Millennial match-up

Last week, I wrote that we’d be looking at the three main viewpoints Christians have historically held regarding the return of Christ. I’m sure many of you immediately thought: “pre-, mid- or post-.” (These are slang expressions for different views concerning the rapture. If you aren’t familiar with any of these terms, don’t worry; we’ll explain all of this in a couple of weeks.) But the rapture comes later in our study. There’s actually a bigger issue that has distinguished believers, and it has to do with the millennium.

“What’s a millennium?” you might ask. A millennium is simply a period of one thousand years. Remember Y2K and all the hysteria at the turn of the millennium, when we went from the 1900s to the 2000s? We went from one millennium into another. What does this have to with our Christian faith? Well, the Scriptures specifically refer to a thousand year period in Revelation 20:1-6:

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the bottomless pit and a heavy chain in his hand. He seized the dragon—that old serpent, who is the devil, Satan—and bound him in chains for a thousand years. The angel threw him into the bottomless pit, which he then shut and locked so Satan could not deceive the nations anymore until the thousand years were finished. Afterward he must be released for a little while.

Then I saw thrones, and the people sitting on them had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony about Jesus and for proclaiming the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his statue, nor accepted his mark on their forehead or their hands. They all came to life again, and they reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

This is the first resurrection. (The rest of the dead did not come back to life until the thousand years had ended.) Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. For them the second death holds no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him a thousand years.

There’s some very striking, strange imagery in this passage, and we’ll sort through much of it later. But what is the nature of this thousand year period? Christians have historically held to three different viewpoints regarding this millennial period and how it relates to the return of Christ:

In the first few hundred years in the history of the church, there were certain, shared beliefs about the return of Christ that were predominant among the early Christian believers. They believed that Jesus’ return will be dramatic and obvious to all. They believed that when he returns, he will usher all of us into a golden era of peace, harmony, health and prosperity. They believed that he will directly reign—on earth—over this kingdom, and that we (his followers) will somehow share in his reign. According to this view Christ returns before this golden age, or millennium, so it’s known as the premillennial view.

Revelation is apocalyptic literature and contains a great amount of symbolism [see Revelation: The story comes full circle], so there were differences of opinion as to whether this millennial period will be a literal thousand years or not. But everyone agreed that it will be a real and extensive period of time with Christ present and reigning on earth. At the end of this time, God will establish a new heaven and new earth, and humanity will enter eternity (Revelation 21-22). Christians who hold this view have generally interpreted certain passages from the Old Testament prophets as referring to this millennial period, such as Isaiah 2:2-4, 11:6-9, and 65:20-25.

As you might guess, this is a belief that Christ will return after the millennium (hence the view is postmillennial). How did this view spread? Unfortunately, we have a tendency to go beyond the teachings of Scripture and add our own speculative ideas. The premillennial believers began to do this, at times suggesting some fairly strange ideas. The premillennial view also tended to emphasize the place of Israel in end times prophecy, and this was a problem for some. As the church became overwhelmingly Gentile, this Jewish emphasis was unappealing to many Christians. These factors likely encouraged some Christians to reject the predominant premillennial view.

Instead of the common understanding of the return of Christ, these believers stressed that the gospel is to be carried throughout the earth. They believed that, as Christians spread the gospel everywhere, the world will eventually be won for Christ (at least for the most part). They also believed that as society is influenced by the truth of Christ, its institutions will be transformed, and there will be real renewal of government, justice, education, commerce, etc. As culture becomes more and more Christian, humanity will gradually enter this golden, millennial age of general, universal well-being (which will not be a literal thousand years). When this period of peace and harmony reaches its zenith, Christ will return in triumph.

At first, this view seemed to be held by only a small number of believers, but as Christianity was legalized in the Roman empire and then became a real power, the postmillennial view seemed to correspond to what was happening in history. The postmillennial view was adopted by most, and premillennialism was pushed to the fringes of the church. In the 19th century, with the heady successes of science and industry, and the optimistic feeling that humanity could now solve all the problems that had seemed so intractable, postmillennialism was again a perfect match. Many proponents of liberal theology also embraced the postmillennial view.

But then the realism of the 20th century came crashing in: two horrific world wars, the threat of nuclear holocaust, oppressive dictatorships, genocide, famine, pollution, political corruption at the highest levels. The postmillennial view with its optimistic expectations of a continually improving world society all but died out. But the last few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of this view among certain groups of conservative (usually Reformed) Christians.

Those of you who love language may have already figured out the essence of this viewpoint. Let me show you what I mean. If something is moral, it’s good, right? If it’s immoral, that means it’s morally wrong. But if something is amoral, it means it doesn’t involve questions of right or wrong. When you decide whether to have chocolate or vanilla ice cream, this is an amoral choice; it doesn’t involve a question of what is morally right or wrong. This is the way we use the word amillennial. Those who hold to an amillennial view don’t believe in a literal millennial reign of Christ on the earth. They believe that, between Jesus’ first coming and his second coming, he reigns spiritually from heaven.

Beginning with early church teachers such as Origen, and later Augustine, many began to interpret biblical prophecies in a much less literal manner. They saw these prophecies as being fulfilled in a more spiritual, less concrete, way. (I’m using these descriptions in their popular sense, not as they’re used in academic theology.) For instance, they believed many of the Old Testament prophecies that seemed to be specifically intended for the people of Israel were actually fulfilled in the New Covenant people of God—the church. Because of this, they began to question the need for some “golden age” when God’s promises to the Jews would be literally fulfilled.

Many feel Augustine was the first to teach what would later be known as amillennialism. In much of church history, the amillennial viewpoint is often hard to distinguish from the postmillennial view. Neither believes that Christ will literally reign on earth for a thousand years. Both believe that when Christ returns he will immediately usher in the final age, universal resurrection and judgment, and our ultimate, eternal state. On the other hand, amillennial believers disagree with postmillennial Christians that the world will gradually become more and more Christianized.

After the disillusionment of the 20th century, many postmillennial believers adopted an amillennial perspective of the return of Christ. Today, most who are part of the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church are amillennial. Many who come from the older, mainline denominations (Lutheran, Reformed/Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, etc.) are also amillennial, with a few postmillennial Christians here and there. Those who come from a free church, Baptist, Pentecostal or nondenominational tradition tend to be premillennial in their understanding of end times (although not exclusively so). Many premillennial Christians are even unaware that there are Bible-believing Christians who understand the return of Christ and the millennium differently than they do! They often don’t realize that the question of the timing of the rapture (pre-, mid- or post-)—which can be so consuming for the premillennial—is one that doesn’t really concern postmillennial or amillennial Christians.

This is just one blog post, and so I’ve had to be brief and even a little simplistic in the way I’ve described these views. There is much more rich detail for each of them, and if you’re interested I’d encourage you to do more reading on your own. A great place to begin is Millard Erickson’s excellent book A Basic Guide to Eschatology: Making Sense of the Millennium (although I suggest skipping the first two chapters and beginning with chapter three). Hopefully, you haven’t been able to tell from this post which view I personally hold. This week, I want to just introduce these beliefs and where they came from. Next week, we’ll spend a little more time exploring the nature of the millennium and evaluating these three viewpoints.

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up [see above]

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

By popular demand, this week I’m beginning a new series on the return of Christ. Lately, I’ve been receiving more questions on this topic than on any other, so we’re going to explore this a bit for the next few weeks. This kind of subject always makes me think of the old saying:

The main thing
is that the main thing
stays the main thing.

The study of the return of Jesus (and all the details that go along with it) is one very loaded topic. Christians have differing opinions on how this will all fit together, and we’re not shy about arguing for our favorite viewpoint. Sometimes these exchanges can get heated, and Christians have even cut off one another from fellowship because of different expectations concerning the end times. This is tragic. (If you haven’t yet read it, I would encourage you to take a look at Contentious Christians: How should we handle controversy?) Especially when we consider how much the early disciples missed—or plain got wrong—about the first coming of Christ, I think it’s a little silly for us to think we now suddenly have a crystal clear perception of Christ’s second coming!

Now, that’s not to say we can’t gain real insights from the Scriptures regarding the last days. Not only can we study and learn about the vital truth of Christ’s return, we have an obligation to do so. We don’t want to neglect the precious expectation of Jesus’ arrival, and all the Bible has to teach us about it. But there’s plenty of room for humility and caution in studying and discussing these issues. And I would challenge all of us that fighting and quarreling about the return of the Prince of Peace is not a sign of spiritual maturity! We can discuss our differing viewpoints—and do so vigorously—without becoming divisive or hostile.

This week, we’re going to introduce this subject and lay the foundation for our coming studies. It’s easy for us to get so caught up with all the myriad details and questions regarding the end times that we forget the two most important facts about the return of Christ. Here’s the first one:

Jesus is coming back!

Especially for those of us who have been believers for a long time, we’re so accustomed to the idea that Jesus is returning we forget how profound this is. We don’t worship a mere concept, and the gospel story to which we’re devoted is not just an inspiring fable. We worship God who came to us in the flesh, and who will one day return to us. We are part of a grand story that has a definite beginning, and also a definite conclusion.

Throughout history, we’ve been heading inexorably toward this final culmination when Jesus returns and brings everything to beautiful, perfect completion and harmony. Not only we, but all creation is anticipating being finally free from everything that binds us:

For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us.

Romans 8:19-23

Do we experience the sweetness of God’s Spirit in this lifetime? Absolutely! But do we also suffer and struggle? Yes, we do. Jesus himself told us, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows [John 16:33].” But when we face our own personal pains, or when we’re overcome by the injustices and horrors of this life, we can know it won’t always be this way. This life is not meandering aimlessly through time. It’s going somewhere, and so are we. To those who one day will see things especially terrifying, Jesus says (in Luke 21:28), “So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!”

This is why we refer to Christ’s return as our blessed hope. And ‘hope’ in the Bible isn’t just a fond desire (as in “Oh, I hope Jesus comes back someday”); it’s a confident anticipation of what we know will come. As sure as we know the sun will come up in the morning, even when the night seems so long, in the same way we know that one day the time will be now, and Jesus will be here.

We’re supposed to be ready!

If you study every place where Jesus teaches about his return, you’ll see him repeatedly emphasize two main points: (1) I’m coming back, so (2) You be ready. How are we supposed to be ready? Why, by knowing exactly how Israel fits into prophecy, who the 144,000 are, and what the mark of the beast looks like . . . right? No, I don’t think this is quite what Jesus had in mind when he told us to be ready. We can lose the forest for the trees. Sometimes the more we’re focused on the minute details of Christ’s return, the less we’re actually ready for him to come back.

Now, don’t be discouraged. We will delve into some of the intriguing questions tied to Jesus’ return. Next week, we’ll look at three main viewpoints that Christians have historically held regarding the return of Christ. (And some of you will be surprised by what those three viewpoints are.) But for now, I want you to imagine a scenario. Let’s say you’re a business owner. You have to go away on an important business trip, so you leave your crew with these instructions: “I’ve laid out training programs for each of you, and given you each your specific areas of responsibility. You have plenty to do, so keep working on your assignments until I get back, and then I’ll evaluate everything.”

What are you going to find when you come back? It could go either way, right? As soon as the boss is gone, the people might decide to enjoy unrestrained freedom. Do whatever they feel like. Why not? The boss won’t be back for a long time! Let’s have some fun! We can do our work later. And so you walk in to find pizza boxes scattered everywhere, music blaring, a keg right in the middle of your office, and your employees seeing who can jump from one desk to the next without spilling their drink. They’re all having a great time . . . but nobody’s doing what you asked them to do.

Or you could return to a group of people focused on doing their jobs. Sure, they have some fun now and then, and take a coffee break when they need it. They laugh easily, and even enjoy working together. But their main focus is on the mission you gave them. They’re determined to fulfill their purpose, to be who they were hired to be. As a returning business owner, which group would you want to find?

Now let’s look at it from our perspective. Remember when you were old enough for your parents to leave you at home unattended? (I know it may be harder for some us to think back that far!) Sometimes it felt as if they were going to be out all night. But then, inevitably, you’d see the headlights turning into the driveway. The moment of truth! How did we feel? It all depended on what was going on, right? We could casually greet our parents as they walked in, or we could frantically try to clean up in 30 seconds what took us hours to destroy. Going back to our work scenario, which group of employees do we want to be?

Watch out! Don’t let your hearts be dulled by carousing and drunkenness, and by the worries of this life. Don’t let that day catch you unaware, like a trap. For that day will come upon everyone living on the earth.

Luke 21:34-35

There’s a story you may have heard about Francis of Assisi. He was said to be planting a tree one day, and someone asked him, “If you knew the Lord was returning today, what would you do?” Francis stopped, thought about it, and replied, “I’d finish planting this tree.” His life was in such balance that, at that moment, he was doing just what he should be doing.

I don’t know if this story is authentic or not, but it gives us a challenging picture. Our lives should be so well-ordered that if we suddenly learn Jesus is returning today, we won’t have to desperately try to accomplish what we should have been doing all along. Because we’re already busy doing what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re focused on the mission, keeping the main thing the main thing, being who Jesus called us to be. We’re prepared for the very moment everything in our lives has been anticipating: the return of our Lord.

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing [see above]

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

Do we have to be baptized to be saved?

Let’s start this week with a couple of questions: When Jesus taught the importance of putting new wine into new wineskins (Matthew 9:17), was he mostly concerned with preserving literal wine? When Jesus told Peter and Andrew, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people [Matthew 4:19]” did he mean they would go out with literal, physical nets and scoop up new converts?

We all know the answers to these questions because these kinds of references are common in Scripture. All through the Bible, God uses physical illustrations to convey spiritual truths. When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman about “living water” (John 4:10-14), we know he wasn’t referring to some specially-infused literal water; he was speaking of spiritual life and using water to illustrate and contrast it with the woman’s natural life. When Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be “born again” (John 3:3-4), and Nicodemus responds: “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” every reader understands that Nicodemus is missing the point (probably intentionally).

Some become confused when Jesus says of the bread “This is my body” and of the wine “This is my blood [Matthew 26:26-28].” They assume this must be meant literally. (Of course, that would be a problem since Jesus was still standing there in front of them with his body and blood intact!) But we use this kind of language all the time. If I take out a photo, hand it to you, and say, “This is my wife,” have I just literally handed you my wife? As with baptism, communion is a physical act illustrating a spiritual truth.

One of my favorite passages to show how this works is John 13 where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Peter resists Jesus, questioning what he’s doing. Jesus responds with an interesting comment: “You don’t understand now what I am doing, but someday you will.” Peter understood all too well that Jesus was humbling himself, but there was a spiritual truth Peter was not yet getting. The continuing exchange confirms this deeper spiritual dimension:

Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.”

Simon Peter exclaimed, “Then wash my hands and head as well, Lord, not just my feet!”

Jesus replied, “A person who has bathed all over does not need to wash, except for the feet, to be entirely clean. And you disciples are clean, but not all of you.” For Jesus knew who would betray him. That is what he meant when he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

Notice, Jesus is using physical elements and acts to communicate spiritual realities. If we miss this in Scripture and over-interpret the physical elements, we’ll end up with erroneous ideas about the Christian life.

Scripture uses physical actions to illustrate spiritual truths.

Baptism as illustration
Why is all of this important? Because there are many passages that use the physical act or water of baptism to illustrate specific spiritual truths. We want to make sure we don’t misunderstand what the Scriptures are teaching. For instance, many passages speak of baptism in the sense of the person being ‘washed.’ Some have assumed it’s the physical act of baptism that washes our sin away. In Acts 22:16, Ananias tells Saul (aka Paul):

What are you waiting for? Get up and be baptized. Have your sins washed away by calling on the name of the Lord.

I appreciate the way this translation (NLT) makes it clear that one’s sins are not washed away by being baptized, but by calling on the name of the Lord. Baptism is a physical act that illustrates this spiritual truth. If you read each passage carefully, you’ll see the primary spiritual truth and the way it’s being symbolized. Here’s another example from Titus 3:5:

He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

Notice again, the emphasis is not on some physical act of washing, but on rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, thus making us spiritually clean.

But what about . . . 
There are three passages some use to claim that baptism is necessary for salvation. The most common one is Mark 16:16:

Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned.

Now we could point out that this passage says the ones condemned are those who refuse to believe, not those who refuse to be baptized. But there’s a bigger problem with using this verse. All current translations have a note after Mark 16:8 explaining that the earliest and most reliable manuscripts don’t include this section (16:9-20). For hundreds of years, Bible scholars have known that these verses are almost certainly not found in the original text of Scripture. (Interestingly, this is the very section that speaks of handling snakes!) We just shouldn’t base an important teaching on such a highly questionable passage.

1 Peter 3 describes how Noah’s family was saved through the water of the flood, and then continues in verse 21:

. . . and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.

Notice how the passage itself takes the emphasis from the physical act and the physical element and places it instead on the believer’s faith toward God. Peter is comparing two different examples of how water illustrates God’s saving work in our lives.

The third passage is from Acts 2:38:

Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Some have taken advantage of a certain ambiguity in this passage. We can use the word “for” in a couple of different ways. I can say ‘I’m going to the store for some milk;’ I can also say ‘I’m going to the store for my wife.’ I’m using the same word, but in quite different ways. If I’m going to the store for some milk, I’m going in order to acquire the milk. But if I’m going to the store for my wife, I’m not going for the purpose of acquiring my wife, am I? I’m going to the store because of or in response to my wife.

Which way is this passage using the word? It’s helpful to see similar wording in John’s comment in Matthew 3:11, “I baptize you with water for repentance.” We don’t have to think long about this before we realize it doesn’t make sense for them to be baptized in order to repent. If they weren’t already repentant, they wouldn’t be willing to be baptized! The fact they would humble themselves and be baptized was powerful testimony to the authenticity of their repentance. So they were being baptized because they had repented.

Why is this important?
We need to be clear about this. If Peter was telling the people they needed to be baptized in order to receive forgiveness of their sins, then there is something other than faith that is required for salvation. And this flies in the face of all the passages that connect salvation and forgiveness of sins with faith alone. We could give scores of such references, but here are two examples:

All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

Acts 10:43

Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.”

Acts 16:30-31

Salvation and forgiveness come simply through placing our faith in Christ. If baptism is necessary for salvation, then there is something—in addition to faith—that we must do. There is a good act we must perform. But this idea contradicts the vital truth taught in Ephesians 2:8-9:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.

So, in Acts 2:38, Peter was saying that the people must be baptized not in order to be forgiven, but because they had been forgiven.

We aren’t baptized to be saved;
We’re baptized because we are saved.

We must be careful not to fall into the error we see in Galatians. These people were being drawn to the Old Covenant Jewish law, and had made circumcision a “Christian” necessity. But Paul was adamant. If they added any necessary action or law to the purity of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not only were they corrupting the gospel but they were altering it to the point where it was an entirely different gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). If we add something to the gospel as an essential requirement for salvation, we’re in danger of falling away from God’s grace and being cut off from Christ (Galatians 5:2-4).

We must not take Scripture passages out of context and cobble together isolated phrases to make baptism into something God never intended. We do encourage believers to be baptized as the Bible teaches. But we must not weaken the scriptural truth that, by God’s grace, we are forgiven and saved solely through our faith in Jesus. We celebrate baptism as a public declaration of a person’s faith in Christ. And we practice the physical act of baptism in water to beautifully symbolize a profound spiritual truth: our old life of sin has been washed away from us, and we now live a brand new spiritual life in Christ.

Baptism series:

What is baptism?

Who should be baptized?

Do we have to be baptized to be saved? [see above]

Understanding the Trinity

Have you ever stood outside on a clear night and stared out into the stars? How far does the universe extend? Does it go on forever? We could accept such an idea intellectually, but we still struggle with wrapping our minds around it. But, if the universe has a point where it ends . . . what’s immediately our next question? What’s on the other side? We have a hard time completely grasping an infinite universe, yet something inside us demands infinity.

We have the same problem with time. Does time have no beginning or end? How can this be? Yet, if time began, what happened before? When we think about God, we wrestle with the same limitations. We have finite minds, yet we’re drawn to contemplate the infinite God. This doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about God or even understand much about him intellectually. But it does mean we shouldn’t be surprised if a complete grasp of God remains somehow beyond our reach.

We have finite minds, and we are contemplating an infinite God.

This shouldn’t cause us to just give up and say, “Who can really know anything about God!” The Bible actually speaks of us knowing and understanding God (Jeremiah 9:23-24, for instance). If we couldn’t understand God at all, he wouldn’t have tried so hard to make himself understood in Scripture. So how do we make sense of God as Trinity?

Much of the traditional verbiage is not all that helpful. “One God in three persons” communicates something very true, but to most of us it sounds nonsensical, as if we’re being asked to accept that one person is three people. What?! How can God be both one and three at the same time?

When we’re faced with something we’re unsure of, it’s a good idea to fall back on what we do know. Let’s start with the big picture of God. What do we know about him? Well, he’s infinite, unlimited. He’s not limited in his love, his power, his knowledge or his wisdom. He’s not bound by space or time. He lives in what CS Lewis called “the unbounded now.” He speaks to us and interacts with us in space and time, but he’s not bound by them. In fact, he created both space and time.

Okay, so what if this God who is everywhere and in every time wanted to enter his creation as part of his creation? That’s a shocking idea . . . but is there any reason why he couldn’t? Of course he could, if he wanted to.

So, if God entered his own creation, as a human being he would now be limited—by his own choice—in space and time. He would live one second at a time, just as we do. He would have to move from place to place, just as we do. Now if God-entering-humanity is necessarily bound by space and time, does this mean the infinite, unlimited, unbound God who fills everything and every time no longer exists? No, it just means we now have God existing in two very different ways at the same time.

How would we describe this? The Bible explains this difference as the “Father” and the “Son.” This helps us understand how God the Son could pray to God the Father. We can see why Jesus could say the Father was greater than he, yet still say the Father and he were one, and that if the disciples had seen him they had seen the Father. They were both God, yet in personally distinct ways.

(I need to make clear this is how God has always existed. The Trinity didn’t somehow begin when Christ came to earth as one of us, but the incarnation [i.e. God becoming human] helps us understand how God can be God in very different ways at the same time.)

What about the Holy Spirit? It’s intriguing that the Bible (especially the Old Testament) often uses the Spirit of God synonymously with the presence of God. Of course, we know God is everywhere, so this must refer to his presence in a special, unique way. When you were a child, did you ever use a magnifying glass to burn a blade of grass? How does that work? It magnifies the light and heat from the sun, right? This doesn’t mean the blade of grass is the only place the sun is shining; the sun’s rays are all around. But, in our example, the sun’s rays are focused and intensified in a specific place.

This is what happens with the Holy Spirit. God’s presence is everywhere. But through his Spirit his presence is focused and intensified in a very special, unique way. This is why we speak of ‘feeling’ the Spirit at certain times. The wonderful thing is that, as New Covenant believers, we always have the Holy Spirit with us, bringing that special focus of God’s presence into our hearts and minds and flowing through us to others around us. Isn’t that beautiful? The role of the Spirit is to always direct our thoughts, devotion and obedience back to the Father and the Son.

There’s something very important I want you to see in all of this. If God exists in three personally distinct ways—three different ways of being God at the same time—and if he’s always been this way, then this means that God eternally exists in community. Think about that. Why do we long so much for real, authentic community? Because we’re created in the image of God, who lives in perpetual loving relationship. This is why the two greatest commandments Jesus gave us are focused on relationship: love God and love each other. This is one reason why the oneness between husband and wife is so significant, and why we treasure it so greatly. We weren’t created to be alone. This is why the unity of the body of Christ is so vital, and why Jesus prayed that we would be one as he and the Father are one. When we live in truly loving community, we are most like God.

The future that God has planned for us is an eternity of loving him and loving each other, true community without the separation and alienation caused by sin. The more we live in this loving community now—with God and each other—the more we begin experiencing the eternal love and life of our Triune God.

Review: The Shack

This may seem like yesterday’s news to some, but I still receive questions about The Shack. (Someone asked me about this just yesterday.) So, I thought a review of some key issues might be helpful. Shortly after this book began gaining a lot of attention, a good friend gave me a copy and asked for my thoughts. The review below is based on that response.

The Shack is a novel by William Paul Young that seemed to suddenly explode onto the public scene. Young writes about deep issues of loss, anger, life and death. Along the way, he has quite a bit to say about theological aspects of these issues such as the nature of God and God’s interaction with humanity. Quite a few people have shared a common experience with this book. At first they found it refreshing and comforting, a breath of fresh air. But then, when they started to really think through what the author was saying, they became confused.

The book begins strong. Right away, I felt that I knew the characters and cared about what happened to them. The author does a good job of drawing us into the story. The dialogue and the people we meet along the way are all realistic. Even though I had a good idea what was going to happen, the camping scenes and the search for Missy were riveting, horrifying and utterly believable. He had me hooked until the encounter at the shack. The part of the book that most intrigued many readers was the part that I found hardest to get through. But not just for the reasons you might think.

Let me begin by saying that I have no problem with a fictional or allegorical portrayal of God, of spiritual issues or of the Christian life. C.S. Lewis does this especially well. I’m also sympathetic to much of what (I think) the author was trying to accomplish. But I did have problems with this book. There are a number of things I could discuss, but I’ll try to focus on the most significant issues.

The question of gender in the author’s depiction of God seems to have been the main lightning rod for controversy. So, I’ll address this first and then move on to what I see as more important issues. Yes, I understand Mack’s problems with his father and, by extension, The Father. And, yes, I understand the point that God transcends gender and that both male and female are created in God’s image. And, yes, it is a biblical concept that God comes to us where we are, and even became human to do it.

Still—the Bible never shows God coming in different guises or forms. Each part of the Godhead is consistent in his role and form. God doesn’t appear to one as a young boy and to another as an old woman. And, yes, God consistently presents himself as male. He is never manifested in Scripture in female form or language. (Even the angels are consistently male.) So, in an age when some are attempting to emasculate the God of the Bible and present God as Father/Mother or remove gender distinctions for God altogether, if an author presents 2/3 of the Trinity as feminine throughout most of a book, he shouldn’t be surprised when he gets raised eyebrows in response.

Even if Young doesn’t support the extremes I’m describing, making these kinds of choices in his depiction of God is at the very least naive and irresponsible. I got the impression, though, that he does have some kind of axe to grind regarding gender roles. But this whole gender issue isn’t the most important concern for me.

In his book, Young portrays the Trinity in three bodily forms. This kind of portrayal is seriously questionable, and doesn’t fit the Bible’s descriptions of God at all. God has one bodily form—Christ. He is the visible image of the invisible God. Jesus is the physical, bodily manifestation of God. Even if these characterizations are useful as a story-telling apparatus, they do damage to the biblical understanding of the Trinity.

I can almost hear people say how ‘this book helped me understand the Trinity.’ But if they understand the Trinity in the way this author has described, their understanding is actually more confused than it was before. Maybe Young could have written a similar story using only Jesus as a divine character, maybe not. Regardless, this depiction of the three persons of the Trinity in bodily form is unscriptural. This wouldn’t even work well as allegory. I’m sure the author didn’t intend to obscure the biblical truth of the nature of God. But this is what he has done, and it’s a serious issue.

Any time an author writes a fictional portrayal of God, they’re edging out over thin ice. There are bound to be critics who just don’t like the way you’ve described God. And, of course, the subject himself may take issue with the way he’s depicted! The safest course for an author is to stay as close as possible to what God has actually said in Scripture. This is exactly what most Christian authors do. This is decidedly not what this author has done.

To be fair to Young, he does bring out some wonderful insights in his book, and I’m sure these truths will be helpful to many people. He presents a great number of other ideas, though, that are highly questionable and some that are downright silly. This wouldn’t be quite as serious a problem if Young was describing what were clearly his own ideas and views, and claiming—or having his character claim—that he thinks this is what God is like or what God might say. But I take great offense at him taking his own pet viewpoints and portraying them as coming from the mouth of God. In my opinion, this approaches blasphemy. If you’re going to portray, even fictionally, God as saying ‘thus and so,’ you had better be very certain that God would actually say ‘thus and so.’ If not, you are using God to advance your own agenda, not his, and dangerously misleading people.

Remember, idolatry is not just worshiping another god, it also worshiping a false illusion of the true God. I’m not talking about the plot points (whether God would offer scones), but the intentional teachings about God, humanity, life, death, etc. Much of this dialogue is more reminiscent of a guest on Oprah than the God of the Bible. Most of it sounds like a Christian, self-help, radio call-in program. Very little of it reminds me of the God I see in his self-revelation. The dialogue of “God” in this book tells me a great deal about the author; it tells me little about God.

And this brings me to my final, most subjective, concern. Even accepting the author’s characterizations of Papa, Jesus and Sarayu, I just don’t find any of them believable as God. His Jesus doesn’t ring true as the Jesus of the Gospels (for me). These characters are just too cutesy and frivolous. I personally know mature believers who manifest greater spiritual depth and significance than this “God”—not in a heavy-handed, religious way, but in a way that reminds me of . . . hmm, Jesus.

Consider Aslan from the Narnia books. Now I can buy this lion as a type of Christ. He’s not a tame lion. He’s not safe, but he’s good. This author’s portrayals of God are just too tame. In theological terms, this “God” is far too immanent and not nearly enough transcendent. (Actually, the depiction of wisdom at least started off better in this regard.) This strikes me as a typically shallow, 21st century depiction of God.

I guess a basic question for me is: Is the God of the Bible enough for us? Of course, we must actually live out and experience our relationship with God. And I have no problem with seeking to be creative in how we explain God to others and communicate his truth. But are we striving to effectively explain God as he has revealed himself, and communicate the same truth that he communicated through his Word? Or are we attempting to improve on his revelation and go beyond it?

As I wrote about in my last post, I want to make sure that I’m worshiping—and communicating—God as he truly is, not some figment of my own imagination. My own imagined god may seem more palatable to me and appealing to others. He may feel a lot more tame and safe. But an illusionary god can’t save anyone. He can’t bring to life what was dead. He can’t restore justice, peace and wholeness. I’m not satisfied with William Paul Young’s imagined “God.” I want the real thing.

If you’re intrigued by this kind of fictionalized account of a conversation with God, you might try David Gregory’s Dinner with a Perfect Stranger. The story isn’t as dramatic, but his Jesus is down-to-earth, and the author seems to do a much better job of writing a biblically-informed depiction of Christ and articulation of spiritual truth.