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Just Deserts

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Among atheists, Christians have a reputation for consigning people to heaven or hell based on the orthodoxy of their beliefs. You can be a sexual predator who preys on children, but if you confess your sins and accept Jesus as your savior, you have a guaranteed spot in heaven. On the other hand you can be a world-class humanitarian, but if you deny the basic tenets of the Christian faith, you are doomed to hell. To be sure, this is something of a caricature of Christian beliefs, but I think it describes fairly accurately what many Christians believe to be true. However, there is no foundation for this view in the Bible. The Biblical view of judgment in the afterlife is that it is based on deeds. Again and again, both Old and New Testaments stress that all people will be judged according to what they have done, whether it is good or bad. This includes Christians. Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of people being judged according to their beliefs. Everyone is judged according to their deeds.

Suppose a man believes—as some Muslims reportedly believe—that he will go to heaven if he kills an infidel. Will he be sentenced to jail for such a belief? Will our courts fine him or exact some other punishment for this belief? No. He will go to jail only if he is found guilty of actually killing someone. Are human courts more righteous than God’s? Of course not. Then how can we think that God will condemn people or reward them for what they believe?

Someone may object at this point that there are many Bible verses that also tell us we are saved by faith, that God rewards believers with eternal life in heaven, and that these rewards are not promised to unbelievers. To answer this objection, I need to introduce a distinction in different kinds of believing.

I believe that the earth is round, that the sun is a nearby star, that all life on earth has a common ancestor, that Abraham Lincoln was our 16th President, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Will any of these beliefs save me? No. They will not. Most of them have little or no impact on how I live my life. Even the last one cannot save me if I do nothing about it. It is perfectly possible for me to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and not follow him or do anything that he commands. These are what I think of as propositional beliefs. They are beliefs in certain propositions, statements of fact or opinion. This kind of belief is almost never meant when the Bible talks about faith. James is a notable exception, and if you want to see what the Bible has to say about whether faith or deeds are more important, read James 2:14-26. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

See? James points out that demons believe in God’s existence. Merely believing that there is a God gets you no brownie points with him.

I believe in my children. I believe in my wife. I believe in myself. I believe in Jesus. This is a different kind of belief. This is not an academic assent to certain propositions. This is relational trust. I have confidence in my kids. I have watched them grow into adulthood and take responsibility for themselves. I know they have learned good principles, and I have done my best to set them a good example. I believe in them. Likewise I believe in my wife. She is talented and smart and strong, and she can do what she sets out to do. I trust her. And, yes, I trust Jesus. He has proven himself loving and good in everything I know of him. He encouraged me when I struggled with depression, and he has given me a family to love, enriching me beyond anything I could have hoped for or imagined. This is the belief the Bible talks about, confidence in God’s goodness and love as a father to us all. It is this faith that saves us because we fully entrust ourselves to him, fearlessly doing what we know is right because our souls are at rest in him. By this faith we share with others when we have barely enough for ourselves. By this faith we speak out against injustice. By this faith we continue to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus even when we are ridiculed for believing impossible stories.

What we believe matters far less than what we do, but what we do depends a lot on whom we trust.

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Misplaced Guilt

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Guilt often misleads us. We think that we ought not to fail, that we ought to be competent at whatever we undertake, that we ought to anticipate what will happen and be prepared for it. The things we berate ourselves for are our incompetencies. But only God is all-competent.

Jesus showed us what a good person is like. A good person is totally dependent on God. Jesus did only what he saw his Father doing. He always left outcomes up to God and just did what he knew was right. From a human perspective, his life was a failure. Executed for insurrection, he did nothing of lasting note except persuade his followers of something really insane—that he was God’s unique Son. Yet his life and death and resurrection have transformed the world.

God does not consider our failures as important as our disobedience. Again and again in the bible, he demonstrates his displeasure at being disobeyed. And disobedience arises from distrust. It was so when the Serpent tempted Eve. She doubted the goodness of God’s purpose in prohibiting the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is so now whenever we don’t do what we know is right because we fear the repercussions. One essential part of Jesus’ teaching is that God loves us and treats us as his own children. He taught us to trust God so that we would have the courage to obey him. The repentance he demands is not for our failures but for our disobedience and the distrust it springs from.

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The Weakness of God

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“…the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
—1 Corinthians 1:25

It is tempting to regard what Paul said in 1 Corinthians as meaning that God, at his weakest, is still stronger than all the strength humans can muster. After all, God is reputedly all-powerful. Surely human strength can be no match for God’s infinite power. Yet I don’t think that is what Paul had in mind at all. This whole passage argues that God’s wisdom and power displayed in Jesus Christ is of a different order altogether from the wisdom and power of human beings.

Our heroes are men and women whose accomplishments stand out from those of their peers. Generals who lead troops into battle, statesmen who avert war, women who overcome misogyny and make significant contributions to science, famous poets or novelists, even accomplished athletes—these are our heroes. They makes us want to emulate them. Jesus was like none of these. He did not lead a nation or an army. His followers were mostly poor and of little account. He made no significant discoveries, never wrote a poem or a book. He didn’t even do what his enemies accused him of: he didn’t lead a rebellion against Rome. If you ignore his teaching, the only noteworthy things he did are almost too improbable to be believed: healing the sick without medicine and feeding the hungry with scant resources, walking on water, raising the dead. Most improbable of all, his followers claim he rose from the dead after being tortured to death and buried for three days. Everything about his life and work reveals a man who was evidently a lunatic with nothing to show for his years on earth except an unusually devoted following. As a representative of God, he comes across as weak, even feeble.

His strength, which became the true strength of the Church, was in two things, both of which Paul goes on to foreground in 1 Corinthians 2, his teaching and the power of the Spirit of God. Yet even his teaching was weakness and foolishness. He taught that we should love our enemies instead of trying to get the better of them. He taught that we should forgive those who offend us instead of retaliating. He taught that we should oppose violence with acquiescence to violence. If we made movies with Jesus’ conception of how to live a good life, at the end the good guys would lay down their weapons and submit to being killed. Likewise, the power of the Spirit of God was not to subdue evil in the world but to overcome it in one’s own heart. God’s Spirit enables Jesus’ followers to live, however imperfectly, in accordance with his teaching.

When Paul lists Christian virtues, they are too weak to even be called virtues. Paul calls them fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23). Notably absent are classical Greek virtues such as courage, prudence, and justice. Only self-control gets a mention, and it is last. Paul even boasts about his own weakness. and declares that when he is weak, he is strong. We tend to value defiance, seeing it as a sign of courage. Our movie heroes are almost always defiant when captured and almost always have to be physically subdued. Yet Jesus taught meekness and humility and persistence in the face of powerful injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. learned from Jesus’ example and used nonviolent protest to dismantle segregation and Jim Crow in the American south. His followers, far from being defiant, endured beatings and police brutality to awaken the conscience of the nation and shame the powerful for allowing injustice to continue.

Again and again throughout history the weak prevail against the strong not by force but by persistence and love. It is not the rich and powerful who end injustice; they too often benefit from its continuance. It is the poor and weak who unite against injustice and shame the powerful into doing what is right.

We Christians are taught to expect persecution for our faith. Some have taken that to mean that we suffer for our moral high-mindedness and piety, but those were characteristics of the Pharisees and religious hypocrites whom Jesus excoriated. No, the persecution we Christians—especially American Christians who enjoy so many protections under our Constitution—should expect to endure is for standing with the weak and powerless, for lifting up the cause of the widow and orphan, for advocating for people of color, for taking to the streets to protect the rights of women and immigrants and poor people, for continuing to feed the hungry when city ordinances forbid it.

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