I just heard the news that Billy Graham died. Perhaps the greatest evangelist of history, I was one of millions who were profoundly influenced by his ministry. My mother was on the organising committee for the 1979 “Billy Graham Crusade”, held at Randwick racecourse. This meant that our household was swept up in the fervour of those crusades. I was 14 years old. I can’t remember whether I attended every night of the crusade or not, but I can recall the surging emotions; the energy of a large crowd; the tension rising within me as Billy Graham led us to a sense of moment in which we perceived we stood face to face with the God who created the Universe at a point of decision that would reverberate into eternity; the delirious joy and sense of holy moment as thousands of people responded to the invitation to signal their embrace of Christ by leaving their seat and walking to the stage.
My faith has changed much since those crusades, but today is not the day to critique but to remember that they were part of an era that imparted to me the breathtaking news that the God who called the universe into being is filled with a love for creation, and for me as part of that creation, that is wider, deeper and stronger than I can imagine.
And I remain inspired by the humble integrity of Billy Graham. As one might expect, everybody wanted a piece of Billy Graham. The expectations of the Christian world were laid upon his shoulders. There were some who thought he should have aligned himself more intentionally with the great civil movements for justice that marked the last half of the twentieth century; there were some who thought his embrace of groups outside the confines of conservative evangelicalism were unacceptably compromised. Yet whatever one might make of these things, Billy Graham spent half a century as a high profile world Christian leader without scandal. He did not take advantage of his position to amass obscene amounts of wealth; to solicit sexual favours; or to play power politics. He dies at 99 a man who is widely respected as a decent human being of deep personal faith and exemplary character.
Rest in peace, good and faithful servant.
On Sunday, 8 July 1741, in Enfield Connecticut, Jonathan Edwards delivered one of the most famous sermons of history. “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God” painted a vivid picture of the unending and unbearable torments of hell. It is said that as Edwards preached the members of the congregation were so terrified that they repeatedly interrupted with cries of “what must I do to be saved?” An excerpt from the sermon gives an idea of its tone.
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.
It’s a terrifying image. God, says Jonathan Edwards, is filled with revulsion for us. God finds us abhorrent and abominable. So offensive is our sin that he cannot bear our presence and he sees us as worthy of nothing than eternal torment.
It is rare to hear preaching such as this today, yet the legacy of centuries of such preaching still lingers. As a young teenager I remember being struck through with fear every time we celebrated communion. The person leading the communion service invariably quoted selectively from 1 Corinthians 11, that “whoever eats and drinks in an unworthy manner, eats and drinks damnation upon himself”. I was taught to take this seriously, and would rack my memory for any unconfessed sin, convinced that if I did not come in a spirit of genuine, heartfelt repentance I would be subject to God’s judgement. I had no idea what that might look like, but I did not want to find out.
The classic evangelical response is to argue that, yes our sin does make us offensive and abhorrent to our Creator, but that in dying for us on the cross, Christ took the penalty we deserved for our sin upon himself, and critically, transferred to us his righteous standing in the eyes of God. So when God looks upon me, he sees not Scott Higgins’s unrighteousness, but the righteousness of Christ and so is favourably disposed towards me.
I never found this terribly satisfying. It gave me righteous standing before God on the basis of what seemed to be a legal technicality, and created an impossible tension between God actually seeing me as I was, which was to be thoroughly disappointed, offended and aghast at my sinfulness, and God seeing me as I was in Christ, which was to be thoroughly pleased, delighted and excited at my righteousness. This left me with a God who may well have loved me deeply, but who did not like me, could never be pleased by anything I did, and could only bring himself to look upon me by actually looking at Jesus and pretending it was me.
There was a time I was deeply thankful for this, but as the years have gone by I have become convinced that this is a hateful, vengeful, psychopathic God, who bears no resemblance to the God revealed to me by Jesus.
To begin with, take the notion that God is so pure that he cannot stand to be in the presence of sinners. Surely the incarnation of God in Christ puts paid to that. Unlike the Pharisees, whose obsession with holiness saw them separate themselves from anybody who was “unclean”, Jesus surrounded himself with notorious sinners such as tax collectors and prostitutes. He did not recoil from their presence, but on the contrary appeared to thoroughly enjoy them. He surrounded himself with disciples who repeatedly failed to understand his mission and at times even opposed it, yet John is described as the disciple Jesus loved. Not tolerated. Loved. He had friends outside the disciple group, such as Lazarus, Mary and Martha, whom he loved with such depth that he wept when Lazarus died.
Or take the assumption that God is perpetually angry with us. When the Pharisees muttered about Jesus welcoming tax collectors and other “sinners” he told them three parables: the parable of the lost sheep; the parable of the lost coin; and the parable of the lost son. The God Jesus knew was one who was grieved that his sons and daughters had wandered from him, who longed for their return, and when they did return embraced them with wide open arms. The prodigal son had broken almost every social taboo of his culture, yet the only angry person in the story is the older brother who is offended that his father welcomes his scandal plagued sibling.
As I read the Gospels I struggle to find the rage filled God of Jonathan Edwards. I certainly see religious figures who are grossly offended and angered by sin. When an angry mob of them drag a woman caught in adultery before Jesus and stand ready to stone her to death, it is Jesus who shames them and says to the woman “neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Jesus certainly is opposed to sin, but he doesn’t appear to be offended by either sinners or their sin. It leads me to think that God gets angry at the ways we destroy and harm one another, but the notion that he is somehow personally offended seems to be off the mark.
When I read the story of the crucifixion of Christ I don’t see an angry God pouring his vengeance upon Christ in order that he may not need to pour it upon me. I see God present in Christ being subjected to the most violent, abusive behaviour and rather than striking back in anger, absorbing the very worst that is done and then crying “forgive them”. I don’t see a God who merely tolerates us because of some abstract, impersonal legal technicality, but a God who longs for us so deeply that he will go to hell and back in order to bring us to himself.
Parkinsons brings a lot of unwelcome firsts.Recently it was the first time I had to ask someone to cut up my meal. There were three of us out for lunch. A beautiful cut of meat lingered on my plate. The steak knife was sharp. But my tremor meant all I could manage was a constant chinking of the knife against the ceramic of the plate. I concentrated every ounce of energy I could summon on making that bloody knife cut through the succulent meat. But all to no avail. Finally admitting defeat, I asked my friend if he could cut it up for me, which he did graciously and without embarrassment.
I take medication that helps control my symptoms. The meds take about an hour to kick in and gradually wear off over the next five hours. How glorious is the first hour or so after the meds have taken effect. The stiffness in my muscles, the tremor in my hand, the shuffling gait, the deadpan face, all dissipate almost to the point of non existence. For 3 hours a day I get to remember what it’s like to be in control of my body, to be able to cut through my meal, to walk freely, to type with both hands, to hold my wife without the tremor of my hand tapping constantly against her back, to get out of the car with ease.
In those three hours I glimpse the resurrection. The New Testament declares that a time is coming when we and our world will be remade, that the resurrection of Jesus was the prototype of the future of creation. Those three hours each day when I experience freedom from the dysfunctions of my disease and the frustrations it brings, enable me to taste the future. How delicious it is!
I scarcely dare hope for a world where war has ceased, poverty is but a memory, violence and hatreds have given way to love, pain and suffering to pure unadulterated joy, and creation is healed. But for three hours every day I get to see it, taste it, smell it. If Parkinsons has unwelcome firsts it also brings unexpected gifts, and this has been one of the chief of them.
Over the last 25 years there have been dramatic shifts in the way I understand and frame my faith. Throughout my journey the one constant has been Jesus Christ and my devotion to following him. But I’ve realised that the classic evangelicalism I inherited has at its core two ways of framing the Jesus story: a retributive understanding of justice and duty-based understanding of ethics. These shape almost every part of evangelical theology and practice. In this post I will offer a brief comment upon the first.
At the heart of classic evangelicalism stands the death of Jesus. His death is understood in terms of retribution, which demands that good actions be rewarded and bad actions be punished and in each instance that the reward or punishment be strictly proportional to the act. Human beings are defiant rebels against their creator, whose actions merit eternal punishment. This places God on the horns of a terrible dilemma, for he is both loving and just. His justice demands that he punish us for our wrongdoing, while his love drives him to want to save us from that punishment. The tension is resolved by God becoming incarnate and taking upon himself the penalty we deserve. This makes it possible for God to offer us forgiveness and to begin remaking us into the people we were created to be. Those who accept God’s offer find forgiveness and salvation, and those who do not will be punished eternally.
The problems with this understanding are legion. How can it be that the actions of a short lifetime merit eternal punishment? How can justice, understood as retribution, possibly be effected by an innocent taking the place of the guilty? How can the death of Christ, which was not eternal punishment, be considered an adequate substitute for the penalty we supposedly deserve? How is it that the death of Christ becomes the great game changer when the New Testament writings focus upon the resurrection of Christ as the great game changer? How is it that God can pay the penalty for our sin on the cross, yet demand that the penalty be paid once more in the future by those who reject Christ?
In recent years a number of biblical scholars have drawn attention to the idea that justice in the scriptures is not predominantly focused upon retribution but upon liberation, deliverance and restoration. In Kingdom Ethics. Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, Glen Stassen and David Gushee use the term “delivering justice” to describe what justice means in the Jesus story.
“If we look carefully, we discover that justice has four dimensions: (1) deliverance of the poor and powerless from the justice that they regularly experience; open (2) lifting the foot of domineering power of the neck of the dominated and oppressed; (3) stopping the violence in establishing peace; and (4) restoring the outcasts, the excluded, the Gentiles, the exiles and refugees to community.” Page 349
Christopher Marshall explores the theme of justice in the Old and New Testaments and reaches this conclusion
“The justice of God is a dynamic, active power that breaks into situations of oppression and evil in order to bring liberation and restore freedom. Its basic concern is not to treat each person as each deserves but to do all that is necessary to make things right, even though it is totally undeserved and immensely costly. Is it a restorative justice more than a retributive or distributive justice. It is God acting to end oppression and secure harmony and well-being, especially by meeting the needs of the disadvantaged and downtrodden.” Beyond Retribution
This understanding of justice revolutionises the way we read the justice of God, the nature of humankind, the work of Christ, and the end of the world. God’s basic orientation to the world is not that of angry creator and lawgiver, but that of a longing, loving Creator who is angered by oppression and exploitation but resolved to restore things to what they should be. Human beings are not primarily rebels but amazing creatures who experience varying degrees of brokenness and need to be liberated from the power of death, sin and decay which binds them. The death of Jesus does not become the resolution to a dilemma in which the only way God can resolve the tension between his love and his justice is by pulling a logically tenuous theological swifty, but is the ultimate display of God’s willingness to absorb all the evil we can muster and meet it not with retribution but with resurrection, the offer of reconciliation, a fresh start, and being remade. The end of the world is not about fire, brimstone and the destruction of humanity, but about the restoration of all things.
It’s not just theology that changes. Think of the difference to discipleship. In my experience, retributive theology seems to reinforce the individualism of our age, allowing people to be preoccupied with their own individual salvation and issues of personal/private morality. A restorative/delivering understanding focuses our spirituality on being delivered from that which binds us (for example, being delivered from greed) and on working with God for the freeing of those who are exploited and oppressed. Moreover, it provides a far better framework for theologising about the entire creation.
When we embrace a delivering or restorative model of justice the framing of our faith changes completely. Sure, bound by brevity, I have stated the contrasts between a retributive and a restorative framing in fairly binary terms. As these things get teased out there needs to be nuancing. But my point is that the tone of almost every part of our theology will shift dramatically if we embrace the restorative/delivering view of justice.
One of the most helpful books I’ve read in recent years is a short popular work by the Jesus scholar Marcus Borg. Titled Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Borg describes his shift away from the conservative faith of his childhood to a fresh engagement with Jesus. I found myself excited by the Jesus he described: a spirit person with profound knowledge of the spiritual realm who calls me to be engaged with this oft neglected dimension of reality; a prophet who calls me to a politics of compassion; a teacher of wisdom who called into question dominant paradigms of his time and subversively calls me to another way of seeing the world.
But is Marcus a Christian?
As I read Borg it becomes clear that he doesn’t believe in a bodily resurrection of Jesus, nor that Jesus was the unique figure orthodox Christianity proclaims. For Borg Jesus’s bones are still rattling around in a grave in Palestine.
Being nurtured in the Western tradition of Christianity, I have tended to define my faith in terms of a belief system. The Christian to me has always been somebody who believes that Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord and gives their allegiance to him.
My experience with Marcus Borg leaves me wondering whether I have got it right. It is clear that Jesus shapes Marcus Borg’s life, even if he doesn’t hold orthodox views. Is a Christian somebody who believes a particular set of things about Jesus or someone who follows the ways of Jesus, and if both of these things are important, which is more important than the other?
I think back to those first followers of Jesus. According to the Gospels it took them some time to recognise that Jesus was the Messiah, and when they did their notion of what it meant for Jesus to be Messiah was as far removed from the reality as it could be. All indications are they didn’t understand him to be the incarnate Son of God until after the resurrection. And I doubt any of them could have articulated the doctrine of the Trinity as we know it today. So when did they become Christians?
It seems that in the Gospels the key issue was recognising that God was with Jesus and that the appropriate response was to give one’s allegiance to the God Jesus made known and to the values Jesus embodied. So perhaps this should be our starting point for defining Christians, that we are people who sense God was present with and in Jesus, seek to know God in terms mapped by Jesus, and seek to live in the ways taught by Jesus.
I find myself attracted to this broader understanding of what it means to be Christian. It seems to resonate much more with what I hear and read of Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus seemed much more concerned with the direction in which people were headed rather than whether they crossed some imaginary boundary line between “Christian” and “non-Christian”. Which leaves me wondering whether it’s even a question worth asking.
I certainly hold different beliefs in some key areas to Marcus Borg. For me the resurrection of Jesus is an absolutely pivotal point for my faith. But in Marcus Borg, and many friends I have who hold similar views to him, I find fellow travellers on a journey led by Christ. And I suspect that is the most important thing, that at the end of the day trying to place boundaries around who is a Christian and who is not is simply not a helpful task.
So is Marcus Borg a “Christian”? I don’t know and I don’t care. What I do know is he is a companion with me on the road, that we each sense the presence of God in Jesus and are seeking to follow the way he laid out before us. I have never met the man other than through his writing, but he has enriched me immeasurably, and I am glad that he has become part of my journey.
Any God that is a spirit will be elusive, knowable only by her “fingerprints”. She may well act in my life and world, but I will only ever see the effects of her action, never her.
When I gaze at the rich hues of the setting sun I choose to see the creative genius who called forth the laws of physics. Her fingerprints are all over it, but it is the fading sun I see, not her.
When my mind and heart fill with a sense that God is present as I worship, nearer than my breath, it is my neurons firing that I am feeling. Yes I choose to believe they are responding to her presence, but all I have are fingerprints once more.
When I receive the words of Jesus as God’s word I find her direction for my life. Yet the tangible I have is printed words on a page. Fingerprints.
If only God was embodied or somehow visible to my senses I could watch her paint the sunset, see her holding me during worship, audibly hear her whispering to me. It would still be an experience mediated through my senses, but it would be much more tangible, less elusive, less open to interpretation.
One day, Jesus promised, one day, it will be like that. Until then faith and fingerprints will have to do.