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Symbols, Actions, and Idolatry

Symbols, Actions, and Idolatry

I encountered a question recently that I’d like to explore a bit. The question comes in three parts, or perhaps with three perspectives.

  • When God commanded the Israelites to look to the bronze serpent to be healed, was God commanding idolatry?
  • Why would God give this command?
  • Was this a good command?

It’s easy to dismiss the question by simply saying that it is God’s command, therefore good, and further cannot be a command to sin. But if we consider that, as Paul says, “these things are examples for us” (1 Corinthians 10:6), perhaps we might want to explore just why God would command such a thing.


Let me first note that idolatry is rather easy to fall into. We are very much idol-making people. I often use Paul Tillich’s vocabulary in this, that idolatry is making something that is not ultimate your ultimate concern. We can take a book, such as the Bible, from which we get God’s Word, and make the book, the thing, into the object of worship.

An example of this would be using the Bible as a sort of magical talisman. I have seen people who expect the possession and use of the physical book to accomplish miracles. Not so! The power of scripture is in revealing God who is the one who takes action. It is not minimizing or dismissing the book to realize that it is what conveys to us God’s will rather than being magical or an object of worship.

An unopened Bible sitting on the shelf in your home in a prominent place might well become your idol. You believe you are closer to God because of the object. A picture of Jesus might function in a similar way. It displays to others your faith. The question is, are you in Christ and Christ in you? That same picture on the wall might either be a reminder or it might be an idol.

I have three crosses over the door to my office. If I treat them as an object of worship, and forget what they symbolize, they could easily become an idol.

Some Objects and Commands

The ark of the covenant became a problem in this very way in scripture. It was commanded by God and built according to God’s instructions. It was supposed to be there in the temple. There was some critical symbolism involved in that under those cherubim, where there would have been an image of a god in a temple of another religion, there was empty space. Empty, at least, to human sight.

This was part of the ritual of Israel’s worship. It played a key role. But when the sons of Eli decided to take it from the tabernacle and to war, something else happened. Idolatry broke out! In 1 Samuel 4 we have the story, as Israel gives this triumphant shout, the Philistines hear it and decide that the gods have come into the camp of Israel.

Israel’s actions were idolatrous. They thought that God was confined to the thing. Now the thing was good. It was commanded by God, but it was being used in a way that was inappropriate. Idolatry is dangerous, because it disconnects us from God and connects us to, and limits us by, our own power.

As a public event, this idolatry also provided a false witness to the Philistines, who believed that God was again limited to the object.

So the question becomes, why did God want the ark built if it could be so misused?

In this case, we have considerable evidence to suggest why this should be. The ark provided an important symbol in Israel’s worship, and even an antidote to idolatry in what it symbolized.

At the same time we see one of the key sources of idolatry: We really like to have something to take hold of, something we can see, and a course of action that will let us take control. When Eli’s sons took the ark, they were trying to force God’s hand. If God wouldn’t save them from a distance, they’d bring God to where God could do what they wanted done.

We combine that with liking to repeat the action. If it works once, let’s do it again.

The Command to Worship

We have many rituals commanded in the Hebrew scriptures, yet the prophets tend to downplay these to some extent. I think a good place to look at this is Psalm 51. Here we have a prayer of repentance, which says that God doesn’t want sacrifice (v. 16), but then says that burnt offerings will be acceptable (v. 19). What’s the difference? Repentance!

The point of the sacrifice is a ritual that works with, reminds us of, and reinforces the actions that we need to take. It is a good ritual in that sense. But if we replace repentance with a ritual of repentance, the action itself becomes idolatry. It suggests that some action I take can box God in. “Oh well,” it says to God, “I may have sinned, but I offered a sacrifice so now you’re stuck with forgiving me.”

We have an idolatry of action, by placing the action in place of God. Only God forgives. Leviticus and Numbers are worded carefully to not suggest that forgiveness is accomplished by the sacrifice. Rather, forgiveness comes from God. The sacrifice is God’s command, and becomes a means of bringing us to repentance and keeping us there.

So here’s another command of God that can be abused, and in much the same way as the ark of the covenant was abused by Eli’s sons.

A Means of Healing

When Naaman comes to Elisha for healing he’s told to dip himself in the Jordan river seven times (2 Kings 5). Is there something particularly efficacious about the water of the Jordan river? Not at all! This is something God is commanding Naaman to do. The action doesn’t heal. God heals. God asks for that act of obedience before God heals.

Now we could make a cult out of Jordan river water, saying that it has special healing powers. Come to think of it, we do make quite a thing out of Jordan river water, being baptized in it, bringing back bottles of it from trips to Israel.

Now don’t get me wrong. Enjoying an experience isn’t idolatry. But if you for one moment think that being baptized in the Jordan river is better than being baptized elsewhere, that the water of that particular river has more power to cleanse from sin, you have fallen into idolatry.

The Idolatry of Places

When Jesus is transfigured, Peter wants to set up camp. It’s a sacred place. It’s a natural response (Matthew 17, see especially verse 4 for Peter’s response).

That response was also natural in both Jews and Samaritans. It’s better to worship on Mt. Gerizim. It’s better to worship in Jerusalem. All of which depends on what God has commanded. It is not the place that does it, though a place can help us. I like to pray in the church sanctuary. Is this idolatry? Only if I believe that it’s the only place God can reach me.

Jesus said that those who worship God will worship in spirit and truth, and not based on place (John 4:23).

Again, it’s easy to see how the command works. Gathering in a place is part of the human process of building community, so God commands a place. Making the place more sacred than God is our desire to bring things under our own control. A good command becomes an idolatry of the particular place.

About that Snake!

In the case of the snake on a pole (Numbers 21:4-9). Here we have a simple command of God that the Israelites are to look to the serpent and they will be healed.

Before I go to our three related questions, let’s look at two other scriptural points of reference. The first is 2 Kings 18:4. Hezekiah is reforming the land and destroying idols. He destroys the very serpent referenced in Numbers 21:4-9 at the time. Why? Because people were burning incense to the serpent and had even named it. This is idolatry. What God had once commanded and used for God has been turned to another purpose.

This is one of the best illustrations of the process of idolatry. We find something good, something that God commands or approves, and there are good results. Instead of realizing that it is God’s power in action, we make that set of actions, circumstances, things, or the very location the means of our receiving good. We are then worshiping the creature, rather than the creator (Romans 1:25).

In this case we have another scriptural reference point:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him can have eternal life.

John 3:14-15 (my translation)

Here we have a symbol by analogy, so again the serpent, destroyed by Hezekiah, serves God’s purpose. Never underestimate God’s power to redeem, whether that redemption is of a symbol or of a person!

A key here, as back in Numbers, is that the person looks up to the serpent but is healed by God, and there’s a fulfillment in a person looking up to Jesus and seeing God. The lesser symbol points to the greater/greatest.

The Questions

Is God commanding idolatry? No. God’s command is to look at, not to worship the snake. The healing comes from God. Idolatry would be to assume that the snake healed. But the text doesn’t say that.

Why does God command people to look at the snake? This one is harder. I don’t really know. By analogy, I assume it has something to do with teaching them other lessons. I can also look forward to the lifting up of Jesus. But how this act connected for the people I don’t know. I understand, however, that making a place of worship, providing an ark, and providing sacrifices each had an impact on the people, and I assume this did as well.

Was it a good command? God’s word doesn’t return empty. Just because I don’t know the reasoning, which is lost in history, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t know. My guess is that Moses and the people understood this in a way I can’t, that it made sense in the situation. I have heard numerous explanations, and I can’t claim any one as definite. The fact that someone turned it into idolatry down the road doesn’t indicate that the command itself was bad. We are idol making machines. We make idols.

Was This a Good Question?

Perhaps I could word that differently. Should we ask this kind of question of God’s actions? Should we not just assume that God’s command is good?

I would suggest that this is an excellent question. If you don’t ask this kind of question of a story in scripture, you can’t really learn from it. Simply appending a moral that says, “God said it, so it’s good,” doesn’t involve much learning.

There are commands in scripture that are much more troubling, I think, and we need to be prepared to examine and see what we can learn.

Video Repost: Idolatry and Trust

Video Repost: Idolatry and Trust

My sister was going through my older YouTube videos and called my attention to the one titled Idolatry and Trust from six years ago. It relates to some of my more recent comments on God in my study on John. I’m amused to watch myself in this, as I clearly had a written transcript and had it placed too low for me to both read it and look properly into the camera. Note also that the URL provided in the video no longer exists. For information, you can use this site.

Idolatry of Theology and Liturgy

Idolatry of Theology and Liturgy

  • In a recent comment on my video Why I Hate the KJV, I received a comment that began thus: “You were saved by the KJV. . . .”
  • A young man visited my home and discussed with me for more than an hour. At the end, he said he was concerned for my salvation because of various details in the way I understand salvation by grace through faith.
  • A student asked me just what set of beliefs he needed to convey to someone and convince them to believe before he could be sure they had been saved.
  • A church member quits attending worship because he can’t stand the drums, the organ, the people raising their hands, the people not raising their hands, the way the pastor prays, ad nauseum.

All of these points do have something in common, I believe. There’s the theory of salvation by grace through faith (God does it), the theory of salvation by works (get working and earn it), and the wonderfully western theory of salvation by intellectual assent to correct theology. I would suggest, however, that this intellectual assent version falls afoul of Paul’s note “not of works lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:9, emphasis mine). I think that could justifiably be paraphrased “not of intellectual assent (or prowess) lest any man should boast.”

But no, there’s a substantial group of Christians who hold implicitly, if not explicitly, that without getting certain parts of their theology right, people cannot be saved. No thieves hanging on crosses need apply! One wonders just how many facts about atonement the thief on the cross grasped in the moment that he said “Lord, remember me”? Did he even know what “Lord” meant in that context?

Now I’m told that I put too much weight on the story of the thief on the cross, but I think it’s a tremendously important counter-example. That thief hangs there athwart the path of all those who want to make salvation difficult by requiring amounts of time, training, works, or even understanding. There’s nothing there but a cry for help and grace extended.

People frequently paint pictures of God from the theological prose of the Bible that contradict the God who appears in the stories. Personally I think this is reversed. As the thief on the cross hangs athwart the path of those who require intellectual understanding, so do Deborah (Judges 4 & 5) and Junia (Romans 16:7) stand in the way of those who want to claim that God can’t use women as leaders. At a minimum, those two examples should make one look carefully at each individual woman one meets in ministry and ask, “Is she one for whom God has made an exception?” Of course I think there are better theological reasons for rejecting gender exclusion in ministry, but that’s another post.

But what does all of this have to do with the last example I gave, a liturgical one, and with the title of the post which refers to idolatry? Quoth Paul again, “Much, in every way!” I use the basic definition for idolatry I got from reading Tillich: “Treating as ultimate anything that is not ultimate.”

  • The commenter on my YouTube video has made the KJV the ultimate thing, replacing God and Jesus as the agent of salvation, and replacing it with a book, a translation made by human hands.
  • The young man who questioned my salvation based on his theological propositions has made those theological propositions into his god. They are the idol of God before which he worships. I would note here, however, that in my view grace is sufficient for gossips and murderers, and yes, even idolaters!
  • The student who asked about what must be believed was a very sincere person who was nonetheless distressed by the idea that he might not present the right pieces of the puzzle and thus not reach someone. He was being tempted by idolatry.
  • The church member who quits over liturgy, well . . . see below.

I suspect that liturgy is the part of theology which tempts us most to idolatry. Many people ignore the atonement debates and simply believe that Jesus died for them. The idolatry is more frequently one of church leaders than church members. But everyone knows whether you raise your hands or don’t. Everyone knows what kind of music they like. Everyone knows whether they like a fixed order or a more spontaneous service.

Preferences aren’t the problem. In fact, it’s not a problem to seek to understand and believe correct theology. That is, until what you say about God and how you worship becomes more important than God. Worship is about experiencing and worshiping God in community with one’s fellow believers, the body of Christ. When you let your personal preferences keep you from corporate worship, at least some elements of that are lost. In fact, I would suggest that if you are in no sense giving up something to others in worship, you may not be fully experiencing corporate worship.

And when you let those individual preferences keep you from worship, then that becomes idolatry as well. Something that is not ultimate–the form of the worship service–has become ultimate for you instead of God.

Should pastors, church leaders, and liturgists not strive for a good worship service? Absolutely they should do their best in this area. I am not advocating sloppiness either in theology or in liturgy. I am advocating the correct priority. When a pastor presents the Eucharist carelessly and thoughtlessly, for example, it may make it harder for people to experience the presence of Christ in their midst. I very much enjoy the Eucharist. There have been times, however, when I have had to work to experience the presence of Christ because it was so clear that the pastor was not experiencing it, and didn’t care.

On another occasion I recall a minister who I thought might ascend from before the altar at any moment because he was so thoroughly engaged in the liturgy he presented. The simple fact that his worship was so completely directed at God, and so engaged his entire being, made it easy for the worshipers to join him.

It is not good liturgy and good theology that I’m challenging here. Good liturgy and good theology help bring one to God. But no liturgy or theological proposition that stands between God and the person can be truly good.

A tree is a good thing, but when one bows down and worships it, it becomes an idol. It is the same in our theology. A good doctrine, a good worship service, or a good deed, placed above the one in whose service they should stand, has become an idol.

Friends, keep yourselves from idols. Amen! — 1 John 5:21

Patience for the Nuts and Bolts

Patience for the Nuts and Bolts

Last night I attended a Bible study in which my pastor was teaching on Romans 1:22-32.  If that verse selection doesn’t fully make sense to you, consider that he was simply following up from the point at which he stopped the prior week.

My pastor is Dr. Wesley Wachob, an accomplished exegete.  One of the joys of attending First UMC in Pensacola is that while I may occasionally disagree on some technical point, I never have to cringe while listening to the sermons.  Elsewhere I frequently have order myself to ignore exegetical problems or those related to Biblical languages while listening to otherwise uplifting sermons.

So, being who he is, Dr. Wachob starting out by teaching precisely what Paul was saying.  It’s not relevant to my point here, but I happen to agree with that position.  I’m also not trying to proclaim Dr. Wachob’s position on all issues related to homosexuality, which is only a minor point of the passage, though it is the primary one for which it is cited.  (I eagerly await the sermon on how gossip and slander represents the true measure of human depravity as in verse 29-30.)  The issue I’m looking at is the starting point.  (For my Methodist readers, Dr. Wachob in no way violated the Methodist discipline in anything he said to the group.)

In particular, Paul is not writing an essay either on what constitutes an appropriate list of sins, nor is he arguing for what things are sinful and why.  He is taking an assumption of what is sinful and tying it all to idolatry, i.e. anything that places anything other than God in God’s place.  Thus homosexuality is assumed to be wrong, based on the Torah, and this is something that Paul can count on as an agreement with his audience.

Thus the point here is that while we can be pretty certain based on this passage that Paul thought homosexuality was wrong, it is as an underlying assumption, rather than as something explicitly explained.  When I say that, if you know my own view of inspiration as message embedded in surrounding cultural views, then you don’t know how I feel about homosexuality generally, gay marriage, or any related issue concerning how we respond to gays in our society today.

The text does not immediately translate itself into modern context.

If you doubt this, consider Numbers 31:15-20.  Does the command that Moses gives, couched in support for the moral preservation, not to mention the physical, of the Israelite people, represent a good standard for warfare?  I would, of course, argue that it does not.  How it can be a command of God in scripture is worthy of a bit more discussion, but that isn’t going to happen today.

Last night in our class there was a gentleman who was clearly quite knowledgeable.  Throughout the discussion he kept asking our teacher to make the application.  His requests were resisted.  Now I understand his impatience, but at the same time I applaud the resistance.  The nuts and bolts of exegesis need to be done first.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t later view the scripture in their canonical context or in the broader context of theology.  It doesn’t mean that we never get down to current, practical applications.  It just means that we have to do the hard work first.

Dr. Wachob’s interpretation of this passage–and mine–will not satisfy many on any side of this debate.  The general desire is to somehow have Romans tell us directly what to do today.  And yes, there are interpretations that make this not address homosexuality as such in its original context.  But that is a very unlikely reading of what Paul is trying to say.  Paul is talking not about some isolated group of people, but rather is talking about all gentiles here (he’ll get to the Jews later) and making a case that all have failed.  That is is theological point.

It may require some patience.  But it is worth it.

The Bible as an Idol?

The Bible as an Idol?

Via the blogroll on Gavin’s Various Musings I found Evolving in Monkey Town, and right there at the top was this post on making the Bible an idol. How could I resist continuing to read?

After I had read far enough I came across the following quote:

I believe that the primary purpose of the Bible is to equip us to do good works, not to help us win arguments, not prove other people wrong, and not to support our own lusts for power or domination of others.


Rachel is working from 2 Timothy 3:16-17, and I have often suggested to people that you won’t understand this passage if you stop after “All scripture is God-breathed . . .” (or however your translation renders “theopneustos”). You have to look at verse 17 to get the thrust of the whole thing.

While I am loathe to use the word “idolatry” except for people who have elevated the book above the God of the book, this post provides some excellent food for thought. I’m also adding Evolving in Monkey Town to my blogroll.

PSA: An Unbalanced and Ineffective View of the Atonement

PSA: An Unbalanced and Ineffective View of the Atonement

I want to warn those who expect a certain amount of conciliatory tone in my posts on doctrinal issues that I intend to speak more harshly in this post. If that offends you, try reading a different one. I don’t mean to dismiss you, but I feel the need to make some points very strongly so as not to be misunderstood. Also, for those who may not be aware, PSA stands for “penal substitutionary atonement.” I will also be speaking very much of a debate within Christianity, and I will make many assumptions that will generally be shared only by Christians.

As has happened very often recently, this post starts from a comment made or quoted by Adrian Warnock. In his recent post Mark Driscoll Preaches on the Atonement in Edinburgh, Scotland, Adrian provided a video of Mark Driscoll preaching on the atonement. Peter Kirk has responded to Mark Driscoll’s comments, and I am in agreement with what he has said about those.

I, however, am responding only to one line in Adrian’s summary of Driscoll’s comments:

  1. The Central Theme—Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA)

This is the reason I have spoken out against PSA so frequently, not that PSA has no basis whatsoever in scripture (though as I study the new perspectives on Paul that basis gets smaller and smaller), but that its centrality has no basis in scripture, and in fact, does great harm to large portions of salvation history. I like Tillich’s definition of idolatry, paraphrases as “having as your ultimate concern something that is not ultimate.” I apply that doctrinally to state that making something central that is not, in fact, central will have the same effect, and will lead to idolatry.

Now before I go on, let me answer a question. Just what do I regard as central to the gospel?

I can answer that in two parts. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16, NRSV). The first central point is God’s love. God gave his son so that, if we believe (or put our trust) in him, we could live with him eternally. That’s one statement of the gospel in a nutshell. Now note that it doesn’t mention a courtroom. It doesn’t mention God’s wrath. It doesn’t mention punishment. It does not call for belief in a set of doctrines, but rather in a person. It operates from a foundation of love that results in giving–giving of the Son, and giving of eternal life.

I can inversely state this with the two laws, love for God and love for one’s neighbor (Matt. 22:34-40). The starting point for this command is loving God with the whole heart, mind, and soul. I cite the Matthean version because Matthew explicitly records Jesus as saying that the law and the prophets “hang” on these two commands, thus giving them a certain centrality. I think they are central as the opposite side of the same coin with John 3:16. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). While the two commands are central, they attach to the even more central idea that love in general starts with God. If God did not “so love,” then we would not love God, and if those two events did not happen, the full measure of love for one’s neighbor would never become a reality.

Note here that I’m not claiming that only Christians can love. God’s love is there because God is love (1 John 4:7-8). I actually think I should be able to stop there, because I think it is so abundantly clear that God’s love is more central than any theory of it, and that’s God’s love is the central point of the atonement. God loved; God gave. The courtroom is simply one way in which people have tried to express how God can carry out his love in practice and how we can understand it. But the metaphor, the attempt to understand, cannot take over the center from the reality.

How would PSA suggest we express the first commandment? Well, we have at the foundation of PSA God’s essential revulsion at human sin, and even his inability to look at it. In order for God to accept us he must look at Jesus, who is the only righteous one. Rather than God’s love, we have God’s loathing placed into focus. Even if one says he’s doing it all ultimately because he loves us, PSA puts the focus on the negative, on the complete depravity of humans and God’s inability to forgive them without killing somebody.

So how does this evoke my love for God? I am to love God with my whole heart, mind, and soul, even while he loathes me, a sinner, with everything in his being. To look at me, he has to play pretend, and look at Jesus instead.

How would this work in real life? Supposing that I inform my wife that I loathe her, that I cannot stand to look at her body, and that in order to make love to her, I must imagine her to be someone else. Would this tend to improve or to destroy our relationship? Would she enter into passion with her whole heart, knowing that I must imagine another in order to find her presence acceptable in our bed?

Yet this is essentially the “love” with which we are presented in PSA. Is it any wonder that advocates search for texts about God hating his enemies, and find the language of hatred, disgust, and loathing more appropriate than any normal language of love? We are constantly reminded that various excessive expressions are just individual views, and may be hyperbole taken out of context. But should I constantly tame the rhetoric of actual advocates of PSA in order to match up with an ideal view that is rarely expressed?

Now in a few paragraphs I’m going to spend a few moments on PSA as a metaphor, taken out of the center, but nonetheless seen as expressive of the atonement. But first, let me look at the human centered nature of PSA.

Human centered? The constant refrain is that those of us to don’t accept PSA as central are the ones who are taking God out of the center. But consider just what the most important issue in PSA is for the believer.

Let me take this through a metaphor. When I was a boy I would occasionally get in trouble, shocking as that may seem. I would be confronted by one of my parents. Now think of me as a boy standing before mother or father after I have committed some significant infraction. What is my major concern? Well, as I remember it, my major hope was to avoid punishment. Reform, relationship building, the peace of the family as a whole, and ultimate justice in the universe were nowhere in my thinking. I wanted to avoid punishment.

That is precisely the focus of PSA. With all the emphasis on human depravity, on God’s sovereignty, on universal justice, and other such concepts, at the bottom line PSA tells me that I get to avoid punishment. If PSA is the central understanding of the atonement, then that implies that the primary problem following the fall was not the damage caused by evil actions, or the devastation caused by people separation from and rebellion against God. The central problem that God faced, in this scenario, was that he just has to punish someone.

On the one hand we have helpless humans. Having committed one sin, they have become totally incapable of doing anything good, totally depraved. They are helpless. But on the other hand, we have a God who is so hopelessly out of control and helpless that he cannot manage to handle this in any way but to strike out and punish someone, anyone. So this helpless God arranges some sleight of hand, and strikes out at his son instead, so he doesn’t have to punish those helpless depraved humans.

The only thing that is solved in this view of PSA is that the people don’t have to be punished. I don’t have to be punished. Now that’s some pretty good news right there, but it is a very narcissistic set of good news. I’m filled with joy that I dodged the bullet. There is no purpose, however, other than this satisfaction of an oddly medieval sense of justice. So the problem of punishment is solved, but the nasty behavior continues, and is essentially doomed to continue.

It has always seemed odd to me that so many people of my acquaintance can find such joy in predestination, when the opposite side of that coin is that some are predestined to hell, or if we state it in a less extreme form, some simply fail of being predestined to heaven and thus default into hell. I’m sure that while burning in the fire, this doctrinal nuance will be of great comfort to them. But supposing I believe that I am predestined to heaven. What if my wife is not? You say, “Is she not a Christian?” Well, according to some Calvinists I have encountered, should she backslide, one might conclude that she never really was. Or perhaps I will backslide. Great comfort there! But for some reason nobody who currently professes belief assumes that he or she is headed for the wrong place. That seems a bit narcissistic to me, and so does PSA if made central.

Now how can PSA be read when not central? Well, first, we do not have to make it walk on all four. If it’s central, then somehow each element must fit around the core, and thus we get imbalances such as God’s loathing for sinners.

Second, we no longer have to assume that the problem referenced and solved by PSA is the central problem of the fall. Certainly, we would all see avoiding punishment as a very important point, but if that was the most important point, then surely a most powerful God could figure out a way to solve it. But there is a more central problem of sin–the damage that it does to the creatures God loves. I think the atonement addresses this problem as well, and I think that the problem of sin and its damage is more important in God’s eyes than the problem of the consequences I face for being a rebel.

Third, I am more free to bring the trinity into the equation. In some ways, PSA starts to make less sense, when we bring trinitarian theology to bear. God killing himself? God taking the penalty on himself? In other ways it begins to make more sense. One way for God to demonstrate to us both that sin is horrible, but that he is willing to forgive and redeem is to himself take on those consequences.

And those are not the only items. What I want to bring out here is that there are many theological themes that tend to blunt the nastier aspects of PSA, but those themes also tend to move PSA out of the center. As the central doctrine of the atonement I think PSA will always become a stumbling block and result in the language of pure wrath, loathing, and of a God who is truth challenged, limited, and has to pretend in order to accomplish his will.

I am not a pastor, though I took my MA in Religion (concentrating in Biblical and cognate languages) at a seminary. But for me the key issue here is first pastoral–how do I reach people. I believe Jesus gives me every license by his words and deeds to place that first. Second, the issue is Biblical, and only third do I see it as theological. (The theologically trained may blame that on the lack of theological training in my Biblical studies programs.)

My focus is illustrated by a gentleman who came to my office, referred to me by a pastor. He believed he was oppressed by the devil and by demons and I began to ask him about his relationship with Jesus and his personal trust in Him for salvation. He could recite doctrines. He was a sinner, and knew it. He knew the offer for his salvation. He could recite John 3:16. But he could not honestly say, he told me, that God so loved him.

He was a transient, and he left the area before our second appointment, so I do not know how well the seed I tried to sow grew, or if it grew at all. But for me the bottom line on a view of the good news and the atonement is this: How well does it help you look someone in the eye and say, “God loves you!”

In that task, I believe, PSA repeatedly fails.