Saturday, October 29, 2005

What Is Gods Eschatological Goal?

Any good discussion of the end of something must also include some discussion of its beginning. In the beginning of our story, God created our world and everything in it. In the first two chapters of Genesis, it is clear that God believes his creation to be “good” and that he has intentions for it to progress rather than remain static. As N.T. Wright points out, “Creation is a project, not a product.” In other words, God loved what he created and had a dream for where he wanted it to go. He didn’t create a static, unchanging thing, but rather a world that was “good” and, as Rob Bell says, “loaded with potential”. God then creates people “in his image” to care for and guide the creation that he loves toward the fulfillment of his dream. Unfortunately, people make a poor choice and the entire creation project veers off course.
At this point in the story (and in our discussion), there enters an important question. “Does God give up on his dream?” How we answer this question, in no small way, determines how we perceive the rest of the story, particularly the “ending”. People who answer “yes” to this question generally, perceive creation to be in an irredeemable downward spiral and God’s eventual goal to be its destruction and the whisking away of the faithful to disembodied bliss. This is somehow thought to be God’s great victory. However, if God doesn’t get what he originally dreamed for his creation, it would stand to reason that this end would mark his defeat rather than his victory. It is my belief, however, that rather than surrendering creation to Satan and then destroying it in a final act of vengeance, God enacts his plan to bring about what the New Testament writers refer to as the “restoration” or “renewal” of “all things”.
God recruits a man named Abram and his descendants to be his agents in the world. He commissions them to partner with him in his dream. Though Israel’s prophets (particularly Isaiah) repeatedly paint pictures of God’s dream for the world with their words, Israel still doesn’t seem to get it. They fall into the temptation of believing that their arrangement with God is exclusively to their benefit. Even so, God doesn’t throw up his hands in defeat. Instead, God (the Son) becomes a human being and shows them the Way. He lives out Gods intention for humans. He dies a sinner’s death (though he never sinned) and then defeats even death, somehow freeing us from both sin and mortality. The Way modeled by Jesus is opened up beyond the descendants of Abram to all who would live in this reality and for this purpose.
But, what exactly is this purpose? Where exactly is this story going? What is God’s eschatological goal? Jesus, as the “true human” reveals the eschatological future of human beings in his resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15 refers to Jesus’ resurrection as a “first fruits” for us. It points out that this will not simply involve the restoration of our physical bodies, but also a glorification in which they will somehow be changed so that death and decay are no longer a factor. Far from being a “disembodied” existence, these passages seem to indicate that while our existence will involve a different kind of physicality, it will none the less be physical. I have heard N.T. Wright point out several times that this “disembodied bliss” idea has more in common with the pagan concept of Nirvana than to orthodox Christianity. Michael Wittmer, in his book, Heaven is a Place on Earth, implies that the concept is closely tied to the ideas of Greek philosophy and even Gnosticism having to do with “matter” being evil and only the “spirit” being good.
Romans, chapter 8 takes an interesting turn in verses 18-27. Here, Paul seems to indicate that creation itself has the same promise as the children of God. He says that creation, will be freed from it’s bondage to death and decay in the same way as the children of God. Indeed, the New Testament repeatedly refers to a time when there will be a new (or renewed) Heaven and Earth, (an idea that seems to be completely ignored in the most popular forms of eschatology in North America today). Revelation 21 envisions God and the new Jerusalem coming down to Earth with God declaring that he is “making all things new” (a picture also painted by the prophet Isaiah). As Stan Grenz articulates in Theology for the Community of God, “…the prophets of both Testaments anticipate a new earth blanketed by a new heaven (Isa. 65:17; Rev. 21:1). Rather than resurrected believers being snatched away to live forever with God in some heavenly world beyond the cosmos, the seer of Revelation envisioned exactly the opposite. God will take up residence in the new creation (Rev. 21:3).The dwelling of the citizens of God’s eternal community, therefore, will be the renewed earth.” God’s goal is not simply the resurrection and glorification of creation and humanity. It also entails his realized dream of harmony (shalom) between a) God and human beings, b) human beings and other human beings, and c) human beings and creation. God does not simply wish to restore original creation. He wants the project to go where it was designed to go all along. It is the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer for God’s Kingdom to come and His will to be done, “on earth as it is in heaven.” Perhaps, as both Wittmer and Wright have pointed out, the final verse of an old hymn sums it up best.

“This is my Father’s World
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong
God is the ruler yet.

This is my Father’s world!
The battle is not done;
Jesus who died shall be satisfied
And earth and heav’n be one.”
  • Bell, Rob…Velvet Elvis: Repainting The Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005

  • Grenz, Stanley J…Theology For The Community of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000

  • Wittmer, Michael E…Heaven Is A Place On Earth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004

  • Wright, N.T….he Challenge of Jesus. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1999

  • Wright, N.T….Creation and New Creation In The New Testament. Vancouver: Regent Audio, 2003

Friday, October 21, 2005

What Is Salvation?

In my experience, the concept of salvation is typically presented as an individualistic enterprise in North American Christian culture. It seems to me that the message presented in most churches and in most “Christian” broadcasting is that “salvation” is about the saving of individual souls from Hell after death, or stated more positively, into Heaven after death. In this message, Jesus is often presented as a “personal Lord and Savior” (a term found nowhere in scripture). While these ideas (or some form of them) are certainly a part of the Biblical idea of salvation, they are just as certainly not the whole of it, nor arguably even the main points. For a more developed explanation of salvation, we once again return to the narrative of scripture.

The Story
In the beginning, creation was characterized by peace and harmony, (the Hebrew concept of shalom), between a) God and human beings, b) human beings and other human beings, c) human beings and creation. God charges human beings with caring for this world (in His Image). In Genesis 3, that harmony is shattered and the world begins to plummet into disharmony. (It can be argued that sin is the breaking of “shalom” in any of these afore mentioned areas…See Bell and Grenz) Years later, as the project has gone further and further off course, God commissions a man named Abram and his descendants to be ambassadors of His harmony in a world gone astray. God will bless them so that they may bless the world. However, these ambassadors frequently lose sight of the full scope of their mission, often getting bogged down, among other things, in their own self promotion and struggle for power (or at least the desire for these things). Even so, God never gives up on His dream for His world. Eventually, God (the Son) becomes a human being. He is the “true human”, the perfect example of what humans were meant to be. He is God’s ambassador of shalom. Interestingly, instead of promoting himself, He lays His life down. Instead of grabbing power (which was actually offered to him quite a few times), He poured out His power for the benefit of the world. He eventually dies a “sinner’s death” though He was without sin, somehow taking the consequences of the world’s sin on himself. In His resurrection from death, He thus opens the way into a new (or renewed) reality characterized by harmony with God, each other and Creation, free from the consequences of sin. He then commissions those who would follow him, the people of God (no longer just the descendants of Abram), once again become the ambassadors of God’s reality in the midst of a world that has created it’s own.

In light of this telling of the story, salvation becomes much more than just “being saved from Hell after death”, or even “being granted admittance into Heaven after death”. As Brian McLaren points out in Adventures in Missing The Point, “If you had asked the apostle Paul, ‘If you were to die tonight, do you know for certain that you would be with God in heaven?’ I’m certain Paul would have said yes. But he probably would have given you a funny look and wondered why you were asking the question, because to him it missed the point. To Paul, the point of being Christ’s follower was not just to help people be absolutely certain they were going to heaven when they died. Paul’s goal was to help them become fully formed, mature in Christ, here and now—to experience the glorious realities of being in Christ and experiencing Christ in themselves.” Grace, it would seem, is not an end unto itself. Rather, it is the means of our returning to the reality that God intended and to our becoming a catalyst for that reality breaking into our world. As seen through the lens of this telling of the story, salvation is by no means a primarily individualistic enterprise. As Stan Grenz explains in Theology for the Community of God, “We are alienated from God, of course. But our estrangement also taints our relationships with one another, with ourselves, and with creation. Consequently, the divine program leads not only toward establishing individual peace with God in isolation; it extends as well to the healing of all relationships—to ourselves, one another, and to nature.” Our individual salvation is a fact, but as Grenz says, “the church is far more than a collection of saved individuals who band together for the task of winning the lost. The church is the community of salvation.

Heaven and Hell
No explanation of salvation would be complete without touching on the issues of Heaven and Hell. In Scripture, the afterlife is discussed as a reality However, the main truth of Heaven appears to be less about people going there and more about Heaven coming here. As Rob Bell explains in Velvet Elvis: Repainting The Christian Faith, “For Jesus, heaven and hell were present realities. He talked very little about the life beyond this one because he understood that the life beyond this one is a continuation of the choices we make here and now. For Jesus, the question wasn’t, how do I get into heaven? But how do I bring heaven here?” Jesus prayed to his Father “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” Additionally, Paul, in Romans 8, seems to imply that creation itself has the same promise as the children of God. In short, the goal of God is not just the salvation of individual souls, but the salvation of the whole world.
As for individuals in relation to Heaven and Hell, Bell further explains, “And this reality extends beyond this life. Heaven is full of forgiven people. Hell is full of forgiven people. Heaven is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for. Hell is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for. The difference is how we choose to live, which story we choose to live in, which version of reality we trust. Ours or God’s.”
  • Bell, Rob…Velvet Elvis: Repainting The Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005

  • McLaren, Brian D…Adventures In Missing The Point. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003

  • Grenz, Stanley J…Theology For The Community of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Missional Character of the Church

The Missional Character of the Church
Adam Ellis

     According to Brian McLaren, in his book A Generous Orthodoxy, the term “missional” was coined in the 1990’s by the “Gospel In Our Culture Network”.  McLaren explains, “The term as I understand it, attempts to find a generous third way between the conservative and liberal versions of Christianity so dominant in the Western world.  The conservative version is preoccupied with the “personal savior” Gospel…and the liberal version has lost something vitally important in their engagement with modernity”.  In actuality, the term is rather self explanatory.  In contemporary vernacular, a church that is “missional” defines its identity or focus primarily in terms of it’s mission from God, in and to the world.   To some, this may seem like one option among many for churches seeking to define their identities.  To others, this may seem wrongheaded or simply a “passing fad.”  However, I believe that the theological roots of the missional character of the church run deep in the narrative of scripture.
     In the beginning, (Genesis 1 & 2), God created people in his image, to care for the world around them.  God very clearly has a dream for where he wants the creation project to go and people have a role in getting it there.  The participation of human beings in this project, however, gets derailed in Genesis 3.  Even so, God does not give up on his dream.  Many years later, God makes a covenant with a man named Abram. Genesis 12 reveals that a key to this covenant is the idea that Abram and his descendants will be blessed by God and will be a blessing to all people.  The story proceeds from there with the people of God seaming very interested in being blessed, but noticeably less interested in being a blessing.
     The prophets continually attempted to point the people of God back to their mission.  Repeatedly, they scolded the people of God for their treatment of the poor and oppressed.  Over and over again, they challenge God’s people on their lack of compassion and concern for justice.  In the book of Isaiah, most notably in chapters 61 and 62, the prophet paints several pictures of God’s realized dream for his world and his people.  Interestingly, in the New Testament, Jesus quoted from this same passage, stating that it is fulfilled in him, when he “officially” began his ministry.   In Jesus, God (The Son) comes to earth as the “true human” to (among other things) show human beings what it looks like to be the people of God. Jesus further went on, in Matthew 25:31-46, to paint a picture of “judgment day” that points more to “involvement in mission” than “beliefs” as the primary criterion for judgment.  In the Gospel narratives, he continually refers to the idea of the “kingdom of God” or, synonymously “the kingdom of Heaven”.  While, in churches of Christ, these phrases have traditionally been interpreted as also being synonymous with “the church”, I think they are better understood in light of Jesus statement in the Lord’s Prayer.  In that prayer, Jesus says, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” (Matthew 6:10).  God’s “kingdom” is the extent to which his will is being done “on earth as it is in heaven.”  The “church”, therefore is not synonymous with the “kingdom’, but rather is a catalyst for the Kingdom of God.  It is an outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven.  When Jesus gives the disciples “the great commission” in Matthew 28, he seems to be passing the torch back to a community of people…from the true human back to human beings.  As I often tell the teenagers I work with, “Jesus took our place on the cross so that we could take his place in the world.”
     So, what does all of this mean for the church?  In a lecture at the 2005 Emergent Convention in Nashville TN, Brian McLaren explained that in pluralist society, a religion is no longer judged as valid based on whether or not it is true.  It is judged valid based on whether or not it is “good”.  This is not to say that Christianity should no longer be concerned with “truth”.  It does, however, point to the fact that our claim of truth is completely irrelevant to the world around us if we are not viewed as “good”.  While that idea might initially seem to be “getting the cart before the ox” or letting culture define us, I believe that it points to an important truth and opportunity.  A community of believers, who sees itself as blessed by God in order to be a blessing to the world, is good news, even to non-adherents.  Rob Bell explains in Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, “If the gospel isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody.”  Because of it’s involvement in the pursuit of God’s dream, the church should be good news to everyone, regardless of their differing religious beliefs, politics, or race.  For too long, the church has seemed to focus exclusively on it’s benefits for it’s members.  This seems, to me, far short of the Biblical image.  The Church is the Way of Jesus.  It is the Body of Christ.  The Church does not pursue privilege or power.  Rather, the church pours out it’s life for the sake of the world.  At her very essence, the Church is a community of believers on a mission from God.  As Mark Driscoll eloquently states in The Radical Reformission, “…neither the freedom of Christ nor our freedom in Christ is intended to permit us to dance as close to sin as possible without crossing the line.  But both are intended to permit us to dance as close to sinners as possible by crossing the lines that unnecessarily separate the people God has found from those he is still seeking.”

  • Bell, Rob…Velvet Elvis: Repainting The Christian Faith.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005

  • Driscoll, Mark…The Radical Reformission.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004

  • McLaren, Brian D…A Generous Orthodoxy.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004

  • McLaren, Brian D…The Gospel In Pluralist Society.  Nashville: Youth Specialties Emergent Convention, 2005

  • Wright, N.T…The Lord and His Prayer.  Grand Rapids: Eeardmans, 1996

Thursday, October 06, 2005

God In The Flesh: True Human & New Human

Human beings were created in the Image of God. However, throughout history we have struggled with the tendency to remake God in our own image. As Brian McLaren points out in his book More Ready Than Your Realize, “people tend to describe God as a bigger and better version of themselves.” He goes on to say, “Now imagine you are God (if this comes easy for you, we should all be worried). What would you do about all of the versions of You, made in human images?” Christians through the ages have answered this question by affirming that God became a man who was truly human and perfectly the Image of God.

It is important to distinguish between God (The Son) simply putting on a “human suit” and God (the Son) truly becoming a human being. When we say “God became a man,” we mean that literally. God the Son became the human being, Jesus. We do not mean that God simply “looked human”, nor do we mean that God “possessed” or indwelt a human being. We mean that the Creator became a creature. As Stan Grenz points out in Theology For The Community Of God, this means that he took on our human needs and limitations. Additionally, as Grenz goes on to say, the humanity of Jesus means that he “developed and grew as a human, just as we do.” While these points may make many professing Christians quite uncomfortable, I believe them to be both well supported by scripture (John 4:6-7, Matt 26:36-37, Mark 1:35, Luke 2:52, Hebrews 5:8) and essential for a workable Christology. Many followers of Jesus want to speak of him as a sort of superhuman and unchanging figure. While these characterizations intended to honor Jesus, they are actually quite destructive, and several recognized heresies have been based on exactly these sorts of ideas. They create a kind of “cop-out” Christology where Jesus only seems able to identify with us, but that identification is simply an illusion. Our assertation that the Son became fully human, however, is in no way a denial of his deity or power. Indeed we affirm that God was not only powerful enough to make himself (the Son) completely human, but that he also maintained his Trinitarian relationship with this divine human being.

While the fact that the Son became truly human is crucial, it is not our main point. Jesus was not only truly human, but rather, in the incarnation he became the true human. In Jesus, we see true humanity exemplified. Jesus is the model of what God intended humans to be all along. He lived as God intended humans to live their lives from the very beginning. Paul seems to allude to this idea in both Romans 5:12-20 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 where he contrasts Jesus and Adam. He seems to imply that while Adam knocked the project off course, Jesus brings it back in line. While Adam failed to be what God intended, Jesus fully realizes human potential. Interestingly, Jesus does not live as an individual devoted to personal piety. Rather, he immerses himself in community, both with God (the Trinity) and with other people. As has been pointed out by many theologians and practitioners (Stan Grenz, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, etc.), his way of live can be characterized by shalom (peace/harmony) with God, other people, and creation. In churches of Christ, we have we have historically stressed the importance of and need for a “pattern” to follow. Patterning our churches after “first century churches”, however, has proved to be problematic at best. Perhaps the problem is that this is somewhat like “making a copy of a copy” in which the final product comes out “kind of fuzzy”. Instead, I believe that Jesus is the pattern for both the individual and the church. In the book of Acts, Paul is recorded as repeatedly referring to the church as “the Way”. This seems to imply not primarily a group of people who give mental assent to the same propositional ideas, but rather to a community devoted to living the way of life of Jesus, the true human.

There is still one aspect of our subject we need to explore. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul refers to Jesus resurrection as a “firstfruits” of our resurrection. We maintain, as Paul does, that this resurrection was and is physical, as opposed to some kind of disembodied “spiritual” existence. In the post-resurrection Jesus we catch a glimpse of our future. This future does not entail our “disembodied souls” shedding our bodies to go off and live in some sort of “spiritual realm”. As N.T. Wright points out in The Challenge of Jesus, “[in vs. 50-57]…Paul states clearly and emphatically his belief in a body that is to be changed, not abandoned.” He goes on to add, “As in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul envisages the present physical body ‘putting on’ the new body as a new mode of physicality over and above what we presently know. This is not mere resuscitation, but equally it is emphatically not disembodiment. And if this is what Paul believes about the resurrection body of Christians, we may assume (since his argument works from the one to the other) that this was his view of the resurrection of Jesus as well.” After his resurrection, Jesus (the Son) becomes the future of humanity…the new human. This is no temporary state of affairs for Jesus. The Son did not become human for a while and then go back to being God again in the way he was before. The incarnation is permanent. The Son is alive in the form of the post-resurrection Jesus. He is resurrected and glorified and in this way points toward our future.

We affirm that God, The Son became a human being. We further affirm that this human being, Jesus, embodied true humanity as God intended. Post-resurrection, this divine human being, in his resurrection and glorification, reveals the future of those who walk in his Way.

  • Grenz, Stanley J…Theology For The Community of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000

  • McLaren, Brian D…More Ready Than You Realize. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002

  • Wright, N.T….he Challenge of Jesus. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1999

  • Wright, N.T….Creation and New Creation In The New Testament. Vancouver: Regent Audio, 2003

  • Wright, N.T….Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Humans as the Image of God

For centuries, many theologians have been consumed with the concept of the Imago Dei, (humans as the Image of God). This may seem relatively odd due to the fact that only a handful of verses in scripture even allude to the concept. Even so, I believe it to be key to our identity as the people of God.

The concept of the Imago Dei first occurs in the creation narrative(s). Genesis 1 pictures God as making all the animals “according to their own kinds”. However, in verse 26 the language changes when he creates humans. There, God states that he intends to create human beings “in our image, in our likeness.” He goes on to explain that his intention in this is so that they will “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." Then, according to verse 27 he creates both male and female in this way and for this purpose. Marginalizing misinterpretations of this concept have ranged from “we kind of look like God (or worse yet, he kind of looks like us)” to “God has given us the world to use (and abuse) as we see fit”.

It is true that God bestowed individual human beings with structural attributes that reflect his being. These are commonly recognized as those mental and emotional attributes that distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom, in addition to our “spiritual qualities”. It is also true that because God made us “in his image”, our function of “ruling”, or better stated “governing” the rest of creation is foundational to our identity, though our definition of those terms has frequently missed the mark. Theologians like Stanley Grenz, N.T. Wright, and Michael Wittmer point out that at the time Genesis was written, it was common for a king to place a statue or “image” of himself in cities, territories, or colonies where he was not physically present. The idea was that the statue would bear the image of the king in order to remind the people of who he was and of his vision for his kingdom. While we do not buy into the deistic concept of an absentee God, this contextualization does shed light on our function as the “image of God”. We are to reflect God to creation. This function is at the core of what it means to be truly human. However, after the Fall (Gen 3), human beings lost that identity. When God enters into covenant with Abram, it becomes part of the identity of the people of God to image God to the rest of humanity as well as the rest of creation. The New Testament refers to Jesus as “the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4), which I believe is a direct reference to Genesis 1. As followers of the Way of Jesus, we are following him in baring the image of the living God.
If then, this is the context for the Imago Dei, then what exactly are we called to reflect as we bear God’s image?

Who God Is
God is, at his core, community. The co-unity of the Father, Son and Spirit form the basis for our doctrine of the Trinity. This divine community of perfect love, harmony, and wholeness is our God. As our society and culture grow radically more individualistic, our call as the Imago Dei is to reflect true community. We reject the myth of egocentrism and instead pour out our lives into others. We pursue harmony instead of self promotion. God is fundamentally a community; therefore any reflection of him must be borne out in community. Possibly as an extension of the previously stated idea, the 1 John 4 asserts that God is, at his essence, love (agape). In order to image God, we must essentially live lives of love. It must be our defining attribute, both as individuals and as faith communities. It must be so fundamental to our character that if we err, we err on the side of love. If Jesus was the image of God as scripture asserts, then we must note some things that he reflects of God’s character as well. Jesus is not noted for his exclusivity. Rather, he is radically inclusive. He refuses to withhold his or the Father’s love from anyone. Jesus is also not recognized for his independence. Instead, he is quite clear on his total dependence on the Father and the Spirit. He also develops deep and significant relationships in community with other humans that are well documented in scripture. As followers of Jesus in Imaging God, we must do the same.

His Vision for His Kingdom
Dallas Willard defines “kingdom” as “the effective reach of one’s will”. Jesus seems to affirm a similar definition when he prays “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I believe these statements in the “Lord’s Prayer” to be a sort of parallelism in which he restates the same idea in a different way to clarify his meaning. If part of our function as the Imago Dei is, as I have proposed, to image God’s vision for his kingdom, then we must ask: What exactly is God’s vision for his kingdom? In the first two chapters of Genesis, God creates a world of peace and harmony (shalom). This harmony exists between human beings and God, interrelationaly between people (and genders), and between humans and creation. This peace is shattered in Genesis 3, however it remains God’s vision for his Kingdom. This is further evidenced by prophesies (such as those in Isaiah) referring to the Kingdom of God and by the pictures painted of our eschatological future in Revelation. Our call then, in imaging God, is to live in the reality of the Kingdom of God rather than the alternate reality of the fall. We should display with our lives and in our faith communities God’s dream for the world. We are to live our lives as if Gods vision were realized until, by the power of God at the return of Jesus, it becomes so.

  • Grenz, Stanley J…Theology For The Community of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000

  • ________…“What Does It Mean To Be Trinitarians: The Role of the Doctrine of the Trinity in Christian Teaching and Life”;

  • Willard, Dallas…The Divine Conspiracy. New York: HarperCollins, 1998

  • Wittmer, Michael E…Heaven Is A Place On Earth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004

  • Wright, N.T…Creation and New Creation In The New Testament. Vancouver: Regent Audio, 2003