People are getting energized about the idea of a brown Jesus, it seems. This question is a lot more complicated people expect it to be, for several reasons. Don't expect that all of your assumptions about this discussion are true. They probably are not.
1. There is a long, fact-challenged tradition within European art that presented Jesus as blond-haired and blue-eyed and within film using English actors with a similar look. This tradition is almost certainly incorrect, for two reasons. Even today, people from the Middle-East do not tend to look like that. Furthermore, it was probably even less that way 2000 years ago than it is now, because there has been more genetic mixing between the people of the Middle-East and Europeans since then, not less.
2. There is a long, fact-challenged tradition within liberation theology that called Jesus black for political reasons. It was an attempt to distance Jesus from his historical origins in order to deny whiteness a place in its reframing of Christianity that traditional Christians have long resisted because of its denial of biblical theology. The particular claim of a black Jesus is hardly what's really wrong with liberation theology, in my view. Its theological claims are the real problem. But nevertheless the idea of calling Jesus black is a big part of how liberation theology distanced itself from the theological tradition, and many hear something like that in this.
But even aside from the historical political context, the actual words themselves are not unambiguously or obviously true or false. There are several reasons I say that:
Our advent sermons this year are from Isaiah 59-60, and this week we are starting with the first half of chapter 59. (I know this isn't the first week of advent, but we were working through Genesis and had to finish chapter 50 last week.)
One thing that stood out to me about this week's passage is the progression of pronouns in Isaiah 59. The prophet starts out in verses 1-3 speaking in the second person. "Your iniquities have separated you from your God" and "have hidden his face from you." He speaks to the people about their own sin and its effect on them. At this stage he is accusing them, and he is not part of what he is criticizing. They do this.
He then shifts to third person in verses 4-8. At this point no one calls for justice. They give empty arguments, speak lies, conceive of trouble, are quick to shed innocent blood, and walk paths without justice. No one who walks in their ways will know peace. He isn't just accusing others now. He's talking about an objective situation, without placing himself in it our outside it. He's noting something that is true.
Then we see a shift to the first person in verses 9-13. "Justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows." He speaks of his own people, him included, as if they collectively walk around blindly and mourning, looking for justice and deliverance but not finding it.
But verse 12 shifts to an explanation. "For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities." Rebellion against God, oppression, revolt, and lies are in the same breath given as the reasons why "we" end up with the effect of verses 14-15. Justice is driven back, righteousness pushed off at a distance, truth stumbling in the streets, honesty unable to enter. "Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey."
He's still giving the effects on those around him, but he's identifying with them in their sin and collectively recognizing that it's not just some other group of evildoers that he is calling out. We are all in this group. And when he calls for justice, the reason it's not happening is because of the doing of injustice that he is also participating in.
You might argue that he's just collectively identifying with his fellow Jews the way Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel do in Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9, and Daniel 9 when they weren't committing the sins of the people but were still offering prayers of collective repentance for the people they belonged to. But I think this is different. Ezra didn't commit the sin of marrying pagans who didn't worship God that he was lamenting. Daniel didn't bow to the idols around him in Babylon. Yet they collectively repented as a way to lead their people to repent.
But the things Isaiah is dealing with here, though not all sins we all commit, includes things that he and any other generally righteous people in his time, were complicit in. So even though he starts out pointing out the sins of others and describing the effects on them, none of that false, he ends up identifying with it enough to describe it as something true of "us" in a way that leads him to express public and collective repentance that he seeks those around him to join with him in. And then he says that the reason they have not experienced the justice that they now long for (which they started out not even wanting) was because of their own injustice.
If, as I think is true, the presentation of the prophecy of Isaiah should be taken at face value, and it was actually composed by Isaiah himself in the 8th century looking forward to a time much later when the Jewish people were living in exile in Babylon, then there are even more interesting implications of this. Isaiah is here identifying with not just his own generation of God's people in their current rebellion but with the future rejection of God's ways by a generation that he isn't even part of. His notion of collective responsibility and group identity is that strong, which speaks volumes about how easily we get away from those notions with Western individualism. And all of this is compatible with recognizing that in one very important way we really are responsible for what we ourselves do. That runs all through this (and through the other collective repentance prayers of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel).
And it's also jarring to many of our sensibilities, where we like to think of things in an oppressor/oppressed binary, to see God's prophet speaking to oppressed people and telling them that one chief reason why they are oppressed is that they are themselves complicit in injustice, and then he has his prophet communicating this identify with them in that injustice, as much as he also seeks in that identifying to offer a prayer of repentance for them to turn from that injustice and experience the fruits of righteousness and peace.
It's hard for me to read this passage and think anyone in our current setting (politically left or right) should come away from this feeling comfortable about themselves. If they do, they are either rejecting its teaching or not understanding it.
I recently rewatched the 1975 Doctor Who episode "Genesis of the Daleks" by Terry Nation. Some online discussions I looked at about "Genesis of the Daleks" made some interesting, and to my mind obviously false, claims about how it fits (or doesn't) into the overall canonical fictional world of Doctor Who.
One claim in particular claim that caught my interest was the accusation that Terry Nation contradicted some of his earlier Doctor Who episodes about the Daleks in giving the origin of the Daleks in this serial. One discussion pointed out that Nation had made an effort not to contradict his first serial "The Daleks" from 1963, where he establishes the Daleks as creations of a race called the Dals in their war against the Thals. The supposed contradiction comes with "Genesis of the Daleks" when Nation actually shows us this war between the Thals and the race that created the Daleks, and the creator race is not called the Dals but is called The Kaleds.
Here's my problem. This is not a contradiction. A contradiction takes the form 'P and not-P". There is nothing of that form here. What you do have is:
1. The race who created the Daleks at the time of the Daleks' creation called themselves the Kaleds.
2. The Thals also called them the Kaleds at that time.
3. At a much later time, probably many centuries later, after an apocalyptic destruction of all civilization and a loss of a good deal of accurate information about the details of that earlier time, someone speaks of the race that created the Daleks as the Dals.
I'm sorry, but I'm not seeing how any of that makes for an inconsistency. If we were sure the person telling us they were called the Dals was speaking the truth, that would even be difficult to get a contradiction, because it's possible they came to be called the Dals at some time after "Genesis of the Daleks" or that they were called that at some earlier time, and that name came to be the more common one to use again after the apocalypse. But we can't even be sure the Thal telling us this has the right information. Maybe it's just that the wrong name was preserved. There are quite a number of things that could explain how 1-3 might all be true. Terry Nation simply did not contradict his earlier Dalek stories. What he did is use a different name without explaining why different names were used at those two different times, but it's not a contradiction.
I think there's a certain personality type that just likes to find contradictions in everything. A lot of fan criticism of science fiction and fantasy stories exhibits similar problems to the one I've been discussing here. I could point out lots of other examples. That doesn't mean there aren't legitimate criticisms to level against authors. I've criticized J.K. Rowling in print about her concept of changing the past in the third Harry Potter novel, although I did so after pointing out some rather implausible ways of making the story work to avoid the problem I raised. The implausibility there would involve reliable narrators who would know better telling untruths, however, which is more of a stretch than someone centuries after an apocalyptic event getting a name of an extinct civilization wrong or the possibility that the group was actually called by two different names.
How you evaluate such attempts to make canonical worlds coherent in part does depend on how plausible the explanation might be to avoid the contradiction. It's nice for fictional worlds to be coherent. Sometimes that's impossible. Sometimes it involves an implausibility but is possible. And sometimes it's not all that implausible if you just think a little harder to see how things might fit together, when at first they seem not to.
It's hard not to think of critics who like to find contradictions in the Bible when I look at these stories. There are some genuine difficulties in fitting together some parts of the Bible. I've never seen one that guarantees a contradiction, especially when you take into account that inerrantists don't take the current manuscripts to be inerrant but allow for errors in transcription from manuscript to manuscript. But I have seen places where it's not easy to come up with one highly plausible explanation that shows for sure why the apparent contradiction is not a real one. In most of them, there have been several explanations, where not one stands out as the most plausible, and even most of them involve something somewhat unlikely but possible. There's none I know of where I would judge all the explanations as so implausible as to require rational evaluators to think it has to involve two contradictory statements that can't be resolved. But I'm coming from an epistemological standpoint where I think the prior plausibility is relatively high. I consider myself to be in a position where I think I have good reasons for taking the Bible as it presents itself, as God's word, and it follows from that that it's more likely that there is a solution even if I don't know what it is than that there isn't. So I'm going to take the less-plausible-sounding accounts as less certain, but I'm going to be more likely to think that one of them is probably true.
That's one difference with fictional worlds. I don't believe there even are Daleks or Time Lords, never mind that the entire Doctor Who canon is consistent. (I think it certainly isn't coherent when it comes to fundamental questions of time travel, for example.) But someone who thinks God is real and is basically the way God is presented in the Bible is going to place a higher prior probability on there being some resolution to a proposed contradiction than someone who has no prior trust in those documents. And I would argue that someone doing this is right to do so if the prior probability is based on a good epistemic state to begin with. And that makes accepting truth in texts that are hard to fit together much easier to do (and not in a way that undermines rationality, assuming the prior probability itself has a rational grounding.
That assumption of prior probability, of course, is one of the fundamental disputes to begin with, but you can't just assume at the outset that someone who is more willing to trust a set of scriptures is wrong in doing so, and pointing to potential contradictions isn't necessarily going to turn the tide of the conversation unless you first undermine the prior probability. Supposed but not actual contradictions, even if they are difficult to put together, are therefore very weak evidence against the coherence of a worldview when the person who holds that worldview is more sure of it than they are of the irresolvability of the supposed contradiction. That makes for people coming from very different standpoints evaluating the supposed contradictions very differently, and from within their world view each seems to themselves to be right in how they do that. That's something that I think not enough people on either side of such debates can see.
A recent survey of Bible translations used by pastors in the U.S. of different denominations [dead link removed] gave me the idea for this post. I have little to say about the survey itself except that it was strange that they didn't include Presbyterians as a category and that they didn't single out the NET, RSV, or ESV.
What I'm mainly interested in doing here is giving people enough information to choose what English translations of the Bible are best for various purposes. I don't think there's one best translation, and which one you pick will be affected by a number of factors, including things about yourself and the circumstances in which you'll be using this particular Bible. First, though I want to report two real occurrences from my friend who worked in a religious bookstore. One woman asked about purchasing a Bible. He asked her what translation she wanted. Her response: "English!" This was not someone who spoke English as a second language, from whom such a response makes perfect sense. The second case is often told as a joke, but this really happened to my friend. Someone came into the store asking for a Bible. He asked what translation the person wanted, and he received in response, "The King James, you know, the one Jesus used." Well, I hope to do a better job of explaining Bible translations than those who failed these people.
First I should say that some people, for reasons they have little or no control over, already have some reasons to prefer Bibles of certain sorts. Some factors that might go into this are age or level of understanding of the English language, both of which can easily (or will of necessity) change over time. Someone at a very young age might do best with a translation that's easier to use, particularly with an easier vocabulary and more straightforward grammar that sounds like English. Some translations don't have this, and sometimes they have good reasons not to (e.g. in service of a certain sort of accuracy). For new speakers of English, similar criteria will come into play. So this is one factor that will be important for some people but not others, and it's not something you should expect to continue to have the same role ten years down the road.
John Owen argues for the view Reformed thinkers call limited atonement, basically the view that Christ's death was only for the sake of those who would be saved. Since those who never become saved never take advantage of the atonement, in what sense is it for them? Their sin is never atoned for. His argument is slightly for a more detailed, though it's very short and worth looking at.
I think Owen gives a good argument for limited atonement (or what more recent theologians have preferred to call particular atonement, which I think is just as obscure a term). But what about I Timothy 2:5, which says that Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all? What about John 3:16, which says that God's love is for the world that anyone who believe in him will have eternal life? Reformed thought has an easy answer to the second part. Those who do end up believing, i.e. those chosen by God to believe, will have eternal life. But what about God's love for the whole world? What about God's desire that no one die in Ezekiel 18:23 and Ezekiel 33:10? This essay is intended to sort out such issues.
Many Reformed thinkers will reduce what seems to me to be the obvious intent of these passages. They take them to include a much smaller group than they seem to include at face value. Thus the "all" in I Timothy 2:5 is merely all the elect. The "world" in John 3:16 is only those in the world who will be saved. The "none" in Ezekiel whom God doesn't want to die doesn't include those who persist in their rebellion against God, who are some whose death God delights in. This goes on for far more passages than these, but these are some of the most obvious examples. This approach seems to me to be too reductionistic. These passages seem to be saying something deeper about God's heart, and I hope what I have to say shows that. So I want to say that Christ on one level did die for those who aren't elect. I want to say that God's love does include those who will never repent. These statements aren't true on the same level as the statement that Christ's death is only for the elect. Both are true. Both may not be equally fundamental, but both are true. Scripture says both, and anyone who trusts what it says should affirm both whole-heartedly.
At the most fundamental level, Christ died on behalf of those who would respond to him in faith, namely those chosen from before the foundations of the world. That's what Owen has argued for, and that's what I agree with him on. However, it's also true that in some less fundamental but equally true and still important sense Christ died for the sake of all who would turn from sin and to him, and this is the message we must proclaim. If we go around telling people to repent if they're elect, they won't understand what we're talking about. If we tell them God loves them if they're elect, they won't see the beauty of God's love for those who don't deserve it, since he loved us in our unrighteousness and accomplished all that he did for us while we deserved nothing. The way to see that point is to proclaim that Christ died for sinners, that he died for those who would not be able to earn or deserve anything. So from a human level, the important message is: Believe, and you will be saved. Turn from your sin and follow Jesus, and you will be a child of God.
The emphasis in the gospel message is not on unconditional election, irresistible grace, or limited atonement, though these are true doctrines. It's on God's love in the face of it total depravity and Jesus' willingness to express his divine Sonly character of eternal submission to the Father by becoming a man and dying a shameful death, becoming sin so that we can become righteous. The five points of Calvinism are not the gospel. They're a human systematization of some of the truths in scripture, and they are correct when rightly understood (and you know how easy it is to misunderstand or misinterpret their wording), but they're not a balanced gospel presentation. They don't even get at the heart of the gospel anywhere near as well as Philippians 2:6-11 does, not that that's a complete picture either, since it has little about our response to it; it's just closer to the heart of it. So our context will affect which truths to stress.
In the context of evangelism, it's important to stress, as the apostles did, that anyone who truly repents will be saved. Look at the formulations in Peter and Stephen's sermons in Acts. They're not theologically profound, they're not extremely careful as if to ward off possible heretical misinterpretations, and they're not pastorally balanced, as if they consider all the points you would use to instruct a believer in their growing faith, which you do get in more developed theological reflections about the nature of salvation, as in Ephesians, Romans, or I John. (There are more extreme examples. Consider such ones as "believe and be baptized, and you'll be saved".)
This uncarefulness, imbalance, and lack of theological depth doesn't mean these are inappropriate statements. What they do is focus on the need to repent and the promise that anyone who does will be saved. This is a hypothetical statement -- a conditional. If you repent, you will be saved. So there's a potentiality -- anyone who turns out to fulfill the first part will have the second part true of them. This is how our language works for creatures in time who do not know the future and don't know people's hearts.
It's perfectly appropriate to use such conditional language, as long as we know that it's conditional, and as long as we're honest with people about its conditionality when the subject arises.
So when I say that Christ died in one important sense (though not the most fundamental sense) for the whole world, I mean that everyone in the world has the following conditional true of them: "If I turn from my sins and follow Jesus, I will be saved". That may be true only vacuously for lots of people, since the first part will never be true of them. On a fundamental level, God determines which people the sentence is true of. On the other hand, it's also true that their response to the gospel is something they do, and their rejection of the gospel is something they're responsible for.
That's why I stress things like the potentiality of the gospel for all. For one thing, I don't know who is elect, but even moreso it's clear in scripture that God doesn't delight in the death of the wicked. God has a desire that the wicked will turn and live (Ezekiel 33:10-11). This is accompanied by an urgent plea from God to these wicked that they turn and live. The language harks back to Ezekiel 18:23, where the same statement is made about what God takes pleasure in. This follows a conditional statement about those who repent not dying. But the crucial thing for me is how the chapter ends. "Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone ... so turn, and live." If God has no pleasure in the death of anyone, then that's making a strong claim about God's attitude toward those destined for hell. He asks why they will die, with urging speech. It can't be dismissed as merely rhetorical flourishes and that he's merely speaking to those who will end up repenting. They will die. He's pleading with them about why they refuse to turn and why they insist on ending up dying. The last statement shows that his desire on this matter extends to those who aren't elect, in Calvinist terms.
Of course, this needs to be balanced with the end of Revelation 19, where at the marriage supper of the Lamb we will eat the flesh of all who opposed God, meaning that we will end up rejoicing with God over the end of all evil, which happens to include the end of all evil beings, at least for the purposes of those in the eternal community with God (whether it implies annihilation or eternal exile in a conscious separation from God). Jonathan Edwards has been labeled a moral monster for agreeing with the author of Revelation that we will one day rejoice that evildoers are in hell, but what he's rejoicing at is the end of all opposition against God's good purposes, the final vindication of those who have persevered in following God (especially at the rough end), and the carrying out of justice with true finality and full severity on all those who haven't responded in trust to the one who was willing to take all injustice on himself and pay the penalty.
So rejoicing over the destruction of the evil is consistent with God's pleading that the evil repent. It's not as if God is rejoicing over the same exact thing as he is grieving. It's just that the same human action requires both. I don't know how this all works, but both seem to be affirmed in scripture. I hope I've suggested some key ways to begin thinking about this.
So how does this reconcile limited atonement with the idea that Jesus in some way did die for everyone? On a fundamental level, Jesus died for those who would end up believing in him. He didn't die for those whom he knew would not take advantage of the offer given to them. He didn't die for those who would end up rebelling to the end against the perfect restoration of all things that began with Jesus' coming. Yet in some way God intended his warnings to turn to apply to all people. His desire in some way applies to all sinners, since he has no desire that anyone die.
We should have no trouble, therefore, saying that his love extends to all people in some way, reading John 3:16 to include all the world as it seems at face value to intend. We should have no trouble saying that Jesus was given as a ransom for all, as I Tim 2:5 says, and mean it at its full face value. It was in some sense intended for all, and it was in some other sense intended only for the elect. I don't see a contradiction, as long as you realize that these are at two different levels.
The analytic philosopher in me wants to systematize this, and there is a helpful analytic philosophical way to show that there's no contradiction here, but I wouldn't want to insist that this is the right way to look at this. I think God's desire that no one perish is deeper than this model shows. However, it demonstrates the consistency of saying both things, which is my primary goal here.
Suppose I tell you that I wish for you to do really well on your exam. Do I wish that you do well even if you didn't do any of the work for the class? No! I wish that you do the work and then do well. But that's not what I said. Did I speak incorrectly? Perhaps not extremely carefully with strict language, but what I said was fine. It was conversationally appropriate, because my intended message was received. Ideally, I would want you to do well because I'd want you to do your work.
Now consider the case of God and the sinner. God wishes for each person that that person not die. Does that mean he wishes that they will be saved no matter what else is true? No! Ezekiel's message from God is that God wishes that they would turn and not die. It's specifically stated what the wish really is at the most fundamental level. Then when it's abbreviated in the passages like I Timothy 2:5, the most fundamental level is that Christ Jesus did give himself for a ransom for all -- but really the only ones of the "all" that he intended to be ransomed are those who would end up being saved and coming to knowledge of the truth (v.4). That doesn't mean he doesn't in some way desire for all to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth. It just means that at a fundamental level God has hand-picked which people would be saved and come to knowledge of the truth. On a fundamental level of speaking, these are the people covered by the Jesus' death.
Somehow God's desires are that the others would be saved. I don't know how that works with God's selecting the others and not them. I suspect it has something to do with certain priorities of desires in God's mind and heart. God's love is one of them. This is as fundamental as anything else about God, since John tells us God is love (I John 4:16). Somehow other things come into the picture and prevent this desire of God's from being actualized. Does it mean God's desire is frustrated? I wouldn't presume to put it in those terms. Is it better to describe it as God's desire being outweighed by a more important desire?
This is becoming the realm of speculation at this point, and it's dangerous to speculate on what God hasn't specifically revealed, especially when such speculations can easily lead to heresy. The point should be clear here, however. If there's a contradiction, it's not in affirming limited atonement while saying that in another sense Christ's death, God's love, etc. apply to all. There's no contradiction between saying God desires all to be saved but only chose some to be saved. Both are affirmed by the scriptures, and anyone with a high view of the scriptures should believe both.
Some people say something like the following:
"You can't quote the Bible to prove the Bible because it's circular reasoning."
There's something about what they're saying that's right. The following is a bad argument:
1. The Bible says it's the word of God.
2. I can trust what it says, since it's the word of God.
3. Therefore, I can trust it when it says it's the word of God, so I should believe that it's the word of God.
However, that's not the only thing someone can mean when saying that the Bible can count as evidence for Christianity. I have in mind a very different kind of argument. What Christians call the Old Testament (and what scholars today call the Hebrew Bible) could have taken something like 1500 years to produce, perhaps shorter but certainly well over 1000 years even by liberal estimates (though how much of it one says is early depends on one's presuppositions). Adding in the New Testament (or Greek Bible, if you prefer that name) brings it to 1500-2000 years. Think about what's happened in the last 2000 years.
Two related arguments come to mind. One has to do with prophecy. The other is from the unity of the Bible.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.