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Q & R: 3 Questions on A New Kind of Christianity

Here are the Q', with R's inserted:

I just finished reading your book, A New Kind of Christianity. First, I wanted to thank you for taking the time to write the book. I agreed with many of the things you said in it. Also, I feel that asking questions and having discussions is a great way to grow. In your conclusion you encouraged readers of your book to “come to the table, join the conversation, and make your own contribution.” Therefore, I had a few questions for you in an attempt to join and contribute to the conversation (I hope that you will truly welcome me to the table).

Question 1:
It appears that you are saying that everyone will be reconciled to a perfect, eternal relationship with God in heaven, and everyone will be exempt from the eternal torment that is commonly defined as hell (if this is not the case, I apologize for the miscommunication and would be interested to know what you actually meant). How does that point of view fit into scriptures such as Matthew 13:36-52, Matthew 24:36-51, and Luke 13:22-30?

One of my problems in answering a question like this is that it assumes the framework in which Jesus was speaking was more or less the same as the framework in which people ask a question like this today, namely a set of assumptions about an ontological fall, original sin, total depravity, eternal conscious torment, etc. But I don't think that was the case. I think Jesus and his hearers shared a very different framework - more Jewish and less Christian, more Middle Eastern and less Greek, more oriented toward this life/history and less oriented toward afterlife/eternity. As well, I think we assume that Jesus was teaching when he often was un-teaching, meaning that he was taking common assumptions of his day - including the assumptions of the Pharisees about heaven, hell, and who populates each - and overturning them.

So, in many passages like these, I think Jesus is giving an urgent and timely warning, something like this: "I'm here teaching you a different way to cope with our current crisis - the crisis of Jewish identity under occupation by the Romans. Some of us are accommodating to the Romans, fitting in, making a buck, while others of us are plotting violent revolution. Both of these paths will lead to destruction. There's another path - a path of creative non-violent response. It's a narrow gate. It's a challenging road. But the other roads will lead to destruction."

In the wheat-weeds parable, the unspoken question seems to be why we have good and evil people living side by side. Why doesn't God remove the evil people now - presumably so that we will then be righteous enough to be delivered from Roman occupation? Jesus' answer seems to be that the time of separation will come soon enough. The "end of the age" he refers to is not, in my opinion, the same thing as people think of today when they say "end of the world" or "eschaton," etc. It was the end of the age centered in priesthood, sacrifice, circumcision, temple, holy city, etc. And it came when Jesus' countrymen staged a violent revolution against Rome in AD 67 and then the Romans came and crushed it in AD 70. As our Jewish brothers and sisters have made clear for centuries, the end of that age wasn't the end of the world, the end of Judaism, the end of faith in God, or the end of vibrant Jewish identity.

Matthew 24 describes the same scenario, in my opinion. It's interesting to note that in both cases, the ones "taken away" aren't the righteous (as in the dispensationalist doctrine of the Rapture). It's the reverse. The point isn't "Join our new religion or go to hell," but rather, "Be alert! Don't get sucked into the coming disaster!"

In the Luke 13 passage, again, we have to ask what Jesus and his hearers understood the word "saved" to mean. For many Christians today, it means "absolved of original sin so the soul can be justified through penal substitutionary atonement theory and received into heaven after death." I think that's a highly unlikely understanding for Jesus and his disciples. More likely, "saved" meant "saved from the coming explosion of violence and destruction that will bring an end to the world we know, the world centered in priesthood, sacrifice, circumcision, temple, holy city, etc."

I certainly may be wrong in these understandings - but even if I'm wrong, the traditional understandings are almost certainly wrong too. For example, in the Luke 13 passage, the "owner of the house" doesn't say, "Go away from me, all you who don't believe in the message of my religion." Those who are sent away aren't "the justified" or "the born again" or "the members of the one true church." The same in the Matthew 13 passage.

Question 2:
It appears that you believe that homosexuality is not a sin (once again, if this is not the case, I apologize for the miscommunication and would be interested to know what you actually meant). In light of this, how would you read scriptures such as 1 Timothy 1:3-11 and Romans 1:18-32?

So much has been written on the "clobber passages" - I'd encourage you to check out my friend Justin Lee's new book on the subject, Torn. But let me offer this: I don't think the Bible says anything explicit about diabetes, bipolar disorder, autism, or high blood pressure. Those were categories unknown to people in Bible times. Similarly, I don't think the Bible says anything explicit about the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Libertarian Party, etc., because again, those categories are alien to people in Bible times. And I don't believe a category like "sexual orientation" would ever have entered the mind of people in biblical times. It's simply an anachronism. So - to try to extract a verse from the Bible and apply it to sexual orientation would be like saying there's no such thing as bipolar disorder; we have to treat it as exorcism, since that's the closest biblical category ... or there's no such thing as capitalism, so we need to impose Jubilee and cancel all debts from the Old Testament, or impose "all things in common" from the Book of Acts, etc. I just think that's an unwise way of using the Bible ... for reasons I (try to) make clear again and again in the book.

Question 3:
In Matthew 18, Jesus discusses dealing with sin in the church in verses 15-20. I would be interested to hear your commentary on that passage.

Jesus is applying his social ethic to interpersonal conflicts among his followers - seeking reconciliation, not condemnation and exclusion by hearsay, etc. He is reminding his followers not to hold grudges and not to assume guilt and not to seek revenge, but to "move toward the other" as peacemakers.

A question for you: why were these three questions important for you personally?