Rob Bell, Resurrection and dogmatic continuity theology

A couple of blogs I read have highlighted this video on the Resurrection by Rob Bell.

One was extolling it as an example of fantastic communication skills. [I think this is a ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder’ sort of judgement. I wonder what’s your opinion of Bell’s style?]

Another on its excellent presentation of resurrection hope and the reality of life to come. It’s this bit I want to discuss. But first some positives:

He sure does capture the daring, extraordinary, paradigm-shifting and revolutionary Christian belief in the future fulfillment of God’s kingdom, resurrection and a new creation. And the challenge to believe Jesus’ own words that he is the resurrection and the life – that death is not the end, and to embrace the hope that Jesus offers in himself.

And he’s terrific on the discontinuity of death, violence, injustice, hatred. These things will have no place in the new creation; they do not ‘belong’ there and this is cause for rejoicing and hope.

And he’s absolutely right to insist that what we believe about the future profoundly and deeply should shape how we live in the present.

So please don’t read this as another Rob Bell bashing exercise.

But what caught my attention amid all the psychedelic special effects, was the strength of Bell’s continuity theology. Check it out from about 1.30 in. It goes something like this:

Resurrection means that God has not given up on ‘THIS WORLD’. This world is being restored and redeemed by God. So every act we do with ‘THIS BODY’ matters – every kind word, every good business transaction, every act of compassion, every kind word, every work of art – they all matter because ‘this world’ and ‘this body’ have a continuity into the future.

“They all belong and they will all go on in God’s good world. Nothing will be forgotten, nothing will be wasted and all has its place … Resurrection affirms this life and the next as a seamless reality embraced, graced and saved by God.”

Now pretty well all Christian eschatology has to involve some form of continuity and discontinuity between this present order and the one to come. 

But tying down just what continues and what does not is not as sure and certain as Bell makes out. He may be right. But he can’t be sure he’s right. No-one can.

The exact form of continuity between this world and the next is simply not explained in any detail in the Bible.

The promise of a bodily resurrection captures this. There is continuity in personhood and some form of an embodied existence. But there is also strong discontinuity – flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom  (1 Cor 15:50), it is a new type of ‘spiritual body’ fitted for life in a new order of existence. And Jesus makes clear that there is discontinuity in marriage for example.

So I question his view that ‘this body’ continues into the next world. It does not allow for a profound discontinuity that is there in Jesus and Paul alongside some form of continuity.

He also insists that ‘this world’ continues. I’m with him here. Some have interpreted 2 Peter 3:10-14 as suggesting this world will be completely destroyed and a new one made. But overall the biblical evidence points to a restoring of this world.

However, even here Bell makes too much of too little. He’s got a lot invested in a theology of strong continuity. Notice the ‘leap’ from saying God is redeeming and restoring this world to insisting dogmatically that every good thing done in this life will somehow continue into the new creation. ‘Nothing will be forgotten, nothing will be wasted’ he says.

What I’d like to know is how he can be so sure? It is not at all clear how or if all ‘good’ that is done in this life ‘continues’ into the next. He mentions works of art –  once you start asking questions it soon becomes apparent that we haven’t a clue what we’re talking about. ‘Which works of art will continue?’, ‘From what time periods and cultures?’ ‘What about art capturing the despair, sin, brokeness and injustice of this world? Will it also belong in the new creation to come?’

No, the thing that makes me most uneasy about the video is not Bell’s personal style or the big picture theology being presented – it’s his dogmatism on things on which there is no basis to be dogmatic; all given more ‘weight’ by the dramatic, insistent, highly professional and ‘prophetic’ tone of the production.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

A word from Marva on Easter Sunday

A couple of years ago I was privileged to meet and spend some time with Marva Dawn, and her husband Myron, when she came to Ireland to speak at an IBI Summer Institute.

Marva is a prolific author of wonderful books (and if you haven’t read any she’s well worth getting acquainted with). But more than this, she is a delightful, godly and gracious follower of Jesus who has a gift for teaching God’s Word with wisdom and insight, marked by her own considerable experiences of physical infirmity.

So I can think of no better way to mark this Easter Sunday than introducing Marva’s short video reflection (8 minutes) on the centrality of the cross and the victory of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.


For Our Salvation

On this Good Friday

One of the phrases in the Nicene Creed (AD381) reads that the Lord Jesus Christ …

for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures

Gnostic beliefs were in a deity that wanted to liberate souls from the evil material world.

Christian faith on the other hand says that God is the creator of that world, and ‘for our sake and for our salvation’, out of love, he entered that creation in the flesh.

Only the God-Man Jesus Christ could give eternal life and salvation as a gift.

On this Good Friday, more starkly than any other day, we are reminded of God’s self-giving involvement in this broken, sinful, physical world.

The incarnation leads to the one “through whom all things were made” to the real experience of suffering, death and burial.

In Christology class today we were looking at what some of the Early Church Fathers said about Jesus and his work on the cross ‘for our salvation’. We could do worse, this day, than to hear and reflect on their words and give thanks to God for the ‘wondrous cross’.

Irenaeus: God the Word restored Man in himself, his ancient handiwork, that he might bring death to sin, strip death of its power, and give life to man. AGAINST HERESIES 3.18.7

Athanasius: Our guilt was the cause of the descent of the Word, and our transgression called forth his loving kindness, so that he came to us, and the Lord was displayed among human beings. For we were the occasion of his embodiment, and for our salvation he went so far in his love for humankind as to be born to be displayed in a human body. ON THE INCARNATION 4.

 Gregory of Nazianzus: For who compelled him to be born at all, or to mount the cross? As I have said, he represents, in himself, our condition. It was we who were formerly forsaken and neglected, but we have now been brought near and saved by the sufferings of the impassible one.  ORATION 30.5

The Bible and the British Museum 2

Reconstruction of the Temple of Artemis

While wondering around the British Museum last week I went down into a display of excavations from Ephesus where there were some huge foundation stones from the Temple of Artemis, one of the wonders of the ancient world. In Acts 19:23-41 there is an extended account of a riot in Ephesus by the silversmiths, led by Demetrius, who believed (rightly) that Paul was threatening their livelihood with all his talk of the one true God.

Another important Bible related display is the Armana Letters: written in cuneiform on clay tablets by an Egyptian Pharoah from about 1400 B.C. which mention a group in Canaan called the ‘Hiparu’. Some have associated the ‘Hiparu’ with Hebrew and say it could refer to the people of Israel.

Armana Letter

Then there is the Nabonidus cylinder, written in cuneiform by a king of Babylon of that name in the 6th C BC. It mentions Belshazzar as his firstborn son. Before this find there had been doubts whether the Belshazzar of Daniel 5:1 existed since he wasn’t on the Babylonian king lists. Yet here he is. Was Daniel offered the ‘third place’ in the kingdom of Babylon because Nabonidus is the first and Belshazzar the second?

Nabonidus Cylinder

And in the background of the Genesis account is the Gilgamish Epic, perhaps the most famous of all the cuneiform tablets (this one from the 7th century B.C. found in Assyria). The similarity of this story to the Biblical account of the flood is striking. Floods and arks and all.

Gilgamesh Epic

And finally there is the CYRUS CYLINDER which records Cyrus’ taking of Babylon without a battle and allowing captives held there to return to their own home cities to rebuild their temples. This supports directly the biblical account of Ezra 1:1-3 which tells that Cyrus, King of Persia, in coalition with Darius, fulfilled the prediction of Jeremiah about the return of the Israelites to their own land. Jeremiah 25:12 (and Isaiah 44:28) said that after seventy years, God would raise up Cyrus, a Persian, to overthrow the Babylonians, to allow the Jews to return to their land to rebuild their temple.

Cyrus Cylinder

Vox Magazine online

Vox, a quarterly Christian magazine focused on the Republic of Ireland has reached its 10th edition.

It’s a real challenge to produce and sustain a magazine for a very small ‘market’ that successfully balances news, advertising, some serious content as well as reviews and listings. Significant progress has been made over the last 2 years by a committed team of volunteers.

And it has now also gone online here – which is quite an achievement. Reading it is a reminder of the breadth, diversity and life within the broad evangelical community in Ireland.

Keep going guys!

The Bible and the British Museum 1

The Great Court, British Museum

I was over in London last week and I had a couple of hours to spare. No better way to spend them than in the magnificent British Museum which houses the most fantastic collection of treasures looted collected from all around the world in the days when Britain assumed the natural right to cherry pick the best stuff lying around archaeological sites of the ancient world.

I had fun tracking down some of the Bible related displays. Here’s a taste of some of the Assyrian stuff:

The Black Obelisk of Shalmameser III, which among other panels, shows Jehu, successor of Omri, bowing and giving tribute to the victorious Assyrian king (c. 841BC). The inscription above the panel says, “Tribute of Jehu the Israelite–silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king [and] hunting spears I received.” This event is not mentioned in the Bible, but the date fits and it was customary that kings paid tribute to far more powerful neighbouring empires.

The Stele of Shalmaneser III, celebrating his military campaigns and naming King Ahab as part of a loose coalition of 12 kings opposed to Shalmaneser. This is the earliest artefact to mention an Israelite king.

A large relief of King Sargon, the Assyrian king in charge after Shalmaneser V at the time of the fall of Samaria and the destruction of the Northern Kingdom (2 Kings 17:3). In an inscription, Sargon boasts of capturing the city, deporting 27,290 prisoners to Assyria, and then populating it with other people. So while not mentioned by name in the Bible’s account of the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, (he is mentioned in Isaiah 20:1 as defeating the Philistines at Ashdod) Sargon was the king who oversaw its end. The descendents of this mixing of populations would be the Samaritans of Jesus’ day.

Two huge winged bulls from Sargon’s palace  – one of which has an inscription which mentions Hezekiah as paying tribute to Sargon. The Bible talks about Hezekiah’s father paying such tribute and his son many have continued this for a while before rebelling.

The most imposing Bible related artefact is the wall relief of Sennacharib’s siege of Lachish in 701BC (2 Kings18 and 19) when Hezekiah was king of Judah. (See also 2 Chronicles 32 and Isaiah 36-37.) This rejoices in the violent, warrior culture of the Assyrian Empire. You can see prisoners being lined up to come before the king, to give tribute, worship and/or be slain, as well as the big ‘siege engines’ built to scale the walls (reminded me of the orcs storming the walls of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers).

Upstairs you find Sennacharhib’s cylinder (or Taylor Prism). Here the king boasts that he conquered 46 cities in Judah and shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage.”

Sundays in Mark (54) Last Supper 2

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark. This week part two of the Last Supper in the Upper Room.

With Easter Sunday next week, there are few more appropriate texts to consider than the significance of the Last Supper.

Jesus does a remarkable thing by taking the bread and identifying it with his body to be broken, and the wine with his blood to be poured out for the many. These are deeply Christological words; Jesus attaching profound spiritual significance to his impending death. This is a deliberate and symbolic inauguration of a new Passover, this time centered around the Son of Man. As long hoped, God has ‘returned’ to his people to bring liberation and redemption.

I like this image: the distribution of the broken bread speaks of Jesus’ presence with the disciples. And so it anticipates the resurrection and speaks of his presence as Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper today.

In the Passover ritual,  the third cup of wine would have been taken by the leader of the household with these words:

“May the All Merciful One makes us worthy of the days of the Messiah and of the life of the world to come. He brings the salvation of his king. He shows covenant-faithfulness to his anointed, to David and to his seed forever. He makes peace in his heavenly places. May he secure peace for us and for all Israel. And say you, Amen.”

Jesus linking of his blood with the cup, connects his death to covenant sacrifice. His death will be violent. It speaks of a new covenant for the redeemed people of God. It will have a spiritual significance far beyond one man’s life.  It will be vicarious, ‘for the many’, bringing to mind texts like Is 53:12 and Mark 10:45 as well as new covenant hopes of Jeremiah 31:31-33.

This second word therefore, tells the disciples that the suffering and death of the Son of Man, rather than being a disastrous defeat, will establish a new order and will fulfil the saving purposes of God.

Verse 25 is significant: this new order is itself not permanent. As Christians re-enact this Last Supper, they therefore do so with joy and thanksgiving, but also in hope – looking forward to the return of the glorious Son of Man and the final establishment of the kingdom of God in all its fulness.

The Last Supper

17 When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. 18 While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me—one who is eating with me.”

19 They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely you don’t mean me?”

20 “It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me. 21 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”

22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”

23 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.

24 “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. 25 “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

26 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Which side of Christian ministry are you on?

I was over earlier this week in England for a Bible College/ theological institutions in the UK and Ireland shindig / get together / discussion / time of fellowship sort of thing in the lovely campus of All Nations Christian College. An excellent time.

At a meeting like this I’m reminded of the continual tension between what I’ll call SIDE A and SIDE B of Christian ministry.

SIDE A reflects an emphasis on ‘ministry’, ‘relationships’, ‘theological ideas’, ‘spiritual transformation’, ‘prayer’ and so on.

SIDE B, on the other hand, is associated with words like ‘management’, ‘buildings’, ‘funding’, ‘budgets’, ‘strategy’, ‘student-staff ratios’ and ‘efficiency’.

Here’s a proposal: most people in Christian ministry are there out of a passion and desire to do SIDE A sort of stuff: to love God and love others; to share and demonstrate the gospel, to care for those in need, to see lives turned around, to work for justice and so on. This is a kingdom of God sort of ministry vision that inspires people to follow Jesus wherever he leads.

This passion has led them to engage in theological training, often at significant cost in terms of time, career and money. Most of this training is focused on things like studying the Scriptures, learning theology in community, developing in the Christ-like character traits required for Christian service. In other words, more SIDE A sort of stuff.

But then, once actually ‘in’ Christian ministry, SIDE B suddenly intrudes, for, of course, they are two sides of the same coin and can’t be done in isolation.

The reality is that much church leadership involves stuff like organizing teams, minutes, meetings, employment law, fundraising, buildings, budgets, leases, office management, IT, setting vision etc.

And in theological education where I work, it is a huge luxury of a big specialized organization for lecturers to be ‘only teaching’, writing, speaking and engaging with students. SIDE B reality can’t be avoided if SIDE A is to happen at all. Therefore, in a smaller organization, a huge amount of time has to be given over to budgets, student numbers, viability, recruitment, staffing issues, buildings, fundraising, engaging with Govt policy, administration related to university validation, charity law, company law, Board management etc etc …

It’s a tension that I struggle with every day. How about you?

SIDE A stuff is what gets my heart and mind fired up – teaching people, discussing issues of deep personal significance, seeing students learn and grow and serve God in powerful ways, being in relationships within community.

Yet if SIDE B stuff isn’t done well all that primary stuff won’t happen. It’s essential.

Living in that tension is difficult.

Here are some observations and I’d love to hear what you think:

A lot of Christian organizations really struggle with the professional demands of SIDE B. The passion and training of the people running those organizations is mostly SIDE A. A few exceptionally gifted people are double-sided (I know I’m not – SIDE B stuff is hard work for me and I’d always rather be doing SIDE A stuff). Therefore Christian churches and organisations need to take SIDE B seriously and get SIDE B people into the right roles.

I suspect many Christian leaders find themselves spending a huge amount of time doing SIDE B sort of things for which they have had no real training. Do you agree with this?

Some respond by saying that training for Christian ministry should be radically re-orientated towards SIDE B stuff, arguing current models are hopelessly irrelevant and out of touch.  Yes, to some degree, but I’m generally resistant to this. SIDE B stuff is secondary. To prioritise it is to subvert the very heart of Christian ministry. It leads to the professionalization of ministry and pastors as CEOs. It leads to the marginalization of relationships, love, spiritual transformation and discipleship and ‘mechanises’ ministry into utilitarian models of ‘success’ and ‘failure’. Or am I being a naïve idealist here?

Is attempting to mould Christian ministry into a SIDE B shape to lose touch with the way of Jesus? Is a business model of ministry incompatible with the upside-down, kingdom of God way of ministry?  Or is this a false dichotomy?

A last observation: running a church or a Christian organization is a complicated task. Especially in tough economic times, the never-ending and often all-consuming demands of SIDE B can overwhelm the primary call of SIDE A.

Symptoms include: Pastors end up snatching a few minutes a week for prayer, visiting people or preparing to preach the Word of God. Lecturers in theological colleges become administrators meeting the bureaucratic demands of ‘educrats’, finding only a few spare moments to study, think, pray, write, and spend time with students. Process ends up before people.

I’d love to hear some ideas of how to keep SIDE B in its proper place of serving and enabling SIDE A.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Richard Bauckham to ‘speek’ in TCD

Prof Richard Bauckham, who’s appeared on this blog more than once related to Christology,  will be lecturing in Dublin tomorrow evening on a theme related to his award winning book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses which argued that the Gospels are based on the eyewitness testimony of those who knew Jesus.

Definitely worth going if you can – ’tis free too.

Further detail here. With need for a spell checker! 🙂

Here’s a 10 minute youtube taster

Can he do it?

Very soon 21 year old Rory McIlroy from my home town and home golf club of Holywood will tee it up in the final round of the Masters with a 4 shot lead. I can imagine the atmosphere in HGC. Many’s the game I played with his dad, Gerry, on club teams in days gone by.

Rory and I both have our names on the Ulster Boys Championship trophy – and after that all comparisons end!

I think he’s going to do it. Everything about his career so far has been astonishing. Winning the Masters at 21 would fit right in with what has gone before. He’s so good it would not even be a shock.

Go Rory!