As the ancient chinese curse goes, “may you live in interesting times.” Unfortunately for us, we do. We as a human race – nay, as a world, are at the precipice of what history may come to realise as a great destabilisation.
By 2050, it is estimated that the global population will be increased to 9 billion, about 28% greater than it is in 2009.  By that time frame likewise, the effects of climate change, which are already causing extremes of weather at both ends of the spectrum, will likely displace 1 billion people across the world due to water shortages, crop failures, and rising sea levels. 
If, even after such alarming projections, the future seems far off, we are already currently witnessing the firstfruits of catastrophe. Peak oil production appears worryingly near,  with few mainstream acknowldgements even of the fact that oil itself, the literal fuel of our entire globalised economy, is a non-renewable energy resource and therefore definitively bound to run dry. The universalised recession we now experience was itself directly preceded with the worldwide grain shortage which hit in 2007-08 with record proportions.  Yet, in the midst of all this shocking news, recent projections indicated that the human population (and largely the developed nations) are consuming the energy required by 1.4 earths. That’s 40% than we can even manage on a maximal level, never mind a sustainable one! 
And, of course, we shouldn’t forget the threats to non-human animals either, with extinction rates currently endangering an approximate third of known animals and 70% of known plants. This is not to be taken lightly.
The likely culprit within these circumstances could very easily be named as consumerism; the ever-increasing public need to demand more luxurious forms of living which sacrifice environment for the sake of comfort. One doesn’t need huge leaps of logic to be able to understand that consumption and waste are directly connected, with global problems of energy demand and carbon emissions correlated with our collective human behaviour. If we are to address the current global crises of climate change, peak oil, and energy consumption, we must necessarily address our own individual lifestyle choices.
While those must be addressed, however, there is now widespread recognition that effective changes must come structurally as well as socially. Or, in layperson’s terms, there needs to be political change in government as well as in society. The recent Copenhagen Summit in December 2009 instilled much public anxiety, expectancy, and yes – even hope, that an understanding would be reached from those with enough responsibility and power to be able to address the climate crisis. The whole event, however, ended in grave disappointment, with not nearly enough policy commitment being made to meet carbon reduction targets. 
In particular, this recent state of affairs should highlight that the problem goes even deeper than matters of consumption and consumerism. What we face, while presenting new challenges in a new technological age, is actually a very ancient problem: that of civilisation itself. Historically, systems of heavily-centralised power (termed “empires,” which is how we shall refer to them here) have been proven by mere observation to be unsustainable entities. It is a sad but inevitable characteristic of empire that it upholds itself through exploitation and the purging of all available resources through trade and commodification. Just as empires such as that of the Romans and the British functioned through militarism, colonialism and slavery, so too our multi-faceted and globalised empire of capitalism functions through cheap (sweatshop) labour, depending upon cycles of poverty for production communities in the developing world and using systematic warfare to control and maintain the ongoing salvage of oil. If the aforementioned projections (and more aside) are anything to go by, it would appear that the very system of industry which keeps the wheels of empire running is steadily undoing itself. This, of course, has been a consistent conclusion of point of empires throughout history: sooner or later, they fall not through intervention, but rather because of the consequences of their own mindless reaping.
To root this in a Biblical context, the functioning of empire seems to happen through what theologian Walter Brueggemann refers to as “rapacious economics,” specifically in his treatment of the Exodus narrative where Egypt’s Pharoah enslaves the entire Hebrew people. It becomes a pathology of power, where the ruling elite of any such system come to see other people not as individuals, but as numbers and trading commodities which can be used to further their own self-interests. Correspondingly, there is also a grand disconnect from nature/the ecosystem, whereby natural resources are no longer seen as the gifts of the earth but instead become termed as “produce” which can be privatised, bought, and sold. We lose the relationships we once had with our non-human animal neighbours, who consequently become “livestock” that we can better think of as being objects, instead of beings, who can be appropriately processed through the abhorrent and horrendously carbon-intensive factory farming industry.
The first two chapters of Genesis stand as a timeless critique against the ideology of empire and the “civilisation” upon which it founds itself. In Eden, humanity – personified as Adam and Eve – enjoy what we now describe as an egalitarian relationship, partners made in the Image of God whose function it is to steward creation, not reap it. In fact, the oft-misunderstood word “dominion” in Genesis 1:28 had far more to do with humanity’s role as servants of creation rather than their despotic rulers. Additionally, within this narrative, Adam and Eve enjoyed a vegetarian diet as did all of the non-human animals present with them! The creation myth presents us with a vision of shalom, perfect wholeness, completeness, and relationship between God, humanity, and creation. All life coexists, and all food is accepted as the gifts of God provided through the earth, given freely all but for humanity’s responsibility of stewarding creation through “tilling the ground.”
As many of us are familiar with, however, this original vision changes upon “the fall,” where Adam and Eve’s sin through eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (and thereby disobeying God) disrupts their relationship with God and creation. It is only after this event that animals are commodified for the use of their skin and food, and that Adam’s responsibilities turn to hardship against the “thorns and thistles” of the land. Also interesting to note is that the equality between Adam and Eve (therefore humanity’s relationship with one another) is also disrupted, and the introduction of patriarchy – the ruling of man over woman – comes in Genesis 3:16 as a result of their sin.
I personally do not suggest that the creation narrative is a literal-historical account. Nonetheless, as a Christian I believe it has profound theological truth and tells us much of what the original authors believes the world ought to be, in tension with how it actually is at present. When held up against history, it’s amazing how well the narrative emulates the emergence of civilisation itself, where our hunter-gather ancestors moved into systems of agriculture, the domestication of non-human animals, and patriarchal control.  Thus were laid the foundations for what we now know as empire.
I’m aware it can be all too easy, when discussing important matters such as these, to adopt an “end is nigh” rhetoric and become seen as little more than a cynical doomsayer, which is a top reason for criticism of the environmental movement. For one, I would say that it is necessary to speak against human ills whenever they occur, and certainly as Christians we should never be complacent when we live in that tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be. In order to be prophetic, we must take a stand against what is wrong, evil, harmful, and destructive. If that means pointing out that the system of empire is satanic, then it must be done.
However, further from that point, we must also be very careful not to end with prophetic condemnation. God’s final word is always “yes,” and whatever “no” comes prior is not said for its own sake but always for sake of the “yes” which follows. To speak out for the wellbeing of our environment, and against the unsustainability of civilisation, carries much optimism and hope with it. We need to learn to frame our talk in terms of restoration and relationship. While we are against what is evil, we are also for that which is good, and in this case what is good is humanity’s relationship with God, with the natural environment, with the gifts of God through the earth, with plant life and non-human animals, and of course with each other. We are to put ourselves to the work which has been set forth in Christ, who by His death and resurrection, is bringing about the total restoration and reordering of all things and all relationships.
We are, however, inevitably brought to at least two questions: what does the future hold, and what work should we be committing ourselves to? On the first, it really does seem anyone’s guess. Things do seem bleak, but that concern should necessarily feed and energise the second question. It is foreseeable that humanity will continue progressing technologically and find ways to combat the destruction we have wrought upon the earth and amongst each other, to ultimately survive as a species. On the other hand, it is also foreseeable that we are moving into a less technologically developed age, where the depleted resources of oil will be replaced by wind, water, and solar energy, which will be much less efficient than oil presently is. Humanity will probably have to learn to return to a more localised and less centralised existence due to a lack of technology and fuel. If I were to be asked for my own naive opinion, I do think it could go either way. If I am honest, however, what I hope for is the latter, since we need to learn hard lessons from the history of which we are becoming part. I, as much as anyone else, need to learn to cease clinging to the luxuries and conveniences this present (decaying) age affords.
As to the second question… Certainly, as earlier mentioned, all people need to continually review and amend their own lifestyle choices, which of course comes more easily for some than others. We aspire to recycle, use less, consume less energy, only buy what we need, and live in relative simplicity. We can also learn to buy our clothes and goods second-hand, to make use of others’ waste and recycling.
As Christians, I feel the time has come for us to step in faith and go an extra mile. Biblically, we have always been called to a communitarian life of radical simplicity. Consider the early Christian community in Acts 4:32-35, for example, where none of them had any possessions of their own and instead shared all they had with one another. The church should always be endeavouring to explore this way of living, but in present circumstances, our calling to Gospel love has never been more pertinent than now. I would encourage Christians not only to continually pursue holiness through simplicity and lifestyle, but also furthering their witness by joining in lobbies and campaigns calling upon government to address the damage they have either caused, exacerbated, or failed to acknowledge. It is essential to prophetically engage with the systems as they are, even as they are wicked entities who are rapidly decaying by their own hand. Further from this, however, Christians stand as witnesses to our faith that God is the creator of all, and that his gifts through nature are to be cherished rather than abused. We should be faithful to this great calling through loving each others, and loving all people. If we have a Gospel commitment to nonviolence, it means far more than simply condemning warfare, but also getting to the very roots of violence present in the unstable relationships of empire and civilisation, and seeking to live out a radically alternative example in the face of such devastation.
If God in Christ is reordering our relationships through the cross, then we must be energised by His cross, faithful to the work that He has put us to, and seeking community and simplicity in all aspects of our living. Then, regardless of the future, the church will remain as that subversive community of people, witnesses to the work He has done, and is indeed continually doing.
“God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The notion of an all-powerful, all-encompassing, omniscient and transcendental God is so ingrained within Christian consciousness, and even in Western consciousness at large, that it can seem not only heretical but also somewhat odd to dare question it. While these terms might not be derived from the Bible in a verbatim sense, it certainly seems clear throughout scripture that God is infinitely above all things; whether this derives from Him having authority as the creator, or where it is spoken that His “throne is established from of old,” and is “everlasting.” (Psalm 93:2) Even in the plethora of instances that God is referred to as “Lord” indicates that, from the very beginning, His complete sovereignty and supremacy is taken as a foregone conclusion.
It seems more than a little strange, then, that a quote like that from Bonhoeffer above, might make any sense in a Christian context. Surely a powerless God makes no sense, for isn’t even the term itself an oxymoron? And what use is a “powerless” God in the first place?
This is, however, precisely the kind of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, and is the true God whose power matters in the first place. The lofty imagery that had been used to describe the creator up to this point – Lord, King, Throne, Everlasting, Mighty – seemed to have been completely inverted on its head in the coming of Jesus. How little wonder that many of Jesus’ disciples doubted Him or else ended up confused by His teachings. Why does the Christ, whose title itself is a huge term on the cosmic scale, come as the humble son of a carpenter and a handmaiden? Why does God’s anointed warrior king teach us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek? Why does this prince ride a donkey instead of a war horse? Moreover, even after all of this, how in the world does the everlasting God who sits enthroned above all eternity become the form of a finite human being existing in the confines of space, time, and material as any one of us has to?
If this weren’t ridiculous enough in the first place, look who this “God” chooses to associate Himself with – prostitutes, lepers, peasants, fishermen, shepherds, tax collectors, the infirm, and the destitute. In a tradition where it was believed that wealth and prosperity was a sign of God’s favour, the God represented by Jesus chooses to align Himself firmly with the poor, even to the point of becoming one of them. And after a ministry demonstrating this, this Messiah ends up detained, beaten, bloodied, whipped, and crucified under the auspices of Pax Romana (the Peace of Rome). All but one of His disciples fled, and on objective terms, they can hardly be blamed. This “God” is an insult, a fraud, and a failure. The hope and light not only for Israel, but also for the whole world, ends up tortured and executed as a mere mortal.
As most of us know, of course, the narrative doesn’t end there, and indeed what would otherwise have been a tremendous defeat is turned into ultimate victory: after Christ’s death, He is resurrected, and through becoming so heralds the Kingdom of God and brings redemption for all of creation itself.
However, what is easy to miss is that God’s glory necessarily comes through His humiliation upon the cross, just as His victory is shown through defeat. Jesus’ life, right up to the point of death, subverted our traditional understandings of God at every level. He could have commanded the legions of Heaven to rescue Him from the profound and agonising death He suffered, easily avenging His enemies and liberating humanity from suffering by taking up arms. However, Jesus Himself says that violence is not a mark of His Kingdom (John 18:36), and so chooses to become bound to suffering and death. This is because, above all else, the God Jesus reveals to us is a God of unfathomable love (Matthew 5:43-48). Since Jesus acts out of this supreme love from beginning to end, the means by which He will bring salvation to humanity must likewise be loving: not through any form of destruction except that which He voluntarily undertakes of Himself. God’s love is so completely other, so all-encompassing, that He must necessarily make Himself powerless, and become overpowered by those who make themselves His enemies.
To date, the concept of God as “Almighty” has provoked images of a divine tyrant, one who descends on humanity with unquenchable wrath, and who demands blood from those who refuse to worship Him. This fallacy has led to some of the most abhorrent atrocities of the “church,” and even today such thinking leads us into the danger of believing in God as the great justifier of nationalism, imperialism, and warfare. The image of God as being all-powerful must be reclaimed, for His power was made perfect through weakness, not through strength (2 Corinthians 12:9).
One doesn’t have to believe that God is powerless in the sense that He is impotent and incapable of doing anything; but through the person of Christ, we are shown a God whose love compels Him to come into solidarity with us, His creation, and to bear with us in all of our constraints so that we might be liberated even as He has been. The suffering God is the powerless God, and as Bonhoeffer points out, this is the only way He can truly help us. Those who are suffering, destitute, and in pain within this world have little to hope for if their hope lies in a God who takes the same face as their oppressors. Blessed are they, however, for God has chosen to take their face instead. (Matthew 25:31-46)
This is not to say that God in Christ is not our supreme Lord. His Lordship, however, is shown through His example. The warrior king is also the suffering servant; the Alpha-Omega is also the slaughtered lamb; the enthroned Almighty comes to us as the homeless man executed as a failed insurrectionist, and His true power over all things is revealed in the powerlessness He undertakes for the sake of all things.
“Long live the Slaughtered Lamb.”
I am aware that the title of this article is very similar to another post I made on the matter of “afterlife,” which, while having been made well over a year ago, only appears as the second post down from this one due to my long blogging hiatus! In that particular post, I gave something of a review of Dr. Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope, in which he expounds upon the resurrection from the dead as being the eventual transformation and restoration of everything in existence, as opposed to the more familiar view of there being some spiritual heavenly realm to which we ascend as disembodied beings upon death.
If you look back on that post you will see how Wright rejects, as do I, the latter view and instead sees the Kingdom of God as something which anunciates itself firmly into this world, in the here and now, and that such a view serves to energise Christians into mission in every level of public life, from serving the poor, to campaigning for justice, to being involved in medical service, to preserving the environment, etc. The reason being, that a heart understanding the Kingdom as being transformative of the present world rather than being separate from it, will lead us to engage with the struggles faced in the world and willingly join in God’s work to restore it.
I feel inclined to return to this subject for a few reasons, one being that, in the last couple of years, I have found myself thinking a great deal about the subject of resurrection and “salvation.” Also, last week, I had these thoughts somewhat rekindled through attending an informal discussion evening at the home of a couple of friends. They were hosting activist theologian Noel Moules, founder of the UK initative Workshop, which offers training in “applied Christian studies.” This curious evening gathering saw just over ten people huddled in a medium-sized living room for some light dinner as Noel, a gentle but obviously very mature and well-educated Christian, introduced the topic of Christian Universalism.
I have touched on this subject a few times here before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever explored it in great detail. For those who are unaware, Christian Universalism is the theological belief that, because of Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice upon the cross, all people will eventually be restored into eternity by the love of God. It is distinct from pluralism, which is the concept that all paths lead to God, and that the belief of each tradition is able to save regardless of how well it reflects objective truth. In its most orthodox sense, Christian (or Trinitarian) Universalism holds that all people find salvation only because of the active work of the Trinity in creation, and not because people’s individual beliefs, observances, or “inherent goodness” are enough to save them.
Without wanting to (or even being able) to get into all the details of Noel’s thoroughly interesting discourse, as well as the emerging discussion which followed, I was particularly intrigued at his point on the interpretation of God’s “judgement” in many areas of the Bible. He argues that the Hebrew word mishpat, translated to judgement, infers moreso an “ordering together of things” rather than the direct form of complete punishment it is often inferred to be. God’s mishpat in the Biblical narrative is then corrective and restorative, rather than being something which completely obliterates, and instead leads wrongdoers and their victims to be actively reconciled to one another. A process which, as he admitted, is often far from being easy and straightforward.
At the core of this argument is another central Biblical concept, that of shalom, translated very inadequately as “peace.” Shalom is far different from our modern understanding of peace as the mere absence (or even stalemate) of conflict, and is in fact moreso to do with wholeness, interconnectedness, and all things coming into harmony with one another. Shalom, even if the concept is more familiar than the word, is at the heart of why many Christians, myself included, have come to see nonviolence as a necessary and inextricable component of our commitment to the Gospel. It was intriguing, then, to hear that from this great Biblical vision of shalom could emerge the hope for all things (not just all people) to eventually be restored by the love of God in Christ.
And yes, not just all people either, but actually all things. Just as we explored in my aforementioned post, a holistic and accurate view of the eventual resurrection from the dead does not just involve people, but all dimensions of reality itself, both seen and unseen, immediate and outside perception; the redemption of creation is something of which we as human beings are a part, but not of which we are the centrepiece. This is abundantly clear in passages such as Colossians 1:15-20 and Romans 11:33-36, signifying that what awaits us at the end of time is not just the resurrection of a few faithful people, but the cataclysmic resurrection and restoration of all that possibly is.
To anchor this somewhat in a “real-life” context, I would often, within my time as an advice worker serving destitute refugees and asylum seekers, capture profound glimpses of God’s salvation at work in the present. What was (and still is) challenging to me was the almost overwhelming sense of God at work in and through the lives of those who weren’t necessarily Christians, and even those who didn’t have any expressible faith. Through seeing both the smiles and tears, the laughter and despair of those who are suffering, even I as a Christian seemed to learn more about the person of Jesus than I could ever hope to convey myself. As a follower of Christ in the midst of many different people from multiple cultures, backgrounds, and religious traditions, my own experience of faith there was not of a God who condemns, but of a God who willingly suffers alongside people in their despair, and resurrects them even as He Himself is resurrected. In such a context, for me to be obedient in “preaching the Gospel” seemed to involve no more than serving a person’s immediate needs and recognising the Image of God within them. My role at the drop-in centre last year gave me much more of a sense of God at work within all people than I could ever hope to gain from a textbook or even from the pulpit.
However, through all of this, it would be neglectful to omit any mention of Hell, or the “difficult” verses that would seem to fly completely in the face of Christian Universalism. I explored the topic of Hell somewhat at length elsewhere in The Progressive Prophet, most notably in my post from a few years back, Salvation and Damnation, in which I wrestled with the Biblical concepts of Hell and judgement from an “Annihilationist” point of view. My thinking has, naturally, developed since then, but one thing which has not changed is my belief that Hell as outlined in the New Testament is far different from the images of eternal pain and torment we have carried over from the legacy of Medieval times. Wanting neither to “cop-out” of this important component of any Christian discourse on eternal fate nor to become too detailed on aspects which have already received near-exhaustive deliberation elsewhere, I shall say that Jesus’ warnings of Hell in the Gospels had far more to do with judgement in this life than they had to do with judgement in the next (similar to the Kingdom of God). While this might be an overtly simplistic take on the matter, when Jesus alluded to Gehenna, the garbage dump outside Jeruslalem (such as in Matthew 5:22 or Mark 9:42-49), or to the fate of certain people “perishing” (such as in Luke 13:1-5), He is referring moreso to the very serious danger we invite upon ourselves if we insist upon trying to force the Kingdom of God through our own terms. Many of Jesus’ audience were violent revolutionaries who were, understandably, desperate to see Roman rule abolished by any means necessary in order for the emancipation of Hebrew people to be realised. Jesus Himself, however, understood much better than we do the futility of using violence as a redemptive tool, and knew full well that the Kingdom would not be ushered in by such sinful means. The call to “repent” (Greek: metanoia), then, was a calling to be changed in thinking, to undergo a revolution of the mind. It is a calling which means much more than sorrow shown for personal sins, and encourages us to move beyond the awareness of our broken selves to become a part of God’s transformation also for our broken world.
Of course, what these verses do highlight is that, in some way, judgement will be a far from smooth and easy process. Even if all people and all things are eventually restored, the warnings of those who face “wailing and gnashing of teeth” must be acknowledged and recognised. By no means should Christians downplay the reality and severity of God’s judgement, or the call to repentance as complete transformation. What is important to understand, however, is that this is not the full story or even the end result. We have every reason to fear God’s judgement, but it is nonetheless a loving judgement which seeks to burn away sins through fire while leaving the sinner intact. If judgement really is mishpat, then we should be welcoming it, as the necessarily if extremely painful re-ordering of things into harmony with one another.
One very interesting theme which came out of our discussion with Noel was that, in the Jewish tradition, our Christian concept of “confession” is thought to be very strange, since we tend to see all sins as having been ultimately committed against God (which they are), whereas people of the Jewish faith see confession and repentance as being done in relationship with both the offender and the victim. What a huge thing it is, then, to hope that one day all offenders and all victims will be brought together to face one another and be reconciled, however hard that will prove to be. This, I would say, gives context to our thirst to see justice for the oppressed, as well as due justice for their oppressors. One could easily argue that, in a Christian Universalist framework, those who have committed atrocious crimes, both against humanity and against God, “get off scot-free.” In actuality, I firmly believe that all oppressors as well as those who have willfully rejected God in some way will eventually have to answer for their sins, not just to the Lord Himself, but also to all of those whom they have wronged. This is justice in its real, Biblical sense, and a justice I would argue will necessarily involve exclusion before it ends in embrace. In fact, I daresay there are some people in this world who have turned so far away from the Image of God within themselves that whatever of them is restored in the last day will be almost unrecognisable. In that respect, “eternal destruction” seems to be every bit as real as “eternal life.” Just as I hope and pray for those people who are suffering, such as those I mentioned earlier, to have their oppression vindicated in some way, so do I hope that all of the people, systems, and structures responsible for their suffering will be brought to justice for their actions. It will, however, be a far different justice to the kind we know in law courts: firmer, perfect, more binding, and, above all, loving.
Additionally, we should never forget that, after all the terrifying warnings and visions of judgement Jesus put forth in the ministry of His life, His final pronouncement over all oppression, evil, and sin, were the words He spoke upon the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Nonetheless, we inevitably arrive back at the question of what use or difference this is to those of us who are already committed Christians in the here and now, and how it affects our mission in the world. Well, as with the understanding of the Kingdom as something which impacts and transforms the world in its present state, so too an understanding of Universalism should call upon us to effect and realise God’s justice and reconciliation, and to view ourselves not only as agents but also as witnesses of His action. We find ourselves in a cosmic tension, residing in the present and caught between the cross of Christ in the past and the eventual restoration of all things in the future; and it is to that future that we are all – human, animal, mineral, vegetable, atom and molcule, space and dimension – inescapably connected. With the vision of God’s shalom in our midst, as well as the hope of complete cosmic transformation, let us be put to work to contribute to that great vision by our hands and feet, as vessels of the Holy Spirit, and as humble people who work hidden in the background to reconcile our faith in the past and our hope in the future, into the reality of the present time.
I scarcely even know where to begin, now that I have finally sat down to work on my first article for The Progressive Prophet in 15 months. I have been meaning to return to writing for a while now, but through the cares and troubles of life in general, as well as possessing a lack of discernment on where best to pick up old habits, this has taken me a bit of time to build up to.
Some of you will know that I spent a large part of 2008 to 2009 with the Jesuit Volunteer Community in the UK (a programme I recommend wholeheartedly to anyone within the age bracket of 18 to 35), where I was living in community with four other Christians and working within Manchester-based charity projects to advocate for social justice, particularly on campaigns relating to local poverty issues and engagement with asylums seekers, refugees, and migrant workers. Though I regret in some ways that I didn’t maintain my blog during that time, it was reasonably intentional. I felt that my experiences and reflections during this period of missional work would be quite personal to me, and for that reason I sacrificed my commitment to The Progressive Prophet. There are many stories I have to tell from this time, however, and which I hope I will be able to convey in the future in both engaging and relevant ways.
Since finishing this time, I have remained in Manchester and remained busy, currently working for SPEAK, a predominantly UK-based prayer and campaigning network which engages groups of Christians in lobbying for social justice, particularly in areas of corporate accountability, climate change, and government support of the international arms trade. My involvement with this network stretches back to 2006, before the time I even began this blog, and it has remained an important part of my own faith journey. I am happy now to continue that relationship in a different way, and to return to my concerns for global issues (without sacrificing my equally-fervent concern for the local), where my role involves working with SPEAK members and groups in the city to provide them with support, facilitation, and training. I have also had the pleasure of being able to meet many prominent individuals in Manchester working in faith and campaigning circles, and I hope that from these relationships will emerge tangible ways of working together to promote justice and holistic discipleship.
As ever, my continuing work brings me to reflect upon the expression of my own Christian faith, as well as the expressions I would like to see from those within the wider church. One particular theme I have been reflecting upon is that of the combination of “charity” and “justice.” To my mind, these two concepts are equally important, but many seem to confuse their meanings and employ the terms somewhat synonymously. I offer what I feel is an adequate (if not exhaustive) outline of the two:
1.) Charity is the provision of relief, aid, and healing to those who are in a state of need. In Christianity, charity has been known as “giving alms,” the state of donating to or else being directly compassionate to the poor and disadvantaged.
2.) Justice is the promotion, upholding, and advancement of the qualities of fairness, equality, equity, and rights. It might also be considered the undermining of unequal relationships, and the restoration of those relationships to equality. The definition of justice has traditionally applied to human beings, but in recent decades has been extended to encompass creation and animals as well, i.e, through ecological/environmental justice and through the advocacy of animal rights.
Thus, the distinction is not only real and important, but actually relatively simple: If charity is the mode of actively caring and welcoming those who are suffering, oppressed, and in need, then justice is the mode of addressing and undermining the very things in the world which either cause or exacerbate that very suffering in the first place. I passionately believe that one should not exist in favour of the other, and that both combined form a full expression particularly of the mission of Christians in the world. The proclamation of the Gospel, the “good news,” is precisely the coming of the Kingdom of God into the world, which welcomes the poorest and undermines the elite.
Indeed, in the work of campaigning and lobbying, I have often felt a difficult (but necessary) tension between my belief that Christians are called to embody an alternative culture to the systems and structures of the world and my equally passionate belief that those very systems and structures, as well as the injustices they perpetuate, nonetheless need to be engaged with. Indeed, this is a tension which emerges from the Biblical narrative; of prophets and martyrs who eschewed any notion of relationship to or involvement with oppressive powers, while at the same time warning those very powers of God’s judgement if they did not effect justice and fairness to their subjects (The Exodus confrontation between Moses, Aaron, and Pharoah being a prominent example of this). My own personal analysis of the type of work SPEAK commits itself to, for example, is that while it might be appealing to government to effect structural change, it is also nonetheless an invaluable witness to what the Apostle Paul calls “the principalities and powers.” 
Particularly within this Christmas season, when we find ourselves overpowered by strong societal themes of “peace on earth”  conflated with heavy consumerism, emphasis on the exchange of expensive gifts, and family meals with enough helpings to feed a small community, the calling we have to both charity and justice can be all too easily forgotten. Before I come across as being overtly condemning of society in general, I should hasten to add that I don’t write this as someone who is completely immune to these cultural mores. I myself expect to be spending Christmas with a couple of old friends, and for there to be a good thankful supply of food and drink to hand.
Certainly (and especially as an Anglican!), I would never suggest that Christmas should not be celebrated at all, but it is precisely during this season when we are actually best placed to be reminded of the calling to both charity and justice. There is, anchored in a real world context, the very real problem of those people and families for whom “peace on earth” is a far-fetched fantasy, from many in the UK: the homeless, the destitute, the working poor who must decide whether it is more prudent to be fed or heat their homes, those with no families or even friends to visit, etc, to many around the globe: in extreme situations of poverty, famine, sickness, malnutrition, suffering the tangible effects of war and oppression, fleeing from natural disasters caused by climate change, and a whole list of human terrors too numerous to either list or imagine.
Then, of course, there is the reminder of the central figure of Christmas, the baby Jesus Christ, placed in the midst of a world torn between rampant consumerism, materialist endeavours, imperial conquest, and everyone else caught in the crossfire thereof. So, is this truly a time when we are drawn away in the peace and stillness of our hearts, away from the world’s troubles, to reflect upon that sombre night of nativity when the “gentle baby Jesus” was born in the midst of shepherds, kings, and friendly farm animals?
Actually, this bastardised version of the Christmas story popularised within school and church nativity plays is a far cry from the all too disturbing portrayal of events. The birth of Jesus, the Christ, was from the very beginning plagued by corrupt political intrigue and the mysteriously terrifying prophecies of a hope that would come to unfold from this event. According to the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod, fearing that this newborn Messiah would be a threat, launched a genocidal campaign to wipe out all children in Bethlehem under the age of two, a mass tragedy from which Mary and Joseph successfully fled. At his very birth, Jesus had become a refugee fleeing from state-sanctioned genocide .
The famous “wise men” of the Matthean narrative, who encountered Herod, were in fact pagan travellers from a distant land. In his recent article “Putting the class (war) back into Christmas,” Ekklesia editor Jonathan Bartley makes the terrific point that that, over the ages, these wise men became “kings” even though the narrative never once refers to them as being even anything remotely of the kind, and that this later amendment reflected the close association of religion with the elite, rather than offering a challenge to it.  In reality, the wise men are referred to as Magi, meaning they were likely Persian astrologers from the Zoroastrian religion, which also believes in a messiah figure. That they would be visiting Jesus to worship Him reflects an underlying theme that God would welcome and include people of all nations and ethnicities, including “Gentiles,” who were considered inferior to the Jews in ancient Palestine.
The unfolding of events in Luke offers a somewhat different version, where Herod’s genocide is not mentioned and instead the antagonist of political oppression comes in the form of the Roman Empire. Here, Mary and Joseph make their excursion to Bethlehem due to a decree from Caesar that all people should be registered by census, as a means to extend control and further the grip of taxation on the Jewish people.  It is within Luke’s Gospel that we find the traditional image of baby Jesus in a manger due to no room in the inn. What we often miss from this, is the sheer ridiculousness of the Messiah, the Son of David himself, being born in the midst of mud in poor surroundings, especially with Caesar opting for a throne. Add onto this that among the first visitors to greet the newborn Christ were not kings, as popular hymns and carols would have us believe, but shepherds; among the working class of their time, not only considered peasants, but also classed as “unclean” under Hebrew purity laws due to the nature of their work. And here they are welcoming and worshipping God in the flesh!
Of course, even before Jesus even emerged visible from the womb, His mother knew full well what kind of child He would be. When Mary, the poor handmaiden, fully realised the news that she would give birth to the Son of God, she sang the Magnificat, prophesying that:
“he has brought down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.” 
Let us make no mistake about it: the Christmas story is deeply, deeply offensive, and it is also deeply, deeply hopeful. At the centre of our celebrations, is the promise that not only will the poor be shown justice, but that kings, rulers, and the rich will be sent away empty handed. And the central character of it all, the baby Jesus, remains the infant refugee, both Palestinian and Jewish, laid to sleep in an impoverished manger with the dark and sinister shadow of Roman control and state-endorsed assassination following him even from his birth. In a profound foreshadowing of His future as the man crucified as an insurrectionist against the Empire, Jesus comes into this world as its light and hope, not only giving us the promise of a cataclysmic and mysterious salvation, but also turning our grandiose cultural dreams of power, materialism, imperialism, and riches completely on their head. God in Christ comes to show us a far different kind of power; one which shows charity and solidarity for the oppressed, while actively undermining the very systems and structures of oppression.
So this Christmas, as you sit down to your meal, as you give thanks, and as you enjoy the exchange of gifts, I would encourage you to remember, as I will, those with whom Jesus still identifies and shows solidarity even in the here and now, for the poor and oppressed both locally and globally, and appealing to those empires and kings who still loom over the ruins of the broken world they have helped to create; to remember that, in Jesus, we have both a promise and a calling to ensure that things will not remain this way forever, that kings will be dethroned and that the hungry will be filled; and that, through all of this, you will join with me in proclaiming:
“All hail the baby Palestinian refugee of Nazareth!”
 Ephesians 6:12. Also, the “Powers” trilogy by Walter Wink has done extensive work on the subject of principalities and powers.
 Interesting to note that our modern slogans of “peace on earth” and variations thereof originate from Luke 2:14, when a whole multitude of angels announce “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” It was, understandably, a terrifying thing for the observing shepherds to experience, and not a particularly “peaceful” one at that.
 Matthew 2:16-18
 Luke 2:1-5
 The Magnificat in full is found in Luke 1:46-55
This is something of an early review on the book “Surprised by Hope” by Tom Wright (Or N.T. Wright to his more scholarly audience), who, for those of you unaware, is the Bishop of Durham in the Anglican Communion, and one of the more prominent New Testament theologians of our day.
I say this is an early review because I haven’t actually finished the book yet. However, Dr. Wright (If it is appropriate to refer to him as such, I have no way of knowing the proper form of address for a Bishop, and if he ever reads this review then I hope I shall be forgiven such ignorance) is a man who manages to generate such a vastly diverse – and yet strangely coherent – set of ideas on one issue that he has already managed to have me thinking a great deal on the subject of this work even after only reaching the halfway mark.
Surprised by Hope is an exploration of the truth regarding the afterlife in Christian thought… or, to put it more precisely, the lack of an afterlife. Wright seeks to lay out literally centuries of misunderstanding regarding the whole concept of what we refer to as “resurrection,” and in its place more fully explain the actual Biblical truth. The misunderstandings, he recounts in a very detailed way, regard how modern Christians often believe that when the Bible speaks of resurrection, they take it to mean our “Going to Heaven,” in that we envisage our earthly corpses being completely left behind to decay when we die followed by an immediate transition of our “spiritual selves” (often referred to as the “soul” or “spirit”) to the dimension of Heaven, God’s dwelling place. The book’s concern is to explicate Biblical truth on the matter and to show that this is in fact not what Jesus and the Apostles taught at all, but rather that when they encouraged us to pray “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as in Heaven,” they meant it quite literally. The resurrection of the dead, as it is laid out in the New Testament, is based in the thoroughly Jewish theology that God will one day transform (and is indeed transforming as we speak) the entire creation. Wright’s ultimate argument is that just as Jesus Christ underwent the transformation of a full bodily resurrection after He died and rose again, so too will we be raised and transformed in entirely the same manner. He draws a lot of inspiration from 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul discusses how God will one day transform our current physical bodies to be spiritual bodies when the Kingdom comes, and that because of what Christ has accomplished upon the cross, this is actually already happening in the current moment. The reality, then, as far as Jesus and the first Christians were concerned, wasn’t that we would leave this earthly plain at all, but rather that the earth would be made into a new creation along with ourselves.
I can imagine that at this point some Christians would argue “Does it really matter, though? Don’t we Christians have more important things to be worrying about than the precise nature of what God will or won’t do, or what does or doesn’t happen when we die? Surely it’s not important to guess what “heaven” might be like, since none of us knows?”
This is actually a major cornerstone of Wright’s overall purpose in writing this work. Not only is it his desire to correct the misconception of resurrection, but he argues that whether we cling to the old (non-Biblical) tradition of Heaven or whether we embrace the actual truth greatly impacts how we conduct ourselves spiritually in the here and now. For example, a Christian stuck in the idea that we are “going to Heaven” after we die might be inclined, however subconsciously, to feel complacent about the injustices of the world and its suffering because they believe that ultimately this world doesn’t matter and will one day be destroyed once God’s judgement comes. Their priority might be the business of “saving souls,” to gather as many believers and disciples as is possible so that they can be prepared to “go home” once Jesus comes again. To illustrate this point even further, Wright speaks of how American fundamentalists have often approached him to argue that environmentalism and matters of ecological concern are a waste of time, because this world is utterly fallen and God is far more concerned with gaining believers in Christ in time for the end. He goes on to comment, with a subtle undertone of sadness complimenting his outrage, that this line of thinking is not only dangerous but entirely blasphemous.
A Christian who holds fast to the Biblical truth, he argues, understands what the scriptures say in that the resurrection from the dead means not only transformation for ourselves, but also the entire cosmos. God has begun a mysterious work in the universe because of what Jesus has accomplished upon that cross, and when we are awakened to that truth, we become of a heart and mind where we ourselves will work for that transformation. The Christian who understands that God is not preparing to unleash His destructive wrath on a hopeless world, but rather change the whole cosmos into the one it was always meant to be, has their attitude more conformed to working out God’s love, peace, and justice in the here and now, since they are preparing for the time when that justice will come in fullness. Wright wishes the church, then, to be of a heart and mind where we embody such transformation in the present time, knowing that our work does not happen in vain but will eventually be used by God when the Kingdom comes.
All this, of course, is but a mere summary, and I can’t do appropriate justice to this thorough examination in a single blog post. There are many elements which stick out in my mind and blow me away, though. For example, in one chapter Wright discusses the so-called “rapture” event described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, wherein Paul talks about Jesus’ second coming and how he apparently describes all existing believers being “caught up” to meet Him in the air. This one passage has become the subject of much discourse within more conservative churches obsessed with endtimes studies, and has been featured quite prominently in Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ fictional Left Behind series (As a testimony to the author’s subtle yet smile-raising humour, he points out how this book series has not only been a bestseller in America but has also found a considerable audience in the UK, although “I can’t imagine who in my own country might be buying them…”). Firstly, Wright explains that this passage cannot be taken in isolation, but must be placed in context with other verses where Paul is describing the exact same event, such as 1 Corinthians 15:23-27 and Philippians 3:20-21. Moreover, he gets into the exact meaning of the term Parousia as inferring not only a “coming” or “appearing” event, but also a royal presence. This term was often used to talk about the visitation of the Emperor to a colony or province, whereby the citizens of such an area would come to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to the ruler if he had to make the effort to meet his subjects where they are, as if they couldn’t be bothered to make the effort to meet him halfway. Likewise, Dr. Wright expounds, Paul is using a deliberate metaphor which would have been familiar to his readers. There is no “leaving behind” the fallen, sinful creation to its own depravity, then, but every bit of creation coming to be transformed by the returning Christ, with the citizens of His Kingdom prepared to meet Him as He appears.
On that same point, Dr. Wright has a great knack for drawing out some amazingly radical ideas from what is essentially thoroughly conservative and orthodox Biblical theology. He unashamedly defends all the essential components of Christian faith, from the crucifixion, to the actual bodily resurrection of Christ, to His ascension, right through to His actual second coming at the time of judgement. And yet, from all of this orthodoxy, Wright draws out a definitive urgency on the part of the church to effect good stewardship of the creation and justice for the oppressed in the present time, concepts which are sadly lost on (or at least downplayed by) much of the broader church. Additionally, Wright also stresses the Lordship of Christ for what it actually is. Within his examination of the Parousia, for example, he points out that not only was Paul using a royal term to speak of Jesus as the one true Lord, but he was also pointing towards the truth that it is ultimately God alone, through the return of Christ, who will transform the creation in fullness and effect complete justice and vindication of the oppressed. The implication, then, is that Caesar, for whom the term Parousia would have ordinarily been used, would not be the agency through which such transformation will occur. Put simply: God’s restoration of the universe rests upon the truth that Jesus Christ is the one true Lord of all creation, with every other person claiming the title “lord” (or similar) and offering “genuine change” being but a parody of this greater truth. As the author writes in his own words:
Confessing Jesus as the ascended and coming Lord frees up the political task from the necessity to pretend that this or that programme or leader has the key to Utopia (if only we would elect him or her). Equally, it frees up our corporate life from the despair that comes when we realise that, once again, our political systems let us down. The ascension and appearing of Jesus constitute a radical challenge to the entire thought structure of the Enlightenment (and of course several other movements). And, since our present western politics is very much the creation of the Enlightenment, we should think seriously about the ways in which, as thinking Christians, we can and should bring that challenge to bear.
Although Dr. Wright appears to want to be careful with the language he is using, one finds a very subversive theology emerging from his thought. He is essentially saying, in subtlety if not outright, that the governments and political systems of the world do not have a part in the human agency through which God’s Kingdom will come, and that this agency depends on how the church today will challenge those systems rather than adhere to them. Wright comes across as almost anarchist in his thinking (Although he has specifically eschewed that term elsewhere), and it would be interesting to know what kind of praxis he adopts in his own life for these obviously passionate thoughts of his.
This wouldn’t be a review, however, without some hopefully constructive criticism to balance out near-idolisation at this point (Because, obviously, N.T. Wright browses blogs all the time looking for the average person’s opinion of his work, and will no doubt set apart what this 25-year-old amateur theologian has to say amidst the hundreds of respected and qualified peers who have critiqued him; Obviously). While purporting some incredible understandings of scripture and new ideas to challenge his audience, it strikes me that it actually takes Dr. Wright some time to get to his main points. A few dozen of the first pages come across almost as one gigantic rant about the traditional idea of going to heaven, with some odd and distracting juxtapositions of Paul the Apostle and then, say, The Importance of Being Earnest in order to flesh out his argument. I fear he might lose a fair chunk of his audience this way, some of whom could be mere Christian simpletons who aren’t particularly cultured and just want to get to the meat and potatoes (In the nicest vegan way I can possibly employ that colloquialism). I mean, I am one such Christian simpleton myself, and I could easily have given up 30 pages in were I not thoroughly interested in what Wright has to say.
Also, I was a little disappointed at Dr. Wright’s analysis of Hell within all of this, which itself is discussed only fleetingly, something I found surprising given the nature of the work. When he starts getting into his examination of the Biblical concept of resurrection, Wright talks in an extremely positive and optimistic way, referring to portions of scripture such as 1 Corinthians 15:28 (“God shall be all in all”) and Colossians 1:15-20 to discuss how the resurrection is not an event that will be confined to those genuinely-believing Christians, but will actually mean the entire restoration of the universe itself, transformation for all things. From the same chapter of Colossians 1 in verse 23, where Paul speaks of how the Gospel has been “proclaimed to every creature,” Wright discusses how the achievement of Jesus Christ upon the cross is by no means limited to its effects on human beings who affirmatively believe the Gospel, but that “it resonates out, in ways that we can’t fully see or understand, into the vast recesses of the universe.”
After using such beautiful language to talk about the resurrection, it is somewhat surprising that further into the book, he seems almost flustered on the matter of Hell. Wright departs from confidence into speculation about the subject, and quite astonishingly (and probably aware of the fact too), he derives his opinion from no Biblical basis. Explaining that he finds traditional views of Hell too harsh and yet the modern view of Christian Universalism too “liberal,” Dr. Wright tries to find an acceptable midway point and stabs in the dark at the idea that those in the world who reject God’s redemption will turn away so far from the Image of God within them that they will “cease to be human” when the resurrection happens, and instead become beings whose state is beyond pity.
I can certainly sympathise with Dr. Wright in one respect, in that a clear tension exists between the Biblical idea that God will one day sentence the wicked (whomever they may be) to eternal punishment and the equally Biblical idea that God will restore all creation to Himself. This is a very difficult reconciliation to have to make, and it may be that this is one more area to which we will have to accord the mystery of God. It just struck me that the author is somewhat uncertain in his analysis and could stand to be a little more convincing about it. At least, if nothing else, the tension between these two Biblical views ought to be more clearly outlined so that it could become a potential dialogue within the church.
With those critiques aside, however, I am thoroughly enjoying this book so far, and it could be that I will have more to review upon finishing. Needless to say, it’s recommended where you’re able to find it, and can be enjoyed provided the weaknesses are understood to be worth it in light of the impressive ideas Dr. Wright has to convey.
Today marked the first time back at my regular church, All Hallows in Leeds, for several months. It was great to see some familiar faces, and while it certainly felt strange being on a Sunday morning service after so long away, it actually seemed in other ways like I hadn’t really been away at all.
When I attend any church, I do of course enjoy being filled by the time of worship and the communion supper, but I usually tend to seek for something within the sermon to take away and apply within my own life. Today, however, while the sermon was good and thoughtful, I found myself instead being most challenged of all by the time of prayer. I’m not sure whether it was the feeling of being back in a familiar setting or finally being in a place where I can comfortably reflect on the last few months, but for whatever reason I found myself at the whim of an almost overwhelming sense of sadness while the prayers were being said. It just seemed to dwell on me moreso than usual, the deep feeling of sadness many within the congregation must be feeling at any one time through all the personal troubles we go through in our own lives. There was nothing which particularly stuck out from the norm about those being prayed for, but if only for a few moments and in a very limited, vicarious way… I could feel the effects of despair through those prayers. People who are sick and terminally or irreparably ill; who are suffering bereavement and loss; who are in prison; who lack the understanding of being loved; and so on.
It all reminded me of the immense power there is in prayer, not just in the continual hope and thanksgiving we have that God will answer us, but also in the tremendous sense of solidarity which unites us when we pray together and for each other. Recently, I have been trying to remind myself to begin my prayers from a position of thankfulness for all that God has done and continues to do for me; Today, I found myself being thankful to be part of a community which cries out to God in loving desperation for the people around them.
Later on, when praying by myself, a word came to my mind and stuck in there: Precious. We probably think of that word mostly in a sense of deep, inexpressible love for a child, for example, and so we often think of ourselves as being precious in God’s eyes. However, I found myself using that word in solitude to express my love for God. He is precious to me. Much as I might fail, swerve, swagger, and fall short in life, I can never deny that I care deeply for God. He is my all, and I feel that I love Him not only as my Father and Master, but also in the same way someone might care for their son or daughter. As well as being the Almighty Creator of the universe, and the redeemer of mankind upon that cross, He is also eternally the helpless babe born in that humble manger two millennia ago. There are many ways to look at God in Christ, and today I look at Him through Mary’s eyes… precious, irreplaceable, and the joy of my life. It would kill me to lose Him.
Does He not say, after all, that whoever does the will of God is to Him a brother, sister, and mother? (Mark 3:31-35) If God’s love is precious to us, for both us in Him and He in us, then how much precious will those around us be? How desperate will our desire be for the unloved and the despairing to come to Him? How much will we lament for the way things are, and cry out “How long” to the Lord of all to deliver us from the bondage we suffer not only from Satan, but also that which we create for each other without even realising it?
Being a disciple of God means being constantly challenged by the sadness and sickness in the world, yet also lifting up praise and thanksgiving to our precious God, who has given us eyes to see, who has given us the empowerment to live in solidarity with one another, and who will not leave us this way forever. The lamentations we have for ourselves and for those around us, will one day be justified by the same power which raised Christ from the dead.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.
Over the last few months or so, and in many different situations, I’ve had the great opportunity to meet with many different people and hold some very interesting discussions, mostly on the subject of faith and spirituality. On many of these occasions, I have faced the personal challenge of formulating dialogue with individuals who come from an entirely different perspective, and have encountered standpoints ranging from Buddhist, to Kaballah, to Secularism. The diversity of these conversations has left me reevaluating a lot of my own thoughts on what it means to be a Christian, and also what it means for the calling I believe I have to help “make disciples of all nations, and baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
I came to faith in Christ initially because I saw something in the love and compassion of others around me which I couldn’t make sense of in worldly terms, and because, I now realise, I was seeing the love of God emanating from the actions and relationships of those Christians around me. When I explored those concepts for myself, I become open to just what it meant to be in a personal relationship with God through this Christ-figure, and have spent the years since constantly articulating what that spiritual transformation means for my life. In the immediate time frame after this conversion experience, however, I was received into a background which placed heavy emphasis on “evangelism,” that is, conveying the love of Jesus to others in the hopes that they will experience the same salvation that we have. As I was taught in the church (from the standpoint of the Bible), Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father, and thus it is by His name alone that one is “saved,” and granted eternal life with God. The urgency, therefore, was to go out and preach the Gospel at every given opportunity, so that people would come to faith and that we in the Church would pave the way for God’s Kingdom to come.
In the time since I have been a Christian, having come from this thoroughly Evangelical background, I have found myself exploring the meaning of these terms, which I am certain must be completely alien to many. Some of the language that we in the Church use has even become cliché to the point of tedium. How am I “born again,” for example? Just what is it that I am “saved” from? I have been saved from Hell, as the popular consensus would have it; saved from the power of the devil and restored into the life that God wants to me to have, rather than a life of darkness. I have found, however, that it is not only an eternity in Hell of which I am in danger, for the demonic has particular power here on earth right now as well. Their traps, I perceive, include poverty, sickness, starvation, famine, oppression, depression, despair, alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness, and all manner of ills too numerous to list. The salvation that Jesus offered me those four and a half years ago is too powerful to stop short of a comfortable afterlife, I think. The power and presence of God through what He accomplished upon that cross has to have relevance to the here and now, with the potential for people to find a deep and mysterious liberation from all snares of the powers of darkness at work on this earth today. I often write that I consider salvation to be a very present act achieved by God in our lives, which transforms our hearts, lives, and actions in a way that will continue from this moment until the time the Kingdom comes.
These musings, however, haven’t stopped at either spiritual or social issues, and my recent encounters have brought me back to the question “What about people of other faiths or no faith at all?” After all, according to the Bible, Jesus professes “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father, but by me.” What does that mean, then, for these Atheists, Agnostics, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Pagans, Hindus, and anyone else who follows a different (or no) spiritual ethos?
What challenges me moreso, I think, is seeing that people who aren’t necessarily Christians often have a very compassionate heart, and can follow moral practices similar to my own, sometimes putting me to shame. If Christ is power and transformation for the here and now, how is it that someone who is a Buddhist or a Muslim can have just as fervent a faith and as deep a spirituality as my own which is found solely in Christ?
I am always quick to assert that I am not a pluralist, and certainly do not believe that each religion or spiritual path, or even anything we do by our own merits, is equally true, or equally the way to God/Truth/Reality. I have faith in and believe what Jesus says when He proclaims Himself to be the only way to God. However, my own experiences would suggest to me that the salvation He offers is something so deep and mysterious that we human beings will never fully grasp it, and at times I have sensed the power of God at work in places I really wouldn’t expect, even in the lives and relationships of those who don’t have faith in Him. This, I fervently believe, is down to the Image of God which exists within all people, and manifests itself in sometimes powerful ways. I am beginning to realise that God is too unfathomable for me to assign the entirety and monopoly of His work to the religion of Christianity.
In realising this, I am realising moreso what it means to “evangelise,” or to witness my faith to other people. These words sometimes leave a bad taste in people’s mouths due to the connotations of force and aggression they have, as if someone wishes to go out of their way to force their perspective upon others (A trait I have noticed not just from people of the Christian faith, either). For me, however, I feel that it is an integral part of my function in life to let people know they are loved. When Jesus encountered lepers, prostitutes, paralytics, and tax collectors, He didn’t get into complicated theological discussions with them. Instead, He wrapped up divine wisdom within captivating stories to provoke people’s imaginations, or else He simply said to someone who came to Him: “Your faith has made you well.” To me, it all seems indicative of a God who reaches out to people, but meets them where they are before walking with them further. More than this, a God who reaches out to people to ultimately show them that they are loved.
The opinion I take on the matter of Hell is this: It’s none of my business who goes there, and indeed I hope and pray that no one will. I will warn people of it, but my primary concern is showing love to people and being open to God to allow Him to work through those interactions. I have come to feel similarly about my encounters of people with different faiths as well. My hope is that in their search for truth and spirituality, God will show them Christ, but at the same time I wish to have love and respect for them where they currently are in their lives. I will share my faith, but I never want to force it upon others. Similarly, who is to say that there is no wisdom I can gain from someone of a different perspective, even while I am remaining firmly grounded in Christ? If we are humble enough to learn from each other, than it may be that we will all converge closer to God.
I suppose the long and short of it is… I can remain strong in my conviction that Jesus Christ is the only way to God, but also acknowledge that His work will not necessarily be confined to those who directly confess Him. That is far different from me saying that all religions are equally valid. It is saying that my love for God and humanity are too deep for me to claim that I have it all figured out. Until the time when I am no longer finite, I will simply do as Christ is calling me to do: To be obedient to His commandments, and to let people know that they are loved and accepted, no matter who or where they are.