Something just dawned on me, as clear as day. At the root of the way modeled by Jesus Christ is the certainty and security about our relationship with our good heavenly father, carried into eternity. At the root of religious fundamentalism is the ever-present good old fear of death – and at its core, that fear of death is unmitigated even by the cross of Calvary. These two streams flow within the larger nominal framework of Christianity. They may employ the same terminology and the same sacred texts, but the difference is truly night and day.
Here’s what brought it to light for me. During these past few years, I’ve read theological books on a variety of subjects, and from a variety of perspectives. I’ve read much material on the subject of atonement. I’ve read entire books on some of the views, in addition to reading background material on all of the currently and historical popular views. I came away with a renewed understanding of the complexity of the issue. What’s important – awareness of those perspectives, coupled with my own in-depth research and analysis, gave me many tools to help me construct my own understanding of the meaning of the atonement.
I did very similar kind of research with the issues of “hell”, “heaven”, “theodicy” (goodness of God vs. evil that’s in the world), “end times”, and many others. Again – my awareness of those perspectives, coupled with my own in-depth research and analysis, empowered me to construct my own understanding of the meaning of the “hell”, “heaven”, “theodicy”, “end times”, etc. My understanding of these and many other subjects became much more textured, much deeper, much more internally coherent, much more resonant with the Scriptures in their historical and cultural context – and as the result, often very different from the commonly circulated pop-theology teachings.
Recently I watched the “Monster God” debate between Brian Zahnd and Michael Brown, and it was very interesting and edifying for me to hear both perspectives. It gave me renewed appreciation for both of these men, and it sharpened my own perspective, while giving me the breadth of view to accommodate people holding perspectives different from my own.
I also take active interest in the supernatural power of God for today – healing, prophetic, etc. (Since I have friends who had negative experiences in that area, let me say this: it can be done with a right heart and in a relevant and culturally sensitive way without diminishing any of the effectiveness of the approach, or it can also be done in such a way that the people that we approach wouldn’t want to hear about God for the rest of the year. I practice that aspect of my faith using the former approach rather than the latter.) Again – similar thing here – I (sort of) understand how some people don’t believe the supernatural power of God is for today, since they have never seen it.
So then, all that we need to do to accommodate them is to demonstrate the power of God in action, giving them something to work off of. And when it does happen, when it gets documented, and when it’s shared – it’s fascinating to observe the two types of reactions of people: one type is to rejoice, the other is to frantically look for reasons to invalidate and deny the obvious. For practicing followers of Jesus, the physical resurrection of Jesus, should be a big tip-off that God is essentially a God of the supernatural. If anything, such testimonies of the supernatural power of God in today’s context powerfully illustrate the kind of the power of God that culminates in physical resurrection – which is the ultimate liberation from death and from the fear of death. And paradoxically, it’s people’s fear of being unfaithful to a faith tradition. which denies the miracles of God as being possible for today. and somehow “losing their salvation” through that is what keeps them from accepting the testimonies that the power of God unto life and resurrection is very actual and very real. And through that, taking their faith to the next level.
Here’s the deal here. Years ago I would have been terrified to read texts and hear testimonies espousing theological perspectives different from my own. This is not to say that I now read or watch everything that’s out there. I am actually quite selective about what I spend my time and attention on. But differing perspectives don’t really threaten my confidence level with God, whereas before they did. Why? In hindsight, it’s very simple. Years ago, my security was not in God. My security was in the image of God that I created for myself, and the only way to prop up that security was to create my own echo chamber, shutting off all other perspectives. Biblically, such self-made images of God are called “idols”, and that type of relationship with the divine is called “idolatry”. So, to continue feeding my small idol, I simply had to shut off all competition for the throne.
Sure, I might have had reasons to believe the things which I believed. The problem was not so much that. Those kinds of views can be easily adjusted if outward influences are allowed in. And that very thing was the problem for me – I didn’t allow in any outside influences out of fear that they might immediately be too persuasive. I thought that my existing belief in those things had to stay the same in order for me to receive afterlife benefits from God, and “protection from the devil” in this life. And that offer of protection contingent on me staying fossilized in my fearful worldview was the offer that I couldn’t refuse, at the time.
The pastors and teachers who I was around at the time non-consciously helped me architect the entire edifice of my faith in such a way that the only safe refuge for me was my unchallenged, unquestioned intellectual assent to a set of poorly understood and ill-coherent metaphysical propositions. Many of the verbal and especially non-verbal cues indicated to me that if I were to question any of what was passed down to me, I would be in danger of “backsliding”, “falling into heresy”, “becoming rebellious”, “becoming insubordinate”, “falling away”, “losing salvation”, “missing the rapture”, and ultimately “going to hell”. Those people’s island of imagined reality was very small indeed.
In hindsight, now I see that the biggest emotional engine in that faith expression was fear, not love. The most revered thing in that atmosphere wasn’t really Jesus who conquered death. Rather, the object of awe was death itself, which was talked about as if it was unconquered by Jesus. No one was arguing that Jesus rose from the dead. What very few seemed to be certain of is whether they would ever win their own eventual tussle with death. The laundry list of rules for coming out ahead in the battle against devil and death seemed never-ending: do not sin, confess every sin, forgive every sin, do not amass earthy fortunes, stay “red-hot” for God, do not work on Sundays, wear old-fashioned clothes, don’t wear jewelry, do not question your pastor, and on and on and on. Aside from an occasional pious phrase here and there, Jesus and his cross were not allowed to bear the burden of that huge list – not by one iota.
Interestingly, if anyone bothered to put all of those “salvation” requirements together using very simple Boolean logic, it would be clear that no one could fulfill all of them, ever. And therefore no one had any certainty as to their afterlife status or their current freedom from the devil’s “legal rights” on them. And the more one became invested in that strange ideology, the worse one’s mental state and overall well-being became. At times it seemed as if Jesus did absolutely nothing for anyone else on the cross, aside from regaining his own life – and doing so for own sake.
Today, armed with a much clearer anthropological perspective, I understood why there was so much talk about “losing salvation”, “going to hell”, “missing the rapture”, “being asleep at the second coming of Christ”, “receiving the mark of the beast”, and so on. All of those things are nothing more than the outwardly Christianized version of the old pagan fear of death. Death and its close cousins (devil, hell, destruction, etc.) are exalted, magnified, talked about, and revered. God has a largely nominal presence in that picture. Yes, the resurrection of Jesus is paid lip service on Easter Sundays, but the rest of the year for many self-professing Christians death reigns supreme. And sadly enough, instead of relying on Jesus for deliverance from the sentence of death, one’s own belief system is relied upon for salvation from death. And the difference between the two of these is immense.
You see, people relying on their religion for “salvation” know deep down in their hearts that their self-made idol is powerless to protect them from death, but they aren’t aware of anything (or anyone) else that is available. The real Jesus Christ is simply painted out of the picture, and is substituted with a much smaller, much less relevant version of himself. And so anyone who would undermine those people’s false certainty in their idol (which is quite an easy thing to do, really) would get immediately rejected by them. Even if the one knocking on the door of their heart were to be Jesus Christ himself, which is often times the case. This way, then can keep their self-deception going until the day they die.
The problem with this mode of operation is that the more committed you are to your idol, the more your identity gets entangled into it, and you and your idol become one entity. Any question concerning the identity of your idol gets perceived as a personal attack, and naturally you strike back, sometimes with a good deal of anger and even hatred. Of course, such visceral rejection of other perspectives – and of their human carriers – is not a mark of devotion to God. Rather, it’s indicative of plain old insecurity and abject fear. And of being quite far from God in all of that.
The religious establishment caught wind of that dynamics a long time ago, and realized that managing one’s fear of death could be a potent tool in the hands of the elite. And so the power games began, and continued on through quite a few centuries of Christianity. As the result, quite a few notions that we hold today entertain about God, devil, heaven, hell, death, and many afterlife issues in general are quite tainted, having re-emerged from that process of Scriptural theology being twisted and tweaked to suit the manipulative needs of the religious rainmakers with agendas. After all, many of the theological constructs that evoke fear are quite speculative and aren’t empirically verifiable until after death, so let’s just trust the “professionals” to tell us what to believe, right? Wrong. In the New Covenant, there aren’t any “professionals”. We aren’t talking about a business enterprise. We are talking about a family of sons and daughters, who all have an equal right to learn from their Father.
Usually, fear response evoked in situations where love response would have been required is a good tell-tale sign of such worldview corruption. Years ago, that black hole of religion was pulling me in with its dreadful gravity. At some point by God’s grace I wised up to my own self-deception, and over years of focused effort I divested myself of those beliefs. Aaah, the fragrant air of freedom in Christ!
In the past couple or three of years the latest publicly pulpit-announced end-of-the world dates came and went without much of anything out of ordinary happening in the world (except for Chicago White Sox winning the World Series – which is hardly an apocalyptic event). Conversations about the failed doom-and-gloom prophecies were politely avoided (we don’t want to disturb our idols even when they let us down time and again), and dry food items bought with church donation monies were conveniently stored in out of sight in damp church basements and forgotten about. And I didn’t really care about any of this anymore (except for being happy for my baseball-loving Chicago friends for that non-apocalyptic but nevertheless momentous for them event). Fear of death in its many apocalyptic colors along with their hell-flame decorations are no longer my playing field. I am out of that game for good. I have Jesus Christ who I trust to have taken care of all of those things for me, and now I have much more interesting and exciting things to spend my attention on.
One thing I know – one has to want to destroy their idols to clear up room for God. The two can’t occupy the same space. Letting go of idols can be very painful. But that’s the only way to set up a temple for God in the midst of out hearts. The price may seem high – letting go of old ideas, losing friendships and memberships over it, restructuring one’s worldview, re-configuring one’s faith practice. Scripturally, all of that is referred to as “repentance” (in more literal Koine Greek – “change of mind”, or on a more fundamental level – “change of worldview”). But in the end – it’s very much worth it. And fortunately, that’s about the only sacrifice that God requires of us today.