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.

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Is Jesus God? [Questioning faith #9]

Ted Grimsrud—December 8, 2022

Many years ago, I had a friend who was probably the most principled person I have ever known. As a young college professor, he was denied tenure in large part because he sided with a student in a dispute with one of the school’s high administrators. My friend and his family then moved to a new town on the other side of the country.

A few years later, he was offered a teaching job at another college. However, he didn’t take the job because he could not sign the school’s doctrinal statement. The school dean argued with my friend—“Nobody takes this statement seriously. Just sign it; we don’t care if you agree with it or not.” What was the issue? The divinity of Jesus Christ. The doctrinal statement said something to the effect that “we believe Jesus Christ is God Incarnate.”

Now, my friend was hardly a liberal. He was kind of a biblical literalist, and he didn’t think the Bible itself taught that Jesus is God. He didn’t give much weight to the later creeds and confessions that make that affirmation. At that point in my life, I hadn’t really questioned the standard “orthodox” view, but my friend’s costly commitment to his belief system impressed me. So, I started thinking about this question, “is Jesus God?” I still haven’t figured it all out, though.

What’s the question?

One of the difficulties I have is that I can’t quite figure out what the statement “Jesus is God” actually means. It seems a bit like saying that in the 4th quarter of a close basketball game, Steph Curry is a cold-blooded killer. You have a sense of what the statement means, but it’s a metaphor. A person playing basketball is not in any literal sense a killer. But Curry can be like a cold-blooded killer when he ignores the pressure and makes a crucial shot that leads to his opponent’s defeat.

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In what sense is Jesus our “savior”? [Questioning faith #3]

Ted Grimsrud—November 7, 2022

Quite a few Christians, it seems, assume that there is a clear demarcation between those who are Christians and those who are not. They might differ on how they describe the line of demarcation, but for many it has to do with whether a person trusts in Jesus as one’s savior or not. That is certainly what I was taught when I started going to church. I don’t find that a helpful notion anymore.

What I was taught about salvation

It took a while after my age 17 conversion for me to figure out what I was actually being taught about Jesus as savior. As I look back now all these years later, I find it remarkable that something that was such a pillar of faith would be so little explained. But this is how I would now reconstruct my first church’s understanding of Jesus as savior.

The key first step would be to assert that human beings are inherently sinful—each one of us. We are born that way. And because we are sinful, we exist in alienation from God. Ultimately, if something does not happen, we will be condemned to spend eternity in hell. So, making “something happen” is extremely important. We can be assured that God wants this “something” to happen, that God has provided a way for this alienation to be overcome.

This way (and it is the only way) is for us to accept Jesus as our personal savior, to recognize that we are sinful and deserve condemnation, and to recognize that Jesus’s death on our behalf has made is possible for us to find reconciliation with our holy God and thus to escape our certain condemnation. What is rarely explained, though, is how this works. How does Jesus’s death make our salvation possible?

Continue reading In what sense is Jesus our “savior”? [Questioning faith #3]

The war of the lamb: A response to Jason Porterfield’s Fight Like Jesus

Ted Grimsrud—June 14, 2022

Jesus has gotten sidelined in many ways, which is one of the main reasons why the record of Christianity is so poor when it comes to witnessing to the world in a healing manner. One kind of sidelining goes back to the several centuries after Jesus when church doctrine evolved to exclude the life and teaching of Jesus from core creeds and confessions, moving from Jesus’s miraculous birth to his death and resurrection with scarcely a glance at what Jesus said and did. Another kind of sidelining has been what we could call the sentimentalizing and devotionalizing of the events of Jesus’s life in a way that minimize their social and political elements.

Jason Porterfield’s new book, Fight Like Jesus: How Jesus Waged Peace throughout Holy Week (Herald Press, 2022) initially may give the impression of fitting in this second category as a devotional treatment of the last week of Jesus’s life. Happily, though, Fight Like Jesus ends up being a challenging account of ways that the events of Jesus’s final days actually have powerful socially transformative significance. As such, its relevance extends much further than simply a spiritually uplifting set of meditations that would mainly be of interest just during the Easter season. Indeed, this book would be a valuable resource for any Christians seeking to understand better the practical relevance of Jesus’s life and teaching for all peacemaking work the year around.

Giving a close reading to the stories from Jesus’s final week, Porterfield shows how those several days serve as a kind of microcosm that help us better understand Jesus’s overall peacemaking agenda. The book is both practical and theologically perceptive. The Jesus that is presented here was creative, courageous, confrontive, and constructive in his response to the deadly resistance he faced due to his activist peaceable ministry.

Continue reading “The war of the lamb: A response to Jason Porterfield’s Fight Like Jesus

The politics of Paul and the way of Jesus, part 1 [Peaceable Romans #6]

Ted Grimsrud—February 18, 2022

Christians have tended to hold Jesus and Paul in tension. On the one side, Christians of a more liberal persuasion have tended to take their cues from Jesus and see Paul as a supporter of the status quo. Others wouldn’t so much say there is a tension as assume (often without realizing it) that Jesus is not particularly relevant for their social ethics. His message is often seen to focus on personal ethics and the ideals of our future in heaven. For such conservatives, Paul teaches us more relevant political principles, especially about obeying the governing authorities and respecting the state’s police function.

Reasons not to dismiss Paul’s politics

Now, I definitely am on the Jesus-as-central side. Some years ago, I read a wide variety of Christian thinkers who reject pacifism. I was struck with how every single one of them—from evangelicals to Catholics to theological liberals—cited Romans 13 as a key biblical text that supported their anti-pacifist stance. In face of that consensus, I can understand why a more peace-oriented Christian might want to be done with Paul.

However, I don’t think it’s a good idea to take the easy way out with Paul. First of all, I believe that the pro-war reading of Romans 13 is a bad interpretation. If we read those verses carefully, I believe we will realize that they do not support the standard account—even if that standard account is long-lived and widely affirmed. Just on the grounds of accuracy, then, Paul should not be seen as the advocate par excellence of Christian submission to the state.

Second, the message of the Bible’s story as a whole contradicts the assumption that Christians should issue the state a moral blank check and simply “submit to the state.” Christians generally have practiced that kind of submission going back to Augustine. But such an embrace was highly ironic (and tragic) given the strong biblical emphasis in opposition to empires going back to the story of the exodus. Especially striking is how Augustine give the Roman Empire the moral authority to discern when to involve Christians in war. This flies in the face of the New Testament: That same Roman Empire executed Jesus and that same Roman Empire was linked with Satan in the book of Revelation. So, it is strange that a short, cryptic passage from Paul’s writing would take precedence over the negative overall biblical message about the state.

Third, when we simply grant validity to the Paul-as-pro-submission-to-the-state position without argument we lose the main avenue for possibly persuading Christians not to grant such a blank check. This avenue is to ground one’s counterargument in the Bible. If we don’t question that interpretation of Romans 13, then the by far most important biblical basis for Christian acceptance of warism will remain in place—and it becomes difficult to imagine an effective way to persuade Christians not to support for the warring state.

So, I think there are good reasons to examine Paul’s writings more closely, with an openness that he might actually turn out to be much closer to Jesus in thought than has normally been recognized. I believe that, together, Jesus and Paul do provide a political perspective that is relevant in our world. Not only relevant, but I would argue that together Jesus and Paul give us essential guidance for creative and transformative political engagement. Continue reading “The politics of Paul and the way of Jesus, part 1 [Peaceable Romans #6]”

At the fiftieth anniversary of my conversion are there second thoughts? [Theological memoirs #13]

Ted Grimsrud—June 30, 2021

I can’t be sure, because I never made a record of it, but as near as I can figure, 50 years ago today is when I self-consciously made a decision to become a Christian. My self-conscious identity changed at that moment. Every day in my life since then has been shaped by that choice even as my understanding of what actually happened in those moments has evolved a great deal.

My question for today is whether it was a good choice. I am basically pleased with the trajectory my life has taken. Thinking of myself as a Christian has from June 30, 1971, to today given my life meaning and direction (for better or worse, but mostly better it still seems). I’m grateful for the people who have entered my life over the years due to my engagement in Christian communities. I have had meaningful educational and work experiences that I owe to this engagement.

At the same time, my sense of confidence in the intellectual validity of Christian teachings is lower than it has ever been. And this matters for me, because my entry and on-going participation in the Christian world has always been a choice based to a large extent on my convictions. I didn’t grow up in the church. Some branches of my extended family were active church people (including numerous pastors), but those never lived nearby and were never influential in my life. I’ve never had the “it’s in my bones” kind of pull to be a Christian that many of my friends do—something that keeps quite a few them within the circle of faith.

What are the main concerns?

The roots of my dis-ease go back to the very motivations that drove me to take the step of faith to begin with. My burning passion was to understand the truth. It was that simple. Through reflections on my experiences in life and through conversations with a close friend, I came to sense that the Christian message was true. That to know the truth meant to take the step of (in the language I was taught at the time) “accepting Jesus as my personal savior.” But my “need” was never to feel forgiven or to be “saved” from anything. I never feared death or condemnation. I just wanted to understand the world I lived in and to move toward the truth (whatever that might be).

It seems highly ironic now that I would have thought jumping into fundamentalist Christianity (the Bible Baptist Church) would have been a move toward the truth. I think the theological schema I was initially taught was profoundly untrue. However, I think there was always a core of something present that did point me in the right direction. The message of Jesus about love, restorative justice, and resistance to the domination system began to work on my heart from early on, even if it took several years for me to recognize it for what it was.

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The prophet’s vindication [Jesus story #14]

Ted Grimsrud—May 20, 2021

I was a teenager when I became a Christian. As western Oregon was pretty unchurched, I didn’t grow up with any peer pressure to be religious. So, in many ways I was a blank slate as far as faith goes when I first walked into Elkton Bible Baptist Church with my friend David. It’s interesting to me as I look back because the driving force for me was a desire to understand, to get help with my questions, to move towards discerning truth. And I happened into a church which had this basic stance: “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” We’ll answer your questions, but just one time. Though treated with kindness, I was certainly not encouraged to keep asking questions.

I was taught a bunch of things as true without really being given too many reasons why. So, as a result, when I went to college and by my junior year started getting pretty serious about the whys and wherefores of my faith, a whole bunch of beliefs quickly dropped by the wayside: No more rapture and Great Tribulation doctrine, no more creationism, no more inerrant Bible, no more substitutionary atonement. But for some reason, one of the really big beliefs, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, remained pretty much unscathed for quite some time. Like so many other beliefs, it was simply presented to me as factual, not open for negotiation, absolutely necessary. Don’t ask why; don’t ask what it’s based on, that is; don’t question it.

Questioning Jesus’s bodily resurrection?

Unlike the rapture, creation/evolution, and the perfection of the Bible, I didn’t mind not questioning the resurrection. But it seems to me that theological beliefs are kind of like a slot machine—different ones come up at different times. And, for various reasons, about 20 years ago or so, the resurrection came up for me. So, I started really thinking about it, and realized that, indeed, there are lots of questions.

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Life in Death [Jesus story #13]

Ted Grimsrud—May 17, 2021

One of the great things about being around young kids is getting all these questions. I really enjoyed that when my grandkids were preschoolers. I guess the questions weren’t all always welcome—such as when you say it’s time to go home and one would say, “Why?!” But most of the questions are wonderful (even if sometimes hard to answer): What’s the difference between a fire engine and a pumper truck? Why are the lights off in the bank at night? How do they make fudgsicles? Why do we root for the Oregon Ducks? But the questions can also be a bit complicated. Why doesn’t Granny remember my name? What’s the earth? Why did G-Ma’s dog Trika die? Why don’t some children have beds to sleep in?

Questions are terrific. We need to encourage them. I am grateful to my parents for many things—one of the biggest ones is that they never made me think I shouldn’t be asking questions. Some great words for parents and grandparents to keep in mind come from British folksinger Ewan MacColl’s “Father’s Song,” that concludes with these lines: “Go on asking while you grow, child/ Go on asking till you know, child/ And then send the answers ringing through the world.”

One of the big questions

The grandchildren liked theological questions, too—I guess they came by those honestly. What’s the Bible? Where is God? What does salvation mean? We told them, well, these are good questions—and not just for four-year-olds. Then there’s our question for today: Why did Jesus die? Try explaining that to a four-year-old! Or to anyone else. However, like so many questions that are difficult to answer, we can learn by trying to come up with an answer—even if we know our answer will be weak or only partial.

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When the “good news” is bad news [Jesus story #12]

Ted Grimsrud—May 13, 2021

A number of years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Straddling self-help and theological reflection, this book brought to popular consciousness the perennial question: What kind of world is this where young children die of terrible diseases (like Kushner’s own son) or where great tsunamis and earthquakes and volcanoes bring massive death and destruction? This question, of course, remains. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It points to a large uncertainty about the predictability of life. We may think of variations, too. Such as, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Or, as a friend of mine suggested were he to write a book about his life, “Why do good people do bad things?”

Good news is not always good

I have another variation in mind in this post. Kushner’s concern was with kind of random bad things that strike, the kind of things that show that God, if God is good, cannot be all-powerful. And his reflections are helpful, I think. But this is my concern in this post, based on the story of Jesus: What about when bad things happen to good people not in a random way but precisely because the good people do good things?

To some degree this seems to be Jesus’s focus. Good news is here. Turn to God, trust in this good news, be transformed by this good news. Let this good news shape how you live. Then, expect trouble. Jesus’s message clearly contradicts a lot of feelgood religion. His is not a prosperity gospel. Believe, become a good person—and then bad things will happen. And they will happen precisely because you live as a good person. Is that not a bit unsettling—perhaps even more so than Harold Kushner’s question?

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Listening to Moses [Jesus story #11]

Ted Grimsrud—May 10, 2021

As President Dwight Eisenhower was leaving office at the end of his second term, he delivered a famous speech. He warned of the power of what he called “the military-industrial complex,” the domination of our society by people and institutions and ideologies that make our nation’s priorities center on war and the preparation for war. In so many ways, things have only gotten worse since.

Thinking about this warning all these years later leaves one with a sense of urgency. Indeed, we do face political, environmental, moral, and spiritual crises that feel almost overwhelming. We hurtle toward disasters linked with global warming, and our corporate-funded media and federal government resist changes that might limit profits. Our political discourse normalizes hate speech and then insists that mass shootings are the acts only of isolated, mentally ill individuals. And, perhaps worst of all, the message of Jesus, a message of genuine peace, is linked with religiously-sanctioned violence to the extent that being self-identified as a Christian in this country means one is more likely than a non-Christian to support war and the death penalty.

I thought about Eisenhower’s speech (and the urgency borne from all these years of a warning unheeded) as I spent some time with another message of urgency—the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel. I was struck with some parallels. Jesus tells of two men who die, one is rich, the other poor. The rich man suffers torment due to his cold-hearted life. He urges “father Abraham” to allow the poor man, Lazarus, to return to life to warn the rich man’s brothers of their likely fate. Talk about urgency!

A response to urgency: Listen to Moses

I was fascinated with the story’s implied message about how best to respond to this urgency. The point is simple: Listen to Moses, listen to Torah, listen to the prophets. You already have all the guidance you need. If people won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, an amazing and attention-grabbing miraculous warning to turn or burn won’t change their minds either.

Continue reading “Listening to Moses [Jesus story #11]”