Blog

On Being White and Other Lies and Other Links

In honor of George Floyd and in support of bringing about reform and a more equitable and just society, in place of a blog, below are links which point to practical action and an article by James Baldwin.

https://8cantwait.org/?fbclid=IwAR31rG8tP4lj08Ttjx3IQ0JAQV7RnR2KoLW8d1ffCGRKhox8svkny5wGqck

https://www.google.com/search?q=James+Baldwin+On+Being+White+and+Other+Lies&oq=James+Baldwin+On+Being+White+and+Other+Lies&aqs=chrome..69i57.20198

Renouncing the Way of Violence

This is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. In struggling for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns. To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can be done only by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Bible portrays God as intervening in human evil and putting sacrifice and violence to an end, through Christ (as Daniel 9:27 prophesied) and it is this continuing nonviolent intervention into violence to which the followers of Jesus are called. In other words, Jesus’ death is not a violent sacrifice for God, nor is it a sacrifice bringing to a climax the plan required by God to forgive mankind.

What God requires is self-denial, since “the sacrifice of the heart is the atonement for which alone he cares.”[1] To think God required or needed a sacrificial death is to succumb to the lie that God requires violence and, therefore, to cover up the evil that the Gospel tries to annul. A Christianity which needs sacrifice would fall under the critique of Regina Schwartz and others, which would suggest monotheistic religion is inherently violent, an abomination in its promotion of violence and exclusion. In reality, authentic Christianity is a critique of violence and is the singular means of ending it.  

Violent atonement theories, such as penal substitution, have prolonged violence in the world, reducing large portions of Western Christianity to a reaffirmation or means of violence – a vehicle for Satan’s lie which requires bloodshed. The force at work undermining an authentic Christianity is the error of Israel, the darkness of the nations, the delusion of the world, that is characterized by violence. A violent Christianity has succumbed to or even embraced the world’s darkness, while the authentic Christian life is an intervention into this system.  

In a biblical-historical recapitulation, when humanity becomes its own god (Genesis 3; cf. Romans 1:21-23), it begins to depend on itself for its survival, because without God, humanity stops living and begins to survive. Violence becomes the means of survival. As Darwin would describe it, survival is only for the fittest (or strongest), but in order to survive, it must destroy its surroundings, that is, creation itself (including the neighbor). The problem is, that by wiping out the resources that surround it, survival entails self-destruction.

Revelation presents the alternative; a peaceful alternative, an alternative in which the harmony that was in the original design is restored. In this alternative, the human being must retake his place as a gardener. Only by loving God, loving the neighbor, and caring for the Garden, can humanity not only survive, but truly live, truly be a well of water springing up to eternal life (John 4:14).

Likewise, the violence of Cain (Genesis 4:8), Lamech (Genesis 4:23-24), Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 37:18-28), Saul (1 Samuel 18:7-11, etc.); Judah (Ezekiel 8:17), the one imposed on the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:21-22), and that of the rest of humanity, is reversed through Christ and His followers by loving the brother (Matthew 22:39) instead of murdering him as Cain did, by forgiving 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:22) instead of taking revenge 70 times 7 like Lamech, by reconciling with the brother even if he provokes one to anger (Matthew 5:23-24). By submitting to the King of kings the follower of Christ reverses evil (Ephesians 5:24a; Revelations 19:16) instead of perpetuating it as Joseph’s brothers did. Instead of wanting a position of power as Saul did, instead of committing violence as Judah did and humanity does, the follower of Jesus seeks peace with all (Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14).

This is the path of peace that God had been presenting gradually from the beginnings of the Old Testament, but that had its fulfillment in Christ and in His Church. Pacifism is the quality that makes Christians unique in this world full of violence. Being a pacifist like Jesus, is not only to imitate Him, but it is the true sacrifice that God requires. Sacrificing the violence that dwells in the human heart and replacing it with the peace of Christ is the way to eternal life.

Pacifism is controversial since, as mentioned above, a large part of Western Christianity has adopted violence as part of its interpretation of atonement. In other words, under this wrong perspective, God requires violence to end violence. But violence only gives birth to more violence; it does not eliminate it. Rather, violence as the means of combating violence, is the degenerate perspective by which humanity is governed, and it is the one that God seeks to eliminate in a redeemed cosmic order.

This is why the Sermon on the Mount is controversial, Jesus not only wanted humanity to love those who are easy to love, but also the enemy. And how many wars has humanity started in the name of God? Many, but Jesus taught, it is impossible for a person to genuinely love another and at the same time seek to murder him. “Just war” does not make “Christians” of those who subscribe to this theory, it makes zealots – people willing to attack the enemy for a “good reason.”

Jesus precisely rejected the zealot option because it was not radical enough. Attacking the enemy does not require much, it is easy to get angry and seek to do evil to the other. What is radical and extremely difficult is to forgive the enemy; and not only that, but love him too. In his omnipotence, Jesus allowed Himself to be crucified by His enemies, and hanging on the cross forgave them (Luke 23:43). The call is for the Christian to do so as well! For Jesus said, “take up your cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23). “Jesus’s death on the cross instructs us to self-sacrificially absorb violence instead of forcefully resisting it, or worse, inflicting it. It tells us to suffer violence, to allow it to do its worst to us, rather than to use it ourselves.”[2]

As Mathew C. Fleischer describes it, Christian pacifism is not passive or inactive, but just the opposite, it is active non-violent peacemaking. While violence hurts, destroys and tears down, Christian love serves, restores, and edifies.

There is no verse in which Jesus commands violent action, not even for a righteous cause. “What is a more righteous reason than defending the Master?!” Peter thought as he cut off Malchus’ ear (John 18:10). And Jesus’ answer was “Stop! No more of this.” And He touched his ear and healed him (Luke 22:51). Not only were Jesus’ commandments non-violent, they were anti-violence, as the example of His arrest demonstrates. Jesus fought valiantly, not violently. He subjected Himself to the worst form of violence, and triumphed over the violence that killed him in his resurrection.  This is the King who offers eternal life; a life where there is no more death, because there is no more violence. While human governments reign by force, Christ reigns by peace. His Kingdom is not forced on mankind, for this would make Him violent. Jesus does not force His entrance into the human heart, He knocks on the door, He does not knock it down (Revelation 3:20), because violence has no place in His Kingdom.

The Christian who denies this pacifism and adopts violence as a resource, not only denies the teachings of Christ, but denies Christ Himself. “Jesus did not renounce the way of violence for the way of peace so that we could renounce the way of peace for the way of violence.”[3]

Man is made perfect in his faith when he lets his violence, his desires, his aspirations of power, his sinful thoughts, his failures, his negligence, his grudges, etc., die. Loving the enemy requires a true sacrifice from the Christian. It is to go against what he feels in his guts, it is to go against his strongest instincts. But it is the way to a full life. It is extremely easy to kill the enemy, but very difficult to forgive him. However, that is the living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God. Instead of the Christian adapting himself to this world and its violence, he must allow himself to be transformed by God by the renewing of his mind, so that he may verify what the will of God is: what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).[4]


[1] George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series I., II., and II. (Kindle Location 280). Kindle Edition.

[2] Matthew Curtis Fleischer. Jesus the Pacifist: A Concise Guide to His Radical Nonviolence (Kindle Locations 1061-1063). Epic Octavius The Triumphant, LLC.

[3] Brian Zahnd, A farewell to mars: an evangelical pastor’s journey toward the biblical gospel of peace (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2014).

[4] The above is an excerpt of the last chapter of the book I’m writing: The Sacrifice God Requires.

“I Can’t Breathe”

The police officer ignores the plea, “Please, please. I can’t breathe,” George Floyd gasps out.  “I can’t breathe, officer.” A bystander addresses the officers: “He is human, bro.” The cop is unphased and keeps his knee in place cutting off Floyd’s breath. After five minutes he is motionless and silent. A bystander notes the unbelievable but obvious: “They just killed that man.”  It is obvious from the video released on the internet that for ten minutes the officer drove his knee into Floyd’s neck. Despite pleas from bystanders, the officer showed no pity or compassion.

Six years ago, another black man, Eric Garner, pleaded with police officers in New York City who held him in a chokehold, saying “I can’t breathe.” He was choked to death and his cry, “I can’t breathe,” became the slogan and chant against police brutality.  

The final words of Frank Gabrin, the first ER doctor to die of coronavirus were, “I can’t breathe, help me.” His partner reports, “he was gasping for air in great, hoarse breaths, but could not get enough oxygen.” By the time paramedics arrived, Gabrin was on the edge of death, or had already gone. His face had turned purple.

 Dr. Byron Safewright indicates that this is a common refrain. “When people came to the hospital, it was because they couldn’t breathe. But when they had oxygen, it just didn’t help. They still were fighting for air. It doesn’t matter how much oxygen we give you — it doesn’t improve the problem.” The coronavirus can infect the respiratory tract, irritating and inflaming the airways. As the infection travels through the respiratory tract, the immune system fights back but this causes airways to become even more swollen and inflamed. As the body fights back suffocation results.

Some of Gabrin’s final texts before contracting the virus were, “Don’t have any PPE that has not been used. No N95 masks ― my own goggles — my own face shield.” He is one of numerous, and as of yet uncounted, medical workers across the U.S. who have succumbed to the virus, many of whom have died due to lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).  State legislators and health care providers across the country called on the Trump administration to help with the lack of PPE but the administration maintains it is the states’ responsibility to procure PPE and Donald Trump has deemed the shortage “fake news.”

Columbia University recently released a study showing 36,000 fewer people would have died in the midst of the crisis if the U.S. had acted just one week earlier to impose social distancing. If the country had begun locking down cities and limiting social contact on March 1, 83 percent of the nation’s deaths would have been avoided, researchers estimated. President Trump called Columbia University a “liberal, disgraceful institution” after it released the study.   

Vanity Fair reports that heading into the Memorial Day weekend, Trump complained that he was COVID-19’s biggest victim. “This is so unfair to me! Everything was going great. We were cruising to reelection!” Trump said to an adviser.

There are many ways to bring on asphyxiation but the most well-known is crucifixion. Pierre Barbet describes crucifixion as “death by asphyxiation.” The crucified have severe difficulty inhaling, as the chest, with arms outstretched, is expanded and unable to take in more air. The struggle is to pull the body up, either with the arms or the legs (which explains why breaking the legs insured a quick death), so as to be able to take in air, but one becomes exhausted. As with COVID-19, it is actually the attempt to fight for life that kills. It is a slow process of exhaustion and suffocation, very much like having a knee thrust into the throat so as to shut off oxygen. The more one cries out the greater the loss of oxygen. Crucifixion was preserved for those considered less than human and it was deployed as a means to frighten slaves into maintaining their station without rebellion or complaint.

The state requires sacrifice so as to maintain an ordered world – that of the slave or capitalistic economy. The knee of state, literal or metaphorical, requires the asphyxiation of the most vulnerable. The question is whether to identify with the powers that would vie for the economy, for “law and order,” or whether to identify with the vulnerable being asphyxiated.  

Jason Rodenbeck challenges us to do the right thing:

kill me with George Floyd

murdered in public by
the powers’ enforcers over
vague accusations before
mobs of bystanders, some
begging for mercy, he gasped

“I can’t breathe.”

and then he died.
what terrible crime must he have done
to be worthy of such treatment?
would it have even mattered if
he was innocent?

murdered in public by
the powers’ enforcers over
vague accusations before
mobs of bystanders, some
begging for mercy, he gasped

“I’m thirsty.”

and, when he had
asked forgiveness for them,
then he died. alone.

what terrible crime had he done?
nothing more than loving George Floyd.
and on his cross he gasped with George
on the pavement.

it didn’t even matter that
he was innocent.

I suppose it’s easy at 3 AM from the
quiet safety of my dining room to say
“I’d rather die with George Floyd than
suffer another to die alone.”

I’m sure it will be much harder to speak
when it happens in front of me,
and I am tempted to retreat to the
quiet safety of my whiteness.

but I hope in my heart that,
if that time comes I will
have the courage say to those officers

“if you really must kill someone,
kill me with George Floyd.”[1]


[1] Found On His Blog, “Thinking Peacefully,” https://jasonrodenbeck.wordpress.com/2020/05/27/kill-me-with-george-floyd/?fbclid=IwAR2gWip5xURX_8l4ZNacvPDnJIzCVDNlPgYADeDXQptGMWtWC9ooftdOycY

The Semiotics of Church

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Plato presumes writing is a step removed from meaning in that the memory and mind of the reader are disengaged and that the sign system, the dead letter, absorbs the living word of speech. Plato notes that writing is offered as a remedy (a pharmakon) by the Egyptian god of writing but the word contains a warning in its three possible meanings: remedy, poison, and scapegoat. Perhaps in the pharmakon reside the very origins of meaning with the remedy to the poison summed up in the scapegoat (the problem of violence overcome in scapegoating violence). Plato privileges speech over writing, but Derrida notes that Socrates would counteract the pharmakon of writing with the knowledge “graven in the soul.” In other words, Socrates is offering another pharmakon to counteract the pharmakon and he can do this as poison and its cure are always contained in the sign system – whether of writing or speech. Meaning arises in this medium of signs through what Derrida calls différance, in that the play of the differences (soul/ body, good/ evil, inside/ outside, memory/ forgetfulness, speech/ writing, etc.) playing off of one another, not simply as opposites but as a point of comparison, is the resource of the dialectics of meaning.

René Girard, in appreciation of Derrida’s analysis, connects the pharmakon to a prior original violence (the scapegoat, like the pharmakon, contains both the poison of violence and the cure). The surrogate victim or scapegoat symbolically bears all the weight of evil (the chaos of total violence) and its cure – the sacred – in which the victim becomes the god. According to Girard, the invocation of the sign of this event – the original signification – opens up the symbolic space giving rise to human language and society.

To describe the process in biblical terms is to posit an even more ancient origin, prior to Derrida’s identity through difference and Girard’s scapegoating mechanism, or prior to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and prior to the first murder and the first city. Two signs and two symbolic orders are represented by two trees in the Garden of Eden. The first tree contains life as the sign of God’s presence. It is under the sign of this tree that the ordering and naming activity of Adam, in what is sometimes described as the role of co-creator, is carried out. In this differentiating there is not an identity through a violent difference, as all difference (male/female, and the difference of the creatures from one another) are part of a unity of life and creation.

One can project forward and recognize unity, nonviolence, peace, and love are part of this original creative Logos (the semiotics of Adam) restored in the church. That is, the semiotics of the Logos will bring about an end to meaning built upon difference (light/dark, life/death, Jew/Gentile, etc.). The sign of the tree of life restored in the future kingdom brings about a unified humanity – “the healing of the nations.” The curse of death and violence are undone under the sign of this tree (Revelation 22:3-4). In Paul’s depiction, this unified humanity is represented by Jew/Gentile unity which comes about in a new mode of doing identity in the church. No longer do the binaries of Jew/Gentile, slave/free/, or male/female serve as a mode of doing identity through difference, but in the church, there is unity that contains these differences (as in the first and final appearance of the tree of life).

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as Derrida noted, is the original sign of the semiotic order of identity through difference. This system of signs is deadly in that it becomes its own origin of meaning, the first foundationalism, which cuts off from the meaning contained in the semiotics of life. Here in the biblical picture, as Girard recognizes, there is a sign system of death in which the first city arises from the original murder (Cain kills Abel and founds a city). The cultures of death are built upon a meaning and power of death established through violent and sacred difference – sacrifice or founding murder.

The understanding that culture is built upon a founding murder and that Christ reverses this order, is inclusive of a new order of meaning – a semiotics of life. I believe this provides the proper context for understanding Paul’s conviction that apparent dualisms (former modes of doing identity) such as death and life, present and future, height and depth, are no longer able to separate us from the love of God (Ro 8:38). Life has overcome death, Christ has filled the heights and depths (Eph 3:17), and time itself is now intersected by the eternal one. These things, taken as the foundation of an order of meaning, did indeed separate from God. Now , in Christ, they are taken up in a new order which comprehends or encompasses these differences and fills them with a love which surpasses this knowledge (Eph 3:17-19).

This is an order of meaning which confounds “the rulers of this age,” as they cannot understand it. It was, after all, in their own wisdom, their own order of meaning, that they “crucified the Lord of glory” (I Cor 2:8). As Louis Berkhof has described it, the crucifixion exposes the deception behind what was presumed to be ultimate reality. The scribes were assured that the law necessitated his death; the priests crucified him to honor the temple, and the Pharisees crucified him in the name of piety. “Pilate, representing Roman justice and law, shows what these are worth when called upon to do justice to the Truth Himself.  Obviously, ‘none of the rulers of this age,’ who let themselves be worshiped as divinities, understood God’s wisdom, ‘for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8).” With the crucifixion this false order of meaning is unmasked (unmasked as false absolutes and false deities) through their encounter with the Truth; they are made a public spectacle. The power of his resurrection defeats the “rule and authority, power and dominion,” of these rulers as they depended upon the power of death which he has defeated (Eph 1:20-21). Resurrection is inclusive of a new order of meaning no longer bound by the identity through difference, the lie or false wisdom which killed him.

This is why, for Paul, grace works in and through truth, as it is defeating the obstacle of meaning founded upon a lie (Col 1:6). Paul refers to this lie as “empty deceit,” which may be articulated through “philosophy” or “human traditions” (Col 2:8). These meaning systems, deployed by “the principalities and powers,” are coercive – passing judgment in regards to time (new moons and sabbaths), in regard to food and drink, through “elemental principles,” ordering life through a perishable order of meaning (Col 2:16-17).  The principles and wisdom of this world are the means by which rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world, exercise their power. Theirs is a power for darkness in the two-fold sense that it obscures the truth through a lie and it deals in the darkness of death. Christ has blotted out this hostile semiotics (“handwriting of ordinances” in the KJV) which “was against us, which was contrary to us.”  “He has taken” all of this “out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” and simultaneously “He disarmed the rulers and authorities” and “made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through the cross” (Col 2:15).

Summing up Paul’s notion of the principalities and powers, operating according to a failed wisdom, a deceived philosophy, a disobedient world order ruled over by a spirit of disobedience (Eph 2:1-2), this amounts to a semiotics of death. The logic and wisdom of this world are challenged by “the manifold wisdom of God” and this wisdom, through the Church, is “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph 3:10). The witness of the church to this alternative order of meaning continues to unmask the quasi-divine authority of those structures – those world powers, those realms of religious and ethical rules and rulers, those orders of thought that deal in oppression and death. Christ has unmasked those powers and the church (where it is truly the church) ensures, through its alternative order of meaning, that the exposure continues.1


[1] Thank you to Tim who gifted me with the book that sparked this line of thought – though I am still working through it: Virtual Christian by Anthony W. Bartlett.

The Gospel as the Mystery Revealed Versus Calvin’s “Incomprehensible” Anti-Gospel

That which was once hidden (“hidden since the foundation of the world”) but which has been revealed is not an esoteric secret on the order of Scientology (how to “go clear” of the body) or Mormonism (induction into the secrets of the Mormon Temple), or a secret on the order of the Gnostic mystery cults (a secret knowledge or experience), but it is a secret like Poe’s purloined letter – hidden in plain sight. It is a secret hidden in plain sight in the Old Testament, in the parables of Jesus, and in human experience. This mystery is one we inhabit in the way we organize ourselves into nations and religions, it is a mystery of interpretation (of the Old Testament but of reality in general), it is a mystery concerning the relationship between creation and Creator. Paul depicts the opening of this secret or the passage from “once hidden” to “now revealed” as marking a new historical consciousness as to the purposes of creation.

According to Ephesians, it pertains to “things in heaven” and “things on earth” and to God’s predetermined purposes for all things. Paul will refer to the broad sweep of history in Romans 9-11 as the unfolding of this mystery and he will refer to the breaking down of the “dividing wall” between Jews and Gentiles as pertaining to a fulfilled cosmic order previously hidden (Eph 2:14). This reference to the breaking of a literal wall in the Temple taken as a cosmic representation, such that divided people will be made one but also that the divide between heaven and earth will be broken down, is itself a deployment of the revealed hermeneutic apart from which the mystery remained. Paul’s allegorizing or spiritualizing interpretation of the most sacred precincts (the literal inner core) of Judaism (a mode he will apply to Hebrew Scriptures) pertains cosmically and personally. People are reconstituted as a singular family in which their personhood involves a new consciousness – holistic and personal. This new family fulfills the temple purposes of the cosmos in which heaven comes to earth: “in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:21–22). Gentiles and Jews are no longer divided, the individual is no longer divided and heaven and earth are no longer divided in this fulfilled cosmic arrangement. As Paul describes it in Galatians, the binaries (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female), which are not simply a convention of language but a mode of identity and understanding, no longer pertain in this new mode of identity and thought.  

The scheme of “once hidden” and “now revealed,” in taking in the full scope of history, may encompass “the age of the cosmos” in which people were “dead in their trespasses” (Eph 2:1-2), but is the mystery of that former age constituted by “the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (2:2). Is the mystery simply a result of sin’s deceit or darkness? If the mystery is equated with the darkness of sin, then the mystery revealed would be reduced to the overcoming of sin (the reduction of some theological systems). But Paul connects the mystery to two epochs of history inclusive of creation and its fulfillment, such that the mystery or the concealment disclosed by the revelation of the Gospel is part of the divine plan.

 In Ephesians 5 Paul connects the mystery to a primal goodness which precedes sin; which is not to say that Paul equates the mystery with the one-flesh relationship of marriage (described in Gen 2:24 and which he quotes) but the unity or oneness of the marriage relationship partakes of the mystery unfolded or fulfilled in Christ (5:31-32). Like the valence between creation and fulfillment, the once hidden significance of marital oneness is disclosed in the relation between Christ and the Church – an order inclusive of all humanity. It is not that the union between Christ and the Church, like the unity of marriage, is incomprehensible. What is revealed in this union, is the cosmic breadth of the marriage like unity brought about in Christ. Creations purpose remained an undisclosed and unfulfilled mystery which is now disclosed (made known, preached, realized, in a new unity) and realized in the Spirit.

This “Spiritual” understanding penetrates or unveils the mystery at two key junctures: the mystery of the Anointed “has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” (Eph 3:5); and this revealing works on the inward person “who is strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man” (3:16) so as to plumb new depths of comprehension (3:18-19). Spirit is interwoven with the realization of the revealed mystery in each of its appearances in Ephesians (1:11; 3:16; 5:26 speaks of a spiritual washing; and 6:19 evokes the power of the Spirit to work in Paul in making the mystery known) so that it is clear that the Spirit is the means to unity – inward and outward, cosmic and local.  The unity of Christ and the Church, the unity of Jews and Gentiles, the unity realized in “the inward man,” is a reconciliation in Christ sealed by the Spirit summed up as peace. This peace is not simply an interlude between wars but is a state of unity and participation in God.  Being “in Christ” means participation in the cosmic plan unfolding in a unified humanity founded in peace.

All of this seems to refer back to the fact that, “He made known to us the mystery of His will” (Eph 1:9). The Gospel is nothing less than an opening up of the will of God to human understanding. We now understand what God has foreordained or predestined for the world through his Son. Strange then that there is another gospel which claims that God’s plan or his reasons for predestination are wholly internal to his being and are opaque to humanity – completely incomprehensible.  

Calvin maintains that God’s predestination is mysterious and “utterly incomprehensible.” He believed this impenetrable mystery will inspire wonder and reverence in that confounding people, God’s mysterious decrees will be revered in their “wonderful depth.” Calvin warns in the opening of his chapter on predestination that we must restrain curiosity and not ask after the secret things of God, as these are forbidden. “Let us not be ashamed to be ignorant in a matter in which ignorance is learning. Rather let us willingly abstain from the search after knowledge, to which it is both foolish as well as perilous, and even fatal to aspire.”[1] In this alternative gospel, Calvin determined (from Ephesians 1:4) that there is no passage from hidden mystery to mystery disclosed; rather God’s mysterious predestination is to elect some (and to damn others) and this election is equated with holiness. There is no room for living out this inward and outward unity, lest these achievements be confused with meritorious works. For Calvin then, the gospel is not so much a mystery revealed as a mystery compounded. The question is if a gospel that misses Christ’s disclosure and fulfillment of cosmic purposes, preordained before the foundation of the world, qualifies as Gospel, or is it in fact a counter-gospel or anti-gospel?

In Paul’s depiction the Gospel is a revealing of God’s purposes for all of creation. In Romans, Paul equates “the Gospel of God” with that “which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (Ro 1:1-2) – the Hebrew scriptures. In the scriptures the Gospel was present but concealed until Christ retroactively brings out or delineates their prophetic element. As T.J. Lang puts it, “This does not diminish the revelatory function of the scriptures; it simply means that the Christ event is hermeneutically determinative, restructuring the perception of reality on either side of its occurrence.”[2]  In Paul’s depiction, what Christ does for the Hebrew scriptures, is what he does for all of  creation and for the Temple (a microcosm) and its religion. Just as the secret of the Old Testament is disclosed in Christ, so to Christ becomes the hermeneutic key for understanding human and cosmic purposes. It is not only the scriptures but God’s will for time, for all reality that are summed up or opened up in Christ: “He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Eph 1:9-10). The mystery disclosed pertains to all things and this is the Gospel.


[1] Calvin, Institutes Book 3 chapter 21.

[2] T. J. Lang, Mystery and the Making of a Christian Historical Consciousness: From Paul to the Second Century, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/37749844.pdf

Paul’s “Futility” Versus Hegelian Dialectics

Given creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing), one can either recognize with Paul (in Romans 8) and Gregory of Nyssa, Origin, and Maximus, that creation continues toward an eschatological realization of pleroma or fullness in which the nihilo (the chaos, disorder) is reduced and eventually has no place, or one can assume the nothing is part of a cosmic dualism giving rise to fullness (fullness of knowledge or a fullness of salvation). The difference pertains to two readings of Scripture and two modes of ordering reality. Do we read from creation to Christ and understand who Christ is on the basis of creation or do we apprehend creation as being fulfilled or completed through Christ?

Our reading will make a world of difference in how we define sin and evil and how we picture the work of Christ. The Hegelian mistake, in that it sums up the human mistake in giving first place to an immanent frame within creation, is key in regard to the nihilo. Hegel’s dialectic fully articulates Paul’s depiction of the reign of death through the reifying of nothing. Given subjection to this understanding our tendency will be to misread Paul (in the manner of the Western theological tradition?) and to imagine Romans 8 depiction of futility and its defeat pertains simply to sin (a sin reduced to the individual). To put it anachronistically, the world is with Hegel (and by extension the forebears and heirs of Luther) in Paul, while salvation is deliverance from out of this order.

Nonetheless, there is a certain value to be gained in engaging Hegel through Paul. The theological concepts of sin and evil tend either toward reductions to misdeeds and perverse thoughts or toward abstractions of cosmic battle which do not easily translate into the fabric of human experience. Even in our reading of the New Testament we may be so focused on individual transgression that we miss how sin can be definitive, not simply of some experience, but of experience per se as it is filtered to us through our world (so much so that it becomes a mode of reading the Bible). In Marx’s language, we might recognize the failures of the bank robber and even of the banker, but we tend to miss the definitive role of capitalism, which gives us both (bankers and bank robbers). Understood rightly, the nihilo of creation ex nihilo (a key point of departure for understanding God) is not simply an abstraction about the order of creation in relation to God but concerns the “fleshing out” or the overcoming of futility accomplished by Christ. If evil is a privation or a nothing given its opportunity in the manner of creation (i.e. it is without any metaphysical or ontological ground but a parasite on the good), this not only locates sin’s origin in the contingency of creation but its ongoing point of access in human experience as a “counter-force” or absence. Hegel gives full and positive articulation to this understanding.

The point at which Hegel and Paul converge pertains to the psychological or experiential reality of this imagined dualism (nothing and futility as a necessary something) in its constitution of human experience. Both will refer to it as a form of enslavement – even agreeing upon its point of entry in and through human cognition. For Hegel, “we are the activity that thought is.”[1] For Paul, human words and thought are deployed in an attempt to displace God and found an independent realm. Its specific point of entry is futile or deceived thought: “they became futile in their speculations” (1:21). Ματαιόω – is “to present what is vain” or “to deceive.”[2] Though Romans 8:20 (“the creation was subjected to futility”) does not “solve the metaphysical and logical problems raised” by this futility it explains that it has a beginning and end.[3] It arises with finitude and contingency and taken as an end in itself this lie turned them into fools (1:22). But this futility is delimited in those who put on Christ: “the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21).

Paul consigns this force to its original contingency as part of the unfolding of creation: “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (8:22). The pain of childbirth is no more necessary to the fully formed child than the nihilo is to creation. To assign death, futility, and suffering, to part of the constitution of the finished product is to serve the futility. It is to hollow out reality with the unreality of a lie. Creations purpose fulfilled in Christ consigns this futility to a passage through suffering forgotten or subsumed by the eschatological end point of creation: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Ro 8:18).

Paul, in an appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures, depicts the advance of futility through empty human speech and its embodiment as a lie incarnate: “THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE, WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING,” “THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS”; “WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS” (Ro 3:13–14). Paul describes the phenomenology of the lie as characterizing all forms of humanity (the original contexts of his quotations point to both Jews and Gentiles), originating as part of the universal man (the first Adam in Ro 5) and as definitive of individual human experience (Ro 7). Collective experience, universal experience, individual experience, which is inclusive of human religiosity, human sexuality, and human ethics, all fall under this futility – the exchange of the truth for a lie (Ro 1:21-23).

Hegel (and I presume Hegel is indeed the master thinker – truly summing up the alternative to Paul and the New Testament) gives primacy to human knowing (it is the true creation or outworking of spirit) while Paul presumes that this incarnate lie is an enslaving power and is not part of a creative dialectic. For Hegel enslavement necessarily precedes freedom; slave/master, nothing/something, evil/good are the terms of truth and freedom but also the substance of experience. For Paul, this presumed dualism and its defeat explains his form of dialectic in Romans 7 and Romans 9-11. There is for the individual, the law of the mind and the law of the body constituting the law of sin and death which gives way to the body of Christ (7-8), and there is the corporate experience of Jews and Gentiles fluctuating between disobedience and mercy which results in a Pauline synthesis: “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (11:32). This is not a dialectic between nothing and something but a false dialectic of the lie and disobedience defeated individually, corporately, and cosmically. The lie (disobedience, misorientation to death and the law) is countered by the truth or by the Word (the final Word of creation, the completion or fullness of creation).

The opening to Romans 6 points to sin as the slaveholder but it also indicates the perversity of the Hegelian notion that maintains the necessity of this enslavement for freedom (Ro 6:1). Even those who recognize “sin reigned in death” (5:21), are in danger of positing a dialectic between sin and grace: “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (6:1). In both Paul and Hegel the dialectic of sin is definitive of human experience. For Hegel, perhaps the archetypical sort of Christian perverter of the Gospel Paul has in mind, the dialectic of sin is normative for Christian thought. Paul recognizes dialectic is liable to be carried over into Christian understanding at key points in 6-7. “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” This is to allow sin to “be master over you” (6:14-15). For Hegel this explains why history is necessarily a “slaughter bench” while for Paul the violence of history definitive of human activity (3:9-18) is a futility overcome in Christ.

Paul’s description of how the dialectic arises through an orientation to the law gives rise to his pithiest dialectic formula: “Is the Law sin?” (7:7). He seems to have recognized the danger of pitting grace against law, such that the law itself is perceived as the problem (perhaps a succinct formula for the Protestant dilemma). But of course, it is not that law is the problem but sin coopts even the law of God. It is not simply that the Jewish law, due to this lie, reduces to the law of sin but all human religious and ethical striving – even the best, even that built upon God’s law, is sin possessed. Thus, Paul concludes that all are unrighteousness and all are misoriented to the law. In the progressive argument of Romans there is a flattening out of all law to the law of sin and death.

The difficulty, where sin and evil are pervasive, is to be able to name this thing – to name and recognize the idol (the ideology, the politic, the value system, or even the theology by which Paul is read) by which we measure and experience. Paul does not presume to have a place from which to begin to describe sin apart from the Gospel. The law provides an opening to sin and serves as a point of revelation only in conjunction with the Gospel. Romans opens with the good news (a proclamation of everything being made right) and part of this news concerns the universal reign of sin and death. God’s saving power (1:16-17) to redeem all of creation (8:19-23) simultaneously reveals that the world spirit is not God but the enemy defeated by Christ.

In David Bentley Hart’s depiction, for Paul we are living in the midst of transition between two worlds: “we are living in the final days of one world-age that is rapidly passing and awaiting the dawn of another that will differ from it radically in every dimension: heavenly and terrestrial, spiritual and physical.” This is a story of “invasion, conquest, spoliation, and triumph” in which “nothing less than the cosmos is at stake.”[4] The world has been made subject to death in and through some form of malign governance (“angelic” or “demonic”). These archons, or what Paul calls Thrones, Powers and Dominions, divide us off from God. Whether arising from a sub-personal or demonic realm, Christ exposed these powers and this exposure is part of their defeat. Given that evil’s modus operandi is a lie, exposure is the beginning of defeat.

Indicators that we have to do with a deadly lie, with philosophy gone bad, with corrupt powers of state, is that sin’s defeat is through life giving truth; it has to do with the transformation of the mind enabling a capacity to know and do God’s will (12:1-2), which is integrated with and gained in new forms of human community (12-15). The futility of the nihilo is displaced with hope (5:1-5; 8:24), peace displaces bloodshed (5:1; 14:17; 15:13), and joy and love displace despair and condemnation (8:1ff; 15:13). While this describes a radical alteration of human experience it is a difference grounded in an alternative reality and alternative world.

The resurrection is the opening and summing up of this world as it defeats and exposes the reign of death which saturates this world order. Cosmic and individual enslavement is a servitude to death definitive of sin and Christ’s death and resurrection dethrone death so that his followers can now face down the powers. The death dealing power can no longer separate from God.  “Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” or being “slaughtered as sheep” separate from the love of Christ? (8:35-36). There is a confrontation that continues between Jesus followers and the principalities and powers, but Jesus Christ, “He who died, yes, rather who was raised” has determined the outcome of this confrontation (8:34). “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 8:38-39).

To miss this vision would seem to endanger the opportunity to “crush Satan under your feet” (16:20) and to instead give way in the conflict and be overcome by “deceitful men” who may pose as slaves of Christ. Paul warns, “such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (16:18). These deceivers appear to be turning once again to a preference for human speech over God’s Word. How many have been drawn in by their “flattering speech” which would diminish sin and smooth it over through human speech or dialectic?

In summary, sin entered through the opening of nihilo and is accentuated and spread out through human futility. Death, the ultimate futility, entered through Adam and continues to reign through the offspring of Adam, who are its helpless victims. Sin is not a force to simply be forgiven, placated, or satisfied. It is not a force that God can overlook and it is certainly not a force humans can pass over. It is a beast before which one kneels (in the form of nations and kings), a value system by which one gauges all achievement (mammon), and an all-consuming impetus giving rise to human thought and action. It is a mode of thought passed on in this worlds wisdom and it constitutes a philosophical tradition (Colossians 2:8). It is a principal or power that is either served or defeated.

The question is if a Gospel focused on imputed righteousness (a dialectic between law and grace), penal substitution (a dialectic that presumes suffering and death accomplish God’s will through Christ), deliverance from an eternal torturous existence (a dialectic which gives primacy to futility), has anything left of the Gospel in it. In David Bentley Hart’s estimate such a gospel, may have terms “reminiscent” of those used by Paul, “at least as filtered through certain conventional translations”; but “it is a fantasy” to imagine it coincides with Paul’s Gospel. He concludes, “that a certain long history of misreadings of the Letter to the Romans . . . has created an impression of his theological concerns so entirely alien to the conceptual world he inhabited that the real Paul occupies scarcely any place at all in Christian memory.”[5] A recovery of the Gospel, lost as it has become in misreadings of Romans, will of necessity have to begin again with reading Romans.

The notion that sin primarily has to do with guilt and forgiveness or with personal deliverance or private spiritual blessing through a violent sacrifice is not simply inadequate but would seem to be part of the deception. It is deceived in its diminished depiction of sin and in its failure to realize the scope of salvation.


[1] https://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=phil_facpub 105

[2] Bauernfeind, O. (1964–). μάταιος, ματαιότης, ματαιόω, μάτην, ματαιολογία, ματαιολόγος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans

[3] Bauernfeind, O. (1964–). μάταιος, ματαιότης, ματαιόω, μάτην, ματαιολογία, ματαιολόγος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[4] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories, p. 373, University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[5]Hart, p. 371-372.

Acknowledgement of the Problem of Evil as a Test of Authentic Christianity

John Piper apparently (I am quoting someone quoting – I do not have the willpower to look myself and hopefully it is all a lie) has a best-selling book explaining that the coronavirus is directly caused by God: “It is a bitter season. And God ordained it. God governs it.”[1] Piper maintains (according to my informant, who in a perfect universe would be pulling my leg), God is teaching a series of lessons (the horror of sin, divine judgment is coming, prepare for the second coming, no more self-pity, have joy, become a missionary, and I presume – vote for Trump) but of course as with all such lessons, God is having to kill off those who are paying the price for this somewhat confused lesson.  This sort of blasphemy has a specific genealogy, through John Calvin, that makes it plausible that there is such a book and such an author (to say nothing of his unfortunate readers).  

According to Calvin, what we would call evil, originates in the secret council of God: “The first man fell because the Lord deemed it meet that he should.”[2] “I freely acknowledge my doctrine to be this: that Adam fell, not only by the permission of God, but by His very secret, the council and decree …”[3] “God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it.”[4] In this view, one must learn to delight in the evil caused by God and ultimately to spend an eternity rejoicing at the sight of the damned roasting in hell. There is a majority Christian tradition in which such notions were not open to consideration and if proposed would have been dismissed as sub-Christian or simply pagan. What Calvinism shares with most forms of paganism, is that evil (though it may exist as a word or a concept) is not really a problem but just part of reality (the reality of God in Calvin, or a necessary part of the cycles of karma in Hinduism).

Of course, at the existential level all humans are confronted by real world evil, but it is the Christian religion that has the most acute problem in explaining evil (unless we are counting Calvinism as Christian on this point, which I would not). As Hume states it, the problem Christians have lies in their peculiar understanding of God: “God is omnipotent and yet animals prey on each other and humans suffer all sorts of ailments. If God is willing to prevent evil but does not, then he is not God. If he is able but not willing, God is not good. If he is both willing and able, then why is there evil?” Hume’s argument may not bring the full acuity of the problem of evil to bear, as one might simply conclude there is no God (which may have been his point – though it is not clear that he was an atheist), but of course if there is no God there really is no “problem of evil,” there are just events which might be good or bad but which do not call for explanation.  

One test of whether we still have to do with the Judeo-Christian religion might, in fact, pertain to the willingness to give full voice to the problem of evil. The earliest book of the Old Testament (according to some), the book of Job, goes Hume one better. There is God, there is evil, and the impetus to provide satisfactory explanation in human free will or human evil are pointedly dismissed by God. Job’s friends have a full explanation of evil (which more or less captures every subsequent attempt at theodicy, though even they do not stoop as low as Calvin and assign evil directly to God).

 As Phillip Nemo has put it, “There is an excess of evil – it exceeds the law of the world, it exceeds the scene of the world as a technical world.” Theory and explanation are refused in Job, but what is put in place of theory is the full existential realization of the human plight. As Nemo brilliantly describes, in Job we pass from “speculative aloofness” (the friends of Job – the makers of theodicies) to “anguished situatedness.” It is the difference between the simple judgment – life passes, death comes – to a judgment of value: life passes too quickly death comes too soon. “They were borne off before their time” (22:16). Swifter than a weaver’s shuttle my days have passed” (7:6). There is a maximum amount of anxiety (“While I am speaking, my suffering remains; and when I am not, do I suffer any less” (16:6).  “If I say, ‘My bed will comfort me, my couch will soothe my pain’, you frighten me with dreams and terrify me with visions” (7:13)) – “the personage of Job suddenly appears as eternal, truer than the world.”

The vision of Job is nothing less than the Christian hope vaguely imagined: “This I know: that my Defender lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God. He whom I shall see will take my part: he whom my eyes will gaze on will no longer be a stranger” (19:25-27). This is not an explanation but a vision, which means it is not within the horizon of technical understanding or theory but is more of an existential comfort. But the quandary of Job or his vision more concretely recognized in Christianity does not relieve the problem of evil, in fact the problem of evil is accentuated.

Augustine’s depiction of evil as a privation, that is it has no ontological ground (as in his former faith of Manichaeism), is a step closer to the truth and set in the right context properly accentuates the problem. Yet, I would suggest, Augustine’s theory of privation has given rise to two major problems: a false notion of the real world power of evil and a multiplication of theodicies. If something is presumed to be simultaneously removed from potency and from the good, this seems to be precisely contrary, according to David Roberts, to our experience: “the more evil something is, the more powerful its acts of destruction, the more we feel its actuality . . . and the more we realize the power before which we tremble is not nothing.”

Sin as a nothing, an incapacity, located in the will might be taken as an explanatory unreality – a ground of departure for a variety of theodicies, all of which will maintain either that evil is less real than the good or that evil is the pathway to a greater good. While, as John Milbank claims, this may be doing violence to Augustine, there is certainly a long history of imagining that under Augustinian terms the good makes sense of evil. This entails, as has been demonstrated in Western thought, adherence to the doctrine of progress and the idea that good ultimately triumphs over evil in and through the outworking of their interaction. Thus, someone like John Hick holds that each person progresses through evil to the good in his own life-time and the fall was a necessary inevitability in this journey. Many will assume that free will requires evil (as an alternative, as a result, or as implicit to freedom) – all of which seems to depend on a weak (post-Augustinian (?)) notion of evil. It is not too far off to see this as resulting in Hegelian notions of idealism (the good arises from out of its interaction with evil).

Assigning evil either to privation of the will or to the necessity endured in order to have a free will, as has been done in classical theodicies, seems to ignore the diabolical (Satan inspired) nature of evil in the Bible. The basic premise of Christianity, perhaps affirmed nowhere else but fundamental to this faith, is that the world is fallen, things are not as they should be, death is unnatural, and this evil is not needed as part of a theory of the good or an impetus to progress. Working backward from Christ, we can presume evil requires supernatural intervention, precisely because it is itself unnatural or sub-natural. As David Bentley Hart has put it, “that the universe languishes in bondage to the ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’ of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the Kingdom of God . . . is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.”[5]

The problem with theodicies is that in explaining evil they imagine the world is somehow ok the way it is, the cross is not really necessary, evil and Satan are not so serious, and we lose the real presence of God in his defeat of evil and our participation in that defeat. Topics I will take up next week.


[1] Thanks Justin.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. 23, Sect. 8.                           

[3] John Calvin, On the Secret Providence of God, 267.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. 23, Sect. 7.

[5] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories (Kindle Locations 1570-1577). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

The Death of Death

The following is a guest blog by Allan Stuart Contreras Ríos

Although its origins are subject to debate, ancient Aztec religious practices might serve as a background to explaining the cult of Santa Muerte (Spanish for “Our Lady of Holy Death”), a cult of the dead illustrative of and typifying how death has a hold on us all. The lord and lady of Mictlán (region of the dead), Mictlantecuhtli y Mictecacíhuatl were the gods of death, reigning over those who died of natural causes. When someone died, they had to present themselves to these gods, but in order to do that they had to go through nine obstacles or infernos. Some of these obstacles included two hills crashing against each other continuously, a place with a lot of snow, arrows, wild beasts, water, etc. Luckily, a hairless dog (Xoloitzcuintle – pictured above) was sacrificed during the funeral rites and buried with the deceased to help the person through these obstacles.

Fast-forward to 1795, a group of indigenes worshiped a skeleton whom they called Death in a town located in what is now central Mexico. Testimony indicates that this cult remained hidden for at least two centuries. But this popular myth, which was transmitted word of mouth, came out into the open in the 1960’s when a man in Catemaco, Veracruz saw an image of Death painted on the boards of his hut. The man ran to ask the local priest to verify and canonize this image, but the priest refused to do so and called it a Satanic ritual.

After President Carlos Salinas de Gortari undertook reforms to the Law on Religious Associations and Public Worship in order to improve relations between the state and different religions, greater freedoms were granted that allowed many religions to rise. In the year 2000 the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church Mex-USA (ISCAT)[1] solicited a formal registration for their Death worship, and although it was granted in 2003, it was revoked in 2005.  But it was through this that the Santa Muerte religion became more popular in Mexico and in some places in the USA.

Santa Muerte has become a representative idol of death within Mexican and Mexican-American culture. It is a personification of death, usually associated with healing, protection, and a guardian of the afterlife (some even call her a “mother”). And although many of the leaders of the Catholic Church have condemned her worship, she is adored by many Roman Catholic congregants, and it is spreading into other Christian denominations. But the worship of death is nothing new, as explained before. Probably, every culture has had some sort of worship or veneration of death. It just takes a quick search of Wikipedia to find a long list of ancient death deities.

What might sound incongruent is her worship within the Christian community. But is it really that strange? Afterall, there is a huge emphasis on death within Churches holding to a contractual theory of atonement. Even the Israelites pursued a relationship with death. Although forbidden by God, many Israelites looked for help from violent gods instead of the God of peace; death gods, instead of the God of life.

Necromancy was banned in the Old Testament, punishable by death itself to necromancers (Leviticus 19:31; 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:11), but that did not eradicate the practice in Israel completely. King Saul is a good example of this, in 1 Samuel 28 he searches for a medium in Endor in order to talk to the prophet Samuel.[2] The Israelites seem to have adopted this practice from neighboring countries along with other idolatrous inclinations. They were quick to exchange God for any lifeless idol, such as the golden calf during the Wandering (Exodus 32).

Isaiah 28:15 characterizes the practice as entry into a “covenant with death”:

“Because you have said, ‘We have made a covenant with death, And with Sheol we have made a pact. The overwhelming scourge will not reach us when it passes by, For we have made falsehood our refuge and we have concealed ourselves with deception (emphasis added).’”

This covenant with death has been interpreted in at least two ways:

  1. A possible allusion to necromancy and idol worship (Isaiah 8:19).
  2. An alliance with Egypt that supposedly would protect them from Assyria (Isaiah 20:6).

For the purpose of this blog, it does not matter which interpretation is favored. This does not mean that it is not important, it means that whether someone agrees with interpretations 1 or 2, the fact is that Israel was searching for help from anything and anyone other than God Himself. As Isaiah 8:19 says, “…should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?”

The problem was, they did prefer to consult the dead instead of God.

This covenant with death has a deeper meaning than the two interpretations mentioned above, which goes back to my initial point: humanity has made a covenant with death. When? During the Fall and thereafter. In the attempt to avoid death (death-resistance), humanity has made a pact with Sheol. And as the verse makes clear, this death-resistance amounts to a pact between humans and deception (constituting the original lie or the very ground of deception). The human predicament in Genesis 3 (entry into the lie in order to avoid death) is then repeated by all humans in all cultures. The fear of death creates a respect for death which results in deifying death itself, therefore, they keep this covenant going.

But there is hope. Isaiah 28:18 says: “Your covenant with death will be canceled. And your pact with Sheol will not stand.”

Although, in its original context, this verse held out no hope for the Jews. Death was going to visit them soon if they kept this covenant active. The false idea that death can protect you from death needed to end, and that is the hope found in Christ. Only through Christ’s resurrection could this covenant with death be annulled.

The ultimate evil, death, could not defeat Jesus. John describes this battle between death and God in terms in which death is easily overpowered: “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overpower it (1:5).”

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgement, but has passed out of death into life (5:24).”

There is an obvious contrast between the covenant with death and the covenant with God; the first one brings death, the second one brings life; the first one is based on deception, the second is based on truth.

Paul also contrasts the two covenants in Romans 3 and Romans 10:

 Romans 3 Romans 10
10There is none righteous.10Resulting in righteousness.
11There is none who understands.10With the heart a person believes.
11There is none who seeks for God.20I became manifest to those who did not ask for Me.
12All have turned aside.13Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.
13Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving.8The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart – that is, the word of faith which we are preaching.
14Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.8 10The word is…in your mouth. With the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.
15Their feet are swift to shed blood.15How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!

Scripture teaches that death does not win over life. As in Genesis 1, darkness, the nothingness, is a canvas upon which God creates His best work. God did not become human to make bad people morally good, he became a human to make dead people alive.

Death, like Santa Muerte, is personified in the book of Revelation. And in this book, the death of death is described when John writes: “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire (20:14).”

Whoever makes a covenant with death should expect death. But whoever makes a covenant with the God of life will enjoy life. The resurrection is Santa Muerte’s death, it is the death of death itself. Jesus has defeated death through life; trust Him who overcame the final enemy!


[1] The Roman Catholic Church still does not consider Death a Saint or even agree with the description “Holy.” While Roman Catholics worship Jesus and Guadalupe in México, the ISCAT worships Jesus and Santa Muerte.

[2] Whether Samuel showed up or not is a matter of debate. But there are many reasons to remain skeptical about Samuel actually showing up:

  1. Mediums are deceitful.
  2. Saul asked for Samuel, a man who was famous during those days, specially after his recent death. Because of his death, Saul removed all the mediums and spiritists, this would include this woman.
  3. Verse 12 says the woman saw Samuel (which could be part of the deceit), but no verse says Saul saw him. Many assume Saul saw him because he starts to speak to him, but it is not specified in the text. When mediums bring up the spirit, people “speak to the spirit” through the medium as if the medium is being possessed by the spirit, therefore, they “speak to the spirit.”
  4. For those who believe that heaven is the final resting place right after death, Samuel is coming up, not coming down. Did Samuel not make it to heaven?
  5. Samuel says “tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.” A prophecy that was not fulfilled as such. Was Samuel a false prophet?
    1. First of all, in chapter 30, three days (3 tomorrows) have passed by and they have not died yet.
    1. During the battle against the Philistines, Saul and his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malchi-shua were killed. But Ish-bosheth is alive and was made king over Israel during David’s rule (not all sons were killed).

Are Calvinists Saved?

The question of the title (above) is, in the first instance, a Calvinist question which Calvinists have about themselves. While some have assurance of salvation, where this assurance fails or is lacking, the results can be torturous or deadly. When Jonathan Edwards’ uncle slit his own throat in the absence of this assurance, this demonstrated to Edwards himself that the “devil took the advantage, and drove him into despairing thoughts.” Soon after, many in the community of Northampton were reporting suicidal ideations. The existential realization that one is predestined for eternal damnation, selected as a vessel of wrath, the object of sovereign hatred bound for an eternity of torture, has proven unbearable for many. To imagine that the all-powerful, omnipresent, power of heaven hates you, must be several times worse than a simple, atheistic nihilism which holds that the universe is indifferent toward you. In fact, to be able to rid oneself of belief in this monstrous God and achieve a more harmless atheism would seem to be a positive moral and mental achievement.  A good friend, who concluded that he was one of the objects of wrath, a vessel of destruction, describes his descent into drug addiction and two overdoses and near-death experiences, not as a departure from God or a descent into unbelief, but due to his belief in God. It was his belief that God hated him, the living proof of which was his poverty of spirit, his condition of feeling hated and not loved, which drove him deeper into self-destructive behavior.  If salvation is entry into the benefits of the love and goodness of God, the assurance that the true, the good and the beautiful, are determinative of ultimate reality and the determinative factor in human life and destiny then Calvinism, in the second instance, is indeed an obstruction to salvation. It specifically opposes this understanding and is an obstruction to the practical realization of this reality, as God’s decisions are rendered arbitrary and unpredictable. So, my question is not polemical or sectarian but a question evoked by Calvinists and a true concern that this may be one form of the Christian faith which most effectively obstructs the core teaching of the New Testament. Far from good news, this is the worst news possible.

Calvinism is not an assurance of love, a defeat of death or the destructive drive toward death, but it inscribes death and destruction into the eternal fabric of creation and into the very nature of God. Instead of Christ defeating death and undoing death’s fatal hold upon us, Calvinism would turn the creator into the eternal source of an everlasting living death in eternal hell, made a necessity so that his glory might shine forth. In his commentary on I John, Calvin states that God is not love in his essence. Love is an anthropomorphism while wrath is an attribute flowing from God’s definitive justice.  In book 3 of The Institutes, Calvin explains that even the Fall was predestined by God – so that the fate of both the saved and the damned are preordained by God. The implication is that God is beyond our comprehension to such a degree that he might be said to be both good and evil or merely a sovereign force that makes nonsense of such categories, and anyone who experiences God as love cannot be said to have entered into a realization of the true divine essence but it is simply descriptive (in Calvin’s explanation) of human experience. If one were to make Satan into one’s God, this might be an improvement over Calvinism, as we can at least read a singular intent and goal into evil personified in the devil. Satan is not arbitrary, unpredictable, all-powerful. God in Calvinism becomes an overwhelming and unavoidable malignancy, undefeatable, imperturbable and immovable in his wrath and hatred.

The logic and mechanical like structure reflected in TULIP, even in Calvin’s own estimate, is not so much a reflection on Scripture as it is a turn inward. The presumption is that “knowledge of God and of ourselves” are “connected together by many ties,” such that to examine the self is to arrive at God: “because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.”  Good lawyer that he was, and being largely innocent of the countervailing tradition of the church in its reading of the New Testament, Calvin gives us the doctrine of sin as if it is the means to salvation. Sin is an orientation to the law, captured in Paul’s phrase “the law of sin and death,” in which life is presumed to be in the law which is presumed to be determinative of God and humans. Calvin turns to himself to find the logic of the law; the incontrovertible logic needing violence and blood, made up of vengeance and wrath. The predestined damnation of the derelict needs both the derelict and the damnation to prove the power of God. Just as Napoleon once called upon one of his officers to shoot himself in the head to demonstrate his power to a visiting dignitary, God depends upon damned derelicts to demonstrate his sovereignty. Calvin explains, in Book III of the Institutes, that this is why God predestined the Fall of man so that his greatness would show forth in both arbitrary salvation and damnation. Like death itself, this arbitrary divine power cannot allow for any competing liberty or freedom. God is the power behind all that happens to people, blessed be the name of God, the great unadulterated power.

Calvinism does not speak of the undoing of death but succumbs to a worship like that of Mot, Thanatos, Santa Muerte, or the worship of death itself in that in defending the absolute sovereignty of God, transcendence collapses into identity with the realities of the world (clearly ruled by death). Tsunamis, viruses, accidents, homicides, suicides, or the inevitable march to the grave are all the will of God. The world does not possess its own liberty, people have no freedom, but everything is a product of divine power and divine power most superbly expresses itself in death, destruction, and wrath, with love reduced to a human fabrication. As David Bentley Hart notes, “God is simply the totality of all that is and all that happens; there is no creation, but only an oddly pantheistic expression of God’s unadulterated power.”

The law of sin and death taken as God’s law, results in a religion which takes on a resemblance to various cults of the dead but also to a Lacanian psychoanalytic orientation which presumes the real or death drive is the unchangeable reality of the human condition. The infinite struggle with sin posed by Calvinism is precisely the Lacanian picture of the symbolic order of the law pitted against the imaginary or egoistic order. As in Paul’s explanation, law is felt as the inexorable controlling power in life so that all of one’s desires, all of one’s mental and bodily effort, might be described as a working out (an agonistic fight with oneself) of this seemingly sovereign power in one’s life. God is mistaken for the law in Paul’s definition of sin, and this means that one must reinforce the good through the evil. Paul gives some four formulas for this perverse understanding each of which might be mistaken for Calvinist doctrine: evil establishes the good, sin makes grace abound, or the law is sin itself. This dualism is read into God and is lived out in the struggle for salvation – a continual grasping after an ultimately unattainable object – which Paul describes as being subject to the “body of death.”

A mind conditioned to imagine this wickedness is Christianity is in a worse estate than a sincere pagan who has never heard but may still hear of the good news. The good news of God’s love falls on deaf ears as this Calvinist mind has been twisted to believe that a moral hideousness is a paradox that one must swallow so as to be saved. Only the blessed have this insight, and I suppose as with the satisfaction of belonging to the most elite club, part of the satisfaction (as Calvin testifies) is to delight in the suffering of the masses. This translates into the health and wealth notion that the blessing of possessing wealth is made clear by those who are dispossessed – after-all money only works in a zero-sum game. So too Calvinist salvation, the few, the elect, possess at the expense and through contrast with the damned.  

The price of admission to this elite club is to believe in the contradiction that this morally hideous God is good and then to submit to the notion that ultimate injustice is justice. This was demonstrated on Sunday to Faith and I in a documentary, I will not name, for fear someone may watch it. In this portrayal there are two options: one can either accept the basic tenets of Calvinism or one can give up on the true Christian faith. As John MacArthur puts it, if a person does not hold to penal substitution he cannot be saved. He acknowledges that one might not understand penal substitution and still make it in, but a clear sign that one is damned is if they reject this damnable doctrine. The focus of the documentary is to suggest that there are those (e.g. Rob Bell, Richard Rohr) who do not accept the Calvinist version of God’s justice and wrath, but they apparently do so on the basis of their own willfulness. No mention is made of the large majority of Christians in the world who are not Calvinist and who do not accept penal substitution. In place of this, one Calvinist after another gives us a “universal” opinion gained by sheer repetition and multiplied singular opinion.

The result was a feeling that these people were either dishonest or profoundly ignorant of world Christianity and Christian tradition. What the documentary succeeded in demonstrating to me, is the large population that imagines that their moral idiocy might only be appreciated by those who might mistake contradiction and incoherence for profundity. For the first time I appreciated how Richard Rohr, Rob Bell, or Bart Campolo (who is an honest atheist), might be taken as a breath of fresh air or a positive relief from the stifling religious nihilism being passed off as a more nuanced faith. Any voice, any counter narrative, any note of objection, came to be a relief from the noxious smugness and presumed moral superiority of the heretical proselytizing. Given the options posed by the film, I understood how happy flakiness is certainly preferable to moral and spiritual insipidness. If this is the actual option posed to most people, I think I better understand this cultural and political moment. But of course, this is a false choice.

The primary doctrine of biblical Christianity is that the law of sin and death and all that it includes – evil, suffering, violence, the orientation to death marking human moral failing – are not the tools of God but precisely that which Christ came to destroy and that which God opposes. The person of God made manifest in Christ reveals the life, love, beauty, and goodness of God, without admixture of evil. Where Calvin does not allow for any clear distinction between what God wills and what he permits (though he speaks of God’s permissive will it is still the will of God), the New Testament pictures a world in which human choice has profound consequences for both good and evil. God in Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world but to deliver it from willful evil, sin and death. In the words of Hart, “For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”[1]

Be assured the choice is not that maybe Jesus died for you or maybe he didn’t. In this understanding, statistically your chances are poor and experientially you may one day realize you are damned – or maybe you already have this confirmation. The good news is that God loves you, and there is no question, no qualification, no obstacle that can obstruct this love (Romans 8:38-39).


[1] The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

A Week in the Life of Forging Ploughshares: Movies and Pizza in Quarantine

Faith and I woke up to the realization that we have the Coronavirus, again. I noted that the children are raised, the cars are paid off, so we need not prolong the end. After several strong cups of coffee, I shake the disease, one more time. By the end of the day we are both recovered but morbidity cycles through on most days.

After two weeks of intense not dying, Faith was determined to celebrate by actually leaving the house and getting carry out pizza.  Not wanting to dampen her enthusiasm but also wanting to subtly point out the risks, I compared it to the fun of eating Japanese fugu – also a potentially poisonous meal requiring a respirator, I pointed out. She thought I was joking, so I noted the great cleanliness we could expect from Moberly teenagers. “I am sure they wipe their hands thoroughly on the pizza boxes after sneezing on the pizzas,” I assured her. She was determined to eat pizza, even if it killed us. So, we donned gloves, masks, and drove to Dominos to die.

 I cracked the window slightly at the drive thru and I could detect the amusement of our Pizza Attendant. We live in a bright red state in what is proudly advertised as Little Dixie, so just a hint of precaution marks you as communist. Two old people wrapped in masks and gloves and driving a Prius clearly was opportunity for red-baiting fun. He leaned out the drive thru window and twisted his head so that he could breathe into my face through the crack, “How are you folks today,” he leered. I quickly turned my head to limit the viral load, which only caused him to lean closer to spray me as I ordered. When he brought our pizza, it required that I lower the window and he squeezed the upper half of his body through our window and pretended to cough.

 Faith did not notice any of this but just seemed delighted to have pizza, so I muted my “pie of death” musings.  She took the pizza out of the box before bringing it into the house, as Dr. Fauci had apparently ordered us to do (a procedure only top immunologists must understand). We decided we would take a break from all of the bad news and cheer up with a documentary – Tiger King, sounds like Lion King, only in Oklahoma. There is a certain comfort in watching total chaos in the midst of a pandemic while eating Corona with extra cheese.  

Joe Exotic may not fit most people’s image of Oklahoma but, at least in my experience, he is pure Oklahoma.  The Barnum and Bailey Circus used to set up near our house in Ponca City, where we lived just off the runway of the airport (my father would taxi his little purple Stinson home to our front door). Some of my earliest memories are of playing with the circus children and eating breakfast with the tallest man in the world, the sword swallower, the fat lady, and the human cannon ball.  A guy with a mullet and tigers is a perfect, even nostalgic, distraction from the pandemic, pointing to normal chaos – murder for hire and feeding the tigers old meat and husbands.  

The fragile nature of the human condition may be the singular lesson of the moment, accentuated by what became our docuseries binging. McMillions traces a happy enough sounding scam – the McDonald’s Monopoly game scam – which lasted from 1989 to 2001 and implicated the million-dollar winners in the McDonalds promotion. Some 50 different winners and middle men were implicated when it was discovered Jerry Jacobson, the head of security for the agency that ran the promotion, was stealing and selling the winning tickets. No one noticed the early winners were all from the East coast, of Italian extraction and interconnected with the Colombo Family. The obvious lesson of the series: ill-gotten gain wrecks the life of everyone involved – even the lives of the innocent. The entire economy now feels like a failed Monopoly game.   

The singular story of moral hope we watched is portrayed in a morally hopeless setting.  True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality, follows Bryan Stevenson’s saint-like endeavor to rescue death row inmates from execution through his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative. His summing up of the criminal justice system is that it “treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.” The film’s depiction of slavery, lynching, mass incarceration, and the wrecked lives, even of those Stevenson rescues, speaks of the enduring two-hundred-year-old disease of racism.  The film also documents Stevenson’s role in the opening of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to the more than 4,400 African American victims of lynching. The American legal system and the American economy are clearly a rigged game – perhaps too dirty not to fail.  

 We have maintained a degree of normalcy through the little screen, with Zoom church, Zoom classes, and Zoom book club. The constraints of electronic fellowship accentuate the loss of a group dynamic, no shared atmosphere, no eating together, but there are also advantages. Erin and Beret in Hawaii and Jino and Beshia in India are able to join us for book club. Jino described the extremes of police chasing him with a bamboo cane one week and the next week they dressed up in Coronavirus costumes to try a gentler approach. “That’s India,” he explained cheerily. They have succeeded in clearing the streets, but Jino looked out his front window to discover water buffalo have now replaced the people. When I told Jason this, he said he could relate as the yaks and polar bears are now a real problem in Atlanta – he may have been thinking of Lost and the days we could still share together in fictional apocalypse.  

Now the only person, besides Faith, that I see is Michael, who still comes to work in the Ploughshares community garden. We are judging the success of the garden by Michael’s health as he is determined to live on what grows in our little plot. So far things are looking pretty slim but strawberries, lettuce, onions, and potatoes are springing up and have survived two freezes. Michael walks across town to get to the garden and I was glad to see he was wearing a full mask – not that I thought it would protect him from the virus but it would hide his Asian features from local Dixie confederates.  In the few days he has worked in the garden he has cultivated relationships all around – sipping tea on the porch with the neighbor, daily talks with the preacher walking his dog. His generosity of spirit shines all around. Maybe truth and fiction are being sifted; maybe people are already more considerate.

Jino says the air in India is cleaner than ever, and I hear Los Angeles is now smog free.