Archive for May, 2013

Was Jesus mistaken about Satan and demons?

May 31, 2013

Re-reading The Screwtape Letters last night and today has been like holding up a deeply unflattering mirror to my soul. I didn’t like what I saw, but I’m glad I saw it. I can learn from it. Earlier this week, I saw a reflection of an earlier version of myself in another book on spiritual warfare, Michael Green’s I Believe in Satan’s Downfall.

Five or six years ago, I either didn’t believe in or was extremely skeptical of the existence of a literal Satan. (It depended on which day you asked me.) He (or it) was probably just a symbol of evil, a literary personification of it. Perhaps “Satan” was the sum total of all evil to which each of us contributes. Human beings are “bad enough,” I believed, without demonic forces also working against us. I was a little embarrassed by those quaint gospel accounts describing demonic possession and exorcisms.

Needless to say, I have long repented of my skepticism. As I’ve indicated on my blog and in a few sermons since then, I believe strongly in the existence of Satan, a spiritual realm of angels and demons, and literal spiritual warfare.

In his book, however, Green parroted back an argument that I used to make (in my head, at least) against the apparent problem of Jesus’ belief in Satan: Of course Jesus believed in Satan and devils; he was limited in knowledge by his incarnation, having emptied himself of, among other things, omniscience; therefore, as a product of a culture that accepted uncritically the reality of angels and demons, Jesus did as well. All mental illness was understood as demon possession in Jesus’ day. Therefore when Jesus was healing these illnesses, he—along with disciples and onlookers—believed he was exorcising demons. He was mistaken, but being mistaken is no sin.

See how neatly it all fits together? You don’t? Well, neither do I—at least not now!

While I have an amazing tolerance for cognitive dissonance, even I had to finally admit defeat: not believing in Satan and demons is incompatible with orthodox Christian faith. If we accept the Bible as authoritative in any sense, we ought to believe what it says about the spiritual realm. As I said in a post last week, it’s really not so hard. In fact, it makes better sense of the world, in my opinion, to believe in the demonic.

To be clear, I still believe Jesus’ incarnation meant he wasn’t omniscient: that’s a condition of being human. As Luke 2:52 indicates, Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” When he was an infant, Jesus didn’t think, “I’ll bide my time and pretend to be like any other human child until I get old enough to reveal who I really am.” No—he was fully human. He had to mature, learn, and grow just like the rest of us. Inasmuch as he appears at times clairvoyant in the gospels, I believe this is based on revelation from his Father or a hyper-intuition that comes from the closeness of his relationship with God.

Regardless, Green points out the biggest problem with the “kenotic theory”—that Jesus was mistaken about Satan because he was a product of his culture.

If Jesus was mistaken on a matter as vital as whether or not there is a great Adversary to God and man, why should we take him as our teacher on anything else? Perhaps his belief in the free forgiveness of God is equally culturally conditioned—is there not some talk of free acceptance before God in the Hymns of Qumran covenanters?

This kenotic theory if applied to Jesus’ understanding of Satan, proves much too much if it proves anything at all. It will not do simply to take those areas of teaching of Jesus which we like and regard them as coming from God, while rejecting those areas of his acknowledged teaching which do not appeal to us. Such eclecticism is academically indefensible, and is not a proper option for those who call him Lord and set out to be his learners or disciples. The fact that Jesus taught so clearly the existence of Satan is the most powerful reason for his followers to take the same stance and act accordingly.[†]

Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 29.

“What he says, even on his knees, about his sinfulness is all parrot talk”

May 30, 2013

lewisThis week, in preparation for my spiritual warfare sermons of the next two Sundays, I’ve read a couple of weighty books on the subject. Now for my reward: The Screwtape Letters! In the following excerpt, Uncle Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood about how to handle his “patient,” a recent adult convert to Christianity. When his patient is in worship, Screwtape tells his nephew to distract his patient’s mind with thoughts of how ridiculous his neighbors in the next pew seem—how, for instance, they dress shabbily; how they sing off-key.

I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do—if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with the squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention? You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with those ‘smug’, commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.[†]

C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 189-90.

Sermon 05-26-13: “The Word Is Love, Part 7”

May 30, 2013


When we hear about tragedies of nature—like the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma—or tragedies related to sickness that claim the lives of too many loved ones, or tragedies too numerous to count caused by human sin and evil in our world, we often think, “This isn’t right. The world shouldn’t be like this. This needs to change.”

We all want to change the world, as the Beatles song “Revolution” says, but substantial change often seems difficult if not impossible. But why wouldn’t it be? The problem with the world, after all, is you and me. We need to “change our heads” and “free our minds.” 

Easier said than done, I know. But today’s scripture gives us hope.

Sermon Text: Revelation 21:1-8

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Last Monday, an acquaintance of my friend Mike posted the following on Facebook: “After the events in Moore, Oklahoma, can someone please give me a reason to believe in God?” This question reminded me of something that a theologian and blogger from New Zealand named Dr. Glenn Peoples said: “When possible, don’t wait until something goes terribly, tragically wrong until you decide what you think about it.” That’s good advice. We certainly didn’t need the events of last Monday to teach us that many people in our world, including many young children, die tragically as the result of things like natural disasters—and a million other things besides. Some of you know this from painful personal experience. My point is, if the God we worship and serve weren’t good, loving, or just, we shouldn’t need the tornado of Moore, Oklahoma, to convince us of that! Because we’ve thought it through already. Read the rest of this entry »

Since when has biblical revelation fitted neatly into what can be believed these days?

May 28, 2013

satans_downfallIn preparation for the next two weeks’ sermons on spiritual warfare, I just started this out-of-print book by Michael Green called I Believe in Satan’s Downfall. Roger Olson recommended it over on his blog. I can already tell it’s going to be awesome! If you’re an author who wants to break through my natural defenses, write well. Of course, you better back up that good writing with good ideas, but have you noticed that you usually don’t have one without the other?

Regarding belief in a literal Satan, Green writes:

I do not see how anyone who regards the Scriptures as at all normative for belief or behavior can possibly avoid the conclusion that this is the firm and unwavering teaching of the Bible, and that therefore any simple rejection of such uniform and decisive teaching needs a great deal of justification. It simply will not do to say, “Oh, we can’t believe that these days.” Since when has any of the biblical revelation fitted neatly into what could be believed these days? If unaided reason were enough to disclose God to us, the Almighty might have spared himself the trouble both of revelation and of incarnation.[†]

Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 26.

Jolie’s theologically significant choice

May 28, 2013

Years ago, Saturday Night Live produced a sharp parody of a prescription drug commercial aimed at women—touting a solution for some female-specific health problem. I don’t remember what problem or product the parody was spoofing, but I remember the commercial’s best punchline: When it was time to offer disclaimers and warnings about scary-sounding side effects (which sometimes make the remedy seem worse than the disease), the very sympathetic female announcer said, “Latrevia [or whatever it was called] won’t cure all your problems; after all, you’ll still be a woman.”

The reason that punchline worked is because it correctly discerned a subtle message underneath many of these appeals to women: “Because you’re a woman, there’s something wrong with you and your body.”

angelina-jolie-people-magazine-cover.jpgFor some reason, I thought of this parody when I heard about Angelina Jolie’s announcement a couple of weeks ago to have a preemptive double-mastectomy. I say “preemptive,” of course, because she doesn’t yet have breast cancer. Based on state-of-the-art genetic testing, however, her doctors believed she had an 87 percent chance of developing it.

I promise I’m not passing judgment on the rightness or wrongness of Jolie’s decision. And who am I, anyway—with my Y-chromosome—to even offer an opinion. I know I’m treading on thin ice, believe me.

But was her decision “brave,” absent any sign of cancer, as magazines as diverse as People and Christianity Today agree that it was? How do they know what was right?

And why isn’t the answer as clear to me?

One thing’s for sure: I don’t like this “Her•meneutics” column in Christianity Today. Guest-columnist Sarah Thebarge, a breast-cancer survivor, asks:

What if all of us women had the courage to shed the external things we’ve used to define ourselves and accept ourselves and each other for who we are instead of what we look like?

I can’t reconcile these words with our Christian hope for bodily resurrection, which I just preached about on Sunday. Contrary to Thebarge’s suggestion, “who we are” is not some intangible, spiritual part of ourselves—a soul—separate from our bodies. We are instead bodies and souls together. On the other side of death and resurrection, God will put us back together again.

And why will God do this? Because God happens to love the “external things” (Thebarge’s words) that make up our bodies. He isn’t willing for us to be “shed” of them—not eternally, at least. Jesus came not to save “souls but ‘wholes,'” as N.T. Wright said. As with all of us, Angelina Jolie doesn’t accidentally have the body she has. God gave it to her for a reason. What we do with our bodies, therefore, matters greatly to God.

And for all I know, God called her to sacrifice part of her body for now—so that she’ll avoid an early death and continue to love and support her many children. But that doesn’t change the fact that what she loses matters to God—even if, in Christ, the loss is temporary.

Lennon’s right: God will make everything all right

May 27, 2013

To be a fly on the wall when this jam session was happening!

In yesterday’s final Beatles-themed sermon, which featured the song “Revolution,” I discussed John Lennon’s pessimism about changing the world for the better, while nevertheless maintaining that “it’s gonna be all right.” The world is going to be all right, I said—more than Lennon knows. But it won’t be all right because of what we humans do; it will be all right because of what God will do in God’s act of new creation on the other side of resurrection.

Lennon wasn’t a Christian, obviously, but it turns out he had something like this in mind, too. In a footnote in Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, MacDonald writes:

The phrase ‘it’s gonna be alright’ arose from Lennon’s experience while meditating in Rishikesh [while visiting the Maharishi in India], his idea that God would take care of the human race whatever happened politically. He later confessed that he’d dabbled in politics during the late Sixties out of guilt and against his instincts.[†]

On this point Lennon and I are in complete agreement. To use theological jargon, my outlook on politics is thoroughly eschatological: God will take care of the human race regardless what happens politically. That doesn’t mean Christians should become Amish about political involvement; only that their stance toward politics should be cautious and skeptical and rightly focused on the Big Picture of God’s kingdom. This is why I’m less interested in politics than some of my friends want me to be.

Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2005), 285.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”

May 27, 2013

Despite my ecumenical good will, I often feel like an outsider looking in when it comes to Roman Catholicism. Just when I started to warm up to Benedict XVI, he goes and retires. Now we have this new guy, and who knows what to make of him? Last week, in a homily, he said something that even the most liberal United Methodist bishop wouldn’t say—O.K., that’s probably not true, but still… He said the following:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

While I’m gratified to know that Francis believes that “not just Catholics” have been redeemed, I worry that he sees no distinction between—I don’t know—a deeply committed Protestant and an atheist! Oh well…

The larger issue is the apparent universalism implied by this statement. He simply can’t believe what his words seem to say and rise to the first rank of the Catholic Church. So he must mean something else. Understandably, his words have caused some embarrassment among Catholics like apologist Scott Hahn, who thought he had left all that squishy liberal Protestant squeamishness about judgment and hell behind when he swam the Tiber, as they say. (Since this source is secondhand, it’s possible Hahn didn’t write what was attributed to him. Let’s assume he did.)

Hahn says that the pope meant to say, first, that Christ’s atoning death was effectual for everyone who will receive it through faith: “Christ didn’t die to save only Catholics/Christians, but everybody (even atheists).”

This is actually what I assume Francis meant, too. As an Arminian who strongly disagrees with the “L” (limited atonement) of the Calvinist TULIP, I obviously agree.

But Hahn’s third point puts the most generous spin possible on the pope’s words: “Since all are redeemed by Christ—potentially, at least—we should be looking for ways to build bridges with them in order to actualize that redemptive potential, by showing them that whatever truth and goodness they embrace comes from—and leads to—Christ.”

Potentially, at least”? “Redemptive potential”? Where do you see “potential” in the pope’s plain words? It’s hard to reconcile Hahn’s interpretation with this strangely emphatic paragraph. I realize a spoken homily doesn’t include exclamation points, but notice where they occur in the Vatican transcript above. It’s clear the pope is saying that everyone (“Everyone!”) has already been redeemed (past tense). And it’s because they’ve already been redeemed that they possess the power to do good—just like any Catholic.

Other Catholic defenders (at least in comments sections of blogs I read) have said that the pope is using redemption in a very technical sense as distinguished from salvation—to be redeemed isn’t the same thing as to be saved or justified or whatever. I know a thing or two about Christian theology; I’ve never heard of this distinction before. But, again, I’m Protestant. I’m an outsider looking in. The Bible makes no such distinction.

“You better free your mind instead”

May 24, 2013
What a great single this was!

What a great single this was!

The Beatles’ “Revolution” will receive some theological reflection this Sunday as we finish up our Beatles-themed sermon series. The Vinebranch band will also, of course, perform it, along with “Let It Be.”

“Revolution” was controversial when it was released in 1968. In an era in which many young people believed they could make the world a better place, this song was a wet blanket: “Well, you know, we all want to change the world,” John Lennon sang. But show me the plan first. How do you know your efforts won’t end up making things worse? “If you talk about destruction,” count me out. Also, don’t ask me to support causes whose leaders have “minds that hate”—like Chairman Mao, for instance. Violent means don’t justify supposedly peaceful ends.

Both the song and the Bible share a similar pessimism about human nature. In a published response to a radical student who wrote an “open letter” criticizing Lennon and the song, Lennon wrote:

You say ‘in order to change the world, we’ve got to understand what’s wrong with the world and then destroy it. Ruthlessly.’ You’re obviously on a destruction kick. I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it—people. So, do you want to destroy them? Ruthlessly? Until you/we change your/our heads—there’s no chance.[†]

I couldn’t have said it better myself. As the song says, “You better free your mind instead.”

Easier said than done, I guess!

In fact, both “freeing your mind” and creating a world in which love, peace, and justice hold sway—a desire that the Beatles often sang about—is impossible apart from a radical and miraculous intervention from God. But I’ll say more about that this Sunday.

Here’s the White Album version, “Revolution 1.” A more aggressive version was later recorded and released as a single.

Steve Turner, A Hard Day’s Write (New York: It Books, 2005), 169.

The Rt. Rev. Wright doesn’t mince words, does he?

May 23, 2013

wright on bible reading

When we Christians think of salvation, we often think it means “going to heaven” when we die. Isn’t this the way we often—or usually—speak of it? This Sunday I’m preaching on heaven. Sort of. With the qualification that  “heaven” refers to that place where heaven and earth—a transformed earth—become one on the other side of resurrection. If that’s what heaven is, however, then salvation means much more than we usually think. N.T. Wright puts it this way:

And if God’s good creation—of the world, of life as we know it, of our glorious and remarkable bodies, brains, and bloodstreams—really is good, and if God wants to reaffirm that goodness in a wonderful act of new creation at the last, then to see the death of the body and the escape of the soul as salvation is not simply slightly off course, in need of a few subtle alterations and modifications. It is totally and utterly wrong. It is colluding with death. It is conniving at death’s destruction of God’s good, image-bearing human creatures while consoling ourselves with the (essentially non-Christian and non-Jewish) thought that the really important bit of ourselves is saved from this wicked, nasty body and this sad, dark world of space, time, and matter! As we have seen, the whole of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, speaks out against such nonsense. It is, however, what most Western Christians, including most Bible Christians of whatever sort, actually believe.[†]

N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 194-5.

Sermon 05-19-13: “The Word Is Love, Part 6”

May 23, 2013
As a child, John Lennon played on the grounds of Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army orphanage near his Liverpool home.

As a child, John Lennon played on the grounds of Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army orphanage near his Liverpool home.

Both John Lennon and the apostle Paul agree that life in the “real world” is filled with pain and suffering. John longs to escape to “Strawberry Fields,” the heavenly place of his childhood memories. Paul, however, knows better: by grace God is always working to transform suffering into something deeply beneficial for his children. Among other things, it can strengthen our trust in God, make us more dependent on him, and awaken our conscience to sin. The good news is that there’s no evil or suffering that’s beyond God’s ability to redeem. 

Sermon Text: 2 Corinthians 12:1-10; Romans 8:28

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

My birth mother, Linda, whom some of you have met, lives near Mt. Airey, North Carolina, hometown of the late-great Andy Griffith. There’s a shop there that I love, which sells second-hand merchandise. It has a sign out front that reads: “Remember all that stuff you had when you were a kid that your parents got rid of? It’s all in here!” And I’m like, “I got to go in there!” The store had old comic books, and magazines, and paperbacks, and baseball cards, and records, and tapes—along with old lunchboxes, toys, games, and memorabilia. You get the idea, right? The store exists for people like me!

It just so happens that about a dozen years ago, I had a fight with Mom. I was feeling nostalgic, so I decided to rummage through the basement and attic and closets of the house I grew up in and retrieve some of these priceless artifacts from my childhood—comic books, Matchbox cars, baseball cards, Superhero records, and my library of Hardy Boys books. To my shock and horror, I discovered that most of these things were gone—vanished, missing! My mom explained that she and Dad had sold them in garage sales over the years. And I was really angry. And I said, “Mom, I can’t believe you sold my childhood? How could you do it?” And she’s like, “I didn’t know I was ‘selling your childhood’!”  Read the rest of this entry »