Gary Swisher

Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

Old Man at the Cross

In Christ, Christianity, evangelical, Theology on April 29, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Last weekend I saw a few channels airing The Passion which Mel Gibson produced several years ago. Most Christians have seen it, but if you have not, The Passion is a very graphic portrayal of the trial and crucifixion of Christ. It can be very hard to watch if you are sensitive to blood and trauma on the screen. When the movie first came out our next-door neighbor commented that Christians should see the movie in response to what Christ did for us. I tend to agree that we need to have an appreciation of the horrible punishment Jesus endured, but for many, including my neighbor, I sense more of an obligation to view this movie–similar to required reading for a class.

I think this element of obligation might actually show a lack of appreciation for the cross and what it means. How can I say this? As with many things we hold and believe, there are different ways to understand the cross. There is a natural view and a spiritual view. I once heard a pastor rightly comment that if we had been able to witness the actual crucifixion of Christ, it would have had an enormous impact on us, yet it would ultimately not cause any effective change in us. As wrenching as it was, the impact of the crucifixion must go beyond our natural ability to respond.

I get the sense that many want to look at the cross for their motivation; retelling it, reliving it as a way to renew commitment, ignite devotion and respond as God would have us. This thinking holds that the more we see the brutal torture borne by our innocent Savior, the more we, who were truly guilty, will be inspired to go out there and live like never before.

How we perceive the cross will greatly determine the power it has in our lives. Our tendency to find motivation from what Jesus did may actually work against the intent of the cross because our natural man wants to “live up” to the sacrifice. Our human reaction is to feel compelled to respond with remorse, passion and fervor. But fervor, like all things, fades. This may be why we need a more graphic portrayal of the crucifixion. Perhaps we have lost sensitivity to the event, having become so familiar with it. Yet, I don’t know that my middle-aged heart will ever relive the impact the cross had on me when I first digested the great injustice that brought mercy to me. What will happen, then, after the graphic effects of The Passion also begin to lose their impact? Having watched the movie, one key thought occurred to me. The scriptures do not go into very explicit detail about the crucifixion. This is not to minimize the immense suffering Jesus endured, but it may minimize the relative effectiveness of focusing on just the natural impact of the crucifixion.

What effect does the cross produce in us? Is there a great sense of inadequacy? Good. Is there a desire to learn from the heart of Christ? I think that is good too. But is there also a desire to “rise to the challenge”? Is there a sense that we can use the crucifixion to produce more sorrow for sin, and a greater resolve to do better? Could there even be, heaven forbid, an attempt to defray the cost to Jesus by virtue of living better? This is not good, I believe, because it fuels the fire of self reliance and ultimately is rooted in self justification. Our old man may feel obliged to respond with all his muster. It is the tendency of our flesh to try to live up to and do justice to Christ’s sacrifice.

Part of us thinks we need to justify Christ’s offering. We need to change and become worthy of such a sacrifice. We should not be surprised that such a lofty aspiration comes from the most corrupt nature. This very nature undermines grace and the utterly helpless state we occupy without Christ. What’s more, it neglects the true power of the cross. Since Christ died for us when we were powerless we cannot attempt to reform the “undeserving nature” after the fact. We need to let that nature be crucified with Christ and stake no claim to it. There is no use for a reformed old man. Christ is victorious when our life ends on the cross with him.

For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh; so that the righteousness of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 8:3 -4)

Paul also said he was (past tense) crucified with Christ so that the true life and nature of Christ might live in him. This was not his aspiration, it was a done deal. He reckoned himself dead, having been baptized, not just into some pool of H2O, but baptized into the very death of Christ. Christ did not just do away with our sins, he did away with ourselves, the old man, with all his reforms, improvements, remorse and fortitude, was wiped out. Only by complete removal of the corrupted nature can the way be cleared for Christ to rise up in us.

The cross should not produce a sense of guilt–since by it, all guilt is crucified–in order that we can walk in newness which is the nature of Christ. As much as Christ suffered for sins, it was Adam (the old man) who died there. That was me and my old ways up there–both the good and the bad–all together crucified. My agenda is not to work and improve myself, but to give up my agenda, to let it be crucified for the sake of taking on the life of Christ. Here we take on a life which is not our own. No longer directing our own steps. Nothing needs to be salvaged or rescued from the old man. In the crucifixion we need to realize our own death.

Or are you ignorant that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore, we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, so also we may walk in newness of life. (Rom 6:3-4)

Looking for the Passover Bunny

In Christ, Christianity, church, evangelical on April 20, 2011 at 9:53 pm

As Christians all over the U.S. prepare to attend a special service on what is known as Easter Sunday, church leaders are looking for ways to get the crowds into their particular church. One church in my area, World Harvest, is holding a grand sweepstakes to get people to attend. Pastor Rod Parsley has decided that his church will give away a used car among other fabulous merchandise, including cool gadgets like an iPad. There is a long list of prizes on their website, and a host of prizes for the kiddies too. All you have to do to enter is register prior to the service, but you must be in attendance when they announce the winners at the program’s close. Subtle, isn’t it? (I wonder if Bob Barker will be on hand?) In addition to the merchandise, they’re giving away a real, live bunny and 50,000 eggs. I’m not kidding.

This kind of farce does not characterize all churches, yet I still can’t help get the feeling that most churches are very opportunistic around this time of year. They may put it under the guise of reaching the lost, but it seems they don’t mind strengthening their numbers and their reputation in the process, so they all look for ways to promote their Easter service. As nauseating as Rod Parsley’s raffle is, it may only differ in scale from what other churches will do. I know one that’s giving away mugs to anyone who will commit to attend their Easter service.

It seems there’s a crowd out there who feels compelled to make an annual pilgrimage to their local church of choice, just to make sure the bases are covered when it comes to the one important service (two if you count Christmas). After all the hoopla, the crowd that calls itself “Christian” on a survey will be pretty much finished with church for the next several months. The churches who courted this demographic will return to the normal level of attendance and go back to business as usual. All their prizes and promotions will be for naught.

But let’s take inventory. What comes to mind for most people when they think of Easter? Bunnies, bonnets, eggs, Hot Cross Buns? How about a chocolate cross? Is that too much for a disciple to bear? Add to this whole circus the fact that Christ was not raised on the day called Easter and things really come apart. Easter isn’t Christian. It is a Roman corruption displacing the Passover—which, incidentally, occurs some other week this time of year (on the Hebrew calendar). We don’t even commemorate the right day. No bunnies were around when Jesus was executed on a cross. And his cross wasn’t made of solid milk chocolate. It was real wood, covered with real blood. Let’s put that on a billboard and see how many will come. But if you want a good turnout, better give away some cars, eggs, maybe even some cash!

Sideshows aside, I think Churches are actually responsible for creating this pilgrimage-mentality. They have become complicit in the belief that, if you only connect with the cross of Christ once a year, it better be on Easter. They hope to hook some people into regular attendance, which might happen occasionally; and maybe some souls will even be saved. By-and-large, however, when all the wooing is over, there isn’t much return on the investment. Once-a year-pew sitters are hard to change, especially when the message is focused on the freebies, both physical and spiritual. The message of the cross becomes one of “seeker-friendly” convenience during most Easter services. It doesn’t have to be a prize-festooned extravaganza to cheapen the message of the cross. Just let the visitors know nothing is expected, that grace gets them off the hook, and hopefully they will come around next time. It makes you feel good to know that marginal Christians choose your church for their rare appearances.

No matter what the time of year, churches continue to make attendance a primary focus at the expense of Christ. The list of gimmicks never ends, ranging from Hot-Rod Sundays to personal finance workshops and even free carnival rides in the church parking lot. What message is the world hearing? Churches will do almost anything to get people to attend. It’s become a popularity contest. Yet Jesus wasn’t concerned about his popularity. He knowingly said and did things that would turn the crowds away. On one occasion Jesus fed a multitude, but when the people realized he wasn’t just a meal ticket (or a raffle ticket), they lost interest and left. They just walked away, and Jesus let them.  He didn’t even do follow-up visits on their front porches Tuesday evening. Knowing this, why do churches go to such extremes to please the masses and get warm bodies in the pews? Jesus was more likely to turn people away because what they sought was not in line with the kingdom.

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. (John 6:26 NIV)

Then Jesus had some hard things to say…

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:66, NIV)

Jesus spoke the truth. He let the crowd know their reason for coming had no value. Not very seeker friendly when you think about it. Many of today’s churches are striving to do just the opposite by appealing to the carnal desires as a bait-and-switch. The only switch will be when the crowd gets their fill and walks away.

The Passover Bunny doesn’t exist. You cannot take a sacrificial lamb, pour out its blood and then decorate it with chocolate eggs and Easter Lillies. If the first connection to the crowd is aimed at their belly or their greed, how do you proceed to spiritual things without losing them? If the message the world is hearing is that Christianity is so boring and unfulfilling that you have to dress it up with gameshow prizes, how do you reverse that mindset?

You don’t.

Hell Bent, Part 2

In Christianity, Hell, Theology on April 7, 2011 at 11:23 pm

In his most famous sermon, Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan preacher who shares credit for the Great Awakening, had this to say of God’s nature:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire.

And this he said not to heathen but to his own congregation!

So often we hear the call to let the Bible interpret the Bible. And this should well be applied to an inquiry of hell. Jesus’ description of hell is comparatively subdued in light of such traumatizing fabrications. Christ said there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The phrase, “gnashing of teeth” is used several times in the Old Testament and simply communicates the idea of contempt or disdain. Let the Bible explain:

All your enemies have opened their mouth against you; they hiss and gnash the teeth; they say, We have swallowed her up. (Lam 2:16)

His anger has torn and hated me; He gnashes on me with His teeth; my enemy sharpens his eyes at me. (Job 16:9)

How is it that we have always been led to believe that such gnashing of teeth is the result of unspeakable torture, when scriptural precedent shows it is a sign of mere contempt? And what about weeping, or wailing as some translations say? Does this fit a tortured existence? Would your response to excruciating pain be to begin weeping? If I slam a hammer on my finger, weeping is not my response. I am more apt to scream at the shock of such consuming pain, yet this is nothing compared to the horrors of the popular view of hell, where we should expect nothing short of mind-piercing screams and blood-curdling shrieks! Weeping is a response to grief and great loss, not unfathomable torture.

I grew up thinking hell was an infernal region below ground. I was afraid if one dug a hole too deep he might be captured by Satan himself. Of course, I  failed to realize that hell was not Satan’s headquarters where he amused himself by torturing people. It was the pagans who created such false ideas that we associate with hell. The word hell, itself, is a mistranslation and a misnomer. While the original word “hell” means to conceal, cover over, the Greek word at its source has no such meaning. So many popular translations also confuse hell with hades—or the grave. Jesus descended into lower regions but never once did he set foot in hell. If your translation disagrees, it needs reformed.

The word in the Bible that is most often translated “hell” is Gehenna. But contrary to the meaning of the word hell, Gehenna was not a concealed, covered-over place. It was a wide-open, burning, garbage dump, spread out for all to see. This was a picture reserved for the Jews. The word Gehenna is never used with non-Jewish audiences. Paul never mentions it once, nor does the “gospel for gentiles” (John).

And what of the fire? Fire creates unbearable pain, of course. But is the fire of judgment literal, or could it be figurative? Surely Jesus was painting a picture of sheer, unspeakable agony. If you grew up believing in the age-old view of hell, it has to be literal. And surely the branches in Christ which bear no fruit will be burned with literal fire (even though they are not literal branches). By the same token, when Jesus says his Father prunes the fruitful branches, do we take this literally, as if pruning shears are used to cut off the limbs of Christians? Consider other occurrences of “fire” in the New Testament. Jesus said everyone would be salted with fire (not just the lost) and that the Holy Spirit would baptize with fire. Is the Holy Spirit to engulf us with burning flames? Is this literal or figurative?

I hope it is clear to all that the fire spoken of in Isaiah 42 is a figure of judgment and not literal fire, as it speaks of God’s chosen people being subject to flaming wrath, surrounded by fire and even burned. Not a word of it is literal.

Who gave up Jacob to those who took away his goods, and Israel to his attackers? Did not the Lord? he against whom they did wrong, and in whose ways they would not go, turning away from his teaching. For this reason he let loose on him the heat of his wrath, and his strength was like a flame; and it put fire round about him, but he did not see it; he was burned, but did not take it to heart. (Isa 42:24-25)

If someone mistreats us, are we to heap burning coals of fire upon him? Yes we are, but this is figurative speech as it relates to overcoming evil with good. This fire produces a good result. Yet I am sure many Christians throughout history saw this verse as a license to make hell hotter for their adversaries. Even so, the discomfort in the conscience caused by receiving good for evil can hardly compare to the pain of burning your enemy’s flesh. Perhaps this is the fire into which God’s enemies will be cast. God, himself is a consuming fire. He makes his ministers a flame of fire. Are they literal fires? Are his ministers in flaming agony? How should we go about deciding when fire is to be taken literally and when it is a figure of speech? Can death be a thing thrown into a burning lake?

Does scripture alone form our concept of God’s judgment, or do our ancestral preconceptions skew our interpretation of scripture? I would suggest the scriptures are not nearly as articulate, detailed or cruel as the pervading picture of hell we have, even today. I am also suggesting that hell has been embellished when it was most effective in scaring and controlling the masses. Scripture clearly shows God’s wrath. But God is not defined as wrath. God is (is equated to) love. Since love defines God, love must be the basis for all he does. Love includes judgment and wrath, but wrath does not define God.

Over the centuries the people whose foremost image of God was that of  a wrathful and vengeful tyrant, were the quickest to turn up the heat on those outside their fold. Their hardened hearts devised the most graphic embellishments of  the coming judgment, amplifying the pain and torment exponentially. If our judgments toward others will be used as a standard for us, we should be very careful. If we continue to see God’s highest passion as being a torturer of souls (especially those we dislike), our hearts will be likewise affected and our actions will follow suit. Fixating on wrath will condemn the believer and those in his world to an unmerciful, legalistic and vengeful kind of existence. Just check the past.

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved

Hell Bent

In Christianity, church, Hell, Theology on April 7, 2011 at 11:11 pm

As with many things in Christendom, the understanding of hell is layered with corruptions stemming from church politics, vain imaginations and even paganism. The view of eternal punishment has been embellished over the ages, and oftentimes has seemed much more hellish than the picture scripture seems to paint.

When I grew up, hell-fire and brimstone sermons were more common. If I had been born a few years earlier, I’m sure they would have been a steady diet. The church movement of my formative years was once extremely legalistic. As time progressed, so did the emphasis on God’s grace. In many veins of Christianity, legalism has seemed to wane (not that it’s gone by any means) since the 1960s, and so has the prevalence of fear and judgment as a motivation for moral conduct. Is it possible that one’s particular bent on hell, or the amount of emphasis hell receives, is connected to the degree of legalism and judgmentalism one demonstrates?

The fire insurance view of the gospel has been a sad reflection on Christian theology, showing an impoverished understanding of the true riches found in Christ. Perhaps the reason a book like Love Wins, by Rob Bell, is getting so much attention is because it has become less palatable to focus on eternal torment. Fiery-judgment sermons are surely less prevalent now than in the past. I would argue that the times when church history was most characterized by condemnation and persecution of both believers and non-believers, it was due to significantly greater emphasis on what heretics and sinners deserved in the eyes of an angry God. In medieval times the church raised funds through fear by convincing Christians that they would go to hell for not tithing. So-called “heretics” were burned alive at the stake and unbelievers were tortured in a variety of inventive and sadistic ways, especially during the inquisition.

One such heretic, named Michael Servetus, was helped to his execution by the famous theologian, John Calvin. The quote below shows the degree to which Christian leaders of the time acted as divine judge and jury.

It is true that Calvin and his fellow pastors in Geneva were involved in the death of Servetus [to put it lightly]. However, it would be difficult to find any church leader in the 16th century who advocated a more gentle approach. Luther called for attacks on German peasants and wrote an angry tract against the Jews, called ‘On the Jews and their Lies’. Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich, supported the execution by drowning of the Anabaptist leader, Felix Manz. Sir Thomas More, England ‘s Catholic Lord Chancellor, presided over the execution of those he viewed as “heretics” in England during the reign of Henry the VIII.
Source: www.calvin.edu/meeter/resources/servetus.htm

As I expressed in my previous series of posts, the parts of the Bible that lack detailed explanations are often the points where humans endeavor to explain the most. Hell is no different. Where Jesus tells of the weeping and gnashing of teeth, humans chime in with the most grotesque depictions of sadistic torture they can fathom. Thomas Aquinas is credited with saying, “That the saints may enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly, and give more abundant thanks to God for it, a perfect sight of [the] punishment of the damned is granted them.”  The Assemblies of God hold in their doctrinal statement that, “It is impossible to describe the … terror and torment of hell.” Why so? Did Jesus lack the words to do it justice?

A Catholic priest named John Furniss (sounds like furnace?) wrote a children’s book in the 19th century called The Sight of Hell. Below are some quotes.

Night came upon them from the lowest and deepest hell. She saw that in the upper hell, the torments were very grevious. In the middle hell they were still more terrible. In the lowest hell the torments were above all understanding.

There is in hell a sound like that of many waters…It is the sound of oceans of tears running from the countless millions of eyes. They cry night and day.

…if one single body was taken out of hell and laid on the earth, in that same moment every living creature on the earth would sicken and die.

The [devil’s] first stroke will make your body as bad as the body of Job, covered from head to foot with sores and ulcers. The second stroke will make your body twice as bad as the body of Job…How then will your body be after the devil has been striking it every moment for a hundred million of years without stopping?

The sinner lies chained down on a bed of red-hot blazing fire!

How will you feel in hell, when millions of [biting worms] make their dwelling-place in your mouth, and ears, and eyes, and creep all over you, and sting you with their deadly stings through all eternity.

With so many things being reformed in the history of Christendom there has never been a reformation of this distorted perception of God’s punishment of the lost. The same darkened mindset that developed such extreme and detailed descriptions of their torments has guided and influenced our Bible translations, scripture interpretations and sermons down to this very day. What mind is it that we bring to scriptures to inquire of God’s final judgment? We come with the foregone conclusion that no imagination of man can grasp what a hideous torture awaits the lost.

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved