God: Love, Justice, and Judgment

Who is God?

God of love,
God of peace,
God of justice,
God of judgment,
God of patience,
God of impatience,
God of strength,
God of power,
God of meekness,
God of humility.

No, this is not an exhaustive account of who God is.

God, whose character is consistent, sometimes seems to have contrary characteristics. Nonetheless, all of these characteristics are wrapped up in what can be called his holy love. It’s important to clarify that holy love isn’t our often subjective and changing definition of love, but God’s definition of love and his very nature.

As creator, God sets the standard, and we most clearly see that standard in Jesus Christ. In his opening words, John reminds us in his gospel that Jesus was there from the very beginning – not in the physical form of Jesus Christ, but certainly as one of the trinity. And as his created beings, we partner with God in his kingdom, but we do not set the standard for him; Jesus is the King and we have been invited to participate and contribute as his servants, and even as partners.

But still, with all of God’s characteristics being understood and entwined together as holy love, it can often be too easy for us, as people, to subjectively impose our standards upon him. Our western American culture is constantly telling us to let people be who they are; the same is true for God. We must understand God as who God is – not as we tell God who he is!

We don’t control God’s narrative; God controls God’s narrative. By his grace and love alone, he allows to participate and contribute in the narrative.

Then how can we understand this God? The answer begins with scripture. More than any other place, it is where God’s story with us is shared, and where we can learn the most about him: the Old Testament, the gospel accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John of Jesus Christ – God in human form and the flame by which we see the fire of God – and the letters of the New Testament.

As we learn about who God is, let’s look at some seemingly opposing views of God: love, justice, and judgment.

Here’s one of the most quoted verses from the Bible when it comes to peace and understanding God’s love:

“He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.”

This is a passage from Isaiah 2; it can also be found in Micah 4 with a slight variation. This verse that is often used to describe the peace of God and God’s kingdom; looking at the context of Isaiah as well as chapter 2, it also discusses God’s judgment and the day of the Lord – a reference to a “judgment day.” This verse certainly describes peace, and when we look at the life of Jesus Christ, we must seek after this kind of peace as his disciples. Micah also speaks of judgment, a restored Israel, and a day of the Lord. Reading the gospels and the New Testament, this revelation is not out of line with Jesus’ character.

While the focus is peace, it is a peace that God brings. In the life of Jesus Christ, we see that it is a peace that only he brings as Immanuel – God with us! As agents of his kingdom and filled with the power and authority of his Spirit, we participate in and find opportunities to bring that peace to the lives and cultures around us. Ultimately though, it refers to God and what only God will bring. In our lives, it is only Jesus Christ that can bring victory and peace to whatever it is that we are going through.

However, it is not a type of peace where anything goes, we all just mellow out, and everything is subjective, which I’m afraid our American culture tries to read when taking these passages out of context. Clearly, when reading these chapters, God has gained victory and cast judgment over evil people, nations, and entities, and those who come against him and his people. There is peace, but it is after God’s victory and his judgment.

Here’s the counterpart that’s also in scripture, found in Joel 3, and is rarely spoken about. I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever heard these verses expounded upon. They’re not particularly well-known verses because, on the surface, they contradict Isaiah and the popular way people have used Isaiah 3 and Micah 4.

“Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare war,
stir up the warriors.
Let all the soldiers draw near,
let them come up.
Beat your plowshares into swords,
and your pruning hooks into spears;
let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.”
Come quickly,
all you nations all around,
gather yourselves there.
Bring down your warriors, O Lord.
Let the nations rouse themselves,
and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat;
for there I will sit to judge
all the neighboring nations.”

Isaiah 2, Micah 4, and Joel 3 are all prophecies given to prophets, inspired by God, and found in scripture that all of orthodox Christianity believes is inspired by God.

Yet the words are directly reversed in these passages: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks,” and, “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears.” Joel is prophesying to the nations and Isaiah and Micah are prophesying about the nations, both about the same event, yet there are two different directions they go.

Once again, when we read the chapter and look at the context, we see the same theme: God’s judgment and victory over those who come against him. Two prophets see it one way; another prophet sees it another way, though their pictures are remarkably similar. They both point to God’s judgment. On one side of the coin is world-changing peace that profoundly changes hearts; on the other side of the coin is defeat and destruction for those that come against him. There is peace, and though not always popular, there is also judgment.

It’s two sides of the same coin; so these two pictures aren’t really contradictory when we dig a little deeper. With God, there is life – incredible life that changes hearts and brings peace with his kingdom – life that is good by God’s standards and not the world’s standards; apart from God and against God; there is no life, in fact, there is defeat, destruction, and ultimately judgment. It’s not necessarily a destruction prescribed by God either; it is oftentimes more of a description of natural consequences. Paul speaks of this in his letter to the Romans and John speaks of it in his God-given revelation as well, where again, we meet Jesus. In fact, Jesus is given authority to judge in John’s revelation.

The defeat isn’t ours to give; that belongs to God. In fact, Jesus is the only one capable of bringing that ultimate victory. We must remember that, as disciples of Jesus Christ, God is the only one with power and capability to see into our hearts fully and bring appropriate judgment.

Meanwhile, before that ultimate day of the Lord comes, bringing this fallen era to a decisive close and when God’s patience finally wears out, Jesus Christ has invited as many as who are willing to be a part of his eternal kingdom, his ongoing narrative, and his everlasting story, experiencing God’s life and peace. It happens in ways that the world does not expect, such as picking up a cross and following Jesus through meekness and humility while relying on his strength, power, and sovereignty to subvert the power and wisdom of the world.

God is God of love, but also justice. And with justice and love, there will one day be judgment when one day God ushers in a new age with a new heaven and new earth and makes his home among us. God will make the wrongs of this age right for a new age to come. God alone knows the exact details of how and when he will do that.

Who is God, then? God is God of love as well God of justice and judgment, wrapped up in his other, holy love. Digging deeper in scripture, where we can truly start to know God, these characteristics are not so contradictory after all. It is who God is. And remember, God says who God is, not us!

The Witness of the Creeds

Christians all around the world adhere to two significant creeds – the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.   Often, though, these are two very important pieces of Christianity that can be easily forgotten.

A creed is a statement of belief.   Both of these are short summaries of what a Christian believes!   They easily sum up the story of Christ in a concise way, yet they are also theologically and scripturally accurate. I would challenge you to seek to commit them to your heart and mind.  Seek to understand them faithfully with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

These two great pieces of music, ‘We Believe‘ from the Newsboys and ‘Manifesto‘ by The City Harmonic, might also help.   Check them out!

When someone asks you what you believe as a Christian, or asks you what your testimony is, perhaps by joining in with the rest of the witness of Christ’s body throughout the past two millenia, you might give the best answer – simple, concise, accurate, and to the point:

The Apostles Creed

I believe in God almighty
And in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord
Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried
And the third day rose from the dead
Who ascended into heaven
And sitteth on the right hand of the Father
Whence he cometh to judge the living and the dead
And in the Holy Ghost
The holy church
The remission of sins
The resurrection of the flesh
The life everlasting.

There is also another version of this creed:

I believe in God the Father almighty
I also believe in Jesus Christ his only son, our Lord,
conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried; he descended into hell,
rose again the third day,
ascended into heaven,
sat down at the right hand of the Father,
thence he is to come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost,
the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints,
the remission of sins,
the resurrection of the flesh and life eternal.

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God the Father All-sovereign, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all the ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from the heavens, and was made flesh of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, and ascended into the heavens, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father, and cometh again with glory to judge the living and dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end:

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and the Life-giver, that proceedeth from the Father*, who with the Father, who with the Father and Son is worshipped together and glorified together, who spake through the prophets:

In one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church:

We acknowledge one baptism unto remission of sins. We look for a resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.

*There is division between the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox churches regarding this phrase.  One of the main reasons for this division is that the Western church began inserting this phrase into the creed without consulting the Eastern church.

“It’s where my demons hide”

The musical group Imagine Dragons has written quite a profound song.  You may have heard it about a thousand times on the radio recently – it’s called Demons.

However, in seeking to understand the story of humanity in relation to God, this particular song also has a certain theological significance.  Perhaps Imagine Dragons did not intend that; yet when seeking to accurately, and poetically, understand humanity, just as this group has done, an experience with God is inevitable.

The lyrics speak for themselves regarding the human condition:

When the days are cold
And the cards all fold
And the saints we see
Are all made of gold

When your dreams all fail
And the ones we hail
Are the worst of all
And the blood’s run stale

I wanna hide the truth
I wanna shelter you
But with the beast inside
There’s nowhere we can hide

No matter what we breed
We still are made of greed
This is my kingdom come
This is my kingdom come

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

At the curtain’s call
It’s the last of all
When the lights fade out
All the sinners crawl

So they dug your grave
And the masquerade
Will come calling out
At the mess you’ve made

Don’t wanna let you down
But I am hell bound
Though this is all for you
Don’t wanna hide the truth

No matter what we breed
We still are made of greed
This is my kingdom come
This is my kingdom come

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

They say it’s what you make
I say it’s up to fate
It’s woven in my soul
I need to let you go

Your eyes, they shine so bright
I wanna save that light
I can’t escape this now
Unless you show me how

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

God certainly understands this condition.  The writers of Genesis state, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5, NRSV).  And God grieved because of it.  He saw the demons hiding within the hearts of people.

Granted, some have given in to the demons hiding within their hearts.  Still, some glorify the demons; a world where all people gloat in their evil ways with no sense of repentance is most likely what God saw in the early chapters of Genesis.

Others may live in denial of aspects of the selfishness that grips them.  It’s okay; I think we’ve all been there at one point or another regarding some type of evil that has gripped our hearts in one way or another.  God has a way of revealing our mistakes and shortcomings and wrongdoings in us.  But by his grace he does not strike us with lightning; rather, he works with us to patiently change our hearts toward his goodness.  We learn to respond in humility so that the tendency toward sin within us may be vanquished.

Yet the lyrics of Demons almost speak of someone wrestling with the evil – the beast – that they fear is hiding within them.  They want to do the right thing, but they just can’t seem to do it.  They desire with all their heart to do it, but the beast inside has too much of a grip of them.  The person simply says, “Don’t get too close, it’s dark inside.”

The human condition – the depravity of humanity, seemingly woven within our souls, nearly inescapable.  As we look at the state of the world, as we honestly look at the state of our own individual hearts, escape from our sins seems impossible.  Many theological traditions have called this total depravity, the idea that sin is embedded so deeply within us that is impossible to root it out and finally get rid of it; no matter what we breed, we still are made of greed.

Still, other theological traditions like my own, the Church of the Nazarene, say that through the power of Christ and his Spirit within us, that disposition toward sin may replaced with a disposition toward God’s holy love.  The theological traditions debate about this point, which is good, but it can also turn into talking past one another.

The reality is not necessarily as clear-cut as we try to make it in our finite minds.  Sin has a grip, an incredibly strong grip, on our hearts.  This cannot be overlooked; but it does not mean that God cannot form us and mold us.  It does not mean that the Spirit cannot be at work within us, wrestling the sin and changing it toward love.

At the same time, though, we press on toward the goal, made possible by Christ, of erasing the tendency toward sin and replacing it with a tendency toward love.  This is, as well, a definite possibility in this life, but it must be one approached with humility, an awareness of our temptations and sins, and an attitude of constantly asking for forgiveness from God and others.

Most of us are probably somewhere in between – wrestling the demons.  But as long as we are seeking after God while wrestling, accept God’s grace, and look to Christ through all of our pains, trials, and failures in this world, we are moving in the right direction.

In understanding our own condition, we must remember that humanity and God are on a collision course.  A song like Demons cannot be complete without God; it only tells half the story.  But the collision is not because of some convoluted idea that God wants to destroy us because of our sins; it’s because God wants to save us from our sins and the pain they cause.

The initial crash has already happened.  Christ, very much the focal point of that crash, was born, crucified, and resurrected as both God and man.  Read scripture and you will find the many lives of people whom Christ has touched – lepers, pharisees, the blind, the lame, and yes, of course, the demon-inhabited.

Through each person allowing Christ to change their heart, that crash is continuing as God’s kingdom breaks further into our world, one person at a time.  God desperately desires you to be a part of that kingdom, no matter what demons or beasts inside you may be wrestling with.

Christ came to not only show how to overcome our selfish, sinful behaviors, he came so that in him, and by the power of his Spirit, we can actually have life in victory over our sins.  Whereas Cain said yes to his overwhelming temptation of killing his brother Abel, by Christ we can say no.

The demons of greed, of failure, of darkness, of fear of whatever beast we believe is inside us that we are currently wrestling, hiding from, and running from – these are the demons that Christ casts away.  These are the demons that Christ will work with us to conquer and overcome.  These are the demons that, by the same Spirit that is in Christ, can be vanquished.

Still, in humility, remember that sin is always lurking at the door, just as it was for Cain (Genesis 4:7, NRSV).  This is the total depravity within us, yet more importantly it is a depravity that, by Christ in us, we have the power to not open a door to that lurking sin.

By the power of the Spirit, we are formed to be Christ-like.  Remember, though, it takes time; it can take a lot of time.  So wherever your demons may hide, allow Christ to work on them.  Allow the Spirit to shape your heart to God’s heart, forcing out the sin and humbly replacing it with love.

As Christ said, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, NRSV).  May God forgive us of our shortcomings, sins, and mistakes, and may God fill our hearts with his love toward him and one another.

“The Great Divorce” and Understanding Eschatology

C.S. Lewis is quite a good storyteller. Now, I know that statement is obvious to anyone who has read any of his fiction. Nonetheless, when we read fiction, we often have a tendency to say, “What a nice story,” and leave it at that. We forget that the metaphor speaks to something greater; there is a legitimate direction of truth in metaphor. It is why, in reading the gospels, one will often find Christ saying, “The kingdom of God is like….” He spoke in metaphors because a metaphor will illustrate the greater truth, reality, and concept behind the words themselves.

The main theme of The Great Divorce says that, often, there is some grain of good desire even at the heart of an act that appears evil; good, even the smallest amount, taken in a selfish direction will be misused and abused and turned into something horrible. But when taken in the right (‘right’ in and of itself is a word that needs to be unpacked in today’s post-modern world!) purpose, right defined here as being used for the purpose and intention of God’s design, that grain of good turns into something beautiful and amazing. Additionally, there are themes and metaphors of heaven, hell, and even purgatory (believe it or not – it is a doctrine that has its basis in some legitimacy!), as well as the examination of the depth of God’s love and victory. These are aspects of what is commonly called eschatology. It is looking at, well, the end. It is trying to understand the end of this age, bonded to death through sin, and the beginning of a new age, with freedom in God to love.

And it begs us to ask questions; some might even call them dangerous questions. What do we believe will happen at the end of this age? And the even more threatening question – what do we believe will happen when we die?

Oftentimes, the quick, easy answer we receive in western, non-Roman Catholic theological traditions (sorry – I don’t like the term ‘Protestant’ very much; I’m not really protesting Rome anymore!) is that you die and your soul goes to heaven or hell. And that’s the type of bottom line, hard and fast answer we receive. Simplistic and easy – but that is the exact problem with that answer. In truth, it’s neither a simplistic nor an easy answer! And it should not be treated as if it were a simplistic and easy answer!

There are all sorts of issues with this answer.

The first issue is that none of us has died and returned. That is, none of us except Jesus Christ. And apart from Christ’s death and resurrection, we do not exactly know what comes after death. Christ is our best guide to understanding life after death. What the resurrection points to, and in line with scripture, is a physical resurrection in a renewed body.

The second issue is the concept of a dualistic eternal soul and non-eternal body; it does not come from Christianity nor the Hebrew Bible. Remove Greek and Platonist influence and you have the unified psychosomatic concept of the person as a whole; body and mind are together. It is the way God designed us to be as people; he did not design us to have a partially separated non-physical ‘soul’ for all of eternity – the person would be incomplete! I encourage you to take a journey through both the Old and New Testaments and explore this on your own.

The third issue is that it does not take into account the physical resurrection of the person, and all people, at the end of this age; again, this is in line with scripture; again, I encourage you to explore the Old and New Testaments. Moreover, in saying that someone will immediately descend into hell upon death turns God into an unjust judge. Scripture is clear that there will be both a day of physical resurrection and a day of judgment; neither has happened yet. It will be at the end of this age. God is not going to condemn a person to eternal damnation before the day of judgment! C.S. Lewis makes a great point here in The Great Divorce – ultimately, it won’t be God’s rejection of the person; rather, it will be the person’s rejection of God and his beautiful love that brings despair.

It should be known that on that day of judgment in the future, it will be God, and God alone, who is truly able to judge the person’s heart. This is not a responsibility that we, as Christians, ignorant of a totality of information, should take on for ourselves; we cannot claim to be God. However, it should make all of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, want to seriously examine the condition of our own hearts and our receptiveness towards God’s grace.

Finally, it downplays the significance and the beauty of a new creation! As I mentioned before, God created us as physical beings, originally designed for good, beauty, life, and love; however we have been corrupted by sin and its effects through death. God did not create us to be an eternal, non-physical soul, yearning to escape a physical realm; that is the heresy of gnosticism. But in living in a new and beautiful creation, it will be a remade, physical world! There will be eternal, physical life available, with freedom in love and freedom from evil. One will not have to worry about needs or wants; there will be no pain or tears of sadness.

That, my friends, sounds absolutely amazing. Imagine the beautiful, remade beings of The Great Divorce. That could be our remade body one day. Imagine the rivers and the mountains, the grass, the apples, and the leaves that Lewis described in his story. Consider, at the very least, the abounding love that conquers all.

Think of hiking through a beautiful mountain path, living in conjunction with God’s Spirit and praising the Father for his works, all the while thanking the Son for making your participation in it possible through his work in this present age. Think of sitting on the most beautiful beach that God has ever made, while enjoying loving fellowship with others. Think of an awe-inspiring sunset or sunrise. Think of entering through the gates of the incredible city of God that John describes in Revelation. Think of walking with Christ, our King but also our friend, and embracing the love that is his very existence.

It will one day be a physical and true reality. It will be God’s beloved world, remade.

Do you see how the answer of saying that one will go to heaven or hell after one dies and that’s the bottom line is not only simplistic and easy, but a bit misleading? This fall-back and default answer, especially when there is a much better, truthful, and scripturally accurate answer, can even be damaging!

This gives us a fairly good picture of the future and where God is taking the world; the incredibly beautiful thing is that God invites each of us to participate in this awesome story! If that is not an expression of love, I am not quite sure what is.

Nor is it the promotion of a selfish ticket to heaven, but an invitation for us and an opportunity to participate in and perpetuate God’s amazing, redemptive love to the world; we continue in the work of demonstrating this kingdom as we respond to God today!

Nonetheless, we still ask the question of what will immediately happen after one dies. The short answer, and probably the best and most honest answer, is we don’t know.

There are a few possibilities, but we can’t talk about it with nearly as much certainty and scriptural accuracy as we can of the new creation.

The first is that one simply dies and then is raised again at the resurrection. At first this might come as a shock and the question is inevitably asked, “What? No heaven?” Well, if you’re really honest with yourself, it’s not that big of a deal. You’ll be dead; and the good thing about being dead is that you won’t know you’re dead! So the time between death and resurrection will fly by in the blink of an eye. It could be a possible reason why, in Luke 23, Jesus told the man next to him on the cross that, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

Or, if one absolutely insists on keeping the Platonic idea of an eternal soul not subject to death, then upon death, a soul could go to a type of Hades or Sheol to await the day of reunification with a physical body at the resurrection, when God will examine the person’s heart to bring them into eternal life in the new creation or damnation and eternal death (by the way, this opens a whole new can of worms as to what exactly damnation and eternal death means, which I won’t go into in this article). I explore this idea in one of my stories out of my new book, An Intertwined Reality: Short Stories for the Already but Not Yet. This is perhaps a more accurate understanding of an idea similar to purgatory. The grey town in The Great Divorce could be an illustration of this concept. At any rate, this idea could potentially explain a phenomenon of ghosts; still, supernatural forces that do not come from God are not to be trifled (there’s a good word!) with.

The last possibility is that by Jesus saying, “Today, you will be with me in paradise,” he means that the person’s soul who is in relationship with God will indeed wait in heaven for the day of reunification with a physical body to live in the new creation. Nonetheless, living in the redeemed physical body in the new creation is still the goal! In going with this idea, it does not mean that one who is not in relationship with God will go to hell; the day of judgment has not yet happened! They may either simply die or their soul waits in a type of Hades or Sheol.

Nonetheless, these are not known certainties. They are only ideas and theories. Like I said before, we don’t know! Moreover, we have such a lack of understanding between the concepts of time and space in eternity as opposed to the concepts of space and time as constructs that God has given us in his creation. We only know what we know through Christ, the physically resurrected Savior, a sign of the general resurrection and renewal yet to come!

But does it really matter what may or not happen immediately upon death? Again, if you’re really honest with yourself – no! Because ultimately we have the promise that there will be life again in the paradise of a new creation with God!

Moreover, I pray that we as the Church do not rely on simplistic, easy, or misleading theology. We should faithfully be ready to wrestle and struggle with our challenges, our questions, and even our doubts.

And sometimes, a good story can help offer a better explanation than one might initially think.

Eschatology – it can at first be an intimidating theological word, but it is a word we should be ready to explore. C.S. Lewis, in his imagination, helps us do that in his storytelling. His works of fiction are not simply stories to say, “What a nice story,” and leave it that, but stories to open our imagination to metaphors and illustrations of truth we find in scripture. The Great Divorce is one of those excellent works of fiction.

*A lot of what I discussed in this article can be found in N.T. Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope. He goes into all of the issues I summarized on a much deeper level. Check out the book!

In Defense of Theology as Critical to Faith

Unfortunately, many times when the term theology is mentioned, people meet the word with reactions that are not always the greatest. There may be, for one reason or another, a negative association with academics and the practice of critically thinking about God, or perhaps there may be the idea that varying theologies could challenge the safety and comfort level of one’s understanding of God. While God is inherently mystery and we can never fully know God, we can still begin to learn about God. This is, in fact, what theology is – learning about God and the various aspects of his story. Well, at least it is learning as much as we are able to!

I’ve often heard the question: “Why do we need theology when we have the Bible?” Indeed, scripture is certainly our foundation; however, scripture is not God. Confusing the two is something of which we need to be careful. Scripture, nonetheless, points to God and is the best way of understanding God; thus, we really cannot separate theology from scripture! And Christ is both the fulfillment of scripture and the fullest revelation of the Father. Still, in considering scripture we are even influenced by our own theological traditions to read the Bible through a certain lens!

One of my favorite ideas of rejecting theology is not so blatant, but rather it is a much more quiet view which says: “Theology is great, so long as I agree with it.” Implicit in that statement is that one is not actually open to considering new ideas, possibly because they may be perceived as threats to a safe and comfortable way of thinking; on the surface it appears that one enjoys the study of theology, but further down it is a cover for not wanting to critically think about other ways of understanding God.

Or we take the popularized Donald Miller approach, tending to downplay not only theology but Christian academics in general when it comes to our beautiful religion. Granted, Miller wrote an article bashing academics within Christianity some time ago; nonetheless, and although apparently toned down, he continues to perpetuate this idea of anti-“religion” and anti-“scholar.” He argues that the academics have only served to divide Christianity.

In reading his article, it is fairly easy to see that his logic fails. Disagreements occurred before; disagreements will inevitably occur again in our ignorance of God’s mystery. The new world without academics will not be a happy place because even if you get rid of the scholars, disagreements will pop up again! Only this time, there will no longer be anyone to intelligently and respectfully discuss the issues. However many people are in the world, academic or non-academic, that’s how many different views there will be about God. Donald Miller, I suppose, evidently takes it for granted that everyone will simply agree with and happily go along with his doctrine of God.

We see variations of the idea further advanced with the argument that Christianity is not a religion. This is evident in Jeff Bethke’s popular YouTube video; the young man, a self professed non-pastor and non-theologian, has now written a book on a subject which he claims he is not an expert on. The book, I’m sure, will sell. But I suppose I should give him the benefit of the doubt; Jeff, I’m sure I will find your book very interesting!

Christianity is indeed a religion, with theology being critical to understanding it and our individual and communal relationship to God. We cannot reduce the whole of Christianity to simply an American individualistic mindset of me and God, when, while the relationship is fundamentally essential, Christianity is oh, so much more; and the story of the oh, such more is amazingly beautiful.

There is a danger to reductionism; it does damage to understanding the system as a whole. To try to understand God simplistically in terms of only an individualistic relationship causes us to ignore other important aspects of our faith: community, creation, justice, mercy, history, etc. To dismiss theology and religion is to ignore thousands of years of people, tradition, and Christian thought which, believe it or not, makes at least some rational sense of the way God works. And who knows, we may actually relate to a past Christian thinker who challenges us to think in new ways, deepening our own understanding of God! We may find that we even agree with some of the movements within the stream of this great religion! We may even find that in examining theology and attempting to understand God, we are better able to love both God and our neighbors as Christ commands us.

The good news (or bad news, depending on your views) is that attempting to avoid theology is impossible. If you have an understanding of God, no matter what it is, you have a theology. Even trying to avoid certain theologies is unrealistic. There are systems of thought that have been at work shaping the way Christians think a long time before any of us were even born. This is the irony of ‘non-denominational’; it is at best ‘inter-denominational.’ Even to simply claim ‘Protestant’ is to stake an identity in a type of western, non-Roman Catholic theology. Lutheranism, Calvinism, Wesleyanism, Arminianism, Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, Coptic Christianity, etc.: the list goes on. Some type of theology has shaped you. It is why I laugh when people like Donald Miller and Francis Chan claim that they do not subscribe to one particular view; in their writings, it is clear which traditions have influenced them. They perpetuate a subtle, and at times not-so-subtle, Calvinist understanding of God. They also perpetuate a type of modern fundamentalism, influenced by John Piper, that hints: “My system of Christian thinking is simply the right system of Christian thinking; that’s the bottom line.”

I write all of this not to bring down Donald Miller, Francis Chan, Jeff Bethke, and John Piper, but to point out that we are all in some way influenced by various theologies. And although I disagree with Calvinist thought, I will still love them as my family in Christ.

The challenge is for each one of us to learn to recognize these influences and ask ourselves the difficult questions of what we truly believe and why we believe it. Do we believe something about God simply because we have been influenced to think in a certain way? Or do we believe something about God because we have truly chewed on it and struggled with it in our own journey of faith?

I am Wesleyan-Arminian in my thoughts concerning God; after wrestling with various issues and questions, it is the tradition I’ve found I agree with the most. I am well aware of the Wesleyan-Arminian theological influences I’ve grown up with in the Church of the Nazarene; however, it is not just a way of thinking I’ve blindly accepted. If someone arrives at Calvinism or Lutheranism or Wesleyan-Arminianism or Roman Catholicism or Coptic Christianity in considering God and wrestling with whatever questions presented themselves in their journey in Christianity, then I respect them in their decision. Ultimately, the best view is not to consider a world where everyone blindly agrees with Donald Miller’s version of God, but to have loving conversation within the theological traditions of the Christian religion so that we may grow stronger together.

We are all influenced by theology. We all have our own theology. Are we willing to learn and wrestle with our theological influences? Are we willing to consider the implications of what our own theology really means? Are we willing to be challenged to grow in our understanding of God, shaped by Scripture, yet also filter through various theological ways of thinking?

We really cannot forget how Jesus responded to one of the Pharisees, an expert in the law, regarding the greatest commandment: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'”

Perhaps theology is a discipline which we should not be afraid of after all, but an area for each one of us to embrace whole-heartedly as we continue in our own understanding of building a relationship with God.

An Excerpt from “An Intertwined Reality: Short Stories for the Already but Not Yet”

The following piece is one of 14 short stories I’ve included in my most recently published book, “An Intertwined Reality: Short Stories for the Already but Not Yet.” It will be available soon for $7.99 in paperback and $4.99 as an ebook on both the Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites! Read more about it and my other book, “The Memoirs of J.W. Bresee: 1897-1906,” here.

Share this short story with your friends and family; let’s build excitement for “An Intertwined Reality”!

The Ammonite Messenger

Nehemiah squinted his eyes as he scanned the far reaches of the horizon. The small outline of a man riding a horse appeared, silhouetted against the reddening sky. The rider was still a good distance away; if it was not for the setting sun casting shadows over the landscape, Nehemiah would have been able to see the entire expanse clearly in the dry air.

The horse kicked up a cloud of dust as the rider disappeared below the horizon, blurring the sharp contrast between him and the sinking red desert sun. Nehemiah faintly discerned their shape racing toward them among the shadows. They were at the borders of what was, to Nehemiah’s ancestors, once the northern kingdom; it was now divided between various pagan rulers as the conquering Persians split up their territories. First the Assyrians swept over the land, then the Babylonians, and then the Medes, and then the Persians. The Babylonians transported much of the southern kingdom’s population back to their capital and into diaspora; the Persians, generations later, allowed the exiles to finally return to their home.

Nehemiah, serving in the court of the Persian King Artaxerxes, petitioned the ruler to allow him to return to the land of his ancestors in order to rebuild Jerusalem. The King even gave Nehemiah, along with the others going with him, several of his prized Persian horses for their journey home. The Babylonians and the Persians, extending their empire to the west, brought many more of these exceptional animals with them into the area.

The pounding hooves thundered closer. “Halt,” the rider yelled. “Halt!” The horse, a large, black, muscled beast, finally stopped in front of Nehemiah and the others. The trail of settling dust stretched all the way back to the horizon; the bottom edge of the sun was just beginning to dip below it. “You are now in the land of Ammon. By order of the governor of the land, Tobiah the Ammonite, installed by the Persian king himself, you must make yourself known!”

Nehemiah did not speak a word, but looked sternly at the rider from atop his own horse. He knew that the surrounding provinces would not like the idea of Jerusalem’s restoration. And even despite Artaxerxes’ blessing, Nehemiah realized that the bordering territories would do everything they could to stop them. They did not want to see the walls of Jerusalem rebuilt.

Nehemiah reached into the pouch beside him and pulled out a piece of parchment. As he handed the letter to the man on the black horse, the rider recognized Artaxerxes’ seal. Lifting it up to catch the remaining sunlight so that he could read, the man began to speak.

“To the governors of the province Beyond the River; to Sanballat the Horonite; to Tobiah the Ammonite; to Asaph the Keeper of the King’s Forest:

“My servant Nehemiah has served with much honor in my court as my cupbearer. He has asked me to allow him to return to the land of his ancestors to rebuild their city of Jerusalem. Because he has demonstrated nothing but great loyalty to me, I have granted him this request.”

The rider stopped reading out loud and studied the remainder in silence. Nehemiah continued to look at the man as the sunlight waned.

A minute later, the rider stopped reading the parchment. He had a disgusted, almost angry, look on his face.

“It appears you have done well for yourself in Artaxerxes’ court, Nehemiah. The King’s favor is upon you and this little project of yours. I hope you know that, because his favor is going to be the only favor you will get. Tobiah the Ammonite will grant you safe passage through his land, but you will get nothing else from him. And you will not get any help from Sanballat the Horonite either. Whether you have this letter or not, we do not want you Jews rebuilding Jerusalem. We will do everything we can to stop it from happening. We will wage war against you if it comes to it. Try to move one stone in place and we will attack.” The rider paused, shoving the letter back into Nehemiah’s open hand. “Go back to Artaxerxes, Nehemiah. We do not want you here. Your people do not even want you here.”

The Ammonite messenger, unhappy about the prospect of Jerusalem being rebuilt, picked up the reins of his black horse and pulled them to the side. The horse snorted as it reared its head back. The rider slapped the reins down and the horse bolted off in the direction the messenger came from. Nehemiah watched the man disappear over the horizon in a cloud of dust, taking the last of the red sun with him behind the skyline.

One of the men with Nehemiah turned to him in the fading light. “What will we do Nehemiah?”

“What will we do? We will arm the people building the walls! Jerusalem will be rebuilt. We have no need to fear pagan rulers and their threats. They worship powerless idols while we worship the true God.”

Nehemiah leaned forward, placing his hand at the base of the horse’s mane. He and the others moved forward, beginning their trek through the hostile land as they continued their journey to Jerusalem.

Unlocking ‘Inception’ (and a reference to 1999)

“You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”

Eames states these words in a conversation with Cobb as the two discuss the idea of inception – successfully planting an idea in a subject’s mind.   The characters, played by Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio, respectively, unlock the key to Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie, Inception, with this sentence.   The movie, unfortunately to some puzzling and not worth the time to figure out, is both complicated with its plot layers, yet at the same time more simple than we first realize.   Therein lies the beauty of the story.

In a way, it reminds me of the story of God and his creation: complicated layers of depth and meaning in its plot, yet very simple to understand in the theme that unlocks it.   But, just as in Inception, the simplicity needs the complexity and the complexity needs the simplicity in order to tell the story in the best way possible.   It is the only way to grasp the full and nuanced detail yet focused truth.

Granted, I finally saw the movie almost three years after it first came out; therefore this post might be a little late.   Oh well!   However, Inception is perhaps one of the best and most original stories out there.   The greatness of Inception is that the film does just that – inception – to the viewer’s mind, especially in light of the final scene.

There are two possibilities to explain the movie.   The first is that there was indeed a level of reality evidenced by Arthur, Ariadne, Eames, Saito, Yusuf, etc.   From this level of reality, the crew progressed into dreams in order to work in Fischer’s subconscious.   This understanding is more clear cut and easier to handle.   However, the problem with this idea is that, considered against the second possibility, this explanation renders the movie flat and without an extremely rich layer of storytelling, depth, and meaning.   If you are one who is happy and content with this idea, read no further.

The other possibility is that the only layer of reality was the relationship between Cobb and his wife, Mal.   Therefore, what we viewed throughout the entire movie was Cobb’s dream – a dream that ended up being at least five layers deep.   But here are the inevitable questions: why? and so what was the point of the movie then?   I point you to Eames’ words: “You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”   In a single word – inception.   The point of the movie: planting an idea in Cobbs’ mind. But even more masterful and genius in Nolan’s storytelling: planting an idea in the viewer’s mind.

In addition to other negative emotions from his wife’s death, Cobb was overcome by guilt, shame, anger, and depression.   Forgiveness – again, think of Eames’ statement – was being planted into Cobb’s mind so that healing could finally occur in his life.   The movie was not about Fischer and his father at all, but solely about Cobb’s healing.   This “simplest version of the idea” is present in the movie’s themes: forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.

In the story of God and his creation, of which humanity is a critical part, there is a word that encompasses forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.   It is the theme present throughout of all scripture.   It is both the “simplest version of the idea” and the key to unlocking scripture’s complexities and nuanced detail in order to find its focused truth.   This word is love.   More specifically, it is God’s love.   It is holy love.

The themes in Inception are demonstrated clearly with the forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing between Fischer and his father; however, this storyline is meant to illustrate and label these ideas so that we can apply them to what the story is actually about, Cobb’s overcoming of his own pain, anguish, and guilt.   Forgiveness and reconciliation are shown to Cobb – ‘incepted’ to Cobb if you will – so that he can finally see and apply these ideas as his own, and therefore be able to finally heal from his own trauma.

With this idea, the rest of the characters are projections of his own subconscious; his children, too, would be projections meant to symbolize the hope of healing in the story and the act of healing itself when he finally sees their faces.   It is a possibility that some of the characters, such as his father, could be the ones performing inception, though it is not critical to know who.    Moreover, the viewers see just how far his guilt is buried in his own being; he must go five layers deep in order to finally come face to face with his guilt and forgive himself. We also see the elaborate systems of protection that his subconscious has created in order to bury his source of pain, rather than confront it.

And while this understanding is a much richer understanding of both the complexity and simplicity of the story, the final scene is the pinnacle of Inception; the final scene is inception.   I asked myself – why would Nolan leave the end open in such a way that we do not know if the final scene was reality or a dream, with the top spinning in such a way where it could be either one?   The answer to this question shapes whether my first or second explanation is more plausible.

The answer is that it does not matter.   It is not supposed to matter.   Remember Eames’ words: “You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”   The simplest version of the idea is forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.   Although in my second explanation they are revealed in a much deeper and more profound way, these are themes that are present in both understandings!   So whether the movie ends in a dream or reality, Nolan’s point hinges on neither – “the simplest version of the idea” remains the same.

Herein lies the brilliance of Inception, a movie, where similar to our dreams, we thought we were going to escape for a few hours: Nolan is able to perform inception on those who viewed the movie.   The viewers ask the question of whether it was a dream or reality, eventually coming to a conclusion on what really happened, while the “simplest idea” of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing is planted within the viewers mind.

He quite literally spells out the answer to the last scene as soon as the movie is over.   Was it a dream or reality?   It does not matter; it is Inception.   It is incredible and genius storytelling.

However, the idea of inception existed long before Christopher Nolan was even born; it is an idea evident in God and his relationship to humanity, although not necessarily so subversive.   God gives us a choice in the matter.   Humanity was originally created to be together with God, operating in a perfect union with him and bound together in holy love to experience true life.   “The simplest version of the idea” was, and still is, love.   It was what gives people life, goodness, and an opportunity to participate in the kingdom and work of God.   In sinfulness and selfishness, though, humanity separated itself from a true understanding of life and love; as a result, we have death and all of its consequences.   We unfortunately see the effects of death all too often in our world.

But God is still there, calling to us everyday, attempting to plant a seed within us that there is something more to life than what appears on the surface; he is working to bring us back toward him.   For some, that seed takes hold and grows naturally; others might deny that seed.   But no matter who we are and whether or not we have denied the idea before, God is still calling to us with this “simplest version of the idea”: love.   It is up to us to accept it; in accepting it, we realize the forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing that Cobb experienced, but on a much deeper and cosmic level.   It does not matter how deep our guilt, shame, or depression is buried, or what walls we’ve built around it, God can and will break through if we allow him so that we may experience true life and love in God.   In communion with God, we return to the way we were created to be.

There was another movie released in 1999 which suggested ideas of a dreamworld and a harsh reality.   In The Matrix (yes – it’s already been 14 years!), when a person was unplugged, one realized the truth of what was happening; but the truth of reality was not as easy as living in the Matrix.   This may serve as a good warning to us: in choosing life in God, there will be times of difficulty when our faith will be stretched.   Christ warns us of this multiple times; nonetheless, there is truth, hope, and love in God.   We are no longer under the bondage and delusions that sin offers.   The truth is ultimately better than living in the Matrix.

God is calling us, each and every human being living on the planet, back to him.   His Spirit is planting seeds even in the most unknowing mind that might one day grow and mature.   God has extended grace to all the creation, evidenced by the work of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; it is a reality offered to each one of us with life in God through the Spirit and Christ.   It is an opportunity for true life and love and an opportunity to begin to break free from the constraints of sin and death.

It was not only the first inception, but it is the continuing inception at work in all people.   I pray that this “simplest version of the idea” might begin to take hold in each of us today!