Thursday, August 30, 2012

More Thoughts On Death And Afterward

Never in my whole life have I spent such a focused, extended period of time thinking about death.

For the last two weeks I have been a part of an intensive module course at a local seminary. The class is called "Resurrection in the New Testament," and is a theological approach to how death, resurrection, and judgment are depicted in the NT. We just finished discussing our secondary text for the class, Anthony C. Thiselton’s Life After Death: A New Approach to the Last Things (Eerdmans: 2012), and I’m perhaps even more confused now than I was before. The fact is that many people in the Church simply do not think about life, death, and the “Last Things” nearly as thoroughly as they should. Below are some of the thoughts that have challenged me these last two weeks.

1. Eternity
What exactly is time? We flippantly throw around the idea that God is eternal, but what exactly does "eternity" mean? Is it a really, really, really, really long period of immeasurable time? Is it another dimension, outside of the four with which we are already familiar? Does God really exist outside of time? If so, how then does Christian tradition allow for such a deity to enter into the human story and be affected by it? How is it possible to have “a relationship” with a being that exists outside of time? How did you or your church define eternity when you were young? How do you feel about it today?

2. Hell
Two years ago, if you'd have asked me if I believed in Hell, I would have responded, "Absolutely not." These days, I’m not so sure. Thiselton presents three distinct streams of thought that have deep roots in the tradition of the Church, with each also being somewhat grounded in scripture:

a. The view of Iranaeus that afterlife consisted of “conditional immortality.” 
Sometimes this view is called “annihilationalism.” It’s based on the belief that, upon death (or perhaps more accurately, at the time of the resurrection), the faithful will live while the “wicked” perish, simply slipping into nonexistence. This is partially supported by Paul, who claims that “the wages of sin is death.”

b. The view most prominently held by Gregory of Nyssa, which is similar to what today we would call universalism.
Move over, Rob Bell! As early as the fourth century, this Cappadocian Father was preaching that “It is the peculiar effect of light to make darkness vanish, and of life to destroy death…Cleansing reaches those who are befouled with sin; and life, the dead…Error may be corrected, and what is dead is restored to life.”[1] Gregory believed that the ultimate goal of God (again, supported by Paul) was that God become “all in all,” even if it meant that the “wicked” must be purified by fire before entering the Kingdom. This view caused quite a bit of controversy recently with the publication of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.

c. The Augustinian view of a conscious, eternal torment. 
Hellfire, burning, eternal torture. This is perhaps the most commonly accepted understanding of Hell in the Protestant and Evangelical tradition. A person chooses to turn away from God, and is burned for all eternity as a consequence. However, Thiselton acknowledges that this view is particularly problematic: "The greatest difficulty of the 'everlasting punishment' view may be partly the relation between eternity and time; but even more fundamentally how we can conceive of God eternally sustaining both the life of believers in fellowship with [God], and also that of a group who are in every other sense 'separate' from [God]."[2] In other words, if God is truly the sustainer of life and is fully present with those who take part in the resurrection, how can a life exist outside of that life-giving presence?

I am particularly fond of Gregory of Nyssa’s view. However, I acknowledge that it has its shortcomings. Many of the early Christians sought universal salvation as “something to be hoped for,” even if it wasn’t a solid reality. I would like to hope for the idea that the Creator with restore all things in the end, as well, but I have this crazy notion of justice that keeps me from fully believing it. Which brings me to my final topic that I have been pondering:

3. Justice and Mercy
The United States is a place of "liberty and justice for all." In many ways, we still operate on the foundational social code of Hammurabi: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. In most states, those convicted of first degree murder are often considered for the death penalty. Kill, and we kill you. That's how justice works, right? Thiselton suggests that in reality, we have a skewed understanding of biblical justice (Heb: tzedekahGk: δικαιοσύνη). A better translation of both words is perhaps “righteousness,” the idea that God is going to “put things to rights,” as N.T. Wright says. In essence, there is no conflict of justice and mercy in God. Righteousness includes a freeing of the oppressed, in whatever form their oppression might take. This entails a profoundly different understanding of the word justice; rather than God submitting to the back-and-forth of human right and wrong, God fixes the root of the problem. In other words, it's as if a mother chided her two children for fussing, and one of the children responded, "He started it!" to which the mother answers, "And I'm finishing it." What matters is not that God repays all wrongs tit-for-tat, but that in the end, God makes all things right. That is the righteousness of the Deity.

The Church has struggled with these questions for the better part of 2,000 years, and humanity itself has pondered the same issues since the first people began to consider their purpose in the cosmos. Honestly, I don't yet believe that there are any real answers. However, these are the questions that effective ministers should be struggling with. Death is always around us, regardless of whether our culture admits it. The families of those coping with the suicide of a loved one, or the young man who died of a drug overdose, or the child who fell victim to cancer—these are all problematic to the Christian worldview of an all-loving God. But it is precisely these circumstances that call for real, humble ministers, who approach such great questions with fear and with trembling.

[1] Gregory of Nyssa, Catechism 25, quoted in Thiselton, 147.
[2] Thiselton, 149.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why You Should Leave Behind Left Behind

If you're going to believe you could be Raptured at any
given moment, it's probably a good idea to keep that
denim skirt at least ankle-length.
When I was a kid, I was crazy about the Left Behind series. By the time I was around 15, I had almost all of the books. We watched the film version of the first book, starring Kirk Cameron, in my youth Sunday school class. It wasn’t until years after being introduced to the books that I began to see the deeply flawed nature of their theology.

Let me be blunt from the beginning of this post: there is no such thing as the Rapture. Nowhere in the New Testament text does it explicitly state that Christians will ever disappear, or suddenly be propelled into "Heaven," leaving the rest of humanity and the earth to go to Hell in a hand-basket. 

The text most commonly utilized as an apologetic for the dubious doctrine of the Rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve, as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

A 19th-century clergyman named John Nelson Darby is largely responsible for the twisting of this passage to suggest that on the Last Day, Christians will be “caught up” in the air (Latin: rapiemur, the root of the English word “rapture”) and sent to Heaven, leaving this mortal coil behind. His ideas were further interpreted and integrated into the Scofield Bible (1909). The idea of a rapture is only a little more than a century old.

In reality, Paul is referring to the Royal Return of Jesus, or the Parousia (Greek: parousiva). According to scripture, this event immediately precedes the final resurrection of the dead. But a little more insight is necessary to understand why this text-segment has nothing to do with the subject of the Left Behind series. The primary question that any Bible interpreter (pastor, scholar, or layperson) should ask of any given scripture is this: What is the context of this passage?

“We don’t want you to be uninformed concerning those who have died, brothers and sisters,” Paul says. Paul is here addressing concerns from within the Thessalonian community about the return of Christ. By the time Paul was writing to the Church in Thessalonica, the death and resurrection of Jesus was nearly a quarter of a century in the past. People were beginning to die, and communities were beginning to question whether or not their loved ones would be raised from the dead in time to participate in the Royal Return of Christ, which many believed would happen within their own lifetime. In an attempt to calm their fears, Paul is arguing that the dead will indeed be raised at the time of Christ’s return, and that both the living and the dead will be caught up in the air to greet him.

The Greek term parousia (parousiva) literally means “return,” or “visitation.” In the first century, it was often used to describe the royal visits of Caesar. When the emperor would ride into a town, the wealthy and political elites would ride outside the gates of the city to greet him. They would then return in a royal procession into the town square, where the emperor would be presented with lavish gifts worthy of his lordship. The Apostle Paul applies the term to the Return of Christ, and it is this idea that he is getting at when trying to describe the circumstances of what many refer to as the Second Coming. Sure, the living and the dead will be caught up in the air to greet Christ. But the implication (assuming Paul was consistent in his description of the Resurrection on the Last Day) is that when Christ returns, as N.T. Wright says, to “put things to rights,” we will all return to earth to inhabit the New Creation that God has prepared for us.

“Going to Heaven” is not at all a Christian idea. Heaven, in fact, comes to us (as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer). 

Now, one could ponder all day about how exactly this whole business of “getting caught up in the air” is going to happen. However, to give too much authority to a literal interpretation of this text—as George B. Caird says of over-literalized readings of Revelation—is to “unweave the rainbow.”[1] The main point Paul is trying to communicate is quite simply hope. The dead will not be forgotten or abandoned when Christ returns to make all things new, as the Thessalonians feared. In fact, the living and the dead will both share a role in welcoming the Parousia and establishing God’s Reign on Earth for eternity, a reign that leaves no room for death, decay, hatred, or greed.
I should make note of the fact that this theological discussion is not a minor one, and the debunking of Rapture theology is extremely important. The most concerning problem of the doctrine is this: dispensationalism and millennialism aren't merely harmful little belief systems that just happen to contradict scripture and the better part of two thousand years of Church doctrine. It is—as my "Resurrection in the New Testament" professor calls it—a "sub-Christian" ideology. And the way these ideas are spoon-fed to our youth is quite dangerous. These beliefs breed assumptions about the inherently evil nature of Creation (which we know from Genesis is untrue; after all, God “saw that it was good”). If we are simply “going to Heaven” and leaving this crazy place behind, there is no need for us to be good stewards of Creation, or even care much for our fellow brothers and sisters who may not share the Judeo-Christian worldview, since it’s all going to burn away, anyway. It becomes a way of avoiding the problems of our time, rather than addressing them, and it takes a dim and shallow view of God’s power to fully redeem the world. It is the ultimate escapist revenge fantasy.  

What do you think? Were you raised to believe in the Rapture? Have you changed your mind since you were younger? Feel free to leave your comments below.

[1] George B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (London: Black, 1966), pg. 25. Quoted in Anthony C. Thiselton, Life After Death: A New Approach to the Last Things (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), pg. 109.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Perfect Church?

Over the last several months, I have found myself involved in a number of conversations regarding what a church service would look like if I were designing it from scratch. Part of this stems from my own disenchantment with the Church, as well as the feelings of many of my peers who have been alienated by the institution. Part of what follows also stems from my dreams of what the Church could be. These words are my own opinions, and partially the product of many of the above-mentioned discussions. I'd love to take this opportunity to encourage further dialogue.

"Bigger is better?" Not in this house.

First of all, the church should be small. Early churches functioned within the confines of the immediate "neighborhood," with worship services often being held in houses (these house churches formed a larger community network, resulting in "the Church in Corinth," or "the Church in Rome"). In a culture that often values a super-sized McChurch over an intimate community, it is refreshing to think of the Spirit of God moving more fluidly among less institutional meetings. Additionally, churches that get "too big for their britches" often fail at adequately discipling and providing for the spiritual needs of their congregants; often, members of large churches simply have the opportunity to show up, feel good about themselves for a while, and return home without offering much in return to the community (for more on this topic, see Wolfgang Simson's 2001 book, Houses That Change the World: The Return of the House Churches). A 20-30 member church provides an opportunity for adequate, organic community without drowning the congregants in the costs of coffee bars and theater seats.
Furthermore, churches should have no business owning property (unless it serves a significant purpose other than being a house of worship—ie., a homeless shelter). The house of God is not a steepled building (as beautiful as they may be). The house of God is all of creation, and is attested to in the human heart. Why should a congregation take on the burden of a mortgage, or pay to heat/cool for a whole week a building that is mostly utilized only on Sundays?

No creeds, no sacraments, except...

The years have not been very kind to the Church's penchant for setting beliefs and practices in stone. The Nicene Creed, influenced by the major political and theological issues of its day, is not as pertinent to today's Church as it once was. In general, creeds are no sooner set to paper before they become over-analyzed and outdated—especially in the fast-paced theological milieu of the 21st century. Though I'm sure many will disagree, I propose that the only necessary sacrament to maintain a healthy Christian community is the tradition of the Eucharist. The symbol of the table is the most spiritual element of Christian orthopraxy; it feeds the body while also feeding the spirit. It carries with it the notions of sharing, sacrifice, friendship, and social health, and I feel it should be a vital piece of weekly worship.

Order of Worship

It is important to explore and expand beliefs and traditions. However, there must be a baseline order of worship for any regular meeting/service, or its own fluidity will cause it to fail. Granted, every order of worship is subjective, and reflects the values of its particular faith community. With that in mind, however, here is what I envisioned:

- Gathering/Greeting/Passing of the Peace/Reading of Scripture (15 minutes). I seldom experience as much joy as when I have the privilege of initiating the Passing of the Peace in the small rural church where I often preach. By beginning the service this way, a general pleasant attitude is engendered in the hearts of those gathered. Reading scripture at the start of service and before the period of contemplation gives congregants something to meditate upon.
- Contemplation (30 minutes). I love this Quaker practice, and believe that it should comprise the most significant time segment of worship. I personally feel closest to God in a room full of people together in total silence. However, even I will readily admit that a full hour of silence is taxing, and perhaps does not exactly fulfill all of a community's spiritual needs.
- Homily/Music (15 minutes). This should be the least important part of the service, and at the same time, the most malleable. Should someone desire to speak, that would be fantastic! Should the congregation happen to have a musician that could lead us in one or two songs, that's wonderful! But the service does not hinge on this portion. This is merely a time of worshipful expression, in whatever form that might take.
- Fellowship/Eucharist (As long as it takes). This should be the most important part of the service. Being the central practice of Christian tradition, the sharing of a meal helps build community and invites us to share in the same love that Jesus shared with his disciples.

Congregants would sit in a circle/square, similar to the style of a Quaker meeting house. There may be candles; perhaps not. There may be an altar; perhaps not. The focus would be on one another.

Diversify, diversify, diversify!

I want to attend a church that is not afraid to try new things. I want to attend a church that is not afraid to reach out artistically to feel out the meaning of its own humanity. The human soul is free, and the Church should relish and take advantage of this freedom in any way it can. If a painting, song, film, or other piece of art seems particularly relevant to the worship of God, it should be used and discussed! Art and the process of creation should play a vital role in a worship service. People should be free to express themselves, and the Church should make room for them to do so! And the above-mentioned Order of Worship should be adapted to accommodate. I want to attend a church where this is as welcome as this. Or this. Or, for whatever reason, even this.
This all sounds fine and dandy to me. But here's the great difficulty: the Church does not exist to serve the needs of one person, or even two or three. Churches—as places of worship—exist to serve the spiritual needs of the congregation; they function primarily as a place where communities can gather to experience the Other. Post-modernity has splintered any illusions of a monolithic worship service that we might have previously held to be true. The so-called "Emerging Church Movement" has given birth in the last twenty years to schizophrenic faith communities who vacillate between the desire to be grounded in tradition and the desire to be sensitive to those without a specific tradition (a stance that has erroneously been dubbed "seeker-friendly"). I suggest that a church need not be encumbered by its desire to be sensitive to others' unfamiliarity in order to make converts. Churches should be courageous laboratories of spiritual experimentation that are at the same time unafraid of seeking out their own traditions. The only way in which the Church can continue to be a place of hope in this decade and the decades to come is if we break free of what is known and begin to dream.
For more information about house churches, check out these 15 theses by Wolfgang Simson.