Tag Archives: theology

What JJ Abrams reminded me about the beauty of God (A.K.A., how the church should be like a mystery box).


[Travels to Boston this week have thankfully yielded housing; word still out on employment… travelling also meant no early-week blog, hence the Saturday post.

In case you were wondering.]

typical airplane passengers

(via EmilyDawn2)

I spent most of this week with my lovely wife/spouse/partner in crime, Amy. Wonderful.

Much of that time being, in an airplane. Less wonderful.

Towards the end of our final flight on Tuesday, with a few spare minutes left to kill before the limitless thrill of landing and taxiing ensued… I picked up the on-flight magazine and read an article. Well, I read a paragraph, at least.

Couldn’t tell you what the article was about, but that paragraph was about lauded TV producer JJ Abrams, of Lost and Alias fame, and the “mystery box” he kept in his office. Curious, the next morning while sitting in a Massachusetts Starbucks [always an admitted source of comfort in a new location; I can always rest assured that all Starbucks everywhere are the exact same.] I looked up the story— and as it turns out, the airplane magazine ripped the illustration off a TED presentation Abrams did a few years ago. 

(See his thoughts, my thoughts, and some other words formed into sentences, after the jump.)

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Posted by on May 28, 2011 in church, faith


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Video: Quick response to “Resurrection Story” (Rollins and Jones)

I’m trying the “vlog” thing again.

And I’m doing it while bed-ridden. 

Apparently I’m trying to combine as many things that make me appear pathetic at the same time as possible.   Hmm…Maybe one of our parishioners who saw me yesterday was right when they chortled that I must have somehow subconsciously willed myself to injury, for the sake of attention-getting.

(Actually I got to thinking that maybe, whenever we share ideas and opinions online, we should choose some sort of position of humility from which to type/make videos.  Maybe if we were all supine, or prostrate, when we submitted our thoughts, we all wouldn’t be so quick to feel superior or judgmental, and remind us that our capacities are ultimately limited and broken.   But I digress…)

Yesterday for Easter, Revolution in NYC hosted Peter Rollins and Tony Jones, presently two of the most influential voices in emerging/progressive/post-evangelical/etc. circles.  The two “debated” (loosely defined) the meaning and hope of resurrection, and luckily for us, the entire thing was recorded.  If you have 40 minutes or so today/tomorrow, be sure to check it out.  It’s a great summary of what I perceive to be two of the most pertinent and commonplace positions in postmodern Christian philosophy. 

[For those who want to know, it’s the postanalytic philosophical world now largely represented by Alasdair Macintyre as well as others, and the theistic turn in Continental postmodernity articulated, among others, by the followers of the noted deconstructionist Jacques Derrida.  I throw this in just to say that, while many of you might listen to Jones and Rollins and immediately try to fit them into conservative/liberal camps, the divide between the two of them really isn’t as clear as one might think, and while there are similarities, the goals of the new philosophical conversation are quite different from the goals of the more typical modern (read: pre-post-modern) debate. ]

So today, you can take a look at my short(ish) response to the conversation, which is largely a 1) question and a 2) thought re: Rollins’ perspective (not to pick on him unfairly; considering that he could do gymnastics around me, intellectually-speaking… and considering that he has in fact helped me a great deal, despite limited exposure, to articulate my own thoughts). 

Tomorrow (hopefully) I will share some more thoughts.  Until then, be sure to check out the audio, and (so long as you promise not to find me too pitiful) video below:

VLOG 4-25-2011: re: faith, doubt, Rollins, and Jones.


Click here to find the Rollins/Jones discussion from Easter morning.

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Posted by on April 25, 2011 in theology


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Creeds Guard the Mystery of the Story.


Can being dogmatic actually lead us astray off the path of faith?

Church history has never been short of people who have claimed to be the “true defenders of the Gospel.”  Far too often, this group is composed of Christians who look at other Christians and say, “Well, they’ve really mucked this up, haven’t they?” and then proceed to split from, condemn, dismiss, or destroy the opposition. 

Some will say that the church has always done this, going all the way back to the early church controversies that led to the creation of the Nicene and Constantinopolitan creeds, among others.   Theology, it is said, was at stake…. and the church put a stake in the ground for certain theological truths, an interpretive grid that would ensure that the Bible would be read the “right way.”  

There is a danger in false teachings, to be sure… and creeds were written in order to help defend the church against such teachings.

But what about those creeds, anyway????

It’s interesting to me that what’s presented in the creeds (particularly in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan and Apostles’ creeds) is a story, primarily… and they are primarily concerned with stating the clear identity of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and telling the story of God’s revelation.  They don’t work out a particular theological system. 

In fact, you can make the argument that the creeds’ authors were actually responding to attempts to systematize the story—i.e., church leaders were overstepping the boundaries of faith by trying to figure out the how of Jesus’ incarnation and divinity and the Trinity… and so the church responded with an assertion that kept the mystery intact.

     (your run-o-th-mill heretic)                     (an apophatic theologian)


“Jesus had the power of God.”

                                                         No…. he WAS God.

“Oh, so God the Father took the form of a human.”

                                                         No… he WAS human too.

“Okay… so Jesus was a lesser God, created by the Father.”

No…. he was FULLY God, and existed eternally.

“But then how can he be two things?  He must have two wills.”

                                                       No, he has one will.

“Oh, so maybe he’s a weird human/divine combo.”

         No, he’s both human and divine, fully, not a “third thing.”



“I don’t get it.”

                                                       That’s the point. 

To the Greek (dualistic mind)…. rationally, these things don’t make sense.  The whole thing is a big, fat contradiction.  Of course, Jesus didn’t fit into Greek categories.   When people tried to shove Him into Greek categories, crucial parts of the story were squeezed out of the mold.  The creeds were written to prevent that.  Creeds can be seen as defense against overstepping bounds, and embracing mystery, despite the logical inconsistency of it all, in a Greek-philosophy-dominated culture. 

Because what’s at stake—is God’s character, his identity, his mission… things ultimately beyond our grasp, that CANNOT be “defended” by us; they can only be asserted and lived-out. 

This naturally leads me to question:  How many times have we as Christians overstepped the bounds of what we can possibly know, in order to create an artificial, “who’s in, who’s out” distinction?

Did Roman Catholics overstep with particular [e.g. Tridentine] views on sacramentalism and church authority, or especially in doctrines such as immaculate conception? 

Did Luther and his followers overstep by making justification by faith the centerpiece of the gospel (thus strictly dividing it from sanctification)?

Did Wesley overstep with his defenses of Christian perfection?

Did Calvin overstep when he makes some apparently logical conclusions about election and predestining of the future of both the saved and damned (preservation of mystery was, in fact, Calvin’s point….)? 

Isn’t it ironic that our “defenses of the Gospel” when it’s at stake, can actually strip or deemphasize aspects of the Gospel story? 

The fact is, we all have systems, lenses, traditions, etc…. that seek to explain and interpret.  These systems use of combinations of logic and experience, tradition and cultural developments, history and church authority, translations of scripture, etc. etc…. all of which shape our view of scripture and our experience of the Spirit.  And they help us understand…. and they also hinder us, and cause us to overstep.

Overstepping, honestly, isn’t the big issue.  We wouldn’t be able to say much about God without overstepping (although some examples are certainly worse than others.)

The big issue is how we overstep, and then say, “And I KNOW this is true….and if you don’t believe this, you do not believe the REAL Gospel!”

Because faith and dogmatism are antithetical. 

I think the Creed-authors realized this, which is why the creeds were seen as so critical. 

Because in a rationalistic world, the creeds guarded the Mystery for the universal Church.

And we sometimes need to say definitive things about God…. but we’d best remember:  we should first determine why this need is present and if it is truly a need, and second, say what we say with humility, love, and openness, knowing that whenever we claim to speak for God, no matter how many people we believe stand behind us, we are standing on dangerous ground. 

The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son.

John 5:22

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Posted by on April 4, 2011 in church, history, theology


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Wow… just, wow. Thank you, Brian.

This could have been done via Twitter, but I am so thankful for this post by Brian McLaren today on Red Letter Christians [which I think can possibly be the future platform for furthering a “prog-evangelical” consensus, i.e., a “generous orthodoxy,” that David Fitch and Scot McKnight seem to want. ]that I thought I’d give it a slightly more thorough endorsement (for what it’s worth….)


The post’s primary purpose was to address Al Mohler’s critique of…  you guessed it, the heretic of the hour, our friend Rob.  Which is fitting, considering the number of consecutive weeks McLaren has spent at the top of that hit list.   He does a great job of defending his friend:

*He addresses the difference between either framing Bell as choosing heresy over historic Christian beliefs, vs. someone trying to understand the real “gospel” over what the gospel has been reduced to in the modern West. 

*He addresses the hermeneutical questions in play and explains them in plain language.

*He frames Bell as one trying to reconcile God’s love and justice, as opposed to holding them apart as dual, opposing characteristics of God (God divided against himself?)….in contrast to how Bell is being framed as not taking God’s justice seriously at all.

*And (Thank God) he challenges those who have blatantly accused Rob of placating and of being controversial for the purpose of increasing book sales.  (That’s out of line, imho.)

But on a selfish level, based on what I have said here in recent weeks, and also based upon my own discoveries in recent years as a self-described “post-evangelical” who did not grow up in the mainline church but have since joined myself to it…. I really appreciated this from McLaren (emphasis mine):

From childhood I was taught this liberal-mainline-decline narrative (and its counterpart — the conservative-Evangelical-growth narrative). I’m ashamed to say I never questioned it for years. But the narrative, like all prejudices, turns out to be terribly vulnerable — especially if you actually meet many of the people it purports to describe. Consider these possible rebuttals (some of which are quite popular among mainliners, some not):

  • Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was institutionalism.
  • Perhaps it was an excessive concern among many mainline Protestant leaders to protect their “mainline” status of privilege and power.
  • Perhaps it was complicity with nationalism, a complicity that was exposed as faulty in the 20th Century by two world wars and Vietnam.
  • Perhaps it was liturgical and organizational rigidity.
  • Perhaps the fall of mainline Protestantism had more to do with complacency and a lack of visionary leadership than it did with a willingness to question traditional interpretations of Scripture.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestantism isn’t dead or even dying: perhaps mainline Protestants have entered a latency period from which a new generation of Christian faith is trying to be born. (And perhaps conservative Protestantism is about to enter that latency period too.)
  • Perhaps mainline Protestantism isn’t failing at all, any more than the U.S. Postal Service is failing. (It’s actually doing more work than ever, with proportionately fewer resources than ever.) Perhaps it’s just that the times have changed, and First Class mail isn’t what it used to be, and mainline Protestants think they’re in the stamp-and-envelope business instead of the communication business.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestants are in decline primarily because they haven’t been as good marketers as Evangelicals. Perhaps mainliners haven’t “pandered” to customer demands as well as Evangelicals. They haven’t adopted new technologies — first radio, then TV, then the internet — as savvily as Evangelicals have.
  • Perhaps mainline decline is related to higher college attendance rates — rates that, by the way, Evangelicals are now catching up to. Perhaps conservative Christianity will fare no better in holding young adults who get a college education than mainline Protestants were. Perhaps the graphs will end up in the same place, with just a 30- or 40-year lag.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestants started to decline when they became prophetic — agreeing with Dr. King about the institutional evils of segregation and the Vietnam war. Perhaps being prophetic, which involves calling people forward to a better future, is inherently more costly and less popular than being conservative, which involves calling people back to a better past.
  • Perhaps Evangelicals started to grow when they filled in the same role mainline Protestants used to occupy: the civil religion of the United States.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestantism collapsed because of hypocrisy and disconnection from real-life issues, and perhaps Evangelicalism is edging ever-closer to a similar collapse.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestantism was the religion of the American countryside and small town, and it declined as rural and small-town populations declined. And perhaps Evangelicalism is the religion of the American suburbs, and its fate will rise and fall with suburban life.


These reasons (although he admits, as well as I, that only the future will tell us for sure) are precisely why I said what I said last week:  that the mainline church (should we even CALL it that anymore!?) is positioned to be a more desirable and stable future for the American church, and if they can embrace that role, they will outlast institutional Evangelicalism. 

I also appreciate him saying what professors began to show to me back during my Fuller days:  Contrary to how they portray themselves, the conservative evangelical church is actually quite secular/modern:

To more and more of us these days, conservative Evangelical/fundamentalist theology looks and sounds more and more like secular conservatism — economic and political — simply dressed up in religious language. If that’s the case, even if Dr. Mohler is right in every detail of his critique, he’d still be wise to apply the flip side of his warning to his own beloved community.

Yes, many of us are rejecting theologies that seem to dress up secular conservative ideology in “Sunday best.” But that doesn’t mean we want to put secular liberal ideology in robes and collars instead. Of course not. We’re seeking — imperfectly at every turn, no doubt — an incarnational theology, a theology that brings radical good news of great joy for all the people, good news that God loves the world and didn’t send Jesus to condemn it but to save it, good news that God’s wrath is not merely punitive but restorative, good news that the fire of God’s holiness is not bent on eternal torment but always works to purify and refine, good news that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more

Click on the button below to read the entire article: 

Red Letter Christians


Posted by on March 28, 2011 in future, theology


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Is communal identity an idol for the church?



Some of you may know that I am presently looking at pursuing a Ph.D. (and as some of you know, there will be news in that department, one way or the other, in the next few weeks, God willing).   A number of impulses have motivated this pursuit, but many of those impulses can be summarized in the category of communal identity-formation:  how it’s formed, shaped, changed, etc.

Theoretically, Christian identity is rooted in Christ, beyond culture or location, instead of, as in other cases, religion being embedded in culture/society and actually serving its needs.  But history, unfortunately, far more often testifies to the latter case than the former. 

This reality has yielded some recent thoughts about the fact that stable community identities are a god.  What follows are some of the raw thoughts (leaving out many details) I’ve had about this:


[YOU CAN SKIP OVER THE HISTORICAL RAMBLINGS DOWN TO  “Thus our modern search:” IF YOU’RE PRESSED FOR TIME….or easily bored.]Smile 


Despite the modern myth that we act as individuals, at the end of the day humans want to belong to something bigger— a greater task and purpose, and a community.  This is a primary motivator of most group behavior—both for the leaders of those groups who are charged with maintaining that stability, and for the people who, at times, will take the trade-offs that come from that leadership for the sake of stability. 

[Calvin, I believe, saw this in part, when he called humans “idol factories.”]

The early church, seeing their new identity in Christ as a liberation from both the defeatism in their Jewish identity and the subjugation in their Roman identity, began to craft a new identity, under a new set of rules established by the “Kingdom (of God),” where subjugation and power and dominance were alien forces—and all (from every tribe and tongue) were welcomed to participate in their new society.  This created a destabilizing force that threatened Jewish and Roman power structures alike, although the strength of that force ironically grew with every attempt to destroy it.

But from Constantine onward, (particularly Western) Christian identity became inextricably tied to the powers that be, rather than being an alternative to it.  Religion, just as in most cases worldwide, came to serve the needs of the “identity-stabilizers,” i.e., the Holy Roman Empire, the Vatican, and various nobilities throughout the ages.  Yet the fear of the people was not merely that of intimidation or threat of hellfire (although these fears were certainly wielded by the powerful); it was also that their understanding of who they were in community, and thus their purpose and source of meaning, might be threatened if their overlords did not maintain their posts.

Various threats to stability gradually evolved into waves of societal movement, including the Renaissance (there is a reason why art and science were frequently condemned by the church), the Reformation, and the rise of Modernity and Enlightenment.  Freedom was rediscovered, and in the case of the Reformation, such freedom was once again appropriated to the Christian story. But, without the centralized structures of feudalism and religion to shape and hold community identity, fear eventually set in, and people began to form new community identities.  At the same time, people became almost addicted to the concept of revolution in various forms (forming whole identity-creating myths around the revolutionary stories of the past)- thus beginning an endless cycle of:   rebel—re-coalesce and redefine community—power abuse (real or perceived)—new rebellion.  [This is coupled, with every new rebellion, with a redefining of one’s group-identity, which leads to greater exclusion between sub-groups, defining one’s group as “not” like another.]

Protestant churches, therefore, are wired to continue protesting!—it’s in their ever-evolving community DNA.  The American individualism-mythology, coupled with its revolution-mythology, created an environment for the Protestant church that exacerbated this evolution—and thus a Christian landscape where splits, divisions, near-splits, or threats of splits, have become as commonplace as American flags inside our sanctuaries. 

There is an inherently instability to Protestant churches, who have a love-hate relationship with their sense of modern individuals rights and freedoms.  Ironically, modern individualism leaves in its wake the need for communal identity-stability—which, as history has shown, often leads to the suppression of individuals, and particularly the minority and the outcast.

Thus our modern search:   to espouse the irrefutable “right” perspective, have the “right” religion, have the “right” foundational beliefs around which one could structure their community lives, and belong to the “right” (i.e., the most powerful and influential) religious institution that will preserve all of this stuff for us, so that we’ll once again have stability, and everyone who disagrees with us will be able to SEE that we are right, because it will be obvious… and they will join us, instead of threaten our destabilization. Thus, also, came the need to preserve these institutions- through intimidation, and yes… the threat of hellfire. 

Which would be followed by, inevitably, someone coming up with a better “right” way.  Followed by another split.  Followed by another. 

Which (and this is what is particularly salient to my interests) has led to churches and other ideologies making identity as simple and as streamlined as possible, rooted out any threat of inconsistency or perceived error…. but as a result reducing their communal identities to such a degree that their sense of purpose and meaning is almost NULLIFIED—and their ability to exclude and subjugate has become AMPLIFIED.


What are we to make of all of this?  What IS the viable alternative?  We’re not going back to the abuses of medieval Catholicism; we can’t transport ourselves back in time to the early church; we don’t want to get away from the liberating aspects that modernity has brought us [despite modernity’s limitations, it has brought us art, science, technology, etc., that can and have indeed made the world better]. As it is now, we either have lords, or doctrines, suppress our freedoms in exchange for a stable communal identity…and if either get too oppressive, we just overthrow them and form a new communal identity [and create more division]!  But isn’t there a better way to think about this?

The postmodern world has produced much thought to help us navigate these waters—and versions of a “postmodern Christianity” have also arisen from out of these resources, as well as the frustration from the reduction from which modern evangelicalism, as well as virtually every form of Protestantism, suffers.

The more optimistic of us say…there IS a viable alternative: 

Learn our lessons from the past, and take them with us into the future.

Give up the idol of “stable communal identity.”  That is what “dying to self” means in the Christian tradition.

Christians, embrace Jesus and the salvation-narrative extending throughout the scriptures as the centerpiece of our identity…not to exclude others, but to choose to use a Jesus-colored set of lenses with which to view the world [using the stories of Jesus to challenge our perceptions, without trying to stuff every inch of scripture into your interpretive grid]. 

Live by the Kingdom of God…. with its new set of rules, and its forever-permeable borders…. the kingdom free of class distinction. 

YOU DON’T HAVE TO NECESSARILY THROW YOUR INTERPRETIVE GRIDS IN THE TRASH.   They can help us understand God, and yourself, better.  But let your grid be malleable, open to influence from other (even non-explicitly Christian) sources.  Be humble enough to admit that your interpretation is just that.  And if people don’t agree with you, well, maybe you can learn from them the best you can, and thus model openness to them.  

Let the stability and sense of community come from Christ and resulting fellowship with others; see all people as creations of God, treat them as such, and rest in that.  That won’t physically reunite the church in itself, and it won’t undo all forms of hegemony in the faith overnight…. but it’s a potential start, I think, towards a more united community, and a less reduced understanding of Christian identity. 

For those of you who made it this far…. am I off-base?

[This is an oversimplification on OH so many levels, and it also needs some solid, unbiased research to back it up.   It’s just something I’m wondering about, as the possibility for doctoral studies loom….]

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Posted by on March 25, 2011 in theology


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Thoughts on Rob Bell (part four).


Evangelicalism’s Doom and the Phoenix that is Mainline Protestantism:  A response (sort-of) to David Fitch and Scot McKnight


{DISCLAIMER:  Post (and especially picture captions) are not for the easily offended.}


Faculty David Fitch

David Fitch and Scot McKnight are both evangelical theologians of the highest caliber, both with better-than-average communication skills in a field that’s not exactly known for its sublime prose. 

Fitch has a new book out, that you can learn all about here.  I’m excited to get a chance to read it soon, and as you can see for yourself on his website, you can get a copy at a 40% discount.  What a guy. Smile 

[See “our conversation” (in a manner of speaking) after the jump.]

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Posted by on March 21, 2011 in church, emergent, future, RCA, theology


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Thoughts on Rob Bell (part three).


What view of Revelation 20-22 do you take?


This whole Rob Bell debacle seem to be basically about competing Bible interpretations [Again, still waiting on my copy… so all these posts could be completely off-base.] It’s not even about who interprets the Bible more literally than the other… it’s really about a) which verses you pick to be representative of what the vague terminologies about hell actually mean, and b) as I said in yesterday’s post (perhaps a bit too casually), whether or not you take the images of atonement in the Old and New Testaments and try to blend them all into one singular event, or if you are okay with saying that atonement happened in a variety of ways.

The (b) on this list deserves a more thorough explanation—and since atonement is one of my FAVORITE theological subjects [yes, I am a nerd.   And I don’t know nearly as much as I act like I do.  I’m a know-it-all nerd.  God help me. ]  I will have to come back to this later. 

As for (a), allow me to offer one example, from the Book of Revelation.

If there is only one view of hell that’s “biblical,” then I guess the image must be that of Revelation 20:10—> where the devil, and beast and the false prophet are all thrown into a lake of fire and sulphur, and tormented day and night for eternity.  And sharing in that fate, we should include everyone who does not give the hungry food, give the naked clothes, or visit prisoners, because in Matthew 25:46, Jesus says that these will face “eternal punishment…” which must mean “eternal torment,” based on Revelation 20:10. 


REV 20:13 And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15 and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

REV 21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.

So, we’ll be judged according to what we’ve done… and the cowardly, faithless, etc…. [uh oh…] will be thrown into the fire…. and be killed.  It’s a “second death,” after being raised from the dead in order to be judged…So, they’re NOT eternally tortured, they’re just destroyed.  Okay, got it.

Oh, wait….

REV 21:24 The nations will walk by (the new City of God’s) light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.25 Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

REV 22:12 "See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." 14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

How can all the sinners be outside the city gates…. if they were annihilated?… Not being formally “punished,” but not being allowed inside the gates, which still I can’t imagine would be very pleasant…

But these three images can’t all be literally true. 

[But also the “nations” and the “kings of the earth” are brought into the city…. in submission to the King of Kings….  so what does that mean?  And out of these passages, only 22:14 mentions anything that could mean “faith in Christ” is what “gets us into” the new city… but even that passage emphasizes “works,” and all the judgment passages seem to emphasize “works” over “faith” quite emphatically!  But that can’t be…. right?  Arrrgh! Smile ]

Look at the words of Jesus (and the meaning of the word “hell”), and you run into similar difficulties. 

The point seems to be…. nothing broken/no one who commits wrongs against God or others will enter the new city, that ALL people will be held to account for their lives, and that Jesus is the Judge.

Beyond this, do we even NEED to know or speculate?  (Or condemn differing opinions?)

Um….. can I at least wear clothes at the Judgment?

(Btw, acc. to Matthew 25, shouldn’t the people on the left panel be handing clothes to the people on the right?  Just thinking out loud, here….)

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Posted by on March 20, 2011 in theology


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