Archives For David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart is back on the podcast to talk about his recent review in the NY Times of the new Tarantino film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” as well as the irrefutability of his new book That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, guns, and baseball.

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We recorded this so long ago I’d forgotten how funny he is in it:

What turns you on?

Lt. Nyota Uhura

What’s your least favorite word?

Donald Trump

What’s your favorite curse word?

Donald Trump

David Bentley Hart is back on the podcast to talk about his new book, which I can say is as irrefutable as it is controversial, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. It’s a slim book with a straightforward argument which I would commend to anyone.

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In Romans 8 Paul famously crescendos with the promise to the baptized: “There is therefore now NO CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

     But if nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus then how is it good news that Paul, only six chapters later, tells the same audience: “We shall all stand before the judgement seat of God?” 

How do you square “…everyone will come before the judgement seat of God” with what Paul said four chapters earlier that “…everyone who confesses with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord will be saved.” 

     Which is it? Everyone will be judged? Or everyone will be saved?

     How does “…all will stand before the judgement seat of God…” square with chapter eleven where Paul said that all will be saved, that God will be merciful to all— even to those whom God has, for the present time, “consigned to disobedience?” 

     Judgement. Mercy. 

     Which is it, Paul? 

     It can’t be both/and can it? That everyone who confesses Jesus Christ will be saved and everyone will stand before the judgement seat of God? In fact, Paul repeats it almost word-for-word to the Corinthians: “We must all appear before the judgement seat of God.” And you can’t dismiss this verse about judgement because the Apostle Paul here sounds like Jesus everywhere— all over the Gospels, Jesus warns of the Coming Day of Judgement. As in his final teaching before his Passion, Jesus promises that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, gathering all before him. 

Not some. 

All: 

unbelievers and believers 

unrighteous and righteous

the unbaptized and the born again 

    All— not some— all, Jesus says, will be gathered for judgement. 

    The “saved” are not spared.

     And all will be reckoned according to who fed the hungry and who gave water to the thirsty and who clothed the naked and who welcomed the immigrant. 

     And who did not.

     “All shall stand before God for judgement,” Paul says. 

     Just like Jesus said. 

     And according to Jesus’ Bible that reckoning will be a fire. 

So, like the first Christians and the early Church Fathers, hell yes I believe in hell.  

I just disbelieve in hell’s eternity and its retributive torment.

The fire of God’s judment, depicted by Michaelangelo and rhapsodized by Augustine and Calvin, is not the fire promised by the Bible.

The fire of God’s judgment, the Bible testifies, will be refining fire. 

The prophet Malachi, the last voice we hear between the testaments, says on the Day of the Lord our sinful self—- even if we’re “saved”— will come under God’s final judgement and the the Old Adam still clinging to our soul will be burnt away. 

     The corrupt and petty parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed. The greedy and the bigoted and the begrudging parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed. The vengeful and the violent parts of our selves will be purged and destroyed. The unforgiving and the unfaithful parts of us, the insincere and the self- righteous and the cynical- all of it from all of us will be judged and purged and forsaken forever by the God who is a refining fire. 

     Keep in mind:

Purgation is not damnation. 

     Purgation is not damnation. 

     But neither is it pain free. 

The Gospel is not that God’s love and mercy are at odds with God’s justice; therefore, some— maybe many, to listen to some Christians— will be consigned to eternal torment. No, for a finite creature could never justly merit an infinite punishment. 

The Gospel is that in God, in his love and justice, is dragging all of sinful creation unto himself, and this means that prior to the Endyou will stand before the judgement seat of Almighty God, stripped and laid bare, all your disguises and your deceits revealed, naked wearing nothing but your true character, so that you can be fit for heaven. 

“The Gospels,” as David Bentley Hart writes, “simply make no obvious claim about a place or state of endless suffering.” And Gehenna, the child-sacrifice-site-turned-garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, which gets translated into Jesus’ mouth as hell, was thought of in Jesus’ time principally “as a place of purification, a refining fire for the souls of those who have been neither incorrigibly wicked nor impeccably good during their lives,” who eventually, their penance due, would be released and taken up to paradise.”

Says Hart:

“The figure of Christ in the fourth gospel passes through the world as the light of eternity; he is already both judgment and salvation, disclosing hell in our hearts, but shat- tering it in his flesh, so that he may “drag” everyone to him- self. Some things then, perhaps, exist only in being surpassed, overcome, formed, redeemed: “pure nature” (that impossible possibility), “pure nothingness,” prime matter, ultimate loss. Hell appears in the shadow of the cross as what has always al- ready been conquered, as what Easter leaves in ruins, to which we may flee from the transfiguring light of God if we so wish, but where we can never finally come to rest—for, being only a shadow, it provides nothing to cling to (as Gregory of Nyssa so acutely observes). Hell exists, so long as it exists, only as the last terrible residue of a fallen creation’s enmity to God, the lin- gering effects of a condition of slavery that God has conquered universally in Christ and will ultimately conquer individually in every soul. This age has passed away already, however long it lingers on in its own aftermath, and thus in the Age to come, and beyond all ages, all shall come home to the Kingdom pre- pared for them from before the foundations of the world.”

The smell of chicken thighs browning in a cast iron skillet with olive oil and garlic, onions, and peppers sautéing next to them, reminds me every time of my grandmother. Every old guy who walks out of church on Sunday morning smelling of Old Spice recalls my grandpa. My handwriting, down to the same black felt tip pen, is his. The small of my wife’s back feels to my hand as much me as my eyes when I rub them. I can’t imagine the world other than seeing it as I’ve learned to see it from her. And if we’ve done even a partial job of parenting, then one day our boys will say the same about us.

One of the people in my constellation of memories is the theologian David Bentley Hart. My first theology teacher at the University of Virginia, he opened up to me a breadth and depth of Christian thinking that flummoxed me, captivated my imagination as a new Christian, and fortuitously set me on a different path than the one I had anticipated. Because I know his public reputation among some readers and critics is contrary, I should note that I have, over the years, found David Bentley Hart to be a warm, winsome, compassionate, and thoughtful mentor. He has been unfailing in following up to inquire about my health. He often ribs me good-naturedly about the deficiences of National League baseball and how my Washington Nationals would scarcely be more than a bottom feeding team in the AL. The passion of his prose and the ferocity of his humor stem from an authentic zeal for the good and the beautiful. He can be uncompromising with sloppy thinking because theology isn’t merely an academic abstraction but can and often does have monstrous consequences for how we conceive of God and our neighbors, especially the poor and the vulnerable. 

The person I am is literally inconceivable apart from him. He is a good example of how none of us are persons in isolation from others. 

My point:

We are who we’ve loved.

From this incontrovertible axiom follows an equally incontestable assertion:

Hell for some would be hell for all.

If who I am is constituted by the memories given to me by those I’ve loved, then what would it mean for me to be in heaven were they in hell? Heaven would be a torment to me, or if their memory blotted out from me, to spare me the pain of their damnable suffering, then the part of they constituted would likewise be erased. To believe in an eternal hell for some is likewise to believe that the host of heaven have been, in decisive ways, hollowed out, as much shadows of their former selves as CS Lewis famously sketched the souls in Hell.

Such a hell would require of heaven an eternal lobotomy.

David Bentley Hart puts it better than me:

“[There is] an incoherence deeply fixed at the heart of almost all Christian traditions: that is, the idea that the omnipotent God of love, who creates the world from nothing, either imposes or tolerates the eternal torment of the damned.

It is not merely peculiarity of personal temperament that prompts Tertullian to speak of the saved relishing the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate, or Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas to assert that the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven), or Luther to insist that the saved will rejoice to see their loved ones roasting in hell.

All of them were simply following the only poor thread of logic they had to guide them out of a labyrinth of impossible contradictions; the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment forces the mind toward absurdities and atrocities.

Of course, the logical deficiencies of such language are obvious: After all, what is a person other than a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments, and affinities? Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us?

We are those others.

To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved: for, if the memories of others are removed, or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery is converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude, what then remains of one in one’s last bliss?

Some other being altogether, surely: a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one.

But not a person—not the person who was.”

I often wonder if Christians are so beholden to belief in an eternal hell because they fail to realize that the doctrine of creation is not merely an explanation of origins but is an eschatological claim, as concerned with our whither every bit as much as our whence. 

Precisely because that whence is sheer gift, the whither— if God is indeed Good— can only lead to one End, the One.

Belief in an eternal hell relies upon a literal, which is to say static, reading of Genesis. Only such a reading, where the  term ‘creation’ is circumscribed to the first six days, can make belief in a Last Day that begets eternal torment coherent.To preach fire and brimstone of the ultimate variety one must first conjugate the Triune God’s deliberation (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) into the past tense.

When Christians erroneously suppose that the doctrine of creation refers to our beginnings, in the past, they not only get into misbegotten debates pitting science vs. scripture, they fail to realize that belief in an eternal hell is morally contradictory to belief in creatioex nihilo, creation from nothing.

Christians do not posit creation from nothing as a claim about the origins of the universe. Nor do we mean it merely as a metaphysical one— that ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ Of course it includes both of those claims but creation from nothing is hardly reducible to either of them; instead, creation from nothing, as Church Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa saw clearly, does not refer to God’s primordial act but to an eschatological one which witnesses to God’s ultimate, as in teleological, relation to creation.

For Christians, the doctrine of creation from nothing is not a belief about what God did, billions or thousands of years ago. It’s a confession that necessarily includes what God has done, is doing, and will do unto fruition.

Creation from nothing isn’t so much a statement about what God did or what God does but its a statement about who God is.

To say that God creates ex nihilo is to assert that God did not need creation. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is, already and eternally so, sufficient unto himself, a perfect community of fullness and love, without deficit or need and with no potentiality. Creation from nothing confesses our belief that the world is not ‘nature’ but creation; that is, it is sheer gift because the Giver is without any lack. Creation is not necessary to God. It is not the terrain on which God needs to realize any part of an incomplete identity.

Creation from nothing then is shorthand for the Christian assertion that the Creator is categorically Other from his creation, that the Transcendent is absolutely distinct from the temporal. Simultaneously, however, creation from nothing requires that though— really, because— Creator and creation are ontologically distinct they are morally inseparable.

Precisely because God did not need to create, because creation is sheer gift, God ‘needs’ for creation to reveal his goodness.

Morally speaking, God is now bound to creation’s end because its beginning was not bound to him. In other words, for creation to be gift and the Giver to be good, then God ‘must’ bring to fruition his purpose in creation, “Let us make humankind in our image,” for all causes are reducible to and reflect their First Cause. If creation proves ultimately to be less than good (with an eternal torment for some of creation), then the Creator is no longer in any logical sense the Good.

As my first teacher David Bentley Hart argues:

“In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth.”

God’s creative purpose does not refer to Adam and Eve’s first day on the third. It was not fulfilled prior to the Fall nor would it have been without it. If, before their mistrust in the Garden, Adam and Eve already bore the fullness of God’s image then God is but a god, and it’s no longer intelligible what we mean by saying Christ is the image of the invisible God for the chasm between Adam and Jesus is only slightly less than infinite. 

What Christians mean by the imago dei is not immediate. 

It is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification. 

Perfection.

God’s “Let us…” does not refer to the events of day 3 of creation but names the plot of the entire salvation story.

Making us- that is, humanity, all of us- into the image of Father, Son, and Spirit is what God is bringing to pass in calling Israel, in taking flesh in Christ, in sending the Spirit, and, through the Spirit, sending the Church to announce the Gospel. 

As Gregory saw it, we can only truly say that God ‘created’ when all of creation finally has reached its consummation in the union of all things with the First Good.

Belief in an eternal hell is absurd then exactly because what Christians mean by belief in the imago dei is not immediate but ultimate.

Creation from nothing for the purpose that humanity would bear gratuitously the image of the good God is what God began in Genesis, what God is doing now through the Spirit, and what God has promised to bring to completion in Christ. Eternal hell does not comport with this telos, this End, towards which God has created us.

Indeed belief in eternal hell, where some portion or multitude of humanity is forever lost and forsaken, contradicts belief in creation from nothing, for if God’s promised aim is that, in the fullness of time all of humanity will bear his image, the promise can never be consummated apart without all of humanity included in it.

In creating ex nihilo, God makes himself our end as much as our beginning, the latter being wholly gratiutous makes the former entirely necessary— for all of us.

I’ve been reading a draft of David Bentley Hart’s new book, and towards the end he turns to the argument from “freedom.”

If it’s true that God consigns or consents his creatures to an eternal hell then, begs the question, is God evil?

Simply because God (allegedly) does it, doesn’t make it good or just or, even more importantly, beautiful. So we should muster up the stones to ask the obvious question to such a grim assertion: is God evil?

Our concepts of goodness, truth, and the beautiful, after all, emanate from God, who is the perfection of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty; therefore, they participate in the Being of God and correspond to the character of God. Sin-impaired as we are, we can yet trust our God-given gut. Again then, the question— and forget that it’s God we’re talking about— is God evil?

If the calculus of God’s salvation balances out with a mighty, eternally-tormented, remainder, then is God the privation haunting the goodness of his own creation?

For some reason— I conclude from the three passionate arguments DBH’s provoked in the bakery yesterday— eternal hell is the cherished, sacrosanct doctrine of a good many Christians, clergy included, which, I confess, makes me wonder if the decline of the Church is a moral accomplishment. I frankly can’t think of a better descriptor than evil (or maybe monstrous) for a being who creates ex nihilo, out of love gratuitously for love’s sake, only to predestine or permit the eternal torment of some or many of his creatures for supposedly just ends (nevermind, as DBH points out, an eternal punishment, which is not purgative, cannot, by definition, be just. 

Grace is more grim than amazing if its constitutive of a being who declares “Let us make humanity in our image…” only to impose upon them an inherited guilt which leads inexorably, except for the finite ministrations of altar calls and evangelism, to eternal hell.

The inescapable moral contradictions and logical deficiencies of belief in an eternal hell require us to assert that God’s essence, his very nature, is secondary to his will. Something is good, then, not because it corresponds to the Goodness that is the nature of God, who can only do that which is Good because he is free and perfect to act unconstrained according to his nature. Rather, simply because God does it, it is good. In other words, it is good for God to consign scores to an eternal torment because God does it. Any sense of justice we have that would cause us to recoil is only a human category, such Christians speculate, and has no corollary in the character of God.

Which, of course, is utter bulls#$%.

A popular (and ostensibly more civilized) perspective on hell attempts to remove the nasty veneer by replacing God as the active agent of damnation.

Excusing God from culpability, which is but a tacit acknowledgement of hell’s Christian incoherence, many fire and brimstone apologists appeal to our human freedom and God’s respect for its dignity.

God does not consign creatures to Hell.

God, like the parentified child in an abusive family, merely consents to Hell.

God consents, so the argument goes, to the risk inherent in any loving relationship, which is the possibility that his creatures will reject his love and choose Hell over Him.

Despite its tempered, rational appearance, this is perhaps the worst argument of all in favor of an eternal hell. Rather than esteeming our creaturely freedom or God’s privileging of it, it sacralizes the very condition from which we’re redeemed by Christ: bondage.

Captivity.

Slavery to Sin and Death.

The fatal deficiency in the free will defense of the fire and brimstone folks is that it employs an understanding of “freedom” that is incoherent to a properly tuned Christian ear. The breadth of the Christian tradition would not recognize such a construal of the word freedom.

For the Church Fathers, indeed for St. Paul, our ability to choose something other than the Good that is God is NOT freedom but a lack of freedom.

It’s a symptom of our bondage to sin not our liberty from it.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

For Christians, freedom is not the absence of any constraint upon our will. Freedom is not the ability to choose between several outcomes, indifferent to the moral good of those outcomes. In other words, freedom is not the ability to choose whatever you will; it is to choose well.

You are most free when your will more nearly corresponds to God’s will.

Because we are made with God’s creative declaration in mind (“Let us make humanity in our image…”) the freedom God gives us is not unrestrained freedom or morally indifferent freedom. It is not the freedom to choose between an Apple or a Samsung nor the freedom to choose between Hell or Heaven.

The freedom with which God imbues us is teleological freedom; that is, our freedom is directed towards our God-desired End in God. As creatures, oriented towards the Good, our freedom is purposive. Freedom is our cooperating with the grain of the universe.

We’re free when we become more who we’re created to be.

As Irenaeus says, the glory of God is human being fully alive. Only a fully alive creature in God’s glory is truly free. Freedom, then, is not the ability to do what you want. Freedom is to want what God wants: communion with Father, Son, and Spirit. You are most free, Christians have ALWAYS argued, when your will becomes indistinct from God’s will.

“The will, of course, is ordered to that which is truly good. But if by reason of passion or some evil habit or disposition a man is turned away from that which is truly good, he acts slavishly, in that he is diverted by some extraneous thing, if we consider the natural orientation of the will,” writes Thomas Aquinas.

Christian grammar insists that you are most free when you no longer have any choice because your desire is indistinct from God’s desire. You’re willing and the Good are without contradiction. Nothing, no sin or ignorance, is holding you back. You’re no longer in bondage. Janis Joplin was nearly correct. Freedom is nothing left to lose choose.

As my teacher David Bentley Hart writes:

“No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”

And just in case you can’t connect the dots to perdition, he continues:

“It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy.”

The creature that chooses not to enter into God’s beatitude is by definition not a free creature but captive.

Captive still to sin.

If it’s true that we can choose Hell rather than God, forever so, then for those who do Christ is not their Redeemer. And if not, then he was not. If not for them, then not for any of us and the god who purportedly took flesh inside him for the redemption of ALL captives is a liar and maybe a monster. 

In either case, he’s neither good nor the Good.

All Shall Be Saved

Jason Micheli —  September 5, 2019 — 2 Comments

I’ve been reading a review copy of David Bentley Hart’s latest book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. I’m prejudiced in favor of it; David was my first theology teacher at UVA. His influence upon me, not long after I became a Christian, has abided and may prove permanent.

If nothing else, DBH’s new book will give Christians permission to return to the New Testament and see, maybe for the first time, that which it names quite clearly: that the God who created all that is ex nihilo as sheer good gratuity, the God who is all and in all, is the God who desires the salvation of all.

“This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 2.3-4

Apparently, to many who worship the God who just is Love, to assert that God desires the salvation of all constitutes a “treacherous absurdity.” It’s a betrayal of the Gospel, I’ve been told in the not so hushed tones of all caps messages, to suppose that the triune God who announced his creative aim in Genesis 1 (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) will not forsake his endeavor until it has reached final consummation, that in the fullness of time humanity will finally bear the full glory of God’s image. Evidently, I take it from these Calvinists in threadbare sheep’s clothing, it’s better to confess that God-with-us may be our Alpha but he is not our End. At least, not for all of us.

It’s amazing to me that those most vested- presumably- in protecting the gravity of sin, the majesty of salvation, and the authority of scripture ignore what scripture itself testifies about it and the nature of the God revealed therein. Spurred by David Bentley Hart, I actually counted them up. The New Testament contains no less than 47 verses which affirm the ‘all-ness’ of God’s salvation compared to the 4 oft-cited but decidedly cryptic verses which may (or as easily may not) suggest eternal torments for the wicked.

47 vs. 4

What was obvious to the ancient Church Fathers, the totality of God’s salvific aim, has become so hidden it now sufficiently smacks of heresy to exile Rob Bell from the pulpit to the Oprah Channel.

A hero of mine, Karl Barth, famously said that as Christians scripture does not permit us to conclude that all will be saved but that as Christians we should hope and pray that all will be saved. Barth’s is a more generous sentiment than I hear from many Christians today, but despite his reticence DBH argues that the logic of the Gospel requires us to say more.

If God desires the salvation of all, he argues rather irrefutably, it is a logical absurdity to assert that the transcendent God will ultimately fail in accomplishing his eschatological will.

The belief in an eternal hell where some are forever excluded from the ‘all-ness’ of salvation echoed by scripture- that is the absurdity which begets still other absurdities like the Calvinist notion that God predestined some to salvation and others to perdition.

Just as God cannot act contrary to his good nature, so too God cannot fail to realize the good he desires. To say, as scripture does, that God desires the salvation of all is to say simultaneously and necessarily, as scripture implies, that all will be saved, that all things will indeed be made new.

Consider the counter:

If not, if we in our sin (or, worse, in our “freedom”) thwart God’s will and desire, casting ourselves into a fiery torment despite God’s sovereign intention, God would not be God. Or, to put it simpler if more baldly, we would be God. Or, still more pernicious, evil, as that which has successfully resisted God’s creative aim though it is no-thing, would be God.

Evil would God.

Thus the belief in an eternal hell betrays the fact that it’s possible for perfect faith to be indistinguishable from perfect nihilism.

It’s clear how offensive the ‘all-ness’ of God’s sovereign saving love can strike the moral ear. For that ‘all-ness’ must include our enemies too.

To suggest instead that even if Christ came for all and died for all only some will be saved better conforms to our calculus of justice, but it is a moral calculus that is not without remainder, for it makes of evil an idol and of (the once transcendent) God a liar.

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. – Romans 5.18-19

For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. – Romans 11.32

Hello Rev. Micheli,

My name is Matthew _______, I’m an enormous fan of your work.

I was reading Rob Bell the other day and was a bit disturbed by this line: “It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief (in hell as eternal, conscious torment) is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus.”

Would you say it is a common view among evangelicals that the *belief itself* in universalism warrants Hell? That even if the person believes Jesus saves, the additional belief of universalism amounts to rejecting him? (This could just be Bell’s hyperbole regarding the word “essentially”.) Can one be a Christian and believe that all will be saved?

I was wondering what your take on the matter might be.

Sincerest,

Matt

Hi Matt, 

Quite obviously you’ve read a sufficient amount of my writing to guess that flattery was a good gamble to get a response from me. I thank you all the same, and I’m being truthful when I say that I’m humbled not only by your kind words but more so by your trust in me with such a significant question. 

I think a word like “trust” is absolutely the right word to use in this matter for the stakes explicit in a doctrine like the— supposed— doctrine of eternal conscious torment are too high for the sort of callous, unthinking certitude with which many Christians comment on it. On the one hand, I know far too many liberals who attempt to posit universal salvation by resorting to sloppy analogies about spokes on a wheel. “Different religions are just different paths to the same destination,” is a mantra many are conditioned by the culture to repeat. Seldom do such people realize the presumption behind what they surely take to be a humble position; after all, just as only God can reveal God, only God can know which paths might produce the destination that is God. Likewise are those who want to iron over differences between the faiths of Abraham by dismissing them altogether with “We all worship the same God, right?” We may indeed all worship the same God, but such a dismissal ignores that the central tension in scripture is not over having or not having a generalized belief in God but in whether or not God’s People worship God rightly.

Any account of universal salvation, therefore, must arise not from the secular impulse to undo what God does at Babel and eliminate difference, for the difference God does at Babel is the way in which God blesses the world.

The elimination of difference, Babel teaches us, comes from our sinful inclination to be gods in God’s stead. Often I think Christians of a certain vintage insist upon the notion of eternal hell because those Christians adovcating for universal salvation do so in a way that seems insufficiently Christian; that is, Christianity seems incidental to the sentiments that prompt their universalism. 

Incidentally, I believe this is also why so many liberal Christians are unpersuasive to other Christians on LGBTQ issues. “Love and welcome for all,” for example, is a principle with which I concur, but it is a principle.

Principles, in principle, do not require a crucified Jew for you to discover them.

Any argument for universal salvation then must be one that emerges from the particular revelation given to us by God in Jesus Christ, and, frankly, the argument from those scriptures is much easier to execute than many brimstone-loving evangelicals seem to realize. Certainly there’s sufficient scriptural witness to disqualify any characterization of eternal conscious torment as an essential Christian belief. As Jesus tells Nicodemus, his coming comes from God’s love for the entire cosmos and what God desires is that all the world will be saved— the word there is healed— through him (Question: Does God get what God wants in the End? If not, wouldn’t what frustrates God’s eternal aim, by definition, be god?) In that Gospel, John makes explicit in his prologue and in his Easter account that the incarnation is God’s way of constituting a new creation not evacuating a faithful few from the old creation. The cosmic all-ness of Christ’s saving work is the thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans where even the unbelief of the Jews Paul attributes to God’s own doing: “God has consigned some to unbelief so that God may be merciful to all.” He puts it even plainer in Timothy: “Our savior God . . . intends that all human beings shall be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth.”

Where hell is mentioned in the creeds, which, remember are the only means by which Christians evaluate who is and is not a legitimate believer, hell is mentioned because Christ harrowed it, rescuing the dead from former times from Sheol.

Even in Christ’s own parables—

Hell is never a realm that lies outside the realm of grace. 

Whenever we separate the person and work of Christ, which an accomodated Church in Christendom is always tempted to do, we abstract discipleship (a life patterned after the person of Jesus) from faith (confession in the work of Christ), leaving “belief” to play an outsized role in how we conceive of what it means to be a Christian. Faith then becomes a work we do— when we don’t want to do the things that Jesus did— a work by which we merit salvation rather than a gift from God to sinners. Understand— this insistence on eternal conscious torment is ungracious all the way down. We’re the agents of it all. It turns Christianity into a religion of Law instead of Grace.

To answer your question, though, I’m not sure that I can answer your question. I don’t know how many evangelicals believe that belief in universalism itself warrants eternal conscious torment. If they do believe that believing all shall be saved is a surefire way not to be saved, I’m not sure what Bible they’re reading. Karl Barth, for instance, who was an evangelical, wrote that while the Bible does not permit us to conclude without qualification that all shall be saved, the Bible does exhort us to pray that all will be saved— because the salvation of all is God’s revealed will. Just as I’m not sure what Bible such evangelicals could be reading, I’m also unclear about what God they could worshipping.

Such dogmatic insistence behind belief in eternal conscious torment and the alleged justice that requires such a doctrine grates against the justice God reveals to us in crucifixion of God’s own self for the ungodly.

When it comes to questions of eternal punishment, we mustn’t let the world’s sin obscure the fact that Jesus, crucified for the ungodly, is the form God’s justice takes in the sinful world. 

While I’m not sure how many evangelicals believe believing in universal salvation yields damnation, I do believe many evangelicals lack an helpful awareness that belief in universal salvation is more than a meager minority voice in the history of the Christian Church. There have been universalists as long as there have been Christians. In the first half the Church’s history, they were so numerous that Augustine had a sarcastic epithet for them (“the merciful-hearted”). The Church Father Gregory of Nyssa, whom Rob Bell basically ripped off, was one. He argued that since Adam and Eve were types who represented the entire human community whatever salvation meant it meant the redemption of all of humanity. You need not agree with Gregory but to suggest Gregory is not a Christian seems to indicate the plot has gotten lost. 

As David Bentely Hart notes in his forthcoming book:

“[universalists] cherished the same scriptures as other Christians, worshipped in the same basilicas, lived the same sacramental lives. They even believed in hell, though not in its eternity; to them, hell was the fire of purification described by the Apostle Paul in the third chap- ter of 1 Corinthians, the healing assault of unyielding divine love upon obdurate souls, one that will save even those who in this life prove unworthy of heaven by burning away every last vestige of their wicked deeds.”

Back to your question— Would you say it is a common view among evangelicals… that even if the person believes Jesus saves, the additional belief of universalism amounts to rejecting him? 

Again, I’m not sure what evangelicals believe about the dangers of believing in universalism, but if any do, then we should pray for them. How sad to think that it’s possible for Christians in America to have turned the wine of the Gospel into water. 

A Gospel where, in the End, sinners get what they deserve— that’s water not wine. 

It’s religion; it’s not the justification of the ungodly. 

A Gospel where those who err by believing too much in the triumphant mercy of God will be banished to eternal outer darkness— that’s worse than the plain old water of religion. What’s more, it puts the right-believers outside the party standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the older brother pissed off at the prodigality of the Father’s grace. A week from Good Friday we’d do well to remember it was such begrudgers who pushed God out of the world on a cross. 

Alright, alright, alright— The intersection of faith and doubt is viewed either as a badge of honor for some Christians but for others, doubt has no place.

In his new book, Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt, pastor and author— and fellow DBH Fanboy— Austin Fischer (who sounds exactly like Matthew MaconnaHEY) explores this intersection, drawing on his own experience as a doubting pastor.

Check it out here

https://www.ivpress.com/faith-in-the-shadows

Austin Fischer is the Teaching Pastor at Vista Community Church. His first book – ‘Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed’ – was published by Wipf & Stock in January 2014. He writes and speaks and you can follow him on Twitter @austintfischer or check out his website: www.http://austinfischer.com

But wait! Before you listen, help us out. This goodness is free but it ain’t cheap— help us out:

Go to Amazon and buy a paperback or e-book of Crackers and Grape Juice’s new book,

I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Paul’s Letter to the Roman. 

If you’re getting this post by email, you can find the audio here.

 

About a year ago, I spoke to a Dad whose 3 year old boy somehow climbed inside his truck in the Texas summer heat and couldn’t get out again. Dad was asleep taking a nap after church. Jacob was supposed to be down for a nap too.

His Dad still speaks of him in the present tense.

First, it broke my heart to hear his grief and guilt held barely at bay by the willful flat tone in his voice. Later, it pissed me off- filled me a mushroom-cloud-laying fury- to hear how the preaching and teaching of his upbringing- supposedly ‘biblical’ theology- did him damage by telling him that his little boy cooking inside his car could be chalked up to divine sovereignty.

“God has a plan” they told him.

“There’s a reason for everything.”

“Bullshit,” I told him, “a world where everything is the direct and immediate unfolding of God’s will is NOT the world as the New Testament sees it.”

For as often as we read it at funerals, we forget: the reason Paul works to reassure in Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus is because there are Powers and Principalities in the world contending against God and working to separate us from him. The Apostle Paul reminds us of this fact in the epilogue of his letter to the Ephesians where he points to our baptisms as our armour in our world where our antagonist is not flesh and blood but the Enemy, the devil, the Power of Sin behind our present darkness.

Calvinists of a certain stripe often exult in the ‘mysterious’ ways God ordains tragedy to bring about ‘good,’ humble his creatures, display his sovereignty, and call all to repentance and faith.

Listening to Jacob’s Dad speak of Christians telling him to see in his son’s tragic death the ‘good news’ of God’s sovereign plan reminds me of Aristotle who cautioned, in so many words: If the happy expressions on your face don’t match the godawful sentiments coming out of your mouth, you’re batshit crazy.

Or a moral cretin, Aristotle would say.

Worse, the God conjured by such espousals of ‘sovereignty,’ the God who would will a little boy’s death for any reason, eternal or otherwise, is, quite simply, evil.

Evil is not good just because God is supposedly the One doing it.

Better to say- God cannot do evil exactly because God is good.

The ancient Christians believed that not even God- who is goodness itself- can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will violence, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature.

For God to be free and sovereign, then, is NOT for God to do whatever God wills. For God to be free and sovereign is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

Those who claim “God has a reason for______” suppose that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions. God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character. If God wants to will the death of a little boy trapped inside a hot car, then God has the freedom to will Jacob’s death, no matter how inscrutable and unnecessary his death seems to us.

To which I say as I said to Jacob’s Dad: bullshit.

Jacob’s Dad asked for book suggestions. What theologians could he read to find a different God than the god who supposedly willed his family guilt and grief for the shits and giggles some call ‘sovereignty.’

I told Jacob’s Dad about my teacher during my days at UVA, David Bentley Hart.

In his little book The Doors of the Sea DBH recalls reading an article in the NY Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife  and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths.

In the article, the father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here….he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”

In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say? Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:

“Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy not to talk like that to the father. This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:

“And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”

And if we mustn’t say them to such a father we ought never to say them about God.

Hart admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun that will one day be revealed to us by a Sovereign God in the fullness of time. He just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

Like Ivan Karamazov and evidently unlike too many of the Christians Jacob’s Dad encountered along the way, Hart wants no part of the cost at which this God’s Kingdom comes. Hart’s siding with suffering of the innocent is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that his compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like ‘God has a plan for everything.’

Contra the false teaching of the “God has a plan…” variety:

The test of whether or not our speech about God is true isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable, emotionally resonant or culled from scripture.

The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.

To preach a sovereign God of absolute will who causes suffering and tragedy for a ‘greater purpose’ is not only to preach a God who trucks in suffering and evil but a God who gives meaning to it.

A God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.

The Gospel, that Easter is God’s (only) response to suffering and death is something far different.

As Hart writes:

“Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”

“Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death – considered in themselves – have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.”

“The first proclamation of the gospel is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated and will ultimately destroy. I would hope that no Christian pastor would fail to recognize that that completely shameless triumphalism — and with it an utterly sincere and unrestrained hatred of suffering and death — is the surest foundation of Christian hope, and the proper Christian response to grief.”

In other words,

if there is indeed a reason for everything,

if there is a reason for why Jacob was lost to his Dad and his Mom,

then there is no reason to worship God.

Not because God does not exist

but because he is not worthy of our worship.

I asked Jacob’s Dad what he wanted to hear God say to him when he arrived in heaven. He paused, hedging against the hint of sacrilege, and said “I’m sorry.” Far from sacrilege, it struck me as the most faithful of responses.

What happens when you read the Easter story in the present tense? What can we learn about Paul’s personality in the original Greek? Who put together the worst translation of the New Testament? These questions and more on this episode of Crackers and Grape Juice with David Bentley Hart who responds to another giant, NT Wright, over whose translation of the NT is right.

Full disclosure, while I’m a committed Protestant and DBH is an aggressively evangelical Orthodox, David was my first theology teacher in college at UVA and he turned out to be a gateway drug to taking this Christianity crap seriously enough to give one’s life to it. I now count him a mentor, a friend, and a fellow baseball fan.

His new New Testament translation is really a wonderful read, bracing and fun in its surprises. If you’re a lay person, check out his short book The Doors of the Sea. You can find them here.

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The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once remarked that God in Jesus Christ gets so close to the muck and mire of our lives that “his skin smokes.” That is, the incarnation is more than the cute baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers; it’s like the steaming pile of…you get the picture…that our life so often feels. Is that in any way beautiful?

Luther, more than any other theologian, focuses on the centrality of the crucified Christ for you? Is the naked and shamed Jesus nailed to a tree in any intelligible way beautiful?

In this episode, I talk with Dr. Mark Mattes about his new book, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty. He reflects on how Luther’s reconceptualizing beauty can inform us in how we think about what constitutes a beautiful life, how we parent and love. Along the way, he pushes back on frequent podcast guest David Bentley Hart and also helps this United Methodist think through how to square Wesley’s notion of sanctification and perfection with Luther’s insistence that we always remain sinners who nonetheless already possess Christ’s perfect righteousness.

If you’re receiving this by email and the player doesn’t come up on your screen, you can find the episode at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com.

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In this episode, I talk with theologian David Bentley Hart about a series of questions submitted by his fans. Part 2 includes the questions: “What do you think about Stanley Hauerwas and pacifism?” “What do you make of apocalyptic readings of Paul?” “What is hell?” “What do you think about designated hitters in baseball?” and more.
In case you missed this week’s Strangely Warmed Lectionary Podcast, here it is:
And check out our latest series called (her)men*you*tics [it means interpretation] with my friend Dr. Johanna Hartelius:
Finally, don’t be a moocher:

Give us a rating and review!!!

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

For Episode #112, I talked with the philosophical theologian David Bentley Hart about a series of questions submitted by his fans. Part 1 includes the questions: “When are you going to pay me back?” (from his brother Addison Hart), “What would you talk about with Christopher Hitchens?” and “What advice would you offer those about to begin college?” and more.

Be on the lookout for our upcoming episodes. Part 2 of David Bentley Hart answering his fans’ questions. Beverly Gaventa unpacks how to interpret Paul’s letters apocalyptically, former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry talks about religion in the public square, and Ruben Rosario Rodriguez talks liberation theology and racism.

Coming this Fall:

Look for a new regular installment called

(her)men*you*tics with my good friend, Dr. Johanna Hartelius.

Johanna is a professor of rhetoric, formerly at Pitt. For each installment of (her)*men*you*tics the guys will talk with *her* about a key theological term, what it means and why you should care in your daily life. And we’ll do it in 25 minutes or less. You can check her out here.

Rev. Alex Joyner gave us the idea for this series so thank or scold him based on the results. It will be like ‘Fridays with Fleming’ but not on Fridays and not with Fleming.

Finally, don’t be a moocher:

Give us a rating and review!!!

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

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If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode. Since there’s so many voices in this, I thought I’d post the video too. You can find it here.

“Most of us who go by the name of “Christians” ought to give up the pretense of wanting to be Christian—at least, if by that word one means not simply someone who is baptized or who adheres to a particular set of religious observances and beliefs, but more or less what Nietzsche meant when he said that there has been only one Christian in human history and that he had died on the cross. In that sense, I think it reasonable to ask not whether we are Christians (by that standard, all fall short), but whether in our wildest imaginings we could ever desire to be the kind of persons that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of life in Christ. And I think the fairly obvious answer is that we could not…

Most of us would find Christians truly cast in the New Testament mold fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent.”

In this episode, I continue my conversation with my man-crush muse and former teacher, David Bentley Hart. Here, he discusses his upcoming translation of the New Translation, the melodies of McCartney, and baseball as the Platonic Ideal.

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My man-crush muse David Bentley Hart asked to return to the podcast so he could get some gripes off his chest about the new president, critics of Pope Francis, and the role Christianity in the public square. DBH’s essay on Donald Trump and the Devil which I quote at the beginning of this episode can be found here.

If you don’t know already from the blog, David Bentley Hart was my first theology teacher when I was a first year undergrad at UVA and a relatively new Christian. He is the author of significant books such as the Beauty of the Infinite, the Doors of the Sea, and the Experience of God.

Be on the lookout for the second part of this conversation where David discusses his forthcoming translation of the New Translation and what he learned by going back to the Greek text without the presumptions modern translations have given him.

From a little venture with Teer and Morgan to nurture my friendships with them, we’ve grown to be one of the top 3.5% of all podcasts on the interwebs. If podcasts were churches, we’d be one of the largest UMC’s out there- and it’s all because of you and your support!

Coming up on the podcast:

We’ve got a cross-over 4th of July podcast with Tripp Fuller of Home-brewed Christianity. 

Stay tuned.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

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My friend and my minion, Eric Hall and David King respectively, will be doing an online seminar with Dr. Eric Hall beginning June 5 at 11:00 a.m.

Suffering and God: Theodicy for Dummies 
An online seminar with Dr. Eric Hall
I thought it would be nice to open it up to all of you out there on the inter webs who read the blog too. After all, it’s free and accessible from any phone or computer.
The series will address two books: Dr. Hall’s The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to God: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Almighty and David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? This eight-part series will begin with Hall’s book and a discussion about how we go about defining God, what God’s nature is, and how God is present to us.
From there, the series will move to a discussion of the issue of theodicy, or God’s relationship to the evil around us, focusing on Hart’s book. We will be asking the very fundamental question doubters of Christian faith pose: why does God permit evil? The class will end in a synthesis discussion of the two books and their relationship with each other.

Dr. Eric Hall is Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy and Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen Professor of Peace and Justice at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. Dr. Hall, a Roman Catholic theologian, received his PhD in the Philosophy of Religion and Theology from Claremont Graduate School.

We hope you will join us for this wonderful opportunity. Please email David King (dking@aldersgate.net) if interested. This is an online seminar, accessible from your computer or phone. Links and instructions for participating will be sent to those who are interested. The discussions will also be viewable on Facebook.
This class will be the first of several featuring thoughtful authors and our staff. David will also soon be doing a series with Will Willimon on Karl Barth’s slim volume lectures on the Apostles Creed, Dogmatics in Outline, and we plan to continue the series after David returns to school in the fall.

This Easter, in the dialogue sermon I participated in with Dennis Perry, I mentioned how I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ because I know Jesus Christ is alive and so God must have raised him from the dead. That is, when I was 17 years old or so I had an encounter with the Risen Christ.

Like so many other Christians I know.

Like the 514 witnesses whose names Paul can tick off in 1 Corinthians 15.

Quite obviously this was a subjective assertion, rooted in my own experience of being encountered and was decidedly not- as one vociferous worshipper grumbled- an “empirical or objective explanation” for the resurrection.

While the Barthian in me bristles at the unexamined assumption that that which is ‘objective’ and true must be empirically verifiable, it’s nonetheless true that the same Barthian in me is allergic to rational apologetics. I simply do not believe that the claims of Christianity can or should be rendered demonstrably true or, even worse, reasonable.

Any Christianity that ‘makes sense’ flies in the face of the first truth of the faith:

Dead people stay dead.

And what God does in Christ is completely unexpected and counterintuitive.

Having said that, however, maybe the grumbling worshipper (a Deist in Christian clothes) was on to something. I do not believe in apologetics or making the common-sense case for Christ, yet neither do I believe that the ineffable and ineluctable nature of the resurrection makes it UNreasonable.

To say the resurrection of Christ is beyond historical verification is true, for we believe God intervenes from beyond history to raise Jesus from beyond the grave.

But to say the resurrection of Christ is beyond historical verification is not also to suggest that the resurrection of Christ is beyond historical plausibility, for we believe God intervenes to raise Jesus from the grave within history.

In fact, though it wasn’t the intent of the Easter sermon, to argue the plausibility of the resurrection, I do think the resurrection is the best- or at least a compelling- historical explanation for the resurrection of Jesus.

I believe it.

Like Paul, and for that matter like every story there is, I believe the ending of the story determines the truth and worthwhileness of everything which precedes it. If Jesus is not raised, I’m with Nietszche because if Jesus is not raised all the facts of history are on Friedrich’s side not Yeshua.

I do believe in the resurrection. I believe it based on my subjective experience, and I believe it as history. Some of you, I know, do not. Actually, my experience as a pastor in Mainline Christianity has taught me that a good many Christians, if not the majority, do not believe anything actually happened on Easter morning.

In my experience, most quietly confess the creeds but inwardly believe that Jesus was only raised in the hearts of his followers. Others are more open about their doubts, armed with just enough popular press ‘facts’ to miss just how impoverished is their logic- never seriously considering how, to take one example, someone’s existential experience of feeling Jesus in their heart was not likely to persuade another and even less so to lead them to a cross of their own.

Even still, I know some of you doubt the resurrection.

And I want to know why. Or what.

So if you doubt the resurrection, I’ve got some questions for you to consider. And, if you’re so bold, to answer:

If it’s true that God raised Jesus from the dead, triumphing over Death and Sin would you then be willing to trust that he is ‘Lord?’

Or, would you at least believe that, having been vindicated by God, Christ’s obedience is what God desires from all of us?

If you say, No, then do you think Easter is irrelevant regardless of whether it’s true or not? Why?

If you say, Yes, then, other than the manner in which we’ve received the gospel, how would you expect the news of Jesus’ resurrection to reach us today? What else would you require to accept it as a trustworthy witness?

And if you would require some other ‘evidence’ of the resurrection, are you actually saying that you need another miracle to verify the prior miracle of the resurrection?

Or are you saying that that even if God raised Jesus from the dead you would not believe? Because you don’t believe in miracles at all? Period.

And if you don’t believe in miracles at all, if you believe then that creation is a closed system from which God is transcendentally apart and in to which God does not act, then aren’t you really saying (even if you go to Church, pray etc) that you’re an atheist?

Or a clockmaker Deist like TJ?

But then that leads to one last question, the money question:

If creation is a closed system in which something could not have happened because we do not now observe it happening, then isn’t your ‘reason’ itself a product of that closed system?

And if so, then hasn’t your mind and reason evolved purely through natural selection alone? To give you a better chance only at survival?

And if so, then on what grounds could your mind and reason possibly be in a position to know what is true about reality (that closed system) as a whole?

There’s a big, big difference between saying ‘I do not believe the resurrection of Jesus happened’ and ‘I do not believe resurrections can happen.’

I suspect most claim the former while in fact confessing the latter, not realizing they leave this trail of logic behind them…

Resurrections (as events from beyond history in history) cannot happen.

Therefore God (as Being and Actor beyond history) does not exist.

Therefore Reason (my ability to speculate about the bounds of history and reality) does not exist, or at least not in the manner in which I assume.

Or, as my teacher David Bentley Hart puts it: david_bentley_hart

“…it makes sense to believe in both reason and God, and it may make a kind of nonsensical sense to believe in neither, but it is ultimately contradictory to believe in one but not the other.

An honest and self-aware atheism, therefore, should proudly recognize itself as the quintessential expression of heroic irrationalism: a purely and ecstatically absurd venture of faith…”

In other words, while belief in the resurrection yields fools for Christ, non-belief in its possibility yields fools.

The Transfiguration is this Sunday, a scene that many preachers (color me guilty) get wrong but Peter (no matter how many times we make him the patsy in the story) gets right.

Here’s a transfigured Transfiguration sermon.

“Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

If you’ve ever sat through more than a handful of sermons, or endured even a couple of mine, then chances are you already know how the preaching from this point on the mountaintop is supposed to go.

I’m supposed to point the finger at Peter and chalk this episode up as yet another example of obtuse, dunder-tongued Peter getting Jesus bassakwards. I’m expected to chide Peter for wanting to preserve this spiritual, mountaintop experience.

From there, preaching on the Transfiguration is permitted to go in 1 of 2 ways.

I’m allowed to pivot from Peter’s foolish gesture to the (supposedly sophisticated) observation that discipleship isn’t about adoring glory or mountaintop experiences; no, it’s about going back down the mountain, into the grit and the grind of everyday life, where we can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and do everything else upper middle class Christians aren’t embarrassed to affirm.

Or-

Rather than pivot to the poor, I can keep the sermon focused on Peter.

I can encourage you to identify with Peter, the disciple whose mouth is always quicker than his mind and whose ambition never measures up to his courage.

I could preach Peter to you and comfort you that Peter’s just like you: a foolish, imperfect follower who fails at his faith as often as he gets it right. And, yet, Jesus loves him (and you) and builds his Church on him.

That’s how you preach this text:

Go back down the mountaintop, back into ‘real life.’

Or, look at Peter- he’s just like you.

Given the way sermons on the Transfiguration always go, you’d think these are the only two options allowed.

——————

Except-

As cliched as those interpretations are, they’re not without their problems.

For one-

I just spent the last year fighting stage-serious cancer, during which time I wasn’t able to go much of anywhere or do much of anything much less venture out into the world’s hurt, roll up my sleeves, and serve the poor. I wasn’t strong enough to do that kind of thing anymore.

So discipleship can’t merely be a matter of going back down the mountain because such a definition excludes a great many disciples, including me.

For another-

If this is nothing more than another example of how obtuse Peter is, how Peter always manages to get it wrong, then when Peter profess “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” 

Why doesn’t Jesus correct him?

Why doesn’t Jesus rebuff Peter and say: ‘No, it is good for us to go back down the mountain to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely?’

Why doesn’t Jesus scold Peter: ‘Peter, it’s not about spiritual experiences,   the Son of Man came to serve?’

If Peter’s offer is such a grave temptation, then why doesn’t Jesus exhort him like he does elsewhere and say: ‘Get behind me, satan?’

If Peter is so wrong, then why doesn’t Jesus respond by rebuking Peter?

In fact, here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something someone has said to him. This is the only instance where Jesus doesn’t respond.

I wonder-

What if Jesus doesn’t respond because, more or less, Peter’s right.

—————-

Ludwig Feuerbach, an awesomely bearded 19th century critic of religion, accused Christians that all our theology is really only anthropology, that rather than talking about God, as we claim, we’re in fact only speaking about ourselves in a loud voice.

There’s perhaps no better proof of Feuerbach’s accusation than our propensity to make Peter the point of this scripture. To make this theophany, anthropology. To transfigure this story into something ordinary.

Just think-

What would Peter make of the fact that so many preachers like me make Peter the subject of our preaching? Which is but a way making ourselves the focus of this story.

Don’t forget that this is the same Peter who insisted that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Christ and so asked to be crucified upside down.

More than any of us, Peter would know that he should not be the subject of our sermons. Peter would know that he’s not the one we should be looking at in this scene.

————–

I wonder-

Does Jesus not respond because what Peter gets right, even if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s saying, is that gazing upon Christ, who is charged with the uncreated light of God, is good.

Not only is it good, all the sermons to the contrary to the contrary, it is the essence of discipleship.

Indeed in this image of the transfigured Christ Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes. In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God, and in that instant Peter glimpses the mystery of our faith: that God became human so that humanity might become God.

This is where the good news is to be found.

Not in Peter being as dumb or scared as you and me.

Not in a message like ‘serve the poor’ that you would still agree to even if you knew not Christ.

No, the good news is found in the same glory that transfigured the face of Moses and dwelt in the Temple and rested upon the ark and overshadowed Mary pervading even Jesus’ humanity and also, one day, ours.

God became like us, that’s what Peter sees; so that, we might become like God, that’s what Peter eventually learns.

The light that radiates Jesus’ flesh is the same light that said ‘Let there be…’ It’s the same light that the world awaits with groaning and labor pains and sighs too deep for words. It’s the light that will one day make all of creation a burning bush, afire with God’s glory but not consumed by it.

Peter’s right.

It is right and good, always and everywhere, to worship and adore God became man, and, in seeing him, to see ourselves taken up into that same glory.

It is right and good, always and everywhere, to anticipate our flesh being remade into God’s image so that we may be united with God.

It is good, for just as Christ’s humanity is transfigured by glory without ceasing to be human so too will our humanity be called into union with God, to be deified, without our ceasing to be creatures.”

That’s the plot of scripture. That’s the mystery of our faith.

————–

Not only is Peter right, all the other sermons on this passage go in the wrong direction. It’s not about going back down the mountain. Rather the entire Christian life is a sort of ascent, venturing further and further up the mountain, to worship and adore the transfigured Christ and, in so doing, to be transfigured ourselves.

If we’re not transformed, what’s the point of going back down the mountain? We’d be  down there, no different than anyone else, which leaves the world no different than its always been.

You can almost ask Jesus. Peter’s right.

What Peter gets wrong isn’t that it’s good to be there adoring the transfigured Christ. What Peter gets wrong is thinking he needs to build 3 tabernacles.

Elijah and Moses maybe could’ve used them, but not Jesus.

Jesus’ flesh, his humanity, is the tabernacle.

*David Bentley Hart: The Uncreated Light

david_bentley_hart1David Bentley Hart was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought. That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader, than I could imagine.

Since today is not only Halloween but also, in the Protestant Church, Reformation Day, I thought I’d offer you some DBH quotes on the ‘Protest’ that continues to sever Christ’s Church.

The first cut is the deepest. Here, DBH lays the fault of contemporary atheism and the rise of the ‘Nones’ squarely at the feet of Protestantism, in particular the Calvinist god it unleashed.

1.

“In detaching God’s freedom from God’s nature as Goodness, Truth, and Charity — as this theology necessarily, if not always intentionally did — Christian thought laid the foundations for many of those later revolutions in philosophy and morality that would help to produce the post-Christian order. It was inevitable after all, that the object of the voluntarist model of freedom would migrate from the divine to the human will, and that a world evacuated of its ontological continuity with God’s goodness would ultimately find no place for God within itself. And, in early modernity, when the new God of infinite and absolute will had to a very great degree displaced the true God from men’s minds, the new technology of print assured that all Christians would make the acquaintance of this impostor, and through him come to understand true liberty as a personal sovereignty transcending even the dictates and constraints of nature.

Moreover — more crucially — the God thus produced was monstrous: an abyss of pure, predestining omnipotence, whose majesty was revealed at once in his unmerited mercy towards the elect and his righteous wrath against the derelict.

And he was to be found in the theologies of almost every Protestant school: not only Jansenism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism.

That modern Western humanity came in large measure to refuse to believe in or worship such a God was ineluctable, and in some sense extremely commendable (no one, after all, can be faulted for preferring atheism to Calvinism.”

Here, DBH points out that in an attempt to be more biblical, respecting the 1st commandment and stripping the Medieval altars, the Reformation violated that most basic of implications of the 1st commandment: God is not a god within the universe.

2.

“The Protestant mysticism of bare and unadorned worship idolatrously mistakes God for some object within the universe that can be lost among other objects), and other tendencies to imagine the soul is purified by being extracted from the life of the senses or that God is glorified by the inanition of the world…

such thinking offends simply by being unbiblical, insufficiently chastened or inspired by the doctrine of the incarnation.

It’s unable to grasp that the trinitarian God is already full of fellowship, joy and glory, and requires no sacrifice of worldly love- the world adds nothing to God.”

And now for a definition:

Analogy of Being =

{The analogy of being presupposes that there is a similarity between God and his creatures. God of course does not exist as his creatures exist. He is infinite, eternal, and non-contingent. Nevertheless, he can be said to exist, as can his creatures even if there existence is profoundly different. Hence there is an analogy of being existing between them. Moreover, God’s attributes (wisdom, power, goodness, etc.)though infinite and eternal, can be observed as existing in analogous manner in creatures who also possess them. There is a similarity with a still greater dissimilarity between God’s reality and his creatures. Such a claim about God allowed the ancient Church Fathers to claim that their statements about God’s nature were realistically true, while at the same time allowing for divine mystery. The rejection of the analogy of being has been one of the chief tenets of Protestant Christianity.}

Let the quotes resume…

3.

“The rejection of the analogy of being has the very effect so dreaded: it reduces God to the status of a mere being, in some sense on a level with us. To state the matter simply, the analogy of being does not analogize God and creatures under the more general category of ‘being,’ but is the analogization of being in the difference between God and creatures.

Apart from the analogy of being, the very concept of revelation is a contradiction.

Only insofar as creaturely being is analogous to divine being and proper to God’s nature, can God show himself as God, rather than in alienation to himself; there would be no revelation otherwise, only legislation.”

 

Because I love Karl Barth, I love this quote. DBH, like Barth before him, is not afraid to throw some elbows.

 

4.

“If rejection of the analogy of being were in some sense the very core of Protestant theology, as Karl Barth believed, one would still be obliged to observe that it is also the invention of antichrist, and so would have to be accounted the most compelling reason for not becoming a Protestant..

All things in creation- all the words of being- speak of God because they shine within his eternal Word.