The Christian God is Surprising

As a pastor, I often worry that some Christians do not seem to have a very Christian view of God.  My fear is that far too many people have never allowed the Triune God, revealed in the person of Jesus, to redefine their beliefs about God’s own character and nature.  Instead, we grasp on to our preconceived notions of what God must be like and struggle to understand how his actions fit into our already-formed theologies.  All this to say, I think we should learn to be much less surprised by God’s actions and much more surprised by his character.

For instance: Christians celebrate Christmas, the Incarnation, the act of God becoming man.  We are surprised to find God growing in a womb.  We are surprised to find God lying in a manger.  We are surprised to find God calling Mary his mother.

But what if the real surprise of Christmas is not that God did something extraordinarily out of character?

What if the real surprise of Christmas is that God’s character is extraordinary?

Perhaps the manger is not an anomaly in the life of God.  Perhaps the manger is an expression of who God is from all of eternity – the Triune One of self-sacrificial love, committed to the life of his creation regardless of the personal cost.  The One who stoops down in humility and gentleness to be with and rescue his people – perhaps this is who God has been revealed to be [John 1:14-18].

Likewise, Christians celebrate Good Friday, the crucifixion, the day when God died.  We are surprised to find God being spit on and mocked.  We are surprised to find God being nailed to a cross.  We are surprised to find God take his last breath.

But what if the real surprise of Good Friday is not that God did something extremely unusual by dying for his enemies?

What if the real surprise of Good Friday is that God is extremely unusual in that he recklessly loves his enemies?

Perhaps the cross is not an anomaly in the life of God.  Perhaps, as Philippians 2 states, he does not die “in spite” of being God but “because” he is God.  Perhaps the cross is an expression of who God is – The Triune One who, by his very nature, is committed to loving and offering forgiveness to his enemies even while they kill him? [Luke 23:26-34]

I wonder, have we truly let God define himself?  I’m not always convinced.  But I have developed a test to determine whether or not we have really let our view of God be shaped by his own revelation: what will Jesus be like when he returns?  Will he come to kill and destroy or will he come in the spirit of the manger and of the cross?  I’m not suggesting that we ignore Revelation, I’m just suggested we read it well, cognizant of its literary devices, purposes, and canonical context.  I’m suggesting we finally let go of our own dreams for a violent and tribal God so that we won’t be surprised when the Crucified One returns.

Christmas is over.  Good Friday is on the way.  And I am…  surprised.


It’s the End of the World….As We Know It

In his book, The New Testament and the People of God, N.T Wright describes the apocalyptic imagination of second-temple Judaism as being inseparably linked to hope.  When Israel speaks about their expectations for the future, it is almost always through this genre.  This sounds strange to many of us since the word apocalyptic makes us think of either zombies or a meteor headed for earth.  Apocalyptic today means the end of the world.  This idea, combined with our Deistic worldview, leads us to commonly misinterpret ancient, apocalyptic texts.

According to Wright, one of Israel’s central beliefs was that God was intimately involved in history.  Their God was especially concerned with the plight of his people.  The hope of Israel was that one day their God would intervene on their behalf, restore creation, and write the Law on their hearts.  They hoped for the day when there God would become king.  That day would not be the end of the world (in the sense of the space-time universe), but it would be the end of the present world order, in which evil and injustice currently reign.

How do you communicate such a complex and multi-layered concept?  You do it through cosmic imagery.  We do this all the time when we describe important events in our history.  Wright uses the example of the Berlin wall.  We say that the day when the the Berlin wall fell was an earth shattering event.  If someone reading this sentence a hundred years from now assumed there was an earthquake that caused the Berlin wall to fall, then this would be a serious misreading of the text.  

Finally, Wright describes the apocalyptic genre as presenting a series of dualities.  Apocalyptic writings assume a clear distinction between creator and creation, the present age and the age to come.  Wright distinguishes these dualities from a cosmological or anthropological dualism, in which the physical universe or our bodies are viewed as evil and separate from our spiritual make-up.  That type of dualism is not found in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures and is more characteristic of Gnosticism.  The hope of Israel, which the early Christians adopted, was not envisioned as a spiritual, atemporal existence.  If God is known as creator, then his creation/material is viewed as good.  If his good creation is corrupted, then the solution is not to destroy it but to restore it.  This is where we commonly misunderstand key texts in Revelation that talk about fire and burning creation.  The fire of God’s judgment is part of the purification and restoration process.  It is not proof that God is scrapping his creation, but that he is cutting out the disease that is crippling it.  

It is through this lens that books like Revelation and Daniel must be read.  When this happens, the hermeneutic of the Left Behind series and the concept of a rapture are simply not convincing. (More to come on both of these topics in a later post).

The church today needs to reclaim the word apocalyptic as a synonym for hope.  The mainstream view of Revelation, Daniel, and others apocalyptic sections in the Bible have too long been held captive by a fear mongering minority.

Interpreting the Violent Imagery in Revelation

In case you missed it, Mark Driscoll caused quite a stir yesterday with his comments on Jesus, God, and pacifism.  I’ve already offered my general thoughts on why Driscoll is wrong about Jesus (Jesus is Cruciform, Not Octagonal) as have others (three particularly thoughtful responses can be found herehere, and here).  But, I still think there is more to say.

You see, I understand why people struggle to understand God as consistently nonviolent.

Let’s be honest.  There is a lot of violence directly attributed to God in both the Old and New Testaments.

If you take away Driscoll’s flare for controversial rhetoric, I’ve found that his view represents that of a large amount of Jesus-centered, Kingdom-focused Christians.  They understand Jesus’ ethical priorities in the Gospels and don’t want to dismiss or compromise them, but they have no idea how they could possibly interpret Revelation (and other parts of the Bible) without doing so.  I think it is important to not simply dismiss these concerns, but to instead offer alternative readings of these problematic passages.

How could one possibly read the violent imagery found in Revelation 14:14-20 (cited by Driscoll) without concluding that Jesus will one day shed the blood of his enemies?

I think Michael Gorman, in his excellent book Reading Revelation Responsibly, provides a possible way forward.  He suggests that we take another look at the proper (and intended) function of the violent symbolism in Revelation:

“The language and images of death and destruction (in Revelation) symbolize – in comprehensible, if disturbing, idiom – the universality and finality of God’s ultimate eradication of evil rather than the means by which God brings about that eradication.  As the omnipotent One who spoke creation into existence, God hardly needs to resort to literal violence to effect the cessation of evil… Instead, Revelation should be understood as portraying symbolically what God does actually with a divine performative utterance, an effective word not unlike the word that spoke creation into existence.” (p. 152)

There is an abundance of symbolism in the second “harvest scene” of Revelation 14.  Is anyone really willing to interpret this apocalyptic passage “literally”?  Will there really be a giant angel with a cosmic sickle harvesting grapes and putting them in a divinely-wrathful winepress that produces blood when trodden outside the city?  Is the blood going to literally flow as high as 184 miles?  Will the Guinness Book of World Records be there to measure it?  If not, why must we read the “blood” as real blood being poured out of deceased human bodies that have been ripped apart by Jesus?

What if the symbolism and imagery isn’t mean to communicate the means of judgement but the effect of judgement?  This isn’t just special pleading by the “pansies.”  After all, there are plenty of nonviolent themes in the book of Revelation.  Jesus is declared worthy to rule because of (not in spite of) his nonviolence.  The church is commanded to follow Christ’s example and conquer by their blood (not that of their enemies).

And why do we have to assume that God can’t effectively eradicate evil nonviolently? Gorman points out that Revelation itself provides clues that this might be the case.  For instance, the sword that strikes down Jesus’ enemies comes from his mouth in Revelation 19:11-16, 21.  As Gorman says, “This signifies the effective word of God’s judgement – the wrath of God and the Lamb – that needs no literal sword, and which a literal sword could never accomplish.” (pg. 153)  Likewise, Gorman notes that there is no fighting recorded during the five great “battle scenes” of Revelation.  No blood, no guts, no bombs, no swords, no violence.  When I teach through the book of Revelation, this is always a striking feature of the book to high schoolers – it is anti-climatic.  Revelation never follows through on the expectation it builds in the Western reader for a classic Armageddon battle. Why?  Gorman answers, “Because the images of battle are supposed to suggest to us the promise and reality of God’s defeat of evil, but they are not the means of that defeat… Christ’s only weapon is the ‘sword’ of his word.” (pg. 155)  I think Gorman’s suggestion, that God might eradicate creatures in a way similar to how he created and sustains them, is worth serious consideration.

So then, what is the message of Revelation 14? That God will, because of his desire for a peaceful new creation, fully and finally judge all that is evil.  It is not clear to me that this passage is meant to do anything more or anything less than this.  In particular, I find it hard to accept that it should cause me to radically reinterpret the picture of God we have received in Jesus.

While I don’t imagine this reading will convince everyone (anyone?), it should at least make it obvious that pacifists aren’t ignoring these “violent” texts.  There are real, viable ways to read Revelation that don’t make God into a monster.  Maybe we should try them out.

Do you agree?