Here I want to try and answer some questions sent to me by someone who grew up in the “reformed, fundamental, SBC” tradition but has spent the best part of the last year deconstructing his faith “down to nothing.” He has been reading the work of historically-minded interpreters like Pete Enns and NT Wright, but has been having a hard time finding a way forward. His faith is sinking. “I currently don’t see any reason to be a Christian or to continue in the Christian way.”
My initial response was that the faith questions are much harder to answer than the historical-exegetical questions, and—goodness knows!—the historical-exegetical questions are hard enough. But interpretation is a major part of the problem, and I think it is important to recognise that it has implications for faith, both positively and negatively.
The first point to make, therefore, is that the questions, understandably, reflect a traditional conservative-reformed-evangelical outlook.
There are two parts to this outlook. First, there is the centrality of the “gospel” message: every person is a sinner and stands in need of salvation through the atoning death of Jesus on the cross. Secondly, the overriding purpose of the Bible is to communicate, clarify and defend this core message with utter reliability.
Perhaps we can then identify the basic problem with the traditional conservative-reformed-evangelical outlook on this basis. First, it is too narrowly preoccupied with the final spiritual condition of the individual person—to the exclusion of large areas of social, ethical and intellectual concern that seem fundamental to what it means not only to be human but also to be created. Secondly, it forces a theological grid on scripture that bends it so badly out of shape that we are likely to wonder, sooner or later, whether we haven’t been sold a lemon.
The solution, therefore, is to change our point of view, our way of looking at things.
My argument is that the traditional conservative-reformed-evangelical model has got the whole thing inside-out. What the Bible gives us is not a handbook for the salvation of the individual but an untidy and difficult chronicle of a people, Israel, which believed that it had a unique relationship with the living creator God. The Bible does not escape the constraints of history, but it appears to give us, nevertheless, a pretty reliable account of how things appeared to Israel from the exilic period onwards, through to the emergence of an ambitious reformist movement in the name of Jesus of Nazareth in the first century.
It is the historical experience of this people that determines the possibilities and challenges presented to individuals at any particular moment.
Jesus brought a message about the impending judgment and restoration of Israel and called individual Jews to respond accordingly—by repenting, by following him, and by proclaiming the same message to Israel after his death.
Paul proclaimed a message about the future rule of God’s Son over the nations and called Jews and Gentiles across the Greek-Roman world to respond accordingly. People were invited to become part of this new future in the present—and by so doing actually to bring it about.
That is the historical perspective, but I think that our “theology” should reflect the same ordering of priorities today. What is the purpose of the church? How do we account for its present circumstances? What sort of future does it face? Once we have a satisfactory answer to the large-scale “political” questions, then we can ask how this affects individuals, either inside the church or outside it.
Now for the questions….
Question 1: Why do you believe the resurrection occurred and happened in bodily form?
My first thought was to tackle this question head on and try to put forward arguments for believing in the resurrection. But I’m not a fan of rational or pseudo-rational apologetics, and I’m not at all sure that there are good direct arguments out there. In any case, I think that the narrative-historical method may suggest a better approach.
The bodily resurrection of Jesus was of importance for the disciples in Jerusalem, for the apostles, and for the churches across the Greek-Roman world for a number of reasons. It was a preliminary vindication of Jesus’ message to Israel. It gave hope to those who might lose their lives for the sake of the gospel. It was a demonstration of the re-creative power of God. It was the basis for the conviction that at some point in the future Jesus would be revealed as judge and ruler of Israel and the nations.
But what reasons do we have now for believing that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead?
We are not witnesses of the resurrection. We have to trust the eyewitness accounts, mediated as they are through several layers of transmission. We may perhaps claim to have had the sort of visions of the exalted Lord that are recorded in the New Testament. I see no reason in principle why believers today should not “see” the risen Lord seated at the right hand of God. But we are clearly at a disadvantage. We cannot share in the immediate historical experience of the resurrection event.
In one important respect, however, we have an advantage over the New Testament churches. We know, as a matter of historical fact, that Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Romans and that Jesus was confessed as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman world. However we date the New Testament documents, for the historical Jesus, Paul and the eschatological communities these political-religious outcomes were by no means certain. They were a matter of extraordinary prophetic faith.
This is what makes the resurrection such an important event for the New Testament churches. Why does Paul say, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19)? Because it’s what guarantees the new future. It guarantees both that Jesus will be revealed on “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7-8) and that those who belong to Christ will also be raised at his parousia (1 Cor. 15:23). The resurrection of Jesus mattered because this future mattered.
So I would venture to argue that from our perspective the proof of the pudding is not in the resurrection but in the events which it anticipated—the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans, the renewal of the people of God under a new covenant, and supremely the conversion of the nations of the Greek-Roman world. In other words, our confidence is not in the isolated metaphysical event but in the whole historical narrative.
Modern theologies typically isolate the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus from the narrative context. History is considered an embarrassment and allowed to fade from view, and the salvation event is interpreted against a dark, empty cosmic backdrop.
But if we relocate the event in history, we have good reason to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. The radically new future that it anticipated actually happened—not in the idealised and transcendent fashion that conservative theologies expect, but in the thoroughly mundane and historical fashion that is everywhere assumed in scripture. With the exception of a couple of chapters at the beginning and a couple of chapters at the end, the God of the Bible is always the God of history.
Question 2: Is Jesus the only way to be “saved”? I place that in quotations because as I understand you, there isn’t a personal salvation aspect to what Jesus does on the cross as is typified by traditional evangelical thought?
Yes, I think this is the wrong question, though not quite for the reason suggested.
We may reasonably ask whether the “family of Abraham” has been right to think of itself as “chosen” by the God who created the heavens and the earth to serve him as a priestly-prophetic people throughout history. Or to put it differently: Is the biblical story a legitimate story about the living God?
If we concede that, then the question has to be reformulated in the past tense: “Was Jesus the only way for Israel to be saved?”
Peter is not thinking about the salvation of humanity when he says to the rulers and elders of the Jews, “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11–12).
The leaders of the people rejected Jesus, but God has delivered his king from his enemies and has made him the cornerstone of the house of Israel (cf. Ps. 118:22). There is no other name under heaven given among people, Peter says, by which we Jews must be saved—no priest, no prophet, no messiah, no teacher of righteousness, no pagan ruler.
Israel was saved by the atoning death of Jesus. Gentiles, including us, are “saved” from our Godless systems and cultures and lifestyles when we repent, confess Jesus as Lord, receive the forgiveness of sins, are filled with the Spirit of the covenant, and are included in the people which two thousand years ago was saved from a catastrophic final judgment by the obedience of Jesus even unto death on a Roman cross.
Question 3: Is there a hell?
No. The Bible consistently states that the wages of sin is destruction or death. Those texts which have traditionally been taken as evidence for a doctrine of conscious torment after death can be shown quite easily, I think, to refer to the exclusion of Jews from the future reign of Christ, the loss of life that would accompany the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, the collapse of pagan-imperialism, and the finality of death.
Question 4: Why be a Christian at all? Does it really matter?
Again, the modern individualistic paradigm has dictated the form of the question. Do I really need this? What am I getting out of it? Does it work for me? Does it really matter? Have I been conned?
I think the question should really be something more like: Is something compelling me to enter into this story and serve the interests of the good, generous, compassionate, merciful and just God who created all things, who is no less the God of the future than he is the God of the past?
Or more precisely: Is something compelling me to enter into this story now, when 1) creation as we know it is facing a global crisis, and 2) the priestly-prophetic servant people is in urgent need of reform.
The question to be asking, I think, is this: Why proclaim and live out the reality of God now? Does God really matter?
That doesn’t make things any easier, of course. But it gets us beyond the lonely solipsism that is making the reformed-evangelical paradigm so difficult to sustain in the long run. It gives us a much better basis for engaging with the whole of the biblical witness on its own terms. And there is a profound meaningfulness, I think, that comes from being able to engage transparently with the painful reality of the church in the secular West at a time when a creator God cannot conceivably remain silent.
But there’s a problem…
I think it is right to shift from a theological method to a historical method. I think it makes sense to look to people like Pete Enns and Tom Wright for help win this regard. But it may seem that we are asking people to exchange their leaky conservative theological boat for a sketchy narrative-historical blueprint—a thing that doesn’t actually exist in the real world of the church.
That’s the problem….