I did a difficult funeral this week. According to the news, a man was found dead in his car, and I was approached to do the funeral. It got me thinking about nature of death. Why do humans die? What is the meaning of that? How is that connected to the meaning of life? How can one of the most fundamental realities of what it means to be human show something of the truth of the Christian faith?
That is what we are going to explore today.
Believe it or not, humans at a genetic level are programed to die.
Believe it or not, there are animals that are not programmed to age and die.
There are animals that are functional immortal. Many turtles don’t age. What they look like at teen-aged years, fully grown, is exactly how they stay. No turtle dies of old age. They just don’t age. Why aren’t we overrun with turtles? Turtles die from disease and from predators. That’s it.
Immortal Jelly fish, aptly named, when injured, tell themselves to reverse age. When a tentacle is bitten off, they revert back to undifferentiated polyp, the goop that they were when they were born, and from there re-mature fully healed. Not only do they not age past maturity, they actually reverse age at will. Amazing isn’t it?
Ocean flatworms have near limitless regenerative capacity. It’s the X-Men’s Wolverine of the ocean world. Remember that scene from that weird Disney movie Fantasia where Mickey Mouse uses magic to cause brooms to become alive and do his house chores? They get out of control, so he starts hacking them to pieces with an axe, only to find that each piece becomes another broom. That’s what flatworms can do. Cut up a flatworm into a dozen little pieces, and it does not die. It regenerates quickly into a dozen clones of that flatworm.
All these animals do not process what is called “senescence” (that is your word of the day), which is the genetic capacity to age.
That’s right, humans, as with most organisms on the planet, are genetically programmed to age and die. This does not make a lot of sense from a purely atheist-materialist point of view. People before they discovered senescence thought that our bodies just wear out like my 2002 Honda Civic is slowly wearing out. They rust; they wear down; they break.
But that rests on the faulty assumption that our bodies are machines. But we are fearfully and wonderfully made. We have somewhere around 37 trillion cells in our bodies. Our cells replenish themselves often. Intestine cells every 4 days; skin cells every few weeks; blood cells every few months. Our bodies are remarkably designed to regenerate itself, but oddly, it is not that these processes wear out against their will as we grow old. Our genes tell themselves to stop.
If physical life is all there is and life is just survival – and more than: that survival of the fittest – the idea that our bodies are designed to age means that humans are essentially a failed species. We could have had the genes of the immortal jellyfish, but we don’t. Too bad for us.
On the other end, consider the tiny organism call a “water bear.” They are only about a few millimeters big, but they are functionally un-killable. They are immune to cold. They can stand minus 270 degrees Celsius (which near absolute zero). It can withstand heat well over boiling point. It can survive in the vacuum of space. It can withstand 6 times more pressure than the bottom of the ocean. It can withstand a dose of radiation several hundred times the lethal dose for a human being.
Yet, water bears ever live past 30. Their bodies, which are otherwise impervious, are designed to stop at 30 years old. Unlike turtles that never die from old age, only from predators, water bears only die from old age, nothing else.
All of this is bring us deeper into the mystery of our own mortality. We were meant to be mortal. God wanted it that way.
“We must all die; we are like water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again.” (2 Sam. 14:14)
One of the vital ways we can witness the truth of Jesus Christ in our world is by showing how Christian faith makes sense out of the fundamental realities we face as humans. In other words, by looking to our faith, we learn to be more human. When we look to our mortality, a vital part of our humanity – it is as universal a fact as all of us needed to eat and breath – it is really only best understood be the standpoint of Christian faith.
We live in a world that no longer understands death. Because it no longer understands death, it no longer understands living either. Richard Baxter once said characterized the Christian life as the art of dying well. That is learning our mortality and living that reality out in grace, walking with Christ.
Many of us live unaware of our own mortality. The poet Emily Dickinson wrote about this in her famous poem:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
In moments where death is unexpected, someone close to us, that is when we are reminded that we are finite, mortal people. We don’t like this feeling. We assume we will live on indefinitely, which is of course, not the case.
So, lets do something bizarre this morning, and learn our mortality together.
1. Death as Limit
(a) If humans were created limited, a limited lifespan is good.
The notion that our lives come to an end is not in and of itself a bad thing. As the world was created, day turned to night. Each day ended. That was a good thing. Humans were created. We were created just as limited and finite as creation. Our lives, like the days of the week, were from the start limited.
This is important because there is no biological fact that links mortality to immortality. Plants and animals have been dying well before humans arrived on the scene, these we understand as innocent. God does not punish the leaves of a tree for making them turn and fall in autumn. Life is meant to be limited.
Immortality is found in God alone, this is why the narrative of Genesis chapter two places the Tree of Life alongside of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We don’t have immortality in and of ourselves, we never did. Immortality is our destiny, not our origin. God alone is immortal (1 Tim. 6:16).
In fact, this quest for immortality, any notion of immortality understood apart from God is highly dissuaded in Scripture. The serpent’s temptation was with the allure of immortality apart from God: “Surely you will not die!”
The mythology of the world around Israel is replete with heroes questing to find immortality for themselves by their great prowess whether the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh or the search for the Greek Ambrosia (the fruit that bestows divinity). What is all this but immortality by works, justification by works?
Israel rejected this. Humanity is created by God. We dare not assert ourselves as the Creator. So, the fact that our live have limits calls us deeper into dependence on the one who is unlimited. Our work presupposes God’s provision; our prayer presupposes God’s providence. We are dependent; God is absolute.
In fact, the limited age of humanity is seen as a means God uses to curb sin. As the demi-god-like Nephilim corrupted humanity, God restrains the life of humanity to 120 years (Gen. 6:3).
(b) Living forever in this life is never understood to be an ideal for God’s people.
Yet, we humans are still searching for it, not with religion as we would think of it, but with technology.
Even at the highest of the conception of a “good life” Israel shied away of thinking in terms of immortality. The biblical ideal for this life was a “ripe old age” or “full of day” where one walked with God. Job is granted life to 140 years (Job 42:17- that’s 20 years more than the limit, by the way).
There are efforts to cryogenically freeze individuals. Cryonics Institute charges just $28,000 (that cheaper than some funerals!) at time of death to cryogenically preserve a body, to be revived at some future date when it becomes possible.
Neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth believes we will be able to transfer the human mind to a computer by 2110. That kind of feels like a movie starring Johnny Depp. I wonder how that will end up?
Technology has become the god and religion of the modern world: we place our trust in it like cave-people placed their trust in statutes of gold.
It is not a good thing. One thinks of the fiction of Jonathan Swift. In his book Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver discovers strange fantastic world that teaches him profound moral truths. One place he stumbles upon has a group of individual that have discovered a fountain of immortality. Tempted to drink of it, he then surveys the group, realizing that many of them are unthinkably miserable, clinging to the quantity of their lifespan at the expense of all quality. At this point, Gulliver pours out his cup of immortal water and departs.
He concludes that a short and good life is better than an infinite one.
(c) The limited nature of our lives remind us that life is a gift.
If life is a gift, there is a gift giver. Reject the giver, and we will become increasingly unable to recognize all life as a gift.
This notion of the goodness of life is growing increasingly in doubt. We face a culture of death. As I said, in forgetting the meaning of death, we have forgotten the meaning of life.
If life is just survival and pleasure or achievement, than means a lot of our lives are not worth that much. We are seeing suicide at levels that should equate them with pandemic.
According to Statistic Canada, “In Canada, suicide accounts for 24 percent of all deaths among 15-24 year olds and 16 percent among 16-44 year olds. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadians between the ages of 10 and 24. Seventy-three percent of hospital admissions for attempted suicide are for people between the ages of 15 and 44.”
We are facing a pandemic of meaninglessness in life. Worse still, our government as not been diligent to combat this. Our church was one of many that sent petitions that protested the assisted suicide bill, pleaded that at any rate, there needs to be a clause for consciousness objectors in the medical establishment. The Trudeau government did not even allow for that.
Now, anyone that faces suicide, especially in cases of terminal illness, needs compassion and support, but I worry assisted suicide makes a judgment call on the “value” of life. In Holland, which has had euthanasia laws for a while now, reports that some doctors now have recommended suicide to people with mental illness because there conditions are “insufferable.”
Where do we draw the line here? I don’t think we can. Should we see people with exceptional needs as having a lower value than those that are fully able-bodied and able-mined. Is that where we see human value? Christians see human life in the image of God, created with inherent dignity, such that to living in fellowship with people with exceptional needs is a joy, not a burden.
I think these laws for assisted suicide are symptomatic of a growing awareness that apart from God, we don’t know how to understand all life as having value, even in time of pain and difficulty. We care for people because all life as value; we allow ourselves to be cared for (a difficult truth for us autonomous modern individuals) because we cherish the opportunity to live another moment alongside God and God’s children in this life.
Because we have forgotten the meaning of our mortality, how we are designed for something, someone, more, we have lost the ability to live.
2. Death as Sin
Life as merely limited is good, but we are fallen humans. We are all born into a world where sin has had its way. So, we cannot think about death apart from its tragic, fallen state. Why is death sad? It is because of sin. “The wages of sin is death” says Romans 6:23.
This is important. God is concerned with our bodily well being, but there are things more important than the mere physical: seeking the kingdom of heaven is more important that food and clothing says Jesus. The opposite of this pursuit is death, true death.
(a) Sin is understood as death worse that physical dead.
This goes right back to the Garden of Eden. Notice that the warning of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is that you will “surely die” but it is not like Adam and Eve died as soon as they ate it. What did they do? They felt the shame of being distant from God.
God comes down and tells them the consequences of their idolatry: men must toil, but inevitably they will return to the dust, women have lost their primal equality with men, and just as the toil of men remind them of their mortality (their inability to be immortal) so also the reproductive cycles of women (it is a truth that we are less aware of since birth has become so much safer now). Their physical mortality is seen in light of their shame and idolatry. You have tried to be your own gods? You will fail. That’s the consequences.
Like I said, there is nothing wrong with being finite, limited creatures, but when we try to surmount our place as creatures, the true death is to live apart from God. Often the Apostle Paul talks about being “dead in our sins” (ex. Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13). This is important, the Bible considers any moment of physical life lived apart from God to be true death.
In all of this, Adam and Eve lose relationship with God in the Garden, and are exiled. This is an archetypal way of saying we all lose our innocence when we turn from God. We are all born mortal; we are all born into sinful existence, but there is a point that Christ never underwent but we do, a point where we embrace that sin for ourselves, and that is the point when we embrace true death.
This is where physical death and spiritual death are connected. Since we all have fallen and turned from God, the limit of our lives is seen with fear. This fear comes from understanding the limit of our lives through our quest for own immortality (which we will fail at, as our mortality reminds) and through our own disobedience.
The funerals that I have done where the person was not a very good person, have been the most bitter. There is unresolved pain on the part of their loved ones, regret and resentment. Death becomes the terminal reminder of the unfixed brokenness of their relationships.
Understood apart for God, the end point of our lives is anguish. The presence of a loved one’s life is now absent, a vacuum of meaning, propelling all the bizarre emotions of grief. Grief is a weird thing. You can feel happiness over the joyful memories of a loved one’s life, then sadness over them not being around anymore. You can feel gratitude over the gift of their life, then anger and guilt over the “what if’s” of not cherishing them more. The weird thing about grief is that you can feel all these emotions all at once. If you have ever lost a loved one close to you, you know what I am talking about.
(b) It is because of this pain of death that all people, Christian or otherwise, see death as an obstacle.
This is important because from a purely materialist point of view, we humans die and that is it. It is a biological fact, and if science is the only way to see the world, it is a fact that we just need to accept. Why is it preferable to live versus no life if both are biological facts? Why does life have any more value than things that are inanimate? There is no ultimate answer in that scheme. Like Is said, it is only through the lens of faith that the bitterness of death even makes sense.
Christians see death as something that does not belong in this world ultimately. We are mortal, yes, but God wants to bring us into something more than that, after that. It is then that death is seen as an enemy, getting in the way of the fullness of life God wants for us:
The dead do not praise the Lord,
Nor do any that go down into silence.
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
Or your faithfulness in destruction?
Are you wonders known in the darkness
Or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
It is natural for all people, Christian or otherwise, to fear death, but for different reasons. Fear of death has driven humans to do wonderful and terrible things. Wonderful things like build civilizations, organizing ourselves to protect ourselves from disaster, invent medicine, develop structures that ensure common good and well-being, etc.
It has also caused us to do terrible things. We have tried to find immortality apart from God. Men have deified themselves through technology as I just said.
Here is a question: what if scientists do uncover the gene that stops senescence, that stops aging? What if they are able to procure immortality? Does that render what we are thinking about null and void? Does that make God unnecessary?
Sadly, I think some people look to God as their “fire insurance.” They love God not because of who he is, but what they can get out of him. God is the cosmic “get out of jail free card,” the divine equivalent of death insurance. If that is your reason for believing in God, then ya, that would be a crisis.
But consider the prayer of St. Teresa of Avila: “If there were no heaven I would still love you; and if there were no hell, I would still fear you.” In other words, Avila calls us to love God because God is God. We do not love our children for what we “get out of them,” we love because of the goodness of love.
Refusing to love God, for any moment, is death. It is death worse than physical death. The greatest tragedy is not our lives coming to an end (our lives were at some point meant to do that), but the true tragedy is any life spent apart from God. That is death right now.
This is important for us now: Do we know that true life is living every moment with God here and now?
On the flipside, are you ready to get rid of the death in your life, the things that your have been keep from God, the sin in your life, and commit it to God? Are you ready to walk with God in a new way today?
This bring us to my last point..,
3. Death as opportunity
(a) We need God to reveal himself as a God that is with us.
We remind people of this often iat funerals. They might like the idea that God saves us or that there is an afterlife, they probably assume that from their religious upbringing that they have fallen away from. So, I recall them to the need to stand on revelation. We know our loved ones are with God because of how he reveals himself. God reveals himself to be love that is present to us in all the darkness of life and death: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death you are with me!” says Psalm 23. David knew this because he walked with God. David also says in Psalm 139:
You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
In Jesus, God is with us in our sin and death. God became flesh, God took on our humanity, even our mortality. He was not born, immortal. That is important as well. Humans were always limited and mortal, even Adam before he fell. How do we know this? Because even the second Adam was mortal. He did this to show us true humanity in the face of mortality. God loves us in all the moments of life.
(b) Jesus has taken on the wages of sin to bring us life.
Jesus gladly bore the curse of the law, the consequences of sin to show that God’s will for us is mercy and grace. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).
As physical and spiritual death are connected, Christ gladly bore both at the cross. Whenever we think our lives are worthless, that we have done unforgivable things, that all we deserve is death, God tells us in Jesus Christ “I will gladly die your death to bring you life.” Thus we can say, as paul reminds us,
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
How do we know God loves us? Because he showed us that he would die for us. He loves us more than his very life. How do we know death is not the end? The Father rose Jesus from the grave.
The cross cannot be understood without the resurrection. Death has been defeated in Christ, because the Father raised up the messiah. In Jesus, something amazing has happened on Easter morning. God is present to us, even in our physical deaths, such that death has been disarmed. The cosmic nothingness of death was brought into the being of God and surmounted into the joy of new creation. Resurrection is the vindication of Christ’s life and death.
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
(c) This turns physical death into just another moment to walk with God
Do you know God is with you even in your darkest moments? Knowing this, walking with Jesus, knowing we have eternal life, reshapes our perspective on life such that we greet every moment as opportunism to walk with him.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life” says Jesus (John 14:6). Nothing else beside that is consider true living.
It is so important that Paul would even say, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Funny thing, I know a friend of mine in high school, who we went on to study together to be pastors. He put that as his quote in his high school yearbook. people were worried that he was suicidal.
That is not literally true, but metaphorically. In Christian life, we “die” to our old selves. “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus,” says Romans 6:11. We die to our sins in baptism, to start living resurrection life, eternal life now.
Every moment you are dying, but I a good way, when you choose to embrace new life in Christ. Paul uses this metaphor, because it is hard. Giving up the past is hard. You have to leave it behind. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” says John 12:24.
(d) Death, the fear of death no longer stops us from doing what is right.
Death was the weapon of fear, used by tyrants to keep people in line. Death was the cause of fear, propelling Israel to seek immortality in idolatry.
In Jesus, death became a path to righteousness and true life. Jesus used the instance of death as a way of being faithful to the Father. Jesus used the instance of the oppressive Romans executing him, the instance of the Jews abandoning him, to show a way greater than hate, violence, and despair. As the murdered him, he prayed for their forgiveness, non-violent, self-sacrificial love for his enemies.
This is a similar calling we must take up.
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matt. 16:24-26)
The great martyrs of our faith refused to see the fear of death as obstacle to witnessing for Christ. They became opportunities to be faithful no matter what. God gave his life for us, so how can be give anything less than our entire life for him? As the Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier (d. 1528) cried out as authorities burned him alive, “Truth is immortal.” He could have renounced his faith, trying to live on a little longer. Perhaps repent of that later, knowing Christ might forgive him. That would be to miss out, not on physical life, but true life: living completely with Christ, even to the point of the privilege – no other word will do – of bearing our own cross. This is the truth that is immortal. That is, knowing Christ and witnessing his truth, is worth far more than preserving our physical lives at the expense of faithfulness.
This is the truth that we must live. Whether we face physical illness, mental illness, disability, old age, or worse persecution and the threat of martyrdom. Living is for Christ and to die is gain.
Someone asked me whether I like doing weddings more than funerals as a joke. I said, that is not always the case. I funeral for a person who has walked with the Lord their whole life is actually really pretty. There life is so encouraging. It is a celebration of life.
For many people I know, death has already been defeated. They live joyously with the Lord such that whatever life brings them, including the end of life, is just another opportunity to love the Lord. It is here that the truth of the Scripture ring out
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Cor. 15:55)
(e) So, we live in hope for the restoration of all things.
The earliest statement of Christian hope is in Acts 3:21: the disciples await God to return to restore all things. All that has gone wrong in this world, God promises to be put right again and then some. That is the total victory of God over sin that the cross signifies.
God promises to mature this world beyond death, to restore it into the universe he wants it to be. One day, Revelation envisions,
Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Rev. 21:3-4).
Some doubt whether God will do this, but we know that the God that brought this world into creation, has the capacity to bring it into New Creation. The God that defeated death in the resurrection wants to do something like this with all life. But God does not want to make that happen by just snapping his fingers. He wants to use his children, his way (self-sacrificial love) to bring this world fulling into his kingdom.
So, the question now is how will you live out true life? How will you live out true hope?
May you know the goodness of every moment spent depending on God your Creator
May you know that in Christ, God has defeated sin, death and the devil
May you trust that now, living out the power of the resurrection out now, awaiting the restoration of all things.
Amen, go in peace.
I am a theology addict. I’ll admit it.
Since college, I have tried to read at least one systematic theology per year, and try to do so from as wide a spectrum as possible, while still trying my best to ground myself in my own Baptist tradition.
To date, I have read the following…
Non-Baptist: Emil Brunner, Robert Jenson, Jurgen Moltmann, Wolhart Pannenberg, Vladimir Lossky, David Bentley Hart, Daniel Migliore, Owen Thomas and Ellen Wondra, David Yeago, Alister McGrath,
Admittedly, I have gotten thought sizable chunks of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Karl Rahner, but I am not about to claim I know everything they say, since I got to finish reading them…one day.
Ana/Baptist: Walter Ruschenbusch, William Newton Clark, T. W. Connor, Edgar Mullins, Clark Pinnock, Stanley Grenz, James McClendon, C. Norman Kraus, Charles Ryrie, Wayne Grudem, and Dale Moody
I got asked the other day for a list of some of the best systematic theologies. Here is what I came up with:
The Best: The Top 10
Not necessarily in order of best to worst, I should point out. I tried to include a mix of constructive theologies and introductory theologies, because often you need an intro to get your feet wet before being able to appreciate the deeper stuff.
A good systematic theology presents all the major topic of theology: trinity, Christology, creation, atonement, church, sin, salvation, and eschatology. It does so summarizing the biblical and historical material, while proposing conceptual refinements to best state the doctrine today. A good theology is biblical, but not biblicist, historically-informed, but not a slave to traditional categories when they need revising. It does not bog one down in endless questions of method, but moves towards a constructive doctrine that equips the reading for living their faith out in church community. It is faithful to the past of Christian tradition and faithful to the future of our faith. A good theology in our day is ecumenically oriented, but still grounded in one tradition. A good theology does not replace the Bible; it aids in reading the Bible better, organizing it around central themes, namely Christ, the Trinity, and his kingdom and love. Theology can sound very technical and dry, but at the end of the day, a good theology is a rigorous pursuit of truth and a vigorous reckoning of what it means to follow Christ.
1. Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God
Grenz’s Beyond Foundationalism (co-authored with John Franke) and Reclaiming the Center recasted evangelical theology in a sophisticated centrist manner, sensitive to postmodern insights, robustly Trinitiarian, communitarian, and eschatologically-oriented. For many Grenz is the pinnacle of evangelical theology.
Grenz died tragically at the prime of his career (d. 2005), while he was writing his Contours of Christian Theology, two volumes in. Both books demonstrated him to be a leading theologian at the global level. His standard theological text, Theology for the Community of God, is an excellent introduction. Historically well-informed, exegetically sound, comprehensive in scope, and yet still constructive for a text meant as an seminary introductory text.
Grenz is probably my recommendation for the first theological text a seminary student should encounter. He covers all the topics well and that is what a seminary student needs. Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology is more comprehensive, but less constructive (it feels like you are reading a giant glossary at times). Daniel Migliore’s Faith Seeking Understanding would be my other choice. For something more succinct, so less comprehensive, but it is excellent and would be my recommendation for a single course in theology (most seminaries do two course introductions, however).
Now, Grenz was still too much of a biblicist as I later found. He does not take into account the diversity of the biblical canon or even some basic historical critical insights. His understandings of, for instance, the doctrine of Adam or eschatology are a bit too simplistic. So, like I said, Grenz is a good place to start, but not stay.
2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics
Barth is daunting but indispensable. I have gotten through about four volumes of the Dogmatics cover-to-cover, with chunks here and there throughout. Barth is often hard to get since his context was so different than American evangelicalism. One has to understand the problems he faced in order to fully appreciate the beautiful innovations he brings to doctrinal problems, whether it is his understanding of the word of God, the perfections of God, election, nature of creation, or Christology. Barth was reclaiming theology based on revelation against the hey day of liberalism in Germany, but that does not mean Barth is a conservative in the sense of the American scene.
Barth is one of those thinkers you can spend your whole life reading and rereading. He is one of those minds that cannot be easily pigeon-holed or summarized. Each section of the Dogmatics brings new insights and directions, constantly surprising you. Because of this, to dismiss Barth because, for instance, you don’t like doctrine x of his, frankly means you not only thrown out the baby with the bathwater, it is more like throwing out the whole house along with it.
Often to read Barth you need a good introduction. Mine was my professor’s own work: Joseph Mangina’s Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness, which has been hailed among the best intro’s. The last Pope hailed Barth as the greatest theologian next to Thomas Aquinas. Dr. Mangina had a sign over his door: “I am deeply suspicious of any theologian that does not like Karl Barth.” I share his view. Those that dismiss Barth might as well dismiss themselves as serious Christian thinkers.
3. C. Norman Kraus, Jesus Christ Our Lord and God Our Savior
Kraus was an Anabaptist Missionary turned theologian. His small two-volume theology is as impressive as unexpected. His theology begins as an extended treatment on Christology, salvation and discipleship. And it is good. Only then, in his second volume, does he go on to treat creation, trinity, ecclesiology and eschatology, all in a Christological mode, thus presenting a thoroughly Christ-centered theology. Not only that, Kraus is remarkably balanced and well-read, citing an impressive array of biblical studies, theologians, all with a respectable level of charity and engagement. Having missionary experience, he brings a great deal of cultural awareness to his theology. For instance, his understanding of Christian theology in comparison to world religions is really good.
If you are looking for a theology that is not overly technical, but still deep, this is the one. I think this would be my choice for a theology for my congregation to read because of its Christ-centered approach and emphasis on discipleship.
4. James McClendon, Ethics, Doctrine, Witness, (in his Systematic Theology)
McClendon stands in the background of several important theological movements in American theology: the postmodern turn, post-liberalism, narrative theology, neo-Anabaptism, the Baptist-Catholic movement, etc.
He was one of the first narrative theologians. His understanding of Scripture moved beyond biblical inerrancy and historical critical reading, to understand Scripture as a speech act, speaking its figures into the present in a “this is that, then is now” way.
He was one of the first theologians to “kiss modernity good-bye.” His theology displays disruptions that move away from the modernists scheme that obsessed about the philosophical legitimation of theology. His Systematic Theology begins with ethics, attempting a pedagogical move to return theology to practice in community. After that, he moves on then to doctrine, and then onto issues of philosophical and cultural witness, flipping the modernist approach on its head.
His Doctrine begins with the eschatological kingdom of God in order to understand salvation and creation, then it moves onto the doctrine of the cross and resurrection as the center of God’s identity (in other words, no separate treatment on divine attributes apart from the cross), and only then the doctrine of the Trinity as a grammar to structure the biblical narrative. His argument for a “two-narrative Christology” and narrative Trinity are both particularly profound. His ecclesiology is also a missiology. Doctrine closes only then with a methodological essay on reading Scripture in a Trinitarian and figural manner, as if to say, we learn theology by practicing it, not sitting around thinking about prolegomena.
He read Yoder’s Politics of Jesus and considered it a second conversion, propelling him to formulate a “baptist vision” that brought together Baptists, Anabaptists, Pentecostals, and several other free-church identities into one group. He has rightly been described as offering the new constructive account of Baptist theology for our time, something that has not been re-envisioned since Edgar Mullins’ Axioms of Religion.
Compared to Pannenberg or Grenz, often I felt like McClendon was offering not merely a theology, but literary tools to construct doctrine better. He does not give a comprehensive treatise, which is often what I have come to expect from a systematic theology. So, at times he covers a topic rather pithily, offering brilliant insights on how to understand, for instance, eschatological language or narrative Christology or metaphors for salvation. Often he drops the core concept down, and I was left thinking, “I wish he fleshed that out over 100 more pages.” I think McClendon did this on purpose to invite you to finish what he started. He does not give you a place to settle; he gives you a compass and walking stick and says, “Get going!” Also, McClendon is an eloquent writer. He writes theology artfully like a novelist. It is one of the few theologies that is simply a pleasure to read.
5. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology
Pannenberg is someone I consider the greatest systematic mind of the last century. Pannenberg saw theology as an attempt to state the coherence of Christian thought with all of human reality, especially science and history. The result is a theology loaded with historical insight and apologetic power. Firmly rationalist, his theology is a recovering fundamentalist’s dream. He is not afraid to revise a problematic doctrine: his doctrine of revelation is formidable; his doctrine of creation and understanding of Adam is a thing to behold. Yet, his theology lands often in unexpectedly conservative positions: beautifully Trinitarian, firmly committed to a historical Jesus, and oddly one of the few defenders of penal substitutionary atonement left in mainline theology.
Now, Pannenberg is very, very dry, mind you, but if you want no-non-sense precision, his 3 volume Systematic Theology is the cream of the crop. If you take up Pannenberg, you must read his Basic Questions before tackling the system. Pannenberg is one of those methodological thinkers that will refine you even when you disagree with him.
It should not be lost that three of these theologies I have listed here (Grenz, Jenson, and Erickson) all had Pannenberg as their mentor. This was a giant that raised up other giants.
6. Jurgen Moltmann, (series of books)
Moltmann never wrote a systematic theology like Pannenberg did; he wrote several stand-alone books that develop topics. As a “theologian of hope” like Pannenberg, they share many commonalities. Pannenberg is the dry, methodical, systematician; Moltmann was more political and edgy. Moltmann’s first three books, Theology of Hope, Crucified God, and Church in the Power of the Spirit, were mind shattering for me. Likewise, Trinity and the Kingdom (Trinity), The Coming of God (eschatology), The Way of Jesus Christ (Christology), and The Spirit of Life (Pneumatology), were all highly provocative works. While often I find Moltmann a bit too cavalier at times, his writing is always challenging me to see the theology and the church as a liberating force.
7. Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology
Jenson was Pannenberg’s student, and in many ways, his work is deeply indebted to Pannenberg. However, his slim Systematic Theology is something more like a set of theological meditations in the classic topics of theology, drenched in Patristic reflection. Jenson’s commitment to a catholic notion of theological reflection drives him to reflect using the categories of Patristic theology far more than Pannenberg, yet unafraid to propose revision similar to his mentor, making for a powerful read. Jenson is a beautiful writer. Ever section of his writing is an event of thought.
8. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church
A standard Greek Orthodox text, this little volume is a beautiful summary of the mystical theology of this tradition. Fully of quotations of Church Fathers, the book is a powerful treatment on the ineffable realities like the Trinity or salvation as deification.
9. Alister McGrath, Christian Theology
McGrath is perhaps the most informative single volume introduction to Christian theology. McGrath is an excellent historical theologian and the book begins with a summary of the major figures and developments from the history of theology. After that, each chapter is jammed packed with information, which is both good and bad. Good in that you get a full picture of views and positions; bad because it is like sipping fine wine through a fire house. So much information in so little space left several chapters, like the chapter on eschatology, deficient.
10. Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding
Migliore is someone that has incorporated the best of Karl Barth and others, and brought it together in an irenic and gracious introduction to the major topics of theology. Migliore is an excellent writer and is able to cite other authors with a proverbial beauty. His inclusion of global voices like feminist, Latin American and Black liberation theologians is done very well, therapeutically pulling the White middle-class male reader (like myself) to listen to the voices of the marginalized. Migliore’s text is a short text, and so, unfortunately, his gentle treatments often mean he deals with topics fairly generically.
11. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology
While I am not a conservative Calvinist, I think Erickson presents the best researched presentation of that tradition. While his treatment, for instance, of biblical inerrancy was, for me, unpersuasive, it is vastly better articulated then, for instance, Grudem’s take on it.
12. G. C. Berkhouwer, Studies in Dogmatics
After an ongoing dislike of reformed theology and a strong Anabaptist move in my thinking, Berkhouwer was the guy that made me appreciate classic reformed theology again. I say classic because Barth is reformed, but since his theology innovates the tradition heavily, I know a lot of reformed theologians that discount him, to their determent, mind you. Berkhouwer’s Studies are dry at times, but they are methodical treatments of theological problems with the best biblical reflection of his day. His volumes on Holy Scripture and the Return of Christ are both superb.
13. Joe Jones, Grammar of Christian Faith
Jones is a Disciples’ of Christ theologian and a brilliant post-liberal thinker. His theology reflects on the “grammar” of doctrine – the basic rules that make a doctrine intelligible. The result is something a bit dry, but really something precise and helpful.
Jones did an excellent job in integrating treatments on the rules that govern Christian thought as well as action, for the two are one and the same. So, his treatments on the nature of living hopefully are treated alongside eschatology or living out love is put alongside the doctrine of the cross.
14. Dale Moody, Word of Truth
Moody taught at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before the fundamentalist takeover in the 1990’s. His theology is neo-orthodox, attempting to construct a systematic presentation of doctrine taking into account historical critical insights into Scripture. The result is quite good. His chapters on creation, predestination, salvation, and Christology use excellent exegesis to inform his theology. Unfortunately, since he broke with the Calvinistic orthodoxy of SBTS and pointed out that the Scriptures do speak of free will and the potential of apostasy, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He was unfortunately forced into early retirement. It is a shame since this book is an eloquent presentation of doctrine.
15. William Newton Clarke, Outlines of Christian Theology
William Newton Clarke (d. 1912) was the first progressive North American theologian. He taught throughout the Northern United States and Canada. While his thought (or more accurately his students) sparked the liberal theological movement of the Social Gospel, his own thinking is much more restrained, thoroughly centered on Christ and biblical revelation. His theology is progressive in its revisionist capacity, but the only reason people deemed it “liberal” is that because Clarke was so intelligent in thinking about the Bible, he quickly transcended the problematic conventional theology of his day.
In many ways, his theology is still usable today, making him a forgotten gem of the past. His ability to rethink doctrines like the Trinity, the atonement, inspiration of Scripture, sin and eschatology, were all ahead of their time – all of which were deeply impressive.
Every progressive/moderate Christian needs to read his memoirs, 60 Years with the Bible: A Record of Experience. It will make anyone that has wrestle long nights with the Bible get weirdly misty.
Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology
Growing up a dispensationalist and worrying whether I could be “left behind,” Ryrie was considered the dude. So, I read his Basic Theology eager to explore a deeper biblical foundation for what I held all through high school, reading popularizers like Tim LaHaye and John Hagee. There are very few books that, in reading them, I found myself profoundly dis-persuaded from that position. By reading Ryrie’s treatments on, for instance, Daniel and Revelation, his understanding of the rapture in 1 Thes. 4, or maybe it was the fact that eschatology occupied more in his theology an Christology, Trinity, soteriology and ecclesiology combined – whatever it was – it resulted in me moving away from dispensationalism.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology
Wayne Grudem’s massive book was my first seminary theology textbook my freshmen year. Hungry for theological certainty, I devoured this book, reading it…twice. I thought I found the greatest theologian to ever put pen to paper. Turns out that only lasted until I read another theologian.
My second year, I decided to read Erickson, who, while they largely agree on many things, I found vastly better researched and thought through. Grudem’s work is methodologically deeply flawed. He assumes Scripture is one flat compendium of statements to be systematically arranged. At many points I found his exegesis at times shameful. His refusal to engage with different views or even to think fallibly about his own leaves his reflections horrendously dogmatic, often quite shallow, and worse, combative against alternatives he barely understands, whether that is open theism or egalitarianism or even, dare I say it, historically orthodox Christian theology. The fact that his text is so widely used (and preferred to much better reformed texts like Erickson’s) is surely a sign that conservative evangelicalism is in for trouble.
Gordon Kaufman, Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective
I consider myself a moderate, so I find parts of conservative theology persuasive and parts of liberal theology persuasive, and it is never as easy as picking one side as your one-stop-shop. I read Kaufman as an interest in liberal Anabaptist theology, and I found this book deeply unpersuasive. While his theology is brilliant, it is also generic and generalized. He is committed to thinking through history as the basis of theology, and so, due to historical critical insights, does not think the Bible is revelation. This leads to a feeling like his theology is neither here nor there. It seems to arbitrarily quote the Bible when it serves his purposes and dismiss it when it doesn’t.
His Trinitarian theology was at times quite sloppy. For instance, he listed attributes that corresponded to each person in a way that seems obviously methodologically unsound. He is convinced that the incarnation is historical, but is not convinced that the resurrection was bodily. He is convinced that God saves, but expresses skepticism about an afterlife. Huh? Throughout, while he at many times made brilliant remarks, I found so often his doctrines were highly inconsistent.
He later went on to reformulate his thinking further in the second systematic theology he wrote, In the Face of Mystery, and I am curious to see what that holds. I have been told it is even more extreme, but perhaps it is more methodologically consistent. As for this book, I was not particularly impressed.
Anyway, perhaps this list will steer you on some theological adventures.
Some of the most important sermons a pastor can preach, as I have learned, are the ones that were written for himself. Today’s sermon was written for me. I needed this sermon this week. Undoubtedly, you might need to hear this word too.
In the 1930s, Hans Selye, an endocrinologist (that’s a doctor that looks at hormones in the body), was the first doctor to name perhaps a term that is sadly a pervasive term in our modern way of life: stress.
He was the first to realize that humans can have physical reactions to emotional worry. We are psychosomatic unities – that’s the technical way of saying that what happens in our minds and hearts effects everything else.
Before Selye, doctors treated people like machines. We are not machines. Selye found that worry can do all sorts of things: cause illness, abdominal pain, insomnia, etc.
I think Selye’s point implies the solution too: If worry over the world can cause physical stress, peace in Christ can bring us out of stress. What’s in our heads affects our bodies and what is in our hearts affects our heads.
As we rest in who Jesus is, we have peace in the face of worry.
What advice does Scripture give for those facing worry? Let’s look at Philippians 4:4–7:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
1. “Rejoice at all times”
I will say it again rejoice! We need to remember that when Paul wrote this he was in prison, awaiting trial. Paul would eventually suffer the death penalty for being a Christian. He was not unaccustomed to difficult circumstances. He had a lot to worry about and nothing but time to worry.
In Acts 16, Paul is recording as being stuck in prison, beaten and threatened with death, and yet, he sang songs of joy. It bewildered the prison guards. Those prison bars could not contain his joy. Being beating for doing the work of the Gospel could not get him down. It brought him up.
Yet he says rejoice at all times. Why? Was it because Paul was such a positive person?
Jesus said to his disciples in Luke, “Rejoice because your names are written in the book of life.”
Paul similarly says, “because Jesus is near.” He is close to us.
For Paul, no matter what has happened or is happening, Jesus Christ has risen from the grave.
Jesus Christ is with his people in his presence and love.
Jesus Christ has given him eternal life.
Knowledge of our salvation means we can greet every moment as the gift that it is, even if it is full of challenges. Every moment, even the worst of moments, are still moments with Christ.
Worry fundamentally detracts from the truth that every moment is a gift.
“Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow; it only saps today of its joy” – Leo Buscaglia
2. In times of trouble, be gentle.
It says, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.”
Why would Paul go from talking about rejoicing to exhorting gentleness?
Anyone who goes through stress knows why: When you are stressed, when you have worry, you are irritable. You are on edge. Additional problems, even small ones, can push you over the edge. Then you dump your frustration on someone.
And so, Paul encourages us to be gentle. Our world, our lives our messy and unpredictable. That is why we need to trust God’s grace and that is why we need to be gentle with each other.
Perhaps you have a stressful job, so you bring the stress home. Perhaps you have a stressful family life, so you bring it to work. Perhaps you take your stress out on your spouse; perhaps it is on those that work for you. This is why Paul emphasizes having gentleness on everyone. If you have one person you treat as a whipping boy, that is not true gentleness.
Are you gentle to others when your stressed? Or do you use stress as an excuse to treat people worse? People are really irritable when they drive. They also in thought aren’t all that gentle to people that, for instance, cut them off. If I am driving somewhere, and I am running late. If I get cut off, I don’t know what it is, but I automatically assume the person that did that is just the worst human being in the world. Do you do that too?
Here is the thing. I’ve caught himself driving, whether I miss a sign or something, and accidentally cut someone off. I give myself the benefit of the doubt. “I hope they knew I was in a rush or lost or something.” That’s a double standard. Anyone ever thought that?
Our world, our lives our messy and unpredictable. That is why we need to trust God’s grace and that is why we need to be gentle with each other.
Why have grace and gentleness on others? Paul gives another reason: Jesus is near to us. Jesus is our cure for worry, bringing us to joy. Jesus is also our model: in times of worry, be gentle like him.
Why should you be gentle in times of great trial? Because that is how Jesus responded to the anguish of the cross.
The worry of being betrayed, of being tortured, of being put to death by the most excruciating means possible by that day, – all with the possibility that the greatest tragedy would be for him to seek to preserve his life and fail in being obedient to the father’s will.
Jesus sweat tears of blood in the garden. Yet, his response to an unjust arrest was to heal one of his attackers.
His response to false accusations was honesty and even silence.
In the midst of people killing him, he had the gentleness to pray for their forgiveness.
Jesus knows a bit about what worry looks like, and in that chaos he was truly and perfectly gentle.
Gentleness gets portrayed as a vice of the weak in our fast-paced world. Be a shark, a go-getter, not a push-over. Be ruthless and assertive, not humble and selfless. Gentleness is synonymous with the cowardly.
But there is nothing more powerful in the world than gentleness.
3. Don’t Worry…Pray
6 Do not be anxious [or don’t worry] about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God
I remember one of the worst times of worry in my life was just after my father died when I was in college. I felt lost. I could not find a job (he passed right at the beginning of the summer, when you go and hunt for student jobs). I was back on rent. I remember eating just cans of tuna for dinner, because that is all I had to eat.
I remember enrolling in school for the fall at Heritage College, and thinking to myself, if I don’t get OSAP, that is a government student loan, I don’t have a way of paying for my education.
I got a job working at Tim Horton’s night shift. That was kind of depressing too. I had graduated with my undergrad and beginning a master’s degree and the only job I could find was a Tim Horton’s night shift position. Night shift is either busy in all the ways you don’t want it: dealing with drunk people that wander in wanting coffee to sober up or it’s the opposite: It is mind-numbingly quiet. That made me worry about my future.
All of it gave me a terrible sense of worry. I remember working away always having this heavy felling in my chest. I remember not being particularly hungry because my stomach always felt wrenched. This is what stress can do, as I said. We are holistic beings and what happens in our heads effects our bodies.
I learned a few things about financial stress. First is that when you are stressed out about money, you realize just how little in your life is actually necessary.
The opposite of rich is not poor. It is simply enough.
Second, I was reminded of the blessings of community. When I was stuck doing these really lonely nigh shifts, one thing that was really nice was that I had a few other friends that worked nigh shifts at other places: grocery stories and at a hotel. We would get together. He didn’t do much since there is nothing open late at night, but we just had fun together.
We would go for walks and talk. Since I would sleep doing the day and be awake at night our days were nights. We would walk around at 3 or 4 in the morning. It almost felt like you were in an apocalyptic movie scene. The city was so still: not car on the highway. I ended up finding it very peaceful.
Third, oddly when we have nothing, we can have moments where we feel far from God. Where are you God? – but also closeness with Christ. Christ had nothing in this life. He was a traveling preacher that did not own any land. He lived in poverty. He merely trusted his Father.
It is bizarre, but we can greet difficult instances in life with a similar mentality. Oh shucks…now I have to realize that I was always completely dependent on God anyway!
Some situations of worry are merely situations presented to us to emulate Christ.
What do you worry about? What is your biggest worry? Can you accept that as an instance where – just like the rest of life – we are totally dependent on God anyway?
Do not be anxious [don’t worry] about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God
Now, I have learned as a husband that saying to my wife, “Don’t worry” does not really help when my wife is worried. It does not help to say to a sad person, “Be happy!”
Just saying you should stop worrying is often completely unhelpful. You can try to will yourself into not worrying. You can try to distract yourself, which is just suppressing worry that is still there. Or you can do something that dissolves the worry.
Paul recommends prayer.
Have you brought your worries before God in prayer?
Sometimes when I worry I forget to prayer. What is the use of prayer?
“…by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” It can be translated more literally as, “make known your requests to God.” That is an odd way of saying it. God is said to know what we need even before we ask, so why does Paul speak as if God does not know here?
Do you have important news and you realize there is a pecking order to who first should find out and how should hear it directly from you rather than someone else.
If my brother or sister found out Meagan was having twins through the grapevine, they would be insulted. Why? Relationship demands communication.
God knows what we need, but he wants to hear it from us. He loves listening to us. He wants to be close to us. He knows that the very act of committing that thing you are worried about to him in prayer, is itself a solution.
“The answer to prayer is prayer itself” – P.T. Forsyth
Often we come to prayer wanting the world to change, but then we realize prayer changes us.
If you want the world to be at peace, your soul has to be at peace first.
If you want the world to become more loving, your soul has to be filled with love first.
The only way your heart is going to be any different from the world that it is in is if it is in a restored relationship with God.
My dad taught me a saying, “When you start worrying, you stop trusting.” The only way to trust more first begins in praying more.
4. You will have peace
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
I love that image that this peace guards us. Like an umbrella in a rainy day, like a shield against arrows, God’s peace in us guards us.
I remember being stressed out in college about my father passing, about money and not having a job and not knowing what to do for school.
I distinctly remember sitting on the porch of the house I lived at. I remember praying and slowly giving every worry over to God. In the midst of all of it, I remember thinking, one way or another, I know I am good. One way or another, God is still good. One way or another, life is still good. One way or another, I will always keep following Christ’s way of goodness.
I remember feeling that peace that passes all understanding. I remember the heaviness in my chest lifting. It was like a pain killer just kicked in (only better!), it was so dramatic.
Have you experienced the peace of God that surpasses all understanding?
Like I said, it is only thought prayer. Have you given your problems over to God?
Have you committed to following him no matter what? A clear conscience is peace of mind. Paul says this peace will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Paul is talking in the context of serving God here. As you commit to following Christ – knowing that this is better than any other way – I think you will know a certain peace of mind and conscience.
I am going to be a father to twins. Five kids.
There was a couple in my church in Bradford who had twins. I remember thinking, knowing that twins have to usually run in the family: “Jeez, I’m glad that won’t happen to me!”
Or we knew a family of five kids. I remember thinking, “Those people must be crazy.” I am going to be one of those people now.
I was at the house Tuesday, working on the sermon for this Sunday in my study, when Meagan called me from the ultrasound. She was really flustered. “Are you sitting down?” My heart sank. My immediate gut-instinct was that there was something wrong with the baby.
When she said, “we are having twins” I remember my stomach wrenching. I paced around my house bewildered.
I immediately texted my pastor-friend, Jason Tripp. Back in April, just after we found out that we were having a baby, but we had not told anyone yet, he texted me saying that he had a funny dream in which we were having twins. Isn’t that freaky? I had to ask him, “Did you happen to see any winning lottery numbers in the background as well?”
I had to ponder the meaning of all this. I was not so uncritical as to see it as a prophesy at the time, but perhaps God was just trying to warm us up to the idea in advance. God was just trying to remind us that this is apart of God’s plan.
That still does not stop you from worrying though.
Are we going to need a new van? How are we going to fit all these kids in our house? If it wasn’t noisy enough!
How am I going to balance work and home with Meagan?
Meagan had a midwife appointment right after that. Apparently at the midwife, the midwife told stories of woman who decided to have more kids expectantly getting chastised by their friends for not having abortions.
We live in that kind of age. But like I said, if our God is a God of life, then the most peaceful way of living is a way that embraces life. If life is a gift, in the biblical mindset, we cannot help but greet even unexpected instances of human life as something to cherish and celebrate.
It did not take long for my worries to turn to rejoicing. But it was not till later that night where peace really set in. I remember siting on my back deck late at night thinking. The stars were out. I was doing some reading. Reading often calms me down. The whole occasion continuously moved me into conversation in prayer.
I remember sitting there in the peace of the night feeling that peace that passes understanding.
You know what, with God, we are okay.
Father, I know that this gift of life is from you.
Father, I know that it is a blessing.
Father, I know that doing your will is the best way to live.
Father, I know you will take care of us.
That is how I overcame worry this week: Rejoice, be gentle, know that Christ is near, pray, and be at peace.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. – Romans 15:13
So, if you have been tracking with this review, I began by summarizing the story of The Shack and remarking how I simply do not see a lot that people should be upset about. It is robustly trinitarian, Christ-oriented, a free-will theology with forgiveness at the centre. It is a narrative written by a man who obviously does love Jesus, and has an amazing testimony of working to understand that through pain and suffering and brokenness.
In my second part, I noted that The Shack has gotten a lot of bad criticism. I think a lot of this comes from a mentality similar to the fundamentalist one I had, so I offered bits of autobiographical information where I noted the irony that much of what I thought was “conservative” in my more narrow tradition of upbringing, ironically, when I started reading broader in the tradition, was found to be unorthodox. Here we will explore some of the objections to The Shack to point that out.
Here we go… Allow me to put on my theologian hat, since technical objections warrant technical responses.
God as a mother: God appears as a woman named Papa. Some people lost their minds about this. However, the Bible does use motherly imagery, which I argue at length here. And it is important to note that if a mother’s love and femininity are good, they can and should be used to communicate God’s love and goodness. The same God is a shepherd, a warrior, a rock, and a fire. To refuse to use these metaphors undermines the goodness of women and replaces God’s love with patriarchy. Notably, there have been accepted teachers of the church, like St. Julian of Norwich, a gifted mystic, who records theological vision of God as mother in her Revelations of Divine Love. In The Shack, God appears as a woman, but that is because God appears to Mack, who had an abusive father, with the love that he already understood. By the end of the book, after Mack forgives his father, Papa appears as a father as well.
Non-hierarchical nature of the trinity: Some got upset at the idea that the trinity in The Shack is submissive to each other, Father to Son, Son to Spirit, etc. While Scripture does have the Father directing the Son, who in turn responds obediently, that is just one contour. Jesus is the Word of the Father, such that when you look at Jesus, you see the Father. Their identities converge. The Son has no authority but the Father’s, but the Father has no Word but the Son. John 17, one of the most clear passages of trinitarian relations in the New Testament, has Jesus saying that the Father is in him and he is in the Father. They glorify each other. It is reciprocal and reflexive, not one-sided. It is language of mutual possession similar to Song of Songs, “I am my beloved and he is mine,” or the mutual ownership of 1 Cor. 7:4. St. John of Damascus noted that the persons of the trinity are not individuals, but are persons through each other, thus an inherent mutually and equality is implied. Augustine and Athanasius both insisted what the one member of the trinity has and does, they all do together. This is enshrined in the Athanasian Creed. To depict mutual submission in the trinity, I think, is getting at the unity and mutuality of the trinity that the greatest trinitarian thinkers have affirmed.
Constructing a hierarchy between Father and Son is quite dangerous. It is often used to legitimate hierarchy between men and women, which is easily abused. Often, those that support this hierarchy also deny that there are women leaders in the Bible. It is very problematic when it comes to the cross as we will see, but it falls into a kind of sub-ordinationism. If God is God because he is sovereign and has authority, if you define God that way, then the Father has sovereignty and authority over the Son, effectively making him more “God” than the Son, which is why St. Athanasius resisted that so heavily. Does not the submission of Christ in his love, the tenderness of Christ on the cross show God as well? There is nothing the Father has that the Son does not. This also makes the death of Jesus, his weakness of the cross, a scandal to God. That is obviously a problem…
Not penal substitutionary atonement?: As I said, the unity of God in the trinity is very important. It is especially so for the view of the cross. Young wisely depicted the Father as having the marks of the nails. He is reminding us, perhaps unwittingly, of Augustine’s dictum: what one member does, they do together. Obviously not all of God died, or else there would be no resurrection, but the cross was a trinitarian act. The cross shows the entire character of God. If Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, there is no God that can be known apart from the cross. Father, Spirit, and Son are cruciform love.
Young seems critical of what is called penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Now, all Christians hold that the death of Jesus saves us from our sins, but there are many particular theories about how this happens. PSA is complex parsing of the atonement that emerged in the theology of the reformers like John Calvin. At its most basic, it holds that God had to kill a substitute, namely Jesus, in order to atone for sin. It is largely absent in the early church because they used other readings, notably a kind of ransom view. So, historically, there is more than one way to read the work of the cross.
Personally, I resist using language of PSA, not because there aren’t any passages that suggest aspects of it (like Gal. 3:13), but because the cross is understood by several metaphors and strands of logic, each valid: obedience, military , sacrifice, priestly, legal, ransom, economic, kinsman redeemer, etc. They are distinct but overlap, and offering one grand theory often sloppily forces the proverbial circle into the square hole. There is substitution imagery and sacrifice imagery that has nothing to do with punishment. In the OT, it is not commonly understood that the animal sacrifice (or grain for that matter!) is being punished in the person’s stead. If Genesis 22 has anything to say, it speaks more about God already in his mercy providing than God in his wrath needing something to punish. The sacrifice was not for God, but for human conscience (Heb. 9), cleansing guilt. Shedding of blood has everything to do with sealing an new covenant and cleansing, not necessarily punishing something. In Mark 2, Jesus is able to forgive sin by mere pronouncement, no sacrifice necessary, so the logic of crucifixion rests elsewhere.
I find there are a number of scriptural themes that PSA does not incorporate well. No one ever talks about how Jesus lifted up is a means of healing like the bronze serpent (John 3:14). It becomes extraneous. The fact that the cross discloses Jesus as the King of the Jews (God’s messianic identity), the Son of Man and Son of God, the true Prophet and Priest, all in event of the New Exodus, New Passover, the day of the in-breaking kingdom (Daniel 7), all that is shoved off as the husk to be peeled back to get to PSA. If it is skin and not backbone, why are these themes the very substance of the narrative in the four Gospels? The New Testament does not think in “theories.” It thinks in rich figures.
The Gospel of Mark fundamentally understands the cross as something Jesus’ disciples must do as well, which I find PSA often undermines (the cross is something only Jesus as sinless does). In Mark, Jesus is not propitiating God; he is giving a ransom to the dark powers, redeeming people from demonic slavery (Mark 10:45). And if the punishment of sin is merely death, there is no reason why Jesus had to die on a cross or be tortured. He could have died at home in his bed. Jesus is living out his teaching of becoming last for his disciples to follow, forgiving when sinned against in the most ultimate way, against the demonic forces of betrayal (the people/disciples), religious hypocrisy (the temple), and empire (Rome). It showed that God’s character and our character is not one where we inflict eye-for-eye, but turns the other cheek and blesses our enemies (this is central to Peter’s atonement theology in 1 Peter 2:20-25). This kind of love is the in breaking of the kingdom of heaven itself. Many conservatives miss that for the New Testament and the early church, unanimously, the cross was teaching Christians non-violence as the primary response to evil (see Ron Sider’s book).
Perhaps that is too complex for some. Let’s just stick with one reading. Young, I think, helps those that hold to a PSA word the doctrine more carefully (for an excellent modern statement of PSA, people should read Pannenberg’s in his Systematic Theology). Pop PSA too often makes God the problem, and no one should be happy about that. The cross came to heal us, not fix God’s wrath. The cross is not Jesus in his love saving us from the wrath of God the Father. Jesus is providing a way that we are not punished ultimately, yes, but it is not Jesus saving us from the Father. This severs God’s being. All of God is loving, including the Father, and all of God can be wrathful, including Jesus.
The Father did not abandon Jesus on the cross. This misunderstands Psalm 22, which is not about a sinner but about the persecuted righteous, the messiah, crying out to God for vindication (which the resurrection answers). This was important to the martyrs of the early church. The cross is the call to martyrdom (this is why Stephen’s stoning in Acts mirrors Jesus’ crucifixion in Acts), and the martyrs will enter eternal life. The Cross is Jesus’ way, God’s way, and also our way. It is the way to heaven.
God was fully present in Jesus at the cross. God was at one with sinners as the Son is showing the cross-shaped love of the Father for sinners. God in his love, one with Jesus, bore the penalty of the law, which was not functioning according to God’s will for it (so says Galatians – it was hijacked to only create condemnation, not grace). This tangibly shows that our sins were forgiven, that God loves sinners, and Jesus rose from the grace on the third day to show that the curse of death had been beaten. This is why the gospel has everything to do with the resurrection in Acts 13. So, here Young I think invites us all to word our doctrines of atonement better.
Religious inclusivism: The Jesus character in The Shack references how he is using all systems of religion and thought to being people to the Father. Some accused Young of pluralism. I think this is simple missional contextualization. God meets us where we are at, using the concepts we are used to. Think Don Richardson’s Peace Child.
If it is not that, I would insist, that some kind of religious inclusivism (that God’s mercy does extend beyond the bounds of the church) is completely acceptable. I would point out that religious inclusivism is implied in Acts 17, where Paul insists the Athenians are actually worshiping God already as the “unknown god” on one of their altars. Paul then invites them to put away idols and see God more clearly in Christ. He even quotes a pagan poet as evidence of this truth, that all people are God’s children. The Bible has an intuitive awareness that there are those that are outside the covenantal relationship with God that do in fact get it and do in some way participate in the kingdom of God, whether Melchizedek in the OT or the centurion in the NT. This does not undermine the missionary call of the church to make Christ fully known. While Christ is the only way, St. Justin Martyr, a second century apologist, held that if the Logos is eternal, ever-present, he is using all things everywhere to bring people into knowledge of himself. If they do not hear of Jesus explicitly, it makes sense that God, in his mercy, would judge them according to the amount of his truth they were told and accepted. There are, of course, difficulties with this view, but no more than the assertion that those who have never heard the Gospel will perish without any chance of believing. Call it liberalism if you want, but at the end of the day, inclusivism is the oldest view of the church, espoused by a man, one of the first public defenders of the faith, who also gave his life for the faith.
God as universal father: Central to Young’s theodicy is that God is a loving father to all people, trying to bring even Missy’s murderer to repentance. There are some that deny this truth despite it being explicit in Acts 17. Clearly they have never read Athanasius, On the Incarnation, who sees God universal fatherly love as part and parcel with the incarnation. I would argue this truth is the bedrock of Old Testament ethics and central to the Gospel as Paul sees it in Acts 17. I have argued for it at length here.
Universalism: The final objection I saw is that The Shack is universalist. This is true, not going to deny that. Young is a universalist, but I would point out that there are forms of universalism that are considered historically orthodox. Only one form was condemned at the Council of Constantinople. It was highly speculative and relativistic: “God will save everyone, so who cares!” There are noteworthy universalists that were upheld as orthodox like Gregory of Nyssa or Julian of Norwich. Norwich held to a hope that “All will be well.” It was a universalism of mere prayerful hope, which i think most of us do have, particularly at funerals where someone died under tragic circumstances. At the end of the day, we are all in God’s merciful hands, and we pray that the mercy we were shown as sinners will be the same shown to everyone else.
Nyssa is a more important case. Many western believers do not know him, but he was the most important bishop and defender of orthodoxy of his day; the “Flower of Orthodoxy” was his title. He confidently thought that universal salvation was the only logical possibility of God’s total victory over sin. He was not corrected because he was robustly biblical in his views and his doctrine lead him deeper into prayer, mission, and obedience to Christ. If we know a tree by its fruit, this sounds like what good doctrine should do! You might insist that there are passages in the Bible that speak about eternal punishment (he would insist that too), but what cannot be argued against is that Nyssa’s arguments were read and accepted by the community of the faithful. Their decision might be fallbile, of course, but the fact of their decision makes the interpretation plausible, the acceptable range of Christian faith. So entrusted was his judgment that he was a final editor the Nicene Creed (which notably says Christ will “judge the quick and the dead,” it does not say how!). Historical facts are historical facts. If orthodoxy is the historic bounds of what the creeds mean for acceptable reading of Scripture, there are versions of universalism that are and have been accepted.
Now, perhaps you do not agree with these readings, that is fine, Augustine would have probably hated Nyssa, but at the end of the day, both were accepted. That is the bounds of orthodoxy. Those that hold at the possibility that all may be saved and those that hold to the possibility of eternal punishment are both in those bounds. I would argue that both need each other to counter their extremes. We can never take God for granted, and we can never give up hope on sinners.
This is the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy: it has forgotten so much of this history and reflection on Scripture. It has forgotten the breath and beauty of what the saints have to teach us.
Sometimes the people pointing the fingers have three fingers pointing right back at them.
For sake of argument, take a hardline Calvinist like John Piper. Now I think this guy has character in spades, and I do think he is a legitimate Christian, a great preacher and teacher, but if we are going to play the heresy hunting game with historic orthodoxy, I often get confused at the free passes Calvinists give themselves.
Piper, like most Calvinists, is an overt double-predestinationist, the idea that God elects some to be saved and others not, without any choice in the matter.. While a type of universalism was condemned (and many may accuse me of splitting hairs when I say only one form was condemned), so also was a form of double-predestinationism. Double predestination was seen as undermining freewill and God’s love, something that all the fathers saw as the supreme characteristic of God. Augustine’s radical follower, Gottschalk, was condemned at a local council for holding this, whose decision was treated as universally acceptable. Calvin was highly influenced by this form of radical Augustinianism. Yet, Calvinists really don’t want to talk about this.
Piper has gone on to insist that since God is fundamentally sovereignty (not love as the church has universally held), God causes evil for his own glory. To me this is a perilous opinion. How is God holy if he causes evil? If God is in Christ and Christ is sinless, I have a hard time thinking God would commit a tragedy humans are bound by the Word of God never to do in order to be holy. Also, I have heard him say that he cannot recite the entire Apostle’s Creed because he does not think Jesus descended into hell. He has reasons for this (a peculiar reading of 1 Peter 3), but the matter rests: he cannot affirm even the most basic statement of Christian orthodoxy, yet all his pals are okay with this.
Why is it okay? Well, the Bible is able to correct what we think is traditionally orthodox, which is what I think he would insist. I would affirm that too, but that means the term “orthodox” can become molded by the wax nose of biblical proof-texts. In principle anyone who argues something with bible verses against a creedal norm cannot in principle be condemned. Arian had biblical reasons for his theology, so again, the definition of orthodox as a historical descriptor must be maintained, even if modestly. Perhaps Piper is biblical, but not orthodox. Is he comfortable with this? Or perhaps orthodoxy is being applied with an uneven standard.
Perhaps orthodoxy is more than words.
I bring this up to remind the reader that I do think both Young and Piper are legitimate Christians, both of which with their respective imperfections. I am merely using them as foils in the naive hope that one day we might all actually have grace on each other. Perhaps a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven would be to have people of each other’s ilk coming together and just saying, “I get where you are coming from. I do see Christ working in you.”
Perhaps propositional orthodoxy is just one tool to gauge and nourish our relationship with God among others. After all, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). The second part is perhaps most important and it is in the heart.
Yes, doctrine is important, but remember that Peter confessed Jesus to be the messiah, yet he was then rebuked because the deeper meaning of that for Peter was a notion where it was a scandal that Jesus had to go to the cross. His correct confession did not save him from denying Jesus. Only Jesus’ grace saved him in the end. Words can only go so far. Good doctrine nourishes relationship with Christ and living out Christ, but it cannot replace it. There is no verbal test for having a heart that follows Christ. Only discernment can see if a person has a heart of humility, love, and forgiveness.
I met Paul Young once at a conference. He is a remarkably down to earth and a genuinely, humble guy. He told us that a speaking engagement of his was protested by other Christians. In the heat of the day, some of them were fainting from the heat. So, he brought out some water to them personally. They did not even know who he was, so he struck up a conversation. He revealed his identity to them, and asked, “Is there a single person here that has read my book?” Not a soul. He kindly asked if they would at least do that. He did not have a problem if they disagreed, but he would hope that they at least listened. They shrugged. As he went inside, he heard them go right back to their angry chanting.
I know some people that have great “theology,” but frankly do not have a relationship with Christ. They honor God with their lips, but their hearts are far from him. I know some people that have the heart of Christ, following him daily, that frankly believe some pretty erroneous stuff. Personally, if pressed, I would take the later over the former. I’d take a Christ-like heart over a person with Christian ideas.
So, here is the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy, (it by no means applies to all evangelicals): a tradition that has often become so narrow and detached from the rest of historic Christianity, members of it anathematize positions that Christianity has long held. The obsession with being correct, its isolating and alienating mode, ironically, can deafen the ear and corrupt the heart, the true source of relationship with Christ and with others.
Don’t like the movie, The Shack? That is fine. It does have its cheesy moments. The book is not fine literature. Young is no Dostoevsky. Condemn it; refuse to read it; refuse to be open to what a fellow believer is trying to show you about Jesus, and frankly, you are missing an opportunity for a movie with a clear depiction of the Gospel to impact people. Your loss and others. But it is worse than that…
When it comes to The Shack, Paul Young might not have all his doctrinal ducks in a row (I wonder who next to God perfectly does), but it should be apparent that he does follow Christ and deserves the decency that implies. So many times Christians shun each other creating fractions in Christ’s body. We bicker while his body bleeds.
If to love a person in part is to listen to them, I know that the close-minded are often the close-hearted. If the summary of the law is love God with your entire being and love your neighbour as yourself, we have a lot of half-Christians.
As Paul tells us, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love” (Gal. 5:6).
Perhaps the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy is also the scandal of evangelical charity, a scandal we are all implicated in.
I have heard some really vitriolic criticisms of the movie, The Shack.
I am reminded of the parable of the emperor’s new clothes. A foolish emperor commissions new clothes to be made. They were invisible, a deception on the part of the tailors, but they tell the emperor that anyone who thinks they are invisible are foolish. So the emperor pretends he can see the clothes and scorns anyone that does not. On parade, an innocent child points out that he is naked, and the jig is up. The emperor realizes he is in fact naked.
Paul Young is that child, I think. The emperor is evangelicalism; his clothes the pretension to orthodoxy. Our children know our flaws better than anyone, and Paul Young, as a child of evangelical thinking, a pastor’s/missionary kid, is speaking from the inside. He is not an outsider.
Some of Paul Young’s testimony resonated with me. I was raised with a very conservative theological paradigm. I went to seminary, where we liked to joke, “Of course, we are fundamentalists, we just aren’t as angry as those other people.” But the truth was we were angry too. Anyone that held beliefs different from us, if they were significant, were wrong and worse than that, dangerous.
I have learned there is a big difference between “right belief” and “believing in the right way.”
Some of the biggest critics of The Shack have been Reformed Christians. Now, these Christians are our brothers and sisters. They often don’t recognize that, but that is on them not us. I’d prefer to take the high road. We have the same Gospel, just different particulars, but I would point out there are some particulars that I think are deeply problematic.
I do not speak as an outsider on this. In college, I loved listening to John Piper. I read Calvin’s Institutes and I thought Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology was the greatest contemporary work to put theological pen to paper.
Now, I think the only reason I thought that was because I had not read much else. Since then, I have read at least one systematic theology every year. For me I moved beyond some of my more ultra-conservative convictions because they fundamentally could not stand up to either the Bible, historical Christian thinking, or the phenomena of life itself. I’ll explain…
For Calvinism, since God elects some to salvation and others not, and there are those Christians that claim to be “Christians” (like those Catholics and liberals and people that watch HBO) but are not (grace was not enough for them), I had to be hyper-vigilant theologically. I found myself always angry and annoyed at someone’s theology, even disgusted. I did not want them to contaminate me. If there were people that were not Christians but thought they were, the only way I knew I was saved myself was to always keep articulating every question I had theologically, ever more precisely, and to stay away from those that differed (you can read more about my journey in learning to accept other Christians here). Questions over infra-lapsarianism or super-lapsarianism became faith crises as to whether or not I actually believed God was sovereign and therefore whether or not I was saved. Discussions like this all became slippery-slope arguments. Arminians denied God’s sovereignty; open theists God’s impassibility; egalitarians, God’s authority. I was very good a pointing out the proverbial speck in another, ignoring the proverbial log in my own.
I could not reckon with the fact that there were sincere, biblically-minded Christ-followers that did not think the same things as me. See, when I looked at a biblical passage, and had an interpretation I thought was by the Holy Spirit, I could not doubt that. Everything hangs on certainty. I have often said that a fundamentalist cannot ask whether or not they are truly wrong on a core issue of doctrine, because to do is to doubt God and to invite doubt about one’s salvation assurance. Self-fallibility is too risky, even if it is true.
In this scheme, I did not believe in justification by works, but that just meant I was saved by doctrinal works. I was certain of my salvation because of the correct ideas in my head.
This proves potentially fatal if you ever encounter an important yet ambiguous text, which was often in seminary, or change your mind, or just don’t know what to think. The Bible became a scandal to my own theology, whether it was the unsustainable idea of its inerrancy, the refusal to admit the existence of woman leaders, or passages that did not fit an impassible God. As I began to see some of my theological convictions being contradictory, I felt like I was losing my salvation.
In one summer, while that was happening, my “shack” occurred. My father died of cancer; my mother was also suffering from cancer. Several friends of mine went through severe moral and faith crises, which for their sake I will not go into (you can read more about the whole experience here). I was left penniless, working at a Tim Horton’s on night shift, wondering if all this Christianity stuff was even true.
I ended up having a remarkable shift where God encountered me in the abyss of my confusion. I realized that if God is love and God is in Christ, then my ideas of faith can fail, but God will still have me. It was a profoundly mystical experience.
That lead me on a journey to rethink my faith, since I suspected there was more to it than just one tradition that no longer nourished me. This is a hard thing to say to some of my Calvinist friends, who I do consider my brothers and sisters, but I find that this theology is so intellectually and biblically problematic that it induced a faith crises for me, yet still nourishes them.
Nevertheless, that summer I began to I read deeply. I went to the University of Toronto soon after where I got to study under so many different voices. In high school I was a fundamentalist, in college I moved to being a conservative evangelical, in seminary I felt like I was becoming increasingly liberal, in post-grad studies I read deeply in postmodernism and mysticism, by doctoral studies I found myself gravitating to the school sometimes call “post-liberalism,” which lead me to do my dissertation on James McClendon, a Baptist narrative theologian.
Along the way, I started reading church fathers, mothers, and doctors. These are the most esteemed thinkers and saints the church has looked to. I gravitated to the mystics: Dionysius, Nyssa, the Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart, but also Irenaeus, Aquinas, Athanasius, Anselm, and Augustine, etc.
One thing that I started noticing was that what I thought was “unorthodox” was widely held by those who were actively bound by creeds. When I told them about my upbringing, they looked at me recoiling, noting how unorthodox it was.
I found that, ironically, the narrow view of what I considered orthodox was actually not viewed that way by those who had read deeply in the tradition of historic Christianity and had strong conservative commitments to historic orthodoxy. What is “orthodox” here is the bounds of acceptable biblical reflection that the church over 2000 years has developed, using church fathers and doctors, councils and creeds. The sad thing was that the over-protective, arrogant, isolated, and suspicious mode of my past beliefs ironically made me closed to something the greater sweep of Christianity held to be appropriate.
Bonhoeffer once said that those that cannot listen to a brother or sister will soon find themselves unable to hear the word of God also. I think this statement is applicable.
Here lies the irony of those that criticize the “heresy” of The Shack. The notion that Young has moved beyond conservative evangelicalism is not abandoning orthodoxy; it is coming back to it!
I’ll explore this further in my next post.
The other day I got to participate in a showing of The Shack that our church, First Baptist Church of Sudbury, and Valleyview Community Church sponsored.
It happened in the beautiful Imagine Theatre Movie Lounge with its wonderful recliner seating (I am not being paid for that plug by the way – it really is nice!).
The Shack is a movie based on a book where a man, Mack, suffers the loss of his daughter. His daughter, Missy, is murdered, and he hates God for it. His life is beginning to unravel when he gets a card requesting his presence at the shack where his daughter was murdered, signed by “Papa,” the name for God his daughter used.
Mack goes to the shack wondering if the murderer is there, and Mack comes ready to kill him. When he goes there and finds no one, he lets out his anger at God. Shortly after in the woods, a man who we find out is Jesus, invites him back to the shack to have a weekend with the Trinity.
God the Father, “Papa,” is portrayed as female, a big black lady and the Holy Spirit is portrayed as an Asian woman, Sarayu. Mack is invited into fellowship with them. Mack is struck by the warmth of Papa, the relatability of Jesus, and the mysterious wisdom of Sarayu.
Mack learns that the Father is fundamentally love. Rather than seeing God the Father as distant and unforgiving, disconnected from Jesus – essentially being the thing Jesus saves you from – the Father is unified with Jesus, one in the purpose of loving humanity. The cross is the full disclosure of the love of God, all of God. Mack is surprised to see the mark of the nails on Papa’s hands.
Mack goes out to the garden and speaks with Sarayu. They begin digging a hole. Mack wonders why the garden is so messy and wild. The garden, Sarayu indicates, is Mack’s heart. Her work is wild and beautiful and creative and she is working in him, growing something that he does not understand right now.
A pivotal point in the journey is that Mack goes out on a boat. He begins to think about his pain and his loss, and realizes the boat is sinking into the dark waters. The sea is the primordial chaos of satanic sin, seeking to swallow him. The only thing that saves him is that he sees Jesus walking on the water towards him. He grabs a hold of Jesus and does not let go. After that is some, as I call it, “Christian cheese,” where Jesus and Mack goof around walking on the water. The point is theological: Mack admits that Jesus is the most accessible of the members of the Trinity.
Mack is taken to a cave where he is confronted with lady Wisdom. Mack angrily wishes God to smite the killer of his daughter. Wisdom invites him to sit in God’s throne and play God for a moment. Wisdom invites him to give judgment on who will live and who will die. Eagerly Mack sits, ready to pour out his ire on his daughter’s killer. However, Mack’s other two children are placed before him. Their sins are recounted, and Wisdom requests Mack to choose between them, who will be preserved and who will die. Mack is confronted with the fact that if God is a loving Father to all people, God still loves the murderer, despite his brokenness, and is working to save him just as much as all his other children, not wanting any to perish.
At this point, Mack is given a glimpse of heaven, and sees Missy enjoying the fellowship of Jesus. He realizes that God in his love has placed her in a place beyond the pain of her death, and this comforts him to know she is okay.
Mack begins to heal as he learns to forgive as God has forgiven him. In the process, Mack learns he has to forgive his father, who was abusive. Interestingly after he does this, Papa appears to him as a male. Mack needed healing to approach God as Father. Papa previously appeared as a mother to appeal to the love that Mack already knew. Now, Papa is about to teach Mack a new stage of forgiveness. Papa brings him to the place where his daughter’s body was hidden. Along the walk, Mack is confronted with the need to forgive his daughter’s killer. As Mack lets go of his hate, Papa then brings them to the small cave where the body is stashed.
They delicately bring the body back to the shack and Mack realizes that Jesus has been working on a beautiful casket for his daughter. They bring the casket to the garden, and Mack realizes that the hole he was digging with Sarayu was a grave to bury Missy in. Mack realizes the love the Trinity had for Missy is the same as his and that God was with her through all that she went through. They all have a little funeral service there together.
Mack leaves the shack with a new found love at work in him, which he uses to rebuild his fractured marriage and family.
The movie was wonderful: good acting and cinematics. It is a bit of a crier, with many emotional and touching scenes. Admitfully, a movie of this nature is hard to pull off. Depicting God as a character, let alone the Trinity as a black lady, a young middle eastern man, and a weird Asian lady, is hard to do with warmth. We expect either the comical Morgan Freeman of Bruce Almighty or the powerful austerity of the voice coming from the burning bush like in The Ten Commandments. To depict Mack engaging in a friendship with God, and to do so tastefully, is perhaps most difficult because we don’t often want to think about God that way.
The movie presented the love of God, the invitation to trust Jesus, the wisdom of the Spirit, the need to live out God’s forgiveness and love as a response to the problem of evil in perhaps some of the most clear and success ways I have seen in Christian cinema. I look at some of the crap out there in Christian movies, not to name names, but The Shack was frankly refreshing.
Now, some will say that this is just literature and others, the movie’s critics, point out that it is teaching theological convictions. Both are correct. My reaction to the theological themes of the movie, which I will take up next post, are same as the book. Several years ago I read the book curious as to whether it was “heretical” but was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. My reaction is the same: “Am I missing something? Why are people getting angry at this?”
If you want to understand the book you really must listen to Paul Young’s testimony here. People need to walk a mile in Young’s shoes before casting judgment. In deed, as Christians I don’t think they can do that without listening to him. The Shack is a metaphor for his wrestling with God, as a man that was the son of missionaries, thoroughly indoctrinated in evangelical thinking. We would be wise to listen to the views of such an insider. Our children know our flaws better than anyone. His father abused him and taught him a theology of shame. Later in life he was unfaithful to his wife, repented, and sought counseling. The level of vulnerability and emotional insight in his testimony is staggering. The counseling was so intense that he almost committed suicide, but through it, he finally understood God’s love and grace. The book was written as a present to his kids, never intended to be published at the scale it has achieved. For any critic of Young, even if you disagree with his ideas, I would hope they would extend understanding on a person that shows us so much about how to follow Christ through suffering and brokenness.
As someone who is a person that saw abuse in our home (my mother’s husband to her), as someone who did grow up around emotionally toxic Christianity (my father was a pastor’s kid and his father abused him), this movie is highly therapeutic. As someone that has experienced a lot of difficulty, especially in my college years with my parents dying of cancer, while I will get into it more in the next post, this movie has forgiveness and faith at the center.
That is, I think, what the book is about at the end of the day: A man learning about the love of Christ through pain and suffering, propelling a person towards forgiveness. Am I missing something? What is wrong with that?