From the Paris Agreement to invoking God (or, When Theology Doesn’t Hold Water)

Paris AgreementEven though I’m over a month late in posting about it, I watched the response to withdrawal from the Paris Agreement with fascination. As someone who believes that the evidence for anthropogenic climate change is very strong, and that the consequences of global climate change are a wide-scale negative at best and catastrophic at worst, I was both disappointed by the withdrawal, but also suspected it didn’t matter. It is unlikely that the Paris Climate Change 2020 deadline for agreeing upon measures to stem climate change would have been met, making the agreement just another gesture that plays at addressing global climate change, and the US’ withdrawal from the agreement wasn’t enough to change the already burgeoning development and deployment of low-impact and renewable energy technologies in the US and around the world.

Tim_WalbergBut what struck me more than anything is what Republican congressman Tim Walberg said in the wake of the withdrawal.

You can read the article I linked to above for the full story, but Rep. Walberg said that he thinks that IF climate change is real, that God will have to take care of it, and it’s not “something for humans to solve.” When pressed about why he believes this, he essentially stated that he doesn’t think that humans have the power to change things as much as global climate change scientists suggest:

I believe there’s climate change. I believe there’s been climate change since the beginning of time. Do I think man has some impact? Yeah, of course. Can man change the entire universe? No.

I’ve talked with plenty that deny anthropogenic climate change, most of them evangelical Christians, and I can say with certainty that many christian climate change deniers hold an opinion similar to Rep. Walberg’s.

I’m sure that Walberg is being earnest in his invocation of God, and really believes what he’s saying, but it also highlights the failure of his church to train him. What Walberg said is simply bad theology.

By and large, evangelicals believe in an Augustinian version of original sin that originated when Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden, disobeyed God by eating fruit from a tree that they were forbidden to eat from. This resulted in what most people call “The Fall”.

And this is where my primary problem with Rep. Walberg comes in. In several theologies, including those of most evangelical Christians, the Garden Of Eden was set up by God to be perfect. There was no death. Creatures didn’t eat each other, since they were all vegetarians. There as no sickness. There was no deleterious effect of aging. Work, instead of being frustrating, was rewarding and productive. There were no thorns or weeds to make agriculture difficult. Food was easy to come by. Human childbirth, instead of being painful, was relatively easy. God walked and talked with humans face-to-face. Everyone was naked. It was a utopia.

Brueghel Jan__de_Oude_en_Peter_Paul_Rubens - Adam and EveBut then, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and everything changed. All of a sudden, the humans knew shame, and struggled to cover up their nakedness from each other. (Which, by the way, they did a really bad job at – some tree of knowledge that was.) They started to hide from God. Death and pain and hardship and frustration entered creation. And this effect extended throughout the entire universe. As a result of Adam and Eve eating of this fruit, entropy was given free rein. Perfect paradise turned red in tooth and claw.

All because a couple of naked hippies decided to eat some fruit.

Many evangelicals would point out that it was really God who caused all of these negative effects – that they are the curse pronounced upon man’s sin. And that’s true, to an extent. But, I would argue, within the context of the story, it’s a natural consequence. It’s like putting one’s hand in the fire. Sure it was the FIRE that burned you, but it was YOU who caused the burn.

I am willing to argue that Adam and Eve – two simple people – changed the entire universe with that simple action. So, when Rep. Walberg says that man can’t change the entire universe, I’d like to challenge him to explain how death entered the world (i.e., creation) “through one man’s sin”.

In evangelical theology, the place of sin holds prominence –  sin changes everything, works its way into everything, and corrupts. But even with Evangelicals the power and scope of sin is easily forgotten in service to political ideologies.  I’m not willing to say that denying anthropogenic climate change is a sin, but I am willing to say that failing to care for creation is a sin.

In that same Garden of Eden, before the fall, God gave the humans two jobs – to be fruitful and multiply, and to rule the Earth. But this ruling is not like the kings who came to power as a result of the fall, with all of its attendant anxieties and scarcities. Ruling is supposed to be in the image of God, and when humans let our lust for power (both in the form of energy and dominance) get ahead of ruling in the image of God, we’ve sinned. And since we’ve just discussed how sin in most evangelical theologies can have cosmic consequences, then I think it’s fair to say that Rep. Walberg’s statements are nothing less than poor theology.

This isn’t even to mention how in scripture God calls people to live justly and rightly or else sin will enter the land and corrupt it, causing the animals to die and the plants to not grow and infants to die in childbirth. It’s not even to mention the ways in which we have proof of how human activity can completely disrupt regional ecologies, and how human work has – at least partially – restored those environments. It’s not even to mention that climate change is a Pascal’s Wager in which doing nothing and being wrong has consequences that far outweigh taking serious action and being wrong.

If a person wants to argue that anthropogenic climate change is wrong, then we should all have that conversation and follow the evidence where it leads. But if a person chooses to use theological reasoning as a controlling paradigm to accept or reject information…then they better make darn sure that their theological reasoning holds water.


Reading Esther

In the short life of this blog, I’ve already written a few things about linking biblical texts to their context, reading texts according to their genre, and being open to creative interpretations of scripture. All of these things come to bear when reading the biblical book of Esther.

It’s easy to read Esther as a simple history – beautiful girl wins the affections of the king and becomes his queen, the queen’s people are threatened by one of the king’s officials, and despite long odds the queen is able to rescue her people from oppression. Just like the movies Seabiscuit, Apollo 13, Moneyball, or Erin Brockovich, the book of Esther is the sort of underdog story that most of us seem to like.

The problem with reading Esther as a simple history is that the book seems to take liberties with enough things, and seems to so carefully set up ironic reversals that it reads more like an episode of Seinfeld, or a Shakespearean play. When looking deeper, its status as pure history should be questioned.

Vaudevillian Names

kapowskiLike many people my age, I watched way too much Saved By the Bell when I was young . One of the many Vaudevillian things that Saved By the Bell did was give some of its characters descriptive names, such as Max Nerdstrom. English speakers would be able to tell right away that Max is going to be over-the-top nerdy and annoying; it’s just baked into this character all the way down to the name. The technical term for this is aptronym. Comic books are really good at aptronyms, such as Victor Fries, Edward Nigma, Otto Octavius, Richie Rich, etc..

Most of the names of the main characters in the book of Esther have aptronyms. The deposed queen Vashti sounds similar to “beautiful woman” or “beloved” (though I admit this might not be an aptronym). The Hebrew form of Xerxes (king of the Persians) is Ahasuerus, which sounds something like “King Headache”. The name Esther sounds very similar to Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love and war. The name Mordecai means “servant of Marduk”, where Marduk is the head god of the Babylonian pantheon. Haman’s name, when pronounced in Hebrew, sounds like the Hebrew word for “wrath”.

Just like the name Edward Nigma would lose its clever meaning if you didn’t speak English, the names in Esther also lose their vaudevillian characteristics for those of us who don’t know Hebrew or understand Old Persian phrases.

From the opening pages of Esther, we know who is powerful (Esther/Ishtar and Mordecai/Marduk), who is a buffoon (King Headache), and who is the antagonist (Wrath) from their names alone, and not because the story has revealed this through narrative. This signifies, right off the bat, that we might be reading something more than simple, straightforward history.

The excess is excessive

simpsons-mr-burns-blocks-out-the-sunIn virtually every chapter of the book of Esther, some sort of crazy excess is described. In the very first chapter, Queen Vashti (the “beautiful woman”) angered King Xerxes (“King Headache”), and as a result he decides to issue a decree to every province and in every language that a man should be master in his own house. Such a response seems a bit excessive, especially since it probably would have been pretty easy to cover up the event and depose the contrary queen, but excess was pursued nevertheless.

In the next chapter, King Headache decides he needs a new wife, so he sleeps with all of the beautiful virgins from all of the provinces, hoping to find a good partner. But first, these women spend a FULL YEAR being prepped for the event – stewing in oils and perfumes, learning the art of applying makeup and whatever other cosmetics were popular back them.

In the next chapter, Hamman (“Wrath”) gets ticked that one man (Mordecai/Marduk) doesn’t bow down to him at the palace gate, and so he decides to take revenge. Reasonable people take revenge on just the person who slighted them, or maybe the person and their family. But in the excess that’s common in the book of Esther, Wrath decides that ALL JEWS should be killed because of Mordecai’s slight.

All of these absurd excesses streak the book through with the humor that would be endemic to something more like a dramedy than something that’s straight, simple history.

Ironic Reversals

youre baldAll of the excesses discussed above lead to ironic reversals that are just like something out of a Seinfeld episode.

When asked by the King how best to honor someone he owes a favor, Haman describes his fantasy scenario, only to be forced to perform the honors for his most hated enemy.

Haman builds a giant gallows on which to impale Mordecai, but he and his family end up on it instead.

Haman, who wants to exterminate all of the Jews in the Persian empire, is out maneuvered by a couple of Jews (and a woman, no less!) so that instead the Jews are allowed to thrive, and the person he hates most, Mordecai, ends up taking his postion of power within the empire.

The real irony here is that Haman – the man named Wrath – is trying to vent his wrath throughout the empire and preserve his own family. But instead, his wrath boomerangs and results in his family’s destruction.

Even though some of the scenes of ironic reversal are quite humorous (such as when Haman thinks he’s being honored by Queen Esther, but is instead being set up as an enemy of the queen and her people), they also contain at least a hint of moral teaching. Wrath comes home to roost. Punishment needs to be appropriate. Pride comes before a fall.

Exaggeration for Effect

bugs-horseEspecially as it comes to King Xerxes and his excesses, the book of Esther seems to play fast and loose with the historical record in order to emphasize the point of the book. The evangelical commentaries I’ve read on the book of Esther tend to leave the historical critique out, perhaps because it prompts deeper discussions about scriptural inerrancy. Talking about how the “history” presented in Esther doesn’t fit with the history presented in other sources can be scary if your job and commentary sales are dependent upon you saying the right things, even if Esther might not be trying to be history at all.

Historically, Xerxes is depicted as a strong king who lost some key military battles, but who was up to the task of ruling the empire, initiating a number of well-received building projects. As a result of his rule, he was called Xerxes the Great. He might not have been the greatest king that ruled Persia, but history remembers him as competent, to say the least. (Note – there is some debate as to whether King Ahasuerus should be identified with Xerxes I, but even if you chose the alternative, Artaxerxes II, there are still problems.)

You’d never know that from reading Esther. Xerxes is not only named “King Headache”, he’s also shown as a drunkard, heavily promiscuous, easily influenced by his advisers, and unable to make decisions on his own. At best, he’s innocently incompetent.

Couple that with the fact that there is no historical record of Haman, who was a high official, no record of Queen Esther, no record of Mordecai, and very debatable, at best, record of Queen Vashti.

The upshot is that the characters in the book of Esther are likely exaggerations of a person or combinations of people in order to have the authentic “feel” of living as a Jew in the Persian empire, but not necessarily point out one specific person. That might also be the reason that the names of all the characters seem to be so carefully constructed. It also goes against the grain of reading Esther as a simple history.

Reading Esther

My point is that when reading books like Esther, we can be free to read the book first and foremost for what it is – a book that is streaked through with humor, lessons on morality, exaggerations, and clever reversals. We can read the characters as caricatures and the situations as absurd. And then, when all of the dust and laughter settles, we can start to ask the question about what the book might have meant to those who would have initially read it, and then ask what it might mean for us.

The answers to these questions are complex and multi-layered, but the short answer, in my opinion, is that the book of Esther is an attempt by the Jews who were in Persia to develop a sense of solidarity with those who weren’t. It’s a way to tell the story of inclusion with laughter and cleverness, and avoid hurt feelings and generational wounds. Along the way, Esther tells the story of how the Jews got the holiday of Purim, which further enhances their sense of unity. Part of the story is that God hadn’t abandoned the Persian Jews, though He might have dealt with them differently than the ones still in Judea. It’s also a warning against wrath, against leaning too heavily on the gods of your culture, and about the absurdity of it all in front of a God who is in control.

Too often Christians want to collapse reading scripture into reading just one thing, like reading “just the facts” of history. We forget sometimes that the Biblical authors were people, too, full of creativity and inspiration, telling their story in the best way they knew how, which may or may not have been strictly historical. Reading them with genre can made all the difference.

Theology and Politics and Philando Castile

castile-img_9359-jpgI live just a few miles away from where Philando Castile was shot and killed by police officer Jeronimo Yanez. On a daily basis, I shop in the suburb where Officer Yanez was employed. I drive by the very spot where Castile was killed at least a few times a month. The situation surrounding Castile is literally close to home, but that doesn’t give my contemplations any particular status or privilege. While Castile lived close by, our different experiences with racism put us on Mars and Venus. I peer at him as if through a telescope.

Theology and Politics

More than a few of the Christian blogs and commentators I’ve read on the topic of Castile and the acquittal of Yanez start with things like “I’m not going to get political”. That’s fine, I guess, as long as one thing is clear – all good theology is almost by necessity political. About this we should have no doubt.

But the fact of the matter is that most churches in the United States – and many of the ones I’ve been a part of – seem to give political discussions a wide berth, excepting a few issues (such as abortion). Maybe these churches are concerned about their tax exempt status, or of offending certain Republicans or Democrats in their congregation; maybe they reduce belief in Jesus to making only their lives better instead of changing the whole world. I’ve not put too much thought into why churches try to be apolitical.

Christian theology has been political from the beginning. The early Christians were persecuted precisely because they said that Jesus was Lord (kyrios christos) and that Caesar was not (kyrios kaesar). This was no mere theological statement. Saying “kyrios christos” had such profound political implication in Rome that the Roman authorities would kill any such Christian who would not worship Caesar as Lord. Let that sink in. Christian belief and practice was no mere theological statement.

Much of the political/theological conflict within the New Testament is lost on readers today, since we’re not familiar with the cult of emperor worship, but one example should suffice. Several years ago, as I was starting to come out of the bog of trying to make my faith apolitical, I came across something called the Priene Calendar Inscription. Surprisingly, Wikipedia does not have an article on it (though it’s briefly mentioned in another article on another kind of Priene Inscription), but it is a stone carving that dates to about 9 BCE, which was found on two tablets in Turkey in the late 1800s. The inscription is meant to honor Caesar Augustus as the savior of the world:

It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: Since providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance excelled even our anticipations, surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him, which Asia resolved in Smyrna.

Almost immediately, scholars recognized parallels between this inscription and descriptions of Jesus in the New Testament, most specifically, Mark 1 (NRSV):

1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The parallels are pretty clear:

Parallel Priene Calendar Text Mark’s Text
Is Personally Divine “…sending him as a savior…”

“…the god Augustus…”

“…Jesus Christ, the Son of God…”
Is the beginning of “good news” (aka “Gospel”) “…the beginning of the good tidings [good news] for the world that came by reason of him” “…the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…”
Announced by supernatural authority “Since providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus…” “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah…”

“…he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ ”

There are a few others in there that I might have missed, but at the very least, the statement from the Priene Calendar, “the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [good news] for the world that came by reason of him” is in direct opposition to the opening statement of Mark’s Gospel, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. Make no mistake, the earliest Christian theology was nothing short of a political challenge to those in power. I could also go on to talk about the Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49), and more, which are even clearer in their challenge to the powers that be. The bottom line is that any proper understanding of Christianity must come to terms with the reality that Christian theology is political.

And Philando Castile

In middle school I had a social studies teacher named Ms. Conover, who was tasked with teaching the motley 8th grade class about the American government. Ms. Conover is Japanese-American, and was put into one of the Japanese concentration camps during World War II. One of the things she emphasized in her class – for reasons I could never quite figure out – is that the United States adopted the philosophy that it was better for one hundred guilty people to go free than to unjustly convict one innocent person. To me, this seemed obvious. Years later, I was reading the novel “Frankenstein”. In that book, Victor Frankenstein has a cousin, Elizabeth, who has a friend, Justine, who is accused of committing a violent crime.  Justine is innocent, although there is circumstantial evidence against her, but the judges in the case are not the type to tolerate reasonable doubt. Elizabeth hopes that justice will prevail but is concerned that the judges will side against Justine as a precaution. Eventually, the court pressures Justine into a false confession. In a conversation with Elizabeth, Victor finally says,

‘My cousin,’ replied I, ‘it is decided as you may have expected; all judges had rather that ten innocent should suffer than that one guilty should escape…’

At that moment I realized why Ms. Conover hammered on that point. Letting the guilty go free is bad – it is injustice in itself. But causing the innocent to suffer is an even worse injustice. She knew this first hand.

A few days before the verdict was announced in the trial of Officer Yanez I told my wife that I would be shocked if he was convicted of anything. The bar for reasonable doubt when a law enforcement officer is on trial is pretty low. Yanez stated during the case, that he “feared for his life” when Castille started to retrieve his license and registration. Without solid video or audio evidence, what qualifies as justified fear for one’s life becomes incredibly subjective. When the verdict was announced and Yanez was cleared on all charges, people started saying that the system doesn’t work. But that’s not right. The system worked just like it was supposed to. The system is rigged to let the guilty go free rather than send a single innocent person to prison. And since we know that innocent people sometimes end up in prison, we can only imagine how many guilty people go free. Yanez, in my opinion, is just another in a long chain of the guilty going free.

This indeed WAS injustice. Even though it was purposeful, it was evil nonetheless. And evil is a question of identity. While “reasonable doubt” might make it easier to acquit than convict, the reality is that the US has had little trouble filling up its prisons. How can it be that we have such a large prison population, and yet those we think are obviously guilty walk free? Are we really the sort of people who buy into this flawed system? Is it really just? Are WE really just people? Who on earth are we, and what do we stand for?

We’re faced with an identity crisis.

This identity crisis causes us to imagine a different reality – a better reality – in which every person is treated with full human dignity and justice is always done. I particularly want to live in a reality in which I no longer peer at Philando Castile’s through a telescope. When we imagine new realities it causes our politics to intersect with our beliefs in deep ways – the systems that rule us need to be challenged, and they need to be transformed into something that provides us – both individually and corporately – with a better identity. We have a fundamental need to participate in something that we believe is good, so that we can be good.

This conflict  – the conflict between our imagined identities and reality, between our beliefs and the political systems under which we we live, between the good we want to do and what we actually do – will be continual, at least from the Christian perspective, but it is a conflict we we must never become apathetic towards. Not only should Christians, in particular, challenge the systems of government and authority anywhere we detect injustice, but we should also unite with those who have been hurt, oppressed, or have lost identity because of the evil of injustice. We should commiserate with the downtrodden and work against any system or ideology that dehumanizes.

This is an incredibly theological thing, and one that challenges us all to push into the political realm not as conquering kings, drunk on our own individual righteousness, freedoms, and rights; but as suffering servants who lay down our dignity for the other, whose identities have been defaced. That, I believe, is God’s work, too, and is therefore something that makes us good.

Why I’m interested in creative interpretations of scripture

ink_blotI was talking with someone the other day and they asked what I do. This is a hard question for me, because I quit work almost a year ago to go to grad school. For 18 years I worked as an engineer, and, in I my mind, that’s still what I do. But in reality, I’m an unemployed, stay-at-home father and PhD student.

I sighed, and said, “I’m a PhD student.”

“What are you studying?”


Awkward pause.

There are two types of people. Those who almost immediately say something supportive, and those who don’t know what to say at all. This person was clearly the later.

“How do you do research in theology?”

And so it goes.

Interactions like this have forced me to realize that many people view religion in general, and theology in particular, as ossified areas wherein there’s really nothing new to be discovered or explored. All that’s left is rehashing old discussions over and over again.

Of course I disagree with such a view. Theology has the opportunity to be as fresh and new as the people who are doing it, as they bring their fresh perspectives on science, politics, economics, sociology, art, religion, and scripture to bear on theology itself. In short, theology is ALWAYS reforming, which is as it should be.

“…everything theological has been for me marvelously new. I have first to discover everything for myself, and understand it, and make it my own. Right down to the present day, theology has continued to be for me a tremendous adventure, a journey of discovery into a, for me, unknown country, a voyage without the certainty of return, a path into the unknown with many surprises and not without disappointments. If I have a theological virtue at all, then it is one that has never hitherto been recognized as such: curiosity.

“I have never done theology in the form of a defense of ancient doctrines or ecclesial dogmas. It has always been a journey of exploration. Consequently, my way of thinking is experimental – an adventure of ideas – and my style of communication is to suggest. I do not defend any impersonal dogmas, but nor do I merely express my own personal opinion. I make suggestions within a community. So I write without any built-in safeguards, recklessly as some people think. My own positions are intended to be a challenge to other people to think for themselves – and of course they are a challenge to objective refutation too.”

— Jurgen Moltman, “The Coming of God”

That’s why I’m always interested in creative interpretations and innovative interpretations.

I’m also convinced that the authors of Christian scripture were creative in their interpretations. There’s not a person alive who hasn’t studied how the authors of the New Testament use the Old Testament scriptures and come away without scratching their heads. And in the Old Testament itself, from the creation stories (yes, there are more than one) to Job, Esther, Jonah, and the prophets, creative interpretations abound. Scripture was made out of creative impulses, and is itself meant to provoke its readers to creative interpretation of the world.

Christians throughout history have taken up this creative impulse in their interpretations. Nowhere in the Bible is the term “trinity” mentioned, and neither is your favorite “onmi” (e.g., omnipresent) or “dispensation” or “rapture” or “age of accountability”. Neither is “hell” (not to be confused with hades, sheol, Gehenna, or the grave), the “sinner’s prayer”, infant baptism, abortion, or scientific principles. But what IS mentioned are things like slavery, the lower status of women and gentiles, other gods, a multi-tiered cosmos, and plenty of rules about radical love, head coverings, eating shellfish, and how to ensure your wife hasn’t cheated on you.

For each of the things I’ve mentioned above, virtually everyone who even pretends to be interested in scripture has an interpretation that, at the end of the day, is creative in that their interpretation doesn’t necessarily follow from what the text is actually saying. And that’s okay. Otherwise, interpretation becomes a theological system that is, as Moltmann puts it, “starved out”.

So that’s why I spend time thinking about what it means for humans to be both evolved creatures, and also be the imago dei. That’s why I’m interested in the integration of psychology and theology. That’s why I listen quietly and think carefully about any politician’s use of God in their arguments. And on and on.

But that’s not to say that every interpretation holds water. Some are certainly more right than others, and are always evaluated within a community. But it is to say that going on the adventure is monumentally important for scripture and theology to be the living and breathing thing it has always wanted to be.


Christianity and the Problem of Evil (pt 4): Is God good? Or sovereign?

leviathan1In the last post, we discussed what constitutes evil in an evolutionary framework – namely, evil is the identity crisis we all face as we interact with the world, which threatens to drown us in despair (aka, “non-being”), or tempts us to use the coping mechanisms of violence and selfishness that was so helpful to our species’ evolution.

Moltmann puts it nicely,

Our numerous anxieties and fears continually crystallize into a general anxiety about life. It is this heightened and diffused anxiety which spreads, takes on independent existence and robs men and women of their self-confidence and very identity. It can be described as the fear of fear.


If what we perceive to be evil is the result of God calling us into identity, then in what way can God be said to be good? And if evolution is the paradigm – a seemingly random process – in what way can God be said to be sovereign?

God’s Sovereignty

Sovereignty is usually thought of as a supreme power or authority that is able to effect the desired ends of that authority. When people talk about “sovereign nations” they typically refer to the ability of a nation to govern its own affairs and achieve the ends it desires without outside interference. Since God is over everything in the cosmos, divine sovereignty refers to God’s ability to achieve any and every desired end without being thwarted. In other words, God gets what God wants.

In an evolutionary framework, some theists complain that God’s sovereignty in making creation is abridged by the randomness of natural selection. If God wants creatures with whom to be in relationship – if God wants a creation which cries out to the divine – then the uncertainty of evolution seems to go against the assuredness of divine sovereignty. After all, since the physical forces of the cosmos are blind, they don’t have to lead to abiogenesis at all, and evolution doesn’t have to create intelligent creatures that can grope after God. If natural selection is the paradigm, some might complain, then God might not get what God wants.

I offer two suggestions to navigate this complaint. The first suggestion is a rethinking of divine sovereignty. When humans refer to sovereignty, it is a limited resource that can be taken away, and once taken away, might never be recovered. This leads to an anxiety that is pervasive in human sovereign systems – sovereignty must be protected at deep cost in order to maintain power. This concept of anxiety is often transferred to God in ways that are troubling. In some theological systems, God is almost obsessively concerned with glory, power, and sovereignty; and every divine action is predicated on maintaining divine sovereignty and power, and getting more glory. But the Christian God is infinite, including infinite sovereignty, power, and glory. In true infinity, God can give away each of these attributes with impunity, and still maintain infinity. Likewise, no amount of praise from finite beings can increase God’s glory and power. There is simply no need for God to be anxious over the divine attributes, which explains the times when, in scripture, God is denigrated without concern. This is why, despite “the fall”, which might be considered a threat to the glory and sovereignty of the divine image, humans still bear the imago dei.

Secondly, one of the ideas behind these posts is to look at what God has done in order to discern God’s intent. With this in mind, I propose that the fact that creation is anthropic is suggestive that God gets what God wants. As long as we can agree that the creatures who ultimately bear the mantle “image of God” don’t have to look like Homo sapiens, then it appears that creation is indeed tuned to give God what God wants. Alternatively, we could say that since God is sovereign, then creation HAS given God what God wants.

The fact that the process of evolution takes lots of time, or might result in promising lines of biological development that die out, does nothing to diminish the sovereignty of an infinite God. Within theism, God established a creation that is able to satisfy the divine intent via a self-organizing cosmos, which is measurable in many scientific ways. This is at least as amazing as God calling creation into being through divine fiat.

God’s goodness

Any discussion of God’s goodness in the face of evil and suffering must necessarily concede that the problem of reconciling what humans conceive as “goodness” with the realities of a savage cosmos might not be possible. This is the major critique of the historical theodicies I discussed in the first post of this series. Each historical solution makes God complicit in evil in various ways; they simply cannot avoid it. An evolutionary theodicy may very well share this problem.

However, as we discussed in the third post of the series, evil isn’t illness or suffering, which many categorize as evil. In fact, within an evolutionary framework, the trials of creation are what have given rise to the complex biological and social structures God has called the imago dei. Without the stress of competition, God doesn’t get what God wants. Within an evolutionary framework, suffering is the very thing that gives rise to the ability to perceive our human identity, and to ponder our place in the cosmos.

As we ponder our place in the cosmos we face an identity crisis, which can give rise to evil when we pursue warped ways to soothe our anxieties. If God cares about evil – this loss of identity that we all face – then what does God do about it?

Scripturally, one of the most prominent narratives is that God is engaged in rescuing and redeeming the enslaved and exiled – those mired in identity-shattering suffering. God is the one who calls into a relationship of identity via the covenant with Abraham and in the giving of the law through Moses. God is engaged in the call to identity in sending the messiah as the perfect example of living a life in proper relation to humanity and God in such a way that each anxiety is dealt with properly. And, in the eschaton, it seems that humanity, once again, finds our place in relation to the divine, as we finally encounter God, face to face. As Barry Callen puts it, “God as biblically revealed is associated closely with suffering and is related particularly to those marginalized by others. Such divine associating and relating surely says much about who God really is and what God actually intends.” God is intimately concerned with identity-making, which rescues from the clutches of evil.

In the New Testament, I’m struck by how often the followers of Jesus don’t ask for an end to their suffering, but instead thank God that their identities are assured, hidden in Christ. Instead of resorting to the violence of revenge when they are oppressed and persecuted, they pray for their enemies and ask God that the sins of their enemies not be held against them. In the book of Acts, we see a fascinating picture of believers who have so redefined their identities that they share all things in common and take care of each other with all of their money and possessions. The anxiety most of us would face in taking care of everyone in our communities without invoking meritocracy is almost unimaginable. And yet God’s goodness lies in calling us – wooing us – into dealing productively with such anxieties and becoming “new creations”.

My point is that God might have initiated a self-organizing cosmos that eventually gave rise to the pitiless indifference of natural selection (which is neutral at its worst), but God’s goodness is found in the identity provided to those who wish to seek it. Far from being satisfied with a creation that’s perpetually red with tooth and claw, God calls us to transcend the vagaries of life as Homo sapiens and to instead find our identities in the imago dei.

A Conclusion?

This theodicy, while only loosely fleshed out, seems to satisfy the requirements of Blocher’s “T”, but does it really satisfy?

Can it heal the hurt of those who have experienced loss?

Can it lead the lost to soothe their anxieties in the identity of the imago dei?

Can it give consolation to those in despair?

Of course not – theodicies rarely soothe. It takes a different kind of response to suffering to address questions of how to cope with loss and despair without loss of identity. For Christians, such a response is found in Christ, and in authentic Christian community as we put off any pretense of intellectual or moral superiority – any pretending that our own anxieties don’t warp us – and embrace the suffering in love. And it is with this love that the ultimate end of creation comes to rest.

Christianity and the Problem of Evil (pt 3): What is Evil?

In the last post, we laid down some ground rules for how to parse through this particular answer to the problem of evil – namely that we’ll be using Blocher’s “T”, and we’ll be accepting the theory of evolution by means of natural selection.

Point #1 of Blocher’s “T” is that evil must truly be evil. What, then is “evil” in an evolutionary paradigm? Isn’t the universe devoid of any kind of value judgment in such a framework, operating, as Richard Dawkins says, only with “blind, pitiless indifference”?

Well…yes and no.

I’ve read many things, and asked many people how they think evil manifests itself in the world. Inevitably, people say that evil manifests itself in things like rape, murder, genocide, abuse, oppression, and rebelliousness*, and in things like loss of property, life, or limb. From these manifestations, evil can be categorized as suffering. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Do we call it evil or suffering if a far-off star explodes and ceases to be? Certainly not. The explosion of a star is not evil – it simply is. The explosion of stars is simply the nature of things. Similarly, when a rock tumbles off of a remote mountain, or leaves decompose in a forest, do we think of it as suffering? No, instead it is simply the nature of things – leaves rot, rocks fall.

Similarly, when a deer eats berries or grass, we don’t think of that as evil. Neither do we think of it as evil when a pack of wolves hunts and kills that deer for food. It’s not evil, it’s just the nature of things, despite the suffering of the deer, or the potential hunger of the wolf. It’s just the deer being a deer, and the wolf being a wolf.

But what about rape and murder? Let’s turn again to the animal kingdom. Many species of ducks are well-known for the male forcing himself on the female. This often happens in groups where multiple males will assault a female, sometimes holding the head of the female under water until she passes out or dies. Most people, when they learn of this, are appalled, and rightfully so, because if this happened to a human there would be outrage. But ducks aren’t human – we’re projecting anthropomorphic sensibilities onto duck instincts when we are appalled at their behavior. Some species of duck only conceive through rape. It’s the only way that the species survives. So, is that evil? Or, is it simply a duck being a duck?

Silverback gorillas, when they take over the harem by defeating the previous alpha male, will often kill all of the infant gorillas in the harem, presumably to accelerate the fertility of the females so that genes of the new silverback can be more readily spread. In human society, killing babies is the very definition of evil. But what about for gorillas? Is the new alpha male evil, or is he simply doing what gorillas do?

My argument is that these things are NOT evil. Stars exploding, rocks falling, the brutality of the food chain, and even duck rape and gorilla infanticide aren’t evil. They simply ARE. They are the nature of things.


So, then, what is evil?

If humans are the product of natural selection, then our complexity as creatures is largely due to generations of selfishness and greed, envy and malice, and violence and indifference as our ancestors out-competed others. Deep within our collective biology lives a murderous rage, lustful eye, and selfish heart to all but our in-group. But if we are also to take Genesis 1 seriously, humans are the lone creatures called out as the Image of God (imago dei), which over-lays and defines our being. Natural selection (along with the wooing of the Spirit) may have given rise to our consciousness and complexity, but God defines our place in the cosmos. And if we are to take Genesis 1 seriously, it is only after this relating of humans to the imago dei that creation moves from “good” to “very good”.

Evil is a matter of identity. Humans, with our big brains and complex social structures seek a place. Thoughts about our place in creation cause anxiety, and in response to that anxiety, we fear the present and the future. There is a human tendency to act out that fear in ways that reinforce the behaviors that were so helpful for natural selection. It isn’t that this anxiety is evil in and of itself. That would be like calling the nature of rams to butt horns, or gorillas to have harems evil. How we respond to the identity crisis is what we call evil. Taking the biological path – reverting to primal violence, greed, and wrath is typically considered evil. That’s where rape and murder and oppression come from. But transcending the more primal aspects of our biological urges seems to be a uniquely human call. It’s the imago dei – this definition of who we are before God – that continually calls us into new identity as “self”. When our ability to transcend is thwarted – when we let our anxieties get the better of us and we despair that we can’t obtain our true identities – when we reject the call of the imago dei – we usually call that thing “evil”, because the imago dei was vandalized in both the victim, and the perpetrator.

But what if there is no perpetrator? Disease and tsunamis and earthquakes and tornadoes are neither creatures, nor evil – they simply are. However, when they ruin our property, or result in loss of life or limb, then we assign the moral value of “evil” to otherwise neutral phenomenon. What we perceive as evil is not the tornado itself, but the inconvenience of the event. We do this, I argue, because we have an identity crisis as we face our own mortality and potential for non-being in the face of seemingly uncontrollable forces. Disease and tsunamis and earthquakes and tornadoes threaten to render our self-complexity moot. They threaten to erase the imago dei and make us not-being without providing a way to resist. During such natural events, we feel the weight of being demigods and yet have no control over our own mortality. We are deficient.

We have these giant brains that can imagine literally anything. We can harness nuclear power and make energy from light, but we can’t stop our own bodies from turning against us. We are the smartest things we know of, but can’t keep ourselves from perishing from the blind and unthinking forces of nature. And so we face an identity crisis – we are gods, and yet we are frail. We suffer physically and mentally because this world makes no sense – it defies the definition of who we are. And so we despair. Not because the tsunami itself is evil, but because in its wake we don’t know who we are anymore. Our true selves and place in creation as the imago dei has been lost. And that is evil.

So, what is evil?

It’s our warped response to the identity crisis we all face as we interact with the world. Evil is the despair of not being a true self before God.

But if evolution is the paradigm, and evil is the result of God’s call on humans, in what way can God be said to be good or sovereign?

In the next post, I’ll examine this question as I explore the next two points of Blocher’s “T”.

*There might be some equivocation about the fact that stars exploding or leaves decomposing are from entropy due to “the fall”, but that goes back again to discerning the intent for creation from scant data, and using the assumed intent to say how things work. This integration is  interested in looking at the mechanisms within creation to determine how things work.

Christianity & the problem of evil (pt 2): When the stones cry out

theodicy-otAs I stated at the end of the previous post, most of the traditional responses to the problem of evil have significant problems. A lot of those problems are with internal consistency, but a significant piece of the problem is that they tend to rely on the intent of creation to make their case. I would like to argue that evidence about the intent of creation is scant at best, and non-existent at worst. However, we can pretty easily discern the mechanisms present in creation and work towards a solution to the problem of evil. This isn’t an idea that originated with me. John Feinburg, in his book “The Many Faces of Evil” advocates that Christians, “Look at what He has done, and that will show what He intended.”

Another issue that I have with the historic views is that they don’t seemed to be influenced by outside philosophies. The assumption about intent drove the conversation, and the only way to know about intent was through theology and scripture. There wasn’t much room for things like other religious systems or science to influence the conversation. In fact, the synthesis of science and theology was so lacking that when Teilhard de Chardin started working to understand the theological implications of evolution in the early 1900s, it generated a ton of buzz. No one was really doing meaningful, high-quality integrations of theology and science. Even though the Roman Catholic church eventually censured his works (mostly because of his views on original sin) Chardin’s work really served to get people thinking about the implications of science for parsing though theological problems.

While I don’t go nearly as far as Chardin, an integration of evolution by means of natural selection with the theological question “Why evil?” can open up new space. But first, some ground rules.

Ground Rule #1 – Blocher’s “T”

Henri Blocher, in his book “Evil and the Cross” discusses that any Christian theodicy must contain three fundamental elements – 1.) that evil is truly evil, 2.) that God is truly sovereign, and 3.) that God is good, which Blocher organizes into a “T”. These three rules are crucial for any truly Christian theodicy, because without them you could describe the presence of evil in the cosmos by saying that evil doesn’t really exist, or that God sometimes loses control of creation and bad things happen, or that God is actually sadistic and enjoys seeing us suffer. Or, you could say that God doesn’t actually exist.

The problem with these rules is that they are debatable. What does it mean, for instance, for evil to be truly evil? What, exactly, are the boundaries of God’s sovereignty? At what point does God’s allowance for suffering override goodness? Unfortunately, I won’t be able to resolve those debates, but will only be able to open up the possibility to think about things differently.

Ground Rule #2 – When the Stones Cry Out

Here’s what’s going to rub a lot of my evangelical friends the wrong way – I think the theory of evolution by means of natural selection is a huge help to navigating the problem of evil.

I’ve read many things and talked to many people, both “pro” evolution and “con”, and have come to a place where I’m in agreement that evolution is the best interpretation of the data. That’s why I’ve been so pleased with the Biologos project, which is trying to encourage Christians to think in more accurate terms about evolution. But evolution by no means cuts God out of the equation for me. I’m theistic to the core.

Over and over again in scripture when God is without someone with whom to work, He calls people out, and woos them into relationship. God called Abram out of paganism, He called Isaiah into faithfulness, and continually widened the circle to include gentiles. The rule of blood and law evolved into faith and love as God continually woos humanity. And what happened when, in the book of Luke, the Pharisees tried to keep people from shouting praise to God for what had been done? Jesus said that if the people were silent, then the stones would shout out.

Is it so much of a leap to believe that all life – and the universe itself – is shouting out to God? From the Big Bang to the coalescence of the stars, to the production of heavy elements and the organization of galaxies – the universe was crying out. And when this tiny dust-ball formed, orbiting an average star in a backwater arm of an average galaxy – complexity and chance combined to give rise to life, and ultimately the sort of creatures who could be in relationship with God. We are made of the stuff of the universe, and yet we transcend it. We are the very stones, brought to life to shout out to God.

This view of the universe is so exciting to me. Within it, I get to be less worried about demons and evil around every corner which turns the world into a dark and cynical place. Instead, I get to look for the working of God – the way in which creation always has and always will call out to the creator, and participate in the “very good” that God has declared this cosmos.

And yet, we’re left with a nagging sense that something is not right. The cosmos seems to contain at least something that feels like evil.

In the next post, I’ll start to explore the first piece of Blocher’s “T”, and ask the question “What is Evil?”


Christianity & the problem of evil (pt 1): The historical solutions

masaccio-expulsion-adam-eveNot too long ago I was participating in a discussion in which someone asked the famous question “Why is there evil in the world?” In all honesty I botched the answer in all kinds of ways, though I have plenty of thoughts about the question. The next few posts will serve to coalesce my thoughts.

The question of “How does a good God allow evil and suffering?” is probably the most enduring question for monotheists. I’ve even read that some eastern religions, such as Buddhism, which are largely atheistic, believe that the problem of evil is so vexing that the solution will have to come from a philosophy outside of their religion – namely the west. But truthfully, I don’t think the question to the problem of evil has a satisfying answer within the realm of theism, deism, or religion in general. That’s why I mostly dislike the question. Simply put, there’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going. There’s no knowing where we’re rowing or which way the river’s flowing…

epicurious quoteBut none of that has kept people (including me) from trying. The technical term for dealing with this problem is “theodicy”, and numerous solutions have been proposed. However, historic Christian solutions have fallen into three major camps.

Solution by Universal Order – aka, Augustinian Theodicy

The short version of this solution is that the Abrahamic God created the cosmos as “very good”, and since God is omnipotent and benevolent, then evil is not part of creation. Ergo, “evil” is not a created thing, and God is therefore not responsible for its occurrence. Instead, evil is a lack of goodness.

Imagine it this way – in Augustinian thought, God is infinite, and is wholly and completely good. God is perfect in goodness and in ability to accomplish good. However, when creation is made, it cannot contain an infinite amount of God’s good. Therefore creation, being finite, is good, but it is not infinitely good. This lack of goodness, Augustine argues, no matter how small, is evil. Therefore, in the solution by universal order, evil has its root in finitude. Creatures, such as humans, are lacking some measure of God’s goodness, and are therefore tempted by vices which can diminish the other “good” qualities we do have, such as integrity, beauty, welfare, virtue, etc..

In the universal order, evil isn’t natural, but is an outworking of free will exercised by humanity to oppose God’s rule. Not only does free will produce the worst that selfishness has to offer, but inappropriate use earns humans punishment for their disobedience, which is commonly referred to as “The Fall” and caused by “Original Sin”.

The traditional Reformed and Neo-reformed views fit into this camp, along with their own variations.

Solution by Autonomous Freedom – aka Irenaean Theodicy

The short version of this solution is that the Abrahamic God created the cosmos as “very good”, but this didn’t mean “perfect”. Instead it meant “the best possible world God was able to create given the limitations of finitude.” Since this is the best possible world, but not a perfect world, there is room for improvement.

Irenaeus therefore proposed that creation is a two-stage process. The first stage was when God created. The second stage is when humans use their free will to develop towards perfection through their experience of suffering and evil. The world is therefore a school-room for making the human soul complete. The theologian John Hicks terms the world “a vale for soul-making”.

Unlike the Augustinian view, in which God was in no way responsible for the presence of evil in creation, in the Irenaean view God is responsible for making the world a perfect classroom in which genuine moral choices can be made. When humans experience the natural consequences of these choices (which have the potential to be “evil”), we learn how to be more moral and make better decisions. In this way the Image of God is developed in humans. In other words, evil IS part of God’s natural creation, but its function is to drive us closer to the likeness of God in our moral behaviors.

Greg Boyd’s Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy, broadly speaking, fits into this camp.

Solution by Dialectical Reasoning – aka Plotinian Theodicy

This is likely the most confusing of the three, since it can get into things like process theology and discussions of human ontology. However, the short version of this solution is that what we consider “evil” is really a lack of being able to call harmony into being. Evil is therefore “non-being”.

Perfection, within this view, is the ultimate harmony of all things. Take light and darkness, for instance. Harmony would not be combining them into some sort of low-light situation, since that wouldn’t respect the BEING of each. Instead, harmony means both light and darkness would exist, side-by-side, neither being destroyed or overwhelmed by the other. But this process of harmony requires infinitude. Our finite beings can’t accomplish it, much less wrap our minds around it. Simultaneous harmony is not possible for finite beings. This lack of finding harmony gives birth to non-being within us  – the idea that we won’t be able to bring the BEING of harmony to reality within us. And this potential of non-being is what we find as evil.

As humans struggle against non-being, their very being springs into existence. So, the more a person can find perfect harmony, the more that person can find their being. God’s goal in creation is to help creatures find their being, which requires complexity (sometimes called goodness) and harmony (sometimes called beauty). God’s infinitude harmonizes all things simultaneously , and is therefore worthy of being called perfectly good and beautiful. Evil is everything not harmonized in proper complexity.

Whitehead, Tillich, Moltmann, and Barth are all theologians who play with various methods of dialectical reasoning.

So What?

All of these solutions have merit, but they have significant problems, too. What strikes me most about these solutions is that they all arrive at the solution philosophically by trying to resolve the intent for creation from very paltry evidence. What if, instead, we look at the mechanisms of creation, which are comparatively obvious? Rather than trying to discern God’s intent for creation, what if we used tools like science to determine what is evident and let that light our way forward?

The question of evil is important because we want to make sense out of who we are and the world we live in. It’s not a silly question, but a question that we ask as we try to find our place in the world. In the next post, I’ll try to venture an answer to the question “Why Evil” in a way that respects both science and Christianity.


I’m thankful to both Henri Blocher and John Hick for their discussion and summary of the categories I’ve used in this post.

  • Blocher, Henri, Evil and the Cross (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1994).
  • Hicks, John, Evil and the God of Love (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).


I would have preferred an inn.

I just read a fantastic article by Ian Paul exploring the word “kataluma”, which is typically translated “Inn” in English bibles. His contention is that Joseph and Mary were not shut out of finding a hotel room. Rather, they were unable to have the privacy of the guest room in the house in which they were staying. As a result, Mary gave birth in the living/dining room – where the mangers were kept – surrounded by a throng of Joseph’s family who had come to Bethlehem for the census. Click on the link below to read the article.

playmobil-nativityThis morning, my daughter asked if she could set up our Playmobil nativity set, which shows a sparse scene of Mary and Joseph, with a shepherd and a few wise men. (Trust me, it looks way less impressive than the marketing picture I just ripped off.) What if it instead showed a warm home, full of family members, packed to the gills – so many people that a woman couldn’t give birth with any sense of privacy? Numerous men would be outside in the dark, talking about the weather. Throngs of women would be inside, busying themselves with boiling water and ripping sheets, or whatever it is they do when prepping for a birth. Imagine being a shepherd and showing up at THAT. Sweet baby Jesus is silent simply because no one could hear him over the din.

Kinda makes Christmas with my relatives seem tame…

A tale of two Messiahs

Most of us raised in church were taught that there were certain things that the Jews more or less all expected of their Messiah. Yet when Jesus came, the story goes, he was different than the common understanding, and they couldn’t see beyond their own dogma and expectations to see that their Messiah had actually come.

But the Jews didn’t have a uniform belief in what the Messiah would look like. There were all kinds of opinions floating around about the Messiah.

The word Messiah is Hebrew, and it merely means “anointed one”. You’d think this word would occur lots of times in the OT, but it does not. As a formal title applied to a person, it only appears twice in Daniel 9:25-26. As a description, it occurs more or less 37 times, and describes special people chosen by God – “messiahs” were kings, they were the patriarchs, they were prophets, they were the judges. Samuel is described as “messiah”, as are a few priests.

All that to say that in OT times, they did not use the word “Messiah” very often, and certainly didn’t use it in the way we do these days. The Christian understanding of Messiah is colored by what Jesus taught his disciples. Luke 24:25-27 shows how Jesus went through and taught about how the Old Testament scripture speaks of him as the coming and anointed one. As should be obvious to any reader of scripture, Jesus’ use of the term Messiah was different enough from common expectation that it caused a lot of confusion.

The Jewish understanding of the Messiah as a single person started to emerge after the exile and in the intertestamental period, and each different group had its own brand of messiah. The Sadducees had theirs, the Pharisees had theirs, the Essenes, Zealots, Sicarii, Samaritans, and more.

In general, each of these groups had different specifics about the messiah, though they shared a few commonalities. The understanding of the messiah at the time of Jesus was not uniform. Here are a few points to contrast:

  • The Messiah came to undo the curse of Adam. The Messiah would start to return the world to the Edenic state. Paul, as far as we can tell, was the first to call Jesus “the new Adam”, which emphasizes a return to Eden, but the idea of starting to undo the curse was from the contemporary Jewish culture.
  • The Messiah is the second Moses. The Messiah will lead people into a second exodus, but better and surpassing the old one.
  • The Messiah is the David of the future. He is king and he sets things right in the land, fulfilling God’s covenant and ushering in the renewed coming of God. But even here, what is means to be the “David of the future” is not uniform. For instance, being the David of the future:
    • Is a special kind of God’s servant. The Messiah exercises God’s judgment as God shows him how to judge. This is the Messiah’s primary royal function.
    • Is a conquering king. He will drive out the pagans and the gentiles and purify the land and set the Jews as the supreme power and authority on the Earth.
    • Is the branch of Yahweh and he is righteous. Sometimes we think of this as being a branch of David, but that was not a common view of the Messiah. Yes, he was from the line of David, but he was a branch of Yahweh.
    • Is the seed of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head.

Many of these separate beliefs were wrapped together in the New Testament portrayal of Jesus as the Messiah. But, there are a few things you don’t see here. You don’t see the Messiah being God himself. Instead, the Messiah brings God, who sets up an eternal kingdom, but the Messiah is not divine. We only see the hint of a divine Messiah in the OT because the NT authors have shown us how to read the OT verses to see him there, but this was far from a common understanding in Jesus’ day. You also don’t see a Messiah who suffers and dies. A dead Messiah was considered a failed Messiah. In the common belief of the time, the Messiah was not immortal, but during his lifetime he was supposed to be successful in all he undertook.

But what about the way in which the Messiah was to come into the world? It turns out that beliefs about the coming of the Messiah can be boiled down into two major camps. One way was by being born in Bethlehem and announced – dramatically – as the coming son of David. The other way was to be hidden in the world, but not realized until some special event that would usher in “the end”; the most popular thought was that Elijah would return to announce and anoint and unveil the Messiah. (As a side note, this highlights the importance of the transfiguration, where Jesus cavorts with Elijah and Moses, calling to mind the popular belief that Elijah would anoint the messiah. Instead God himself announces Jesus as his son.) This “hidden messiah” has rabbinic roots prior to the first century, and a strong presence in first century materials such as Enoch and 4 Ezra, etc..

All of the gospels talk about the coming of Jesus in BOTH of these ways. The hidden messiah motif (not to be confused with the Messianic Secret) is most present in Mark and John, since the fanfare of Jesus’ birth isn’t mentioned, and his hiddenness is a strong(er) theme. On the other hand, in Matthew and Luke Jesus is clearly born in Bethlehem and announced as the coming king. HOWEVER, the hidden messiah theme isn’t forgotten in Matthew and Luke – Jesus is hiding in plain sight, waiting to be unveiled before the people, and where people realize it early, he silences them. There’s even a sense of misdirection in how the gospels describe Jesus’ birthplace. He’s not from Bethlehem – not really. He’s from Heaven.

The upshot is that where he’s from (Heaven) and what he is (a hidden type of Messiah, beyond their imagining) is a mystery, despite the people who think they know where he’s from and call him the Messiah. Even when Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, it’s clear that Peter doesn’t really understand why type of Messiah Jesus is. Jesus is both obvious and inscrutable. He takes his coat off and stands in the rain. He’s always crazy like that.

So as Christmas approaches, I’m struck by the confidence of people who want to define just exactly what this Messiah is. In one sense, they are announcing His coming – as the chosen one who will guide us into the better promised land. But in another sense, they are ignoring the mystery – the ways in which we see the truth of the Messiah’s coming in a mirror, dimly. They marginalize that the salvation He brings must be worked out with fear and trembling.

But I’m also struck by those who want to focus on the mystery of what the Messiah is. In one sense, they are embracing the enduring hiddenness of the Messiah – the one who continues to unveil himself throughout history. But in another sense, they are minimizing the confidence – that the Messiah was announced for those who have ears to hear, and that he continues to call people to himself.

It’s a tale of two Messiahs, laid in the same manger. In the Christmas season, as on every day, the challenge is to visit them both.