Theological Theory of Everything

Theological Theory of Everything

Teaching for 2018 Fellowship of the Way of Christ Retreat

In physics, the “theory of everything” attempts to explain literally everything in the universe within a single framework. What I want to do here is to present my “theological theory of everything.”

I am principally a theologian, and secondarily a biblical student. In the vast majority of my teachings and writings, I do not and will not try to convince you of a particular concept. Rather, I do my best to present understandings about God and spirituality and scripture that I believe are valid and of extreme importance, but that you may not have previously considered. All I ask is that you consider them.

Understanding of Scripture

It is important to try to grasp the overarching themes of scripture. The Bible is incomparably important, but it is imperative that we not make it into a thaumaturgic book—for if we imagine every word to be pregnant with meaning, we inevitably will fail to see the bigger picture.

Principles to consider in approaching scripture:

Progressive revelation

Demons, Devil/Satan, Idea of God’s dwelling in a particular place, Idea of God’s punishing children for their parents’ offenses, The nature and purpose and efficacy of animal sacrifice, Divorce, Status of women, Importance of what is in our hearts vs. simply the way we act:

The understanding within the Bible of all the things in the list above—and they are just a few of the more obvious items—evolved dramatically as the centuries passed. Understandings at one stage in the life of God’s people was different from what the understanding had been in centuries past. That does not detract from scripture’s importance. It enhances it, for it goes along with God’s incarnational relationship with creation and with his people.

Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible

Jesus did not say that he was going away, but would leave a sacred book to guide God’s people. No, he said he was going away and would send the Holy Spirit. The early church did not have the New Testament. It was frequently the case that Paul and other apostles would appoint within a given church family leaders who only months earlier had not known Jesus, perhaps even had been pagan idolaters. And not only did they have no New Testament, they probably had only one copy of the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Their spiritual life, their direction, their wisdom, their ministries, their power came not from understanding what was in a book but from the living presence of the Holy Spirit. This experience held true even toward the end of the first century, as illustrated by John’s statement,

the anointing which you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that any one should teach you; as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie, just as it has taught you, abide in him.  —1 John 2:27 RSV

The Bible Came Through Human Intermediaries

Experience at my local church many years ago taught me a lot on this subject. A couple of years after we became part of the church, the leadership instructed me not to prophesy anymore. When I looked to God for direction, he answered, “Do what your leaders say.” On numerous occasions during that first year or two of not prophesying, I would feel very strongly that the Holy Spirit had a message for the congregation. Since I was forbidden to prophesy, but also since I had such an overpowering urge to do so, I often left the service and walked around the neighborhood until the service was over in order to guarantee that I wouldn’t give in to my urges and prophesy after all. It was not uncommon that, after I returned to the building, I would learn that someone else had given a prophetic word from the Lord. The language described to me was not the way I would have said it; but the basic idea was the same as what I had felt the Lord wanted to say!

Language, culture, individual literary talents and predilections, individual beliefs: all these things (and many more) act as filters between anything God speaks to us and our reception of that word. We won’t get it exactly right, ever. We prophesy imperfectly (I Corinthians 13:9).

I once sat in a Pentecostal church listening to a preacher give a long, unintelligible, trivial sermon. But periodically out of the blue, his sentences would switch to first person singular and he would begin to prophesy. I felt strongly that the messages were from God. They were in ersatz King James English, and their grammar was poor, and the thoughts were pretty disorganized, but they were from God. Had I been the mouthpiece, the messages would have come out very differently. We must not overly parse written or spoken revelation. Rather, we should try to understand the basic idea God is trying to get over to us. That holds not only for present-day prophetic words, but also for scripture.

Proof-Texting Is Counterproductive

I can disprove any biblical “doctrine” with only a handful of “proof texts.” So can you. I can do that with my own teachings, as well as with anything you say. The inevitable default polemic is, “But what about. . .”

Check out “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” a painting by George Seurat that graces an entire wall in The Art Institute of Chicago, and a masterpiece that introduced pointillism to the art world. It comprises gazillions of tiny dots of paint—pixels in modern terminology. I can point to a large swatch of the canvas and claim that it is brown. And it really is. But walk very close to the painting and you’ll see points of red, yellow, green, etc. You might contradict me and say, “You’re wrong, it’s not brown—what about the red dot here? What about this yellow dot?” And you would be right. When it comes to understanding God’s communication with us, however, it is vital that we look at the overarching view, the “big picture.” Not the tiny points. Not the proof texts. We’re not meant to look at it from just inches away. We’re meant to look at the grand picture from a viewpoint where we can see the whole thing.

And for us the “whole thing,” the lens through which we look at all of scripture and all of salvation history, is the cross and the resurrection. If our tiny point or proof text or contradictory thought or theological dictum does not harmonize with the cross and resurrection, if our pet doctrine cannot remain strong in the devouring heat/love emanating from the self-sacrifice of the One who said he would draw all people to himself, who forgave his torturers—then perhaps we need to rethink our understanding.

It is imperative that we not make the Bible into a magical book—for if we imagine every word to be filled with intense or even slightly cryptic meaning, we inevitably will fail to see the bigger picture. What a blessing that we don’t even have the New Testament in the language that Jesus spoke!

Problem of Evil/The Nature of God/Free Will

God’s Primary Desire Is to Be With Us

That was his ultimate goal in creating humankind. Furthermore, God’s desire was that. . .

Humans Were Intended to Be in Charge of This Planet

This explains prayer, among many other things. From the beginning, God charged humans with the responsibility of overseeing and caring for this planet. Authority resided within humans, who were intended to be sovereign. For many if not most of the miracles described in Acts, the apostle didn’t even say “In the name of Jesus” but simply gave a word of command. God’s original intention was for all of us to be able to say, “Be healed” (or whatever).

This also explains the various accounts over many centuries of nonbelievers casting out demons or performing other supernatural feats (when they are not fake, which is probably most of the time). When we understand that from the beginning God invested great authority in human beings qua human beings, we shouldn’t be offended or even puzzled at these accounts. They are understandable, since there is still a residual authority within humans.

God Made Humans Completely Free

Philosophers and theologians—and in recent decades, scientists—have debated for centuries over the question of whether and/or how much human choices are free. Here’s the answer: we are absolutely free. In fact, from the standpoint of biblical theology, in a sense we are catastrophically free. Yes, of course I am aware of the psychosocial and biochemical and neurological factors that constrain our thoughts/emotions and therefore our choices, so that in one sense we’re not very free—but deep down where it counts, human beings have been given by our Creator the astounding privilege of making free decisions, just as God does. We are truly created in his image.

A corollary to this understanding, however, is that. . .

God is Not Omniscient Concerning Human Choices

Obviously he knows everything about the material universe. But he doesn’t know everything that his human creatures are going to do—which means he doesn’t know the future in its entirety.

Of course, God is very smart. He can figure out to a large extent what any individual will do, just as (on an immeasurably smaller scale) we can watch our babies crawl toward a collection of toys and know with near certainty what they will do once they get there; and just as, given sufficient data on past behaviors, an extremely powerful computer could probably predict with a fair degree of accuracy what you will do over the next couple of days.

And, clearly, God is active within the affairs of our planet. Lots of times—as witnessed by the Old Testament prophets—God can predict the future because he knows what he plans to do in certain situations. He doesn’t control all human events, but he clearly feels free to interfere in specific ways—including controlling the future in some instances.

A caveat concerning God’s speaking of the future through his prophets: They don’t always get it right. We all may be familiar with  Deuteronomy 18:21-22: “. . . if you say in your heart, `How may we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the name of Yahweh, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word which Yahweh has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you need not be afraid of him.” This is a great example of the importance of looking at the overall thrust of scripture and not depending on proof texts, because this statement is not true in the most literal sense! Illustrations:

Zerubbabel—Haggai and Zechariah appeared to be saying that God would restore his people’s glory and prosperity and ascendance through Zerubbabel; but it never happened.

Cyrus—the prophet who was responsible for Isaiah 44ff. indicated pretty clearly that Babylon, where the people of Judah were held captive, was going to be toast once Cyrus the Mede arrived with his unstoppable armies. But it didn’t happen. Cyrus conquered Babylon, as the prophet promised—but it was bloodless (perhaps a lot of intercessory prayer preceded it?).

Jonah—he prophesied that God was going to wipe Nineveh from the face of the earth. But it didn’t happen.

Jesus—he stated clearly that the end-time events would occur while some of his disciples were still alive. But that didn’t happen.

Our God is endlessly responsive to choices made by humans, and he can be quick to change his mind. It is therefore somewhat dangerous to cling too tightly to something God has said either in scripture or prophetically. I cringe when I hear preachers outlining precisely what is going to happen when and to whom in the end times, based on their brilliant analyses of scripture. My response is, “Well, yeah, maybe. . . or maybe not.”

Remember the leaders of Judah at the beginning of the sixth century B.C. when Babylon, the great empire of the time, was really pissed at Judah. Speaking for Yahweh, Jeremiah said Judah should surrender to the Babylonians. The leaders (and prophets!) cried, “The temple! The temple! The temple!”  For, you see, over a century previous to that time, Yahweh had miraculously delivered Jerusalem from the unbeatable Assyrian army, saying that Jerusalem’s temple was the place where his name dwelled, and he committed to protecting Jerusalem for the sake of the temple. Yahweh really did say that. And over a century later, the leaders of Judah were clinging to that assurance—“standing on the promises,” if you will. The problem was that the situation had changed, and God had changed his plan. He sent Jeremiah to tell the leaders of Judah, “That particular promise has been rescinded. You need to listen to ALL the words that I speak, not just the ones I spoke in the past or just the ones you like. And what I’m saying to you now is that I want you to surrender to Babylon. Woe to you if you don’t.” In other words, God was saying, “Don’t quote scripture to me.”

Sometimes God Has Specific Desires for Specific People, Sometimes Not

God may want an individual to do a particular thing because God either has specific plans he wants to accomplish through her, and/or because he is able to see sufficiently into the future to know that if she chooses path E rather than path M, she will experience devastating pain.

But much of the time, I believe, God delights in our making our own decisions. For example, I do NOT believe that in all cases God has a “one and only” for each person to marry. In some cases he does, and my marriage was one of those: God commanded me to marry Elaine. (But then he had the effrontery to tell me that it was up to me to win her heart!) In many other situations, God waits eagerly—he is, after all, the one who invented romance—to see whom we’ll end up with. God doesn’t necessarily have a specific will concerning your place of employment, or where you will live, or which people you will choose as your friends. But he might, because he can see events down the line that you cannot see. He’s always willing to give advice, of course, and since he is really smart and he knows a lot, it’s always a good idea to ask God if there’s anything he wants to tell us about any given matter.

This God Who Doesn’t Know the Entirety of the Future and Who Doesn’t Control Our Choices Is Immeasurably Bigger Than the God Described Traditionally by Theologians and Philosophers

It takes a really big God to create beings who are so creative that even God doesn’t know for certain what they’ll do! We can pretty easily figure out the reason for this choice on God’s part simply by looking inside ourselves, noting how much more joy we experience when interacting with creative, spontaneous, kind, intelligent friends! That’s what God wants! And he was willing to pay an infinite price in order to have these completely free, creative, intelligent creatures not only as close as friends but as close as a lover or a bride—for scripture describes God’s ultimate relationship with us as one of marriage! The gift of sexual intimacy and passion in our lives is but a pale reflection of the erotic intimacy God desires to experience with us. He was/is so in love with us that he committed to bearing all our sins, all our pains, all our evil, all our darkness, even before he spoke a creative word. In the end, he will have what he wants—he and we will have immeasurable joy. He reconciled the entire world to himself even before he created it—but at immeasurable cost to himself!

There Are No Barriers Between Humans and God

The Lamb’s atoning blood covered all of creation even before there was a creation. The only barriers between us and God are those we erect. God’s call to us is, Let all who are thirsty come: all who want it may have the water of life, and have it free (Revelation 22:17 NJB).

We are also told that

. . . in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them (II Corinthians 5:19 RSV).

 . . . when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself (John 12:32).

 . . . One man’s offense brought condemnation on all humanity; and one man’s good act has brought justification and life to all humanity (Romans 5:18 NJB).

  . . . God has consigned all people to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all (Romans 11:32 RSV).

This outpouring of grace is possible because, according to I Peter 1 and Revelation 13, the Lamb was slain before God even created the universe. Knowing that a planet full of absolutely free and very creative creatures would have the potential to spawn horrific darkness and pain and destruction and death, God made this commitment: Whatever happens, no matter how painful, how vile, I will bear that evil myself. I will experience every sickness, every moment of torture, every heartache of separation, myself—and in the very end I will swallow it up in the depths of my love.

This is how we reconcile the existence of evil with a good God. We are assured that, in the end, in the resurrection, we—that is, all people—will be able to look back with joy on the most painful things we ever experienced. It may be unspeakably horrible now, but there will be joy in the morning.

In the minds of many, however, the conundrum of the presence of evil vs. a good God remains when we contemplate friends and family members who are not believers, as well as the billions of people who have died never having even heard of Jesus, because traditional evangelical theology has taught that these people will be tortured in hell for eternity. I believe those doctrines are indefensible from the standpoint of scripture. A handful of scriptural statements point in that direction, but they are green or orange or yellow pixels in a broad swath of reality that is colored “Grace” from the broader viewpoint—for many, many more passages emphasize the inclusiveness of God’s love and salvation.

*Even though a couple of statements can be interpreted that way, the very idea of hell as a place where humans are tortured eternally, as most people imagine it, is simply not in the Bible. It’s in Dante and Milton, but not in the Bible. Only about three passages in the New Testament can legitimately be interpreted along those lines. One of them is within a parable obviously not meant to be taken literally; one mentions a “lake of fire” but says explicitly that only the Devil and his angels will suffer eternally—otherwise, there’s no logical reason to assume that any mortal humans thrown into such a place would experience anything different from what any reasonable person would expect, i.e., they would be instantly vaporized. There is perhaps one other statement that suggests eternal suffering for humans; but given the overwhelming preponderance of biblical statements that proclaim God’s mercy and grace and the breadth of his salvation, it seems reasonable that those ideas trump the other. (As I explain elsewhere, the Bible is not an internally consistent, logical book of theology. There are contradictory ideas all over the place. We are left to glean the overall picture that is given us, not focus on one or two individual statements. And the overall picture is of God’s love and grace.) I intentionally have not quoted specific biblical verses here, because—as I often say on this website—I am not interested in playing the proof-text game. I don’t imagine I can convince you of anything that differs significantly from what you already believe. That rarely happens anywhere. Rather, I offer ideas that I hope will ruminate within your mind and your heart, so that at some point in the future you might gradually begin to understand God and Jesus and grace and salvation in a different light—one that I believe is much closer to God’s heart and mind than the doctrines Christians have preached for centuries.

*The idea that humans are inherently immortal is not biblical—it comes from Greek/Roman thought, and to a certain extent from far-eastern religion. We are mortal. When we die, we are dead, gone—unless God chooses to resurrect us. And if we choose not to accept God’s free gift, then we simply die. Forever. That is inherent in our very nature.

*The idea that one must hear about and accept Jesus in this life in order to spend eternity with God is likewise unbiblical. It’s just not there. The good news of Jesus is that God has reconciled the world to himself. And he has given us the ministry of reconciliation—not to proclaim, “You are lost and condemned unless you become a Christian,” but rather to proclaim, “The eternal God has forgiven your sins! You are reconciled to God and to all other human beings! He wants to come dwell in you and give you a life more glorious, more filled with joy and power and peace, than you ever could have imagined!” The reconciliation has already happened—it happened when the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world, and it covers the entire cosmos, including Aunt Gertie who never had any use for church or for Christianity. Good news indeed!

*Even though I find discussion of individual “proof texts” distasteful, I feel the need to address one particular item that I know from experience a lot of people will bring up to “prove” that those who do not accept Jesus in this life are eternally damned. At the very end of Mark’s gospel there are a few concluding sentences that contain the following: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.  —Mark 16:16 RSV”  Verses 9-20 of Mark 16 were included in the King James Bible because they were in the only Greek text available to the translators back at the very beginning of the 17th century. Manuscripts dating from the early fifth century onward generally have verses 1-20. The two oldest manuscripts, however, from a century earlier, end with verse 8. In addition to manuscript evidence, there are other reasons arising from textual studies that suggest verses 9-20 are not original, but I won’t bother with them here. I will simply suggest that there are few reasons to believe that verses 9-20 are original. They reflected the theology of a later time, when the idea that nonbelievers were eternally damned had already become ensconced in the church. Those verses may be useful in revealing what people believed beginning in the mid-late fourth century, but they are not useful in revealing what Jesus actually said. I believe the nearly endless push-back from conservative scholars who insist that verses 9-20 are original arises in large part (although few would ever admit it) because removing those verses from the Bible removes one of their favorite proof texts that nonbelievers are condemned.

Moreover, God promises to take everything bad that happens to us in this life and make it into a blessing for us. Nothing will be wasted. Romans 8:28-29 does not say that God will make everything turn out well in this life. It rather says that he is able to take anything, no matter how evil and how painful, and use it to make us more like Jesus—and that, of course, is our ultimate goal. For the resurrected Jesus is the first new human, the firstborn, the first person to become what all human beings, including you and me, are destined to become. And it is our privilege, as we trudge through the pains and evils in this life, to place our trust in God and to allow him to turn those pains and evils on their heads—not necessarily by delivering us out of them, but by using them to make us more like Jesus.

But We Must Not Overlook the Possibility That God Will Deliver Us From Evil!

It is fashionable in some Christian circles—mainly the ultraliberal wing of the church—to teach that Christians are called simply to suffer, to help bear the pains of the world, while doing our best to alleviate the suffering of others. And that is true in part.

It is fashionable in other circles to teach that, if we but have sufficient faith, God will deliver us out of every bad situation, whether related to health, finances, or whatever. Both of those doctrines, when they stand alone, are wrong.

They are partial truths that lead to tremendous amounts of suffering. We need “both and.”

First: God does heal. He does work miracles. He is happy to do a lot of cool stuff for his kids, because he loves us! I could spend several hours telling stories of the supernatural blessings God has given me since I accepted Jesus. No matter how dark our circumstances, it is always appropriate to pray and to fast and to seek God’s blessing of deliverance. In SO many instances, nothing happens simply because we don’t ask! Or we ask and nothing happens because we don’t persist in asking. [Unanswered prayer usually is not God’s saying No. It is not legitimate for us to claim that God has answered No to our prayer until we have prayed and prayed and prayed and he has told us No (or preferably, Yes). In the vast majority of cases where we claim God’s answer is No, we simply have not persisted enough. See Luke 18:1-8. See also Healing and Faith: What’s the Connection?]

Second: we are indeed called as children of God to “fulfill the sufferings of Christ.” It is our calling and our privilege to lay down our lives for others, to share sacrificially with the poor and the homeless and the powerless, to spend our time not so much entertaining ourselves as serving and suffering with the least of God’s creatures. It’s not a good sign to drive up to a church building on Sunday morning and see a parking lot full of BMWs and Infinitis and Corvettes. A few, maybe, but not a parking lot full. You will find further discussion of this principle, along with explanation of why it’s a great blessing and nothing to be avoided, in Pie: What’s There Not to Like?