Physical Healing and the Atonement Pt. 2

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Physical Infirmity As Punishment

In modern times, we do not equate being sick with being sinful. We don’t make someone feel like they’ve done something wrong for coming down with the flu or having cancer, and rightfully so.  Objectors to the view that healing is part of the atonement like to press this issue. They argue that if sickness is not a sin, how can it incur a penalty? Not only do I think this is this missing the point, I believe that it is looking at the bible anachronistically.

In the ancient near east, we see a worldview that connects sin and illness as revealed throughout scripture.  When Jesus’ disciples asked about a blind man “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn. 9:1-3) Jesus corrected their faulty theology that personal, specific sin is always the cause for illness. However, we do read where in John 5:14 he told the healed paralytic to “sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you”.

When the paralyzed man who was bore by his four friends was let in through the roof, Jesus told the man that he forgave his sins. This strikes us as a strange reaction because the man was clearly seeking healing. When the Pharisees charged Jesus of blasphemy for saying he had such authority, Jesus showed them that he had the power to forgive sins by healing the man. The Psalmist declared that God “forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” (Ps. 103:3). In the epistle of James we read “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.” (Js. 5:14-16). When Israel complained to Moses for the umpteenth time, venomous snakes came into the camp as a judgment. The people quickly repented, and God instructed Moses to put a serpent upon a pole. As the people gazed at the pole, they were healed. (Num. 21:1-9)  We find this thinking throughout the Psalms as well:

LORD my God, I called to you for help,
and you healed me.
You, LORD, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
you spared me from going down to the pit.   Sing the praises of the LORD, you his faithful people;
praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment,
but his favor lasts a lifetime

Forgiveness and healing oftentimes go together in the bible.

Healing and the Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Most Christians would agree that ultimately all human sickness is a result of sin, in that the fall introduced not only sin but also corruption and death into the human race. When Jesus was enduring the terrible beating at the hands of the Roman guard, it is hardly a controversial theological statement to say that he was taking the beating that we all deserved for our rebellion.

I argue that sickness is itself a beating; a flogging. When Jesus told the woman with the issue of blood “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” – the Greek word here used for disease is μάστιγος (mastix), which is also translated flogging or scourging. (See also Mk. 3:10 and Lk. 7:21) Christians would not deny that without Christ people will suffer eternal destruction because they believe “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” and “the wages of sin is death“. (Rom. 3:23, 6:23) For a Christian to stay consistent, I believe they must say that Christ bore all of our the punishment we deserved, which would include sickness and disease, not just eternal separation from God.

On what grounds do I say this? In Exodus 15:26 we read where God promised Israel that He would be their healer on the condition that they kept his covenant.

“If you listen carefully to the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you.”

Later we read in Deuteronomy 28:15-48, 59, 61 that Israel’s disobedience to God’s law resulted in specific curses that were not just spiritual, but were rather physical in nature, naming specific diseases that would come upon them for forsaking God’s covenant. We later read in Galatians 3:13-14 that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” I believe this was God lifting his hand of protection and allowing them to feel the force of the demonic corruption of nature. If his people wanted to pursue the devil, they could have the devil.

The good news is that Christ took the curse we all deserved for all of man’s disobedience, which included not only hell to come but hell on earth.  Ask anyone with cancer, lupus, epilepsy, Ebola and the like if disease is not experiencing a living hell. To think that God would want any of his children to suffer under such dreaded diseases in light of His Son’s suffering for us I believe would be a miscarriage of justice. Why must we endure the beating of disease when Christ already suffered in our place?

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5

I argue therefore, that it is wrong to accept sickness and disease from the hand of Satan when the penalty for our sin has been fully paid. Moreover, Jesus always viewed illness as an enemy. Nowhere in scripture did Christ tell his followers to expect sickness or disease as part of their calling in life and ministry. Jesus never suggested that sickness was “a cross to bear.” He promised persecution, slander, and the possibility of martyrdom for his followers, but never sickness. All sickness is suffering, but not all suffering is sickness.

In my next post, I will close my positive case for healing being included in the atonement with a look at Christ’s victory over Satan.

Physical Healing and the Atonement

Question:

Is there bodily healing included the atonement? Many would vehemently deny that there is, saying such a belief brings false hope in the minds of sincere Christians.

The writer of this blog is unabashedly a capital “P” Pentecostal. Along with many members within the mainline Pentecostal tradition (as well as the Christian & Missionary Alliance), I affirm that bodily healing is included in the atonement. This is not a view without controversy, and I will deal with the most common objections against the view in future posts. The purpose of this post is to make a positive case for the belief that physical, bodily healing is indeed included in Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

I believe there are many arguments one might make for this view, but the strongest one comes from the passages found in the famous The Suffering Servant verses found in Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

The Suffering Servant

In Isaiah 53:4 we read “Surely he (Jesus) has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” The Hebrew word griefs is חֹ֫לִי (choli), defined as sickness. The word is translated as sickness, disease or illness 21 times out of the 24 times it is used in the New American Standard Bible. Such verses include Deuteronomy 7:15 and 28:61, where the plain meaning is clearly sickness. Sorrows is the Hebrew words מַכְאוֹב (makob), and is literally translated “pains”. An example of it used elsewhere is found in Job 33:19“Man is also chastened with pain on his bed”.

Young’s Literal Translation of the passage reads as follows: “Surely our sicknesses he hath borne, And our pains — he hath carried them, And we — we have esteemed him plagued, Smitten of God, and afflicted.”

The words “borne” and “carried” in the Hebrew are נָשָׂ֔א (nasa) and סְבָלָ֑ם (sabal). Nasa means “to lift, carry, take”. The same word is used in the 12th verse of the passage where we read that Christ “bare the sin of many”.  The imagery of the scapegoat in Leviticus 16:22 captures this substitution concept when we read that “the goat shall bear (nasa) on itself all their iniquities” The meaning is clear: As Christ lifted, carried, and took our sin, he also did the same with our sicknesses. Sabal means “to bear a heavy load” It is used in bearing a heavy load of chastisement or penalty. In the 11th verse we read that “he (Christ) he shall bear their iniquities”. So in the same way Christ bore our iniquities, likewise he bore our pains. The same verbs used to denote Christ as our sin-bearer are also used to denote Christ as our sickness-bearer.

If that was not enough, we have the Gospel of Matthew’s own use of the text in the context of Christ healing the sick in an anticipatory way to Christ’s death. Matthew 8:16-17

That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”

Another oft-cited passage used by proponents of the “healing in the atonement” view is 1 Peter 2:24

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

Peter is quoting the Isaiah 53:5. The Greek word used for healed is ἰάομαι, and variations of the word are used 26 times in the New Testament. It is used in a figurative sense only when the New Testament writers are quoting Isaiah 6:10, and in Hebrews 13:12. All other times it is referring to physical healing.

Based on the original language of the texts about Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross, and the Matthew’s own interpretation of the prophecy coming to pass in the context of Christ’s healing ministry, I think we have good grounds for accepting the fact that healing is indeed in included in the atonement.

But there’s more! In my next post I will look more in-depth at the biblical teaching of the nature of sickness itself.

Jesus’ attitude towards sickness

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10 On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17, New International Version, ©2011)

Often – but not always – we see the gospel writers attribute physical infirmity to satanic influence.  It’s interesting to note that in the gospels we never see Jesus offer the sick a cliché.  Jesus did not call the illness the absence of the good, he did not appeal to mystery, nor did he attribute it being the natural working of God’s good creation.  Jesus didn’t tell the crowd that they were not in the place to understand God’s larger purpose. He did not tell the woman that her infirmity was being used by God to make her soul.

On the contrary, Jesus viewed this woman’s condition as unjust imprisonment that must she ought to be immediately be liberated from; regardless of how it might offend the synagogue leader’s legalistic interpretation of God’s law.

Theologians and philosophers have in different ways worked at forming a sound theodicy regarding natural evil. Defined, natural evil is evil for which no agent is morally responsible. In contrast, moral evil would be the result of any morally negative event caused by the intentional action caused by a person. The “free will defense” has largely answered most of the problems posed by the problem of moral evil.

Therefore, I find it highly interesting that the gospel writers document Jesus dealing with disease as form of spiritual warfare against demonic forces, not mere natural evil. This point is further brought out in Peter’s sermon to Cornelius’ house, we read “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” (Acts 10:38)

While our modern sensibilities find the idea of an evil spirit corrupting nature implausible, I find it telling that when one’s child suffers from leukemia, or as in the case of the woman in Luke 13, their back is painfully deformed so they can’t do anything but live in a painful stoop, we describe these things as evil. These things really bother us, even to the point of anger at times. Typically we don’t call such a thing merely a misfortune, we see it as an injustice. It is not right that a person suffers terribly under excruciating pain.  Jesus thought that something ought to be done about it immediately. Our common experience is that people truly do suffer various injustices not that are not naturally caused by human beings. We feel anger towards these things as if something personal was at work. If tragic illnesses are merely a misfortune, then we have no reason to feel angry about the situation. Therefore, I think we’re justified trusting our common sense in saying that some injustices are not caused by mere natural processes. Rather there are injustices that have supernatural causes.

This seems to be the worldview advocated by the New Testament. As Greg Boyd argues, while even death is just a natural result by what we call natural processes, the devil is named the one who “holds the power of death”. (Heb. 2:14) Death is called the “last enemy”. (1 Cor. 15:26) We see elsewhere in scripture that Satan is called “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) who “whole world is under the control” of. (1 Jn. 5:19)  Believers have been redeemed from this foe through the atonement. (Col. 1:13-14) This view was held by the early church fathers as shown by various quotes of Origen, Justin, Tertullian and Athenagoras.

If sickness is a perversion of the natural order Satan uses as a weapon against those whom God loves, then I think we are misguided to ascribe our sicknesses and infirmities to God’s will. (Caveat: obviously we don’t feel the sense of injustice when we make ourselves sick through neglect or over-indulgence, but we can throw ourselves on God’s mercy.) The Bible calls illness oppression, and like with the case of the woman, we ought to be loosed. God is not the oppressor, He’s the liberator. If Christ is the Head and we are the Body, then why would Christ work against his own body by making it sick?If Christ is the ultimate revelation of God, why do we see him so often healing in response to faith?

For unless we are theological determinists who believe that God is micromanaging everything – even causing the decisions of people and evil spirits – then I see no reason we should resign ourselves to the so-called inscrutable purpose of God when so-called natural evil strikes. Rather, I think we should do anything more than stand strong in faith, resisting the adversary with every method at our disposal. God is infinitely wise and knows how to bring good out of such evils brought about by free creatures.  We can also be assured that Satan’s free power to influence is finite and will eventually be fully ended while simultaneously enjoying a large degree of freedom from his works in the life that now is.  If we learn anything out of such trials, it ought to be learning to resist and rule over, not resigning. (1 Pet. 5:8-10, James 4:7, Luke 10:19, Rom. 5:17, Rev. 11:15, 20:10)

Why the Cross?

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Today is the day we celebrate the Crucifixion of Christ. In the minds of most unbelievers, celebrating something as bloody as crucifixion could be seen as just plain strange, if not a bit ghoulish.

At the heart of this, I think a lot of misunderstandings exist about the nature of the cross of Christ, and I’m afraid that the church has only exacerbated the matter by misconstruing what the atonement really is.

What the atonement is not

  • Simply a moral example to humanity to inspire us to lift ourselves out of sin and grow towards union with God.
  • A payment that God paid the devil to ransom our release from the devil.
  • Merely what God required to forgive sins, or what you see in the typical Christians tracts that present the “Romans Road”. Don’t misunderstand me, it is that in on a certain level, but there is much more to it than simply that.

So…why then the cross?

Jesus’ words in John 12:24 are particularly enlightening about this subject:

I assure you, most solemnly I tell you, Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains [just one grain; it never becomes more but lives] by itself alone. But if it dies, it produces many others and yields a rich harvest. (Amplified Bible)

Often Christians interpret this passage as something they must do; that they must die to their own selfish desires to become more Christ-like. While I think there is some truth to that, I think Jesus is referring to himself in this passage. Throughout the first 19 chapters of John’s gospel are references to Jesus being the only begotten Son. After the resurrection however we see Jesus tell Mary Magdalene to “Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (Jn. 20:17) The only begotten Son (the one grain) is planted and dies, but in the end it produces many other sons. Satan thought that by inciting Judas’ betrayal he was ridding himself of a problem, but in doing so the life of Christ was reproduced in believers many, many times over!

The writer of Hebrews elaborates further:

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.

God, who is Love, wanted many sons participating in his glory. As sons, we partake in Christ’s divine nature, or at least those which can be communicated – love, joy, peace, faithfulness, etc. This participation in the divine life is further illustrated in Paul’s analogy of the body of Christ, and Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and the branches. How could a perfect being communicate this type of life to us? Robin Collins has come up with an interesting theory of the atonement that he calls the Incarnational Theory, and I’ve personally found it to be helpful, at least in some respects. Here it is in a nutshell:

As finite creatures, something such as the nature of God is completely foreign to us. You can’t do something ridiculous like graft in a tree branch to a lion, but only another tree, that is to say you have to find something of the same nature.  Through the Incarnation and Passion, God entered into our human situation of death and suffering and overcame the this alienation. Jesus was fully human/fully divine and acted in complete moral perfection. Jesus exercised the virtues (faith, love) that God intended man to exercise in the face of human suffering, persecution, uncertainty, opposition, etc.

Interestingly, God could not personally, actively exercise these virtues apart from the incarnation. Apart from the incarnation, God could not experience temptation, danger, uncertainty, vulnerability, weakness, lack or victimization. We now can take part in this life by being “grafted in the vine” by placing our faith in Christ, and it is this that saves us from sin.

We “tap in” to the divine virtues come not only from reading or hearing scripture, but these spiritual disciplines are also intertwined with the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, our Connector to Christ. The indwelling Holy Spirit also supernaturally transmits to us Christ’s subjectivity. One analogy Collins uses that I actually think is really cool is we can imagine somehow through technology a future in which a person can tap into and adapt the desires exercised by an extremely courageous or loving person.  Imagine we could all tap into Mother Teresa’s subjective compassion for the poor, or Muhammad Ali’s confidence in the face of a fight.

Or another example is how children pattern themselves after their parents. Our view of the world and behavioral patterns are often unconsciously picked up or patterned after those in our environment whom influence us. Paul speaks of following God, as dearly loved children follow after their parents. (Eph. 5:1-2) What we could not change through the self-effort of our distorted human desire, God “works in us both to will and to do his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13)

The cross was not merely the price that was paid for our forgiveness, but where our warped, selfish, sinful selves died; where we partake of Christ’s full facing of human frailty and alienation and yet in the face of it we overcome through the resurrection. We now gradually learn to put off selfishness and grow into godly maturity as we tap into the mind of Christ through the help of the Holy Spirit. Through doing so, we get a victorious mentality, a son of God mentality. (1 Corinthians 2:10-16, Romans 12:2, Eph. 2:6, 4:22-24).

The cross is not just where we become forgiven sinners, but where we also died. As we tap into the mind of Christ we see ourselves in Him; dead to the praises of men and our selfish impulses, and moreover, alive with Him, victorious over the loneliness and powerlessness that world tries to hold us captive to.

There are other theories of the atonement I find worthwhile; in particular I’m a fan of the “Christus Victor” interpretation, which I hope to tackle in a future post because I see that I’ve hit the 1000 word mark, so if you’ve got this far, thanks for tapping into Christ’s patience to get to the end!

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Why Pray?

Prayer is the language

I’ve thought about the subject of prayer lately and it’s striking how our view of providence plays such a role on our urgency to pray. Thinking particularly of this passage in Ezekiel:

And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none.  Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them. I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath. I have returned their way upon their heads, declares the Lord GOD.”

Ezekiel 22:30-31 (ESV)

We see that God was looking someone who would intercede for Israel, just as he did when he had Abraham intercede for Sodom and Gomorrah. The other example from the Bible would be Moses, who took it upon himself to intercede for Israel, and interestingly enough, the Bible says that God changed his mind about the judgment that He intended to bring upon Israel.

The traditional view of providence believes that the future is exhaustively settled from all eternity by God. If that is the case, then what difference would it make if an intercessor had not came forward? Is God being sincere here? Moreover, if the future is exhaustively settled in God’s mind, how could he honestly say he’s looking for someone who He knows for certain is not there?

In saying these things, I guess I’m letting the cat out of the bag: I think I’ve been an open theist all along and I’m just now realizing it. (I understand that in some Evangelical circles this view is anathema, but this view is at home among many Pentecostals-and I’m one of them!). For prayer to have real integrity and not be a mere showpiece, it has to have some affect on God and truly influence the outcome of certain events. But if our prayer is ultimately brought about by God; I don’t see how it can truly persuade God.

On the open view, while part of the future is settled by God, it is also partly open. God may also have certain plans and purposes that we can hinder through sloth and unresponsiveness, or we can help him bring to pass through our co-operation. In other words, God in his sovereignty allowed himself  to be dependent upon our prayers; He will allow what we allow and he will forbid what we forbid.  This point seems to be driven home by God’s words to Solomon.

“..if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land”

2 Chronicles 7:14 (ESV) (Emphasis added).

Allow me to illustrate using a personal story. Once when I was in prayer, I perceived that my mom – who lived miles away at the time – may be involved in a car accident. I believe this was the Holy Spirit warning me. I prayed my mom would be delayed. Several weeks later, I asked my mom about it. I was pretty confident that I had heard from God, but I could have been mistaken. As it turned out, my mom confirmed that she did indeed get distracted and was late to work, and on her way she got stuck in traffic because there was a multi-car pile up on the freeway. She recalled that seeing the wreckage that day was unnerving and, she was quite shocked with what I shared with her! (This story doesn’t refute the open view, but rather it was a revelation of what was going to happen under the present circumstances given the most probable free choices of people, and perhaps even angels, at the time.)

Now if the future is exclusively a realm of comprehensive settled facts, then what good would it have done for God to call upon me to pray? Can God act to change what he infallibly knows will happen?  While I don’t deny there are some things God settles ahead of time, I believe there are also real future possibilities of blessing that will come to pass or fail to come to pass through our prayers, which spurs a sense of urgency.

Now the big question is this: Why would God make himself vulnerable by allowing some of his plans to be carried out or hindered by our prayers, or lack thereof? I really think that is a more interesting question than the question about providence alone. Some theologians have suggested that prayer is “on the job training” for Christ’s bride, the church. The crown is for the victor, and the Bible speaks of a kingdom to be handed over to his saints. (Rev. 2:26-28, 3:21, 5:10) At least to some degree, God will not override the will of the church. Through prayer we enact God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, the Lord’s prayer says. Prayers can also affect the amount of people who come to know God, and we see from the scripture that God is waiting for the “precious fruit of the earth” before He returns. (James 5:7, 16) This is why I believe E.M. Bounds said:

“God shapes the world by prayer. The more praying there is in the world the better the world will be, the mightier the forces against evil …. The prayers of God’s saints are the capital stock of heaven by which God carries on His great work upon earth. God conditions the very life and prosperity of His cause on prayer.”

And John Wesley said:

“God will do nothing but in answer to prayer.”

For the sake of time, I won’t go too in-depth as why this seems to be the case, but we do see that from the beginning, we’ve been made in God’s image and given responsibility to care for the world God has created. (Gen 1:26-28)  Biblically, an argument can be made that man fumbled the ball, so to speak, as the New Testament multiply attests to the fact that Satan the ruler of this world. (John 12:31, 2 Corinthians 4:4, 1 John 5:19) This is why we see in the Gospels and Acts a picture of Jesus and his trainees healing the sick, exorcising demons, etc. Jesus saw this as a sign that the Kingdom of God arriving. We even see Christ addressing natural evil, such calming storms.

At the end of His life on earth, Christ tells his disciples that they’ll do “the works that He does”, and He instructs them on the use of his name. (Jn 14:12-14) In His resurrection, he conquers Satan (Col. 2:15) and removes Satan’s claim over man as his slave, and gives his followers “power of attorney” so to speak to act in his stead. Intercessory prayer is one way we  can wage warfare against these evil powers that corrupt nature and influence men to steal, kill and destroy. (Jn. 10:10) The oft quoted C.S. Lewis famously said:

“Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”

The traditional view of God seems to have to attribute everything – good, bad, and indifferent – to God’s sovereignty. This seems to paint God as some sort of schizophrenic autocrat. How can we be assured of any answer to prayer if this is the way God is? The biblical picture as demonstrated by Jesus was not a puppet master, but “Our Father”. He said that if we’ve seen Him, we’ve seen the Father, and in Him we saw someone triumphing over evil and death, and as the one who “gave us the keys of the kingdom”, able to bind Satan’s plans and loose God’s ultimate ends on the earth.

Who’s Afraid of a Christian Extremist?

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A friend of mine recently shared that he was as afraid of Christian extremists as he was of Muslim extremists. This is a common view; American Christian extremists are viewed as a group of bigoted, intolerant people who would see the majority of Muslims as terrorists and homosexuals as a grave threat to society.

The most extreme variety of so-called American Christian extremists would be the unfathomably bizarre nut-balls from the Westboro Baptist Church.  While I don’t think anyone takes Fred Phelps and his band of lunatics seriously, when prominent ministers publicly said that the earthquake in Haiti or 9/11 was God’s judgment, people were rightly outraged. Or in more recent news, there were the comments of Rep. Peter King about Muslims, which I think is what justifiably upset my friend.

But should we really fear a true Christian extremist? Well, no. I would argue that the people who take radical positions of hatred aren’t real Christians, no more than the so-called Christians who burned suspected witches at the stake or pillaged and raped during the Crusades.

Before you cry foul, this is not me falling into the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. (I love saying that in an outrageous, Groundskeeper Willie-like Scottish accent. Try it.)  Actually, the fallacy being committed is on the other side, and that is the fallacy of equivocation. It’s easy to fall into in this case, allow me to explain. There are “Christians” (scare quotes!) who are really nominal Christians – they might believe in God and say some of the right things, but often they don’t even believe the core tenants of the Christian faith. These are often people who equate being Christian with being American, or going through certain religious rituals when they were a child. Then there is the biblical definition of a Christian, given by Jesus himself. Jesus said –

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

A true follower of Jesus is a person who will be continually growing into a life of self-sacrificial love. Moreover, we see in the Bible that Jesus and Paul continually warned believers about false brethren; wolves in sheep’s clothing, people who claim the name of Christ and yet deny Him by their works.  We are told that “by their fruits ye shall know them” and that “he that hates his brother is a murderer, and no murderer has eternal life abiding in him”.  Now this isn’t to say that real Christians haven’t opened their mouth and said something regrettable, but a true Christian living in fellowship with their Master will be filled with regret when they act unkind and will try to make amends.

So what does a real ‘born again’ Christian extremist look like? Someone who took Christ’s teachings to the extreme – which according to the Bible centers in on preaching the gospel to all nations, self-denial and loving your neighbor – would produce someone like a Mother Theresa, William Booth, George Müller, or a William Wilberforce. In other words, they would be a selfless person with praiseworthy ethical standards. (Of course not every Christian is expected make philanthropy their vocation, but a Christian will try and be a person of genuine love no matter where they are.)

Often I hear people say they don’t want Christians legislating their morality. In this day in age, they seem to especially apply this to sexuality – abortion, pornography, homosexuality, etc. But this is question begging when you think about it; for it assumes that secularism is correct, and moreover that secularism is a morally neutral view. The American type of Secularism that’s popular now basically says that only what the hard sciences prove is true, and your personal beliefs should be kept out of the public square. This view makes everything but what is supposedly scientific relative.

But these two views, scientism – the belief that only the sciences give us truth; and moral relativism- that idea that that an individual’s beliefs are relative and there is no absolute moral truth – are horrid philosophies to build a society on. There are a number of reasons I say that, but for the sake of time I’ll give you two reasons why that is: They’re logically self-refuting, meaning they don’t pass their own test. The statement “no statements are true unless they can be proven scientifically”, is self-refuting insofar as it can’t be proven scientifically, and “everything is relative” becomes a relative statement; it might be true for you, but not for me. No one consistently lives this way.

So there really is no morally neutral legislated morality, for all legislation is a group of people “pushing off their morality” on you and I – from speed limits to where are tax dollars go.  People who you say that you shouldn’t push-off your views on others basically are saying they want you to adopt their view while hiding under a guise of false neutrality. Everyone on Capitol Hill is working to legislate their morality.

Furthermore, Christians are largely the ones who championed causes dealing with child labor, public schools, inequality, the civil rights movement, etc. Many of the positive reforms America has experience are a result of true radical Christians, people like Martin Luther King, who awakened the conscience of a nation of the self-evident truths that it founded itself upon – “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

Today many Christians often apply these self-evident truths to a number of arenas – such as with the lives of the unborn. I’m not here to get into an abortion debate, but a Christian working to banning various abortion procedures is not wanting to legislate their morality anymore than the left-wing feminist who thinks that every woman has a right to electively have an abortion. They are both guided by certain philosophical reasons and should be allowed to debate their views in the public square. Neither should be dismissed out of hand because their views are allegedly “unscientific”, or are supposedly religious and should be held privately. Sadly, we can’t even begin to have any sort of reasonable discourse with this sort of thinking, yet all too often it’s the christian who is the one being charged with being narrow minded.

Anyway, that’s my all over the place rant. What I said doesn’t reflect the views of my friend to my knowledge, I honestly don’t know their views very fully, but I respect his point and can see where he’s coming from. Anyway, his comments triggered some thoughts and now they’re out there on the interwebs for all to see. The takeaway: Welcome extreme Christianity, but beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.

How I Became a Christian – Part 4

The Road to Emmaus
Image by jimforest via Flickr

Now we’re getting to the good stuff. I’ve taken the pains of doing four posts (Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3)  and not condensing it down to one because this was very much a process. There are some who just hear the gospel once and believe it, but I don’t think that’s the way it works for most.  I also didn’t have anyone to answer my questions. I didn’t darken the doors of a church and Al Gore’s internet hadn’t made its way into my house yet. It was just me reading the bible.

One weekend afternoon, some church people handed me a tract written by Billy Graham while I was working the drive-thru at Taco Bell. It came in a plastic baggy with some Reese’s peanut butter cups, for which I was thankful, because I just was about to go on break. I read the tract, put it in the pocket my refried bean-stained Dickeys and went on my way. This was probably the first time I had a clear presentation of the gospel. It didn’t convince me, but I kept it.

Here I was, a stoner kid who had finally come to grips with theism, and I had now come to terms with the fact that Jesus very well could have risen from the dead. I couldn’t just explain away such an odd movement that had it’s start in a such a tumultuous, monotheistic nation and survive, let alone thrive. Nor could I understand how it spread across the Roman empire like wildfire in the midst of such opposition. The Christian message was an offense to both Jew and Gentile. It was especially hard to conceive its success considering that it came through the lives of a few backwater hicks and a skeptical terrorist-turned-evangelist named Paul. I tried to explain it away, but my explanations would be more convoluted than the actual story itself.

My problem was that though such beliefs seemed plausible, I didn’t like where they led. I prized my autonomy.  And my idea who Christians were came from Ned Flanders,  the church-going hypocrites across the street (whose kids had all kinds of problems), wild-eyed televangelists, and the dorks in my school that wore Jesus t-shirts. I did not want to be like any of them. I also did not want to be ostracized from my friends.

On the other hand, for some reason I became increasingly dissatisfied with the things I once considered to be important. Life didn’t look better when I considered what else the world around me offered – education, security, family, success. Those things are not wrong in themselves, but what was the point, really? I had begun to read Ecclesiastes, and the Preacher’s words resonated with me.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity….All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing

The writer later describes the meaningless of self-indulgence, seeking wisdom, wealth and honor. In the end, “All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”

I honestly could hardly believe these words were in the bible! Solomon’s conclusion was to “fear God and keep his commandments” because we are going to have to give an account of our lives to God. But how could I account for my life, when it was altogether wrong? It seemed like I couldn’t keep God’s commandments for over 30 minutes at a time.  I didn’t find the Preacher’s conclusion very reassuring.

Around this time, I also began to ponder the question of death and if there was a life after. You see, my mother had just survived breast cancer, two kids in my school were killed by fallen power lines while working on a farm, and one person committed suicide. We also had a student take a class hostage at gunpoint (no one was hurt, thankfully). It was a weird school-year.

I was really into 2Pac back then  (like any good white, suburban gangsta) and I kept coming back to “So Many Tears“. The lyrics were profoundly meaningful compared to most of the stuff I listened to, and proved tragically to be prophetic in his own life:

There was no mercy on the streets, I couldn’t rest
I’m barely standin, bout to go to pieces, screamin peace
And though my soul was deleted, I couldn’t see it
I had my mind full of demons tryin to break free
They planted seeds and they hatched, sparkin the flame
inside my brain like a match, such a dirty game
No memories, just a misery
Paintin a picture of my enemies killin me, in my sleep
Will I survive til the mo’nin, to see the sun
Please Lord forgive me for my sins, cause here I come

Before I ever heard of C.S. Lewis, his ideas were popping in my head. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Maybe there was another world beyond our own world of tragedy and pain.

In my bible reading I had become frustrated with Paul. He spoke over my head. Even Peter acknowledged that Paul wrote things that hard to understand, and I could relate. I decided to give 1st John a try.  First I read him describing himself seeing and handling Jesus, which challenged my idea of him being some sort of Casper the Friendly Ghost.  Then I got to the 2nd chapter and read that Jesus died for the sins of the world. And then I stopped when these words seemingly leaped off the page:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever…No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.

It’s really hard to put into words my experience from reading this passage. It was almost like someone was in the room with me reading these passages, there was such an unmistakable presence in the room.  The words carried a weight, with strong conviction I finally saw there was a dichotomy to the whole game of life – the world, and the kingdom of God; and that it was the person who lived for the Father God would be the one who gained, not the person who lived for self-gratification of any sort. And for me to live for the Father, I had to stop playing games and acknowledge His Son.

The next thing I know, I found myself on my knees, praying. It was awkward because this wasn’t something I had done in a very long time. I don’t remember what I said, but I know I accepted Jesus for who He really was and is, and I came from that place like the weight of the world had just rolled off of my shoulders. I felt unbelievably clean, a feeling of acceptance and almost oddly hilarious assurance of my existence after this life. The peace I felt was so thick you could cut it with a knife, it was beyond my own understanding.

The next day when I went to school, and it was like the world was made new. I remember stepping outside in the early morning and looking at the clouds, hearing the birds and smelling the air and just feeling a sense of wonder. My Father God had created all of this, and He loves me!  I also felt a new sense of mercy and love towards people that used to annoy me or even those who disliked me. The bible says that His Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the sons of God. (Romans 8:16) This Spirit was now opening the words of the Bible to me. It’s words were not as difficult to understand, as it was before.  There was clarity and understanding. The bible was telling me who I was and how to live, and now there was a power to live it in a way I didn’t think was possible. And there was an assurance of forgiveness when I failed.

It wasn’t about me trying to change or me becoming someone who I wasn’t. It was God changing me from the inside out. My hatred, envy, bad habits and selfishness started to shed off of me. My whole worldview was changing as well. I didn’t at all mind being ostracized by my friends, even though it came at the expense of much ridicule and even threats of physical violence.

Being born-again isn’t just some catch-phrase, it’s a spiritual reality. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.

So there was a rational side and an existential side, and both have anchored me over the years. I find it silly when atheists get frustrated when they can’t talk a Christian out of their faith, even when that Christian is less than adept at explaining the rational side. It’s because Christianity is an experience with a Person, the Holy Spirit, who reveals truth, helps us overcome our weakness and comforts us when we fail, amongst other things.

It’s the whole “a person with an experience is never at the mercy of the person with an argument” adage. It’s hard to tell the man swimming in the pool that there’s no such thing as water. It’s especially clear when you meet hundreds of others who have had extremely similar experiences which have led to extraordinary transformations. Even in the absence of having good arguments for my beliefs earlier in life, it was virtually impossible to doubt the witness I had inside my heart.

So therefore I encourage everyone reading this to let go of your presuppositions of Christianity and if you are willing, approach it with an open mind and heart. You might just find that the truth you seek has been expecting you with outstretched arms.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PC4jdRpKQe4&fs=1&hl=en_US&color1=0x5d1719&color2=0xcd311b]

How I Became a Christian – Part 3

Icon of saint womens who went to Tomb of Christ
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In my last post I talked about my conversion from atheism to theism. My lifestyle didn’t change; I was still acting pretty wild, but I also started to get more serious about getting passing grades under the threat of failing to graduate high school.

I didn’t know who God really was, and I wasn’t sure anyone did. In our pluralistic world, there are countless different religions, denominations, sects making exclusive truth claims. How could I tell who was telling the truth? My gut told me that the truth about God had to be objective, not subjective. The truth about God couldn’t be reduced to something like picking what baseball team to root for, or what kind of soda you prefer. The relativistic, politically correct attitude of “whatever works for you” seemed like a patronizing way of saying “I don’t believe anything you’re saying, but whatever floats your boat, just so long as you leave me alone”.

For a short while, I tinkered with the idea of deism, but that view presents God as some sort of deadbeat dad. A god who does not have anything to do with people has no real purpose for existing in to being with. God by necessity would have to care about his creation, or he is not a god worth our time, so I quickly ditched that idea.

From there, perhaps strangely enough, I moved my attention to Islam. Why exactly, I’m not sure. Maybe it was the inclusive portrayal of Islam  towards the end of the movie Malcolm X. I liked the idea that he was willing to die for what he thought was right, and the 5 Pillars of Islam seemed noble enough. Then I started reading up on Islam. I didn’t get far. I just had a hard time of making sense of its claims.

I was now coming full-circle back to my childhood. I dug up the Bible that was given me when I was confirmed as a catholic and started to go through it. It was partly illustrated, and I got a good chuckle from the different pictures of lions laying with lambs and apostate Jews singing to pieces of wood. What was I getting myself into?

I didn’t accept the bible as God’s word, but I was giving the Bible its day in court. Like most people, I got started in Genesis but I didn’t make it very far. I’m probably opening a can of worms, but talking serpents, forbidden fruit, the mystery of Cain’s wife and giant flood made my head swim, if I’m being honest. I now feel I have a better understanding of the first 11 chapters of Genesis, but then it was just confusing and didn’t seem credible.

Going forward, I just opened the bible to a random spot and started to read. The Psalms poetry was beautiful, and as a “suburban gangsta-ite” I liked the psalmists’ fearlessness. Take for instance the 56th Psalm:

In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I will not be afraid.
What can mortal man do to me?

I found the transparency of the wide range of emotions of the psalmist refreshing, and I enjoyed the quick-hits of morality and wisdom found in the proverbs, but I struggled to get into the new testament. At the time I think I would have really been happy if I had a copy of the Jefferson Bible. Like Jefferson, I found the teachings of Jesus to be “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man”, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, but the miracles were a tough sell. Like Jefferson, I felt like tearing them out of my bible. The other side of Jesus, the “magician side” of turning water to wine, healing the sick, casting out demons and his grand finale – rising from the dead – fell on deaf ears.

But then I had a hard time dealing with the simple fact that the church grew out of the basis of Jesus’ alleged miracles and resurrection. And historically, these men who were spreading this message believed what they preached so much they were willing to be chased halfway across the world, and many of them died some of the most gruesome sorts of deaths without recanting this belief. Why would they do this? In the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul, a former persecutor of the church declares that a little over 500 people had testified to seeing a risen Jesus. In other words Paul was saying “if you don’t believe my testimony, ask around. There are plenty of others who saw him.”

Jesus’ own brother James disbelieved and thought that Jesus was nuts (John 7:5, Mark 3:21), but then later he became a pastor, apostle and martyr. The disciples went from cowering in fear to boldly accusing the Sanhedrin for the death of Christ, and the Jews didn’t even dispute that Jesus’ tomb was empty. Instead they came up with a cockamamie  story about the disciples stealing Jesus’ body, but again, that doesn’t explain the conversion of skeptics – James, Paul, or again, the willingness of the early church to be persecuted, imprisoned, whipped, tortured, exiled, crucified, beheaded, eaten by lions, and cut to pieces by gladiators. Usually a good hoax leads to some sort of gain, this certainly wasn’t the case with the early church.

The astonishing personality and moral teachings of Jesus convinced me that he was an exceptional human being. But that his followers were willing to die before revoking their claim as eyewitnesses of his resurrection was something that made me think there was more to this Jesus person besides being a good, moral teacher. The other question that being begged to be asked – “what did Jesus gain by dying in such a horrible way?” If it was as the bible teaches, that his death was to reconcile me to God,  that would more sense than him dying as some sort of martyr. It would also give proof that God was not some deadbeat dad in the sky, or some lawgiver standing completely aloof from his creation. It would demonstrate that He is a God of amazing love.

I hadn’t made the leap quite yet, but as it turned out, Christianity looked more reasonable than I had imagined it could have.

to be continued

How I became a Christian – Part 2

Hell on Earth (album)
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I spoke of my “Fall” in the convenience store. Now we’ll look at the ramifications. As a kid, I never questioned the existence of God, even though it wasn’t something that was necessarily preached to me. I would not have classified myself as a “born-again” person as a child in any sense of the term.  As I grew, I became less apt to follow my conscience and more inclined to do whatever I felt like doing, just so long that I could get away with it.

My parents unfortunately became addicted to alcohol as I got older.  I took the streets with my friends, playing wiffle-ball, basketball and doing goofy stuff that kids do, mostly to keep away from my house as much as possible.

We moved to another neighborhood around the time I turned 13, and that was about the time I became an atheist. I began to ask questions about life’s meaning. In my observation, life seemed so utterly meaningless. Because my family situation was becoming increasingly chaotic with all the drinking, and because of what I learned in school about Darwinian evolution (primordial-soup-to-people through an unguided process of chance and necessity with no end in view) and psychology (God is just wish-fulfillment) I came around to the sentiment that there was no sense in having faith. No one really provided me with any alternatives at the time.

My trouble with God as that my life seemed so unfair, but I oddly enough I never questioned of where this sense of justice within me arose. Not only was my life an injustice, but others’ lives also seemed so unfair, the world that God was supposedly sovereignty controlling was a mess, and I had been given what I believed were scientific and rational reasons to reject God.

The funny thing about it was that I presupposing infinite knowledge was possible by claiming there is no god. Despite my claims, I couldn’t prove that there was no god, as if I had comprehensive knowledge of the entire universe.  So in one sense I was positing omniscience while denying the Omniscient one at the same time.

I feel as though I was a very consistent atheist, as far as that is actually possible. I say that because I was very nihilistic.  Nothing was particularly right or wrong, because morality had no real basis. There was no point in being moral for the sake of convention, I would act in whatever way served my best interests at the moment. It didn’t help that I was re-enforcing my nihilistic views with gangster rap, either. This led to a very grim outlook on life, and because of that I self-medicated myself with drugs, particularly with weed.

My friends were all into the gangster culture, which is sort of funny because we were mostly white kids living in the suburbs. There was a low-income housing project in the county I lived in, and some of the inner-city gangs flocked to the area to sell drugs, and they started making an impression on some of the youngsters in the neighborhood. I befriended these people through an association from high school. While violence between other social groups occasionally broke out, we were hardly gang-bangers. We were really a pack of hooligans looking to get high and have fun.  (Can I use the word hooligan?)

I was very hostile to anyone who tried to preach the gospel to me. I had several people try and talk to me, ironically some of which were among the people I partied with. Because their lifestyle was inconsistent with their message, I told them where they could stick their gospel. To me, it was all an illusion for the weak; fairy tales and myths.

After about two years of this, and seeing my friends lives getting more out of control, I began to re-consider my worldview. There had to be more to life than just satisfying my pride and mental and physical cravings. And it couldn’t be through just finding meaning in work and family, either, as demonstrated by the brokenness that I saw in the lives of the parents of my friends, and in my family.  The knowledge of God was something I was suppressing. I didn’t want to accept that there was a God because I really didn’t want to be accountable for my behavior. But if we were not here by accident, how then should I live and why?

No matter how much I tried to deny morality, I couldn’t make it really compatible with naturalism, (although I know plenty of people try to find a way to squeeze it in).  And were all these people who claimed to find meaning in God really just deluding themselves, or was there something more to it?

to be continued

How I became a Christian Pt. 1

Adam and Eve before God after their sin - mosa...
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In the absence of any brilliant ideas on what to post on here, I thought I may as well talk about my personal experience in becoming a Christian. I think most people think Christians are that way because they grew up with it. It’s a family thing or just a cultural thing that one mindlessly accepts without examining the issue for themselves. Or some people think that one becomes a Christian because they reach some sort of extreme personal crisis and turn to religion for comforts and to find a community within a church.

This wasn’t the case in my life. As a child I went to Catholic school, and my parents were Catholics, although they weren’t really the practicing variety. They were university graduates and quite liberal. My dad actually turned into an agnostic and even showed a certain interest in Native-American folk religions. He taught on a reservation for a time in South Dakota, and when he and my mother lost their jobs, we moved in with my grandparents in Michigan, who were Every Sunday Catholics.

Not only were my grandparents adamant about regular mass attendance, my dad got a teaching job at the Catholic school.  Although I was confirmed, it didn’t really mean anything to me. I remember having to wear uncomfortable shoes, feeling bored while the priest gave his homily, doing a lot of kneeling, and getting a tasty Communion wafer at the end. That was about it. I went to confession once or twice, and tried to do penance with rosary beads and came to think the thing was a quite a chore.

I think in my heart of hearts, I didn’t believe God was the works-oriented God that I felt was being presented to me, and if you’re Catholic and you’re reading this, please don’t misunderstand me. I know there are some Catholics who know God in ways I wish I do. I’m just giving you my point of view as a runny-nosed kid. But as a kid I prayed to God and had a sense of love for him in my heart.

When we my mom got a job in St. Louis, we moved away, and from there on, we only attended church on Christmas and Easter (The CEO club – Christmas and Easter Only. Nyuk, nyuk).

I remember becoming really conscious of right and wrong when I was around 9 years old. My friends were regular thieves of the gas station, filling their pockets with Now and Laters and Laffy Taffy. I think the owners of the store almost had to know what was going on. One of our friends would buy something, while the rest of us lined our pockets with candy. I finally gave into temptation, and at that moment, something was noticeably different about me.

Paul explains this tragedy in his letter to the Romans:

Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.

Before this time I felt as if I had a certain peace with God, but I knew better this time.  It as if I was Adam in the garden of my childhood innocence, and the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was very chewy and came in grape and cherry flavor.

The damage had been done. I listened to the serpent’s lie, my innocence was lost, and spiritual death had done it’s work. Really, it was only a matter of time before it happened as a member of the human race. The intrinsic sense of God I had within and my communion with him was gone. This is the sort of childhood horseplay we all look back at as adults, and we all laugh with a bit of nostalgia, but the results of this incident were actually quite tragic, as I’ll outline in my next post.