Did Jesus (and the early Christians) actually expect him to return soon? [Questioning faith #13]

Ted Grimsrud—December 23, 2022

Many New Testament scholars and others influenced by them assert that Jesus (and, following him, other New Testament writers such as Paul and the writer of Revelation) believed that he would return within a relatively short time after his death. This return would be tied with an end to history and the inauguration of a new heaven and new earth.

The people who advocate this view go on to point out that Jesus (and the others) were obviously wrong. Christianity thus quickly evolved to be a more conservative, more doctrine-oriented—and less radical-ethics-oriented—religion. Christians linked themselves with political structures (e.g., the Roman Empire) that would allow them to sustain their structures so long as Christians would contribute to the wellbeing of the political status quo. Over time, various small renewal movements would arise that would hearken back to the radical message of Jesus (and, in some interpretations, of Paul and Revelation). These movements could be dismissed because they were basing their visions on a message from Jesus that was meant for the short time between his life and his return. That message was not meant for the long haul of coming generations who were tasked with sustaining the faith over a much, much longer period of time than Jesus had anticipated. This work of sustaining the faith, thus, in the real world, required accommodation to the political systems of the world.

But is this true?

I have the impression that many of the people who accept the idea that Jesus (and the others) expected a soon end of history have not scrutinized the evidence very carefully. The first thing that I note is how ambiguous and peripheral most of the references are that seem to voice such an expression. We don’t have a clear, straightforward statement that Jesus will return soon. We do have various statements that seem to allude to something major happening in the near future without explaining what that would be and what would be the consequences. And there are more vague statements of hope about God’s victory to come. How should these be understood?

It could be that they are indeed predicting a soon end to human history and the inauguration of a new age of pure salvation. But such a predication does not have support in the overall message of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament that emphasizes the call to faithful living in a broken world. A key value in the New Testament is perseverance, the sense that followers of Jesus have a long haul ahead of them that will require strength, a commitment to resist the ways of the world, and an acceptance of the likelihood of suffering for the sake of their faith.

Continue reading “Did Jesus (and the early Christians) actually expect him to return soon? [Questioning faith #13]”

What are Christians saved from? [Questioning faith #11]

Ted Grimsrud—December 15, 2022

“Salvation” is one of those Christian words that we use a great deal but aren’t always clear about what we mean by it. In my recent posts, I have focused on how we might find salvation without really addressing what it is. One way to work at understanding what salvation is is to reflect on what we are saved from. Other words in the Bible that seem to be rough synonyms with salvation include “liberation,” “redemption,” and “ransom.” All of these seem to have in mind being delivered or freed from something. What are we saved from?

The old story

My first encounter with Christianity came when I joined a Baptist church when I was 17 years old. The main message about salvation I heard was that, in reality, we are saved from God. More specifically, we are saved from God’s judgment, God’s punitive justice, God’s wrath. Or, we could say, we are saved from hell, from eternal torment in separation from God. The means to gain this salvation was very narrow and particular. We must accept Jesus as our personal savior, which means to believe in the efficacy of his sacrificial crucifixion on my behalf, a death he took upon himself in order to receive, as our substitute, the punishment that we deserve.

Because I did not grow up with this theology and had a much more positive sense of my place in the world, that salvation story did not scare me in the way that it has so many other people. I didn’t have the deep-seated anxiety about whether I was okay or not that many lifelong Christians seem to have. Despite not feeling that anxiety, I did try to believe that story—though I was always uneasy about it—until a few years into my journey when I began to learn of another way to read and apply the story.

I won’t go into all the problems here with the kind of atonement theology I was taught. I’ll just note that from the beginning I sensed that the story of Jesus and his love was not fully compatible with belief in an angry and punitive God. Though I don’t remember thinking of the issue in these terms, I would say now that part of my problem with what I was taught was that my sense of the human problem was not that God was displeased with us so much as that too many human beings gave allegiance to oppressive and hurtful ideologies and institutions.

In retrospect, I think it is important to remember that the period in my life that I became a Christian, left home for college, and initially worked out my theology coincided with the final years of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that drove President Richard Nixon from office. I became much more interested in social issues during this time and discovered and embraced Christian pacifism. I was eager for a theology that would help me make sense of the world I was living in and that would empower peaceable social ethics. I realized the salvation story I had been told wasn’t doing that. The key for me came when I realized that Jesus himself talked about his cross as a model for his followers, not as a necessary sacrifice to satisfy God’s punitive justice. How do we best understand salvation in light of Jesus’s cross as a model?

Continue reading “What are Christians saved from? [Questioning faith #11]”

How do we get the Bible right? [Questioning faith #8]

Ted Grimsrud—December 5, 2022

To my previous question, “Why did Christianity move so far away from the message of Jesus?” (11/21/22), an important part of the answer that goes beyond the themes I discussed in that blog post would be to think about the Bible. We could say, I suspect, that a major reason why Christianity moved so far away from Jesus is that Christianity quit getting the Bible right. The message of Jesus mainly comes from the gospels—and in the history of Christianity quite often the gospels have been marginalized, beginning with the great creeds that jump from Jesus’s birth to his death without a word about his message.

Approaching the Bible today

I want to focus here on the present version of this issue—How do we get the Bible right today? I have written before how I struggled with the Bible during the early years after my entering the Christian fold. I think now one of the main reasons is that the Bible was presented to me in an uninteresting way. Once I was introduced to the gospel of peace and was helped to see how the entire Bible ultimately presents us with this peace message then studying the Bible became interesting and meaningful. As my theology has evolved away from the rather conservative “Bible Baptist” theology I started out with, my embrace of the Bible has actually been strengthened. I realize that my positive view of the Bible has a great deal to do with my reading strategy. I am aware of many other different approaches to the Bible today that actually contribute to the problem of separating Christianity from the message of Jesus.

I have become convinced that one of the most important aspects of my reading strategy that makes the Bible interesting for me is to recognize that the Bible has a particular agenda. Now, this is a complicated point partly because we actually know so little for sure about the original writing of the Bible. And we must recognize that the Bible is filled with a large variety of writings from different times and places with different styles and, we could say, different agendas. So, we should be cautious about asserting a single agenda. Nonetheless, cautiously, I do want to make such a suggestion (perhaps not as insistent as an assertion). The Bible’s particular agenda is to encourage healing in the world (what I call in my book introducing the Bible, God’s Healing Strategy). I think that healing agenda motivated the writing of most of the books of the Bible. It motivated the use of these various writings in communities of faith. It motivated the gathering of these writings into a larger collection. And, ultimately, it motivated the sustained use of the collection as the normative scripture for the faith tradition.

Continue reading “How do we get the Bible right? [Questioning faith #8]”

Why did Christianity move so far away from the message of Jesus? [Questioning faith #7]

Ted Grimsrud—November 21, 2022

From the time I made a commitment to Christian pacifism in the mid-1970s, I have believed that Jesus and the Bible as a whole support that commitment. In the years since, I have learned a lot more about how this “support” is complicated and at time ambiguous. However, I still believe that the general message of the Bible and more clearly the message of Jesus obviously point toward peace, compassion, care for the vulnerable, and what we now refer to as restorative justice—even if some may quibble about whether it explicitly teaches pacifism.

A few years after my turn toward peaceable Christianity, my wife Kathleen and I spent a year at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. We gained a terrific foundation there of biblical peace theology, especially from Old Testament professor Millard Lind and New Testament professor Willard Swartley. I have preached through much of the Bible in the 40 years since attending AMBS, each year during my 20-year teaching career at Eastern Mennonite University I taught a class called “Biblical Theology of Peace and Justice,” and I have written several books on peace based on the Bible. I feel quite established in my sense that the Bible (especially, but not only, Jesus) gives us a strong message of peace.

The difference between the Bible and Christian practice

So, that leads to the obvious question. What happened to Christianity? The history of Christianity is a history full of wars and militarism, conquest and domination, crusades and the embrace of empire. One statistical piece of evidence comes from the United States. In 1940, after several years of intense lobbying by peace advocates, the legislation passed to begin a military draft included allowance for pacifists to be exempt from joining the military. So, this proved to be kind of a test case.

From my analysis, I would estimate that about one out of 1,000 American Christians chose the conscientious objector route. For the vast majority of the young men who were drafted, the option to be a CO—and the sense that Jesus would support such a stance—seemingly never even entered the realm of possibility. Not only have Christians around the world almost always supported their nations’ wars, even when they would be fighting other Christians, it actually seems to be the case at least in the United States that Christians are more likely than non-Christians to support wars and preparation for wars. It doesn’t seem farfetched to call Christianity a pro-war religion—the opposite of Jesus’s message.

So, again, the question: Why the transformation? This is a question that has interested me for a long time, but I have never devoted serious attention to it. I have come up with a preliminary list, though, of what seem to be key elements of the evolution away from Jesus’s teaching.

Continue reading “Why did Christianity move so far away from the message of Jesus? [Questioning faith #7]”

How can an uninspired Bible be truthful? [Questioning Faith #4]

Ted Grimsrud—November 10, 2022

There are senses of the term “inspired” that we would all agree do apply to the Bible. It has served as the sacred text for all the various Christian traditions for their long histories. In some sense, they all have treated it as such because they have believed it comes from God. The presence of that belief is a descriptive reality whether we think it is appropriate or not. It also seems descriptively the case that the Bible has provided insights and inspiration for many, many people over many, many years.

However, if we add another dimension to the meaning of “inspiration,” some of us are more likely to demur. Some of us, in fact, will believe that this added meaning actually undermines the meaningfulness of the Bible. What if we mean by “inspiration” that the Bible’s existence and content cannot be understood in human, historical terms but must be understood as a direct revelation from God? Many Christians seem to believe that the Bible is different from “merely human” writings and thereby create distance between the Bible and other human writings.

Problems with “inspiration”

Belief in this difference lends itself to the acceptance of ideas about the Bible that may be demonstrably false—such as the idea that the Bible contains no errors, that the Bible contains no internal contradictions. Belief in this difference lends itself to assertions about the Bible’s authority in Christian communities that end up being, in practice, assertions about the authority of human interpreters of the Bible. Ironically, emphasizing the Bible’s inerrancy and its authority often leads to de-emphasizing the actual content of the Bible. The Bible itself is extraordinarily anti-authoritarian. Anyone who uses the Bible in authoritarian ways is actually displaying a commitment to human ideas about the Bible over letting the Bible speak for itself.

Another problem that arises due to belief in this distance between the Bible and other human writings is a tendency to think of the Bible as a kind of magic book that gives us directives that come straight from God. Sometimes this leads to affirming ethical directives that may be supported by specific Bible verses but are not supportable based on human experience and are actually inconsistent with the broader message of the Bible. An obvious example would be the persistent support for slavery in the United States among the most orthodox Christians well into the 19th century. Pro-slavery Christians had a wealth of support from what they claimed was the direct teaching of the Bible.

I note one problem that has become apparent in recent generations with the influence of the understandings of inspiration that I have just mentioned. Many people who disagree with the leaders of Christian communities or with authoritarian practices or with the oppressive ethical practices agree that those leaders and practices are “biblical.” Thus, they conclude that in order to advocate for more egalitarian and humane approaches they need to jettison the Bible. The liberating message that is actually present in the Bible is thereby missed, and the Bible’s potential to empower human wellbeing is diminished.

Continue reading “How can an uninspired Bible be truthful? [Questioning Faith #4]”

New Book—To Follow the Lamb: A Peaceable Reading of the Book of Revelation

I am happy to announce the publication of my most recent book: To Follow the Lamb: A Peaceable Reading of the Book of Revelation (Cascade Books, 2022), ix + 278pp.

To Follow the Lamb is a commentary of the entire book of Revelation that places a special emphasis on the peace message of Revelation. Revelation is not a book that portrays a violent, vengeful God but rather than shows God to be most profoundly revealed in the gracious Lamb. The key to reading Revelation is to take seriously the opening words of the Book that tell us it is a”revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Revelation is an exhortation to discipleship—follow the Lamb wherever he goes! It offers a sharp critique of the world’s empires and a sharp critique of how people of faith all too easily find ways to be comfortable within the empires. Revelation portrays God as merciful and peaceable—but engaged in a battle against the spiritual powers of evil that energize the nations’ domination systems.This battle, though, is fought with the weapons of love, not worldly violent weapons.

Available online from:

Amazon (the Kindle version is only $9.99)

Wipf and Stock Publishers

Both sites have previews that show the first part of the book.

Also available at: Bookshop.org

Endorsements:

“Ted Grimsrud is a worthy and capable guide through the often misread and confusing images laid out by John of Patmos to the churches of Roman Asia. Anyone who has ever wondered how to make sense of this powerful narrative will find a great companion in To Follow the Lamb. Go form a study group and dig in!”—WES HOWARD-BROOK, Seattle University, author of Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now

“In this important book, Ted Grimsrud clears away decades of misunderstanding and misuse to reveal the beauty and power of the Apocalypse. Writing with deep insight and lucid prose, Grimsrud forcefully challenges violent interpretations of Revelation and fixes our gaze on the nonviolent Jesus. A treasure trove for peacemakers and justice seekers, To Follow the Lamb is accessible, relevant, and sorely needed. Guaranteed to deepen your appreciation of Revelation—I highly recommend it!”—ERIC SEIBERT, Messiah University, author of Disarming the Church: Why Christians Must Forsake Violence to Follow Jesus and Change the World

“In the midst of the sometimes violent rhetoric of Revelation, Grimsrud makes abundantly clear that Revelation features the nonviolent victory by the slain and resurrected Lamb, who reveals a nonviolent God, over the powers of evil, represented by the Roman empire. One of the most valuable contributions of this comprehensive theological analysis of Revelation is how it applies the book’s nonviolent resistance to empire to our call to challenge the American empire.”—J. DENNY WEAVER, Bluffton University, author of God Without Violence

More posts on Peaceable Revelation

Abraham’s gospel: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 5; 4:1-25) [Peaceable Romans #12]

Ted Grimsrud—April 4, 2022

One of the most beautiful road trips my wife Kathleen and I have ever taken had us driving through the mountains of western North Carolina. We were on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We spent the night in the village of Little Switzerland and greatly anticipated the next morning when we would drive by Mt. Mitchell, the highest spot east of the Rockies, and then see points west.

But when we got up, it was totally foggy. As thick a fog as we’ve ever seen. The forest certainly has its own eerie beauty when you can barely see the white lines on the highway. Still, we were uneasy when we drove twenty miles or so and never saw another car. But then came the moment. We turned a corner and without any warning the fog was gone. We had the most incredible vista, in the bright sunlight, snowy mountains, valleys, forests. It was amazing. Then, we were back in the fog for several more miles. It was just those few moments, but the picture is still vivid in my memory.

The whole Bible as a peace book

This experience comes to mind as I think about Romans four. A lot of Christians, maybe especially those attracted to peace theology, are suspicious of the Old Testament. And suspicious of the Apostle Paul. And, deeply suspicious of the book of Revelation. There is the great bright light of Jesus, his picture of a God of love and mercy—and much of the rest of the Bible is kind of foggy, wars and rumors of war, legalistic religion, abstract doctrine, with the finale of Revelation’s unspeakable bloody judgment.

This is the analogy: The Bible can seem like that foggy drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is but one spot of incredible beauty. Such a spot may redeem the whole thing—but the rest isn’t of much value. However, I want to say: No! The Bible is actually more like our return trip driving back home. Then the Parkway was clear and sunny all the way and we had one beautiful scene after another. Likewise, the whole Bible has great beauty.

Romans four is a text that helps us to see the Bible in this way. I don’t want to deny that the Bible has a few spots that are irreparably foggy scattered around. Basically, though, I believe that the overall message is about mercy all the way down from the very start. The Bible tells an empowering story throughout. We may embrace its message of peace, restorative justice, compassion, and healing. The key figure in Romans four is Abraham, the great patriarch, considered to be the spiritual ancestor for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Continue reading “Abraham’s gospel: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 5; 4:1-25) [Peaceable Romans #12]”

Mercy all the way down: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 4; 3:1-31) [Peaceable Romans #11]

Ted Grimsrud—March 21, 2022

There is a famous story that almost for sure didn’t actually happen. But it’s kind of funny and it provides a metaphor I want to adapt for this post. This big time philosopher (or maybe it’s a scientist) lectures about the infinite cosmos and is challenged by an elderly woman in the audience. “What you are telling us about the universe is rubbish. The earth rests on the back of a huge turtle.” “Oh yes,” the philosopher says, “and pray tell, what holds up the turtle?” “Why, another turtle, of course.” “And what holds up that turtle?” “Ah, I get where you’re going. But sir, it is turtles, all the way down!” Turtles all the way down, we don’t need anything more.

The moral universe and Jesus’s “sacrificial” death

I don’t want to make any claims about the infinity or not of the physical universe here. My concern is the Apostle Paul’s account of the gospel. However, I do want to use this metaphor of “turtles all the way down” to think of the moral universe. In many readings of Paul—and, hence, many understandings of the gospel—we have something like this: God can forgive only because God’s justice has been satisfied by Jesus’s sacrificial death. Or maybe it’s God’s holiness or God’s honor.

The point for that perspective is that God can’t simply forgive. The moral nature of the universe requires some kind of satisfaction, some kind of payment, to balance out the enormity of human sin. Reciprocity. Retribution. Tit for tat. It can’t be mercy all the way down. The moral universe rests on something else—retributive justice or justice as fairness. Mercy is possible only in ways that account for this kind of justice. Thus, salvation is not truly based on mercy. Rather, salvation is based on an adequate payment of the universe’s moral price tag placed on human sin.

Romans 3 has often been cited to support what has been called the “satisfaction view of the atonement.” This view sees the meaning of Jesus’s death as the sacrifice of a sinless victim that satisfies God’s need for a payment for human sin. This payment allows God to offer us forgiveness if we accept Jesus as our savior. I’m going to offer a different reading. I don’t like the traditional view. There are many problems with it. Maybe most basically, it denies that God is love, it seems to me. It denies that mercy is life’s fundamental truth. It may foster fearfulness and legalism. It may make us vulnerable to giving loyalty to human structures of power and coercion—i.e., empires and other nation-states, not to mention religious institutions.

Continue reading “Mercy all the way down: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 4; 3:1-31) [Peaceable Romans #11]”

How faith communities go bad: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 3; 2:1-29) [Peaceable Romans #10]

Ted Grimsrud—March 10, 2022

Paul begins the book of Romans with a sharp critique of the Roman Empire and its idolatrous spiral into injustice and violence, as we saw in my previous post. I believe that his critique remains perceptive. However, Paul’s main focus in Romans has more to do with how faith communities go bad than with how empires go bad. He uses his Empire critique (valid and relevant as it is) to set up his faith community critique. His readers would be nodding their heads as they approve of Paul’s initial critique. But then he turns on them: “When you are judgmental toward others, you condemn yourself, because you the judge, tend to do the same things” (2:1).

In critiquing the self-righteous judge who is also unjust and violent, Paul has himself as a death-dealing persecutor of Christians in mind. In a genuine sense, his presentation of the gospel in Romans is about what he personally learned in turning from being violent in God’s name to being committed to peace—all the way down. One thing Paul learned was that faith communities are extremely vulnerable to becoming the sites of injustice and violence—ironically, often as a direct result of their quest to be rigorously faithful.

To help us understand how faith communities go wrong, Paul focuses on one particular ritual that he had seen as central to his pre-Jesus agenda of rigorously holding to the true faith. It is well known that the Bible at times can be pretty “earthy.” One notable case is one of the central rituals in the entire story—one with enormous symbolic power in both the Old and New Testaments—the ritual of circumcision. It seems to me that this ritual, both in the Bible and in contemporary life, is problematic on several levels. But the Bible obviously sees circumcision as extraordinarily meaningful, for better and for worse. And it remains present throughout the story, often on the deeper metaphorical level. Paul uses circumcision as a key example in his critique and then in his presentation in chapter 3 of the core message of the gospel of God.

Circumcision in the midst of Empire

Paul thought about circumcision a great deal. He makes it a key image in his wrestling with the life of faith. It’s in the middle of the discernment work as his community of Jesus followers sought to relate their Jewish tradition to the influx of new believers who weren’t Jews. Paul could be pretty earthy himself on occasion, such as when he wrote about conflicts concerning circumcision and its weighty symbolic legacy. In his letter to the Galatians, he gets salty when he writes about people he believed were disastrous teachers. They legalistically tried to impose circumcision on new, non-Jewish converts to Christianity. This is what Paul wrote: “Whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty…. If I were still preaching legalistic circumcision, I would not be persecuted by other Jews like I am…. I wish those who unsettle you, instead of just circumcising, would castrate themselves” (Gal 5:11-12).

Continue reading “How faith communities go bad: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 3; 2:1-29) [Peaceable Romans #10]”

How empires go bad: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 2; 1:16-32) [Peaceable Romans #9]

Ted Grimsrud—March 7, 2022

More than a treatise on doctrine or a discussion preoccupied with the Christian religion and the Jewish religion, the book of Romans is a presentation focused on faithful living. And for Paul, faithful living meant embodying the way of Jesus. As I discussed in the first of this long series of posts working through the teaching of Romans, Paul begins Romans by setting up a contrast between the gospel of God as presented by Jesus and what we could call the “gospel” of the Roman Empire.

In the second half of chapter 1 of the book of Romans, Paul provides an analysis of the domination dynamics of the great nations of the world, which are the dynamics of idolatry that refuses to express gratitude to the Creator but instead puts trust in human creations (including empires and emperors). In trusting in creatures rather than the Creator, human societies inevitably ground their priorities in exploitation rather than gratitude and evolve toward injustice and violence. Without stating it explicitly, Paul seems clearly to evoke the awareness his readers in Rome would have of the particular injustices and violence of their city’s leadership class.

The gospel of God vs. the gospel of Caesar

As we continue to the following chapters of Romans, we will see that Paul’s focus in the book as a whole is not on a critique of Empire but on developing his alternative gospel. If the Empire’s gospel is a one of death, what does a gospel of life look like? If the Empire’s way of life leads to injustice, what is an alternative way of life that leads to justice?

Continue reading “How empires go bad: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 2; 1:16-32) [Peaceable Romans #9]”