Alexander Campbell: A Prophet of Peace

This is a guest blog by David Rawls

In 1988 I was baptized in a little pond in Central Ohio.  Shortly after this event, I decided to go to a Bible College to be trained in the Bible so I could help young people who were struggling with life.  When I entered Bible College, I was introduced to a Christian movement that I had never heard of before.  It was called the “Restoration Movement.” This Movement was a result of 19th century reformers who saw how denominational churches in America had drifted away from God’s word and teaching.  The focus of the Movement was a return to the primitive New Testament church.  The Restoration Church had two major themes: biblical authority and the unity of all believers.  Men like Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, David Lipscomb, Racoon John Smith and others led this Movement.  By 1860 Restoration Churches had nearly 200,000 members.  These reformers emphasized such things as believer’s baptism by immersion, regular communion, and local church autonomy.  It was the teachings of these reformers which began to shape my life.

Meanwhile, over the last 10 years or so, I have come to the realization that Jesus taught a gospel that was focused on nonviolence or peace.  When we look to the gospels we see, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, that Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies and not to do harm to them.  For Jesus, this was not simply words but this is how he lived his life, even to the point of death.  Nonviolence was how the church, in its first 300 years, interpreted Jesus’ teaching.  It was only after the church was influenced by Constantine that there was a shift in thought concerning peace and violence.  In the last 10 years, in my pursuit to understand the peaceful gospel, I have been digging into the early church fathers and the works of Anabaptists.  Yet, it is only recently that I was shocked to find out that the early Restoration Movement leaders also taught nonviolence.  They believed that nonviolence was part of the primitive gospel of the New Testament. I was shocked, because I had taken classes both in undergrad and graduate school on the history and thought of the Restoration Movement. I don’t remember any discussion of Restoration leaders focus on nonviolence as part of the gospel.  Yet, leaders like Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb had a rich theology of nonviolence.  In this blog I want to look at some of Alexander Campbells arguments for a peaceful gospel.  I will be using Campbells “Address on War” as well as the work from historian Craig M. Watts, which will show that Campbell had a well-developed theology of nonviolence.

When it came to war, Campbell believed that Christians could not participate in war, as to do so would mean killing other Christians in other nations.  He believed that no nation was Christian except the church.  The church was the “one nation composed of all the Christian communities and individuals in the whole earth.”  For Campbell, this meant that Christians could not take up arms because they would be killing other Christians.  Campbell asked the question, “Can Christ’s Kingdom in one nation wage war against his kingdom or church in another nation?”  His answer was an emphatic, “No.”   War for the Christian was not an option.  His problem was not so much nation against nation as it was a theological problem of church against church.  Campbell had a high view of unity and the church could not have unity if Christians were killing other Christians. 

To understand Campbells gospel of peace, one must first understand his postmillennialism.  He believed that the best way to usher in God’s reign on Earth was for the church to recover the original gospel, which included the gospel of peace.  Craig Watts claims Campbell “had no intention of passively waiting for the millennium.” He believed that one had to enact, in the present, his understanding of the future millennium.  Campbell maintains that for man, “the principles of his government” are “to give them a taste of, and a taste for, heavenly things.” This meant that the Christian could not participate in war and violence because the millennium would be a time when the earthly powers would, according to Isaiah, “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and learn war no more.” This view had an evangelistic appeal to it as well, because people could get a picture of what the future would look like as they observed the church in the present.  This probably explains why Campbell thought unity was so essential. If the church could not be united, why would anyone want to be a part of it in some future state. If the church killed people now, why would people desire to be a part of a future death and dying. 

Much of evangelical Christianity is a hodge-podge of thought which tries to tie together a belief in God which separates itself from the ethics of Jesus.  Campbell, however, believed that faith and works go together.  He believed that the ethics of Jesus are not simply to be admired but are to be practiced.  Jesus pacifist ways were to be lived out by the church.  Campbell believed that Jesus was at war but his war was not waged like the wars of the World.  The World uses swords to subdue its enemy.  The World uses violence to beat people into submission.  Campbell, though, rejected this coercive method.  He said, “To conqueror an enemy is to convert him into a friend.”  As he explained, “All arms and modes of warfare are impotent, save the arms and munitions of everlasting love.” This is a courageous contrast to the view of Luther and Calvin, who believed violence was a tool of God.  Campbell would have none of this, believing that if one cannot support war by appeal to the life of Jesus, then the Christian has no business in being a part of or supporting any type of violence or warfare.  Christian ethics mattered to Alexander Campbell.

Campbell was a deep and systematic thinker.  If Christians could not go to war with Christians of other countries, if Christians were to live in such a way as to promote a heavenly new millennium which was free of violence, and if the ethics of Jesus did not promote violence, then the conclusion for Campbell was that Christians had no business in fighting at all.  Campbell sums this up in the idea that, “A Christian man can never of right be compelled to do that for the state, in defense of state rights, that which he cannot of right do for himself in defense of his personal rights.”  He goes on to say, “No Christian man is commanded to love or serve his neighbor, his king, or sovereign more than he loves or serves himself.”  In other words, if a Christian cannot go to war for himself, he also is forbidden to go to war for his country.  Many Christians have conceded that we are not commanded to go to war as individuals but have made the argument that we could go to war for our country for a good cause.  Campbell rejects this dualistic approach. If one cannot kill for a personal cause, then one cannot kill for the state, no matter how noble the cause.  For Campbell, this is a matter of witness for the Kingdom of Heaven.  The church must refrain from any violence.

When Jesus was being arrested in the garden, and Peter used his sword to cut off the ear of one of those seeking to arrest Jesus, he told Peter to put away his sword. Jesus famous line, “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword,” was the very line upon which the early church based its commitment to nonviolence.  Campbell also saw this as an important ground for his non-violence.  He would ask, “Have not all nations created by the sword finally fallen by it?”  Although Campbell would not necessarily appeal to the inherent pragmatism of nonviolence, it is a practical witness to the Kingdom of Heaven. Campbell’s observation was that in the moment nonviolence will not necessarily work but over the long haul of history violence has arrived at the same point: failure. Violence has never proven effective.  It certainly has momentary victories but all nations have failed or will fail at some point.  Jesus teaches us, according to Campbell, that ultimately victory will come by laying down the sword.  It will be the slain lamb that will win the day.  This is critical to understanding Campbell.

This is a brief overview of some of Campbell’s views on nonviolence and the way of peace.  Hopefully, the reader recognizes that within the 19th century Restoration Movement, the belief that restoring the ancient church of the New Testament required commitment to nonviolence.  For those, like myself, who presumed examples of peace must be sought outside of the Restoration Movement, the good news is that we no longer need look beyond our Movement.  Certainly, we can learn a lot from other tribes of Christians but we can also know that these reformers took the gospel of peace seriously.  It is now up to the spiritual descendants of Campbell to once again raise the banner of peace.  Nonviolence is not simply a secondary issue for the church but is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus.  It is time to make the Restoration Movement great again by lifting high the name of Jesus.  We do this by living out the peaceful ways of Jesus. 

“Vote for Tiberius?” Asked Jesus. “Never!”

This is a guest blog by Allan Stuart Contreras Ríos

“We use violence to get peace and wonder why it isn’t working. That’s like sleeping with a football team to try and be a virgin.”

– Tom MacDonald

Karla and I used to have a neighbor who was a drug dealer – Güero. Everybody around here knew this, although nobody talked about it, especially around him. One night, a few days after New Year’s, Karla and I were buying some tacos at a taco stand on the corner of the street we live on.

Right next to us was Güero buying tacos as well. Everybody felt nervous around him . . . but one learns how to try to ignore this and “act normal” around people like him. Suddenly his phone dinged. It was a text message. We do not know what it said, but we think we do because of what happened next. He got nervous. Yes, as nervous as we were around him. Who was he afraid of?

As fast as he could, he paid for his tacos in advance saying he would come back for them in a few minutes. He walked behind Karla, then behind me, then he turned around the corner. At the same time Karla started adding cilantro to her tacos and salsa to mine I heard gunshots. I looked to the left and there was a Jeep parked right next to me with two guys shooting Güero from the windows. It all happened in a matter of seconds. Güero was dead before he hit the ground.

Although this was a scary situation, it was also a relief for our neighborhood, the bad guy was dead. We could all feel better, safe . . . . until some people moved into Güero’s house.

It was a couple of years later, during the pandemic (July or August of 2020 I believe), that Karla and I woke up, went to the kitchen to make some breakfast, and saw that our house was surrounded by the military.

I opened the door and asked one of them, “Can I help you?”

He said, “Do you know your neighbors from that house?” and pointed toward Güero’s house.

“No.”

“Then you cannot help us.”

A few days later, we heard from other neighbors that somebody snitched on those who lived in Güero’s house, and the police found drugs, guns, and several mutilated bodies. It has been almost an entire year since then and we still have cops basically living on top of our roof to keep watching Güero’s house (they actually made a little grill on our roof and have several chairs).

Day and night, Güero’s house is surrounded by cops. And, because of that, mine too. All this to say, we know the violence of our world. We have experienced it firsthand. And although this worries us, of course, this type of violence is expected from those who do not know God. You know what is troublesome? Violence also happens from those who claim to know God.

When I was a student at CCCB I was a supply preacher. One Sunday I was sent to a small church to deliver a sermon. I got there 30 min. before the church service started, but there was no parking lot. I parked at the end of the road, right next to the church. I opened my Bible and went over my notes repeatedly (I used to get more nervous preaching in English than Spanish). Suddenly I heard a metal knocking on my window. As I looked through my window, I saw the barrel of a shotgun looking back at me. I raised my hands, and the angry guy holding his gun asked me to roll my window down, slowly. I did. He asked me what I was doing parking on his lawn. I explained why I was there and asked him to allow me to park somewhere else, my intention was not to disturb him, and to stay alive, of course. Thank God, he let me go.

A few minutes later, people started walking into the church’s building, I could not get out of my car and into the church fast enough. As I walked in and started greeting my Christian siblings, I started feeling peace again. I was able to breathe a little bit better. They probably could not tell, because of my skin color, but I am sure I was pale. Unfortunately, as soon as my heart calmed down, I saw the angry man walking into the church’s building with two kids, my heart stopped.

He was a church member. Not only was he a church member, but he was also one of the church’s leaders.

You might think that this is one isolated situation. Unfortunately, this is one of several times in which I feared for my life in a church. See the incongruency?

A. W. Tozer once said that “Christianity is so entangled with the world that millions never guess how radically they have missed the New Testament pattern. Compromise is everywhere.” For example, there is a tendency within churches in the Restoration Movement to ignore Church history. It is assumed that from Constantine until the rise of the Stone-Campbell Movement the Church compromised with the world. The Church rejected the Lamb to marry the Roman Emperor. Unfortunately, they fail to see that they have made the same compromise.

Many Christians fight over the “right” side of political disputes, or which amendments or rights need protecting. As Greg Boyd asks, “Where in the New Testament are we taught to rally around anyone other than King Jesus? Where do we find any hint of a suggestion in the New Testament that part of our job as followers of Jesus is to weigh in on the political disputes of the country we happen to live in? We certainly don’t find such a hint in the ministry of Jesus, whose example we’re repeatedly commanded to follow.”[1] When Jesus was tempted by Satan, one of the temptations had to do with political power. As Christians we are to aspire to overcoming, as Jesus did, the archetypical wilderness temptation of gaining political power.

Consider that nationalism teaches us to hate other people, even people that we have not met, and then it teaches us to feel pride in our hatred. At a Christian camp in the USA, we gathered to pledge allegiance to the American flag, and then to the “Christian” flag (which was a little below the Stars and Stripes). I did not pledge allegiance to the American flag for obvious Mexican reasons, and I did not pledge allegiance to the “Christian” flag because that was totally new to me. What was shocking was that some people were offended by my actions, or might I say inactions. But what was even more shocking was that they were offended, not by my not pledging allegiance to the “Christian” flag, but by my failure to swear allegiance to the American flag.

Tony Campolo repeats a story Philip Yancey told him concerning a friend during WWII. This friend was part of a special unit during the Battle of the Bulge that was sent out every morning to kill wounded German soldiers left on the battlefield the night before. One morning he came across a German soldier who was not wounded, he was only tired. His friend raised his gun at the German, and the German asked him to give him a moment to pray. Yancey’s friend lowered his gun and asked the German if he was a Christian, to which he replied “Yes.” “I am a Christian too,” responded Yancey’s friend.

They sat together under a tree. They prayed together. One of them had a Bible and they both shared Bible verses with each other. They showed each other their family pictures and prayed for each other’s families. After all this, Yancey’s friend stood up, looked at the German brother in Christ and said, “I guess I will see you again in Heaven one day,” and shot the man in the head.[2]

The devotion to a nation justifies acts of violence, even against Christian siblings: something Jesus would never condone. This justification comes in all shapes and sizes: crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, etc. The Church has been guilty of all of these horrors. This is not simply the problem of a portion of the church, as many Christian groups have fallen into Satan’s temptation of political power.

Gandhi said, “I don’t reject your Christ, I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.” The early disciples understood Jesus was the head of the Church, but over time “the institutional church seems to have been severed from its head, and as a result became one of the most violent religions in history.”[3] While many might point to this violence as grounds for rejecting Christianity, the violent history of the Church contradicts Jesus’ teaching. As G. K. Chesterton said, “The way of Jesus has not been tried and found unfruitful. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” In other words, the problem is not in what Jesus taught, the problem is many Christians are not doing what He said.

Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies” is without ambiguity – it cannot involve violence. It is impossible to murder the enemy you are supposed to love without disobeying Jesus or betraying his Kingdom. No war is a just war, it is just war.[4] To engage in violence means to reject the eschatological hope of the peaceable Kingdom – the New Creation in Christ.

It saddens me that many of my Christian brothers and sisters seem unaware of the basic teaching of Jesus. They stand by, like the unrepentant Paul at the stoning of Stephen, approving of various forms of violence.  Not only that, they join in the killing by joining the military. This is no surprise, as they are heeding a violent gospel preached with a national flag as backdrop. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in war so that peace may increase?” (Rom. 6:1). Of course not! Jesus Himself taught us differently when He said, “Put your gun back into its place; for all those who take up a gun shall perish by the gun.” (Matt. 26:52).[5] Can you imagine what the Church and its history would look like if those who claim to follow Christ actually lived like Him?

The story that sums up Jesus’ political dealings occurs when Jesus was confronted by the religious leaders and they asked Him, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” This is not only a political but a religious question, since Caesar considered himself a god. In other words, they are asking, “Should we pledge allegiance to the Roman god or not?” If Jesus said “Yes,” He would be a traitor to the Jews and God, and if He said “No,” He would get in trouble with Rome.

Jesus asked them for a denarius. “Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” He asked them. “Caesar,” they replied. Tiberius image, the Roman Emperor during Jesus’ crucifixion, was on the coin along with the inscription, “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus, High Priest.” (Perhaps they are in danger of falling into idolatry, since they are carrying Caesar’s image in their pockets.) “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” Jesus said. Another way of saying this is “Give to Caesar what is made in the image of Caesar. Give to God what is made in God’s image.”

Many Christians live in the hypocrisy Jesus is exposing. To ask questions about how much violence we can use, which wars are justifiable, how much nationalism contradicts Christian belief, is to edge toward idolatry. It is as if the Jews were asking Jesus, “How much of this idolatrous metal can we carry around without breaking the Law?” As Greg Boyd says, “Since it all bears Caesar’s image, give it all back to him! The only important question we ought to be wrestling with is whether or not we are giving back to God all that bears his image—namely, our whole self.”[6]

Jesus did not compromise. He did not say, “Let’s vote for Tiberius and hope for the best. Let’s Make Israel Great Again.” Like the prophets of old (who were killed for their words), Jesus exposed idolatry without compromise. His life was a witness to God’s Kingdom and in direct opposition to worldly kingdoms – an opposition for which he was killed. As Christians, participating in the world’s violent ways, in any shape or form, is to conform to the world which killed him. It is to exchange our vocation as God’s image-bearers for the world’s image. It is to give to Caesar what is God’s.


[1] Giles, Keith,. Jesus Untangled (p. 13). Quoir. Kindle Edition.

[2] Tony Campolo – WWII Story: Christians vs. Christians? – YouTube

[3] Bruxy Cavey, The end of religion: encountering the subversive spirituality of Jesus (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2020).

[4] Roland H. Bainton; Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation. p. 222

[5] I am aware Paul and Jesus did not use these exact words, I am updating them to drive the point home. Nobody goes to war with swords anymore.

[6] Giles, Keith,. Jesus Untangled (p. 14). Quoir. Kindle Edition

Intellectualism, Arrogance, and Peaceful Theology

Or, “Why arrogance has no place in a peaceful theology

Getting a Handle on Intellectualism

One of the early issues I began wrestling with during my education was the prevalence of anti-intellectualism in the evangelical traditions I was familiar with.  Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down and offerings from Robert Weber helped me articulate the irony of the banality of contemporary worship songs, shallow preaching and religious practices, and a people more informed by Fox News than by solid biblical and theological training, but who still acted and spoke with a supreme sense of certainty about their rightness about social issues and religion.  I felt that the Church I was seeing reveled in self-certain ignorance.  And I wanted to change it.

Anti-intellectualism (being a symptom of right-leaning politics as well) is a worldview that reacts to new learning or new information which challenges the status quo by assuming that the new information is suspect, biased, a corruption of “traditional values,” or (in religious circles) a lie of the devil. 

Of course, it’s always selectively so.  Science is a liberal, socialist plot foisted by the “elite” when it presents evidence for its theories on origins or warns about the dangers of climate change.  But we’re generally all grateful for science when Aunt Mildred needs a heart transplant.  Similarly, all university professors are atheist, liberal, socialists trying to brainwash our youth when our youth outgrow their parents’ worldviews, but we don’t question whether our kids need to go to college if they’re going to be successful capitalists. 

Such were the ironies of anti-intellectualism.  But I actually am not writing about that today.   My intent, instead, is to introduce anti-intellectualism as a springboard to criticize an equally problematic -ism, intellectualism.[1]  But first, another analogy:

In the same way that anti-intellectualism holds hands with anti-science, I want to suggest that  scientism (which my good friend Paul wrote about some years ago) is akin to intellectualism.[2]  Whereas, science is a precise system for studying phenomena (i.e., physical reality), scientism is an extreme view pervasive in some segments that elevates science to something solipsistic, either answering questions (noumena, metaphysical) that it cannot and should not be expected to answer, or dismissing those questions as irrelevant outright. In that way, scientism perverts the scientific discipline into something other than it is.[3]

Similarly, while I like to think that most intellectuals may not be the demons that anti-intellectualism has made them out to be, intellectualism happens when intellectuals elevate reason and learning to something unhealthy, or even obscene.   The danger (as with scientism) is that, in becoming an intellectualist, the intellectual forgets that there is more than one kind of intelligence, and the intellectual collapses into a type of epistemological solipsism, where all the relevant questions and solutions are asked and resolved through a specific process of inquiry available only to the intellectual.  Another name for this is “the Ivory Tower.”

Like all things, science and intellect are good, even marvelous things, in the context of the whole of human endeavors.  But they are perverted into something cold, cruel, and evil in isolation.

The damage and resentment that this kind of solipsistic intellectualism causes is illustrated brilliantly in Wendell Berry’s Remembering.  In it, Andy Catlett, a late-mid-20th century Kentucky farmer, laments the industrialization of farming that happens when the academy and the corporation are applied to agriculture.  In this brief quote, Andy, who has had enough intellectualist pontification, speaks out at a farming convention:

I don’t believe it is well understood how influence flows from enclosures like this to the fields and farms and farmers themselves.  We’ve been…hearing about the American food system and the American food producer, the free market, quantimetric models, pre-inputs, inputs, and outputs, about the matrix of coefficients of endogenous variables, about epistemology and parameters—while actual fields and farms and actual human lives have been damaged.  The damage has been going on a long time.  The fifteen million people who have left the farms since 1950 left because of damage.  There was pain in that departure….

I think that bill came out of a room like this, where a family’s life and work can be converted to numbers and to somebody else’s profit, but the family cannot be seen and its suffering cannot be felt.[4]

Andy Catlett

For Andy, the issue is that there are other types of intelligence, other interests besides profit, which in this case the intellectuals and the profiteers seem to have forgotten.  Their own assumptions are too solipsistic.  They’ve collapsed into themselves; and harmed the people around them.

What does that have to do with Forging Ploughshares?

Peace Theology Against Intellectualism

I’d propose that if, when asked the question, “What do you think has happened in American culture and politics to bring us to the Trump/post-Trump era?” your first response is to quote some obscure piece of text from Bernard Lonergan instead of asking questions about the reality of people’s access to health care, clean water, or food, then…it may be time for some reflection.  If people’s satisfaction with their work or their lives, or how and why they feel left out of cultural conversations, or their debt and financial woes, or the opioid crisis, or how they have been exploited and tossed aside doesn’t seem as relevant as Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work on theological aesthetics, you may be approaching the line separating being an intellectual from being an intellectualist.  In other words, it’s possible that some of us, even some of us who are contributing to Forging Ploughshares, aren’t operating with the rest of us here in the real world.  And sometimes I get the feeling that we like to hear ourselves talk.

How the Universalism fad has made it worse

Years ago, the pop-theologian Rob Bell wrote his own little treatise on universalism: Love Wins.[5] In it, Bell argued for the position that all people will, after dying, be offered unlimited second chances to come to belief in Christ so that, eventually, all people will “go to heaven.”  Bell certainly wasn’t the first to argue such and wasn’t the last.  Yet, at most the effect of the book was a momentary blip on the theological radar.  Here and gone.   Why did Bell not unleash the floodgates of the current universalism obsession with Love Wins?  Why no movement?  We’ll get there.

For my own part, I remember thinking Love Wins was a little flaky, but still thoughtful.  But, because my foray into William Hasker’s emergent dualism had led me to annhiliationism (please read the footnote),[6] I remember also feeling a sense of kinship with Bell and I kind of rooted for him a little.  I get it.  He was offering up an alternative.  I could appreciate it because he seemed honest, sincere, and I found dialogue was still possible with the people who read it. 

It feels important for me to restate that before the David Bentley Hart thing, I didn’t really have a problem with universalists.  I have had many conversations with people who wear that label and maintained friendship!

The latest form of universalism, though, established by Hart’s That All Shall be Saved, has a far different mood.  In terms of academic seriousness, Hart is, far and away, light years beyond Bell’s argument.  But, substantially, I take that to be the extent of the difference.  The eschatology is the same as Bell’s: all people, after dying, will be offered unlimited second chances to come to belief.  Hence, all will “be saved.” 

So, why the movement after Hart?  The difference, dear friends, is intellectualism.  What do I mean?

Hart’s Universalism is an Intellectualist Universalism

The problem that Hart presents is essentially that human will is incapacitated by the failure to understand the Kingdom of God.  Being lost is being intellectually challenged (a restatement of Calvinistic original sin) from seeing God’s right way.  There is no evil, just foolishness and misunderstanding.

The solution?  As I was told while recording a podcast recently, “once people understand the Gospel, they WILL accept it.”  Once their intellect is corrected or restored (whether here or after death), they will choose it (merely reworded irresistible grace). 

This, of course, precludes the possibility that someone might actually understand salvation and still reject it.  It also would seem to rule out the notion that someone might not fully understand it and still choose it, if the issue is simply an intellectual one.[7]  I’ll get to what I take to be a problem with that momentarily.

And that is the point I am attempting to make without belaboring: this view of universalism is predicated on an intellectualist understanding of what sin and salvation are.  The whole thing is merely a problem of the intellect which is solved by a correction of the intellect.  Is it any wonder it’s found such popular acceptance among intellectual progressives who want to reject their evangelical roots and feel intellectually superior?  I attest that what has risen in the current universalist mood is an intellectualist arrogance that is nearly unbearable for those of us who think differently.  Why?

Hart’s Intellectualist Universalism is arrogant and his followers are, too

An honest conversation with anyone who has read even a section of Hart’s book elicits a response that Hart is, at least harshly critical of people who disagree with universalism.  Others have described it as being downright cutting and hostile to those who disagree.  And it’s not hard to see why.

To begin, might I, for a moment, comment on the ableism of Hartian universalism?  Might I point out that the arrogant assumption of sin as merely a failure of the intellect to properly understand the gospel implies that those who do not accept it are mentally impaired?  Does this not also imply that those with mental or intellectual disabilities are more sinful by virtue of the fact that sin is no more than the fallen inability to understand truth?  Is this not the height of power and arrogance that Jesus meant to undo in the Gospels? 

And furthermore, does this not imply a hierarchy of intellect in which the universalist is at the peak?  I think, ultimately, this is the arrogant, undeniable conclusion of this recent form of universalism. 

In fact, Hart’s universalism is expressed best (as it is expressed by Hart) with a generous helping of condescension and disdain, a general sense of certitude that “this position is the ‘informed’ one and that all others are simply backward, ignorant, small-minded: or foolish.  If all sin is, simply, foolish misunderstanding, it follows that people who don’t understand it that way are simply not as intellectual as the universalist.  And that assumption tends to emerge anytime I end up in dialogue with someone who follows Hart, as these recent interchanges went:

  1. “Universalism is undeniable, once you understand it.”
  2. In response to a previous article of mine, “His Christology is good, but I don’t think he understands universalism.” 
  3. “I think your understanding that God can only work with someone on this side of death is crude and small-minded.”

To be a universalist along Hart’s lines is to believe not just that sin is a failure of intellect and salvation is a restoration of intellect.  It is to believe that those who understand this are of the highest intellect, and that all objections are intellectually inferior to this position.  In other words, if people don’t choose the Gospel (which is understood to apply to everyone once they understand it), it’s because they don’t understand it—including those of us who reject their universalism (we just don’t understand it—if we understood it, we’d accept it). 

This form of solipsistic intellectualist universalism comes packaged with an obnoxious, self-sustaining pretense that has made reasonable dialogue impossible.  It mocks questions, rolls over objections, commandeers honest conversations, and shouts down dissent.  It is self-righteous, self-important, and it has hurt honest, seeking people who just don’t see it the same way. 

I argue that Milton, hardly the keeper of eschatological orthodoxy, was right when he said that there are will always be people who choose: “It is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”  And, if you want to know the truth, the desire to reign is what I feel has emerged when discussing “universalism” with Hartian universalists. 

Say what you will about Rob Bell’s book on universalism; at least he wasn’t a pretentious d*ck about it.  But the more I talk to Hartian universalists, the more convinced I am that the pretentiousness is the attraction for smug progressives[8] who are completely certain that they’re more intellectual than you are.  For them, the Good News is that, someday, God will make sure the rest of us lowly cretins agree with the universalists so that, in the end, the only people in heaven will be the universalists.  Then we’ll all know…they were right.

And the more I talk to Hart’s followers, the less I find their position comports as a peaceful theology.  It feels, instead, more like people trying to win arguments and prove their superiority.  It feels less like the cross and more like people struggling to overpower their enemies.


[1] Here, I want to be careful to note that I am using the standard suffix “-ism” to imply an extreme or dogmatic position. 

[2] What my friend Paul does not know but that I still talk about was how many of my science friends and my theological friends both took exception to that article—for the same reasons, but from different viewpoints.  It was fascinating.

[3] For my part, aside from the obvious advantages for the military in the Department of Education’s interest in STEM over and against the liberal arts in education, the best reason I can see for doing STEM and de-emphasizing literature, history, art, music, home economics, and shop class is that science and technology are achieving religious status.  The questions that other disciplines answer are superfluous at best.  Hence, scientism. 

[4] Wendell Berry, Remembering: a Novel. Counterpoint, Berkely, CA. Pgs. 19-20.

[5] Perhaps the benefit of this outing for universalism was that it acted as a “fuzz buster” (you’d have to be a child of the 90s to truly appreciate the reference), exposing objections from folks like John Piper, who, famously, said “Farewell, Rob Bell.” 

[6] If, unlike non-physical persons such as God or angels, what we call soul or spirit is a product of our physical being, then it makes no sense to say that there can be life for us apart from that physical being.  For this reason, I began to explore an earthier sense of what Jesus’ Kingdom was all about; and my view of resurrection became a restored physical life on a restored physical world.  For that reason, an eternal hell apart from a resurrected body ceased to make sense.  This means, though, that neither does the option of making the choice to follow Jesus “after we die” unless that person is also raised to physical life in the resurrection.  And how, in a resurrected world in which everyone is raised, regardless of whether they chose not to follow Jesus, would that resurrected world be any different from the world we live in now (except being more crowded and, thereby, more broken)?  And, if that resurrected world is no different than the one we live in now, why should we think that those who refuse to follow now would choose to in the next world?  Most “universalists” have blocked me, invited me to leave the conversation, or walked all over me before I could even set up my question.  Their intellectualist assumption won’t allow for alternative objections other than the ones they feel Hart has already debunked: and that is precisely because their certainty is established by the assumption of intellectual superiority.  The problem with we who disagree is that we just…don’t understand.  God will prove them right, someday.

[7] For my own part, I take the story of the rich young man in Mt 19, in which Jesus explains that he must relinquish his power and wealth to be a part of the Kingdom and he walks away disheartened to be a story not of someone who rejected because he did not understand.  He rejected because he did understand.

[8] As someone who has considered himself some type of “progressive” for a while now, I know we can be smug.  But we needn’t be.

Sorting Out Atonement Theories

This is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

“To land our ‘sins’ onto a dead first-century Jew is not just ridiculous; it’s disgusting. To suggest that some god projected our ‘sins’ onto that man is even worse: it’s a sort of cosmic child abuse, a nightmare fantasy that grows out of— or might actually lead to!— real human abuses in today’s world. We can do without that nonsense.” -N. T. Wright.

WHY DID JESUS DIE?” IT IS A QUESTION TO WHICH CHRISTIANS automatically answer, “For our sins.” Although it may be a satisfactory answer within Christian circles, this answer might alienate those seeking some semblance of coherence, particularly inasmuch as this entails an angry God sending his innocent Son to die for all who reject him which, frankly, does not make much sense.

Western theology has passed along the idea that God requires a sacrifice in order to forgive humanity’s sins. This becomes an interesting (ironic) doctrine when analyzed in light of the teachings of Jesus and within light of the counter-prophetic message that sacrifice is a human, and not a divine, innovation. Why would Jesus ask humankind to forgive others 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:21-22), when God cannot forgive humankind unless something or someone dies? If God really wants to forgive and restore humankind, why does He require a sacrifice? Jeremiah 7:22 says “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Either something is wrong with many of the traditional atonement theories or something is wrong with God (He is schizophrenic and/or sadistic). The major western theories all partake of the same basic errors, which I briefly describe below, before pointing toward what I take to be a more biblical understanding of why Christ died.

Contractual Theories

 In summary, contractual theories teach that humans are sinful (as in original sin/total depravity), everyone violates the Law (in which life resides), therefore they are damned. The Contract (Covenant) humanity and God had was not working, therefore God provides a way out in Christ, who satisfies God’s justice by taking humanity’s punishment on Himself, and imputing to them His righteousness through faith in Christ’s sacrifice.

There are several problems with the basic assumptions of the contractual approach, in that they contradict what the Bible teaches:

  1. Life is in the Law, contrary to what Romans 8:2 says (life is in the law of the Spirit in Christ).
  2. Those who killed Jesus acted according to God’s will.
  3. The ultimate purpose of the mission of Jesus is not to restore all things (Acts 3:21), but to die as a sacrifice.
  4. It assumes some satisfaction (of divine wrath) is required for forgiveness.
  5. Humankind has a debt to pay that requires human blood from a demanding God that rejected sacrifice in several verses in the Old Testament.
  6. God demands humankind to forgive their neighbor, but He cannot do that Himself without the death of someone.

These theories claim that justice needs to be done in order for forgiveness to be granted, but when justice is done, forgiveness is no longer necessary. So, why is there a need to forgive if justice was done in the death of Christ? The obvious answer is, Jesus’ death is not just, but far from it, an innocent man is killed to spare the truly evil guilty ones that, paradoxically, kill him according to God’s will. Justice is absent when violence is done, and violence is precisely what the cross represents: namely, human violence against its own Creator.

The theology of the early Church became corrupted through time due to the events surrounding the “conversion” of Constantine who merged Church and State and this may go a long way in explaining the multiplication of perverse theories of atonement. In addition, several atonement theories arose which were intended to illustrate the death and resurrection of Christ (at specific times in history),[1] and not necessarily to pose singular or dogmatic understandings, but which unfortunately ended up being codified into doctrine.

The theories can be sorted according to the problem Christ would solve, specifically within the various persons (Satan, Man, God) which contain the obstacle to salvation. The question arises as to the person and the nature of the obstacle?

 According to Ransom theory (developed by Origen, 185-254 AD), sinful man is controlled by Satan, therefore, the death of Christ is a payment to Satan to free the captives. Sometimes this ransom is illustrated as a hoax; in other words, Jesus ripped off Satan. Somehow Jesus ensures the escape of mankind from the hands of Satan, and then he scams Satan by escaping through the resurrection. The problem with this theory is immediately obvious, if God or Jesus owes something to Satan, is Satan more powerful than God?

The Man theory has multiple variations, but essentially holds that the death of Christ serves as a catalyst to inspire the reformation of society, that is, to bring about repentance and to halt rebellion against God. God could have forgiven without the cross, but He uses the cross to persuade humanity to repent. In this theory, salvation depends entirely on the human response, that is, on human repentance. The two main variations of this theory are:

The Moral Influence Theory. This theory (held by Abelard; 1033-1109) teaches that God wanted to forgive man, but the problem lay in how to convince man that he could be forgiven. On the cross Jesus demonstrates the love of God and His willingness to forgive. Man, turning to see the cross and the love of God it portrays, rekindles his love for Him, repents, and then God forgives him.

The Governmental Theory. This theory teaches that God is a ruler who uses Jesus as an example to impose fear on the hearts of sinners. This theory emphasizes the seriousness with which God regards His law, such that whoever breaks it suffers the wrath of God. As God demonstrates His wrath through the cross, He persuades humanity to respect God’s moral law.

The main problem with the Man Theory is the fluid (it seems to illustrate opposed notions in the two versions of the theory) and the non-essential purpose it assigns to Jesus’ sacrifice (any number of things might illustrate the love or moral seriousness of God). If anger falls on the one who breaks God’s law, what law did Jesus break? Wasn’t He innocent?  Was there not a simpler way to demonstrate His love than the murder of Jesus? If the crucifixion was not necessary, then why carry out such a plan?

In the God Theory it is taught that the death of Jesus removed the obstacle to forgiveness within the nature of God. God’s loving nature wants to forgive humanity, but His holiness does not allow it and demands that there be punishment. Therefore, before sins can be forgiven, God’s justice must be satisfied. The main variants of the theory are:

Divine Satisfaction. In this theory (held by Anselm;[2] 1093-1109 AD) sinful man must pay a debt to satisfy the honor due to God or suffer eternal punishment. But, since man constantly sins, it becomes impossible to pay a debt that continues to increase. Since Christ was sinless, He can and does pay the debt of all humanity.

Penal Substitution. This theory (held by Calvin; 1509-1564 AD) is a modification of divine satisfaction, with a shift in focus from satisfying honor to appeasing anger. Since man broke God’s law the exact penalty prescribed by the law must be paid. In order to save a few, the elect, God transfers His punishment to a substitute: Jesus. Christ takes upon Himself the divine anger and suffers the penalties and imputes His justice to the elect.

Divine satisfaction and penal substitution are focused on the exchange between the Father and the Son: an infinite offense against the infinite honor of God that required a divine exchange (between the Father and the Son) that basically leaves out finite humans. Instead of being rescued from sin, death, and the Devil (which was the primitive belief about the ministry of Christ), a change arises in which humanity is now being saved from the law, justice, and God.[3] Salvation means that God’s wrath is removed or His honor is reestablished through the death of Jesus.

In this perverse alternative to Christianity, instead of the disciple taking up his cross and following Jesus, Jesus dies in his place so that the disciple no longer has to die. Salvation is focused on the death of Christ: in Catholicism it is a continuing death and in Protestantism it is death mostly in isolation from His life. This is typically linked to the denial of the body as a means for the salvation of the soul. Instead of the Father and the Son being united to defeat evil, death, and the Devil, now it is the Son who suffers the wrath of God for humanity.

Instead of resurrection being the sign of a completed mission against evil, now resurrection is secondary to the penalty or substitution exacted on the cross. In this alternative Christianity, the State (the Roman Empire) is now part of the divine order, instead of being the servant of the prince of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4). The death of Christ, instead of suspending, displacing, or rendering the law useless, requires Roman law and the Mosaic law. Law is integral to the logic of the governmental theory, divine satisfaction and penal substitution and the law, rather than being suspended or displaced, is left in place as the logic that required or justifies the death of Christ.

In short, there are a multiplicity of atonement theories, several of which do not focus on biblical exegesis. As mentioned above, the function of some was merely illustrative and they did not purport to be biblical. The theories are dense and complex, and each Christian has a responsibility to scrutinize the Bible and study these theories and hopefully leave behind those unworthy of the God found in Christ. No theory may be complete or perfect, and thank God, humanity will not be saved according to the correctness of their theories. Like Michael Hardin says (in Finding Our Way Home), “God forgives our theology… just like He forgives our sin.”[4]

What can be said, without a doubt, is that the image of a God who demands satisfaction for His honor or wrath is not the God of the Bible; it is a paganized notion. The larger problem with many of the atonement theories is that, as Richard Rohr puts it, “to turn Jesus into a Hero we ended up making the Father into a ‘Nero’.”[5] In other words, God becomes the first to persecute the Body of Christ.

The reality is that the cross is a confrontation, but not between the Father and the Son, but against the forces of evil that murdered Him. It is the overthrow of death, nationalism, ethnocentrism, racism, self-centeredness, machismo, feminism, and every form of evil that results in violence and death. It is not the “violence of God” that murders Jesus, it is the violence of human evil that murders Him.

Rightly understood, this accords with the classic understanding of Christus Victor, which Gustaf Aulén maintained was the understanding of the first church and to which he advocated a return. The Christus Victor paradigm understands the word of Christ in terms of His conflict with, and triumph over those elements of the kingdom of darkness that enslave humanity, that is, Satan and his demons, sin, death, and the curse of the Law. Though it may be a parallel to Ransom Theory, the theory need not be associated with the cruder elements of this understanding[6] and it also stresses Christ’s victory over sin and is thus centered to an equal degree in the idea of the resurrection.

In conclusion, to think that God is angry and wants to send everyone to hell is not biblical. The story the Bible tells is of God’s search for a relationship with His human creation, and this creation constantly turns away from Him, choosing to abandon the singular source of life. This is precisely what sin is, not just the breaking of moral codes, but idolatry and the distortion of human identity because of that idolatry. It is exchanging life for death. It is offering God death instead of sacrificial life. It is exchanging the covenant with God and making a covenant with death itself.

N. T. Wright describes (in his book The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion) the three-layered error in modern Christianity: we Platonized our eschatology (by substituting the promise of being a new creation for ‘souls going to heaven’), we moralized our anthropology (by substituting the biblical notion of human vocation for a qualifying test of moral performance) and we paganized our soteriology (by substituting the genuine Biblical notion of forgiveness with the idea that “God killed Jesus to calm His anger”).

Christianity, under the influence of Plato (and Platonist theologians), inevitably interprets God as a violent god, but perhaps people will distance themselves from that god and be drawn to the God of the Bible. The hope is that by moving away from the repulsive god of a failed atonement theory the true God will be sought, though, this is often not the case.


[1] The error of many of these atonement theories is locating themselves in a specific time and space other than the time and space in which Jesus died. That is, they try to explain the purpose of Jesus’ death according to the historical context that surrounds them. For example, Satisfaction theory repeats themes from its medieval context. Not that this is necessarily bad, because Jesus died for everyone in all times. But you cannot speak of His death and resurrection without placing them in their own context. Another example of this error is the one that N. T. Wright rightly points out, and that is, even, many of these atonement theories are not based on the Gospels, but on the letters.

[2] Augustine is the theologian who most influenced Western theology and that is why it is necessary to mention the following: Augustine, who had Neo-Platonic notions, leads theology to reinterpret human subjectivity and the functioning of truth. It fails to appreciate the embodied nature of truth, and unfortunately this infects the rest of theology with a dualistic tendency, thus fusing it with Greek philosophy. The interaction between soul and body becomes more Greek than Judeo/Christian. It begins the belief that the soul is eternal and is trapped in a human body. And it is Augustine who mystifies sin, opens the way to the atonement theory called “divine satisfaction” that is today’s standard imposed in most Western churches and that Anselm developed later.

Anselm completely absorbed the change that Constantine brought about and gives life to the Satisfaction theory. In this atonement theory, God is the object, and the human is the subject. This theory used Roman law as a metaphor (and, on behalf of Anselm, his intention was only to make an illustration). Unfortunately, his illustration became the only way to see the cross of Christ in Western theology.

“In ancient times, Christ was seen first and foremost as the conqueror of the devil and his powers. His work consisted above all in freeing humanity from the yoke of slavery to which it was subjected. And so, the worship of the ancient church was centered on the Resurrection. But in the Middle Ages, particularly in the ‘dark ages,’ the emphasis shifted, and Jesus came to be thought of primarily as the payment for human sins. His task was to appease the honor of an offended God. In worship, the emphasis fell on the Crucifixion rather than the Resurrection. And Jesus Christ, rather than the conqueror of the devil, became a victim of God. In Why God Became Man, Anselm clearly and precisely formulated what had become the common faith of his day [Justo L. González, History of Christianity: Volume 1, vol. 1 (Miami, FL: Editorial Unilit, 2003), 424-425.] Translated by me.”

[3] A violent atonement theory – a theory that uses violence to generate its meaning – will only serve to multiply and even justify violence in the world.

Calvin, one of the most influential theologians, is a good example of the violence that this blog criticizes. He agreed with the murder of heretics and blasphemers (who would determine who was a heretic? Him?), to the point that, according to A History of the Church by James North “Servetus was burned to death in Geneva by Calvin and his followers (p. 350).”

Although there is debate as to how much Calvin directly influenced the assassination of Servetus, and other assassinations (sometimes the number exceeds 58), there is no doubt that his theology justifies such acts and greatly influenced during the Protestant Reformation.

[4] Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, eds., Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007), 64.

[5] Ibid, 208.

[6] Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 AD) illustrates the Devil as a fish, Jesús is the bait and hook, God is the fisherman. Augustine (354-430 AD) used an example similar to Gregory’s: a mousetrap. Jesus on the cross was the bait, a man without sin. Satan kills Jesus, but at the same time falls into the trap and is mortally wounded.

On the universal necessity of our crosses

Being saved is participation in the cross of Christ—undoing evil by living a cruciform life in the face of that evil. And, for this reason, it is the only real-world answer to the real-world problem of evil.

The faith I grew up with had a singular notion of the meaning of the cross: it was simply the necessary price that someone had to pay in order to satisfy God’s need to punish us for our sins. This “vicarious” sacrifice ensured that God’s retributive justice was satisfied so that his forgiveness could be extended on an individual basis to each sinner. As such, it was done for me as something I could not do for myself. Jesus “took your punishment,” he “lived the life he lived and died an innocent man so you don’t have to.” Anselm of Canterbury’s Cur Deus Homo established for us this principle: Jesus is God become human because no mere human could do what God could do, but a human must do it–hence “why God became man.” And, because he did something which was not possible for us, we reap the benefits at no personal cost.

My oversimplification here is intentional. At Forging Ploughshares, Paul and the rest of us who have contributed have written, interviewed, and podcasted extensively on the problems of penal substitutionary atonement.

To my mind, though, the brilliance of penal substitution as it is developed in the centuries post-Anselm is its simplicity and ease. The problem Jesus came to solve? Well, we’ve committed “sins,” actions God didn’t want us to do that, once done, irreversibly give us a mystical mark as “sinners,” prohibiting our entry into heaven and destining us to eternal suffering or destruction. The “defeat of death” in the resurrection spoken of throughout the New Testament is simply the promise of eternal life, post-mortem in heaven purchased entirely by someone else.

Because of the mystical nature of what this salvation is, the real question for the reformers who ran with Anselm’s initial theory was always “what then must be done to apply the effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the individual sinner?” And, because of their rightful distaste for the corrupt Roman Catholic church of their day, they became convinced that nothing was required but a nebulous “faith.” Ultimately, while Luther and Calvin transitioned Anselm’s initial medieval analogies to more contemporary court analogies, the thrust remained the same: Jesus had done something for you that you are incapable of doing.

As far as I could tell from my conservative (one-step-removed-from-Reformed) Bible college education, the only issue left for the church to resolve was to kibitz over the details of who qualifies to receive the mystical “salvation.” Is it anyone who repeats the magic words “I believe?” Are there other requirements, such as baptism? How many sins can I still commit before I lose that salvation? Can it be lost? Are there just a few people who are saved? Or, does it sort of automatically apply to everyone, universally?—an idea that has experienced a bit of a renaissance in the past year or two. From the perspective of a Gospel predicated on something Jesus does for us, the people who argue all of these positions must feel that concepts like universalism and infernalism are polar opposite. But they are both predicated on the same assumption: that the problem of evil and death is mystical, otherworldly, and that it is defeated by someone else for you.

About fifteen years ago (around 2005, give or take a year), my friend Paul Axton began to drop hints to me that there were other ways to look at the cross. Maybe the cross wasn’t something that was done for us, but something that we were invited to share. It’s still not entirely clear to me whether to thank Paul or curse him, because the question changed everything for me—and there is no doubt in my mind, it did so at great cost to both of us.

What happened for me was a shift to what I now consider a much more practical, physical, and human understanding of the point of the cross. I no longer believe that the cross solved some mystical problem for God that prevented him from allowing us to live with him forever after we die. The removal of the sting of death has literally nothing to do with moving on to a disembodied heaven. The problem of sin isn’t that it prevents escaping the planet. The problem of sin is that it corrupts God’s good creation.

This means that the problem the cross resolves is more complicated than “going to heaven.”

In the creation narrative, we are told that humans were created to live and thrive on this planet as physical “images,” representations of the divine creator who made it. In this story, God is portrayed creating the universe through a cosmic speech act (he speaks and it comes to being). When people (the images) are created, he calls them to mimic the speech act by naming what is created. Thus, the role of the images of God is to partner with God in the ongoing work of caring for one another and that creation, to be co-participants, co-creators in the ongoing creation of the universe. As John Walton has stated, God’s “resting” on the seventh day is his sitting on his throne in his new cosmic temple so that the real work of partnering with his new friends in the joyous work of his kingdom could begin.

In the story, the created “images” weren’t satisfied with their image-hood and chose to know what was not for them to know. They chose to decide for themselves what is good and evil, to be other than little copies of God—and in fact, to make God in their own image. And, since they were no longer living as God’s images, they began naming things improperly. The earth, its creatures, and one another were all named for exploitation. For this, they were cursed—but we must carefully understand this.

The curse, of course, was death. But this was not the carrying out of some divine ultimatum or threat. He didn’t kill the people in the story. All of God’s statements in the fall narrative seem to be God’s observations about the state of things, rather than punishments. That they would now “die” seems to have deep implications: rather than having work to do, they would now have to work simply to survive. Rather than having loving relationships like the persons in the trinity, they would rule over one another. Rather than having access to the Tree of Life, their lives would be predicated on, and ruled by, their deaths. All of life had now become a competition to avoid death, a zero-sum-game of chasing power through violence. As a symbol of this new defining characteristic, they were now even clothed with death.

And there it is. The problem of sin and death isn’t some mystical problem which must be undone in the mind of God to allow entrance to heaven after we die. The problem of death is that it has become the defining characteristic in our lives. And sin is the violence we do to the world, to the people, to ourselves, and to God in order to try to get as much life lived as we can in view of our death, even if it means killing someone else, before we ourselves die. This, we call “evil.”

Again, the problem of death isn’t about what happens after. The problem of death is always the evil we are doing before because of our impending deaths. The problem of death is real world evil. Something that is intended to be resolved before we die, not after.

Enter Jesus into this understanding and you find the core problem which penal substitution attempts to resolve is dismantled. Jesus is not solving some meta-cosmic problem, but the real world problem of evil. His death on the cross is the undoing of the necessity of power by the acceptance of death made possible by the resurrection. As such, the cross was the ultimate undoing of the pursuit of power through violence. How so?

If the problem of evil is the attempt to escape death, salvation from evil is the acceptance of our own death–the acceptance of the cross and a cruciform life.

Death isn’t defeated in such a manner that we no longer have to die. No, we are promised that we all still die. Death is defeated in that it no longer rules over us while we live.

Which means, Jesus didn’t “do it [die] so that you don’t have to.” He died to restore to us the image of God by our acceptance of our death by participation in the cross. Jesus restored divine image-hood by demonstrating death’s defeat and calling us to follow. When Jesus bore the cross, he was saying, “Here is God.” When he quoted Psalm 22, crying, “why have you forsaken me” he was calling to mind the psalm’s own solution: he hasn’t forsaken the suffering one. He is here in the suffering with us because he has always been a suffering God. To be like him is to suffer, with him. And being like him is the entire point of this.

Salvation is not a status purchased for us. Salvation is the lived reality of the cross. It is the return to true human image-hood by the mimicking of God. On the cross God was showing us that this is the God he is—and to be human is to be like him. Therefore, his call for us is to pick up that cross and follow. “If you want to be my disciple, you must pick up your cross.” “You will share in his glory, if indeed you share in his suffering (Ro 8).”

Being saved is participation in the cross of Christ—undoing evil by living a cruciform life in the face of that evil. And, for this reason, it is the only real-world answer to the real-world problem of evil.

This is the entire point: dying on our crosses is salvation, not a mere eternal destination. Salvation is the lived reality of a restored image-bearing done by sharing the cross of Christ. That means that Jesus’ cross wasn’t the only one that is necessary to “be saved.” Carrying our cross is what being saved is.

If, then, as some are saying, “Jesus defeated death for all, no matter whether they share the cross of Christ or not,” they are actually saying Jesus has not defeated the problem of evil and death in this world but in the next world. If it is not necessary for us to bear our crosses, then we are left with some mystical understanding of what Jesus died for, and we are left with the same problem of real-world evil and death.

In fact, real world evil is ultimately dismissed by the universalist’s claims as nothing more than “foolishness.” This, I take to be a denial of even the necessity of the cross of Christ. Was it merely people’s foolishness that crucified Jesus? Were they just tricked? If the problem in this world was nothing more than foolishness, could it not have been cured by a divine critical thinking skills course? No, on the cross, Jesus faced true evil. And we face it as well on our crosses.

Again: to deny the necessity of carrying our cross is to deny the real-world solution to the real-world problem of sin and evil that murdered Jesus. It is to say it was not necessary for 2nd and 3rd century Christians to face the lions in the arena. It is to tell the martyrs that their sacrifice was in vain, that it was unnecessary. It is to say to me and my friends who’ve lost jobs and dreams and livelihoods that, “You didn’t have to do that. It was done for you no matter what.”

I am frequently told that unless I believe that all people are saved regardless of their participation in the cross, I am just not loving or “hopeful.” But a mystical escape from the world is simply not the kingdom my imagination has been taken captive by–I find no hope in it. My hope is in a kingdom defined by a people who are willing to bear the cross of Christ. This I take to be a beautiful kingdom of those willing to live like God by dying like God. It is a kingdom with a real solution to real evil right here in this real world. And a resurrection peopled by those who never understood the cost of this cross would be a resurrection of the fallen earth in which we currently reside.

And in this real world, where millions of people who call themselves Christians are willing to cause harm to anyone else in the name of “freedom, security, and the economy” the notion of changing that theology to one that says “You actually can be his disciple (or share the benefits of the cross) without carrying the cross,” is one I gladly, wholeheartedly, and passionately–even angrily–reject.

Theo-ecology: Western Wildfire’s Prophetic Cry

The following is a guest blog by Tyler Sims.

Smoke choke. Two words I never heard before. Two words I now know intimately, like a dial on the stove top turning up the heat.  “Smoke choke” seared in me a desire for theological action regarding creation care and climate change. 

The mega-wildfires of the West had sent their foreboding herald. In the sleepiest moments of night an ominous smoke crept over the entire West Coast and into communities of the Olympic Peninsula. Our town is situated near the northwestern-most point of the contiguous United States. We were caught unaware. 

Smoke Choke, September, 11, 2020:

Setting the fan on low I welcome the cool air from nearby Salish sea. My kids will sleep well tonight. 

The morning light peeps through our window’s edge. A burning courses down the length of my throat. Stinging tears perch on the creases of my eye lids.  There is a strange haze highlighted by a 7 A.M. burnt orange sun. Our home smells slightly of some odd aroma. It smells of sharp and sweet burnt plastic. My lungs constrict. Fumbling for my inhaler, I puff the stuff of pulmonary salvation. 

Seattle’s news update explains our air quality is now hazardous. Mega fires with their own weather system send their message: Hazardous. What does it mean? It means the air my daughter and son breathe is poison. Each breath could deliver poisonous microscopic particles deep into their lungs.

September 12, 2020

Seattle’s Komo news demonstrates making homemade filters out of box fans. One HEPA filter and copious amounts of duct tape forms the makeshift adaptation. It is too little, too late for our drafty home. Words of complaint fall from my lips, “My throat is still on fire.” The asthma attack tightens its vice. “Do you think the hotel will have clean air?” Andrea asks.

Driving away, the car mirror reflects a hazy image of the neighborhood. The radio blares the height of a smoke plume on top of Western Washington–6,0000 feet. A meteorologist explains, “It’s called an inversion– meaning the clean air is trapped above 6,000 ft of smoke.” 

At the hotel Sophia and Ty spill their toys over patterned carpet. There are no advertisements regarding Quality Inn’s air quality. A few breaths in and it’s clear; we escaped the poison air.

“Hazardous,” is the message of mega-fires from the chaparral mountains in California. “Poison” is the message from the evergreen mountains of Oregon. Beyond the flames, what does the message communicate?

It communicates the prophetic witness of fire. In ecology, or the study of Eden, fire is a renewing agent. It burns through the old and worn out stands of forest–a function often thwarted by mankind’s forest management. Pioneer species and other plants dominate recently burned areas. These pioneer plants–sometimes forming wildflower meadows–renew the soil. 

As time passes, newly conditioned soil begins transitioning to larger, more nutritious plants. Perhaps Jesus had this in mind when commenting, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Luke 12:49

Let’s lean into the interpretation of Jesus wanting fire for dramatic renewal. Consider the ecological function of forest fires coupled with the mind-boggling size of West Coast wildfires. What are the forests pleading? What is the earth asking? What is creation groaning?

The earth is asking for renewal. The forests are asking for a restart. Perhaps creation …

waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

-Romans 8:19-22

The initial devastating destruction of wildfires mirror society at large. Society is dependent upon a death-dealing transaction of negligent thinking translated into a fiery blaze of irresponsible human industry. For example, technology’s codependence on manufacturing promotes exploitive resource extraction which harms the earth and props up unsustainable carbon industry. 

It is a global societal pattern akin to the early and chaotic stages of a spreading fire. 

Wildfires also tell us that gluttonous earth consumption is hazardous and ignoring the earth is poisonous. Within the literal smoke the fate of creation and humanity become united.  The smoke is burnt particles of industry: cars, gasoline, non-renewable materials and pollutants. The smoke is also burnt homes, animals, plants and human life. Prophetic fire warns us and smoke compels us to change. 

Fire is a startling teacher and yet it heralds good news too. After the flames arrest our attention we can choose to start anew. We can choose a new relationship with creation by working with the ways of the earth (ecology), not against it. We can renew our relationship with God as cultivators instead of consumers. We can forge new relationships with each other as fellow cultivators, not destructive competitors. Yes, it’s hard work. But don’t worry; we have help.

“One who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Luke 3:16

Do-ology Challenge: Get some dirt in the game! Replace smart phone time with planting real trees via a conservation app.  https://www.forestapp.cc/

What Louie Giglio Doesn’t Get in his Inadvertent Confession and Subsequent Apology: The Form is the Substance–In Other Words, “No, I think you meant it.”

When you’ve predicated your whole approach to church and the Gospel on making the cross look attractive, then you’ve given up any moral authority you had to acknowledge and speak to its inherent injustice. When you can’t speak to the injustice of the cross and our call to bear it because it’s not attractive, then you can also no longer identify with others on their own crosses, such as brown people suffering systemic injustice and violence, without attempting to make that palatable as well.

When it comes to churches, Atlanta is a fascinating place.  On the one hand, you can visit the old Ebenezer Baptist church and sit before the pulpit that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cut his preaching teeth behind.  I’ve sat in that building and felt the chills of its history and choked on the lump in my throat. You can also find the small Berea Mennonite church that operates a farm in a neighborhood deep in East Atlanta.  I have worshiped with those saints as well.  And, of course, as with any town there are as many myriad other churches per capita as one might expect.

What I hadn’t prepared myself for before I got to Atlanta was the immense popularity of the “megachurch.”  The place is loaded with them.  In a galactic analogy, it’s like a stellar nursery of red giant stars, but sick ones, always threatening to collapse in on themselves under the weight of their own structures into theological black holes of inanity…always needing to “attract more ‘butts in the seats’” (as a former colleague invested heavily in “church growth” once so eloquently put it when telling me how to solve all the problems at my church) in order to sustain themselves.  

There are white megachurches (always systematically planted in affluent, up-and-coming regions) and black megachurches.  Among both black and white megachurches, there are many who are unabashedly prosperity-oriented, and others denominationally structured.  And there are megachurches for every denomination, some having grown up organically, often with more traditional architecture, their appearances reflecting the life cycle of their surroundings.  

Others were clearly planted using the “church growth” model, having been strategically built, facilitated, and marketed based on careful market and consumer research.  This model, having been cursed to us by Donald McGavran and his disciples, has been elaborated on more fully by Paul Axton.  At its heart is a narcissistic, consumer-driven ideology, founded on growth capitalism, and modeled after the modern corporate CEO structure.  It’s intentionally designed to give religious consumers the “worship experience” they want in a competitive religious market.  Customer service can get those butts in the seats.  Corporate America can show us how.

I remember being shocked and disturbed the first time I saw a commercial for a church.  Worse yet, I remember after an experience we had where we were treated poorly in an application process, telling another minister how hurt we were and seeking solace.  I was mortified by his response. “Yeah, we did that to an applicant once.  I feel bad about it.  I guess we need to spend more time looking to the business world to figure out how to treat people.”  

I’m not making that up.  A minister of an organization claiming to follow (at the very least) the greatest ethical teacher in the history of the world recommended turning to greedy corporations to learn how we ought to treat each other in the church.  Failure.

These megachurches are all over the place, though, mammoth structures where throngs get whatever religious fix they prefer in front of the shiny lights and smoke machines and volunteer baristas, while three-chord guitar players lead them in emo-style, stupid-redundant, romance ballads to a God who calls them only to be more comfortable and fulfilled, while their kids jump on trampolines and play on McDonald’s playland gym sets.  And somehow they always leave more biblically illiterate than they entered. 

It’s why you can be a part of a “large church” doing some “good things” and not understand that Jesus wants you to care about black people being murdered.

Enter Louie Giglio, white evangelical preacher at the enormous Passion City Church, another big-box, multi-location “Six Flags over Jesus” (seriously, check out the link) that markets itself as an “inner city” church.  In the midst of what may be the most profoundly important moment for racial justice since the civil rights era, when after the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and countless others, a slumbering white giant is finally starting to wake up and feel the pain of their “red and yellow and black” brothers and sisters and say, “We’ve HAD it!”  and protests are finally becoming harder to ignore, and change may finally be on the horizon again–when the time to stand with our brown brothers and sisters and let them speak and be counted with them came, Louie decided to step in.

You can’t hardly blame him.  In a moment with so much attention, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to capture some of that lime-light.  My friend posted an ad for their upcoming Sunday “panel discussion”.  Giglio, the Christian rapper Lacrae, and (of all people) Dan Cathy (white, fabulously privileged CEO of Chic-Fil-A) were going to sit with Bernice King (daughter of MLK and head of the King Center), who later (thank Christ) withdrew from the panel.  

My conversation with my friend did not go well.  The panel went worse.  At one point Giglio, free-riffing in front of the only black person on the stage revealed that, in his private conversations with Cathy (a wealthy, white, capitalist) they’ve often lamented that the term “white privilege” (being distasteful to privileged white people) is met with such resistance.  Why not call it “white blessing” so they can more readily accept that, although slavery and racism have been a blessing, they were still kind of unfair.  

He might as well have said, “I bet we could sell that.”

Giglio, when the issue rightfully exploded on him, has issued an apology.  But that damage is done.  He said it because he thought it.  But I’m glad he said it because it revealed something ugly about his version of the church.  

Giglio, on the surface of the comment, is talking about “the cross.”  He wants to call people to bear the cross.”  But the cross…it’s hard.  And in a church culture (like the church growth movement) where the goal has always been to make Christianity attractive in order to attract people to it, one’s goal in preaching the cross is going to HAVE to mean making the cross palatable.  But the cross is the cross.  “Palatable” isn’t the way it works.

Again, the church growth philosophy and the megachurches are predicated on making Christianity attractive.  The problem with the inevitable rebuttal one always hears “But what’s wrong with smoke machines and drum solos” is that it is based on the idea that the form of the message is different from the substance of the message.  It’s predicated on the idea that it doesn’t matter how we say it, it only matters that we say it.   But the question is, “what is ‘it’ that we’re trying to say?”. Is it true that the form of our lives is different than its content?

What Bruce Gorman’s work can help us see is that Christianity was never supposed to be a message that is divorced from its form.  It’s not just a set of belief statements that can be repeated like magic.  It’s not just a set of trite religious rituals to be completed to sate a bloodthirsty deity.  It’s none of that.  

What it is is a cruciform lifestyle of following Jesus.  This means that (contrary to well-meaning folks who try to overemphasize following over the content of our faith) what we believe (substance) is vitally important  but only because what we believe is what we live (form). It is both form and substance because the form is the substance.  When Jesus said “pick up your cross and follow” he wasn’t saying “yeah it might get hard sometimes if you believe in me.”  He was saying, “This is what it is like to be my disciple.  Come and die with me.” 

This means that things like wealth and comfort and self-indulgence and smoke machines and drum solos (though nice at a rock concert) are not worship of the God who submitted to the cross.  It means that consumerism and growth capitalism, both of which are contributors to and sustainers of things like injustice and racism and exploitation are absolutely antithetical to the cross.  You can’t do the cross AND base your church on a theme park.  Once you turn to capitalism (Dan Cathy?) for the answers, you lose the moral authority to talk about things like systemic racism.

Let me take that further: when you’ve predicated your whole approach to church and the Gospel on making the cross look attractive, then you’ve given up any moral authority you had to acknowledge and speak to its inherent injustice. When you can’t speak to the injustice of the cross and our call to bear it because it’s not attractive, then you can also no longer identify with others on their own crosses, such as brown people suffering systemic injustice and violence, without attempting to make that palatable as well.

I used to ask my students: how do you challenge people’s idolatry when you’re using it to attract them to the cross?  You can’t.  And what Giglio revealed in his Freudian slip was the failure of church growth: that it makes the cross incomprehensible.   

If Giglio was concerned with calling people to the cross instead of attracting them to a show, he wouldn’t need to call white privilege something else or try to turn slavery into “blessing” so that his rich white patrons could swallow the idea.  If he called people to the cross, then his white members would understand that they’re supposed to be willing to suffer and die with their brown brothers and sisters.  Because if you’re willing to die for brown brothers and sisters, then at the very least you’ll be able to bear the hurt of the notion that you have it better than them and that systemic racism and slavery were just bad–with no qualifiers.  

But telling rich white Atlantans that the culture that works so well for them is inherently evil is not attractive.  The cross isn’t attractive.  And that’s why guys like Giglio and others such as Andy Stanley, who may mean well and may even stumble on a nugget of truth every now and then, are ultimately not doing the Gospel.  They’re selling a religion that is a different form than Christianity.

And the form is the substance.

Colin Kaepernick as Minor Prophet – Again

This article was originally written in 2018.  By that time, the controversy this article refers to was already over two years old and Kaepernick had already been unceremoniously “shown the door” by the NFL.  However, though Kaepernick’s football career was certainly on hiatus (if not “over” as remains to be seen), the discussion surrounding his protest against police violence (kneeling during the playing of the national anthem) was still in high gear.  

With the current state of the political climate in the US and the recent spate in police killings of black people (don’t get me wrong–it never stopped) such as Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks among countless others drawing more attention to this issue than ever, it seems that the piece is still relevant, if not timely.  

I suppose I wrote this article when I did because I was discouraged and annoyed (annoyance has always been a primary motivator for me) with how easily people missed the point of Kaepernick’s protest and with the hypocrisy of calls for his firing and arrest while simultaneously screeding about “freedom” (perhaps the most meaningless word in our culture).  

This piece doesn’t specifically address racism as much as it attempts to make the point that patriotism is a religion.  This means that (as I posted on social media recently) “When someone says ‘I kneel at the cross and I stand for the flag’ they are essentially saying ‘Here are my two gods.  This is how I worship each.’”* Because of this, murdering black people was an essential sacrifice for the provision of “freedom”.  

The good news in recent weeks, if it can be called that, is that the murders by the police (and in the case of Arbery, by armed civilians) have inspired near constant daily protests which have cleared the way for the removal of statues of heroes of the confederacy, and the removal of the confederate flag from NASCAR events.  The NFL even apologized (without mentioning Kaepernick) for the way it approached the “take-a-knee protests”.  And, despite the fact that the President has openly encouraged police to be MORE violent and called on the military to counter peaceful protests, there is huge bipartisan support for radical police reform.

The bad news is that this progress is decades too late.

*Anyone who wishes to counter argue on the “here are my two gods” point should ask first why the cross and the flag are mentioned in the same sentence.  Why not simply say, “I stand for the flag?”  The statement admits that flag and cross are comparable.  You should cringe when people say we should be grateful to “Jesus for saving us from sin and the American soldier for providing salvation.”  These statements both explicitly place nation and God on the same level.

Jason Rodenbeck
 ______________________________

Of the “controversy” surrounding the “take-a-knee” protests among certain players of the NFL (beginning with Colin Kaepernick), much noise and political commentary has already been made.  As is usual, social media and the blogosphere have been lit up with shrill opinions since Kaepernick first refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem in protest of repeated examples of egregious police violence against young black men and boys.  Because opinions on this topic tend to be immovable, I don’t doubt that my contribution here will have little impact.  Yet, I can’t help feeling that the perspective I wish to share here may be very different from the ones typically shared—certainly in “evangelical” circles.

Of course, any type of protest against injustice or perceived injustice is, by nature, offensive to the bulk of those who witness it.  That is, after all, what makes it an effective tool for drawing attention to problems.  Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail illustrates, with passion, how often the prophet, standing against injustice, is told “We have no problem with what you are standing for.  What we are offended by is the manner in which you stand for it.”[i]  Most folks are all for “justice,” just so long as the call for justice does not upset the status-quo.  Justice is a nice goal and we’re all “for it.”  Just don’t make me feel guilty about the injustices that benefit me or interrupt my regularly-scheduled programming.  Don’t imply that we are all implicated in structures which produce injustice because it means that I ought to do something about it.  Don’t make me feel like it’s my fault.

Perhaps a reading of the prophet Jeremiah is in order, specifically chapter 20.  Or of Gideon and the Asherah pole in Judges 6.

Yet, the outrage against Kaepernick, and those brave players who have joined him, has surprised even as cynical of a lover of the minor prophets as me.  It ranges from friends and co-workers who have lamented the “politicization of sport” (who blindly miss the irony that the national anthem—a political statement if ever there was one—is played at every sporting event) to those who have unwittingly advocated for a type of fascism on their social media outlets as, enraged, they demand that all Americans must stand for the symbols of the nation because their freedom to do so was provided at great cost (who blindly miss the irony that to be obligated to stand because of “freedom” is not freedom).  And, as budding fascists go, the current president is no slouch as he and his vice-president have repeatedly stoked the passions of their voting base by calling for actions against these players, from taking away their jobs to even arresting them or removing them from the country.

Many of my close friends have stated the obvious racial tensions in play.  And much could and should continue to be said about this.  However, what I wish to point out is the religious implication of the NFL take-a-knee protest.  What I mean is, inasmuch as the hateful backlash against Colin Kaepernick and the other protesting players is frequently racially motivated, I wish to focus for a moment on the fact that it is also, very much, religiously motivated.

I have long held that American nationalism (especially as I’ve seen it play-out in churches and religious culture in evangelicalism) is very much a kind of civil religion.  And it is, in fact, a fairly complete one.  It has a type of salvation (freedom) provided and protected by a sort of messiah (the military and police force) which has provided that freedom through the shedding of blood.  It has a father-god figure (the president) who the messiah serves.  It has patriarchs (founding fathers), worship (anthems), and holidays (Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day)[ii] venerating its totems (flags and symbols) and honoring its messiahs.   It even has holy scriptures (the Constitution and the Bill of Rights) and priests (politicians) who serve the worshipers.

The reader may be thinking that my analogy is melodramatic, or a baseless exaggeration.  To my mind, no other explanation makes sense of the kind of reactions one sees when one refuses to participate in flag worship.  As someone whose theology is beholden to the Anabaptists, who feels that to pledge allegiance to the flag is to put myself in tension with the one I call Lord, stating that belief has never failed to generate offense.  “But, people (the messiah) died for your freedom (salvation).  They fight still to protect it (stated unequivocally despite the fact that no one has been able to explain to me adequately how the current wars are about my freedom).”  I attest that this is a religious reaction to a type of blasphemy. 

And that’s just it.  The outrage about Kaepernick’s protest isn’t just about race (though it is racially motivated).  It’s that Kaepernick’s protest is blasphemous to the American civil religion.   And this is why so many who, truly, aren’t racist are unable to see the point. To not worship the totem when the call to worship is announced is to dishonor the messiah who provides the salvation which the totem symbolizes.  That the protest implies injustice by the messiah compounds the issue.

In other words, what’s really bothering people isn’t just that Colin Kaepernick is a black man wanting social change for other black people.  It’s that he’s a black man knocking over their idol in protest of their idolatrous culture’s indifference to injustice.   Colin Kaepernick is fulfilling the role of a minor prophet.

Perhaps a reading of the prophet Jeremiah is in order, specifically chapter 20.  Or of Gideon and the Asherah pole in Judges 6.

Nationalism is a religion.  It’s a national civic religion.  And, for Christians, it’s idolatry.  Putting your hand on your heart for the anthem, whether you think you are putting your allegiance to the state below your love for Jesus or not, is a form of worship that is necessarily in tension with your proclamation that Jesus is “King” or “Lord.”

This is, perhaps, no different from the Roman world of the first century which inspired the writers of the New Testament to appropriate so much of the language of Caesar into Christianity.  The euangelion (the Gospel) of the New Testament is, itself, borrowed from the emperor cult intentionally: to point out that it is Jesus who brings the good news to the world, not Caesar.  The repeated claims of the Lordship of Jesus in the New Testament are, in fact, scathing political commentaries about the NON-Lordship of Caesar, who claimed Lordship.   And this is why the Romans persecuted the Christians for centuries, prior to Constantine.  I imagine that 2nd and 3rd century Christians would be mystified by the assumptions of many American Christians today who not only see no tension between patriotism and Christianity, they unreflectively seem to equate their faith in Jesus with their national patriotism.

The writers of the New Testament understood that to call Jesus “King” or “Lord” meant they couldn’t call Caesar “King” or “Lord.”  American Christians struggle to understand this.  Perhaps it is because we don’t use those terms politically anymore.  This is why contemporary writers such as Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne have advocated for using the word “President” with Jesus, instead of “Lord” or “King” in an effort to reestablish in the minds of those who claim to follow Jesus the inherent tension between the nation and the Kingdom of God.

As for my part, I kneel with Colin Kaepernick for many reasons.  I think he’s fiercely courageous.  I believe he is a faithful follower of Jesus who has devoted much of his life to loving under-privileged kids and helping them.  I support (as all Christians should) the call to racial justice that his protest is about.  But, also, I kneel because I cannot venerate the American flag, anyhow.  It is a bloody totem idol of a false religion and I am a follower of the true President and a citizen of the Nation of God.

[i] Myself, I cannot count the number of times I have been told, “The problem isn’t what you say, but how you say it.”  As if there is any nice way to say that “treating people unjustly is wrong.”

[ii] What I claim here is, undoubtedly, offensive to many sensibilities. Make no mistake, I have nothing but compassion and concern for members of the military and for those who have served.  I truly believe that a country that calls men and women to go to war for its interests, owes it to those it calls to take care of them later—if only this country were as concerned with that as it is with new weapons and new wars, perhaps this nation would, at some point, be at peace.  That said, I believe that in order to truly love those who serve, one ought to wish they weren’t fighting.   I hold that it is only those who hold a commitment to the rejection of violence who can truly love those who fight.

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.

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).