Two More Paintings and Thoughts Behind Them

Gods army, christian soldiers

Army of God, by Scott Freeman, 20×30

Today I want to show you a couple of recent paintings, for a couple of reasons:
1) They’re not the sort of thing I usually do, or am known for doing, so I’m kind of curious as to what people will think of them.
2) It would be helpful to me if I could sell them as I’m waiting for responses on some large potential commissions.

From the National Day of Prayer, 2018
The first one was painted during a local National Day of Prayer event in Loveland, on May 3, 2018. I was invited by the organizers to paint during the entirety of the event, and the subject matter was left open to me.

I’ve (reluctantly) called the painting, The Army of God. I say “reluctantly” because for years I’ve been a bit uncomfortable with using war metaphor to describe the church of Jesus. I’m not uncomfortable with it because I disagree with the truth of the metaphor, I’m uncomfortable with it because of how I know it sounds to the ears of skeptics and critics of the church. Therefore, I never use war terminology with reference to the church unless I can explain that I am referring to spiritual warfare.

As followers of Jesus, our weapons, our armor, and our enemies are explicitly described as not physical in nature (Eph 6:10-18; 2 Cor 10:3-5). All of the physical terms and conditions of the former Mosaic Covenant have been fulfilled and translated into spiritual terms in the new covenant of Jesus. So there can be no justification for a Christian religious war. There can be no justification for human governments physically slaughtering their enemies in the name of Jesus. There can be no justification for human beings setting up a theocratic Christian state. Yet this all seems to be a continuing concern for secularists.

Many biblical metaphors are used to describe the church: a body, a family, an army, a bride. Those of us in the church understand them and are accustomed to using them. But I think we have an obligation to be clear to those outside of the church, especially when using the army metaphor, especially in the divisive, hysterical, irrational cultural climate in which we now find ourselves.

As a worship leader I wouldn’t even sing Onward Christian Soldiers without a disclaimer. To a Jewish or Muslim listener, for example, the first line of that song would sound like a perfect description of the Crusades, (which were biblically unjustified.)

So…having said all of that, calling this painting The Army of God underscores the point. It’s a picture of biblical, multi-ethnic community, planting and watering and praying. Jesus said that His kingdom is different from the kingdoms of the world in that His message comes, and His kingdom is spread, not by means of the sword but through the proclamation of His good news of restoration. Jesus said that gospel is like seed planted in the world.

This is a first stab at a painting I’ve been wanting to do for years. Years ago I was inspired by the story of several young Christian boys who were kidnapped by radical Islamists, and who refused to recant their faith in Jesus, even under torture. Eventually one of them escaped, minus a limb. I thought of the irony that this is the army of God; not composed of ruthless warriors but rather, courageous young boys in this case, willing to suffer harm and refusing to hate their captors, even praying for them, just as Jesus instructed.


parable of Jesus as sower

Sower, by Scott Freeman, 20×24″

Northern Colorado Worship and Prayer Event
The second painting has some similarities to the first and was painted at the last NOCO Worship & Prayer Night in May of 2018. These monthly events were envisioned to bring diverse church congregations together in worship. Everyone is welcome, and if you haven’t been to one, they’ll be starting up again in August. There is always live worship painting going on at these events, (usually including my lovely wife). You can stay posted at

This painting is a variation of an earlier oil painting of Jesus as a sower. In this smaller version His arms are outstretched in a sort of crucifix gesture. The seed is red, representing His blood, but particularly the blood of the martyrs, which has so often resulted in many coming to faith. (Since the news media so often fails to draw a distinction between murderers and martyrs, here I must clarify that a martyr is not someone who kills others for God and dies in the process. A martyr is someone who willingly suffers for God, even unto the point of death.)

A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me about the birds. In one sower parable, Jesus explains the birds this way: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil (one) comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart…” (Matt 13:19). This is the world we live in for now – goodness, redemption, and life always face spiritual opposition, even in addition to our own apathy and distractedness.

Both of these paintings are painted on canvas that I pre-textured, and both are painted with up-cycled latex paint. This not the type of painting that I have shown in galleries over the years, or, I assume, that my current gallery would be interested in. So here’s what I’d like for these unframed paintings if anyone is interested:

God’s Army, 20×30” – $300
Sower, 20×24” – $250

Since these paintings are medium size, I would like to charge shipping to the buyer as well. (I think shipping will come to around $30 in the US.) If you live in northern Colorado, (Loveland, FC, Windsor, Johnstown, -ish,) I would be happy to deliver these to you free of charge.

If you’d like to purchase one of these, contact me at .
Thanks again for your support! I’d love to hear your feedback on these – positive or negative.

My Top 5 Differences Between the Quran & the Bible

Opening Minds - Scott Freeman

If you’ve been following this blog for long, you know that I’m a great fan of the Bible. For me the Bible is like the North Star – a transcendent light around which all other constellations of light revolve. I contend that all of the problems in “Christianity,” both historically and in the present, stem not from following the Bible too closely, but from not following it closely enough.

I could cite many examples, but here’s a whopper: The Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was not a bunch of liberal theologians improving on the words of Jesus, or intentionally modifying the Bible. It was a bunch of people defying theocratic state power in order to return to a movement called Christianity that had fundamentally veered from its biblical roots and from the original message of Jesus. It was an (imperfect) step toward the restoration of a revolutionary movement of God.

That movement has always had its human leaders and martyrs, but the head of the movement has always been its resurrected leader, not innovators who would come later. The salvific work wrought by Jesus was supernatural and so fundamentally profound as to make any “improvements” on His work impossible. Therefore, the church’s departures from His course have always resulted in less than the best for the church and the world. At times it has resulted in inhumanities at complete odds with what Jesus taught. (More.)

How does this relate to Islam? Could Islam undergo a reformation similar to that which Christianity underwent? Many have wondered if such a reformation could be possible in Islam, especially in light of the recent inhumanities committed by the Islamic State (IS.)

Unfortunately for the world, (including Muslims,) it appears as if Islam has already had its reformation, and we are seeing its fruit. The word “radical” means “proceeding from the roots.” In the same way that radical Reformation Christians sought a return to the original teachings and vision of Jesus, so radical Muslims seek to return to the original teachings and vision of Muhammad. The problem is not in being radical and fundamental. The problem is being radical and fundamental about false teachings and a bad vision.

Is it wrong to radically follow a leader? That depends upon the leader:

Jesus lived a brief, celibate life of self-sacrifice. He was a healer and a teacher who summed up all of God’s commands in the command to love both God and people. He laid down His life for others.

Muhammad was a polygamist who consummated his marriage with his youngest bride when she was nine years of age. He was an illiterate warrior who fought in over 80 battles. He took the lives of others.

Several years ago, I realized that I needed to learn about Islam. I didn’t want to learn about Islam from the news media or from academicians since I already knew how rarely they get Christianity right. I figured that since they seldom get their home religion right, how likely is it that they would get a foreign religion right? So I bought a Quran. I also started dialoguing online with Muslims, to see if I was understanding things correctly.

It was very educational for me.

The Quran was given to Muhammad some 600 years after Jesus. The Quran repeatedly states that it confirms the Jewish and Christian scriptures that came before it (2:98; 5:44-48; 12:111.) However, in our literate culture this is a bizarre claim. It’s just weird. To cite what is perhaps the defining example, the Quran claims that God rescued Jesus from being crucified, (apparently because it would be wrong to let His prophet suffer such humiliation,) and instead put an imposter in the place of Jesus (4:157,158.) By contrast the Judeo-Christian scriptures repeatedly state it was God’s will for Jesus to die on behalf of the human race, as His means of reconciliation and salvation. The Koran calls the story of the crucifixion of Jesus a “monstrous falsehood.” This example alone shows there is simply no harmonizing the Bible and the Quran.

Beliefs dictate behavior. The differences between the Bible and the Quran touch on the most fundamental aspects of life, and the fruit of these differences can be seen in the actions of those who radically follow their respective holy scriptures. Below, I briefly list what I found to be 5 basic differences between the Bible and Quran. I refrain from making judgments, and simply describe what I found. For each point I include one representative verse from each book:


1 – The Nature of God (relational vs non-relational)
The Bible presents a Creator-God who is one in essence yet revealed in three persons. God’s triune nature implies that God has always existed in loving relationship and unity. Loving relationship existed eternally, before matter existed. As beings created in His image, we were made for relational unity and love as well. (More.)
“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24.)

The Quran considers God to be unknowable; we can know his will, but we cannot know Him. The idea that God could have a son is considered to be a “monstrous falsehood” (19:88.) It states that the falsehood of a triune Godhead would result in a power struggle (23:91.) The phrase “God is love” is necessarily absent from the Quran.
“So believe in God and His apostles and do not say: ‘Three.’ Forbear, and it shall be better for you. God is but one God. God forbid that He should have a son!” (4:171.)

2 – The Nature of Humanity (the basis for human worth)
The Bible states that human beings, both male and female, bear the image of God. It follows then that all human beings have intrinsic value regardless of distinction. Biblical apostolic teaching affirms that there is no male or female in Christ. Marriage was designed to be a complementary unity of equals, reflecting the Godhead (Gen 2:24; Matt 19:4-6.) The New Testament often states that God loved us, despite our fallen, sinful state, and that the sacrificial death of Jesus was the supreme expression of that love.
“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27.)

The Quran states that God created men superior to women. While it states that women shall have rights similar to men, it states that men have a status above women (2:228.) The Quran also gives instruction regarding child-brides who have not yet menstruated (65:4.) God’s love for humankind seems to be conditional – He loves those who do good, who are just, who fight for Him in battle array (61:4), etc. God does not love unbelievers (3:31-32, 30:43-45.) (More.)
“Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior over the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them, forsake them in beds apart, and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely God is high, supreme” (4:34.)

3 – The Nature of Salvation (life, heaven, and hell)
The Bible frames salvation relationally and holistically, in keeping with God’s relational nature. Ultimately, eternal life is relational unity with God, beginning in the present and continuing on into eternity. Salvation can only be a gift; un-earned (Eph 2:8,9.) There is a heaven, but the stated point is the presence of God and loving communion with God and His people. Conversely, “hell” is a place of separation from God (1 Thes 1:9.) Jesus spoke of an afterlife with an authority and clarity that hadn’t previously existed in ancient Judaism. He certainly warned about “hell” as a reality – at most around 50 mentions, directly or indirectly.
“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3.)

The Quran frames salvation primarily in terms of gaining paradise and escaping punishment. Salvation is earned by becoming Muslim and doing good deeds (22:49; 33:35.) The differences between the Bible’s and the Quran’s depiction of heaven and hell are substantial, but in reading the Quran what stood out to me most was the overwhelming emphasis on hell. By the second paragraph, and then again in the third, punishment is mentioned, and it never lets up throughout the rest of the book. In the 433 pages of my Quran there are nearly 500 references to hell, fire, punishment, and doom.
“Those that deny Our revelations we will burn in the fire. No sooner will their skins be consumed than We shall give them other skins, so that they may truly taste the scourge. Surely God is mighty and wise” (4:56.)

4 – The Nature of Faith (the basis for belief)
The Bible uniquely presents faith as relational, historical, and evidential. The God of the Bible never asks for blind obedience or irrational faith. Biblical faith is trusting in the proven character of a Creator who has taken pains to demonstrate His trustworthiness through acts in history and verifiable signs. The authors in the Bible, in both old and new testaments, continually refer to eyewitness accounts of historical events, citing times, places, events, genealogies, fulfilled prophecy, and other historical reference points to provide a basis for belief. (More.)
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you eternal life…” (1 John 1:1,2.)

The Quran often refers to itself as a guide from God. It could not refer to biblical events firsthand since it came hundreds of years after Jesus. Instead it repeatedly claims to confirm the Torah and the gospels. However, in the many instances where it refers to the Torah or the gospels it adds embellishments and/or flatly contradicts the biblical accounts. It does provide a test for its own authenticity in saying that if it had not come from God, then it would have many contradictions (4:82.)
“This Quran could not have been devised by any but God. It confirms what was revealed before it and fully explains the scriptures. It is beyond doubt from the Lord of the universe. If they say: ‘He invented it himself,’ say: Bring me one chapter like it. Call on whom you may besides God to help you, if what you say is true!” (10:37,38.)

5 – The Nature of Spiritual Life & Practice (written code vs Spirit)
The Bible presents the Holy Spirit as a person with a mind, will, & emotions – as God Himself. Jesus and His apostles teach spiritual rebirth and the indwelling of God’s Spirit within every believer. Thereafter we walk in the Spirit, rather than “according to the flesh.” In the new covenant of Jesus the old written Torah is not abolished; it is fulfilled and surpassed by something better – a “new life in the Spirit.” Paul specifically says we are given the Spirit because we have received “adoption as sons” in Jesus (Galatians 3:23-4:7.)
“But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6.)

The Quran also presents the Holy Spirit as a helping, strengthening entity, but not as God Himself. Apparently most Muslim scholars believe that the Holy Spirit is the angel Gabriel, (a spirit-being who is holy.) There is no indwelling of the Spirit as in the New Testament. There is no concept of God as Father in the Quran, and accordingly there is no adoption for us as his children. Muslim spiritual practice consists of obeying God by obeying what his messenger has revealed in the Quran.
“Had it been God’s will to adopt a son, He would have chosen whom He pleased out of His own creation. But God forbid! He is God, the One, the Almighty” (39:4.)

This has not been a critique of Islam. This has been a respectful comparison of what I have found the Bible and the Quran to say about topics that matter to me. If you are Muslim (or Christian) and you feel that I have misrepresented your holy scriptures in any way, I welcome you to offer correction in the comments below. To all others I would urge reading these sources for yourself to verify the accuracy of what I have written. May God reveal Himself more clearly to us all.

On a lighter note:
If you haven’t already done so, please check out my newly released kid’s storybook:

Religious Freedom & Hobby Lobby: Who Is Imposing What on Whom?

Hobby Lobby Religious Freedom
Hobby Lobby is a privately owned, for-profit, arts and crafts business that has always provided contraceptive coverage in its insurance plan for employees. It continues to do so. However, the owners of Hobby Lobby objected to ACA (Obamacare) requirements that they cover four contraceptive options which may act as abortifacients. Complying in this manner would violate the owners’ sanctity-of-human-life beliefs, which are rooted in their biblical worldview. Hobby Lobby initially was denied a preliminary injunction from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. When Hobby Lobby was eventually granted a preliminary injunction, the government appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Without the Supreme Court’s recent intervention, Hobby Lobby would’ve been subject to fines of $1.3 million per freaking day.

On June 30, 2014, the Supreme Court announced its decision that the US government cannot force Hobby Lobby to pay for contraceptive coverage that violates the owners’ sincerely held religious beliefs. The Court ruled in accordance with the bi-partisan Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. This was primarily a religious freedom case, not a contraception case.

The Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision brought into the spotlight a reality that will not be going away anytime soon: In “secular” American culture, there is going to be an inevitable clash with religious freedom around the issues of abortion and human sexuality, because, embarrassing as it is to secularists, America is still the most religious developed nation in the world. Secular and religious worldviews will continue to collide.

I’ve argued here that the best we can hope for in America is freedom and pluralism. Creating a homogenous utopia always comes at too high a price. We must all put on our big boy pants and accept that we’re not all going to agree with each other, even on life’s most fundamental issues. Issues like the sanctity of human life and human sexuality. It’s okay if we disagree, so long as we respectfully allow other viewpoints to co-exist alongside ours. The deal-breaker is when either the Right OR the Left attempts to use government to force compliance on such fundamental issues. Everyone is free to ignore the Church. None of us are free to ignore the State, and everyone must recognize that government necessarily always entails force. This is what the Hobby Lobby case was about.

It’s simply not a question of whether you think you are right, or whether you think your view is the most fair and compassionate, or whether you think your political opponents arguments are stupid or misinformed. I’m pretty sure we all think something like that, or else we would change our opinions. The point is that we must never allow one side to take the step of violating by force, the civil rights and autonomy of those with whom it disagrees. The Supreme Court essentially ruled that this was, in effect, what the Obama administration (Sebelius/Burwell) was attempting to do in the case of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties.

In their decision, the Justices referred to the *Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Court ruled that the US Government could find a less restrictive means of accomplishing its interest in the matter, which is precisely what the RFRA requires. In the midst of all the hysterical, vitriolic, and often flat out dishonest media reaction I’ve heard around the Hobby Lobby decision, I heard precious little reference to the RFRA. I thought it would be helpful to address some typical objections in light of the RFRA:

Objection: Hobby Lobby is forcing their religious views on women…denying women access to birth control coverage…waging a war on women…carrying out a thinly disguised anti-woman agenda…imposing something on women…hating women, etc.

Such statements, honestly, are baffling to me. The only party having something forcibly imposed on it in this situation was Hobby Lobby. The choices were: abandon your reasonable foundational beliefs, or else pay $1.3 million a day until you either comply or go out of business.

In America, when an employer and an employee wish to enter into a consensual, contractual agreement, each party agrees to provide something for the other. If the prospective employee doesn’t like the benefit package for whatever reason, she is free to walk away. An Employer refusing to pay for something is not the same thing as banning it, or denying access to it.

I couldn’t find the numbers on this, but I’m pretty sure that if there were ever a business that caters mostly to women, it’s Hobby Lobby. From what I can see, their workforce is mostly women as well. I would be very surprised to learn that the Green family hates women. Until I see some rational reason to believe they do, I’m going to assume they are grateful to women for making their business a success.

Objection: What’s next, if “religious” people can pick and choose which laws they want to obey? Now anyone will be able to use “religious freedom” as a pretext for not obeying the law…Pandora’s box…minefield, etc.

The RFRA squarely addresses this concern. It begins:

The framers of the Constitution, recognizing free exercise of religion as an unalienable right, secured its protection in the First Amendment to the Constitution…”

However, the RFRA was designed to strike a balance between this inalienable right of the people and the interests of government. The law states that, in general, “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability,” but then it provides an exception:

Government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person-

  • is in the furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
  • is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
    (See the RFRA in its entirety here.)

So, if a person’s religion requires them to not pay taxes, or to own slaves, or to conduct weekly human sacrifices, the Court will almost certainly find that government is justified in burdening those religious practices. (Here’s a great article on the RFRA)

Senator Ted Kennedy, together with Senator Orrin Hatch, led the bipartisan passage of the RFRA in the Senate (97-3.) The House unanimously passed it. Kennedy claimed that, under the RFRA, “not every free exercise claim will prevail.” The RFRA does not predetermine the outcome of any religious liberty claim.

Objection: The 4 contraceptives in question are not abortifacients.

1) Depending upon how one defines pregnancy, they may indeed act as abortifacients. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties chose to err on the side of not being a party to ending a developing human life, as is their right.

2) This objection is irrelevant anyway. Even if a company were religiously opposed to covering any birth control whatsoever, (which is not true of HL,) the RFRA still requires the government to “strike a sensible balance between religious liberty and competing prior governmental interests.”

 Objection: With this decision, America is heading toward a Christian theocracy…the end of the world as we know it…back to the Inquisition, etc…

 A guy seriously tried to argue this with me.

No. Just because the Supreme Court recognized that it’s illegal for a liberal administration to use governmental power to force conservatives to behave like liberals does not mean we are heading toward a theocracy. It means we’re heading back toward freedom. Anyway, it’s also unconstitutional for the American government to have a state church, so no, there will be no theocracy. Plus nobody wants one. Especially Christians. My guess is that such hysterical statements stem from the Left’s tendency to conflate Christianity and Islam.

And speaking of not understanding religion…

 In her dissent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made this statement: “Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations.”

 With all due respect, she’s wrong. Her statement is certainly not true of the many faith-based universities, hospitals, and national and international relief organizations which shape the world we live in. One could even argue that her statement isn’t even true of many churches! Religious belief, at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, provides a motivating, transcendent basis for valuing, loving, and helping all human beings, regardless of distinction. Such organizations do not screen refugees, earthquake victims, and starving people to make sure they “subscribe to the same religious faith” before serving them. In fact many “religious organizations” intentionally seek out people groups of other faiths to do good to them.

 Her statement mirrors the Obama administrations arbitrary (and incorrect) definitions of what religious organizations are, and what they do. Administration attorneys have been arguing in court that religious people give up any claim to a right of religious liberty when they choose to start a for-profit company.

Think about that.

Can the free market not sort most of this out? Do we really need the heel of government coercing people of faith to abandon their fundamental beliefs before they can incorporate a business? As if a secularist worldview is somehow less biased than a religious worldview. And anyway, is it really a good idea to keep people who may be religiously motivated to not be self-focused, cut-throat, money-grabbing dirt bags out of the business world?

Bigotry is bigotry. Just because it’s liberal bigotry doesn’t make it good bigotry.
‘Just sayin.’

I’m reading between the lines just a bit here, but I’m getting the impression from the Left that it is content to let “religious people” exist, so long as they stay out of the public square, outside of government, outside of the sphere of public influence, and squirreled away in their own churches. In fact the “new atheism” explicitly encourages this.

If I may close by putting this idea into perspective, let’s make some comparisons:

Many Islamic nations claim to have “religious freedom.” This means they allow Christians to live among them, so long as they do not build (or repair) churches, “make converts,” or criticize Islam. Should a Muslim decide to “convert to Christianity,” the consequences can be quite severe for everyone involved.

Similarly, China, an atheist state, claims to have “religious freedom.” Christian churches are allowed to exist, but only if they are registered with and controlled by the government. They must stay out of the public square and outside of government. The assumption is that religion will eventually die out as the public becomes more enlightened.

I’d be interested in hearing from someone on the American Left as to how the Left’s perspective on religious liberty is substantially different from that of China, or even from theocratic Islamic nations. In your answer, please tell me why you feel more threatened by the (non-compulsory) Church, than by the (compulsory) State. I’m genuinely curious.

About the Term “Christian,” & Being “Spiritual, Not Religious.”

 Religion blg

Since my teen years I’ve been fascinated with the question of how much of the Christianity that I grew up with is really American or Western culture, and therefore dispensable. It’s been a fascinating journey. Initially, I thought another way to ask the question was, “What is true, biblical Christianity?” But I eventually realized that the idea of a religion called Christianity had to go on the table as well, since the Christian religion as developed by the Roman church and its Ecumenical Councils departed from the Bible very early in church history (see example.)

For me, the Bible is my ultimate authority and arbiter in these questions. When all is said and done, if God hasn’t spoken to us, then we have no hope at all of escaping subjectivism and relativism. If there is an eternal, objective, invisible spiritual reality, our finite minds and short earthly experiences alone are hopelessly blind to see and understand it. But why the Bible, rather than some other scripture? I contend that biblical revelation and biblical faith are unique in the world. Throughout history our Creator has taken pains to reveal and verify Himself to us, and to invite us to participate in His unfolding counterrevolution of truth and love (see example.) Throughout my years of holding to this view I’ve found great joy and meaning, and I still haven’t found a downside. However, I do see nasty consequences for creating one’s own reality.

I recently had a respectful exchange with Eric Hyde, who authors, “Eric Hyde’s Blog –  Journey Through Orthodox Christianity.” Eric’s blog often seeks to argue for the validity of the ancient, Eastern Orthodox religion, which apparently is enjoying a resurgence among young people today. Beginning with the first Ecumenical Council of Nicea under Constantine, the Roman Church has convened a total of 21 Councils, which are considered by the Catholic Church to be binding, and as authoritative as scripture. Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism split in 1054 AD. Eastern Orthodoxy holds only the first 7 of the Ecumenical Councils to be authoritative. (For example, Eastern Orthodox priests can marry, and the church does not recognize the primacy of the Pope.) A key point for this post, however, is that both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy consider themselves to be the true inheritors of the original church going all the way back to the apostles of Jesus.

By contrast, I contend that God’s revelation in the Judeo-Christian scriptures alone is sufficient and authoritative, and is the only lineage that is essential. Beyond the Bible, church tradition may be interesting, and sometimes even helpful, but the world would be a better place today if “the Church” had always held the Bible above church tradition. I challenge my skeptical readers to name any evil perpetrated on the world by “the Church,” and I believe the cause can be traced to a departure from the teaching of Jesus and His chosen apostles.

A skeptic might argue that the Bible presents its very own subjective, provincial, chauvinistic sub-culture. This arguably may be true of the Mosaic Covenant in the Tanakh, but this leads to my point. Jesus brought a new possibility. Part of the beauty of the New Covenant of Jesus is that it does not, (or at least it should not,) rely on external enforcement of a written code (Ro 7:1-6,) and is open to everyone. Jesus brought the possibility of an internal change through spiritual rebirth, and a “new life in the Spirit” that transcends human cultures (Gal 5:22; Ro 13:8-10.) In fact Jesus established the beginnings of a new transcendent culture called the kingdom of God.

Below is my discussion with Eric,  which I believe helps to illustrate how this thinking works. For some context, first comes an excerpt from his blog post, “I’m Spiritual, Not Religious.” (The entire post is worth reading.) Then our dialogue follows:

…I have found the phrase, “I am spiritual, not religious,” and its redheaded stepchild, “I follow Jesus, not tradition,” to be manifestations of spiritual pride, not spiritual enlightenment. These phrases are almost always accompanied by a corresponding lifestyle where the rules are made up as you go and all things are ultimately justifiable in the light of “personal revelation.” It is a world of Christianity where there is no human authority, save oneself; where millions of individual “popes” abound, but the Church is nonexistent; it’s essentially a personal religious-potpourri not unlike New Age adherence, with slightly different language.
To claim to be spiritual and not religious is like claiming to have taken a swim without getting wet…”
SCOTT: Hey Eric, I like the general thrust of what you say, but I don’t get why you lump “I follow Jesus” in with “religious” and “spiritual”. I don’t refer to myself as a Christian because it has become a meaningless term, whereas “follower of Jesus” is descriptive. We don’t have to wonder what it means. It precludes
“a corresponding lifestyle where the rules are made up as you go and all things are ultimately justifiable in the light of ‘personal revelation.’…a world of Christianity where there is no human authority, save oneself; where millions of individual ‘popes’ abound, but the Church is nonexistent…”

ERIC HYDE: “I’m a follower of Jesus” is descriptive only if one is clear about which Jesus they follow. There are 1000′s of different Jesus’ available today in our spiritual stock exchange.

SCOTT: What 1000s of Jesus’? There is scant historical reference to Jesus outside of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, other than a few (later) “lost gospels”, and a few later “revelations” such as Islam & Mormonism, all of which contradict the canonical gospels and apostolic writings. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say there are 1000s of Christianities? Any religion which centers its theology around Jesus can rightly be called a Christian religion. This would include not only Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant religions, but also Mormonism & Jehovah’s Witnesses. Therefore, I say the heart of the matter is neither religion nor spirituality, but the person of Jesus as He is revealed in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. This Jesus never claimed to establish a new religion called Christianity. He claimed to establish the kingdom of God as prophesied by the Hebrew prophets who came before Him. If you can demonstrate from the scriptures that this was not his central message, then I will personally give you a back massage. [Author’s note: Eric started his post saying, “I wish I had a back massage for every time I’ve heard someone say ‘I’m spiritual, not religious.’”]

ERIC: I was raised Mormon. We were taught that Jesus was not a Person of the Divine Trinity but rather a literal offspring of Elohim, the Father God. This Jesus was the spiritual brother of Lucifer, later satan. He is our brother in a literal sense in that we too were literally conceived of by Elohim with his many wives in heaven. And Mormons also claim to believe in the Bible you and I both read.

Is this the Jesus you believe in?

This is only one example of the various Jesus’ on the market today.

SCOTT: Thanks Eric. I can’t imagine how you are keeping up with these replies. [Author’s note – Eric received quite a response from readers.]  Here’s my response in case you have the time:
This is my point – there aren’t that many possibilities; only the few that I mentioned. Of course I refer to the Jesus of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. To say I follow him is, in fact, descriptive. The Bible presents a linear, unfolding, harmonious revelation. The Jesus revealed therein is alive and well and knowable. The Jesus of Islam, Mormonism, & the Jehovah’s Witnesses re-interprets & contradicts the Bible with later “revelation” that is considered authoritative within those groups. But when I say I’m a follower of Jesus, it is assumed I’m referring to the Jesus of the Bible. Therefore this phrase has much more meaning and clarity than to say I’m a Christian.

ERIC: My point is a little more nuanced, and is difficult to explain briefly. But, in short, we all come to the text with our own set of ideas, opinions, social conditioning, etc (“presupposition” is a good single word to use here), that influence the way we understand who Jesus is. If you are familiar with the ancient heresy of Arianism, it was a belief that Jesus was created by the Father God. This caused enormous turmoil in the Church and divided it for many years. Arius made his argument strictly from Scripture, as did his Orthodox opponents. Eventually Orthodoxy won out and declared that Jesus was a Person within the divine Trinity and was “begotten” of God eternally. One understands Trinitarian theology due to the great Ecumenical councils, not because of a casual reading of Scripture. 
Whether or not Christ is a created being, if God is Trinity, if the Holy Spirit is God, etc, etc, are issues that can go either way if one does not have the luxury of holy tradition guiding him. I imagine that you have gravitated towards the orthodox rendering of the faith, but this is not happen-chance, it comes from a long line of reasoning within the Church. It only seems like a “no-duh” to us because we are so use to it.

SCOTT: Thanks for the thoughtful reply Eric. I’m open to being proven wrong here, but until then I will say that I absolutely disagree that:
1) Arius made his argument strictly from Scripture

) One understands Trinitarian theology due to the great Ecumenical councils

) …issues [that] can go either way if one does not have the luxury of holy tradition guiding him.

1-Arius wasn’t making his argument “strictly from scripture” because nowhere do the scriptures say that Jesus is a created being, and in many places it says He is divine.

2-It is the authority of the Judeo-Christian scriptures that reveals the triune nature of YHWH. The ecumenical councils were only codifying what had already been revealed in the Bible. To say that…

3-…these issues can go either way w/out tradition is false. You’re essentially saying that the councils created Truth if you think these issues could have gone either way. The councils functioned as a Supreme Court interpreting a constitution that was already written. But the constitution existed first, and is preeminent. Likewise, the Bishop’s interpretations are valid only insofar as they agree with God’s written revelation, which has ultimate authority. So Church tradition is of value, but even the early councils contain errors. It is the Word that judges tradition, not tradition that judges the Word.
[End of excerpt.]

I’m continually amazed at the genius of the Bible. Jesus and His message are as relevant today as ever, because we human beings still need to be made new by our Creator. We still need a Savior, despite human advancements in knowledge and technology. Human arrogance, greed, lust, abuse of power, and general human brokenness continue to turn our own advancements against us. If God has provided a perfect plan of salvation, then any human spiritual vision that adds to it or takes away from it – be it Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Islamic, New Age, or Universalist – will necessarily lead us down an imperfect path. This is not to say there can be nothing good on an imperfect path, only that our human innovations do not improve on God’s perfect provision for salvation and ultimate unity (Eph 1:7-10.)

Got religion? No, thanks – got Jesus.


Part 5: Five Things in the Bible that Once Embarrassed Me but that I Now Think are Freaking Profound


Thing #5 – The Ascension of Jesus
Here again, I’m amazed at how a belief that I once considered to be embarrassing has turned out to be an asset for everyone on the planet.

What was so embarrassing?
The story of the ascension just sounds so airy-fairy. Especially if you happen to be in an academic setting. You might as well say you believe Peter Pan is a historical figure. It sounds like a bedtime story: “…And then Jesus flew waaaay up into the clouds with the birds and butterflies while a band of angels and unicorns pranced gaily about on the earth below!” Maybe I’m making it worse than it is, but still…

You can read the actual account in Acts 1:1-11, but here are the key details:

  • After being publically crucified, Jesus is resurrected
  • He appears to His disciples for 40 days and talks to them about the kingdom of God
  • As they are looking on, He is “lifted up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight”
  • Two angelic messengers appear beside the disciples, saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”

Believe it or not, every one of these details turns out to be significant. Following are my top 3 reasons why the ascension matters.

1 – The ascension story makes it really difficult to be a fake Jesus.
It would be an understatement to say that Jesus has a great deal of influence. Not surprisingly, then, since Jesus left there is a long list of people who have claimed to be him. Many of their stories would be funny if they didn’t involve so many dead people. Some of the better known fake Jesuses have been:

  • Haile Selassie, former Ethiopian Emperor, died 1975 – Rastafarians consider him to be the second coming of Jesus. Some believe he is still alive. He was a reluctant and relatively harmless fake Jesus.
  • Jim Jones, Peoples Temple cult leader of poison Kool-aid fame, died 1978 – claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus and also Vladimir Lenin, (which is slightly more believable.)
  • Marshall Applewhite, Heaven’s Gate cult leader of Hale-Bopp comet fame, died 1997 – claimed to be Jesus 2 years before He and his followers committed mass suicide in order to rendezvous with a space ship hiding behind the comet.
  • Rev Sun Myung Moon, Unification Church cult leader of mass wedding ceremonies fame, died 2012 – believed by church members to be the second coming of Jesus. Moon believed his mission was to complete unfinished the work of Jesus, who, the first time around was unfortunately crucified before he could get married and create the perfect family.
  • The Jehovah’s Witness cult takes a more subtle approach, claiming that Jesus returned invisibly in 1914.

Think about it. No one alive today knows what Jesus looked like. So how do you know that Marshall Applewhite wasn’t the second coming of Jesus? Well, this is what happens when people go cherry picking through the Bible. Even if you personally do not believe a word of the Bible, and even if you think this whole business of Jesus coming back is a bunch of baloney, you have to admit that those of us who do believe the Bible have a pretty strong litmus test for recognizing the second coming of Jesus: If he doesn’t come out of the sky in a cloud, he’s not Jesus. Simple! How reassuring is that – for both believers and non-believers alike!

It looks as though the real Jesus anticipated all of this. If you couple the angel’s message in Acts with the earlier words of Jesus, you get an unmistakably supernatural picture. Concerning His own return, Jesus said:

“…Then if any one says to you, ‘Lo, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Lo, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Lo, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out; if they say, ‘Lo, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightening comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the son of man” (Mat 24:23-27).

It’s supposed to be a very big event.

2 – The ascension of Jesus argues against participation in wacky, bloody, apocalyptic religious movements.
I’m so happy that Jesus ascended. I just never have to wonder if Jesus wants me to pick up a gun and shoot somebody in the face for His glory. Or, let’s say, fly an airplane into a building full of infidels. (See previous post). Before His crucifixion Jesus made this clear statement:

“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (Jn 18:36).

Then after his resurrection, he literally, visibly leaves the planet. Thank you Jesus. This pretty much renders illegitimate any violent, theocratic dictatorship headed by government officials claiming divine guidance. We don’t have to wonder. Such guidance does not come from above. To American ears this sounds obvious as we are accustomed to living with a separation of church and state. But for most of history, in most of the world, this hasn’t been, and often still isn’t, so obvious.

It certainly isn’t obvious in the Muslim world. It wasn’t obvious for most of Christian history either. With the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, the Church of Jesus suffered the unintended consequences of being married to a political state. In uniting with human government, the Roman Church became an instrument of oppression, because government always entails force. Any religion or ideology that merges with any government will always tend to become coercive because, by definition, “government wields the sword.” Many of Christianity’s well-intentioned “church fathers”, including Chrysostem and Augustine, viewed the Roman Church as the kingdom of God on earth. This unbiblical viewpoint resulted in a lot of religious wars, and a lot of shed blood, supposedly in Jesus’ name.

But Jesus has left the building. Before leaving He made it clear to His followers that His two greatest commands are to love God, and to love people (Mt 22:36-40; Lk 12:28-31). He specifically commissioned His followers to non-violently spread the news of His kingdom, which is not of this world; even to suffer violence if necessary. Viewing the Bible as the internally consistent, ultimate authority on what Jesus taught, I have to conclude that even if a man has political power, and a shiny religious robe, and a jeweled pointy hat, if he contradicts what Jesus taught, then he’s not following Jesus.

3 – The ascension of Jesus shows concerns of an impending right wing theocracy to be hysterical nonsense.
In our current political setting, I have often heard that the religious right secretly plans to overthrow the American constitution and government, institute a theocracy based on Old Testament law, stone homosexuals, ban birth control and then force women to have babies, and implement who-knows-what other OT regressive measures that nobody wants. Over the years I’ve received political fundraising letters from the left that I wish I had saved, to show how goofy this accusation is. “New Atheist” Sam Harris is even worried that our elected officials might merely be praying and studying the Bible (The End of Faith, pg 47).

If you are also worried about this, or even if you wonder how widespread this desire for a Christian theocracy is among Christians, I have wonderful news for you today! If you wonder what is going on in all of those Bible-believing evangelical churches all across America every Sunday morning, I hope to set your mind at ease. I recommend that you simply visit a local, mainstream, evangelical church. You won’t hear anyone promoting theocracy during the sermon, so maybe afterwards you could ask around about when the secret theocracy planning meetings are held. (I’ve never done this, but I think you should). You will find instead that these people are busy raising their families, trying to make ends meet, serving the poor and homeless, raising money to support international aid and missions, and having Bible studies.

The Bible study part is really good news for you if you’re concerned about a Christian theocracy because there is no mandate for such a thing in the Bible. In fact, I’m sure it’s safe to say that most evangelicals think of “the American experiment” as a remarkably resilient and unique system of government based on Judeo-Christian concepts, (not laws), of which religious freedom is a cornerstone. All evangelicals I know love our constitution and Bill of Rights, and are primarily concerned with “progressive” political forces violating it. They want to preserve our free, constitutional republic, not overthrow it. I only say these things because I’ve pretty much attended church every week since 9 months before I was born, and now I regularly speak and perform at various churches, many of which are very theologically conservative, of the sort that you are told to be afraid of. I have never, ever, in my whole life, heard a sermon or conference speaker anywhere promote the idea of a theocracy.

The reason is simple: It’s an unbiblical idea.  Jesus has left the building, and He gave no instructions to set up a Christian government. You can relax. Even if you think the Bible is a made-up book of fairy tales, you can relax in the knowledge that crazies like me who do believe it are harmless little fuzz-balls who have been enabled and commanded by Jesus to love God and to love people. If some right wing leader ever does appear with a theocratic agenda, people who believe the Bible won’t follow him.

People who believe the Bible are your friend.

A final note
It is true that the Bible really does speak of something called the kingdom of God. In fact it is the main topic about which Jesus spoke, making it a topic dear to my heart. I will post on this topic the future, but, for purposes of this post I will summarize it this way: The kingdom of God is indeed present on the earth, but not in a political form within a geographical boundary. The kingdom is presently manifested on the earth within the collective body of all who follow Jesus and submit to His authority. The kingdom is not a metaphor – it truly is a government, of which Jesus is the head. Whenever you hear someone referring to Jesus as their Lord, this is what they are saying.

This kingdom crosses all national, political, economic, racial, church and denominational boundaries. Jesus said the kingdom is entered into through spiritual rebirth (Jn 3:3-7). In the kingdom there is no Jew or gentile, slave or free, or male and female; all are one in God’s Messiah; all enjoy a new relationship as sons and daughters in Him (Gal 3:26-4:7). The kingdom of God, the coming of which was predicted by the Hebrew prophets (Isa 9:6,7; Dan 2:36-45), was fulfilled partially, but definitely, at the time of Jesus’ first coming (Mat 12:28;16:28). It will only be brought to complete fulfillment at His return (Eph 1:9,10).

So, if you are an atheist or skeptic, this should tickle you pink. What could be more harmless? Basically you have a group of people who believe they have been commanded to love everyone, and to peacefully spread their message of love and unity in Jesus around the world. The world is a better place for this (example). There’s nothing political or coercive there. So long as Jesus never comes out of the sky in a cloud, you can chill, and blow the whole thing off as a joke!

Now…whoever you are, aren’t you glad that the Bible says that Jesus ascended into heaven?

Part 4: Five Things in the Bible that Once Embarrassed Me but that I Now Think are Freaking Profound


Thing #4 – God Commanding Violence in the Old Testament
This one was beyond embarrassing. This issue calls into question the biblical claim that God is loving and good.

Of course, as a kid I grew up with lovey-dovey Christianity, believing that Jesus was all about loving everybody. But at the secular art college where I studied painting, my seasoned, cynical, liberal arts professors reeeelly pressed this point of the supposed “two different Gods” presented in the Bible – the Old Testament God of vengeance vs the New Testament God of love. And the Old Testament God was not merely passive-aggressive, or theoretically OK with violence. At times He specifically commanded Israel to mercilessly slaughter even the women, children, and animals of Israel’s enemies Furthermore, Israel was initially the aggressor, with “God’s blessing,” wiping out people groups with the aim of occupying their land. On one hand, the OT presents the idea that YHWH is unique, and above all other gods, but His commands to Israel to slaughter her enemies suggests that He is no different from any other war-like, barbaric, us-vs-them god.

Furthermore, I hope we can all agree that “God wants me to kill these people” is horrible foreign policy for our world, yet we still have precisely this kind of reasoning guiding militant Islam today. How can Bible lovers like myself say this thinking was OK for ancient Israel but not for contemporary Islam?

In light of Israel’s role in the world as stated in the Bible, I see three reasons for God commanding violence:

1 – The “J”-word
If God conceived and created all of life, then He has ultimate authority, and we are accountable to Him. The Bible portrays all of humanity as lost and dying. With Abraham, God established the nation of Israel and explicitly stated that Israel’s role in the world was to be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14.) He promised a land to Abraham’s descendants at this time. Later, under Moses, God delivered His Torah (Law) to serve as a guide to His “witness people” and a witness to the surrounding nations (Deut 4:7,8.)

So…how does killing off the surrounding nations constitute being a light and a blessing?

Initially, the Torah states that God was using Israel as an instrument of His judgment against the inhabitants of the Promised Land. It says He withheld judgment against those inhabitants for 400 years “until their iniquity was complete” (Gen 15:15,16.) We are told the nature of their iniquity: rampant violence and murder, thievery, rape, prostitution, incest, bestiality, and child abuse including routine child burning in sacrifice to their false gods (Lev ch 18, specifically v 24, 25.) This describes a society, most of the inhabitants of which would be imprisoned or on death row in our legal system. This was a time before there was such a thing as spiritual re-birth, or even 12-step programs. The picture is of a society openly practicing evil (which always entails harming others,) liking it that way, and passing it on to their children. For example the story of Sodom says that the men of the city, “both young and old, to the last man” came out to gang rape Lot’s guests.

Justice is part of goodness and love. It is not good or loving to any party to let a playground bully have his way everyday with the other children on the playground. Good authority must step in to keep evil in check. It must also be remembered that Israel herself was not exempt from judgment. God promised to use the nations to visit the same judgment upon Israel should she turn from God’s covenant, as eventually happened.

If the idea of God using Israel to judge the surrounding nations is objectionable to you, I would sincerely like to hear your ideas as to what you think God should have done instead to keep violence and evil in check. (Call out the UN Peacekeeping Force?) Even today, the world’s peace loving and “enlightened” nations are sometimes forced to revert to warfare in order to keep greater evils in check. Ultimately the spiritually corrupt state of the human condition is the reason God sent a Savior. In part, the Torah was designed as a temporal agent to set a reasonable standard for Israel and the nations until the Messiah’s coming (Gal 3:23-25.) The whole batch of humanity was lost, and pretty much rotting from the inside out.

2 – Extreme intervention
Many Bible critics seem to assume that if God commands something anywhere in the Bible, then He must think it is categorically right and good. But we can easily see that this is not the case, neither in the Bible nor in the rest of life. For example when my children were toddlers, I absolutely did not allow them to cross the street by themselves. Now that they are grown, I expect them to.

Similarly, one can’t isolate a biblical command of God and claim that it represents God’s perfect ideal when the whole of the Bible claims that it does not. The Bible’s linear, progressive, unfolding revelation is consistent both with itself and with the world we know. If a skeptic’s argument ignores the whole, he forfeits his right to argue against the legitimacy of the Bible. His argument is simply reduced to “I really don’t like that part of the Bible.” To which I might reply, “I’m with you bro. I don’t like that part either. And apparently God didn’t like it either, seeing as He sent a Messiah.”

A benevolent doctor may prescribe chemotherapy for a cancer patient, even though chemo would be a terrible prescription for a healthy, cancer-free person. The benevolent doctor may even need to amputate a limb in order to save the larger body, though this would appear unspeakably cruel to an uninformed onlooker. However, it would be wrong to call the character of the doctor into question unless he goes around sadistically cutting limbs off of healthily functioning people.

Perhaps God viewed the cutting off of the depraved nations inhabiting the promised land as an amputation; an intervention necessary to spare the larger body of the human race, until such time as something better – true healing and guidance – could be brought into play. The cancer of sin threatened to bring judgment down upon all of humanity again, as with Noah’s flood. Eventually, God’s Messiah would come to deal with the sin issue once and for all. God would judge sin in the Messiah, and introduce the possibility of spiritual rebirth to humanity.

The Bible states that God is not categorically happy with slaughtering evil people. Several times He states that this is not His first choice: “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked should turn from his way and live…” (Ezek 33:11, see also 18:23 & 32.)

3 – Prefiguring better realities
Now comes a surprise. In a previous post I wrote of God’s vision for Jewish-gentile unity, and how the coming of the Messiah has made this possible. The apostle Paul writes of this unity in an often-overlooked passage in his letter to the Romans, chapter 15:8-12. Here he quotes prophetic passages from Moses, King David, and the prophets to make his case:

“For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised [the Jews] to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the gentiles might glorify God for His mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will praise thee among the gentiles, and sing to thy name’; [David – Ps 18:49]
And again it is said, ‘Rejoice, O gentiles, with his people’; [Moses – Deut 32:43]
And again, ‘Praise the Lord all gentiles, and let all the people praise Him’; [David – Ps 117:1]
And further Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse shall come, He who rises to rule the gentiles; in Him shall the gentiles hope.’” [Isaiah – 11:10]

Don’t these Old Testament quotations sound nice? They’re not. In what appears to be a feat of dishonest interpretive gymnastics, Paul cites one of the bloodiest Psalms of David as a prophetic statement on Jewish-gentile unity! Psalm 18:49 is, in fact, David thanking God for giving him victory over his gentile enemies. In other words, he killed them. This Psalm contains statements such as,

“I pursued my enemies and overtook them; and did not turn back till they were consumed. I thrust them through so that they were not able to rise; they fell under my feet…” and, “…I beat them fine as dust before the wind; I cast them out like the mire of the streets.” (v 37, 38, & 42)

Wow. What possible justification could Paul have for using the warrior-king’s exultations to speak of unity and friendship with the nations?

Well…exactly the same justification that he had to interpret every other aspect of the Mosaic Covenant as a foreshadowing of the new and better spiritual realities that arrived with the Messiah’s New Covenant. From top to bottom, every aspect of the Torah and the prophets has been (or will be) fulfilled in the Messiah, and is now translated into spiritual terms, according to the teaching of Jesus and His apostles. This is not some interpretive sleight of hand. This IS what all the Torah and the prophets pointed to and looked forward to. This is what all of creation and its Creator have been waiting for. It’s the historic coming of salvation and the kingdom of God, entering into our present, corrupt age. It comes with an invitation, with the aim of eventually unifying all things (Eph 1:9,10.)

Specifically, New Covenant teaching acknowledges a warfare, but says we no longer fight against flesh and blood. Neither are our armor and weaponry material (Eph 6:11-17.) We still invade nations on behalf of a kingdom, but we bring a message of love and salvation, never a sword. We do hope to see the inhabitants of all nations individually surrender to Israel’s God, but not as prisoners. We surrender to the Lordship of Jesus, becoming spiritual sons and daughters of our Creator, and co-heirs with believing Israel.

In keeping with this radical New Covenant way of thinking, Jesus says things like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies…” (Mt 5:43,44.) And we have apostolic teaching agreeing, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God…” (2 Cor 10:3-5.)

I don’t believe that King David had the slightest inkling that what He was writing had anything to do with an eventual New Covenant wherein God’s people would love their enemies. Nor did Moses have a clue that the feasts of Israel in Leviticus had anything to do with prefiguring the work of a Messiah who would come two millennia later. These prophets were immersed in the dispensation of the Old Covenant under which they lived, and what they wrote was in complete fidelity with that context. The fact that there is a precise, uncanny correspondence between the Old and New Covenants over a period of several millennia is due only to the genius of God.

Clearly, Mohammad also had no inkling of these things when he founded Islam, 600 years after Jesus established His New Covenant. Despite the Koran’s repeated claims that it supports the Gospels, it clearly does not. In fact the Koran contradicts all that Jesus accomplished, reverting back to physical terms and conditions similar to those of the old Mosaic Covenant, including the recognition and slaughter of Islam’s human enemies. Islam’s prophet was a warrior. There is no new covenant in the Koran.

In the teaching of Jesus and His apostles we see a revolutionary, seismic change that far transcends the time in which it was written. Specifically, in the New Covenant of Jesus we see the elimination of ethnic differences (no Jew or Greek,) status and economic differences (no slave or free,) and gender differences (no male or female.) Freaking revolutionary.

“For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus…” (Gal 3:27-28; also Col 3:9-11.)

(Thanks to Pastor Jonathan Williams for first pointing out the Romans 15 passage to me.)

Part 2: Five Things in the Bible that Once Embarrassed Me but that I Now Think are Freaking Profound

Thing 2 blg (2)

Thing #2: Adam & Eve
The creation story in Genesis is full of embarrassing things that a modern, educated, intelligent person is expected to run away from: Adam and Eve, Adam’s rib, the talking serpent, the magical tree…You simply can’t say you believe these stories are true and remain in good standing in a modern academic environment. Because academia has something much more modern and intelligent to believe. (Namely, the magical world of evolution, where life spontaneously springs from non-life, and the statistically impossible has accidentally occurred millions of times over to bring us to where we are today.)

To be an academic, one must be intelligent, literate, and capable of rigorous thought. Academia is an elite and exclusive enterprise, to which one must earn entry. By contrast, the stories in the Torah read like children’s stories: God caused Adam to sleep, and while he slept took one of his ribs and made it into a woman. Really? A rib? How insulting to intelligent people. What could be more ridiculous? (I mean, other than the idea that the first woman accidentally evolved from dead matter as a result of non-directed, mindless processes.) But why must the creation account read like a children’s story?

Well, one reason might be that our relational Creator has universal truth that He wants to communicate to “every tribe, tongue, and nation” of the world. God is not elitist. The stories in the Torah deliver content very effectively.  There are some 1 billion illiterate adults in the world – about a quarter of the earth’s adult population. I know missionaries who are sharing God’s truth through Bible stories right now, with illiterate people groups.

But does the fact that the Bible can be understood by uneducated people mean that the Bible is anti-intellectual? Not at all. One of the amazing things about the Bible is that it makes sense at a literal, story level, but at the same time there is spectacular depth for those who bother to search it out. Centuries of Rabbinic Jewish scholarship recorded in the vast literature of the Talmud attests to this, for example.

The Genesis creation account contains way too much profundity for a single blog post, so I want to share one, big idea from the creation story that ties into my previous post on the triune, relational nature of God. After you read this, you may never view life the same way because this is one of the most profound ideas in the universe!

Here it is: According to the Bible, our relational Creator defines life and death in relational terms.

Please bear in mind that, regardless of whether or not you consider this to be true, I’m simply presenting an internally consistent idea that runs throughout the whole of scripture.

What is death?
In the creation account we are first presented with our relational Creator’s understanding of death:

  • God places Adam in the garden, giving him responsibility over it, but instructs Adam not to eat the fruit of a particular tree, saying, “…for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen 2:17)
  • A very cunning creature tells Adam’s wife that, actually, God is essentially being selfish and arrogant, and is lying to them. He says, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4,5.)
  • So the first couple decides to eat the forbidden fruit. Then it later says that Adam lives to be 930 years old!

What’s the deal? The serpent is supposed to be evil, but it looks like he was the one speaking the truth! Not only did the man and woman come to know good and evil, they did not die that day. Furthermore, after this, God drives them out of the garden so that they can’t eat from a second tree, the tree of life, which apparently wasn’t even forbidden originally:

‘Then YHWH God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” – therefore YHWH God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man…’ (Gen 3:22-24.)

It appears as though God is afraid of human beings becoming wise and eternal, like Himself.

The key to the story has to do with relational unity from start to finish. The biblical concept of death has to do with separation. Conversely, life has to do with unity, both on a spiritual and a physical level. On a physical/biological level we may think of death as the cessation of biological function. But every known culture also understands that this entails a separation of the physical body from some non-material part of us.  Certainly the Bible teaches the existence of a non-material soul/spirit that is separated from the body at physical death.

So death is separation. But for human beings, physical death is merely the inevitable result of a more fundamental, spiritual separation. In all of creation, human beings are unique in that we are both physical and spiritual beings. We were designed to live in relational unity with the fountainhead of life – our Creator. When the first couple chose to disregard God’s will regarding the tree, relational unity was broken. This is the death of which God spoke when He said, “…for in the day you eat of it you shall die.” In separating themselves from the source of life, the first couple did in fact die a spiritual death. The physical death that later followed was an eventual consequence.

Contrary to the serpent’s words, eating the fruit did not make Adam and Eve more like God at all. It made them more like the serpent – relationally cut-off from their Creator, and facing evil they were unequipped and unable to successfully deal with.

Is this view of death simply one possible interpretation? Does the Bible speak explicitly of humans being physically alive while spiritually dead? Yes – this is exactly how our state is described:

  • “And you He made alive, when you were dead through your trespasses and sins…” (Eph 2:1; also 2:5.)
  • “And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all out transgressions…” (Col 2:13.)
  • “She who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives” (1 Tim 5:6.)

What is life?
If the Bible describes death in terms of relational separation from God, then we might reasonably expect the Bible to define life in terms of relational unity with God. This is exactly what we do see:

  • “This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou has sent” (Jn 17:3.) This is a key statement by Jesus, often overlooked. Here He defines eternal life – not as “living forever,” and not as “going to heaven.” He defines it in purely relational terms, while referencing His own relational unity with the Father (v 1,4,5.)
  • “For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son also to have life in Himself” (Jn 5:26.)
  • And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying , ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal 4:6.)
  • “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3.) It is this spiritual rebirth that reconnects us with our Creator, who is Spirit.

The problem of relational disunity is universally recognized. Every religion and ism that I can think of either seeks to bring about relational unity, or seeks to convince us that we are already one, and to live accordingly. But I contend that other religions and isms seek to accomplish unity by means of human effort, often by coercion. One can call to mind the efforts of Communism. Or Islam, which sees peace and unity as arriving only when the entire world is Muslim, and seeks to accomplish this through human effort.

Only the Judeo-Christian scriptures present relational restoration with God as impossible through human effort. Instead, Salvation is something God Himself has accomplished for us, which He then offers to us freely as a gift (Eph 2:8,9.) Once relational/spiritual unity is restored, we then do good out of love and gratitude, not to earn points. This is the opposite of religions which require good deeds and sacrifices in hopes of earning God’s favor.

A word about resurrection.
In keeping with the above teaching of Jesus and His apostles, resurrection, then, is not some random, fairy tale hope about people coming back to life. Resurrection is part of what salvation means for the whole person, as humans are meant to be spirit, soul, and body, in unity. Resurrection follows logically from restored relational unity with God as God reverses events that occurred at the fall in Genesis:

  • Adam immediately died spiritually when right relationship with God was broken. Physical deterioration, death, and decay eventually followed as a result.
  • Today, when right relationship with God is restored through spiritual rebirth in His Messiah, we are made eternally alive immediately. Physical resurrection with imperishable bodies will eventually follow as a result.

“For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written,
‘Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death where is your victory?
O death where is your sting?’” (1 Cor 15:53-55)

By His great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…(1 Pet 1:3)

Five Things in the Bible that Once Embarrassed Me but that I Now Think are Freaking Profound


Thing #1 – The Trinity
In a surprising number of conversations over the years, the doctrine of the Trinity has been painted as a liability for my worldview. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Muslims, Jews, some Messianic Jews, and atheists and Bible skeptics have all pointed to the doctrine of the Trinity as a dumb idea.

I suppose I grew up thinking that a New Testament Bible believer had to believe in the Trinity by default: clearly the Bible taught that there is only one God (monotheism,) yet He also clearly reveals Himself as 3 persons in the NT. So I felt stuck with this peculiar, “illogical” idea of a monotheistic God who is also 3 persons. But He’s still one God. But He’s 3 persons…It seemed more like an idea I was cornered into believing rather than a belief for which there was good reason. In fact, from other believers I often heard the excuse that the Trinity is a “mystery” that our finite minds can’t comprehend, or whatever.

In college, one of my professors in particular loved talking about the absurdity of Trinitarian belief because he thought it supported his contention that religious belief is irrational. He loved the explanation that the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery. “Of course it is,” he would say. “It’s a mystery” is what religious people say when their beliefs are irrational.

But I contend that biblical faith is rational (click here.) Furthermore, I now see that the biblical concept of a Triune God is one of the coolest ideas in the universe. It’s an idea that makes me happy every day. I would love to briefly tell you why.

But first let’s address a couple of commonly stated and easily dismissed criticisms:

Objection #1: The doctrine of the Trinity is illogical.
It’s not illogical. If I were to say, “God is one God, and three Gods,” that would be illogical. But the Trinity doctrine states, “God is one essence, and three persons.” One “what”, three “whos.” That’s not illogical, it’s just unique.

Objection #2: The word Trinity does not appear in the Bible.
I’m sorry for even taking up space with this, but Jehovah’s Witnesses have argued this so many times that I have to mention it. The words “totalitarianism,” “antiSemitism,” and “home brew also do not appear in the Bible, but we see these things described in the Bible nonetheless. It’s not incorrect to call them what they are. The fact that some theologians came up with a term to describe a concept presented in the Bible does not mean that the theologians made up the concept as well. They were simply labeling a biblical reality.

Now…onto the coolness.

The freaking profundity of God’s triune nature.
Here’s what I’m so excited about: The fact that YHWH is a trinity means that He is by nature relational, loving, and good.

Now you may be thinking, “Um…I think I’ve already heard that God is loving and good.” YES, but my point is that God’s triune nature is what makes it possible for a personal, eternal, preexistent God to BE loving and good. Allow me to explain each aspect separately:

YHWH is relational
The fact that the Judeo-Christian scriptures describe an uncreated Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existing as one God means that God pre-existed, in community, before there was a creation. This means that in His essential nature, God is and always has been relational. Is there any scriptural support for this idea? There is. Jesus spoke of the relationship He had with the Father before His incarnation (Jn 17:5,24; Jn 8:58; Gen 1:26.) He speaks of being loved by the Father (Jn 5:20; 17:23), being one with Him (Jn 8:19; 10:30; 17:21,22), submitting to Him (Jn 4:34; 5:19, 30), and being sent by Him (Jn 5:24,30; Jn 7: 28,29; Jn 8:42.)

By extension, since we bear the image of God, we are relational too.

YHWH is loving
Love has always existed, and God has always existed in loving relationship, even before there was a creation. His triune nature makes this possible.

It is helpful to compare contrasting monotheistic concepts of God: For example a preexistent God that is singular only, such as that described in Rabbinical Judaism or Islam, could only be potentially loving before creation existed. He would’ve been alone in His preexistence, having no object for His theoretical love. Love that is unexpressed is incomplete

In keeping with this, it is interesting that the New Testament explicitly states that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8.) We don’t find this statement in the Quran. The Quran says “God is loving,” as this would be possible once there was a creation – an object for divine love. But the God of Islam could not be loving in His preexistent nature, nor could he be relational. Nor does the Quran describe God this way, or suggest we can have a relationship with God. Islam is not about relationship; it’s about obeying God and hopefully getting rewarded.

But in keeping with the Judeo-Christian God’s relational nature, the whole point of God sending a Savior was to restore humanity’s broken relationship with God. After the coming of Jesus the apostle Paul teaches in graphic terms that the followers of Jesus now have a new relationship as sons and daughters of God (Gal 4:4-7.) This kind of thinking is generally offensive, even blasphemous, to Muslims. Certainly the idea that God could have a son is flatly rejected. The God of the Koran is unknowable. The God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures has made Himself known to us (Gal 4:8,9; Jn 1:18.)

Furthermore, God has designed the most fundamental of human relationships – the family – to reflect His triune, loving nature. Monogamous, heterosexual marriage is (or was at least intended by God to be) a reflection of the unity-in-diversity in love found in the Godhead. The Bible is explicit about this (cf Eph 5:31,32 & Jn 17:20-24.) At creation when marriage is first defined, the aim of the marriage relationship is something called “oneness” (Gen 2:24.) At every level the God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures envisions unity and loving relationship, freely chosen.

YHWH is good
Without going into elaborate detail here, allow me to posit the idea that part of the nature of “good” includes that which is self-sustaining and independent in and of itself.

Conversely, evil is merely a perversion of that which is good, and requires the existence of good in order to exist. So evil is always parasitic.

For example, the effectiveness of a lie depends upon a context where truth-telling is expected. If everyone always lied, lying would lose its meaning. Likewise, adultery can only exist where there is such a thing as marital sexual fidelity, and so on. Similarly, in the Bible, Satan is not an equal, evil counterpart to God. He is a fallen creature that was once good. Likewise demons are described as fallen spiritual beings (angels.)  Evil is innately inferior to good because it needs good in order to exist. By nature good is creative and life enhancing; evil is destructive and disrupts communion, bringing death.

So the preexistent nature of God means that He is necessarily good, because only that which is good can be complete in and of itself. God does not need us. He did not create us because He was lonely, or bored, or static, or had broken all of His other toys. Relationship, love, and good all existed in perfection in YHWH before there was a created physical reality. In creating us, God was apparently letting us in on the awesomeness of the possibility of loving relationship.

If you consider what the most fulfilling aspect of your life is, I would guess that it has to do with loving relationship. On the other hand, if you feel there is a gaping hole in your life, I would guess that what you feel is lacking has to do with loving relationship.

In keeping with this, recall the creation story. God looked at everything He had created and pronounced it “very good” (Gen 1:31.) With one exception. God looked at Adam and said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18.) Isn’t that interesting? Aloneness is not good. Even with God as his companion, Adam was a physical being and thus needed a physical complement to fully experience and express loving relationship. And in the terms described above, the human race could not be self-sustaining apart from such a relationship as the oneness in marriage would result in life.

In the same way, God has never been alone.

So the monotheistic concept of the Trinity, unique among the religions of the world, turns out not to be a liability after all. In fact, it makes possible and comprehensible the existence of a relational, loving and good God. Regardless of whether or not you believe the Judeo-Christian scriptures, it’s worth knowing that they are internally consistent, and that the real possibility exists that there is a good and loving Creator who invites you into relationship.

(Thanks to Pastor John Meyer for insights on God’s relational nature.)

I Vote That We Stop Forcing People to Do Things

I believe there is a self-evident principle that if someone doesn’t want something, and you try to shove it down their throat, it is highly likely they will spit it back in your face. I hope I’m not the only one who has noticed this, but I’m beginning to wonder.

I’m pretty sure that this is universally true for all shovers and shovees who have ever lived. Apparently it is human nature to both attempt to force our will on others, and, ironically, to resist having another’s will forced on us. I could spend the rest of the day giving historical examples, and so could you. But now that we’ve had the benefit of watching both the right and the left, both the religious and the non-religious, and both the reactionary and the progressive do both the shoving and the spitting, maybe it’s time we step back and embrace a better idea: Pluralism and Freedom. I get that everyone, both shovers and spitters, think they are right. But that’s just the point. When the tide shifts and the former spitters become the new shovers, the world remains just as unenlightened, and oppressive as it was before. That’s why we must maintain pluralism and freedom.

If you are a shover, even if you are right, even if what you are shoving is good for the other person, they’re still not going to accept it. Have you ever fed a baby? Same thing. Except that when it comes to shoving values and concepts down people’s throats, you’re not dealing with a little baby strapped to a high chair. In fact you might be dealing with a big, hairy, angry activist baby who is completely unrestrained. So this is a call for civility and respectful dialogue.

Pluralism blg

Since I have a foot in at least two very different subcultures, I want to clarify some recent statements I’ve made extolling the virtues of pluralism. Pluralism can be defined in various ways. For the purposes of this discussion I’m using a definition right out of the dictionary:

“A state of society in which members of a diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain an autonomous participation in and development of their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.”

Notice the ending phrase, “within the confines of a common civilization.” In a free and pluralistic nation, every subgroup, though free to exist, must embrace the overarching fundamental values of the nation. In the case of America, that would include the concept that God has endowed all people with certain inalienable rights, and that we are a nation governed by a constitution, not by rulers. If a subgroup were to come in and decide that everyone should be governed by, let’s say, Sharia Law under a theocracy, that would essentially promote revolution, not pluralism. Those people should go live somewhere else.

I agree with whoever said “America is more of a stew than a melting pot.” Groups and individuals need not lose their distinctive identities here so long as they can agree to allow others the same freedom, and accept the basic values of the nation. In our fallen, broken world, I contend that this is the best we can hope for in terms of societal structure. But in order for this to work, we all have agree that if and when our people get in power, they should not use that power to force everyone else to conform to their political views. Otherwise pluralism and freedom will come to an end. By now it should be understood that we don’t want government imposing a religion, a non-religion, or some other “ism” on the population. After all, what are the odds that a handful of politicians have gotten things figured out to the point that it’s a good idea for them to force people to comply with their personal views, and to punish those who don’t? Yet here we are again, watching it happen.

The cool thing about pluralism is that it’s like the equivalent of a free market, but with ideas. Even stupid ideas should be allowed to be put out there. If an idea is truly bad, people ultimately won’t buy it. So even racists and holocaust-deniers should be free to express their views. Because their views can then to be shown to be horrendous. But the great thing about pluralism is, it also allows the possibility that there are good ideas that may seem stupid, but which are actually merely unfashionable. Pluralism allows the opportunity for those ideas to be examined, and tested, and to potentially gain traction if they are deserving.

This can be seen clearly in the area of religious belief. Religious belief has been intellectually unfashionable for well over a century now. Since Voltaire (1695-1778,) scholars and really smart academic people have repeatedly predicted the extinction of religion. This has become known as the secularization thesis. It goes something like this: “Belief in God will inevitably die out as the human mind is emancipated by modernization and scientific enlightenment.” It’s inevitable. Except that, whoopsie, the fashionable academic atheist’s predictions have exactly not come to pass. Religion is exploding all over the planet, even in modern and enlightened countries, in both open and closed countries, much to the consternation of the smart people.

We can talk about whose fault this is, but it certainly hasn’t been for lack of atheist governments trying to force atheism on their populations. As in the former USSR. Or in China today. When Mao Zedong came to power in 1949 there were an estimated 700,000 Christians in China. Under Mao it was widely assumed that China would become a leading example of a fully secularized, postreligious society. But today the Chinese government logs 16 million members in the official, registered church (the TSPM.) However, it is well known that tens of thousands of illegal, unregistered house churches exist throughout China as well. No one knows the precise number of Chinese in these churches because the government will not allow foreign survey companies to ask questions about religion, but the best estimates are at least 70 million.

While China is very diverse culturally, it is not a pluralistic nation where opposing ideas are free to compete in the public square. (For example, censored Chinese search engines do not acknowledge the government’s massacre of civilians in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.) The astonishing growth of Christianity has occurred against the wishes of the Chinese government, sometimes in the face violent suppression. One political lesson from this could be: If you try to shove something down people’s throats, you probably won’t get the result you hoped for.

Many nations have “anti-conversion” and “apostasy” laws. In these countries if you are born a Christian you are generally free to live as a Christian, but persuading others to become a Christian is a punishable offense. Many Islamic governments equate leaving Islam (apostasy) with treason, punishable by prison or even death, depending on the country. On top of being grossly arrogant and barbaric, this is just really bad marketing. Don’t laws like this make it appear that the majority religion is unable to stand up to criticism?

My point is that this business of shoving things down people’s throats never ends well.

I think it is beyond dispute that America’s pluralistic society and constitutional government were founded on Biblical concepts, but that doesn’t make America a Christian nation anymore than that makes it a Jewish nation. Our Judeo-Christian underpinnings simply form a superior basis for guaranteeing basic rights and freedom for everyone, regardless of belief. Underneath it all is the idea that, while humans are intrinsically valuable because they bear the image of God, we are also corrupt and thus can’t be trusted with power. This humbling idea fits perfectly with the structure of pluralism, freedom, and keeping the power of the church, the corporation, and especially the government in check. I say let’s all embrace the fact that we’re all the same in that none of us has it all figured out. Maybe those of us who disagree with each other can respectfully learn a thing or two from each other.

Until we do have it all figured out, I vote that we stop forcing people to do things.