LOSING THE THREAD: HOW BAD THEOLOGY THREATENS THE CHURCH
Lately, some people—I, among them—have despaired as the churches we grew up with have slid into right wing politics. It’s not just that a vast majority of people who identify as evangelicals voted for Donald Trump (according to exit polls, it’s somewhere between 76% and 81%), it’s that many in this majority seem less tolerant of those who differ with them. An angry spirit has seized churches, exacerbated by the COVID epidemic. The anger seems to have little to do with faith and much with politics. In fact, many who identify as evangelical in polls do not even attend church. Their faith is caught up with the politics of grievance and division. It’s my rights against yours—especially if you are someone of a different race or form a different country. Where in all of this are the teachings of the Galilean we profess to be the Son of God?
The move in evangelical churches to politics has been a long time coming. The story is well-chronicled in books like Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2020) and Katherine Stewart’s The Power Worshipers (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019). It’s a story less of faith than of power or, better, the way faith has been put in the service of power. But it’s not that story I wish to tell here. Underlying that story is another, a story of how the church has thinned the gospel, and by thinning the gospel, has permitted the church and the faith to become a shadow of itself. What’s called “Christianity,” even (or especially) in the most conservative of churches, has come to be something quite distant from the faith of the New Testament.
Where to begin? I’ll not attempt to do much in the way of a historical sketch in this piece. Instead, I’ll begin with a core question: What does it mean to be saved? In many churches, it has come to mean something like signing up to go to heaven. The “Four Spiritual Laws” created by Campus Crusade (now Cru) founder Bill Bright in the 1950s remains a distilled version of this approach to the Christian gospel. Bright’s four “laws” are (from the Cru website in 1950’s male-oriented language):
- God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.
- Man is sinful and separated from God. Therefore, he cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life.
- Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin. Through Him you can know and experience God’s love and plan for your life.
- We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.
In the same pamphlet , the way to sign up for all this is offered as a prayer to be recited by the person who wishes to “receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior”:
Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be. (https://campusministry.org/docs/tools/FourSpiritualLaws.pdf)
This salesman’s approach to faith does not mention heaven or hell, but it’s the context of the entire approach, as the reference to “eternal life” in the prayer hints. It’s at least part of the content behind the language about “God’s plan for your life.” The pamphlet cites several biblical texts which, taken out of context, seem to suggest that the Christian faith is about what happens after we die (John 3:16, Romans 6:23, and 1 John 3:11-13). In this approach, one accesses heaven by sincerely praying the prayer. Absent that, and one is doomed to eternal death—to hell.
In my experience many Christians understand something like this to be the actual gospel: We are sinners, not just because we have sinned, but because our primordial ancestor Adam sinned, and because we are sinners, we are condemned to hell. Christ died for the sake of our sin, but we only access this grace by believing in him, which in practice means that we must first hear this account of the gospel and then assent to it. Often this last is, as in the Four Spiritual Laws booklet, represented as simply praying a prayer like the one cited above.
This version of the gospel puts great pressure on Christians with any sense of compassion for others. If they—all the “theys” of the world—never hear the gospel, they are rendered unable to respond to it and are, presumably, condemned to hell. They are “lost,” in the language of the evangelical faith. This burden falls especially heavily on preachers. I have been asked many times to preach an “evangelistic” sermon at a funeral, because there might be “lost people” there. The whole point of the church is taken to be getting the lost to sign up for salvation.
But take a step back from this. Does it make theological or moral sense? What kind of God would condemn people to heaven or hell on the basis of whether they heard and then believed a certain truth? And, to push this a bit farther, what kind of God would require for my forgiveness the death of God’s own Son? What’s happening here is that biblical themes have been subtly and sometimes not so subtly bent, and in the bending the good news has been turned into a parody of itself, and in the process the gospel has been lost.
Not only lost but robbed of power. If faith is about agreeing to Bright’s “laws,” then it has little to do with life. It becomes, well, fire insurance, a ticket to ride. And such a faith lacks the resources to draw people into the riches of the Christ-life. It’s not transformational. People claim to be Christians—after all, they’ve prayed the prayer—but they have little acquaintance with the ways of Jesus: with what he taught, with whom he is, with what it means to follow him. In New Testament terms, the Spirit of Christ has not entered them. And so they are prey to the false gospels of power and privilege.
What’s happens in this version of the gospel is that two (and perhaps more) central Christian teachings have slid from their New Testament (and church) moorings into something quite different. The two I have in mind are resurrection and faith. The central Christian teaching of resurrection has slid into the idea of heaven—an idea mostly foreign to the New Testament. And the New Testament teaching on faith has slid into belief, which is part of faith but not its core. Let’s take up these claims in order, first, resurrection, and then, faith.
Heaven does make its appearance in the New Testament but only in passing. Most of the time, the word “heaven” in the Bible means either “sky” or God’s abode (that which is beyond the sky). Sometimes, it even means “God,” as in Matthew’s translation of “kingdom of God” in the preaching of Jesus. Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, apparently thought it improper to name God and instead, as was the custom, substituted “heaven.” “Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew) is the same as “kingdom of God” (Mark and Luke). None of that has much to do with our concept of heaven as a paradise prepared for those who have died.
The references to the paradisical sense of heaven are few. The parable of Jesus about Dives (by tradition, he’s not actually named in the text) and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 is sometimes cited as a picture of heaven. If it is, it’s a distressing one. Dives, in torment, sees Lazarus resting in Abraham’s lap, and the two, Dives and Abraham, talk. It’s clear that this is not a lesson in the geography of heaven and hell. It’s a story, a story ultimately about whether people will be persuaded to change their ways by the resurrection of Jesus. The sad answer is that they won’t.
On the cross, also in Luke (23:39-43), one of the criminals hung on crosses with Jesus mocks him, but the other defends Jesus. In response, Jesus says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise,” using the Persian word for a garden, long since loaned into Hebrew and Greek. It’s one of only three times the word “paradise” is used in the New Testament. The others are in reference to the vision of Paul when he was transported to the “third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4) and on the lips of the risen Christ in the book of Revelation in reference to the Garden of Eden (Revelation 2:7).
One also might cite the visions of the book of Revelation set in heaven, but these are clearly symbolic and not meant to be descriptive. And Paul refers a few times to the idea of being “with the Lord” after death, as in Philippians 1:23 and 2 Corinthians 5:1-4. Heaven in these and other New Testament passages seems transitional, a space between death and new life. Clearly, our concept of heaven as the place where the dead go and stay is not central to the New Testament proclamation. Nor, for that matter, is hell (on this last, see David Bentley Hart’s recent book, That All Shall Be Saved. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).
What is central to the New Testament is resurrection: first, the resurrection of Jesus and then our own resurrection. What’s the difference between the conventional idea of heaven and the New Testament proclamation of resurrection? Continuity. Resurrection is continuous with life as we know it—our earthly life; heaven is not.
We could think of this in terms of rewards, although resurrection is not precisely a reward, as heaven is often thought to be. There are external rewards—rewards external to an activity—and intrinsic rewards. If the activity is tennis, a game I love, the intrinsic rewards are in playing well, hitting, for example, that perfect backhand down the line against a good opponent. An external reward would be winning a bet placed on the match. It has nothing to do with the game.
Heaven as imagined in popular theology is usually thought to be an external reward. As a matter of fact, this is emphasized in evangelical theology: heaven is not earned but granted as a gift—a reward of sorts. Because there is no intrinsic connection between life and heaven, we are free to think of heaven in wish fulfillment terms. We make up our scenarios of heaven on the basis of what we would like to see and have: streets of gold, mansions, harps (harps? Not in my heaven). The perverse reversal of this idea is that heaven makes no difference to life, and so you have Christians (and people of other faiths that have heavens) who care little about what the faith teaches. What you do on earth doesn’t matter, what matters is heaven.
Resurrection is the opposite of this. Resurrection is intrinsically connected to earthly life. To capture that thought, instead of turning to the great, go-to passage about resurrection in the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 15 (“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not raised. And if Christ is not raised, then our message is empty, and so is our faith”–that passage) Instead, I’ll turn to Philippians 3, keeping in mind also the 8th chapter of Romans, which covers some of the same territory.
In Paul’s thought, resurrection is connected to righteousness. The deep background here is the literature of the Maccabean revolt in which for the first time in the biblical tradition resurrection is broached as a subject (see Daniel 12:2 and 2 Maccabees 7). Resurrection is the reward for the righteous, for those who suffer persecution and remain faithful. God will not leave such people in the dust (as Daniel 12:2 has it) but raise them up.
It’s this the rich young man in the gospel story asks Jesus about. In the Matthew version of the story, he asks, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to have eternal life?” (19:13). He’s asking Jesus if he needs to be heroic in the way the Maccabean martyrs were heroic. He is disappointed in Jesus’s answer, perhaps not because it is too hard but because it is too easy.
The New Testament maintains the connection between resurrection and righteousness but with an important shift: the righteousness that leads to resurrection is no longer my own but the righteousness of Jesus Christ. It’s this idea that Paul develops in Philippians 3. Building on the Christ hymn in chapter 2 (6-11; “He poured himself out, taking the form of a slave”), Paul portrays the Christian life as giving up his (our) own righteousness in order to gain the righteousness of Jesus (3:7-9).
Here a theological mistake is often made. It is supposed that the righteousness of Jesus has nothing to do with how I live. In the language of the Four Spiritual Laws, we “receive” it, but it’s extrinsic to my way of life. But this is not at all what Paul is saying in Philippians 3. Note how he goes on from the thought that he has gladly given up on his own righteousness to “to be found in him, not having my own righteousness in the keeping of Torah but that which comes through the faithfulness of Christ, the God-provided righteousness by faith” (3:9). He moves immediately to a description of what that faithful life looks like: it is “to know that which belongs to him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, so somehow that I might arrive at the resurrection of the dead.”
There you have it. The righteousness of Christ is not simply gift—or a payment to God in the perverse theology of penal substitutionary atonement—but a way, a life. Faith is not in the first place belief but a trust in the faithfulness of God and in the way of Jesus Christ. It’s a way into righteousness, which is never our righteousness but always the righteousness of Jesus Christ. And yet we are invited, called, to participate in this righteousness, to make it our own, to know it.
The New Testament says this over and over. Take the Last Discourse in John 14. Jesus says, “If someone loves me, they will keep my word [lógos], and my father will love them, and we will come to them and make our dwelling with them” (14:23). It’s in participation in the way of Christ (keeping his instructions) that we experience indwelling of God, Father, Son, and Spirit. Faith is in the doing of it. It’s not in getting it entirely right, of course, but it is in the doing of it that we come to know Christ and to experience in our lives the resurrecting power of the Spirit (on this see, Romans 8:9-11). It’s not belief, although belief comes in trusting that this way is true and reliable.
The tragedy of the contemporary church in many instances is that it has lost this robust idea of faith and substituted for it a thin tissue of belief—mere assent rather than a transformational life. And with this, not resurrection, which is the transformation not only of our bodies but of the earth itself, but merely heaven, justly criticized as “pie in the sky bye and bye.” It is little wonder that the church has lost its way, swayed more by power and politics than the cross and resurrection of Jesus. We have, in the words of 2 Timothy, “the form of religion but deny the power of it” (3:5).