Easter as God’s Power Play

What are Christians celebrating on Easter?  Not, surely, colored eggs and furry rabbits, appealing though each may be to the lush, sunny season of fertility and renewal.

Nor are Christians celebrating the rebirth of human goodness (one is reminded of the aphorism that original sin is the only Christian doctrine that can be verified by everyday experience).  Two thousand years of intervening history have not, shall we say, gone a long way toward highlighting goodness as a prominent human virtue.

Nor — mark it well — do Christians celebrate at Easter the human soul surviving death, though Christians traditionally have believed in the immorality of the human soul. Immortality is not the same as bodily resurrection, and Easter is all about the celebration of the resurrection, getting up out of the grave in a body, notably the body of Jesus Christ.

In this, Christians affirm the accounts in the Bible’s gospels — that Jesus died on the Cross for humanity’s sin and three days later rose bodily from the grave.  Scandalous?  Yes.  Even monstrous?  You bet, and no less scandalous 2000 years ago, when the sophisticated Romans and Greeks saw the human body as a burdensome prison to be ecstatically escaped at death.  Today the idea of bodily resurrection garners less scorn than it did 100 years ago in the age of scientism, which denied all miracles.  In our own postmodernity, where the chaos of quantum physics increasingly rules both science and philosophy, the idea that somebody who died could get up out of the grave and live again is less likely to suffer ridicule.  After all, all sorts of odd things happen in the universe, so why not resurrection of a dead body?

But for Christians, Jesus’ resurrection was not a freak coincidence.  Rather, it was a demonstration of God’s power in his Son, who could not be incarcerated in the grave.  Why?  Because in his sacrificial death on the Cross, he had faithfully discharged humanity’s sin-debt.  He could not be chained by the power of sin, having endured its penalty in the agony of his very being.  Jesus’ resurrection was a dramatic display of God’s vanquishing sin ’s stranglehold over humanity.  Original sin may be the great fact of life, but somebody beat it, and that somebody was Jesus Christ.

By trusting in Jesus Christ and him alone, we unite with not only with his sin-paying death but, more importantly, with his sin-defying resurrection.  His victory becomes ours by faith.

Easter is the Christians’ hope in facing a precarious future.  It is their bulwark against the pervasive power of sin in our world.  It is the answer to humanity’s most grievous inhumanity — genocide, terrorism, racism, war crimes, oppression of society’s weakest and most vulnerable, politically sponsored poverty, and a thousand other moral horrors that only the depraved mind of an individual could devise.

Easter is the celebration that sinful humanity will not, in the end, get its way.

Easter says that man may shake his fist at God, but that God — thank God! — always gets the last laugh.


Called to Be Holy (Part 1)

called-to-be-holyOne of the most theologically riveting — and convicting — books I’ve read in a long time is Old Testament scholar John N. Oswalt’s Called to be Holy: A Biblical Perspective. The book is non-technical but thorough in its treatment of the Biblical conception of holiness. Oswalt is Wesleyan, but every Bible-believing Christian must account for his thoughtful exegesis and searing arguments.

Here are some of my own takeaways from part I of the book:

The view that the gospel is about forgiveness of sins and a heavenly home with no great concern for our behavior is heresy (3)

Unlike eschatology and ecclesiology, the teaching on holiness is a fundamental to the Bible’s message (3)

“[A] church without the character of God lacks the power of God” (3)

“We want to believe God to escape the consequences of our sin, but we do not want to believe Christ to deliver us from our sinning” (5)

The Old Testament covenant was similar in form to that of the surrounding pagan cultures so that God could show how radical is the antithesis between him and pagan gods (14–15)

God makes his people holy so that he can live among them (29)

God’s covenant doesn’t establish a relationship with God’s people; it lays down stipulations for an existing relationship (29)

To claim covenant relation and forgiveness without holiness is to pervert the covenant (34)

“God will lay aside his anger at the slightest pretext” (35)

Newer Bible translations do not refuse to translate “perfect” when referring to what God demands of his people on linguistic grounds but on theological grounds — our view of what God requires of his people has changed (46)

When God requires perfection, he is not requiring sinlessness but an undivided heart (51, 58)

The human heart is so depraved that only whole-hearted devotion to God can keep us from sin (54)

The lines of faithfulness are often preserved by the “little people,” not the leaders (58)

Only God can give humans a consistent delight in living: only he knows what will make us happy (68)

Evidence of the filling of the Holy Spirit is that God alone can be the explanation for the changed life (71f.)

“A man after God’s own heart” (King David) really means that God’s concerns are our concerns (74)

God confronts unbelievers with his glory by exposing them to the holiness of his people (81)

Messiah’s atonement for sin was not an end in itself but a means to an end: that God would make his people holy so that he could dwell among them (90)

The pagan gods were so alluring to the ancient Jews because they offered huge benefits without demanding absolute surrender — as Jehovah did (98)


Easter is About Bodily Resurrection, Not Soul Immortality


But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:23)

And when they [the Greeks] heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked (Acts 17:32a)

In late November 2001, the Arts and Entertainment Television Network carried a special by popular rock singer Billy Joel. Among other inane comments, he said, “I believe that when people die, they go to live in the hearts of the people they love.”   This is a manifestly pagan idea; and it should not surprise us, because Billy Joel is a manifest pagan.   Unfortunately, it is only a somewhat secularized notion of a heresy too commonly held by many Christians today — that the “release” of death is the joy of a disembodied “spiritual” existence.

The Greeks’ “Immortality”

The ancient pagan Greeks were proponents of the inherent immortality of the soul (I’ll elaborate below).  The Bible, on the other hand, stresses the resurrection of the body.   While we do not cease to exist at death (“soul sleep” until the Final Resurrection), the Bible has little to say of this “intermediate” existence (2 Cor. 5:6-8).   In the Bible, personal eschatology is inextricably linked with the resurrection of the body.   First Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4 (among other Scriptures) make this abundantly clear.   As G. I. Williamson wrote several years ago,[1] one of the big defects of many Christian funerals is all of the talk about the deceased’s being “with the Lord” (which is blissfully correct) but no talk whatsoever about the resurrection.   This, in fact, is to reverse the Biblical emphasis and to revert somewhat to Greek paganism.   In the Bible, the emphasis is on the resurrection — not “being with the Lord,” in a disembodied existence.


To the ancient Greeks, however, man is made up of several distinct, and potentially independent, parts.   The soul is the principal part of man — it is his insubstantial existence, which conforms to eternal, super-temporal “Forms.”  It existed before his body did, and it will exist after the body is gone.   The body, in fact, is simply the house of the soul.  In fact, it is the prison of the soul. According to the Greeks, the body is unnatural for man.   It is an alien part that prevents him from realizing what he could if he were not imprisoned within it.   The body was a troubling vexation to the pagan Greeks — it constrains man to time and space, subjects him to sickness and weariness, and gives him all sorts of fits.   Therefore, the Greeks saw death as a pleasant, delightful, joyous experience.[2]   “The human soul,” writes Charles MacKenzie of Greek humanism, “is a virtual prisoner within the body, and a true philosopher lives to die.  Death is not an enemy, but a friend because it releases man to inhabit the eternal world of ideas.”[3]   At death, we finally get rid of this old constricting baggage we carry around.   Death is man’s Great Emancipation.


This is why the Athenians (Ac. 17) rather politely listened to Paul (their perspective was, “After all, isn’t everyone entitled to his own point of view?” [v. 21]) until he mentioned Christ’s resurrection (v. 32).  To the Greeks, resurrection was silly.  After all, the whole goal of life is death, so that man may escape the limitations of the body and join the eternal Forms.  Why would he want to be re-embodied after death?  That defeats the whole purpose!  Both the preaching of both the Cross and the resurrection were foolishness to the Greeks because these Christian realities centered salvation in redemptive history.[4]   The Greeks, by contrast, wanted a salvation from history.  They wanted an escape.  They didn’t want to be “Left Behind.

The Goodness of Creation

This is as far removed from the Christian teaching of the body set forth in the Bible as the East is from the West.   The contrast, as Thomas Oden suggests, is unmistakable:

The Greek tradition held that the soul existed before and after earthly life, hence one’s true life is the life of one’s soul, the body being ancillary to the human person.  The Hebraic tradition viewed the human person as a single composite reality of inspirited mud, grounded in the earth yet capable of transcendence, in an interface so closely woven that it was unthinkable that one could be a person without a body of some sort.[5]

This latter idea was seemingly incomprehensible to the Greeks.  They surely did not deny an afterlife.  The problem was resurrection, which was simply not a tenet of ancient thought apart from many Old Testament Jews and the Christian church.

The Body’s Goodness

The main impetuses behind the Greek’s general denial of the resurrection were (a) the low value they placed on the human body and (2) their firm belief in man’s inherent immortality, i.e., that his soul was naturally imperishable.  We one day (fortunately) lose the “bad body” but we retain the inherently imperishable soul.


According to the Bible, however, the body is good because God makes it.   It is a good work of divine creation.   When Adam led the human race into sin, this sin affected his body, just as it affected every other aspect of his being (Gen. 3:16-19). But this act of sin did not undo the goodness of God’s creation.   Man’s body succumbs to illness and death because of sin, but these are not natural.   In particular, death is not natural.   It is unnatural. God threatened Adam with death if he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:15-17).   Death is the result of sin, not the result of humanity.   Had Adam never sinned, he never would have died.   Just as sin is unnatural, so death, its consequence, is unnatural.


This is why death is described as an enemy in the Bible.   In fact, we read in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the resurrection, that death is the “last enemy” that will be “destroyed” (v. 26).   Similarly, we read in Hebrews that Jesus came to turn back men’s fearfulness of death (Heb. 2:14-15).  Death is man’s enemy that our Lord vanquishes.

“Body Sleep”

As I noted above, none of this means that the Bible teaches what some (like the Seventh Day Adventists) have called “soul sleep.”   It does not teach that we completely lose existence between our death and the time of the Final Resurrection.   But it does teach what we may call “body sleep.”   In fact, the Bible uses this very expression to refer to our bodies.   Paul speaks of those who are “asleep in the Lord” (1 Thes. 4:14).   Jesus Himself spoke of the dead child as one who “sleepeth” (Mt. 9:24).   The reason the Bible refers to Christians who have died as “sleeping” is that their bodies will one day wake up!


The great war on things material is a largely pagan conviction, deeply pessimistic, which has infected the church as heresy.   The greatest proof of the inherent goodness of creation is Jesus Christ’s bodily resurrection — and ours.   Our hope is not a Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost existence, but an existence on a renovated earth (2 Pet. 3:10-12; Rev. 21:1-3) in a resurrected body.


The resurrection hope should shape our consciousness as Christians and animate the Church, most visibly in its Lord’s Day meeting on the first day of the week.

[1] G. I. Williamson, “Resurrecting the Resurrection,” New Horizons, April, 1998, 5.

[2] Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Ballantine Books), 43.

[3] Charles S. MacKenzie, “Classical Greek Humanism,” in ed., W. Andrew Hoffecker, Building a Christian World View (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1986), 1:39.

[4] Herman N. Ridderbos, Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed [1963], 1988).

[5] Thomas C. Oden, Life in the Spirit (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press [1992], 1998), 397.


Sectarian Culture Warriors Trump Ecumenical Culture Wimps

In electing the Argentinean Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis), the Roman cardinals signaled that they were not one whit impressed or cowed by modern (read: American and northern European) Catholics. Francis, a philosophical theologian anchored in the conservative wing of the church, is pro-life, anti-homosexual, anti-liberation (i.e., Marxist) theology and reliably conservative on every other hot-button social issue that animates modernist Catholics and their allies in elitist academia and the mainstream press. It is comforting to know that one massive church body (in painful contrast to almost all major Protestant denominations) has the will to stand against the prevailing winds — more like cyclones — of socially apostate modernity.

Francis’ conservatism (he is the first Jesuit Pope) also means he is unlikely to be on the vanguard of Catholic-Protestant ecumenism. Traditional Catholics believe — wrongly and presumptuously — that there is ordinarily no salvation outside the Roman communion. But we theologically and culturally conservative (that is to say, Biblical) Protestants are not especially troubled by this intransigence. After all, we were not eager to join Rome in the first place. Such serious disagreements stand in the way of any thought of either organizational or organic unity (the locus of authority, the appropriation of salvation, the nature of the church) that only squishy lowest-common-denominator religionists on either side of the Catholic-Protestant divide would seriously consider serious ecumenism. We orthodox Protestants have too much respect for Catholics like Francis than to expect them to pretend the differences are bridgeable. For there to be a huge union, there must be huge changes.  Papering over differences under the guise of Christian charity is a slap in the face to doctrinal orthodoxies on either side.

But doctrinal orthodoxies do not forbid cultural orthodoxies — nay, they produce them — and those cultural orthodoxies in turn generate cultural ecumenism. Which is to say, we Protestants stand as cobelligerents with Francis and his cohorts in championing a culture of life (and against aborticide and euthanasia and cloning and human egg harvesting), a culture of the family (and against homosexuality and all other extramarital sexual license), and a culture of liberty (and against political tyranny).  You cannot stand for truth in culture without standing against evil in culture.  And in standing for truth and against evil, we orthodox Protestants stand shoulder to shoulder with orthodox Roman Catholics in the culture wars.

The squishy ecumenists on both sides will likely find the traditionally sectarian Francis a less than stellar champion.

But we Protestant culture warriors much prefer a sectarian culture warrior to an ecumenical culture wimp. We can live (and have lived for nearly 500 years) with theological sectarianism.

But enduring both theologically and culturally apostate Protestants and Catholics is a burden we are not prepared to bear.


On Giving the 60’s a Break

url-1Thomas Frank’s best-selling revisionist retelling The Conquest of Cool counters the prevailing sociological interpretation of the 60’s, according to which the fresh, revolutionary “young culture” broke free of the hierarchical conformities of the 50’s — the business, political, artistic, educational, and moral conformities of their parents and grandparents — and established a fresh new egalitarian culture. In the conventional telling, business was one of the great defenders of the conformist tradition, and the capitalists were the authoritarians against whom the young egalitarians revolted. The goal, wrote Norman Mailer in 1957 [!] “was to tear oneself from the security of physical and spiritual certainty, to live for immediate pleasures rather than the postponement of gratification associated with the ‘work ethic,’ ‘to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey with the rebellious imperatives of the self.” One “exists for ever-more-intense sensation, for immediate gratification, for ‘an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it” (p. 12). This in 1957. It was the “innocent youth,” uncorrupted by the banal standards of their elders in business, church and politics, who would revolt against conformity — led, of course, by the culturally revolutionary vanguard like Mailer. This is the narrative.

Only it isn’t true. Frank enlists impressive evidence that a wide swath of society was already complaining about the sterility and convention of modern culture.  Widely read and hailed books on business management were lionizing the creative, egalitarian workplace 30 years before Silicon Valley championed as its model employees the thirtysomething t-shirt and flip-flop  code-writers collaborating as utter peers in a large environmentally friendly nuclear-free flat. In 1951 Fortune magazine carried an article (title borrowed from Trotsky) “U.S.A. The Permanent Revolution.” In 1951. Frank lists books and articles with very traditional readerships that boldly critiqued the insincerity, plasticity, inauthenticity, and conformism of 50’s (and earlier) culture. The businessmen were saying it. The Establishment was saying it.

But Frank makes his case more simply and powerfully: such massive cultural changes as the 60’s wreaked cannot have happened without the willing collaboration of large parts of society. Richard Nixon may have won the presidency by appealing to “The Silent Majority” who recoiled before TV images of the Martin Luther King and Kennedy assassinations and the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, but that majority kept right on silently acquiescing in the altered standards exhibited in normalized birth control, promiscuous sex, government redistribution programs, aversion to the Vietnam War, and recreational drug use. The children and grandchildren of that “Silent Majority” haven’t reversed those 60’s mores. Not by a long shot.

The 60’s generation won the culture, but it won with the tacit (and sometimes explicit) approval of the 50’s and 40’s and 30’s generation.  “The meaning of ‘the sixties,'” writes Frank, “cannot be considered apart from the enthusiasm of ordinary, suburban Americans for cultural revolution” (p. 13). The real revolutionaries were the silent revolutionaries at home and hearth.

Frank’s thesis leads to a sobering conclusion: the conservatives thrashing the 60’s revolutionary elite that sent to country to Hell in a hand basket have a whole bigger target — 20th century culture itself with its obsession first with Enlightenment conformism and, in pendulum-swinging reaction, Counter-Enlightenment (Romantic) non-conformism — which with the business community has become the new conformism.

It means that the 60’s are not the cultural dividing line in the United States that many conservatives suppose, and that turning back the cultural clock to the 50’s will not help solve the problem.

The 50’s (and earlier) were the problem.