Christianity turns 1980 years old

On the morning of 5 April, AD 33, women carrying spices to anoint the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth discovered that the tomb in which the corpse had been put was empty. One of them, Mary Magdalene, instantly concludes that the body had been stolen. Within hours, however, the story that Jesus had risen from death and walked out of the tomb alive was circulating among his disciples.

How is it that this story became Christianity’s ‘official’ explanation for what happened to Jesus?

The rise of Christianity is predicated on the claim of Jesus’ resurrection. If the resurrection were merely a fictional or mythological portrayal of ultimate vindication, then Jesus’ remains would still have occupied the tomb in which he’d been laid. If this were so, then the claim of resurrection could have been easily countered factually, for people could have gone to the tomb, opened it up, and seen the body. It would have been easy to produce the body, then, and prove the production of the myth. However, this never happened. Nor did anyone claim that the resurrection was actually a mythical claim. The resurrection claim seems to have been understood as actual—that is, the claim was that Jesus physically walked out of his tomb. And there appears to have been no evidence available to counter this claim. If there were, Christianity never would have gotten off the ground 1980 years ago. But it did!

So what was going on?

We’re left with a few possible scenarios. Possibly there was a hoax going on—the most successful in history, and for which the instigators were willing to be martyred. It just might be that Jesus’ followers, who had all abandoned him to save their own skins, now tried to save their own reputations by rehabilitating the reputation of their fallen master. In this way, they could claim to have followed the ultimate winner and not have been stigmatised for their association with him. But if so, this failed miserably, for they were stigmatised anyway, and they eventually did lose their own skins. So if the resurrection were a hoax, then we have to give the disciples full marks for commitment to fraud that backfired on them anyway, and superb pride at not being willing to admit it.

Alternatively, grave robbers took Jesus’ body. However, this would be a very odd thing, since bodies themselves were not valuable to grave robbers. Bodies rotted! It was, rather, the spices, linen and other trinkets buried with a body that were valuable. But there were no spices applied to Jesus’ corpse when he was buried. The Sabbath evening was approaching when Jesus’ corpse was removed from his cross, and he was hastily buried without the unguents to mask the smell of decomposition. The women who came to the tomb on the morning after the Sabbath were, in fact, coming to add those unguents to the body when they found the tomb empty. And the linen was found in the tomb. In other words, the only thing of value in the tomb, the linen, was not taken. Despite this oddity, the first explanation entertained by Mary Magdalene, one of those women, was that Jesus’ body had been taken. And yet, she changed her story. Why?

Again, we may have a hoax, in which case Mary certainly pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, or managed to convince others to join her hoax. But this then raises the issues I mention above about the unlikelihood of hoax. Alternatively, perhaps someone was playing a cruel trick on the disciples by removing the body and giving the impression of a resurrection. Or perhaps Mary just ended up projecting wishful thinking into a grand story of resurrection. In either of those two cases, we have to conclude that they led to mass hallucination of groups of people all seeing the exact same hallucination of Jesus alive again, and all at the same time.

Alternatively, Jesus’ followers, most of whom had abandoned him before his execution, actually saw him alive again. Once more, they were all seeing the same thing. If there were only independent ‘sightings’ of a risen Jesus, then the evidence is weakened considerably. There would be little corroboration between the various sightings. But there were groups of people all seeing the same thing, including apparently about 500 people at one time. The empirical evidence pushed these people to conclude that, despite all expectations, this guy had actually come back to life. They all knew what ‘dead’ meant, and some of them had seen and touched Jesus’ dead body. But the empirical evidence that confronted them on 5 April, AD 33, and for weeks thereafter, forced them to conclude that Jesus had risen.

Now whether Jesus did come to life or not is a big call, and I can understand people’s doubt over that. However, the best explanation for the rise of Christianity is that Jesus’ followers honestly believed that he had risen from the dead. And there was no evidence available to counter that claim. His tomb was empty. Either the disciples got away with a huge call, or Jesus did walk out of his tomb alive.

Today, 5 April 2013, Christianity turns 1980 years old.

Why the tearing of the temple curtain is a bad thing

It’s Easter! At this time of the year, Christians the world over commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Son of God. The ‘greatest story ever told’ gets retold. On Facebook, Christians post snippets from the Gospels, or lines from songs celebrating the significance of the story (like I have!). But there’s one particular part of the Gospel story that I think has been misunderstood. It’s the tearing of the temple curtain.

The Synoptic Gospels all tell the story that at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, the curtain in the temple was torn in two (Matt 27.51; Mark 15.38; Luke 23.45). This is a reference to the large, heavy curtain that cordoned off the Holy of Holies within the Jerusalem temple’s inner sanctum. The presence of God was said to occupy the Holy of Holies, which was only accessed once a year on the Day of Atonement by the High Priest. Every other day of the year, the Holy of Holies remained off limits to everyone. Yet the Evangelists tell us that without any human agency, this curtain that marked the divide between the human and divine worlds was ripped apart at the moment Jesus breathed his last. This is how Matthew relates it:

Jesus shouted again with a loud voice and gave up His spirit. Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was split in two from top to bottom; the earth quaked and the rocks were split. (Matt 27.50–51)

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So what’s the significance of the temple curtain being ripped?

Most Christians will say that it’s the moment that free access to God was won. The curtain, which hitherto had kept God hidden from people and at a distance, was now dramatically rendered obsolete. Jesus’ death had granted access to God for all. This strange event, therefore, is seen as a good thing.

This particular interpretation probably comes under the influence of a few New Testament texts. Probably the most prominent of these is from the letter to the Hebrews:

Therefore, brothers, since we have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way he has opened for us through the curtain (that is, his flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. (Hebrews 10.19–22)

The author here, writing from within the Jewish framework that held the temple to be the heart of Jewish life, informs his readers that through the work of Christ the entire temple cult had been fulfilled. ImageHe argues that Jesus did everything the temple was designed to do, namely provide atonement for sin and access to God, and he had done so once and for all. Jesus was the ultimate High Priest who had blazed a trail to God, allowing his followers to be cleansed and have free and permanent fellowship with the one true holy God. As such there was no need for ethnically Jewish Christians to return to the old temple service, or even to desire the rebuilding of the temple (I understand the pretext for the author writing the letter was to articulate a specifically Christian response to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70).

It’s this theologically potent message that we tend to read back into the moment of Jesus’ death. It almost seems like the writer to the Hebrews had this particular moment of the Gospel story in mind in framing the excerpt quoted above.

However, as important as this point was to the writer of the Hebrews, I do not believe he was saying that this was the significance of the tearing of the temple curtain. For a start, note that he equates the temple curtain with Jesus’ flesh, not with the actual curtain that used to hang in the temple. The writer to the Hebrews sees Jesus himself as the one who joins the divine and human worlds, and interprets the significance of his work as akin to one going through the temple curtain, as the High Priest used to do. In other words, the temple curtain provides the writer with an image he can use to talk about the import of Jesus’ work in fulfilling what the temple stood for. In this way, he uses the temple curtain metaphorically and positively.

The Gospel writers, on the other hand, were making a rather different point. I believe that they were specifically portraying the tearing of the temple curtain as an ominous sign—a prefiguring of judgement. Let me explain.

All three Synoptic Gospels portray the last week of Jesus’ life as prophetically charged. Jesus rides into Jerusalem with messianic portent, but then proceeds to declare judgement on the nation of Israel and the temple. He causes a minor riot on the temple grounds when he overturns the stalls of the money changers. In Matthew’s Gospel, as he leaves the temple, Jesus utters these words:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will never see me again until you say, ‘He who comes in the name of the Lord is the blessed One’!” (Matt 23.37–39)

Jesus then proceeds to tell his disciples that not one stone of the temple will be left on another. In addition to these events, Jesus also curses a fig tree, which then withers and dies. The gesture is symbolic of the judgement to come upon Israel. The fact that it withers has a sense of permanence: Israel has rejected Jesus, the Chosen One sent from God, and as a result the covenant nation is being brought to an end.

Matters come to a head when Jesus is arrested and the nation’s authorities succeed in having him crucified. Their rejection of God’s Chosen One—the messiah of Israel—is complete. And so, as Jesus dies, the curtain is torn asunder to confirm the judgement that Jesus has pronounced upon the nation. Note also the roughness of the action—it is a ripping, rather than a parting, raising, or drawing aside. It is suggestive of violent destruction. In all of this, God validates that Jesus was indeed the messiah, and also expresses his displeasure at his covenant nation for their rejection of him.

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The scene is somewhat reminiscent of Ezekiel 8–11, where God takes Ezekiel on a visionary tour of the temple to show him the multiple abominations that have forced him to abandon the temple to destruction by the Babylonians. The Synoptic writers depict Jesus’ death as a similar abomination that leads to the downfall of the nation and the loss of its temple—something that would ultimately occur a generation later in AD 70 when the Romans put down the Jewish Revolt and razed the temple to the ground. One might say that the tearing of the temple curtain is how the Gospel writers imply that God was bringing down the curtain on old Israel and its temple. It was 586 BC all over again!

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Detail of the Arch of Titus in Rome commemorating the Romans’ destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70. The relief depicts Romans parading paraphernalia from the temple in triumphal procession.

ImageThis feature of the Gospel storyline, therefore, is not seen as a positive thing. It is symbolic of the end of old Israel, and of the temple destruction in AD 70. However, the Evangelists are also keen to say that there is hope beyond this destruction. The community that Jesus gathers around himself is the beginning of a new people of God—one that will survive AD 70. And Jesus is subsequently raised to life again, heralding a new era that will see Gentiles take their place alongside Jews as full members of the new people of God. Indeed, it is those who represent the destroyers of the temple—Roman soldiers—who are the first to express a confession acknowledging Jesus:

When the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they were terrified and said, “This man really was God’s Son!” (Matt 27.54)

Thus, the Gospels depict the curtain tearing as a moment of judgement. Yet, they are still very much in the spirit of what the writer to the Hebrews was saying to his readers. The new community of Jesus’ followers are in no need of a temple building. All they need is Jesus himself.

What this little examination shows us is that while we need to get our theology from the whole canon of Scripture, we also need to let each book speak on its own first. Just because the writer to the Hebrews was making a particular point with the imagery of the temple curtain does not mean that Matthew was making that same point in his Gospel when he talked about the temple curtain. We mustn’t cross pollenate one author with another. The writer to the Hebrews was sounding one note, and the Gospel writers another which, although it was a different note, was still in ‘theological harmony’. Just like the destruction and exile of Judah in 586 BC was a bad thing, but something which also led to new theological insight, so also the tearing of the temple curtain at Jesus’ death was indicative of coming destruction, yet also lead eventually to new theological insight.

So when the Gospel stories are read again this Easter time, we should pause when hearing that the curtain in the temple was torn and realise that for the Gospel writers it was a confirmation of judgement for the rejection of Jesus.

The Good Book

ABC Radio National’s Encounter program recently featured a piece titled The Good Book. The program looked at how the Bible is understood today as both literature (‘a good book’) and Scripture (‘The Good Book’). Among those interviewed were myself (George Athas) and some of my students from Moore College (Dan Wu, Tim Escott, Tom Melbourne, John Hudson), Cheryl Exum (Sheffield), Robert Alter (UC Berkeley), Lori Lefkovitz (Northeastern), and John Carroll (La Trobe). The range of contributors present an interesting collage of views about the Bible. If you’d like to take a listen, you can click one of the links below. The program is 54 minutes.

The Good Book (listen now online)

The Good Book (download mp3)

The Good Book (transcript)

A Currency Exchange Token? A New Take on the Recently Discovered Ancient Seal from Jerusalem

One thing that puzzles me about the recently discovered seal from Jerusalem is its Aramaic inscription. The seal reads דכא ליה (‘pure to Yah[weh]’), and evidently has some sort of ritual significance. Shukron and Reich argued that the seal was probably placed on objects to certify their purity and, therefore, declare them fit for use in the temple. The one thing that surprises me about this, however, is that the inscription is clearly in Aramaic, not Hebrew. This would be highly unusual for a priestly item. Deutsch offers an alternative theory that the seal was a token used in the monetary exchange for a libation offered in the temple. The use of Aramaic in this case would make more sense, as a lay person was involved in the exchange. However, the phrase ‘pure for Yaw(weh)’ seems a little peripheral to the exchange itself.

I want to propose a slightly different understanding of this little seal.

We know that the moneychangers in the Jerusalem temple exchanged ordinary coins with Tyrian silver coins. These Tyrian coins were noted for the purity of their silver. While most silver coins in the Roman Empire were only 80% silver, the Tyrian coins were approximately 94% silver—the highest purity level of all coins. They were, therefore, deemed as fit for monetary exchanges in the temple, as well as the collection of the famous half-shekel temple tax. On their obverse, these coins bore the image of the Tyrian god Melqart (Olympian Herakles), also known as Baal Zebul (‘Eminent Lord’). The Jews often referred to this deity pejoratively as Baal Zebub (‘Lord of flies’). The reverse bore the image of an eagle. Both images were prohibited under the Mosaic Law. However, it was generally agreed that the purity of the silver outweighed the fact of the coins’ images. It was, after all, virtually impossible to find aniconic coins (i.e. coins without images on them) in antiquity, and the Romans never allowed Judea to mint aniconic coins, since it would be deemed too much autonomy. Control over the minting of coins was very important, since, like today, it signified political and economic sovereignty (this is why the Jews began minting their own coins during the Bar Kochba Revolt in AD 132–135). The Tyrian coins were minted in Tyre for over a century, until the Romans closed the Tyrian mint in c. 18 BC—just after Herod’s renovation of the Jerusalem temple began. The coins, however, continued to be minted, although exactly where we are unsure. In any case, the continued minting of these coins meant that Tyrian silver was deemed the official currency of the temple in the first century.

A Tyrian Silver Shekel (c.115 BC) showing Herakles on the obverse, and an eagle on the reverse.

Since all monetary purchases in the temple were made in Tyrian silver, it seems reasonable that there was some kind of system in place to guarantee that pilgrims were using the correct currency exchanged at the temple. The recently discovered seal from the Old City of Jerusalem may have served this purpose. A pilgrim would come to Jerusalem with whatever coins they had, and would go to an officially sanctioned moneychanger in or near the temple complex. They would hand over their coins, receive Tyrian silver in exchange, as well as a token (the seal) guaranteeing the purity of the silver they were receiving. Whether the seal was given loosely or attached to a bag in some way is not known. However, the token was written in Aramaic so that a lay person (a pilgrim) might understand that they had received pure currency that was officially endorsed by the temple authorities. The pilgrim would then take these Tyrian silver coins, along with the accompanying token, and use them to make purchases, such as sacrificial animals or libations, within the temple itself.

In other words, the recently discovered seal from Jerusalem is a currency exchange token enabling the bearer to make purchases within the temple.

Your thoughts welcome.

Love, Tolerance, and Repentance

After some interaction on Facebook, I thought I’d pour together my streaming thoughts about love, tolerance, and how they relate to repentance.

Tolerance is touted as today’s ultimate virtue, particularly in the West. However, Tolerance is not actually a Christian virtue. Love is. As a Christian I am called upon to love, not to tolerate. If I tolerate everything, then I’m not actually doing all that much. I’m essentially always agreeing to the status quo. But in that case, I can sometimes show myself profoundly unloving with little sense of right and wrong, and with little impetus to do right.

Now I realise that advocates of tolerance often have a good motive for advocating it. They do want to be ‘neighbourly’ and see tolerance as the basic attitude to achieve that end. However, I think more thought needs to go into it, because tolerance can sometimes have unfortunate results or is not something we actually live out in practice. How many parents, for example, tolerate their children’s misbehaviour? Does our society tolerate murder or rape? How many people cheering from the grandstand tolerate a poor performance from their team, or a bad decision by a referee? Tolerance has shortcomings in the day-to-day rough and tumble of life, and there are times when we are profoundly intolerant for good reason.

Sometimes, though, tolerance is used as a strategy for selfishness. It’s an attitude that says, ‘You should let me do whatever I want, so I’ll let you do whatever you want, and that way we can appear neighbourly, albeit in the name of me getting my wish to do as I see fit.’ But such reified individualism can be very damaging to society, because people begin battling for their so-called ‘rights’. These ‘rights’ are an idealistic expression of ‘what you owe me’, and they always tend to be directed towards the self (eg. ‘my rights’ or ‘you should stand up for your own rights’). These individual rights can end up keeping us apart rather than bringing us together with something in common. And thus, we have conflicting rights (eg. the right of gay people to marry -v- the right of children to have both a mother and father in accordance to the way the birds and the bees work). Who gets the right to have their rights prevail over the rights of another? Tolerance cannot really solve these issues.

The Christian ethic is love. To put it in other words, it’s about being other-person-centred. It’s not so much about me standing up for my rights as me looking out for your genuine good. There’s nothing really about tolerance in that attitude. There is no satisfaction with a status quo, but rather a continual search for what is objectively good for the other. Love implies that there is an ultimate good, and that we should strive for it with an attitude of self-sacrificial giving. It’s not about individualism.

God himself is not actually tolerant. He did not tolerate me, a sinner; he loved me. He gave up his apparent ‘rights’, but not so that I might continue to have my own ‘rights’ as an individual who can do what he wants, but rather to sanctify me and bestow on me the right to be called a son of God. He actively sought my own good. He did not love me for who I am; he loved me despite who I am.

God never ever tolerates my sin. In fact, he has been working throughout all of history to eradicate my sin, and this was achieved finally once and for all at the execution stake of a Jewish man in the first century: the cross of Jesus Christ. I’m not now perfect as a result of that. Far from it—I’m all too aware of my own faults. But God is patient with me. I must not, however, mistake God’s patience for tolerance. For tolerance usually has, at best, an implicit approval of what another does regardless of its moral value, or, at worst, a complete apathy about it. But God does not approve of my sin, nor is he apathetic about it. His willingness to take nails in his flesh and die a human death on my behalf speaks anything but affirmation or apathy towards my sin. Rather, it shows his unconditional love for me as he took what was due to me, a sinner. And this unconditional love shows up the emptiness of ‘tolerance’.

It is often pointed out by advocates of tolerance that Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. They were so different to him, and yet he reached out to them. Shouldn’t we follow the same example? Well, yes, of course we should follow the example of Jesus in loving others. But Jesus did not affirm the tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes in their sin. Rather, he called on them to change—to go and sin no more. Repentance was his basic message (Mark 1.15). As he said, it wasn’t the healthy who needed a doctor, but the sick. And he was there to make a difference—he wasn’t just being a socialite. And it was love that impelled him the whole way—all the way to a gruesome death that paid the penalty for the sin of the tax collectors and prostitutes. You can still be someone’s friend while telling them to repent.

If Jesus can call people to repent, and he commissioned his followers to do the same, then we can and should discern between what is right and what is wrong. Some will say that it’s judgemental to demand that someone change. But there is a difference between being judgemental and being discerning. Judgement is up to God. I, a sinner, have no place judging a fellow sinner. It’s God’s prerogative as a perfect judge to vindicate or condemn people. But if I can recognise the sin in my life, I will also be able to recognise it in others, too. And if I call someone to repent, I’m not condemning them, but rather urging them to take advantage of God’s amnesty and recommended way of life for their own genuine good. Of course, sensitivity and humility are part and parcel of calling people to repentance, and nobody likes to hear from someone that they’re wrong. But if I was going astray somehow and my friends watched on in tolerance, you’d have to question their friendship, their commitment, and their love. Love reaches out to make a difference, not to tolerate.

I think what many people hear when someone calls them to change is, ‘Be more like me.’ That’s certainly not the Christian message. Unfortunately, it’s probably the message that some of us Christians put out there, but also what some people mishear Christians saying, too. Christians aren’t superior to anyone. No way! But we have been given the message of life that we want others to share in. I think the Apostle Paul captures the idea well when he tells the Corinthians that love compels him to do what he does, and on that basis, he urges them to be reconciled to God.

The message of love is not the message of tolerance. It does not say, “Be as you are and I will accept you for who you are.” The message of love is, “You don’t have to do anything to earn my love, because I will love you unconditionally. Yet, love compels me to be active in loving, and not to stand idly by when I see you going astray. So I will strive for your genuine good.”

As a dad I love my kids. I always will, no matter what. Yet it’s precisely because I love them that I do things that are for their good, though they may not understand it or agree with it, and sometimes may react hostilely to it. I do not tolerate it when they do something that harms themselves or others, or when they disobey me or their mother. Yet I still love them even in those moments. Love leads me to discipline them when it’s necessary, because I honestly believe in pursuing what is for good for them. Love also leads me to take them to the dentist when they need it, even though they protest and it might cause them pain. If I merely had an attitude of tolerance towards them, I might actually end up being profoundly unloving and let them continue doing those things that are harmful to themselves and others. Tolerance feels free to accept everything, but love reaches out to others personally and seeks out what is genuinely good. Tolerance is passive. Love is active.

Just some rambling thoughts.

A Theological Protest

The Pope’s recent visit to Britain sparked numerous protests of one sort or another. There was one person, though, protesting not against the Pope’s stance on condoms or homosexuality. No, he had a totally different agenda.

Protesting the filioque clause. Brilliant!

You can find the original post here.

The Apocalyptic and the Ethical in 1 Corinthians

At Moore College‘s annual School of Theology, Michael Jensen (lecturer in theology and church history at Moore College) delivered a paper titled The Apocalyptic and the Ethical in 1 Corinthians.

Michael began by showing how Christian hope has been criticised for not putting the focus on the good of the present, but making the present tenuous and contingent on an eschatological future. The words ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘goodness’ do not rest easy in the minds of many, because Christians are often perceived as finding good in the future only. This, therefore, produces a dissonance between hoping for the world to come and living in the present.

However, Michael argued, Paul’s apocalyptic vision in 1 Corinthians is not drawing a dichotomy between a seemingly useless present world and a glorious future world, but rather presents a critique of the present when it is absolutised. Paul aims to frame the present by the cross of Christ. The effect of this is to produce a Christ-centred ethic that impels current action.

Michael briefly explored two commentators vigorously opposed to the essential contours of Christian eschatology. Firstly, Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) argued that Christianity, with its belief in a hereafter, conferred a religious sanction upon the abasement of a vita activa to a position secondary to a vita contemplativa. The vita activa retained a certain dignity only insofar as it helped one attain a blessed future, and therefore it has no inherent value in Christian thought. The result of this is to downgrade the importance of current political action. While Arendt saw Jesus as an ‘action’ man, Arendt charged the Apostle Paul with denigrating action and producing a vita contemplativa that subordinates and abases active life in the present.

Secondly, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) described Pauline Christianity as driven by ressentiment, seeing Christian eschatology as a form of systematic cruelty against human life. Nietzsche viewed Paul as taking everything good about this life and casting it into an imagined (and therefore false) future of eternal life, thus robbing humanity of current good and subjugating people to a lie.

Michael then turned to the commentator J. Louis Martyn. According to Martin, an apocalyptic motif is central to Paul’s gospel, as Paul’s gospel is a revelation (ἀποκάλυψις) of God’s ‘invasion’ into historical reality. A whole new way of life and thinking emerges from this ‘invasion’. There is an apocalyptic discontinuity in which the present evil age is pitted against the new creation. In Christ, God delivers humanity from slavery to this current age with its existential focus and, ultimately, death. God’s invasion into the current age is a movement from beyond. It’s not about humans moving into a blessed state, but about God breaking into the brokenness of human reality. The cross is where God is currently making things right in an expectation-shattering topsy-turvy way. Paul has a sense of his own calling within an apocalyptic framework. The change in his own life is evidence of the apocalyptic discontinuity that occurs as a result of God’s invasion into human reality. Another consequence of this ‘invasion’ and its surprising reorientation is that classic pairs of opposites reflecting a kind of apocalyptic dualism are changed. Flesh (σάρξ) and spirit (πνεῦμα) are now shown to be opposites, while other opposites, like Jew and Gentle, are undermined. The present evil age and the new creation are brought together as Christ breaks into the world. Michael also critiqued Martyn for not giving the continuity between the current age and the coming world enough weight. The analogy of ‘invasion’ perhaps gives the discontinuity too much purchase.

In believers, the end of the ages has come. Most crucially, they have not reached for this age. Rather, it has reached them. Believers embody both ages, functioning as a nexus between the two. The believer is now the contested field in an apocalyptic ‘war’. However, this is a temporary war, as the invading age will overcome the present age. But this is not about removing believers from the world, but rather transforming them in the present in anticipation of the future.

Michael moved on to consider Paul’s advice to virgins in 1 Cor 7.25–40 as a demonstration of how Christian eschatology informs current ethics. He noted how Paul appeals here to ‘good’ and ‘better’, rather than ‘good’ and ‘bad’. This overturns a classic antimony in which the future is viewed as ‘good’ and the present viewed as ‘bad’, seeing that as a mistaken caricature of Christian eschatology and ethics. Paul’s purpose is not to denigrate current existence and its concerns, such as marriage and family life. Rather, Paul affirms the goodness of such current existence, but does not wish to absolutise it as ultimate reality. Paul wants to remind his readers that there is an eschaton coming and, therefore, ‘better’ acts are also now warranted. Reality has been revealed as something contrary to ‘normal’ human expectation, resulting in a relativising of certain actions and patterns of thinking. Yet, this does not provide impetus for withdrawal from the world, but rather a reorientation of human life. The Corinthians are not to denigrate their bodies as something from which they will be released in the future. Rather, he wishes the Corinthians to reorient their thinking to see that they are temples of the Holy Spirit—people over whom God has made a claim. As such, they need to consider carefully what provides for human flourishing in the current age in anticipation of the age to come. This orientation comes from considering the Christ who represents God’s apocalyptic invasion of the present.

Finding Offence

Apparently a Florida church will be burning Qur’ans on the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy. The church’s pastor, Terry Jones, is justifying the action as a memorial to those who perished in the tragedy nine years ago, and to send a belligerent warning to extremist Islam.

I find this kind of behaviour quite ridiculous and foolish. In no way does it adorn the gospel. On the contrary, it sends a message of hate and undermines the basic Christian ethic of love. To love others does not mean you must accept their views or agree with them. Evangelical Christianity has major theological issues with Islam and the Qur’an. However, this does not mean that Christians cannot love Muslims. I will in no way be surprised to find Muslims of all varieties taking major offence at this action, and they will be justified in their angst and unease.

If there is any offence to be had, let it not come from the behaviour of Christians. Rather, let it come from the gospel itself: that the Christ died to save sinners.