When ‘Penal Substitution’ rears its ugly head. . .

If you find yourself in a room full of theologians and/or pastors, you can probably gather a lot about their personalities and beliefs by asking one simple question: What Atonement Theory do you subscribe to?

Take this little gem for example:

For those of you who don’t know, John Piper is the controversial preacher, author, and founder of Desiring God Ministries. He’s known for making bold and scary claims about God and his wrath, and this tweet is no exception.

Piper subscribes to what is known as the Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement.

I should probably back up a bit because I bet half of you are wondering what an atonement theory even is.

For starters, let’s define atonement. Atonement is the sacrificial death of King Jesus on our behalf. When King Jesus died, he atoned for (made amends for) the sins of the world.

Now, atonement theory is essentially a stream of thought that attempts to answer a few questions simultaneously. First, why was the atonement necessary (beyond simply that mankind needed salvation from sin)? Second, what took place “behind the scenes,” as it were, when King Jesus died? Third, what is the nature of the transaction that took place at the time of King Jesus’ death? Fourth, how does his death reconcile humanity to God?

There is a wide range of atonement theories, and I don’t think any single one of them hits the mark completely, nor does any single theory miss the mark completely. I have very few misgivings about most theories, with the exception of one: Penal Substitution.

Piper subscribes to the Penal Substitution theory, and that subscription can be seen in statements like the above tweet.

Penal Substitution (or perhaps, more accurately, the popularized version of Penal Substitution accepted by the modern evangelical church, particularly the branches dominated by the “new calvinists”) presents the picture of a God who is angry with humanity, and in order satiate his anger, he must punish humanity. Instead of punishing humanity however, his Son steps in and takes on that punishment.

Is God so juvenile that he needs to be satiated? This theory gives off the image of God as an angry, drunken child abuser who’s so pissed off at his children that he has to beat them senseless.

And then the Piper quote.

God isn’t a child abuser. He’s a wife beater.

But this doesn’t line up with the God that I read about in the Bible. Humanity is not God’s enemy. Humanity is the very thing God is trying to rescue. He’s not angry with us; he’s angry with sin.

Sin is the universal invader, destroying the home that God built, tearing his children apart, and breaking apart his goodness.

God doesn’t have wrath against his wife. (If you didn’t catch the metaphor, his “wife” is the Church—the universal collection of believers.) He didn’t pour out any wrath on his Son Jesus either. Jesus came to pay the debt that we owe to our slaver. Sin owned us, and Jesus came to buy us back. But we owed sin our lives, and so Jesus came to pay with his life instead of ours.

Stories. . .

I love stories.

I believe that stories are the most powerful ways to convey truths. To be honest though, I’m not very good at crafting stories. I enjoy writing, even creatively, but for some reason I haven’t been able to tap into that ever so elusive great story.

That’s not to say that I haven’t written any stories. During my undergraduate years I wrote numerous stories for my short-story writing, novel writing, and script writing classes.

Maybe I exhausted all my awesome story ideas in college. Or maybe I’m just a lazy writer.

But I digress.

I bring up stories because I’ve begun seeing Scripture as a story. Not as a divine rulebook by which Christians are supposed to structure their lives. Certainly not as a message that contains the cypher through which we can unlock the mysteries of the future.

It is a narrative. A story, if you will, of a God who is trying to break into human history and reveal to his creation just how much he loves us.

He speaks our languages, he steps into our worlds, and he endures our hardships. This is a God who yearns to know and be known by his creation. It’s a beautiful tale. It’s a wonderful, compelling, and powerful story.

But here’s where things start to get a bit messy. Very little of this story is historically accurate by our standards of accuracy.

I know. Let that settle for a bit. I realize I just screwed with your mind a bit. I probably made you uncomfortable, maybe even angry.

I’ll say it again because I probably live under the delusion that repeating myself will make you believe me more. Very little of this story is historically accurate by our standards of accuracy.

It’s important that we understand this fact because it will help us alleviate a lot of the weird tensions that exist when we read the Bible. For example, there are confounding and inexplicable discrepancies—contradictions, even—among the four accounts of the Gospel.

That’s not even mentioning the frightening notion that God ordered the slaughter of an entire race of people (the Canaanites) for no other apparent reason than that they were occupying territory that he wanted to give to Israel.

This is perfect justification for Richard Dawkins’ scathing rebuke of God. This “God of love” needlessly commits genocide multiple times throughout the Old Testament.

Christians have quite a few ways of reconciling this atrocity. I’ll just list a few. (I have to thank Peter Enns and his book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It for most, if not all, of what’s in the next few paragraphs.)

One way Christians try to explain this is by appealing to God’s sovereignty. He’s God. We’re not. Stop questioning him.

But at the end of the day, is that really the kind of God you want to serve? Is that the kind of God you feel compelled to talk about? Is that good news to a dying world? Get under God’s good graces or he’ll be angry with you and send you to eternal damnation!

As Enns puts it, “This really isn’t a solution, anyway. It’s simply restating the problem: God orders his subjects to kill Canaanites. The question remains, “Why is God acting like Zeus or a fascist dictator?”

Enns continues, and so will we.

Another way Christians try to explain this is by comparing Canaanite slaughter to eternal damnation. Basically, why is killing Canaanites such a terrible thing when Jesus talks about throwing people into hell for all eternity?

Unfortunately, this doesn’t explain things either. As Enns and other scholars, writers, and theologians have pointed out, the modern Catholic and Evangelical idea of “hell” is rather outdated and has more in common with medieval notions of the afterlife than what Jesus was actually referring to.

Be that as it may, Jesus’ references to “hell” weren’t statements about “hell” at all. He was using the term Gehenna, which was a Greek word translated from the Hebrew phrase that means “Valley of Hinnom.”

The prophet Jeremiah (who’s my personal favorite prophet for some reason) talked about the Valley of Hinnom. Here’s what he had to say:

The people of Judah have done what displeases me, declares the Lord. They have corrupted the temple that bears my name by setting up their disgusting idols. They have built shrines at Topheth in the Ben-hinnom Valley to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, although I never commanded such a thing, nor did it ever cross my mind.

Did you catch that? The Valley of Hinnom was where the Israelites were sacrificing their children to foreign gods.

Later in that passage, Jeremiah pronounces judgment on those that committed child sacrifice. Their corpses would rot in the Valley of Hinnom.

Jesus knows his audience and uses this symbolism to describe what would happen to those who reject God’s Messiah. And that very thing happened less than a century after Jesus left this earth.

Anyway, we’re off topic now. In a nutshell, what Jesus was talking about when we think he’s talking about throwing people into hell is not at all what he’s really talking about.

Enns writes, “‘Hell’ doesn’t get God off the hook because it’s off topic.”

(There’s actually an incredibly beautiful story about Jesus’ interaction with the only “Canaanite” mentioned in the New Testament. It’s kind of relevant to this topic, but it will take us down a rabbit trail, so I’ll save it for another post.)

One final way (there are several more, but I’ll stop at three) that Christians try to justify Canaanite genocide (or any atrocity that’s attributed to God) is by saying something like, “We have to balance God’s darker side in Scripture with his merciful, gracious side.”

Umm. . . really? Would you say that about anyone else? Sure, your honor, that guy murdered people, but you have to balance that out with all the good he’s done. He donates to charity, cares for sick people, and recycles. In light of all that, can you really sentence him to a life in prison just for a few murders?

Here’s where things need to shift. (I promised in my previous post an avenue for reconciling “angry Old-Testament God” with “gracious New-Testament Jesus,” and I’m about to deliver, but I have a feeling you might not like it.)

Something we need to keep in mind when we read Scripture is that every word was written by someone who lived in a completely different world than we do and who spoke an entirely different language than we do.

And by language I don’t simply mean syntax, words, grammar, etc. I mean an entirely different way of communicating thoughts and ideas, prejudices and beliefs. The ancient Israelites did not recount events the way we do. They didn’t value the same things that we do.

In other words, it’s entirely likely (probable, in fact) that God never told the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites.

The Israelites were an ancient tribal people who lived among other ancient peoples. All the nations surrounding them had epic origin tales, and Israel had to tell their story.

I won’t go into all the historical-archeological detail, but just understand this: while these events aren’t historically accurate by our standards of accuracy, they are still 100% true. The truth is in what these stories are trying to convey.

Here’s what I see when I read these stories. I see a God who allows his children to tell their stories. I see a God who allows his character to evolve through the pages of the Bible because his creation is evolving in its understanding of who he is.

And then Jesus steps onto the scene. God is no longer simply the centerpiece of Israel’s mythology and religion. He is no longer bound by ancient storytelling and oral traditions. No, God has stepped into the world and transcended mere language. God has become more than just part of Israel’s story. He has become a Man. And that Man has become our King.

Our good, wise, loving, self-sacrificing, and perfect. . . King.

What God is like. . .

I’ve occasionally been accused of making a big deal out of small things. For example, as was evident from my ebook, I made a fairly big deal out of the Calvinism-vs-non-Calvinism thing.

There’s a reason for my “soapboxing” though. It responds to the question, “What is God like?”

Is God angry, vengeful, and misogynistic? Is he genocidal and vindictive?

If we take descriptions of him seriously (particularly those that paint him as the kind of God that would randomly wipe out an entire race of people simply because they were occupying the territory that he wanted to give to his chosen race), do we come to the conclusion that he’s the kind of God that is so angry at his people, his Son has to appease that anger by sacrificing himself on humanity’s behalf?

How then can we say with confidence that “God is love”?

Is the God we trust to rescue us the same God who ordered the killing of the entire population of Canaan, including the women and children?

Can we trust God to rescue us if he is also in absolute control of everything, including those events that hurt us, destroy us, and even cause us to commit unspeakable atrocities?

I would submit that no, we don’t trust a God who ordered the slaughter of entire people groups. We don’t put our faith in a God who dictates and determines the evils that exist in the world.

I’ll wait for my next post to provide thoughts regarding how to reconcile what we see about God in the Christian Old Testament with the type of Man we see in Jesus. But for now, let’s just take a moment to look at what Jesus shows us about God.

We see a God who heals the sick.

We see a God who feeds the hungry.

We see a God who welcomes children.

We see a God who spends time with the broken and marginalized.

Jesus’ death wasn’t to appease the anger of his Father, it was to show us just how far God was willing to go in order to rescue his children from captivity.

Jesus’ outstretched arms call out to us as he breathes his last, “This is how much I love you.”

That’s the kind of God who rescues us.

That is what God is like.

New eBook. . .

My essay that was once titled “An Irenic Rebuttal of the TULIP Soteriological Schema
 or
 Why I’m Not a Calvinist” has been renamed and converted into an eBook!

coverIt’s now called Deconstructing TULIP: A Former Calvinist Examines Calvinism’s Soteriology, and you can download it by clicking here.

Enjoy!

He is worthy. . .

I saw that there was a scroll in the right hand of the one sitting on the throne. The scroll was written on the inside and the outside, and it was sealed with seven seals. I saw a strong angel announcing in a loud voice, “Does anybody deserve to open the scroll, to undo its seals?” And nobody in heaven or on the earth or under the earth could open the scroll or look at it. I burst into tears because it seemed that there was nobody who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside it. One of the elders, however, spoke to me. “Don’t cry,” he said. “Look! The lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has won the victory! He can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

~ Revelation 5:1-5, TKNT

Then, in between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain. It had seven horns and seven eyes, which are God’s seven spirits, sent out into the whole earth. He came forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the one seated on the throne. When he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each held a harp and gold bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They took up a new song, saying,

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and open its seals,
because you were slain,
and by your blood
you purchased for God
persons from every tribe, language,
people, and nation.

You made them a kingdom and priests
to our God,
and they will rule on earth.”

~ Revelation 5:6-10, CEB

I think we’ve all said (or heard it said) at some point in our lives, “Jesus is worthy of my worship.” It’s a nice sentiment, but I sometimes find myself asking, “Why is he worthy of my worship?”

Is it simply because he is God, and that’s how it should be? We’re supposed to worship God, right? That’s just the way things are. We’re finite, and God is infinite. He’s infinitely powerful, infinitely just, and infinitely holy, so that in itself is motivation for worshiping him.

The book of Revelation is admittedly a very difficult book. And that’s okay. Apocalyptic literature is never easy to figure out, but I don’t think that means we shouldn’t wrestle with it. Here’s what I (and by “I,” I mean, “theologians and scholars that I currently agree with”) think is going on here.

First question: What’s the deal with this scroll? What is it and why is it so important?

Answer: There are a ton of ideas about what this scroll could be, and many of them contradict each other, but here’s where I land currently. All of Scripture is the story of God’s interaction with the world. He created a home in which to dwell and placed his children into the world to be its overseers. But these children decided to move in their own direction apart from the Creator’s design and sent this world—themselves included—into a tailspin. God set into motion a plan through which he would restore everything to its rightful relationship with him. The scroll in Revelation 5 appears to be God’s plan to redeem and restore his creation to its rightful state of perfection, even unbroken relationship with him.

Second question: Why can’t God the Father open the scroll and unveil this plan of restoration?

Answer: Each of the seals that hold the scroll shut appear to be part of a series of judgments that will purify the earth and eliminate the wickedness that runs rampant upon it. No one in the throne room seems to be capable or qualified to break the seals and purify the earth. No one, that is, except the Lamb (Jesus). Why is the Lamb qualified? The text says, “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain” (emphasis added). We can infer a few things from this qualifier. First, the Lamb entered the human condition. He suffered and died. That means that he can identify with us, and the judgments he pours out don’t come from someone who is detached from humanity, but someone who can sympathize and empathize with us in our plight. His purification of the earth is not arbitrary or unfeeling.

Second, he was motivated by love. John wrote that God is love, and what better way to show love than to give your life up for the object of your love? Jesus did that, and when he judges the earth, he is motivated by a self-giving love, the depths of which we cannot possibly fathom.

Third, death—and by extension, resurrection, particularly the resurrection of Jesus—is incredibly important. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: the very thing that qualifies Christ is his self-sacrificing action on the cross. In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul writes the following:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

There’s a lot here, but we can infer that the operative principle when considering the Messiah’s worthiness is his incredibly humble attitude. Paul tells his audience that this attitude—this humility—is the attitude to adopt. This is why the Lamb is worthy to break the seals of the scroll and begin the process of purifying the earth and eliminating wickedness. This is why the Lamb is worthy to open the scrolls and set in motion the restoration of all things.

Because he is uniquely humble.

Third question: How does any of this change how I worship God?

Answer: Maybe it doesn’t. But I would submit that the reason we worship God should be brought into examination. The Greek word translated in 5:9 as “to take” (“You are worthy to take the scroll”) is the same word translated in 5:12 as “to receive” (“Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb to receive power, wealth, wisdom, and might, and honor, glory, and blessing”): λαβεῖν. The parallel shouldn’t be missed. The Lamb is worthy to take the scroll and open the seals in the same way that he is worthy to receive honor and glory. His humble, self-sacrificing death qualifies him.

This realization should change things. Think of the following exchange:

“Why do you worship Jesus?”

“I worship him because he is worthy.”

Where do you think it could go from there? I think we need to be cautious of an answer like this because it can quickly and subtly turn into something to the effect of, “I worship him for no reason that I am truly aware of or can accurately and/or succinctly articulate right now.” That can lead us to an artificial or unsustainable worship of Jesus that may last for a season, but that will falter because we can’t find a good reason to worship him.

Or consider this possible ensuing exchange:

“Why is he worthy?”

“Jesus is worthy because he is all-powerful, completely just, perfectly holy, and infinitely wise.”

Fair enough, but for starters, I think Scripture is far more explicit about why Jesus is worthy of our worship, and while those attributes are given in Scripture, I don’t think they’re used as motivation for worship (though I could be wrong about that; this is, after all, a blog and not a dissertation).

We become like that which we worship, and I believe that can be also be stated as this: we take on the attributes we hold most dear of that which we worship.

That’s why when we see people who obsess over God’s power, justice, and wrath, over and against God’s love, we often find people who are arrogant, dogmatic, and unloving. (Though ironically they often say things like, “I’m only saying this because I love you like Jesus loves you.” If you truly loved like Jesus loved, you’d be setting your agenda aside and laying your life down for the sake of that other person. . . but I digress.)

But when we see people who obsess over God’s love, we find people who always set aside their own comforts and ideologies for the sake of those around them. It’s almost as if they’ve taken ownership of the Messiah’s words: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”

So why is Jesus worthy of my worship?

He is worthy because he was slain. He is worthy because he emptied himself. He is worthy because without his death on the cross, the scroll would remain closed, and the restoration of creation would be unattainable.

“But thanks be to God, who in the Messiah constantly leads us in a triumphal procession and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of what it means to know him!”

Love and glory. . .

“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

from the Westminster Shorter Catechism

Lately I’ve been thinking about what glorifying God looks like. How do we do this? What does it mean?

Perhaps one of the reasons I’ve been pulled into these musings is that it’s been a recurring theme coming from those in the neo-reformed camp.

Glory.

“Give God the glory.”
“Don’t rob God of his glory.”
“God gets all the glory.”

There was a nagging thought in the back of my mind that wouldn’t go away when I considered the idea of glorifying God: God is self-serving, and interested only in his own glory. At some level, I suppose, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, if you’re the most powerful, magnificent, and other being in the universe, who else would you glorify?

But the deeper I dug into this thought, the more uncomfortable I became with it. Questions started to arise in my mind that I was afraid to address. Was God so insecure that he would demand (read: dictate, determine) the praise of his creatures? What exactly was it about him that needed to be glorified or magnified? Power? Holiness? Distinctness? Sovereignty?

Is that what set him apart from all other deities?

I began to grow weary of the pat answers that did little more than create an image of a god who was after nothing more than his own glory.

Then again, why shouldn’t he be? He is God after all.

But isn’t there something inside you that balks at the thought? Isn’t there something in all of this talk of glory that, despite all the logical consistencies of something like TULIP, makes God frightening? Or worse yet, unloving?

What if we took a step back and looked at what God is trying to communicate to us through the whole of Scripture? There seems to be a story unfolding that reveals a most unusual central character.

As he reflected on the story, St. John wrote, “The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love” (emphasis added). So this is who God is.

Obsession with one’s own glory hardly looks like love, and if love is how God defines himself, shouldn’t that be how we see him?

I turn at this point to N. T. Wright, who said it far better than I could have said it myself.

“[John Piper] sees [God’s righteousness] as God’s concern for God’s own glory, which implies that God’s primary concern returns, as it were, to himself. There is always of course a sense in which that is true. But the great story of Scripture, from creation and covenant right on through to the New Jerusalem, is constantly about God’s overflowing, generous, creative love—God’s concern, if you like, for the flourishing and well-being of everything else. Of course, this too will redound to God’s glory because God, as the Creator, is glorified when creation is flourishing and able to praise him gladly and freely. And of course there are plenty of passages where God does what he does precisely not because anybody deserves it but simply ‘for the sake of his own name.’ But ‘God’s righteousness’ is regularly invoked in Scripture, not when God is acting thus, but when his concern is going out to those in need, particularly to his covenant people. The tsedaqah elohim, the dikaiosynē theou, is an outward-looking characteristic of God, linked of course to the concern for God’s own glory but essentially going, as it were, in the opposite direction, that of God’s creative, healing, restorative love. God’s concern for God’s glory is precisely rescued from the appearance of divine narcissism because God, not least God as Trinity, is always giving out, pouring, out, lavishing generous love on undeserving people, undeserving Israel and an undeserving world. That is the sort of God he is, and ‘God’s righteousness’ is a way of saying, ‘Yes, and God will be true to that character.'”

This truth cannot be overstated.

God is, by definition, love. All other attributes and actions that God possesses and commits must conform to this standard. It is who he is, and that is what remains unchanged and unchangeable about him.

John Wesley, in his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament wrote the following concerning 1 John 4:8: “‘God is love.’—This little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.”

What then does this say of God’s glory?

John Piper famously said that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Not necessarily untrue, but if I understand John 13:34-35, 1 Corinthians 13:13, and Philippians 2:5-11 correctly, then this statement would be far truer if styled, “God is most glorified in us when we most explicitly model his self-giving love to those around us.”

God’s glory is found in his love.

Some thoughts on Noah. . .

PHqmdhBN3MUetx_1_mIt’s one of the season’s (if not the year’s) biggest blockbusters, and I took a few hours out of my busy schedule to sit down with this film. (I have to admit that as my friend Ken and I were walking into the theater, I came pretty close to changing my mind and standing in line for the midnight opening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but for the sake of conversation, I stuck with Noah.)

This blog post was originally going to be a review of the film, but given the controversy surrounding the movie, I decided to do some research and instead write more of a commentary on the film. I may write a full review at some point, but for now here’s my quickie review: Russell Crowe did a good job being Russell Crowe. He’s his usual emotionless self in this movie, but thankfully the cast around him was incredible. Of particular interest are Jennifer Connelly as Naameh, Noah’s wife, and Emma Watson as Ila, Noah’s daughter-in-law. Theirs were some of the most disarming and jaw-dropping performances I’ve ever seen. We’ve all known Connelly is a talented actress, but she stood out in a big way this time. The surprise to me was Watson’s performance. I’m a Harry Potter fan, and I found it a bit difficult at first to divorce her from Hermione Granger, but it didn’t take long for her to show off just how good an actress she is. Even without the mind-blowing special effects, this film would be worth it simply for those two performances.

Okay, now that my review is over, let’s dive into the meat of this post.

There are several streams of thought regarding this movie. One is the traditional evangelical approach which falls just short of boycotting this film for no reason other than that they “heard” the movie is very “unbiblical.” My problem with this approach is multifaceted. First, I’m never a fan of boycotting. It sends a terrible message, and in many cases it gives off an air of ignorance. Second, I think it would be wise to gain firsthand knowledge of the material you’re attacking before making your assault. You may find yourself laying down friendly fire if you don’t. Third, I think we should ask ourselves, “How well do I actually know the biblical account of ‘Noah and the Flood’?” After watching the movie, I found myself returning to the Scriptures to do some fact-checking, and I was quite surprised at what I found (and didn’t find) in the text.

Another stream of thought coming from some of the “liberal” camps essentially views this movie as a kind of midrash aggada—a form of rabbinical storytelling that involves interpreting Scripture passages by “filling in the blanks,” as it were—from the director Darren Aronofsky (who, by the way, is not an atheist as many believed that he claimed to be) given his Jewish heritage. Aronofsky is a master storyteller who is just as much a preacher as he is a filmmaker. Just look at some of his previous films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream.

The third stream of thought that I see emerging is that Aronofsky’s Noah is not based on the story found in the Judaic Torah or the Christian Pentateuch. Rather, this stream of thought sees the Gnostic Noah account being displayed in this film. Theologian Brian Mattson wrote, “This was a thoroughly pagan retelling of the Noah story direct from Kabbalist and Gnostic sources.” There are a number of Christians who read his posts and found his interpretation compelling, especially given his knowledge of the subject matter. He claims that because Aronofsky’s Noah is a Gnostic retelling, the movie flips the roles of God and Satan, and, using the snakeskin shed by the Serpent in Eden as a vehicle for this characterization, claims that the “Creator” is really the evil deity in Gnosticism and that the Serpent is really God in disguise (that was a paraphrase of Mattson’s conclusion on the matter, but it’s essentially what he’s getting at). The problem with his argumentation is that while Kabbalah and Gnostics agree in a number of ways, there are some crucial inconsistencies that render his interpretation invalid.

The argument makes sense on some level when you think about it. Aronofsky’s first full-length feature, Pi, betrayed a fascination with Kabbalah. But while he may have drawn from Kabbalah’s understanding of the story of Noah, it’s pretty clear that his primary source material was the ancient Judaic retelling of the story (the one accepted by most Christians). Also, Aronofsky doesn’t appear to exhibit much interest in Gnosticism or even the Gnostics.

To be sure, there are likely many key elements of Kabbalist tradition found throughout the film (references to Zohar, Adam and Eve’s luminescence, humanity’s division into the evil descendants of Cain and the righteous descendants of Seth, fallen angels who can be redeemed, etc.), but these elements aren’t exclusively Kabbalistic. In fact, (with the exception of the Zohar reference) these supposedly “exclusively Kabbalist” elements are found in Judeo-Christian history as well.

But let me try to address some of the more basic concerns Christians might have with the movie, apart from any Gnostic or Kabbalist references.

First, the character of Noah. In this movie, Noah is depicted as a deeply conflicted man. As the story progresses, he becomes even more extreme and zealous to the point of betraying his own family. I was at first uncomfortable with this, but when I went back to the story as found in the Bible, I found no descriptions of Noah’s personality at all. The Bible describes him as a righteous man, but “righteous” in this context doesn’t mean “good.” It simply means that he practiced justice and mercy. This description leaves much to the imagination, and seems to have been placed there simply to set Noah apart from the morally corrupt around him. The Noah character found in this movie is completely human—flawed, broken, and stubborn. He clings to what he believes God’s message is, even when confronted with evidence that he might have misinterpreted God’s will. Sound familiar? Russell Crowe’s Noah reminded me a little bit of myself in some very disturbing ways (minus the notable lack of emotional expression).

Second, the Watchers. Some have said they’re loosely based on the Nephilim found in Genesis 6:1-4. Unfortunately, that doesn’t go very far in explaining these bizarre creatures. What’s more likely is that Aronofsky took from the Book of Enoch (an ancient Jewish text that was considered part of the canon of Scripture by some early church fathers like Clement, Irenaeus, and Tertullian), which goes into greater detail about the Watchers. According to the Book of Enoch, the Watchers were angels that had been sent to earth to look after humanity after Adam’s fall, but after being around humans for a while, they began to have sexual relations with human women. The result of these unions were the Nephilim.

Aronofsky mercifully leaves out the details about fallen angels having sex with humans, but he portrays these angels as having the ability to return to righteousness and glory. Some Christians would take issue with that, as nowhere in Scripture does it say that fallen angels can be redeemed. But even within Christianity, a debate raged on regarding the permanence of these angels’ fall from God’s mercy. St. Gregory of Nyssa (one of the earliest promoters of the doctrine of a triune God) expressed a belief that even Satan himself would repent and be reconciled to God!

I think it’s worth noting here that Aronofsky appears to be less interested in mainline and evangelical interpretations of Genesis than he is in ancient-Hebrew and first-through-third-century Christian interpretations. There are a lot of things about this movie that seem strange, but upon further investigation, actually make sense in that historical context. More recent historical discoveries and theological musings refute many of these ideas, but in the rich, diverse histories of Judaism and Christianity, the ideas Aronofsky purports may be odd (and in some cases, just plain wrong), but they aren’t foreign to these religions’ histories.

(I don’t know where Aronofsky got the idea to depict the Watchers as rock giants, but I couldn’t help but think of the Gorignak from Galaxy Quest whenever the Watchers were on screen.)

Third, Adam and Eve’s luminescence. I hesitate to even mention this one because it seems trite that Christians would be bothered by it, but someone in another blog used it as fodder for for his argument that this movie is “unbiblical,” so I decided to bring it up. It’s an argument easily refuted by reminding ourselves that luminescence is a theme that’s seen throughout Scripture, from Moses’ encounters with God (he’s described as radiating in Exodus 34) to Christ’s transfiguration in Matthew 17. Jesus even says in Matthew 13 that “the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom.” Given that information, it’s not such a stretch to think that Adam and Eve radiated light prior to eating the fruit.

Fourth, environmentalism as the primary theme of the movie. Much has been said about how this movie depicts the Creator as wanting to destroy mankind because of how they mistreat creation. While that’s an element of why the Creator sends the flood, it’s pretty clear in the film that mankind’s wickedness overall, not just their poor stewardship of the earth, is the reason the flood is on its way. In a scene where Noah is walking among the descendants of Cain, people are trading girls for food, killing for fun, and exhibit nothing but an overt willingness to satiate their own basest desires.

Additionally, Noah’s own error involves environmentalism. He misinterprets God’s message thinking that humanity has no place in the world. In fact, when he recounts the story of creation to his family, he leaves out (or minimizes, I can’t remember which) the fact that humanity was created in God’s image. [SPOILERS AHEAD. Highlight the text to reveal.] Tubal-Cain, on the other hand, when he tells Ham the story of creation, makes a point to emphasize the fact that humanity was made in God’s image. He concludes that that means humans should dominate the earth and possess the right to exploit all of its resources with no regard to good stewardship. But at the end of the movie, when Noah comes to terms with his mistakes, he retells the creation story. This time he doesn’t leave out the point about being made in God’s image, but unlike Tubal-Cain’s rendition of the story, Noah concludes that as image-bearers we don’t have a right so much as a responsibility to properly care for the earth. Admittedly, environmentalism is a fairly heavy-handed theme throughout the movie, particularly at the end, but it doesn’t go so far as to run contrary to what Scripture teaches us about stewardship. My primary concern here is that the film fails to acknowledge humanity as the pinnacle of God’s creation. It appears that the best notion isn’t Noah’s idea that the earth is better off without humanity, nor is it Tubal-Cain’s belief that creation exists to serve man. Instead, the film presents a sort of peaceful coexistence between humans and the earth as being the best option. It’s almost as if the film were trying to portray God as a Master Gardener with humans as his gardening tools rather than God as a Father with the earth as a gift to his children. Both ideas are better options than the movie’s two “bad” options, but only the latter works as a theme seen in Scripture.

Fifth, the snakeskin. I’ll admit, I was pretty confused by the snakeskin metaphor in the film. Movie blogger Ryan Holt shed some light (pun not intended) on the snakeskin motif in his post about the movie:

When the film gives us glimpses of the Garden of Eden, the snake originally glows like Adam and Eve, only to shed its luminous skin and become a dark black. The visual metaphor seems clear; the serpent abandons the glory of creation to become a creature of evil, and humanity soon follows after it. So the snakeskin reminds Noah and his family of the Eden that was lost, a testament to creation’s original perfection.

Similarly, in his review of the movie in the National Catholic Register (a review that I highly recommend, by the way), Steven D. Greydanus wrote the following:

The serpent is connected with one of the film’s odder bits: a snakeskin, shed in Eden by the serpent, preserved as a family heirloom by the righteous line of Seth and passed down to Noah by his father. Doesn’t the snakeskin represent evil? Not necessarily. The serpent was created good and then shed that goodness to become the tempter. The skin it wore when God created it is not a token of evil, but of original goodness — and thus a true relic of paradise and a token that evil is always a corruption of goodness, never a thing unto itself.

* * * * * *

If you’re looking for “biblical accuracy,” you don’t have to look very far. Aronofsky claimed that Noah is the “least biblical biblical film ever made,” but I think that really depends on your understanding of the term biblical. Aronofsky made that statement in response to scores the film received after different versions of the film were presented to test audiences. I’m not sure where the following story came from, but I heard a rumor that a predominantly Christian test audience had asked for the removal of the scene wherein Noah was depicted as a drunkard because they believed the Bible didn’t portray Noah in such a way. I hope that’s not a true story, but if it is, it only goes to show how biblically illiterate many Christians are.

I understand people’s hesitance in seeing this movie. It’s puzzling in a number of ways. It forces you to think and question your preconceived notions about the beginning of Genesis. But it’s probably the most “biblically accurate biblical movie” I’ve ever seen. Yes, it takes some liberties, but all movies do. You may not believe this, but I’ll say it anyway, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah contains fewer extra-biblical artistic liberties than Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (did you know that Gibson’s primary source material wasn’t the writings of the four Evangelists, but those of Anne Catherine Emmerich?).

A few weeks ago I overheard a conservative talk radio show wherein the host exhibited anger over the fact that Noah would replace the Bible (referencing the adage, “[A movie] is the only Bible some people will ever read”). I heartily disagree with him. Does anyone recall the sudden boost in readership of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings when those movies hit theaters? While I don’t think we’re going to see massive sales of the movie edition of the book of Genesis, this movie will likely prompt its viewers to read the account of the flood in Scripture (which is a mere four chapters in the Bible), and that’s not such a bad thing.

The movie is full of incredible special effects and great action sequences, has some of the best acting from Connelly and Watson that I’ve ever seen, is well written and directed, and is incredibly exciting to watch. I think Noah is the perfect film to introduce people to the Bible.

* * * * * *

Please be aware that while I would recommend that people check this movie out, it’s not for kids. The tone is very dark, the sin that causes the Creator to send the flood is presented pretty graphically, and there are themes throughout that could be difficult for children to grasp. It pushes the limits of its PG-13 rating.

Born to die?. . .

C. J. Mahaney wrote the following statement a few years ago:

“During this time of year, it may be easy to forget that the bigger purpose behind Bethlehem was Calvary. But the purpose of the manger was realized in the horrors of the cross. The purpose of his birth was his death.”

While I understand his sentiment (as it’s often all too easy to forget that we celebrate the birth of a child whose fate was sealed from the moment he took his first breath—Jesus was certainly going to die a horrible, bloody death), I find it difficult now to accept that the Advent must needs be inexorably linked to the Atonement.

It’s absolutely true that all four Evangelists crafted their stories in such a way as to aim at Golgotha, but it’s equally as true that they didn’t write exclusively about the crucifixion. In other words, the Evangelists (well, Matthew and Luke, at least) wrote about Christ’s birth and his death as two unrelated events offset by several years of ministry (though I won’t be using the ministry and teaching years as support for my argumentation). Yes, Christ’s death was certainly foreshadowed at his birth, but it was not the bigger purpose behind it, as Pastor Mahaney avers.

Some might say that the manger was a stepping stone to the cross. I’m not comfortable with that statement. I’m much more comfortable saying that the manger paints a particular picture while the cross paints a distinct (yet deeply related) picture.

For support, I turn to Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi. In that letter, he writes these words:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul starts this entreatment with the phrase, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” He certainly ends his description of Christ’s condescension with a statement about his death, but that’s not the point of this passage. He’s likely not saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who died.”

In this passage we find Paul’s mention of Christ’s humility in regards to his entering human form having just as much emphasis as Christ’s humility in his death. Paul continues by saying that “God also highly exalted him.” But why did God exalt Christ? Was it because he died on the cross? I’d venture to say that’s not entirely true.

Someone once said something to the effect of, “The Father’s exaltation of Christ isn’t a ‘Purple Heart,’ that is, he’s not exalting him because he died. Rather, this is more of a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ for a mindset characterized by ‘other-centric’ humility.”

Think of it this way. The mindset that’s all too common in humanity is one that looks like this: imagine a Stanford graduate who’s looking for a job, and there’s an opening as a member of the Geek Squad at Best Buy. He doesn’t apply for the position because it’s beneath him.

I think at some level we all have this mindset. There is always something that we’re too good for. But that wasn’t the case with Christ. He “emptied himself,” and he became a slave. That’s the important thing to note here.

Leading up to this description of Christ’s mindset, Paul wrote, “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Paul wants his followers to look at Christ’s example of humility as our model.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Which mind is that exactly?

It’s the mind that says, Though I am Creator, I am willing to become created for the sake of my creation. It’s the mind that says, I am the Son of God, but for the sake of mankind I will become a son of man. It’s the mind that says, I am immortal, but for the sake of mortals I will submit to mortality—even death itself.

When all is said and done, it’s the Atonement, not the Advent, that secures our salvation. But let us not forget that the love that moved the Son of God to enter our lives and spend his first night of life in an animal feeding trough is the same love that moved the Son of God to allow those he loved to brutally murder him.

The death of Jesus is not the greater purpose behind his birth. His love is the greater purpose behind his death, and his love is the greater purpose behind his birth.

That is what I hope we can remember as we celebrate the birth of our Lord.

The historical Jesus, justification, and resurrection as the beginning (and the end). . .

I had the privilege this week to meet N. T. Wright, one of the most prolific contemporary authors with regards to Jesus (both theological and historical) and the New Testament.

Wright gave a talk at Princeton University on the historical person of Jesus, and during the interview, Prof. Eric Gregory inadvertently (or perhaps intentionally) alluded to a dichotomy that I had long been unconsciously aware of but had never consciously thought about, let alone heard articulated: the difference between Christ as a religious/theological figure and Jesus as a person in the history of the world.

The ensuing conversation led my mind to wonder about the relevance of the Jesus of history when considering my own faith in Christ as the second person of the Trinity. Does it matter whether I know of Jesus’ life and teachings? I suppose the easy answer is yes, but to take things even further, I wonder if it should matter what was behind his teachings? What kinds of cultural prejudices existed that could determine what Jesus taught, how he lived, and with whom he interacted? The even scarier question would be this: how have my own cultural distinctions (specifically from that of Jesus’ day) tainted my understanding of what he was trying to get across to his audience?

I suppose there is a sense in which his teachings and ideologies were transcendent, but some questions continue to plague my mind. In recent years, some have attempted to convince me that Jesus was some sort of political revolutionary or insurrectionist. But if that were true, why was Governor Pilate so hesitant to execute him? How could he rightfully say, “I find no fault in this man,” if Jesus were not some kind of seditionist?

Another related thought: some have similarly said that Jesus was subverting the established Jewish religious tradition. I doubt this idea less than the previous one, but some questions still remain. If he were so blatantly subversive, why did so many call him Rabbi? Why was he welcome to speak in synagogues?

But back to my original concern: Does any of this matter?

Perhaps of even deeper controversy are these considerations with regard to Paul’s writings. Recently (thanks to Wright) I’ve become aware of a criticism of Pauline interpretation that has me asking even more questions. Paul’s argument with Judaism (and by extension, Judaizing Christians) was not with regards to legalism. That is to say, he wasn’t concerned with the Judaizers’ presentation of a barrier to salvation.

The Judaism of Paul’s day has often been paralleled to the Romanism of Luther’s day. But is that a correct analogy? Is Paul’s argument with Judaism the same as Luther’s argument with Romanism? Much—if not all—popular Protestant and Evangelical interpretation of Paul’s writings approach his teachings with this attitude.

But what if instead his greater concern was with communal identity? What if justification and salvation are concepts that are not as intertwined as we’ve believed since the mainland Reformation? Reading Paul’s writings again have me concluding that his battleground wasn’t legalism (though I’m willing to bet that if he lived under the auspices of the Roman church, legalism might have been his battleground). Rather, I’m inclined to believe that his concern was the inclusion of all people in the identity of the family of God.

Justification seems to take on a different meaning than I’ve believed for much of my life. But recently I’ve become unconvinced that God’s righteousness is imputed to the individual. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense the more I think about it.

Wright uses the idea of a courtroom to analogize justification. God is the judge, and humanity is the defendant. A judge possesses two kinds of righteousness: one wherein he is considered righteous in his courtroom if he judges rightly based on the evidence presented to him, the testimonies of the plaintiff and defendant, etc.; the other being that which the judge gives to the defendant should he be found not guilty. One type of righteousness is faithfulness to the truth and to justice, and the other type of righteousness is right standing with the judge and with society. But a judge cannot imbue the defendant with faithfulness to the truth. A judge can, however, declare the defendant to be in right standing.

I wonder if that’s more of what we see in justification rather than what we in evangelical circles call “imputed righteousness.” Because of Christ’s death on the cross—for us and in our place, God declares us righteous—in right standing with him.

As Wright expounded upon the historical figure of Jesus, the event of his resurrection came up in discussion (naturally). It seems as though Wright is less concerned with proving the event of Christ’s resurrection than he is with discovering what it actually means. (After all, as Wright explains, the rise of Christianity as a world religion necessitates the veracity of Christ’s resurrection; otherwise, the fledgling movement would have died almost immediately after his crucifixion.)

It’s pretty easy to fall into a slight form of Docetism by saying that Christ’s bodily resurrection simply proves that he is God. But what does that say for the rest of the story?

I wonder if Christ’s resurrection marked the culmination of the story of Israel, that through Jesus God was fulfilling the promises long thought neglected. Through the eyes of the Hebrew people, God had forgotten about them when he allowed them to be taken into exile. Prophet after prophet claimed that God would return to the Temple, but God never appeared. God had become silent, and he had removed his presence.

Then in shocking and shameful display, God did return to the Temple, but instead of coming in power, he came covered in his own blood. Throughout Israeli history, the Temple is the dwelling place of God. This is why it is so bizarre to the Jewish ear that Jesus would say, “Destroy this Temple, and I will raise it up in three days.”

Christ’s resurrection not only serves as the final climax of Israel’s story, it serves as the birth moment of the Church.

The resurrection of Jesus is where our story begins.