THE HUMAN PLIGHT
Before one can be clear about a solution, one must be clear about the problem. Or, to put this in theological terms, one’s view of salvation must be closely tied to one’s view of what’s gone wrong.
For the past few posts, I’ve been looking at what the Bible has to say about the problem, what the great New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann called “the human plight.” If one is to understand what the Bible has to say about the solution, one must be clear about the biblical view of the human plight. And clear how the Bible’s portrayal of the human plight helps to explain life as we know it. Our theology should make sense of what is going on around us today.
Mostly, it doesn’t. My complaint in earlier posts has been that evangelical theology—the sort of theology that one finds preached in many churches, including sometimes those of a Reformed bent—has simplified or, worse, falsified what the Bible has to say about evil, and in doing so has lost the connection between the Bible and life.
Instead of a theology based on and in the Bible (or, for that matter, on and in the historic Christian faith) much popular religion has made Christianity into a heaven and hell faith. Especially hell, it seems. I’ve noticed lately a strange fear among pastors that the church doesn’t seem to be keeping the fires of hell hot enough, and that it—hell—is slipping from the core of the church’s preaching. I confess that I find this fear hard to fathom.
In the religion of heaven and hell, of course, the problem facing us is getting into the one and not falling into the other. It’s not about this life—not mostly—but about the life to come. In this way of thinking, humans incurred guilt through Adam and are therefore destined to burn in hell regardless of how they live their lives. The solution provided is the cross of Jesus Christ construed as a payment, a satisfaction, to God, and accessed through believing in Jesus.
As a summary of the religion of heaven and hell, this is perhaps a bit brisk, but I hope it gets at the essential features of this faith. Two problems immediately present themselves. One is the inconvenient fact that almost none of it is actually biblical. I’ve argued this before, and I’ll say no more about it here except to note that N. T. Wright says much the same thing in his big Paul book (Paul and the Faithfulness of God). Commenting on Paul specifically and the theologies of Paul’s era generally, he says that “Neither the average pagan, nor the average Jew, was walking around worrying about how their soul might get to a disembodied heaven after they died.” Nor should we, he implies. But this is precisely what the average evangelical worries about, if not for herself or himself, then for his or her neighbor. Evangelism is fueled by this anxiety. It serves the institution.
A second related problem with this theology is that it effectively divorces faith from life. If faith has mainly to do with getting into heaven and avoiding hell, then what I do now with my life is not of great importance. Life is short; eternity long. And because this is true, the followers of this faith become easy marks for charlatans of all sorts. They claim Jesus as their savior, but they fail to follow Jesus as their teacher and guide. For that, they turn to pastors and politicians who are very much not just in this world but of it, often with disastrous results. “Christian,” unfortunately, has lately become a byword for bigot.
THE BIBLE AND EVIL
If we are to reclaim what the Bible says about salvation, we must reclaim what the Bible says about evil. What the Bible tells us about evil (and what we know ourselves from long experience) is that evil is complex. Genesis 1-11 alone gives us at least five takes on how humans go wrong: Genesis 3 with the human passion for forbidden knowledge; Genesis 4 with the way competition between brothers (and religions) turns toxic; Genesis 6 with the illicit contact between the divine world and the human world; Genesis 6 a second time with the perversity of the human heart (the evil yester); and Genesis 11 with the pretensions of empire to unite humanity. All of these were written against the background of and in dialogue with the literature of the broader culture. Each of them, if read carefully, has much to teach us about evil in our own time.
But these Genesis passages are only the beginning of the analysis of evil in the Bible. One of the most suggestive of the biblical takes on evil is found in the book of Colossians. This letter makes much of the “powers” (see 1:13, 16; 2:8, 10, 15, 20). The powers in Colossian theology are both spiritual and sociological. To take account of the powers, one must approach them both from below, in human terms, and from above, in spiritual terms.
As an example, Take Nazi Germany. In the theology of Colossians, Nazi Germany can only partially be understood politically or sociologically. How did such evil come to exist? All sorts of explanations have been suggested, everything from the upbringing of Adolf Hitler to the effect of the Treaty of Versailles on the German economy. These explanations each have their contribution to make. But none of them by itself nor all of them together are adequate. In taking account of evil, one must also take account of the spiritual dimension. Our language fails us in these matters, but it’s not wrong to speak of a spirit that animated Nazism and drove it into great evil.
And this is true not only of malevolent movements like Nazism but of every human enterprise. Political states are powers. Corporations are powers. Educational institutions are powers. Colossians says that the powers were created by God through and for Christ (1:16). They are capable of good. But their goodness has too often turned rancid. As Ephesians has it, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12; on the powers see Walter Wink, Naming the Powers, and his other books in the same series).
Anyone who contemplates the complex of good and evil in social media enterprises like Facebook will soon grasp what the author of Ephesians is talking about. We human beings are caught in the matrix of the powers. We participate in them, belong to them, are subject to them and to both their good and their evil, and we can’t escape them.
It’s this reality of the powers that makes living a righteous life so difficult as an individual. Say, I want to live as a ṣaddîq (the Old Testament term for a righteous person), and I have decided as part of my practice of ṣedeqâ (righteousness, justice) no longer to contribute to the dissemination of plastics into our environment, where they poison land, air, and water. But soon I discover that this commitment on my part will be difficult or impossible to keep. Plastics are a kind of power. In the modern world in which we live almost everything is packaged in plastics. Or made of plastic. What does the sāddîq do? The power of plastics is greater than the power of any righteous person. And this is no trivial matter. Participating in the world of plastics means serving powers that threaten not only your life and mine but all life on earth.
When the powers turn toxic, there are consequences. The consequences are what the Bible usually means by “divine wrath.” As the Apostle Paul has it in Romans 1:18: “Divine wrath is being revealed from heaven against all human irreligion and injustice . . ..” We are caught, caught in a matrix of evil that now threatens to bring down life on earth. Unless we contemplate and confront evil at this level, anything we say about a solution will seem only pie in the sky by and by.
If this is the human plight, what hope does the Bible give us? Does the Bible have anything to say to evil as we actually encounter it in the world around us? The answer, I think, is yes. The Bible in fact gives two answers, as I’ve already said, one provisional and one promised. These two answers work together, but for our purposes in these posts, it’s best to separate them.
I’ll take them up one at a time, focusing in the remainder of this post on the first, provisional, answer, and in a subsequent post, one the second, promised, answer.
THE PROVISIONAL SOLUTION
So how does the Bible approach the solution to the problem of human evil? The way I’ve phrased the question is of course reductionistic; the Bible has many things to say in many places, but here I’m asking about what we could call “the narrative heart” of the Bible. Leaving aside such books as Job and Ecclesiastes and much in the prophets, we get our first hint of the biblical approach to evil in the Genesis stories of the patriarchs.
As I mentioned above, the first part of Genesis is about who we are as human beings. They are stories about both human possibility and the human plight. The pivot from those stories to the stories of the patriarch begins already in Genesis 8 and 9. Up to this point (in the J account of creation), Yhwh has been tinkering with the human race—tinkering with it by introducing the animals and then gender and then the harsh world outside of the garden and more—but now, after the flood, Yhwh stops tinkering and promises to sustain human life, though nothing about human nature has changed from before the flood. It remains true after the flood that “Every impulse of the human heart is evil from youth” (8:21; see before flood, 6:5-6)), but the tinkering done, God guarantees the physical order (see 8:22 and 9:8-11), appears to step back, and allows humans to be, well, human.
This does not mean that Yhwh has abandoned humanity. Instead, Yhwh approaches the peril the human race from a different vantage. He introduces something new. It comes at the beginning of Genesis 12. What’s new is the call, the call heard first by Abram, soon to be Abraham. It’s this call that presents the first and provisional answer to problem of human evil.
THE GOD WHO PUSHES AND THE GOD WHO PULLS
Some time ago I came to distinguish two ways that God is presented in the Bible: the God who pushes and the God who pulls. The language is not particularly elegant, but it frames an important difference. The God who pushes is the God who is behind things, behind, say, creation or the commandments, the God who causes things to happen. For many people, this is the only God they know. For this God, we look back to the beginning. We ask, what has God set in motion? We talk about “the creation order.”
But there is another way to think about God, equally biblical: the God who pulls. For this God you look not towards the beginning but to the end. This God does not command so much as summon, calling us relentlessly into God’s own future. It’s this God we meet in Genesis 12 when God calls Abram/Abraham and his family toward something entirely new.
The call as we find it in Genesis 12:1-3 has three components. I was tempted, with a nod to old preachers who always made their sermon points alliterate, to name them with three P’s, Parting, Partial, and Purpose, but it doesn’t quite work and it misses the larger point I’m trying to make, which is that the call, whenever it comes, however it comes, always has the same structure.
The divine call is, first, a call to move away from something or from somewhere. For Abraham (I’ll use the later name for convenience), the call requires him to move away from place and family (Genesis 12:1). And, perhaps, more importantly, away from Mesopotamian culture, the dominant culture of the time. This is the point of the emphasis in the text on his being from Ur, one of the founding cities of the culture, and Harran, an important trading city at the edge of the culture (11:31). The call creates a separation.
This separation is caught up in the Bible with the concept of chosenness (election), which never means chosen to be saved (or not saved), as it has come to mean in some Reformed theology but rather chosen for a role and a purpose. What’s important here is a sense of the particularity of the call. The call comes not to everyone but to Abraham. He is set aside for something.
A second feature of the call is that it is open-ended. The ultimate destination is not entirely clear. Yhwh says to Abraham, “Go from your land, your clan, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (12:1). One could read the Bible as a progressive revealing of what “the land [God] will show you” comes to. The understanding of “land” progresses over the course of the Bible from the concrete (“the land of Canaan”) to the eschatological (“kingdom of God,” “new Jerusalem,” “new creation”). Those called will always be stretched to see more of what this “land” looks like.
The third feature of the call is purpose. In the call of Abraham, purpose comes in two forms: immediate and final. The immediate purpose is the prosperity of the family of Abraham. They will flourish and burgeon: “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great.”
But there is more. There is another, more distant purpose: that “in [Abraham]” or, better, “by [Abraham], all the clans of the earth will be blessed” (12:3b). The final purpose is to bless all humanity. I might add that the call to Abraham will also be divisive: “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you” (12:3a), a theme that is very much part of this tradition but not one I can develop here.
For each of these elements of the call, there is potential peril attached to it. For the first, those who are chosen to respond to the call may come to suppose that the call is for them alone and not for the sake of the human race. The Bible is replete with examples of this mistake.
A second is that those who are called will suppose that they have arrived at the ultimate destination: Canaan, say, or the monarchy or the Torah or Reformed theology or whatever form of religion you grew up with. Once the people of God stop looking for what God is showing them next, the faith grows stagnant, concerned less about where God is calling than about what is comfortable.
A third peril is that those are called begin to believe that the attendant blessing of God is about their success. What’s forgotten is that this sort of success is at best a marker on the way to what is ultimately the purpose of God’s call: the flourishing of the human race and, with it, all creation.
All of this may seem a little too neat and tidy—the Bible is a whole lot messier, as you know—but I wanted to get the concept of the call before you as efficiently as I can. But now, let me complicate it a bit. In the Bible, the call comes first to Abraham, and then to Israel, and then to the faithful remnant of Israel, and, passing over into the New Testament, to Jesus (more on this below and in the next post), and last to those who follow Jesus, including us.
What I’ve just sketched is the canonical line, but the Bible hints there is more. Take the 10th chapter of John. Jesus, in the voice of the Logos, speaks of the mysteries of the call. He says, “I am the good shepherd. I know those who are mine, and they know me.” And then he adds, “Other sheep I also have who are not of this fold, and I also must lead them. They will hear my voice, and they will become one flock, one shepherd.”
There is much in this paragraph that is left to mystery—how, for example, the sheep know the voice of the shepherd (I’ll come back to this)—but it’s suggestive of a larger vision, of people called outside what we regard as the main channels of God’s choosing, people like Melchizedek and Rahab and the Ethiopian eunuch and others. It suggests that the call of God resonates in the world in which we live, and people who have trained their ears to listen will hear it, hear at least fragments of it, people of different faiths and different backgrounds.
Think of this as an act of creation. Picture it in terms of Genesis 2, the J creation story. In fact, I think this is what the storyteller has in mind all along. Yhwh shapes the form of the first human out of the dust of the earth. The dust is our human DNA, our biological composition. As we know, our DNA encodes our evolutionary history. Marked there is much that is brutish, those characteristics that helped us survive in a kill and eat world. But now God leans over this creature and breathes into it. The breath of God is not the soul—nothing of that in the text. It’s the call. We, the human race, awaken to what’s more—to what’s beyond our biology. The God who breathes into us—who calls us—is not the God who pushes but the God who pulls. God, standing as it were, at the end of history, summons the human race: “Come,” God says, “I have much to show you.”
And so, if we are to hear the summons of God, we must listen, not only to the voice of our tradition but also to others who speak of hearing the call of God, listening for what they hear. The John 10:14-16 passage tells us is that in the end it is all the same call: “one flock, one shepherd.” There is much more to say about this, but I haven’t the space in this already much too-long post. Let me add only this: the call is always Christ-shaped. It bears the shape of the love that pours itself out for others. It’s in this voice that the sheep recognize the shepherd.
The response to the call is faith. Faith is not in this instance what we usually call “belief.” It’s not an intellectual proposition. It’s what Genesis says of Abraham and what Paul puts at the center of his own theology (Romans 4): “[Abraham] trusted [Yhwh’s promise], and it was counted for him as righteousness” (see Romans 4:3). Faith means trusting one’s life to the call, believing that there is more to life than what we see, following the star in the direction that God leads. Our righteousness is our openness to the call.
How is this a solution to evil? It’s not, but it’s a start. That’s why I have called it the “provisional” answer. It’s an awakening. We are called like Abraham to trust it. Trusting it means living by it. We are also called—this is the purpose of the people of God, whether Israel or the church—to awaken others. We are to be those who, in our gatherings, cup our ears and say to those around us, we have heard wonderful things: you listen, too. And then we must listen even harder, not just to what we hear, but to what they hear.
I recognize that this call seems entirely inadequate to the power of evil. Indeed, it is. This is why at the center of our faith is the cross. But as the cross teaches us, what looks like failure is not always failure. It may well be something more. Much more. That thought points us in another direction, to the second part of the biblical solution to evil, but that will have to wait until the next post.