Tag Archives: resurrection

Book Review: How God Became Jesus by Various Authors (edited by Michael Bird)

This was written as a response to Bart Ehrman’s recent work, How Jesus Became God. With two subtitles, ‘A Response to Bart D. Ehrman’ and ‘The Real Origins Of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature’ it should be clear to any would-be reader that this should not be read as a standalone book. If one were to do so, then it might appear a bit of a hodge-podge of different aspects of christology.

The lead editor of the work is Michael Bird, who contributed to the introduction, conclusion and two of the chapters. The other contributors are Craig Evans (1 chapter), Simon Gathercole (1 chapter), Chris Tilling (2 chapters) and Charles Hill (2 chapters). After obtaining an advanced copy of Ehrman’s book, this team set about a quick response, which is why this was published almost in conjunction with How Jesus Became God.

As far as my reading is concerned, I embarked on reading both. I have linked to my review of Ehrman above, so I approached this work half-expecting many of my more critical points to be repeated and expanded by the various contributors to How God Became Jesus, though I was a bit wary of the fact that the publishers were Zondervan, whose tastes in theology tend to be a bit more conservative than my own.

I was particularly looking forward to reading Michael Bird’s contributions as I greatly enjoyed his contribution to Justification: Five Views where he advocated the ‘progressive reformed’ view of justification. How disappointed I was, then, when I read the flippant tone with which Bird had written. Appealing to mass popular culture, he takes some cheap pot-shots at Ehrman, unnecessarily denigrating him and failing to treat Ehrman’s views in a mature and reasonable way. Later on, he attempts to pass these incidents off as humour, but there is nothing funny about them. Rather, it is demonstrative of a poor lack of judgement on Bird’s part.

Thankfully, the other responses are, on the whole, much more carefully thought out. To pick up on one item, there is a good response to one appeal made in form criticism: that of the criterion of dissimilarity. If you’re unfamiliar with it, please allow me to summarise:

In textual criticism of the gospels, there is a presumption that if there is something written which resembles early christian belief then it must be an anachronistic back-projection of the gospel authors, writing into their books things that reflect the beliefs of their (later) times. The flip side of this is that anything present in the gospels which doesn’t readily seem to fit with early christian belief then that is much more likely to be a genuine reflection of the historical Jesus. To many this seems to be an obviously absurd viewpoint, yet in the world of form criticism there has been a loss of sight of the wood for the trees; one that Ehrman falls prey to, and which is dealt with swiftly and bluntly.

Probably the chapter that chimed most with my own critique of Ehrman’s work is that by Chris Tilling, where he questions the use of the word ‘divine’ and casts doubts upon the doubts raised by Ehrman as to whether Judaism was truly monotheistic. In particular, one of the targets is Ehrman’s use of Galatians 4:14 as the primary text through which to understand all of Paul’s christology.

Craig Evans’ chapter on the burial traditions makes for a fascinating read and could well be explored further. In some was, it was indicative of a slight problem with the book. That is, it is so specifically written as a response to Ehrman that some potentially fruitful and enlightening avenues are left unexplored. Had such routes been covered in more depth, then it would have made for a much longer book.

In conclusion, Ehrman was not openly seeking to deny Jesus’ divinity, but he writes with a kind of dog-whistle theology that is intended to show that the case for Jesus being one and the same as God is not as clear as modern christianity teaches. Such scepticism is needed for healthy belief, so one cannot reasonably object to the person who wishes to cast doubt upon the veracity of tradition. What this work does is cast doubt on the work of the doubter. There is by no means a complete rebuttal of Ehrman’s work here, but there is sufficient work done to cast doubt upon Ehrman, just in case one were to read him uncritically.

Book Review: Love Wins by Rob Bell

Those of you with a good memory may recall a post I wrote a while back stating my intention to look into the theology of hell. Well, I must admit, that I have somewhat neglected that intention as other things have cropped up. So, slow as progress may be on that project, this was an essential part of getting to grips with the universalist position.

Even before the book came out, it prompted a vicious backlash from some quarters of the christian blogosphere, denouncing Bell as a heretic and declaring the book harmful. Though books that are condemned before anyone has had a chance to read them are amongst those that interest me the most. So I came to the book with a certain understanding of the view espoused. If you’re reading this review, then maybe you have a similar understanding. Of course, that understanding may be outright wrong, have an incorrect emphasis or be incomplete. However, the idea that it is about heaven & hell is absolutely correct.

Bell likes to ask questions.

Leading questions.

And spaces.

He likes to leave lots of spaces.

Like that.

If you’ve not read any of Bell’s writing before, he does have a particularly annoying style. In fact, ‘style’ is a good word to use. There a great focus on the manner of the presentation which does mean the content is sometimes compromised; not necessarily so that it is absurd, but there is a laxity here that one would hope not to find in a theological work. But then Bell’s writings aren’t those of a systematic theologian; they are the work of a pastor with a great heart.

Throughout the book, as if the title didn’t give you a clue, the idea of love shines through. No one could be in doubt as to the passion and compassion of the author both for his readers and the subject matter. On that count, no word of criticism can be levelled at Bell.

Diving into the subject matter, Bell opens with a look at the idea of heaven. It is a fairly well-known fact that Bell has much respect for (as do I) Tom Wright. The exposition given of repainting heaven here has undeniable echoes of Surprised by Hope, which is duly referenced at the end of the book. He portrays heaven not as a place where we go when we die – a view that I wish would die its own death. Instead he outlines the idea of the restoration (or rather, recreation) of a new heavens and new earth much closer to the vision outlined in the bible than one finds in tradition.

There shouldn’t be anything particularly controversial here, though for those who have grown up in churches teaching the idea that “[the aim of life is to go to heaven when you die]” and not questioned it, then this may come as something of a shock to you.

So that’s heaven done. Onto hell.

Before coming to this, the book’s reputation was for a particular idea that Bell had regarding hell. The accusation (for that is what it was) was that Bell was a universalist, advocating a view that after death everyone would have an opportunity to repent. The impression is that it was sort of half way between two heresies: universalism on the one hand, but with elements of purgatory on the other.

However, after I finished the book, I was left wondering “where was it?” It just didn’t seem to be there. I thought that half a dozen pages or so must have been stuck together. I had to go back and skim read two-thirds of the book in order to find what it was that got so many people in a tizz.

Because the fact is, that’s not what the second half of the book is all about. To portray it as such is to misrepresent Bell and the point he is driving at. When you read Bell, one must keep in mind that he writes for different groups of people at a time. With Velvet Elvis, for example, there was a distinct feeling that he was writing for those who had grown up with a particularly conservative viewpoint, showing them that christianity was more freeing than religious conformism, that there is scope for disagreement without condemnation. With Love Wins, he is writing to those who have been hurt. This is brought out in a Q&A at the back of the book, written after the initial publication, where Bell recounts the testimony of one his readers who had previously faced a very condemning attitude in church and had come to think of themselves as doomed and unloveable.

I don’t agree with Bell’s outlook, as he seems to portray a view of christianity that best suits his pre-existing ideas, rather than changing his ideas to best fit scripture. If you think of it as a message about love, rather than a detailed theology of hell, then it becomes more palatable. If someone only read Bell and took him as authoritative, then one would get a skewed idea; so in this respect I agree with his critics. But I would not go so far as to denounce the book as heretical. There are some very good questions posed here, and all Bell asks is that we try to answer those questions ourselves. Some of these very leading, but many more are worthy of deep consideration. The other thing that slightly rubbed me up the wrong way was Bell’s opening defence; he claims at the start that all that he discusses has been considered by orthodox (small o) christians for centuries, but he fails to mention that some of these views have been rejected, denounced or otherwise declared as heresies by a good number of those same people who have considered the issues. In so doing, he tries to present his view as mainstream. Though it is interesting, I really don’t think it is mainstream, nor should it be.

In conclusion, it’s not for everyone and I wouldn’t recommend it as a first port of call on studying hell. However, as a way of gaining and understanding Bell’s view, it is better to read him than only those who reject him. For those who have been hurt by those in church and are seeking assurance, this is a resource, but it is not a complete set of answers. It may be an interesting exercise to go through the book, noting all the questions and coming up with your own answers.

Foolish christianity

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’

This was Jesus’ encouragement to his listeners, as we have it recorded in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s account of the gospel. Interestingly, there is a footnote in most bibles over whether the “falsely” was included in the original text, as some early manuscripts have it, whilst others don’t. I’ve erred on the side of inclusion, though I admit I’ve not looked into the textual criticism on this matter.

I had a discussion a while ago where an atheist friend was mocking fundamentalists who wanted to celebrate “being fools for Christ” by holding onto some absurd views and then claiming they were persecuted when they were ridiculed for doing so. Such a portrait is not wholly unfamiliar as most churches I have been a part of have harboured a small clutch of such people. My aim here is not to ridicule, I love such people dearly, even if it’s not always reciprocated. But I would lovingly correct them as I really don’t think that holding onto conservative ideas such creationism or intelligent design (see here for more on these) really add much credibility to christianity. There are plenty of other ideas that are often claimed by christians which do little to make us appear credible witnesses; I’m sure you can think of some others.

To many people, there are at least some aspects of christianity which may be deemed absurd. What aspects, and to what degree, will vary from person to person. Some might reject christianity in nearly its entirety, others may pick at bits of various creeds, others may criticise what various christians say or write. Others I know have rejected christianity because they’ve been hurt by christians acting insensitively, though that I’ll save for another time.

When I asked the question, “How do you define a christian?” I looked a little at a creedal definition. Now when it comes to the question of the virgin birth, I don’t consider this to be a core part of my faith. Though I don’t denounce the idea, I remain strongly sceptical of its historicity and do not affirm its truth. Likewise, if you read my rather tongue-in-cheek take on The Purpose Driven Life, you’ll see that I don’t refrain from criticising other christians. Does this make me a bad christian? Maybe. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

My point is this: even if we regard the core claims of christianity to be true (aka the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, along with the subsequent implications of the existence of God, the nature of sin and the narrative story of the covenantal restoration of humankind, etc.), not everything that is written it its favour is necessarily correct. You might even take issue with my carefully worded parentheses in the preceding sentence. I freely admit that there are aspects of christianity which run counter to our intuition based on everyday experience, probably none more so than the resurrection. Yet I would contend that to dismiss the claims on the basis of its counter-intuitive nature would be a mistake. There are many other things we know to be true in spite of being counter-intuitive. To pick from my own educational background, I would cite the dual slit experiment of quantum mechanics and Noether’s theorem as examples.

But it would fly in the face of rationality to suppose that anything and everything counter-intuitive is true. There is good reason why some things are counter-intuitive, they are just plain nonsense. It does no one any good to claim that holding foolish ideas is a credit to the Church and the message it proclaims. Yet the apparent foolishness of some aspects of the gospel can be a source of embarrassment (something Paul wrote far more eloquently about than I could in 1 Corinthians).

I have read many supposed refutations of the resurrection, yet none that I have encountered take into account the belief in resurrection. i.e. why, given the difference between the christian view of anastasis from that in the contemporary Judaism and paganism, would a belief in a Jewish messiah having risen with a transformed body begin in the first place and become so uniform and widespread within a generation. Yet even this might not be the most “foolish” aspect of christianity. For me, the dichotomy between the idea of a God who is at once just and merciful is one of the greatest paradoxes – certainly one that I would make no claim to fully understand. The notions of grace and forgiveness run against a common human desire for punishment and retribution. You may think of other aspects, but to my way of thinking, these are the most dazzling. Yet even I cannot focus my eyes on the sun, I do not deny its power – so it is with these follies of the christian faith.

After I wrote the first draft of this, I heard a sermon at church which went in a very different direction. The preacher stated that she claimed she had been healed, only to be told by the doctor that there had been a misdiagnosis. By stating this, the doctor was somehow robbing her of her testimony of healing. I sat and listened, but couldn’t help but be sceptical.

I quite like hearing testimonies of healing, but I would really like to see some evidence to back it up. If christians can’t back up the claims in their personal testimony, I wonder how they expect others to believe anything else they might say. If we’re to be mocked or even persecuted, let it be for telling awkward truths, not just for being fools.