Friday, September 18, 2009

Part 2: Fear, Hate, and Hell

Whenever trying to understand a text, one first needs to define terms, figure what kind of genre the text is, etc. So many bad errors--often with horrible results--have come about through sincere individuals and groups misunderstanding and misapplying writings from the past. I've already given the horrendous examples of people of faith justifying war in previous blogs so I will skip that.

One of the more sad personal examples is the case of Origen, a great thinker, writer, and interpreter who literally mistook Jesus' hyperbole and mutilated himself. Even more tragic are the parents who try and follow the Bible literally. Several years ago one mother in the United States thought she should follow Abraham--have enough faith to let her baby die from a serious illness, but then God would raise her little one to life.

This terrible evil has happened many times repeatedly. Yet in a counter text of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), one prophet adamantly stated that human sacrifice NEVER was God's will. Scripture is a library of contrary views--not a legal guidebook.

Who knows why, but so many Christian leaders latch on to the worst verses in the Bible, and ignore the overreaching ethical truths. For instance, I was told by our Christian youth leader that God will call us Christians to sometimes commit immoral acts!

What was his basis for this horrendous advice? He said that God had told Hosea to marry a prostitute. In the first place, this leader had misunderstood the book of Hosea in my opinion. Hosea wasn't being called to do anything immoral. In the second, this action of Hosea wasn't some kind of all time moral pronouncement that all followers of God should know God will call them to do what is evil. On the contrary, Hosea married a prostitute to help her and to bring about good.

The first step we need to learn about ancient Middle Eastern thought is that it wasn't primarily logical or rational, but image-based and often given to exaggeration to emphasize a particular point, not usually to make a legal universal standard. To a certain extent this is still true today. Read many Middle Eastern newspapers or websites and you will be astonished by the extreme exaggeration, even heavy diatribe.

Various biblical scholars from William Barclay to James Kallas have pointed to the paradoxical nature of much of biblical literature. Furthermore, the Bible seldom gets philosophical and almost never dwells on the empirical in the Greek or modern scientific sense.

Also, keep in mind that even in the modern West, we often use exaggeration for effect, sometimes very superficially. Many times I've heard individuals say "I'm starving," yet they have eaten not more than 4 or 5 hours previously, and have never been without plenty of food.

When Jesus, in the space of two verses, seems to contradict himself, saying both to fear not and fear greatly, he isn't thinking or talking like a philosopher, but as a prophet, in strong poetic language not legal prose. You won't understand Jesus' way if you are looking for a logical system or a legal code.

Jesus focuses on vivid, even stark, images and extreme hyperbole. Remember at one point he gives a parable where he compares himself to a sneaky thief; in another parable he says disciples should act like an embezzler! What?!

He even compares God to a ruthless unfair judge!! The point had nothing to do with God's true essence. The odd analogy's meaning is that if even a bad judge will help us if we keep pestering him, then surely the God of the whole universe (who is essentially good, true, and just) will help us.

In another story, Jesus talks of God as our loving father, yet speaks of God throwing people into the burning garbage dump of Gehenna. What father would do such an act? NO normal father would ever do that. Only abusive ones. (At first I was going to supply the verses for these comments to verify what I am saying, but then realized that would miss the whole point. I am not trying to proof-text a few verses in the New Testament, but rather to show that we need to approach poetic literature such as the Bible very differently from how modern fundamentalists and skeptics do.)

For instance, consider the "hate" passage. In Luke, Jesus said we must "hate" our parents, our wives, our children, our selves, etc.! But we must read this in context. In the first place, this isn't a call for hatred in the modern sense of active hostility. It's an extreme case of hyperbole. In comparison to our dedication to Ultimate Truth, the Absolute Good--we need to love our loved ones less.

We can see this is so by cross-referencing the same passage in Matthew where the words of Jesus aren't of "hate" but rather "he who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." Either Jesus varied his message or the writer of the Matthew thought he needed to soften the force of the hyperbole because people might misunderstand, as indeed they have and still do.

Some people ask, why didn't Jesus speak in legal code or philosophical moderation? I've even wished at times Jesus would be more reasonable. But Jesus seeks to get behind legality, respectability, the intellect, and even our moderate civility, to our inner self.

He doesn't want "nice" people--such humans often judge, expel, even kill those different from themselves. What God wants are individuals who are committed unconditionally to Truth, Goodness, and Love, ones who reach out to rescue the lost, the despised, the poor, the bad, even the evil people.

For another extreme example consider Jesus's most extreme words. He said if we wanted to be his disciple we need to be electrocuted in our electric chair/asphyxiated in our gas chamber! We need to be hanged. Well, in his case he was referring to a much worse form of execution that included long torture before dying--the Roman method of crucifixion reserved for only the worst sorts of individuals.

Why would Jesus use such extreme words--to some a very revolting and repulsive statement? Well, there's another long blogpost to write in the future:-) Right now, I am only trying to deal with only three words--fear, hate, and Hell.
And, I've only given the background so far.

Also, check out the comment by Ken Schroeder in the responses. He explains all of this from a somewhat different angle but is very clear.

To be continued

In the Light of God,

Daniel Wilcox

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Encountering Jesus Part 2

Jesus said, But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Luke 12:5

What? Sounds like a horrible contradiction to Jesus' emphasis on love in Luke 12: 6-7, does it not?

And what about 1 John 4:18? There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

And 1 John repeatedly claims, God is love. Yet is God also fear? And doesn't all of this sound like so much double-talk?

Should we teach our children to react to God like many religious children of the past and the present, who grovel in fear and anxiety so very afraid they might not be of the few predestined to salvation or that God loves to cast millions of them into Hell?

As a young adult trying to understand the Bible, even after college, I tended to see verses propositionally and logically--the fading shadow of my fundamentalist upbringing. So I was baffled and had no answer for skeptics. Whenever Scripture made extreme statements, especially ones which seemed contradictory, I got confused and lost my way.

Check out Luke 14: 26 If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

Now there's a winner. Probably won't gets points from Focus on the Family. And it's an isolated verse atheists love to heave at people of faith, like a biblical Molotov cocktail.

So now we have Jesus demanding we fear God, fear Hell and then Jesus also orders us to hate our family!

I don't claim there are any easy answers to such difficult verses--and there are many pages of them in the Bible. However, I do think we grow when we sincerely struggle spiritually.

What I don't want to do is to twist the verses into easy answers. It used to frustrate me to no end when reading commentators and they would try and get around (or eliminate) difficult minefields like this. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the famous German theologian hanged by the Nazis) gave a brilliant satire on this habit of humans in his book, The Cost of Discipleship. He made fun of those who turn Scripture into the opposite of its plain meaning:

Where Jesus says to give up all you have to become his disciple, Bonhoeffer has the modern Christian say, what Jesus really means is to keep all you have and get more.

I have learned much over the years about what Jesus means in Luke 12, but before I share my understanding this time, I thought, first, I would throw out the spiritual grenade;-) to you other bloggers and see what your take is on these vitally important verses.

In the Light of God,

Daniel Wilcox

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Encountering Jesus Part #1

Jesus said, Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God..Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. NIV Luke 12:6-7

These loving words mean so much--that God cares even for the sparrows and so very much for all humans, every single unique individual who has ever lived.

Indeed this may be the central reason to be a theist--to have deep hope for all people we meet now, and hope for all the millions lost in wrong harmful ways in this life. And hope especially for all past humans who so terribly suffered and died in the Holocaust, the genocides of Rwanda and Cambodia and Turkey, the pestilences of the Black Plague, malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS and cancer; the tragic loss of life in the tsunami in Indonesia, and endless death from other forms of havoc and evil in the past, and the multi-millions who suffer abuse and die so young in childhood...

NONE OF THEM HAVE DIED FOR NOTHING if somehow all will be made good.

There is not the despair as in a nontheistic cosmos where ruthless determinism or chance rules.


We have God's Yes--Faith, hope, and love are eternal:-)

For those millions of humans and all others, and even countless lesser creatures--they all are loved by God and cared for living within God, and as the NT says, and many people of faith have trusted, God will bring all into the loving realm of total goodness and blessedness in the end.

That, dear Friends, is the Good News, the Glad Tidings, the Ocean of Light--God IS and loves us deeply and endlessly:-)

Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

The Love of God
by Frederick M. Lehman and
Meir Ben Isaac (from his Jewish
poem Hadamut written in Aramic
in 1050 A.D.)

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.


O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure
The saints’ and angels’ song.

When years of time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall,
When men, who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call,
God’s love so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—
The saints’ and angels’ song.


Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.


Next in part 2 we will look at the rest of the Luke passage.

In the Light of God,

Daniel Wilcox

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

10 Acts from the N.T. in Modern Language

1. Love "I Am/I Will Be"--the Personal Ultimately Real, the Eternal Good, Truth, and Loving with all of your self, all of your heart, all of your mind, and all of your strength.

2. Don't make any finite thing, idea, goal, or person the center of your life. Your focus is to be the unseen Center, the Eternal 'behind' all that is visible and temporary.

3. Be sacred in your words and thoughts. don't ridicule what is true or ultimate.

4. Take at least one evening and day a week for worship, reflection, and re-creation. This time is to help and revitalize, not to limit or to legalize.

5. Honor and help others, especially your own aging parents.

6. Love all, including your enemies as yourself. Don't violate others in thought, word, or deed, certainly don't kill anyone.

7. Be faithful and loyal to one other person for life, in an ultimate sense through intellectual, emotional, and physical union. Sexual fidelity and purity are very important.

8. Share your things with those in need. Don't take what doesn't belong to you.

9. Speak the truth always in love, in compassion and mercy. Be honest and forthright.

10.Simplify; be content with what is good and necessary. Don't long for what others have.

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox