We want to encourage Christians to be salt and light in the full panoply of life, living out the norms of the kingdom in ways that do good to people around us while challenging the cultural status quo with the norms of the kingdom and the prospect of a new heaven and a new earth. The Gospel Coalition exists to prepare the next generation for gospel-centered ministry.
Jesus is the goal of redemptive history. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul observes that God has “[made] known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him.” In Galatians 4:4, the apostle has the same view in mind: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son.” Hebrews 1:1 also highlights the climactic arrival of the Son of God: “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”
In short, the apostles, as model interpreters, understand all redemptive history to be leading to Jesus.
Example of Baptism
Consequently, it’s not surprising to find that the “typological structures” of the Old Testament escalate until they find fulfillment in Jesus. In other words, the Scriptures begin with glimpses of the pre-incarnate Christ and gradually add contour and color to the portrait of the coming Messiah. Over time, such glimpses of grace are developed and made more concrete as the types—that is, forward-looking persons, events, and institutions of the Old Testament—repeat and escalate.
One prominent event repeated in the Old Testament is “baptism.” As Peter observes in his first epistle, baptism “corresponds” (in terms of fulfillment) to Noah and his life-saving—make that humanity-saving—ark (1 Pet. 3:20).
In this article I want to show that Old Testament “types” don’t just prefigure Christ and his work of salvation, but also grow in intensity and efficacy as the incarnation nears.
We’ll take baptism as a case study.
According to 1 Peter, baptism begins not at the waters of Aenon (John 3:23), but in Scripture’s opening chapters. In Genesis 6, God tells Noah that humanity’s sin has reached a critical mass (v. 5) and that he plans to destroy the world with water. In that trial by water, God promises to save Noah and his family.
This is the origin of baptism, the headwaters of every other baptismal font. At first glance, it may seem to be the most prominent of all baptisms, but it’s actually the weakest. Granted, the waters engulfed the whole earth, but when we consider Noah’s ark only saved seven people besides himself, we see just how weak this “baptism” was. It set in motion the pattern of salvation through judgment, but it did little to effect salvation.
This is the origin of baptism, the headwaters of every other baptismal font. At first glance, [Noah’s] may seem to be the most prominent of all baptisms, but it’s actually the weakest.
In a purely physical sense, it spared the human race, but it had little spiritual effect. Noah functioned as a priest who mediated—and in a sense, still mediates—a non-salvific covenant for all people. As Genesis 9 shows, however, Noah’s covenant mediation was weak. Like Adam, he too fell naked due to the fruit of the vine. His sons inherit a mixed blessing—Shem is blessed, Ham is cursed, and Japheth stands somewhere in between.
Noah’s trial by water gets baptism started, but it’s the weakest link in the typological chain.
Next, the people of Israel are baptized into the salvation mediated by Moses (1 Cor. 10:2). Moses himself undergoes a baptism of sorts when he’s thrown into the Nile (a place of death) and rescued miraculously through Pharaoh’s own daughter (Ex. 2). Harkening back to Noah’s baptism, the basket Moses is placed in is actually an “ark” of refuge (a deliberate linguistic connection between the two stories).
Eight decades later, when Yahweh saves the nation, he does so both by substituting a lamb for the firstborn of Israel (an escalation of the substitution sacrifice found in Genesis 22) and also by parting the Red Sea. Paul later calls this event Moses’s “baptism” (1 Cor. 10:2), and, like Noah’s ark, it corresponds to the salvation ultimately found in Christ.
In redemptive history, Moses’s baptism is greater than Noah’s, for it saves more than a few family members. Moses’s baptism saves the whole nation of Israel. Even the event’s intensity is unmatched by the first flood. Whereas Noah boarded the ark before the waters came (Gen. 7), Moses’s waters stood ready to swallow Israel as Pharaoh’s armies chased them. With Israel fearing for its life, God commands Moses to raise his staff, that he might part the waters and provide salvation (Ex. 14:10–16). After their safe passage, Moses pulls back his hand as the waters cover the Egyptians’ heads (v. 26). In this dramatic narrative, it’s plain to see how the efficacy and intensity of baptism have escalated.
A generation later, Joshua takes Moses’s place. While he doesn’t measure up to Moses’s status as a prophet (see Ex. 34:10–12), he too is called “the servant of the LORD” (Ex. 24:29)—an appellation often used of Moses (Deut. 34:5; Josh. 1:1–2, 7, 13, and so on). In Joshua’s quest to lead Israel into the Promised Land, they’re again blocked by raging waters in flood stage (Josh. 3:15). Like Moses, Joshua receives his instruction: “Command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the brink of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan’” (v. 8). Joshua obeys. The priests enter the flood waters; the waters stand up in a heap (v. 13); and Israel is able to enter the land.
As at the Red Sea, Israel’s leader guides God’s people through dangerous waters at God’s command. But notice the escalation. Instead of raising a staff, God asks the priests to stand in the water. The risk is greater, but so is the payoff. Instead of delivering Israel from Egypt, Joshua brings the children of God into the very land God had promised. Moses successfully brought Israel out of bondage, but he failed to bring the nation to dwell with God. A new Moses, however, completes the task. And so Israel, through Joshua, is once again saved by baptism.
Fast forward nearly a millennium to Mediterranean shores. God’s prophet Jonah is tasked to go to Nineveh and preach repentance to God’s enemies (Jonah 1:2). Imagine traveling to Mecca in 2015 to preach repentance to leaders of ISIS. Such was Jonah’s charge.
Reluctant to obey, Jonah goes in the opposite direction to Tarshish (1:3). While he’s asleep on the boat, God hurls a storm and threatens to destroy the whole vessel (1:4). In the midst of the divine fury, Jonah confesses his sin and begs the sailors to throw him overboard (1:12, 15). They oblige, and immediately the storm abates (1:15). The men are saved and give homage to Yahweh (1:16), but Jonah’s death is certain—to those on the boat at least.
Jonah 2 continues the story from the belly of the fish. In that casket with gills, Jonah recounts how the waters engulfed him, and he cries out to God. God saves Jonah, who does not deserve deliverance. What normally meant the end of life (death by aquatic consumption) serves as the means of his rescue. Three days later (1:17), life returns as the fish spit him out on dry ground (2:10).
Amid the drama, another picture of baptism emerges. Like Moses and Joshua—the representative leaders of Israel—Jonah too occupies an office among God’s covenant people. As a prophet, his life does more than bring God’s words to the nation. He embodies the nation. And his rebellion displays Israel’s attitude in the days leading up to exile.
Still, Jonah’s life, “death,” and “resurrection” do more than speak to ancient Israel. They depict the kind of baptism Jesus will undergo (Matt. 12:40). Following the trajectory of previous baptisms, Jonah’s baptism is both similar and also different. It too displays the fury of God’s wrath, and the means of salvation is a type of baptism—Jonah’s substitutionary “death” spared the Gentile sailors and his preaching brought a whole city to repentance (Jonah 3).
Without getting into the details of his repentance, it’s noteworthy that Jonah’s baptism was both more costly and also more powerful than any previous one. With Noah, Moses, and Joshua, no one died. The people of Israel and the priests in the Jordan may have thought they were going to die, but they didn’t. In Jonah’s case, he did die—or at least he appeared to die to his fellow sailors.
We who know the whole story can view his three-day fish ride as an act that looked like death. And his baptism caused a wave of repentance far larger than anything Israel had ever seen. The Israelites delivered from Egypt by Moses’s baptism died in the wilderness (Ps. 95), and the generation that took the land enjoyed the blessings therein, but nothing is said of a spirit of repentance. By escalation, the miracle in Nineveh was far larger in scope than any other baptism to date.
Still, it was only a shadow of the real thing.
Like Moses, Jesus experienced two baptisms. At the onset of his ministry—“to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15)—Jesus first underwent the baptism of John (Matt. 3). This identified him with the people of Israel, whom he was about to lead on a new exodus (Luke 9:31).Like Joshua entering the Promised Land, Jesus (as a new Joshua) was baptized by John, who was baptizing outside the land on the other side of the Jordan (John 1:28). And like Moses’s first baptism, Jesus’s wasn’t for the salvation of his people; it was an identity-marker of his ministry.
Like Moses, Jesus experienced two baptisms.
Jesus’s second baptism is the one to which all the previous shadows point. In Mark 10:39, while discussing who’s the greatest with his disciples, Jesus says to James and John: “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” His language implies the baptism of his death (cf. Rom. 6:4–6) and the suffering he comes to earth to embrace. He tells his followers they too will suffer with him and for him, but not before he first goes to the cross. According to Jesus, baptism is an ordeal whereby he willingly puts himself under the floodwaters of God’s wrath.
Like Noah’s ark, Jesus’s cross will become a refuge for all who seek rest in him.
Like Moses’s staff, Jesus will be lifted up, so as to deliver his people from impending death.
Like the priests in the Jordan, Jesus will insert himself into the stream of God’s wrath.
Like Jonah, Jesus will volunteer himself to be swallowed in the earth, so that he might rise to save the nations.
In these ways and more, Jesus both fulfills and also eclipses Scripture’s previous “installments” in the pattern of baptism.
Putting It All Together
With the full light of revelation, we can see how each of these biblical baptisms foreshadows with increasing intensity and efficacy the cross of Jesus Christ. In each case, the magnitude of the suffering does relate (in some unspecified way) to the magnitude of God’s mercy. As redemptive history progresses, the various types increase in passion (suffering) but also in the measure of their salvation—from Noah’s family, to the nation of Israel (Moses and Joshua), to the nations of the world (Jonah). In each case, the baptism is physical, not spiritual, since none can accomplish what Christ alone can.
In Jesus’s case, since his sacrifice is offered with his own blood, his death has the power not only to procure forgiveness for all his people, but also to ensure that his message will reach his elect in every corner of the earth. He will save the whole family of faith from the floodwaters of God’s wrath.
To this day, the power of Christ’s bloody baptism is displayed as the cross reconciles all things (Col. 1:20). So when we read the Old Testament, may we observe the intricate details through which God paves the way for his Son. And may we marvel at his wisdom and power to save sinful believers through Christ’s superlative baptism.
In his book Teaching Ruth and Esther, Christopher Ash—writer-in-residence at Tyndale House in Cambridge, England—writes about the book of Ruth:
The is more to this story than meets the eye. As a diamond gathers and concentrates light from all directions into an intense and radiant beauty, so Ruth displays the wonder of Christ and shines with his beauty. . . . Here the good news of Jesus will be told in terms of emptiness and fullness, famine and plenty, sadness and joy, death and life, bitterness and hope.
In our conversation, Ash helps Bible teachers see the kindness at the center of the book of Ruth. He warns us against imposing things onto the story not emphasized by the author, and he demonstrates how best to present the fullness and kindness of Christ through this little book.
Last week more than 60 evangelical leaders released a statement addressing artificial intelligence. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) spent nine months working on “Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles,” a document designed to equip the church with an ethical framework for thinking about this emergent technology.
“There are many heated debates in Washington, many of them important,” said ERLC president and TGC Council member Russell Moore. “But no issues keep me awake at night like those surrounding technology and artificial intelligence. The implications artificial intelligence will have for our future are vast.”
Moore added, “It is critical that the church be proactive in understanding AI. It’s also critical that the church insist AI be used it ways consistent with the truth that all people possess dignity and worth, created as they are in the image of God.”
What is artificial intelligence?
The term artificial intelligence (AI) was coined in 1956 by the American computer scientist John McCarthy, who defines it as “getting a computer to do things which, when done by people, are said to involve intelligence.” There is no standard definition of what constitutes AI, though, because there is a lack of agreement on what constitutes intelligence and how it relates to machines.
According to McCarthy, “Intelligence is the computational part of the ability to achieve goals in the world. Varying kinds and degrees of intelligence occur in people, many animals and some machines.” Human intelligence includes such capabilities as logic, reasoning, conceptualization, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, planning, creativity, abstract thinking, and problem solving. A machine is generally considered to use AI if it is able to perform in a way that matches these abilities.
What are the types of AI?
The two general categories of AI are general and narrow. General AI (or “strong AI”) is the capability of a machine to perform many or all of the intellectual tasks a human can do, including the ability to understand context and make judgments based on it. This type of AI currently does not exist outside the realm of science fiction, though it is the ultimate goal of many AI researchers. Whether it is even possible to achieve general AI is currently unknown. But even if achieved it is possible, such machines would likely not possesses sentience (i.e., the ability to perceive one’s environment, and experience sensations such as pain and suffering, or pleasure and comfort).
Narrow AI (or “weak AI) is the capability of a machine to perform a more limited number and range of intellectual tasks a human can do. Narrow AI can be programmed to “learn” in a limited sense but lacks the ability to understand context. While different form of AI functions can be strung together to perform a range of varied and complex tasks, such machines remain in the category of narrow AI.
How do computers “learn”?
To be considered AI, a machine needs the ability to “learn.” One of the most common types of AI involves “machine learning,” the science of getting computers to learn and act like humans do, and improve their learning over time in autonomous fashion, by feeding them data and information in the form of observations and real-world interactions. (While all machine learning is AI, not all AI involves machine learning.)
Machine learning usually involves the processes of training and inference. In the training phase, machines are first fed data and information in the form of observations and real-world interactions. The machine looks at the data and makes generalizations from the examples provided. The machine then uses algorithms, that is, a set of guidelines that tell a computer how to perform a task, to make inferences (i.e., conclusions reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning).
A prime example of machine learning is teaching computers to learn how to identify images, such as recognizing human faces. During the training phase, programmers have the computer process a large dataset using thousands or millions of images of human faces. The machines are then taught to expect certain properties of faces, such as the average distance been nose and eyes or between ears. The computer may then break the images down into small sections and look for patterns based on color, shading, and so on. Through this process of training and inference an AI program can become better at learning what attributes are most relevant to recognizing faces.
What are positive examples of the use of AI?
Many current uses of AI appear to be rather mundane, such as when you ask iPhone’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa to tell you the latest sports score. These machines use voice recognition AI to translate your spoken words into searchable format. For most people this will be nothing more than a time-saving novelty. But for those with disabilities, such AI enhanced features could provide them a greater degree of independence and autonomy.
In the near future AI may also transform such fields as health care. For instance, AI may soon allow for MRI scanning that is considerably faster and yet still provides an image with the required accuracy. As Rob Verger of Popular Science notes, patients would spend less time in machines and imaging centers, and hospitals could do more tests per day. By driving down the time and cost of MRIs, doctors could order one of those scans instead of a traditional X-ray or CT exam—and save the patient from further exposure to radiation.
What are negative examples of the use of AI?
As with every other technology, AI can be used in ways that are harmful or lead to unintended consequences.
In China, the government is using AI based tools to increase the power of the authoritarian state. “With millions of cameras and billions of lines of code, China is building a high-tech authoritarian future,” writes Paul Mozur in The New York Times. “Beijing is embracing technologies like facial recognition and artificial intelligence to identify and track 1.4 billion people. It wants to assemble a vast and unprecedented national surveillance system, with crucial help from its thriving technology industry.”
In the United States, Facebook was recently sued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for using an AI enhanced system to allow advertisers to restrict who is able to see ads on the platform based on characteristics like race, religion, and national origin.
What are the moral concerns about AI?
When machines begin mimicking human intelligence they can potentially be engaging in moral behavior, making them artificial moral agents (AMAs). As philosopher James Moore explains, from a machine ethics perspective, you can look at machines as being:
• Ethical-impact agents — machine systems that have an ethical impact, whether intended or not, on humans, animals, or the environment.
• Explicit ethical agents — machines that have algorithms to act ethically.
• Full ethical agents — machines that are ethical in the same way humans are (i.e. have free will, consciousness, and intentionality)
Since they are likely to have an influence that is not ethically neutral, most AI machines will be some type of ethical-impact agent. Few machines, however, will ever reach the level—if it’s even possible—of full ethical agent.
The area of concern is in whether they are implicit or explicit AMAs. Often it can be difficult to draw sharp lines of distinction. Consider, for instance, self-driving cars—a type of AMA—which need to be programmed for how they should respond to scenarios where collisions are highly likely or unavoidable. Should self-driving vehicles be programmed to always minimize the number of deaths? Should they be programmed to prioritize the lives of their passengers?
AI can also affect the moral behavior of humans. An example is how AI technology could be used in sex dolls or sex robots. Although sex dolls have been available in the United States since at least the late 1960s, advances in technology have led to the creation of sex robots that can move, express emotions, and even carry on simple conversations. The result is that such AI enhanced sex dolls could reduce male empathy by teaching men to treat women (and sometimes children) as objects and blank canvases on which to enact their sexual fantasies. (See also: The FAQS: Christians and the Moral Threat of Sex Robots.)
How should Christians approach and think about AI?
Because AI will affect so many areas of life, Christians need to be prepared to maximize the benefits of such technology, take the lead on the question of machine morality, and help to limit and eliminate the possible dangers.
“As Christians, we need to be prepared with a framework to navigate the difficult ethical and moral issues surrounding AI use and development,” says Jason Thacker, who headed the AI Statement of Principles project for ERLC. “This framework doesn’t come from corporations or government, because they are not the ultimate authority on dignity issues, and the church doesn’t take its cues from culture. God has spoken to us in his Word, and as his followers, we are to seek to love him and our neighbors above all things (Matt. 22:37-39).”
Many times, I’ve felt overwhelmed by the gap between my beliefs and my behavior.
The week before one particular Easter, I did something that caused me to deeply dislike myself. On a dinner date with my wife, Patti, I expressed my frustration with a certain individual, and then started tearing the person apart with gossip. After I finished assassinating the person’s character with my words, Patti looked at me and gently responded, “Scott, you know that you shouldn’t have said any of that.”
This faithful, corrective word from my wife sent me into a personal crisis. Anyone who listens to my preaching knows that I abhor gossip. I often equate gossip to pornography of the mouth because it seeks the same thing that a lustful fantasy seeks: a cheap thrill at another person’s expense, while making zero effort to honestly connect with or commit to that person, in effect turning them into a thing to be used—for the sake of a self-serving emotional rush.
Patti’s gentle rebuke took me to a sobering place. How can I presume to be a minister of the gospel and a communicator of God’s truth? Having so easily cursed a fellow human being who bears the image of God, dare I use the same mouth to proclaim the blessings of God week after week? “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. . . . These things ought not be so” (James 3:9–10).
My Darkness, His Grace
This incident jarred and alarmed me, and sent me into self-loathing. It got so dark that I pulled Patti aside and asked her if she thought I was a fraud. Did she think it would be best if I just quit the ministry altogether? She was the one person in the world with a direct, daily glimpse into the darkness I was feeling.
The person who knows me best didn’t hesitate to agree that my heart is dark. But then, she also affirmed my calling to pastoral ministry and of the privilege God has given me—the same privilege he gave to the adulterous David, the murderous Paul, and the abrasive Peter—to serve as a spokesman for the pure and perfect One who is full of grace and truth and whose name is Holy. Patti proceeded to affirm that I do a good, consistent job of preaching both sides of the gospel to others—that (1) we are all busted-up sinners who have no hope apart from the mercies of God, and that (2) God has met that need richly through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. We are at the same time desperately in ruins and graciously redeemed.
When we preachers limp into and out of our pulpits, God tends to do a lot of terrific things in the lives of our communities.
“Scott,” she said, “now is the time for you to preach the second part of the gospel to yourself in the same way you preach it to the rest of us week after week. Yes, you are a mess. But the darkness in you can never outrun or outcompete the grace of God.”
So, that Easter Sunday, I told our church and a whole lot of guests that I have a theory about why my week had been as dark as it was. I think it’s because God wanted to be sure that people who entered our sanctuary on Easter encountered a pastor with a limp. When we preachers limp into and out of our pulpits, God tends to do a lot of terrific things in the lives of our communities. But when we hop up there with a swag—when we turn the pulpit into a pedestal or a stage instead of an altar—it’s only a matter of time before our communities are weakened.
Every Hour We Need Him
Anne Lamott once said in an interview that everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared, even the people who seem to have it more or less together. That’s just a wonderful way of saying that God’s grace flows downhill to the low places, not uphill to the pompous and put-together places. As the hymn goes, all the fitness Jesus requires is that we feel our need of him. Or as Tim Keller has said often, all we need is nothing; all we need is need. That Easter, these words became a fresh and sorely needed lifeline for me. When you feel like the most messed-up person in the room, and you’re the one holding the microphone, that’s a time when you need some serious reminding—both from Scripture and also from the voices of family and friends—of how the grace and mercy of God hovers over you and within you.
Like Peter, we’re all duplicitous, sinful wrecks. We zealously confess him as “Lord,” promising to never betray him, and yet within a few short hours we deny him like a traitor (Matt. 26:30–35, 69–75). But then, he comes to us just as he did to Peter, reaffirming his love and also his intent to include us in his plan to renew the world and to shepherd and feed his sheep (John 21:15–19).
Walk with a limp, not a strut. Because when you do, God might just shake the earth through you.
After the week I’d felt like throwing in the towel and my Easter Sunday confession, a member of our church added to Patti’s encouragement the following affirmation, in the form of a letter from a father to his self-doubting, struggling son:
I continue to pray for you in the struggles you face. I’ve been so helped as I’ve thought about some of the following things. I don’t want you to ever forget that Moses stuttered and David’s armor didn’t fit and John Mark was rejected by Paul and Hosea’s wife was a prostitute and Amos’s only training for being a prophet was as a fig-tree pruner. Jeremiah struggled with depression and Gideon and Thomas doubted and Jonah ran from God. Abraham failed miserably in lying and so did his child and his grandchild. These are real people who had real failures and real struggles and real inadequacies and real inabilities, and God shook the earth with them. It is not so much from our strength that he draws, but from his invincible might. I am praying that he will give you courage in this quality of his.
I love you, Dad.
Whatever your story, and whatever your regrets, I hope that you too can be strengthened by these realities. Because Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again, your worst failures and regrets don’t get to define you, and they don’t have to disqualify you, either. In fact, being brought low to a place of contrition and repentance by your own pornography of the mouth—or by some other moral failure—might be the actual beginning of a fruit-bearing ministry for you.
Walk with a limp, not a strut. Because when you do, God might just shake the earth through you.
I was raised in the kind of evangelical church that drummed into us as children that Jesus died to save us from our sins. The cross of Jesus was the center of the message at summer camps, holiday Bible clubs, and youth group talks. Jesus had died in my place, bearing my sin and its punishment for me, so I could know God and live with him forever.
When I began reading theological books and exploring the faith for myself, I grew suspicious of the beliefs I’d been raised with. I read some thoughtful authors who raised serious questions about the way I’d always understood the cross and salvation. I read Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian. I read Steve Chalke and Alan Mann’s now-famous line in The Lost Message of Jesus:
The cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. . . . If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies. . . the idea that God was an angry deity, requiring a sacrifice to propitiate his wrath was surely more like an ancient pagan god than the Father of Jesus Christ.
I read critiques of Anselm’s theory of satisfaction, which revealed how influential it had been, yet how it was bound to its medieval, Western, forensic categories. More than that, the idea that God is an angry deity—requiring a sacrifice to propitiate his wrath—was surely more like an ancient pagan god than the Father of Jesus Christ.
If anything, early church writers apparently steered away from these pagan motifs and spoke about the cross in ways that didn’t focus on God’s wrath, sin’s penalty, and substitution. Such a picture seemed to emerge only as “a courtroom drama of Calvin’s imagination,” as Bradley Jersak put it. It made God out to be angry, his Son a victim, and me a grateful but (slightly shaken) beneficiary of the crucifixion’s violent horrors.
The vision of the atonement I’d grown up with seemed horribly distorted, simplistic, and not historically supported. It was time to move on.
There and Back Again
As I kept reading over the years, however, I sensed my theological revolution had been hasty. Was my childhood understanding of the cross simplistic and naïve? Sure—I was a child, after all. So it was easy to read adult-level critiques of Sunday school illustrations and scoff. It was easy to deconstruct my “youth group” faith and proudly ditch it for the enlightenment of my new favorite authors.
Was it really a theological revolution if I never had a serious atonement theology to begin with?
But was it really a theological revolution if I never had a serious atonement theology to begin with? I hadn’t read much Calvin, Irenaeus, Anselm, or Athanasius. I hadn’t spent much time digging into Scripture either—which should’ve been a warning to me. Doing theology this way has a funny way of exposing us. I began to realize that the vengeful, pagan, loveless god I’d supposedly believed in bore no relation to the real God I had come to trust as a little boy. Just how reliable had my new guides been?
Three significant things have shaped my thinking about the death of Christ, and I’m now much closer to where I started than I imagined I might be.
1. Actually Reading the Bible
Anyone can point to the “clobber” verses that present Jesus as a substitute for sin’s penalty, such as Isaiah 53:5 and 2 Corinthians 5:21. Plenty of people find ways around these to read the cross another way—and with proof texts, that’s always possible. Yet as I began to read Scripture more deeply, I came to see these texts in the light of Scripture’s great themes and typologies. I could see no other way to interpret them—the animal skins in Genesis 3, the ram in Genesis 22, the Passover lamb and the firstborn sons, the darkness of judgment the night of the exodus from Egypt and the darkness that fell as Jesus died, all the undeniable language of propitiation and the blood on the mercy seat, and so much more.
Actually reading the Scriptures in their cohesive entirety, and seeing the Old Testament repeatedly preview the gospel, showed me that Jesus bearing our sin and its penalty is central—not peripheral, and not artificially imposed—to the story’s vast sweep.
2. The Trinity
It’s fair to say that some explanations of the cross I heard as a child weren’t Trinitarian. “God” was angry at sin but wanted to find a way to save us, and “Jesus” was a third party who stepped in to make it work. It’s partially true, it’s simplistic, and it can lead to a distortion of the gospel and the Trinity. Yet, none of my Sunday school teachers was theologically trained, and I was 10. A little grace and patience can perhaps be afforded to us all.
It’s no use pitting ‘vindictive God’ against ‘innocent Jesus,’ for the one nailed to the tree is himself the sin-hating, sinner-saving God.
According to Scripture, all three persons of the Godhead are offended by sin. All three persons are committed to destroying sin and to liberating humanity and the world from the curse. Jesus is the eternal Son, and when he died on the cross, he was there because he’d chosen to lay down his life, a plan devised in eternity. Philippians 2:6–8 clearly shows the pre-incarnate Son of God deciding to take on flesh, become a servant, and go to his death for sinners. His prayer in Gethsemane, contemplating the cup of wrath, is that the Father’s will would be accomplished through his death (Matt. 26:42).
It’s no use pitting “vindictive God” against “innocent Jesus,” for the one nailed to the tree is himself the sin-hating, sinner-saving God. The Son’s complicity in his own condemnation as our substitute is one of the gospel’s most glorious truths. Being clear about this truth doesn’t just safeguard our faithfulness; it displays Christ’s beauty and love.
3. The Witness of the Historic Church
For all the bluster that penal substitution is a late arrival to the party of atonement theory, I was surprised to read ancient writers offering plain expositions of it. And there were none of the distortions and childish lisping I’d been told to expect from exponents of this theology.
For example, here is one of the earliest Christian apologetic texts we have, The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, dated sometime in the second century:
O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!
In his exposition of Psalm 51, Augustine (AD 354–430) wrote,
For even the Lord was subject to death, but not on account of sin: He took upon him our punishment, and so looseth our guilt. . . . Now, as men were lying under this wrath by reason of their original sin . . . there was need for a mediator, that is for a reconciler, who by the offering of one sacrifice, of which all the sacrifices of the law and the prophets were types, should take away this wrath. . . . Now when God is said to be angry, we do not attribute to him such a disturbed feeling as exists in the mind of an angry man; but we call his just displeasure against sin by the name “anger,” a word transferred by analogy from human emotions.
Even ancient songs celebrated the wrath-bearing sacrifice of Christ. Written 1,500 years ago, Venantius Fortunatus’s (AD 530–607) beautiful hymn, “See the Destined Day Arise,” begins:
See the destined day arise! See a willing sacrifice!
Jesus, to redeem our loss, hangs upon the shameful cross;
Jesus, who but you could bear wrath so great and justice fair?
Every pang and bitter throe, finishing your life of woe?
Perhaps my childhood understanding had been thin. No great surprise there. But in Scripture, in theology, and in church history, I kept staring at the death of Jesus, in my place, for my sin.
Sure, illustrations need to be tweaked, care must be taken with language, and there are vital concepts to be taken into account such as representation, headship and union, the overthrow of evil powers, the cosmic victory of the cross, and so on. Yet these considerations have only strengthened and enriched the “good deposit” given to me as a child.
There has never been a generation of Christ followers more materially blessed than we are. We are wealthier, healthier, better resourced, and better connected than any other Christian community in the history of the world.
Such benefits come with great responsibility, however. Scripture teaches that to whom much is given, much is required.
You may know exactly what your calling is, where you are headed next, what you want to do in the next 10 years. Or you may be trying to figure out where God would have you serve. I was in the latter category as I headed off to college. I didn’t know what I wanted to major in, and I wasn’t sure what my vocational path would be. But that’s okay, and I’m living proof that you can change your major four times in college and still turn out fine.
What’s important to remember is that wherever God calls you, you have a responsibility as a Christ follower to take on the attitude of a servant, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to comfort those who mourn. Just like your Savior (Isa. 61:1–3; Luke 4:17–21). You are blessed to be a blessing to others.
Oaks of Righteousness
I love the metaphor for God’s servants in Isaiah 61. We’re called to display God’s splendor, to become oaks of righteousness (v. 3).
Righteousness isn’t a word we hear often these days. Our culture is uncomfortable with calls for holy living. And yet that is the countercultural entailment of gospel grace. So how are each of us doing in this call to righteousness? I imagine each of us fall woefully short in this calling. I certainly do. But that doesn’t mean we stop pursuing it.
The Bible suggests we are to be oaks of righteousness, mighty examples of God’s splendor, with roots that run deep and trees that grow tall and branches that give support for those who need a place to rest.
The interesting thing about giant oak trees is that they each begin as tiny acorns. In many ways, we, too, are like those trees. We each began as a tiny acorn. And by God’s grace, we grow into the man or woman God would have us to be.
I grew up in Mississippi, a land full of water oaks and live oaks. Did you know that there are approximately 600 existing species of oaks in the world today? Ninety of them can be found here in the United States.
Acorns take six to 18 months to mature, depending on the species. The full maturation of oaks, in general, takes a long time. This is because oaks are hardwoods that tend to grow slowly. And they can last for a long time. The oldest oak tree in the United States is estimated to be 2,000 years old.
But their slow-growing nature creates dense wood that is hearty and can be used for many different purposes. And so it is with us. We each have different callings, different spheres of service. Part of your task in the years ahead is to figure out what God is calling you toward.
Joy of Faithfulness
The threefold progression in Isaiah 61—you’re blessed to be a blessing; be an oak of righteousness; in return, everlasting joy will be yours—doesn’t mean the path will always be easy or that your investments will always double. These promises come to us in the new covenant age, after all, through union with the One who fulfilled them all. No, this is about taking the long view, about pursuing what Eugene Peterson famously called “a long obedience in the same direction.”
Christian faithfulness grows from a tiny acorn into a giant oak of righteousness—not because of what we do, but because of what Jesus has done and is doing in each of us. As God’s trees, we’re not responsible for the soil we’re born into, nor can we control how many sunny or rainy days fall within our lives. Those are important things to remember. But we are responsible for the direction of our trajectory, and Isaiah admonishes us to be people who display God’s splendor no matter our circumstances.
Like oaks, we are to have a multiplicative effect on our world for good. So my word of encouragement, as you contemplate your calling in this next chapter of your life, is to actively seek ways to showcase the splendor of your gracious God.
Yesterday, NBC News reported that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg bargained with user data, extending access to favored companies and limiting his competitors, even as he was professing to value user privacy. (Facebook said the documents were “selectively leaked” and told “only one side of the story.”)
This conflict isn’t the only thing disappointing Facebook users. A few years ago, researchers texted 82 Facebook users five times a day, asking how much they were using the site and how they were feeling.
“The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them,” researchers wrote. “The more they used Facebook over two weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined.”
Spending time on Facebook may trigger feelings of envy, which leads to self-promotional behaviors, another study found. Even getting “likes” and “hahas” doesn’t improve well-being. Indeed, a recent longitudinal study concluded that the only way to resolve the negative effects of social media is to stop using it.
But is that it? Is #DeleteFacebook the only way forward? Must we resign ourselves to a life without social networking, cat memes, baby pictures, and GIFs? Who will showcase our dinners and duckfaces if Facebook is gone?
Perhaps there is a way that social media can be improved, rather than imploded. Burning it down and walking away from a smoldering heap of binary is not the only answer.
Vocation, Power, and Duty
Although the closest things Martin Luther had to Facebook and Twitter were illuminated manuscripts and stained-glass windows, his writings on vocation can help improve the world of social media.
Vocation, like justification, is a function of God’s grace.
Contrary to previous thought that claimed only religious work is a divine calling, Luther contended that all legitimate forms of work—farming, soldiering, mothering, and governing—are callings from God.
Over the next 500 years, Luther’s theology of vocation influenced generations of Protestant and non-Protestant theologians. But recently, vocation has come under some scrutiny. Miroslav Volf, in his book Work in the Spirit, argues that Luther’s doctrine of vocation has serious limitations, such as offering little assistance for improving dehumanizing work. Instead, vocation supposedly encourages workers to remain where they are, endure the hardships of their callings, and be obedient as powerful overlords exploit their underlings.
All legitimate forms of work—farming, soldiering, mothering, and governing—are callings from God.
While these critiques are worth considering, they overlook how the doctrine of vocation speaks to those in power. Luther addressed not only servants, peasants, and milk maidens, but also princes and lords, business owners and powerbrokers, kings and cardinals. Vocation, according to Luther, permeates every strata of society—religious and secular, powerful and powerless, top and bottom, ruler and ruled.
In Luther’s mind, power and duty go together. Vocations with privilege are also vocations with responsibility. And the power and duty that accompany certain vocations can be nearly unbearable:
Before one has scaled the height, everybody wants to sit on top. But once a person is there, holds the office, and should do what is right, he finds what it really means to hold office and to sit on top. . . . Sitting on top is no fun and recreation; it entails so much labor and displeasure that he who is sensible will make no great attempt to attain the position. (Sermon on the 17th Sunday after Trinity, 1533)
That duty is especially weighty for Christians:
A ruler should say to himself, “Christ served me and saw everything through to completion, so that I should also want to serve my neighbor, to protect him and take him by the hand. That is why God gave me this office, so that I may serve my neighbor.” This is an example of a good ruler and his good kingdom. If a ruler sees his neighbor being oppressed, he should think, “That is my responsibility. I have to guard and protect my neighbor.” . . . This applies in the same way to the shoemaker, tailor, scholar, or teacher.” (Sermon in the Castle Church at Weimar, 1522)
And Luther didn’t limit his doctrine of vocation only to humans. He also extended it to technology:
Just look at your tools—at your needle or thimble, your beer barrel, your goods, your scales or yardstick or measure—and you will read this statement inscribed on them. Everywhere you look, it stares at you. Nothing that you handle every day is so tiny that it does not continually tell you this, if you will only listen . . . “Friend, use me in your relations with your neighbor just as you would want your neighbor to use his property in his relations with you.” (The Sermon on the Mount, 1538)
Our use of technology, according to Luther, should be directed toward our neighbor’s well-being. Needles, thimbles, and yardsticks—as well as smartphones, digital tablets, and software programs—are “crying out” to be used in loving service to others. Not only that, but powerful people wielding powerful technology have a special duty to protect and serve their neighbors.
Silicon Valley and Vocation
The rulers of social media have various monikers—chief executive officer, chief technology officer, director of product design. They’re deciding what user data should be collected and sold. They’re designing the user interface and determining the algorithms for what appears on newsfeeds. They’re the arbiters of real and fake news, acceptable and unacceptable content, reasonable opinion and hate speech.
Of course, Silicon Valley’s executives and engineers aren’t identical to the monarchs Luther addressed. But they do establish and maintain borders through their technology in ways similar to princes and rulers in the time of Luther. They draw boundaries of digital rights and privileges as they fight for or against their users.
Needles, thimbles, and yardsticks—as well as smartphones, digital tablets, and software programs—are ‘crying out’ to be used in loving service to others.
What Luther told the lords and rulers of his day, then, can be translated to the lords and rulers of ours. His doctrine of vocation is an injunction to the modern tech industry to wield its power in humble service to others.
There is nothing wrong with making money—even large amounts—as a result of one’s work. However, when acquiring wealth becomes more important than serving others, it becomes a misuse of one’s office and vocation. The tech industry must prioritize people over profits in order to rightly exercise its power.
Silicon Valley is a hub for new tools and technology that could be revolutionized by a sense of vocation. Imagine if the goal of tech executives was treating users “just as you would want your neighbor to use his property in his relations with you.”
Social media would be greatly improved if product designers, data engineers, and user-experience architects created technologies with love of neighbor in mind. Vocation can help the tech industry see their work as not just maximizing user experience, but also user well-being.
#DeleteFacebook is not the only way forward. Vocation has the power to #ImproveFacebook.
In the 1960s, sociologists widely predicted that religion would soon disappear. Now that we’re well into the 21st century, many of these same sociologists admit they were wrong. Religion didn’t go away. Just the opposite in fact: Religion is poised to be a dominant player on the world stage in this century.
This comes as no surprise for those of us who believe. Spirituality can’t be wiped out; humans are fundamentally spiritual beings, created by and for God. As Rebecca McLaughlin puts it in her book Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, the question for this generation isn’t “How soon will religion die out?” Rather, the question is “Christianity or Islam?” (14).
For many today, both Christianity and Islam are unappealing because they seem violent and oppressive. But is the God of these great monotheistic religions really as bad as we think? When it comes to Christianity, McLaughlin—regular TGC contributor and cofounder of Vocable Communications—thinks the answer is surely no. Moreover, the common moral and intellectual objections to Christianity aren’t insurmountable. McLaughlin engages 12 of the hardest objections to Christianity, expertly showing how each challenge—when properly probed and understood—points to a good and loving God.
Understanding Scripture in Context
Many of the hardest questions for faith arise as a byproduct of our now largely biblically illiterate culture. Religion hasn’t gone away, but knowledge of the Bible has. The loud and incessant cries of the so-called New Atheists—that “religion poisons everything” or that “the God of the Old Testament is a moral monster”—haven’t helped either. A key strength in McLaughlin’s book is her ability to cut through that noise and help the reader see and understand the Bible on its own terms.
The question for this generation isn’t, ‘How soon will religion die out?’ Rather, the question is ‘Christianity or Islam?’
The chapter “How can you take the Bible literally?” is worth the price of the book. McLaughlin helpfully distinguishes between literal and figurative language, showing that “some of the deepest truths [of the Bible] are metaphorically expressed” (95). This idea of metaphor helps us understand the big picture. Humans are created male and female in God’s image. Marriage is the joining of two into one. This union is a visible reminder of deep spiritual truths: the relationship between Christ and the church. Understanding the Bible’s overall story, as well as its use of metaphor, helps us see the goodness and beauty of Jesus and the gospel.
Clearing Up Misconceptions
Other common objections to Christianity rest on misunderstandings. Contrary to popular assumption, Christianity doesn’t crush diversity, hinder morality, cause violence, undercut science, or denigrate women. In virtually every chapter, McLaughlin treats the reader to empirical studies from history, sociology, or psychology to dispel common misconceptions.
It’s simply not true that Christianity is a white man’s religion or innately Western. From the beginning, “the Christian movement was [a] multi-cultural and multiethnic” reality (35). Rather than hinder morality, the evidence shows that Christianity has provided the motivation and theological foundation for universal human rights and religious freedom. Moreover, study after study shows a direct link between religious participation and improved moral character (61). The world is a better place because of Christianity.
Christianity doesn’t crush diversity, hinder morality, cause violence, undercut science, or denigrate women.
When it comes to violence, it’s true some have perpetrated evil in the name of Christ. When they do so, however, they act inconsistently with the teachings of Jesus. “Christianity does not glorify violence,” McLaughlin writes. “It humiliates it” (93). The same can’t be said for Islam, which was violent from the beginning, or atheism, which has inspired much of the evil and suffering perpetrated in the last couple of centuries.
Moreover, science doesn’t disprove God. On the contrary, “belief in a rational Creator God provides the first and best foundation for the scientific enterprise” (110). And Christianity doesn’t denigrate women. In the first century, Christianity provided a “radical elevation of women” (145). Christianity has never been, nor is it today, a male-dominated or male-oriented religion. Generally more active than men in spiritual affirmation and practice, women are vital to the global church and its efforts to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth (145–46).
Embracing Inconvenient Truths
Some Christian truths are unpopular today, particularly when it comes to the Bible’s teachings on sex. The Bible affirms sex as a gift from God, but there are boundaries. “The Bible is clear that sexual intimacy belongs exclusively to heterosexual marriage” (156). This “boundary cuts off the possibility of sex with anyone else” (157), including sex outside of marriage and homosexual sex. This is an “inconvenient truth” for many, including McLaughlin, who has struggled with same-sex attraction for much of her life.
Christianity is better than you think, because Christ is.
But there is a “greater truth,” too: All of us, married or single, sexually active or not, are invited into a deep spiritual intimacy—communion with God through union with Christ (155). God isn’t a cosmic killjoy. He wants to provide for us. For those who doubt, the evidence from psychology can help us see that God’s divinely imposed boundaries for sex actually bring greater freedom and pleasure, while commitment-free sex—the holy grail of secularism—has resulted in unhappiness, decreased sexual satisfaction, and increased loneliness (146–48).
Answering Tough Objections
Two of the toughest objections to Christianity concern evil and hell. How can a good and loving God allow evil? And how is it just or loving for God to send unbelievers to hell? These objections are as difficult as they come. But McLaughlin helps us see that things are even worse if there is no God. For if God doesn’t exist, there is no objective evil. Nor is there final justice for the wrongs we experience in this life, nor any ultimate comfort in suffering.
In the Christian story alone, though, we find the genuine possibility of hope. Jesus Christ took all sin, suffering, and evil on himself on the cross. They’ve been defeated, and one day they will be eradicated. When we locate our lives in the sweeping story of God, we begin to see that “suffering is not the wrecking ball that knocks Christianity down but rather the cornerstone on which, painfully, brick by brick, it has been built” (194).
Suffering is not the wrecking ball that knocks Christianity down but rather the cornerstone on which, painfully, brick by brick, it has been built.
We also begin to understand the question of hell. God has created us as free creatures, capable of morally significant action. God respects our dignity and freedom, even until the end. If we live with a clenched fist toward God, he won’t force us to join him upon death. However, the perfect justice of God demands that the penalty for sin and evil be paid. The natural consequence of a self-directed life is hell: permanent separation from a good and holy God.
But God desires our good. He wants to bring us into a relationship with him, and he gives his Son to pay sin’s penalty in our place. The cross of Christ helps us understand the problem of hell, for there we see the perfect intersection of justice and love.
God Who Pursues
There are plenty of apologetics books that address the same objections discussed in Confronting Christianity. What makes this book unique is the weaving together of evidence and story.
What makes this book unique is the weaving together of evidence and story.
McLaughlin reframes each objection by taking the reader into the biblical story. She helps us see the goodness, beauty, and truth of the divine drama. She also helps us see that God is better than many of us think, for he pursues us. In love, he sends Jesus so we can find genuine happiness, wholeness, flourishing, and forgiveness.
Indeed, everything points to Jesus as our only hope in this life and in the next. As McLaughlin summarizes,
In Jesus’s world, we find connective tissue between the truths of science and morality. We find a basis for saying that all human beings are created equal, and a deep call to love across diversity. We find a name for evil, and a means of forgiveness. We find a vision of love that is so much deeper than our current hearts can hold, and a true intimacy better than our weak bodies could ever experience. We find a diagnosis of human nature as shot through with sin and yet as redeemable by grace. We find a call to care for the poor, oppressed, and lonely, a call springing from the heart of God himself and grounded in the hope that one day every tear will be wiped away, every stomach will be filled, and every outcast will be embraced. But we do not find glib answers or an easy road. Instead, we find a call to come and die. (222)
Christianity is better than you think, because Christ is.
She sits in my office, tears running down her face. Two years ago her mother died in hospice while she lay asleep at home. She was trying to get a decent night’s rest after days spent at her mother’s side. “I just can’t forgive myself. I let her die alone. I knew I should have been there, but I was selfish. I can never forgive myself for that.”
Dozens have shared similar confessions with me. Does this resonate with you? What guilt do you bear? What burdens are you carrying because you can’t forgive yourself? If Christ has forgiven you, do you also have to forgive yourself?
If Christ has forgiven you, do you also have to forgive yourself?
Many are trapped because they can’t forgive themselves. My friend isn’t alone. And she feels trapped. Because she’ll never hear her mother offer her forgiveness, she feels like she can’t release herself from guilt.
What Does Scripture Say?
Why can’t you release yourself from your sin? Is it because the weight is too much? Because you know you haven’t changed? Because the ripple effects of your sin can’t be reversed?
I have good news—such good news. You don’t need to forgive yourself, because you can’t forgive yourself.
I know, this answer sounds foreign. Our contemporary therapeutic culture tells us that self-forgiveness is not only a category of forgiveness, it’s actually the most important of them all. Writing in Psychology Today, psychotherapist Beverly Engel says, “I believe that self-forgiveness is the most powerful step you can take to rid yourself of debilitating shame.” But here’s the vital question for Christians: Can you point to one example in Scripture of someone forgiving themselves?
There is no category of self-forgiveness in the Bible. And what a freeing truth! Your shame and guilt does not depend on your ability to forgive yourself.
Two Kinds of Forgiveness
There are two—and only two—biblical categories of forgiveness: others’ forgiveness and God’s forgiveness. Horizontal and vertical.
Horizontal forgiveness marks us as Christians. Seeking the forgiveness of others is not optional. Forgiving one another is not optional. Paul writes:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Col. 3:12–13)
It’s not enough to ask forgiveness from God; we must also ask forgiveness from those we’ve injured.
I have good news—such good news. You don’t need to forgive yourself, because you can’t forgive yourself.
As important as horizontal forgiveness is, even more fundamental is vertical forgiveness, which comes from God alone. After committing the heinous double sin of adultery and murder against Bathsheba and Uriah, David cries out to God: “Against you, you only, have I sinned!” (Ps. 51:4). How can David say this? Is he minimizing his horrifying sins against Uriah and Bathsheba?
David realizes that as awful as his sin is horizontally, it’s much worse vertically. He has profoundly offended his Creator—and the Creator of Uriah and Bathsheba—by devaluing one life and snuffing out another. He has offended his righteous, covenant-making God with his wicked, covenant-breaking actions.
Sing! You’re Forgiven.
But you know what David never walks through? The process of self-forgiveness. He doesn’t entertain for a second that he must forgive himself or that, once he’s sought forgiveness from God, he must self-flagellate to fully release himself from his sin. In fact, David would probably shock modern therapeutic sensibilities with how quickly he feels release. He admits that, once forgiven, he will have the audacity to sing: “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness” (Ps. 51:14).
Have you experienced such freedom? Have you ever felt the complete forgiveness of God so deeply that you had to sing with joy?
Vertical forgiveness allows you to experience the power and release that comes through the cross—and then it sends you back to the horizontal, where you are made right in community.
Dear fellow sinners, does guilt plague you? Seek forgiveness from those whom you have sinned against. Seek forgiveness from God your Rescuer, who has purchased your salvation through the death of Jesus. And then sing! Celebrate your forgiveness. Enjoy your freedom.
We are, all of us, having a moment. Watching the beautiful cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris apparently consumed by fire brings everyone up short: French or not, Christian or not, Catholic or not.
As we watched the conflagration, slack-jawed on our smartphones, we were suddenly faced with any number of uncomfortable thoughts: Nothing lasts. Life is transitory. Permanence is an illusion. Is this the end?
Architecture has this power: What inspires us can also undo us. The power that Notre-Dame has exercised over humanity was brought to a head on Monday, almost 700 years after this cathedral marking the center of Paris was dedicated in 1345. One of the Gothic cathedrals that for centuries has defined Western culture appeared to go up like a bonfire at a Texas A&M pep rally.
And we were brought up short. Undone.
We Want Something That Lasts
Why is that? No lives were lost. One firefighter was reported badly injured—in terms of human cost, this hardly even counts as news, let alone a tragedy. But we all sense the tragedy of it, even as we cling to the hope that Notre-Dame can be rebuilt, must be rebuilt, will be rebuilt. What was lost? Surely some very fine and very old carpentry in a cathedral’s attic that only maintenance workers ever see. Possibly some irreplaceable works of art (reports are still incomplete); certainly some irreplaceable craftsmanship.
But it’s more than lost carpentry, isn’t it, that we mourn? We mourn the violation (by fire! during Holy Week!) of a sacred space, a symbol of the universal church, even though in the present moment that church is neither very universal nor universally regarded. We mourn the destruction of a space so beautiful that to describe it in words makes the best writers despair of their impoverished vocabularies. We mourn that nothing lasts. We want something to last.
There is a large and leafy branch of evangelical Christianity that thinks the burning of Notre-Dame is an object lesson: Nothing on this earth will last, it’s all just going to burn in the end. I strongly disagree, both in the general sense (there are human works that will somehow accompany us into the new Jerusalem) and in the particular sense (the burning of Notre-Dame is not a lesson; it’s a tragedy—a full-stop tragedy where no lives were lost). Notre-Dame was and is a pillar—no, a pinnacle—of human civilization, and on April 15 we saw this pinnacle seemingly destroyed before our eyes, and it was too much for many of us. Only a true Philistine could say of the fire, “Ah, it was just a bunch of wood and shingles and some pointy spire.”
The burning of Notre-Dame is not a lesson; it’s a tragedy—a full-stop tragedy where no lives were lost.
Gratitude for Gifts
I’m hopeful Notre-Dame’s sturdy stone walls will survive the fire, the drenching, and the subsequent exposure to weather. I’m hopeful the engineers will soon determine that the cathedral can be rebuilt. And I’m hopeful the Catholic church, so buffeted by Western progress and its own missteps, will see fit to rebuild one of its most important sites. Having seen photographs of German cathedrals after World War II, I’m confident this work can be done, and hopeful it will be. And I’m cautiously hopeful than no world-famous architect will be enlisted to “modernize” what was lost in the fire, which would only compound the tragedy of fire.
As one who has a personal 9/11 story (I was airborne that morning), I have learned to appreciate every day as a gift. Paris is a gift. Notre-Dame is a special gift, one that we have enjoyed, appreciated, and been astonished by for nearly 700 years. On April 15 we learned (again) that gifts should be appreciated, that they should never be taken for granted, that they can in fact be taken away.
And this Holy Week reminds us again of the one gift, and the one Giver, that cannot.