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Saturday, 31 August 2013

Christadelphians and the Heavenly Hope

One of the definitive doctrines of Christadelphians is that the hope of the just is eternal bodily life on earth after the resurrection, and not an immaterial existence in the heavens beginning at death (or the Rapture).

At first glance, it appears that the gulf between this belief system and the popular Christian belief in a heavenly afterlife is vast and insurmountable. Most Christadelphians would say that they do not share 'one hope' (Eph. 4:5) with other Christians. For Christadelphians who think this, there are two books I would encourage you to read. The first is Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by Anglican bishop emeritus and eminent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. The second is Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell, by Evangelical scholars Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman, Jr.

Both of these books (and many others) make what amounts to a critique of the popular Christian belief that disembodied heaven-going at death (or at the rapture) is the hope revealed in the Bible. They both insist that our hope is resurrection to an eternal bodily existence, just as Christ was raised to an eternal bodily existence.

This movement is not new - Boa and Bowman draw heavily on a 1965 essay by the prominent German theologian Oscar Cullman entitled, "Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?" Cullman noted at the time that his ideas had provoked both great enthusiasm and great hostility. The enthusiasm appears not to have abated in the last 50 years but rather continues to grow and flourish.

This shift in direction should not be understood as a wholesale adoption of Christadelphian ideas. All of the above writers argue biblically for some kind of conscious existence after death. However, this is not the final reward; it is merely an 'intermediate state' for those awaiting the resurrection. Boa and Bowman do not mention Christadelphians but devote several pages to refuting the doctrine of annihilation at death as espoused by Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists. This includes positive evidence for the 'intermediate state' as well as refuting alleged biblical support for annihilation.

The question is, if these Christians are in agreement with Christadelphians that our ultimate hope is a bodily existence after the resurrection, does it really matter if we disagree about what and where we will be in the interval between death and the resurrection, which is but a moment when compared with eternity? Does this difference make our hope fundamentally different?

The Christadelphian may respond, "But what about the consummated kingdom? Do they affirm it will be on on earth, or in heaven?" Boa and Bowman point to the language of the new heavens and new earth from Isaiah 65-66 and used in 2 Peter 3:13. The description of the new heaven and new earth in Rev. 21 has the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven with an announcement that "the dwelling place of God is with man." Furthermore, the man Jesus currently exists bodily in heaven. The barrier between heaven as the abode of spirit beings and earth as the abode of material beings is destined to be erased. Ultimately, heaven and earth will be one, so where is the fundamental difference among those who say we will end up in heaven and those who say we will be on earth?

But surely, you might say, the Scriptures must be fulfilled such as Num. 14:21, "All the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord." Boa and Bowman write of two views on the destiny of this earth, which he calls the 'Renewal' view and the 'Replacement' view. In the Renewal view, this present earth will be restored and renewed, but will still be the same earth. In the Replacement view, this present earth will be annihilated and a new one created.

Boa and Bowman rightly stress need to balance the two. There are many scriptures which speak of renewal, such as "the times of refreshing" and "restoring of all things" (Acts 3:19-20). On the other hand, the picture of the physical world's fiery destruction painted in 2 Pet. 3:10-12 is quite complete. A balanced view affirms that while the changes to the earth will be so drastic that it could practically be described as a replacement, there must be some measure of continuity between the present earth and the new earth, otherwise it is not really the earth, and the promises concerning the earth's restoration have not been fulfilled. N.T. Wright draws out the importance of this continuity, applying Paul's words from 1 Cor. 15:58:
"You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that's about to fall over a cliff.  You are not restoring a great painting that is shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that is about to be dug up for a building site. You are -- strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself -- accomplishing something which will become, in due course, part of God's new world" (Surprised by Hope, pp. 219-220)
Paul draws an analogy between the redemption of the creation and of the body (Rom. 8:22-23), so I think we need to bring the same logic to the annihilation debate. In the resurrection, are we 'replaced' or 'renewed'? Just as Christadelphians would argue that there must be some continuity between this earth and the new earth, so Evangelicals would argue that there must be some continuity between the natural man and the resurrected man. If I am recreated ex nihilo in the resurrection, is it really me? Whether conscious or unconscious, there must be something of me that exists between death and the resurrection. This existence is what Wright, Boa and Bowman call the intermediate state.

The important conclusion here is that whomever believes in resurrection to an eternal bodily existence shares the One Hope. Fundamentally, this hope is not altered whether one believes the dead are conscious or unconscious during the brief period before the resurrection. Fundamentally, this hope is not altered whether one believes the redeemed will inhabit heaven or earth, since they will be one. We can all agree that there will be a new world where God and his people dwell. It will have some limited continuity with the present world but will be radically different.

We can and should continue to seek after the finer details from God's Word, while confessing that our knowledge is limited (1 Cor. 13:12). When differences in understanding these details arise, let us not quarrel and divide but unite around the new heavens and new earth, "the hope laid up for us in heaven" (Col. 1:5).

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Making children of hell: evangelism gone horribly wrong

In Matthew 23 we find the famous Seven Woes with which Jesus publicly indicted the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy and arrogance. The second of these woes condemns their missionary practices, reading as follows:
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell (gehenna) as yourselves." (Matt. 23:15)
The Greek word proselytos refers to Gentiles who officially converted to Judaism by undergoing circumcision (for males) and agreeing to abide by the Law of Moses. Now, is noteworthy that most orthodox Jews today do not actively seek out Gentile converts. For instance, in a recorded lecture, the late Dr. Leonard Tann, a senior British rabbi in Birmingham, England, explained that in England it is only the Chief Rabbi's Office in London that can approve conversions. Moreover, he himself followed the practice of Naomi (Ruth 1:8-15) in bluntly discouraging would-be proselytes at least three times before agreeing to assist them in converting to Judaism.

However, Jesus' statement here agrees with other historical evidence indicating that the sect of the Pharisees were very active in seeking proselytes at this time. It is apparent that the writings of the first century Jewish historian Josephus (himself a Pharisee) were intended to commend Judaism to his Gentile readers. Indeed, a recent book by Michael Bird which takes its title from Matt. 23:15 argues that Jews of this period were active in evangelizing the Gentiles, both in Palestine and the diaspora.

It has been argued that much of the Pharisees' activity was aimed at converting loose adherents to Judaism (the so-called 'proselytes of the gate') to their stringent brand of religion. The Pharisees compelled people to follow not only the Law of Moses itself but also the many layers of oral law which had been added over the centuries. For this reason, Paul referred to the Pharisees as "the strictest party within our religion" (Acts 26:5).

It seems that the Pharisees thought they had the perfect religion: they had worked out a foolproof formula through which they could ensure that they were following God's laws and thus earning salvation, while their consciences could be put on autopilot!

While we don't have any historical narratives of Pharisees proselytizing in the New Testament, we do have plenty of evidence that they were willing to travel significant distances to oppose non-Pharisaical practices. The Pharisee Saul unilaterally sought permission from the high priest to travel from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest Christians (Acts 9:1-2). Jews came from Antioch and Iconium to Lystra to oppose Paul and have him stoned (Acts 14:19). Jews came from Thessalonica to Berea to oppose Paul (Acts 17:13). Jewish Christians (possibly Pharisees) came from Judea to Antioch to impose circumcision on the Gentile Christians (Acts 15:1-5).

Thus we can see that many Jews, and the Pharisees in particular, were zealous for stamping out any form of Judaism which did not measure up to their legalistic standards. From Matt. 23:15 we can infer that they took the same elitist zeal to their efforts to proselytize Gentiles.

Jesus' emphasis on travelling over sea and land to make a single proselyte suggests that the scribes and Pharisees may have been very picky missionaries. We know they looked with disdain on some classes of people (Matt. 9:11; Luke 7:39; Luke 15:2; Luke 18:9-11). They probably did not see the fields as 'white unto harvest' but rather sought to find a few needles in the haystack. They would probably have written off many as unworthy of their religion based on profession, socioeconomic status, illiteracy and other superficial reasons.

However, their strict law-and-order, salvation-by-merit message would certainly have resonated with some, bringing a sense of purpose and fulfilment. And for Jesus, that was the real tragedy. Once he learns that the formula for righteousness and salvation is strict legalism, the proselyte's zeal may well surpass that of his teachers. He will seek to impress his loyalty upon them by going to further extremes than they ever did. In this way, religious extremism is self-replicating. As D.A. Carson wrote in his commentary on Matthew, “The Pharisees’ interpretations and the rules deduced from Scripture became so fully those of their converts that they ‘out-Phariseed’ the Pharisees” (Matthew & Mark, Longman & Garland, eds,. 2010 p. 538).

Pharisaism with respect to the Torah and oral law is not a major problem in the church today. So is there any lesson in Jesus' words for us in 2013? I think so. Jesus' words apply equally to all those who proclaim that only those who belong to their group, who assent to their statement of faith, who follow their rules, can be saved. They say, in effect, "Come to us!" rather than "Come to Him!"

As soon as the focus turns from the Saviour to the religious system, we have laid another foundation instead of what has been laid - Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11). And, if we succeed in winning converts to our ideology, they may soon turn on us once they determine that our religion is not as perfect as it could be. This is the fate of all who seek to construct their own way to salvation rather than simply believing in the Way (John 14:6). Their religious structures soon bear little resemblance to faith in Christ Jesus, but consign both founders and converts to the destiny laid out by Jesus in those frightful words, "child of hell."

Friday, 9 August 2013

The Three Dimensions of Sin

What is sin? It is doing wrong. A simple biblical definition is "lawlessness" (1 John 3:4), which reminds us that sin is measured against a standard: God's law. (There are also more technical meanings of the word, such as original sin or imputed sin, or sin as a power, which we aren't dealing with here).

My impression is that in Western society today, morality is increasingly measured in terms of respect for the rights of other people, and immorality as the violation of those rights. Thus, for an action to be considered "wrong" it must be in direct violation of the rights of another person or group. Individual freedom is so highly regarded that it must not be restricted unless its abuse demonstrably harms someone else.

This shift in thinking is evident not only at a social level but also in the legal system. We hear of lawyers protesting that their clients stand accused of a "victimless crime" and thus do not deserve any penalty. Criminal acts which have been described as victimless (according to Wikipedia) include individual consumption of recreational drugs (especially cannabis), prostitution and solicitation of a prostitute, public indecency, depiction of cartoon child pornography, and not wearing a seatbelt. The victimless nature of consensual sex acts has apparently been a major factor in the overturning of sodomy laws in many jurisdictions.

While our secular, individualistic society increasingly recognizes only wrongdoing with an external victim (human or animal), the biblical concept of sin has three "dimensions." Sin can be vertical (committed against God), horizontal (committed against another person or group of people), or circular (committed against oneself).

The dimension most commonly referred to in scripture is the vertical dimension. There are dozens of references to sinning against God. These include sins of a "religious" nature, such as idolatry (Ex. 32:31-33; Judges 10:10), but also sins which only involve people (Gen. 39:9; 2 Sam. 12:13). There are also a number of references to 'horizontal' sin, i.e. sinning against other people (Gen. 42:22; Matt. 18:15). The circular dimension of sin is less frequently mentioned, but is emphatically stated by Paul in 1 Cor. 6:18-20
"18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body."
Other references to sin against self include Prov. 6:32 and Rom. 1:24. It is noteworthy that all three of these texts refer to (apparently consensual) sexual sin, since many of the alleged 'victimless crimes' mentioned above are of a sexual nature. Why are these sins against oneself? Partly, as Paul explains, because we are not our own. God, the Creator and Redeemer of our bodies, has called us to set them aside for a higher purpose. As such, he has given us commandments on how we may or may not use our bodies. When we ignore these in the interests of individual freedom, we actually remove ourselves from God's presence and blessing. We rob ourselves of peace and joy.

It is important to realize that there is overlap between the different dimensions of sin. David's adultery and murder were described as sins against God, even though they directed involved only human beings. There are a number of cases where a sin is explicitly described as being both against another person and against God. Pharaoh sinned against God, as well as Moses and Aaron (Ex. 10:16). The prodigal son confessed that he had sinned against heaven and his father (Luke 15:21). Paul declares that a sin against one's brother is a sin against Christ (1 Cor. 8:12).

In fact, every single sinful act encompasses all three dimensions! First, every sin is an act of rebellion against God, the righteous Creator, Lawgiver and Judge to whom all are accountable. Second, any sin, even an apparently "victimless" one, violates our fellow humans. We set a bad example for others, causing them to stumble; and we defile our consciences, making us more harmful to others. Finally, every sin is against oneself because it is self-destructive and separates us from our loving Father in heaven. As Wisdom declares in Prov. 8:36, "He who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death."

Just as society increasingly discounts the seriousness of 'victimless crime', so the church increasingly discounts the seriousness of 'victimless sin' - particularly sexual sin. It is claimed that sexual sin was very low on Jesus' priority list compared to sins such as self-righteousness and pride. However, this is an argument from silence, and Jesus' apostle Paul made it clear that sexual sin has a victim (oneself) and is inconsistent with our calling to glorify God in our bodies.

Friday, 2 August 2013

The Kingdom of God is both Now and Not Yet

Virtually any person who has read the New Testament would agree that the kingdom of God was at the center of the message preached by Jesus and the apostles. In Matthew, Jesus' sayings refer to the kingdom no less than 45 times, and all four Gospels contain important mentions of this notion of the kingdom of God.

Both Mark and Matthew summarize Jesus' message along the lines, "The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe" (Mark 1:15; Matthew 4:17). In Luke 4:43, Jesus declares that the purpose for which he was sent was to "preach the good news of the kingdom of God". Acts records the kingdom of God as the primary focus of Jesus' discussions with the apostles after his resurrection and prior to his ascension (Acts 1:3). The kingdom of God also features prominently in summary statements about apostolic preaching in Acts (e.g. 8:12; 28:31). It is also mentioned over 20 times in the rest of the New Testament.

While most are agreed on the centrality of the kingdom of God in Jesus' and the apostles' teaching, there is no such agreement on what the kingdom of God actually means. Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology mentions four different interpretations. These are (1) the Political Kingdom (in which Jesus made a failed attempt to establish a political kingdom in rebellion against Rome), (2) the Spiritual Kingdom (in which the kingdom refers to God's rule in the individual's heart), (3) the Consistent or Future Kingdom (in which a supernatural kingdom which does not yet exist will be established after the Second Coming of Christ), and (4) the Realized or Present Kingdom (in which Jesus brought the kingdom at his first coming and fully established it through the church).

While interpretations (1) and (2) no longer have a following among any but the most liberal of Bible scholars, today's Evangelical Christianity is, in some instances, polarized between (3) and (4). Christadelphians (if I may be permitted to lump them in with Evangelical Christianity) have traditionally been firmly at the (3) end of the pole. The kingdom of God is yet future, and any insinuation that it may exist presently is taken as false doctrine, full stop. For instance, the 1877 Christadelphian Statement of Faith contained eight clauses describing the kingdom of God, all of which referred strictly to the future (although it is stated that this future kingdom will be a recapitulation of the past Davidic kingdom). Meanwhile, among the Doctrines to be Rejected is the idea that the kingdom of God is the church.

At the other extreme, in some Evangelical churches, there is an extreme at the (4) end. One could attend such churches for months and only hear references to the kingdom as a present reality. Talk of a future kingdom, for such believers, suggests a detachment from the Lord's powerful present work among his people. Besides, if such a kingdom was going to come, surely it would have come by now!

As is often the case, both extremes are wrong. A comprehensive biblical doctrine of the kingdom of God must incorporate both (3) and (4). There are passages which refer to the kingdom of God as a future reality only to be accomplished at the end of the age (Matt. 8:11; Matt. 25:34; Luke 19:11ff; Luke 22:18; Gal. 5:21; 2 Tim. 4:1; 2 Pet. 1:11), and there are passages which refer to the kingdom of God as having already arrived in the first century (Matt. 4:17; Matt. 13:41; Matt. 21:43; Luke 10:9-11; Luke 17:20-21Col. 1:13; Rev. 1:9).

This balanced approach, in which the kingdom has been inaugurated but not consummated, is sometimes referred to as inaugurated eschatology. It is necessary to hold in tension the paradox that the kingdom of God is both now and not yet. Only then can we avoid the extremes of the one whose anticipation of future events distracts him from the Lord's presence and power in the church today, and the one whose focus on present spiritual realities has left him with no sense of the approaching conclusion of history.