My very good friends Rogier and Christine have responded to my post Kingdom of God: who, what, when, and how? with a number of pertinent questions. I have tried to answer all of them thoroughly, but the result is a rather long post. So if your name is not Rogier or Christine, you may want to skip it. In fact, when you see how long and abstruse it is, you may want to skip it even if your name is Rogier or Christine.
At the heart of Jesus’ preaching is the simple statement that “the kingdom of God is at hand”, to which an equally simple exhortation is attached: repent and believe this good news (Mk. 1:15). Simple? Perhaps not. We appear still to be remarkably confused about what Jesus meant. Is the kingdom present or future? Is it the same as the church? Is it bigger than the church? Is it all about miracles? Is this the social justice dimension that somehow fell out of evangelical theology? It’s not unusual to hear preachers say that they don’t really understand what the kingdom of God is, but they’re going to preach on it anyway…. That’s odd, surely?
I’m picking my way slowly through the beguiling, breezy woodland of Rob Bell’s Love Wins. But to be honest, so far I have been more interested in the trees than the wood. If you look at some of them close up, with the slightly obsessive eye of a botanist rather than the casual glance of a happy-go-lucky rambler, they don’t quite make sense. Push them, and they seem not to be securely rooted. Push hard enough and they sometimes fall over. To give an example….
The biblical story of Jesus is a very long one. It reaches back to the creation of all things; it concludes with the re-creation of all things and the symbolic presence of the Lamb in the glorious city of the creator God. If we superimpose on this already complicated biblical story the church’s highly theological account of who Jesus was, is and will be, then we have a biography of massive mythical and metaphysical proportions. But in order to understand the story of Jesus we have to start not with this glorious meta-biography but with the much more modest and limited historical narrative that we find in the Gospels—in Matthew, Mark and Luke in particular.
This verse was mentioned in a sermon on grace yesterday. Given our perspective on things we naturally read it as a statement either about a final judgment at the end of human history or about a personal judgment after we die. Because we have received grace through faith in Jesus Christ—and only because we have received grace through faith in Jesus Christ—we may have confidence when we stand before the throne of God’s judgment. Strictly speaking, what we’ve actually done does not enter into the equation. That is core evangelical teaching. Given John’s perspective on things, however, there may be a couple of flaws in this reading of the verse.
In a comment on my Hell, the unbiblical doctrine of post Steve makes two substantial criticisms of my general approach. The first is that it is a mistake to assume a continuity of words and concepts between the Old Testament and the New Testament:
The Old Testament was physically oriented, while the New Testament was spiritually oriented. The OT physical emphasis on the temple, priesthood, sacrifices, feasts, etc. Foreshadowed the NT spiritual realities of those things. Same words, different application.
The second is roughly that we get into all sorts of moral and theological difficulties if we extend the argument about “hell on earth” and try to interpret “violent and destructive events like wars, famines, and perhaps natural disasters” today as acts of divine judgment.
I was listening to a talk the other night by someone from church arguing for a literal six days creation. I think I heard somewhere in the course of his defence of the literal truthfulness of Genesis 1-11 a statement to the effect that we have a prophecy about the future salvation of humanity and defeat of satan through Jesus in Genesis 3:15.
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
Hermeneutics is the academic discipline that seeks to understand what goes on when a text is read and interpreted. Anthony Thiselton gives the following basic definition:
Hermeneutics explores how we read, understand, and handle texts, especially those written in another time or in a context of life different from our own. Biblical hermeneutics investigates more specifically how we read, understand, apply, and respond to biblical texts.
At the simplest level, therefore, hermeneutics examines the process of interpretation that goes on when a text is read; it explores what happens between text and reader.
One of the ways in which emerging theologies have attempted to correct the individualistic bias of much modern Reformed and evangelical theology has been to stress the cosmic dimension to salvation. So, for example, J.R. Woodward, whom I greatly regret having missed when he passed through Dubai last year, started off a recent post on the “key elements of personal salvation” with the words: “While the Good News of Jesus Christ is both personal and cosmic in nature….”
Now that much of the fuss over Rob Bell’s book has died down, and the spotlight of pre-emptive inquisition has shifted to Francis Chan’s as yet unpublished Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up, I have downloaded the Kindle edition of Love Wins and actually started reading it. To be honest, I was prompted by the remark of a good friend that whereas she found the writings of Tim Keller clear and concise, Rob Bell had her checking the indications for the medication she was taking to see if it might have affected her mind. That wound me up a bit. But we shall see. Maybe she’s right.
For now, I want to highlight this statement from chapter 1 and draw an important comparison with Paul’s argument against first century Israel in Romans 2…