Christian Karma?

‘…Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied …’ 

These lines, found in the popular song, “In Christ Alone,” often strike me in an unpleasant way as I listen. The idea that God’s wrath must be satisfied is as revolting as it is unbiblical. Let’s keep it real here: the theology of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, that God must make people pay for evil, is really in my mind just a form of Christian Karma.

Side note-In the NASB, nowhere do the words “wrath”, “satisfied” or “appeased” appear together – The NASB is the most literal Bible Translation.

The book of Job tells an ancient story that captures perhaps the most common and deeply rooted religious assumptions of humanity about the basic posture of God or the gods toward humans.  When evil and misfortune fall upon Job, his friends tell him that he must have sinned for these kinds of things to be happening to him. Suffering is punishment for sin. However at the beginning of Job, in the prologue, God declares that no one on earth is as righteous as Job

All the most ancient religions seem to have similar beliefs that God/gods/or the transcendent forces of the universe reward creatures for good and punish creatures for evil. Essentially, bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people, and this is how the universe or the gods exact “justice.”

In the book of Job, all the main characters (Job and his three friends) share this same sentiment, that God must punish evil in order for justice to be served. By the end of the book of Job, God himself states that none of the people have spoken rightly about him, calling into question the notion that God is somehow required to punish evil in order to remain just or good.

Though we don’t know when Job actually lived, it was most likely between the time of Abraham and Moses, which was around the time that Vedism began to emerge and spread to India (around 1750 BCE) before later evolving into Hinduism.

Aside from the faith relationship that the Old Testament patriarchs had with God as recorded in the Hebrew Bible, and the various forms of primitive polytheistic beliefs that can be traced as far back as recorded history, Hinduism was the first major organized religious tradition to emerge in the Ancient World.

The earliest, most primitive religions and ideas of the sacred were all polytheistic and not organized into a religious system.  All shared the idea that humans needed to placate or appease the gods in order to get blessings or avoid misfortune. If they didn’t do that, bad things would happen.

So the universally accepted picture of God or the gods was that they were reluctant to bless, but quick to punish, that all human acts of wrongdoing simply had to be punished tit-for-tat.  This basic assumption that every bad deed must be punished or paid for is essentially what the Hindu concept of “karma” is all about.

There’s a clear illustration of this widespread notion that all evil must be punished by the gods, and that all suffering is punishment from the gods, in the book of Acts. In chapter 28, Paul has just survived a shipwreck off the coast of Malta. While gathered around a fire with the locals, Paul is bitten by a poisonous snake. The locals, who were adherents of Greek religion, exhibit this karmic mentality when they say, “Undoubtedly this man is a murderer, and though he has been saved from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live” (NASB). In the Greek, the word ‘justice’ used here is the word, δίκη (Dike), which was the name of the goddess of justice in Greek religion. Dike was the daughter of Zeus, and according to scholar Ben Witherington, she “kept watch over injustices on the earth and reported them to her father, who dispensed final justice” (Commentary on Acts, pp. 778-79).  Witherington points out that the ancient Phoenicians also had an equivalent deity who functioned in the same manner.  This story clearly illustrates how entrenched the idea of justice as the punishment of evil by the gods was in many, if not all, ancient cultures, apart from that of the Hebrews. The Hebrews appear to be the one exception to this in that their concept of justice was not, punitive, but restorative.

The fundamental premise of Hinduism, is that there are many gods that inhabit both the intermediary realms between the world and the ultimate force behind everything, called Dharma.  Hinduism states that Dharma must punish wrong-doing, and that the punishment occurs through karma, which is the explanation for all the bad things that happen on earth or to people.  Put simply, karma is the required punishment that the justice of dharma requires for all wrong doing.

The concept of dharma in Hinduism, translates this primitive idea into a more sophisticated concept, but the essence of it is still that the universe itself must and will punish all wrongdoing, therefore all bad things that happen are punishments for wrongdoing. People must pay in some form for justice to be served and the universe to be balanced. This is precisely what Karma is. Just punishment for wrongdoing.

The other major eastern religions all share this same basic belief.  And so apparently did Job’s friends, but as we have shown above, God himself rejects this theology.

Many Christians hold this assumption about God and what justice means in the Christian tradition. But is this an accurate theological understanding of the Bible and Yahweh? Does this correlate with the traditional understanding of atonement and Jesus’ death on the cross?

The premise that God must punish humans, or that Jesus’ death on the cross was a required payment to God to satisfy justice is a common assumption, but I argue, as many others do, that it is wholly unbiblical and not theologically honest. It is essentially “Christian Karma.”

There are many problems with this traditional belief (which by the way was not held by the Early Church). In fact the great author C.S. Lewis rejected the idea of penal substitutionary atonement in Mere Christianity, arguing that the common view of the time, known as Anselmic theory, was mistaken.

“According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem quite so immoral and silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make. What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor any other is Christianity. The central belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.” -C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity 

C.S. Lewis parallels Jesus’ death on the cross and shows how it is not about satisfying God’s wrath, but rather expressing the nature of God’s love, which is about defeating sin and freeing us from sin but not making someone pay for our sin, (Theologian and author Brad Jersak summarizes the beauty and symbolism of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. See article here http://www.ptm.org/16cwrm/spring/index.html#31/z )

Many assume that God must punish and cannot forgive unless someone pays for the wrong … but this goes against the logic of forgiveness itself, which means precisely that a debtor is released from their debt without having to pay … BECAUSE, the one wronged assumes the debt, which means he himself “pays it” by simply accepting and absorbing the loss himself.

The idea that God must make someone pay also goes against the teaching and example of Jesus on forgiveness, in which he repeatedly makes it clear that forgiveness is not something extended only if or after some payment is made, but something offered without any required payment.  Here are just a few examples:

Luke 23:34 – Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.  Jesus asks God to forgive those who were crucifying him, with no requirement of repentance on their part, and this is before his death was completed on the cross.

Mathew 18:21-22 – Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus *said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.  Jesus instructs his disciples to offer unqualified forgiveness on an unlimited basis to all others.

Matthew 18:27 – And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.  Jesus tells a parable of a slave being forgiven a huge debt by the king, simply based upon the king feeling compassion.

John 8:10-11 – Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”  A woman caught in adultery was about to be stoned for her sin, being made to pay the price for her wrongdoing.  Jesus extends unconditional forgiveness to the woman with no reference whatsoever to wrath or penalty needing payment.

So, why do so many insist that God can only forgive humans if a sin-payment is made, in spite of the fact that this goes against the logic / meaning of forgiveness as well as the teaching and example of Jesus?

Again, it reveals the deep-seated assumption of “karma” – that “justice” is a balancing of the scales of the universe where all wrongs are accounted for in the heavenly ledgers.  This is a misunderstanding of biblical “justice” … what if scale-balancing is not the heart of justice, but instead grace, mercy, and shalom are?

What if the scales are balanced another way, not by “two wrongs making a right” – i.e., I do something bad so something bad must be done to me … but instead by every wrong being countered by an equally weighty “right” or good … of which self-sacrifice, forgiveness, compassion and the like are the good?

What if justice and scale-balancing are about “overcoming evil with good”?

Christ’s death on the cross is certainly atoning … in ways we may never understand, it removes sin and guilt and frees us and reconciles us to God.

And it is certainly substitutionary … Christ fulfills the covenant for us, living our covenant life and dying our covenant breaking death in our place and representing us to God as our covenant representative.

But it is not in my view “penal substitution” … God making Jesus pay for our sin so that he can forgive us.  Forgiveness is the choice to NOT make someone pay a debt owed … it needs no prerequisite to “make it possible”, it is a free gift.  Karma is the age-old, mistaken idea that forgiveness cannot be offered for free and that all wrongs must be paid for and all guilt must be punished.  This is neither an Old Testament nor a New Testament idea but rather an ancient deception by God’s adversary to malign God’s character and to keep God’s people in fear and alienation from him.

It is my deeply held conviction that the theology of Job’s friends is detrimental to the true gospel of Jesus. I don’t believe God punishes us for sin and I believe the Bible rejects this theology, both in the Old Testament and in the full revelation of God through Jesus. These notions of God are condemned by God himself as a misrepresentation of his nature by the end of the book of Job, calling into question the fundamental assumption that God must punish evil and wrong-doing in order to be God.God’s justice setting all things right and making all things new. He restores, not punishes, his mercy triumphs over judgement. God desires our wellbeing, just like a father desires the wellbeing of his children.

We must to reject ‘Christian Karma.’ 

Jesus did not take a bullet from God, but from us. We killed Jesus.

Shalom

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Je suis Parisien, je suis human. Mais tout d’abord je suis un chrétien

“There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” –Brian Zahnd

Having a daughter one day (more than one hopefully) is the greatest longing of my heart, so when I watched this video for the first time, my heart was smashed into little pieces. Imagine being a father and having your child go through this. Would you not give your life to bring your child to safety? A lack of compassion is a sign of a weak heart. And a compassionless heart is an ugly heart. If you still fear letting Syrian refugees or any refugees into your country, maybe this video will touch your heart, like it did mine.

The people of France are in everyone’s hearts right now. There are few if any words that can heal the immense pain that the French people and the people of the world are feeling right now. There is little that we can do to erase the fear that such devastating violence brings. However, the sadness that this brings upon us all is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of our shared humanity, something that we all too easily lose sight of and something we must certainly strive to retain.

I am a Parisian. I am a human. But first, I am a Christian. Even though my heart is with the people of France, it is also with people everywhere suffering. Many people realize this, so I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but France was not the only country that suffered immensely this past week. We cannot forget that what happened in Paris is what people live through on a daily basis in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

We must not forget our common humanity and the value and worth that every single human being has, even those that are deemed lost causes by this world and sadly by so many Christians.

As beings created in God’s image, we must acknowledge that all people are worthy of love. As followers of the Crucified God, we are called to forgive all people at all times and in all circumstances. The choice to love and forgive is entirely our own. There are no ifs, ands or buts. We can and must choose to forgive, no matter the circumstances. We can and must choose the response of radical love over vengeance.

So in the midst of this, we must join in mourning with the French people and all others suffering. We must put ourselves in their place and imagine the terrible pain they have experienced and are experiencing.

At the same time we cannot forget our Muslim brothers and sisters. As Christians we must reach out to them as well, both the Muslims in our own communities and across the world, both peaceful and violent. We must be peacemakers. The vast majority of Muslims do not support the kind of violence just perpetrated upon Parisians, and yet now, as the inevitable targets of direct and indirect anger, judgment, hostility and hatred based on what some other radical so-called Muslims have done, they too have become victims of these terrible acts of violence. And those Muslims who do support and have even participated in these terrible acts are, whether or not we know it or believe it, themselves victims of generations of violence, injustice, hatred, bigotry, pain and loss which has seeped into their souls and so embittered them that they now are simply passing that on as it was passed on to them or their families and ancestors. To break the cycle of violence and retribution, we have to take seriously the call that Christ gave us to love our enemies and to overcome evil with good. Loving your enemies is a simple calling in declaration, but much harder to carry out in action and yet at the end of the day it remains our calling. It’s not a metaphor. It’s not some idealistic notion that cannot be attained until Jesus returns. It is for the here and now.

To break this cycle we have to rebuke the myth of redemptive violence, for it is a lie from the enemy, a lie that degrades our humanity. We, as Americans need to take responsibility for the sequences of violence that breed radicalism. Violence breeds violence. The road to peace is not war, but peace. War is simply a short-term answer for something that can only be overcome through peaceful means. The stories of real-life peacemakers like King and Gandhi tell us that peaceful means can and do bring peaceful change, we just need to give peace a chance.

Social Activist, author and peacemaker Thomas Merton put it well, when he said that, “The tactic of non-violence is a tactic of love that seeks the salvation and redemption of the opponent, not their…defeat.”

No one is beyond redemption. That is why we must seek the salvation and redemption of those who live by the sword. If we seek to kill those who live by the sword with the sword, we ourselves will eventually reap what we have sown and die by the sword. It is the story of cyclical violence. I can guarantee that as the number of bombs falling on ISIS increases, the number of terrorist attacks carried out in return will increase. A violent response is exactly what causes radicalism to grow. If you believe otherwise then why has the ‘War on Terror,’ led to an increase in radical Islam and violence?

Let us not forget so quickly the history of violence that has created the chaos from which refugees are fleeing. Many of the countries filled with violence and war were quite stable before their governments were overthrown, either directly or indirectly by the West. The U.S. and its allies are undoubtedly responsible for much of the instability that the Middle East is experiencing. The U.S. has blood on its hands. To deny this is to rewrite history, to deny history.

The kingdoms of this earth will respond how they have to respond, out of fear and vengeance, but we as Christians are called to be radically different, for we are citizens of Christ’s kingdom and our battle is not with flesh and blood, but with powers and principalities.

So how does responding in love look like? Well, first I will tell you what it certainly doesn’t look like. There is no room in the kingdom of Christ for hate. There is no room in the kingdom of Christ for vengeance and violence. There is no room for participation in acts of war and destruction, not for genuine followers of Christ.

Feeling anger in response to terrorist acts such as what happened in Paris is normal and human. Our emotions reflect our deepest concerns, and anger is meant to be a healthy signal that something wrong has happened. But the Bible tells us to “be angry” and yet “do not sin.”  When anger goes beyond being an indicator that a wrong has occurred to actually driving us to counter with more wrong, then this is sin. Anger is about setting things right, not adding wrong to wrong.

I’ve been deeply saddened by the fear-based reactions of many Christians advocating to refuse entrance of Syrian refugees into their states. They have rejected Jesus himself, for Jesus said, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’ Many of the refugees are our Christian brothers and sisters. So we are not only rejecting Muslims, but our own brethren in Christ. Fear drives us away from Jesus, I pray that love for others brings us back to him. Perfect love drives out all fear and we have nothing to fear, because we know that Christ has already won!

The Bible is very clear about helping the needy. If you aren’t a Christian then my quarrel, our quarrel, is not with you. However if you call yourself a Christian, then you might as well tear the whole New Testament and much of the Old Testament out of your Bible if you believe our faith allows us to reject immigrants.

For the sake of those who are not as familiar with the Bible, here are some verses that make it pretty clear as to how refugees should be treated. (All verses taken from NLT translation).

OLD TESTAMENT:

Job 31:32  “I have never turned away a stranger, but have opened my doors to everyone.”

Leviticus 19:9-10 “When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. It is the same with your grape crop-do not strip every last bunch of grapes from the vines, and do not pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. Leave them for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God.”

Leviticus 19:33-34 “Do not take advantage of the foreigners who live among you in your land. Treat them like native-born Israelites, and love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners living in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

Ezekiel 16:49 “Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door.”

Deuteronomy 10:18-19 “He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.”

Exodus 23:9 “You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.”

Malachi 3:5 “…I will speak against those who cheat employees of their wages, who oppress widows and orphans, or who deprive the foreigners living among you of justice, for these people do not fear me…”

Solomon’s prayer of dedication in 1 Kings 8:41-42 “In the future, foreigners who do not belong to your people in Israel will hear of you. They will come from distant lands because of your name, for they will hear of your great name and your strong hand and your powerful arm….”

See Isaiah 58:10 as well.

NEW TESTAMENT:

Matthew 25:35-36 “For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison and you visited me.”

Matthew 25:45 “I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.”

Galatians 5:14 “For the whole law can be summed up in this one command, Love your neighbor as yourself.”

See Luke 10:29-37 also.

So what are some practical ways Christ followers can love our enemies as well as our local and global neighbors?

John Piper (yes I’m quoting John Piper), talks about loving your enemies in a post he wrote that can be found here.

Mr. Piper asks the question, “What is this love?” He goes on to list three simple steps we can take as Christians to love our enemies and I will paraphrase the three points and add my own thoughts.

  1. ‘Simply greeting them’ – What I like about this is that even if this can’t be done to the members of ISIS, it can be done to the Muslims all around us and it really can make an impact. I had the opportunity to visit a Somali mall in downtown Minneapolis with some people from my church led by Jay Perske, who is doing amazing ministry outreach with the Twin Cities Somali community. The simple act of smiling and greeting the Somali Muslims walking about in the mall would instantly light up their eyes. I could see the gratitude and appreciation that was evident in their interactions with us. They wanted to be understood. They wanted to be accepted. It’s a simple step and it can really make a profound impact on not only others, but yourself. It breaks down fear and it builds trust and helps you see the humanity of another human being who comes from an entirely different background.
  1. ‘Practically meeting their physical needs.’ –This is another great way to love your enemies. No, this doesn’t mean arming them and sending them monetary support (hint, hint U.S. government). Once again this can be hard for us to do, when ISIS is far away in another country, but there are Christians who are called to those areas of conflict and we must support them, because the reality of what enemy love can bring is incredible. There are countless stories of non-violence leading violent people to Christ. Some of you may have heard of the story of the ISIS member that became a Christian.
  1. ‘Praying for them.’– God is always at work and for me prayer is still a mystery. But the Bible tells us that it is something to engage in. I believe it is more than just a sign of obedience to God’s will, but an engagement in spiritual warfare. The enemy is always at work, but so too is the Holy Spirit and prayer is not something to be taken lightly, it is perhaps one of the most important elements of our faith.

Pacifism is not passive. Pacifism does not mean being some weak-minded hippie. No, pacifism seeks reconciliation at the possible cost of one’s own life, by far the most courageous pathway any human can choose. It takes tremendous bravery to respond in love and to refuse to hate your enemies. Firmly saying, ‘I refuse to be your enemy,’ will begin to transform the hearts of your enemies, I guarantee it, Christ guarantees it. This will open new doors for the Holy Spirit to work through and in your actions for those who do not know Christ.

Prayer is great. Acknowledging your enemy’s existence is great. Serving your enemies is great. But first you have to SEE. First you have to open your eyes to truly see those who consider themselves your enemies. Once you know who they are, once you have seen them,  you must seek to understand them, seek to know their history, their suffering and their beliefs. Once you have SEEN then you can immerse yourself in the conflict and contend for their reconciliation.

My pastor Greg Boyd shared a beautiful sermon this weekend and in it he gave his testimony of an encounter with a potentially violent person. While driving Greg crossed paths with a bicyclist who was clearly drunk. After getting out of his car, Greg found himself being confronted by the man, who apparently thought Greg had cut him off. The man grabbed Greg by the shirt and pushed him up against a car and was threatening to bash his face in. At this point Greg could smell the alcohol on the man’s breath and knew that this man could easily do what he was threatening to do. Rather than attempting to resist or respond in force, Greg simply said, “You can punch me and hit me, but I am not allowed to hit you, because I am a follower of Christ.” Immediately the man relented and drew back and the situation was resolved.

For many of us in this circumstance, fear would bring us to respond in-kind, but Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek and to repay evil with good. Imagine how the state of the world would change if every Christian lived like this.

This week I encourage us as Christians to step out and interact with our Muslim brothers and sisters, locally and maybe even globally if the opportunity arises. A good friend of mine from house church has been a wonderful example of being Jesus to Muslims. My friend Josh (who is on fire for Jesus) has been getting to know Muslims in his neighborhood in Minneapolis. I have been so inspired by his walk with Jesus and how he models Jesus to the people he meets. He sent me an email this week, entitled ‘Jesus is for every Muslim.’ I think that perfectly encapsulates what we as a church need to be about. Joshua is taking the time to understand Muslims and what they believe. Here is an excerpt from the email he sent me after a very meaningful time at our house church this weekend.

“We the church have done a pretty lousy job reaching Muslims because we have refused to see the Truth that they have in their culture,  faith, and even in their holy book, the Quran. Our typical approach is to bash their prophet (Mohammed) and bash their book. After we have done that we feel that we have to tell them what they need to believe in order to be Christians.

Our approach is different. Instead we look to what we can hold up that they have in their culture, faith, and even their holy book. We use the common ground we have in these places as a bridge to talk about Jesus (whom they love). This naturally leads to sharing from our book (which the Quran holds up very highly as well).

Jesus said, “If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto myself.” We are doing our best to keep focused on this and let so many of the things that we tend to get distracted by be left on the side.”

I leave you to ponder the words of a man whose son was in Paris during the attacks.

“My son was in Paris last night. He took the metro back from the Eiffel Tower right under the area of the shootings, without knowing it. He and his friends had discussed going to the rock concert where the majority of the killings took place. They had discussed going to the area where the bars were. It’s only a trivial choice; half a kilometer, half an hour, and it would have been him. One day it catches up with all of us. President Hollande has declared war. But war is already on us. In us. War is what the enemy wants, and we are the enemy. In the intense shock and grieving of all these situations there has to be another voice. To appear weak? Helpless? Is that so bad? Because we already are. Rolling down the road of terror. Who was it that gave the wagon the first push? It doesn’t matter. What is important is to stop it, entirely. I pray that all of us have the faith and courage at least to jump off, if not–as Bonhoeffer said–seek to derail the wheels of the wagon.”Anthony Bartlett

Thanks for reading,

Shalom

-Josiah