Theological rants
of a liberal Christian

Book Excerpt: The River of Life

Saturday, October 18, 2014 in Book Excerpt | 0 comments

Book Excerpt: The River of Life

In our Bibles, there are four Greek words that are commonly translated into the word “hell”. These words are Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna, and each is described briefly in Lee Harmon’s new book, The River of Life. The following is an excerpt from this book describing one of the four.

Hades - This may be thought of as the Greek version of Sheol. By the time the New Testament was written, Sheol had morphed into Hades, which is much more colorful than its Hebrew counterpart. The Greeks had many legends about this land under the earth, and actually did imagine it to be a place of eternal existence after death. Portions of Hades were pleasant and portions were not so pleasant. The most famous reference to Hades in the Bible is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In this parable, told by Jesus, both descend to Hades after they die, but Lazarus gets stationed in a pleasant place across a chasm from the rich man, who is in torment. They call to one another across the uncrossable chasm.

Did Jesus really present this story as an accurate picture of life after death? Few Bible scholars think so anymore. The story bears an uncanny resemblance to Greek, Jewish and Egyptian stories known by all in Jesus’ day. Scholars have discovered many such similar parables. A doctoral dissertation at the University of Amsterdam identified seven versions of the parable circulating in the first century.

For example, stories of the dead “carried by angels” into “Abraham’s bosom” can be found in the Talmud, as can the idea of communicating across the gulf between Paradise and the place of torment. Jesus is not revealing any new secrets about hell, here. Bible scholar Craig Blomberg writes that “Jesus may have simply adopted well-known imagery but then adapted it in a new and surprising way.”* Jesus is merely drawing on a common legend to make a point about the justice of God in the age of God’s rule on earth. The poor and the rich trade places.

Hundreds of years ago, it was common to interpret this parable literally, but this line of thought has largely been abandoned by Bible scholars. Hades is not meant by Jesus to be a literal description of any form of an afterlife.


* Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 1987, p. 22-23

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Book review: The Way of Serenity

Thursday, October 16, 2014 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: The Way of Serenity

by Father Jonathan Morris

★★★★★

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Repeated by millions worldwide, this simple prayer has transformative power. Father Morris first began to contemplate its healing power when he found himself sitting in an open Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and hearing it shared aloud. Says Morris, “It was the purest and most genuine act of self-abandonment to God’s will I had ever witnessed. Their prayer wasn’t especially pretty, or clean; it was real, and gritty. It was the opposite of religious showmanship; it was intimate, existential, and wholly indifferent to any outsider’s praise or reproach. It was prayer, plain and simple.”

So he broke the simple prayer into its three parts and wrote a three-part book. It is a Catholic perspective, but without heavy-handed religion; just inspirational encouragement and practice suggestions to develop our serenity, courage, and wisdom. You can guess the first suggestion we should put into practice: Pray this little prayer every day.

Serenity arises partly from knowing that we have done all we can and the rest is up to God. The “problem of evil” can be daunting. Why are their earthquakes, floods, birth defects, terrible diseases and calamities if God loves us? The only satisfying explanation is that God is able to turn evil on its head and bring good out of it.

Courage, too, arises from faith in God. Have you ever noticed how many of Jesus’s parables have to do with getting out and doing something–and how displeased he seems when we fail to act? Doing good is, in essence, the meaning of Christianity. Our purpose is to change the world around us, and the first to change must be us.

But the hardest part of the prayer may be the last part. The wisdom to know what to change and what to accept. Morris encourages us to listen to the whispers of God.

This is a book that can make a difference, one day at a time.

Harper One, © 2014, 231 pages

ISBN: 978-1-06-211913-1

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Matthew 5:13, Doing Good: The Meaning of Christianity, Part II of II

Wednesday, October 15, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Matthew 5:13,  Doing Good: The Meaning of Christianity, Part II of II

Ye are the salt of the earth

//Yesterday I mentioned that the difference between the sheep and goats was merely that the goats performed no kindnesses to those around them. Yet some Christians consider it proper to take a defeatist attitude and pretend that we can do nothing to change this old evil world. It’s hopelessly corrupted and we shouldn’t waste our time trying to make it better.

To this, I respond with three comments by Jesus: Ye are the salt of the earth, Ye are the light of the world, and The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven. When Jesus describes his followers, he uses three images. He calls us salt, light, and leaven.

Know what these three things have in common? Their entire purpose is to have an effect on other things. Light lets us see what’s around us, salt flavors the taste of our food, and leaven makes our bread rise. Their purpose is simply to change the world around them. It’s worth thinking about.

Thanks to Father Jonathan Morris’s latest book, The Way of Serenity, for this insight. We’ll be reviewing this book tomorrow.

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Matthew 25:33, Doing Good: The Meaning of Christianity, Part I of II

Tuesday, October 14, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Matthew 25:33, Doing Good: The Meaning of Christianity, Part I of II

And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

//My latest book about Liberal Christianity (titled The River of Life) has opened up conversations with a couple people about whether Jesus really did want us to focus on making life better on earth. I think all Christians recognize that we are to do good, but still imagine that their focus should be on eternity, not on this life. This focus fuels the debate regarding works vs. grace, by relegating good works to a minor role.

Why do we think this? Today’s verse tells how the Son of Man will divide all humanity, separating sheep from goats. The sheep enter into life, while the goats are cast into everlasting fire.

What did the goats do wrong? Answer: Nothing at all. They did nothing wrong. They simply didn’t do any good.

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

How have we come to believe we’re expected to sit idly by, just believing and enjoying grace? More tomorrow.

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Book review: The Beckoning

Monday, October 13, 2014 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: The Beckoning

by Michael Minot

★★★★

Well-written and touching, here’s another “atheist lawyer finds Jesus” story. Minot hooked me early in chapter one with this claim: “I was amazed to learn how the Scriptures read like a lengthy letter from the Creator to the objects of His love.” If Minot could impart this perspective to me, I would finally have what I’ve been searching for: a real reason why apologists should imagine that the God of the Bible is our creator.

The book didn’t quite take me there. In fact, bits of it feel a little presumptuous, even naive. Minot ignores the research of Bible scholars and historians, repeating instead the claims of amateur apologists, such as the idea that the Bible is full of unexplainable prophecies and truth-proving, recently-verified historical claims. Sometimes Minot pits Christianity against evolution or against science in general. There is a chapter-long warning against the wiles of Satan, who often “works through the voices of philosophers, political leaders, educators, scientists, or even those claiming to be experts in religion” … in other words, anyone who has studied a topic enough to know more than we do.

But there are definitely worthwhile sections too, because the journey Minot narrates rings of authenticity. Minot’s story of how he found a church that fits him is heart-felt. His feelings of love and awe and appreciation are surely sincere. He has experienced the goodness and comfort of Christianity, and rightfully wishes to share it with others.

It’s best, then, to read this book as Minot’s personal journey rather than scholarly research. It contains the arguments and discoveries that spoke to a new convert and urged him toward his brand of Christianity.  Some readers will find Minot’s perspective convincing and some will not, but all will be inspired by Minot’s 180-degree transition from committed atheist to joyful believer.

Morgan James Publishing, © 2015, 195 pages

ISBN: 978-1-63047-124-8

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Luke 17:34-35, The Fate of the Raptured

Saturday, October 11, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 1 comment

Luke 17:34-35, The Fate of the Raptured

I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.

//This is a popular verse among futurists who believe in the rapture. The Gospel of Matthew adds a third verse (sometimes appearing in Luke as well), telling how two people shall be in the field; one taken and the other left.

The idea, of course, is that one of the two is raptured, the other is not. But why do we think this? Where do we get the idea that the one taken is being raptured?

Moving on to the next verse in Luke, we read this:

“Where, Lord?” they asked. He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.” –Luke 17:37

I understand the attraction to believing in a rapture. I just don’t see how this passage supports the idea. After Jesus tells the disciples that some will be taken, they ask him where? Where will these people be taken? He answers that they should look for the vultures, because that’s where the dead bodies will be found.

It sure sounds to me like the “taken” are killed. They become the dead bodies, and they don’t seem to be taken anywhere else. So here’s the question: Is this verse referring to a day when lots of people will be killed, or is it saying that when the good guys are raptured, they’ll leave behind dead bodies?

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Genesis 9:4, God Allows Eating Meat, Part II of II

Friday, October 10, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Genesis 9:4, God Allows Eating Meat, Part II of II

But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.

//Yesterday I quoted the point in scripture where God changed his mind and allowed us to eat meat. It occurs just after the flood, when God changes his rule to let us kill and eat animals. But [1] why did God change his mind, and [2] what stipulation did he put on lifting the restriction?

The key is knowing that in antiquity, life was understood to reside in the blood. Today’s verse answers the second question: the stipulation is that the blood must be preserved and given back to God. That’s the idea behind Kosher slaughtering. This probably answers the first question too. God changed his mind because priests like to eat meat.

It is the priests who benefit from this law. It is they who set the rules of what could be killed and sacrificed (it seems God prefered those animals which are good to eat) and how they were killed (by bringing them to the priests, so the blood could be given back to God in sacrifice).

It’s a brilliant solution and a brilliant compromise. God is happy with the attention; the priests are happy with the free food; the rich who could own animals for food are happy if also a bit frustrated that all the slaughtering had to be done by the priests so they could get their share. Nobody consulted the animals on the matter, but their vote seems not to have mattered.

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Genesis 1:29, God Allows Eating Meat, Part I of II

Thursday, October 9, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Genesis 1:29, God Allows Eating Meat, Part I of II

And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

//Today’s verse seems to be saying that God intended us to be vegetarian. Fruits and vegetables and herbs: these are our “meat.” The same is said in the next verse about animals: they are to eat green herbs for their meat.

Many bible scholars take these verses to mean exactly what they say, that the author(s) was claiming God made the animal kingdom (including us) vegetarian. God’s divine order did not include killing of animals.

The problem is, people like meat. So humankind descended into chaos and began killing and eating. The writers of the Bible liked meat, too. So after Noah’s flood came along, which was supposed to clean up the chaos so we could start over, God conveniently rewrote his law:

Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.

So now we can all eat animal meat, right? We’re not stuck with just herbs anymore. God gave in and allowed this evil. But he did so with a certain stipulation, which served to make the eating of meat acceptable. Can you guess what the stipulation is?

I’ll give you the answer tomorrow.

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Book review: The Two Faces of Christianity

Wednesday, October 8, 2014 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: The Two Faces of Christianity

by Richard Markham Oxtoby

★★★★★

Great book, with a needed perspective! If you think you’ve seen Christianity from every angle, try this one. I encourage you to look at it anew from the perspective of a psychologist.

Oxtoby is a Christian. He holds a deep appreciation for the Christian church and believes it has the potential to make a very significant contribution to bringing about the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. Nevertheless, his beliefs aren’t orthodox. His views will necessarily differ from traditional Christian views because his life’s training opens up truths that cannot jibe with conservative doctrine. He notes that there is a high atheism rate among psychologists, probably because of certain viewpoints perceived by many to be a necessary part of Christianity.

A notable example is the belief that we are all miserable sinners, rotten at the core, and need to be ‘saved’ from the sin into which we were born. Such a perspective is repugnant to those who have studied psychology enough to know of its damaging results. But we needn’t jettison our admiration for Jesus or our sense of God as a spiritual being, immanent in nature, because of a few doctrines gone wrong.

Oxtoby notes that there are two basic religions under one label: [1] An authoritarian religion in which God is seen as an adversary of humankind, over whose eternal destiny he has complete control, and [2] A humanistic religion in which God is a source of positive energy in intimate cooperation with humankind.

Believers in an authoritarian God are deeply focused on our wrongdoing. Guilt is good, for we are flawed beings who need to grovel for forgiveness. Rigid doctrine is necessary, with a proper power organization to enforce the rules. Humanitarian Christianity, on the other hand, affirms the goodness of God’s creation, finds beauty in human diversity, and encourages unconditional love. It takes as a fundamental given that we are fundamentally good. Though Oxtoby holds an appreciation for St. Paul, he compares Paul’s preaching to that of Jesus in order to highlight the difference between authoritarian and humanitarian religion. (Remember, Oxtoby is a psychologist. He is quite capable of loving Paul in both his strengths and weaknesses, recognizing him as a human being with psychological problems and inadequacies like the rest of us!)

I really liked this one.

Christian Alternative Books, © 2014, 392 pages

ISBN: 978-1-78279-104-1

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Genesis 25:25, The Red and Hairy Edomites

Tuesday, October 7, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Genesis 25:25, The Red and Hairy Edomites

And the first came out red, all over like an hairy garment; and they called his name Esau.

//Genesis tells us that Jacob and Esau were twin brothers, but that Esau was the firstborn. He came out of the womb all red and hairy. Sounds like an ugly brute, and indeed, his mother Rebecca didn’t think much of him. She preferred his twin brother Jacob, who was “smooth-skinned.”

Jacob is known as the father of the nation of Israel. In fact, his name is later changed to Israel. Esau is known as the father of the Edomites, a nation to the south of Israel. We know of course that no nation can point back to a single man as its head, but that’s no biggie; the story tellers hardly expected us to listen literally.

Indeed, such stories were intended to be enjoyed orally, and it’s easy to imagine the listeners ROFLing. You see, the tellers were Israelites, descendants of Jacob, poking fun at their brutish neighbor Edom. No one in antiquity would have thought differently about the story, for the very names of the characters betray its intent.

Esau is red and hairy. In Hebrew, the word “red” is edom, and the word “hairy” is se’ir. No one could mistake the reference to the Se’ir mountain range running through Edom.

Jacob is smooth-skinned, from the Hebrew word halaq. This is the name of the mountain on Judah’s border with Edom. The two boys are presented as competing mountains, with the more recent nation (Israel) mocking the enemy (Edom). Great storytelling, indeed.

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