Years ago, when the New Atheists were still a cultural force to be reckoned with, I watched a debate on YouTube between an atheist—I can’t remember who—and a Christian apologist. They reached the point in the debate at which the Christian apologist said, quite correctly, that apart from God, objective morality can’t exist. At this point the atheist loudly protested, pointing to the many places in scripture in which God commands or condones what he believed to be immoral actions.
(As usual, the atheist misunderstood the apologist’s point: for the sake of this argument, it doesn’t matter what is or isn’t considered “moral”; apart from a transcendent law-giver, the indignant atheist has no moral high horse to saddle up. He’s using God as an objection to God.)
Then the atheist took an interesting turn: with derision, he said that Jesus himself was a horrifying moral teacher by today’s standards: he pointed specifically to Jesus’ many references to hell, and his apparent comfort at the thought of God’s consigning people to it.
To say the least, I could take issue with every characterization and generalization that the atheist made. But in his small defense, he gets closer to the truth regarding one aspect of Jesus’ teaching—his words about judgment, hell, and wrath—than many theological progressives.
Take, for instance, this Rob Bell interview with one liberal theologian, Richard Rohr. In talking about the “incarnational” aspect of the Bible, by which Rohr means to say the Bible is riddled with mistakes, he says:
This is how God trusts incarnation. God allows us to see God and uses that as his word. It’s through us. Therefore the text itself is three steps forward and two steps back. It gets it, it loses it, it get it it loses it…My Jesus hermeneutic is like this: Jesus never quotes Joshua and Judges. Most of Joshua and Judges are two steps backward books. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be in the Bible, I’m fine with that, there’s a lot in my life that’s two steps backwards. The text mirrors human development and growth and understanding.
“Jesus never quote Joshua and Judges.” Therefore what? Jesus knows that they’re… wrong? Aside from arguing from silence, this is a bizarre “Jesus hermeneutic.” It is, in fact, an example of what theologian Andrew Wilson calls the “Jesus tea-strainer” (which I referred to a couple of weeks ago).
Here’s Wilson (my emphasis in bold):
I had an interesting series of debates with Steve Chalke recently, on Scripture, the Old Testament, the atonement and sexuality. There are all sorts of things I could say about them (and I probably will, in time), but for me the most striking feature of Steve’s presentation was his continual reference to “the Jesus lens”. In his view, the Bible should be read through “the Jesus lens”, that is to say, in the light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus. I agree. But he then goes on to argue that this enables us, and in fact requires us, to correct all sorts of things that the texts actually say, particularly those which involve wrath, death and sexual ethics. Reading through the Jesus lens, for Steve, involves reading a difficult text – say, one about picking up sticks on the Sabbath, or destroying the Canaanites, or Yahweh pouring out his anger – figuring that Jesus could never have condoned it, and then concluding that the text represents a primitive, emerging, limited picture of God, as opposed to the inclusive, wrath-free God we find in Jesus. Not so much a Jesus lens, then, as a Jesus tea-strainer: not a piece of glass that influences your reading of the text while still leaving the text intact, but a fine mesh that only allows through the most palatable elements, while meticulously screening out the bitter bits to be dumped unceremoniously on the saucer.
The strange thing about this, of course, is that Jesus himself seemed so comfortable with many of those passages, and affirmed stories about destroying floods, fire and sulphur falling from the sky, people being turned into pillars of salt, and so on. Not only that, but he actually added to them, by telling several stories that present God in ways that modern people are not inclined to warm to.
He goes on to cite several examples of Jesus speaking about final judgment and hell.
I see the “Jesus tea-strainer” hermeneutic at work all the time. While I didn’t use the phrase, it was near the heart of my criticism of Jason Micheli in my guest post on his blog last week.
The rest of Bell’s interview is a disaster. Rohr (a Franciscan) says that we Protestants completely misunderstand the atonement. He says that it’s “actually heresy” to say that Jesus is God. Actually it isn’t.