By Alan Bean
“Young man,” a grizzled Presbyterian cleric asked a harried candidate for ordination, “would you be willing to be damned for the greater glory of God?”
Uncertain how to respond, and weary from two hours of dense theological questions he only half understood, the young man blurted, “Yes, and I’d be even more willing to see the entire Presbytery damned for God’s glory.”
The story (no doubt apocryphal) was inspired by the theology of Samuel Hopkins (d. 1803) the New England divine who attempted to systematize the theological musings of Jonathan (Sinners in the hands of an angry God) Edwards. The bit about willing to be damned for the greater glory of God was hotly debated in eighteenth century America. Thomas Jefferson told John Adams that Hopkins belonged in a straight jacket, accusing the reformed theologian of being either an atheist or preaching the religion of “Daemonism”. “It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all,” Jefferson asserted than to worship such an atrocious deity.
Hopkins stands at the opposite end of the theological spectrum from Victoria Osteen, the contemporary American theologian who sparked a firestorm of indignation by opining that:
“When you come to church when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God, really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.”
Hopkins believed that self-love (of precisely the sort that Ms. Osteen had in mind) is the very essence of sin. To God with the selfish ambition of escaping hell, Hopkins taught, is to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. Instead, we should be willing (following Paul’s argument in Romans 9) to be damned if that’s what it takes to further God’s gracious work in the world.
In fairness, it should be noted that Hopkins applied his logic of damnation to the slave trade. American Christians who endorse human bondage while pretending to seek the blessing of a holy God are deluding themselves, he said.
In other words, Hopkins wanted Christians to do the right thing for the right reason without regard for personal advancement.
John Milton (d. 1674), another Puritan divine, was getting at a similar point when he probed Lucifer’s motivation for wreaking chaos in God’s good creation. Milton’s Lucifer was determined to advance his own agenda even if that required messing with God’s well-laid plains. Cast out of heaven with a host of reprobate angels, Lucifer told his comrades to pick themselves up and make the most of a bad situation:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
Samuel Hopkins was reversing this logic, “Better to serve in hell than to reign in heaven.”
American evangelicals have more in common with Milton’s Lucifer than we would like to admit.
Lucifer knew all too well the bliss of serving in heaven. Lifting himself from the blighted soil of hell he turns to his fallen companions and asks, “Is this the region, this the soil, the clime, this the seat that we must change for Heaven, this mournful gloom for that celestial light?”
Americans once ruled America. Not for nothing did Kenneth Scott Latourette call the 1800s “The evangelical century.” But evangelicals reign no more. We have been cast down from heavenly prominence, unseated by agnostic science, liberal religion and a postmodern profusion of competing faith narratives. The process began in the dying decades of the 19th century and has been unfolding ever since.
For many evangelicals the big question is this: How can we regain the paradise from which we have fallen?
And the official answer mirrors Lucifer’s determination to make the most of a bad situation. To return to our former glory, or to simply retain our little slice of the American pie, we must build on a solid foundation. Lucifer found his foundation in the scarred landscape of hell; we found ours in the Bible.
Building our kingdom on the Bible seems, at first glance, a logical, non-satanic, and thoroughly wonderful idea. Remember the song we sang as children, “The B-I-B-L-E,yes that’s the book for me, I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.”
But when we talk about the “Word of God,” do we mean the Bible, or do we mean Jesus?
In the third chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul provides a convenient answer:
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.
But the little ditty we all learned in Sunday school identifies “the Word of God” with the Bible.
Perhaps I am splitting hairs here. The Bible endorses Jesus and Jesus endorses the Bible, so the two are essentially the same. Right?
We can’t know Jesus apart from the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus signed off on everything he discovered in the sacred text. In fact, Jesus carefully defined the character of God in ways that differ significantly from the earliest strata of biblical tradition.
God doesn’t favor some people groups while while damning others, Jesus says. Because God loves everyone, only those who distance themselves from the kingdom party God is throwing will be left in outer darkness where men shall weep and gnash their teeth.
God is good, and God is good all the time. Or, in the elegant simplicity of First John: “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”
Not even a little bit.
All light; no darkness, full stop!
And that’s why Paul insists that we build on Jesus Christ alone. God once behaved like a tribal deity, favoring one nation over all the others, the Apostle admits, but now God is weaving Jews and Gentiles into one unified community of faith.
Taking its stand on the B-I-B-L-E, American evangelicalism cannot admit that God changed his mind (following Paul) or, as Jesus seems to suggest, that God, from the beginning, has been gracious, compassionate and merciful to everyone without exception.
But if our faith is built on the Bible, if we have what evangelicals call a “biblical worldview” God must be BOTH compassionate Father and genocidal tribal chieftain, and if we find that confusing it just shows that God’s thoughts are higher than ours. We’ll understand it better by-and-by.
A few days ago, I published a review of The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, by Peter Enns. Enns spends several chapters on the Old Testament concept of “the ban”. As Israel entered the promised land of Canaan, every man, woman, child and beast living in that goodly land flowing with milk and honey had to be put to the sword. God demanded it. Enns argues that a God who commands genocide cannot be squared with the teaching of Jesus (or Isaiah, for that matter).
A lot of readers took exception to this argument. Because American evangelicals stand on the B-I-B-L-E, that didn’t surprise me. The ease with which many readers embraced the notion of a genocidal God did surprise me. In fact, I was shocked.
Let me put it to you straight: If you can find any room for genocide in the heart of God, you aren’t talking about the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s why Jesus says, “You have heard it said . . . buy I say to you.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person . . .
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5: 38-48)
But Jesus couldn’t have been disagreeing with Moses and Joshua, my critics insist, because the Bible is internally consistent. Jesus and Moses can use different idioms, but they cannot flat disagree. It’s against the rules.
Friends of Justice, the non-profit I direct, came to life when a corrupt police officer made dozens of bogus drug cases on forty-seven people in the Texas Panhandle town of Tulia. Because his victims lived on the poor side of the tracks, it was was commonly assumed that the undercover man was speaking truth even though he had no corroborating evidence. After all, selling drugs is what “those people” do.
I subsequently witnessed this us-them logic in places like Jena, Louisiana and Winona, Mississippi. “Oh, he’s one of those people; then he must have done whatever they say he did.”
Us-them thinking is antithetical to Christian faith. That is, if we are building on the foundation God has laid in Jesus Christ. But if you take you stand on an internally consistent B-I-B-L-E, us-them thinking is mandatory. Joshua thought in us-them terms because God commanded it, and if God commanded it, Jesus can’t object. As we have seen, it’s against the rules.
So how about it, are you willing that God be damned for the glory of the Bible?
Are you willing to see the good name of the Creator associated with genocide and favoritism if that’s what is the price of an inerrant, internally consistent B-I-B-L-E?
If regaining our favored place in American culture requires that the line separating the Abba-Father of Jesus from Milton’s Lucifer get’s fuzzy, can you live with that?
A God who picks winners and losers, a God who thinks in us-them categories, a God who blesses and curses on the basis of nationality, is not the God Jesus talked about.
Jesus is adamant on this point. God didn’t start out as a genocidal and morally arbitrary tribal deity who evolved into the Father of All, Jesus says; God is good, and God is good all the time: past, present and future.
Like Lucifer, we are want to make the best of a bad situation and are looking to maximize market share. An inerrant Bible that proclaims one uniform message from cover to cover yields a consistent “biblical worldview”. A biblical worldview lets us define the enemy, distinguish us from them, and separate the sheep from the goats.
The sheep are Christians who adhere to the “biblical worldview”; everyone else fits into the goat category, and it’s God’s job to reward us while punishing them. Evangelism means asking sensible people to move from “them” to “us”.
One problem: this “biblical worldview” doesn’t emerge from the pages of scripture unless we cut a little here, paste a little there, and trashcan the bits that don’t fit the pattern.
I have no problem with a “biblical worldview” so long as we allow Jesus to tell us what it is. A God who eliminates us-them categories may be inconvenient, but, if Jesus calls the shots, that’s the only God on offer.
Let’s get real for a second. We’re not going to create a second Evangelical Century. Christians, evangelical or otherwise, must accept their status as an odd counterculture dedicated to the words and way of Jesus. White American evangelicals have been cast down from our hegemonic paradise into a postmodern hell and, frankly, it is the best thing that has ever happened to us. Perhaps now the simple words that inaugurated the teaching ministry of Jesus will get through to us:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”