “we”. Love is a sense of our common life. From such identification flow all the emotions and all the self-sacrificial actions that we typically associate with love. Love then knows that we truly belong and are one with each other. Love sees diversity as something to be incorporated into the whole and to celebrated by all. Love is the opposite of individualism. Thus to “love our enemies” means the capacity and practice of identifying with those who hate us (or who we expect will hate us) (expressed by and through the emotions and acts of love).
At the other extreme, individualism does not acknowledge our common life. Individualism is self-absorption and selfishness. Individualism is inimical and antithetical to love. It is destructive of relationships and very unbecoming in any person. We all learn this growing up when we argue for what we want against those who argue for what they want. As we get older, we learn strategies to minimise the clash while still getting as much as we can of what we want, and we even learn to justify, laugh off and be brazen about our individualistic machinations. e.g. the “greed is good” slogan. Although we become adept at hiding our selfish machinations, particularly from those we want love and respect from, time will reveal them. And when they are revealed we feel (if we let the feelings register) ashamed of these individualistic and selfish egos of ours.
Even whilst we are successfully hiding an individualistic mindset or “value-set”- and even if we feel justified or helpless to do otherwise – such an orientation always works to separate and alienate us from God, from other people and even from our own real selves. This is especially so whenever others detect and object to our insincerity and duplicity or when we in like manner object to theirs.
The complications of selfishness include egotism, hypocrisy, misunderstanding, subterfuge, hatred, projections of blame, ruthlessness, violence, revenge, war and the economic, social and environmental vandalism that our societies regularly produces including extreme poverty. We are by nature, the Apostle Paul wrote, “children of wrath.” The wrath he speaks of I suggest is our own wrath. The world is so full of tragedy and alienation not because of God’s wrath but because of humanity’s. We see it every day on the news and experience it in our families. The huge problem of people living selfishly on the planet leads some careful observers to conclude that love in the purest sense is illusion, that the human race is incurably unfit and that the planet is doomed. It is particularly a crisis in the western world where individualistic expectations and rationales, even more so for males, are rife in popular culture. Evolutionist explanations of “selfish genes” and “survival of the fittest” also reinforce and justify the lack of true spirituality, which is to say, the lack of a sense of our connectedness.
Acknowledge or Project
We have a choice at a spiritual level about these distinctly human problems. We could decide to humbly recognise our own problem with fear of death and dying and with projecting anger towards others… and seek a solution. Such a quest will inevitably lead to God, to repentance, to faith and to personal transformation. The other alternative is to continue in our worldly trance and to continue to mentally avoid recognising the fact that we – as individuals but also, more profoundly, as members of our families, subcultures and nations – often project the cause and the blame for our fears and angst onto others. As we become more committed to our self-excusing explanations, we make unjust and unrealistic demands of others, and when they “fail” or “rebel” we feel justified in our blame, anger and punishment of them. We will even demonise them in order to maintain the illusion of our own innocence. Others will similarly treat us badly, feeling justified for their own self-excusing reasons. This is the most fundamental origin of racism, classism and other forms of unjust discrimination.
I’m not saying some of us sometimes do such things. I am saying this is the context for our whole lives – for our nation and for all nations, and for most subgroups with which we identify, such as those defined by race, gender, socio-economic status, education, etc. Our individual choice to participate in this process will often seem amorphous and almost inconsequential for two reasons. Firstly, when faced with clear moral dilemmas we avoid listening to our consciences for too long because the longer we listen the more we get in touch with how crazy and terrible worldly ways are and so the more disturbed and unsettled we feel begin to feel. (I believe this dilemma and contradiction contributes much to mental illness.)
A second reason for our participation in sinful / worldly ways, one that hardly even consciously registers with us most of the time is that, when faced with key moral dilemmas, we find reasons to persuade ourselves that conformity to what most others do is sufficient justification to over-ride conscience. We tell ourselves for instance that we are not smart, brave or qualified enough to buck the status quo or the system, and we tell ourselves that the system and conformity to it is necessary to bring the most “justice”, control, safety and personal wellbeing to as many as possible…. well, at least to us and our loved ones. Those times when we don’t follow the scripted conformity seem to end badly and shamefully when at crunch time we act basely, give in and/or deny our nobler insights. (Jesus, in contrast, when His non-conformity led to His persecution did not conform but went to His death trusting in God.)
Collectively, we also project our own fear and anger onto God, effectively creating a false god in our own image. Hence, many Christians imagine that God is somehow personally offended and challenged by our past sins and that He needs to punish us for them to achieve justice in the universe. They are taught to project the human vengeful conception of “justice” onto the God. (And the Bible has various of examples of erroneous projections.) I believe that such projection (along with fear-based control tactics by church leaders striving for secular goals) produced a return, in the centuries after Constantine, to pagan concepts of hell and to the corrupting of the meaning of the Cross of Jesus..
Beware the heathen corruption of the Gospel!
The key false doctrine about the meaning of Jesus’ death was not clearly enunciated until Anselm documented it in 1097 AD. This doctrine, now known as the doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement, forms the basis for the “hot” forms of Christianity (i.e. “Evangelical / Pentecostal / Conservative”). In this doctrine human beings have projected their sense of justice (really their sense of vengeance and wrath) onto God, imagining that His just and holy response to past sin is to (have to) punish it severely. I maintain that worldly justice – that which is concerned with identifying whom to attribute final responsibility and who will then be punished – has much more to do with Humanity’s insecurities & concomitant need for vengeance – and the need to maintain civil order by allowing some moderated vengeance – than with real justice.
In contrast, I believe God’s justice is concerned not with mere blame and punishment but with actually setting all to rights – in fact, with making everything even better than it was before sin entered the world. God’s justice is therefore much more like transformative, restorative and social justice movements in our societies than it is like criminal justice values and practices. God setting all to rights firstly involves God having already ensured that no effect of sin is itself evil but rather that everything will be used constructively in the purposes of God to effect beneficial and ethical outcomes for all (cf Rom 8:28). Secondly – and this is where the Gospel is instrumental – God setting all to rights involves God condemning sin itself to nonexistence (Rom 8:3) and bringing in perfection – in other words getting us all (eventually) to cease from wrong doing, or in other words, turning all us sinners into saints in the real meaning of that word.
However, according to exponents of Substitutionary Atonement, what God in Christ on the Cross is essentially saving us from is… Himself – from His holiness, His wrath, His eternal punishment of us. This doctrine makes a wedge between God’s love and His holiness that can only be resolved by the ridiculous notion of God punishing Himself for our sin. By such teaching, Substitutionary Atonement actually re-inforces lesser concepts of God (less grace and majesty) and thereby diminishes the freeing power of the Gospel (more on this later). Thank God that people are converted to Christ by the love of God despite this doctrine! …. but much greater would be their transformation into Christ-likeness – and much greater would be the conversion and transformation of the world – were it not for the blight of this doctrine and it’s brother, the Doctrine of Hell!
Now I do not deny that God is angry at sin and sometimes at sinners also, which the Bible clearly says of Him. But the essential element of anger is simply the resolve to fix a problem. There’s nothing wrong with such resolve itself but it must be expressed in love. I believe God always expresses His resolution to fix our sin problem in love. Furthermore, I believe that when we see things from the perspective of eternity we will all know that “His anger lasts for a moment but His favour (forever)!” (cf. Psalm 30:5)
Although God is angry at sin and sinners, we don’t need saving from God’s wrath, except perhaps superficially. As children, we may have wanted to be “saved” from our parents’ discipline, but actually the intent of our parents’ discipline was (or should have been) to save us from dangers and pitfalls that we were possibly not ready to properly recognise and manage by ourselves. In a similar way, God’s punishments are never retributive, but always disciplinary, educative, protective and for the good of all. His love and wisdom mean that His anger (i.e. His resolve to fix the problems) and His discipline (His expression of that resolve) are always perfect in every way. Subjectively, it can be very difficult and very scary experience for a sinner to “fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31) – but it is in reality actually a very safe and advantageous place to be and not something we need rescuing from.
No, the human family are “children of wrath” because we ourselves are bad-tempered and dangerous to each other. Sadly, it is obvious to the most casual observer that those who identify with the Christian tradition, with the Christian church or superficially with Christ Himself often have exactly the same problem of selfish egos, little love and justification of killing. So-called “Christian nations” are full of hubris, violence, crime, slander, revenge, persecution, injustice and war………and this is the wrath that Jesus quenches and extinguishes (or to use the Biblical word, propitiates) as we believe His revelation at the Cross. When our wrath and vengefulness have evaporated we will at last be pacifists! (more on this later)
Jesus saves us from a small view of God
The problem, ever since Adam hid in fear from God in Garden of Eden, is our conception and interpretation of God as a small, harsh God whose love is bound by a small sense of justice. Such a view of God results in an anxious-ambivalent type of attachment to Him at best with little really gutsy commitment to lay down our lives for Him and the Gospel. At worst it results in a preoccupation with playing little religious games of liturgy, magic and dead works in efforts to secure our own welfare and salvation, with little action (and maybe even little thought) towards serving and healing the world! No wonder so many don’t believe or want a bar of it! Across Christendom and for the last millenium and a half, we have failed to see the real length, breadth, height and depth of the love of God, in Whom there is “no darkness at all.”
Adam had a logically reasonable interpretation of God. Possibly it was even the most probable or least risky interpretation given the information available to him. Nevertheless, it was a wrong interpretation. Modern human confusion and crisis is but the current result and expression of this ancient misunderstanding of and lack of trust in God. Throughout our various histories, God has been revealing the truth about Himself via various prophets, messengers, experiences and influences. “But in these last days He has spoken to us through a Son…. who is His exact representation in human form.” (Hebrews 1:2,3) By His incarnation, teaching, death and resurrection Jesus is correcting our faulty view of God. He saves us from our condition as sinners by sharing His knowledge of the Living God who in truth loves us beyond our imagination.
We must face the fact though that God’s love does not equate to a bed of roses in this life, and in fact truly following Him will make our lives much more difficult in terms of persecutions from secular authorities and others, just as nationalists might rage against pacifists e.g. the persecution of Bradley Manning (also consider the problem for all nations presented by conscientious objectors to war). But it’s the experience of His love that gives us sufficient comfort and strength to bear the persecutions with graciousness as the Christian martyrs illustrate for us. Suffering, including Jesus’ own suffering such as His shameful and painful crucifixion, points us to deeper meanings both of suffering and of the transcendent love of the transcendent God! Those meanings are very much tied in, as mentioned previously, with building our faith so that we can share an enormous weight of glory in knowing Him as He is.
The Cross is a revelation of God
Thus, the barbaric Cross of Christ where human suffering and God meet is central in the Gospel. The “message of the Cross” (and not the Cross apart from it’s message!) is the “power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16). It is what the Scriptures are all about. It is the good news that when believed makes sense of everything and heals everyone. Faith (trust via conscious decision) is a key ingredient (hence Jesus telling people that their faith had saved them). Faith in turn hinges on the particular view we choose to take of God. A true and truly gracious view of God is largely dependent on what perspective of God is revealed to us. And the story of the Christ – conceived of God and humanity, born in an stable, heralded by angels, claiming Divinity, doing miracles, preaching peace, diagnosing Humanity’s problems, meekly dying then meekly returning in an immortal body, transforming those who followed Him – is the preeminent revelation of the Living God as He really is.
Fortunately, despite much of the modern Church (not all!) maintaining two key doctrinal errors related to our salvation, we have a clear, written testimony of the truth in the Bible. I believe we have the Bible from God in order to challenge our small views of God – the ones that lead to our fear of death, our individualism, our scapegoating and our lack of love. I believe that the Bible, translated word for word and interpreted carefully, has the truth we need.
When we truly appreciate the dimensions of God’s love we will trust in Him and we will approach our whole lives differently. This difference is like having been blind and now seeing. Like having been a slave to sin and now being free. Like having been spiritually dead and made alive. Like being born again. Having stopped avoiding the truth, we begin to model our attitudes and choices on the Wonderful, Beautiful, Loving, and Wise God who fills our vision. From our changed attitudes and beliefs come changed emotions and motivations and so new choices, actions, habits, lifestyles and characters. Thus we are transformed by our new view of God. Both this new view of God and its application in our lives is the work of the Spirit of God Himself.
This good news about God’s love is, when believed, the power of God for transformation and wholeness – for the individual and ultimately for the whole world including for everyone who has ever existed. This is the Biblical doctrine of universal salvation. I believe in the end it will be impossible, inconceivable and nonsense that anyone could fail to believe in and commune passionately with our amazing and wonderful Creator and Saviour.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. – Hebrews 8:11
It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'” – Romans 14:11
When we trust in the God of love we are released from our individualistic egos and hence freed from our basic shame. We begin to feel that God hasn’t made any mistakes and that His grace is more than a match for humanity’s sin. I believe that in the end when we all can “see clearly” that the so-called “problem of evil” will have evaporated from before us like a bad dream and we will all understand that the appearance of evil was in fact a (necessarily-) hard-to-understand vision that actually foretold blessing! (more about this later).
Potentially, this brief essay introducing a new systematic theology (actually a modern restatement of the old radical message of Jesus; with illumination from the work of Rene Girard) will provoke many theological objections and questions – many of them will be misunderstandings about what I seem to be saying or what I am assumed to necessarily be implying. I intend, God willing, to pre-empt as much of those misunderstandings as I can in this website, using the Scriptures as my authority both in the broad sweeps of Biblical themes and teachings in context and in the fine detail of the text. I will also explore applications of this Gospel to life and modern issues, as well as touch on why humanity tends to fall away so rapidly from this Gospel. Feedback and discussion on this project and on particular topics is welcomed with the proviso of only courteous exchanges between participants.
– Jub, 6/11/11 ; lasted edited 8/1/17