I’ve been reminded lately of the importance of “and” in how we process the trauma, pain and loss in our lives. It was a lesson I learned years ago and was reminded of again by several individuals who have helped me through very rough times, some of whom had their own trauma and chaos to deal with.

Sometimes we willingly face or are forced into evil situations where we must persevere in faith (with the power of Christ who manifests in weakness) insisting on our self-worth as human beings or the worth of others in real time and space. Often, the consequences and shear pain (often inflicted by those around us) appears meaningless and and endless. And yet, there is still that and.

As I look back on my distant past and some recent incidents I am reminded of the God who sees, the one who showed me my self-worth and how to live. Those around me thrived on negation. They had to tear others down (particularly those already thoroughly victimized my cruel and empty individuals) in order to exist. Or, they were people in positions of influence who chose to avoid and enable what they were called to stop. Even then, I wished they could truly give their lives to Christ despite their clammering about the other “fake Christians” around them, or being active themselves in their churches, or their love for Christian culture, but not the heart of Christ. God is within reach of all of us, if we will only truly make him Lord of our lives and let his self-emptying power (risking for others, standing against evil at personal cost, surrendering social standing and being “first” to the world) manifest in our lives.


God, if I have a place at your table, in your communion, then I have everything. And if I have a place at your table how can I not perceive others at this same table in practice in the every day and nor see the sheer possibility around every corner for those turned away from you?

God gives us the and. One is never truly left with just evil which has no meaning in itself. The life, death and resurrection of Christ and our own potential and destiny in him are ever present alongside pain and suffering recasting and re-contextualizing them.

And, there is always those moments of beauty that one cherishes and can take with them even as everything else seems or seemed so thoroughly negative. I recount with a smile that day I was left in a remote area to find my way in the scorching heat (before I was rescued by a police car). I had “mouthed off” i.e. stood up to an abusive individual who was tearing another person near me apart. Worth it. Or, all the things I was able to accomplish in extreme environments that would have dragged others down. Or, those days where I had nothing of my own to brag about (and it all comes from God really), but merely managed to tell God I was empty, felt left alone by him, but knew who he was and renewed my commitment to him.

“Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!” -Bonhoeffer, Who Am I?

At the end of the day, I am thankful. The and allowed me in many circumstances throughout my life to stand up to pathetic displays of power and to the best of my ability, be and help others to be. And, one does not always “win” from a worldly perspective. Courage opposes evil not because there won’t be consequences, but because the consequences are deemed acceptable in light of one’s calling as a human being representing God. Sometimes the battle itself and knowing that one fought well when outnumbered and against all odds by the conviction of faith and hope in God’s future…sometimes, that is enough in moments.

Does the Bible Teach Nonviolence? Love, Revenge & Justice in Scriptrue

Illustration by Jules Julien

Illustration by Jules Julien

“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too.”

Matthew 5:38-40

Biblically speaking, are our choices as Christians truly between violence and non-violence, or between a show of force or no force when it comes to resisting evil? Must we choose between “turning the other cheek” and self-defense? These choices, though perhaps posed as a false dichotomy, are not necessarily unfounded biblically or ethically on their own. Those who genuinely practice non-violence and stand up to evil are not best characterized as “passive.” Nor are those who risk their own lives with guns in hand on behalf of others, to save innocent life, or the state when it prevents individuals from continuing to harm others, merely vengeful or blood thirsty. And yet, is it most moral to refuse to stop violent men and women from marching into town and harming our neighbors, from harming the “outcast” or “strangers”? And, though often there are nonviolent solutions, sometimes using force is the only option open to effectively stop those who will take advantage of unprotected individuals. And yet also, when one takes up arms do we surrender the Romans 12 imperative to overcome evil with good? The one who lives by the sword, dies by the sword and do we effectively promote the kingdom of God characterized by different ethical norms including mutuality, peace, and turning the other cheek out of love for God and neighbor when we take up the sword? Have we compromised all that we stand for when this happens?

Cards on the table, I tend to think most of the way we as individuals should walk through life ought to look more like Martin Luther King Jr.’s Civil Rights movement: One must resist evil using non-violence mixed with truth-telling (in this case taking the form of civil disobedience). Yet, I also believe the Bible calls us to protect and defend our neighbors and self from harm (self-defense and justice), and this may include use of force. Most of us already practice this if we are the types of people who will call the police when there is a robbery or a child has been molested. The state will use physical force to restrain those who would continue to hurt innocent people. And yet I would also put forward that most of the time in our daily lives force is not necessary and it is easily justified to feed the preservation of one’s false self and easily rationalized as a “last resort” when one has no other choice when this is seldom the case. An aside: This is why a larger community accountability in the form of a legal system with inherent checks and balances on power and a notion that an individual person’s rights are sacred in crucial! The will to power may always be rationalized hence it must be limited and bound or the vulnerable (which any of us could be at some time in our lives) will be exploited with religious fervor and layers of justifications.

But, let me unpack some of my current thought. on the use of force and nonviolence:

On this side of the eschaton, the Bible appears to have three consistent messages that are relevant to deciding between retaliation, revenge, forgiveness and justice:

  1. Love your neighbor as yourself.

  2. Do not seek revenge, retribution or escalation.

  3. Overcome evil with good.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

The Bible consistently teaches that we should love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. Matthew 22 (Cf. Gal 5:14) records Jesus saying that alongside loving God with all our heart, that this is the clear foundation of the Law and Prophets as well (i.e. it is not something new he is introducing).

We should not put the value and preservation of the “self” over another in our every day dealings. And, if I value you as much as I do myself, I will probably end up showing you more grace, give you more chances and want the best for your well-being. By implication I will not try and steal your property, place in society, take you to court unethically so that I can “get mine” and more, but nor will I let you do the same to me for your sake, mine and society’s. To the best of my ability I will not let you exploit, abuse, or harass me if I can help it (and sometimes one can’t) nor allow you to do so to another. It’s bad for the soul, mars your character (as sin will do the more you engage in it), and puts you squarely against the true God of this world.

Yes, evil happens, primarily through people, but we are also people!

Let’s take a closer look at two relevant passages for our purposes: Leviticus 19:18 and Luke 10:25-37 and ask what it means for our larger question of what we do when someone wrongs or is attacking us.

“You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” -Leviticus 19:18

Alright. In the Old Testament, which Jesus appeals to, loving one’s neighbor as much as ourselves is framed as an alternative to what? Taking revenge and holding grudges. But, that is not all. It is set in a wider context of being an alternative to other behaviors such as: not oppressing or stealing from others, unjust laws, doing things like insulting a deaf person or putting physical obstacles in the way of blind people, slandering people, AND, less comfortably for many of our current shady Christian practices: “Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” (16). And, one is not only culpable before God if one stands by and lets one’s neighbor be harmed. You have a responsibility to “Rebuke your fellow Israelite strongly, so you don’t become responsible for his sin” (17). You are required to openly denounce evil from your “in group” your “fellow Israelite.” Failing to do so biblically speaking makes you responsible for whatever the person does to another person.

In other words: the Bible condemns the exploitation of others even towards those who have already acted this way towards you. Trying to hurt someone back, letting others be exploited, and failing to condemn evil behavior all fall under not loving one’s neighbor as one’s self and set one against the God of the Bible. Consistent message: do not engage in exploitive and unjust behaviors towards others, regardless. And undo this paradigm, my earlier phrasing of “lettering others be exploited” does not quite capture the Bible’s perspective here. It seems to conceive of it not so much as a sin of omission at worst nor merely not going above and beyond at best. Rather, the text appears to think one is engaging in the sin itself and held responsible for it if one lets an evil person do evil. Corruption and sin take many forms.

Are you not the kind of person who would openly make fun of a boy with autism or say something at his expense in front of your “friends” that you know he can’t pick up? Well, according to the Bible you are liable and part of this sin when someone does this and you do not openly rebuke him.

So, what must you do if someone tries to murder, slander, exploit or take advantage of a neighbor? Put a stop to it. If someone is slandering another person you must rebuke them and if they are trying to kill them? Well, likely (but not always) you will need to stop them by force. And all of this is based in God’s identity “I am the Lord” and comes down to what at a later date Bonhoeffer keenly identified as “the cost of discipleship.” For all of our talk on whether nonviolence is easy (and it usually is not when it comes to our own exploitation), it is far simpler for us to do nothing and “mind our own business” or “lay low” when a neighbor is being harassed. And better still if we can claim the name of God or appeal to God’s love or grace as we do evil (fyi this is what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain).

And how does this square with the part about not taking revenge or holding a grudge? More to come. For now, our next point coming out of Luke 10:25-37.

A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves…

Alright. Interesting. We have an example where a legal expert is trying to vindicate himself. He rightly (according to Jesus) says that if he truly loves God and neighbor he will have eternal life (of course, gradually we come to truly see that Jesus is Yahweh hence he is the one we should put our faith/allegiance in and is the power behind our ability to do these actions of faith). But the legal expert was actually trying to get one up on Jesus and so was not satisfied with the standard answer. He retorts back with the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus paints a picture that expands one’s understanding of neighbor to go beyond one’s family, tribe, group, cliche, nation…take your pick…and to make matters worse he does not even allow one to take the pride of Israelite nationalism in the story as the one who fulfills the essence of the law in helping the poor foreigner. The one they should look up to and emulate is a Samaritan. The very outsider that was considered “not a neighbor.” The vilains in the story (besides the thieves) are the Jewish exemplars who on the outside appealed to the law, but truly did not follow it even towards a “fellow” Israelite (the ongoing criticism of the leaders exploiting their own people). They chose to let a man in their “in group” die whereas a Samaritan recognized a neighbor in one who was in the “out group” and showed himself to be the true keeper of the law and inheritor of eternal life. The Samaritan did what the law calls for towards neighbors and more that went well beyond the letter (is characterized by generosity towards what others consider an enemy). He loved the neighbor as himself by helping him out of his own resources and even left some extra money to help the man after the crisis was over taking responsibility for his after care should he need more. One who loves his or her neighbor as much as they love themselves will be characterized by a divine generosity that reaches out of one’s own abundant heart towards an enemy seeing instead a neighbor.

In v.36 Jesus asks, “What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?” Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise” (37).

The take away for our question regarding justice, revenge and violence? Well, at the least we understand that we are to treat enemies as neighbors and love them as much as we love ourselves when the opportunity presents itself. And, we are to be characterized by divine generosity. In the law this is based on God’s character and in the gospels Jesus is the basis (Jesus is God with us). Between these two passages (and others not covered) we have enough to know that our dealings with other people should be oriented towards self-giving generosity and one that puts aside old and present grievances whenever one is able (meaning, if the thieves are still attacking you, do not pretend they are finished). Our lives embrace personal risk socially, financially and in terms of physical harm. Those who say they serve God and yet are without mercy and use religious and ethically loaded rationalizations in order to avoid responsibility are exposed for who they are by what they do (walk away and around the one in need).

Do not seek revenge, retribution or escalation.

If you love your neighbor as yourself (and your “neighbor” includes outsiders and enemies), you will not: seek revenge, retribution or escalation. This mentality is applied to situations where we have the upper hand and in situations where we have experienced crushing and unjust defeat at the hands of another. Many enemies think in terms of zero-sum. If I win, you must lose. In order to feel big, safe or strong, you must be put down, exploited or annihilated. In order for my God approved organization to thrive, I must sacrifice your health and well-being (*cough S. Baptist convention). Those who truly subscribe to Judeo-Christian values and worship Yahweh (who by the way decided to decorate his temple with plants, flowers and images of peace rather than Near Eastern temple war images), will strive towards Yahweh’s goal of peace. This entirely rules out retributive violence, but not true justice.

In biblical law context the aim of justice is to 1) limit the cycles of revenge, 2) aim towards restoration i.e. the original metaphor of an “eye for an eye” was meant to convey that one should receive back what is owed and no more and usually took the form of a fine rather than a literal eye gouging. Later in Jesus’ day it was misapplied to be interpreted in the context of revenge. Here it means that the person who is harmed or damaged gets restored or compensated. And finally, the law aimed to 3) prevent future evil, hence someone who murders another person is himself killed (though there are several exceptions), with the basis in human beings being made in the Image of God in Genesis. Some individuals, organizations, churches, agencies…etc will simply continue to do evil if they go unchecked.

Unlike justice, revenge does not aim primarily to end cycles of revenge unless it means annihilating another. It is “me at the expense of you” type thinking. It does not aim towards restoration. I.e. it is not enough that if you hurt me that you pay my losses, I want you to hurt and bad the way you hurt me. Nor does it does it primarily seek to prevent future evil where reconciliation or conciliation is impossible. Rather, revenge seeks to gain pride of place, ego, brute force and power for itself. Insisting on justice respects the image of God in oneself and in the other (often it is better for the other to experience the consequences of their actions so that they can truly turn to God and not just try to save face). Revenge seeks to destroy the image of God (agency, gifting, and mutual power/rule) in the other because we have been hurt or had our image smashed.

And sometimes we have been truly crushed and injured beyond our control and despite our best efforts to live in peace. We live in a vicious world where people do horrendous things to us while others watch, rationalize away their horrendous behavior, try and ensnare innocent people through misrepresentations and technicalities (all for the greater good of course), victim blame, overtly join in and, there is no justice. No safety. No restoration of loss or even the effort to do so. We live in a world where the innocent are scapegoated as criminals and their destruction and pain celebrated. And yet, we must see these people as our neighbors and as Romans 12:18 says, “If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people” and v.14 “Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them.” The passage acknowledges that it may not be in our ability to live in peace. After all, a person or organization who is harassing another, is not living in peace. If the context lets their evil continue, the so-called bystanders will be living in sin and there will be no peace even if they do so in the guise of “peace.” i.e. we exploited you and created an uncomfortable dynamic and so now we feel uncomfortable and will expunge you. Yet, in these situations we can only do the best we can without compromising God’s truth. After all, Jesus was killed as a “criminal” who threatened “peace” (Roman defined of course) so will those who follow God’s call and bear his image be exploited and have their characters slandered.

That said, lets look at a couple of passages on not taking revenge (there are a ton and we are not even scratching the surface):

Matthew 5:38-42

“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.”

Arguably, the best translation of ἀνθίστημι is not “resist” both lexicaly there are other options and also other options in terms of reading in the wider biblical context. A range of other options from LSJ which I prefer: “set against” set in “opposition,” “outweigh”…etc. Basically, do not play the game. They want to hurt you (zero-sum). Do not buy into their premises. It leads to eternal death and is not living out one’s calling to be like and worship God. Its not worth it. Its better to suffer loss than to be like them (hence if your eye causes you to sin pluck it out!). Resist them another way (see below on overcoming evil with good). And besides, they will think you are insolent, a threat and/or evil and interpret your actions that way anyway just by virtue of disagreeing with them, insisting you are also a person, or by following the way of Christ. Though not always. Blessed exceptions.

That said, folks often interpret someone slapping you on one cheek and turning the other as a license for taking repeated physically abusive behavior (which is absurd). Contextually, the sense is more one of not returning insult for insult. Someone insults you to bring you down a peg. Don’t insult them back. Turn your metaphorical cheek. Jesus did. And he spoke truth back at them and was “disagreeable.”

Why not return insult for insult? Because you can face them with your new identity in Christ. The world is tight fisted and enslaved to false images. Just because they are defeated or deceived by evil does not mean you need to be led into the temptation to do the same. Ironically, do not be defeated by an unjust defeat. Face them without shame because you have the face of Christ and his sacrifice gives their evil towards you new meaning since he stands in your place and you in his in solidarity. Back to our passage: the end brings it back to a core characterization threaded throughout our passages: one of generosity.

One who is insecure seeks to bring others down, misrepresent, look for not picky ways to undermine and tear apart, scheme, stack the cards against, encircle and gang up on others. One who is secure in Christ has more than enough in himself that he or she will not return an insult, but returns with open hearted generosity when compelled (even if unjustly). Sometimes this means giving someone who refuses to treat you well many chances even if you have grounds for calling them to account (this is for each person to decide and one should be careful in applying this in cases of abuse). I can think of an instance at some time in my life where someone attempted to get me fired and it exposed her own misconduct. I was asked if I wanted to take it higher up and I let it be.

Also note that the above passage addresses a situation where one has already suffered loss or defeat. There is no choice. You cannot get them to stop or protect yourself. Damage is already done. They have you and you have no hope for justice. You are still a person of the kingdom and in this vein “let the weak say I am strong” and the “poor say I am rich because of what the Lord has done…”

Luke 22:47-53:

“While Jesus was still speaking, a crowd appeared, and the one called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him.

Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Human One with a kiss?”

When those around him recognized what was about to happen, they said, “Lord, should we fight with our swords?” One of them struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear.

Jesus responded, “Stop! No more of this!” He touched the slave’s ear and healed him.

Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders who had come to get him, “Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, as though I were a thief? Day after day I was with you in the temple, but you didn’t arrest me. But this is your time, when darkness rules.”

Context: Jesus is raw. Jesus has been betrayed on so many levels. Jesus knows his other friend Peter is going to pretend not to know him later even though he made such a show of what a loyal and heroic person he was. And, Jesus was so scared he sweat blood. This is a symptom of very extreme chronic stress and anxiety, not just fear in the moment. Perhaps Jesus agonized over the pain of the upcoming betrayal, the humiliation and the long excruciating death awaiting him. Throughout the gospels he talks about this fate to his disciples and others, but no one understood he really thought bad things were ahead for him. To make matters worse, even though he asked his friends to just pray they wouldn’t fall into temptation (i.e. not take revenge later), they slept instead, and then…fell into temptation when push came to shove.

One of the 12 Jesus invested so much of himself in humiliates him in public (with a merry band of Jesus’ enemies and soldiers). Judas has shown his true colors, ironically in the form of intimate friendship: a kiss. Jesus has let him down and he wants it to hurt. Otherwise, why a kiss? Now Jesus will be arrested and killed like a criminal. He will not die officially for his character or message. They will try to make him look guilty and like he had it coming. Those with him don’t stand a chance. They can either 1) run, 2) get arrested, 3) get arrested but take as many down as they can first! One of them opt for the latter. Jesus, who is being taken (others can run) opts to get arrested and not escalate needlessly. Why? The trap has been set. He has “lost.” What good would hurting the high priest’s servant do? And of course, there is a deeper divine plot in motion.

And yet, Jesus feels free to call his enemies out on their behavior (people don’t like that very much). They want him to die like a common thief and are making a show of treating him like one (definition of scapegoating). And yet, he is showing them they are truly evil and have other motives and calling them out on it.“Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, as though I were a thief? Day after day I was with you in the temple, but you didn’t arrest me. But this is your time, when darkness rules.” If he was so clearly guilty, why did they pick this time and not act earlier? This is the story of all scapegoating and illuminates that one has rationalized the destruction of a perceived threat rather than truly being concerned with justice and goodness.

When justice is not immediately in sight and one has already “lost” in a worldly sense: do not seek to do maximal damage to an enemy for the sake of the self at the expense of the other. Do not try and just cause more pain because you are hurt and need to project it out. But do be cheeky, and call them out on in if you can. ;) They don’t like to see themselves for who and what they are. And, contrary to popular believe, narcissists and those drunk with preserving false images rather hate mirrors.

Luke 23:32-34

“They also led two other criminals to be executed with Jesus. When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.”

Context: Jesus is being brought to corrupt leadership on the basis of false charges using trigger words aimed at compelling Pilate to respond with brutal force.

At first Jesus is made into a sick joke where Pilate passes him off as an entertaining crazy holy man to an old revival he wants on his side (and Herod is delighted). There is a sick pleasure they all get in making Jesus “King of the Jews” since they despise the common Jewish people and have sworn their allegiance to the power of Rome. Pilate almost lets Jesus go after humiliating him. He hates the Jews and thinks it will piss them off and perhaps is feeling superstitious about Jesus maybe being a holy man (Cf John 19:11-12). But, in the Gospel of John, we hear more trigger words:

“The Jewish leaders replied, “We have a Law, and according to this Law he ought to die because he made himself out to be God’s Son” (John 19:7). God’s Son = title of a rival King

And it gets worse. V12 continues:

“The Jewish leaders cried out, saying, “If you release this man, you aren’t a friend of the emperor! Anyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes the emperor!”

And combine this with the Luke portrayal of a growing riot to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus (because they are such good Roman citizens), done. We hear elsewhere that Jesus was so depleted and weak (for heavens sake, he just sweated blood for tears) that he is crushed by the weight of his own cross. He can’t even carry it. He is not able to face his death with grace and poise. And yet along the way he ironically proclaims judgment (vv27-31)!

And then, he is killed like a criminal. That is what abusive people and “bystanders” do, they make the scapegoat the criminal because they cannot face themselves and will not surrender power to God. He is mocked more by everyone except an actual common criminal who sees through the illusion, accurately perceives himself and thus truly sees Jesus.

But Pilate gets his. He places the words “King of the Jews” over Jesus’ head as his crime. Take that Jews. Your king is a pathetic loon and criminal that we have killed in a gruesome way.

And yet the text, true to Rene Girard’s observation, is allowing us to see through the scapegoat ruse, and it is in this context that we hear the ultimate divine pardon:

“Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing” (v34).

Biblicaly speaking (drawing from Romans and an Old Testament view of deception), they knew they were killing and wrongly blaming an innocent man. They knew they were lying and manipulating. Deep down past the layers of self-deception and exchanging the truth for a lie they knew they were trying to hold onto power and that Jesus was innocent. What they didn’t know: Jesus was not just another innocent man they killed horrendously as a sacrifice to their self-aggrandizement, he was Yahweh. God had always spoke about loving one’s neighbor as oneself on the basis of his character. He was now being vulnerable and running through the full course of their sin because God’s heart truly is for the outsider, abused and is truly opposed to revenge and loving one’s enemies.

If the penalty for knowingly murdering another person made in God’s image is death, what is the penalty for murdering God himself!? Jesus pardons them for their crime. God is all powerful and yet characterized by loving generosity not revenge, so should we be. And yet ironically, it is a crucified criminal who is the only one in the narrative for a while who sees this and asks to be “remembered” in paradise. A lesson for repentance and casting off false images of oneself. And, in the Old Testament, when God “remembers” someone, he forgives and rescues them (Cf. Jeremiah 31:34: "For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more"). Will God “remember” you?

I’ll leave it at that for now.

Overcome evil with good.

If you love your neighbor as yourself, you will not seek revenge, retribution or escalation. And, if you are not to retaliate in kind when someone wrongs you, what should you do? True to God’s character and example and the life of Christ, you will not only step in when your “neighbor’s blood is shed” or speak out against sin but, seek to overcome evil with good.

Earlier we saw that God does not want us to let our neighbors be overcome by evil people and desires true justice (this is dominant throughout the Old and New Testament). God does not want us to be submitted to abuse! This is more than clear throughout the Bible. And we misread Scripture when we see Jesus acting in solidarity with the marginalized as advocating the marginalized remain marginalized (how absurd!) or reading in the idea of Jesus the lover of sinners into giving a break to powerful people that exploit others. We also saw that the metaphor of turning the other cheek was not about submitting to more physical assault but a metaphor for not returning evil for evil/insult for insult.

And yet, much of the world pre and post biblical does not live in just systems and will never see justice in their time. They are crushed by the weight of “the might of Rome” and perverse power hungry leaders in their own unique contexts. Most cannot get justice. One should try if they can (i.e. the apostle Paul often speaks of how one should act as a slave even though he encourages one to gain freedom if able), but often one cannot get justice in this life. But God’s kingdom is more powerful than the zero sum game and because of this, as we strive (and sometimes fail to receive) for justice and strive to pardon over revenge, we buy into the kingdom reversals of power and this creates something wonderful inside us even as we go through seasons of crippling anxiety, our own tears of blood, and debilitating physical weakness. The Lord’s prayer that calls us to seek our daily bread and not fall into temptation in the context of forgiveness bases this call in God’s kingdom. It is in swearing allegiance to this power and claiming it for ones own (and this allows us to, just as Jesus did, proclaim our power in the Lord even as we stand in chains and defeat).

Buying into a crucified savior like the thief on the cross re-patterns our lives (Rom 12:2). We may stand our ground because we are made in the Image of God and we may find the strength to move forward, but we go towards different ends and this continues even as we lack the physical strength, and as our anxiety gets the better of us, as we are unable to smile at times and unable to be on the surface, “joyful.” And, contrary to heretical thought, I am going to venture Jesus was not laughing while dying on the cross.

In the every day when we are insulted by people consumed with making themselves bigger (or merely assume they are big and you are small), we turn our face towards them and against all odds, status and worldly authority, say “bring it,” not returning evil for evil, but like Jesus exposing it for what it is in a way that is ultimately illuminating and constructive. When compelled (no choice) to go a mile with an enemy soldier, we recognize our neighbor and throw another freebie his way because God has poured out his generous love in our hearts in the Spirit. We are joyfully his even as we mourn and are bear silent traumas.

In Romans 12, we learn that our lives, if we have sworn our allegiance to Christ and his vision of a kingdom and power, will be oriented towards Christ (different goals than not losing face, not suffering loss, or not losing pride of place) and we will be people disposed towards seeing others as “equals” (i.e. neighbors), and as our own body—belonging to one another. This is only natural, or a logical outcome λογικὴν of worship. To do otherwise is to reveal a different logical orientation that is directed towards a different end goal of “faith” perhaps one of self preservation at the expense of another?

That said, I will now turn to some constructive elements in Romans 12 about how to worshipfully overcome evil with good and what that means.

  1. Do not put your self in a higher place above others (Rom 12:3-8). Acknowledge your own gifting and that of others. Note this is a two way street and is consistent with the NT generally when it comes to people society deems more worthy, honorable and superior seeing themselves as more lowly AND those who are lowly finding the courage to see themselves more highly. Our savior and his followers after were most bold when in chains or outnumbered. The tendency is for those with an inflated sense of self to be offended when someone lower takes agency and those who are insecure to shrink. Do not shrink, but do not try to put others down either. God has gifted you, use it.

  2. Be characterized by a love that is not deceptive or false (vv.9-12). So much of the political game whether nationwide or in the context of a small office has to do with false shows of affection, morals and respect where each does ultimately what is in his or her own best interest. Contrary to the world, we should not be pretenders, but lovers of truth and enemies of evil. We value each other as insiders or members of our own family looking only to outdo each other when it comes to highlighting the good of the other.

  3. Cling to God no matter what season you are in (vv 11-12). Be enthusiastic and happy. But also “stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourself to prayer.” God does not want “go alongs” or people who will only put on smiles. He wants people who will stand up to evil and trust him when things are going well or bad.

  4. Be generous in your material spiritual life (vv13-17). When one has the Lord and is “storing up riches” towards his kingdom and is already filled with the Spirit he or she will provide for other Christians and strangers financially and materially when they need it. One can “bless people who harass you” and not curse them and sit with others in every season whether they are happy or mourning. Again, everyone will be considered “as equal” and you will associate with those targeted by the powerful, by the group, those others look down on for various reasons—those who “have no status” and this spirit rules out “pay back” and promotes the respect for other people’s well being.

  5. “If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people” (v.18). Even if you have the upper hand try your best to promote peace. Vv19-20 say that instead of trying to get revenge leave room for God’s wrath. “Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head.” Those who do evil despite goodness especially when they have portrayed ‘you’ as the evil one. Count on them rationalizing your behavior away and perhaps not accepting your assistance, but ultimately, though out of love and generosity we would like to convert him or her, we do these things so that evil does not claim victory over us.

    “Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good” (v.21).

What we say and do in this world will not make sense to those who have not truly given their lives over to God.

They will expect that as good “Christians” we will be weak willed and submit to their false self and to injustice and be surprised when we don’t. They will be surprised that when they come for our neighbors, that despised one or people group everyone knows is the “problem,” that we stand in their way. They will be surprised when we kick them out of our churches, and call the police when they abuse someone in our congregation even though they have the title of “Pastor.” They will be shocked that we openly disagree with them or sue them when they assault us (and yes, you can sue another “Christian” more on this later). Upholding human dignity and preference for one’s neighbors needs above one’s own is truly rare and not understood when there is nothing to be gained, when you will be seen as a traitor or hypocrite for doing so.

They will expect that we will try and take them for all they are worth when they are destitute, vulnerable and exposed and be surprised when we lend them our assistance and hand. They will wonder what our motives ‘really’ are. They will interpret it as manipulative. They will be angry and offended that their inferior has “condescended” to them. They will be angry because it exposes that we are the true inheritor’s of the kingdom and they did evil at every turn. They will interpret our patience, graciousness and generosity as weakness as though we could not act swiftly and with devastating force or need to appease them in some way. And perhaps, just perhaps a few will realize their own need for a Crucified Messiah and join us in our journey. And of course there will be those others looking on at your behavior and tell you you ought not give so many chances, be gracious…etc. Let them wonder.

So, after everything has been said, what do I believe the Bible teaches about nonviolence and the use of force? Approaching one coming from the vantage point of non-violence I would say that when all other options are exhausted, if able, use physical force and the law to keep people from preying on the vulnerable and innocent. Do not uphold injustice in the name of ethics. Approaching one from the vantage point of using force, put down your sword. It is better to suffer devastating loss physically, emotionally and materially than to take revenge or become what we fight against. Better to miscalculate or error on the side of grace and have it “come back to bite you later.”

However, ultimately we all have to decide what to do in each situation. My only advice is to do so prayerfully and worshipfully seeking the good of the “other,” but without sacrificing one’s own or another’s sense of value and worth before God.

Its a both/and.


Paul, Hell, and the Problem of Evil: An Exploratory Sketch


Note: this paper was given at the Rethinking Hell symposium on January 26, 2019.

As someone who wound up rather circuitously in pastoral ministry, the problem of evil is not one that is lost on me, especially as a graduate of Biola University. I have seen a half dozen of my friends and acquaintances leave the faith over various issues, but I believe these issues can largely be traced back to the question of evil. It would be impossible to try and answer all of the philosophical questions concerning that question in this paper, and I believe there have been sufficient theological and philosophical responses to such questions from adept theologians like Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, and John C. Peckham most recently in his masterful work Theodicy of Love. As such, it is my goal to sketch out a Pauline theodicy that seeks to answer the question of evil. In essence I am taking Jerry Walls admonition for annihilationists to take seriously other various doctrines and concepts and show how they can be integrated. I hope this attempt warms his Wesleyan heart. I know it has warmed mine.

Three theses can be deduced from the Pauline literature, but more could be mentioned: first, the question of the materialization of evil. Second, the promulgation of evil. Third and finally, the end of evil as it relates to our doctrine of annihilationism. The doctrine of hell for evangelicals has been largely relegated to something that happens at the end. What we need is a worldview shift concerning that question: how does God respond to the evil in his world? Does he incarcerate it or destroy it? Those are some of the questions I will explore in this paper.

It is worth noting, simply for the sake of transparency, that I do operate from a specific side of the Christian tradition and so my commentary is intentionally reflective of my own views, not the views of Rethinking Hell as a whole. But I'm right so there is that.

1. Paul's Narrative World

First, we must consider Paul's own reality as it relates to his theodicy. The narrative of Paul the Apostle centers on a lifetime of brutality and anguish, mirroring the narrative of Israel's Scriptures. Often we focus upon the beatings sustained by Paul as depicted in 2 Cor 11:23ff: imprisonments, severe beatings, death ever present, forty lashes minus the one, beaten by a rod three times, danger from rivers, robbers, the hostility from the people of the nations, his own people, city, sea and false family members: "in toil and trouble, in sleeplessness, in hunger and thirst, often fasting, in cold and nakedness." This all occurring during a time where to assert that Jesus the Anointed One is indeed Lord of all was an affront to Caesar's reign was death. The early martyrs attest to this reality in Pliny's letter to Trajan:

An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

Trajan responded to Pliny with this:

That whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.

The ancient world was an inherently political reality, a world built upon the backs of slaves. It did not pay to be a Christian during this time. Death loomed over every person. Paul gained nothing by being a "slave of Christ." At a time when the wealthiest among the Roman elite held a majority of the land and wealth, we need to be reminded that when we read Paul we are not stepping into a vacuum. Every step Paul took on his missionary journeys was on contested soil. So when one thinks about what non-Christians say about the problem of pain and evil, one can hardly find a better first century source than Paul the Apostle—a man who lived the terror and pain and wrestled through these questions. If one imagines the trial this takes on the human body, one is free to envision a broken, bloody, brutalized figure whose body was evermore being conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Perhaps that is why Paul boasted in his sufferings.

2. The Materialization of Evil

Concerning the materialization or origin of sin and evil—and I am using the two synonymously for the sake of brevity, the closest we get to a "fall" narrative in Paul's thought is Romans 1:18ff. God's wrath is being "apocalyptically unveiled" against what is considered "godless" and "human unrighteousness." What follows is what can be called a "decline of civilization narrative," where an author dictates the downfall of an empire or a specific reality or nation. Despite "knowing God," these people changed or "bartered" the glory of the immortal God for images in the image of corruptible humanity, and birds, and four-footed creatures and reptiles" (1:23). Paul is clearly echoing the creation account in Genesis 1-3 and the notion of idolatry is ever-present—the lack of the presence of the noun or verb for "sin" or "to sin" is irrelevant because we know Paul is operating with an Adamic narrative. I am also assuming that "unrighteousness" is a sin. This sin manifests itself in the mind and deeds of human beings and becomes, we might say, an organic reality. Seneca writes the following concerning the decline of civilization narrative

But the first men and those who sprang from them, still unspoiled, followed nature, having one man as both their leader and their law, entrusting themselves to the control of one better than themselves. For nature has the habit of subjecting the weaker to the stronger… It was avarice that introduced poverty and, by craving much, lost all…we once possessed the whole world! (Epistles 90)

Similarly, Paul reflects on the origin of sin in Rom 5:12 when he writes—in typical controversial and debated fashion—"For this reason, just as sin entered into the world through the one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death crept to all people because all sinned." I rendered the verb διέρχομαι ("to spread, travel") as "crept" because I believe it fits contextually—sin is a living thing, and it feeds on living things. But here we see a glimpse into the Adamic narrative, especially as it relates to Death being a ruler over us (Rom 5:14ff) and I would argue this Adamic narrative carries on into Romans 7. Sin came into being because we sinned. Here, we might say, is the beginning of what is often called the "free will" defense: even though humanity was granted all things except to eat from that pesky tree, even though they knew God, they frittered God away for things that do not even resemble God. Thus, the original sin, as it were, came into the world because of a desire for autonomy apart from God. We all worship something, and these days you can see idol worship just by turning on the news. What we can determine quite clearly is that Paul believed that sin was something organic and structural, a personification that takes a whole host of metaphors and analogies. A key verse for this is Rom 6:6:

We know that our old self was crucified along with him, so that the body of sin might be utterly destroyed, so that we might no longer be enslaved to sin.

The slave-master analogy requires a real socio-historical grounding. Slavery was incredibly common in the ancient world, with estimates of around 300,00 of them existing in the Roman Empire during Paul's time. Hence, the presence and materialization of sin not only abounded across the Roman Empire, it manifested itself in the very bodies of the early Christians who were slaves and slave-masters. As such, the question of the emergence of evil is clear. Sin, as a cosmic oppressor, comes to birth through the sinful activity of humanity. Death feeds on life. Sin feeds on life. As such, the materialization of sin and death and evil stems from the desires of creature who have forsaken God—it is not God who created evil; that falls upon us. As Beverley Gaventa writes, "humanities refusal of God's lordship meant that God conceded humanity for a time to the lordship of another."[1]

3. The Reality and Promulgation of Evil

The second point concerns the reality and promulgation of evil. From whence evil came, we know. The reality of evil is more pressing, as it is the straw that broken many a former Christians back. The sin of racism, violence, greed, avarice, and so forth remains ever present in our world. For many, Paul is often considered to be the source of Christian anti-Semitism, slavery, and sexism. This list of Paul's alleged sins increases expansively if one consider the impact of government sanctioned violence (Rom 13:1-7). This is not the place to defend Paul on every point but a few words are needed. If we are to take Paul seriously as a theologian, we must be certain of his character. What good is a theologian if he or she ignores the things of Christ? What good is the apocalyptic vision is that vision is tainted by the worst wiles of the ancient world? First, Paul's Judaism and comments about Judaism reside within, I would argue, the prophetic tradition and I am not inclined to argue that Isaiah or Ezekiel are Anti-Semitic. Paul sees himself within this prophetic strain (c.f. Rom 1:1) and criticism and condemnation of sinful behavior is not limited exclusively to Paul. As it concerns slavery and women, one cannot find a single ancient source that advocated for the abolition of slavery. But, one can find this little Epistle addressed to a certain Philemon that—I would argue—plants the seeds of emancipation for slaves. The famous text in Galatians 3:26-29 about the abolition of hierarchy through baptism in the church, for the Jew and the Gentile, for the slave and the free person, for male and female, is a strong hindrance to the notion that Paul was intent on maintaining a hierarchical social order. If one includes the activity of early Christian women in Romans 16 for example, one would not expect to find a sexist commending such women for their work in the Gospel. That will suffice for now to assure us of Paul's good character toward 'the least of these.' As such, I would argue that Paul's moral character as it relates to the reality of evil is of use to us. Paul, as an ethical theologian, is an excellent source for understanding the reality of evil insofar as he was aware of evil and that he worked to overcome it as he was able in his time.

Moving to the reality of evil, Paul certainly believed that individuals participated in evil activities. But, I think the problem is far greater than being about individual sin. For Paul, evil has a personality to it—it seeks to subordinate and oppress us (Rom 6). It seizes opportunities to enslave and to kill (Rom 7). Although the powers were created as good (Col 1:15ff), they have since become fraught with violence and oppressive power. What was once good at least in terms of concession (recall that whole "give us a king" moment from the Old Testament) has become corrupt. For Paul, this age or this reality is symbolic of the destructive power of Satan and competing sovereignties. This is the reason Paul calls the "rulers" or "sovereignties" as being of "this age" (1 Cor 2:6-8), and not of the unfolding age to come. As Paul recognizes in Galatians 1:3-5:

Favor to you and peace from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord, who delivered himself over for our sins so that he might rescue us from this present wicked age in accordance with the will/resolve of our God and Father, to whom is glory for ages upon ages. Amen.

Several points must be noted about this fascinating little text. First, notice the distinction between ages: the apocalyptic age of God includes the liberation of humanity from bondage. Only God's glory and favor and peace can reign "for ages upon ages," with no hit to God's sovereignty. There are no other sovereignties to usurp God's power. Second, the notion of liberation includes distinct echoes of the Exodus narrative where God emancipated Israel from bondage, taking them from death into new life. Third, this age is characterized as "wicked" or "evil;" (πονηροῦ) as opposed to good or holy (Eph 2:2). Throughout the Synoptic Gospels the language of "ruler" (ἄρχων) is often linked with demonic realities and powers (Matt 9:34; 12:24) and human powers that enslave (Matt 20:25). What this tell us is that human and supernatural powers have been corrupted and in turn have become corrosive toward God's creation. And they wield immense power in our world. With the Adamic narrative and the decline of civilization narrative in mind, what is Paul's response when the person in Adam cries, "Wretched human that I am, who will liberate me from this body of Death?" (Rom 7:24).

4. The Vanishing of Evil

For many Christians, the question of the "end" of all things is ultimately a question about hell and suffering. Very little is usually said about what this "end" contains, only that there is pain and anguish and a form of torment as it relates to evil. However, it must be said that Paul did not envision the "end" in a way where people and entities are kept alive forever and ever. Paul's vision of "hell" or the "end" must be reframed in broader and more precise ways. Paul has a much bigger picture in mind. For the apostle, the question is not about whether or not God torments people forever and ever. Rather, the question should be seen as, "what is God's ultimate response to evil in the world?" How does God respond to injustice and violence and oppression and exploitation? Hence, theodicy is at the center of Paul's thought world as it relates to sanctification and God's ultimate act in response to the terrors that bind and enslave us. This reconceptualization will press us toward a more robust biblical theology that takes seriously the evils of our world and God's ultimate answer to the terrors and the trials. Apocalyptic theology or eschatology cannot be projected into the future, as if God is not at work now in our world to redeem and wage a cosmic battle against evil.

Questions, of course, arise when we consider such things. For example, one might suggest that sinners continue in sin in hell. This is the view asserted by D.A. Carson among others, and this view has found little support among New Testament scholars. Other views have softened the traditional formulation of hell as eternal brimstone, fire, and torture to something like separation or compared it to 'warm beer.' Ronnie Demler, my colleague and sometimes-cuddly curmudgeon, has documented this sort of argumentation in the Rethinking Hell anthology, so I point you to that for substantiation.

As one can see, often the apologetic impulse in much of evangelicalism deals not with a grand vision of God's sovereignty and holiness and powerful war against sin, but with the individual being consigned and incarcerated to a small corner of the cosmos. Such a framework does not work well at all with Paul's grand vision. So, allow me a few moments to offer a tentative sketch of the Pauline data as it relates to the problem of evil.

Paul's words in Romans 8:18-23 are an appropriate lens by which we begin our conversation. The text reads as follows:

[EXT] 18 For I think that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to compare to the coming glory to be apocalyptically disclosed to us. 19 Because the created order is eagerly waiting with anticipation for the revealing of the sons of God, 20 for creation was subjected with frustration, not willingly, but because of the one who subjected it in hope 21 that even creation itself would be emancipated from its enslavement of destruction for the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that all creation has joined together in groaning and suffers the pain of childbirth until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves—the ones who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit—groan amongst ourselves, anticipating adoption as sons,[2] the emancipation of our bodies. [EXT]

All of creation is subjected in turmoil and anguish and the evidence of this can be found on whatever news channel you prefer. The present reality of suffering and anguish is a prime element of early Christian thought, although the notion of escapism is to be ignored. For Paul in Rom 8:18-23 we see an active reality—the created order—responding to corruption and the process of destruction, where the cosmos is cognizant of its own status and anguish amidst corruption and degradation. Rather, creation is in need of liberation by means of humanity and our work as agents of liberation. God's own hope for a liberated cosmos (vv.20-21) is set in opposition to agents of destruction and corruption, who seek to subordinate and dominate the created realm. God's act of subordination is assumed to be for the benefit of the oppressed, with the ultimate goal of "adoption" and "emancipation." Thinking ecclesiologically and ecologically, the church is to be God's agent of redemption in a world beset by violence and horror. The church is united to this cosmic reality and we participate with it, groaning and eagerly anticipating and even suffering with the created order. The goal of glory is the final culmination of perfection in God's cosmic order, where sin and evil is ultimately removed from all reality. God's process of rectification assumes a new reality (Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:16-17) where the kingly image of the eternal Son is supreme above all other orders and realities and principalities and sovereignties (Col 1:15ff). God's perfection of the cosmos is the ultimate restoration of the original design in creation and Eden.

In an often-disregarded verse, Paul outlines the specific end of a principle agent in the rebellion against God: Satan. Paul writes

[EXT] But the God of peace will crush (συντρίψει) Satan beneath your feet in swiftness. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you." [EXT]

What is compelling about this verse is that it directly matches the fate of Satan that is proclaimed elsewhere in Scripture (Heb 2:14-15): as the principle evil actor in the divine drama, Satan maintains a significant presence in the New Testament. The language Paul uses in this text is fascinating on two accounts. First, the language of being placed "under your feet" suggests destruction (Psalm 109:1 LXX)[3] and the church is the agent in doing this. Second, the verb συντρίψει is used throughout Second Temple literature to denote destruction, especially as it relates to warfare. 1 Macc 4:32 and 2 Macc 12:28 are specific in their vision of the "destruction" of their enemies: "but they called upon the Sovereign who with great power shatters (συντρίβοντα) the might of his enemies" (12:28). The Book of Odes also speaks of "The Lord shattering (συντρίβων) [enemies in] wars" (1:3; 7:44)[4] a view that is also echoed in Judith 9:7 and 16:2. In Judith specifically, God is the specific agent who "crushed" or "destroys" various warriors and nations who rebel against God. This suggests linguistic and thematic continuity with Rom 16:20 and that Satan's fate is utter decimation from where there is no life, vitality, or remnant. Hence, the final end of Satan in Pauline thought coordinates best with the view that those who participate in evil against God's call to participate in sanctification and victory in Christ will ultimately be undone in death (Rom 6:23).

Paul's magnum apocalyptic opus in 1 Cor 15:24-26 reads as follows

[EXT] 24 Then the final End: when he hands over the Kingdom to God, even the Father, after he has annihilated all rulership and all sovereignty and power 25 For he will continue to reign until he has placed all of the adversaries beneath his feet. 26 The final enemy to be utterly annihilated is Death. [EXT]

These verses in the larger pericope of 1 Cor 15:20-28 represent a master vision where Paul outlines in some detail what will happen to all evil things, particularly the fate of the powers and the sovereignties. The notion of dueling sovereignties is a question that Paul has wrestled with throughout his entire surviving corpus: Jesus the Lord versus Caesar and the Empires of this world, and the problem of competing imperial ideologies in the ancient world are finally confronted here. Christ's kingship is predicated upon his sole exercise of sovereignty and the annihilation of all (πᾶσαν) of the universal realities that have shaped the cosmos; nothing evil has escaped Christ's grasp. A key Greek verb bookends our section here (v.24: καταργήσῃ in relation to the annihilation of the powers) and in the complete annihilation (v.26: καταργεῖται) of the final enemy.[5] These realities (the Powers) and the final enemy (Death) will cease to exist when Christ finally and decisively acts in response to their tyranny. Similarly, the various "rulers" will also be "destroyed" or "brought to nothing"[6] (καταργουμένων) in 1 Cor 2:6. Thiselton notes, "the present tense underlines that they are in the process of being reduced to nothing; this process remains continuous as an unstoppable process, i.e., they are doomed to come to nothing, or doomed to pass away."[7] The perfection of creation and the call for holiness means that the current world order is in direct conflict with God's desires. God's will for a world without sin is predicated upon the free actions of creatures who refuse God's gift of Christ, and all who have aligned themselves with the sovereignties will be given over finally into death. The hostility of the powers—both human and non-human—are doomed to nothingness, as sin cannot co-exist with God and God's people in New Creation. This word group (καταργέω) is also applied to the "lawless one" or the "person of lawlessness" (ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἀνομίας) in 2 Thess 2:7-10. In response to the evil done by this figure, Jesus will "kill" (ἀνελεῖ) him and "annihilate" (καταργήσει) him when he comes in glory (2 Thess 2:8). The discontinuity procured by Sin and Death means that Paul's vision of a triumphant God entails the annihilation of all things hostile to God: the final enemy of God is that which seeks to dominate all of creation, this ultimate adversary of Death. The removal of sin from the body of the believer (Rom 6:6) echoes the removal of sin and evil from the cosmic order here. In responding to the created powers, God renders them null and void, with utter decimation and final obliteration for the benefit of those who were oppressed by them and enslaved to them.

A few closing points:

·      To assert that God maintains old vestiges of sin and evil entities somewhere in the cosmos does not comport at all with the Pauline data. Evil cannot exist with a good and sovereign God at the helm of history. Evil and Death, as powers that enslave and corrode, cannot exist within God's creation.

·      To assert that evil and sin and death are eternally existent in the bodies of those who rejected Christ is miss out on the military language utilized by Paul. Paul's use of incarceration imagery is never used in an apocalyptic sense to refer to people being eternally existent in a state of agony or boredom. Rather, in all of Paul's apocalyptic discourses, annihilationist or destructionist language is used.

5. The Sea will be as Glass

The question, in conclusion, is how Paul's vision concerning the destruction of evil affects our theological consideration. The integration of various issues in theodicy and the apocalyptic fall of Satan and the powers are actually vital for Pauline theology. To introduce various other questions about the eternal existence of people in a state of hell is to miss out on the point of Paul's theological outlook. There are no other sovereignties or powers to press against God's sovereignty. In the chaos of this world, Paul's perspective gives us hope—especially to those of us who are pastors—in that evil and sin and death exist, and they are at war with God. As John Peckham has stated, "The suffering God of the cross himself took on death in order to destroy it, and he will indeed destroy death and the enemy who has its power (Heb 2:14). In the meantime, we can maintain faith in the goodness of this God of love while raging against the (temporary) "dying of the light."[8] One is not immune from suffering simply by privilege of being born or being a Christian. Evil is overwhelming because it is evil. Evil does that. But God did not hide himself from such evil. And Paul didn't either. Chaos reigns but it cannot reign eternally.

As John the Seer said some thirty years after Paul, "And I saw what looked like a sea of glass glowing with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and its image and over the number of its name" (15:2). Let us live into that.


[1] Beverley Gaventa, "The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul's Letter to the Romans: Toward a Widescreen Edition," Interpretation 58.3 (2004): 229-240, 233.

[2] Here, Paul is addressing a mixed audience and hence women are included with the status of first-born sons.

[3] Specifically, the language of "corpses" (πτῶμα) and and the verb for "shattering" (συνθλάω) in vv.5-6 of the LXX denote annihilation. This victory is envisioned as a military conquest, not a passive or peaceful submission.

[4] The verb can also be used to denote metaphorical destruction; cf Sir 13:2 and 27:2. 

[5] Louw-Nida glosses this verb as "to cause to cease to exist - 'to cause to come to an end, to cause to become nothing, to put an end to.' " 13.100.

[6] Richard Hays observes the following: "this parallel [with 1:28] shows that it is God who is acting to destroy these rulers and to establish his sovereignty over the world." First Corinthians, 43.

[7] Thiselton, First Corinthians, 231-232.

[8] Peckham, Theodicy of Love, 170.

Becoming Human Again: Power, Marginalization & Dethroning False gods

Interpretation: Condescending bemusement met by a tired, yet slight power pose by a solitary person. They ‘know’ her for the disgusting “thing” she is. And we see her vulnerability outside the circle and yet she still exists. And looking at her through time she becomes more visibly human and they are exposed as less so, a stain on history.

Interpretation: Condescending bemusement met by a tired, yet slight power pose by a solitary person. They ‘know’ her for the disgusting “thing” she is. And we see her vulnerability outside the circle and yet she still exists. And looking at her through time she becomes more visibly human and they are exposed as less so, a stain on history.

“I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

The problem of marginalization is fundamentally one of deception tied to power and allegiances. Biblically speaking, deception is frequently portrayed as a problem of the heart rather than merely buying into false premises. Ultimately, one buys into false premises about themselves and others because they want to. Applied to marginalization, one marginalizes another because at heart they have chosen to believe they ought to be superior and the other is or should be inferior. It is an issue of worship and idolatry as one elevates the self above the other who is made in God’s image, and in doing so also elevates themselves above the God of the cross in their life orientation.

It is easier to conceive of personal and historical evils as a mere “lack of knowledge” or education or perhaps merely having been tricked depending on how our given society has processed or not processed the events. However, the conception that something willful or decided happened in the chain of decision making or wanton disregard for the truth is far more disturbing the closer it hits to home. Most of us are now programmed to reject the plea that one was “just following orders” and know that otherwise “good citizens” cannot appeal “everyone was doing it” in the context of an event like the Holocaust. And the Holocaust is of course, a commonly accepted example of when we humans went too far (never mind everything leading up to it). But what about other contexts?  

This impasse between recognizing willful deception and identifying something as mere ignorance arose recently when I was watching an old black and white movie with some folks and a “black face” routine came up. It was dismissed as “just something people did” in those days, sad and unacceptable now, but excusable then. They did not know any better. But at some deeper level, just almost brimming to the surface, is it true that they simply “did not know better?” I couldn’t help but ask this question.

At this period in time, the individuals participating in the making of this movie widely acknowledged they were dealing with “people” (and one is also liable for creating or accepting dehumanizing labels). Their movie even celebrated these people’s liberation from slavery. And yet, they thought they could portray these same people as: inherently ugly (black), stupid and entertainingly simple. Is that how one treats a person? I think of Mr. Rogers showing us how to be good neighbors as he cooled his feat in his “yard” alongside a person of color and declared his consistent message that he was a “neighbor” and other people were on this basis worth interacting with, investing in and being treated as equals. But in this other show, they did not portray themselves as neighbors, but as “liberators,” even permitting the “black faced” actors of subservient roles to sing of their liberation from slavery.

How disturbingly common it is for those who dehumanize, abuse or injure to think their targets should be grateful for the crumbs they throw.

And, why the blackface routine if they were the great liberators (or their ancestors had merely finally set part of a great wrong right)?

I believe they made “black face” simply because they could. Society had broadly come to this agreement on what was acceptable behavior towards these human beings and how they could be portrayed to match a larger narrative. Nearly everyone treated them according to this imposed script. But of course it is those pesky exceptions to the rule that condemn the rest of our behavior! In turn, the makers of this film were choosing to see their neighbors with this demeaning image and yet the existence of this false image flies in the face of their vision of themselves as the white liberators and veils the truth about who they are and who their neighbor is. How easily self-deceived illusions and rationalizations fall apart when one without the need to preserve a particular image walks in on the rouse. No, this particular group could more than afford to put on a smile and “nicely” demean the “other” in such a way that just so happens to make themselves appear superior in their mind’s eye. Doing otherwise was not expedient in the moment, and took up too much effort against societal trends to treat these people like full members of society with equal dignity. Sure, they were willing to put up a fight to let the colored actors of subservient roles sing of their liberation by white saviors (many of whose ancestors also enslaved them in the first place!) because this matched the narrative and did not fundamentally challenge the status quo. Further, it made them into saviors again with no fundamental shifting of perceived identity.

The mask of morally superior politeness and platitudes nearly always slips once one asks: what is lost and what is gained? Do you visibly increase by “helping” me or, am I permitted to come into myself and expand?

But the narrative of inferiority must stand because: If perhaps if it turned out that these people were and are not “black face,” then the pernicious behavior from their so-called saviors towards them is condemned. Suddenly one has treated an equal horrendously and unacceptably while declaring oneself pitifully their better.

What is Marginalization?

The Oxford Dictionary defines marginalization as the: “Treatment of a person, group, or concept as insignificant or peripheral.” It may be that one does not realize they are marginalizing a person or group now, but it is important to realize the darker reality at play here. Marginalizing is not merely convenient inaction. It involves “withholding,” bringing another “down,” or suppressing their person or agency. It is not recognizing their achievements, contributions or value as persons. It is withholding access to resources, social standing, their own identity, due praise or earned merit. It is communicating inferiority verbally, and non-verbaly in word, in deed and in subscribing to/enabling/approving of ideological frameworks that reinforce subservience or inferiority. These types of behaviors or tendencies may be easily identifiable to those on the outside looking in: “Why would you treat someone that way!?” but typically make perfect sense within the framework the participants operate in.

Those that marginalize often approach targets as though they are unacceptable, outsiders or merely “different.” Those targeted can be of a different age, educational background, ethnicity, culture, gender, or personality. It may be that they are otherwise undiscernable from others, their differences are artificially construed or they have qualities others envy. Once a person is targeted, marked or the environment has successfully distinguished them as an outsider, they will be perceived with a sort of overlay or pair of glasses that filter out favorable characteristics or characteristics that go against a particular narrative and accentuate ones that support it. This overlay can also outright distort the facts of behavior themselves so that a pleasant “hello” or offer to assist becomes an intolerable indiscretion or may even be erased from memory. Although marginalizing behavior might at times be deemed functionally “invisible” or subtle to those engaging in it, it is not in fact, unrecognizable or behavior that one could not point to, identify and unpack with context if they have not bought into the narrative.

In other words, at the end of the day it may take just one person saying the “emperor has no clothes.” And yet, imagine having to unpack and argue why he has no clothes to a group that truly does not want to believe this is the case or that they went along with something obviously evil or silly. Imagine having to do this if you are the person or group the behavior and narratives are directed against, which is typically what happens!

Put another way, say you are constantly having your ideas shot down or people are visibly irritated when you speak, receiving suspicious glances from people when you go up to talk to them, and no one wants to be alone with you. It has been years. Reinforced communication: you are a liability and we feel threatened when you try and engage us (happens frequently to women). What do you think will happen if you confront them about their behavior? What adaptations might you end up making to your interactions that would either confirm their narrative (maybe you get fed up with them and get super assertive) or in an attempt to dis-confirm it, attempt to make your behavior match someone deemed “not threatening”? More on this later.   

A Problem of Ignorance or of the Heart?

The problem of marginalization is deeper than a mere need for education about another person or culture or realizing one ought not to exclude, make racists or sexist statements. On a fundamental level, we have a heart problem. In Christian terms, marginalization reveals one is hostile and disposed against the face of Christ in various forms. It is a refusal to be human. After all, “Why be a king when you can be a god?

Humans were created to represent God in the world as his image bearers, as priests in his temple. We were called to rule together. But we saw the utility in choosing wisdom apart from God and exchanged truth for a lie. We functionally set ourselves in God’s place and set ourselves as betters over “the other.” And as we dehumanize the “other” we cease to be kings or priests, let alone gods. We have eyes, and yet we refuse to see the person right in front of us. We may place them out of sight and out of mind. We have ears, but cannot hear the call of our Crucified Messiah to carry our cross and follow him. Instead we act out of “self” interest when we do not put in the time to consider why we treat this or that person with fundamental disrespect, avoid them when we have clout or power, or make snap judgments about who they are and put up barriers to their thriving that we refuse to recognize as our own inventions.

We elevate ourselves above another. We do not love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. We do not love God more than we love ourselves. Even individuals who marginalize as part of “group think” are responsible for their behavior. They may no longer be conscious of why they in particular hate (and not all marginalization is hate) or become incensed at an individual or recognize that they are taking steps to “punish” or disempower them, but denial that leads to “deception” is still accountable to a higher power. Our Savior and judge has nail-pierced hands and a big sign over his head that reads “King of the Jews.”

In the words of Miroslav Volf, “We may believe in Jesus, but we do not believe in his ideas, at least not in his ideas about violence, truth and justice…We will follow him only from a safe distance, afraid of sharing in his terrible fate…The crucified Messiah is good for the inner world of our souls tormented by guilt and abandonment. He is the Savior who dies in our place to take away our sins and liberate our conscience; he is the fellow sufferer who holds our hands as we walk through the valley of tears. But for the outer world of our embodied selves, where interests clash with interests and power crosses sword with power, we feel we need a different kind of Messiah” (Exclusion and Embrace, 276). We believe yes, but do we worship? Do we have faith i.e. allegiance and a trust that steps out onto the water, rain or storm?

Of course, sometimes we are more ignorant. And when ignorance is the key problem it is easily corrected by simple education and our ability to realize we misjudged someone and treated them incorrectly based on that judgment (also why it pays off to simply attempt to be kind to everyone). For example, one might realize they took a gesture as disrespectful when in reality it was respectful within the confines of another set of cultural norms or we realize they expressed undeserved anger at us because their child died and/or experienced a slew of misfortunes. And upon realizing this, and upon approaching with a mentality that honors the perspectives of others and are willing to surrender ourselves to change out of love, we can display new found empathy.

One may have the gift of empathy, but empathy is selective. I recall reading in a Psych magazine that terrorists typically have average levels of empathy. They simply direct it towards their “in group.” A willingness to adapt and change and exercise empathy towards those deemed “other” begins with an exposure of the self so that the self can become and take form. The other choice is to become indignant and demand the other person change to suit us or decide they should have known better and deserved what they “got” from us. At the end of the day, it still takes self-knowledge, openness to others, and a willingness to adapt and change our behavior.

Of course, part of the uncomfortable reality of marginalization is that it is not simply just a single mishap, but a pattern of treatment aimed at bringing another down just as we so happen to feel or be elevated in the eyes of ourselves or others. And this reveals a shadow side of ourselves, if we are willing to see it, which must be converted and surrendered to the God who became low to change our very understanding of what it means to be “high” and “low.”

And, if we worship this crucified Messiah and have sworn to follow his example even to the cross (a shameful symbol of another’s power being exercised over us for the sake of love), we must ask the questions of ourselves: Am I marginalizing others? And if I am, why am I? How does this square with the God I claim to worship?

Are You Marginalizing Others Now?

“Invisible” or Deeply Ingrained?

Marginalizing behavior from individuals may stem from deep seeded personal or developmental issues or more generally, from deep seeded cultural or group norms whether corporate, church, national or other social norms. An individual may marginalize because they themselves have issues with control, power and abuse or because they have bought into group think. Sometimes one abusive individual’s need to marginalize and control can spiral (after deliberate action) into a group preoccupation with controlling the “problem” and mobbing behavior. Either way, in the case of an individual conforming to group norms, a kind of collective decision has been reached and acted upon and as part of this group an individual has bought into this behavior and now acts accordingly. This type of marginalizing behavior may be difficult to spot for those immersed in it.

The reason why marginalization is often deemed “invisible” is not because the behaviors are not otherwise obvious to an outsider looking in, but that each of us takes many, often times positive, social and cultural norms for granted. For example, when there is a line most of us in North America do not casually walk to the front and cut in front of everyone. When someone does, we all show our disapproval. Generally though, we are not conscious that we have “gotten in line” or returned a basic greeting. On the down side, if your “world” or group behaves in negative ways towards another, you are likely to take it for granted and be engaging in it subtly without ever realizing it. You simply “know” or saw yourself that this person is just “that” way and responded accordingly without thinking about it.

Also, if a person comes from a different culture with different norms, it is easy to judge them by one’s own without realizing it. These snap judgments can become marginalization when they are consciously or subconsciously enforced more broadly in ways that attempt to demote, punish, isolate or keep an individual or group on the margins for good, until they can “behave themselves,” or indefinitely while the rest of us do not have to think about how our behavior negatively represents or affects another person who is just as important as we are.

Probably those marginalizing sleep fairly well at night while creating hell for others.

Behavior Can Reveal Truth

What we do is the truth about us. In a nut shell, marginalizing behavior betrays darker impulses and thoughts within us and our social group that we may not be individually aware of. For example, if you continually reiterate basic information to a person, speak super slowly and change your tone to sound more childlike, it betrays that you do not see them as intelligent, competent adults, or perhaps merely wish they weren’t. This is something I have heard many individuals from Korea and China complain about regarding how people speak to them and it goes beyond merely speaking more slowly. Multiply this. Imagine always being spoken to like a child even if you are earning your doctorate in the United States!

You are a pastor and a woman has a private matter to discuss with you, you keep the door open, invite your wife to the meeting, refuse to even ride in a taxi with her if on your way to a conference, and make sure you are always a very good distance away from her. You are showing that you see her as a liability and potential threat (and fyi there are other ways and policy changes can be made to protect others and not marginalize). Similarly, you keep calling on men when they raise their hands in a classroom or Bible study and complimenting their questions without noticing the women in the room (if you even have any). You are showing that you value the contributions and intellect of males over females. Have an educated man (pastor) lead the men’s Bible study and perhaps his wife (with no special training?) lead the women’s and you show that you think men and women need to be kept separate and that you value the theological education of men over women. Then you wonder why men have more nuanced interests in theology.

More basic: You are a new child at school and when you go to an empty seat another kid puts his books there. You go to the next seat and the person turns away slightly with a scowl. Communication: “You do not belong here. We do not want you.” At a work meeting you always get disapproving glares, sucked in breath and people constantly do not “hear” you, recognize your achievements or they talk over you. Communication: “Your ideas and person are not valuable and you are not welcome here.”

Sometimes general marginalizing behavior is accompanied by compensating behavior attempting to avoid the truth about the behavior that is problematic by occasionally being inclusive or “nice” in superficial ways without doing a 180 away from the marginalizing. Sometimes this behavior comes off across as patronizing or “fatherly.” The key power dynamic does not change though. One feels they are superior or more entitled over another and so they condescend to “help” or be “nice” without bringing about a fundamental shift or change in the power dynamics. They are not looking to empower another to not need their help. They are keeping them in a state of dependency—perhaps because they feel sorry for the other person, but will not take on the risk to go deeper into risk. Or, perhaps they feel guilty or worried at times that they will appear less than inclusive (to say it mildly) to either themselves or others and so they occasionally act with human decency or inclusion and feel good about themselves for it, but then continue the larger dynamic of marginalization perhaps rationalizing that they “did all they could.”

That ______ should be grateful.


In what follows I have listed some things to look for in yourself when considering whether you may be marginalizing others. Some are possible indicators and some are overt excluding and marginalizing behaviors. Consider the points now and remember one or two as you are actually interact with others. But note that your behavior is likely being reinforced by a larger group think and may not be immediately obvious to you if you are marginalizing someone or a group of people. Meaning: Your behavior and mindset may be highly ingrained and you have received subtle social rewards or approval for participating in the marginalization or experienced discouragement if you have gone against it. You are likely not pained by guilt or aware of what you are doing at this time, and if you are then you feel some cognitive dissonance or internal pressure (good) to change.

And remember, it is not just about what you feel (though these may be indicators), but what you do in every day moments. And, you are usually part of something larger. All of these subtle behaviors add up collectively hence being asked “where you are from” over and over again if you look different from others will have a different effect than if only one or two people asked you (of course, context is always important). Also note, all of these categories overlap. Hence “cutting off access or opportunities” or “identity warping” connect to “elevating the self above the other.”

Here are some specific behaviors that may be considered examples of marginalization depending on context. Of course, some are less open to contextual interpretation and some are by nature marginalizing. Some overlap with other categories such as abuse, racism or gender discrimination…etc.

Elevating the Self Above the “Other”

·       You become indignant or incensed when someone does not properly “greet” or show you the perceived deference or respect due even though you do not do the same to them. You are also part of a social majority group in numbers or power (i.e. they are the odd person out).

·       You feel threatened, angry or offended when they make themselves more prominent, succeed or highlight their own value or when others do.  

·       You have someone who is handicapped on your team, but just so happen to keep scheduling team bonding activities that involve running or going places they cannot access. I.e. you do not consider they are important enough to pick something they can participate in.

·       You believe they are indebted to you after you treated them with respect or dignity or didn’t do X horrible or unethical thing to them or did the “right” thing towards them at X time.

·       You feel especially proud of yourself when you do X nice thing or act politely towards them (something culturally basic you do towards other peers, or people serving with or under you).

·       You routinely leave another coworker or fellow volunteer out of the loop on activities the entire team or community participates in whether formal or informal. I.e. they are not told of a group photo, given the same training as other members in the same position formally or informally, told of key system changes…etc. This can be because they are not “thought of” or deliberately left out.

·       You have engaged in or generated a series of minor group moves aimed at stripping another person of basic agency, decision making, or group visibility for whatever rationalization. Generally, you will feel wronged, but your actual behavior and reasoning may appear petty to outsiders looking in. Some examples: you make complaints to leadership about their choices, demand the removal of X without being able to indicate why it is inappropriate or make other excuses, attempt to get them censored publicly, in meetings, group discussions, or events.

·       Uneven behavior standards are applied for you and your group vs them. Ex) Your group ran event X for years until it stopped and the marginalized person is selected to pick event Y. You are angry that the marginalized person is always “calling the shots” (when they seldom do if we were really counting). You attempt to get the event dissolved or replaced. Maybe you just express your “concerns” to those in power.

·       You fail to make basic accommodations or provide resources for those who were injured doing say, public services, and instead make their injury whether physical, mental or emotional “their problem” or “their failure” conveniently downplaying their life-risking service. Example: homelessness and unemployment for military veterans. You do not choose to see them as valuable enough to invest time and money in (goes for many other individuals and groups as well) except for times it is convenient.

Note that merely informing a volunteer, church member, worker or other individual that these marginalizing behaviors are unacceptable (good) is not enough. The root issue is one of power. They see or wish to see (for whatever reason) that the other person is inferior, the “problem,” existential threat, lacking or beneath them in some way. They will probably not treat others in this negative way (except for that last person we all conveniently forgot about), and will single this or that particular person or group out.

Do not instruct the person they think ought to be “beneath” them to act in diminutive ways or meet them “half way.” Do not approach analysis of the other person assuming the narrative that they are different or inappropriate in some way, especially if the accusor has made some sort of declaration that the other person is inferior. And, such a declaration in the context of abuse of various stripes is a huge red flag for continued abuse especially if couched in religious, national or ideological language. They feel entitled and justified in their behavior.

Cognitive Distortions

·       You tend to think that what they “really need” is to lay down their pride, show some humility, behave themselves or accept their role when they insist they have been treated wrongly, show very basic agency, or disagree.

·       You tend to wonder why they are so “angry” all the time and are making a big deal out of “nothing,” or over something that was in the past. Is it possible they must suffer effects you do not have to think about everyday?

·       You tend towards extremes in interpreting their words and behaviors. If they make a mistake it is because they are incompetent. If they disagree, push back, or question something it is because they are aggressive, up to something, disagreeable or disordered. If they are a little frustrated it is because they are just the “angry black man” or “angry, man-hating feminist.” Odd how so many historically mistreated people are thought irrational or “angry.”

·       You explain away or de-emphasize their successes. If they are successful, you believe they just got it because of their race, ethnicity, gender, or favoritism. If they are smart it is because “Chinese people are just smart/good at math” or you think they must have gotten it because they are ruthless or sneaky or as a handout, anything but their own hard work & merit.

·       You are consistently mistaking them for someone who does menial tasks, jobs, or assigning them things below their pay grade while you give the more involved projects to someone who “looks the part.” You hand them your trash, dirty dishes…etc. Expect them to do all the cleaning, cooking and physical labor while you relax at home even though they also have a full time job.

·       You limit their opportunities or knowledge of X and then get angry, annoyed or disgruntled when they do not do X or know of X. Their absence of action or knowledge then reinforces your vision of them being a problem, untrustworthy or incompetent. The gist is that you generate a problem or force them to make X moves and then blame them for that problem and then this functions to reinforce your narrative about them and yourself.

Cutting Off Access & Opportunities

·       Obvious and similar to the last point: You legally do not allow them have access to the same public services as everyone else. This may be done overtly or by creating physical/functional obstacles that will only widely affect their particular participation.  

·       You underplay or fail to publicly recognize their key accomplishments when you do so for others. I.e. You praise her for her cooking & “soulfulness” but not landing a major account. You praise your employee’s willingness to file, but not their major contributions, you assume she should be helping you while you feel indebted to a man who does. You are actively generating an impression in others, your target and yourself that they do not make any major contributions beyond a very narrowly assigned box or role.

·       You conveniently schedule community activities at times when you know they are unavailable (even though you readily change plans for everyone else) because you feel uncomfortable around them, think they will just make things more difficult, you want “unity” or “peace.” Or, similar to a previous point, you do not consider they are important enough to think of or offer to reschedule for and as the marginalized person they will be looked down upon for insisting you reschedule.

·       You functionally limit their access by making them uncomfortable i.e. following them around the store, giving them dirty looks at restaurants or public places, allowing their abuser to gate keep social outings/events, treat them with disdain in group gatherings or allow others to verbally or non-verbally, happen to have lots of “scheduling” conflicts that affect them in various ways, legally disallow housing to be built that they can afford in X neighborhood.

·       You allow others to belittle and undermine them in public and perhaps do it yourself overtly or covertly/passive aggressively. You make public concessions to an abuser or group who is marginalizing/undermining another’s basic agency or choice. You then shrug when the minority is widely seen as the problem.

·       You find ways to disqualify person X from getting a promotion or position they are equally or more than qualified for. Maybe you do this by telling others to apply for it, but not them or even bar them from applying lest their superior qualities or training become more apparent. Perhaps they just don’t “seem” like the right fit and your preferred applicant just so happens to share your gender, ethnicity or other quality.

·       You hint that they are unreasonable, inappropriate, or unprofessional for making reasonable requests for civil rights? a disability? in response to harassment/Abuse/Misconduct? A promotion? A raise? Or, you give them an unusual amount of “praise” for diminutive behavior after they have “crossed the line” previously. Your rationalizations will appear odd to those outside the situation, but you will know that the person is entitled, up to something, greedy, just finding loopholes…etc.

·       In work situations it is not unusual for someone who is being harassed or mobbed to be moved to an isolated or discrete location, somewhere where they can be kept either out of sight or an “eye on” or be asked to adjust their communication so they can be better monitored rather than putting these stipulations only on the instigator or harasser. Sometimes unintentionally, it is treating the receiver of evil and/or illegal behavior as the problem rather than the person doing the actions. It is also actively disempowering the person who needs community support by taking away their agency.

·       You generally withhold resources the other person needs to do their job, misrepresent their actions, routinely persuade others to act against them for the good of everyone or out of concern or your own well being.

Tribalism/Us vs Them

The essence of this one is the tendency to “otherize” or identify another person as primarily outside of the circle rather than perceiving them as someone who corresponds to you. Much of this is context dependent as well. One size does not fit all.

·       You just met them and you are preoccupied with “where they are from” and keep asking them this after they tell you what state or city they are from.

·       You engage in gossip about, ice out, or keep at arms-length a person or people group because they “deserve it,” “are a liability,” “threatening to you,” your friend or group doesn’t like them, they are not worth your time, you are jealous, you are sexually attracted to them & believe you are being a good “Christian” by treating them like crap, want to feel superior, they “make you mad” by existing, you did something and feel guilty.

·       You take the “high road” and figure: “we ought to be nice to people who are different.”

·       When there is an altercation, harassment/abuse incident the first things you cycle through is how their personality, dress, or communication style is partly to blame and you circle around and protect the organization or perp’s reputation. You are undermining or minimizing their experience and by implication acting as though something is wrong with them while simultaneously valuing the perp. You are encouraging them to slink into the shadows and keep quiet & opening them up for more abuse.

·       They have a different ideology than you and so you don’t listen to the content of what they have to say or cut them off/silence them because you just know they are: stupid/brain-washed/hypocritical religious people, self-deceived/immoral atheists, lazy, disordered, thin-skinned, bigoted, privileged, repressed…take your pick.

·       You are constantly publicly highlighting their differences from you whether cultural, biological, visible or internal qualities. This might take the form of a joke or tokenism. Or, this might include labeling them as “evil” or otherworldly. It might also mean you put a verbal label or material symbol on them in order to physically or spiritually mark them as “other.”

Identity Warping

·       Tied to the last point, you have put a label or mark on the other person or group (i.e. the Jewish Star) to signify they are undesirable, contaminated or dangerous to your group identity in some way. This can also take the form of conceptually putting a mark on a person through visual imagery, narrative or likening them to something nonhuman (i.e. they are “cockroaches”).

·       You have bought into the label, mark or signifier of the group or person and mock or harass the person, exclude them or generally treat them in a way consistent with that label: Hence if someone is “incompetent,” “small-minded” or “delicate” you will speak to them very slowly like a child and refrain from speaking of any serious subject matter. If they are “evil and manipulative” or a “liability” you will put excessive boundaries up between them and you and distance yourself, you will be short with them in speech. If they are “thin-skinned” or “easily offended,” you will walk on egg shells around or patronize them. If they are an “outsider” or “less than you,” you will not believe you need their approval and you will mock them and treat them disrespectfully.

You are both letting yourself be influenced by a false image of the other and generating it yourself.

·       You over exaggerate physical characteristics or make them up for a group of people to make them less or undesirable in some way: big noses, “black face,” excessively slanted eyes..etc and when you see that person that is how they look or “should” look in your eyes.

·       You interpret them and their “place” in rigid ways and attempt to make the environment around the person conform to this new identity you are assigning them: Maybe you keep having them do the cooking, cleaning, physical labor or childcare even when they indicate they want to change careers. You explode over their insubordination when you are not their boss and you do not treat other people like that. You say X class of people are not allowed to do this or that by divine decree or biological destiny. You convince others to treat the person in undesirable ways so as to make them behave in undesirable ways (see below in next section).

·       You put down their contributions, ideas or questions in subtle or not so subtle ways making them appear deficient by emphasizing the problems without their merits, silencing, rolling your eyes or being accusatory. You are attempting to communicate to the person and the group that they are incompetent, pushy or not worth listening to and should be quiet.  You are using power to do it and attempting to force them into acting the part you or your group have created for them. Perhaps after they are avoidant and quiet you will use it as evidence that they are further undesirable in some way, conveniently forgetting that you created this desired effect.

You like it when they are deficient even if on the surface you are “irritated.”

·       You group them into and evaluate them based off of stereotypes in ways that are patronizing, demeaning, or tokenizing: “You are the smartest woman I know!” “Our Black Academic Dean!” “We need an X to fill this slot and so we will pick you without your qualifications in mind & limit your role and ability to do your job.” “You’re good at this for a _________.” Or maybe you just bring up irrelevant information to the task i.e. complimenting them for their beauty after they gave a sermon, closed a deal or gave an academic paper.

·       You are very happy to have someone who is a minority on your faculty who fills a very narrow “ethnic” niche, but despite having superior job qualifications, background and requisite academic qualifications you refuse to promote them, give them tenure or the position they were qualified to fill because they are “difficult” to work with. Yet, you gave the position to someone else less qualified who was also notoriously difficult to work with. You also value others for their potential yet they must be over qualified to make it on your radar.

How Your Sin Is Damaging & Altering The Behavior of Other People?

Human beings do not do well when their core identities, character, gifting, ability to contribute and be a part of the whole is systematically destroyed, deconstructed or marred beyond recognition. For a while they may fight against the tidal wave of marginalization, but after a while it will wear away at them. Their mannerisms and thinking patterns will adapt to survive an environment that is predisposed against them. Probably, these behaviors will be taken to be proof that they were X all along or simply want to be “separate” from the rest of us. It is easier to believe they wanted to be “separate” from us all along because then we have not sinned and don’t have to do anything about it. Or, maybe it reinforces the narrative about them that we have already accepted (confirmation bias).

But when you break down the messages and behavior done towards a marginalized person or group their inevitable response behaviors make sense.

For example, someone who is consistently belittled, called names, made to feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in public will probably end up avoiding those places and individuals. If a group of people are consistently barred from social clubs, activities or made to sit in the back, probably they will develop their own social clubs and activities. If someone is physically assaulted, or otherwise threatened whenever they try to stand up for themselves they will probably end up adopting diminutive behaviors (making themselves look small, avoiding eye contact, being quiet and not speaking up) in order to survive or conversely act threatened or defensive when someone counters them. Women will regularly be perceived as aggressive, interrupting or pushy when they are mildly assertive and so after getting smashed down many times whenever they want to be heard they will start to be more quiet, use qualifiers in their rhetoric, or apologize for sharing a different opinion. Telling them they just need to be more assertive or learn to interrupt will not help them in the long run if the context will keep punishing them so long as they keep being assertive.

Worse, individuals who have been abused may have learned to “love” and extol their abusers and might have come to believe they can’t live without them (especially if the abusive person has forced them to depend on them). Why? Because it is more dangerous for them to oppose an abuser (enforced subservience mixed with Stockholm syndrome?) and an added level of confusion is added if the abusive individual is a parent, spouse, family member or someone who was supposed to protect and love them. Interestingly, on many psych exams administrators are cautioned that several characters might present more positively, too positively, than normal, such as psychopaths. But, so will minorities. They must. And yet, even after a superior presentation (according to a testing instrument) they are often still perceived more negatively.

Racial minorities may feel uncomfortable after getting positions they rightfully earned because it puts them in the spot light and previously or currently the spotlight is dangerous for them because people perceive their actions differently and judge them more negatively by different standards. Workers who are being bullied will eventually become more “snappy” or on edge because they are more worn out, sleep deprived and have fewer internal resources. Their work will also start to diminish to some degree as their attention is divided, stress related illnesses take hold, or they are told they are incompetent and threatening over and over again (defending against this or living in an environment forcing these messages on you takes a ton of mental and emotional energy). Communities that have been systematically torn down, had people killed for speaking up, forced to eat foods that were not good for them and stripped of their identities may struggle with alcoholism and crime.

Are We Equal? A Case for Equity

The above also evidences why there is not what one might upon first glance perceive as an “even standard” applied to someone from a majority vs minority group when interpreting behaviors in isolation. It does not appear fair on first glance to treat two, what appear to be identical behaviors the same, only if one does not account for all of the behaviors directed against a particular individual or group leading to behavioral changes that are necessary for survival or are simply how humans generally respond after being broken down for years.

But really we do not think this way in other cases where we allow for more nuance. For example, legally we distinguish between someone else killing another in self-defense, different degrees of murder or manslaughter. We do not say merely that someone has been killed hence it is all the same. And, insisting an individual who continuously experiences hostility or undermining only needs to behave in X way may miss what is actually going on and will only be minimally helpful if it misunderstands the root issue or misplaces the problem onto the marginalized individual.

Hence it is not the same when someone from a majority group avoids or refuses to greet someone from a minority than if they do not do so. Context matters. On the surface it may appear an unequal standard is being applied (i.e. neither of us said hello or waved hence we are both equally rude), but this is not necessarily the case. It is more that the ice berg under the surface is being accounted for. Has this person been constantly socially penalized for trying to associate with someone of higher “status”? Someone of the main group is in a position of power and inclusion, their refusal to acknowledge may come from a different place of not seeing the other as worthy of recognition, entitlement, or wanting to avoid the sole person who makes the entire group uncomfortable which breaks down another dynamic at play. Additionally, one must recognize the different between becoming easily “offended” because one is inherently thin-skinned, have an underdeveloped ego, or entitled vs they have been visciously attacked in bizarre and specific ways in the past and used to this pattern are interpreting a single act or word in this context. Hence when someone is offended or reactionary and it seems disproportionate it is always worthwhile (minority status or not) to find out “why” rather than snap judge their character and person.

And, a single individual refusing to greet one individual or who displays other hostile or minimizing tendencies towards someone may not have much effect on a person, but an entire group or nation that a person must interact with on a daily basis will have an enormous affect. A single “mean” person is just that (not speaking of abuse here). A single mean person with the force of the group behind them is an entirely different matter since one will be made to care if they do not already. The group or someone with physical or social power will have the power to mangle and warp a person’s identity and make them behave in ways consistent with their assignment or suffer the consequences (physical assault, withdrawing of other resources, outing, generating a stress disorder within them from constant threat to name a few). One can experience trauma depending on the group tactics used and the degree of isolation enforced since the person must continue existing in a space that is constantly making them the outsider, giving them a mask to wear and saying this is who they are and punishing them when they do not wear the mask. Of course, wearing the mask also has undesirable consequences and threatens to also change a person.

For example, I heard a story from my dad about a business trip he once took with Uncle Mike. They soon discovered that Uncle Mike kept getting dirty looks from everyone for not opening the door for my dad. Other black men would even come up and chastise him since his “misconduct” reflected poorly on them. At first they laughed it off but the more time spent in that state the more the discomfort and pressure built for Uncle Mike to take this simple subservient action that communicated to him and affirmed with the “world” that my dad was superior to him.

The marginalized person has two choices: they can resist the narrative at personal risk (health, future, security, sometimes safety) and perhaps confirm it or they can go along with it or slowly get worn down or traumatized so they are unable to put in the constant effort and end up fitting the picture the narrative is leading them towards fitting. I.e. If you are “supposed” to be stupid or ungifted at X I might keep punishing you for displaying gifting or intelligence. I will portray that you are “insolent,” or inappropriate in some way. If there are enough of us or I am in a leadership role I will make your life a living hell so that you cannot ignore me. Eventually you can shut your mouth, get worn down by my constant attacks and barajes so that you start slipping up or stuttering or forgetting things and confirm you are stupid (making me look good by comparison in my mind) or you can keep trying to stand up straight until I get you eliminated or your health catches up to you. Or, for the time being, you can be insolent and as such have opportunities and resources cut off from you.

Now imagine my Uncle did not open the door for another man. Reaction? Likely “how dare you!” Uncle Mike might say, “Well, you did not open the door for me…” What might my Uncle be signaling if he had made that move and quip? Although knowing him, he would have come up with something far more clever than I did just now and they would have never known what hit them! Is he being rude in an equal way or is something else going on? Perhaps he would be pushing to also be treated with respect and in a context where it is dangerous to do so (typically dirty looks in themselves are not the extent to where the social “punishments” end). From a theological perspective he would not merely be insisting on his own humanity or standing up for his rights, but also calling the other person to become more human defined in the context of the imago Dei.

 Most of us will typically become angry when we feel slighted, including when our perceived inferior or one we believe ought to be or act inferior to us does not “behave” in the proper way and we will back rationalize it with a slew of justifications. Our responses and rationalizations can be very subtle when applied to minorities where overt racisms is not tolerated or when there are church members or employees that our group does not want to acknowledge the existence of in some way. But, in the end, we reveal that we do not honor God since we in actual practice do not honor the one who holds his image and is called to represent him. Biblically speaking, how we treat the least (perceived), matters the most. One of the distinguishing features of Judaism and Christianity (unlike other Near Eastern religions that saw the King or leaders only as the image of God and worthy of respect and dignity) has been that every human is an image bearer. Each person is entitled to respect and agency as image bearers, not only the elite—or people who just think they are the elite.

In essence, by marginalizing a person or group you have taken the imago Dei and smashed it or distorted it beyond recognition in your desperate attempt to remain a god. Their calling is to rule alongside you: to have dignity, value, agency and to affect the world alongside you. You have barred them from this call and made them out to be something else so that you could maintain a false image of yourself.

This is about worship and power. You are not superior. You are not God. Any gift you have is derivative anyway and God has given them gifts too (many have the same gifts as you). Ironically, by distorting their image you have destroyed your own. Your “face” is deformed. You are not living out your calling. You are rebelling against God.

The good news? Just as Eve was deceived and yet metaphorically “pregnant” with Messiah, so there is also the hope of salvation for you yet. But first:

The best person to expose that the “emperor has no clothes” is not the person being marginalized. It is the rest of us. People who are marginalized have in fact overcome impossible odds and helped tear down oppressed systems and have helped to change hearts and minds through blood and sacrifice because the rest of us did nothing or even participated. Time to start acting human and not continuing to force those being harmed to shoulder the rest of our behavior.


How to Stop Marginalizing & Take Steps Towards Becoming “Human” Again

Jesus said, that in order to follow him we must “pick up our crosses.” Now, the lesson we should not be taking away is that those who are marginalized are those crosses we must “bear.” No. The material consequences for pledging our allegiance (i.e. our faith) in Christ is what is being referred to. We serve a different God than the world, one that flipped what it means to be powerful on its head and even opened the doors wide open to embrace people like us, some of whom once marginalized, hurt and destroyed others. To sin is not human. Jesus was fully human and came to show us how to be human by uniting himself with those who were abused, marginalized and on the receiving end of inverted power symbols. He died with the label of “cursed” attached to his person. He demonstrated and preached God’s peace and yet was killed as an obstacle to peace (Roman defined of course). He died precisely because he would not stop uniting himself with the “little people” and calling out the powers that be, unmasking their evil behavior and becoming a threat to their perceived power. He told the person who had the “power” to crucify him that he did not in fact have the power and preached a conception of power that ran contrary to the “power” of Caesar.

Scripture is more than preoccupied with changing our life orientations toward power. To be Christian, to worship the God of the Bible, is to worship the Crucified Savior. It is to make your life orientation one that seeks to loosen your grip on power and self-preservation at the expense of the other. It is to run towards brutal and dehumanizing treatment if it is for the sake of God’s love revealed in Christ. And I am not talking to targets of crimes here. I am talking to the so-called bystander. Jesus stepped in front of those being crushed and in so doing showed himself to be fulfilling what it means to be human and what it truly means to be God. A.M. Ramsey rightly says, "the importance of the confession 'Jesus is Lord' is not only that Jesus is divine but that God is Christlike." God has revealed his person and heart to those called to image him. He does not wish to hear our excessive excuses or rationalizations. He is tired of them.

Contrary to popular belief, God does not listen to all prayers.

“Quit your worship charades.
    I can’t stand your trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—
    meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
    You’ve worn me out!
I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion,
    while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
    I’ll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
    I’ll not be listening.
And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing
    people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up.
    Clean up your act.
Sweep your lives clean of your evil doings
    so I don’t have to look at them any longer.
Say no to wrong.
    Learn to do good.
Work for justice.
    Help the down-and-out.
Stand up for the homeless.
    Go to bat for the defenseless.

-Sincerely, God (Isa 1:13-17)

P.S. I came down there yesterday and showed you how to do your job. No excuses.

To image God in the world (to rule in a way that is shared), is what a human is supposed to do. It is what Christ did as the perfect and natural image of God. Time for us to do it.  

Now that we have covered what marginalization looks like it is time to turn to some ways that marginalization and can be counteracted for my perspective (and my perspective will by definition be limited and requires your insight in tandem). But first: STOP MARGINALIZING. STOP IT. There.

Once you have already questioned yourself and are able to see the value in others or that you ought to value others and perhaps have not done so in actual practice (an ongoing process for all of us without exception), it is time to delve deeper into changing one’s internal script, unmasking in the moment and engaging others as image bearers. There is a way they should be treated and the Bible is full of examples and perhaps I will write a post on this one. But for now, even the Good Samaritan parable is meant to spell it out and not even from the vantage point where you can feel superior for being human since you are required to look up to the one you marginalize as an example for what you ought to be.

But what about those instances that are so subtle and you are not sure about what to do in the moment? It is not sufficient to just overtly “not marginalize.” And, our silence often times serves as permission or participation. Here are three examples to illustrate the difference:

Scenario 1: In a meeting a team member or person of superior rank interrupts, shoots down, down plays or “corrects” a good idea put on the table by a marginalized team member. This might be in the form of “volunteering” information that has no bearing on what they are saying or only casting their suggestion in a negative light without acknowledging the merits. You are either in charge or another team member. You decide to:

1.     Permissive: Say nothing. Let the put down stick. I.e. not represent God.

2.     Overtly Participatory: Nod your head in agreement with the put down or agree with the person doing the put down that they are correct without qualification or acknowledgement of the merits of the other idea. Worse: if you are in charge you decide to chastise them subtly for interjecting.

3.     Counteracting Marginalization: Whether you ultimately agree or not acknowledge the merits of the suggestion: “That is a great idea _______” Perhaps reiterate what was said and entertain it for a brief moment. If you are in charge you can follow by stating whether you think it is something that can be done, not done in this instance or something to further consider at another time. I had a supervisor do this for me once, made a world of a difference!

What you are doing in the latter possibility: Rewiring the accepted norms towards the marginalized person in ways a marginalized person is unable to typically do themselves even if they have taken the risk and are being outspoken such as in this instance. By acknowledging their speech and its merits, you are communicating that this is a person worth respect and that their ideas have merit & value to the group. You have acknowledge them as a peer or valued member of a team and simultaneously corrected the communication that they are an unwelcome intruder. If you are in charge and you do this consistently, eventually the marginalized person may end up participating more and benefiting the organization and others will subconsciously pick up that they are someone worthy of respect and change their speech patterns towards them (mirror neurons for the win!).

Scenario 2: You are leading a Bible study and notice none of the women are raising their hands or giving their thoughts or asking questions when the men are happily doing so. You have called on one or two in the past and they on ocassion look down and say they “don’t know.” You also noticed that when they would pause in their answers for a moment one of the men in the class would interject and answer for them. You have a situation where they are removing themselves from participation in order to avoid the subtle group pressure and chastisement geared toward making them remove themselves (note group think is not the same as what each individual thinks in the moment when they act against a marginalized person).

1.     Permissive: Say nothing. They are adults let them deal with it on their own. Problem: This assumes they are simply being quiet (no reason) or have personal/developmental failings or slightly more positive that they have full agency rather than the potential that there is an “ice berg” of reinforced rewards and penalties for speaking below the surface that must be dismantled so that they can stand upright again.

2.     Overtly Participatory: You keep calling on the men since they seem most engaged and you will feel uncomfortable having to in your mind needlessly limit their participation or take the time and discomfort on yourself to draw the others into conversing freely. When a woman is interrupted you let it happen and recognize the merit of what the interrupter brought to the table rather than politely say you would like to hear what so and so has to say first and acknowledging her contribution. Or, worse maybe you interrupt them and shoot down any and all of their contributions when they are made. Maybe you hold to a theology that tells you women should be quiet and participate less anyway.

3.     Counteracting Marginalization: Keep bringing it back to the women. Ask them what they think as much as you ask the men. When the men interject politely tell them someone else was speaking and to wait their turn. If the continue, try a more sharp approach. I will never forget when my old mentor Dr. Joel Green raged “YOU will NOT interrupt!” After a guy kept interrupting me in class while I was responding to his critique of my paper (and conveniently did not give me his points ahead of time like everyone else did to their peers). Counter communication: Respect your peer. Disrespect will not be tolerated.

And what if you have engaged in marginalization? I am not sure what you should do to try and make it right. It depends on what you did or refused to do. I do know that God died for people like you and me and that he cares about your heart expressed in a faith that steps out of the lines our society creates. Apologize in a way that takes responsibility, expresses remorse and is vulnerable. Divinity revealed its face in vulnerable love and so should we.

If you have stolen something return it or pay for as much as you can if it is no longer available. If you have abused someone admit the truth about yourself and about them and seek help without requiring they “return” to you. Pay for their medical bills if you physically injured them. If you failed to help them when they needed you most, try to help them now. In a similar way, if you marginalized someone or helped it happen, seek to restore their agency, the visibility of their true identity, be friendly with them as though they were an equal if they will permit it, and step down from positions you stole if you took them this way. If the marginalization has been participated in but was started by generations past, generate new opportunities aimed at empowering without dependency. Bind yourself to a power outside of yourself if you keep wanting to hurt them or pin your problems and insecurities on them.

The good news is that if you begin worshiping the Crucified Messiah and ask him for help without your rationalizations and excessive insincere gestures, he will help and forgive you. You will hurt for a while and may recoil in horror at your image. But in time you will start to see something else emerge and grow. New skin and a self you did not realize was there within you will also come forward. The same fear you felt before will be reset in the context of the one you truly love and are willing to give everything for. The Spirit will reach deep inside of you and bring out something stunning. You will open your eyes and be able to see the face of God in Christ because you will have the eyes to see him.

And the rest is a marvelous journey on the other side of resurrection. See you there. :)


A Theology of Forgiveness: Hope, Sin, & Humanity


I’ve spoken and written a disproportionate amount on what forgiveness is not. And for good reason. I have found that on a fundamental level, many Christians around me do not know what it is. The term has been loaded with inadequate, vague or simplistic notions that end up oppressing those severely hurt by evil, preventing the Christian community from being lights in a dark world while becoming obstacles to true forgiveness. And this is more than tragic because forgiveness is part of our birthright as Christians, it is the gift of Christ within our hearts that we can give freely to those around us. It is a powerful weapon we all have within us to fight the powers of darkness. It is a visible proclamation of the Kingdom of God over and against those with a zero-sum conception of power that simultaneously invites them also into new life or condemns their continued rebellion against God.

When we hollow out the term “forgiveness” and replace it with merely “letting go” (of what?), not being angry or making friends with vicious predators, abusers or those who, for whatever reason, wish to continue to hurt us or our loved ones, we functionally support a kingdom of unrighteousness, injustice, and social system where might makes right. Ironically, by insisting that an abuse victim “forgive” the man who just raped her 5 seconds ago, we have despised the Son of God who stood up for and became one with the abused. We have heaped inappropriate and oppressive burdens, and messages on targets to not bother us with their pathetic cries of pain, desperate pleas for solidarity and desire for a world of true peace where they are seen, heard and safe.

Instead, we have opted, inadvertently, to maintain the hold of the one who thinks they should be in the place of God and that they have the right to mangle, warp and rape the image of God. And ironically, by our own simplistic understandings of forgiveness, and like the servant in the parable of the forgiving King, we have refused to “forgive” targets of abuse for sins the perpetrator and community committed. That is, we have insisted targets pay in full a debt they never accumulated both making them reconcile or make right the sins of the perpetrator and by wrongly insisting they harbor a “sin” of bitterness in their trauma thus releasing the rest of us from the responsibility of setting right what we allowed to happen or placing the task of restitution squarely on the one who exploits. We the community further abuse targets as we project onto them the labels of “bitter,” “unrepentant” or “unforgiving.”

That said, before I get further into a theology of forgiveness built off of how I understand biblical teachings on forgiveness, out of necessity, here are some things which forgiveness is not: limited to the ambiguous “letting something go” (the PTSD & traumatized brain will replay the wrong over and over again and this is a brain change and injury not a heart problem), reconciling, enabling further abuse, putting oneself or others in harms way, becoming unjust, denying, pretending or conveniently forgetting something happened rather than do the hard work identifying or sorting through the wrong, always a one time instance that magically makes all the trauma go away, lack of consequences on many levels, automatically restoring one to their original status, remission of ingrained habits and patterns, or impersonal or purely distributive. Additionally, note that forgiveness is one of many things Jesus did AND not everything Jesus did falls under the term “forgiveness” i.e. reconciliation may be related to or made possible sometimes by forgiveness, but is not itself forgiveness.

And now we turn to forgiveness: what it is, why we do it, and how it can be accomplished.


What is forgiveness? Forgiveness may be defined as, “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” This is not a bad definition. I prefer the following based on how I understand the Scriptures: “Forgiveness is giving up one’s right to hurt another for hurting you. That is, it is forfeiting malice, hate and revenge for specific wrongs committed (whether by commission or omission, on accident or on purpose).” If the conditions are right, forgiveness might serve as a starting point enabling reconciliation, restored or new positive relationships, or, at the very least, prevent a spiral of vengeance on top of vengeance. And if anything, forgiveness as an outworking of the fruits of the Spirit identifies those who are in Christ or are responding (even progressively) to the Spirit’s work.

Forgiveness is rooted in God’s goodness and love that embraces all people without exception. Hence human dignity, value and accountability are also embedded in the forgiveness process and are key to justice. Legal Justice (in a just society or organization) may still hold you accountable for murdering my nephew to ensure more murders do not happen and to identify your behavior as wrong, but I will not be killing yours as payback. You may spread lies about me to my neighbors, bear false witness to authorities or try to tear be down, but I will not do the same towards you. I will not seek to tear you down nor undermine you, I will instead seek your good ‘and’ speak the truth. You may not deserve anything from me, but I did not deserve anything from Christ. I have been given a gift and a new way of living and so I give this gift to you and invite you to join me in doing the same. You grabbed for power, sought to harm and lacked compassion and restraint. I will act out of love, mercy and grace even while still hurting and even when there is no justice or safety for me. I will do this even while seeking safety and well-being for myself. Martin Luther King Jr lived by this while facing abuse, death and racism. Still, he consistently sought “constructive ends” over destructive ones towards those who sought to harm him in a context where he could not get justice for death threats, beatings and murder. He both lived and died by the Gospel of peace both seeking justice and exercising forgiveness while looking ahead towards God’s reconciling work that was possible in even in his time.

A necessary component of forgiveness is identifying, illuminating or voicing the wrong committed internally and ideally, externally. One must recognize a wrong has committed in order to forgive it. This may occur in an instant or over a “pilgrimage.” Many abuse survivors enter into the process of forgiveness as they spend years figuring out what was done to them in the first place, declaring forgiveness anew as new layers of pain and injury are recovered. Additionally, sometimes hurt comes up again and for some this hurt can start to sow bitterness (best not to assume pain = bitterness) and one simply needs to forgive again. To feel these things are not sinful, but they can become so if they are not put under the power of Christ and re-purposed. Forgiveness is both a spiritual battle and a sacred process as one embraces safety in Christ, while delving into moments of pain, suffering the material reality of being unsafe.

Naming the sin empowers those who are injured because it identifies it as something wrong done to them. It is a step in the right direction of justice. Enabling the target to vocalize the wrong committed allows the one who was wronged to stand up straight and say: I am a someone, a person who is worthy of respect. I matter. As such, there are constraints on you to act rightly towards me. Its important to allow this publicly because it also marks a change in community values from protecting the perpetrator to the reintegrating and coming alongside the one wronged. The basis of this ability to name or illuminate the sin is the imago Dei, just as it is also the basis for forgiving another.

In Matthew 8 for example, where it speaks of forgiving one’s brother 70x7, it also says in v15, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault…” and includes layers of others gradually getting involved if the person will not stop their behavior. The immediate basis for this in the text, is God being on the side of the “little ones,” taking great pains as a shepherd to not lose even one, and it being better not to have an eye if it will cause one to stumble. In turn, since God takes great pains to care for, protect and restore his sheep we are warned against doing the opposite to the vulnerable: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” In other words, God is watching and refusing to care for those who are vulnerable or outside the circle will not go unnoticed.

God’s Word further conveys the necessity of one who wrongs another having to face the wrong committed (and not sweeping it under the rug) with this command: “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt 18:17). In other words, those in charge and the community are not to support or buddy up with the perpetrator in order to display an unbiblical form of “grace” or “forgiveness.” This is called marginalizing the target and promoting injustice. This is not what Jesus did when he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes (the underdogs of society). Rather, the community and leadership are told to visibly side with the target or one wronged and not associate with the one who demonstrates 1) they will not acknowledge their specific sin or 2) change their behavior.

Interestingly, in Revelation 2:20 the term for “forgiveness” is used, but in such a way as to indicate how one should not exercise forgiveness. Note, ἀφεῖς or “forgiveness” is the term used in many other passages on forgiveness (cf. Mark 11:25, Matt 6:9-15, 12:31-32; 18:15, 21-22, 27; 26:28…ect). In Revelation 2:20 the church has “forgiven” or tolerated very wicked behavior, in this case idolatry and sexual immorality, from a false prophet Jezebel who was given opportunities to repent, but wouldn’t.

But I have this against you: you ἀφεῖς that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.

We have multiple indications that a biblical practice of forgiveness is not “wiping the slate clean” or “forgetting” the wrongdoing of someone who persists in sin. The community is not to act as though no wrong is committed when it continues to be committed or when there are not concrete indicators (described above) that the person has repented. “Forgiving” in this unbiblical manner will continue to influence others. In the case of ongoing abuse, one also has a person to defend, protect and restore on top of not allowing someone who will not repent to keep doing evil. Part of what forgiveness is involves the community publicly siding with what is right and with the one who is vulnerable and not publicly acting as though no wrong has been committed in the name of peace. Doing so is not promoting peace, but saving face at the expense of others, and it is acting against God’s expressed wishes.

Further, in my opinion, it is a good idea for a target not to associate with someone who demonstrates perpetual, targeting and destructive behavior towards them since we are told not to associate with those who persist in rebelling against God who call themselves believers, but also because doing so puts you at risk and may serve to further allow them to abuse you. From another angle, don’t help them sin! Limit contact as much as is safe and possible. Unfortunately, this is often not possible when you are not kept safe by or kept safe from the wider community when they side with the perpetrator in their actions.

Truth telling and the naming of sin is necessary for the good of the perpetrator(s). Jesus said, “the truth will set you free,” in the context of his identity and connection to the Father (John 8:32). In this passage, he is referring to those who have held to his teachings and are not enslaved to sin. Those who sin or wrong others are in bondage to sin and cannot be free until they embrace truth in a multifaceted way. They must recognize their sin for what it is and actively pursue a different path, the way of Christ. One who is repentant and actively Christian will demonstrate remorse in the context of acknowledging the wrong without minimizing it or manipulating. I.e. not a letter someone shared with me from an abusive mother where years of physical and emotional abuse were cloaked in an “apology” for an inability to adequately “express her love.” I’ve gotten plenty of these types of letters before too. They belong in the trash.

That said, the target or receiver of a wrong does what is best for themselves and the community and the perpetrator when they name the sin. Without facing sin, there is no transformation and no freedom in Christ. We all need Jesus and we all need each other. Even the well known “sinner’s prayer” involves admitting one is a sinner. Identifying sin allows another person to rectify a wrong and change their heart. It may also help the one wronged avoid festering bitterness or resentment that morph into malice and revenge which are sins. The corruption and nihilism of one person does not necessitate the corruption and forsaken hope of another.

Forgiveness is expressed commitment to God’s values, future, kingdom and fruits of the Spirit even when tempted by others to abandon them. The former holds true even in the absence of wrongs committed against you. Forgiveness is an instance of exemplifying the values of God’s vision of humanity whether those who betray us acknowledge it or not. We seek to be conformed into what God wanted a human to be, the image of the Son. The Son full-heartedly embraced God’s vision for humanity with his ethics even to the point of death and so we also will be willing. In Matthew 26 Jesus acknowledges one will betray him even while saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Forgiveness in God’s reality remains constant whether or not the one forgiven ultimately choose forgiveness or personal destruction as was the case with Judas. Forgiveness reaches out to the other, but does not force the other. Forgiveness is not based on the merits of the one committing evil, but on the merits of Christ and one’s active agreement with his new way of living (faith). All the better when the one who does the wrong decides to enter into this kingdom reality with us!

Yes, forgiveness has the potential to wipe the slate clean on a relational level, though it is not to be equated with wiping the slate clean interpersonally. And, we can always wipe the slate clean in terms of not holding grudges or seeking revenge (no eye for an eye). However, it is not always possible to do so in the sense that the relationship is restored depending on the level of trauma committed or the unrepentance of the perpetrator (i.e. the ultimate act of forgiveness is not always the person who becomes best buds with her rapist afterwards). Forgiveness has occurred to the ultimate degree by Christ and yet not all forgiven receive eternal life. Some do not want to enter into that kingdom reality like Judas above. There is indeed tension between God’s kingdom reality and things not being quite right in the here and now, yet no contradiction when it comes to following after Christ. Hebrews 10:17 recalls, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more” for those who the law of God is written on the heart and yet also, “he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool” (v13). And even in Numbers 14:18-25 we get a lengthy expression from Moses on God’s forgiving and merciful heart. God decides to forgive Israel for their wrong, but still rules that those who tested him will not enter the promised land. It turns out, God has boundaries.

All of this to say, yes the Bible speaks of hurling sins into the sea, but not without context or qualification.

Still, relational restoration is often possible when there is forgiveness and whenever possible should be pursued! When everyone cooperates with God, amazing things happen. I can see in the face of each person the potential of God’s love to transform them into the person they were meant to be just as I can be transformed. There is hope for every person in Christ. It is this hope that led Martin Luther King Jr to speak of his oppressors as brothers! And to look ahead to the day when they will walk “hand in hand.” He did not only see murders, de-humanizers, and racists, but also sick brothers who although they claimed the cross, still needed the cross. They said they worshiped a crucified Christ and yet nailed and hung black men, women and children, loved by God and agents of his world, to trees. He did not deny reality, but saw more into it.

Even when one looks in the face of another who is full of hate or fear or power lust we can see hope for the present and if not the present, overcoming someday…in the Lord’s day if they will give their lives to God and renounce their demonstrated allegiance to Satan and the world. This drive can inspire us to forgive again and again 70x7 through trauma, through continued slights, disrespect, dehumanization, and destruction and through loss. Forgiveness is our offering to Christ even if a restored relationship will only be realized in the eschaton. “See you then!”

Forgiveness is compatible with safety and distancing.

When someone has slighted me, I am generally quick to overlook it. I generally also make tons of allowances for extenuating circumstances, disorders, people being deceived, immature, dropped on their heads as children…etc. And really, its not like I am perfect either and I hope others will forgive me when I have been grumpy, selfish, desperate, or misinformed. I also tend to have a quick bounce back and am not easily injured regardless of how “mean” someone is, and so I am generally able to resume as normal even if someone does not do the right thing and own up to it. Frankly, I usually do not even remember what they did a couple of hours or minutes later. Sometimes, forgiveness can be forgetting especially if the slight need not be significant. But then there is prolonged abuse and trauma which creates changes in the brain that are out of one’s control.

When someone has caused me severe damage (no, not hurt feelings), habitually abused me or exhibited patterned behavior and I am in a context that is safe to have boundaries, I gauge whether someone is ready for reconciliation or whether I should believe them when they make overratures before I restore relationships with them. Although, it does not mean I will never try and restore baseline friendliness if they still hate me, are angry or hostile. Contrary to popular belief, most people who cannot “let it go” are those who hurt others and won’t own up to their actions. They want to keep believing the people they hurt are the problem or attempt to force subservience and silence in the name of peace. Far from the good Samaritans, they are the thieves that attack the vulnerable and leave him on the side of the road to die and prefer he remain out of sight and out of mind.

That said, here is what I look for if someone who has done something habitually and extreme enough wishes to be friends or have a relationship that goes beyond casual, baseline friendly or required professionalism:

1) Have they named their specific sin? Or have they owned up to something much smaller, minimized it, avoided, or denied it?

2) Have they apologized for their specific sin? Not: “I am sorry you feel that way” or other variations that avoid actual responsibility.

3) Have they indicated remorse and committed to not doing it again?

4) Have they actually made restitution or attempted reconciliation?

That is, have they attempted to set things that they made wrong right? If they told lies about you have they set the record straight? If they injured you have they paid your medical bills? If they stole X have they replaced it or if unable to directly undo the damage made an effort to help in a way that they can?

In the context of those exhibiting predatory and abusive behavior, further:

5) Have they bound themselves with an outside force of accountability so that they will not easily be able to hurt you again?

6) Have they gotten help? Abuse is a habitual pattern of behavior based in problems with the love of power (i.e. sexual abuse is not about sex and physical abuse is not about anger). They need professional help to address this.

Without these, I do not trust they have repented or that I will be safe with them so I keep them at an arms length. Some of the above I apply towards a community or group that exhibits sexist, racist, or marginalizing behavior on purpose or not, but it depends on the pervasiveness and severity of the marginalization or joining/buying in on abuse or siding with the predator if there is one. One size does not fit all.

Some red flags that you should try and keep even more distance from the person if they exhibit these in the context of your attempts to lay down some basic boundaries or if they do these when “apologizing:” Go on a psychotic rant or fit of rage about your inferiority and their superiority (trust me, it happens), attempt to manipulate you or keep you in line, attempt to confuse you by making it all about you and your issue somehow somehow, attempt to make themselves your “resource” for recovery (power play). If you see/hear these, stay away and seek further protection. Head over heart here. Yes, they may indeed be hurting, had a sad life, have extenuating circumstances…etc. but that is something for them to work out with their therapist, not you. Don’t be their power drug “supply.”

Scripture calls us to be oriented towards peace, not revenge. The former should be our active disposition regardless of any wrong committed. We pray for everyone so “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim 2:2). Still, although we may seek peace, not everyone will. Some will seek the destruction of others for their own gain and some (including ourselves) will have moments of vice and selfishness. Romans 12:14-21 tells us how to treat those who wrong us in the context of a general Christian disposition of recognizing the value in others and not seeing ourselves through an inflated lens: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse,” “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” live in peace as much as others will allow for it, and seek the good of those who seek what they think is their own good at your expense. The entire passage is as follows:

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

A last word on this before moving forward, those who have a distorted view of themselves will not like it when you meet their evil with loving-kindness and decency, when you do not regard them as superior, but as an equal and when you treat yourself as a fellow human being. They will be enraged and insulted. But there will also be those who will be grieved and want to make changes, even if it takes a long time. The Bible consistently calls for those considered “low” to see themselves as higher up and those who perceive themselves “high” to lower themselves so that we can rightly see one another face to face. Many who habitually hurt others are unable to grasp this reality for whatever reason. They are like rich man in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man was unable to “see” Lazarus while alive and so was not truly a child of Abraham. Even while in hell, perhaps connected to his way of life, he still could not perceive “Lazarus” rightly, demanding that Lazarus leave Abraham’s bosom to come and serve him! Its absurd, but it is the prison many live in. If you are in the right frame of mind, have pity on those trapped in a hell of their own making.

The key here is to continue on proclaiming a new kingdom with new social norms and continue to be transformed into the image of the Son. Others can take it or leave it, join in or not. Let God deal with it.

Why Forgive?

Why forgive? Because, in keeping with the wording of Romans 12 (some of which is quoted above), it is the logical or natural (λογικὴν) response for a life oriented towards worship of God and transformation (12:1-2). The Spirit has worked in us to bring about a different character and way of navigating through life than those around us. The world patterns itself in such a way as to elevate the self, whereas we pattern ourselves after Christ. How we act at our jobs, churches, online or in person matters. We do not start to live our “real” lives once we leave work. How we worship God in our treatment of others defines us in all places.

Our overall disposition must be one of loving others. Who we serve whether God or the world, is evident in who we associate with and how. Put another way, those who want to move up the ladder in organizations to accumulate power, position and wealth for themselves position themselves towards this end by associating with and flattering those above them. Those pursing a calling and future with the Lord, associate with and lavish on others based on their inherent worth as human beings. This includes those who others discount, those who cannot “repay” them. Biblicaly, it is more imperative to associate with the latter given the example of Christ who also pointed out that God notices when one invites “friends” who can pay us back while leaving the poor out. Forgiveness is an extension of the general principle of giving without strings attached, and without expecting anything in return since we are “storing up treasures in heaven.” Our actions reveal what we have invested in whether God’s future or the worship of the self or idols.

We forgive because we desire the thriving of others whether friends or enemies. In 1 Timothy 2 we are told to pray for others on the basis that God desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of him. Additionally, 1 Corinthians 13 tells us what love is: patient, kind and that it does not envy or boast…really it paints a picture of one who values others and does not value themselves at the expense of others. Unlike worldly conceptions of power, one’s position is not viewed in zero sum terms in Scripture. When someone wrongs us and we are in a position to hurt them with or without them knowing, we refrain. When someone is repentant and has demonstrated it, we do not attempt to shame them by reminding them of their wrong. When the other must be held accountable for their actions, we do not try to shield them from it, but we do use self-restraint and not try and inflict maximal or as much damage as possible. Maybe we do on occasion refrain from having them face the consequences (be careful here). One size does not fit every situation.

There is generally no reward for helping someone who has proven they will keep being your enemy, but we can do it out of love. Often those we must forgive will not accept forgiveness. They might. But often they won’t. Either way, we continue on in our worship of God whether wronged or just going about our day. Our bodies are offered to God as “living sacrifices” hence we follow a different path than others that is consistent with out life orientation. We have bought into the vision of God’s kingdom and walk accordingly.

Ultimately, alongside the inherent worth of a human being, our basis for forgiveness moving forward is that we were forgiven by Christ. In Ephesians 4:31-32 we are told to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” God knew we would crucify him yet he still came to live among us and show us a better way. God wanted us to see how far he would go to forgive us and asked that we would follow in his footsteps. We owe forgiveness towards others to the God of love.

What about anger? Well, sometimes we get angry. Jesus was angry at times. Its human. Jesus was human and without sin. And it is ok to be angry at someone and certainly at a horrible situation. The sentiment we should follow in the above passage (if we do not want to contradict with other passages) is not to cease to be angry perse, but not harbor it in a way that wants harm for the person or resents them. Just right above this statement we are told how we are to be angry. Ephesians 4: 25-28

“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Interestingly, the behavior attached to anger in these verses is a slew of outright sins all associated with the consequences of not regarding others as part of oneself: lying, deception, brooding, and stealing. In the place of negative actions are positive things: telling the truth, working instead of stealing so that one can share with others. The idea here is not to remain in a perpetual state where one entertains hurting another person or sinning. And note, most of these sins in the context of not being angry seem to easily go with the one who wrongs the other! Sometimes in our quest for vengeance (a twisted form of restitution) we have failed to see that we are actually the perpetrator!

We are to look upon others with compassion. They are a person and people make mistakes, sin on purpose and can also be quite cruel. None of us were not made for those things, but it is what some do. Those who continue to sin, refuse to be reconciled with those they wrong or repent are described as enslaved to sin (see discussion further above). They are not free. They do not know that life in Christ is worth all of the punishment they can dish out and more. Often, they are not easily able to do other than sin because they have not been liberated. They have not pledged their allegiance (faith) to Christ or are not listening to or working with the Spirit. If they did, their life would be so much better. They would not need to try and survive with layers of pacifying lies and manipulations, with power plays, by hiding and avoiding, by stealing, by projecting their faults onto others. They would not need to live drowned in their own torment and guilt offset by compensating “greatness.” They would not need to become their narcissistic masks. And all of us sin. No, not all sins are equal (the Bible describes degrees of punishments depending on wrong doings and has a list of what God hates the most), but we all have those parts of us that are not surrendered yet to God. We all have work to do and it is an honor to enter that process with another person. When we forgive and restore relationships (where possible) we have opportunities to grow ourselves.

How to forgive

How does one forgive? Maybe it will look different for different people in different situations. Ideally one forgives almost automatically out of the abundance of the life and hope given even in those days where one is flooded with fear, despair and depression. When days seem darkest and one is plagued by horrific images: the flash of the eyes, the patterns on the wall and the years of personal deconstruction from years past (people go through many things over the course of a life time). Or when that person(s) you helped turned on you even after swearing they would never do it again. When you just got back from the ER and those who helped marginalize you snicker behind your back as you struggle through the day. When others did not do all that they could or thought it was ok for your health to decline because they had other priorities. Or when you have been traumatized and act traumatized and the people who caused it use it as proof that you were X all along or lacking in character and you feel helpless.

For me personally, I see through a lot. I’ve also been tricked. I have trusted people I shouldn’t have, people I had no choice but to and in varying degrees. I’ve been let down in major and minor ways. This is part of life. I’ve seen a million and one apologies and “apologies” made to various people including myself. Many were manipulative, some by those who merely felt bad and wanted to save face after exposed (they did not apologize again when it mean exposing themselves), some from people who felt they meant them (even had me fooled) and then did it again, and some by those who made real changes. I’ve been told by this or that person through the years that they were going to help me in X way, make X changes…etc. One even looked me in the eyes and said “I can tell you don’t believe me, just watch.” Nothing changed. They checked in to make sure I was saying “hello” to my predator.

Given life experience for major or minor things, when I forgive I generally do not believe the people I am forgiving will change. Often I don’t feel anything when I am severely wronged or when someone tries to turn it around, too much has happened over the years. But somehow the promise of the kingdom and participation in it and with it forgiveness, seems greater than the consequences of the hurt.

And I speak generally of no one instance in this space.

Generally, I try and think about how to get through or survive another day. To be honest, forgiveness at this stage in my life is not something I struggle with much. I’ve had years of practice. I am not saying it was not easy or that I am perfect. What has helped me in the past that has been internalized was seeing Christ in the dark. To see beyond the painful and dark present and into the light that will be manifest. I would think of the love of God that both embraces me as an individual in all my particularity and also wraps around and covers everyone around me. It was understanding that although I was the lonely child who did not have anyone to sit with at lunch that had Jesus visited my school he would have sat with me and simultaneously being taught by the Spirit and Scripture that I was to do the same. It was the Spirit teaching me over the years how much he loved all of us and wanted us to be with him. I’ve bought into the Incarnation, his life, death and resurrection. Ultimately, I want what he wants and believe anything is possible in the present because of God’s future.

I have learned that one is emboldened to forgive when they want more than anything to be like Christ, are open to the work of the Spirit—and ask for it often—and take a good look at themselves sorting through and working through everything not of God. Even now, I try my best to own up to personal failing, mistakes and those corners of the self one would like to hide from, cover or pretend do not exist and expose them inwardly, bringing them to God and continuing to ask for help. It is being mindful of that feeling that one is frozen and scared of that inner darkness and slowly releasing it and thinking “its ok, God is with me.” It is being able to go to others to admit wrong doing whether normal mistakes and imperfections or moral failings and trusting in God and his formation. That way, when someone comes to me for forgiveness or slights me in the moment I can let go of that same part of the false “self” that wants to hold tight to a false image or hold tight onto a twisted form of status or ego and instead open my hand and then take theirs. Love in the context of forgiveness both insists those “above” are really your equals in the Lord (it perspectivally lowers them if they are in power), but also attempts to raise those who feel low, up.

For me, having empathy for another person and trying to see things from their perspective, their internal walls and obstacles also helps with forgiveness. It doesn’t mean I have to agree with their actions, outlook on life or reasoning, but it helps to bring those who anger or hurt me into perspective. Personality wise, I already tend towards “liking” people. On the downside, when I misjudge people it tends to be for the better and this can be dangerous. Still, on the advantage, I find it helpful to perceive and bring out their good qualities which are God given and formed and be constructive when interacting with them when I can and where possible. I do not make up good things or pretend good is there when it isn’t, but everyone is made in God’s image and there is usually some good. And where it is not perceived there is always Jesus to remember.

So, to sum up how I forgive: I use what was developed and learned from my relationship with God to recognize the human in myself (both in terms of what I was created to be and what still needs formation), in others and in Christ and let the latter animate and re-contextualize the good and bad of the former. Despite my tendency to try and snatch joy and happiness from snippets of life, my life is not always happy. But I find it worthwhile. I know very well what it is like to be an injured human who does not always feel good and my understanding of forgiveness informed by Scripture helps me to be patient with myself and others going through hard times. And I am able to see suffering, lack, deprivation and shortcomings great and small through the lens of the Crucified Messiah who rose again and will raise us up with him one day. Life is not easy, but I see forgiveness as an opportunity, one of those good things we can do in the name of Christ and hope that others will do the same for me.


Christians: How Not to be Flying Monkeys for Predators


Not contributing to abuse is difficult these days. Not only does one have to be slightly more nuanced when interpreting others, but must actually do something constructive occasionally. Gone are the days when one could just sit back, relax and let group think do the difficult work whether it be finding witches, evaluating sexual harassment claims or reminding victims of crimes that we have all moved on—without them.

Jokes aside, most of us are not the kind of people who would knowingly help someone abuse another person. And yet, enough of us are used to do just this by predators whether we play a large or small part in the abuser’s demented symphony. Using others to help abuse another person or do one’s dirty work is a common strategy for predators, narcissists or other abusive individuals. It keeps them from being accountable, or getting caught and it allows them to continue their abuse as long as possible.

A “flying monkey” is a person who is used as a tool, extension or resource of the types of people mentioned above to optimize the level of abuse, control or protection of the abuser at the expense of the target. Most flying monkeys do not even realize they are being used this way. They think they are just being a “supportive friend,” “good Christian,” following orders, or bending rules to return a favor (and abusers generally garner a ton of favor through flattery and gifts). And, predators manipulate. They will take one’s morals, values and intuitions about people and hijack them. They love “nice” people. If you are a nice person they will attempt to make you believe you are doing the right thing, helping them defeat evil, helping them punish someone who has wronged them, helping them mend a relationship, or helping a sinner find “grace” and “forgiveness.” When the predator gets in trouble, they will lead you to vouch for them while you believe you are just being there for a friend. Perhaps they will play the sympathy card to have you spy on, humiliate, ostracize or force a target to return to the abuser over and over again. And of course, now you will be contributing to the abuse itself while you intimidate and pressure the target into not resisting further abuse as you help degrade their sense of identity and safety.

And yet, we ask ourselves, why do predators get away with severely injuring so many people for so long? Ex) Men who molest boys average 150 victims before they are caught (Ken Wooden, 2014). In the end, the answer is two-fold: 1) Because a predatory individual knows how to manipulate the target and those around them, and 2) because the rest of us let them continue their abuse unchecked. Contrary to popular rationalizations, predators, abusers and bullies do not thrive everywhere. A predator is able to thrive in contexts where they have minimal or any consequences for their behavior (which usually starts out minor) and are able to successfully isolate the targets they select. If you, your family, church or organization knows they have an individual facing extended abuse still then you have not sufficiently communicated to the predator that you will not stand for their behavior or made them sufficiently accountable. Likely, you have been convinced the target is just over sensitive or found ways to minimize the abuse in your mind by refusing to acknowledged patterned behavior.

In sum, predators may not have empathy, but they understand it and will use it. They will make you think they have empathy for you, their precious monkey, and their beloved, even if unwilling, target and then get you to turn on others for them. While they tell you what an amazing person you are, they will also bombard you with messages direct and indirect about a certain person they are after and make it sound like they are concerned, worried, or confused as to why the person wants to stay the hell away from them. They will portray themselves as well-meaning, jilted or wronged in some way. You will feel so sorry for them and wonder why their beloved target wants nothing to do with them. They will try and get you to see their behavior towards this person as innocent, generous, non-creepy or non-obsessive…etc. I don’t know why she overreacted that way to me. I am just a friendly inclusive person/like to give hugs/have that personality. And of course, they kept trying to give the “hugs” to the target even though they were unwanted. But you need not worry, the predator is “long suffering” and will not give up on their target as long as they are allowed.

Of course, most normal people do not go through excessive lengths to build network connections and friendships around targets just so that they can abuse, destroy or pick off a particular individual, but predators do. Know their behavior. And do not be their flying monkey at church, work, home, online...anywhere where you and people exist.

What Predators Do

Put simply, a predator will: 1) select a target, 2) groom them &/or their environment to accept the abuse, 3) isolate or entrap their target so they can’t escape (also, work places and their own homes are inherently not places targets can easily escape), 4) then change the relationship with their target to be more overtly cruel and 5) maintain control as long as possible or until they get bored and reset the process with a new target. For a recent example involving a prominent pastor of a church, check out my paper on theology and abuse here.

A target is typically selected because: 1) They have something the predator wants (they may be attractive in some way, their “type,” highly skilled, a social obstacle or any number of things. Usually whatever it is it comes down to the predator’s need for a power trip whether it is a small, vulnerable child or an adult who is unprotected and down on their luck. The target attracts the predator and simultaneously exists as an ego threat that must be destroyed. 2) The predator believes s/he may get away with exploiting them either because the target looks like they will not put up a fight &/or the context won’t. Maybe they have less formal or social power. Does the target have high self-esteem? Do they look like they will have adults, supervisors, peers, coworkers, other church members who will defend them or who they could go to if something goes wrong? If they like the target, can the predator cut them off from support channels long enough? Time to see.

Next, the predator will test the waters. They will have already extensively ingratiated themselves to the target and community through favors, flattery, or becoming some sort of pillar of the community. They will have peppered the target with compliments, appear to help them, try and fill a void in their life all while sneaking in some not so nice things just to see what they will do. It might be a slightly off comment or it might be some slightly inappropriate touching (i.e. brushing up against a knee) or strange play with proximity or personal space. If they are not confronted on these little power plays by either the target, the group, adults or leadership, but get away with them, they will proceed and escalate. Depending on the target’s context, it may not matter if the target resisted if the adults in charge give them unlimited access regardless of protestations. In work mobbing situations, the predator has successfully enlisted the help of peers to further isolate and punish the target and hence they will not be able to seek help. The key is: will they be stopped? No? Perfect.

Still, intermixed with the beginning abuse or slight off or inappropriate behavior will be little “niceties” to confuse the target and those watching. I.e. the stranger does not just tell the kid to get into the car, but offers the child candy. Gifts and compliments may be given publicly to communicate how nice the predator is. The gifts can also function to gaslight the target or individuals who might be on to them or showing visible resistance to recent abusive activity. Doing these things publically also helps ensure compliance and communicates to the target that everyone else already knows how wonderful the predator is. Key here is that gifts function to deceive and control.

Problem: To continue the metaphor of strangers bearing gifts: Essentially we tell the target “Why didn’t you go in the car with the stranger when he offered you candy!!?” Or, “Yeah, that person keeps following you with his car and telling you to get in, but he must be nice because he offered you a candy.” Message: what is wrong with you!? We the community point to the gifts and tell the target how nice the predator is being and that they should really give them a chance never mind the gifts are unwanted and given in the context of creepy or abusive behavior which we have likely already minimized and refused to recognize as a pattern. In the end, the gifts are not so nice when they function to deceive/cloud their unsavary behavior to the wider community.

Problem: Further, many of us in the church are conflict avoidant, heap blame on victims telling or treating them like they are making a big deal out of nothing, have problems with “forgiveness,” “grace,” just have an “interpersonal conflict,” or ourselves ignore these little power plays as insignificant or easily explained away thus giving the predator the green light. We have taken a person who has already been severely injured by abuse and made them out to be unethical as well.

Problem: Already and possibly before overt abuse occurs, the context will often not have basic accountability structures in place, will likely have conflict avoidant or enabling types in gate-keeping positions, an abuser in a position of authority, or may have a top down authority structure. The basic principle is: Can someone easily move into the context as it is, do something horrible and get away with it if they are well positioned in the community?

Next, the predator will ensure all escape routes for the target are cut off. In the wild, the animal that is not with the pack gets eaten and predatory animals will strategically try and isolate one animal from the pack so they can be eaten. The same holds true here. The predator will have created networks of trust in themselves (usually built off of flattery, lies and easy favors) around the target and will start to ensure that these same people will not help or believe the target or anyone who defends them. They may lie about the target so that others have an unfavorable opinion of them, use theology, the Bible or leadership to ensure compliance if they show signs of trying to escape, or may get the target to feel guilty for X so that they do not go for help.

Problem: At this stage many of us have accepted the predator as trustworthy and the target as “the problem.” We have already come to believe that the predator likes/understands us, has our best interest in mind and really, many of us have already displayed tendencies of avoiding conflict. It is unlikely we will help someone in distress. Instead, we will tell them to forgive or that it is all in their head. Maybe we perceive the target as evil because they say negative things about our “friend” or “pastor.”

Progressively, the predator will become worse and worse with their abuse whether physical, psychological or using the group to punish the individual. The lies will get worse. The physical activity will escalate. The group itself will get more hostile towards “the known problem.” Escape routes have been managed and they can keep up the abuse for a while since no one will do anything substantial enough to end the behavior.

Problem: The group has by now accepted new norms towards the target. Anything goes. The target will also by now have long been exhibiting signs of trauma which may further confirm the predator’s narrative that they are unstable, unkind, someone to avoid/not listen to or take seriously…etc. After all, humans do not like extended psychological abuse. They were not made for it and get injured.

Leadership that is not doing the predatory activity (and many predators are in positions of power) may have already taken several disciplinary actions towards the target, endorsed/supported the minor or major power moves of the abusive individual or firmly established in their behavior that they will not be helping the person targeted in any significant way.

The predator will keep going until checks and balances start to appear and until those around them stop overtly tolerating their behavior or giving them slaps on the wrist instead. Eventually people may start to realize that their treatment of person X is a bit excessive and perhaps some of the predators hidden face behind the mask will start to appear or maybe they go too far one time? Not likely.

Once the predator thinks they will be found out or get bored they will move on to another target or another context to start everything all over again.

Unfortunately, the sick part of this entire situation is that it is not just about what predators do but how the rest of us often maintain the control of the predator and ourselves create an abusive environment. It is bad enough for the target to have a creepy person after them, but worse when everyone lets it happen, supports their efforts or exhibits marginalizing and collectively abusive behavior towards the target. While processing abuse they may be told by the rest of us that abuse is not occurring because the idea of it makes us uncomfortable. Implication being: the rest of us were fooled, we are not the good church/organization/people we thought we were, or we may have to do something uncomfortable for us. The predator’s narrative is easier on the ego.

How Not to be a Flying Monkey

So, above is what predators do. We know its bad. I don’t think I need to bore you with tons of Scripture telling you abuse, lies, deception and not caring for people exploited by others is wrong. But where does that leave you when you are in the middle of everything? When you have already been excessively flattered, given gifts and are not sure what to believe when an accusation is brought against someone you just know is an amazing person? After all, they were there for you at X time, talk about the Bible a lot, say they are _____ kind of person and _____kind of person wouldn’t intentionally harm another person…etc.

A flying monkey is someone who does the villain’s bidding. Another reason the predator has built up extensive network connections of people who will love them is that they want you to 1) Keep the target under control (ex: the Pastor who tries to convince the battered wife to return home from the shelter), 2) marginalize or ostracize the target so that the predator can get X and marginalization takes a community, 3) attack the target for them so that they do not get caught as easily, and finally 4) so that you will defend the predator should any evidence come to light. You will jump in with character references, declarations to the target that the predator has been nothing but kind to them so they should shut up or will bend the rules to ensure they do not get held accountable.

You might be a flying monkey and do not know it if: you are constantly taking the path of least resistance in “interpersonal conflicts,” are insecure, you are distancing yourself or helping to ice out someone in your community you were warned about or “who deserves it,” get irritated with someone insisting on consequences or who is always complaining about stuff happening to them, are spreading gossip or rumors, you are in charge & someone under you is still being harassed months or years after making you aware of the problem, you are a human and like to be liked by other humans, your boss keeps calling you “my pretty” and sending you out on air raids.

In that vein, here are just some suggestions on how not to be or become their flying monkey!

  • Do a background check before you become their monkey. Mark Driscoll has started a new church….guess what church isn’t on his CV. I am guessing the demon sex trials may not go over well in an un-groomed context. Another way to look at it: Does the person you are hiring or a volunteer working with certain populations (i.e. children) have a history? Does the person accused of bullying have a history of demonizing others at his or her other jobs/departments? Have you asked? Were you 100% convinced X was evil the last time they had you turn on X person and now they want you to turn on person Y.

  • Do not further marginalize the target. Marginalization takes a villiage. Otherwise you have one creepy person who does not last long and is given the boot. People excuse themselves very readily by saying they do not have to be the target’s “best friend” while they at varying levels ice them out and are buddy buddy with the predator. Worse, all too often when targets come forward about what happened to them the community is too quick to try and silence them and pile on guilt and gas-lighting in order to restore the “peace.”

    A community marginalizes the target further when they retain the predator as the pillar of the community whether it be by keeping him or her in leadership/positions of power over the target (formal or informal), as gatekeepers or orchastrators of community events. It is also done by failing to actively reintegrate and support the target after public damage was done to their reputations. These are instances of the community reinforcing the predator’s narrative and maintaining their power. It functionally cuts off the target from community involvement even as predators or well wishers maintain they are “always welcome.” It also functions to shift responsibility from the community to the target.

    In work place situations it is overwhelmingly the target who gets physically moved to isolated locations (not the predator), or conveniently “laid off” or fired for bad behavior.

  • Don’t spy for the predator. Do not share personal information about others even out of “concern” or listen to others who excessively bad mouth others or particular individuals. Other people’s business is other people’s business. If your new “friend” who just so happened to attach themselves to you after you interacted with the target wants to know this or that about them, or appears a bit preoccupied with what they are doing, don’t tell them anything. It is none of their business. Do not help the predator keep tabs on this or that person because the target is “up to no good.” You are helping them control and intimidate and creating an additional hostile environment for the target.

  • Respect boundaries. Do not guilt trip targets who are uncomfortable about body contact, gifts, or other unwanted displays of affection. Do not try and convince the wife to return home to her abusive husband from the shelter because he had a conversion or is really really sorry and means it this time and we should forgive…etc. Note too that the predator (or narcissist) will become enraged if they cannot control their target physically or mentally and will very quickly enlist you to keep them in line or punish them for attempting to escape.

    Be very wary of public displays of affection from former predators towards targets. They are usually unwanted, but not easily turned down. After all, you will remind the target directly or indirectly that the predator has been so very nice and that they are being rude or ungrateful. Worse yet, maybe the predator made it a community affair—of course channeled through them—and you even signed the card or pitched in to remind the target that you and the predator have their best interest at heart as you make them very very ill.

  • Take reports seriously. Most reports of sexual abuse do not happen. That is, the reports themselves are never made. When reports are made, most of the time they are real and come after the abuse has become unbearable and the person is at their breaking point. If you are in leadership investigate that matter and do not stack the deck with “friends” of the predator even if you “know” so and so would never do such a thing. It is best to get an outside investigator who does not have the company or church’s financial and legal “safety” in mind.

    Is there evidence to take action against a predator? In the mean time, protect the target! Keep them away from the predator. Do not give the predator access to the target even if they are playing nice for a while (hint: they know what you want to see and may act accordingly for a while and will re-adapt their narrative and persona according to the situation). And, just because there is not enough evidence to convict or punish a person, this does not mean there is not enough evidence to keep someone being harmed away from danger. Do not give them access even if they are pretending to be best buds with their target. Patterned behavior does not disappear over night and even if the target seems to be ok with it, they often have to be to keep themselves safe from you.

  • Context: Smear Campaign. Do not act out against another person when you hear gossip or possible lies. Get to know and talk to the other person before making a decision. Hear both sides of the story. Is one person constantly warning you about person X and person X just tries to stay away from them? At the very least be a good neighbor and do not spread bad things or reports about others that you do not know are true even if someone you “trust” says it. I had someone recently pepper me with tons of very weird over the top compliments they thought I wanted to hear over several days. Next moment they wanted to warn me about person X and get me to agree with them! They would also publicaly say nice things about their teaching abilities and then try and turn me against them in private. Yikes and a 1/2! And of course, they ended up doing the same to me when the time came and were believed. Lovely.

    If you are in leadership investigate claims before talking to person X about bad behavior that may or may not exist. Be suspicious of spurious reports if person X is already known to be targeted by someone. Context matters. Treating reports by abusive individuals and known targets as equal is not being “neutral,” “objective,” or “fair.” It only helps the abusive individual.

    Also note that in many cases you will be dealing with a mob of people the predator is using and hiding behind. You will have lots of people convinced person X is evil and after a while person X will start appearing “unhinged” with sleep depravation and psychological torture if it has been months or years. Look for patterns. Are the accusations starting out ambiguous or over the top? Is the person accused an outsider? If you were sleep deprived, your blood pressure rose, hair started falling out, isolated for extended periods and constantly on edge from being threatened for say—at least 4 months without reprieve might you start to appear less than sparkly?

    On the flip side, if you hear a report and do your due diligence and find it to be accurate…Surprise! The person we hired has left several other institutions in financial ruin, has a history of making serious accusations against others that turn out untrue, have criminal backgrounds involving rape…etc. then??? Get involved now. Not later.

  • Hold people accountable for their actions. If a person gets caught in the act do not listen to their sad story about this being their first time, they are so embarrassed, they didn’t know what they were doing/not in control of their faculties, its not what it looks like. Have them answer for it. They will be very persuasive and convincing, this is not their first time & even if it is, it really should be their last! And abuse is not a one time but patterned occurrence. Your tendency will be to want to project your own sense of empathy and human compassion onto the predator: You wouldn’t do such and such unless it was an accident…you would want someone to give you the benefit of the doubt…etc. They are not you.

    The predator will tell lots of lies. They will say X. X will not be true. Hold them to it. Or maybe they manipulated and got caught: maybe they told one person one thing and another something different in order to play them against each other. Do not try and come up with elaborate reasons for why a boldface lie is not a lie or must have some legitimacy to it. Do not come up with some crack pot/pop psychological explanation to explain their lie away: i.e. they just tell lots of lies and manipulate people without knowing it! It takes mental energy to say something obviously untrue and to manipulate others. They said they had $100,000 in the bank and they really had $1000. They just forgot a few zeros?

    Yes, they are doing it on purpose. Do not explain it away, make them answer for it. Put their sin in the light i.e. expose it and be a just person. Expose it so that it can’t keep happening and they can’t keep getting away with it. Accountability is the only way an abusive person themselves can enter into recovery.

  • Don’t be conflict avoidant. Similar to the above. Predators absolutely love conflict avoidant leadership and people. It is a free pass to do whatever they want. You may have this hope that being quiet, giving into their demands, siding with the predator in conversation against the target even in a small way (to show you are being fair or not taking sides) will make the tension go away. It won’t. They will excellerate their activity and do it again and again. You have just rewarded them and they are pleased with their new pet.

  • Recognize your own susceptibility to group think. You are a human. You have mirror neurons. We pick up subtle cues from the people around us and make decisions based off of how we see other people acting. We notice that everyone seems to discount person X? Without even thinking about it, we are likely to engage in it to if we do not pay close attention. A predatory individual will utilize non-verbals to convey what they want you to believe about the target sometimes without saying a word. If you do not think you are susceptible to non-verbals then you may be less politically savvy than you think you are. Perfect.

    The predator will also try to hijack group think by simultaneously collecting a large number of people who will think they are an incredible human being by being super nice to them so that they can target that one person or group. That way, you and the merry band will quickly inform the target of abuse that X person has been nothing but wonderful to you aka “shut up!” or that they should let the past be the past when they go to you for help or confide their legitimate fears in you. You will feel pretty good about yourself too while you cut off yet another escape hatch for the target.

  • Be secure in yourself. I.e. build up a strong sense of self so you are not constantly afraid or insecure about your own place in the community that you readily attach yourself to otherwise transparently predatory, abusive or narcissistic characters. It will also mean that you will not be swayed by this next tactic.

  • Be wary of excessive, unearned flattery. Predatory individuals know you like you and that you like people who see you as the amazing person you know yourself to be. They are also good at picking out insecurities in others and controlling them with them. They know just what you want or need to hear. Ever notice your new friend who keeps saying you are AMAZING—keeps repeating the word amazing—over and over again? You handed them a pencil and now you are the SAVIOR of the WORLD! A wonderful giving SAINT!? …should go without saying and so I will end here. ;)


Jesus, The First Born of Creation: An Offer of Peace to a Hostile World


The Son is the image of the invisible God,
        the one who is first over all creation,

Because all things were created by him:
        both in the heavens and on the earth,
        the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
            Whether they are thrones or powers,
            or rulers or authorities,
        all things were created through him and for him.

He existed before all things,
        and all things are held together in him.

He is the head [i.e. source of life] of the body, the church,
who is the beginning,
        the one who is firstborn from among the dead
        so that he might occupy the first place in everything.

Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
and he reconciled all things to himself through him—
        whether things on earth or in the heavens.
            He brought peace through the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:15-20


The story of our relationship with Jesus does not begin in a manger. In Colossians we learn that the story of the Incarnation in relation to us goes back further than one might have first thought—to creation. Our access to God and life has always come through Christ, Jesus and we were in fact, created by, for and through him.

Regarding the latter, an interesting way to understand in what way we were created through the Son is to consider that something “other” than God can exist because there is distinction within the Trinity. Creation and humanity can exist on the basis of the Son’s free self-distinction from the Father (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Vol 2, 30). Further, our existence as image bearers has always been based in the natural image of the invisible God—Jesus—and of course that gets into some very odd, yet highly plausible understandings of time.

*Exiting the Dr. Who universe now.

That said, we have always had access to God in Christ. Our very identities as image bearers are premised off of his identity and ultimate unity with us by nature. We were called to represent God in this world of whom Jesus is the perfect representation.

In the beginning we were created to be like priests or divine images set up in God’s temple, the earth (Genesis uses Near Eastern temple language to describe creation such as for example the 7 days/time periods among other things) . We were told to rule the earth together and to see one another as counterparts (i.e. the correspondence language all over Genesis).

And yet, we rejected God’s vision for us. We rejected our calling.


Our ancestors and the rest of us when we pattern ourselves after them, choose “wisdom” apart from God. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was not an “evil” or bad tree, but we were told to depend on God and not partake of it at the time. We thought we could live well apart from the source of all life and wisdom. We decided to rebel against the God we were supposed to represent, the one whom all rule and authority was created for and as a result we sought to dominate one another, avoid responsibility, exploit and even murder.

The earth itself suffered. And continues to. Romans describes creation itself as groaning.

God sent us many messengers and envoys and made many accommodations to our warped understandings of power (i.e. Israel insists on a King and God finally relents). Yet we killed his messengers and refused to follow his ways again and again. And we all suffered. And most of our suffering comes from other humans.

Finally, the true and perfect “image of the invisible God” was sent to offer us peace and help us pattern ourselves after him. We killed him.

But what hate destroys, love resurrects.

God Shows Us How To Be Human

The birth , life, death and resurrection of Jesus stand concretely as a declaration of God’s power and love and hope for our future. While we were “estranged and hostile in mind” to God’s purposes, he reconciled with us with his own body. He showed us a new life orientation, one that surrenders zero-sum understandings of power, grandiosity and self-love at the expense of others.

Our egos and desperate efforts to have pride of place at the table were met by the true owner of the table who took the last place and welcomed those we looked down upon to it. He dared to side with the marginalized in front of us. He found those people we exploited and labeled as undesirable “sinners” and not only welcomed them but told "telling” stories in front of us all where they were set as the heroes, true sons, or valued and we were cast as the “sinners” or in rebellion against God (i.e. the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, The Two Sons, The King and Debtors…etc). He named our sins in front of everyone. He outsmarted us as we tried to trap him into saying something to get himself killed. It didn’t work and so we made stuff up and found him guilty in secret so no one could call us out for our evil.

He not only valued and raised up the marginalized, he became the marginalized. And he knew he would. He knew what kind of people we were when he came. He knew how tightly we held onto power and our false gods, ourselves. He kept living, modeling how we were called to act and would not stop. He did say that in order to truly live one must be willing to be brutally killed for living the way we were supposed to live—pure allegiance and devotion to our true calling.

In the end, we had to crucify him. We had to humiliate him, distort who he was and get rid of him so that we could continue what we were doing. People liked him too much and they started to think in ways that were not so beneficial for us. And really, he did say he was willing to pay this price. But nor our evil narratives nor the crushing power of Rome would have the final say.

God Unveils His Future

The physical body of Jesus was brought back to life but in such a way that transcended even a prefall state. God had sent us an offer of peace in human form and we more than rejected it. Jesus’ resurrection not only vindicated his message (he was not cursed by God), stood as God’s answer to injustice, but renewed the offer for peace. He lived the life we could not live as God’s representative and paid the ultimate price for it uniting the human with the divine and opened up the doors for us to also live as he did and except the offer of peace with God by the Holy Spirit. His resurrected body is also the first of many. His resurrection is a sign pointing out our own future and what it could be and look like, a reversal of the damage and transformation into something godly.

Our next move?

The Incarnation & The Iconoclast: A Theological Framework of Hope in the Midst of Suffering & Abuse


This last weekend I gave a paper at CATA’s 2018 conference in Toronto Canada. Below is just a snippet before we load the recording onto the Split Frame of Reference Podcast.

The Incarnation & The Iconoclast:

A Theological Framework of Hope in the Midst of Suffering & Abuse

Surviving chronic abuse, especially in a Christian context, can be disillusioning and disorienting—much like existing in “the room” from C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. On the surface the room may seem normal, and yet if one pays attention, he or she will notice it is ill-proportioned, if not designed to gradually condition one to accept the distortion as what a room ought to be. Initially one sees that the room is off, but “near enough to the true to deceive you for a moment” but off kilter enough to “go on teasing the mind even after the deception” is unmasked.[1] If one continues probing one sees the room is not just ill-proportioned, but has several distorted, if not disturbing details. In a similar way, abuse functions to do more than injure and destroy, it seeks to remake reality and warp images and perceptions. One fighting to survive abuse finds that not only must they fend off a constant assault on one’s identity as coercive tactics are employed to ensure the abuser’s distortions are “made reality” i.e. felt in real time and space with maximal control, but the distortion may also be internalized and maintained by others as accepted reality. Both the target and Christian community will need all of its biblical and theological resources to resist this false and damaging reality if they are to live out their calling as image bearers and to borrow a phrase from a book title, “push back the dark.”[2]

Abuse becomes more complicated when intermixed with classic manipulative and abusive tactics are appeals to the example of Christ, catch-words, such as “forgiveness,” “grace,” and “submission.” The experience of abuse is also made more difficult by bizarre expectations that those experiencing various (and often prolonged) attacks just “move on,” be more “positive,” or less “selfish” from the community at large. These concepts are frequently, if not regularly, out of place and used in oversimplified ways—especially as it relates to Scripture. The result? It is implicitly or explicitly communicated that the target should not be concerned about their own self-respect, dignity, well-being or need for healing from damage done to them. Rather, it is the abusive individual’s voice that must be heard, his or her perceptions and feelings and the group’s sense of equilibrium that must be religiously guarded, at all costs as it was with the infamous cases involving Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll, the Southern Baptist Convention and the past actions of Willow Creek.

In this brief presentation I will be offering a particular way of approaching abuse theologically by considering it in the framework of iconoclasm, the incarnation and the imago dei. I will simultaneously be countering some of the harmful misuses of scriptural concepts used to continue the abuse of power by offering a different theological framework or particular theology from which to understand suffering, abuse and bold resistance. As support I will be drawing from the doctrine of theosis and Christus Victor models of atonement as well as the language of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. This beginning of a constructive theology will be developed around two figures: the iconoclast (one who abuses, whether structural or personal) and the incarnation, and our participation in them. This venture will involve arriving at an understanding of Christ’s and one’s own identity through narrative placement.[3] 

The Incarnation and The Iconoclast

“Let there be light.” The Anastasis icon meets us in a burst of uncreated light as the Incarnation descends down into the darkness of Hades parting the earth as though it were the Red Sea and shattering the gates of the underworld. In a moment we are caught up in the transfiguration as we see him for who he is—the Incarnation—our hope and life—yet still wrapped in the dark mystery that is God signified by the gradation of blue surrounding him. With nail pierced hands reminding us of his bloody struggle, he grabs Adam and Eve, drawing them up out of their graves towards himself to follow him in resurrection freedom. “Christ is depicted not as the victim of mortality and evil, but as the victorious Son of God, clothed in glory, who by death has conquered death, and has released those who have been held captive.” The Devil is bound and “the darkness of Hades has been filled with light.”[4]

Colossians 1:13-14 describes those who are in Christ as persons who are “rescued from the domain of darkness,” and transferred into the kingdom of the Son in whom we have redemption and forgiveness. And this is possible because the Son is the “image,” the perfect and natural icon, “of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him (vv. 15-16).” The Incarnation, the Son, who is fully God yet differentiated from the Father and Holy Spirit, is the one by whom creatures, those “other” than God, were created, are being held together in God’s ongoing creative act (Col 1:17), and through whom they are recreated. He is firstborn of creation because he is the destined Lord over creation and he is the one through whom all of creation will be brought to completion. The Incarnation lifts us up, not just out of the grave, but also up to himself to become like him. As those made in the image of God and rescued by the Incarnation we are called to be creative agents of liberation and representations of God in the world. 

The Incarnation is the basis for reconciliation (Col 1:20-23). The Incarnation, the perfect human who cried tears of blood from stress, was crushed by the weight of the cross and died. Reconciliation through a “fleshly body.” He entered into our darkness to rescue us from an “alienated and hostile mind” and “evil deeds,” bringing us hope (Col 1:21-23). And, the Incarnation chose to dwell (or tabernacle) among humans as one who stepped in on behalf of those who were marginalized and exploited by society by eating with and openly associating himself with them while calling to account those who claimed holiness yet exploited others. And he demonstrated God’s heart for humanity by becoming impoverished, humiliated, and abused. His sacrifice in the flesh and opening the gates of Hades is a call into perfect love in him. Having been lifted from the grave into resurrection life, the church is called to enter into the dark with the light of Christ, exposing and binding evil wherever we find it to set the captives free. We are called to recognize and respect the image of Christ within us as we endure unrelenting and unimaginable suffering and respect other image bearers who are as well.

The destiny of a person and humanity are wrapped up in the incarnation, the perfect and natural icon of God, the template and telos for all creation who enables us to live out our purpose to love out of a “pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”[5] Human beings were created to represent God on the earth, to be in relationship with God, the world and one another. Put differently, God gave “his face to Adam and Eve,” to us, “so that—individually and collectively—[we] may become his icon[s] within the cosmos.”[6] Individuals only truly become themselves when they can accurately see the face of Christ in their reflection. To bear the “image” of God means one has the potential to grow into the “likeness” of Christ, and ultimately be united with God.

            And what of the Iconoclast? The incarnation and the iconoclast represent two polarizing yet unequal figures: the first is creative and life giving and the other, destructive yet disconnected from the source of creative life and destined to fade with time. The Iconoclast is a figure representing a power: whether personal, institutional or mob. Functionally, they may be bullies at work, abusive individuals at home or church, oppressive systems or to a lesser extent, merely cogs or a group identity that has taken on a life of its own transcending any individual identity. In the end, the iconoclast does not value human beings as made in the image of God and in turning away from “the other,” the iconoclast turns from his or her own purpose.

            At its core, an iconoclast worships a false image of his or herself and despises the image of God in others and attempts to smash the image of Christ in others or recast that image into one of distortion. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “...for the individual who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly, and the ugly becomes beautiful. The true becomes false, and the false becomes true. The evil becomes good, and the good becomes evil.”[7]An iconoclast sets what he or she perceives as the self in the place of God, having rejected the divine image within themselves and others and in doing so puts him or herself in opposition to the Incarnation and his purposes. The abuse of power, among other things, is a pervasive form of idolatry. The abuse of one dearly loved and valued by God, and bears his image, is a life orientation that is sacrilegious at its core.

Reframing Abuse

In order to resist the iconoclast, one must be able to identify “him” or even one’s own dark shadow, that piece of the self that eludes consciousness and if recognized would lead to the understanding that one is less good than perceived. All that is not of God, must be brought to light and exposed before it can be converted. Part of one’s call as made in the image of God in the context of sin is to expose those dark corners, those ill-proportions of “the room” for what they are so that they can be offered to the Lord and then transformed. Part of this process of offering means reframing the iconoclast’s narrative, discerning it as a negation of the good and seeing oneself and the “other” as made in the image of God—as beings worth fighting and dying for, rather than a necessary sacrifice to the false self. One must see abuse not as a one-time “slip up,” nor a “sin” to be excused or left unspoken, but a pervasive pattern of idolatrous rebellion against the Incarnation and all that he stands for. With that said, we now turn to part of our corporate shadow.

[1] C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 294-295.

[2] A phrase taken from the title of Elizabeth M. Altmaier’s book, Push Back the Dark: Companioning Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse.

[3]Richard B. Hays, “Reading the Bible with the Eyes of Faith: The Practice of Theological Exegesis,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 1.1 (2007). Francis Watson, Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 1994).

[4] John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, St. Vladimir’s Press, 122.

[5] 1 Timothy 1:4 NIV

[6] Daniela C Augustine, The Image of God in an Image Driven Age: Explorations in Theological Anthropology, 176.

[7] MLK 7 March 1961, 427


This was a unique experiment for me and if I am honest, a little uncomfortable because it represents the tip of an ice berg involving tons of exegesis, nearly 25 years of conscious theological reflection wrestling with at least three realities: 1) God is immeasurably good, personal and everywhere with us, 2) the reality that evil and abuse exists, and 3) the deep desire and draw—almost like a siren’s call—to become more like Christ. These realities were highly ingrained from an early age from my reading and interpreting of copious amounts of Scripture, experiences of the Spirit forming my character confronting me with the goodness he gave me along with the bad, later reading the church fathers and interacting with Eastern Orthodoxy, and, an early experience of God the day I “accepted Jesus into my heart” that has instilled in me a conviction of his omnipresence in such a way that is intimately connected with our life and being as humans.

At the end of the day, I find this paper terribly lacking. It does not cover all of my thoughts, show any of the exegesis, does not dissect or show how I have drawn from all of my patristic sources, nor get into many of the out workings of my use the seventh ecumenical council…among other things. It is also a faint sample of what is in my mind. Until next time. ;)


No. You are not "Gospel-Centered."

gospel centered.png

The context for this post resides in the reality that the maple Leafs are not playing on my (Nick's) day off. Hence, the salt is real and I am annoyed at the now over two-dozen bios and sales-pitches I found on social media that wield the phrase "gospel-centered." This can also be utilized as "Christ-centered" or "Jesus-centered" or even the marketing slogan, "It's all about Jesus" or being "Together 4 The Gospel." This is not exclusively a mantra coming from the Reformed side of the Christian family. I have no doubt that this tune is applicable to many non-denominational churches so my criticisms are not directed at Reformed theology/ theologians/ parachurch ministries. It just so happens that this type of marketing is more pronounced in that side of the Christian family (and yes, they are family to me).

First, let me propose something:

Do you find the following marketing schemes to be a bit offensive or at least somewhat cynical in a modern consumerist culture?

"Gospel-Centered Coffee Filters."

"Gospel-Centered Centeredness."

"Gospel-Centered Toothpaste."

"Jesus-Centered Pumpkin Spice Latté."

"Christ-Centered Pilates Seminar."

I think you get the point. These are childish and most likely not real. Although, given time, I would not be shocked to see at least one of these turns out to be an actual thing. Now compare this to the mantra from The Gospel Coalition: "The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is a Christian organization that seeks to serve the local church by providing gospel-centered and Christ-focused content." A simple look through T4G[1] will reveal this rather mundane point.

I half-expect the next article from the Babylon Bee to be riffing on this idea. In case they do, you heard it here first. If they did it before me, they did it without me knowing.

But my broader point requires a bit more analysis. The Gospel is a precious thing. It concerns the life, the ministry, the crucifixion, the death, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, who ascended to glory on our behalf. The Gospel is centered on the person of Jesus Christ and what that person did for all of humanity. You can have the life of Jesus and you can even have his atoning death in some sense, but you cannot have any Christian theology or even eternal life without the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. No doctrine of anthropology, eschatology, hamartiology, Christology, or pneumatology can survive—much less thrive—without the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Hence, the Gospel is the proclamation that Jesus is the resurrected Lord of all things. This is a far cry from your coffee filters, your Pilates seminars, your leather-bound Bibles, and your meme-quoting, 'mic-dropping' Internet offerings from deceased slave-holding theologians.

I am not immune from this so I am willing to take my own swipe directly on the chin here.

When I look at many of your distinctives and I see secondary issues like heaven and hell, women in ministry, the mechanism or duration of creation, the mode of baptism, the debate about wine versus grape juice, going to movies or abstaining from movies and so on and so forth, elevated to the point where I am willing to exclude a large if not majority portion of genuine evangelicalism I am forced to conclude that your mission is not "Gospel-centeredness"—instead, you have elevated your narrow subset of a subset of North American protestant evangelicalism of the (usually) Reformed Baptist and occasional Presbyterian stripe. To call that idolatry is too far, but is surely demands some rethinking.

The Gospel is bigger than our ministry, our organization, and our pet theology or theologian. To exalt the phrase "gospel/Jesus-centered" is to promote a narrow subset of one's ministry or theological perspective to the point where it implicitly judges others who are just as sincere and passionate. In essence, it is virtue signaling and too many who wield this terminology are engaging in a deeply commercialistic and cynical enterprise. 

I believe I and my Reformed and Wesleyan and Evangelical brothers and sisters are seeking to be centered entirely on the bodily resurrection of Jesus as the resurrected Lord. That can emerge in very different ways but I believe this to generally true. However, when it comes to marketing and how this conviction gets expressed, it reveals a shallowness that is unChristlike. I am deeply saddened to see my fellow Christians engage in this sort of activity.

Perhaps the best way or method to promote one's ministry is to say "Wesleyan-centered" resources, like Thomas and I do with The Sinnergists Podcast. That, to me, makes a good deal of sense. I am not at all opposed to theological distinctives. Indeed, I have some of my own. What I am opposed to is the marketing process by which one's theological distinctives are elevated to the point of being called "gospel-centered." If one wants to promote Reformed theology within a certain ministry, I am entirely fine with that. But calling it "gospel-centered" or "Christ centered" simply smacks of virtue signaling and theological imprecision. Thomas and I made a point of joking about this with the Sinnergists as "the most man-centered theology podcast on the Internet." Of course, some didn't find it to be that funny but that's what happens sometimes.

In summation, brothers and sisters, we need to do better than this.

Calvinism is not the Gospel.

Wesleyanism is not the Gospel.

A view of heaven or hell or the millennium or women in ministry or creation or the Sabbath is not the Gospel. Not. Even. Close.

My own theological distinctives concerning Egalitarianism, Wesleyan-Holiness theology, Baptism, Entire Sanctification, Synergism, and others are not the Gospel. They cannot be and the instant I make them my Gospel I have trivialized and de-centralized the resurrection of Jesus to a tertiary and subordinate position within Christian theology and that—in my eyes and for myself especially—is sin. Plain and simple.

Have some pride in the Gospel.

Avoid making your distinctives on par with what God did in Christ: raising him from the dead and exalting Jesus to his right hand in vindication and glorification. All of Christian theology flows from its source in the resurrected body of the vindicated Jewish Messiah: "in him, all things hold together" (Col 1:17-20).

A modest proposal: leave aside the cynical marketing campaigns and the sloganeering and virtue signaling, and promote what you believe as what you believe. Leave the Gospel alone.



Women Deacons: A Brief Exegetical-Theological Case


First things first: the idea that women are inherently excluded from serving in positions of leadership demands that the burden of proof be placed on people who prefer to exclude them. The nature of New Testament theology makes excluding people who are not in sin a very rough paradigm to assert. Sin is a disqualifier, certainly, but gender?

1. Phoebe in Rom 16:1-2

Many English translations water down this text. Phoebe is described as διάκονον τῆς ἐκκλησίας τῆς ἐν Κεγχρεαῖς, which is roughly translated to "deacon [perhaps the deacon] of the church in Cenchrea." The fact that is spoken about as a "deacon" at a specific church tells us she is highly involved in that assembly. It also states that Rome is not her local church, as Cenchrea is a fair distance from Rome: so she had the means and resources to make it, without a husband named, from that area to Rome. The word διάκονον is semantically unrelated to the common word for slave, which is δοῦλος. So the idea of rendering this term as "servant" is lexically and linguistically false.

Paul also describes her as a προστάτις is used to describe presidents of an association (O. Tebt. Pad. 67), and likely means that here. Hence, Phoebe was involved in leadership of Cenchrea, and since no other leadership is named, we are on good grounds to take her as "the" deacon of the church. It would have been easy for Paul to say, "Phoebe…who is under the authority of this dude in Cenchrea." But he doesn't. Hence, Phoebe is a deacon/leader in the church and probably, based on the context, was involved in leadership (or as the leader over) the church. In Greco-Roman literature, the word προστάτις referred to "leadership," "benefaction," "protector," "champion" (LSJ). So translating the language as "servant" is simply untenable. Phoebe was an actual deacon and was most likely, based on the context and the words Paul uses to describe her, was a leader of many and even of Paul (ἐμοῦ: "of me" in Rom 16:2b).

2. Women Deacons in 1 Tim 3:8-12

Paul speaks of "deacons in this way being noble" (Διακόνους ὡσαύτως σεμνούς: 1 Tim 3:8) and says virtually the same thing in 3:11 (γυναῖκας ὡσαύτως σεμνάς).

The lack of a personal pronoun identifying γυναῖκας as "wife" (as in, "their wife") is rather decisive: the person in view is a woman, not specifically a wife. A woman is given the same qualification as the "deacon" in 3:8, and are included in the same linguistic sphere. The phrase "one woman man" (μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρες) refers to monogamy, not the fact that the deacon/elder must be male. Leading complementarians affirm this point that monogamy is in view, not the 'male' only aspect that many prefer to see. The use of the adverb "likewise" (ὡσαύτως) indicates continuity: vv.8-11 are following on the principles argued in 1 Tim 3:1-7, where "anyone" (τις) is encouraged to seek leadership. Hence, women are not excluded from the office of deacon nor are they (I would argue) excluded from ministerial positions at all. Thus, the lack of a definite article or personal pronoun in relation of "women" indicates that women deacons are in view in 3:11 and male deacons are in view in 3:8. Both are treated equally as it relates to virtue and so forth.

3. Baptism

The following points are intended to communicate the egalitarian nature of New Testament theology. Our theology of baptism is affirming of women as equal participants in the community of faith, in participation in Christ (Gal 3:26-29). Baptism is a sign of the new life, and male and female are not shown partiality in this endeavor (1 Cor 12:13).

4. Justification

Justification by faith is an aspect that gets overlooked here. Men and women are justified on the same grounds: faith/allegiance to Christ, which is significant insofar as women are not excluded from participating in what Christ has called them to. Men and women are made right by God together with any notion of hierarchy or that God justifies men and women any differently (Rom 5:18). Faith is the primary relational component of justification and faithfulness is not applied to any specific gender exclusively.

5. Spiritual Gifts

The Holy Spirit sovereignly gives gifts for everyone without regard to gender. This includes "the one who leads" (προϊστάμενος: Rom 12:8, where the context is not gender-specific or exclusive), as well as specific ministerial positions of leadership (ἔδωκεν τοὺς μὲν ἀποστόλους, τοὺς δὲ προφήτας, τοὺς δὲ εὐαγγελιστάς, τοὺς δὲ ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους: Eph 4:11). Nowhere in either text is any hint of male-only giftedness to serve in ministerial leadership.

6. Church History

Jamin Hübner has decisively shown that women deacons were part of early church history. It is noteworthy that Pliny the Younger in 112 AD tortured "two maidservants who were called deaconesses [ministrae]" (Epistle X, 96.8). The point is that Pliny identified the women as slaves, but they were called ministrae by the local assembly, which is more accurately translated as "minister" or "deacon."

7. Leadership

People love to use nebulous terms like "roles," but such language is undefined and culturally-bound by the present. Such language was not used until very recently. We know women exercised authority in prophesy (1 Cor 11:2-16, which affirms biological distinctions but not biological hierarchy), leadership (Phil 4:2-3), apostleship (Rom 16:7), and significant work in Christ (Rom 16:3-6, 8ff, where a lot of women are named alongside men without any indication of hierarchy). All of this evidence, among much more that I could mention, tells us that Scripture is clear about what women are called to be in Christ, and that involves every aspect of New Testament theology and the two texts that are relevant.


Did Ishmael abuse Isaac? Exploring Paul's Interpretation of Genesis 21:9 in Galatians 4:29


In light of various sinful patterns and movements (#MeToo, #ChurchToo) that have been illuminated in the church, I felt it might be appropriate to offer a paper I wrote for my Galatians class at Fuller.

Nestled in the center of Paul's retelling of the story of Hagar and Sarah in Gal 4:21-31 lies a lingering question (among many!) with which all commentators continue to grapple: how did Ishmael "persecute" Isaac, and what is the relevance of the differing verbs in Gen 21:9 (παίζοντα: LXX) and Paul's interpolation of ἐδίωκε in 4:29? Perhaps Douglas Moo best represents the persistent speculation amongst commentators when he writes that the LXX rendering of παίζοντα μετὰ Ισαακ in Gen 21:9 "could be construed as a form of persecution…" and "[this verse] is the basis for Paul's claim about persecution."[1] Other commentators concur with Moo's perspective in some sense,[2] but most modern commentators seem to be in basic agreement that Ishmael did not persecute Isaac in the original Genesis narrative.[3] This paper will pursue three independent strands of argumentation that will be synthesized: first, I will survey the use of the verb παίζω in the LXX and in the relevant Second Temple literature, beginning with a lexical survey. Second, I will investigate how Paul interprets the event by his uses of διώκω within the context of Galatians (1:13, 23; 5:11; 6:12), specifically the text under question (4:29): what is the relationship between both verbs? Third and finally, I will offer a provisional thematic re-reading of Galatians with the intent of showing the consistency of my research. Thus, the language of "persecution" in Galatians is not contextually different from Gen 21:9, but reflects something closer to a "rhetorical tease" and Paul's own application of the verb under question.[4]


Due to the fact that the verb παίζω occurs only once in the New Testament (1 Cor 10:7, which is a citation of Exo 32:6 LXX), great care must be exercised if one is to fully understand the semantic scope of the verb. Various lexicons have offered glosses and there are significant overlapping definitions:

50.8 παίζω engage in an activity for the sake of amusement and/or recreation – "to play." ἐκάθισεν ὁ λαὸς φαγεῖν καὶ πεῖν, καὶ ἀνέστησαν παίζειν "the people sat down to eat and drink and got up to play" 1 Cor 10.7.[5]

παίζω play, amuse oneself, dance 1 Cor 10:7.[6]

παίζω, Dor. παίσδω: f. παιξοῦμαι and παίξομαι: aor. i ἔπαισα: pf. πέπαικα, later πέπαιχα:—Pass., pf. πέπαισμαι, later πέπαιγμαι: (παῖς):-properly, to play like a child, to sport, play, Od., Hdt., etc.

2. to dance, Od., Pind.:-so in Med., Hes.

3. to play [a game], σφαίρῃ π. to play at ball, Od.; also, π. σφαῖραν Plut.

4. to play (on an instrument), h. Hom.

II. to sport, play, jest, joke, Hdt., Xen., etc.; π. πρός τινα to make sport of one, mock him, Eur.; π. εἴς τι to jest upon a thing, Plat.: the part. παίζων is used absol. in jest, jestingly, Id.:-Pass., ὁ λόγος πέπαισται is jocularly told, Hdt.; ταῦτα πεπαίσθω ὑμῖν enough of jest, Plat.

2. c. acc. to play with, Anth., Luc.[7]

20329 παίζω as giving way to hilarity play, amuse oneself; as idolatrous worship dance, carry on in boisterous revelry (1C 10.7).[8]

A brief review of these resources offers multiple nuances within ancient literature, especially as it relates to the ambiguous context of Gen 21:9 LXX and Paul's own citation of the verse. Does παίζοντα μετὰ Ισαακ refer to Ishmael simply "playing" with his friend, an innocuous and innocent affair? Is there a sinister subtlety of violence involved, in the sense that Moo has inferred? Is there a more troublesome aspect involving violence, sex or sexual abuse as suggested by the secondary interpretive gloss in Louw & Nida[9] and Paul's sole use of the same verb in 1 Cor 10:7? For instance, Paul's clarifying comments in v.8 explicitly evoke sexual immorality: "neither should we commit sexual immorality (μηδὲ πορνεύωμεν), just as some of them committed sexual immorality (ἐπόρνευσαν) [my translation]" show that this verb can be used in a context of sexual depravity,[10] although the verb's principal meaning is not concerned with being a euphemism for sexual (mis)conduct: all words are conditioned and defined by their context, as well as by the broader corpus of relevant literature. 


The LXX utilizes the verb about 21 times, and there are several different categories where παίζω is used in the Greek Old Testament. The placement of each instance should not be seen as concretized, but as a potential location as there is some significant overlap with many individual citations.[11] I have deliberately excluded Gen 21:9 from categorization until the end of this section, where I will offer a suggestion about its placement, and a subsequent reading of Galatians with my placement in mind.

1.     Sexual (Mis) Conduct / Idolatry/ Revelry[12]

The Greek text of Gen 26:8b speaks of Isaac "playing" (παίζοντα) with Rebecca. This verse shares the same syntactical structure as Gen 21:9b:[13]

      Gen 26:8b: παίζοντα μετὰ Ρεβεκκας τῆς γυναικὸς αὐτοῦ

      Gen 21:9b: παίζοντα μετὰ Ισαακ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτῆς[14]

This near exact linguistic parallel suggests a coordinate meaning for παίζοντα, which contextually in Gen 26:8 likely refers to some sort of sexual intimacy: Abimelech sees Isaac and Rebecca engaged in some sort of activity that reveals to him that they are not merely brother and sister.[15] The text is not as forthright as we might like,[16] but because the text emphasizes her beauty (v.7: ὡραία) and Abimelech's implied desire to "lie with" (v.10, κοιμάω)[17] Rebecca, the most likely explanation is that the participle is used within a subtle sexual context. Similarly in Exo 32:6, the infinitive is used in reference to the people of Israel: ὁ λαὸς φαγεῖν καὶ πιεῖν καὶ ἀνέστησαν παίζειν: "the people ate and drank and rose up to play." Contextually, the focus is on a "festival" (v.5, ἑορτή) suggests revelry and excessiveness, but not necessarily sexual depravity.[18]

2.     Military and War, Judgment and Violence

Multiple uses of παίζω occur in the context of warfare and violent judgment, sometimes from God. In 1 Sam 13:4, the author notes that "all Israel heard" that Saul had "played" (πεπαικεν: perfect active) with an enemy garrison: contextually, this most likely refers to violent destruction (see also 13:3). Likewise, in 2 Kings 9:15 we have the aorist form of ἔπαισαν in a related context of "making war" (v.15, πολεμεῖν), suggesting that ἔπαισαν is being used in a battle context and thus carries violent connotations.[19] Isa 3:15-16 begins with God's response to the "humiliation of the poor" (v.15b, πτωχῶν καταισχύνετε), which sets the stage for the explanatory Ἀνθ (taking it as causal: "because"). V.16 then speaks of God's exacting judgment against an entire city for oppressing the poor, and specific phrase ποσὶν ἅμα παίζουσαι ("[dancing] together [with] their feet") likely refers to a "pompous attitude" (v.16, ὑψηλῷ).[20] As a counter to God's judgment in Jer 14:19 the prophet responds with, "Why have you played with us?" (ἵνα τί ἔπαισας ἡμᾶς). The use of ἔπαισας may denote 'toying with,' but the context seems to be far more violent (see the image of violence [μαχαίρας, "sword;" λιμοῦ "famine"]) and the text reflects God's violent retribution against Jerusalem, his "vehement affliction" of his sinful people. In Jer 30:14, God smites Israel: "For I have played you with a plague[21] of the enemy " (ὅτι πληγὴν ἐχθροῦ ἔπαισά σε). In the context of God's judgment, this verb most likely refers to God not innocently 'rejoicing' with Israel, but harshly judging them.[22]

3.     Being Toyed With/ Mocking

In Judg 16:25 Samson is "ordered" (καλέσατε)[23] before the entire assembly—who are engaged in revelry[24]—and is forced to "perform before [them]" (καὶ παιξάτω ἐνώπιον ἡμῶν). This citation certainly carries connotations of "mockery" and the idea of being "toyed" with (ἐνέπαιζον: "mocked, ridiculed"). 2 Sam 2:14-15 concerns an event where Abner and the others force the "boys to play" (παιξάτωσαν: imperative) before them. The boys are then slain, reflecting both a military conquest and the element of being "toyed with,"[25] as a superior torments a subordinate or God "toys" with a beast.[26] An additional sinister element might be found in Prov 26:19, where in a poetic flourish, the people lying in wait to betray the righteous man is caught and they say, "I acted playfully!" The use of παίζων (active participle) in the context of "betrayal" (φωραθῶσιν) suggests a mocking and deflective response at being caught in the act. Jer 15:17 captures a response of the prophet against God: "I did not sit in their Sanhedrin playing" (οὐκ ἐκάθισα ἐν συνεδρίῳ αὐτῶν παιζόντων): this citation is used sarcastically, in the sense of wasting time—in some sense, the prophet is mocking both himself and God for assuming such things.

4.     Innocent Playing and Dancing/ Worship

This section includes most of the undisputed examples. In 2 Sam 6:5,[27] 6:21 and 1 Chron 13:8[28] and 15:29[29] the verb refers to David (and sometimes the Sons of Israel) "dancing" before the Lord in a context of worship and celebration. In response to God "showing mercy" (ἐλεήσω) in Jer 30:18-19, the people of Israel rejoice and the celebration of singing and playfulness (παιζόντων) will return after the judgment, and this is captured beautifully in Jer 31:4 where God rebuilds Israel whom he has been judging, and the synagogue will be celebrating and "playing" (παιζόντων) as the judgment has ceased and reconciliation has commenced. Finally, in Zech 8:8 God predicts a time of peace for Israel, and an image used is the "playing" (παιζόντων) of boys and girls in the streets, without fear or malice in their hearts: the author puts forth a penultimate and picturesque vision of boys and girls playing together, without contempt or mockery or revelry. Innocence thrives and shalom has been achieved. In Jewish literature outside of the LXX, we have two uses of the verb. In both instances (1 Esdras 5:3; Sirach 32:12) the verb is used in a similar context of worship and merriment, although Sirach 32:12 includes an admonition to "not sin" which may suggest the possibility of revelry and put Sirach in category 1, but this is by no means explicit.

In summation, the evidence of the LXX and Jewish literature is variegated and subtle, often employing multiple ideas within a single text; hence the intentional overlapping of the stated categories. However, it seems reasonable to exclude section 4 from consideration in interpreting Gen 21:9, while including sections 1, 2 and 3 for this reason: Sarah's visceral response in 21:10 does not seem warranted if Ishmael simply "play[ed] or "jest[ed]" with Isaac.[30] Category 3 is possible because of the rabbinic and targumic history of interpretation,[31] but it seems less likely because the verb μυκτηρίζω (c.f. Gal 6:7, "to mock") does not seem to be used in the LXX to refer to disinheritance and the question about "mocking" raises more questions than it answers. However, given Sarah's deeply hostile response to this "playing" in the LXX (which Paul approvingly cites in Gal 4:30), it seems likely that the most historically plausible explanation includes some sort of violent (perhaps sexual) misconduct, as disinheritance for sexual sin is a chief issue for early Judaism and especially for Paul—hence Sarah's hostile response. For instance, "disinheritance" is commonly a result of sexual immorality (c.f. 1 Cor 6:9-10; Eph 5:5-6). However, this is not to suggest that sexual sins are an exclusive category worthy of disinheritance, but that they are involved in the wide range of general sins (c.f. Sirach 9:6 and perhaps Psa 72:27 and Pro 29:3 LXX). Similarly, categories 1 explains the syntactical parallel in Gen 26:8[32] to 21:9 and suggests a correspondence with sexual conduct and violence given the preponderance of evidence within category 2; however, the primacy of category 1 and 2 appear to be tentatively and thematically appropriate because of Sarah's response,[33] the Jewish evidence for sexual sin resulting in disinheritance, and the explicit parallel in Gen 26:8. How this impacts Paul's use of the Ishmael and Isaac narrative in Galatians, especially in chapter 4, will be explored below, but only after we explore Paul's interpretation.


The Old Testament was Paul's Bible.[34] Regarding the coherence of the relationship between the Hebrew and Greek text, J. Ross Wagner astutely notes the following: "the Septuagint, as a whole, renders the Hebrew in a fairly conservative manner."[35] Thus, any modern attempt to grapple with the significance of Paul's citation of Gen 21:10 must account for his interpretative use of ἐδίωκε ("persecute") in Gal 4:29. This has lead many commentators to express puzzlement over Paul's seemingly arbitrary use of the Ishmael/Isaac event. Philip Esler concurs with most commentators when he writes, "in relation to Gal. 4:29, however, one looks in vain in the Old Testament for any indication that Ishmael persecuted Isaac…"[36] Brigitte Kahl puts the dilemma forth as "the term persecute in Gal 4:29 differs from Gen 21:9 where Ishmael "plays" with Isaac."[37] Is there a coordinate meaning between ἐδίωκε and παίζοντα? Semantically and lexically, this cannot be, so the question must be answered thematically, even theologically. However, as has been shown above, there are good indications that cast doubt on the first part of Ensler's largely representative comments. For instance, given the close proximity of the verb and Paul's citation (a mere nine words apart in the LXX text) as well as the syntactical parallel in Gen 26:8 and the preponderance of LXX evidence suggesting some sort of inchoate violence, the logical connection seems quite strong: παίζοντα thus most probably forms the basis for Paul's use of ἐδίωκε, and "playing" most probably carries a negative and even violent connotation in the original context of Genesis and Paul's exploits this in his argument in 4:21-31. Thus, while Moo was correct to draw attention to the verb in Gen 21:9 (see above), his generic application does not help explain the visceral reaction of both Sarah and Paul, and he misses the potential identification of Paul with Sarah and Isaac.

Therefore, as Paul re-imagines and interprets the actions of Ishmael,[38] one can see several lines of theological reasoning being teased out. If Ishmael was (sexually?) abusing Isaac in Gen 21:9, then Paul intentionally sided with the victim in this historical circumstance, and in the new apocalyptic landscape, he also sides with the "persecuted" in Galatia. Additionally, Paul's ethical alignment with Sarah and Isaac and against Hagar and Ishmael takes on a different moral dimension: any sort of oppression (whether sexual or not) is immediately labeled as "persecution," and the rhetorical power of this line of argumentation being applied to the "teachers" is something they would surely find rhetorically offensive—hence, perhaps his point in using it.[39] This may also suggest that Paul is running counter to the dominant interpretation of Ishmael in his typological use, or is at least zeroing in on a specific neglected aspect. Therefore, Paul's seemingly harsh citation of Gen 21:10 places him as a type of rhetorical punctiliar mother figure,[40] casting away an oppressive force with her authority.[41] Read in this hypothetical light, Paul can be seen as taking the side of the abused in his epistle to the Galatians, siding with the gentiles over and against the 'teachers.' This may also indicate a moral alignment with gentiles in Gal 3:26-29 as "sons" and "heirs of God; their inclusion means no person, regardless of a presupposed social hierarchy, is excluded from God's invitation to 'sonship' and the "altered" status of being 'one in Christ'[42] (perhaps specifically also with slaves and women in Gal 3:28)[43] and especially table fellowship with Gentiles in 2:11-14. Paul re-casts the Genesis narrative in terms of violent/sexual dynamics that even his Jewish interlocutors would have found disquieting, especially since he equates them with being among the abusive, troubled, disinherited sons of Hagar and Ishmael, specifically as analogical punctiliar types.[44] As Asano has astutely noted, "the application of [Gal 4:29] is denouncement and exclusion of the circumcisors as unauthentic descendents,"[45] or as people acting in a coordinate matter with the historical abusive Ishmael.


While certainly not explicitly violent or sexual in his own context, Paul's interpretive use of ἐδίωκε in 4:29 helps elucidate what he thinks παίζοντα means in Gen 21:9. This "playing" takes on a negative connotation, which Paul asserts as "persecution." This is to be compared to Paul's own "persecution" of the church in 1:13 and 1:23 in terms of "destructive power" (πορθέω),[46] of a person exacting violence over others (4 Macc 11:4). Specifically, the reference of "destroying" used in 4 Macc 11:4 suggests a correlation with Paul's violent authoritarianism against the fledgling Jesus movement/s in Acts, a history he clearly repudiates in Gal 1:13 and 1:23 (see also Phil 3:6), and the subsequent "persecution" he receives via oppressive forces (2 Cor 4:9; 12:10). The additional language of "persecution" in Galatians refers to Paul being "persecuted" in some ambiguous sense (5:11, διώκομαι), and to the 'teachers' "not wanting to be persecuted" (6:12, μὴ διώκωνται). To be fair, Paul never directly says that the Galatians are being "persecuted" by the 'teachers,' only "compelled" (Gal 2:3, ἠναγκάσθη) and "disturbed" (Gal 1:7; 5:10)—thus the Genesis citation suggests oppressive compulsion and abuse that can, in turn, be interpreted as "persecution," drawing a direct literary link between them. This may also suggest that the 'teachers' were on the ecclesiological inside, according to Paul—rather than being cast out from the church, the mere fact of their association as potentially being persecuted for their faith is an aspect that Paul assumes—perhaps grudgingly. In other words, Paul's insinuation of the 'teachers' saying "I do not want to be persecuted" assumes that one is already involved within a specific organization, although they may not remain in the organization due to the encroaching oppression.

Paul's use of ἀνάθεμα in Gal 1:8-9 in relation to his "gospel" may be a rhetorical hyperbolic condemnation, but it may also suggest that Paul may be of two minds on the ecclesiological nature of the 'teachers.' It also may function as a rhetorical wake-up call for a Jewish-Christian mind, as the Old Testament image of being "accursed" is often used in a context of violent destruction of Gentiles from YHWH (c.f. Num 21:3 LXX). In other words, these "teachers" are included within the sphere of the church, which suggests—perhaps—that Paul's language is intended for their instruction, not their destruction.

Before his own experience of the Christ-event Paul was, in essence, functioning as a type of Ishmael, "persecuting" and "destroying" the powerless.[47] Thus, Paul's confrontation of Peter in 2:11-14 explicitly reveals a shift in power and the dissolution of force and "coercion to live like a Jew [i.e. another ethnic person]" (2:14, ἀναγκάζεις Ἰουδαΐζειν) with the subsequent inclusion of both Jew and Gentile are "sons" (υἱοί: 2:20, 3:7, 26; 4:6-7) under the familial promise made to Abraham. Therefore, Jesus is the penultimate "son" who was "born from a woman" (Gal 4:4) and is the One who liberates people from "the present wicked age" (1:4, ἐκ τοῦ αἰῶνος τοῦ ἐνεστῶτος πονηροῦ), an age now dominated by Christological mutuality and "bearing one another's burdens" (Gal 5:13, 6:2). Violence has no currency in Christ's kingdom. Thus, we now participate in a new life as a liberated family under the Spirit. Hence, for Paul, we are children of the oppressed (Isaac and Sarah), not the oppressor (Hagar and Ishmael).[48]


Interpreting Paul's own interpretation of παίζοντα reveals a great subtlety: it helps the reader clarify the seemingly harsh responses of both Sarah and Paul toward both Ishmael and the 'teachers,' especially in light of Second Temple Jewish views of sexual ethics and inheritance rights. While tentative, we have seen that while there are significant linguistic nuances to the verb παίζω in the LXX, Paul's own understanding likely refers to violence and/or sexual misconduct –i.e. abuse (c.f. 1 Cor 10:7-8), strongly suggesting a repudiation of violence, especially as it relates to the church. We have also seen that this verb performs a dual function in his discourse: Paul's interpretation of the ancient Ishmae/Isaac event is proleptic,[49] impacting his own application of the citation of Sarah's disinheritance of Ishmael and Hagar, and consequentially of the 'teachers.'[50] The context of Paul's citation is thus consistent with his application because his use is both true then and immediately related to a situation in Paul's present, even if it lacks the same specific context. Paul's imagination of the Ishmael narrative brims with dynamic possibilities.[51] Thus, the interpretive ground is fertile for a potential reframing of the totality of Galatians in light of this stated hypothesis, especially with the abused and oppressed at the interpretive forefront of the narrative discourse as those most in need of the liberating freedom found in Christ according to the power of the Spirit.



[1] Douglas J. Moo, Galatians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 310.

[2] Moo cites James D.G. Dunn, 1993a, 256 as agreeing with him, as well as "most commentators." Moo, Galatians, 310.

[3] C.f. Martinus C. de Boers, Galatians: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 306-307, 306. He states the issue very succinctly: "The Genesis account does not indicate that Ishmael persecuted Isaac." J. Louis Martyn, Galatians (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 444 passim. F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 223-224. Philip F. Ensler, Galatians: New Testament Readings (New York: Routledge, 1998), 214. Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians (Word: Dallas, 1990), 217. Longenecker also includes various targumic and rabbinic literature for post-Pauline interpretations of the Ishmael/Isaac story.

[4] The phrase bears repeating that I am offering this as a "provisional" reading, and only as such.

[5] Johannes E. Louw and Eugene A. Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. 2 vols. 2nd ed. (New York: United Bible Societies), 1989. BibleWorks, v.10. Louw-Nida offers the following clarifying gloss: "the specific reference of παίζω in 1 Cor 10.7 is probably to dancing, but some scholars interpret παίζω in this context as a euphemism for sex."

[6] Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Edited by Frederick W. Danker. 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). BibleWorks. v.10.  

[7] Henry George Liddel, and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon: With a Revised Supplement. Edited by Sir Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick McKenzie. 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996). BibleWorks, v.10.  

[8] Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament, Baker's Greek New Testament Library (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), BibleWorks, v.10.

[9] See n.5.

[10] The citation of Exo 32:6 LXX passim is intriguing, as the sin does not seem to be explicitly about sexual sinfulness. YHWH speaks of Moses' people being involved in "lawlessness" (ἠνόμησεν) in v.7 and "commit[ing] transgressions" (παρέβησαν) in v.8. Certainly, "lawlessness" and "transgressions" does not exclude sexual sin (see perhaps Isa 57:3 LXX), but the context is concerned principally with idolatry.

[11] To categorize these citations according to 'negative' or 'positive' uses appears overly narrow, and does not account for narrative or genre nuances. A word may be negative, but to whom exactly? The perspectival nature of Greek is a force to be considered here, hence my caution.

[12] Due to idolatry and sexual immorality often being corresponding phenomena in the Biblical literature, it seems appropriate to place them together in this singular category, albeit with the noted caveat that they can be distinguished from another.

[13] They also share the same root (εἴδω—21:9, ἰδοῦσα; 26:8, εἶδεν) for a person "seeing" or "witnessing" the actions of another.

[14] Specifically: active participle + preposition + genitive singular proper noun + definite article + genitive singular common noun + personal pronoun. The differing genders of the singular common nouns, definite articles, and personal pronouns are the only divergent grammatical aspects, which suggests literary overlap.

[15] Jewish literature roundly condemned incest: c.f. Psalms of Solomon 8:7-10, Pseudo-Phocylides 182 and Jubilees 33:10-20. See also Lev 18:6-18. Paul's own worldview seems to fit with the broader Jewish perspective on incest (1 Cor 5:1-5) and other perceived sexual sins (Rom 1:26-27).

[16] To be fair, there are other options: perhaps they were indeed 'playing' or 'dancing' and Abimelech simply deduced that they were more than brothers and sister. However, it seems more likely that Isaac and Rebecca were engaging in 'married activity' that is common to married couples. 

[17] While this verb is most often used to refer to literally "lying down" (Gen 19:4) it seems like it can also be used as a euphemism for sexual activity (c.f. Gen 19:32-34; 30:16); if this is the case, then my argument may be strengthened by the similar use of παίζοντα in Gen 26:8.

[18] The idiomatic use of "eat and drink" throughout the LXX normally refers to that: the consumption of food and drink. It does not appear to include revelry except for this context. Paul's own interpretation of Exo 32:6 clearly includes sexual immorality, but the Exodus text itself is unclear.

[19] To press in further, the immediate context of Gen 21:9 does not have any contextual markers indicating that this was a generic 'violent' event as if an instance of sexual misconduct would not perhaps be violent.

[20] This citation may also have some overlapping characteristics with section 1: perhaps revelry is additionally involved as the following verses speak of specific (festive?) jewelry and attire.

[21] The semantic nuances of the singular noun πληγή seem elusive: I rendered it as 'plague' via the lexicons, but I am not at all confident in my understanding of the noun here.

[22] This citation may also belong in section 3 below, for while the context is about judgment and violence, the notion of being "toyed with" is also possible.

[23] Samson is not beckoned or merely 'called;' the imperative form of καλέω is used so "ordered" seems contextually appropriate, especially to a captive humiliated judge of Israel.

[24] V.15a: "and when their hearts had become merry." (καὶ ἐγένετο ὅτε ἠγαθύνθη ἡ καρδία αὐτῶν), which may suggest revelry and debauchery.

[25] The "boys" are called παιδάρια, suggesting that they are younger than Abner and Joab; the context most probably includes a power dynamic, but it is unlikely that rape or sexual misconduct is in view. Bruce notes that Jewish reception history of this verse likely denotes "bloodshed." Galatians, 224.

[26] Job 41:5 speaks of God "toying" (παίξῃ) with Leviathan, displaying God's sovereign power over a mythic beast.

[27] David and the Sons of Israel "were playing before the Lord" (παίζοντες ἐνώπιον κυρίου). The author uses the same participial form as Gen 21:9.

[28] Here the author, instead of saying David was playing "before" the Lord, has ἐναντίον, which may add a subtle hint of perspectival hostility from God's perspective.

[29] Perspectivally, Michal is the one who sees David "dancing" and playing" (ὀρχούμενον, παίζοντα), and this fills her wholeheartedly with contempt (ἐξουδένωσεν αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ ψυχῇ αὐτῆς). I suspect this is in reference to the display of the King before all people, and the reception of his "playing" is seen as negative by her; the author is less forthcoming about his or her own perspective.

[30] Per Martyn's designation, which seems fairly unlikely given the evidence of the LXX. See Galatians, 444.

[31] C.f. Martyn, Galatians, 444 n.155.

[32] See n.13. However, the marital relationship between Isaac and Rebecca is not equivalent to two same-sex youths, so this parallel is not as thematically precise as I would hope. Nevertheless, the sexual nature of Gen 26:8 provides some basis for my tentative proposal because of the precise parallelism.

[33] The LXX uses ἐκβάλλω for Sarah's command, a verb that has strong connotations (c.f. Gen 3:24), especially as it relates as a consequence to violence (c.f. Gen 4:14).

[34] C.f. Moisés Silva, "Old Testament in Paul" in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid; Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 630-642. For a specific and imaginative reference, see Richard B. Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul and Interpreter of Israel's Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

[35] J. Ross Wagner, "The Septuagint and the 'Search for the Christian Bible,'" in Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics (ed. Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 5-28, 21.

[36] Ensler, Galatians, 214. See also John Calvin who writes, "Moses says that…Ishmael ridiculed his brother Isaac" and this is affirmed by the use of the participle. John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. Translated by T.H.L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 89.

[37] Brigitte Kahl, "Hagar's Babylonian Captivity: A Roman Re-Imagining of Galatians 4:21-31," Interpretation 68.3 (2014), 257-269, 269 n.40. Kahl's interpretation is fascinating and deserves far more interaction than I can offer.

[38] This would not be a reinterpretation, as Paul likely viewed the original historical event in a violent and/or sexual manner. This would also most likely not be an allegory but perhaps an analogy. Contra Michael B. Cover, "Now and Above; Then and Now: Platonizing and Apocalyptic Polarities in Paul's Eschatology" in Galatians and Christian Theology: Justification, The Gospel, and Ethics in Paul's Letter (ed. Mark W. Elliott, Scott J. Hafemann, N.T. Wright, and John Frederick; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 220-238, 224 who views Paul's use as an allegory; this seems to be too broad a category—Paul seems to be drawing a contemporary comparison, hence 'analogy' seems like a more appropriate fit, one that fits well with 'typology.'

[39] This may also be a cause for division between the "teachers" and the general assembly, where the "teachers" are caught in the rhetorical cross hairs, and the assembly is viewed as "free."

[40] As Beverley Gaventa and Susan Eastman have persuasively noted, this is not uncommon for Paul. C.f. Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007) and Susan G. Eastman, Recovering Paul's Mother Tongue: Language and Theology in Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007). See also the incisive work by Margaret Aymer on this point: "Mother Knows Best: The Story of Mother Paul Revisited" in Mother Goose, Mother Jones, Mommie Dearest: Biblical Mothers and Their Children (ed. Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan and Tina Pippin; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 187-198.

[41] Paul's imaginative interpretation, if I am correct, leaves a multitude of questions lingering about the status of Hagar, who was able to give Abraham a son when Sarah was unable to do so. Status symbols and cultural markers are far more deeply embedded in the narrative, and perhaps Paul saw something we have missed.

[42] "What is altered," according to John Barclay, "…is the evaluative freight carried by these labels, the encoded distinctions of superiority and inferiority." Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2015), 396-397, 397.

[43] For instance, Paul consistently advocates for women (1 Cor 11:5; Rom 16:1-16; Phil 4:2-3) and slaves (The Epistle to Philemon; perhaps 1 Cor 7:21) elsewhere, so this adds some support for my contention. C.f. both John Jefferson Davis, "Some Reflections on Galatians 3:28, Sexual Roles, and Biblical Hermeneutics," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 19.3 (1976): 201-208 and Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle's Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 166-172 for this crucial issue of women's equality in the church via Gal 3:28. See also Barclay's applicable comment in n.43.

[44] Contra Ben Witherington III, who sees Gen 21:8-14 as being "at most" about "Ishmael playing with Isaac." While Witherington does mention the "metaphorical" nature of the verb in question, he seems to mistakenly downplay the context of Genesis 21. See Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on St Paul's Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 337-338.

[45] Atsuhiro Asano, Community-Identity Constructiojn in Galatians: Exegetical, Social-Anthropological and Socio-Historical Studies (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 177.

[46] Sexual depravity can, of course, take on a corrupting influence: c.f the imagery in Col 3:5 and Eph 5:5.

[47] C.f. Acts 8:1-3. The word διωγμός can be used in a violent context (2 Macc 12:23).

[48] This is where Brigitte Kahl's incisive article can begin to shed additional light. See n.37.

[49] Martyn, Galatians, 436 states that Paul's typology is not "timeless." It might be more helpful to say that Paul's use of the Ishmael/Isaac event is timely and in this way timeless. Typology and analogy are not separate interpretive spheres, as Martyn seems to suggest.

[50] This may also help reframe the perspective of the 'teachers' without downplaying their potentially abusive tactics or removing Paul's deep concern over their enforced Torah observance on Gentiles.

[51] For a work that explores this, see Bruce W. Longenecker, ed., Narrative Dynamics in Paul: A Critical Assessment (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002).

Rethinking Hell Debate 2018: Nick's Opening Statement


Welp. I finally did my first debate. Chris and I will probably be doing a podcast episode or two on the Rethinking Hell Podcast to talk about our impressions of the debate, but here is my scripted opening from that debate (finished on time too), including the LINK to the three hour debate on youtube.



Alright, thank you Chris Ray for hosting, and the other Chris, Damon and Elce for this chance to discuss what Scripture says.

The question we are discussing today is, "does the Bible teach eternal conscious torment?" (hereafter ECT) I will be arguing that Scripture does not teach this perspective. I will demonstrate this via two central pillars.

·      Pillar One: Paul's language of destruction makes ECT an untenable exegetical conclusion.

·      Pillar two: the New Testament vision of the destruction of Satan and the Powers similarly makes ECT indefensible hermeneutically and exegetically.

1.    Paul and the Lexemes of Destruction

First, we consider Paul's use of the verb καταργέω: Louw-Nida, a New Testament lexicon, notes this verb means 'to cause to cease to exist - 'to cause to come to an end, to cause to become nothing' (13.100). When applied to human agents or secular powers, this is the standard meaning of the verb.

·      Paul writes in Rom 6:6: "knowing this, that our old self was crucified along with him for the purpose of destroying the body of Sin (καταργηθῇ), so that we would no longer be enslaved to Sin."

We are not bound by Sin anymore because Sin is utterly undone. Paul also uses this verb to refer to the final eradication of the "things that are" (1 Cor 1:28), which includes the "rulers of this age which will be destroyed" (2:6), and this culminates in 15:24-26 where Christ destroys all of the sovereignties and powers, including Death in 2 Tim 1:10.

·      Similarly, in 2 Thess 2:8 we have Paul saying that "the lawless One will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill[1] by the breath of his mouth and annihilate him (καταργήσει) by the appearance of his coming."

So this word group is decisive in showing that Paul has in mind the final destruction of the rulers and powers, not their external conscious existence.

We also have the ἀπόλλυμι/ ἀπώλεια word group. Louw-Nida (20.31) offers this definition: "to destroy or to cause the destruction of persons, objects, or institutions.'

1 Cor 1:18 contrasts the word with "deliverance": "for the message of the cross is indeed folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being delivered it is the power of God." This parallel language occurs in 2 Cor 2:15 and 4:3 and Phil 1:28.[2] To say people "perish" or are "destroyed" is not the language one might consider when contending for ECT. Paul goes further in invoking the Exodus narrative when he writes in 1 Cor 10:9-10:

"Neither should we put the Messiah to the test, just as some of them did and were killed (ἀπώλλυντο) by the serpent, nor grumble as some of them did and were killed (ἀπώλοντο) by the Destroyer."

The recipients of divine wrath are not "ruined" or "tormented" forever. Rather, they were killed, and this serves as a typology for how we should understand Paul's vision of divine judgment.

Similarly, Paul speaks about "the ones being destroyed" in 2 Thess 2:10 "because they did not welcome the truth so as to be saved."[3] Paul's strongest use of this word group occurs in Phil 3:19 where the "enemies of the cross of Christ" have their "end in destruction" (ἀπώλεια). Here, Paul's use of "end" (τέλος) refers to a final termination of one's life, which ends in shameful destruction. Paul, when applying the ἀπόλλυμι/ ἀπώλεια word group to human agents or secular political powers (or both) uses it in the sense of eschatological annihilation.  

Paul's use of the word "corrupt" or "destroy" (Φθορά and the verbal cognate) refers to an aspect of destruction: Louw-Nida defines this noun as a "state of ruin or destruction, with the implication of disintegration," and the definition of the verb is even more stark: "ruin or destroy something, with the implication of causing something to be corrupt and thus to cease to exist."

For instance, in 1 Cor 3:17, "if anyone destroys (φθείρει) God's temple [that is, the human body], God will destroy that person." This same language is used in Gal 6:8: "for the one who sows to their own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life." The pervasive contrast between "death/destruction/ corruption" and "eternal life" denotes the cessation of life and the gift of eternal life with God.

Paul's use of ὄλεθρος (defined by Louw-Nida as a 'state of utter ruin or destruction - 'ruin, destruction') is used to refer to "sudden destruction" in 1 Thess 5:3 and also in 1 Tim 6:9 where the words strongly suggest utter annihilation. Paul's final use of ὄλεθρος in 2 Thess 1:9 requires some unpacking. Here is v.9:

These will pay the price of eternal destruction (ὄλεθρον αἰώνιον) from (ἀπὸ) the presence of the Lord and from (ἀπὸ) the glory of his strength."

Two things need to be noted. First, any English translation that inserts phrases like "away from" like the ESV is simply incorrect. The preposition ἀπὸ simply means "from." This is "eternal destruction" that comes "from" the presence of the Lord like in Isaiah 2:10-21 LXX, where the immanence of the coming God is inescapable. Almost every instance of ὄλεθρος in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament—Paul's Bible) refers to the destruction of a nation or a person, with no hint of torment. This word when used in the LXX text of, for example, 1 Kings 13:34 refers to the utter destruction of the "house of Jereboam," even "vanishing from the face of the land." The cessation is stark and intentionally so. Hence, to say that the word here—like all the other words Paul uses—means torment would make it the first time any of these words actually mean that. The use of the adjective "eternal" here strongly suggests that "destruction" is an eternal result or consequence, from which there is no final resurrection, glory, honor or immortality.

In summation of my first pillar, Paul's language is focused not on the "torment" or "pain" of people or evil empires. Lexically and contextually, especially if we take the LXX into account, this does not favor the doctrine of ECT. Paul gives us no reason to affirm ECT and every reason to reject it.

2. As Chaos Falls: The Annihilation of Satan and the Powers

In speaking about the final destruction of Satan and the Powers, Paul could not have been clearer: "the God of peace will utterly crush (συντρίψει) Satan under your feet in swiftness" in Romans 16:20. This word in Second Temple Jewish literature is used in the context of warfare[4] and death is usually something that happens in war—so I'm told. Paul also speaks of God's final victory through Christ in 1 Cor 15:24-26, when the "end" occurs: where the Son hands over the kingdom to God the Father, "when he has annihilated all rulership and all sovereignty and power," and finally "the last enemy to be annihilated is Death." We also perhaps have an allusion to the destruction of Satan or at least some spiritual being in 2 Thess 2:8 as "the lawless one." Whatever the case, you cannot have dueling sovereignties in new creation. Similarly, the author of Hebrews (2:14) writes Jesus "might destroy the one holding the power of Death, that is, the Devil." The final fate of Death, the Powers and Satan are bound together in Paul's theology, and all of them will be removed entirely from God's creation. There is no hint of them surviving God's final apocalyptic assault. When all of this is taken together, ECT becomes an unsustainable option.

With all this in mind, we come to the sole ECT prooftext: Rev 20:10:

"And the devil who had deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet lie, and they will be tormented day and night into the ages of the ages."

So we can see we have a problem here: on the one hand, our friends who affirm ECT can go at least two interpretive routes. They can say Rev 20:10 is clearer than what the rest of the New Testament has consistently said, or they can say Rev 20:10 somehow has hermeneutical priority over the rest of the New Testament. I trust neither option is satisfying. Allow me to offer my own reading that makes best sense of both dueling images of destruction and "so-called" torment.

No one disputes what John the Seer sees in Rev 20:10ff: he sees three beings in torment. The question is, what does this mean? John the Seer sees a universal resurrection in v.13, and Death and Hades are cast into the Lake of Fire, and the other's follow in v.15. However, John the Seer immediately explains what this "torment" language means in v.14: this is all described as the "second death." To interpret the symbolic nature of the "torment" in Rev 20:10 as literal is the exact opposite of how we read Revelation and Apocalyptic literature. We know this because in Revelation a highly symbolic phrase is almost immediately clarified in plain language: for example, in Rev 1:20 we read that "the seven stars are the seven angels of the seven assemblies, and the seven lampstands are the seven assemblies."

Add to this the blatant literary echo of Isaiah 34:10 where the smoke from a destroyed city ascends "forever and ever" (see also Rev 17:7-11ff where the city of Babylon falls into destruction and her destruction is characterized with "smoke [that] ascends forever and ever" in 19:3) and the ECT reading of Rev 20:10 becomes quite untenable when we read Revelation with the tools given to us by the author: when John writes in symbolic language and then tells you what that symbolic language means, we are on good ground to discern what that author intended to communicate: hence, the "torment" of the Unholy Trinity plus Death and Hades and the rest of humanity who has willfully aligned with them in Rev 20 are handed into the "second death," which is their cataclysmic cessation of existence and life. This does not require us to posit contradictory images within Scripture. When all of this taken together, the New Testament points to the utter termination of all evil things, not to their immortalization. In the tradition view, New Creation looks an awful lot like Old Creation. In my view, New Creation reigns and Old Creation falls entirely.

3. Conclusion

In conclusion, the reasons I offered above—among many others—are why I and Chris and many others do not believe the Bible teaches the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. Thank you.


[1] ἀνελεῖ:[1] another word group that means death or destruction

[2] In Rom 9:22 we have "vessels of wrath made fit/ who have made themselves fit for destruction (ἀπώλειαν)." Note the contrast between salvation and destruction/ perishing.

[3] 2 Thess 2:8 cites Isa 11:4 LXX.

[4]  C.f. 1 Macc 3:22 and 4:10; Sirach 35:22.

The Sin of "Grace"

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The evangelical world, broadly speaking, is in turmoil. At least, it should be over the rampant sexual abuse, exploitation and systematic dis-empowerment of women in their churches. In the words of Al Mohler regarding the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), “judgment has come.”[1] But this is not just a “Southern Baptist” problem. True, the SBC became what it is today through well documented conspiratorial power grabs, eliminating moderate dissent and promoting a male-only view of leadership (what could go wrong?), but they are not alone in the promulgation of their theology and misconduct.   

Maybe as a whole, we evangelicals are a mix of those who are horrified by the exposures (most recently out of the Southern Baptist denomination), those who are dismissive and those who are hopeful either because we have faced horrendous obstacles by abuse from our own or openly advocate for those who have. I tend to think we are finally at a point, comparatively, where our problems are more difficult to ignore, more difficult to further pile on those exploited. And yet, in the midst of this a haunting dichotomy lingers: judgment vs. grace. Didn’t Jesus die for the sins of the worst sinners? Didn’t he eat with the sinners? Wasn’t he the one that said, “go and sin no more” and desires us to have the same response towards the fallen?

I believe we fundamentally misunderstand grace and judgment if we see them as polar opposites or dichotomous. They are not.

There is actually a consistency between what God says he likes and dislikes and how he responds to others. The God of the Bible repeatedly makes it clear that he detests those who prey upon the vulnerable and promote injustice. He says that he is sick of the outward religiosity and that really didn’t change between the Old and New Testament. All of Amos 5 stands as God’s scathing critique of evil:

21 I hate, I reject your festivals;
    I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
22 If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—
        I won’t be pleased;
    I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
23 Take away the noise of your songs;
        I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

 Then enters Jesus. The God, the Word, who “tabernacled” (ἐσκήνωσεν) among us (John 1:14). To put it mildly, he was not thrilled with what was happening in the temple of his day and he was not thrilled with the sins of the religious leaders. So often, the picture painted of the religious leaders vs. the people of Jesus’ day by evangelicals is one of stringent rules vs. people who are unable to follow them. However, this is not quite right.

Sometimes, those who are the most judgmental are the most willfully evil.

The Holy Elites vs. “The Sinners?”

Let’s take a look at how the biblical text describes these religious elites. Certainly they lacked grace for those “outside the circle,” but was their crime really their attempts to be holy? Was their problem really that they just had such high standards and no grace for those who couldn’t be as holy as they were? Not so much.

Luke 20:47 says they “devour widows houses.” They are identified as “children of snakes,” “evil,” “guilty” and will have to answer for themselves on Judgment Day in Matt 12:34-37. In Matthew 23 Jesus points out that they do not in fact “practice what they teach.” Instead, they crush others. They love the show of holiness, but they are really “hypocrites” and “children of hell,” “greedy,” “self-indulgent,” “lawless.” Sure, they love to do lots of outward signs for show—as do many of our “men” of God today—but they ignore “other aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith.”

Then lets look and see how they treated Jesus. Sure they claimed they were just concerned about the law, but most of their actions expose an underlying power hungry jealously to the extent that they are well known to have broken the law to get an innocent man, in this case Jesus, killed. And this was not the first time. In Matthew Jesus points out that God sent them prophets and teachers of the law but they killed some by crucifixion, flogged others in the synagogues, and displaced others. They “will be held responsible for the murder of all godly people.”

What about the so-called sinners Jesus ate with? True, often the crowd or religious leaders called them sinners but seldom does the text (with some exceptions such as the woman at the well or the later addition to John of the woman about to be stoned). However, these people are often extremely marginalized and made out to be the evil ones. And the ones who did have sin and were marginalized are invited into grace—to live on without sin—and change their life.

The Sin of “Grace” i.e. Injustice

The consistent voice of the Bible is that God desires the protection and value of those individuals society and even the religious community wrongly devalues. AND there is a consistent call for the exposure and displacement of those who prey on other people. But we have it all backwards, we heap rhetoric of “grace” without restitution on serial abusers enabling them to continue their activity and by extension forcing their victims to march on with the weight of their burden strapped to their backs. We enable abusive behavior and use perverse interpretations of Scripture to do it. We take the Lord’s name in vain. And those who have suffered? We decide what they really need is to “forgive.” That is the go-to. And by forgive we mean “moving on” i.e. not being hurt, angry or insisting on justice and even maintaining messed up relationships with abusers. We do not wish to hear of their anguish. It’s tiresome. And we feel good about ourselves because we have extended “grace.” But not for them.

The God of the Bible has consistently called for grace towards those who stumble and repent and doubly those who are exploited and marginalized. The God of the Bible has consistently hated serial evil aka abuse and injustice. Hate may be an understatement. The God of the Bible has consistently loved those who try and live a holy, righteous life in their interactions with others. He is a God of love and wants us to be people of love. Grace and judgment flow from the common fountain of divine love. And in the context of this discussion love means propagating justice in the every day. Jesus called out the powerful regardless of rank and attempted to shame them in public for clear, willful exploitive behavior and he physically sat with and ate with those who were not in the “in crowd.” He identified himself with them and identified them as the people of God (i.e. Sons or daughters of Abraham).

Church, go and sin no more.


[1] "Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention. The terrible swift sword of public humiliation has come with a vengeance. There can be no doubt that this story is not over."



He is Risen! Living a Colorful Life in a World of Black & White

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One of the aspects of pop evangelicalism that has haunted me the most these days has been a lack of understanding of the resurrection, what it means, its power and significance. Still, I will never forget that day at Calvary Kids Club when a little boy I had been mentoring was shocked to hear that Jesus was returning to earth and that our ultimate destiny was to rule with him on earth. No, we were not destined for heaven, but a new creation. He ran frantically around the classroom telling everyone he could think of that Jesus was coming back and so were we! If only we could all catch that same spark. 

And yet something sinks within me when I get blank, perhaps disbelieving stares from adult evangelicals when I tell them the hope of the Christian faith is not going to heaven, but being resurrected and that Jesus’ resurrection was also meant to be the first of many. It would seem that “We believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life in the world to come…” does not ring a bell. Rather hope is framed in terms of a past event that enabled a future one: going to heaven or hell. Worse yet, I have come to see that many of us really do not realize that what we do today, in the here and now has any cosmological significance nor connection with the resurrection.

No! What we do today and tomorrow matters infinitely. Jesus came to give us abundant life. He embodied human life and human destiny so that we could live as we were meant to live as image bearers of God, God's representatives on earth. We are meant to represent a new kingdom and a new society, now. God’s reality appears like colors breaking into a world that sees in black and white. He is all around us if we would only have eyes to see him. Evil in many ways is a failure and refusal to see. It blinds itself in spirals of hopelessness and futility. If we have sworn our allegiance to Christ and pledge to live towards different goals--love out of our faith--then how on earth can we think what we do now does not matter? How can we continue doing evil in the name of survival, fear, greed, status or out of selfishness? We can't.

We worship a God of self-sacrifice and humility. We worship a God who was betrayed, slandered, attributed to be in league with the devil, used as a demented slur against an ethnic minority (King of the Jews), and killed for becoming like us so that we could become like him in character and in his resurrected body. And this Jesus did all of this for his enemies. He has told us to follow the same path so that in dying we can ironically, live.

It may be that there is a lot of moral "grey" when it comes to many "what if" situations. But really, many of us do know what it means not to live selfishly, give preference to one another and to love enemies the way the Good Samaritan did (note that the example of goodness Jesus used was an offensive enemy/outcast). And what we do now is a sign pointing towards and part of a process of physical resurrection. New creation means the transformation of character and the body of God's representatives on earth and with them, those around them and all of creation. We get to participate in this process now as we look towards our formational completion climaxing in our resurrection and the full arrival of a new political reality premised on love in Christ. We get to be little lights in a world of night beckoning others to wake up and also live as though it were day.

This Easter season, rekindle or begin an epic journey to live as an agent of God's resurrection at work, church, with family, friends & enemies. Make friends with those who are alone, hated or sick, those who cannot return favors whether socially or otherwise. Be kind when slandered not returning evil with evil. Seek justice for yourself and others (justice and forgiveness are not opposed!). Risk. Remember the elderly. Resist evil within and from without. Love in multifaceted, individual and unique ways the way Jesus loved bringing a little color to a world trapped in either/or.

Don't be slaves of self-love, masks, and idols. Throw it all out and be ambassadors, warriors, and family of God.

"But you aren’t self-centered. Instead, you are in the Spirit, if in fact God’s Spirit lives in you. If anyone doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, they don’t belong to him. If Christ is in you, the Spirit is your life because of God’s righteousness, but the body is dead because of sin. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your human bodies also, through his Spirit that lives in you.

So then, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness. If you live on the basis of selfishness, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the actions of the body, you will live. All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. 17 But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him." -Romans 8:9-17


The "Ifs" of the Resurrection: Particles and Hope in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19


My friend Graham Ware posted something on Facebook about 1 Corinthians 15 and the language of the "ifs." So this post is inspired by his comment and I wanted to give him that shout out.

Almost every verse in vv.12-19 begins with the particle εἰ (ei, "if"): only v.15 and v.18 are excluded from this. The significance of these particles is that they are rhetorically conditional. Paul is offering the idea of a possible counter fact: "what if" X happened or did not happen?

12 Εἰ δὲ Χριστὸς κηρύσσεται ὅτι ἐκ νεκρῶν ἐγήγερται…

"But if Christ is proclaimed that he has been raised from the dead…"

13 εἰ δὲ ἀνάστασις νεκρῶν οὐκ ἔστιν, οὐδὲ Χριστὸς ἐγήγερται·

"But if there is no resurrection from the dead, then Christ has not been raised."

14 εἰ δὲ Χριστὸς οὐκ ἐγήγερται, κενὸν⸀ἄρα τὸ κήρυγμα ἡμῶν, κενὴ καὶ ἡ πίστις ὑμῶν,

"But if Christ is not raised, then our preaching is empty and our faith is empty."

15 εὑρισκόμεθα δὲ καὶ ψευδομάρτυρες τοῦ θεοῦ, ὅτι ἐμαρτυρήσαμεν κατὰ τοῦ θεοῦ ὅτι ἤγειρεν τὸν Χριστόν, ὃν οὐκ ἤγειρεν εἴπερ ἄρα νεκροὶ οὐκ ἐγείρονται.

"And we are even found to be bearing false witness against God, for we testified concerning God that he raised the Messiah, whom he did not raise, if indeed the dead are not raised"

16 εἰ γὰρ νεκροὶ οὐκ ἐγείρονται, οὐδὲ Χριστὸς ἐγήγερται·

"For if the dead are not raised, nor has Christ not been raised."

17 εἰ δὲ Χριστὸς οὐκ ἐγήγερται, ματαία ἡ πίστις ὑμῶν, ἔτι ἐστὲ ἐν ταῖς ἁμαρτίαις ὑμῶν.

"And if Christ is not raised, your faith is futile, you are still in your sins."

18 ἄρα καὶ οἱ κοιμηθέντες ἐν Χριστῷ ἀπώλοντο.

"Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have utterly perished."

19 εἰ ἐν τῇ ζωῇ ταύτῃ ἐν Χριστῷ ἠλπικότες ἐσμὲν μόνον, ἐλεεινότεροι πάντων ἀνθρώπων ἐσμέν.

"If in Christ we have hope this life only, we are people to be utterly pitied."

The Christian faith is predicated upon the historical fact of Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead. Paul's use of these six conditional particles should cause us to stop and tremble at these thoughts. "If Christ is not raised…" should force us to reflect upon the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus, and his subsequent vindication as Lord and Messiah.

Now, in the days before Easter, we live in these "ifs," hoping in the blessed hope of the resurrection. If indeed Christ was not raised on that one day, then those of us who are "in Christ" will perish utterly, dust back to dust, life into darkness.

May it never be.

But let it sit and linger with us, that Christ himself sat where we sit, and took upon himself the full enfleshment of the human race, for our future glory, for our life itself.

As Paul says in Colossians, our lives are hidden "in Christ" (Col 3:1-4), and he is our treasure chest, the one who locks us away with him for the hope of glory.

But now, as the early Christian men and women did, we wait. And we sit in the dust of the earth, awaiting the God of the Living to beckon us home.

There are no more "ifs," only "whens." So we wait. And we hope.


Nick's Presentation at the Rethinking Hell Conference

It has been a wild few weeks. In between a car accident and other insane little life events, I traveled to Dallas-Fort Worth with some friends to help out and to deliver a paper presentation Graham Ware (a great friend of mine) and I co-wrote on "atonement in Romans."

Here is the youtube video to view on Youtube if you prefer.

I hope you enjoy this! Thank you for all of your prayers during this rather turbulent time!


Are you a Christian? Love, Worship & the Unforgivable Sin


If someone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. The one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. -1 John 4:20

One of the greatest tragedies propagated by pop evangelicalism is the the notion that one can agree with a set of statements or perform a magical incantation (the sinner's prayer) without actually pledging allegiance to, or even worshiping the Christian God. One can regularly put themselves first, treat others harshly,and lie to get ahead entirely rejecting the life Jesus came to bring us in his death and resurrection--and yet be a Christian? Jesus gave us new priorities & a new way of seeing others and our world, but if we do not actually subscribe to them other than to say we do, in what way are we Christians? 

Is a practicing atheist, Buddhist or Hindu a Christian? I think most would say they aren't since they either do not worship the same god or a god. And yet, a Christian can reject all that Christ stands for and cease worshiping him and yet still be a Christian? In the Bible your life and what you do with your body is worship. 

When your behavior is challenged, what are your defenses? "What I do is between me and God!" "Don't judge!" Do you project the fault onto others? Hide? 

1 John is fundamentally about who one worships. What does it mean to worship something or someone? The object of worship receives one’s love, attention and elevation. It is a life orientation that is all encompassing to the extent that it rules out other behaviors or objects of worship. One can always say, I “believe” in Jesus, said the sinners prayer and have accepted him into my heart, but the question of who one worships gets at more essential questions. Has one actively pledged their life and being to the Lord? Despite words, ultimately our heart’s desire is exposed by our object of worship. It becomes transparent before God in how we treat sisters and brothers, neighbors, enemies, the mighty and lowly, when others are watching or when no one else will know. 


From reading 1 John one could deduce that hating a brother or sister exposes the reality that one loves and worships an idol, not the living God who is worshiped through love of those around us (5:21). Many of us that are not accustomed to those around us bowing before images miss that we too have to resist idolatry. 1 John tells us that if we truly love God we will follow his example. Jesus conquered the evil one by not being selfish, but committing himself to humiliation and ultimate sacrifice for his enemies. If we want life in him we must do the same. When we do the opposite, we show our love, worship and allegiance to darkness. There is no image of the Christian God for us to bow to an adore and bring gifts to. Rather, the unseen God is worshiped by loving those who are seen.

If someone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. The one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. 1 John 4:20

The sinner's prayer is meant to used as a gateway or set prayer one can say to acknowledge key realities and invite the Spirit to transform us from the inside out. Admitting we are sinners and in need of a savior and inviting God into the control center of our lives. And yet somehow, it has become reduced to a magical incantation and not a pledge of allegiance, willingness to die and rejection of Satan and all his works. It is no longer the mark or beginning of a new life orientation because the Spirit convicts and helps us in life to do right by God and those around us. 

 The Christian God conquered the world the way his followers do, by the power of self-sacrifice and love (1 John 2:9, 12, 29, 3:3, 8, 16, 4:11, 5:4). The one who takes up the cross forsaking all else is responding to the Spirit. Their new life in Christ will be visible. This does not mean they will never mess up, but it does mean their life orientation will be one of worship. Put another way: If one claims to have pledged their life to service in the Armed Forces of the United States and yet is sabotaging their unit, going AWOL or acting in the service of the enemy--yet wearing the uniform--are they really committed? Whose side are they really on? 

Do you feel conflicted? Maybe caught between self preservation and doing what is right? Respond to the Spirit not to the self. Your choice will shed light on who you worship or where your loyalty leans. 


Do you delight in or recount your sin with glee? Do you feel superior to other Christians because you are or were engaged in sexual sin, used others, or put others in their place? Well, maybe you feel more edgy or better than other believers because you are not one. Maybe you have a different object of worship. 

One of the tests of a believer in 1 John is treating a brother or sister with love. If you do not treat a brother or sister in Christ as one because you hate them and are opposed to what they stand for, maybe its because they are not your brother or sister because you are not in Christ? Or just became a Christian and are still learning? If this characterizes your life regularly then according to 1 John you are a liar and blinded by the dark. You do not know the way forward because you are not in the light. Those who recognize others as their brothers or as part of a sisterhood sacrifice for one another and act as a unit. Those that don't treat them as enemies, rivals or with neutrality. 



The good news is that God is one who forgives every insult and every wrong against him, hence Jesus' work on the cross covers sin and "not only ours but the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2). However, interestingly there is what is considered the "unforgiveable sin." How is this possible with  the God who desires all people to be saved (1 Tim 2) and has basically accomplished reconciliation for all and readily forgives all evil, even his own crucifixion? I believe the unforgivable sin is resisting the Holy Spirit. 

“Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— because they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.” Mark 3:28-30

“Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come. Matthew 12:31-32

Denying the works of the Spirit which point to the identity of Jesus (not the identity of Jesus in the moment) cut a person off from the life God offers in Christ. In these passages (around these verses) how one acts is closely connected to this. One knows if someone is responding to the work of the Spirit and worshiping the Christian God in Christ by what they do. The ultimate heresy is not so much refusing or distorting a set of propositions (though it is all related), but in rebelling against the Spirit so that one is in opposition to Jesus and all he stands for, rather than "in" him. 


The connection between responding to the Spirit and being in Christ is why elsewhere in the Bible the signs of the Spirit in the life of a Christian are called "fruits." They are born out of a deep abiding love and life orientation. They are gifts and a process of transformation. In 1 Timothy 1 this love is our goal in life and if it is our goal in life our priorities will revolve around it rather than chasing social standing, elevation of self and riches (though none are bad in and of themselves unless we prioritize/worship them). In Romans 5:3-5 this love poured out in our hearts is also the evidence we have that we belong to Christ as we go through difficult times. We can measure our progress in the Lord by how we respond to evil. 

So what is the unforgivable sin? In my words: It is resisting the Spirit and refusing to worship and love God. This means one ends up rejecting the fundamental identity of Jesus and refuses to love those around them the way he did.   

"We are in the one who is true by being in his Son, Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. Little children, guard yourselves from idols!" 1 John 5:20-21





Comforted By Hope: A Brief Reflection

"Starry Night," a personal favorite.

"Starry Night," a personal favorite.

In my sorrow, Lord walk with me
In my sorrows, Lord walk with me
When my heart is aching
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me

Many of you know the feeling of grueling fatigue after tragedy after tragedy strikes and yet one continues to be run down and bruised by an enemy (material or immaterial) again, and again using any and every means at their disposal to tear down and destroy. And yet they are called to more. I've been struck this past year by the sheer potential if everyone simply did what Jesus told us to do. If we loved our neighbor as ourselves and loved our enemies! There would be no enemies if we all just loved one another and gave the other preference and the benefit of the doubt. And yet, we may live out of sync with a warped world.

Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of love as something vibrant and creative whereas hate seeks to ruin and destroy in the end destroying the very personality of the hater. If our life purpose and goal should be a tangible love from a sincere heart and faith and that this is a hope that testifies before God and to ourselves that we belong to God, then nothing is ever truly lost or fully hidden. If I can come out loving those who distort my image, project their evil and insecurities onto me, abuse, harass, slander, misinterpret, launch distortion campaigns, marginalize, isolate or seek to physically harm then maybe that is enough? If I can see the good in one who mistreats me, where there is actual good, then maybe I've learned something more about myself than if the wrong never occurred? If I am approaching evil with the question of how can I love and build up today, maybe there is something in being the person to continually ask the question? 

In abusive contexts, one is often made responsible for others feelings and required to validate them as gospel truth at the expense of one's own and if you don't, they will find some way to make you. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and feelings, but it is what we do with them that ultimately matters. Unfortunately, in distorted contexts, one is constantly pressured to be subservient and silent either through group pressure, physical violence, totalitarian approaches or other forms of harassment. One feels the pressure constantly like a crushing weight and the constant fear anytime one comes out of hiding for just a moment--though I have learned in life that hiding is not always safe either. And yet, sometimes it is enough to know Jesus walks with me in times of sorrow and trouble. He did all of this and more already and has not left me alone today.

Knowledge that Jesus walks beside me and that I have life in the Spirit even in suffering only encourages me to step out again and again. To live, speak and be even while I know doing so will have consequences. And life experience has told me that indeed horrible, destructive things might happen with lasting consequences and no happy ending in this life, but also wonderful if not miraculous things happen. Suffering for those who are responding to the Spirit acts like fertilizer and the tree bears more fruit. And not only that, the Gospel of peace is contagious and just might spread. I have known enemies to become even more bitter enemies but also enemies to become friends or at least brothers and sisters in the Lord. God works and ultimately it is up to them to think in terms of creation over destruction, but there is always hope when God is involved.


Let There Be Light

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Stalking projections, anxious, you've begun—

Implement your “grand schemes,” ready the knife

Speak deceptively into the void—

What you meant to destroy he breathes his life.


“Let there be light,” Redemption parts your sea

Scattering the darkness before my path

The Man of Sorrows walks alongside me

His narrative renaming Satan’s wrath.


The eyes of the Lord see your violent heart

But darkness illuminated turns bright

Painted into him, recreated art

Hope manifested in the darkest night.


Grace dawns, encompassing all in its light

Sin’s spiral fading, collapsing figments

Hope born of Eve out of Satan’s blight

Transfiguration of life contingent.


Don’t you know, our lives are fleeting?

A breath—

A moment in time—

After all, our ‘end’ in him redeeming

His breath—

His love poured, sublime—


Oh, that veiled face, history’s dawn!

Joy emanating, He runs. For “It is done!”



Freely Drawn by the Father: Human Faith and the Power of God in John 6

For many, there are specific texts in scripture that are gateway drugs to specific doctrines. For me, Romans 16 and Judges 4 were both a gateway to adopting an egalitarian reading of scripture. For others who are interested in the Reformed/Calvinist and Arminian/Wesleyan debate (a debate between brothers and sisters of good will), John 6, Hebrews 6, 2 Peter 3, and Romans 9 are often considered the central prooftexts in this debate, although there are many other considerations. For some of my Reformed brothers and sisters, however, John 6:44 is considered the mainstay text. Jonathan Dorst at The Chorus in the Chaos blog on Patheos writes[1]

As I began to study Calvinism, this was the thread that wove throughout: that salvation is a work of God from first to last. I saw that, though we are responsible for our actions and sin, and though the outward call is universal (“whoever comes to me I will never cast out”), God is the prime mover in saving His people. God is not up in heaven wringing His hands over who will choose Him, and He is not casting a vote that gets equal influence with the devil’s vote hoping to win our patronage- God is actively drawing people to Himself. Here in John 6:44 was a hint of the effect of total depravity, the implication of unconditional election, the inescapable conclusion of limited atonement, the stark reality of irresistible grace, and a building block for the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (which, of course, is about God persevering to perfect His people and to raise them up on the last day, not us working to stay in God’s good graces)…. We all believe the Bible, but we interpret it differently, and we need the help of godly men and women who have gone before us to understand the Bible. And while John Calvin and his disciples were gifted, but flawed, theologians, and Calvinism is just a tradition and is not perfect, it is the tradition that I believe represents Scripture most accurately. And John 6:44 was my gateway drug to becoming a Calvinist.

Personally, I find this sort of theological method and journey fascinating. In many respects, when a person reads a particular text or book is almost more important then what they read. This is not to make light of Dorst's comments or look down upon people who have aligned themselves to a specific theological group with a clear conscience. Rather, the time of much of our reading and research is almost as important as what we are researching. Just a thought on that. I also cite Dorst not to refute him (although I do not think John 6:44 is helpful to Calvinism in context at all), but to simply illustrate the interpretive power at work for many people within a specific Christian tradition: who we read—whether Calvin or Wesley or Beza or Spurgeon or Arminius or Oden—often determines which specific texts gain our hermeneutical imagination. The seeds of a specific worldview are often planted before we ever turn to Holy Scripture.

Audience in John 6

John uses two specific terms for the audience surrounding Jesus. He first uses the phrase "a great crowd" (πολὺς ὄχλος) throughout the beginning pericopes. In John 6:2 and 6:5, throughout the feeding of the five thousand, the "great crowd" does not leave Jesus but "follows him" (ἠκολούθει: imperfect verb). The pericopes in John 6 may be divided into the "feeding of the give thousand" discourse (vv.1-15), the "walking on water" discourse (vv.16-25) and the "bread of life" discourse that occurs for the rest of the chapter (vv.26-71). John seems to single out what could be called Jewish opposition (οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι) in 6:4 and 6:41 as well, which suggests that Jesus' comments in the Gospel of John are concerned with his Jewish interlocutors.

The Heavenly Son, Grumbling, and John 6:41-43

The imperfect verb ἐγόγγυζον ("grumbling": v.41, 61; see also ἐμάχοντο in v.52) is our first indication of the mood of Jesus' interlocutors (οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι). These Jewish leaders, hardly representative of all Jewish people in the crowds, are concerned with Jesus' claims to "descend from heaven" (ὁ καταβὰς ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ), implying preexistence in some form. The context, therefore, does not appear to be about Calvinism or Arminianism, but on the origin of the Son (c.f. 1:1-18). A heavenly figure descending from heaven is not a foreign concept necessarily in Judaism (Dan 4:13, 23 LXX), but given the apocalyptic imagery of Daniel, one cannot necessarily fault the Jewish leaders for not seeing the obvious.

God's Sovereignty and Human Faith in John 6:44-51

How a non-Calvinist will understand vv.44-51 (and vv.61-66 by implication) can be largely reduced to how we exegete certain words. Those words include the negated participle δύναται ("able"), the verb πιστεύω ("to believe, have faith") throughout John 6, and the aorist ἑλκύσῃ ("draw"). I will address these in order.

On the first verbal phrase οὐδεὶς δύναται, we must be clear about what the phrase does not say. The phrase does not specify exactly for what reason one is "not able" to come to the Son. Dorst (and many of my Reformed brothers and sisters) have to supply a reason for this inability (i.e. total depravity, which I affirm but do not see as the reason) but the text itself seems to provide a specific reason. Specifically, v.45 uses the adjectival phrase διδακτοὶ θεοῦ ("learners of God," or "God's learners" depending on how one interprets the genitive θεοῦ) to speak about those who "hear/ understand" (ἀκούσας), which is based upon the knowledge received from God. As a consequence of this learning and understanding, a person can then come to the Son. But, as with much of the New Testament and Jewish thought, the concept of learning requires participation in what one has learned. I have written on this elsewhere.[2] That is, having learned and understood, one is then required to "come" (ἔρχεται: middle voice, suggesting personal agency) to the Son as a consequence of adopting and participating. One is unable to come to God without learning about what God requires. The universal witness of God is for all people (πάντες) and is predicated upon active participation in God's call. The cognitive element of this learning and understanding cannot be stressed enough.

Thus, a person's inability to come to God may be conditioned on total depravity, but God's universal prevenient grace draws us to him regardless.

This flows nicely into John's use of the verb πιστεύω (6:29, 30, 35, 36, 40, 47, 64 [2x], 69). The verb refers to "believe something to be true and, hence, worthy of being trusted - 'to believe, to think to be true, to regard as trustworthy (Louw-Nida). Faithfulness is a precondition that demands a person's awareness of the Son and the Father, and an active sense of participation in the mission of the Spirit. As Jesus says in 6:47, "Amen, amen, I say to you, the one who believes (i.e. exercises faithfulness) has eternal life" (ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὁ πιστεύων ἔχει ζωὴν αἰώνιον). John Wesley in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, says this concerning John 6:44:

No [person] can believe in Christ, unless God gives him power; he draws us first, by good desires. Not by compulsion, not by laying the will under any necessity; but by the strong and sweet, yet still resistible, motions of his heavenly grace.

The final consideration concerns the verb ἑλκύω. In the New Testament, this verb does not appear to be used primarily in a soteriological or eschatological context (John 18:10; 21:6, 11; Acts 16:19; 21:30; James 2:6), save for John 12:32. If John 12:32 is interpreted in the way of "to drag" or "compel," then one ends up with universalism in some form. While some may insist on distinctions in how they understand "all" in that verse, I do not find such arguments compelling—but that is another debate for another time. Suffice to say, the power of the Son to resurrection (ἀναστήσω: 6:44b) is predicated upon the exercise of human faithfulness: resurrection to eternal life (as opposed to destruction per 3:16) is conditioned on human participation in the life of the Spirit. Marianne Meye Thompson argues that the verb ἑλκύω most likely means, "to attract." She writes

In John the emphasis on God's love for the world argues strongly for [the aforementioned meaning of "to attract"]. According to Jer 31:3 (38:3 LXX), because God loves Israel with an eternal love, God has drawn them…with compassion; later Jeremiah promises that God himself will write the law on the hearts of his people so that they no longer need teachers…that prophetic vision comes to fruition in God's drawing people to Jesus.[3]

In summation, I respect the different positions many take in interpreting John 6:44. Personally, I believe the reasons I have provided above offer non-Calvinists a more consistent way to understand this wonderful text:

God's glory is manifested in the eternal Son, and all are called to learn and faithfully participate in the mission of God for the reconciliation of the world.

To God be the glory.


[1] Jonathan Dorst, "John 6:44—The Verse that Made me a Calvinist,"

[2] See here:

[3] Marianne Meye Thompson, John: A Commentary (New Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Known, 2015), 152-153.