Monday, April 29, 2013

Book Reports--April 2013

New feature on my blog: I'm going to start posting monthly briefs on the books I've read in the last month, both to give you a sense of what I've been reading about lately and in case anyone is looking for recommendations.


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is one of the most promising and brilliant fiction authors I've come across since Neal Stephenson. His novels aren't exactly dense amalgamations of whatever ideas have been fascinating the author lately, but they are exhaustively thought-out and written devastatingly well. One of his books, Cloud Atlas, was recently adapted into a feature film. His latest work, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet doesn't feature anything as mindblowing as six nested storylines ranging from the past to the future, but it is one of the most captivating novels I've read all year and a stellar example of historical fiction done wonderfully right. The book is set around 1800, when Japan was largely closed off to foreigners and the Dutch were the only European nation allowed to trade with them, and only in the city of Nagasaki on the artificial island of Dejima. The main character is an aspiring, devout young clerk in the employ of the East India Company who has come to its most remote outpost to amass a suitable fortune to win the hand of his fiance back home, but whose path starts twisting after he meets a disfigured midwife named Orito Aibagawa. The result is an ingenious story that combines politics, business,intribue,  and forbidden love in a world incredibly different from our own, but made incredibly immersive by Mitchell's writing. Both the intricate details (like his consistently realistic portrayal of the language barriers faced in Dejima) and the larger plot (which follows few cliches and so keeps you consistently engaged) make this a highly commendable novel.

Number9Dream, by David Mitchell

After enjoying both The Thousand Autumns and Cloud Atlas, I've been slowly collecting more of Mitchell's bibliography. Number9Dream is his second book, a coming-of-age tale about a boy named Eiji Miyake who has come to Tokyo to find his father, whom he has never known. Set in a semi-dystopian near future, it lies somewhere between the aforementioned two books in linearity, with the actual events of the book interspersed with dreams, daydreams, and video games until it becomes hard to tell the difference. It's broken into eight chapters that only partially cohere with each other, adding to the somewhat confusing, disjointed nature of the book. Adding to this, the plot is a maze of false leads and dead ends as we slowly learn the truth about Eiji Miyake's family. Because of how hard it is to follow, it's not really as gripping as The Thousand Autumns.

Inheritance, by Christopher Paolini

Yes, I'm aware Paolini's Inheritance cycle is teen fiction; I was squarely in the target demographic when the first book came out, even if I no longer am. I mostly read Inheritance because it finally came out on paperback and I had to finish the series after investing so much in it; if Eragon came out today, I doubt I would pick it up. Still, it's a satisfying and thoroughly epic conclusion to the series. Though Paolini still has a tendency to tell rather than show, especially in his character development, his attention to detail and ability to juggle numerous loose ends continue to improve and make this a pretty solid fantasy page-turner.
Axe Cop: Bad Guy Earth and President of the World, by Ethan and Malachai Nicolle

I have also been getting into some comic books. For those of you unfamiliar with Axe Cop, it is a webcomic largely written by an eight-year-old with a hyperactive imagination and tons of action figures, and illustrated by his thirty-something-year-old brother, who happens to be a professional comic artist. The result is literally a child's imagination about cops, dinosaurs, aliens, space travel, time travel, bombs, good guys (nearly all of whom wear mirrored sunglasses), and bad guys translated into a real comic, and it is awesome. The main character is a no-nonsense cop-by-day, cop-by-night who wields a fireman's axe, along with a variety of other madcap weapons (like his secret golden axe that chops anything hidden behind his mustache) against bad guys and the forces of evil. Axe Cop's team includes a talking dog with healing eye lasers, a man with socks for arms who possesses the Power of Christmas, a taciturn man in a baby suit who flies via flatulence, a scientist with a unicorn horn (which lets you wish for anything) coming out of his forehead, a flying tyrannosaurus rex with machine guns for arms, and his brother who changes forms every few pages due to the rule that if you get the blood of any animal on you, you turn into that animal and who, by the end of Bad Guy Earth, has become Giant Rat Cop and the president of the United States. Besides all the free-to-read comics on the website, Ethan and Malachai have also made two print-only stories, Bad Guy Earth and President of the World, which are also some of their best. Definitely read the online comics, and if you like them I highly recommend either of the print ones.

Locke and Key, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

My fascination with Axe Cop has also led me to another fantastic comic series. Benefitting from a virtuosic (adult) writer and highly detailed, beautifully expressive art, Locke and Key is centrally a story of three children who come to live in the labyrinthine Keyhouse after their father is murdered. Keyhouse is filled, logically enough, with dozens of keys, each with a magical power allowing you to (among others) turn into a ghost, change gender, or even open a door to any other door you like. The convoluted, mature plot is equal parts poignant, humorous, tense, action-packed, and thrilling. It is loaded with backstory (the fifth volume is almost entirely devoted to it) and virtually every character receives significant amounts of development, to the point where it's hard not to care about any of them, even the villain. (In the second volume, we are introduced to a charming literature teacher who is soon murdered; we are left missing him and wishing we could have gotten to know him better, just like his students) Writer Joe Hill's vision of the character, the keys, and the plot is incredibly well fleshed-out with many callbacks and call-forwards linking everything together, hidden both in the dialogue and in the amazing art. I haven't read many comics, but for me Locke and Key ranks up there with Watchmen in terms of use of the medium to tell a really good story. I really can't recommend Locke and Key highly enough.


Medieval Views of the Cosmos, by E. Edson and E. Savage-Smith

I found this book in a gift shop in Oxford's Bodelian Library, and it immediately caught my eye after my earlier interest in ancient views of the cosmos. This book is packed with pictures of various world and sky maps tracing medieval European and Islamic thought about the cosmos. It got me to rethink my previously held belief that ancient maps were "inaccurate" because people were ignorant back then. In the late middle ages or early Renaissance, inaccurate maps by natural philosophers or theologians coexisted with much more accurate nautical maps. I realized that, similar to how Hebrew historiography wasn't as concerned with what actually happened as with what it meant, medieval cosmology wasn't as concerned with discerning the actual, physical layout of the cosmos as it was with finding a view of the cosmos that was meaningful and made sense according to then-current Christian or Islamic theology. So medieval maps depicted Paradise and other places from the Bible even though no one had mapped them because they were attempts to fit the mapmakers' cultures into their theology. Before the Enlightment, Christian thinkers believed in a universe set up, structured, and maintained entirely by God according to His grand design--in other words, an orderly, meaningful cosmos. This led to conflict as science, rather than theology, became humans' principal method for mapping the cosmos, but this book helped me to see the appeal of, and reasoning behind, those "primitive" medieval beliefs.

Mere Theology, by Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath is a British theologian and apologist I somehow hadn't heard of before visiting the UK and buying one of his books. He has been one of the most vocal opponents to the "new atheism" movement, and I treasure (and wish I had) his ability to dissect points of view and argue against them without disrespecting them. It's effectively a collection of essays on the nature of theology: its role in Christian faith, how it transforms our perspective, and a theological treatment of nature. The second part is the stronger, where he more directly engages with the common skeptic's claims that science and religion are essentially in conflict, that science and especially evolution have disproved or removed the need for God, that religion is irrational and harmful, and that the ideals of the Enlightenment are a superior alternative to religion. Again, the way he confronts atheism, while occasionally a bit dismissive, otherwise strikes me as exemplary in how he honestly and fairly grapples with an opposing viewpoint. This is quite a helpful book for anyone looking for some answers to a few of the most common criticisms leveled against faith, and I'll definitely have to look into more of McGrath's work.

A New Kind of Christianity, by Brian McLaren

Yes, my conservative readers, I did classify this book under "nonfiction". I found A New Kind of Christianity while looking at more Alister McGrath books at another British bookstore. My initial thought was a dismissive, "Oh, I can't believe they put Brian McLaren next to a theologian like Alister McGrath". Curious, I pulled it off the shelf, read the back, looked at a few chapters, then twenty minutes later decided to buy the book.

Before I started to read it, I analyzed my reflexive, distrustful reaction to the book. I imagine many of you would have had similar ones, something along the lines of: "As a Christian, I love Brian McLaren, but he is a dangerous false teacher and heretic who has forsaken the core tenets of the gospel and I need to be wary that he doesn't lead me or others astray." But I wonder: how many people thinking this have actually read anything McLaren has written, beyond a quick soundbite or quote being criticized? Not I, until I read A New Kind of Christianity.

McLaren is living proof of the fact that it's much easier to ask questions and tear down than to answer them and build up. Not that this book is overly critical or negative; just the opposite, it is consistently respectful and candid. He doesn't strike me as a wolf trying to trick and devour sheep but but a man who is acting according to his faith and convictions every bit as much as his conservative critics. He is genuinely concerned with what he sees as abuses of the faith, wrong attempts to build on the foundation laid by Christ, and how they are driving people away from Christianity by turning it into a caricature of the truth--just as I am. In his investigation on what has gone wrong with evangelical Christianity, he asks many of the same questions I do and have on this blog: questions about our view of God, our reading of the Bible, and our applying it as a community of faith. He divides the book into an exploration of 10 questions which he thinks deserve rethinking beyond the "orthodox" answers.
  1. What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
  2. How should the Bible be understood?
  3. Is God violent?
  4. Who is Jesus and why is He important?
  5. What is the Gospel?
  6. What do we do about the Church?
  7. Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
  8. Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
  9. How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
  10. What do we do now? (How do we translate our quest into action?)
You might have a knee-jerk reaction when seeing what McLaren is calling into question--"Of course we know what the Gospel is! Or course we know who Jesus is! See, he's throwing out the truth of the Bible that clearly teaches these things and replacing it with his own heresy!" Watch out. When we realize the difference between what the Bible actually says and what we make of it by interpretation--two things that can often be nigh indistinguishable--we see that these responses contain the arrogant assumption that our understandings of the Gospel or of Jesus are already exactly right and need no further refining or modification.

For example, it's very easy for many to see how the Bible "clearly teaches" a very individualistic, dualistic view of the Gospel that is rightly recognized as lacking. If you're unwilling to admit you could be mistaken, even about something as central as the Gospel, you will never grow from what could be an incomplete or even wrong view of these "fundamentals" of the faith. The dualistic notion that a given proposition like a certain definition of the Gospel is either totally right or totally wrong (and that the only "correct" definition is a complete one) needs to be thrown out. McLaren makes the excellent point that when we put theological systems built on modernist thought at the core of our faith, they often allow our heads to lead our hearts astray from the authentic love expected of all Christians--besides orthodoxy, there is a need for us to pursue "orthopathy", or "right passion" (which may be the most brilliant new word I've heard all year).

Despite McLaren's stance in opposition to the kind of domineering, "us-versus-them" kind of Christianity that tries to put everyone "under" the authority of the Bible, or rather someone's interpretation of it (which he colorfully refers to as Greco-Roman Christianity, Bible-as-constitution, and "Romans Protestantism" as opposed to Roman Catholicism), I see him adopting many of its arguing tactics. Beneath its veneer of repentant questioning and humble conversation, there is a subtext that goes something like, "I and others in my movement may not have all the answers, but at least we're on the right track, so get behind us or get left behind in your insincere faith". In practice, it's little different than simply believing that you or your denomination has all the answers.

He also makes little effort to point out truth or affirm what is praiseworthy (of which there is much) in the traditions he criticizes--which I think goes a long way to explain why he's such a controversial figure.  The danger with applying side-taking, "us-versus-them" thinking (implicit in much of the book) to Christianity (for anyone other than Christ) is that we can't be sure which side anyone is really on--even ourselves (Matthew 7:21) McLaren could stand to listen to himself a bit more in this regard.

He also makes a hermeneutical mistake in common with his critics. Though he expresses a desire to approach the Bible with an open mind and let it say what it has to say, he does do some proof-texting and, more commonly, tries to minimize or brush aside parts of the Bible that conflict with the peaceful, inclusive, loving image of God he wants to show. For instance, when discussing violent or tribal images of God, he says that "a god who mandates an intentional supernatural disaster leading to unparalleled genocide is much hardly worthy of belief, much less worship." One gets the impression that he would dearly love to pull a Thomas Jefferson and cut the account of the Flood out of his Bible.

Yes, A New Kind of Christianity is a dangerous book. But should we expect the way to a better faith to be safe? If we're unable to listen to (and, dare I say it, learn from) naysayers to our belief system like Brian McLaren (if not people of other faiths or atheists), we'll slip into an echo chamber of voices that all agree with and support our beliefs (2 Timothy 4:3), regardless of their truthfulness. Despite the pluralism of modern culture, it has never been easier to do this than today, so I think it's important to challenge ourselves with perspectives we disagree with. Though I disagree with many of the answers McLaren arrives at, I agree with his asking the questions he does.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Total Depravity of Everyone Else

Morgan Guyton is one of my favorite Christian bloggers because, while I strive to be thoughtful and insightful on my blog, his consistently makes me feel clueless and dull by comparison. Post like this are perfect examples of this. He points to two trends in conservative Christianity--valuing firearms and purity pledges or rings--as manifestations of a quintessentially suburban theology called the "total depravity of everyone else".
If I carry a gun into church, I am embodying a two-fold doctrine of sin: 1) There is no danger that I would be tempted to sin with my gun (like in the heat of an argument over the church budget or a sermon that sounds un-Biblical). 2) There is enough danger from the wickedness “out there” that I should be armed in case the bad people storm our building and start shooting. This two-fold doctrine of sin could be termed the total depravity of everyone else.
And later:
Searching for a more beautiful Christian vision for human sexuality than the message proclaimed by our miserable market-driven pop culture is a very worthy, commendable cause! Where suburban Christian sexuality goes wrong is when it becomes about protecting our daughters from bad people, which is the message exemplified in events like the suburban churches’ purity balls that fathers attend with their daughters in order to sanctify their virginity pledges.
Here’s why this looks to me like an expression of the total depravity of everyone else. As long as fathers are in charge of their families and their daughters avoid bad people, then we can keep bad seeds out of our households literally. Handguns and purity rings have become the two most important weapons keeping suburban Christians safe from the bad people out there.
Guyton is incredibly discerning; he constantly weaves together praise for what the American church is doing right while pointing out places where it's gone wrong, and why. He also does a great job of separating out what believers and churches say (e.g. the Biblical doctrine of total depravity) from what their words and actions reveal (in this case, the unbiblical doctrine of total depravity of everyone else).

He also references an earlier post of his attacking the definition of sin many Christians use an excuse not to love people. In doing so, he interprets Romans 3:10-18--you know, the passage used to support total depravity--in a way that was interesting to me.
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Interpreters often use this passage to speak to the depth of human sinfulness, to just how bad and lost people are without God. But just before this passage, in verse 9, Paul writes, "What shall we conclude then? Do we [Jews] have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin." Paul's point here is not to hammer home how sinful people are but to put Jews and Gentiles on equal footing. In other words, Paul is not speaking to the depth of sin but to the breadth of sin. This is important for answering the doctrine of "total depravity of everyone else". Rather than simply railing against how bad the "bad people" are, Paul is reminding us that there are no "good people" except God, and removing the basis for this kind of us-and-them thinking. The cross removes whatever basis may have existed for these kinds of judgments.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Providence, Part IX: Application for Better Theology

This is part 9 of my series on providence. Table of contents:
  1. Introduction and apology
  2. A brief history of the soteriological debate
  3. Overview of Calvinism
  4. Overview of Arminianism
  5. Comparing, contrasting, and evaluation of Calvinism and Arminianism
  6. The Biblical data
     6.5. Interlude: The God Who Seeks Us
  1. My position on providence
  2. Applications of this position to the soteriological debate
  3. Practical applications and conclusion
Eight months after starting it, I'm sorely tempted to make the elusive conclusion to my providence series into some kind of mythical, continually-promised, never-delivered carrot-on-a-stick to keep people reading my blog. But I wouldn't troll my faithful readers like that. I have already written enough to fill a small book, which makes me rethink how many times I've casually told people looking to discuss predestination to just "read my blog" about it. I have significantly changed (I hope progressed) in my view on providence as I see it and as it is commonly debated in the church. While I'm not sure I'll ever "arrive" at a complete understanding of providence in this life or otherwise by virtue of my finite mind, I have come to a fuller understanding of it than I ever thought possible before, and it has been a truly rewarding journey.

But this is only half of the story. No theology is complete if it doesn't draw one into greater spiritual understanding of God and appreciation of His glory along with merely conveying intellectual understanding. Greater knowledge about God must lead to greater knowledge of God and love for who He is and what He has done in us. The connection between one's theology and the rest of life can't be understated, even if it isn't always obvious.

A Relational Theology Take on Sovereignty

I just read a commendable essay by one of my favorite contemporary theologians, Roger Olson, propounding what he calls a "relational" view of God's sovereignty that raises some very interesting points and perfectly captures the importance of this connection between theology and life. It was a nice reminder that my theology concerning God's sovereignty will never be complete--and that's great news! He says this quote pretty well summarizes this perspective of "relational theology":
To be sure, God does not hand over the reins of government to the faithful; but neither does he want to make them automatons, beings resigned to a determined will. From the very beginning, he has preferred to give his friends a joint knowledge of what he wills to do…and to deal historico-temporally through them as his instruments, which as personalities may co-determine his will and counsel. (Quoted in Claude Welch, God and Incarnation, p. 116)
Elsewhere, Olson makes another point about God's sovereignty:
The key insight for a non-process relational view of God’s sovereignty is that God is sovereign over his sovereignty. The missio dei is God’s choice to involve himself intimately with the world so as to be affected by it. That choice is rooted in God’s love and desire for reciprocal love freely offered by his human creatures. None of this detracts in any way from God’s sovereignty because God is sovereign over his sovereignty. To say that God can’t be vulnerable, can’t limit himself, can’t restrain his power to make room for other powers, is, ironically, to deny God’s sovereignty.
This is exactly what I was getting at in my seventh post: trying to develop a view on sovereignty that leaves God as free as possible. The answer, Roger says and I believe, is ironically that God seems to have used His total freedom to relinquish some of it, "made himself nothing and took the very nature of a servant", and allows us to share in His kingdom reign. God's sovereignty is two-way; though He doesn't need anything in the world and certainly can't be controlled or manipulated, He makes Himself vulnerable, opens Himself to sharing in our sorrows and joys. This is a much more satisfying view of God than one who either autocratically micromanages every moment of our lives from on high or challenges us to decipher His inscrutable will for each moment of our lives. Both of these views lack the deeply personal nature of God embodied in Christ. It will take some time to fully work this idea into everything I developed in post 7.

The Most Excellent Way

But Olson gets at something deeper than view on God's sovereignty when he explains where it came from, which is just brilliant:
Rather than focusing on proof texts of Scripture or philosophies, this relational view of God’s sovereignty arises out of and is justified by a synoptic, canonical, holistic vision of God drawn from the biblical narrative. Obviously I do not have time now even to summarize “narrative theology,” but I will mention a few of its major points. 
Narrative theology regards stories and symbols as vehicles of truth. The Bible contains propositions, but it is not primarily a book of propositions. It is primarily a book of stories and symbols from which propositions can be drawn. The Bible is the story of one great “theodrama.” Its purpose is to identify God for us and transform us. Transformation is its first and highest purpose though it does also contain information. 
Narrative theology refuses to treat the Bible as a “not-yet-systematized systematic theology” which is how I believe too much conservative evangelical theology treats it. No system can replace the Bible which always has new light to reveal and more truth into which to guide us. 
Narrative theology resists too much philosophical speculation into matters beyond our possible experience and beyond the biblical narrative which is not about God-in-himself but about God-with-us. Narrative theology resists metaphysical compliments paid to God that cannot rest on the portrayal of God in his own story. 
Finally, narrative theology insists on taking the whole biblical story into account when theology attempts to derive truth about God.
This shift from viewing the Bible as systematic theologies tend to, as a collection of propositional statements (which may be wrapped inside historical narratives, poetry, prophecy, etc.), to a holistic narrative about God and His people has been a big area of growth for me lately. I increasingly think the latter is how the Bible was written and how it is "meant" to be read, while the former is an imposition of a more recent, Western way of thinking on an ancient, non-Western text.

Often in Christian theology and teaching there is an imposing tone of "this is how the Bible says God is [usually as a set of propositions], and the Bible is God's true word, so we have to accept, believe, and proclaim it". The truth is the truth, and we must learn to love it even if it seems hard or doesn't make sense at first. With some of the things Reformed theology says about God--His absolute control over even acts of evil on every level, His indiscriminacy in inflicting pain and suffering, His willingness to preselect people for Hell--such an authoritative view of the truth is necessary, because of how intrinsically distasteful and difficult these things are to believe.

This often leads, in turn, to an expectation that Biblical truth should be hard to accept or unpalatable, because we're blinded by sin to God's true goodness, forgetting that the point of the Gospel is that we will, we can, we do joyfully know and love God for who He is. If people, presented with a harsh view of God's sovereignty or something else, "refuse to love the truth" and fall away, we view them as lacking faith, unable to run the race, without wondering if it was we who pushed them away. Looking back at my struggle with doubt, I now see just how much I was trying to force myself to maintain this way of thinking about God in a hyper-logical framework that was becoming increasingly untenable. I think that what kept me going through this time was an even deeper belief or expectation that God has to be better than this. I knew there was more to the picture than the cracked view of God I'd held before, and I determined to wait for Him to reveal it to me.

What if theology didn't always have to be like taking medicine? What if we expected truth about God to be deeply satisfying and resonant emotionally as well as intellectually? What if we "got to" learn more about how God relates with creation instead of "had to"? A holistic theology of anything, certainly God's sovereignty, must be worked out by the heart as well as by the head. No doubt some of the teachings of the Bible will sometimes be hard for us to accept, but the distinction between dishonestly disbelieving the truth and honestly struggling to accept a distortion is real and important.

Rachel Held Evans says in her post "The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart", "It’s not enough for me to maintain my intellectual integrity as a Christian; I also want to maintain my emotional integrity as a Christian." You have to have both. I think the narrative (or "Biblical") theological approach is the way to do that. I think God has wired us to know Him experientially, in the framework of a story, not a logical system of truth. It is this kind of knowledge that Jesus called us to and it is this kind of knowledge that transforms lives; theological study is at best an aid or a support to it.

I don't, ultimately, care if you see the "genius" of my thinking about providence or come to share something like my view. What I care about is this: does your understanding of God's sovereignty, whatever it is, "make much of God" for you both intellectually and emotionally? Does it magnify Him, or does it make Him harder to believe in? Does it draw you towards or away from Him? The point of theology is worship and communion--love and knowledge working together and building off each other, not conflicting. Is your theology doing its job?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Thinking in Spectra on the Slippery Slope of Fear

Justin Taylor of the Gospel Coalition just posted a very thoughtful quote by John Frame deconstructing the reasoning behind the "slippery slope" argument as seen in some Christian denominational examples. At heart, the slippery slope argument goes something like this in a Christian context: "If you accept A, then you must also accept B, and B is unbiblical, so you shouldn't accept A." And this kind of thinking really is all over Christian theological/doctrinal debates. Some examples:
This argument is an attempt at a reductio ad absurdum, a disproof of some idea by showing that accepting it leads to accepting something false, only unlike in an actual proof the linkage between the idea being "disproven" and the demonstrably false one is not assured. The progenitor of the argument wants you to believe the slope from A to B is slippery--that once you step onto it it's impossible to avoid sliding down to the end. They may (as Frame notes) provide historical examples of others sliding down the slope. But quite frequently (as in all of the above examples) this isn't the case.

Frame commendably goes the extra mile of trying to look behind slippery slope arguments (emphasis added): "Thus the slippery slope argument appeals to fear—to our fear of taking undue risks and to our fear of being linked with people (such as liberals), disapproved of in our circles, lest we incur guilt by association." We are never told in the Bible to fear anything or anyone but God (Luke 12:5); evangelicals readily apply this rejection of fear to ridicule or persecution from the world, but rarely to bad theology or unbelief. And fear is never supposed to be the motivation for Christians (1 John 4:18). Unfortunately, it all too often is.

You might say, "but the Bible says we should watch our doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16) and see to it that we don't have unbelieving hearts (Hebrews 3:12); isn't it good and godly to fear bad theology and unbelief?" The distinction here is important: these verses do say to watch our doctrine closely and to see to it that we don't have sinful, unbelieving hearts--but they don't say to be afraid of failing at these things. Trying to succeed at something--while trusting in God for success--is quite different from fearing to fail at it. Fear shifts our focus away from what we are striving toward--which is always greater communion with God--and to what we are moving away from.

So Paul describes his own life thus: "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:12-13) Paul's focus in his spirituality is always ahead (joy), never behind (fear). Being motivated by fear tends to lead to identifying yourself, at least subconsciously, by what you are not rather than by what you are. If you're trying to get away from something, there are any number of places you can end up, most of them wrong, but if you are trying to get toward someone, there is little chance of choosing the wrong destination.

Let me be more practical. I think this kind of fear-motivated thinking tends to lead to simplified, spectrum-focused thinking. It's everywhere in Christianity. Are you conservative or liberal? Works-oriented or faith-oriented? Calvinist or Pelagian? Arminian or hyper-Calvinist? People keep putting their view on one end of a spectrum and the worst possible version of a disagreeing view on the other, then argue that since that view is obviously wrong, theirs should be clung to. This way of framing issues using the mental model of a spectrum reduces the multidimensional, kaleidoscopic truth to a one-dimensional dichotomy. For example, it is a great injustice to the gospel to reduce it to a matter of salvation by faith vs. salvation by works when in reality it is far, far more than this. If either view can be part of a healthy Christian spirituality (e.g. Calvinism and Arminianism), putting the debate on a spectrum (defining people as Calvinists and Arminians and concluding that there is always a conflict that needs to be resolved) also creates unnecessary and unhealthy division between fellow Christians.

Dichotomies and spectra can be helpful for understanding distinctions the Bible makes, but when they are made part of the foundation of your faith or thinking they become idols (or simplicity does) just like anything else. Two application questions that might take some deep introspection and prayer:

  • Am I primarily thinking of myself by what I am, or by what I am not?
  • In my thinking about Christianity, do I tend to define everything according to one issue (other than the one the Bible makes central, being "in Christ")?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Why the Hell? Part 4: The Nature of Hell

This is part four of a four-post series on Hell. One Two Three

This is it. Last time, I attempted to reconcile the apparently retributive nature of Hell with the value placed on grace and forgiveness by Jesus as well as modern culture. But I haven't established what the Bible actually says about what Hell is, besides retributive. This is what I'll attempt to tackle in this post. It's worth stressing even more than usual that the conclusions I draw in this post are exploratory in nature, attempts to interpret and understand something I don't think we can fully understand in this life, and by no means final, even for me. I'll break the post up into three sections throwing the New Testament data up into the air and then an attempt to tie it all together into some kind of package.

The Teaching of Christ

Jesus preaches repeatedly on peoples' eternal destinies, though much more in parabolic than in literal speech. As I said in post 2, He mentions two different destinations for the wicked: Hades and Gehenna. Hades, aside from the connotations it would have carried as the mythological Greek underworld and universal destination for the dead, is contrasted with Heaven in Matthew 11:23 and Luke 10:15, implying that the righteous (in Christ) will not see Hades. Peter's speech (Acts 2:26-31) may reinforce this, or may be saying that the righteous will not stay in Hades after they die. In Matthew 16:18 Christ promises that the gates of Hades (defensive in nature) will not prevail against His church (which must then be on the offensive).

There is also, of course, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), where the rich man goes to Hades and is said to be in "torment" and "in agony in this fire". Unsurprisingly, some translations render this particular usage of Hades as "Hell" in English, but the Greek is the same.

Jesus makes clear, however, the association of Gehenna (always translated as "Hell") with fire (Matthew 5:22, 18:9, Mark 9:43). Gehenna is a place into which people are cast (Luke 12:5), thrown (Matthew 5:29, 18:9, Mark 9:45), or sentenced (Matthew 23:33), a place where the body and soul are destroyed (Matthew 10:28)--not very pleasant imagery!

Jesus also mentions, mostly in parables, an outer darkness (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30) or fiery furnace (Matthew 13:42,50), whose mention is always followed by the phrase "In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth"--see also Matthew 24:51 and Luke 13:28. These last two references are especially interesting because though the phrase "In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" is exactly repeated in them, no specific place (outer darkness or fiery furnace) is mentioned for them to correspond to, only specific company--hypocrites or evildoers. Luke clarifies that the weeping and gnashing of teeth will be "when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out." Jesus doesn't try to equate this place with either Hades or Gehenna, but from His descriptions it sounds much more like Gehenna.

Finally, in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells of the judging of the sheep and the goats, corresponding to the righteous and the wicked. The goats/wicked are sent "into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels", and in the last verse are sent away to "eternal punishment" versus the "eternal life" of the sheep.

The Epistles

The epistles don't say as much about eternal judgment as Jesus, but they do make a few specific references that illuminate things differently than His teachings. The clearest of these is 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10 (emphasis added):
We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
Unlike Jesus' teachings, Paul's writing here is not ensconced in a parable and, beginning his letter, is the most context-free description of Hell we have. We see that when Jesus returns, He will punish the wicked with "eternal destruction" and be sent away from the presence of God. Granted, Paul's purpose here is to encourage the Thessalonians, not establish a definitive doctrine of Hell. Hebrews 10:27 mentions "judgment and [a] raging fire that will consume the enemies of God", which adds little to but corroborates Paul's writing.

One other interesting thing to note is that throughout the New Testament, "falling asleep" is used synonymously with Christians dying to be with God (Jesus describing Lazarus in John 11:11, Luke describing Steven's martyrdom in Acts 7:60, Paul describing David in Acts 13:36, and Paul in his letters in 1 Corinthians 11:30, 15:18, 15:20, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, 4:15, 5:10). The Greek literally just means "asleep"; obviously context is essential to distinguishing this usage of καθεύδω from its more mundane one. Of course Jesus didn't die and come back to life on the boat just before calming the storm, and Paul's usages in 1 Thessalonians 5:6 and 10 work against each other or make no sense unless they have different meanings.


Undoubtedly the most colorful depictions of Hell are found in Revelation following the cosmic battle between Christ and the forces of evil, and they have heavily influenced Christians' understanding about Hell along with their hope for a sinless paradise for those who are in Christ. It's worth saying, though, that even more than Jesus' parables, Revelation, as apocalyptic literature, is highly nonliteral in its descriptions and imagery. Literal interpreters often look for people and events in the news that correspond to the figures in Revelation (like calling out Obama as the antichrist) or at least expect the events in the book to mirror more or less exactly to how the end times will be, as in the Left Behind books, which are based on a highly literal interpretation of Christian eschatology.

But I think this approach misunderstands the point of studying apocalyptic literature. The venerable New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger explains:
Apocalyptic literature among the Jews contained weird symbols of mythological beasts representing nations and individuals. The meaning of such imagery must have been as clear to the original reading public of apocalypses as the significance is today of newspaper cartoons that depict the British lion, the Russian bear, the Republican elephant, or the Democratic donkey.
Jewish and Christian apocalypses have often been called, quite appropriately, tracts for bad times. They were intended to strengthen readers to meet some crisis, some grim ordeal, or some impending calamity. To struggling and suffering people the message of apocalyptic writers was one of hope and encouragement. These writers affirmed in no uncertain terms that God Almighty rules and overrules in the affairs of humankind, and that despite the apparent success of earthly tyrants his righteous purpose will ultimately prevail.1
A few things to note about this description of apocalyptic literature: the people, events, and symbols were meant to correspond to things in the time of the readers, not figures in the actual apocalypse. Revelation was not written as a riddle to be figured out but as an encouragement to the churches in (originally) Asia Minor, so it is to be expected that the author would use imagery that the readers would understand, not that would only make sense to conspiracy theorists thousands of years later. If we get into trying to unlock the "hidden meaning" of the text or find what its symbols correspond to today, we're missing the point. The primary purpose of Revelation is not to give a detailed account of the end times--if it were, we would expect a much clearer, more coherent account.

And yet, I do believe the book of Revelation was inspired by an actual vision the author had, i.e. that he didn't simply make something so elaborate up to encourage his readers. And in light of the promise given just before the vision begin in 4:1, "I will show you must take place after this", I do believe the book is really predictive in some sense, behind the highly contextualized imagery. So, what can we learn about Hell from this book?

Hades is mentioned four more times in Revelation, always along with the personification of Death. (1:18, 6:8, 20:13-14) They are given authority to claim and hold peoples' lives, but give them up for the final judgment in chapter 20. Jesus is given the keys to Death and Hades (1:18), harkening back to His prediction that the gates of Hades would not overcome the church (i.e. by keeping anyone dead). Oh, and then Death and Hades themselves are thrown into the lake of fire.

Now this is very interesting. Hades is itself shown to be temporary here, doomed to the same fate as Satan (20:7), death itself (20:14), and those who don't believe in Christ (20:15). This fate is depicted a lake of fire, "the second death". One other thing I want to latch onto is that in the depiction of the new Jerusalem, the final paradise for those who remained faithful to Christ, it is said that its gates will never be shut (21:25) but that no evildoer or impure thing will ever enter it. (21:27)


If the preceding exposition taught you anything, it should be that the New Testament's teaching on Hell is nowhere near as clear or straightforward as it is commonly portrayed in debates. Hell is portrayed as the outer darkness, and as fire--but how can fire be dark? And it is portrayed as eternal destruction--but how can fire keep destroying anything forever? And how do we know we're making proper sense of this data when much of its is presented in the form of apocalyptic imagery and parables?

Two possibilities can be ruled out from the start. First, as numerous passages, especially 2 Thessalonians 1:9 makes clear, the destruction of Hell is eternal--not a "one and done" thing as annihilationism claims. And second--this may be a huge relief, even though it shouldn't be--I don't think the torment suffered in Hell will be physical in nature. Besides the objections I raised in part 1, Hell is depicted not just as a place prepared for the unrighteous, but for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41) and Death and Hades personified (Revelation 20:14). Last I checked, none of these beings have physical bodies, and unless you want to assert that God will give them bodies just to torture them in, they will not suffer physical torment in Hell--yet their destination is said to be the same as that of unregenerate people.

By focusing on the physical, bodily horror of being burned alive in Hell, preachers not only go beyond what the Bible actually says, they replace the real reason to fear Hell (being shut out from God's presence) with with primal squeamishness and aversion to fire. This is manipulative and misleading. But then what do we do with all the images of fire, which are consistently associated with Hell? Just because they aren't literal doesn't mean they aren't true or meaningful.

My struggles with the surface-level contradictions and tensions in the Bible led me to read it in a deeper way--to look for how apparently conflicting verses, like the descriptions of Hell as a place of fire and of darkness, can both come from a deeper, coherent theological truth. Rather than simply try to reconcile these descriptions as literally as possible, I look for the reality that could produce them both--what is really being said, behind the details and products of genre and culture.

Here is how I apply this kind of "theological interpretation" to Hell. The descriptions of Hell as outer darkness, a fiery furnace/lake, and destruction are all intertwined. The imagery of darkness represents separation from God, the source of light (Revelation 21:23). And yet not total separation (which, according to Colossians 1:17, really would be annihilation); they will still be conscious enough of those who were more fortunate to resent them (Luke 13:28). The imagery of fire represents the destruction of human sinfulness, which is inevitable apart from God. The core theological truth I think all of the above verses are getting at is that Hell is exile from God, the source of all goodness, light, and meaning--a fate worse, though not as cringe-inducing, than being licked by flames forever.

And yet, it is an appropriate fate; a fate more satisfying (if the word can apply here) than God bodily torturing people forever. It is impossible to argue that God is unjust to punish unrepentant sinners who rebel and turn away from Him by giving them what they want. The gates of the new Jerusalem are never closed, but no impure or evil thing enters through them (how could they, if they're in the lake of fire?). Just as salvation is God reaching down to fallen humanity wherever they are and us responding by taking His hand and being raised to life, Hell is the result of God and unrepentant sinners mutually rejecting each other. The difference between Heaven and Hell is the difference between those currently enjoying eternal life and those who know it not, projected out to infinity.


It appears I have arrived at a view of Hell very similar to the one taught by C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller--that is, the one I started with. This was not intentional. I really didn't know where I would land in this series until a few hours ago. In this series I was not simply trying to fortify the position I already held with some more Biblical arguments, but to go from a belief that I held more because I wanted to, to one I held because it really represents the best way I know of understanding what the Bible has to say. It is really affirming to discover that these two beliefs are the same.

I wasn't trying to make Hell more palatable or lessen the tension it gives people; this is impossible, because the tension is intentional. No matter how much intellectual sense we make of Hell, it is still going to be a painful subject because the reality that people can and do reject God is painful. I have addressed the intellectual "problem" of Hell as best I can right now, but the emotional problem is pastoral and beyond the scope of this blog, a subject for heart-to-heart conversation rather than some light theological reading. And above all, remember that the Bible is not a book about Hell, or even how to get out of it, but a message about how God broke into this broken world and transforms it completely. Don't let the fear of hellfire get you to lose sight of that.

1Bruce Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content, p. 302.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why the Hell? Part 3: Retribution and Rehabilitation

This is part three of a four-post series on Hell. One Two Four

Hopefully none of you were really taken in (for too long) by my April Fool's Day post about how I've adopted a universalist view of Hell. I thought it was pretty believable, anyway. Anyway, working on that fake ending to my exploration of the doctrine of Hell prompted me to get back to work on the real conclusion--no fooling.

Though my conclusions in the fake post were based on some seriously bad, biased exegesis and deliberately ignoring many relevant verses (which my friend/theological sparring partner Mitchell was quick to point out), I did raise or reraise several real issues that I've been thinking about--the literally contradictory descriptions of Hell and our confusion about rehabilitation vs. retribution. And because of my well-known tendency to write too much, I'm only going to answer the second of these issues in this post.

The biblical/cultural tension

The Bible, especially the Pentateuch, seems to define justice around retribution--the "balancing out" of wrongdoing by doing harm to the offender. (It is definitely not synonymous with retribution, as I explored in a previous post, but does see retribution as the appropriate punishment for wrongdoing)

Retributive justice is the pattern laid down in Exodus 21:23-25 and all over the law. The main theme of the books of prophecy is the prediction and enaction of God's retributive justice against the nations for their sins. As I mentioned before, this retribution is largely temporal, consisting of physical harm, death, and destruction. In the New Testament, retributive justice takes on a more eschatological flavor. Jesus declares that the wicked will depart from Him into an "eternal fire" (Matthew 25:41) and revelation 20:11-15 similarly depicts a judgment for those who have already died.

And yet rehabilitation (the restoration of sinners from their state of wrongdoing) is also a prominent theme in the Bible. Obviously it is the core of the gospel message and many posts could be written about all the ways rehabilitation is seen in the New Testament, but even Old Testament books of prophecy like Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, and Zephaniah end not with punishment but with promises of restoration to Israel's former state of favor. So which is it--is God primarily retributive or rehabilitative when it comes to dealing with sin?

The answer is that forgiveness for sin (and rehabilitation through it) is conditioned by God on something in us--call it faith, repentance, "turning from sin", our forgiving of others, etc. This is how forgiveness works between us and others, and between God and us. We are repeatedly called to imitate God by forgiving others as He forgave us; reflecting His forgiveness is part of our role as divine image-bearers. Punishment is what happens when the condition for forgiveness--repentance--is not met, and God continues to count our sins against us. A murderer who refuses to be rehabilitated, who continues to think of himself as a murderer and kill people, is very unlikely to ever be rehabilitated and will instead accrue a good deal more punishment for himself. Similarly, we can't expect God to be able rehabilitate unrepentant sinners because rehabilitation is not a passive process, but requires the cooperation of the one forgiven.

Now contrast this short Biblical take on punishment/retribution and forgiveness/rehabilitation with the view of western culture. We skew far, far towards valuing rehabilitation over retribution. By way of modern example, Norway's prison system, which has a maximum sentence of 21 years and is highly focused on rehabilitation of prisoners, is seen positively as highly progressive (mass shooters aside) and has been showing excellent results in re-offending rates. On the other hand, consider the outcry over the man in Saudi Araba sentenced to be clinically paralyzed for stabbing and paralyzing a friend, a modern example of "eye for an eye" (or "spine for a spine") justice (later proven to be false, but still relevant here). This kind of "justice" is seen through western eyes as cruel, barbaric, or inhumane, even though it was considered progressive when it was handed down to the Israelites in Exodus. Again the question haunts us: is this view of justice, though apparently more fair and loving than a retributive view, fundamentally wrong because it doesn't match how God "does" justice?

Judgment, deferred

I don't think so. The reason is that God has a self-declared monopoly on the kind of judging that goes on in the end of Revelation. (Romans 12:19, Hebrews 10:30, James 4:12) Indeed, we are told not to judge (others) or we will also be judged (by God), an inversion of the command to forgive others as we have been forgiven by God. Though, interestingly, the New Testament also mentions that believers will be given authority and wisdom to make God's judgments (1 Corinthians 6:2-3, Revelation 20:4), so the command not to judge is qualified by "yet" (1 Corinthians 4:5). This verse also mentions the reason we're supposed to defer judgment to God: "He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart"--valuable information for making sound judgments that currently only He has.

In a nutshell, we don't need to ensure that perfect justice gets done because God will be the one to do so. Instead, we are to freely forgive others as He forgave us. But we can't allow our lack of responsibility for retributive judgment to lead us to forget that it is, in the end, necessary. This is especially true in our culture that sees people as having intrinsic value and rights, not intrinsic evil. In America we aren't all alike under sin, we're innocent until proven guilty (probably of some nasty crime you haven't committed that the media makes a big deal out of). We are all given a chance at rehabilitation through the Gospel, but by the same token we can't expect rehabilitation if we reject this chance.

Is forgiveness a limited-time offer?

So hopefully this shows how we as Christians can affirm the value of forgiveness and rehabilitative justice, even though God will display retributive justice in the end. But again, the nature of this retribution seems dubious even to me--how can God punish people eternally for finite sins? The "Hell-as-a-place" view usually gives the image of painfully contrite people screaming in flames, repenting their sins to a God who no longer cares or forgives. After all, how could anyone stay unrepentant and unregretful in that kind of eternal conscious torture? (More on the "flames" and "eternal conscious torture" in the next post) I personally don't agree with the answer I gave earlier, that our sins are infinite because the One they are against is infinite. I have really been enjoying this quote from the end of this Eastern Orthodox article on righteousness.
I had this brought home to me quite profoundly the second Sunday I attended an Orthodox church. My priest, Father Gregory Horton, had invited my wife and I to dinner at his home. As our wives worked together in the kitchen preparing the meal, he and I discussed theology. At one point, he posed the question to me, “Matthew, what is grace?” I must confess that I was a little put off by that. For a second, I felt, “Does Father really think me so spiritually immature that I do not know what grace is?” So I responded very quickly, and anyone who is listening to this who has had experience with Western Christian theology knows exactly how I answered it. I proudly asserted, and we all know this, right? “Grace is God’s unmerited favor.” Father smile at me, chuckled a little and said, “Why is it that everything is a thing for you Westerners?” I had no idea what he meant, so to end my confusion, I demanded, “Well then, you tell me, what is it?” “Grace, dear Matthew,” he replied, still smiling, “is the Holy Spirit.”
It was a revolutionizing moment in my Christian experience. As time passed, I began not just to comprehend, but also to experience what Father Gregory was telling me. The Orthodox Christian life quickly teaches us that God does not deal in things. Grace, for instance, is not some commodity that God produces. It is not something He wraps up in a spiritual package and sends to us so that we can open it up and apply it to our lives. The same must also be said for faith, or mercy, or wisdom. None of these are things. They are activities of God within the soul of a human being. Grace is God at work transforming me. Faith is the Christ who dwells within me, reaching out to the same Christ who sits on His throne in heaven. Mercy is God expressing His goodness in and through me. Wisdom is God thinking His thoughts in me. Again, this is so crucial, but it runs against the grain of this objectifying mindset that has determined, for Christians and non-Christians alike, how the Western world understand the Christian experience, and so I pray that those of you listening will really let this settle in.
Perhaps it will become clearer as we apply all this to the question of imputed righteousness. Just as with grace, or faith, or mercy, or wisdom, the Western mindset is at work here. It takes God’s activity of imputing righteousness and turns it into a thing called imputed righteousness. But just like grace, faith, mercy or wisdom, righteousness is not a thing. You cannot buy a can of it, nor is righteousness some sort of spiritual currency that God can apply to our account in heaven in order to erase the debt we owe Him for sinning against Him.
What is righteousness? It is not a thing, it is a state of being. Specifically, it is God’s state of being. It is not some thing that God produces. It is who He is. Righteousness is not even some quality or characteristic within God that He can somehow pull out chunks of and give to us to help us pay our debt to him, or use in some other way. No, righteousness is God’s perfectly humble, perfectly self-sacrificing, perfectly good, perfectly loving way of existing.
Notice the distinction: the western Christian definition of "grace" is "God's unmerited favor". The Orthodox definition is "the Holy Spirit". I'm not sure I fully agree with this definition, but it speaks to something else I've been concerned with. Theologians talk about spiritual concepts like grace, righteousness, or holiness as if they were spiritual "things" that could be quantified, and I think this betrays a wrong way of thinking about them. This translates to imagining sin as this nebulous, spiritual mass of bad-ness which we can't see or sense, but to which we continually add and which God will hold against us if we don't get it covered. I see sin as a state of being, not a thing. Our sin is infinite not because they are simply against a God who is infinite, but because it represents our state of separation from the infinite God. Without Him, we are nothing.

This clarifies the retributive justice God promises in the end times. If sin is just a thing we can have counted against us, there is no reason why people couldn't still be forgiven and saved from their punishment other than God arbitrarily deciding to stop forgiving people and let them burn. But if sin is something intrinsic (or not) to our persons, it opens another possibility. As 1 Corinthians 4:5 and 13:12 say, there is a time coming when the things hidden in peoples' hearts and minds will be revealed and we will see God face-to-face.

Could it be that at that time, Jesus' razor-sharp distinctions between sheep and goats, between His friends and enemies, will become apparent to us? Whereas now a person's attitude towards God is often muddled and convoluted, a mystery even to ourselves, it will become crystal clear; we will either love God with a love that surpasses any we've ever known, or hate Him like we never did before. And once this perfect clarity is achieved, there will be no going back; no one will change their mind. The current lack of clarity in our vision of God, far from something to simply be gotten over, should be considered an expression of mercy, because without it, everyone would just hate God.

That got really interesting towards the end. However, I have tried, as much as possible, to stick with the topic of how God's justice applies to the existence of Hell and avoid saying anything about the actual nature of Hell. That will be for next time, in what will hopefully be the actual final post.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Typology! (not the theological kind)

Thanks largely to my friend Mike, I am a big nerd for personality testing and profiling as a way to better know myself and others. I am also taking a class at my church called SHAPE (which stands for--let me try this without looking it up--Spiritual Gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality, Experiences, and Values which didn't fit in the acronym) which is focused on helping people learn about their unique role in the church and uses several tests to help people learn more about themselves. Two of these tests are Strengths Finder, which is well-known in the business world, and the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), which can be taken for free here. The practice of profiling people with the MBTI is sometimes called "typology", which unfortunately shares a name with a hermeneutical philosophy I won't get into here.

In a nutshell, the MBTI classifies people on four spectra (click the link or take the test for more details):
  • Extroversion - Introversion: Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world?
  • Sensing - Intuitive: Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning?
  • Thinking - Feeling: When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances?
  • Judging - Perceiving: In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options?
The 16 possible combinations of these letter pairs form the 16 MBTI types. As may not surprise you if you clicked that first link and know me or my blog, I have tested as an INTJ each of the 5+ times I have tried. In SHAPE, though, I took the test again but as we were going through attributes of the types, I realized a lot of the P characteristics sounded a lot like me. So, I did what anyone would do and typed the traits of both types into a spreadsheet, sorted the list, pulled out the ones that appeared in both, and rated myself for all the unique ones on a seven-point scale, thus determining in a quintessentially T way that I am an INTP.
I also made this Venn diagram for anyone else who shares my confusion.
And then I did one better and did some crazy Python scripting to generate this spreadsheet showing the traits of each MBTI type by which neighbor(s) they are shared with. If you are similarly type-confused,  Note: to facilitate the finding of intersections between MBTI types, I split some compound traits into their parts, e.g. "objectively critical" to "objective" and "critical".

Looking back, I realized a big part of the reason for the shift is this blog, especially the writing I've done in recent months on working through doubt. Through it, I've realized that simply knowing true things--and, by extension, believing oneself superior to those who don't--isn't as crucial to Christian faith as I'd previously thought. It's tragic when Christians get more into knowing things about God and His word, than simply knowing God Himself and seeing how this knowing changes everything about us and the world we perceive. The words of Scripture are finite, but the new reality they describe and hint at is bottomless. The fact that I'll be exploring this reality for (I believe) eternity might be disheartening to a J, but I find it as joyful as it is humbling.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Authenticity of Faith

Over the weekend I finished reading a very interesting and helpful book--The Authenticity of Faith, written by Richard Beck, a professing Christian and experimental psychologist. (Read his excellent blog here)

Freud and the Illusion of Religious Experience

The Authenticity of Faith is devoted to examining renowned psychologist and atheist Sigmund Freud's view of religion as a form of wish-fulfillment. In his book The Future of an Illusion, Freud asserts that religious belief is not achieved by an honest desire to know the truth, but as a way to seek relief from subconscious conflicts and primal wishes, like the generalized need for a father figure. Later philosophers like Ernest Becker adopted this view and modified it to be less about psychological neuroses (Freud's tendency to see these everywhere being well-known) and more about, more plausibly, existential angst. In this view, we are confronted with the terror of death, the apparent meaninglessness of suffering, and the loneliness that so often characterize the human condition. Unable to face these things, people turn to the panacea of religion to assure themselves that they are not really alone in the universe, that their life does have meaning, and that death is not the end, among others.

Whatever the assigned basis for religious belief, these arguments are different from classic skeptical counterapologetics in that they don't seek to disprove the object of religious faith (the truth of God's existence) and instead seek to explain the faith itself. Faith is no longer seen as being based on objective realities, but on deep-seated wish fulfillment and self-deception that believers are not even aware of--an illusion that we want to believe because it is immensely comforting, so we do. This effectively undermines the rational, philosophical tradition of classical apologetics by questioning whether apologists' arguments, warrants, and justifications for religious belief come from an honest desire to know truth or (as Freud believed was  the case) other psychological needs.

This attempt to undermine faith by "explaining it away" has been repeated and rehashed by atheists and skeptics countless times since Freud first stated, and it continues to show up frequently in the anti-faith writings of the "new atheists". It has been so effective in part because Christian apologetics has been so slow and ineffectual at answering it. Freud's question shifts the subject of the apologetical debate out of the realms of philosophy, logic, and theology in which it has been comfortably residing and into psychology, where "classical" apologists are largely unable to follow.1 Until now. Beck makes the observation that Freud's theory is not philosophical in nature but psychological--an empirical claim about how people think. So why debate it when you can simply test it?

Of course, people already have. An experiment in "terror management theory" sought to test the connection between the kind of existential dread thought to be the basis for faith and adherence to a religious worldview. Christian subjects were asked to either answer questions about the nature of their own deaths or more mundane subjects (the control group) and then asked to evaluate the personality profiles and responses to social-attitude questions of two fictional students. The essays were similar except that the author was identified as either a Christian or a Jew. The group that was primed with "death-salience" questions was statistically significantly more positive and accepting of the Christian author and more denigrating of the Jewish author. In other words, being confronted with the kinds of difficult, existential aches that faith is supposed to soothe was correlated with clinging to that faith more tightly and defending it from the existential "Other" whose beliefs serve as an implicit threat to its truthfulness. This proves Freud's theory--or does it?

William James and the Varieties of Religious Experience

With the empirical evidence for Freud's theory of religion in place, Beck turns to another author: William James, the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. This is a landmark survey of the religious experiences of many "ordinary" believers. James sees two categories of believers: "healthy-minded souls" and "sick souls". The names are somewhat misleading; "healthy-minded souls" deploy their religious beliefs to minimize existential angst and evil as Freud predicted. They "actively ignore or repress experiences that are morbid, dark, or disturbing". In Christianity, this looks like applying faith as a Band-Aid to minimize or deny the difficulties of life, giving trite consolations that "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life", "it will all work out in the end", "death is not the end", and so on. While acknowledging that this attitude is engaged in "denial, obfuscation, and avoidance", James also believes that wanting to avoid evil and death is part of human nature and everyone engages in this denial to some degree.

But the "sick soul" variety of religious experience flies in the face of Freud's theory. These believers do not attempt to use their faith to minimize existential pain but face this pain head-on (as Freud called skeptics to do) but are highly existentially aware, keeping the death, pain, and evil of existence firmly in view. Their relationship with God is marked by doubts and complaints of the kind seen in Psalm 13, 35, 86, or 88: "Where are you, God? Why can't I feel you?" And yet this doubt-and-complaint-filled faith is not necessarily weak or dying faith, as demonstrated by none other than Mother Teresa, who privately expressed deep doubts in God's very existence even during her forty-year ministry in Calcutta.

Beck attacks an assumption of both Freud and many Christians that faith and complaint to God are at two ends of a sliding scale--that faith is equivalent to cheerily, unprotestingly following God wherever you go and asking God, "Where are You?" is tantamount to a loss of faith. Here is my awesome mockup of his chart of this view.
Instead, he argues from studies done with the Spiritual Assessment Inventory and Attachment to God inventory, faith is at least two-dimensional; he labels the dimensions "communion" and "complaint". James' "sick souuls" occupy the high-communion, high-complaint region while "healthy-minded" souls are high-communion, low-complaint and religious skeptics and disengaged believers occupy the low-communion quadrants.

Empirical Evidence

To further test his hypothesis, Beck created the Defensive Theology Scale (DTS), an assessment for Christians to determine where they fall on the healthy-sick soul spectrum. It asks assessees to state their level of agreement with questions like, "Nothing is too small, even finding my keys, to pray to God about", "God has a destiny for me to find and fulfill", and "God protects me from illness and misfortune". With this ability to distinguish between "summer" and "winter" Christians, Beck turns to some empirical studies.

First, he redoes the worldview defense study used earlier to "prove" Freud's theory with a few changes. Beforehand, he had all 207 Christian participants take the DTS. Some were then primed with questions about their own deaths while the control group got questions about TV programming. They were then asked to read two essays written by fake students, one Christian and one Buddhist (to get around possible anti-semitic convolution). He found using a two-way analysis of variance that there was a much stronger correlation between peoples' scores on the DTS and their defense of the Christian/denigration of the Buddhist than their exposure to mortality salience questions. In other words, Christians that would have fallen into James' category of "sick souls" displayed less worldview defense and were more fair toward the Buddhist offer, while "healthy-minded" Christians were more likely to engage in worldview defense--both relatively independently of whether they were primed with the mortality questions beforehand.

He describes the results of three more studies. In the first, he observes a strong correlation between low DTS score and comfortability with the thought of Jesus having uniquely human bodily functions we don't normally associate with Him, like diarrhea, tooth decay, and bad breath. In the second, he finds a correlation between high DTS score and preference of an explicitly Christian painting (Never Alone, by Ron DiCianni) over a more neutral one by a well-known and critically acclaimed artist (Stone City, Iowa, by Grant Wood, the painter of American Gothic).
Finally, in the last study, he found high scorers on the DTS were much more likely to attribute evil and pain in the world to Satan instead of to God. (Side note: there are abundant Biblical examples of both, so the low DTS scorers were not simply contradicting their faith by answering as they did)

Beck's final ruling sides with William James over Sigmund Freud. While admitting that Freud's theory of faith as subconscious, fear-motivated denial of death and meaningless can be true, Beck says that it it doesn't describe everyone's religious experience. In particular, the existence of believers who do not use faith for existential consolation is incompatible with Freud. More subjectively, he also makes the case that we have much to learn from these "sick souls" in our modern, pluralistic world. Faith as a comprehensive system for escaping the fear of death and meaninglessness is threatened by the implicit relativization of living alongside people who hold different beliefs. Clinging to one's own faith and denying relativism has well-known costs: worldview defense, the denigration of the Other, and, ultimately, holy wars. Keeping faith in the midst of doubts and challenges is a subject beyond the scope of this post, but James' "sick souls" already know a thing or two about what it takes.


Overall, I highly recommend Beck's book, which is quite worth its somewhat steep price tag. It is a wholly satisfying answer to the skeptics who constantly trumpet Freud's theory as the death knell of authentic faith, addressing Freud's claim as a psychological theory with further psychological research. For this reason I think both religious believers and skeptics can learn much from it. I would only add a few qualifications. Beck's constant tendency to summarize and review his previous points makes him very easy to follow, but also makes the book a bit longer of a read than I think it needs to be.

Also, I think from reading him one can get the impression that all Christians either do nothing but deny existential angst and use religion as a Band-Aid or complain to God and never really feel Him. I think Beck would say that both extremes can and should be part of the Christian experience (just look at the Psalms, which span nearly the whole range of human emotion). The point of Christianity is of course not to never be able to feel God or have joy in Him, but times will come when God's presence seems distant and our joy is snuffed out, and we need to be prepared to accept these times as part of the Christian experience rather than answer them with platitudes.

Truly authentic faith spans the whole spectrum of human experience; the valleys of life, not just the peaks and plateaus. God is not absent from us in our troubles or off in the heavens beckoning us to come back, He is there with us in the midst of our troubles. As David writes in Psalm 139:7-8:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

1 Actually, contrary to what Beck says I think it is possible to answer Freud purely from a classical apologetical standpoint. Freud's argument says nothing about the actual truth of religion, it only offers an explanation for religious faith assuming it is false. If God (the Christian God, at least) does exist, it is entirely unsurprising that He would create people with a deep desire and need to know Him. Freud points to the too-perfect alignment of peoples' subconscious wishes and the tenets of religious faith that tidily answer them as evidence of design--but whose design: the human inventors of religion or the Divine creator of humans? Either way, the fact that religion speaks to our deepest needs is to be expected, so Freud's argument is really unconvincing to me. However, Beck's answering a psychological theory of religion on its own terms is much more satisfying than this answer and makes the book well worth reading.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Contextualizing the Gospel and Blatant Self-Promotion

My church's men's ministry blog is featuring a two-part series by me! Check out out:

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

April Fool! Or, how to spot bad exegesis

My Monday (April Fools' Day) post got some interesting responses. I was expecting general amusement at my series on Hell ending so unceremoniously with universalism, but a surprising number of people either were fooled or played along in case my change of mind was real. I don't mean to shame you, dear readers, but if you are taken in by a completely insincere post full of false teaching and Biblical mishandling and slapped together with no forethought in an hour and a half, that worries me. I haven't even read Love Wins and don't know any of the arguments Rob Bell used! In light of these responses, I thought I'd dissect my post as a case study in how to spot bad exegesis, since I understand its argument fairly well and can bad-mouth the author as freely as I like.
This is actually surprisingly simple. As I explained last time, the Greek word that is translated to "Hell" in the New Testament is "Gehenna", referring to a place of paganistic fiery child sacrifice outside Jerusalem. So Jesus warns in Luke 12:5: "But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him." What are some other characteristics of this Hell?
  • Fiery (Matthew 5:22, 18:9, James 3:6)
  • A place of destruction of both body and soul (Matthew 10:28)
  • A place of darkness (Matthew 6:23)
Well, here we have a contradiction. Hell can't literally be a place of both fire and darkness. What is Jesus getting at? I think these speak to theological, not literal truths--darkness as the absence of God's light, and fire as the destruction of the soul as the body decays.
Like any convincing lie, my post started with truth. I built off my word study of Gehenna in the second post of the series, looking for what Jesus and other New Testament voices have to say about Hell. The first problem was that I was being deliberately selective here about what I stated about Hell. As my friend Mitchell pointed out, I ignored any verses that mention Hell as eternal (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 or Jude 13) or a place of punishment (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 again, Matthew 23:33).

I also make an (I would say) unfounded leap from verses that speak of Hell as a place of destruction to Hell being a place of destruction (as in annihilation) of the soul. The view that the Christian soul dies along with the body and is subsequently raised with it is called Christian mortalism and is interesting to look into, but I seriously mishandled it here. This becomes obvious in the following paragraphs.
Here's the crazy part. God isn't just destroying the soul--He's destroying it so He can give us new life. 1 Corinthians 15:50 says, "I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable." And in v53: "For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality."
In fact, earlier in v42-44, Paul says: "So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body." What he is saying applies just as much to the soul. It must be destroyed in order to live forever--to be "saved through the flames" (1 Corinthians 3:15). It isn't pleasant, but it's worth it in the end.
But what about their sin? Paul covers that too! Romans 7:1 says that "the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives". Dying frees us from the power of sin, and we can't die again. Christians have already died to their sin by being identified with Christ's death, but everyone else still dies in both body and soul, as Jesus says--so that they can be freed from sin. Psalm 32:8 reads, "I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you." This verse clearly isn't David speaking like the rest of the Psalm; it's a promise from God.
Here is where the nature of the post as a joke should become obvious. My assertion, "God isn't just destroying the soul--He's destroying it so He can give us new life" is completely unfounded. This was not a conclusion drawn inductively from scripture, it was me pre-emptively deciding the conclusion I wanted to draw about Hell, before turning to scripture to "justify" it. This "justification" then consists of turning to verses that sound like they could speak to my point and quoting them completely out of context. Paul is talking in 1 Corinthians 15 about the (bodily) resurrection of Christians, not of nonbelievers. In 3:15 he is not talking about salvation at all but about peoples' work building up the church.

It's interesting to note here that the New Testament writers themselves, especially Paul, are quite guilty of this kind of out-of-context quoting, which New Testament scholar Peter Enns notes extensively in his books. Some examples:
  • Matthew 2:15 says Jesus fulfilled Hosea 11:1, which is talking about disobedient Israel.
  • John 19:36 says Jesus "fulfilled" an obscure Passover regulation that originally had nothing to do with Him.
  • Paul actually misquotes Isaiah 59:20, changing "The redeemer will come to Zion" to "The redeemer will come from Zion".
  • The author of Hebrews similarly alters the text of Psalm 95:7-11 in 3:7-11, changing forty years from the duration of God's anger to the duration of His showing the Israelites His deeds, only to reference the Psalm as originally written a few verses later.
So we can't simply dismiss the kind of fast-and-loose handling of scripture I displayed as "unbiblical"; clearly it is, in fact, biblical to quote verses out of context to support your point and even alter them to suit your rhetorical ends, which I didn't even stoop to do in my post. So why are the Biblical authors right to do this while I am wrong? Because I think the apostles were inspired both by the Holy Spirit and by the realization of how Jesus Christ completely changes the meaning of God's history with His people. In addition to the original, Biblical-literal meaning of these verses, the apostles saw how they fit into the new "big picture" of Christ as lord, savior, and head of the church. Jesus breathes new life, new context, and new meaning into old words. In contrast, my hermeneutic was not based on my conception of Christ (as I usually hope it is) but on a deceptive, preconceived view of Hell.

The second part of the post used some similar tactics of deception as the first--starting with something true and agreeable and easing into a lie. Again, the rehabilitation-retribution divide is something I'm still wrestling with, and my conclusion might seem plausible even to me if I hadn't knowingly fabricated it.  My idea of how God progressively reveals Himself in new ways to His people is not without Biblical precedent (see the deeper view of the law presented in the New Testament, the increased focus on an eternal afterlife, the changing nature of the Old Covenant after the Babylonian exile, and of course Christ Himself), but clinging to the belief that "God and His word never change" is much simpler, so it's easy to miss this concept of progressive revelation and impose a greater unity on scripture than it really displays.

But, of course, it's also easy to take progressive revelation too far, as I did. The building of a structure or painting of a picture is a better metaphor for it than metamorphosis. Though we can expect to interpret and apply the Bible in new ways as culture and circumstances change, those new ways should expand on or illuminate what the Bible actually says, never contradict it. Like it or not, there is zero scriptural evidence for the Bible being like the Norwegian prison system, progressive though it may seem to us.

So, a few points for application (namely spotting bogus theology that people genuinely believe):

  • Read critically. Be wary of trains of thought that seem good and correct but slide into untruth. This takes practice but is incredibly important, especially on the internet.
  • When people quote scripture, think about how they're handling it. Look up the references and their context yourself. If something doesn't seem right, consult a friend or a commentary (I happily volunteer my own services for this).
  • You've probably heard the anecdote of how bank tellers are trained to spot counterfeit bills by studying real ones intensively. While I'm pretty sure this isn't actually true, the metaphor still applies to theology. The best way to detect bad theology is to know what you believe and why, not just on the level of individual verses but in the story of the whole Bible. This is the focus on Biblical theology classes like at my church. It's a lifelong labor, but one that is supremely worthwhile--believe me.