Riots, Looting and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

8 08 2011

London is in shreds. Rioting has begun to spread: First in Tottenham, then Enfield, and now many other places, including my neighbourhood, Brixton. It’s shocking and saddening when you hear the reports and see the footage of buildings you pass by every day, with bricks through windows and flames tearing their hearts out. Each shop represents a staff of dozens; people’s livelihoods. Each person injured is a son, or a daughter, or father or mother. Each person arrested is a needless waste of human liberty.

I’m not in London at the moment. I’m on holiday outside the city for a few days, and my news is coming from TV reports, online newspapers and twitter searches. It’s strange watching the whole raft of people commenting on the various riots; some in proud approval, some showing off their haul from various shops (a few seemingly oblivious to the inherent stupidity of posting a photograph of your own face next to a stolen plasma screen!), some in shock or fear. Every time I hit refresh there’s a new threat, a new rumour, a new precaution. People speculate about how it’s all been organised and where will be hit next. Who knows how far this will spread?

It’s hard to know if any of the protests were legitimately warranted, even in their nascent form. It’s not yet clear whether Mark Duggan’s death was due to police malpractice, or whether he shot first, and I dare not speculate.

But what is clear is this: responding with violence will achieve little. Violence has a nasty habit of escalating. We could cite hundreds of examples, but one leaps immediately to my mind.

In the Bible, the book of Judges chapter 15, Samson’s father-in-law gives Samson’s wife away to someone else; perhaps a legitimate reason for him to be somewhat irked! Samson responds aggressively, the Philistines up the ante, and the whole thing spirals out of control:

‘Samson said, “This time I have a right to get even with the Philistines; I will really harm them.” So he went out and caught three hundred foxes and tied them tail to tail in pairs. He then fastened a torch to every pair of tails, lit the torches and let the foxes loose in the standing grain of the Philistines. He burned up the shocks and standing grain, together with the vineyards and olive groves.

When the Philistines asked, “Who did this?” they were told, “Samson, the Timnite’s son-in-law, because his wife was given to his companion.”

So the Philistines went up and burned her and her father to death.  Samson said to them, “Since you’ve acted like this, I swear that I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you.” He attacked them viciously and slaughtered many of them. Then he went down and stayed in a cave in the rock of Etam.

The Philistines went up and camped in Judah, spreading out near Lehi. The people of Judah asked, “Why have you come to fight us?”

“We have come to take Samson prisoner,” they answered, “to do to him as he did to us.”

Then three thousand men from Judah went down to the cave in the rock of Etam and said to Samson, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?”

He answered, “I merely did to them what they did to me.”’
(Judges 15:3-11)

What is striking about this scenario is the futility of it all. Things so quickly leap from the actions of one person, to the burning of crops, to murder, to mass murder, until over 3,000 men are involved, and 1,000 Philistines get pummelled to death with a donkey’s jawbone!

How quickly too the threats, excuses and defences leap to the tongue:

“I have a right to get even” (v3)
“Since you’ve acted like this, I swear that I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you” (v7)
“We have come […] to do to him as he did to us” (v10)
“I merely did to them what they did to me” (v11)

Humans have an uncanny ability to legitimate their actions and defend the indefensible, at least in their own minds. Even if Duggan was the victim of police malpractice, a violent retort is hardly the answer. How does burning buildings to the ground establish justice? How does robbing a shop, or decimating a bus?

But let’s be clear: most of what has been done this weekend is in no way related to the Duggan incident. I don’t know what motivated the hundreds of youths to smash, maim, burn, destroy and steal, but I doubt that for many of them it was a passion for justice.

Just this week I’ve been thinking about a talk I’m due to give in a month or so. It’s on the latter chapters of the book of Esther, and at this point in the story, the Jewish people are facing extermination. The Persian King Xerxes permitted the Jews to defend themselves, to kill their attackers and ‘to plunder the property of their enemies’ (Esther 8:22) and yet three times we are told that ‘they did not lay their hands on the plunder’ (Esther 9:10, 15, 16). I don’t know why they refused to take the plunder, even when the King had permitted them to. I assume it was to show something of their character: they were not in this for selfish motives, to make money at others’ expense; rather they were trying to establish justice. So they protested strongly, they fought, but they refused to cross over into greed.

Looting would only have undermined their cause, but they demonstrated the purity of their motives by refusing to plunder their enemies.

Of course, at other points the people of God did take spoils from war, so I’m hardly holding them up as a shining example! But for all the questions this passage does raise about the legitimacy of war or self-defence, it tells us one thing: In standing up against injustice, you don’t have to go to extremes. You have a choice. You can draw a line; saying ‘this far and no further.’ You are able to go as far as is necessary to protect yourself, to prove a point, and yet still resist greed and selfish motives. You have a choice about how you conduct yourself.

There is nothing honourable about the way in which people have conducted themselves these last few days. This kind of mindless looting is immoral, and it undermines the original cause: the pursuit of truth and justice. The higher the injury toll goes, the harder it will be to gain sympathy for the cause, and the death of Mark Duggan, innocent or not, will very soon be irretrievably buried under hatred, pain, bitterness and cynicism.

I pray for peace on my home streets. I pray for the family of Mark Duggan. I pray that justice will be done for all involved. I pray for the police, that they may have wisdom to handle the riots with integrity. I pray for those arrested, that they would be truly repentant. I pray for those who are contemplating rioting tonight; that they would think before throwing away their lives. And I pray that Isaiah 2 will be fulfilled even quicker than expected:

‘God will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.’ (Isaiah 2:2-4)

Slaves and Masters

16 07 2011

‘Slaves submit to your masters…’ (Ephesians 6:5)

This verse is a challenging one to preach on. The temptation is to just focus on the subject of work and the relationship between a worker and his boss (which really is what it’s about!) But in so doing, we can end up ignoring the elephant in the room, the big question: “So… does the Bible endorse slavery?”

In the West Wing episode In God We Trust, President Bartlett and Senator Vinick discuss issues of faith, and this very question comes up:

Bartlett tries to dodge the question through some questionable theology (and bad hygiene… using the same spoon on multiple tubs of ice cream!?) but it has some force. Does the Bible condone slavery?

Consider these statistics:

  • There are currently around 27,000,000 slaves in the world today
  • Many of them have been kidnapped, sold by family members, or tricked into slavery against their will
  • They are threatened with violence, and often forced into drug dependence
  • A huge number of those slaves are sold to brothels and used for sex
  • The average price of a slave is around £55
  • The BBC reported just a couple of weeks ago that children are being trafficked and sold on the streets of London for £16,000.

I can fully understand why Ephesians 6:5 might cause such a problem for Arnold Vinick, and for many modern readers of the Bible. Surely God cannot endorse that!

The Bible speaks a good deal about slavery. The New Testament uses the Greek word doulos 124 times. It means slave or servant, and in most English translations is rendered ‘servant’ with a footnote saying ‘or bond servant, or slave’ presumably to avoid the negative connotations ‘slave’ conjurs uo.

Although the Bible never condemns nor condones slavery outright, it has plenty to say on the way in which slaves are to be treated. And if we are to understand Paul’s commands, here as well as in his other letters (most notably 1 Corinthians 7; Colossians 3 and Philemon), we need to appreciate the differences between slavery in the First Century and that of the modern world.

Here are just four of the many points of difference, followed by a number of recommended resources for further reading and reflection:

  1. Race

    Modern slavery is typically racist; strong or economically wealthy nations subject those of others nations to slavery. The American Founding Fathers, for example, believed that the black people they imported were only 60% human, and thus only deserved 60% of normal human rights.This is not a typical feature of first century slavery. Romans owned Jewish slaves, and Greek slaves. Jews owned Greek slaves and Jewish slaves. It was not a case of one powerful nation subjecting a weaker nation (or people of a particular pigmentation) to slavery.We cannot, therefore, read ‘slaves obey your masters’ as an indication of God endorsing racism. Genesis 1 and 2 tell us that God made one man and woman in His image, and out of them came every nation. Every human; black or white, slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile is made in the image of God and all have dignity as a result.

  2. Status

    First century slavery was not based on social status. Slavery was a widespread practice, and it is estimated that around one third of the population of Greece and Italy was enslaved. Slaves were sometimes more educated than free people, and they very often had greater levels of responsibility, including managing people and resources.Additionally, slaves could also take other employment as time would allow. They could also own other slaves. So it is not the case that in the food-chain of society, slaves were the lowest of the low. They could be reputable, of high standing, with a good education and leadership responsibilities.Just imagine the challenges this would have presented for the church where both a slave and his master would worship side by side as believers, since ‘In Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God through faith… There is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free’ (Galatians 3:26; 28). Imagine a slave having a position of leadership within the church, which his master attended! These were all likely problems that the early church faced, and which are unthinkable under modern forms of slavery which are entirely demeaning, reducing slaves to the lowest positions of society, and removing from them all sense of human dignity.

  3. Finance

    In modern slavery, people are often tricked or coerced into slavery in order to pay a debt, and then they are kept in a state of poverty, never able to pay their way out. Additionally, they are never able to make money to sustain life beyond slavery, so there is no hope of a better future, since they would be unable to support themselves.In the first century, whilst some people may have got into slavery in order to pay off debts, others saw it as a good way of making money, a genuine source of income like any other job.The table below compares the financial situations of slaves and free workers. Whilst a slave would be paid considerably less than a Roman free worker, all of his accommodation, food and clothing would be paid for by his master. So at the end of a year, a slave would end up with 60 denarii in savings, whereas a Roman free worker would only have 33 denarii.

    Roman Free Worker



    313 denarii

    60 denarii







    These savings gave first century slaves the option to buy their way out of slavery early, or to have a means of sustaining life once they were released.

  4. Length

    Modern slavery is often lifelong; people are promised a release that never comes, because they are unable to pay back the spiralling debts (often exacerbated by forced drug addiction) or they die in the jobs as a result of violence, infection, or crushing workloads.By contrast, in the first century you could earn enough in a few years to buy your freedom, or you could earn favour with your master and be set free. Most slaves were released within 10-15 years, and the majority were free by age 30.In fact, it was often in the master’s interest to release slaves, because it was cheaper to hire them back as free workers!


Of course, there were always exceptions, and particular people who abused the system. Slavery was certainly not a pleasant thing; there was still a sense of indignity about it, and certain writers were particularly demeaning towards slaves. Aristotle, for example, wrote ‘A slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave’ and he argued that it was wrong to talk of friendship or injustice between a master and his slave, since ‘there is no friendship nor justice towards lifeless things.’

Whilst the Bible never condemns slavery outright, neither does it condone it. In fact, I would say that the Biblical principles of being made in the image of God and granted liberty through the gospel hint that God disapproves of slavery, even in its first century form… perhaps a topic for another day.

On the whole, however, many of the elements we think of when we hear the word ‘slave’ are simply not part of Paul’s original meaning. Modern slavery is highly racist. It is thoroughly demeaning. Most of it is driven by kidnapping, or deception. It is often linked to sex and abuse. It is life-long, with no hope of freedom, and may in fact cost people their lives. It is lucrative, feeding the rich, and abusing the poor. It keeps the poor poor, with no hope of restoration. What is fascinating is that when the Bible does restrict or critique particular practices related to slavery, many of the things it condemns are practices which characterise modern slavery.

Just one example: Exodus 21:26-27 lays out principles for masters treating their slaves well, and just a few verses before it says ‘Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death’ (v16). The Bible has an enormous problem with the practices of the modern slave trade, speaking in strong terms and threatening death for those who would dare to kidnap, buy and sell human life.

Christians have historically been on the forefront of fighting slavery, and still must today. But it would be a mistake to read Ephesians 6:5 and other passages, and think that God somehow condones the barbaric practices of the modern slave trade.


The resources that have helped me most as I have thought about the subject of slavery (ancient and modern) include the following:

Slaves of Christ – Murray J. Harris.
This is a brilliant book, looking at the theme of slavery in the Bible and the surrounding world. It draws from a wide range of sources, and is incredibly helpful. It looks not only at the Biblical view of literal slavery, but also at the metaphorical use of slavery in scripture, the way the language is used to describe Jesus’ own descent into human existence (Philippians 2), how he has rescued us through the gospel, and what it now means to be a slave of Christ.

William Wilberforce – William Hague
Hague’s biography of Wilberforce is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Brilliantly written and easy to read, focussing on the facts that matter rather than just trying to cram in every stat and figure imaginable. It is an amazing story of an amazing man.

From Every People and Nation – J. Daniel Hays
A slightly broader book, looking at the subject of race in Scripture. I’ve reviewed this in more detail here but it’s well worth a read on this related themes of race and racism.

Free The Slaves (
This has been a great source of information, though I have to say, I’ve not looked much into their work beyond the information they provide.

Stop the Traffik (
Stop the Traffik is an international movement who aim to raise the awareness of human trafficking as well as campaigning for an end to trafficking and sexual exploitation.

International Justice Mission (
IJM is a human rights agency working to rescue people from sexual oppression and slavery. They work all round the world, but are based in Washington D.C. and do an amazing job!

Francis Chan: Hail the conquering her…oh!

7 07 2011

I like Francis Chan. He’s very cool, yet doesn’t try to be. He’s typically orthodox, yet still packs a punch. He’s humble, but preaches with authority.

When I heard about his new book Erasing Hell, I thought:

Great – here’s an evangelical guy who is compelling, who won’t just come armed with a thousand verses and an axe to grind, but with a winsome attitude. A guy who doesn’t come across as stuffy and stuck-in-his-ivory-tower-of-academia. A calvinist, like me, but not one of the angry types. A guy who ‘emergents’ may take time to listen to. Surely he will bring us a good antidote to Bell’s quasi-universalism.’

And many others seem to have thought the same.

The blog world is full of people championing Chan’s book, (let us be clear, most of them haven’t read it yet, since it’s only just been released) looking forward to hearing his defence of the standard evangelical view of conscious torment. At least, that’s what they assumed they were going to get…

But read this quote from an interview between Chan and Mark Galli:

Galli: In your book you seem agnostic as to whether hell is a conscious eternal torment or annihilation.

Chan: That was one of the things I was a little surprised by: the language. I would definitely have to say that if I leaned a certain direction I would lean toward the conscious torment that’s eternal. But I couldn’t say I’m sure of that, because there are some passages that really seem to emphasize a destruction. And then I look in history and find that’s not really a strange view. There are some good, godly men—and maybe even the majority—that seem to take the annihilation view. I was surprised because all I was brought up with was conscious torment. And I see that. I see that in Scripture and I would lean more that way but, I’m not ready to say okay I know it’s this one. So say here “Here are a couple of views.” I don’t even remember if I wrote that I lean towards that, but maybe it comes across. I’m still open. And I hope that’s because of my study and not because I’d rather have the annihilation view. I don’t know what was harder, researching or keeping a check on my heart and making sure there are no weird, ungodly motives in everything I wrote.

Galli: I hadn’t thought about it that much, but I probably leaned toward annihilationism and probably still do. But I read Randy Alcorn’s book on heaven again and he made such a strong case for eternal conscious punishment I had to revise one chapter to give that view stronger resonance. In the end, I’m with you: I’m agnostic. I probably lean toward annihilationism, but I’m open to hearing a good argument from either side.

Both men are agnostic on the subject. Galli leans towards annihilationism (the view that people are destroyed rather than consciously punished) and Chan towards conscious torment. And Chan can’t even remember if he said in the book which way he leaned, but he hoped it comes across.

I don’t want to knock Chan for this position; I appreciate the honesty with which he’s arrived there. I don’t think he’s trying to stir up controversy, and he’s certainly never one to put himself on the pedestal in a personality war… He would be horrified at such a thing! What interests me are the questions this raises, and I suspect the answers say more about us than they do about him:

  1. Why did we assume that Chan was going to end up at a firm ‘conscious torment’ position?
    Why did we not just wait to hear his views before assuming he was the answer we had been waiting for? I fear it may be because we may care more about who wades into the fight than we do about the substance of the battle. Bell-fans leapt to defend Bell and assume the best about him because they like him, and because typically they agree with him on everything else, and so assume they will on this too… before they’ve read his work. Has the evangelical world just done the same with Chan? We should always be wary of putting people on pedestals, even people we have good cause to admire. As Rob Bell said, ‘I believe it is best to only discuss books you’ve actually read.’ I do think there’s some value in preempting and prejudging books, but not in trumpeting the author as a knight in shining armour before you actually know what side he’s planning to fight in the battle. “Hail the conquering her…oh!”
  2. Is annihilationism really a more acceptable alternative to universalism?
    By which I mean, before this whole debate kicked off earlier this year, if you had asked evangelicals to assess various views on hell, wouldn’t they have been likely to put annihilation and universalism in the same sort of ballpark: evil, misguided, unbiblical etc… If so…
  3. Why is there not more uproar about Chan’s position?
    People don’t seem to be throwing around the ‘H’ word quite as much with Chan as they did with Bell. (That’s no bad thing… the more people get labelled ‘heretics’ the more I think we may be in danger of redefining the word ‘anyone who sees things slightly differently to me.’) But why not?
  4. Why is it ok for Chan to hedge his bets, but not Bell?
    What struck me about the responses to Bell was the claim that the Bible is clear on this subject, and that offering alternatives and saying ‘I lean towards this one’ (or not even saying clearly which one you do ‘lean towards’; a feature common of both authors!) is unhelpful and unacceptable. Chan, like Bell, has offered us alternatives, and said ‘we can’t really know.’ Obviously, he’s not arguing for annihilationism, and he’s said in the interview that he actually leans the other way; but he’s open to it, and I don’t see the ‘there’s only one plain, clear reading of Scripture’ people jumping up and down on his head. Why are people not lambasting him for raising questions he doesn’t answer, and opening people up to the idea of an un-orthodox view?
  5. Will the evangelical world drop Chan as their ‘poster-guy’once they’ve read his book?
    I suspect not. Sadly, I suspect fewer people will read his book, in part due to the fact that they assume it simply enforces what they already think. And I suspect the pastors who were so worried about their people reading Bell will be far more comfortable with them reading Chan, not because the possibility of annihilationism is more palatable, but for the simple reason that Chan is not Bell. It really might just come down to the fact that we’re looking for a ‘good guy’ in a battle of personalities.
Related Posts:

Rob Bell comes clean?

11 04 2011

When I opened Facebook yesterday, virtually one in three items on my news feed contained the following video, in which Rob Bell ‘comes out and states what many have been waiting to hear.’ Each time it has been posted, it has been accompanied by one of the following kinds of comments:

  1. Well done Rob! Glad to see you are orthodox after all (that’ll show those nay saying reformed guys)
  2. I haven’t read the book yet, but I thought everyone’s saying he is a universalist. I’m confused.
  3. I have read the book, and I thought it was fairly clear he was a universalist. Now I’m very puzzled

In the clip, Bell introduces himself as a Christian, and then essentially recites a creed, outlining the details of his Christian faith, all of which I say ‘amen’ to. Listen to it. See what you think. He includes in his list the fact that Jesus is the way, and that there is a hell… All of which seems a little confusing.

Here are a few comments:

I do believe he is a Christian. I believe his faith is genuine. As I’ve said before, I like him very much and enjoy listening to his preaching… though usually armed with a large pinch of salt. It’s great to hear him affirming many of the central tenets of the Christian faith. (Shame he couldn’t have included the virgin birth in there just to put the Velvet Elvis confusion to bed)

However, just because you throw around some titles and terms doesn’t mean you have affirmed where you stand on a particular doctrine. You could glance through the creeds of many different church streams and find them all affirming similar things using similar language, but meaning things that are worlds apart! Get a high Anglican, a non-conformist, a Baptist and a Mormon together and ask them if they believe in baptism – of course they all do, but what they mean by ‘I believe in baptism’ will be entirely different.

Of course, baptism isn’t the best example, because that’s an area of practice that has divided churches, whereas the items Bell includes are all things that evangelicals would have broad agreement on. But my point is this: Saying ‘I believe in X’ means very little when you are regularly guilty of redefining what X really means.

I’ve read Love Wins and I have no doubt Rob believes in Hell. He makes that very clear. But whether he and I and Jesus agree on how you define ‘hell’ is a different matter. I do think that he has redefined hell beyond the boundaries of where scripture goes, and so a simple affirmation like ‘I believe in hell’ means very little.

The central statement in his creed is this:

‘And I’m not a universalist because I believe God’s love is so great God lets you decide.’

This, I imagine, is what has confused many people, and put a smug smile on the face of others. And again it’s a labeling thing. Rob is defining universalism as the belief that everyone gets out of hell and into heaven. And of course he is rejecting that, because he believes that Jesus is the way, and so God won’t simply override your decision to reject Jesus. ‘He lets you decide.’

The question is ‘when does he let you decide?’

It’s very easy to reject a label, but functionally Bell is very far along the spectrum towards universalism. Because what he doesn’t say in this clip, but does say in his book, is that he anticipates that God’s love is so strong that people will be wooed to respond to him after their death, even if they’ve been languishing in hell for some time. The gates of heaven are never shut and Sodom and Gomorrah get restored, and this, for Bell, is enough to show that there will be postmortem opportunities for people to respond to the gospel.

(Of course, that’s not all of his argument – read the book if you have the time and inclination, or don’t if you don’t – see if you can figure out what the heck his exegesis of the prodigal son is about? It baffled the hell out of me.)

So Bell can and does reject the label of universalism, but what he actually says is barely different: hell is real, people will go there, but even there they will have the opportunity to respond to God’s love, and God’s love is so great that we can be optimistic that even in the darkest place, people will be swayed to respond.

So if we were to ask him ‘will hell at last be empty?’ I imagine his answer (not that he gives answers per se) would be: “theoretically no, since people will still be able to choose to reject God’s love. But hopefully yes, since God’s love is so compelling, who wouldn’t want to respond?”

I’m not going to get into critiquing Bell properly… that’s been done to death (and beyond). But I would make this appeal, particularly to my friends who fell into category (1) ‘Way to go Rob!’ – Don’t cheer too loudly. Rejecting the title is not the same as rejecting the doctrine. And Rob Bell is still preaching unorthodoxy.

And that leads me to the final point of his creed; the pinnacle:

‘And I also believe it’s best to only discuss books you’ve actually read’

(Cue rapturous applause)

Leaving aside the chagrin I felt at this getting more applause and whooping than the death, resurrection and second coming of Jesus, this wound me up a little…

Of course people are going to discuss books they haven’t read, when you release a promo video raising discussion questions before the release date. You invited them to discuss it!

Of course people are going to discuss it when they pastor churches and need to shepherd congregations.

Of course people are going to discuss it when the fate of their friends hangs in the balance, and they want to ensure they hear a faithful representation of the gospel.

And I would add this; it cuts both ways! And I have heard as many, if not more, people defend Bells book without having read it, as I have critiquing it. If we were to cut their voices out of the discussion, it would be a rather different tone of conversation.

To those who have, on the basis of this clip alone, declared Bell to be orthodox after all; you are just as ill-equipped to make that statement as the people you have criticised. Don’t put your eggs in the basket of a pithy creed. Read what he’s saying and take heed of what he’s not saying. Be discerning.

And remember; all of us run the risk of having itchy ears. Let’s be careful who we allow to scratch them. (2 Tim 4:3-4)

The Adjustment Bureau

15 03 2011

I nearly didn’t get to see The Adjustment Bureau. Not through some kind of conspiracy. There were no men in hats subverting my plans. I simply couldn’t spell it!

For some inexplicable reason, I always forget to but a ‘D’ in adjustment, and I can never remember the order of that veritable mire of vowels in the word bureau. So after a good few minutes of Googling, I finally landed upon the correct spelling, and went to see it on Sunday afternoon.

If you don’t know, The Adjustment Bureau is a film starring Matt Damon, in which he meets a dancer called Elise, and immediately falls in love with her. Soon after, he discovers that a team of people called The Adjustment Bureau are working to keep them apart, because their relationship is not according to ‘The Plan’ as prescribed by ‘The Chairman.’ The film then follows Damon trying to subvert the plan, in order to pursue this relationship.

The film is good fun, not too serious, and generally enjoyable. There’s a whole load of sci-fi, pseudo-philosophical-theological pontificating on free-will and determinism, and a couple of not so subtle hints that ‘The Chairman’ may in fact be God: He comes to all people in different forms (!) and when anybody talks about him, they gesture towards the sky.

To be honest, it made me think less than I imagined it would. I was expecting a deeply clever, mind-bending film – it was a little light on that… I’m sure if you want to use it as a springboard to debate predestination, open-theism and the like, you can. Russell Moore wrote a good blog post on it, saying that the primary theme is not really the free-will/determinism debate, but rather ‘It seemed to be a retelling of the Eden story, with some sympathy for the Devil.’ I think he’s right.

But the overriding feeling I did have was how sad it is that belief in a Sovereign God leads many to think of a micro-managing, meticulous deity who operates on mechanistic, soulless, thoroughly logical systems, with no kind of emotional engagement. I fear we do God an enormous disservice by painting his grace in such hideous monochrome!

Yesterday morning I sat down to study Ephesians 1, and was struck again by verse 5:

‘In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…’ (Eph 1:5)

Every word of that sentence demands thoughtful engagement, but just a few comments:

In love – Immediately that should guard us against using the language of cold-hard logic. Perhaps I’ve been devious by sneaking those words in… in most English translations they actually fall in verse 4. And that’s the problem! It’s too easy to separate the love of God from predestination, and so we end up with a cold, hard plan etched in a moleskine, whether we like it or not. No, predestination begins with love.

For adoption as sons – There is a purpose to election: it’s not simply that God would be able to micro-manage every bit of our lives; we are given a hope and a future as children of God, welcomed into intimate familial relationship with the God of the universe. And note, there is absolutely no speculation here (unlike Romans 9) of the negative flipside of election, just pure, unadulterated joy!

According to the purpose of his will – Commentators suggest that the word translated ‘purpose’ perhaps more accurately means ‘pleasure’, in which case this verse should read ‘according to the pleasure of his will.’ That blows me away. Predestination is both an act of God’s ‘will’ – his reasoned, decision-making capacity – and his ‘pleasure’ – his heartfelt, joy-fuelled passion. He both ‘decided’ and ‘delighted’ to choose us!

This verse alone ought to stop us from treating predestination as a dispassionate and technical process, whereby God made an arbitrary or mathematical decision about who he would ‘save’, totally devoid of passion.

No, he delighted in election, and so should we.

‘Who died and made you the king of the zombies?’

14 02 2011

Whenever I teach on the resurrection, someone always asks about Matthew 27. No matter how much I try to ignore it, move on, call a coffee break, or fake an severe coughing fit to get out of it, someone always asks. Last week, I got away with it! I survived seven or so hours of teaching without anyone raising this troublesome passage… And now I feel guilty for short-changing people.

I’m sure there are a hundred and one better answers than mine, and also a million and one weird, quasi-gnostic ones too! It’s a peculiar passage, but here you go. A few thoughts:

‘Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.’ (Matthew 27:50-53)

The first thing to note is that there appears to be some kind of allusion to Ezekiel 37:12-14:

‘Behold I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.’ (Ezekiel 37:12-14)

Ezekiel 37 is probably the most famous ‘resurrection’ passage in the Old Testament, but arguably when he wrote it, the author would not have been thinking about a literal, physical resurrection. For Ezekiel, this opening of the graves is a metaphor for return from exile, as can be seen by the promise of being returned to the land of Israel (v12). The major concern for Ezekiel is one of national purity. One of the most unclean things a Jew could come across is a corpse. And yet, here you have Ezekiel prophesying to carcasses, which represent the house of Israel (v11) saying that God was going to cleanse them and return them to their land. For Ezekiel, resurrection was a metaphor for national restoration.

Matthew seems to be alluding to this in Matthew 27. This is the moment when the New Covenant was signed, sealed and delivered. The exile was over, and a new exodus awaited all who trusted in Jesus. But since Ezekiel had written his passage, as theology had developed and God had given people greater revelation, many had begun to read Ezekiel’s words as a literal prediction that one day graves would be opened and dead people would be raised again to life (1 Cor 15; 2 Cor 5; 1 Thess 4 etc). Matthew 27 appears to allude to Ezekiel’s words, not in order to say that the great eschatological resurrection had taken place, but that something which prefigures it, and speaks of national restoration had occurred at the death of this claimant to the title of Messiah.

It really is a very bizarre story, thrown into the text with no explanation, and commentators tend to treat it in one of the following two ways:

1) It was a story made up by Matthew, either as apocalyptic imagery which he never intended to be taken literally, or as a story designed to encapsulate and ‘fulfil’ a number of prophetic texts, such as Ezekiel 37, Isaiah 26, Daniel 12 and so on.

2) Matthew is aware of accounts of strange occurrences and so he retells them, without dwelling on them too much, in such a way as to give the perceptive reader a hint that this is the real return from exile and the dawning of the new age.

I personally side for option 2 for the following reasons:

– Given that few pre-Christian Jews would have expected that their Messiah would need to die in order to bring about the final resurrection, nobody would have made up a story like this.

– Furthermore, Matthew gives us no hint that this is a fictitious account. We have followed him through 26 chapters of accurate (although biblically embroidered) retellings of genuine events, and so to throw in a fictitious story at this point would seriously undermine the credibility of his entire account.

– Presumably we are intended to take the tearing of the temple curtain as a literal occurrence (v51). So why would we then expect to change our method of interpretation to treat these verses (52-53) as if they were fiction?

I think Matthew told the story because it happened, plain and simple. This raises (at least) four questions for me

1) Who were the bodies that were raised?

Matthew doesn’t specify. R.T. France speculates that ‘The saints are presumably the people of God in the Old Testament, those who according to Hebrews 11 all died ‘in faith’ looking forward to a resurrection to a better life (Heb. 11:13-16, 35, 39-40); through Jesus that hope now comes to fruition.’ (France, Matthew, p401)

Mmm… maybe. But really we have no way of knowing.

I would suggest we can assume that only a small number of saints were raised. Had it been every saint who had ever lived and died, then presumably there would be far more reports of its occurrence. A mob of ten thousand zombies trawling the streets of Jerusalem is bound to have got a mention at some point in historical records! A dozen or so could go largely unnoticed; just enough to make a subtle theological point.

2) Does their raising mean that the general resurrection has happened?

No. If this were the intended application, other Biblical writers would have made more of it, in particular Paul when dealing with heretical views of the resurrection. Paul still argues strongly that the resurrection has not yet happened, but will at some point in the future (1 Cor 15; 2 Cor 5; 1 Thess 4; Phil 3; Rom 8).

Seeing as this miniature resurrection was not accompanied by any of the other prophesied occurrences such as the creation of the New Heavens and New Earth, and the permanent removal of death, sickness and suffering, then we can assume it was no more than a ‘blip’; a signpost anticipating the general resurrection.

3) Are the corpses still alive today?

A few non-canonical texts in the centuries after the resurrection speculate about the corpses. For example, in Asc. Isa. 9.17f. they ascend with Jesus; in Ac. Pil. 17.1 they return to earthly life and die again subsequently; in Theophylact, writing a thousand years later, some of them are reported to be still alive. But if they had remained alive, there would surely be more speculation about them in early literature. The most logical explanation is that they died again very soon after.

Although, there’s an interesting premise for a trashy conspiracy novel in there somewhere… Perhaps they became guardians of the grail?

4) How therefore should we interpret it?

This is a literal, but confusing, occurrence, where a small number of saints are raised again from the dead for a very brief period, and then die again.

It should not be interpreted as the general resurrection, but merely an anticipation of it, in the same sort of way as the raising of Lazarus was. It was proof not only that one day there would be a great resurrection, but that ‘the resurrection and the life’ was here now in embodied form (John 11:25).

The death and resurrection of Jesus sent shockwaves throughout all of creation, Matthew even speaks of there being an earthquake. This miniature anticipatory resurrection was merely a ripple, pointing to the greater resurrection that is yet to come.

Matthew refuses to dwell on it and let it overshadow the truly significant event – the resurrection of Jesus. And we should too.

…three for a girl, and four for a boy

29 10 2010

Yesterday I did an hour long Q&A session where I was grilled on a number of theological topics. It was good fun, though challenging! In the midst of it, (a pleasant relief from suffering and predestination) I was asked an interesting question, and one I’d never really considered before: ‘Is it Biblical to discover the sex of your child before it’s born?’ Here’s the essence of the answer I gave… I’m sure if I thought about it more, I might nuance it differently, but hey: What do you think?

Of course, in Biblical times the technology we have today was not available. There were no pre-natal scans. That said, angels did have a nasty habit of turning up and telling the likes of Mary and Elizabeth not only the gender of their child, but what to call them! (I picture Joseph with his fingers in his ears complaining that the angel had ‘ruined the surprise.’)

But angelic encounters aside, the Bible says nothing prescriptive about this issue. I think it is a matter of personal choice, and it is a decision that each couple must make for themselves. However, I think there are a few Biblical principles that I would want to throw into the discussion:

Children are a gift from God (Psalm 127:3). I would say that each couple should take the course of action that helps them to enjoy and prize that gift the most, and that will be different from person to person based on a number of factors, including personality type, hopes for the future and preconceptions.

An example: A little while ago I had arranged to take my wife to a top-end restaurant – one in which we had always wanted to eat, but never thought we’d manage to! I had been planning (and saving!) for this for quite some time, and deliberated over how I should tell her. Should we just turn up there on the day, a complete surprise? Or should I tell her in advance to give her time to get excited? Knowing my wife, and how she responds to things like this, I knew that she would value the treat more if I gave her a week’s notice. Sure enough, when I told her she was excited and couldn’t quite believe it was true! Over the next week, she enjoyed thinking about what she would wear, what it would be like, reading through the chef’s cookbook and dreaming about how the food would taste. It turned it from a meal into an experience.

Some people respond well to surprises and others don’t. If knowing the gender of your child in advance will help you to enjoy and prize the gift God has given you, then go for it. But if you thrive on surprise, then don’t. Waiting to see as the child emerges could be one of the rare, unparalleled, real surprises of your life.

Since children are a gift, we need to trust God to determine their gender. In some cultures, baby girls are valued less than boys, and female infanticide is still practised! In less extreme situations, some people spend all their lives longing for a girl, and get disappointed when they find out they’re having a boy. If you have a strong preference either way, and are likely to be disappointed, or not value/love the child if he/she turns out to be the opposite gender to what you had hoped for, then I would say you need to think really carefully about whether or not you find out in advance. For some people, knowing with a few months warning will give them time to get used to the idea, and to prepare to love the child. For others, knowing in advance may cause them to develop negative emotions towards the child, and they would be better off using the time in the run up to the birth to iron out their preconceived ideas and to discipline themselves to see their child as a gift and a privilege, whatever the gender.

It comes down to knowing yourself, and knowing your spouse, and discussing it openly and honestly together.

Also, it is worth remembering that technology is not infallible! Some couples think they’re getting a boy and prepare accordingly; only choose male names, buy football kits and deck out the bedroom with pictures of wrestlers, only to find out that little floating thing they could see so distinctly in the scan wasn’t quite what they thought it was!!

And finally, my main reason for nervousness is the trajectory it represents. In a relatively short period of time we have gone from not being at all able to know the gender of your child, to being able to scan for both gender and potential illnesses. Whilst there are arguably benefits to knowing ahead of time if your child may be born with a serious illness, I have little doubt that such technological ability has led to a significant rise in abortions. And following the trajectory through, we are already seeing the beginnings of the ability to create ‘designer babies.’ Whilst I am not uncomfortable with knowing the gender of your child before its birth, the thoughts of how that technology has advanced and will continue to advance does leave me feeling uneasy.

So those were the thoughts I shared in the moment, on the spot. I don’t yet have children, and I’ve never had this conversation with my wife (Though she was in the room when the question was asked! A slightly awkward setting to open a discussion on this!) So on the one hand I feel thoroughly unqualified to offer any thoughts on the subject, yet on the other, I enjoyed being made to think about it.