by Daniel Harrell
Alongside expected topics of significance on Twitter this past week—such as the crisis in Libya, oil prices, Justin Bieber and Charlie Sheen—the Twitterverse also lit up with a theological controversy about heaven and hell. Though nothing new as far as theological controversies go, what was new was the remarkably high volume of Twitter traffic the controversy generated. The reason, I’m sure, had something to do with the popularity of the opponents. In one corner was hipster pastor Rob Bell and his new book entitled Love Wins: A Book About Heaven and Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. In the other corner was the rock star reverend of high Reformed theology, the ever-popular John Piper. Piper joined a throng of Twitterers and bloggers who leveled scorn against Rob Bell’s apparent wade into the murky waters of universalism. Universalism holds that everybody gets to go to heaven. Sadly, the whole thing took on the ugly tenor of a heresy hunt. As one observer of the mêlée noted, “There can be no meaner, more hateful person on Earth than a Christian who suspects you have gotten your theology wrong.” Though this same observer also added that he wished his own books could draw similar contempt. The controversy rocketed Bell’s book to the top of the Amazon best-seller list and it’s not even published yet.
While not a universalist myself, I do hope and pray everybody goes to heaven. Especially given the way that Jesus describes the alternative. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off,” he says (the same goes for your foot and eye too); “it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” That Jesus would issue such warnings raises troubling implications for many. I remember a young man approaching me once to tell me how he was an agnostic, a non-believer basically, who had rejected Jesus because of hell. He said, “I can’t believe any God who is good would send people to burn forever.” “Yeah, we Christians struggle with that too,” I admitted. Though ironically, hell used to be more of a reason for believing in Jesus.
While hardly a concern for liberal theologians, conservatives worry that a younger generation is straying from biblical doctrine. Postmodernity is often blamed as the culprit in this shift, with its practice of deconstructionism serving as the chief troublemaker. The dictionary defines deconstructionism as “the critical analysis of language and texts that emphasizes internal workings, meanings and assumptions” rather than authorial intent. Popularized in the 1960s by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, he defined it as “affirmation rather than questioning, but in a sense which is not positive; [since you] distinguish between the positive, or positions, and affirmations leaving deconstruction affirmative rather than inquisitive” … all of which hopefully makes more sense in French.
Deconstruction is also blamed for greasing society’s skids toward relativism. Detractors argue that deconstruction dismantles Absolute Truth; and in some ways they are right. Though more than dismantling Absolute Truth (which by definition would be un-de-construct-able), postmodernists take aim at the human capacity for absolute knowledge. It’s one thing to say there is absolute truth. It’s another thing to say I absolutely know it. The difference is between that of “having faith” and “being sure.” To have faith is to believe you cannot know everything for sure, while to be sure is to believe that you know everything. As Brian so ably put it last Sunday, having faith has to do with questioning what you believe while continuing to believe what you question.
I once attended an interesting lecture at Villanova University entitled “What Would Jesus Deconstruct?” The lecturer simplified deconstruction as basically two steps. Step One takes on a commonly held assumption by reversing it (we call this being ironic). Jesus said, “You have heard it taught, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” The commonly held assumption was that the Levitical injunction to “love your neighbor” allowed for a boundary line whereby hating an enemy could be condoned. Arbitrarily define the notion of “neighbor,” and you’re free to love and hate whom you want. Jesus deconstructed this power move first by reversing the assumption: “I tell you,” he said, “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” The second step goes deeper by exposing the irony itself as ironic. Jesus took step two when he went on to say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” The irony of the irony was that the crowd to whom Jesus spoke presumed they were already sons of their Father in heaven. But by exposing the way they hated evil and unrighteous people (in contrast to their Father in heaven), Jesus exposed the inherent instability of their assumptions. He deconstructed them.
What I find interesting, however, is how often Jesus deconstructed himself. The crowds consistently projected onto Jesus their own wants and wishes of what a Messiah should be like—a revolutionary prophet, a nationalist political leader, a conquering King, an invincible Superman, a doting universalist, a sovereign predestinator. We do this still. Democrats portray Jesus with progressive values, Republicans have him as a conservative. Jesus comes off as a radical for the radicals, a corporate CEO for business types, a university professor for academic types. Rob Bell’s Jesus sounds a lot like Rob Bell, while John Piper’s is a lot like John Piper. Asked to describe Jesus in your own words, and chances are that your description wouldn’t be a long shot from how you see yourself—with your same priorities and values and friends and enemies—all the while assuming that it is you who resemble Jesus rather than the other way around.
In order to set matters straight, the Lectionary reading, appropriate for this last Sunday of Epiphany, has Jesus escorting disciples Peter, James and John up a mountain for an epiphany. Upon reaching the peak, Matthew writes that Jesus was transfigured. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.” To be transfigured does not mean to be changed as much as it means to be unveiled or revealed. The cover came off. Jesus shone with the light of his true identity. As the Bible testifies to the light: “God is light in whom there is no darkness.”
Of course even in the Bible, any testimony must still have two witnesses, and so Moses and Elijah show up too. Setting aside how it was that the disciples recognized Moses and Elijah (I take for granted Jesus introduced them), have you ever wondered why Moses and Elijah showed up instead of say, Jeremiah and Isaiah? Or Ezekiel and Deborah? Or even David and Samuel? The reason was that unlike the others, Moses and Elijah occupy critical positions in the Biblical narrative. Both received mountaintop visions of God’s glory. Both anointed their successors, Joshua and Elisha, with divine power. Both walked across parted waters, both thwarted wicked tyrants. God promised in Deuteronomy that he would one day raise up another Savior like Moses—one who would deliver his people from the hands of oppression forever. When Elijah came along, given all the similarities to Moses, it was easy to think that Elijah was it. However Elijah left the scene prematurely (via that chariot of fire) and the anticipated salvation of Israel did not happen with him.
So you can imagine how the disciples must have felt when they saw Moses and Elijah vouch for Jesus. Peter exclaimed: “Lord! It is beautiful for us to be here. Let me put up three tents—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Let’s have a circus!” Perhaps Peter was trying to make up for rebuking Jesus earlier and all of that “get behind me Satan” mess. Or perhaps he was hoping to capture the moment by crafting honorary memorials to it. If these tents were actually tabernacles as the word suggests, akin to that mobile dwelling place for God used by the Israelites in the desert, then most likely Peter was thinking that Kingdom-come had finally come and that this was it.
Sure enough, like that desert experience, a cloud appeared and enveloped them and a voice thundered from heaven, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” Recognizing the voice had to be God’s, the disciples hit the dirt. However, the promised Savior would not be a reconstituted Moses (a national hero to deliver them from the tyrannical Romans) nor was he to be a returning Elijah (a miracle-worker who destroys your enemies with fire from heaven). Atop the mountain, Jesus is the only one who lights up. He alone shines as Son of God. Moses and Elijah stand as witnesses pointing to a humble and homeless rabbi as the Lord of Glory.
Still, you do have to wonder, if Jesus was trying to deconstruct their expectations of a superhuman Savior, was this the way to do it? Flashing power and glory as your credentials was hardly the way to disabuse expectations of invincibility or illusions of national (and even personal) grandeur. But this was only Step One. Jesus first reverses their assumptions of what power looked like. The glory of God shone bright alright, but it ironically shone in a poor and scandalized carpenter from Galilee.
Walking down the mountain, Jesus made Step Two: the irony of the irony. Having seen Jesus uncovered, these disciples would have thought Jesus wore his humble humanity as a disguise—the Lord of Glory in cheap clothes. But Jesus’ humanity was no camouflage. Jesus was fully human just as we are; truly human as we are destined to become. He walked, talked, breathed—and here’s the thing: he would die too. Jesus ordered his disciples, “Tell no one about what you’ve seen until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Now they’d heard Jesus say before how that the Son of Man would rise (by which they must have thought would fly—superheroes do that). But this was the first time they’d heard him specifically say that the Son of Man would rise from the dead. Since when does Superman die? And not simply die, but suffer and be killed by the hands of his enemies? Jesus shines with the dark light of a crucified Savior. He saves by losing, he destroys evil by subjecting himself to it, he receives glory by giving it up. The roaring Lion of Judah is the humiliated Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world by taking the sins of the world onto himself.
This wasn’t what the disciples had assumed or expected. And it probably wasn’t what they wanted either. It wouldn’t be until after Easter, until after God burned it onto their brains at Pentecost, that they would finally get it. But even when you get it, it’s hard to get it right. Hike up the traditional site of the Transfiguration in Israel today and you’ll see they built a circus anyway. OK, it’s a church, but that only makes it worse. After the resurrection and Pentecost, Christians assumed that Jesus would be back any minute. They loved their enemies, didn’t worry, sold their possessions and took up their crosses because they expected Jesus to be back any minute. But once it became clear that Jesus wasn’t coming back as soon as they thought, expectations changed. Like those castaways on Lost, Christians began digging in for the long-haul. Instead of looking forward to Kingdom-come, it started to make more sense to build your own kingdom here. And before you knew it, the church of Jesus Christ didn’t look much like Jesus Christ anymore.
It’s still a struggle. As much as loss and love and humility and weakness remain the defining characteristics of God’s glory on earth, their ironic weight can be heavy to bear. We try to lighten the load by loading it up with our own wants and rationalizations, but irony of the irony, we end up making the load even heavier. Rather than living by faith, we crave certainty and thereby craft a faith so sure that no room for real faith remains. We’ll emphatically declare, “I know God would never cause disaster to strike,” or “I know God would never allow evil people to triumph” or “I know God would never make me poor or unhappy” or “I know God would never have me suffer,” or “I know that God would never condemn people to hell” no matter that in Scripture God in fact does all these things. And then when disaster strikes or evil wins or suffering happens, our structured faith crumbles under the weight because our faith was never in Jesus but in ourselves, in the Jesus we’ve made up in our minds.
I like an analogy from premarital counseling. When counseling couples who want to get married, I’ll sometimes ask what brought them to make this enormous decision. How did you decide to marry this person with whom you will promise to spend the rest of your life? Looking dreamily into the eyes of the other, the couple will usually say, “you just know.” Of course as romantic as that always sounds, any married person will tell you it’s completely bogus. Once you’re married it always turns out you didn’t know squat. This is not a bad thing, but it is a sad reason so many couples choose not to marry. They couldn’t be sure. and unless you can know everything, you can’t trust anything.
There’s an old fashioned term that people used to use about marriage: betrothal. Betroth means to “pledge trust.” Troth, like trust, is not a move of certainty, but a move of faith. This is why the marriage ceremony intentionally asks not “do you love” but “will you love each other as long as you both shall live?” It’s the same with our relationship to Jesus. The question is not “do you trust,” but “will you trust, for better or worse, no matter what?”
In Mark’s account of Jesus’ arrest, all the disciples lost faith and fled. The only person who stuck around was this mysterious young man who was strangely wearing nothing but a linen sheet. “He was following Jesus,” Mark tells us, while everyone else was running away. As the young man was following Jesus, “the mob tried to grab him.” They were unable to hold onto him though. Mark writes: “he left the linen cloth and escaped naked.” Many scholars presume the young man to be Mark himself, inserted here by the author as some sort of personal signature (albeit a weird one). More likely, I think, Mark is granting us a literary preview of Easter. The chief priests and religious teachers make a grab for Jesus, but in the end he eludes them, leaving behind only his linen burial cloth. Yet as a literary device, the naked young man also serves as a commentary on trust. Far from keeping you safe, following Jesus strips you naked.
Stripped naked we’re left vulnerable and exposed; fully uncovered. And yet Jesus fully uncovers us not to shame us, but to embrace us. It’s a hard place that we all want to be. Open and vulnerable, no pretending or pretense, needing to trust, wanting to love and believe and be loved. Jesus does that. The real Jesus rather than some silly Superman who, ironically, can only fail and disappoint you over and over again.