As a Jew, I love Israel. There’s no way around that. In fourth grade I remember being assigned to write a report on any country in the world, and it was a complete no-brainer as to which country my report would be about. With great pride I decorated the blue-and-white report cover with the Israeli flag. Although seemingly irrelevant, I sprinkled some family recipes for things like matzo ball soup into the report, although now I see that the ethnic pride in recipes and that nationalistic pride in my peoples’ country really are not that far apart.
Years later, I’d get to take my first trip to Israel, and tour dozens of ancient Biblical archaeological sites. And where our Israeli tour guide could not take our group, but instead handed us off to a Palestinian tour guide, we also got to tour the ancient sites of the West Bank. As I came to realize how many places in my peoples’ history and my Bible were not under Jewish ownership but instead Palestinian, I started to realize that this did not sit well with my fantasies of what the “Jewish homeland” should be. My inner child wanted a complete restoration of what once was – I was living a fantasy of having walked back through the pages of the Bible, into the land of my Fathers and Mothers and into the “Kingdom of Israel” — with King David or Solomon, take your pick, ruling from Jerusalem, the Shekinah glory of God sitting on the Temple Mount in the Jewish temple, and every ancient parcel of land firmly a land for me, for us, the Jews.
It would be so neat and tidy if it were like this. Dare I admit that while I wouldn’t have let myself think such a thought with conscious intentionality — I started having a secret wish that the whole thing would blow up, and that Israel would have an excuse to destroy the Dome of the Rock, and that some war would break out allowing armies to wipe away the Palestinians by the millions, allowing there to finally be peace in the region because, well, there’d only be Israel and no more Palestine to wrangle with.
Of course, the Palestinians have their own fantasy that works a lot like this, but in reverse. In their daydream, they rise up and push Israel into the sea. Thus there is peace in the region because there’d be no more Israel. It’s funny how dreams for peace tend to take on a tone of ethnic cleansing and ethnic Utopianism.
Of course all of this comes from a dream of what once was – the dream of returning to a time when one ethnic group had a golden era in the land. I want to have my peoples’ golden era back. I want to walk into the pages of my ancient storybook and have that world again. The Palestinians are an uncomfortable inconvenience.
But this is my fourth grade Utopian dreamer self musing. My adult self can dream of peace that doesn’t put my collective ethnic self quite as much in the center of it all. My people don’t need to have a land that has the exact same borders they had 3000 years ago. I can dream of Isaac and Ishmael dwelling together again as one family, or at least learning how to have their respective tents side by side, even as much as Martin Luther King, Jr. could have a dream of black and white kids holding hands in America.
In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth.The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people,Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.” – Isaiah 19, ESV
The first time I ever read Isaiah 19, tears went streaming unbidden down my face as I realized that God didn’t just love Israel and He didn’t just love Jews. He didn’t even always have Jews first – so much for all that I thought being the “chosen people” was about. It was not an affront to see this – it was a relief. It meant I could have new fantasies – fantasies where loving Palestinians, Arabs, Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, Iraqis – was somehow in the center of God’s plan, not peripheral to it. It meant I could care about what it meant to be a Palestinian, and what it meant to be Arab, and what it meant to be living as the unwanted party in the middle of the Jewish hopes for a restored homeland.
My adult fantasy might have about as much realism as my fourth grade Utopian fantasy. The Palestinians, Arabs, and the Jews might never get along, but at least this dream of finding a way to share the land doesn’t inflame tensions in the region and make things worse. My fourth grade ethnic pride admittedly got really excited to know that Trump proclaimed Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel; some part of me hoped as many of my evangelical friends proclaimed that, “God was working something out here despite how insane Trump is to do this.” It’s a dark fantasy – the fantasy that diplomacy is unneeded, that Jerusalem is the Jews’ merely by history and divine right, despite any developments or changes that may have occurred over the past 2000 years, and despite the history of any other people that could now also have a stake in the matter.
We can brush away those “other people” with a mere return to what once was, we wish inwardly. By reading history from 3 and 4 thousand years ago in a sacred book, we can brush those people away by pointing to prophesies about the Jews’ return from Babylonian exile and rework them so they are talking about today. We can brush away the Palestinians because there’s no room for them in our narrative, they aren’t in our Utopian dreams, they don’t get us excited about the Bible coming to life in front of us the way a conquering, abiding, reigning Jewish presence in the Holy land does. They don’t fit in our ideas of God’s covenant with Abraham, so we can brush these people away theologically. And if we brush them away enough in our fantasies and musings, we can brush them away in the types of political solutions we applaud and get excited about. To the point where our dark fantasy selves will even applaud at brutal, blood-filled military efforts to brush them away should any sort of provocation or incident give us room to happily justify it.
What then is eschatology? Eschatology becomes the working out of our Utopian desires to walk into the Biblical world from the past in some promise of the past becoming the future – but even better. In clinging to eschatology, we give ourselves permission to rejoice in other people being marginalized, removed, or destroyed for our personal fantasy of what the future should hold. It’s a glorious future, no doubt, one in which we imagine God and His Messiah receiving all sorts of glory for elevating people who come from the storybook fantasy and return it to that storybook ideal – while destroying all the people who weren’t written into the story we want to see enacted.
Or we can dream different dreams, and hold to different goals. We can even revisit our eschatology and see if there might be room in it for the past 2000 years of Palestinian history and life in the region to be included as a God-thing. Maybe.
All this to say – if your fantasy is for a perfect Israeli gestalt end to all this, I get it. I really do. I just know how dangerous it is for me to live in that mindset, and how impossible it is to be able to love this other tribe of Abraham and value them while my fantasies for a perfect Jewish world would be held out as some idyllic dream on God’s heart – and I hope to warn you too.
Okay, normally I try not to rant on here, but I’ve recently read something that made me lose it.
It was midnight, and I was looking online for devotions for dating couples. And then somehow I stumbled upon some forum post from a Christian girl saying she refused to do devotionals with a boyfriend because she wanted to guard her heart.
Yup. She said even praying together was too intimate–more than sex!
I’m not trying to judge this person, as we all have different convictions. And she did have some good points about making sure people are solid in their faith personally before entering a relationship.
The real problem I’m having is that I see this type of thinking in a lot of Christian relationships.
Guard your heart. Protect yourself. No intimacy of any kind.
Then Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said,behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said.”And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. Then Gideon said to God, “Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew.”And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew. – Judges 6:36-40
Young Earth Creationists often criticize the theory of evolution saying basically that the scientific method requires that science must be observable, testable, repeatable, and falsifiable, and since no one can go back and watch all of Earth’s creatures evolving all over again, evolution cannot be scientifically valid.
But the story of Gideon asks some questions about the nature of Divine Revelation in return. Gideon existed long before the “scientific method” was formalized into any known texts of the Near East or western civilization, but his logic as he approached God for confirmation of divine revelation showed that he had at least a rudimentary appreciation for some of the logical elements used by scientists today – namely, the concept of a “control” – an area of the experiment in which no variable is being tested, and nothing is expected to change in the course of the experiment.
Gideon’s “control” the first time he conducted his experiment, was the ground around the fleece – he asks for the fleece to be wet, thus the “control” – the ground the fleece is in contact with, needed to be dry. He then repeats the experiment, but this time asks for the ground to be wet, and the fleece serves as the control – it ought to remain dry.
While there are flaws in his experiment from a modern standpoint, the attempt at using an experimental portion in contrast to a control portion in this experiment, is an extremely scientific way for Gideon to attempt to verify what he believes God has spoken to him.
Thus, the question: Does the theory of evolution provide for predictions to be made, and experiments to be made, that would be true if the theory is true? If there is no way to go back and test the evolution of all life on earth directly, by having it happen all over again while an observer observes, can we set up OTHER experiments and make other predictions that are congruent with things we would expect to find if evolution is true? Almost the entire scientific community on the planet would say yes, and thousands and thousands of experiments and predictions have been confirmed since the theory was first imagined.
But it doesn’t end there. Just as we can’t go back and watch evolution unfold across the millenia, we can’t go back and watch to see if God really created everything in 6 days about 6000 years ago, either. Gideon’s “scientific testing of God’s word” sets up the idea that Divine Revelation is not immune from being tested; that God Himself is willing to participate in appropriately designed experiments that confirm whether or not He is being heard and understood correctly.
Therefore I would submit several ideas:
1 – the same predictions and experiments across the global scientific community that test the hypothesis of evolutionary theory and all its attached ideas, are simultaneously testing our understanding of how to read, understand, and believe the Divine Revelation in Genesis 1. New “fleeces” do not need to be invented; humanity has been putting them out everyday.
2 – It is not only the theory of evolution that is worth testing; a literal historical reading of Genesis is also worth testing. Gideon tested to make sure he both had and understood Divine Revelation correctly – so should we. If, no matter how many experiments and predictions scientists made, nothing seemed to line up with that predicted by evolutionary theory, then a serious crisis would exist for evolution but not for young earth creationism. But since it is the other way, it is young earth creationism that must be the misunderstanding or misapprehending of Divine Revelation, not the other way around.
3 – It is not appropriate to test evolution using supernatural tests, as evolution is not a supernatural theory. Thus, “make the ground wet while the fleece is dry” is not an appropriate test for evolution. Make the ground wet while the fleece is dry, and make the fleece wet while the ground is dry” was not a test Gideon was making to test natural law, but to test to see if something supernatural would happen in the natural realm to confirm his understanding of God’s word, a word promising supernatural assistance that would change the natural realm.
4 – Testing God is authorized in scripture. (Malachi 3:10) It is often confused however with Jesus saying, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” There is a difference between testing, confirming what has been spoken, and testing the spirits of a word, and “putting God to the test.” Putting God to the test has to do with sinning and pitting a promise of God against a sin. Thus, Jesus throwing himself down from the temple (committing suicide, a sin) being pitted against his word to uphold Jesus from dashing his foot against a stone, would be an attempt to tempt God to affirm sin. This was what Jesus was against.
In short, it is laughable for Young Earth Creationists to insist evolution cannot be valid because…science…..while insisting their reading of Genesis is valid because….divine revelation…..especially when divine revelation itself, in the example of Gideon, says that even Divine Revelation can be tested. The important thing is having the right test for the job. When scores of tests everyday are already done on evolutionary theory as a natural theory and it stands strong using natural means, the scientific evidence points to evolution.
Hippie Heretic’s blog post on reframing the raging hell debates is so amazing and such out of the box thinking on the topic, that I have posted it to discussion threads over, and over, and over. So many times, in fact, that I think a reblog is in order. So here I post it to keep it in my archives forever, and ever. Or was that only temporarily? And am I posting this to help you or punish you? Read the blog to get my jest. 🙂
Forget apologetics. Forget signs and wonders. If you really want to excel at evangelism, there is one golden key worth more than all the others – LIKE the people you are reaching out to with Jesus. Since we often get really messed up with doublespeak when we talk about what it means to “love”, I’d like to submit that the real issue is whether or not we LIKE “them.” In general*, we can’t bring people to Jesus that we don’t like.
What is evangelism, first of all?
A student of Greek will quickly explain that evangelism involves sharing good news, being an ambassador, etc etc. And that’s all good and true. Evangelism is part of our kingdom role of being priests and kings. Malachi talks about one of the jobs of a priest:
“True instruction was in his mouth and unrighteousness was not found on his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many back from iniquity. 7“For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.”(Malachi 2:6-7)
Sharing the knowledge of God both with believers and nonbelievers is incredibly important and is our honored role in the Kingdom. I’ve heard people often quote, St. Francis in saying, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.” But the reality is that words will always be necessary. We are to help people UNDERSTAND things about God, and share knowledge.
BUT – if our view of evangelism is just about TELLING people something, shoving a sign or a track or a well-rehearsed message at someone, I don’t think we’re going to get very far with real humans with that approach. At least, I never saw much come of my own efforts at evangelism when I approached people with that mindset. Evangelicalism for a long time has I think based much of its lifeless attempts at sharing the good news with people on a misapplication of one verse:
“so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” – Isaiah 55:11
This verse is often used to justify completely violating or at completely impersonal attempts at sharing Christ with people. Under this mindset, all that matters is making people hear words. It doesn’t matter if the message comes to them in any real understandable form, or if it has any personal connection to them… simply shouting at them is good enough, for God will make any words we shove at them “not return void.” Though an explanation of why that’s a bad way to read that verse is well beyond the scope of this blog post, that’s not what this verse meant when it was written, and I don’t think its what it means for us today.
LEARNING A DIFFERENT WAY
My relationship with being an emissary of the gospel really started to change a few decades back when I stopped trying to be a “good witness” (which is evangelicalism-speak for “hiding all your sins and faults from nonbelievers in order to supposedly attract them with the perfection of your life now that you are a believer in Jesus”) and instead let a non-Christian friend see me “for real,” as I shared with him the depths of the depression I was in, as well as my intense struggles with God at that time. When he suddenly up and decided that Christ was real and he wanted in on the Kingdom when I was contemplating how best to hurt myself, I started realizing that my first “convert” was teaching me something about how Christ makes Himself known to people – and it wasn’t by me being fake and seemingly having it all together in front of non-believers.
I also started learning that it wasn’t about shoving impersonal sentences at people that supposedly were “the Word of God that won’t return void” to them. Some wise person shared with me that every person in existence is already in a relationship with God, and that He has been dancing with them their entire lives, carefully cultivating a conversation with them. I started to understand that my job as an evangelist was not to plod on into that conversation like a bull in a China shop, but to respect it – and to learn to peer into how God has already been engaging with that person, and that person with God – and to enter appropriately into THAT conversation. Just as the Holy Spirit is one who “comes alongside and helps” I started to see my job as a colaborer with Christ by the Holy Spirit, agreeing with the Holy Spirit in coming alongside a person being drawn to Christ, rather than coming at them. Good evangelism is midwifery, and while some babies are born on their own, much of the time someone helps the baby along.
But how does one come “alongside” the process, already in progress, of the Father drawing someone to His Son Jesus? This is where I would say that there is no replacement for GENUINELY LIKING the people one is trying to reach.
Liking People is the Opposite of Alienating Them
It’s almost too obvious to write about, but people don’t generally want to hear what someone has to say when they sense hostility coming at them from the speaker. Instead, most humans put up walls, and get defensive. This is why standing on a street corner holding a sign and shouting, “The end is near! Repent or burn!” is probably one of the worst images that our society has of Christians…and of evangelism. It would take an extraordinarily humble person to want to subject themselves to learning from someone who approaches them full of condemnation and hostility.
But an even more subtle form of hostility that Christians present to nonbelievers comes from an “us/them” perspective. If we walk into a relationship with an us/them mindset means it we carry a type of “alienation” to the relationship with nonbelievers before we’ve even started. It puts a wall up between oneself and one’s target or uh, “victim” because us/them is a form of alienation already in play. Most of us have experienced this: when you have an “us/them” perspective in your approach to someone, they will feel like a project to you – and the person will eventually sense they are a project in the evangelist’s eyes as well. If you manage to convince the person that being a project is ideal, and a spiritual thing, then you might be able to bring them to the point of becoming your disciple where the project mentality can continue even past the point of their conversion. But generally people feel a bit creeped out at being someone’s project.
Ideally, evangelism should be “incarnational.” Incarnational has at times been a Christian buzzword, but it’s a good one. It means that neither of these two above things are in play – there is no hostility, and there is no us/them mentality. “Incarnational” describes what God did when He put on human flesh and became one of us. It sparkles; there is a closeness about it, a warmth where the one who is incarnated is identifiable and now as one of those he or she has now become. They are tangible and relatable as “one of us” now to the culture they have stepped into. In fact, we don’t just share a message, we become the message, as the apostle Paul wrote:
“It is clear that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…”2 Cor 3:3
In order to BE the letter, we need to be able to be known, to be seen. This is true even with all our messiness; the point is that as we relate to God and He relates to us, our history with Him marks us and writes something into our souls. And this is available for those we walk with to read. This is Christ incarnated into us, even as we are incarnated into someone else’s world.
But uniquely, all the gifts and beauty of the realm from which the incarnated one has come are brought into the realm of the society and reality in which she or he is now involved…and those gifts are offered for the taking in a very personal, connected way. Someone who is incarnated brings their pre-incarnated identity into their incarnation. But incarnation is a position “in the middle” of where they are coming from and what they are stepping into; for the person who has been incarnated takes on the identity of the people he or she steps into to become, as well as the flavor, the struggles, the atmosphere and rhythm and likeness of them as well.
INCARNATION SETS US UP FOR CONNECTED SYMPATHY
As all of humanity was made in God’s image, it was because He wrote, as it were, a prophecy in human flesh of Himself which was waiting for fulfillment: we were made in His image, so that at the right time, He could come to us in our own image. And thus He did. And there were many reasons for this, many specific benefits and necessities, one of which was so He would know what is like to be us….so that He could fully relate to who we are and what we go through.
The writer of Hebrews captures this in Hebrews 4:15 – “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet was without sin.”
And this is INTENSELY important. It brings us back to my opening point about LIKING those we want to reach. For too many years the type of Christianity I was in treated Christians as “real” people while nonbelievers weren’t worth really knowing or being friends with. They were simply objects to be captured. But as I kept trying to keep in step with the Spirit and how He was moving in someone’s heart and life, I found those people becoming real to me in a way that makes me now ashamed to admit how I treated people as evangelistic objects. When we like someone, we get to see them as a real person, valuable and truly worth being connected to, and having real friendship with. And we find ways to sympathize with what they are going through. If we can’t sympathize with the things keeping someone from seeing Christ clearly, we’re not going to reach them very easily. Examples:
I love to reach agnostics and atheists. Why? Because I genuinely ENJOY atheists and agnostics. I tend to think of atheists as one of God’s gifts to the church. When the church tries to make theology that is inhumane, or nonsensical, sometimes it takes a bunch of atheists to bring us to our senses. This doesn’t mean that every criticism or critique a nonbeliever makes will turn out to be valid. But I love the fact that these guys challenge us when we get too lost in the clouds with stuff that just doesn’t make sense.
I also can relate really well to these folks because I know what it is like to be unable to believe in something, even when I wanted to. My own testimony involved coming from a place of unbelief, struggling really hard to find out if there was “anything out there” and having a really hard time taking a leap of faith to find out. Some Christians would never believe how many atheists and agnostics have told me they really WISH they could believe in something – or that if “Someone” were there, they really wish they could know that. And especially for those folks, I get it.
And when I hear people bash atheists as if they are somehow deliberately in rebellion against God, that there is something ugly and hateful about someone honest enough about their doubts as to say, “I don’t know if God is real” or, “I’m pretty sure he isn’t there”, it really upsets me. I would rush to most atheists defense in a moment, because many of them are intensely truth-hungry people that I just want to help them find how to truly find Him, and the army of rancorous Christians shouting at them about how horrid they supposedly are sure doesn’t help.
You’re not going to win an atheist or agnostic to Christ by telling them that God doesn’t care about how they try to be a moral person; they were never being moral for the sake of God anyway. You’re not going to draw them in by telling them by telling them that without God they have no basis for ethics or morality, because they know you’re wrong. Quoting at them from a completely different context out of the book of psalms the verse, “The fool says in his heart there is no God,” just affirms to them that you hate them, that you call them a fool, and you’re quoting at them from a book they can’t relate to anyway. Again, all you’re doing is putting up that wall of alienation and hostility for them that Christ died to take down. And that is the opposite of the incarnation. And besides, Jesus gave dire warnings about calling someone a fool.
We can win atheists and agnostics to Christ by putting ourselves in their shoes, being honest with ourselves about our own doubts and difficulties at times walking in faith. We empathize with them by being a real friend and letting them see our real struggles – and victories – with Christ. We sympathize with them by walking with them through their questions about God, being honest about not having all the answers for them, while appreciating these people for who they are and what they bring into our lives, and how God is using them before they even know Him. We show Him to them by just being who you are in a real way, talking about Him and His truth in authentic contextual ways that are real to our lives, and giving them all the room in the world to do the same – knowing that a real God is lighting the way forward for you and them together to figure it out.
One of the surest ways NOT to draw Muslims to Christ is to have all sorts of ideas about them. I continually run across evangelicals that think they’ve got the “Muslim thing” figured out because they’ve learned about a half dozen ugly statements from the Koran about hating infidels or something. They also tend to approach those verses in the Koran the way Christians approach their own Bibles – not realizing that Muslims may have their own reasons for approaching those texts differently (just as Christians have their own reasons for approaching Deuteronomy differently than nonbelievers often assume they do.) But none of that really is the point anyway – you can’t learn a culture just by studying some of its documents ; you learn a culture by hanging out with people.
You can read the Koran from cover to cover 1000 times and still understand next to nothing about muslims, because to some degree, it doesn’t matter what a holy book says – it matters how the people who believe in it interpret it and live it out (or don’t live it out.) There are many, many cultural things that affect how any particular Muslim will view themselves as a Muslim, and view the teachings of the Koran. There are various nationalities, various sects in those nationalities, various levels of commitment, various understandings of how to interpret the Koran, and there is folk Islam with its own sets of beliefs. There are militant Muslims, there are devout yet peaceful Muslims, there are disinterested Muslims and disaffected Muslims. And just as there are many different cultures of Christians (nominal Catholics, Bible banging Baptists, serious Catholics, liberal Baptists) there are many many different categories, movements, and personalities of Muslims.
But no matter what, one can’t LIKE a Muslim without hanging out with him or her and really getting to know them. As long as Christians regard Muslims as “the enemy” rather than approaching them as their next best friend, one will never have the privilege of getting to be part of their Islamic friends’ exploration of their own prophet, Isa (Jesus).
But this requires learning to LIKE Muslims. I have found that practicing Muslims are inspiring in their adoration and love for God. Their reverence and awe for Him are beautiful, the way they seek to involve Allah (and even Christian Arabs call God, Allah) in everyday life puts many Christians to shame. One thing that seems to be fairly universal however is the importance placed on hospitality; if you can let yourself be invited in, the value of hospitality in this culture in many cases completely transcends any anti-Christian sentiment you might fear your Muslim friend might hold towards you. Muslims tend to value their guests very highly, and its a great way to get to know them and learn all the things there are to like about them.
And as far as sympathizing goes; I know what it is like to have a works’ mindset in approaching God, and I think many Christians have at some point in their relationship with God a similar experience from which to relate to Muslim religious experience. Instead of judging devout Muslims for approaching God with a works mindset, I find myself being reminded of how I’ve struggled with the same thing, both before and after knowing Christ. And many Muslims are not necessarily even approaching God that way either – it’s important to get to know what is actually going on in the lives of one’s friends.
On the flip side, I’ve met young Muslims so in rebellion against the teaching of their parents that they were taking steps with their lives that the God who cares for them would not want them to take. Sometimes sharing my own sins and stupid decisions and how “Allah knows best” (Allah is just the Arabic word for God) is the best way I know how to help a Muslim-culture friend care about knowing God – and Jesus – when everything about God seems irrelevant to them.
WHOEVER IT IS, LIKE THEM
The main point is, we will be most effective with the people we like enough to truly relate to them, and probably be completely ineffective with people who we are only sharing Christ with as some sort of a duty, or some sort of niche on our Christian-y belts. I’m also not writing this to give folks an excuse to shrug off reaching out to people they don’t LIKE or don’t GET. But instead, I’m writing this as an encouragement and a challenge to the church to stop making ourselves “feel good” by how we can look down on those “foolish, God-hating Atheists”, or those “evil satanic Muslims.”
Joshua and Caleb set themselves apart from the other men who “spied out the land” of Canaan because they liked the land they saw, and they thought it was a good land that God was ready to give them. The other spies looked at the land as being too full of strongholds for their trouble. Likewise, do we approach people like they are cherished and beloved by God, and that the things keeping them from Christ are not that big of a deal? Do we find them delightful and enjoyable and know they are a hair’s breadth away from the Kingdom, and that God is near them? Or do we put up walls of fear and hostility that just don’t need to be there, which alienate us from them and them from us, ultimately cutting us off from our inheritance and the blessing of walking in Kingdom relationship with them?
We’re called like Jesus to love and serve people, and one of the biggest differences from serving someone from a place of superiority verses authentic incarnationality comes down to one thing: Do we authentically like them? If not, I do think it’s worth asking God to show us how.
* Footnote from first paragraph: I say, “in general” because, heck, God can do anything and when God is really moving in someone’s life, they may not need much human involvement at all – whether you or I hate them or like them may be completely immaterial. But in most cases, we’re talking about the actual action of evangelism here, where we are the tour guides taking someone by the hand and showing them all the sights along the way and leading up to an encounter with the cross and the resurrected Christ.)
When the topic of evolution and the Bible is brought up, one of the many concerns people have is how that fits with humans being “in the image of God.” But before we can go there, we have to address the underlying question: What does it mean to be “in the image of God” anyway?
For years and years and in different movements and corners of the body of Christ, I have heard this question asked and answered in many different ways. Let’s look at some of the ideas I have heard, and then I’ll share what I believe Genesis implies about the topic.
Theory A: God is three parts, and so are we
In the charismatic church, many leaders and teachers put emphasis on teaching about the Tripartite (three-fold) nature of humans. This comes from 1 Thessalonians 5:23 where people are refered to as being “Spirit, Soul, and Body” – as well as other scriptures alluding to this metaphysical anatomy. I also believe humans are tripartite, and I did a whole investigation of the topic here.
So, in many areas of the charismatic church, I have heard it taught that humans being composed of three parts is what it means for us to be “made in the image of God.”
While this three-ness is indeed a similarity between humanity and God, I don’t think it actually is a good identification of what Genesis is implying when it first mentions humans are made in God’s image. There’s nothing in the immediate context of the passage to suggest three-in-one is the main point of being made in God’s image, nor is there anything about being three-in-one in any other verse about being in the likeness of God in the rest of the Bible. So to make this the main point of “being made in the image of God” is maybe as a conjecture and musing based on disconnected scriptural ideas, but I’m not sure it’s really the best case in the context of the passages where the actual ideas of “the likeness of God” are presented. If there were nothing else to go on, I’d say its workable and there’s nothing specifically wrong with it – other than that it tends to overshadow the obvious and immediate meanings which I’ll get to later.
But the other problem with it as the dominant theory on Imago Dei (the image of God) being specifically about being in “three parts” is that this setup is not exclusive to humans. Animals are also repeatedly referred to in the Bible as being “souls” (although English translations tend to obscure this badly; do a study on the Hebrew word nephesh for more clarity) and obviously they have bodies, and less often (sparsely, but it is there) they are referred to as having spirits. So if animals are three-part beings too, it might bode well for discussing the implications and validity of evolution in theological circles, but it still doesn’t help arrive at what this unique, “being in the image of God” thing is that is supposed to be a specifically human thing.
Leaving my charismatic brethren, we’ll go to a theory I hear often from mainline and non-charismatic evangelical Christians:
Theory B: God is a moral agent, and So Are We
I don’t know what the hangup is …or love affair…that the church has with God and morality, as if the be-all of God and man is morality, but here it shows up again in this theory. (I’ve written before of how I think it’s an unfortunately bad apologetic to try to “prove” God with the “morality exists, therefore a moral God must exist” line – see here, but this seems another symptom of the same obsession.) While the entire gospel is about how we fail so desperately in terms of moral righteousness and that grace is the answer to it all, we still hang on to thinking morality is the highest aspect of humanity. Our obsession with morality is right up there with why we as the church often seem to think the Ten Commandments needs to be displayed on secular government property, but I digress. From here we tend to go to arguments and discussions about whether or not animals can display true empathy, or morality, with some presenting arguments that actually seem to be “yes” to some degree or another, while others hold out saying those animals don’t quite meet the human standard (obviously, as they are not human.) But this is probably all very unnecessary.
Surely God is really into fairness and justice, truth, law-giving, and most specifically keeping His own oaths, but you’d be hard pressed to define Him as specifically “moral” by any usual definition of the word (that might be a topic for another day.) But if you want to use the word “moral” to describe God, you’d have to note that the God of the Old Testament assumes all rights to transcend human morality and stand somewhat over and above it. At any rate, we’ll save all those moral questions and debates about God for another day but….
Let’s just note that in Genesis, the promise of “knowing good from evil” is not something that Adam and Eve were endowed with as part of being “made in God’s image.” Instead, the ability to become moral agents was something that another being, other than God, first offered Adam and Eve AFTER they were designed and created. (Until then, humanity’s only morality was to do as God says and not do as God forbids, rather than figuring out good and evil for themselves.)
Why then, “being able to make moral decisions” would therefore be considered as what it means to be made in the image of God is beyond me, as the very concept seems uncannily like a repetition of the very lie that satan offered to Eve, “You shall be like God, knowing good from evil.” While perhaps this is a type of “being like God” – it does not seem to have been the specific likeness of Himself that God was aiming for during the creation of humans in Genesis, but rather a similarity to God perhaps that came later as an add-on via the forbidden fruit, after the fact. At any rate, to view humans as “moral like God” seems almost like a Deist perspective to me, or perhaps a hangover from the enlightenment period’s humanist view of humankind.
Theory C: God has arms and legs and stuff, so, so do we
I’m not sure this theory is worth covering but since I’ve heard and read people arguing for it, it doesn’t hurt I guess to mention it. Most folks read the Bible and when it speaks of God having hands or nostrils or whatever normally “human” body parts may be ascribed to Him, they see this as anthropomorphism. But that wouldn’t be everyone’s viewpoint. Instead, some folks see physical attributes of humans being a reflection of some sort of metaphysical anatomy that God has. Ok, sure, why not? I can’t say for sure what “shape” God’s spiritual form takes. But still, I don’t think this is what Genesis is aiming at when it talks about male and female being made in God’s image. Why not?
(Because in my opinion,)
Genesis actually makes it fairly clear what it means to be “made in God’s image” right in the context of the first mention of the notion.
So here’s theory D: Being made in God’s image means taking dominion over the Earth.
Ok, I can see why this theory isn’t particularly attractive. After all, the word “dominion” generally isn’t a very nice sounding word unless you’re playing a first person shooter video game or something. And that’s just it: the dominion mandate in Genesis has to be one of the most abused concepts in all of Christianity. Sinful humanity, and particularly religiously sinful humanity, has a way of really messing up anytime it has rights to power.
But that’s what’s there in Genesis:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Genesis 1:26-28 RSV
God is the ruler of the universe, the head honcho, the one who is greater than all of creation, and he makes humans – to be His representatives on the Earth. They are the top of the food chain…errr…wait, that’s not what I meant – but they are the leaders of all the animal kingdom and all the created realm, as an echo (or image) of God’s leadership.
Adam is made both high priest and high king in Eden, along with his bride Eve. Together they are going to rule the galaxy (or small patch of Earth…whatever people knew about at that point in time.) In short, Adam and Eve are proxies – God’s government on Earth. (At least pictured so before the “fall.”)
And there are extensions of this. Jonathan David and Melissa Helser come to mind as they have an entire ministry geared towards releasing the creativity of musicians and artists and basically everyone who will listen – and one of their main points of teaching is that God is Creative, and so humans walking in true creativity is our inheritance as the image-bearers of the Father. I see this as an extension of the dominion theme – because one of the reasons that God is the one who has dominion is that He created everything one way or another – and so humans being creative therefore the more beautiful form of “taking dominion” in the Earth than that previously mentioned first-person shooter game would conjure up. Of course, stewardship, kindness, meekness (for these inherit the Earth), these are all Biblical themes about what the responsibility of having “dominion” actually looks like…and of course as the Helsers would remind us, beauty and creativity.
When I told my friends on FB I was writing on this topic, several stepped up to bring forth this very theory, and to also introduce me to the writing of Mike Heiser. Here follows my friend Eric Weiss’s quote introducing me to Mike (thank you Eric and Mike):
Dr. Michael S. Heiser, Hebrew and ANE scholar for Logos Bible Software, says that the phrase means to be given authority to act as God’s representative. I.e., being made in God’s image meant that mankind was in charge of God’s earth and God’s creation:
“This last example directs us to what the Hebrew preposition translated in means in Genesis 1:26. Humankind was created as God’s image. If we think of imaging as a verb or function, that translation makes sense. We are created to image God, to be his imagers. It is what we are by definition. The image is not an ability we have, but a status. We are God’s representatives on earth. To be human is to image God.
“This is why Genesis 1:26–27 is followed by what theologians call the “dominion mandate” in verse 28. The verse informs us that God intends us to be him on this planet. We are to create more imagers (“be fruitful and multiply … fill”) in order to oversee the earth by stewarding its resources and harnessing them for the benefit of all human imagers (“subdue … rule over”).”
So why the heck does any of this matter?
Because there is theory E, which I’ll call the “theory of all the theories.”
Theory E: Jesus is the ultimate “image of God”.
For just as Adam (and Eve) were the image of God which became corrupted, Jesus (and those who ultimately rule with Him as His bride) is the image of God, uncorrupted – in a NEW CREATION. Just as Jesus said to the Pharisees that Abraham was not their father as they were claiming, because they didn’t ACT like Abraham would have acted, so also we have failed to really be God’s proxies and look and act like Him in this creation. But there is a new Adam (and Eve) and a new creation, and this one is not corrupted. This one will see a New Heaven and New Earth ruled over in all the beauty that God ever intended. And Jesus, as human and new Adam, laid down His life as the ultimate act of selflessness, dominion taking turned on its head in the truest way.
And this, this is ultimately what it means to be in the Image of God.
My aunt, as long as I’ve known her has always been an extremely liberal Democrat and a staunch atheist. That is, until a couple who were planting a church in her housing development befriended her and invited her to start attending their church.
At first it seemed like an unprecedented change was happening in my aunt’s life. I couldn’t believe she had even said yes to the invitation, but somehow going to church became intriguing to her, and from there it was only a few months later that she told me, with daring and nervous tones, that she no longer considered herself an atheist. She told me wasn’t quite ready to believe in a “personal God” and didn’t yet know what to do with Jesus, but that she had decided that there was “something out there.” From my theist perspective, having known my aunt my entire life, this was unprecedented progress. She laughed at herself as she agreed with me at the change in her viewpoint that she had never thought possible.
And she kept going. Something was drawing her to continue going to this church, even though she told me their Republican-sounding views on Israel she found somewhat annoying to her liberal, secular Jewish sensibilities. But she found it something she could overlook, and continued fellowshipping with her friends.
Until Trump was elected. As his magic pen signed executive order after executive order, the leadership of her church rejoiced and extolled that the man they had helped elect was taking what they considered to be such glorious stands for righteous lawmaking.
My aunt, still reeling with grief about the fact that this man was even in office, was repulsed beyond measure that the leaders of the church she had come to call home had not only helped elect him, but were proclaiming the very executive orders that sickened her and kept her up at night worrying about the future of the world were their pride and joy in the man.
She quit going to church, and now tells me she has a real ax to grind with Christians for ruining the country.
Another story, if you’ll allow me:
I knew a man named John, he was a brilliant concert pianist who had destroyed his life with drugs and alcohol. My friend Rob, who was John’s brother, told me that he could barely believe his ears when this brother he had prayed for his entire life suddenly asked him one day on the phone to buy him a Bible. By some very strange event, John, who was now in his mid-60s, after spending a life carousing and studying all types of philosophies and intellectual pursuits through a drug-induced haze, had met a Korean pastor in a McDonald’s one morning. Somehow the pastor managed to entice him to come to his church – and John became a regular, going to Bible studies regularly.
John attended this church and incredibly enough, gave his life to Christ.
But then, he started to tell me and Rob that he needed to find a new church. Apparently the church had started railing against legislation that had been passed allowing homosexual couples to marry; and John, who had dabbled in homosexual relationships in his life and said, “I think it was wrong what I did, and I don’t want to live that way anymore, but I just can’t agree with the way they are talking about people who are gays and lesbians and the way they want to make laws against them. And it’s not just that: I’m also bothered by the way they keep holding these classes teaching pseudoscience trying to prove evolution isn’t true.”
The “moral” of both these stories:
I think the evangelical church has some serious questions to ask itself…the biggest one being,
“Does someone have to have a Republican view of politics to feel comfortable finding Jesus with you?”
Have we gotten ourselves so confused that we don’t even know the difference between presenting the Bible and the gospel to people and what our derived viewpoints are that are actually just Republican or Democrat?
Are we comfortable in creating a church culture where a political platform and leanings are so married together with what it means to follow Jesus, that if someone wants to find God and Jesus in your church it will be presented to them that they can’t really do that without accepting Republican beliefs too?
I suppose liberal and progressive churches can ask themselves the same question in reverse. I know many churches where Republicans coming into the church will find themselves inundated with so many leftist ideas of what it means to follow Jesus that they may well walk out of your church before they’ve really had a chance to know much more about Him. But this is not the norm as much as the conservative version of this, so I aimed this blog post more at my conservative friends and thus I ask:
Do we expect that as soon as someone begins to open their hearts to Jesus and finds His message and work attractive, that they will immediately adopt our church’s version of political leanings? Have we taken the typical salvation message and added to it our political leanings, thus essentially saying,
“Accept Christ into your heart, and please change your voting registration to Republican or go find other friends to fellowship with?”
(And how soon after ….or even before….accepting Christ are we assuming peoples’ political viewpoints should become the same as ours?)
I fear our emphasis on “politics emanating from our understanding of the Bible” has created a situation where, we’ve conflated teaching people to be Jesus’s disciples with teaching them they have to vote the platform of a particular party, or they may as well leave our churches because we don’t need Christians that think like THAT – that “other party’s” way of thinking.
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians against factions and parties in the church. At that time the issue was parties arising over spiritual leaders in the church, not political ones. He called such party thinking “carnal” – fleshly, unspiritual. I don’t think he ever imagined the church would divide up over something even beyond that – earthly politics.
If his answer to that was “all things are yours” – the very name of this blog, in fact, is there something to be said for the idea that both the Republican parties and the Democratic parties in the USA might have ideas on BOTH sides of the fence that the church could see Jesus agreeing with? Perhaps ALL things really are ours? (After all, Jesus did ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, not an elephant. Ok, bad joke…)
That will take some really outside-the-box we’ve created for ourselves thinking. Until we can go there, let’s not forget that there is something to be said for creating a church culture that has something of this at its heart:
“And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)
Otherwise, we end up promoting one of the kingdoms of this world – the Republican kingdom (driving away all the Democrats from Jesus and our churches) or the Democrat kingdom (driving away all the Republicans from Jesus and our churches) – not to mention all the independents and Third Party folks among us too. All of these kingdoms are the kingdom of our God, and His Christ, Jesus – He’s at work in all of them, and owns all of them. So let’s learn to reflectively listen to the various perspectives represented by people in our society, and make sure the only thing that someone would be sick of if they decide to leave our churches, is Him… not our love affair with some party platform (or our hatred of it either.)
A few years back I lost my job, in a traumatic burn-out on the level that caused me to retire permanently from teaching and shake with anxiety and fear every time I even tried to explain the struggles of my career to anyone. (Actually, I had to quit my job, but the reasons were so compelling that unemployment found in my favor and started paying me for job loss.) Even though I was on unemployment, I could no longer afford my apartment and in a perfect storm of weird dynamics within a church I had been in that was crumbling, and abusive family dynamics, I found myself faced with two choices: live in a homeless shelter or live with my boyfriend. My boyfriend and I chose the latter.
Evangelical and others’ viewpoints on the matter:
Among charismatic evangelical Christians (which is my spiritual background) this was absolutely a no-no. In the Pentecostal world there is a name for this: it’s called, “shacking up.” Shacking up is denounced loudly in sermons without so much as a Bible verse mentioned as to why it is deemed absolutely hideously unacceptable, but the assumption is that you’re having sex. And even if you’re not, by living together you’re violating another one of the great, immoral, evangelical rules: “Having the appearance of evil.” Merely “appearing” evil is as great of an evil to Christians as doing the evil itself.
Except to those outside the evangelical community, it doesn’t come across as evil. Non-Christians, at least the average Western nonbelievers, absolutely don’t care or find anything at all questionable, immoral, or indecent about two unmarried people living with one another, nor even with them having sex. To them it is not only normal, but wholesome. So it is not nonbelievers that find the appearance of two people living together to be potentially evil. It is exclusively Christians for whom the appearances thing is an issue.
The fact is, the Bible verse that Christians often use to say that Christians need to be careful to not “look” like they are doing anything immoral really shouldn’t begin to be understood that way. That Bible verse isn’t saying, “avoid looking sinful.” It’s saying, “wherever evil appears, avoid it.” Click here for a better explanation.
But beyond considerations of what the verse says or doesn’t say, the concern ultimately is a concern about sexual purity between unmarried persons. Religious cultures however have a long-standing fear of men and women being alone in a home or room together. Orthodox Judaism has a rule called Yichud which means that any time a man and a woman are alone in a space together, it can be assumed that sex has occurred. Billy Graham (and now, by extension, Vice President Mike Pence) had a rule that he would never be alone with a woman in any setting, not in his office or out at lunch. The irony is that religious culture, in its quest to prevent sex, often ends up looking like it is obsessed with sex, albeit preventing it. And often law triumphs over mercy.
So…I moved in with my boyfriend. Was it a great idea? No.
If I had any other option that I could have emotionally handled at the time (moving in with strangers or living in a homeless shelter were not things that I could have handled in the midst of the upheaval of job loss and other things going on. Call me emotionally weak if you want, because I was…) I would have done so. If there were friends who would have allowed me to move in with them while I had no money left from my measily unemployment check to pay them for rent, I would have. Do I recommend after reading this blog post that others go home and move in with their fiance’s or boyfriend/girlfriends? No.
The choice carries with it all sorts of emotional complications, not to mention bearing total shame in front of one’s faith community, that stigmatizes people who “shack up.” As our relationship hit the rocks that other couples living together (read, newly married people) would hit, we were without the help and resources of counseling that others trying to share a household in the context of an intimate (emotionally intimate) would have had in our context – because we were not yet married. It strained us to the point of calling off our wedding plans because we both became unsure of our future together.
But aside from our faith communities, there are others that instantly have the wrong idea when you tell them you are living with a domestic partner, in ways that sometimes make me wonder what century I live in. As we sat in the secular counselor’s office (since we couldn’t go to faith-based counseling, although some well-intentioned friends were helpful) she asked us about our sex life. We told her that while we had a very sweet time cuddling, that we did not as yet have a “sex” life as we were both committed to waiting until marriage for sex. But I learned most people think:
Men’s sex drives are an issue, women’s are considered a non-issue.
She then asked my boyfriend, who had previously told her moments earlier that this was his conviction as well, “How are you handling going without sex?” She never posed the same question to me. In instance after instance, my boyfriend was asked by various people how he is holding up in a relationship without sex.
I have never been asked the same question – never – neither by men nor by women. It is assumed somehow that a woman has no desire for sex? In Judaism, it is interesting that sex is considered a woman’s right, not a man’s. It is her right to have children, or at least to attempt to have children.
While everyone was busy asking my boyfriend how he was enduring the supposedly awful ordeal – assumably imposed by me – of not having sex, no one was asking me about the tears cried into my pillow regularly about forced infertility being a relationship that was not coming to completion in marriage. Not to mention the fact that shouldn’t have to be mentioned: women have a sex drive too. The assumption that male pleasure and temptation was somehow always an issue and female pleasure and temptation somehow just doesn’t exist was something I found passively insulting, to say the least.
Not that I wanted to break our mutually-enforced rule of chastity either – despite my libido, my convictions about sex before marriage are still stronger than my sex drive. But, there is something in both secular society and religious culture that acts as though self-control doesn’t exist as a thing.That the only way to explain abstinence is by absence of desire.
While no one ever asked me if I minded going without sex, there were several who asked me if I thought my boyfriend might be gay. Again, not having sex is all about the male party….but this question is one that betrays the assumption that not having sex is only possible if one doesn’t want it. There does not seem to be a narrative in either the church or the world in which two people can very much want it, but for one reason or another decide not to do it – while being alone in a room together.
Is it possible? Definitely yes. Is it ideal? No. I wholeheartedly affirm that ideally – two people have a marriage covenant together and can let their wildest sexual pleasures and fantasies with each other find a whole range of beautiful expression, while having babies and providing emotional security with one another, in the context of the joyous partnership of sharing a home.
But we live in a world that is not always ideal,
where sometimes the only person who loves and cares enough for you to keep you off the street or help you find your way is someone of the opposite sex whom you are not yet married to. I’m grateful for the love shown during our confusing relationship of non-marital cohabitation, and for the commitment to abstinence that both of us held on to. And I sincerely hope that as I go on from here, I can be open about this part of my past – even though it hardly counts as a “past” – without being seen as not-really-a-serious-Christian because of it. Although doubtlessly, that will be the case for some.
(I should add that we eventually found a faith community to be part of that was non-charismatic but accepted our situation without misjudging our situation, and yet offered us pastoral counseling in the midst of it.)
I’m just one person at a conference with many sessions that will run at the same time, so understandably, some sessions I wont be able to cover. But check back here often for updates as I live-blog this conference, below! 🙂
The conference starts at 6:30pm Houston time, Wednesday March 29th, and will go until Friday March 31st evening.
You can also livestream the video of the conference for a fee – go to http://www.biologos.org and click on events or conferences or somesuch to find out more. 🙂
Here’s the space (or it might be a link), below, where there will be an ever-updating log of the events and teaching that I capture to text at this conference: //v.24liveblog.com/live/?id=1381892