Scot, who was our Scholar in Residence, a few years ago gave a nice note of praise for my sermon on Hell at his Jesus Creed blog: click here to check it out.
Archives For Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Heard about Heaven
We finished up our January sermon series, Razing Hell, this weekend, talking about the Second Coming. It’s been a great series from my end. I’ve gotten a ton of emails from folks at church and from around the world via Tamed Cynic.org. It’s reaffirmed for me that people, Christian or not, really do want to think theologically in a way that’s honest, respectful and practical to how they think about their everyday lives.
Case in point:
This weekend Dennis Perry did a masterful job of framing the Second Coming of a promise made by God. God’s made the promise to come again and set things right. Faith isn’t just believing ideas or signing on the dotted line. It’s believing God will keep that promise and orienting our lives, relationships and actions in the world accordingly. That’s a more biblical, I think, and certainly a more relevant way of thinking about the Second Coming than Hal Lindsay getting caught up in trying to read the ‘signs of the times.’
The series is over. We’ve talked about Heaven and Hell and Judgment and the Parousia. And already I’m getting a steady trickle of emails asking me the bottom line question:
Will everyone be saved? Or will some not be?
I’m flattered people think it’s a question I’m in a position to answer since presumably it’s a question only God can answer. My sermon on Hell (Hell is for Real) indicates that ‘No, not all will be saved…because we can freely choose to reject God.’
But admittedly that skirts the issue a bit. How do we think about the issue from God’s end? If no one chooses to reject God, then will everyone be saved?
Here’s my final answer.
It’s a question fraught with tension and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar (or not a very smart theologian). After all, inherent in the question is the tension between God’s gracious omnipotence and God’s merciful refusal to coerce love from his creatures.
Right- if God were willing to coerce the relationship he wanted with us, then the story of scripture could’ve been a hell of a lot shorter. What God wants though is authentic love and relationship and that can’t be forced. Can it be forced after this life ends?
But there’s the tension- logically if God desires love and relationship from us- salvation- then God will get what God wants. To say there is one of us God can’t save makes that person more powerful than God. If God desires loving relationship and God is all-powerful, then God could turn even the most resistant heart towards him.
Which is it?
We’ll have to wait and see.
Not having an answer for everyone else doesn’t change what God wants from you.
It doesn’t change how God made you: to love and desire him and his Kingdom.
Put it another way, Karl Barth’s (one of my Theo-Jedi Masters) way of putting it.
Scripture clearly tells us God came for everyone (John 3).
Scripture clearly tells us God died for all.
Scripture does not tell us that all will be saved.
We can’t say more than what scripture says.
But we can pray for it.
Some of you asked me that very question after my Hell sermon for our Razing Hell series. I didn’t have time to write up a response and, lucky duck, Scot McKnight beat me to it:
The almost universal traditional view of hell in the Christian church is that it is a lake of fire, that it will last forever and ever and that the wicked will be conscious and tormented endlessly. So Edward Fudge, in his Hell: A Final Word , sketches what we find in the lake of fire text in Revelation.
The Lake of Fire in Revelation in Revelation 20:14-15
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
First, the lake of fire is probably related to Daniel 7′s river of fire, a fire that destroys evil world leaders (the Beast and the False Prophet).
Second, in Revelation the Beast, the False Prophet and Satan/Serpent are thrown into the Lake of Fire. The place for the unholy trinity of evil. They are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10). Only they are said in the Bible to be tormented endlessly.
Comment: Yes, Fudge is right; no one else is said to be tormented forever. But wicked humans are tossed into the same Lake of Fire in the next chapter. But Rev 14 has humans with much the same finality — humans, the smoke of their torment, endless. More importantly, God is thereby now theologically and logically connected to endless torment. The unholy trinity may be upgradings of sin and evil and wickedness but they are still said to be tormented endlessly. Fudge appeals next to a human — Hanns Lilje — but this is an argument from a human or an authority or an experience. It doesn’t for me wipe away the glaring reality of an endless torment administered by God. The problem of endless torment is now officially connected to a theological problem.
Death is tossed into the Lake of Fire (20:14). Hades is tossed into the Lake of Fire (20:14).
The Lake of Fire is the Second Death. The death of the age to come. Lake of Fire is defined by Second Death, meaning that Second Death is the ruling image. The two options are life (eternal, city of God) and death (final, second death, Lake of Fire). Humans enter the Lake of Fire, the Second Death: Rev 21:8.
So for Fudge all texts dealing with endless torment are explained, destruction is seen as the ruling image, Death is the outcome, and the absence of life is the outcome for the wicked. For Fudge the emphasis — undeniable — in the Bible is a fire that consumes or destroys, not a fire that purges or that torments. Edward Fudge makes the best case of anyone alive today for the annihilationist viewpoint.
We’re winding down our sermon series, Razing Hell, this weekend talking about the Second Coming.
When many people think of the Christian belief in the eschaton, last things, it’s the last judgment they have in mind. Many Christians have Michaelangelo’s grave depiction of the last judgment, in which an irate Christ rejects the damned at his feet and the martyrs surrounding Christ seem to delight in their torment, seared in to their minds.
Michaelangelo’s painting is evocative and beautiful in its way but biblical it is not. It’s true imagery of the last judgment populates a number of Jesus’ parables. Jesus speaks of judgment coming like thief in the night. He speaks the faithless being cast into darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Still, the sense of resentment, self-righteousness and revenge that animates much Christian preaching on judgment is antithetical to Jesus’ own preaching on it. Judgment in Jesus’ parables isn’t about what will happen one day. It’s meant to compel faithful behavior in the here and now.
Jesus’ judgment is not vindictive.
Yet neither does scripture give us a God who is smiling, doting old man. For as many Christians who erroneously espouse a resentful, vindictive God there are as many Christians who act as though God is not entitled to judge us.
God is, as Hebrews says, a consuming fire (12.28).
What gets lost too often is that the fire of God is the fire of loving judgment- a purifying fire. God’s judgment is not a closure on relationship with us; God’s judgment is the means by which God opens relationship with us. The Last Judgment is no different, theologically, than the judgment preached by the prophets or worked on the Cross. It’s a judgment in which our Sin- that which separates us from God- is burnt away.
As Gregory of Nyssa understood it, there’s no actual difference between the fire of God’s judgment and the light of God’s glory. It’s one and the same. It’s only our perception and experience of it that changes.
This is what separates the inhabitants of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The spectrum is marked by the extent people can stand to be in the light of God’s glory.
When it comes to belief in the Last Judgment is that at the end of time, all of us will be held to account (1 Corinthians 3). There is no distinction between believers and unbelievers, between the saved and the not-so-much. There is no easy, get-out rapture before the judgment. All of us will be held accountable for the mercy shown to us based on whether we too have been merciful to others (Matthew 25). Have we returned grace with grace?
The Christian hope is that we will all be judged but that the Judge is the Crucified Christ. The King who judges us is the one who died for us while we were sinners. This is a Judge determined not lose us.
This week we close our Razing Hell sermon series by talking about the Second Coming, probably the Christian doctrine most burdened by fanciful, unhelpful interpretations of scripture. Here’s NT Wright’s take:
We’re finishing up our Razing Hell sermon series this weekend talking about the Second Coming, a doctrine that’s gotten muddled and weighed down by the silly (and not very old) idea that God’s faithful will be ‘raptured’ and whisked off to heaven before Christ comes back ‘to judge the living and the dead.’ Apparently the Creed should have an asterisk there: *except the faithful who have a rapture ticket out of here.
Here’s NT Wright explaining why so many self-professed biblical literalists, literally lose the plot when it comes to rapture theology.
We’re winding up our Razing Hell sermon series this weekend by talking about the Second Coming of Christ, terrain normal Christians cede to the fundies, which is a shame because we need the full trajectory of our story to shape our present faith and action in the world. I already pointed out what I take to be the problems with the Left Behind rapture way of reading scripture. As a corollary, here are some of my own guidelines when it comes to talking about the Second Coming.
- Christians must be mindful that, because this is a matter of deepest mystery, the bible’s speech is necessarily imagistic, metaphorical and parabolic. The bible, so to speak, gives us poetry about the End not prose. It’s poetry rooted in and consistent with what God has shown us in Christ but it’s still poetry. It’s not a photograph or rote dictation of the future that awaits us. Jesus never returned from the grave to describe the landscape or furniture of heaven.
- Our hope is grounded in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From the beginning of creation, the purpose of this God has been to share God’s life and love with creatures. Our speech of the End cannot be in contradiction with what the love shown to us in the Son, and our hope of the End must be in harmony with the aims of God revealed at Good Friday and Easter.
- Our hope cannot be expressed dualistically. Just as evil and sin are privations, no-thing, our understanding of the End cannot then predict a final conflict between Good and Evil as though Evil were a living, equal opponent to God. Likewise, our hope is holistic. God has declared everything good not just our ‘spirit’ or soul. Our speech about the End cannot then distinguish between the material and the spiritual, the body and the soul, the personal and the communal. We don’t hope to escape this body. We don’t hope to escape this world. Our hope is for God to restore everything and every part of us.
- Our hope in the End relativizes all earthly power. This is what animates John’s Revelation. ‘Rome’ won’t last forever and will lose eventually; therefore, we need not take its power seriously. We need not fear and we need not succumb. God wins in the end. Literally, we have all the time in the world to live faithfully.
- Our hope is for an End. What makes Christians different, from say Eastern religions, is that we believe Time and History will come to an end. Time and History are not cyclical. This End is not, as contemporary apocalypticism suggests, a violent closure; it’s an End that is a fulfillment of this creation. A fulfillment that leads to a new creation.
Yes, shameless title to get you to click on it.
We’re nearing the end of a sermon series, Razing Hell, that’s tackled topics like heaven, hell, purgatory and the second coming. I’d be remiss if I didn’t post these thoughts from Fleming Rutledge, the best damn preacher in the English language. I’ve often been accused (by my wife) of having crushes on older women. I dunno…but in Fleming’s case? Hello, darkness my old friend…
Here’s a sermon on heaven from her.
There are a lot of apocryphal stories about the great theologian Karl Barth, but this one sounds just like him. A well-meaning lady asked him, “Dr. Barth, will we see our loved ones in heaven?” Barth replied, “Not only our loved ones!”
When I was at Union Theological Seminary in the early 70s, I was very fortunate to have a tutor named Christopher Morse. He was a lowly graduate student at the time. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is on the cover of Time magazine. Well, not exactly…but there was a cover story on heaven at Eastertide, and it featured not only the work of the well-known English bishop and scholar N. T. Wright, but also the new book by Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes. I thought about his book right away when I looked at the Psalm appointed for today.
You might not have noticed it, but Psalm 48, which we just read, is about heaven.
Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised
in the city of our God!
His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation,
is the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, in the far north,
the city of the great King.
Throughout the Bible, heaven is identified as a city which, in God’s own time, will come from heaven to be established on earth. That comes as a great shock to many people. Heaven is in the clouds, isn’t it? To be sure, Jesus is repeatedly said to have “come down from heaven,” and gone back into heaven at the Ascension, so it’s logical that we might think of heaven being somewhere in the stratosphere. But that’s not the way the Scriptures present it. The theme of Christopher Morse’s book, which Bishop Wright is also working on, is that heaven is not a place where God lives so much as it is wherever God comes to us and acts among us. Therefore heaven is not only in the future, but, as Jesus said many times in many ways, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Wherever the activity of Jesus Christ is, heaven is already impinging upon this world.
The world that we now see, which seems so real to us, is passing away. Think for instance of Jesus’ important saying,
Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
This isn’t a difficult passage to understand, and it’s well known. It means a lot more than meets the eye, however. It’s not about what we’re going to take with us into the afterlife, as though we were some pharaoh or warlord piling up grave goods. It’s about the life we live now, and what’s important. Earth and heaven are not so much contrasting locations as they are present priorities. When we dispose of our money and goods by giving them away, we are acting on the conviction that this world is not our home. As St. Paul says in Philippians, “our commonwealth is in heaven” (4:20). This is a major theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews. We read that Abraham left his home, and went out by faith alone, “not knowing where he was to go,” trusting in the promise of God; “he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10). This chapter in Hebrews is the famous roll call of the Old Testament saints, who lived in this world according to the world to come, because “they desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:16).
Now this has been seriously misunderstood to mean that this world doesn’t count. On the contrary, it counts very much. It is this world into which Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to be with us and to live and die for us, not simply to carry us off into the sweet by-and-by, but to show us how to live here, now, in such a way as to testify to the reality and power of who God is and what he is doing among us. After Christ’s ascension, his disciples are told in no uncertain terms by angelic visitors that they are not to stand looking up into heaven but to look instead for what heaven holds for them here, right here in the age that is passing away on earth. They therefore return to the city of Jerusalem, and behold! the Holy Spirit comes upon them with the powers of heaven and sets them in motion to change the world with the news of what God has done (Acts 1-3).
We only have one life in this world which is passing away, so the kingdom of heaven is already at hand in the way we live our lives in the present. It is at hand, not because we are journeying toward God in the familiar conception, but because God has journeyed to us and continues to arrive by the power of the Spirit. Wherever that happens, that is the kingdom of heaven taking shape even now. As Professor Morse writes,
Whatever comes from God is said [in the Bible] to come “from heaven”…References to heaven as God’s dwelling place emphasize not a place of confinement but the direction from which God…act[s] in relation to the earth.
So the reality of God is the reality of heaven. Heaven is not just where God lives off in the clouds. Heaven is where God is working through human beings to make his loving purposes known. For instance, a little piece of heaven takes shape when a church building that might have been abandoned suddenly finds itself full of new life. Your vicar Betsy Fisher would be the first to say that she is not doing this. God is doing this.
But now what is all this about a city? If heaven is a city, what are we doing up here in Dutchess County? How did we get the idea that heaven is a garden in the sky? It’s interesting that the two most prominent gardens in the Bible are the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane, and you know who pops up in them both, don’t you? Satan, that’s who. I suppose we like to think of going back to the Garden of Eden the way it used to be before Satan got hold of Adam and Eve, but that’s not the biblical vision. There isn’t any suggestion in Scripture that we’re “closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth.” The biblical vision is that God “has prepared for us a city.” The city is sometimes called Mount Zion, sometimes Salem (city of peace), sometimes the heavenly Jerusalem.
Now I’m a city lover, but not everyone is. There are many people who think that living in New York City would be hell. Here’s where we really have to be open to poetic imagination. The description of the City of God in Revelation is not a literal description. It’s meant to invoke awe and wonder. These passages tell us about the majesty and glory of God and of God’s ultimate purposes for us.
In the book of Revelation there are two cities. One is evil and one is the kingdom of God. Babylon is the symbol of all that is wicked in the world, and Babylon is doomed to destruction. There’s a very powerful description of this in chapter 18:
…the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for Babylon, since no one buys their cargo any more, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen…wine, oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls…The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from [Babylon], will stand far off, in fear…weeping and mourning aloud, “Alas, alas, for the great city that was…bedecked with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! In one hour all this wealth has been laid waste.” (18:11-13, 15-17)
That is a picture of the world that is passing away.
But now wait a minute. We like the part about nobody buying slaves any more, but what about all that other stuff? Will there be nothing beautiful in Zion?
Indeed there will. The description of the City of God is clearly meant to stun us with its magnificence. The city walls have twelve wide-open gates meant to welcome countless myriads of people from every tribe and nation on earth. The gates are built of every kind of precious stone, while the buildings of the city itself are “pure gold, clear as glass” (Revelation 21:18). We may ask, how can gold be “clear as glass”? Phrases like this should tip us off that this is not “realistic,” at least not in terms of this passing-away world. The vision is meant to open the doors of our imaginations to a world that is coming into being from a realm far beyond our capacity to describe. It’s a way of reminding us that God is infinitely larger and more unexpected than our paltry ideas of God. You might remember the line from the hymn, “Holy, holy, holy” where we sing “all the saints adore thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.” What’s that all about? Well, the image is in Revelation 7. Before the throne of God is a crystal sea, and the 24 elders (who represent the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles) “fall down before…the throne and worship;…they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, ‘Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…’” (Revelation 4:10-11). So we aren’t supposed to be asking dumb questions about how the elders can keep on throwing down their crowns over and over ad infinitum. The idea behind the image is that all glory and honor and power belong to God—and the kingdom of heaven means being free, even now, from all pretense that we can construct it ourselves.
The twelve gates will be large enough to bring in all the wealth of the passing-away world. These treasures will no longer be hoarded or sold, but will be brought in to adorn the dwelling place of God with his people. The Revelation to John continues:
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb [of God, who is Jesus Christ]. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light…By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it…they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. (Revelation 21:22-26)
So you see, there’s a place for all the art and culture and riches and diversity of the nations of the earth in the city of the kingdom of heaven.
But now I bet that some of you are not so happy with this city idea. It’s hard to let go of the notion of a garden of paradise. What is it that God is doing with this city? Well, this, too, calls for imagination. There isn’t enough time in one sermon to do justice to the resplendent description of the city in Revelation, with the ramparts and towers that we read about in Psalm 48—Mount Zion, “beautiful in elevation”—but just listen to this passage (John is speaking):
Then [the angel] showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God…through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit…and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
A few years ago you may remember “The Gates” in Central Park. The artist who calls himself Christo filled the park with huge orange banners designed as a network of passageways that you could walk through. Having lived and worked downtown, I didn’t know a thing about Central Park until “The Gates” occurred. I walked the entire route from 110th Street to 59th Street under the banners. The whole population seemed to be there, in all its incredible ethnic diversity—that is what cities are supposed to be, filled to the brim with people of “all sorts and conditions.” It won’t be just our loved ones in the city of God, but all the ones we didn’t love and who didn’t love us, either. Something else will be going on.
Anyway, in Central Park during “The Gates,” there was an atmosphere of reverence—there was very little noise. People talked in hushed tones if they talked at all, and even children seemed awed. The “healing of the nations” seemed, just for a few weeks, to be possible. In recent years Central Park has come to be the most beloved urban green space in the world. And it is right in the middle of the city.
Now of course Central Park is not the Kingdom of heaven. There are still robberies and muggings occasionally. I would feel a bit nervous walking through the “north woods” section alone. Satan has not been banished. But there are reminders, here and there, of the river of life that flows from the throne of God. I was in the Conservatory Garden last week, and in the late afternoon I sat down beside the Secret Garden fountain, with its lovely statue of a young boy and girl. The atmosphere was almost worshipful. The water dripped into the pond. The sun slanted through the leaves. Many varieties of birds came to splash in the fountain, throwing spray into the air. A few children wandered through, very quietly. Opposite me sat two women. One of them was in her eighties—not much older than I am. The other was probably fifty-something. They sat quietly, without saying a word, looking at the scene, lost in thought. I observed them discreetly for a long time.
I am not a sentimental person, but I thought I could detect a narrative. The older woman was well groomed, but she seemed frail, perhaps ill. The younger woman, I thought, was her daughter, or perhaps a niece or devoted younger friend. The two of them did not look isolated from one another, as two people sometimes do when they are not speaking; they looked connected. I noticed particularly that the younger woman was not taking the opportunity to look at any electronic device. The two of them seemed to be drawing something from the scene that was mutual between them both. After a long time—perhaps 45 minutes or more—they seemed to decide without words that it was time to go. Arm in arm, they very slowly departed—very, very slowly, as if reluctant to leave, yet carrying away with them something of what they had shared together in the garden in the middle of the city.
Then I [John] saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard [an angelic]…voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with human beings. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
And [God] who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”
 The article is not very good. Time and Newsweek used to have excellent religion editors, but those times are long gone. Christopher Morse’s book, however, is very good indeed—though not for the faint-hearted.
 “For the form of this world is passing away”—I Corinthians 7:31
 Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes, New York: T & T Clark, 2010, p. 10.
 Hymn, “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty!” Reginald Heber (1783-1826).
Woody Allen has a famous joke from Annie Hall about how he’d ‘never want to belong to any organization that would have him as a member.’ I think it’s originally a Groucho joke (wag of the cigar, wag of the eyebrows). A variant on that line of reasoning is my own struggles with being a pastor; namely, I don’t want to belong to any guild that would have YOU as a member. Sounds harsh, I know, but what it comes down to in reality is just how incredibly, to-the-bone unfunny are most pastors.
I remember my first area clergy meeting when I pastored my first church part-time. All the pastors were making obvious churchy jokes, most of which had to do with church potlucks (do churches still do those?) and were no more sophisticated than knock-knock jokes. I mean, what I wouldn’t have done for just one fart joke.
I remember making a sarcastic remark (How in the hell did it take the Israelites so long to get to Canaan from Egypt?) and having everyone stare at me like I was an ape in the zoo.
And then I remember thinking to myself: ‘What am I doing here? I don’t belong here.’
By and large, pastors are hysterically unfunny. Genuine humor requires openness, surprise, authenticity and a lack of fear over your listener’s reaction- all of which are qualities required by faith but none of which are qualities encouraged by ministry. Instead pastors tend to gravitate toward the telegraphed, not-going-to-upset-anyone variety. In addition, most pastors are sinfully over-serious, advocating for social justice or eternal salvation.
Sadly, pastors are just extreme versions of most Christians. We’re NOT funny. Not funny as Christians (and you’re tempted now to cite Jeff Foxworthy or some lame ‘Christian comedian you should just stop reading). I know plenty of church people who are piss-your-pants funny outside of church but inside church they’re completely different people; or rather, they somehow believe we expect them to be different people.
I don’t say this just to be cheeky. It’s a profound theological problem. We’re in the midst of a sermon series this month called Razing Hell. We’re thinking through what the Church believes about Heaven and Hell and all the other Last Things.
Here’s the thing about those topics: We know the end of the Story, of history. No matter how things look now in the world or in our lives, God wins in the End. Things work out. There’s another version of reality other than the one given to us by the world.
If these facts of faith don’t lend themselves to irony, sarcasm, ridicule, satire and plain old joy I don’t know what does.
Maybe our lack of funny corresponds to having lost sight of our core story.Maybe we’ve substituted good news for legalism- which, by definition, can never be funny. Maybe this is why Jews and gay people are almost always funnier- they know there’s more going on in the world than meets the eye. Maybe our lack of funny reveals a lack of faith in that fact.
All of this is prompted by an article in Relevant Magazine.
Here it is:
Why can evangelicals produce worship albums, Amish romance novels, apocalyptic thrillers, marriage guides and devotionals in spades, but when it comes to producing comedy, in quantity and quality, we flounder?
There are certainly exceptions to the rule. Comedian Susan Isaacs (credits in Seinfeld and Parks and Recreation) offered up Angry Conversations With God (2009). Steve Taylor and Donald Miller gave us the Blue Like Jazz movie (2012)—and Miller’s book behind it. Jon Acuff, of Stuff Christians Like comes to mind. Add your top faith-filled humorists and the list will still be meager.
We did some digging to get to the bottom of why this is and talked to some laugh-out-loud Christians who manage to beat the odds and bring the funny. Here’s what we learned.
Humor is treason in a culture war
Much of evangelicalism has embraced a hostile relationship with the surrounding culture. A culture war requires a group of people to define itself through a conflict and identify a rival group whose very existence threatens its existence. The favor, of course, is returned, and hyperbolic insults fill the air.
CHRISTIANS ARE SERIOUS, HARD-WORKING PEOPLE. WE GET THINGS DONE, BUT WE’RE JUST NOT THE LIFE OF THE PARTY.
Humor requires the ability to admit weakness and a willingness to laugh at it. A joke is funny because it exposes the silliness bound up in the act of being human. Self-deprecation makes for good comedy, but it’s akin to putting bullets in your opponent’s gun in a culture war. Weaknesses can’t be just hidden from one’s opponents; their very existence must be denied. Miroslav Volf wrote, in Exclusion and Embrace, that a people group must be convinced of its moral superiority to feel justified aggressing against another party. You can’t laugh at yourself until you cede the moral high ground.
We work to deliver results, not punchlines
We evangelicals migrated to America from Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and England. We are children of the Reformation, one and all. In 2009, Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer addressed the Conspire Conference at Willow Creek and noted that our Protestant roots shaped us to be a serious, hard-working people. We get things done, but we’re just not the life of the party.
Sociologist Max Weber coined the term “Protestant work ethic.” He theorized that while the Reformers removed good works as a prerequisite for salvation, those values never went away. Hard work and frugality became outward signs that a person had truly experienced salvation and was among the elect. Being industrious was as valued as having correct doctrine. As a result, evangelicals just aren’t culturally groomed to value the guy cracking wise in the back row.
Matthew Paul Turner, of JesusNeedsNewPR.net acclaim, adds, “Many of us don’t know how to value humor as it relates to Christianity, the Church or [ourselves]. Mostly because many Christians don’t know what to do with something regarding faith that is simply funny. While most humor contains meaning or a deeper thread to its funny exterior, those deeper meanings often go over people’s heads. It’s not that Christians dislike jokes or humor within the context of something bigger like a sermon or story, but when something or somebody is just funny, many Christians struggle to understand the point.”
CHRISTIANS STRUGGLE WITH CREATING HUMOROUS ART BECAUSE TOO OFTEN THEY DON’T WANT TO STRAY NEAR THE EDGES.
It’s hard to save the world with a limerick
It’s a bad habit, yet we do it often. We have a proclivity to commandeer artist forms for evangelistic purposes. This is true of many Christian art forms, not just comedy. Our music, movies and books are often shaped by a drive to persuade outsiders of their sin and lead them to Jesus. The problem is that in our drive to embed Gospel tracks into our jokes, we violate the genre rules that make comedy funny.
So, until it’s OK for a priest, a rabbi and a pastor to walk into a bar and no one gets saved, we’ll continue to struggle with producing quality humor.
One man’s humor is another man’s moral outrage
Several respondents learned (the hard way) just how hard it is not to offend the faithful with humor. Bryan Allain, author of Actually, Clams Are Miserable says, “To me, for something to be funny it has to be on the edge. Whether that is the edge of decency, the edge of expectations or the edge of sanity; if it’s right down the middle, it’s not going to make someone laugh. I think Christians struggle with creating humorous art because too often we don’t want to stray near the edges. Pushing the boundaries can open us up to judgment by those outside and inside Christianity, so instead of risking that for the joke, we play it safe and nobody cracks a smile.”
Chad Gibbs, sports humorist and the author of Love thy Rival and God and Football, adds, “I think with humor there is a fine line between what one person finds funny and what another finds offensive, and in Christian culture, that line is very blurry. So we err on the side of caution and produce safe humor—something bland, like ‘101 Jokes 4 Pastors.’ Problem is, safe humor is rarely funny.”
Matthew Paul Turner agrees. “The biggest reason is that whenever something humorous is created by church people, it gets beaten or edited to death by the gatekeepers,” he says. “That process is exhausting, often leading Christian people who can create funny to wonder, What’s the point?”
The point, Mr. Turner, is that we desperately need people to get us to laugh at ourselves and to stop taking ourselves so seriously. If we can learn to laugh at our own foibles, we’d be taking steps toward becoming a self-aware and humble community of faith.
We don’t need comedy to save the world, just ourselves. And sometimes it takes a court jester to lead the way.
Yesterday, as President Obama was sworn in, the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sang ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’
As catchy as is the chorus of that hymn, I’ve never enjoyed singing it in church. Whenever you conflate the Second Coming of Christ with the justness of an American war you’re on dangerous theological ground. Anyways, more on that later.
This weekend we conclude our Razing Hell sermon series talking about the Second Coming. Perhaps no other Christian doctrine is so fraught with popular misunderstandings and willful, fanciful misinterpretations of scripture.
You know what I’m talking about: guys like Jack Van Impe making dire predictions about current events, identifying politicos like Obama with the Antichrist, interpreting Middle East Politics according to the coded schema of Revelation. And don’t even get started on the rapture.
These ways of reading Revelation, popularized in our own day by the Left Behind novels, are actually quite new and modern ways of interpreting, beginning with the rise of the modernist movement in the late 19th century.
These readings distort John’s original hope. Typically, such movements join visions of cosmic, final warfare with political action, divide the world into good and evil, demonize all who disagree, and are convinced of the rightness and righteousness of their view.
Such groups differ in the extremity of virulence of their views but all of them see present world events as fulfillments of biblical descriptions of the end time and as heading, by God’s predetermination, toward the cataclysmic end of history.
There’s a reason this way of reading Revelation is appealing. It gives gravity to the events of our own day. It makes scripture ‘exciting’ in that Revelation becomes like a treasure map or crystal ball, and it raises the stakes of my own individual belief.
As you’ve probably been exposed to before, contemporary apocalypticism predicts an exact timetable leading to the awful end ordained by God and predicted in the bible. It sees the beginning of this end ushered in by the modern state of Israel and it will culminate in a final battle of Armageddon. The faithful, however, will be ‘raptured’ to the Lord, escaping the tribulations and destruction. Evangelization before the final destruction will be done by 144,000 converted Jews. This will happen in our lifetime, according to such groups.
The problems with this way of reading Revelation are many and it departs from an authentic hope in Jesus Christ in significant ways:
1) It depends on and feeds fear.
2) The ‘rapture’ is based on a solitary biblical text (1 Thessalonians 4.17).
3) The notion that the faithful will be exempt from tribulation or suffering is alien to the Gospels.
4) It elevates the power of Evil to almost godlike proportions.
5) The timetable is deterministic. God’s set it in stone from the beginning. There’s nothing we can do to change history nor does our faithfulness effect it.
6) The world is divided between believers and infidels.
7) Jews are not sisters and brothers in the covenant nor are they people whom God loves and we must love too. Israel is important only for the role it plays in a timetable towards Armageddon.
8) Reconciliation of sinners is impossible.
9) The real object of hope is not Christ or New Creation but rapture.
10) Most importantly, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are secondary, in this view, to the apocalypse. The Cross is less decisive than a final, cosmic war. Armageddon is more significant than Golgotha. Christ’s work on the cross was not ‘finished.’ Moreover, the Cross is no longer the full disclosure of God’s character or nature. In the Cross, we see a God who suffers wrath in our place: ‘while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.’ By contrast, contemporary apocalypticism sees it as ‘while we were still sinners Christ smote us in a cosmic battle.’ What emerges from this view is an almost schizophrenic Jesus.