Unraveling the Complications of Things

Lately I have been reading Pope Benedict’s book, “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week.” I find it to be a humble and well-reasoned work of fine theology. Just the other day, I thought about a certain passage, in light of the non-ending of the world that was just witnessed on May 21. For those who might have spent the better part of a month either out in a boat in the North Atlantic or frolicking on a beach with pina coladas in Bora Bora, and who thereby might somehow have missed the much-fanfared non-Rapture, here is what happened. One Harold Camping predicted the “Rapture” (an event anticipated mostly by evangelical Protestants; believers will be bodily caught up to Heaven and non-believers will face terrible tribulations before the Last Judgment), for May 21. He did this based on his own calculations that the Rapture should happen exactly 7,000 years after Noah’s Flood. Setting aside for a moment the fact that not even the Bible purports to be exact about when the Flood occurred, and setting aside for a moment the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any prediction of 7,000 years involved, many of Camping’s followers quit their jobs and spent most of their savings traveling to proclaim this Rapture, so that more might be saved. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus stating that of the end of the world, “no one will know the day or hour,” and it will come “like a thief in the night”; but never mind. The reason I’m writing about it relates to the central premise that Camping’s followers (and others) espoused: Christian believers will be “saved,” non-Christian believers (or non-believers in general) will not be saved.

Presumably, some of the folks advocating this model include Jews among the unsaved non-believers. In any case, the deplorable ways in which so many Christians have treated Jews — even coining the degrading epithet “Christ-killers” — are not secret. Nor is it secret that even today, some Christians look unfavorably upon Jews, or at least consider them part of the unsaved group. So, the passage that I came across in “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” talks a bit about the origin of this tragic animosity: the misperception that “the Jews” demanded Jesus’ death. Even on the face of it, it is a ridiculous statement: all of Christ’s original disciples were Jews, and Christ in his human nature was himself a Jew. Benedict notes that the Gospels do not indict “the Jews” as a whole, but imply that persons in power desired Jesus’ death. That said, he then notes the verse that probably takes the lion’s share of blame for historical Christian animosity to Jews: Matt 27:25, which states that the crowd shouted, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”

Of this “blood be upon us” statement, Benedict offers a theological reinterpretation. He reminds us, “the Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all….These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel take on its correct meaning.”

While this interpretation comes from Benedict, its spirit is inspired by a Vatican II document called Nostra Aetate, which describes the Church’s relationship with non-Christians. Of religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc., Nostra Aetate says, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men…Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture…The Church also has a high regard for the Muslims….Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding.”

After a section discussing that it is from the Jewish faith that the Christian faith sprang, Nostra Aetate states, “Remembering, then, her common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by religious motivation of Christian charity, she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of antisemitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews.”

Regardless of what one thinks of Nostra Aetate (personally, I like it very much), one must be struck by Benedict’s interpretation of what Christ’s blood signifies, and how incompatible that is with any poorly-reasoned theology that damns all unbelievers with black-and-white simplicity. At the very least, one must acknowledge a proper humility that we are bound to leave these things in the hands of God, who is the only Judge of anyone. In the words of Lao Tzu, “We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of things.”

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

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4 thoughts on “Unraveling the Complications of Things

  1. There are also several passages in the gospels where, I believe, Jesus alludes that the line between “saved” and “unsaved” is not necessarily the same as the line between “believers” and “non-believers”. For instance, Matthew 7:21-23 says “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven …”

    What do you think of Matthew 12:30-32?
    “(30) He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. (31) And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy of the Spirit will not be forgiven. (32) Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
    The first verse seems to contradict the remaining verses, which I always believed support the notion that it is God’s law written in our hearts that is the ultimate authority, and which all people possess regardless of nation, culture, or creed.

    Finally, there is the most oft quoted John 14:6 by “believers”:
    “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
    Which is shortly followed up by the obvious question in John 14:22-24
    “(22) Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, ‘But Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?
    (23) Jesus replied, ‘If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. (24) He who does not love me will not obey my teaching …”
    Of course, I got into a debate over verse 23 because the if/then statement seemed to be going in the wrong direction. Now that I’m looking at it again, verse 24 implies that the statement goes both ways.

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    • Hi Erin, what a great comment! Thanks for all that. Yeah, that bit about the sin against the Holy Spirit has always perplexed me and just about everybody else. 😉 I have yet to come across a fully convincing opinion of what that means. For myself, the best I can figure out is that perhaps the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit occurs when you have someone who has really and consciously chosen an evil path in life, who has wantonly harmed others and thumbed their nose at any concept of God, love, and compassion – and then is never even remorseful for it. I don’t know how many of those people there have actually been in the world; I hope not many, but human nature being what it is…

      It seems to me when it says that those who speak against the Son of Man will be forgiven, that might indicate this believer/non-believer issue we’re talking about. In other words, you don’t have to be a Christian to receive God’s forgiveness. With regard to John 3:16, when read in light of the above considerations, perhaps there is a theology that “non-believers” might still be “in Christ” in the sense that they might very well be compassionate, ethical, loving people who do no harm. I know that forms of that theology exist even today, for example.

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  2. Your posts are very thoughtful.
    In reality, when Christ died on the cross, he was punished for (our entire lives of sins) all our sins. So our past, present and future sins are already forgiven.
    When he declared “It is finished!” he had paid the price completely and perfectly for our righteousness. God sees us perfect because when he sees us he sees his Son. Therefore we do not carry around a consciousness of sin or guilt Heb 10:22, instead we have a perfect conscience that is free from guilt and condemnation of sins.

    Heb 10:12 But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;
    14 For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.

    With regards to what commenter Erin asked regarding sinning against the Holy Spirit,– it’s funny, I just read this a few mins prior to reading your blog– I’ll just direct you to her site instead of me copying and pasting her explanation.
    Her answer is quite thorough and I hope you find it convincing.
    This is just a part of her writing: http://christinesbiblestudy.wordpress.com/
    It’s the June 2nd post.

    “So what sends a person to hell? Jesus said all sins will be forgiven man except one – blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. When someone bows the knee to Jesus Christ, they have repented of blasphemy, rebellion, resistance against the Holy Spirit, because it is the ministry of the Holy Spirit to draw people to Christ. People cooperate with that drawing, by coming, by acknowledging, by humbling themselves. If they resist until they die, then they have blasphemed the Holy Spirit.”

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    • Thank you, I’m glad that you enjoy my posts – thanks also for your comment. I think you bring up a great point about the reconciliation-of-sin aspect, and how God therefore sees us. Personally, I suppose I see Christ’s acceptance of his death less as a punishment and more as a self-sacrifice that accomplished redemption for all. In the Old Testament sacrificial system, sacrifices made for sin were the sinner’s attempt to make some restitution to God and reconcile him/herself again with God. It wasn’t so much about punishment, but more about an acknowledgment that something needed to be done to make restitution. So actually the reconciliation aspect of Christ’s sacrifice, which you point out so well, follows very naturally from the Old Testament theology that was already in place. (Though I think it’s important to note, as Benedict also notes, that God’s willing love to forgive does not nullify the gravity of the sins themselves or our essential culpability for them. People do some horrible things in the world.)

      As for the sin against the Holy Spirit, I just read the page that you linked to. I think that it’s possible her interpretation is what the gospel writer intended, but it’s still an open case for me. Personally, I still lean more toward the idea that a sin against the Holy Spirit would be a persistent life of harmful intentions and choices and a persistent lack of compassion, love, and remorse – not to mention any thought of anything divine. But, I could just as easily be wrong. It’s an ambiguous statement but that’s what makes for interesting discussions. 🙂

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