A Lesson in Contrast

In college, my friends and I had a saying:

You cannot begin to change until you know the opposite of what you are.

It was a reminder that the only path to real growth was to see the truth about yourself and then understand the way(s) in which God was different from that. Sometime in my mid-thirties I realized that most of what I knew about success, character  – pretty much everything – I learned by example of what not to do or who I did not want to be like. It was then that I began to understand experientially what our college saying meant in terms of the power of contrast to teach.

Time, experience, and study have expanded my understanding of the Bible as well. I now realize that the stories within it most often reveal what God is not. This particular learning tool can prove quite effective with human minds struggling to comprehend a vast, silent, and invisible God. But nuance is sadly ignored under a strictly literal view of the text.

For example, countless sermons have been preached on Genesis 22, the story of Abraham’s call to sacrifice Isaac. Most people, commentaries, preachers, and Christians believe that God was testing Abraham’s faith when he told him to take Isaac up on a mountain and offer his only son as a sacrifice. They believe that God provided a ram for himself that foreshadowed God one day sacrificing Jesus to appease himself. But is that really what this story was about? Does God really test peoples’ faith in such horrific ways? Is this same God so offended by sin that he requires a human blood sacrifice to be appeased? Sounds an awful lot like the Canaanite gods to me.

2-5_abraham-sacrifice

Most (if not all) cultures contemporary to Abraham practiced blood sacrifice to appease the anger of their god(s). In fact, some sort of blood sacrifice has been practiced for centuries in almost all cultures ever to exist. Here is an eye opening site on the history of blood sacrifices around the world. I found the conclusions page fascinating.

So when God told Abraham to kill Isaac, he was not telling him anything new. Sacrificing children, especially the first-born, to the god(s) was commonplace in those days. In fact, everyone was doing it. To Abraham it would have been business as usual for his god to demand the kind of worship that required the ultimate sacrifice of human blood. But while the story began ordinarily enough, the end revealed something radically new. Just as the knife made its way to Isaac’s heart, a voice stopped Abraham. A ram had been caught in a nearby thicket and the voice instructed Abraham to sacrifice it rather than his son. Here was the first instance of God showing man that he was in fact unlike all other gods.

Lesson #1: God does not require human blood to be appeased.

If you believe that the revelation of God’s nature to mankind has been given throughout history progressively, then you would get how this little nugget rocked the ancients’ overall understanding of deities in general and the God of Israel in particular. But this was just a stepping-stone to a much broader understanding of what made the God of Israel different. Fast forward to the establishment of the temple cult under Moses’ leadership. Here God distinguished himself from other gods by commanding one animal sacrifice each year to bring justice for the entire nation.

Lesson #2: God does not require unlimited animal sacrifices.

The last puzzle piece of what God is like can be found ringing in the voices of the prophets. They called the nation of Israel to put a stop to ritual sacrifices altogether. According to them, the God of Israel had no need for blood at all.

Lesson #3: God does not require blood because God does not need to be appeased.

Despite this final clear message from the prophets at the close of the Old Testament, the Christian church continues to teach that Jesus was the ultimate blood sacrifice for sins. They even go so far as to say that God himself put Jesus to death as our substitute. Which brings me to why I am writing this post today.

In 2011 I wrote a post called Walking Through the Pieces. It went on to become my all-time most-read page, clocking in at a whopping 10,209 views as of January 6, 2020. No other post of mine has come anywhere near this number. The vast amount of interest in this topic has prompted me to keep digging into the story.

I have come to the conclusion that Genesis 15 is yet another look at what God is not like.

In the cultures contemporary to Abram, people made agreements this way: they cut animals in two and spread the pieces apart, leaving a path between them. Both parties walked between the pieces while stating the terms of the covenant. Walking the path symbolized a vow and a curse in one: I promise to do thus and so, and may this happen to me if I do not keep my end of the bargain. The practice was quite common and would have been second nature to Abram. Problem is, Abram was asleep when his covenant with God was ‘cut’. He did not walk through the pieces of the animals at all.

Throughout the Old Testament it was God’s practice to reveal himself over and against the surrounding gods and cultures of the day. In Genesis 15 we find a God who does not bargain with mankind. When God says he will do something, he does it, independent of any belief or behavior on man’s part. The lesson here is clear: God does what is right without requiring anything in return. He is a God of blessing not cursing, a God of grace not law. Too bad Sonny did not understand that all he need do was ask.

Today, most Evangelicals will tell you that salvation is part of a covenant with God called the gospel (good news). They use Abram’s initial belief in the promise of an heir to teach that man’s part of the bargain is to believe that Jesus’ death paid God back for our sins because God requires blood. Whoever refuses to hold up man’s end of the covenant (by believing) will be treated like those slaughtered animals – except they will suffer an eternity in hell (at the hand of God, no less)!

Even I was captured by this interpretation of the narrative when I assumed that Jesus’ broken body was the fulfillment of God’s part of the covenant on our behalf – that God himself slaughtered Jesus to pay for our sins.

But what if that interpretation of the gospel story is completely erroneous?  What if the church is as wrong about God as good ol’ Sonny? What if Jesus’ death itself is a picture of what God is not like?

What if the real point of the story is Jesus’ life – a picture of how we were made to live, spiritually free from guilt and shame – not the story of what will happen to us after we die?

What if the gospel has absolutely nothing to do with a bloodthirsty God?

What if Rome sacrificed Jesus on the altar of their power because his message of spiritual freedom was a threat to them and the religious order of the day? What if it had nothing whatever to do with God’s supposed anger towards mankind?

What if the story of Jesus dying on a cross was never about salvation, because we don’t need salvation, because the prophets told true: GOD DOES NOT REQUIRE BLOOD OR NEED TO BE APPEASED?

What if the story of Jesus’ death is a picture of what God is not like?

The literal interpretation of the Bible has served for hundreds of years to perpetrate division, hatred, and war – our modern forms of ritual sacrifice – all in the name of religion. It is time for the world to be turned upside down once again. It is time to challenge the powers that be with the nuance of a Biblical narrative that reveals a God more loving and full of grace than any of us have ever dared imagine or hope for. A God who blesses no matter what, loves no matter what, and requires nothing in return – not even belief that he exists. A God who needs no blood to be appeased, but stands in opposition to the angry, bloodthirsty ‘gods’ invented by violent men, designed to control people using fear, guilt, and shame.

True change can happen once we know the opposite of what we are. God grant that we be given the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the courage to face the truth.

Thanks so much for reading.

Namaste,

~C

The Narrow Way

NarrowStairs       I have heard it said that the narrow way can be defined as the unique spiritual journey each of us must walk, and that to be on that path is to refuse to conform to the demands of those around us (to walk their path, or the one most people walk), but, instead, boldly trod the path meant specifically for us.

In light of that idea, tonight I had the privilege of taking a walk with a friend who let me share a part of the incredible journey I have been on since we were last really together, some thirty-six years ago. I was reminded that a lot can happen in thirty-six years. (Ya think?!?)

As a result of our conversation, I am making a list of the books (and the people who wrote them) that have had the most influence on my life, both in terms of my beliefs and my spiritual journey. I will list them in order of importance/influence (to me), however, what was important/influential to me may not be for you, understandably. So, eat the meat, spit out the bones, and take from this list what you need (if anything). As a general rule, people will appear first, with their works listed below; book titles will be underlined, other items italicized, and so forth.

NOTE: This list is not meant to be exhaustive by any means. Each of these teachers has written and spoken much more than what I have listed here, however, these are the ones I have actually read and been changed by. Also, I doubt this represents even half of the things I have read or heard that have worked to shape me and my beliefs today; these are simply the ones that stand out in my mind.

If you have questions or would like any further explanation regarding any of these people or their works, please note them in the comments and I will do my best to either answer you, or direct you to a site that can answer better than I.

  • Baxter Kruger – Theologian, Author, Maker of Lures, Founder of Perichoresis Inc.
  1. Jesus and the Undoing of Adam (in my mind, the most important book a modern, Western Christian can read)
  2. The Shack Revisited (reviewed here on my blog)
  • Peter Hiett – Pastor, Author (where the shift in my journey really began)
  1. http://www.tsdowntown.com/images/EDITED_All_things_New_and_a_place_we_call_Hell_edited_12_12_13_blk_1.pdf
  2. http://www.tsdowntown.com/a-theology-of-relentless-love/intro
  • Rob Bell – Author, Speaker, Theologian, Innovator
  1. Love Wins
  2. Everything is Spiritual (video teaching)
  3. Jesus Wants to Save Christians
  4. Here is a great article regarding the firestorm created by John Piper’s Tweet, “Farewell, Rob Bell”, and this is something I wrote during that time.
  • Anthony De Mello – Catholic Priest, Author, Speaker
  1. Awareness (the teaching in this little book can be found on You Tube in several short messages as well)
  2. The Way to Love
  • Michael Hardin – Theologian, Author
  1. Stricken by God? (a compilation of many author’s works regarding the atonement – you can find some stuff around my blog about this book, especially here)
  2. http://www.preachingpeace.org for his blog and lots of information about this amazing author
  • Brad Jersak – Theologian, Author
  1. A More Christlike God (I recently reviewed this book here)
  2. Stricken By God? contributor

Good books on the topic of hell in the Bible:

What does the Bible Really Say About Hell? by Randy Klassen

Razing Hell by Sharon Baker

Evangelical Universalist by George MacDonald

Well, that should get you started. 🙂 I’ll end with one of my favorite theological illustrations:

God bless you as you seek and walk the narrow path laid out just for you!

Returning the Favor

The other day I read this Facebook post:

May you truly know that you are loved and salvation is being saved from God by God Himself.

Really? The first word that came to mind when I read that was “schizophrenic.” The second was “split personality.” I don’t think the Scripture supports the idea that God has to save us from Himself. Somehow I don’t think that Scripture portrays God as conflicted toward His creation. I also don’t think I could interpret this kind of dichotomous behavior as anything close to love. How could I “know I was loved” by a God who has to save me from Himself? Who’s to say the angry side of God won’t trump the love side at my first slip-up?

If God never changes, and God is love … if the primary goal of God is the praise of the glory of His grace … how has anger and wrath become the focus of our belief system? Sounds more like the way men behave than God to me.

Baxter Kruger once quoted another teacher:

On the sixth day God created man in His own image … and we have been returning the favor ever since.

Have you driven on an interstate highway lately? Road rage is rampant. Have you read the news this week? More and more teens are running away from abusive homes. War is everywhere – people rising up and killing one another all over the world out of racial and religious hatred. People are angry. Our mental institutions are chock full of split personalities and our homes are rife with divorced parents raising confused children. This is us, not God.

How about this one:

I read a post on a friend’s wall about a dad in the middle east somewhere who killed his three daughters under sharia law and said he would do it again. It sickens me that he believes that is what his god requires.

It sickens me that my friend believes this is what Jesus requires. My friend doesn’t see the inconsistency. They believe that their heavenly Father will kill His children for failure to obey His laws – only God plans to do this for all of eternity. (In my friend’s mind the opposite of eternal life is eternal death.) To me, the Evangelical assertion that hell is eternal makes our God much worse than these Middle-Eastern fathers. At the very least, these men don’t know any better than what they have been taught by their misguided forefathers (and I realize this to be my friend’s plight as well), whereas God is all-wise and all knowing; and in their case, the pain they caused their daughters had an end, whereas God plans to punish His children without end.

It amazes me how people cannot see the illogical nature of vilifying people who kill their fellow men while glorifying a God who kills (punishes in tortuous fire) people for all of eternity after a mere 80 years of sin. They call this justice? If it’s wrong for an earthly father to kill his daughters for disobeying the Law, then it is infinitely more wrong for an infinite God to kill the children He created for disobeying His law … for all eternity – without even the hope of an end. In other words, it was horribly wrong for Hitler to torture and experiment on hundreds, maybe millions of Jews, but at least there was an end to their suffering – death. Has it ever occurred to you that most Christians believe God is punishing Hitler in hell alongside all those Jews Hitler tortured and murdered who didn’t believe in Jesus as their Messiah? Sure. Makes perfect sense to me… IN WHAT UNIVERSE COULD THIS POSSIBLY MAKE SENSE?

You are probably saying to yourself what I used to tell myself: “But God’s Law is different. God is holy, so He has to punish sin. Anyway, God is different. He’s God. He can do what He wants.” Really? You don’t believe that. Your God is too small. This is what God wants:

2 Corinthians 5: 18 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.

Romans 5: 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood [not our belief], we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son [not our belief], much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life [not our belief]. 11 And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation … 18 So then as through one transgression [Adam] there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness [Jesus] there resulted justification of life to all men. (Don’t tell anyone, but all means all.)

Colossians 1: 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. 19 For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.


Help  me here … which part of “all things” did He not reconcile to Himself?

Romans 11: 32 For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.

Philippians 2: 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Romans 10: 9 that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; 10 for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.

1 Timothy 4: 10 For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.

Over and over again in a hundred different ways the New Testament writers talk about a great reversal – a reconciliation of all things back to God’s way, back to peace, wholeness, and righteousness. There cannot be complete reconciliation where anyone remains unreconciled. There is no end to sadness or any hope of fullness of joy as long as God is determined to vent His wrath rather than to heal. There is no glory in a God who must be appeased for the shortcomings of His creation. The maintaining of a ‘place’ or condition we call hell simply is not in the Bible, and beyond that, it does not portray justice.

Biblically, justice means making all things right.

People have redefined ‘justice’ to mean ‘retribution.’

I heard a great story recently about this. The speaker told about a girl who died as a teenager. Just before her death a friend invited her to church. After the service the friend asked her if she had accepted Jesus as her personal savior. The girl replied no, that she didn’t believe in God – she claimed to be an atheist. Her friend proceeded to share the Gospel with the girl, telling her that Jesus had died for her sins and she must accept this or God would punish her in hell forever. The girl continued to refuse God. The next day she was raped and murdered.

When the police caught the murderer, he was convicted and sentenced to death. During the trial the judge asked him if he was sorry for what he had done. Far from it. He reveled in his sin and bragged about the girl’s screams to her devastated parents. Throughout his life he railed against God and his fellow inmates. He was one of the most hated and feared men in the prison, and he spent most of his time in solitary confinement due to his violent behavior.

Three nights before his execution he received a visit from a pastor. He heard the truth about Jesus and the forgiveness God offers us for the very first time. Overcome by grief for what he had done, he fell to his knees and prayed to God for forgiveness. Two days later he was executed. Imagine his surprise when he woke up in God’s presence while the young teenage girl he tortured and murdered continued to suffer in hell because she didn’t pray the sinner’s prayer before she met her untimely death. How can anyone interpret this as justice? Where is justice for this girl whose life was literally taken from her? How can it be justice for a rapist to suffer a few years in prison and die a humane death by execution when she not only suffered a violent death in this life, but continues to suffer for all of eternity in fire? How can this even come close to what John promised:

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the [cosmos].

… puts to right all wrongs in all of creation. What else could this mean?

The creation, the ‘cosmos’ doesn’t sin. People sin. The cosmos – world – is inanimate – it can only be affected by peoples’ sin. Maybe if John had used the Greek word ‘Anthropos’ or ‘Ethnos’ I would suspect he was talking about taking away peoples’ sins (as in not counting their sins against them). But no, he makes the work of Christ much bigger than just forgiving the sins of individual people. John promises a great reversal to the world-wide effects of sin. When he talks about taking away the sin of the Cosmos, he promises that Jesus is going to turn the world upside down – make everything right.

But wait. Wasn’t this young teen’s sin (unbelief) part of the cosmos? Then why do we think Jesus didn’t take it away with the sins of the man who murdered her? Because the killer said a few words in prayer before the end of his life? Seriously?

I believe that it’s time we start taking God at His word and recognize when we have made God into our own image. Just because I may want to punish (murder) someone out of anger (and retribution), that doesn’t mean God is this way. Just because I respond to my environment with violence doesn’t mean that God does too. Jesus on the cross showed us the way of God – nonviolence. Jesus’ behavior was the very opposite of the people who murdered Him – Jesus was never schizophrenic, He consistently loved, even His killers. By His eternal Word, I believe He still prays,

“Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”

… believing … teaching … saying.

Isn’t it time we stop returning the favor?