Doodle: Thanos and Abortion

Last year I wrote a satirical piece at Rekindle, 5 Steps to Feeling Better About Killing Unborn Children. Though a few readers called my approach insensitive and unhelpful, I remain convinced that satire has its place in debate—even this one. In case you missed that article, and do not plan on reading it, I tried to unveil the callous, cruel and murderous truths about abortion, particularly behind the pro-choice rhetoric. In this short doodle I want to outline a phenomenon I have observed in the incendiary conversations around this issue, at the personal and legislative levels. What is that? As lobbies push to have the option for abortion set later in a pregnancy, it seems to me that people on all sides are growing increasingly uncomfortably that we are killing children. But before we get to that, let us consider Thanos.

Marvel AvengersThe question I want to put to you, off the back of Avengers: Infinity War, is this: can we really call Thanos a villain? I am not contrasting his surprisingly deep and conflicted character with the cardboard cut-out nemeses typical of Marvel films. My question is concerning his mission, to restore balance in the universe by wiping out half of all living things. In fact, a recent article at Forbes actually argued that Thanos’ ambitions may not be evil or even wrong. “Look at our planet,” we can imagine someone saying, “it cannot endure humanity’s abusive consumption, devastating expansion and careless disposal of waste.” If only half of the world’s population simply vanished, with the click of a finger, surely we would find ourselves in a far more sustainable position. What Thanos set out to accomplish is arguably something desperately needed—at least on earth, I can’t speak for other species. So is he really a villain?

Despite the above, no one is rooting for Thanos. Because his life’s goal is nothing less than killing half of all living things. For this we deem him the villain, and most likely went to watch Avengers: Endgame to see his efforts foiled. Coming back to the matter of abortion, I think we can draw an uncomfortable contrast between how we view abortion and Thanos. Though the former is a disturbing fate for innumerable unborn children most of us are more concerned with the fictional genocide. Only, pro-choice advocates do recognise the similarities, which is apparent in the adapted defence and arguments we are hearing more and more.

BabyIn my previous post I pointed out how pro-choice rhetoric majors in women, progress and prefers impersonal ways of speaking about the unborn (foetus, cells, etc.). But as the option for later and – in some abhorrently distressing places – full term abortion becomes a reality it simultaneously becomes harder to deny what is happening. We have all seen the pictures. Those are babies. In many cases they would survive outside the womb. Murder of unborn children is being sanctioned and most people with any sense know it. It is here that a shift takes place. For as long as the aborted life bears no marks of human life or form people were fairly comfortable to affirm a woman’s right to choose. But now many people are finding that harder to swallow, let alone stomach.

Re-enter Thanos. Stripped of the rhetoric he is simply a murderous tyrant. He wants to kill half of all living beings in the universe; we, on a smaller scale, want to kill babies without it unsettling our consciences. So we do what he does: justify it. How? Socioeconomic factors. So pro-choice advocates ask questions such as: what kind of access will the child have to education; will this perpetuate poverty and crime cycles; and what about the life that the mother will never have? These considerations are not unlike those employed by Thanos when he wiped out half the universe. Yet we despise him for that. We call him evil. We long and hope for justice. Sadly many people only possess that sober assessment when it comes to a fictional universe on the screen, and tragically lack it when it comes to earth.

Jesus’ Resurrection and the Christian Life

Albrecht AltdorferThough the reference eludes me, C. S. Lewis once wrote, “A man can’t always be defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it.” In the past I have written posts defending the historical veracity of the resurrection: the first argued that the most convincing reason for the existence and expansion of the early church is Christ’s bodily resurrection; the second compared Christ with the Caesars, asking why an itinerant Jewish rabbi is remembered as a god while his contemporaries, worshipped in the Imperial Cult, are all but forgotten. Following Lewis’ dictum, my aim in this post is to offer a few theological points on the resurrection that I hope will encourage and exhort believers. Come and feed on the resurrection, let it nourish your soul.

Through the resurrection Christ earned absolute trust

Jesus told his disciples, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again” (John 10:17). When we slow down and reflect on these words we cannot but be in awe of Jesus. His power matches his promises. The resurrection is no parlour trick. It is the validation of all that he said he would do. Elsewhere Jesus is recorded saying that he would give his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45). Therefore at the resurrection Jesus is not merely vindicated as a martyr or misunderstood zealot but confirmed as God’s Messiah. His work is powerfully presented as complete. What does this mean for us? It means that Christ can be trusted. His word can be believed. We can depend on him for the salvation he promised. It is here that a biblical definition of faith emerges. If Christ died and three days later took his life up again then there is something more certain than death and taxes: our own resurrection.

In the resurrection our lives gain real meaning

In one of his autobiographical works, titled Confessions, Tolstoy admitted that he seriously considered taking his own life, as he suffered from severe melancholy. As he did so, he was haunted by a question, ‘Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?’ Despite his monumental achievements and influence the crushing conclusion he drew was that death brings an end to all of them. A similar sentiment can be read in 1 Corinthians 15:32, where Paul wrote, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’”. Frighteningly, such outlook can not only be widely observed today but is celebrated. Importantly, however, while gallantly expressed with a drink in hand among friends it is far more sobering to reflect on quietly—and alone. We should do so, since we will all face death alone.

ResurrectionEarlier in 1 Corinthians Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (15:14); and a little later, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (15:17). Part of Paul’s argument in this chapter is that for the Christian life is not vain and death is not final. Apart from the resurrection we only have only death to look forward to, when everything we spent our lives pursuing is lost. In the resurrection, on the other hand, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (15:54). Though this life is besotted with blessings it labours vainly for meaning if death has the last say. For the Christian even though death is inevitable it does not destroy. One of J. I. Packer’s regularly quoted verses is John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” To know Christ means eternal life has already begun. To know his resurrection means this life is not futile.

By the resurrection we are set free from sin

In 1 Corinthians 15, mentioned above, Paul makes the point that Christ’s death means we need not fear God’s judgment against sin. As Paul puts it, ‘Death has lost its sting, which was our sin.’ We are free from the power of sin in the future. But in Romans 6 Paul mounts a different argument: Christians are free from the power of sin in the present. It reads,“We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (6:2); “We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (6:4); and “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (6:6-7). Paul’s point, which is worthy of much more reflection and rereading is that objectively the power of sin is broken in the life of the Christian. Therefore when we sin we do so freely and not under compulsion. Sin is our decision to submit to a defeated power. Our sin denies the work God has done and defies the work he is doing.

A few verses later Paul offers one of the first imperatives in the book of Romans, “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (6:11-12). Echoing Paul I say this as much to myself as I do to you: the resurrection broke the power of sin, which means you are no longer a slave. Stop choosing slavery; stop choosing sin. We have been raised that we might live a new life, a life no longer marked and defined by sin. I know that I often do not believe this, particularly when I struggle with sin and temptation. But according to these verses in Romans 6 when I sin it is not because I was powerless to do otherwise. When I sin it is because I am not standing with conviction and resolution in the power of Christ’s resurrection. Go and sin no more, as you go with the confidence found in Christ’s finished work.

Who is Easter for? The Woeful Exchange

Cross of ChristDespite the cultural forces that persistently sideline the celebration Easter in favour of Christmas, for most Christians Easter has retained its significance in their lives and faith. However, in my admittedly limited experience and therefore tentative opinion, many churches work against the church’s historical, traditional and deeply biblical emphasis on Easter weekend. How is this done? In South Africa some hangovers of Christianity remain, in even the most secular societies. Because of this, with some certainty, churches can predict unusually large numbers in attendance over Easter weekend. Those making their annual pilgrimage are – rightly or wrongly – deemed non-Christians. So Easter is considered an “evangelistic highpoint” or “mission focal point” in the year—and is treated as such. This ungainly pragmatism masked as evangelistic mindedness is almost as trite as it is tragic. It is, as the title of this post suggests, ‘the woeful exchange’. 

Some readers will be familiar with the similar phrase, which I am playing on, ‘the wonderful exchange.’ Though that exact phrase is not found in the New Testament the truth of it is plain throughout. One of my favourite occurrences is in 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” You could spend an entire sermon unpacking the glorious truth wrapped up in that short verse, along with its context: Christ’s crucifixion is for our sins, in that he bears the punishment for rebellion against God even though he was only ever righteous. The purpose of his death was that we might become righteous, as we die to the self-destructive patterns of sin and live a life patterned after Christ’s. The effect of Christ’s death is healing, being made well or whole, restored to the image God originally created us in. Other verses are clearer that in the exchange we are credited with Christ’s righteousness (Romans 1-3). But this post is unfortunately about the woeful rather than the wonderful exchange.

It is Good Friday, the morning service at your church – kudos if you have any evening services over Easter – and the auditorium is packed, the stewards are frantically waving to each other in search of empty spaces or more chairs. The atmosphere is electric as the band does a final check on stage before your most energetic service (or worship) leader steps forward to start the show—I mean- church gathering. The vibe steadily grows as people speak over each other and compete against the carefully selected ‘outsider friendly’ playlist pouring from the speakers. It is almost time. This is it: ‘go big or go home’. Once the almost unrecognisably bare liturgy is out of the way we come to the Bible reading. But it is when the preacher stands up that the woeful exchange is at its ugliest. Instead of holding out the gloriously rich treasures millennia of Christians have celebrated at this point in the year the gathered church is told that Jesus died for our sins. In fact, the gathered church, probably making up the majority of those present, are forgotten entirely in order to present a lazily rehashed sermon about the cross. The woeful exchange leaves believers with almost nothing to reflect on because they were not even considered.

At this point some readers will be hastily offering a retort: ‘The same gospel saves non-Christians and transforms believers.’ True, if reductionistic. For example, if all that was needed to nourish Christian faith and mature believers was the cross why did God provide us with a gospel tapestry of 66 books? Why did he present his character and love in a range of genres, through a host of unique human voices and emphases? I mean, if it is the same gospel – i.e. the cross – why do we ever wander outside of the four passion narratives found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? If we affirm that all of Scripture finds its centre in the person and work of Christ then why do we retreat to a simple passion text and sermon on Good Friday? I have become convinced that the answer to my last question – the only one that was not rhetorical – is that many churches are guilty of the woeful exchange. Perhaps if we spent more energy in presenting the splendid riches of Christ’s work at Easter rather than offering the same old tired and predictable gospel presentations those visitors would be gripped by God’s truth. Do not ignore the fact that those in your church desperately need Easter themselves. Hold out the wonders of the gospel. Do not pragmatically trade it in this Easter.

This post fits roughly with a short series on the work of Christ. The first challenged the overly narrow view of Christ’s death as a legal event, highlighting for Christians the love of God. The second explored other aspects of the atonement, reminding Christians that God’s work is much richer than Christ in our place (the wonderful exchange), for faith is deeply transformative. Both posts bemoaned presentations of Christ’s work as merely external; it is rather the unparalleled evidence of God’s love that is effective in making us those who love like him.

The Work of Christ: Not Merely Substitution

Jesus Christ iconLast year the church I was part of worked through Paul’s letter to the Philippians. On one occasion at a leaders’ meeting an argument broke out over Philippians 1:27-2:11. The line of application we were pressing was that Christ’s death is an example of sacrificial service, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (2:4-5). Paul then goes on to recount Christ’s incomparable humility in serving others (2:6-8). Some present felt that emphasising Christ’s death as an example might weaken our grip on Christ’s death as substitutionary, when he satisfied God’s justice at the cross by suffering the penalty for sin we deserved. However I do not think that we are forced to choose one of these over the other.

After his lengthy section presenting and critiquing what are called ‘the theories of atonement’ in The Work of Christ, Robert Letham writes, “No one theory has ever commanded universal support. Moreover, no one viewpoint appears to answer all the questions that surface when we reflect on what Christ came to do on the cross” (p174). Reformed Christians typically have a mature understanding of justification by faith alone. This strong emphasis however often completely overshadows the manifold blessings and benefits of Christ’s work. The result is Christians who see the work of Christ in purely legal and transactional terms, a deficient view I argued against in my previous post. Letham does an excellent job of presenting the different atonement theories, pointing his readers to their respective biblical foundations, potential pitfalls and obvious errors. I attempted to do something like this, thinking about what is called the Christus Victor theory of atonement. Returning to the post at hand, if the extent of your appreciation for Christ’s work is merely substitution it is likely you have an underdeveloped scope of humanity’s plight and God’s powerful salvation. 

The argument about Philippians I mentioned pertains to the Christus Exemplar theory of atonement, also called moral influence. Remember, neither Letham nor myself are presenting this as an exclusive, or even capping, approach to understanding Christ’s work. But we would have to exclude vast swathes of the New Testament in claiming that we are not called to imitate Christ. Furthermore, I am not presenting the moral influence theory of atonement as historically without fault. Letham shows that the unbiblical tendency of those who advocate for a pure Christus Exemplar reduce the atonement to human effort. The subjective change resulting from our imitation of Christ is what brings us back into relationship with God, or atones for sin. However, he also writes, “Christ’s death does produce a subjective moral change in those who contemplate it in faith by the power of the Holy Spirit” (p167).

Robert LethamIt is perhaps this lost emphasis that has lead to us practising a purely memorial or Zwinglian Lord’s Supper. But that is a topic for another post. Christ’s self-giving sacrifice is both the effective power and powerful example for transformed lives. If we always retreat into preaching Christ’s death as substitution why are we surprised that churches are full of rudimentary faith and nominalism? Many churchgoers today will gladly profess the name of Christ as long as they never need to put on his character.

Similar language of ‘subjective change’ through participation in Christ’s death can be argued from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul yearns for the Philippians with the affection of Christ (1:8). He prays that they will be filled with fruit of righteousness through Christ (1:11). Suffering together and supporting each other in hardship is said to be for the sake of Christ whilst merely believing is inadequate (1:29). The encouragement to be shared is in Christ (2:1). Paul can even say that believers must have the same mind as Christ (2:5). Even the section of the letter that comes closest to a fully orbed idea of justification by faith in Christ, most often exclusively tied to the substitution view of atonement, in 3:2-11 concludes with striking language of participation and subjective change: “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (3:10-11). Go and read the book in its entirety and tell me if I am missing something.

Let me wrap this post up. The gospel teaches that Christ gives himself over to death and judgment, in the place of sinners so that those who place their faith in him can be declared righteous. But the gospel also teaches us how to live. To put it another way, at the cross we see God’s self-giving love. But when we experience that love, or participate in Christ by faith, his death and all that it embodies begins to shape our hearts. We might think of faith in Christ’s substitutionary death like the air pumped into the lungs of someone who has stopped breathing. The process is incomplete until that person has started breathing again for themselves, when the air has given life to their dead body. The atonement brings about new life, a life fixed on Christ our example.

Who is YHWH?

Normally when we read the Old Testament (which doesn’t happen too often for most of us), we are moving too quickly to notice details that make sentences sound weird. We tend to allow sentences like Exodus 15:3 (“The Lord is a warrior; // the Lord is his name”) or Amos 9:6 (“He summons the water of the sea and pours it out on the earth’s surface. // The Lord is his name”) to wash over us. But, when we read these verses together, it is hopefully surprising to hear that his name is “the Lord.”

There’s a long history as to why but in both of these verses, “the Lord” is actually a translation of the name of God in Hebrew (YHWH – probably vocalised as “Yahweh”). Because this is probably familiar ground for many readers, I will simply note that the Greek Old Testament uses “Lord” like the English does and most English translations use small capital letters to mark out the divine name in the OT. The name “YHWH” only occurs in the OT because it’s a Hebrew word and the NT authors, writing in Greek, use “Lord” (that’s probably, at least in part, because they were concerned about keeping the commandment against taking the Lord’s (YHWH’s) name in vain. In the rest of the post I will use Lord and YHWH interchangeably.

So the name of the “Lord” in the OT is actually YHWH, but this raises an interesting question:

To whom does “YHWH” refer?

The answer to the question is not immediately obvious. If it seems obvious, pause and recall that Christianity affirms a Triune God. Now try to answer the question again. In my experience, most people read as though YHWH refers to the Father. After all, Jesus only comes in the NT and, for the most part, the Holy Spirit only seems to do stuff in the NT as well. What’s more, in the OT they didn’t know about the Trinity, they only knew that there was only one God.

But why should YHWH refer to the Father in particular?

The challenge and point of this post is to have you read YHWH as a reference to the Triune Godhead—Father, Son and Spirit, all at once!

Three Reasons to Read LORD as a Reference to the Trinity

First, because the Son and the Spirit are active in the OT. Often we hear that both Son and Spirit are active in creation but this is true through all of history because one of the things we know theologically is that if Father, Son and Spirit are truly one God, their activity is inseparable. Theologians refer to this as “inseparable operations” and explain it by saying that the Father acts in history by the Son and through the Spirit—what those prepositions mean in reality, I do not know, but they tell me that the Father does not act independently of the Son or of the Spirit. Reading “YHWH” as a reference to the Trinity acknowledges that the Godhead is active in the OT.

Second, the OT gives no reason to assume that the name of God should refer to only one member of the Trinity. Of course, OT believers didn’t understand the Trinity but this only reinforces the point: OT believers believed in one God who we now know to be Triune. If they thought the one God’s name was YHWH, surely that name would refer to the One Triune God?

Third, there are times in the NT where an OT passage that uses the name YHWH is quoted and the NT applies it to Jesus. For example, in Romans 10:13 Paul tellingly quotes Joel 2:32 saying “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”. In Joel “the Lord” is YHWH but just a few verses earlier Paul was pretty clear that “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 point here is that it’s correct to say “Jesus is God” but not “God is Jesus” because God is Triune and Jesus is one member of that Trinity.

Let me repeat that I don’t think OT believers would have understood this. But I do think that reading those capitalised references to “the LORD” as a reference to the Trinity will help us remember that Jesus and the Father are not the loving/angry independent, contradictory sides of God. It will remind us that God is fundamentally relational because he exists in Trinity.

This post has a bonus point though. One of the core convictions of Christianity is that we know God (the Triune God) through Jesus who reveals him to us. Think of what Jesus says of himself in John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Those are confusing words but Jesus says similar things throughout John’s gospel. He is the one who reveals God to the world. So maybe, just maybe, if YHWH is the revelation of God in the OT, we should consider reading YHWH as a reference to the second person of the Trinity: the Son, rather than the Father or even the Godhead as a whole! Right now I prefer the Trinitarian option, but this alternative certainly seems possible.

P. S. If you’re interested in thinking about why the Trinity is important – I wrote about that a while ago here.

Doodle: Did Jesus Decriminalise Sex Work?

Decriminalise sex workJust over a year ago, Central Methodist Mission (CMM), in partnership with a local organisation for sex workers, printed and hung a large yellow banner that read: ‘Jesus was the first person to decriminalise sex work (John 8:7)’. In case you are wondering, the verse goes, “As they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’” As a student of theology I have encountered a fair share of embarrassingly specious proof texts yet this is arguably one of the best—and by “best” I trust you know I mean worst, not to mention one of the most laughable. Yes, I am aware that a church that officially offers outspoken support of prostitution is almost certainly unconcerned about what the Bible actually says. Yet I worry that their misreading of the biblical text and misappropriation of Jesus in support of something unequivocally unbiblical has resulted in some confusion. Briefly below I intend to offer some clarity to an issue where ideology and virtue signalling has eclipsed the truth about Jesus Christ. This will be done by thinking a little more about John 8:7.

Firstly, John 7:53-8:11 is a canonically disputed text. In other words, many of the earliest and most reliable manuscripts either do not include it or place it elsewhere, in both John and Luke. I know that issues surrounding manuscripts are prickly for those in the know and bemusing for those who are not. Basically, there are questions around the authority and place of this text. This should immediately cause us to raise questions over its use. But we might ignore these textual critical squabbles. If we treat the text as not only historical – which it might be – as well as inspired can we argue from it that Jesus decriminalised prostitution? When we look at the text and read it as a whole we arrive at a second important point. In John 8:3 we are told that this woman was “caught in adultery” explaining why this text has traditionally been called the pericope adulterae. We might infer from the text that she was a prostitute but the argument is weak because the New Testament has another word for prostitute (see Matthew 21:31-32; 1 Corinthians 6:16). That word is not used here. Thirdly, and the reason I used the word “laughable” earlier, in the last verse of this section Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (8:11). Yes, Jesus does not condemn the woman. However, even if she was a prostitute – which is unlikely – Jesus does not condone her lifestyle; he calls it sinful. One of my favourite authors often refers to “delicious irony,” and I am sure that citing John 8:7 to support the decriminalisation of sex work qualifies for that honour. By loading the text with very improbable details the end result is Jesus calling sex work or prostitution a sin that must be stopped. Remarkable.

This post is longer than I initially set out to make it. For that I apologise. Please allow me to make one final point, in conclusion. Writing in the 20th century, German theologian Karl Barth referred to God’s action as “disruptive grace.” It is an arresting phrase. Today grace seems to be treated by many as something God sprinkles over our lives, however we choose to live them. We think of it as a dismissive wave of the hand, granting permission while expressing love. But that could not be further from the biblical doctrine of grace or the effects of God’s love. If we hold that John 7:53-8:11 belongs in Scripture then we should not miss the narrative’s climax. Jesus disbands the mob, bent on justice against a known sexual sinner. Whether she was a prostitute or simply promiscuous Jesus wants something better for her. But this is no mere escape from narrow-minded moralists; it is a story depicting the love of Christ that disrupts both the crowd and this woman’s life. As much as God’s love is not indifferent to how people are treated neither is he unconcerned with how you live. Jesus demonstrated an incomparable compassion and love, throughout the Gospels and ultimately at the cross. It is a sickening sleight of hand to reduce that love to unconditional affirmation . God loves us too much to let us go our own way, living in destructive sin. His grace is disruptive. His love is directive. “From now on sin no more.”