Friday, February 25, 2011


This week, I propose a new word, or category, if you like: Evanliberalism.

My intention is to combine the best of evangelicalism and liberalism, whilst leaving out the worst.

What? I hear my evangelical colleagues say; is there a good side to liberalism?. Yes there is.

Say again? I hear, when the wheels start to grind and engage; is there a bad side to evangelicalism?. Yes there is, and in recent weeks I have run into it on a number of occasions.

Kindly allow me to explain.

My starting point is the person and work of Jesus Christ, as described in the canonical Bible. For better or for worse, I have decided that He is the way, the truth and the life, and no-one has access to the Father except by Him, just as He claimed in John 14:6. To me, this is not simply an intellectual proposition, but something that provides the script by which I live my life. I have adopted this perspective of Jesus because this is how the Biblical authors describe Him, and they should know better than I, having enjoyed a closer proximity to the historical person of Jesus.

(That’s a posh way of saying “they were there, dude, listen to what they’re saying”).

Expanding this further, I believe firmly that Jesus taught a Gospel of Grace, followed by Paul and the other authors of the New Testament, though they each had different ways of expressing it. Jesus framed it in terms of the Kingdom; Paul framed it in terms of justification. Both railed against the sense of self-entitlement that arises when we rely on something other than the Grace of God, even in part.

For example, in Matthew 3:9 and Luke 3:8, Jesus says to the Pharisees and Sadducees And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. I believe that Jesus’ point here is that they were relying on their Jewish ancestry to justify their inclusion in the People of God, and hence their access to God.

According to Genesis 12:2-3 and Genesis 15:19, God entered into a covenant with Abraham and his children, to be their God for all time. The Pharisees and Sadducees knew this, and they knew they were Abraham’s descendants (they had the genealogies), so they thought they were “set”. However, as Jesus points out, they weren’t. The reason, according to Jesus, was that they didn’t rely on God’s Grace, but on their own qualifications. They believed they were entitled to God because of something they had, and Jesus rebukes them for it. He refutes their claim to be Abraham’s children, despite the geneaologies, because they didn’t do what Abraham did (John 8:39), and if there was one thing that marked what Abraham did, it was his faith (Genesis 15:6). They relied on themselves, not on God.

Paul later wrote For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9). I am of the opinion that by “works” Paul does not strictly mean “moral good deeds”. What he has in view, broadly, are “religious” works. This makes sense because he equivocates between “works” as something we do, and “works” as something done to us, particularly in his letter to the Romans.

Consider the “works” that made a Jew a Jew; circumcision and breeding (things done to him) and “moral good deeds”, rites and festivals (things done by him). What Paul argues is that, as fully qualified Jew, he cannot use these works to get God to save him; if he could, then he would have something to boast about but he says he doesn’t. From Paul’s perspective, the re-centering of the legacy of Abraham on faith restores the divine mandate; we are Abraham’s children if we share in his faith, and this is what justifies our claim to the covenant of God.

Incidentally, this also opens the Gospel up to the gentiles – those of us who cannot claim to hold some of Abraham’s DNA – because we can become his heirs if we enter into the kind of faith he had, despite our gentile heritage.

Please forgive the apparent digression, but I hope to have demonstrated how crucial this Gospel of Grace is to the message of Jesus and His followers. It is rooted deep within the Biblical tradition and the Christian Church, at its best, has clung to it fiercely (for a brief review of what the Church Fathers taught, see here - though the website is “JustForCatholics”, I cannot think of any evangelical who would baulk at any of these statements).

I acknowledge that the Gospel of Grace can be explored in a variety of ways, but at it’s core, as I hoped to have demonstrated, is the impulse that we do not merit our privileges to God by anything that we have. Our access to God rests exclusively and solely on the work and person of Christ Jesus. We need faith to make the connection, but faith is what happens when I reach outside of myself to Him and I put my reliance on what He has. Put another way, we do not pre-qualify for God’s mercy and there’s nothing we can do to improve or increase it. (If anything, we pre-qualify for His wrath.)

I have found that evangelicalism, at its best, is rightly proud of maintaining and fostering this tradition, expositing it from the Bible, from which it gets its authority. However, there are elements within it that have become the very thing it contends with. These elements need to be challenged, and this is where liberalism, at it’s best, should be allowed to speak.

For example, this week I caused something of a rupture among the Evangelicals posting on MRM by suggesting that the Documentary Hypothesis had some merit. To me, this is a discussion about the authorship of the “Books of Moses”, or the Pentateuch (the first five books in the Bible - Genesis to Deuteronomy). It is not a discussion about the historicity of the stories in the Books of Moses, or the theology that they convey.

The Documentary Hypothesis holds that the “Books of Moses” were probably written by a number of authors and not by Moses alone, or even by Moses at all. The basic reasons for this are that the text is uneven (it speaks with several different “accents”); some statements are anachronistic (e.g. the Chaldeans might not have been in Ur at the time of Moses – see Genesis 11:28, 11:31 and 15:7); and there is nothing in the text itself that compels us to believe that Moses wrote it, though he frequently speaks in first person, particularly in the closing sermons at the end of Deuteronomy.

As some have rightly pointed out, Jesus believed that Moses was a historical person (they even had a conversation at Jesus’ Transfiguration, see Matthew 17:1-12, Mark 9:2-13, Luke 9:28-38), and he associates the giving of the law with Moses’ story. But, He doesn’t downright say that Moses wrote the entire compilation. Even Jesus does not compel us to believe the authorship of Moses throughout these books.

The responses I got from evangelicals were varied, but mostly negative. Some were willing to concede that Moses might have incorporated earlier traditions within his composition; others recoiled at the prospect that I had swallowed the Graf-Wellhausen theory in its entirety (which I haven’t – it postulates that the religion of Israel started out with folk polytheism and was later recast to fit the monotheistic agenda of the Temple Cult, as evident from the postulated JEDP redaction of the Scriptures). The worst reactions suggested that I could not possibly hold to a faith in Christ, whilst querying the authorship of Moses in these books.

Actually, I am quite open to discussing the merits of the case, one way or another. I don’t discount the possibility that Moses wrote the “Books of Moses”, but it looks like he didn’t (at least, not in their entirety). The notion that he did comes from an extra-Biblical tradition, and evangelicals are usually dismissive of what they perceive as extra-Biblical traditions.

The problem with the more extreme reactions, in my opinion, is that they are self-defeating. They were posted in the context of trying to get Mormons engage the evidence, particularly the known history of Joseph Smith and the history of the movement. Yet, here were evangelicals who could not hold themselves to the standards that they expected of those on the other side of the table – their reaction to the evidence was to deny it.

Worse, they had conflated a discussion on the authorship of the Books of Moses with the theology of faith in Christ. They questioned my faith in Christ because of it.

Hold on there, didn’t we previously say “saved by grace alone through faith alone”? Now, it seems, I can only be saved by believing in Christ and by believing that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible.

This is where I get very worried about evangelicalism.

As soon as we put the ”and” in, we open ourselves up to all sorts of silliness (this is one of my chief criticisms of Mormonism). We slide into believing that we are saved by Christ and our strictly traditional interpretation of scripture; or Christ and our membership of a certain Church or tradition; or Christ and our baptism; or Christ and my successful marriage and family life. All of these additions, and it doesn’t matter which formula you use, ultimately give us something that we could boast in; they provide us with a foundation upon which we can claim some kind of entitlement to God. Ultimately, then, they defeat the Gospel of Grace that evangelicalism has so rightly held forth.

Liberalism has something to say in this context, and it is this; the Bible (which I believe is the word of God) is literature. Until it becomes something else, it is therefore entirely appropriate to treat it as such.

As a work of literature, it spends a significant amount of its time conveying its message by story; story makes up about 40% of the Bible. In other words, it is an important feature of what we believe to be the Word of God.

This feature ought to be welcomed by evangelicals because it provides a highly robust response to those who get tangled up with issues such as interpretation. What I mean is, it is easy to see the grace of the father welcoming back the prodigal son, for example, no matter what variations of words you use.

As I have tried to explain earlier (clumsily), the Bible invites us to live in these stories, and if we're solely concerned about affirming their accuracy or historicity, then we've lost the plot. I took some flak over that one, to the point of refusing to publish the more noxious posts.

I’m a big fan of the Bible. I like to describe myself as a Bible-fan and hopefully not a Bible-basher. It’s a book with a message that deserves better treatment than it usually gets. When I think of the poor treatment dished out on it, I think of the silliness of the skeptics on one extreme and the silliness of those who don't get what "story" is about.

The Bible might be Divinely Commissioned, but it still invites us to engage it within its own context in a meaningful way. It begs us to wrestle with it, just as God wrestled with Jacob until daybreak at the Jabbok ford in Genesis 32:22-31.

When Jesus said “Let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16), I don’t think He expected them to arrive in an orderly, subdued and dead-serious manner. I believe He expected them to jump all over Him, climbing on Him, prodding Him and tickling Him as kids do. It was His disciples who tried to defend Jesus from this boisterous onslaught, and He rebukes them for it. Since when did Christians start to believe that they have to defend Christ by shepherding honest inquiries away from Him?

I believe that when we scrutinize, probe, query and, yes, wrestle with the Bible, we actually uphold and honor the tradition in which it was written. This is what some elements of evangelicalism appear to deny, and if that’s the case, you can call be an evanliberal.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Does John 20:17 disprove the Trinity?

I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.

I have found this verse to be used on more than a few occasions as an objection to the doctrine of the Trinity. So is this a “proof text” that the Christian Church got into apostasy around the fourth century AD to the extent that it’s worship of Jesus Christ is blasphemy? Here’s my response.

The Text

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
John 20:11-18

The Book

This passage occurs towards the end of the Gospel of John. The evidence for the authorship of the Gospel is not incontrovertible, but, as the New Bible Commentary concludes, “In the face of … various opinions it is difficult to be dogmatic, but it is reasonable to suppose that the internal and external evidence points to John the apostle as author.” Given that John probably died in the first years of the second century AD, the timeframe for the writing of the Gospel is probably around the end of the first century AD.

So, it is likely that the whole Gospel was written by a single (human) author. Alternatively, we could postulate that it was redacted by a number of authors (which seems to be the case for the “Books of Moses”), but the Gospel has an internal literary consistency and an outlook that points to a single author, or at least a group of authors with a common style and outlook.

My point here is simply that the author who wrote John 20:17, also wrote the rest of John (with the possible exception of John 7:53 – 8:11). If he was proposing that Jesus Christ was separate to God, he would have contradicted his own opening statements in John 1:1-3. That’s actually a possibility if you believe the Bible to be a disparate collection of confused and unrelated texts, but if, like me, you believe that it is Divinely Commissioned, then this possibility is not an option. What we are left with, then, is not that John was confused, but that we might be confused in understanding what he was trying to say.

The Story

Jesus has just been crucified and buried. John’s account of Mary’s witness of the resurrection is one of five such accounts in John 20, which are arranged in a chiastic structure. The first and fifth deal with people who do not see him; Mary’s story (number 2) and Thomas’ (number 4) deal with people who see him, yet struggle to believe what they see; and the central account deals with a public, shared encounter with the risen Christ. Such a literary structure indicates that the author has deliberately and consciously arranged his material, and it may be inferred that the inclusion Jesus’ statement in John 20:17 is likewise deliberate and intentional.

The flow of the narrative in Mary’s story is remarkably natural and unforced. Though John sees special significance in what’s going on, there’s no sense that it is somehow rehearsed or staged. Mary goes to the tomb to mourn for her dead son. When she finds the tomb empty, her first reaction is that someone has taken the body, and her immediate suspicions fall on the person she thinks is the gardener. When she realizes that he’s not the gardener, but rather the son she thought was dead, she grabs him. It is at this point that Jesus says, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’”. Mary then goes to the disciples and tells them. She effectively becomes the first Apostle to the Apostles – the first with the gospel of the Risen One.

There is an on-line commentary at BibleGateway that's worth reading.

The preamble to the BibleGateway commentary infers from John 20 that Jesus deals with five barriers to faith; in Mary’s case it is grief. She grieves for her dead son, but when she finds him alive, she grabs hold of him, and Jesus has to command her to let go. We cannot let the cherished memory of a loved one halt our walk of faith.

My reading also indicates that we should not attempt to tie Christ down. He is Lord, and He does things His own way. Having found Him, Mary does not want to let Him go to do His own business, but this impulse is not faith. We have to let Christ do things in His own way, trusting in Him to come or go as He sees fit. We cannot “mother” him. Despite her instincts, Mary summons enough faith to obey, and she lets Him go. If the Mother of God needs to learn obedience, then so do we all.

The reason why Mary needs to let Him go is provided by Jesus Himself, who tells her that he is still “in transit”. He is on a journey that He must complete, else the promised Holy Spirit will not come (see John 16:7).

The Theology

Plainly, John 20:17 shows that the Father and the Son are not the same. (John 16:7 also demonstrates that the Holy Spirit is not the same either.) This is not the only instance; there are several accounts of the Father speaking to the Son (Matt 3:17, Matt 17:5 etc). For me the most striking differentiation is when the Son declares that He does not know what is on the Father’s mind in the context of His own return (Matt 24:36).

Though this has been used in an attempt to disprove the Trinity, it actually disproves Modalism and Sabellianism, both of which are opposed to Trinitarianism. So, it doesn’t contend with Trinitarianism, rather it contends with the enemies of Trinitarianism.

The doctrine of the Trinity actually supports the idea that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct. However, the Trinity frames their distinctness by referring to them as “persons” within the One Godhead. However, the Trinity also acknowledges that there is One God (e.g. Isaiah 45:5), which discounts the possibility that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are separate “Gods” in some kind of divine council. The Christian Creeds enjoin Christians to worship the One God, not three, else they would be polytheists, contradicting the first of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3).

If you’re reading this and wondering how it is possible to hold onto the seemingly contradictory notions that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three persons and yet One God, then you would not be the first. The fact is, however, that the Bible teaches persistently that there is One God whom we should worship, yet the first Christians had no problem in worshipping Jesus Christ, as if He were that One God (see Matt 28:9, 28:17). Hold this in tension with the fact that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are separate persons (as John 20:17 ably demonstrates), and you have the basic ingredients for the doctrine of the Trinity. If you don’t like the term “Trinity”, then I would be happy to hear from you if you’ve got a better suggestion.


John 20:17 plainly demonstrates that the Father and Son are distinct. However, the doctrine of the Trinity supports this distinction, whilst maintaining the One-ness of God. If it disproves anything, John 20:17 disproves some of the main rivals to the Trinity, not the Trinity itself.

Further, the Gospel of John was written well before the Fourth Century, so the introduction of the idea of the Trinity is there, within living memory of Jesus' first Apostles (those who saw Him in the flesh). It was not until later, when competing theories arose, that the Church Fathers saw fit to articulate it in the language of the Creeds.

Friday, February 11, 2011

God questions from a 6 year old

This week, a colleague of mine sent me an email. She explained that her 6 year old son had been asking her questions about God, and could I help answer them. I wrote back as soon as I could with the following response.

(NB I have edited it lightly, by gathering my footnotes in the "footer")

Who is God and how was he born?

I’ll try to relate this in language that a 6 year old can understand, but I’ve put in some “adult” notes to try to help you make sense of it, too.

I’ll stick to the Bible on this, but I think it is fair to say that different people and different religions have very different views, and they are not all the same. Not everybody is going to agree on this (1).

God is bigger, and stranger, than any of us can possibly imagine. If you can imagine how big the universe is, then you also need to imagine that the universe exists within God to get an idea of just how big He is. That means that we will never fully understand everything there is to know about Him. However, we can know Him. You might not be able to understand everything about your Mum and Dad, but you know them because you talk to them, you know what they like and what they don’t like and in many ways you are just like them (2).

So, God created the universe, the world and you and me. We live in the world that God has created. God was there before the universe started, He is there now, and He will be there after it has finished. God wasn’t born and He will not die. He was always God and He always will be. This is one thing that’s very different between God and us (3).

One day, God decided that he wanted us to see Him as He truly is. He knew that we could look at all the stars and read all the books and ask everybody who knew something about Him, but it would never be like actually meeting Him. So, He came into our world. He came as a baby that grew into a man – Jesus Christ, who was born on Christmas Day, died on Good Friday and rose again on Easter Sunday. Finally, we could see for ourselves what He is like (4).

If I were God, and I were to come into the world that I made and ruled over, I think I would make myself King. I think I would set myself up in the most expensive palace, and I’d get my servants to run around after me, doing all the chores, doing all the boring stuff, and looking after my interests.

When the real God came into our world, He did things differently. Instead of getting us to serve Him, He served us. Instead of grabbing all the toys for Himself, He gave everything away. Instead of setting Himself up in a Royal Palace, He made Himself homeless. Instead of setting things up so that He could live forever, He died on a cross so that we could live. The story doesn’t end there, though. The Bible tells us He was raised to life, and He lives today.

So, when you ask me “who is God”, the face that comes to my mind is the face of Jesus. When you ask me “what is he like”, the story that comes to my mind is the story of Jesus.

There’s a poem in the Bible that was written shortly after Jesus had come to our world. It tells us how we should react to this story:

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.
He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what.
Not at all.
When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!
Having become human, he stayed human.
It was an incredibly humbling process.
He didn't claim special privileges.
Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.

Philippians 2:5-11. This version from “The Message”. See also the NIV translation for a more “formal” rendering.

1 Some people have tried to reconcile the world’s religions through syncretism. IMO, syncretism doesn’t work, and we just have to come to terms with the fact that the religions cannot be reconciled theologically
2 Much of this stems from the opening chapter of the Bible in Genesis 1, particularly Genesis 1:27. Also, there is a difference between understanding and knowing, and anyone who claims to fully understand God has plainly lost the plot.
3 Much of this stems from the title “Alpha and Omega” that is applied to God in Revelation 1:8, and a slew of other verses that I regularly refer to when I contend with people who insist that God was created, or that he had his own heavenly father and mother, e.g. Mormonism.
4 This is what theologians call the Incarnation – the Word made flesh, as in John 1:14.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Perils of Millennialism

I believe the Bible.

It seems a simple statement of fact, and I fully subscribe to it, but it doesn’t say anything about the way in which I believe the Bible. The different ways in which we can believe the Bible, or understand what it is saying, was highlighted this week in an on-line exchange with someone whom was promoting an eschatology that I disagree with. Here’s my response;


Where do I start?

Perhaps the greatest difficulty I have with millennialism is that it attempts to visualize a message that is essentially verbal. The apocalyptic language of Revelations, or Daniel, Ezekiel and elsewhere in the Bible is highly metaphorical and figurative. However, though it is picture-language, it is not necessarily used to describe a picture. If this is the case, we have to ask exactly what it describes, but I’ll return to that later.

A prime example is found in the opening passage of the Book of Revelation, when John first describes his encounter with the Alpha and Omega
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
(Revelation 1:12-16, NIV).

There are all sorts of difficulties in trying to visualize this description, which John cues with his pithy statement “I turned around to see the voice…” If that’s not enough, he then needs this divine vision to interpret itself to him, just as we do today. We find that the seven lampstands are the angels of the seven churches and the seven stars are the churches (Revelation 1:20). Here, the visualization technique fails us, because Christ both walks among the churches and he holds them in his right hand. It defies any sane attempt at visualization, but when we begin to understand it in the context of the figurative language of John’s Apocalypse, it becomes clear. Walking through a property is what the owner does to signify his ownership of it (see Genesis 3:8, another instance of “seeing a voice”), and holding something in one’s right hand signifies the value of that thing and the care and protection one gives it (the words for “hand” and “remembrance” are usually closely associated in scripture, see Psalm 137:5).

So, what this passage describes is not a scene that can be visualized, but the attributes of Christ and the basis of His relationship with His Church, and it is worth noting that the descriptions of these descriptions are not always mutually consistent. The whole book is, after all, a revelation of Jesus Christ, just as it says in Revelation 1:1. Any attempt to interpret it as an opening of God’s diary must therefore be treated with extreme caution, notwithstanding the explicit warnings of Matthew 24:36.

Moving through the book, we are presented with a series of strange and terrifying scenarios. Given the figurative nature of apocalyptic language, we have to do away with the presumption that these are intended to represent actual events that are related in chronological order. It is equally likely, or perhaps more plausible, that they are intended to describe the dynamics of the interaction between the heavenly and earthly realms.

Consider the abolition of the “sea” in Revelation 21:1. I do not see how the marine environment and the life it supports (which was created as a “good” thing in Genesis 1:9-10) can be banished, except in the context of the renewal of the whole of creation. But why, then, does the text talk about the renewal of “heaven” and “earth”, but not the “sea”?

Surely the answer must be that the “sea” of Revelation 21:1 is a metaphor, and it is surprisingly common. It represents the dark forces of chaos that seek to undermine God. Jonah got overwhelmed by them (Jonah 2:2-9), and Jesus followed Jonah in this (Matthew 12:39-41). The people of Israel got led out to their redemption through the sea. This metaphorical “sea” even makes an appearance in Genesis 1:2, before the creation of its physical counterpart. So, the banishment of the “sea” in Revelation 21:1 is not about robbing us of our favorite fishing spot in a waterless heaven; it’s about God vanquishing the dark, chaotic forces of hell that seek to dethrone Him and rob us of the refuge of our rock and redeemer (see Isaiah 44:8).

Thus it is that we can understand the vision of the angel with one foot on the land and one on the sea in Revelation 10:1-2. Here is one who has authority over earth and hell, and he announces the sovereignty of God. I don’t think that we will ever physically see this sight (I could be wrong), but what we can take from this is that when we proclaim the sovereignty of God in every corner of the cosmos (even those corners that are hostile to Him), we have some mighty backup. Christians should also note from this that there is no circumstance or place where it is inappropriate to proclaim the sovereignty of God and the reign of His Christ, not even in the “sea” of life’s chaos.

The timelines of Revelation 20 are, I acknowledge, more problematic. However, I will note that numbers are frequently used to denote completeness rather than an accurate count. Like so much else with apocalyptic language, we have to dispense with the presupposition that it is an identifiable unit of time. That may be the destination we come to, but it should not be the start of our understanding of it.

Revelation 20 deals with the “Thousand Years”, but identifying when this block of time occurs is problematic. An angel seizes Satan and imprisons him for the millennium and at the same time, the martyrs are brought to life to reign with Christ. Then, Satan gets released and all hell breaks loose until God intervenes in judgment, opening the books and even throwing death and Hades into the lake of fire.

Post-Millennialists say that the Millenium has passed, noting that Satan is very much present on the earth (see 1 Thessalonians 2:18) and that Christians have already taken up their position as kings and priests with Christ (compare Revelation 20:6 with 1 Peter 2:9). However, if the Millennium has been and gone, when did it happen? If it was before the creation of the world, then what are the nations that Satan deceived in Revelation 20:3? It may even have started with the Cross of Christ (see John 12:31), but what happened a thousand years later (about 1030 AD) to signify Satan’s release from his entombment?

Pre-Millennialists say that the Millennium is yet to come, and it will start with the Rapture, when all true believers are taken up to heaven. I have to question the theology here. Will God really leave himself without a witness on earth for a thousand years (see Isaiah 43:10-12)? This does not fit with any ecclesiology that I recognize in the Biblical texts.

In both cases, we should ask what difference the absence of Satan will make to the inhabitants of the earth (whether in the period from 30 to 1030 or in some future period)? Their heavenly accuser might be imprisoned, but they are still sinners who are still not entitled to have access to God. So, if their status is not affected by the presence or otherwise of Satan, what difference does it make if he is locked up or not?

Most distressingly, Pre-Millennialism can lead to the kind of escapism that goes in the opposite direction of the Christian Gospel. It can say that Christians should hunker down until Christ appears to rescue them from the storm. It can command Christians to contract into their own communities. In contrast, Christ commands his church to “go out into the world” as witnesses of Him (Matthew 28:19 etc.); to be the salt and light of the world (Matthew 5:13-14); the place that discharges the river of life into the desert (Revelation 22:1-2); the place that gives light to the nations (Revelation 21:24).

It is worth pausing to note here that the attributes of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 and 22 all fit the present age, not the age to come. Furthermore, rapturistic pre-millenialism has the Church ascending into heaven, in the very opposite direction to Revelation 21:10. We should respond by noting that Christ himself leads the way, coming down from the unseen realm into the dirt and dust of our world (Philippians 2:5-11), and we must not claim to be greater than our master in this respect (John 13:16). Christ sends us into the world to love it and serve it in His Name, but rapturistic pre-millennialism promises to remove us from it, which, to me, entices believers into dangerous theological territory.

On the subject of dangerous theological territory, you confidently asserted that the Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem. Why should it? In the context of the Christian Gospel, the Temple was the old wineskin (Matthew 9:17, Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37), and the true Temple has now replaced it (Hebrews 12:18-28), which is Christ himself (Revelation 21:22). Everything that the Temple did has been fulfilled and brought to a conclusion in Christ, including all the worship and sacrifice of the Old Testament (Romans 10:4). Are you suggesting that the work of Christ was somehow insufficient, such that God has to open a “back door” into his presence, contrary to John 14:6. Practically speaking, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem is likely to precipitate World War 3, as long as one quarter of the world’s population is Muslim, and I sincerely pray that Christians would do everything they can to prevent it. God is not interested in which pile of rocks we worship Him on, provided we worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-24).

As far as the Rapture is concerned, I believe N T Wright brings a perspective to it that is more empathetic to Paul’s writings than the 19th Century North American interpretations that I have heard. This is a subject entire of itself, but I understand that the vision of Christians being taken from earth has only gained popularity since the printing of the Scofield Bible in 1909.

Amillennialists deserve a mention here. They view Revelation and other apocalyptic scripture as aspirational goals. In other words, it’s up to us to make the Millennium happen, and we can do so through social action. Whereas the call to social engagement is commendable, the reluctance to acknowledge God is not. If there is an over-riding message in Revelation, it is that Jesus Christ is the Lord of History, and he over-rides the tumult of all else that happens, even when super-human forces that are hostile to Him initiate it.

So, what does Revelation and the other Apocalyptic Biblical scripture tell us? My view, which is also my view on the corpus of Biblical texts, is that it is primarily a revelation of God. That means that it is not primarily a revelation of religion, nor of God’s diary. I would accept that it is a revelation of the human soul, but so is other literature. The difference with Biblical literature is that the human souls who wrote it have been inspired to interpret what they see as God incarnated in the human experience.

Maintaining this focus on God prevents us from taking the scriptures into a landscape that is alien to them. For example, dispensationalists appear to expend too much energy trying to find a “fit” between the various scenarios in Revelation and current western world events. If they did manage to find a “fit” (which has not happened yet with satisfactory results), what difference would it make? Would they then dig a bunker in their back yard, fill it with food and ammunition and wait for the rapture? I am not objecting here to preparing for, or avoiding trouble, but I have to question the values of self-preservation that underpin such a mentality, contrary to Jesus’ command in Matthew 16:24. Christians are at their most Christ-like when they abandon their efforts to save themselves and turn to help neighbors in distress, not when they are the first to take to the lifeboats.

The question of what difference it makes is more important than it might appear at first. It exposes the whole issue of why God would give us the Bible in the first place. In coming to terms with this question, I have learned to be content with an ambiguity here; the ambiguity between reality and myth.

There is no doubt in my mind that many of the events and characters in the Bible are, or were, real events and real people. This connection to the “real” is important, because it tells me that I’m not just dealing with a theoretical and esoteric God, but one who actively interacts with my world. Such a view sits well with the ultimate expression of God in the person of Jesus Christ who, as Christians have persistently maintained, is both fully and wholly God and fully and wholly human. He is the "word made flesh" - the verbal made visual. I believe that Christ is the intersection between heaven and earth, and it is important to know that the “earth” in this equation is our earth, not some intellectual construct.

However, not all events and characters are “real”, as my thoroughly inadequate survey of apocalyptic literature shows. The division between reality and myth in the Biblical stories is by no means self-evident, though some texts exhibit more clues than others. The book of Job, for example, reads very much like a Greek Drama, and I would be confident in concluding that that is what it is, rather than a blow-by-blow account of “real” conversations about Job’s misfortunes (seriously, have you ever heard someone monologue like that, because I haven’t).

If they are not “real”, then they must be mythological. Unfortunately, the term “myth” has plenty of negative connotations, which we need to ignore, but there seems to be no better English word to describe them, though “parable” comes close. To describe how this works, I need to borrow a quote from a sermon that I have been unable to source, which is that the myth (parable) is intended to provide a house in which we are invited to live. I like this metaphor. It speaks to me of the “strong tower” that is the Name of God (see Proverbs 18:10). To put it simply, if we live within the God-inspired story, then God will protect us and things will turn out according to His will.

This, I believe, is the key to understanding Apocalyptic literature. It is intended to give us a narrative, or script, in which we should live out our lives. The Book of Revelation, for example, tells us over and over that if we are faithful to God, He will rescue us, overcoming our enemies, ultimately bringing us to Himself where we joyfully love and worship Him. Placed side by side with the corpus of Biblical literature, this theme is expanded and replayed, such that we can face the future with confidence, knowing that whatever terrifying scenarios we may face, God will ultimately triumph, and justice, truth and mercy will prevail.

In this context, it’s an interesting waste of time to attempt to predict exactly how this will happen, but one thing is sure; we don’t have to focus our efforts on our self-preservation and we certainly don't need to rescue God. We don’t even have to correctly understand all the details, provided we keep our sights set on Jesus Christ, who is the pioneer and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2).

I believe the Bible. I believe it encompasses real history. I believe that it is the house within which I should live. This useful little metaphor tells me the way in which I should believe it, and it shows the way in which I should understand it, in particular it's apocalyptic literature.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Central Queensland is about to, er, "receive" one of the biggest cyclones in living memory - Cyclone Yasi. It probably won't affect much us in Brisbane. However, being a flood engineer, I have collected some facts and figures. Also, being a pom, I have a genetic predisposition to talk about the weather...

The last cyclone like Yasi was probably Mahina, which occurred in 1899.

Yasi is so big, that if it hit America, it would cover the entire eastern seaboard from Newfoundland to Florida. If it hit the British Isles it would cover it from John O'Groats to Marseille.

Yasi is Category 5. It's a measure of severity There is no Category 6.

Yasi is expected to produce wind gusts of up to 280 to 300 km/hr, which equates to about 75 to 80 m/s. The eye has been travelling at about 30 km/hr, or 8 m/s. In a sprint, the fastest humans can run at about 10 m/s, and the speed of sound is about 330 m/s. So, you could hear it coming, but you won't be able to outrun it.

Yasi is expected to produce a storm surge of 6.5 to 7.0 m. That's the elevation of the sea above astronomical tide level (due to inverse barometric pressure). If it crosses the coast at about 3:00am tomorrow morning, it will coincide with a low tide, but if it waits until about 9:30 it will hit a high tide, which is about 2.5 m above mean sea level, resulting in sea levels about 9 to 10 m above mean sea level. Rule of thumb: if you're buying property in North Queensland, make sure it is at least 10 m above mean sea level. (Some residences in Brisbane are as low as about 3.5 m above mean sea level, but cyclones are much less frequent here).

Yasi is expected to dump up to about 1 m of rain as it passes in the next day or so. By comparison, the mean annual rainfall in Brisbane is about 0.9 m, and in the UK it's about 0.8 m.

All 250 patients in the Cairns hospital have been successfully evacuated to Brisbane.

About 20,700 people have taken refuge in Temporary Cyclone Shelters. The Shelters are now full, and Police are turning away latecomers.

At about 4:00pm, State Premier Anna Bligh announced that if you hadn't evacuated yet, you shouldn't try. Your best bet would be to hunker down in the strongest room in your house, which is usually the bathroom. Fancy spending the next 24 hours in your toilet? With no power? With all your family present?