Category Archives: Church Culture

This Will Help Them: A Theology of Disability

Study the image above for a minute. It’s called This Will Help Them by the Clayton Brothers: mixed media on two large wood panels, measuring together 67” x103”. It’s currently on display through November right across the street from Fuller at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. The piece tells the story of a boy who grew up on the same street as brothers Rob and Christian Clayton. He was mentally disabled, and they remember him being a difficult playmate to have. The painting depicts one particularly striking memory they had of him attempting to give his medication to the local wildlife in the neighboring wood.

The painting has an ominous quality to it, driven primarily by the drug-influenced, anthropomorphic animals and the look of terror on the face of little girl who is trying to prevent the boy from causing any more damage, the contrast between their two faces striking: shock and delight, knowledge and blissful ignorance.

And his face seems to be melting. Why is that? Certainly, there’s no concrete answer. It could be a result of his actions, he could be feverish with anxiety—but no practical explanation seems to do the power of his image any justice. What is important here is the grotesqueness of this representation of disability. The boy is somewhere between human and animal, not just spatially in the painting, but in terms of his features. He is oddly proportioned, and in some ways is closer to the female squirrel than he is the female child.

Disability is perhaps the most widely ignored, widely misunderstood aspect of Christian anthropology. It makes us uncomfortable. Uncomfortable is one of the feelings this painting is supposed to evoke the moment you lay your eyes on it. That is a visceral reaction. It’s a reaction that nearly all of us have had at one time or another in our lives to disability.

What do we do about it? If you attend even a moderately sized church (over 150 members) you probably have attendees with mental handicaps of some kind. Is it enough to just say hi to them awkwardly, to pat them on the back, to say, “I’m glad you’re here!”

Do we really mean that?

I genuinely believe that some people do—those people who honestly could love anyone with the love of Jesus. They have a gift. Their visceral reaction is to love. The rest of us need to think about things a little harder. It has to start with theology.

Greg Boyd, in Satan and the Problem of Evil, makes a really strong case for why evil exists in the world: True, Absolute, Perfect Love requires the free will of moral agents. God’s love means nothing and our love for him means nothing if we don’t have the free will to express it or not. You can probably see where it goes from there. It is a strong argument for why horrific, terrible, atrocious things happen to good people who have never harmed anyone, and it flies in the face of Augustine’s blueprint model (i.e. bad things happen because they are part of a divine plan we just can’t comprehend.)

However, when it comes to what is commonly termed “natural evil,” Boyd encounters a problem. His entire argument (both in this book and in the one that precedes it, God at War) is driven by a belief in spiritual warfare. I don’t want to get into a discussion of whether or not demons and angels exist—that really has nothing to do with my critique. Boyd’s explanation for natural evil is tied up completely in spiritual warfare. To put it bluntly, demonic forces are the cause. Ignoring the questions this begs about the existence of demons, we could say that this would be an acceptable argument for tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters: demons are moral agents who have free will. If they have the power to control natural forces (which Boyd clearly believes they do,) then they can choose to be destructive with that power.

When we start talking about illness and disease, we begin to cross into darker waters. Is cancer caused by demons? Chicken pox? The common cold? What about a scraped knee, a broken arm, a stubbed toe? Or are those things all a part of a divine plan? In other words, it’s easy for a proponent of spiritual warfare or the blueprint model to ascribe supernatural or divine causes to immense disasters, but there’s no distinct line between immense and inconsequential.

Here’s where things get really sticky though: Is a child born with Down Syndrome a victim of a moral agent exercising free will? Is his or her disability a part of God’s divine plan that we just can’t understand? I think the answer must be a resounding “No.” I know—the demoniacs in the book of Matthew were mute. Couldn’t we say that they were potentially mentally disabled in some way…?

Just going to let that trail off there for a second. There is absolutely no point in trying to make a case like this or to say that disability is simply an unexplainable part of God’s plan as a theology of disability because at the end of the day, it does not allow for us to care for our disabled brothers and sisters the way that we should. We can ask these sorts of questions all day long. I don’t think the point of Jesus’ exorcisms was so that we would know that the cause of disability is demon possession.

Let me set forth an example for consideration: From the time he began first grade, Tommy has had trouble keeping up with the rest of his classmates. His teachers have taken notice, filed reports. He’s having trouble reading, and he hasn’t been doing homework assignments. His third grade teacher is at a loss with him, and wants to meet with his parents. They come in, and the teacher tries to explain that if Tommy does not improve, he may be held back a grade or may even need to attend the Special Day class. His parents don’t understand.

But their lack of understanding isn’t because they are at a loss for words, unable to comprehend how they could have brought a boy like Tommy into the world. They don’t speak English. They’ve immigrated from Guatemala and have been living with Tommy’s aunt and uncle for the last three years. Tommy, as you have probably guessed, is having trouble because he barely speaks English. In fact, the reality of immigrant education is that even if he were moved into a Spanish-speaking classroom at this point, he still would not have the skills in his own language to succeed.

What do we say about this? Do we say that a demon caused Tommy’s circumstances to be less than desirable? Do we say that God desires this? Is that what we say about those who live in the third world? Those who live in government housing? Those who are homeless? Those who are simply less fortunate than we are?

A theology of disability, then, must recognize that disability is not a significant marker of difference. If we allow it to become that, then we make the disabled in our congregations into the grotesque figure of the painting. If we call fellow Christians around the world our brothers and sisters in Christ and claim that even though we live differently, we are all the same in Christ, recognizing that Christ calls us to serve those who are less fortunate than we are and simultaneously be able to be in relationship with them, then why should disability, no matter how severe, be any different?

The disabled are just as human as we are. I refuse to see disability as an evil that can be explained away as a mysterious transcendent good or the result of a supernatural moral agent’s will. People are born into difficult circumstances. We are called to serve those people not just by helping them but by being in relationship with them. That is certainly not an easy thing to do. For some of us, it’s always going to be challenging. But if we belong to the church, to Jesus, then that’s the life we’ve chosen.

It’s that simple.

by Joel Harrison

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Border Breaking

I can’t take full credit for the basis of this post, since it came from an insight a friend offered up during a group discussion in our Matthew book study this summer at Fuller. We were discussing Matthew 16:21-23, where Peter, who had just been named the rock upon which Jesus would build his church, suddenly finds himself as the stumbling block, failing to understand Jesus’ declaration of his own death. The friend pointed out that the disciples, being ancient Jews, had no category for understanding resurrection. That was not part of the Jews’ understanding of death. When one died, one was simply dead.

It is sometimes difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples, to try to remember that they, being first century Jews, thought of things differently than we do today. It’s one thing to talk about the fact that the Messiah defied expectations. History tells us that the Jews were expecting their Messiah to come and liberate them from imperial rule, to overthrow their oppressors, once and for all, to put the power back into their hands—olam. This is demonstrated by the [disastrous] revolts led by Judas Maccabaeus (167-160 BCE) and Simon bar Giora (70 CE). This is why Jesus waits to reveal his death explicitly; he needs the disciples to come to their own conclusion that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Had he told the disciples from the beginning that he must die and be raised again, there’s a good chance they simply would not have followed him. Who wants to follow a dead Messiah? What good can a dead Messiah be in a revolution to seize power back from the Gentile oppressors for the nation of Israel?

We tend to rebuke Peter with Jesus at this point, saying, “Didn’t he hear what Jesus said? He’ll be raised again! C’mon, Peter. You’re smarter than that.” Peter’s response is borne out of two things we have difficulty understanding. First, is his expectation for who the Messiah is—and it is not at all what Jesus has just revealed to them. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the exact subversive act of humility that destroys the satanic vision of the Messiah (remember Matthew 4?) that Peter and so many other children of Israel have in mind without ever seeing it as such. Peter is expecting the sword. He’s expecting Jesus to ride into Jerusalem on a warhorse, to lead a horde against the oppressors, to obliterate them of the face of the earth. Peter is looking to win no matter what the cost. This is the way Satan offers Jesus—use your power to bring the world under your feet—which is what elicits Jesus’ response to Peter. In this moment, Jesus is requiring what we call today a Gestalt switch—a change in worldview—with regard to his belief in the Messiah.

But there is something else in Peter’s way, and this is where my friend’s point becomes so vital. Peter did hear, but he was incapable of understanding at that precise moment, not only because of his worldview and lifelong expectations regarding the Messiah but because Peter had no category with which to understand the resurrection Jesus is talking about. It’s not as though resurrection didn’t happen before Jesus—it did. There are three occurrences in the Old Testament: one involving Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24), another Elisha (2 Kings 4:32-37), and the third Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:21.) The account of Matthew 16 also appears in Mark 8, both of which occur before Jesus begins brining the dead back to life. The common thread between all of these resurrections is the intervention of someone else—someone great. The moment Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection, the bit about coming back to life is most likely immediately dismissed by not just Peter but the rest of the disciples as well. Which one of them could perform such a task—raising the supposed Messiah from the dead? This is why we can say that Peter had no category, no way to comprehend what Jesus was talking about. All he knew in that moment was that the man he had been following, who he believed was the Messiah is now telling him that he must die. Jesus, however, is demanding through his rebuke that this border of Peter’s be broken.

This leads us to consider a vitally important, potentially terrifying point for us today: What categories do we lack? What borders is Christ calling us to break? Do we ever even recognize that we are lacking categories of understanding?

The answer is no. We don’t. Unfortunately, we tend to think that because we have the Bible and have had it for nearly two thousand years now, we are already given all of the categories we need. I wonder though about something like human sexuality. Is this a category we fully understand? I think that the typical Christian response to something like gay marriage demonstrates that it is not. Many tend to read Romans 1:26-32 as very explicitly talking about homosexuality as we know it today, in general. To be homosexual is to be an abomination, given up to lustful passion. However, one only needs to make a few gay friends to suddenly be confused about how this could be the case. Christians tend to find it surprising (sometimes terrifying) that members of the homosexual community are people, just like them, possibly sharing the same interests, hopes, dreams—even the same faith. Certainly immorality exists in that community. Immorality exists in all communities.

Exegeting Romans 1 is beside the point here though. What we need to understand is that there’s a good chance that particular categories, whether they be general (personhood, human sexuality) or more theologically specific (sacrament, revelation) are not fixed, which is how we tend to think of them in the everyday.

We see what happens to Peter in this process of unfixing. Once Jesus is arrested, he and the rest of the disciples scatter—right after Peter (according to John) draws his sword and cuts of the ear of the slave to the high priest. He’s not there yet. His Messiah is still the satanic messiah who would utterly destroy his enemies at any cost. In his defeat, Peter denies knowing Jesus three times. He thinks that his side has lost. He’s not prepared to deny Jesus when he still believes Jesus is the all-powerful Son of God who is preparing to lead Israel to war in which victory is assured. Once Jesus is arrested and sentenced to crucifixion, Peter is certain they’ve lost, and if he doesn’t forget Jesus and move on, he’ll be next.

He’s missed the most important part of Jesus teaching: to gain all, one must lose all—that the only way of the Messiah is through the cross. That is the way of Israel’s future. That the coming of the Son of Man is not a one-time event—it is eternal. Yet even though Peter was badly mistaken, once he realized his mistake (following the resurrection), he was empowered and became a champion for the church. Why, then, do we fear being wrong about something like human sexuality? It’s because we take that part of the story for granted. We’re already reading Peter as the father of the church from the very beginning. We don’t let the story come to us. Avid readers know that there’s something to be said for allowing a narrative to unfold for you again and again—that even if we are anticipating what happens next, we allow ourselves to get lost in the story. We forget to do that with the gospels.

I’m not calling for an oversimplification here. It would be really easy for me to say: “The answer is we just love each other, just like Jesus loved everyone” or “Hey, be humble!” or “Take up your cross daily.” But those kind of pastoral platitudes have little meaning to us anymore. We have to look beyond these commands to what their implications are and to what they mean in the context of a world that is all around us screaming things that sound very similar or are identical—we become messianic, in solidarity with Christ, when we die to ourselves. We usher in God’s kingdom to the here and now. That’s probably a good starting place. However, all of this points to something very important: love and humility, even the cross, are not categories we fully understand either. The problem then is bigger than an inability to understand something like human sexuality because once we understand those who are other than us, what do we do with that if we don’t understand how to love?

But this is jumping ahead too far. Jesus didn’t ask Peter what he was going to do in the face of the resurrection or how he was going to make his own disciples while Peter was still struggling with the reality that his Messiah had to die. What we need to do first is recognize that we have some horizons which need unfixing. We don’t know what love, humility, or the cross is in totality. And that’s okay. Paradoxically, it’s that recognition that allows us to pick up our cross and do those things better.

by Joel Harrison

The Rapture: A Biblical Examination

Many of the responses to Tad’s last post were an appeal to an examination of the biblical text for scriptural proof of a literal Rapture. My aim here is to dispel some (mis)understandings of scripture and to make a biblical argument for why we should not read the text as supporting a Rapture not only because of these erroneous readings but also based upon a scriptural analysis of the eschatological nature of personhood and ecclesiology.

Before we dive in though, I want to briefly make a distinction between Second Coming and Rapture. Often times, when I say I don’t believe the Bible supports a doctrine of the Rapture, people will look at me in horror and say, “You don’t believe Jesus is coming back?!” Let’s be clear: Jesus is coming back. He says he will explicitly. What happens when He returns is, however, up for debate. And we can debate it until we’re blue in the face; we’re not going to know for sure until it happens. Yet that does not protect the Rapture from criticism, because as I just stated, there are important implications for personhood and ecclesiology at stake here.

Revelation and Dispensationalism

Let’s begin with the book of Revelation and a discussion of dispensational theology in general. First, in order to understand how Revelation relates to eschatology, we must understand the nature of the genre it falls under. Revelation is unique in that it is the only apocalyptic text in the New Testament. The Gospels and Acts are narratives. Everything between Acts and Revelation is epistolary  (letters addressed to someone specific that together give us a picture; in this case, a picture of the early church, its structure, struggles, etc.) Revelation is, as mentioned, apocalyptic. Going to a dictionary definition of that word, the one that we’re all most familiar with (describing or prophesying the complete destruction of the world) is actually not going to be helpful in coming to understand the original Greek meaning of the word, ᾿αποκάλυψις, which is actually where the English title of the book comes from. The word means “to reveal that which was hidden, to make something fully known.” Before we jump on the second half of that definition, we still need to understand this genre in an ancient context.

Ancient apocalyptic literature is highly symbolic and metaphorical. We can claim that John, while on the island of Patmos, actually saw the things  he describes, even if only in his mind, with some certainty; however, we can say with equal certainty that he was not intending these descriptions to be read as literal events that would take place at a particular moment in the future dubbed “the end of the world.” The same thing can be said about Daniel 7 and 8 as well. With that in mind, Revelation and Daniel are not about what will literally happen in the end times; rather, both are revealing to us that the ultimate victory and glory belongs to God alone, that his great drama will be brought to a close in a final act that sees all of creation acknowledging His glory, power, honor, and love. We do know how things will turn out: God wins in the end and it is going to be glorious beyond all imagination. How that literally happens is ultimately irrelevant to the Biblical authors. They weren’t interested in trying to pin down exactly what God has in mind. Instead, they are focused on what these events, whatever they look like, mean for us in relation to our infinite God.

Think about it this way: If the Biblical authors were attempting a literal description of the end times, why in the world would they not have had in mind the events of their own day? That is, many will point to certain characters (beasts, whores, dragons) in Revelation and use them to talk about current politics as if John on Patmos had in mind nations like the U.S., Russia, or China, that not only did not exist, but the parts of the world those nations are located were completely unknown to John and every other Biblical author. The claim that these texts must refer to specific, current political events involving nations that neither God nor the Biblical authors have specified interest in just doesn’t make sense and really is pretty arrogant. Why should the United States, over every other nation in history, be the chosen centerpiece of specific apocalyptic (in the contemporary sense) events?

The only way to conceive of describing the meaning of eschatological events in the ancient world was to write a text as vivid as possible in order to describe the truth that would be brought through them. They were attempting to explain the unexplainable. We do the same thing with metaphor in poetry. Sometimes metaphor, which is never a direct, representational description of reality conveys truth to us in ways that we never thought possible. As Tad pointed out in his post, this is how Revelation has been understood by the vast majority of theologians from the early church to the present. Only in the last two centuries has dispensational theology emerged, and it has caught the attention of so many precisely because that’s just what these types of claims do–they sensationalize the future by claiming to be able to provide a fantastic, detailed account of what is to come. However, there really is only one detail that should really concern us: that God keeps his promise to redeem and transform all of creation. More on that a little later.

A Look at Scripture: Matthew 24:40-41, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Revelation 3:10

Let’s turn now to some specific verses that many commonly cite to offer biblical proof of The Rapture. First, we have to acknowledge that the word does not exist in Scripture. Then again, neither does “trinity” in reference to God, so that alone is certainly not enough to disprove a doctrine of The Rapture. We need to exegete each text. Even though the subheading of this section is in order of where these appear in Scripture, we need to look at them out of order so that we can understand how people come to the conclusion that this doctrine is valid.

1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 reads, “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.” The most important thing to do when trying to understand specific verses is to first put them into their context: chapter, book, author, larger historical context.

Let’s start by going back a few verses to 4:13. In this chapter, Paul is encouraging the Thessalonians to reject their pagan pasts. Paul wrote many letters (the letters to the Corinthians, for example) that addressed specific issues these congregations faced in transitioning from pagan to Christian practice. This is one of the reasons many Jews in the early church were fighting for Gentiles to first be converted to Judaism; they were afraid that Gentiles’ pagan practices would too greatly influence their newly adopted Christian ones, and they wanted Christianity to stay true to its Jewish heritage. Much of Paul’s career was spent addressing this issue so that he could insist that Gentiles did not need to be converted to Judaism before Christianity (see Romans.) Back to verse 13. Paul writes: “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.” This is the immediate context of the verses that follow. Paul is concerned that the Thessalonians will continue to mourn the dead as they had before accepting Christ. This is actually a concern in other parts of Scripture as well. Leviticus 19:28, for example, which many people point to as being a prohibition of tattoos, is actually a specific commandment against tattooing the name of the dead on one’s body. It is not that this practice or the one Paul is addressing (which is not specified) is something borne out of evil or directed by Satan; rather, Scripture is calling God’s people to be set apart, to distinguish themselves from those around them, which was particularly difficult in the ancient world because there were so many religions and variations on religions, including variations on Judaism. Paul is calling the Thessalonians not to mourn their fallen brothers and sisters because what sets them apart now from their still pagan neighbors is the hope they have in God’s promise through Jesus Christ. They should have no fear of death because of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Paul is teaching doctrine here. But it is not the doctrine of The Rapture as popularly understood. Let’s look at the specific phrase in the verse that is commonly used to point to proof of The Rapture: “…will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.” The word commonly understood as “rapture” is ἁρπάζω (arpazo), which is translated here as “caught up.” It’s dictionary definition is “to be caught or seized by force with the purpose of removing or controlling.” If we leave it there and couple it with the imagery of being in the clouds and meeting the Lord in the air, then we have the perfect equation for understanding this as a literal description of The Rapture. But remember: Biblical authors were not interested in literal descriptions of the eschaton. That means that we need to dig a little deeper. Paul is actually using the imagery of a Greco-Roman practice (Thessalonica, remember, is Northern Greece, so this image would have been very familiar) in which a crowd of people would exit a city to meet their king, and the king would then lead them back into the city. Note, there’s no mention of heaven in verse 17, unless you believe heaven will literally be in the sky above the earth. This is, again, not about a literal description of what will happen. Rather, Paul is offering encouragement to the Thessalonians, reminding them that they will be united with Christ one day and reunited with their loved ones who have died and that this reunion will be accompanied with a feeling of elation and utter, complete joy. It’s Paul’s way of getting across to them why there is no need to mourn. The power that came through Jesus’ death was an end to death as the Thessalonians knew it. That theme is repeated over and over again in Paul’s epistles.

Let’s move now to Revelation 3:10, which reads: “Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.” This verse is commonly pointed to as evidence for a pre-tribulation Rapture. Again, we need to understand the context. The first few chapters of Revelation are comprised of short epistles to “the seven churches,” and even though they are epistles in form, they are still a part of the larger apocalyptic genre that the whole book fits under. That said, there certainly are a number of ways to interpret chapters 2 and 3. I’d like to offer but one possibility, specifically for 3:7-12.

This letter specifically can be read as a warning against believers doing exactly what dispensationalists today do: predict the particulars of how God will act. That requires some more detailed explanation. The author is alluding to false teaching in the synagogue (verse 9.) Therefore, to read the following verse outside of that context would be a mistake. That false teaching could be many different things. One of the primary “false teachings” warned against in the New Testament, particularly in Jesus’ ministry, was the belief that the Messiah would come to help the Israelites overthrow their Roman oppressors by force. So when the author, in verse 10, says that the church at Philadelphia will be spared the hour of trial that is coming, he could be referring specifically to the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, which would more accurately fit the way that prophecy worked in the ancient world (that is, prophecy was expected to be fulfilled immediately, within the initial audience’s lifetime or perhaps the very next generation.) In 70 CE, the Jews, led by Simon Bar Giroa (who also claimed to be the Messiah) rose up against the Romans only to be utterly destroyed by the Roman general, Titus. Some may be wondering now about the fact that verse 10 mentions the whole world and all its inhabitants. Remember: Apocalyptic literature is symbolic, so there’s no reason for us to read that literally. It could just as easily be referring to the “world” of Israel, trying to emphasize Israel’s importance. It’s certainly possible to understand this passage as referring to that specific event rather than an end-of-the-world tribulation.

Now, I want to make it clear that I am not saying this is the way to read this passage. Rather, I want to point out that there is not one way to read these verses. The text is far more complex than that. Limiting ourselves to a “raptural” understanding of Revelation 3:10 prevents us from seeing other things that God may want to reveal to us in the text.

With these two verses as a backdrop, supporters of The Rapture will turn to Matthew 24:40-41 (the earliest text of the three) which reads, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” Again–let’s look at context. First, Jesus makes this statement as part of a chronology of responses to a question that the disciples ask about the “end of the age” but in immediate proximity to Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be destroyed at the beginning of the chapter (24:2.) It’s this statement about the temple that frames the rest of the chapter. This prediction can also be understood, with the help of other verses, to be in the context of the Jewish uprising against the Romans. Such a thing would not have been difficult to predict. It would be like someone 10 or 20 years ago with some basic knowledge of history in the Middle East predicting that the United States would eventually enter a conflict with one or more nations in that region. The Jewish uprising against the Romans was all but inevitable, and we can see allusions to it popping up all over the Gospel narrative. Jesus’ primary concern was that his people would see that uprising as the moment, as the consummation of God’s promise, when it wasn’t–Jesus’ death was. God wasn’t fulfilling the promise in a way that any Jew, including the disciples, thought the Messiah would.

When the disciples ask him about “the coming of the end of the age,” they’re most likely not referring to the destruction of the entire universe as they knew it. While we obviously can’t say what they mean by this question absolutely, it’s fairly certain that they have in mind a general bringing in of the final phase of God’s plan. They’re living under God’s promise. They want to know when that promise gets fulfilled. Notice, there’s no direct question about how it’s going to happen or what will specifically happen. In fact, they don’t really seem to suggest that “the end of the age” is going to be a process of any kind–they just want to be able to anticipate it somehow. Jesus’ warnings are for them, in their time. He’s warning them (and he ends up being right) that other Jews will come claiming to be the Messiah (Simon Bar Giroa, as mentioned above. About 200 years before Jesus, Judas Maccabeus led the first Jewish revolt against the Selucids, and many thought that he was the Messiah.) This was common in the Jewish tradition of the time.

Jesus is telling his disciples, essentially, that no one will be on their side, and that it will be very difficult to stay the course. It’s obvious to Jesus from their question that they will be on the lookout for events to interpret as signs. Jesus response? The sign is already here. He talks about enduring all of these things that they would mistake for signs, to not be fooled by them and all of the false prophets who would misinterpret them as signs. Ironically, this is probably the strongest indictment against dispensationalism there is in the Bible. Jesus moves then in verses 27-36 to a much more symbolic, apocalyptic description, again for the same reasons John and Daniel do: The particulars of what God does are just not important. So the “signs” he gives the disciples are frustratingly vague. Verse 34 makes things even more complex. Clearly, the disciples’ generation did pass away. But again, Jesus is still speaking apocalyptically, and the word for generation, γενεά, could really mean a whole host of things including the people of a particular time but also the people of an age (as in the age the disciples are referring to) as well as one’s line of descendants. It’d be tough to definitively say what Jesus meant by that. All of this discussion is really to point to the fact that this is a very difficult passage–one which requires a detailed interpretation and not a literal reading.

Let’s get to the verses in question though. Immediately prior to these statements, Jesus describes what happened in the time of Noah before the flood (by the way, one could say that the flood was the end of an “age” the way the disciples understood it.) People are having a great time, living in sin instead of for God, and without even realizing it, they are swept away. This is really important in understanding verses 40 and 41. Who is it that is taken? If we put those verse in context, it is the wicked person who is taken–the righteous one is left! That seems to make much more sense in the context of what Jesus says immediately prior. Let’s look at verses 39-41 together: “39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” We can only read this as a rapturing of believers in light of a misreading of the previous two passages (1 Thessalonians 4 and Revelation 3) and by ignoring the immediate context of these verses.

Biblical Eschatology

This idea of being “left behind” is at the heart of biblical eschatology but in the exact opposite way that proponents of the Rapture would think. The Rapture is really a doctrine of escape. It is the story of a rescue mission, but it misunderstands what God wants to rescue us from. Peter Rollins tells a great parable illustrating this (thanks to Tad for pointing me to it):

Just as it was written by those prophets of old, the last days of the Earth overflowed with suffering and pain. In those dark days a huge pale horse rode through the earth with Death upon its back and Hell in its wake. During this great tribulation the Earth was scorched with the fires of war, rivers ran red with blood, the soil withheld its fruit and disease descended like a mist. One by one all the nations of the Earth were brought to their knees.

Far from all the suffering, high up in the heavenly realm, God watched the events unfold with a heavy heart. An ominous silence had descended upon heaven as the angels witnessed the Earth being plunged into darkness and despair. But this could only continue for so long for, at a designated time, God stood upright, breathed deeply and addressed the angels,

“The time has now come for me to separate the sheep from the goats, the healthy wheat from the inedible chaff”

Having spoken these words God slowly turned to face the world and called forth to the church with a booming voice,

“Rise up and ascend to heaven all of you who have who have sought to escape the horrors of this world by sheltering beneath my wing. Come to me all who have turned from this suffering world by calling out ‘Lord, Lord’”.

In an instant millions where caught up in the clouds and ascended into the heavenly realm. Leaving the suffering world behind them.

Once this great rapture had taken place God paused for a moment and then addressed the angels, saying,

“It is done, I have separated the people born of my spirit from those who have turned from me. It is time now for us leave this place and take up residence in the Earth, for it is there that we shall find our people. The ones who would forsake heaven in order to serve the earth. The few who would turn away from eternity itself to serve at the feet of a fragile, broken life that passes from existence in but an instant”.

And so it was that God and the heavenly host left that place to dwell among those who had rooted themselves upon the earth. Quietly supporting the ones who had forsaken God for the world and thus who bore the mark God. The few who had discovered heaven in the very act of forsaking it.

This parable is a play on our earlier distinction between Second Coming and Rapture. Just as I do, Rollins believes Christ will return. His narrative demonstrates, however, that it may not happen the way proponents of the Rapture envision. Rollins’ story is not just an alternative imagined at random though. It is an attempt to accurately reflect, in a symbolic not literal way, what God envisions when he brings his drama to a close.

Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller, where I attend seminary, offers some really helpful insight that will help explain what Rollins is doing from a Biblical standpoint. His book When the Kings Come Marching In offers a prophetic reading of Isaiah and Revelation that speaks to the ways in which God will use and transform culture to his glory in the end times. Mouw’s central point seems to be that the traditional understanding of how Christians relate to culture needs to change—that Christ is not against culture; rather, he will transform it and use it in a way that brings glory to God and ultimately fulfills God’s divine plan for Creation. Mouw uses four main illustrations taken from Isaiah 60 in order to demonstrate in general the ways in which God will transform culture in the end: the material, the political, the human, and transforming light.

I want to briefly describe the first illustration to get a sense of Mouw’s point; then I’ll explain how this relates to Rollins’ parable. The first illustration, the Ships of Tarshish, represent the “stuff” of the world—all the things of culture, nature, and society that fill the Earth. Mouw is careful to point out the places in the Bible where these ships—which metaphorically refer to the things of industry, economy, and culture—are detrimental to God’s divine plan. But he also argues that the “fire” that is referred to again and again in the Bible, which will consume the ships, is not a destructive fire but a purifying one. The things man has brought into the Earth, that man has filled the Earth with as God instructed him to in Genesis are all things that have the potential to glorify God. In their sinful state, they cannot. But once purified by God’s holy fire, they will be fit to enter the City and help to fill it. The difficulty is that some artifacts of man—weapons, pornography, etc.—do not seem to be able to serve any function in the City; however, the Bible says these things will be completely transformed into something different. The Christian then does not need to look around at culture and ask herself what things are holy now in God’s sight. Certainly, there is very little in the world that would be worthy right now, in its current state. A Christian in contemporary culture should be focused upon the ways in which God will completely transform the artifacts of culture and is currently working in those things now to begin the process of that transformation. We are looking for the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in the world–right now.

This is what Rollins’ parable is pointing to. This is what the Bible is pointing to. God wants to redeem all creation not individual people. Both Mouw and Rollins understand the Second Coming as a call to care about the world we live in. As I mentioned in the beginning, the problem with the Rapture is that it is an escape plan. An easy way out. But Jesus doesn’t promise an easy way out. Remember Matthew 24? Jesus tells his disciples that they will be put to death for what they believe in–specifically, for not believing the religious leaders of the day who were preaching false prophecy. He’s warning them that the road they’re being called to walk is really difficult.

A Closing Word

The bottom line is that issues like this are never easily resolved by appealing to a handful of verses taken out of context. They require serious biblical study, which is what God wants us to do. He wants to reveal Himself through the Word. He didn’t call people to be bystanders, not participating in the kingdom. He called people to be engaged and to care about seeking after Him at the expense of their comfort, pride, and human desires.

by Joel Harrison

Why the Rapture Didn’t Happen (and why it’s not going to happen): A Short History of a Strange Belief

Bad news: you will eventually die. I will die. Everyone we know and love will eventually turn to dust. Some people do not believe this. But coming to terms with this is a healthy thing that allows us to appreciate life all the more. To do otherwise is to descend into an illusion in the same way that an addict tells himself he is truly free because he can quit at any moment.

If you want to continue believing you will not die, you should not read this post! Below, I’ll tell the story of how one man came up with a crazy idea about the end of the world and made fame and fortune convincing Americans that they were going to be Raptured. And it’s not Harold Camping.

Guys like Harold Camping and Fred Phelps become a peculiar sort of hero for many of the people who decry them while basically retaining most of the same beliefs. In psychoanalysis, this phenomenon is called fetish disavowal, wherein a symbol is used to exclude something in ourselves from our awareness. All across America, pastors and parishioners will use the coming Sundays to teach on “what the Bible really says” about the Rapture and Tribulation. They will cite the unrelated verse Matthew 24:36 (“No one knows the day or hour…”) to decry date-setters and lend themselves credibility. But I’m sorry to say, this fetish disavowal of Camping’s embarrassing (mis)prediction is nothing more than a repetition of his farce. It’s just Camping’s lunacy minus a date.

As a kid, I read the Left Behind novels, terrified that Jesus would beam me up before I ever got to buy a car or have sex. You guys can laugh, go ahead, but you know you had the exact same fear if you grew up with this stuff! The churches I was a part of taught it like it was normal Christian teaching. And I wasn’t part of any abnormally strange church- it was just normal belief in that part of America. We had charts and graphs, and we knew that the Antichrist was probably a Jew from Eastern Europe, and he was probably a Democrat that would take over the UN. His evil agenda would be easy enough to impliment with all the Christians raptured away (because we all knew that the remaining nonchristians don’t have morals.) Oh, and if anyone ever wanted peace in the Middle East, watch out! That’s very bad! I never even questioned this eschatology until I read N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope, in which he described the Rapture/Tribulation ideology as a “cartoonish” belief confined to North America. I thought the Rapture was believed by all Christians throughout all our history (I mean, it’s in the Bible just like everything else I believe, right?).

I knew people who myself said things like “why care about the climate problem when God will probably destroy the earth before the end of the century anyway?” (the number of Americans who reason like this is truly terrifying). Why care about poverty or economic justice when the final countdown is ticking? All that ultimately mattered was getting people to believe a list of proper things about God so that Jesus could beam them up before that East European Jewish Democrat called Antichrist (a term which doesn’t appear in Revelation) chopped all the Christians’ heads of and enforced abortion-on-demand.

It was all about escape. It justified the idea that the world is not my home. If I made the world a worse place, I was just acting as I expected God to do.

And not only was I going to live forever in an afterlife, I wouldn’t even have to die to get there. I think part one reason that people get so angry when you tell them Rapture is less than 200 years old is that you are giving them back their prospect of death. And telling people they are going to die, when they seriously think that they may not, can be traumatic.

So have you ever heard the history of the Rapture doctrine? Well sit back; you are about to hear the story of how one Brit came up with a crazy idea and made tons of money convincing Americans that they might not have to die (history repeats itself in a perpetually pitiful cycle). Seriously, if you want to keep believing in the Rapture, you should probably quit reading right now!

The History of the Rapture (excerpted from my Systematic Theology paper on The Fundamentals, downloadable as pdf here)

The 19th century had no shortage of speculation on end times and anti-christs. The millenarianism movement, a popular theological conversation emphasizing a literal thousand year reign (either by Christ or by benevolent rulers), had excited the public interest in eschatological speculation. Riding the wave of eschatological hysteria was British Plymouth Brethren pastor John Nelson Darby, the author of dispensational theology. His Dispensational theology divided the Bible and history itself into eras, or dispensations. Ostensibly, this is done in order to account for apparent contradictory messages in scripture, contradictions which disappear when applying a theological grid by which certain verses apply only to the Jewish people or a to the Old Covenant, but do not apply under the New Covenant of Christ.

After ousting his one-time colleague-turned-adversary Benjamin Wills Newton during a quarrel to gain power in his Brethren congregation, Darby had a small but well-connected pulpit to promote his theology. The focus of their argument had been Darby’s creation of a doctrine of a rapture, a doctrine which Newton would spend the rest of his career trying, without success, to dispel. In 1840, Darby took his eschatology public and lectured on the rapture for the first time in Lausanne. The message picked up steam (and Darby picked up a small fortune) as followers flocked to his conferences which predicted a Rapture and an end to the world.

To pin the creation of the Rapture to a specific year, Darby claimed to have realized this doctrine in as early as 1827. Accounts on the origin of this new idea vary (one story posits Darby adopted the Rapture from another wild-eyed Scottish mystic, who envisioned the Rapture during his years living in a cave), but Darby’s belief in a Rapture can be seen as a necessary consequence of his dispensational theology. That is, the Rapture was created two make contradictory Biblical passages on the return of Christ cohere. Darby solved these differences by dividing them into two “second comings,”[sic] one a secret rapture and the other a post-tribulational announcement in glory.

Darby spread dispensational theology via writings and conferences, which effectively solidified his career as a novel theologian. In fact, both Dispensationalism and the rapture might have died out completely if not for Darby’s contact with one man; Cyrus I. Scofield. In the late 19th century, a young pastor Scofield became convinced of Dispensationalism, and in 1909 the Scofield Reference Bible was published. Using the King James Version, Scofield’s highly successful Bible included copious footnoting to explain passages via dispensational theology. For many Christians in America, these footnotes were their first exposure to the rapture doctrine. The Scofield Reference Bible’s dispensational theology, as well as its penchant for literalism (Scofield introduced the date of creation as 4004 B.C.), made it a prime candidate for adoption into fundamentalist circles. Over the next decade, dispensational eschatology focusing on the rapture of the church and speculation about the end times came to dominate conservative Reformed circles, and this theology was practically canonized in The Fundamentals.

The Fundamentals, a series of books published in the 1910s, canonized five main tenants which had to be affirmed for hiring within an increasingly politicized network of denominations, seminaries, and Bible schools. In a movement conceived of by a California oil tycoon and backed by an ambitious cadre of American businessmen, an assortment of evangelists were hired to promote what they saw as the minimum fundamental truths one must assent to in order to be Christian.3 Mass financial backing allowed the free distribution of The Fundamentals, as well as the subsidizing of the Scofield Reference Bible, and they aimed to reach not only pastors but para-church ministries, Sunday school teachers, professors, and missionaries (success among Christian missionaries has expanded American fundamentalism to a global phenomenon). Since the Rapture, Dispensationalism, and the fundamentals were not initially well received by the theological academy (who saw the revisionist pop-theology movement as anti-intellectual), an impressive number of bible colleges were founded to train pastors without influence from seminary academia (most bible colleges today are products of this era). Without the subsidizing of literature and the political connections of these American businessmen, it is likely that the Rapture could have died out. But as the history of Christian theology sadly demonstrates, money and politics make powerful allies in the rewriting of orthodoxy.

In 1924, dispensationalist theologian Dr. Sperry Chafer founded Dallas Theological Seminary, which would become one of the most well respected schools of dispensational and post-fundamentalist, evangelical theology. Founded to teach the new school of Dispensational thought, its impressive success and growth in the 20th century (along with influence on other seminaries throughout the South) produced such a hegemony of belief that, within three generations, most Southern Christians would now express the belief that the Rapture and Tribulation is a belief as old as the church itself! In fact, it is a belief almost exclusively confined to 20th century North American theology.

———-

So the next time your pastor tells you that the Bible teaches about a Rapture, you might ask him how nobody noticed until the crazy cave monk told Darby about his vision about a Rapture. And what exactly did Darby do with all the cash he made from convincing Americans they weren’t going to die? And an even better question: assuming they did their assigned reading in seminary and know all this… why don’t they ever tell their congregations any of it?

by Tad Delay

taddelay.com

Love Won

I received an email from my dad the other day as I was headed to my Monday night Contemporary Literature and Theology course that said this:

“I’m reading a book called ‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell, who says he is a Fuller graduate – – do you know anything about this guy? – – the book is certainly non-traditional in its descriptions of heaven and hell.  Just thought you might have an insight.”

I love my dad, who is an engineer. Because of his engineer’s mind, he and I tend to think about things differently. Three years ago, as I was in the middle of my MA in English, he remarked in response to something I was saying, drawing a distinction between us: I’m an intellectual, and he is not. Since my dad is certainly one of the smartest people I know, I thought that to be interesting, something I had never considered before.

During my first quarter at Fuller, my dad asked me how I liked my classes and wanted to know what I was learning about. I started telling him about Nancey Murphy and non-reductive physicalism (the belief, essentially, that there is no such thing as a soul.) About three minutes in, he put his hand up to stop me and said, “Does this affect whether or not Jesus is our Savior?” I told him, no, it didn’t. “Okay,” he said, “as long as I don’t have to try to understand any of this stuff, then I’m okay.”

My dad wasn’t writing off what I was studying as not worthwhile—just as not of practical value to him. To be clear, this difference between us hasn’t been a point of tension in our relationship either. Lately he’s been marveling at the fact that currently two of his four sons are in graduate school studying things that are way over his head (a third is getting an MBA, which is right up his alley.) This difference between us has actually been fruitful in the sense that it has helped me to gauge whether or not a particular abstract idea (some hermeneutical tool, for example) would be helpful necessarily in practical application or at least to start to develop an idea of how it could become helpful someday.

I think that’s really important. One of the biggest problems I see as I sit in philosophy and systematic theology classes, have coffee with other like minded students, stay up late with my roommate smoking pipes around our fire pit, all the time discussing these lofty, invisible structures in our thought that lie behind and support practical concerns is that far too many people in the church still cling to modern ideology and ways of knowing, but they’re a long way off from seeing it. Many people will probably post comments on Church Unbound’s Facebook page under the link to this post, railing against me or Rob Bell without really reading this post or Bell’s book. Challenging the modern worldview is tantamount to challenging the reality of God Himself for many people. That’s one of the primary reasons Bell’s book has stirred things up so much: It’s a full frontal assault on that way of viewing the world. But the difficult issue for me becomes how to help people see that without dragging them through years of careful philosophical reflection and study. It’s not at all a matter of smart versus stupid—it’s a matter of intellectual versus practical.

I decided the very minute I heard about John Piper’s tweet (“Farewell, Rob Bell”) that even though I would be reading Love Wins, I wasn’t going to engage with it in a public forum like this or my blog for Fuller admissions. Other writers I know, either at Fuller or elsewhere, may have avoided it for similar reasons—we’re just not fans of drama here. Besides, Greg Boyd, Richard Mouw, and others have basically said all that needs to be said:

It’s a book that simply raises a question about something that is perhaps contradictory in Christian tradition and calls readers to seriously think about that question.

And somehow that is seen as heretical.

But then there’s my dad’s question.

Here I am, wrapped up in the culture of Christian pop-academia. I would venture to say that there are very very few people in my circles or on Fuller’s campus who do not know the name Rob Bell or who are not at least vaguely aware of what a controversial figure he is within Evangelical circles.

But then there’s my dad’s question.

My dad grew up in the church, coincidentally at Pasadena Covenant Church, where I now work. My mom is a Christian as well, growing up at Lake Avenue Congregational, down the street from PCC. They took my brothers and me to Sierra Madre Congregational. None of these churches lean very far in one direction or the other on the conservative/liberal scale. They’re pretty close to the middle. My parents now attend a church in Lafayette, CO called Flatirons Community Church—a place not unlike Rob Bell’s own congregation in size and style—which is also near the middle.

I responded to his email the next day, explaining who Bell is, what the controversy is over, and then pointed him to Boyd’s, Mouw’s, and [for a laugh] Donald Miller’s responses to Bell’s book. I told him that for me, the important thing Bell’s book does (and Bell really says as much in the preface) is not just to raise this one question about who is in hell and how we can know that but to raise a much larger question about where particular doctrine even comes from in the first place—something most Christians don’t really think about day to day.

My dad called me later that afternoon.

“I was going to email you, but then I thought I’d call,” he said. He thanked me for the links to the blog responses. He particularly liked Dr. Mouw’s.

And then he said something that I thought was profoundly important.

“It just seems to me,” he said, “that we can’t limit God by saying he will punish people in one particular way. We just don’t have enough information to know something like that. And I really like that phrase: Generous Orthodoxy.”

I realized then how vastly important Bell’s book and others like it could potentially be. My dad, a man with no particular academic or intellectual interest in his faith, who knew nothing of Bell or the controversy surrounding the book, just someone who simply cares about reflecting on his faith because he wants to grow spiritually—who saw the book at Costco and thought it sounded interesting—was able to grasp the thrust of Bell’s argument—the larger purpose at which he is driving. Somehow that gap between intellectual and practical was crossed. In my mind, that is an enormous victory for any kind of “postmodern” theological movement.

Rob Bell will obviously never see this blog, but someone needs to tell him that he has accomplished what he set out to do. Nice work, Mr. Bell.

by Joel Harrison

Trust with Teeth

Last Sunday, I spoke at Pasadena Covenant Church on trusting God. You can listen here.

Talking with the Other

The interaction between various religions and trying to conceive of those interactions in a coherent, systematic way both seem to be muddied, arduous endeavors these days. A broad spectrum of perspectives with regard to other religions, or perhaps better stated, religions of the Other, exists making it supremely burdensome to pin down a fruitful way to approach this issue. In an increasingly polarized religious climate—one that is split between extreme pluralism and exclusivism—we need to understand the issues with these views and look to the possibilities for an alternative.

Exclusivism and pluralism are not inherently negative. To assume so and accept and alternative automatically would be to fall into the trap of the two polar extremes of those options before one had even set out on the project of approaching other religions. We need to understand the problems and challenges associated with each. Understood simply, exclusivism is the view that no other religious truth claims but those of one’s own religion are true. Understood extremely, other religious truth claims are not only false but dangerously subversive or even blatantly evil. In other words, there is Truth, and the exclusivist claims to possess it indubitably.

The theologian Karl Barth held to a perhaps less extreme version of exclusivism. He firmly believed that Jesus Christ is the only salvific path and would not consider the salvation claims of other religions to be viable. Stated another way, Barth did not believe that the special revelation of the gift of salvation could be realized through any figure except Jesus Christ. However, Barth also believed that general revelation could be received from other religions in the form of general knowledge about God, meaning he was an exclusivist open to the possibility of finding transformative power in religious experiences other than his own.

The issue, however, is that extreme exclusivism is very real and very prevalent particularly among fundamentalist Christians. An extreme exclusivist would hold not only that there is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ but that to acknowledge value of any kind in any other religion is tantamount to heresy and puts one in danger of being sent straight to hell. This poses a problem for both the believer who wants to understand where someone from another religion is coming from. It automatically shuts the door. Furthermore, it exacerbates the difficulty of inter-faith dialogue, because extreme exclusivists are not willing to educate themselves about differing perspectives, and therefore are especially prone to erroneous assumptions regarding other religious beliefs (that Islam explicitly teaches terrorism, for example), which continue the cycle of extreme exclusivism.

Consider this example taken from Richard Mouw: A man is extremely abusive to his wife and children. He’s an alcoholic, and his life is quickly spiraling out of control. One day, he is converted to Isalm and suddenly begins to turn his life around. He is no longer abusive and begins a healing and reconciliation process with his wife and children. At first, everyone is skeptical: friends, family, and especially his wife. However, after three years of practicing Islam and through other means, his life is back in order, and his family is happy. He attributes this important life change to the tenants of Islam. As a Christian, how are we to understand this? Does God delight in this situation or not?

I’m going to let those questions hang for a minute and come back to them later.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, pluralism, to some, seems like the only solution to the exclusivism I’ve described above. If we simply accept everyone’s religious claims, then we will never encounter the violence, both physical and otherwise, that seems to naturally come along with extreme exclusivism. However, it’s not quite that simple. John Hick is perhaps the best example of a pluralistic theologian. Hick’s claim is typical of pluralism—the only way to quell violence is to accept all religious claims as true. And any one who does not is arrogant. The problem, however, is with that last statement. How can one claim to be defeating arrogance and bigotry while being arrogant? Hick’s approach to pluralism is self-referentially defeating. He is essentially saying: “Subscribe to pluralism (and my conception of it) or else not only are you wrong, but you’re arrogant as well.” One cannot argue for people to accept all religious beliefs while simultaneously denouncing particular exclusivist beliefs. This points to the fact that although pluralism attempts to accept all religious worldviews, it is itself singular worldview that requires justification.

Hick’s brand of pluralism, however, is not the only one. There are some pluralists, followers of Ba’hai, for example, who claim to genuinely believe that all religious claims contain truth, including claims of exclusivism or any other claims that would contradict their pluralism. Furthermore, Ba’hai do not believe in proselytization, meaning they will not engage in more than superficial discussion about their beliefs or another person’s because they do not want to be drawn into a position where they would be asked to defend their position. Although well intentioned, this form of pluralism seems intellectually dishonest in two senses. First, it cannot go very far in establishing a firm, systematic set of beliefs since it accepts contradictory beliefs as being equally True—not just true for a particular community, but universally True. Second, it avoids having to face this challenge by claiming one of its core tenants is to not defend itself publicly to those who are not believers. That is, even though what I’m offering is a distinct criticism of this belief system, they accept it whole-heartedly.

There is a major erroneous assumption being made by the types of pluralism that I have described: Human beings cannot disagree without resorting to violence. The primary question challenging pluralism is why we must accept all religious perspectives in order to avoid arrogance and violence. I will concede immediately that religious disagreements can and do incite violence (I wrote a post about that here: Violence) but that does not mean it isn’t possible to have a differing opinion without violence. People differ on politics, economics, even things as trivial as sports or interior design. All of those differences can potentially lead to violent reactions and certainly have, yet people still find a way to engage in conversation about these things without violence, while maintaining a rigorous position that doesn’t merely accept all differing positions as also true.

I maintain that the alternative is an inclusivistic position, one in which a believer can robustly defend his or her position but is still open to understanding differing religious views and will even accept that God can still work in places other than within the Christian religion. After all, we believe he created everything. Consider Isaiah 41-42. In these chapters, the prophet describes a “cosmic trial” in which the idols of man are put to the test and proven to be false. God then calls forward his servant who will deliver God’s judgment (and justice) to the world. While I validate the New Testament understanding of Jesus fulfilling the role of the servant (especially if we are reading Isaiah 42:1-9 as a type description of servants of God in general), there are important historical understandings at stake here. In 550 BCE, Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered the Medes, an ancient Iranian people and neighbor to Babylon. The Babylonians claimed that they had prophecies proving that Marduk had ordered Cyrus to do this. Isaiah 41-42 are a response to that. The idols on trial are the Babylonian gods, and Cyrus is God’s servant. The point the prophet is trying to make is only YHWH can orchestrate history, and he does so through whomever he chooses. Thus Cyrus, a Persian, not one of the chosen people, becomes chosen even cherished by God. In other words, God works through events outside of Israel and uses people who do not know Him.

Let’s return to our scenario above. If we take an extreme exclusivist position, we may argue that because the man’s life was rescued through Islam, that God does not delight in this situation or may even be angry because the man chose the wrong path. If we take a pluralistic position, we would be inclined to say that not only does God delight in what has happened because the man is no longer abusing his wife and children or himself through alcohol, but he is now saved because he has found one of the paths to salvation. An inclusive take, however, would be to say that God is certainly pleased that a woman and her children are no longer in danger of abuse, but that the man is not saved because Jesus is the only path to salvation. We say that the man experienced a general revelation, that there was something more, something better to be had, and that although his striving for that resulted in good changes in his life, he still needs Jesus.

Much of this stems from an argument that I’ve made often here: We cannot know things absolutely. We can believe sincerely, but that does not require that we know the Truth of what we believe in an absolute, foundational sense. This induces a heart change as much as it does a mind change. We have no reason to be dogmatic about what we believe. If we are firm in our faith—if we feel deep conviction—then that should be enough to not feel threatened by other religious worldviews. And if we want to begin to heal relationships between much of God’s creation that have been broken for centuries, we need to have dialogue. More importantly, we need to listen to each other.

by Joel Harrison