Friday, December 12, 2008

Surprised by Hope Part 2

A while back I did a post about N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope and promised a second post later. Well, I almost forgot but some things I've been thinking about lately have brought it back to mind. So here goes.

What is God's purpose for the world as a whole? Think about it, that question is probably what drives the way you live. It's a question that Wright brings up as well. There are two common responses to this question. The first is what Wright calls the "myth of progress." This is the idea that the purpose of humanity is to continue to grow, develop, and improve our current state until we arrive at some sort of utopian existence. You can see that this idea is quite attractive. We are constantly changing. We are learning new things as a culture. Technology is advancing and learning to deal with disease and sickness and food shortages and much more. We are better educated than ever before. Many Christians buy into this myth. We are told, and in fact we often believe, that if we can just control things enough, this world will get better. It's the "hope" offered by politicians. Vote for me, and all your wildest dreams will come true (thank you Pedro). Things will get better, we'll all be wealthier, healthier, and happier. And of course, if your particular candidate doesn't get elected, then your march toward utopia has taken a serious hit and will have to wait for at least the next four years. The problem with this myth is simple really - it isn't true. Not only that, but it doesn't have any ability to deal with evil in the world. How do we explain new atrocities like what happened on 9/11 or the genocide of Darfur, or the rise of nuclear threats, or greed in America, or father's abandoning their families, etc.? If the world is progressing forward, why are more people dying than ever before of needless disease and poverty? More on this to come.

The second thought that many have to the question of God's purpose for the world is this: The world is decaying and dying. The existence of evil and the cycles of life and death show us that we were made for something other. A world without space, time, matter, a world of pure spiritual existence. This idea says that eventually we will get rid of our mortality and our physical limitations and finally arrive in a sort of spiritual state. It also implies that therefore this world will pass away and be destroyed. This idea originates with Plato and his idea that the present world is simply a shadow of things to come. This idea is also popular among many Christians. I think of the more recent sticker, bracelet, t-shirt campaign seen on many Christian's cars and selves that say "Not of this World." While the phrase is clearly biblical, the implication is that "I'm leaving this place behind anyway so screw it." Maybe not those words exactly. But you get the point. The material world is bad, the flesh is bad, and the non-physical spirit is ultimately what is good. Someday all the "bad" will be gone and we'll be left with what is "good." "I'm saved and I'll be leaving this place and going to heaven when I die." This idea just isn't biblical. In fact over and over we hear about heaven coming to earth and the two being united in the New Jerusalem. We hear of God's plan of redemption for all of mankind. Paul says that all of creation groans in anticipation of this event. So where does this idea come from? It has close ties to Gnosticism, which was clearly shut down in the early church. It's as though this world is at best irrelevant, and at worst a dark evil place (Wright, 90). It seems to me that we see strands of this within modern Christianity today as it translates into how we live. Let's take morality for example. If I buy into this view of the world then my goal is simply to keep myself pure and far removed from the reaches of the splash of the pool of sin. I think this is what Jesus is addressing in the sermon on the mount. He confronts the Pharisaical teachings of the law over and over. "You've heard that it was said don't murder, but I tell you that hate is the issue." "You've heard that it was said don't commit adultery, but I tell you that lust is the issue." His point is this - we can try and control the flesh all we want. We can avoid doing specific things. But that doesn't make us righteous! The issue that we must still deal with is the heart. In fact in Matthew 15 we see Jesus saying "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile you; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile you" (TNIV). In other words, it isn't the physical stuff that is bad, it's our hearts and how we respond. So the idea that the physical world is evil and I'm just passing through - it just isn't biblical.

So what is the hope of Christianity? What is God's purpose for this world? Early Christians didn't believe the world was progressing toward a utopia. They also didn't believe it was getting worse and worse and that they ought to escape it. "They believed that God was going to do for the whole cosmos what he had done for Jesus at Easter" (Wright, 93). RESURRECTION. REDEMPTION. RENEWAL. If God's plan and purpose for the world is redemption, how can we believe that He will in the end scrap the whole thing and start over? The hope of Christianity is that God is in the process of redeeming, reclaiming, renewing, rebirthing, and recreating all the time. As followers of Jesus, the one who put this plan into action in one redemptive act, we partner with him in the redemption of all things. We claim this world for Him, as we bring hope and healing to people, to the creation itself, and ultimately we help to bring about the very thing Jesus taught us to pray for - "Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven." May it be so!

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