Humans are the God-breathed image bearers of God. God created us in the same general class of beings as himself, which is why we can relate to him on many levels.
You may have heard religious ideas about how every person born after the fall of humanity was devoid of the image of God in them, was born “utterly depraved”, “born of the devil”, personally repulsive and deeply abominable to God, etc. That’s not only Scripturally inaccurate (if you go beyond superficial prooftexting), but it’s also very conducive to awakening the worst of our instincts relative to other human beings. Such teachings simply attempt to dehumanize fellow humans, to strip the image of God off of them, since that’s the only rhetorical way of gaining imaginary authority to destroy them through slander and violence.
What happened after “the fall” is that humanity acquired a progressively thicker layer of self-reliance followed by blindness followed by sin followed by death – in that order. They departed from the divinely established order by relying on various systems of right and wrong (self-reliance), their worldviews and perspectives got retrained to perceive the world in the terms of “right vs. wrong” and “with us vs. against us” dichotomies (blindness), their skewed perspectives (think spiritual eyesight) caused them to constantly miss the mark in their interactions with other people and with God (sin in “hamartia” in Greek – literally, “missing the mark”), and in continually operating in sin they progressed in death (or entropy – increasing degrees of disorder, culminating in state of disorder – literal and irreversible death).
The Bible assigns a very special place to the “Word of God”. In fact, we even capitalize the word “Word”. Let’s take a deeper dive on this concept.
Often times, we equate the Word of God with the Bible, pretty much without thinking. After all, that’s the normal usage of the phrase, right? So, “studying the Word” turns to “reading the Bible”. “Flowing with the Word” becomes “knowing details about Biblical events” (culture, history, perhaps even Hebrew / Koine Greek, etc.)
Let’s take a close look at this notion. The Word of God is very important indeed:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
Let’s try to substitute this with the word “the Bible”, and see if this bears out:
“In the beginning was the Bible, and the Bible was with God, and the Bible was God.” (John 1:1)
There are a few problems with this. One, the first book of the Bible was likely penned in about 1500 BC, and the last book of the Bible was most likely penned shortly before 70 AD. The entire Bible was put together in its (more or less) final form no earlier than circa 367 A.D. Clearly, those 1800-1900 or so years happened long after “the beginning” of John 1:1.
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.
This might be fiction, or this might be what really happened. And I ain’t telling which one that is …
MY ENCOUNTER WITH JESUS
I heard a gentle whisper in my ear: “Come, follow me”. I turned around, but there was no one in the room. But I knew what I heard was real.
“Who are you?”, I asked, in childlike awe and wonder.
“I am Jesus, who you have been reading and hearing about.”
When Jesus was speaking, his lips weren’t moving at all, for whatever reason. I heard and understood everything he was saying, though.
“Follow you? Follow you where?”
“Wherever I call you to”.
This didn’t seem scary at all. Rather, an intoxicating sense of excitement and fascination welled up in me, sending shivers through my entire body. Finally, I was starting to get a sense that all my searches have led me to the One.
Plus, there’s only so low you can fall. And for a while, I have really felt like I hit rock bottom.
You cannot simultaneously state two things:
1) that God personally causes (directly or though one’s agency) and approves (or wills) everything that happens in the world, including all the evil,
2) and that God is love.
The two are in irreconcilable conflict, and no amount of religious sophistry and verbal calisthenics can make this equation balance out.
The reason that the hyper-sovereignty view of God at the expense of God being love appeals to so many is that humans lust after power and control after their fellow human beings. That’s part of the fallen human nature. Vulnerability is perceived as a general liability, and about the only place one can afford to be legitimately vulnerable in a modern increasingly secular world is on a tear-stained recliner in the psychoanalyst’s office.
One well-known evangelical preacher said this not too long ago:
“In Revelation, Jesus is a pride-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.”
Wow. Really? Mr. Preacher must have forgotten that Jesus WAS beaten up, hung stark naked on a blood and faeces-stained wooden pole in front of his own heart-broken Jewish mother, in a culture where revealing as much as one’s knees while running was considered shameful for a male. If that’s not utterly vulnerable, I don’t know what is.
The kind of love which stands above division, judgment, and offense is usually fairly difficult to cultivate and practice. When it becomes our heart culture, however, it has a very real potential to open people up to what we have to say. Then we can usher those we thus love into the very presence of Jesus, so that he can do through us for them what no educational or correctional institution can. But we can get to that point only when we begin with unconditional love and acceptance on the most fundamental human level, before anything else can be offered.
Am I there? Not quite yet, but I know that I am on my way there. I also experientially know that place of judgmentalism and misplaced pride which is the polar opposite of agape-love. That’s a place to which I have absolutely no intention of ever regressing to.
We love playing it safe and talking in generalities. But what if we allow ourselves to get more specific with more general statements such as “God so loved the world”? What would that look like? The poem below attempts to unpack that Scriptural verse within the context of years 2016-2017.