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Just Walk and Do Not Be Afraid

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I was reading through Psalm 23 in Hebrew this week, marking it up on the Accordance app on my iPhone, and something occurred to me for the first time: There are only two things the person in this psalm is seemingly asked to do: “Just walk and do not be afraid.” With the exception of the “I shall not lack” in the opening verse and “I shall dwell” in the last, the only two places where the first-person is used is in Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk (elek) in a ravine of deep darkness, I do not fear (lo-iyra) evil…” Those are the only two things the person takes initiative for; everything else is taken care of by the Shepherd. The Lord makes the sheep lie down in green pastures. He guides them to restful waters. He restores their life. By means of this rod and staff, He comforts them. He arranges a table for them. He anoints the head with oil. All of the benefits that come to the person of Psalm 23 come from the Shepherd: the green pastures, the restful waters, the restored soul, the paths of righteousness, his presence, his protection and discipline, his anointing.

As one moves along through the psalm, there is a movement from the pastures to the palace. The first clue is in the opening verse as it identifies the Shepherd as Yahweh—the Lord. We also find this royal theme on the other side of “being led in paths of righteousness,” as it says He leads “for his name’s sake.” The Hebrew is prefixed with the letter “lamed” (ל) which can indicate purpose (“in order to”, “for the sake of”) or direction (“toward his name”). It may have both senses here, as one can imagine sheep walking in the direction of their Shepherd’s voice. But in a Torah-centered world, “paths of righteousness” is an allusion to the commandments of the Torah; so it has the sense of walking in accordance with the ways of the Divine Shepherd by obeying His commandments. The Shepherd’s ways are higher than the sheeps’ ways. Thus their ways must conform to His. The royal imagery becomes much thicker toward the end of the psalm with the language of an “arranged table,” the “oil anointing the head,” and the “dwelling in the house of the Lord.”

Yet with all of these benefits, with all of this goodness, with all of this restful happiness, what are we to make of the darker pieces of this psalm? the “ravine of deep darkness”, the “evil”, and the “enemies” before which a table is arranged? Imagine yourself a sheep, walking toward the voice of the shepherd. Bright sunny day. Green pastures. You graze a little here. You graze a little there. You move along. Where shall you go for your water? Sure, there’s moisture in the grass. But all animals eventually need more to drink. The only place to get that kind of water is at the river, brooks, and streams. How shall you get there? What will the terrain be like? The rivers and brooks are down in the valley. And the only way to get there is to walk down the ravines. Through the passes, the sun gets blocked from view and there is a deep dark around various corners and curves. Why should this bother you? Well, for the same reason it would bother your shepherd: your enemies may lie in wait for you along the way. In fact, given that your enemies need water as much as you do, the most likely place you’ll encounter them is on the way to the river or brooks. The rod and staff of the Shepherd must be a great comfort on that journey down the ravine to the water. The “arranged table” seems like it has shifted from the pasture to the palace, such that one is now in a royal place in the presence of one’s enemies. But perhaps there is something to be made of its place in the pasture as well. I imagine the sheep lying down in the grass, having just had their fill of water to drink. It’s mid-morning, that favorite resting hour for the animals as they bask in the morning sunshine. Yet there, just across the river are the coyotes and predators, lapping up the water on the other side or hiding in the deep darkness of the ravine: “You arrange a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” What a picture! Death lies just a few feet away and yet there you are, lying in perfect bliss—you lack nothing. Your Shepherd is with you. He has his rod and his staff. Therefore, what do you have to fear? He will take care of you.

But it’s better than that. The imagery and language in the Hebrew of the final verse is one that keeps the predatory element alive. It says “Surely, goodness and long-suffering love will follow me the length of my days.” The word for follow is (yirdefu) which means “to pursue, chase, hunt down.” So one could understand this as “Surely, the Lord’s goodness and long-suffering love will pursue and hunt me down the length of my days.” The picture is one of a fearless Shepherd taking his sheep to places of blessing where there is every reason to fear. But while enemies may lie in wait, ready to take your very life, you lie in comfort, having your soul restored in complete and total peace. Your cup is the river and it overflows. The goodness and longsuffering-love of God have “out-hunted” your enemies. You are His, and nobody can snatch you out of His hand. You will dwell in His house the length of your days. If the Lord is your Shepherd, you lack nothing. If you are expected to do anything, it is simply this: “Just walk and do not be afraid.”

A Zacchaean Approach to Ministry

I’d like to tell you a story—actually, three stories—that completely changed the way I think about “church” or “ministry.” My wife and I were part of a Bible Study group that met in Chicago a number of years ago. It was the typical Bible Study gathering of people from different walks of life. There were about eight or ten of us. We would meet in our home. People would bring their Bibles. We would pray for each other and read through the text together and try to apply its teachings to our lives. This is not unlike many Bible Studies you may have gone to or hosted yourself. What accounted for the sudden change in perspective? Our good friends were in the habit of picking up some of those in our group who didn’t have a car or had to take public transportation to get to our home. One day someone suggested that instead of continuing to host the study at our home we should share the time among all of our homes—two or three weeks at this home, two or three at another, and so forth. It seemed like a good idea. The group agreed. He furthermore suggested we meet at the home of the woman he was driving to Bible Study each week—a home he had never visited. And so we did.

As we walked into the third story of her apartment building, things suddenly became very clear. There was one mattress on the floor of one of the two bedrooms. There was an air cooler unit in the wall, a refrigerator, and a stove. Oh yes, and there were a couple of shelves holding some of her grandsons’ karate trophies. That’s all I remember because that’s all that was there. Everyone from the Bible Study came in and we all sat on the hardwood floor. Nobody said a word about the apartment. We proceeded opening our Bibles and reading from the selected passage. Nothing was different about what we then proceeded to do other than sit on the floor. But my mind—and the minds of the vast majority of others in the group—could not stop thinking about the living conditions of this dear woman, her grandsons, and her daughter who all lived there.

A similar story. My wife and her good friend volunteered to lead the Sunday School class at the local church. There were about twelve to fifteen kids attending at the time. As part of the activities after puppets and storytime, the children were allowed to have some animal cookies. Four of the children quickly started eating through about half of the two-gallon tub of the animal cookies. When asked why they were taking so many animal cookies, the boys said they were hungry. In the context of “church”, this could be viewed as a selfish act of hoarding and not thinking of the other kids there that day. But after the class, my wife and her friend spoke with the mother about her sons: “Are they really this hungry all the time?” The mother said that she hadn’t had time to go the store recently to get some more food. So my wife and her friend volunteered to go shopping and bring lunch over to them. When they finally arrived at the apartment and opened the refrigerator, they found not only that there was little food there; there was hardly any food at all. The refrigerator was empty. Upon discovering this, they returned to the grocery store and bought groceries to help stock the refrigerator with some more food. We were of meager means ourselves at the time, but we did what we could. Eventually we connected the family with a local Jewish foundation nearby that had greater means and resources to help them longer term.

Another story. At the same church, we were all standing together as a congregation singing one of my favorite praise songs: “Blessed Be Your Name.” Every time I sing this song it reminds me of the prophecy Jesus made in Matthew 23:39 when he says “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I longed to gather you together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you were not willing. You will not see me again until you say ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” It is a powerful prophetic phrase that echoes the messianic prophecies of old and testifies to the abiding love of God for his people, of his desire to bring redemption and salvation to those who would turn to him. As we were singing this song, the room filled with a rich spirit of praise and adoration for God. Suddenly the woman in front of me—who was raising her hands at the time—began to feel great sorrow. I could see it on her face. The Lord impressed upon my heart to comfort her, to extend my hand on her shoulder as if to say, “Daughter of God, be comforted in the name of Jesus.” And so I did. What transpired then was a rush of the grief she had been trying to hold down in the presence of such a great cloud of witnesses. She immediately fell to her knees and began to sob. Those of us around her stooped down to comfort her, put our arms around her, and prayed for her.

I bring these to your attention because they have fundamentally altered the way I think about church; and I hope that what I’m about to tell you will fundamentally change your perspective as well. I will state it as succinctly as I can:

Our churches spend too much effort trying to create a space that saves every week and not enough effort bringing salvation to the spaces people dwell in every day.

“Going to church” makes it possible for everyday people with very real problems to dress up, sing songs, listen to the Scriptures, celebrate communion, and yet go home to spaces in need of the salvation of God. And I’m not talking about the “getting saved” kind of salvation, but the kind of salvation Jesus talked about—the kind of salvation that saved the whole person, their families, their surroundings, their villages and cities.

Jesus was certainly in the habit of attending synagogues every Sabbath, as was the custom of his day. But more than reading and commenting on the Hebrew Scriptures every week, Jesus’ fundamental ministry consisted of going into peoples’ homes. Furthermore, it was not just “a” home—a home that could hold the most people for a Bible Study, or one with an amazingly hospitable host—but “this” home, the home of this particular person our Lord wanted to discover and completely save.

Consider the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector. Like most tax collectors, he was not highly regarded by the populace. He also happened to be short. The only way he could see Jesus was to climb up into a tree. What did Jesus do when he saw Zacchaeus in the tree? He did what any good pastor or priest would do: He ushered him to a nice seat among the congregation where he might be able to hear his sermon better. No. He stopped what he was doing and said, “Hey Zacchaeus, we’re coming to your house today. And guess what? I’m planning on staying for awhile!” When the people saw this they had a problem with Jesus. It was one thing to tolerate a curious tax collector in a tree wanting to catch a glimpse of Jesus; it was quite another for Jesus to enter into this man’s despicably rich house—adorned as it was with the oppressive taxes he had collected from surrounding towns and villages. They despised this man and everyone like him. How could Jesus defile himself in this way?! But Jesus didn’t hesitate. The kingdom of God goes where he goes. It is meant for everyone, especially those who are sick and lost—those in need of salvation. Jesus enters Zacchaeus’s home and Zacchaeus receives him gladly. The account is short and we do not know everything that transpired when Jesus entered the home of Zacchaeus. But one thing is clear: Jesus stayed long enough to bring about a transformative change in the life of this man. Zacchaeus says he will give half of his possessions to the poor. If he has defrauded anyone of anything, he will repay them four times as much—a sign of a truly transformed life. Such transformation happens because the kingdom of God has become experienced by the person in the context of the space in which they live every day. Contrast the difference in your own mind between a Zacchaeus who experiences the riches of God’s grace and forgiveness in his own home—in the presence of all of those he collected taxes from (both secular and religious)—versus Zacchaeus experiencing the same at a (decadent) church.

I would like to challenge you to think differently about “church.” And if you are a pastor or priest—or leader of anything that runs itself under the banner of the name of “Jesus Christ”—I would like to challenge you most of all. How much are you spending (and how much are your people spending)—in money, time, and effort—on enhancing a space to save those in your congregation? And how much are you spending—in money, time, and effort—on bringing salvation to the very spaces in which the people in your congregation live?

Let me tell you why this is important. You could very well spend your entire life going to “Bible Studies” and Sunday morning services—preaching sermons!—all the while the people who are coming to them never see the transforming work of God’s righteous power fully redeem the spaces they inhabit every day. Let me repeat that:

You could very well spend your entire life going to “Bible Studies” and Sunday morning services—preaching sermons!—all the while the people who are coming to them never see the transforming work of God’s righteous power fully redeem the spaces they inhabit every day.

That this IS happening is as obvious as can be. Divorces? Check. Abuse? Check. Rapidly deteriorating marriages? Check. Rebellious and apathetic teenagers? Check. Hunger? Check. Poverty? Check. The list goes on and on. As the church continues to do what it is used to doing every week, the culture continues to whittle away at the very spaces these people live every day. But we are teaching them about the Bible, you say? Sure. You’re teaching them about the Bible, but they are experiencing it every week the same way they experience going to a movie theater or taking a class. It has a particular place, a particular time, a particular context. They do church when they’re at church, and they do other things when they’re at other things. There is a complete disconnect between the message that is being taught on Sunday mornings and the lives that are being lived in the homes of those who listen to them every week. Don’t believe me? Go visit the spaces the people you preach to every week live in every day.

Don’t get me wrong. People need three-point sermons—good ones, anyway. People need spaces where they can be with larger gatherings of those who are redeemed and experiencing life lived in the fullness of the kingdom of God. But what people need more than all of these things is for the Spirit of God to come into their homes and families—the spaces they inhabit regularly. Like Zacchaeus, they need mature followers of Jesus—true disciples of his—to come into these spaces, observe what is going on, and then do what needs to be done there to bring total and complete salvation to that place. I challenge you, therefore, before the Messiah and Lord of All—who cares deeply about these peoples’ everyday lives (including your own), more than you or they can possibly think or imagine. Be struck with his own compassion and care for these people; and go. Bring the saving power of God into their homes and families. Shine the light on the darkness that still grips various pieces of their lives; work out the ingredients until they fill the entire lump of dough. Work out salvation until it extends throughout every space in which these people dwell. You are the salt and light of the world. Yes, and a city on a hill cannot be hidden. But the cities in the valleys can hide, and do. What’s more, they are legion. Don’t wait for the Zacchaeus’s of your congregation to start perching in your ceilings and trees. Get out there and find out what’s happening in your communities, in the homes of the people in your church. Perhaps you will discover the real needs of your congregation and be transformed yourself in ways you never thought possible. That’s what I’m calling “a Zacchaean approach to ministry.” And I pray—with all of my heart—that it sweeps over our churches and congregations like a holy wind. God knows this is what is needed right now; but then, that’s because he’s already there, knocking at the door. He sees the needs. And he’s waiting for you to get there so you and he can join efforts to do something about it. This is how we “make his joy complete.”

Dear Melissa: A Response to Your Question on Hell

At the risk of posting a long response to your question about Rob Bell’s book on hell on my facebook wall, I’ll post it here.

I have not read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, so I cannot comment on the merits or demerits of the book. But I can speak on a couple of things that would be helpful to anyone wanting to look further into the theology and biblical teachings about hell, salvation, and eschatology.

The first thing that needs to be said is that there is not much that is new here. One of the earliest teachers of Christians was a man by the name of Origen of Alexandria. He lived around 200AD. He was an early proponent of what has now come to be called “Universalism” (i.e., that everyone will eventually be saved or—at the risk of oversimplification—that everything will eventually be okay in the end). As he writes in his most important work, On First Principles:

For the end is always like the beginning; as therefore there is one end of all things, so we must understand that there is one beginning of all things, and as there is one end of many things, so from one beginning arise many differences and varieties, which in their turn are restored, through God’s goodness, through their subjection to Christ and their unity with the Holy Spirit, to one end, which is like the beginning. (I.6.2)

In short, there is much in the theology of Origen in 200AD that fits with the idea that “love wins.” Furthermore, there is a more contemporary and very prolific Catholic theologian—Hans Urs von Balthasar—who translated Origen’s works and adopted similar views which put him in tension with the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church.

So those who wish to jump into the debate about hell, salvation, universalism, etc. would do well to acquaint themselves with both Origen of Alexandria and Hans Urs von Balthasar on these subjects. And they should do so with an open mind and an appreciation for the broader contours of their theology—because there is quite a bit of it that is rich and good! Despite the fact that Origen (or better, Origenism) was condemned by later Church Councils, many great theologians continued to read and admire Origen’s theology and work. It is worth emphasizing that one could easily forfeit what is worth appreciating in Origen and von Balthasar by prejudging all of their work on this one point of doctrine.

Ultimately, the debate comes down to the following intuitions—intuitions that are not always understood or acknowledged by the opposing factions. I’ll put them in the following way, based on their Scriptural equivalents:

Intuition #1: God, who is Just, will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.
(Exodus 34:6-7)

Intuition #2: God, who is Great and Good, will—eventually—be “all in all.”
(1Corinthians 15:28; Ephesians 1:23)

With respect to Intuition #1, in Exodus 34:7 God speaks to Moses and gives him a memorial name by which He wants to be remembered by His people: YHWH. In fancy, theological-speak, we call this the “Tetragrammaton.” He then provides a description of how that name is to be understood:

“YHWH, YHWH, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger, Abounding in Loving-Kindness and Truth, Who Keeps/Guards Loving-Kindness for Thousands, Who Forgives Iniquity, Transgression, and Sin.“

But the text continues…

“but He will by No Means Leave the Guilty Unpunished, Visiting the Iniquity of the Fathers on the Children and Grand-Children to the Third and Fourth Generations.“

This understanding of God is absolutely foundational for understanding both the Old and New Testaments. For one, notice that the entire 80-90%—perhaps we should even say 99.9999%—is focused on the abounding grace, compassion, and covenantal love of God. It is only the 10% or .0001% that is left for judgment and punishment. The clear emphasis is on divine patience and love for mankind. Judgment and punishment are there, but they are not the overarching emphasis. The New Testament equivalent of this is 1Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind, love keeps no records of wrong, etc.“ Even though I haven’t read Rob Bell’s book, I am fairly certain there is a dimension to his thesis reacting to a hyper-critical, stare-down-your-nose-at-the-heathen form of Christianity that should have no place among those who walk in the name of one who befriended tax collectors and sinners. If this is the case, there is much in both Old and New Testaments that lends itself in Rob Bell’s favor. For God is compassionate and gracious, “not wanting any to perish, but all to inherit eternal life,” as it says in 2Peter 3:9. To the extent that Rob’s book tries to pull the pendulum that has swung too far—that is, from a God who craves judgment and punishing sinners back to the more biblical understanding of God’s patience and grace—it is to be commended. As I haven’t read his book, I cannot say whether it does, in fact, accomplish this; or if it does, whether it swings the pendulum too far in the other direction.

Where the pendulum can swing too far is in dismissing this last part of Exodus 34:7 as though judgment is some kind of sixth finger to divinity that doesn’t really matter much to life and doctrine. The truth is the Bible teaches that God really is abounding in loving-kindness, patience, and grace. He is like the father in the story of the prodigal son who doesn’t wait for his son to return home but rushes out on the road to embrace and kiss and forgive him for his wrongdoing: “Bring out the fattened calf! for this, my son was dead, but now he is alive again! He was lost, but now he is found!” (Luke 15). Furthermore, when Jesus inaugurates his teaching ministry, he reads from the scroll of Isaiah 61 and deliberately interrupts his reading with a verse from Isaiah 58:6—”to set the oppressed free.” He also puts the scroll down in mid-verse, choosing not to read “the day of the vengeance of our God.” It is clear that Jesus was countering a popular understanding of Messiahship—and certainly not without its biblical justification—that conceived of “Messiahship” primarily in terms of prophetic judgment and fire. John the Baptist echoes this view when he says “I baptize you with water, but after me comes one who will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit” (Luke 3:16; Matthew 3:11). But Jesus, in ways that have very close parallels with Exodus 34:6-7, impressed upon the minds of his listeners at the synagogue that day that his Messiahship was to be understood as that of a good Shepherd who kicks a hole through the retaining wall and leads the sheep out to green pastures and living water. If there is judgment, punishment, discipline, or vengeance, it is tangential to this primary task of his Messiahship of “setting the oppressed free” and likely to be reserved—in a more intense form—for the “last days.”

And this gets to some key points I would like to make. Look at Paul’s admonitions in his letter to the churches in Rome. In Romans 6, he writes, “Shall we continue in sin that God’s grace may abound?” He responds with an emphatic “God forbid!” (me genoito in the Greek). With respect to Intuition #1, try to put yourself in this perspective. Look out over an imaginary horizon of masses of people who persist in sin, who reject God’s provision of grace and salvation, and yet are rewarded with eternal life. There is a sense of injustice and imbalance here. From this intuition, it makes God out to be both unjust and unfair.

Of course, one can look to the parable in Matthew 20:1-16 as a defense for this imbalance being compatible with the justice of God. In the parable, the owner pays the same amount to those who worked all day and those who worked for half a day. When the all-day workers complain, the owner says “What’s it to you? You agreed to work for this amount of time for this amount of money. You got your money. That was our agreement. What’s it to you if I choose to pay someone else the same amount of money for fewer hours? It’s my money. I can do with it as I please. You got yours; so stop your complaining. Perhaps you can come back tomorrow and I might agree to pay you more for less. But today is today. Our agreement was our agreement.” In the same way, someone could argue that those who reject the gift of God and the salvation offered through Jesus are—at the end of the day—like those who only worked for half a day. God has the prerogative to give eternal life to sinners if He wants to; and what’s it to those who have already received forgiveness and life? But what this fails to consider is the prevailing pattern throughout the Old and New Testaments of God’s faithful, patient, covenantal love actively—but not forcefully—attempting to woo his unfaithful, impatient, constantly covenant-breaking people back into his loving embrace, followed by a long period of chance after chance after chance offered to them for repentance and forgiveness until, finally, “enough is enough!” Then judgment comes.

It is so easy, in light of the things said above, to dismiss this judgment as irrelevant and minuscule when compared with God’s abounding love and grace for mankind. But don’t let appearances deceive you. Its apparent smallness comes with a built-in intensity—the biblical imagery of fire is very appropriate here—that is directly proportional to the amount of time and patience that has led up to it. To what shall we compare it? Think of a father who gives his teenage son the keys to his car, trusting that his son will act responsibly. His son messes up, betrays his father’s trust, and acts irresponsibly. The father forgives him and gives him a second chance. The son betrays his father’s trust again. The father forgives him, communicates his desires for his son to act responsibly, and gives him a third chance and so on. But at some point the son so persists in irresponsibility that the father finally comes to the end-of-his-rope. What do you think the final conversation between the father and son will look like? Don’t you think it is precisely because of the extra patience and grace of the father—and the son’s pushing this grace and patience to the very limit—that the final judgment the father enacts upon this son will come with severe consequences? perhaps never being allowed to use the car ever again? As I like to put it, “Woe to the one who, like Pharaoh, pushes God’s patient love to the very end! Forgiveness may come 490 times, but come 491,“ Grievous punishment is for him who forsakes the way; he who hates reproof will die” (Proverbs 15:10). Those who wish to emphasize the patient, loving-kindness of God are in the right; but those who underestimate the severity of God’s judgment on the other side of persistent disobedience, sin, and hard-heartedness—all the more tragic when viewed as a response to God’s long-suffering patience and grace—are not listening with “ears that hear.” Fire eventually swallows up Sodom and Gomorrah. Floodwaters eventually swallow up Noah’s neighbors. God will, eventually, judge the living and the dead (Acts 10:42; 2Timothy 4:1; 1Peter 4:5). There comes a time when “enough is enough.” This is the clear testimony and pattern in these biblical texts.

So much for Intuition #1. What about Intuition #2? This second intuition is one that I think is harder for those with Intuition #1 to understand and acknowledge. Most of us, I think, find it much easier to understand the reasoning and scriptural texts in support of Intuition #1. But my guess is that Rob Bell, like Origen of Alexandria, and Hans Urs von Balthasar, have been captured by the reasoning and scriptural support for Intuition #2. And it goes something like this. Whereas Intuition #1 focuses on what is “fair” and “just” and judges sin, hell, and eschatology in light of this, Intuition #2 focuses on what is “ultimate”, “cosmic”, and “final.” The idea is that God doesn’t merely finish what He starts, but He does so in a way that leaves everyone speechless. To put it in the form of a question: If God is so Great and so Good and so Wise, doesn’t it make sense, doesn’t it seem reasonable, that He would initiate and leave us with a final picture, a final state of the world, a final state of all things that matches such Greatness, Goodness, and Wisdom?? What does it mean for God to be “all in all” after the Messiah has put all things in subjection to the Father if not the “final perfection of all things”?

To put it another way, think of it negatively: Suppose God leaves the final state of things with some severe shortcomings—masses upon masses of people living in conscious torment “without hope and without God in the world.” You never hear this. You are never made aware of it. Somehow the dungeon of torture rarely touches the pearly gates of your consciousness, if ever. But while you enjoy your heavenly bliss, as you listen to unparalleled forms of music and view manifestations of light and presence that you can only barely imagine right now, somewhere behind or under or beyond the throne of the Most High God, beneath the throngs of angels and tongues and tribes and nations, there is an even larger throng of those living in conscious torment and hell—a hell they have no doubt chosen for themselves, a hell that is a result of their persistent disobedience and refusal to turn toward that undying and faithful love that has pursued them to the very end. From the perspective and intuition of justice—where “the guilty are by no means left unpunished”—this picture may look copacetic. But from the perspective and intuition of “all in all” — of final perfection — of the picture we are left with before the Alpha and Omega — we are left with a tapestry of imperfection. Here lies the work of the Almighty God. As you look it over you see a more perfect world that “could have been” but isn’t. What you are left with—at the end of days—is a picture that seemingly falls short of the glory and magnificence of God. Couldn’t the Almighty God have done better? Couldn’t the plan have been more ingenious? and the final outcome even more worthy of praise? At the end of the day, am I left speechless before a beautiful God and a beautiful world with a final end as magnificent as its beginning? When you start to look at it from this perspective, when you try to put yourself in that intuition—from a stance of defending the Beauty, Magnificence, and Genius of God—for both the creation and the consummation of all things—you find yourself having a hard time fitting hell, and the ideas and concepts associated with hell, into that final picture.

So where does this leave us? As I like to tell students in my Bible classes, “Beware of the temptation to shoehorn your least favorite verses in the Bible to fit the systematics of your theology. The Bible is written in such a way that there will always be verses that do not fit as snugly into your understanding of things as you might like.” Am I saying that there is no answer to this question? No. Am I trying to play the role of the deconstructionist who points out the faults in each party’s views with no constructive proposal of his own? No. What I am saying—or would, at least, like to say—is that if this dialog about hell is to be fruitful, we would do well to consider the tensions as tensions and use them for meditation and contemplation of these texts. There is no fruit for those who hastily seek the coherence of their own theological frameworks. There is no fruit for those who want the drive-by theology on hell, salvation, and eschatology. The real fruit—the fruit of the Spirit—the fruit of the living Word—the fruit that brings life out of death—that never fears a permanent separation from the Tree of Life and the presence of God—is the fruit that comes from the laborious contemplation and study of these texts—that wrestles and abides with them. It doesn’t caricature these sacred words as easy children’s puzzles one only needs the corner pieces to finish. There is no Alexander the Great before the Gordian knot. This knot—or rather, these knots—are held against the bound hands of a Messiah who is said to have freely died for the sins of the world. These knots are upon his hands and his feet, held and fixed to a cross that is said to have both the questions and the answers that lead to eternal life. Whether you will be one of the few (or many) who will be ‘transfixed’ by the encounter remains an open question. And the beauty of the final picture may (or may not) have everything to do with how you respond to it.

Who is Richard of St. Victor?

Richard of St. Victor was a 12th century theologian living in Paris just before the creation of the very first university there. He, like many of his contemporaries, was deeply influenced by the writings of Augustine. Much of his time was spent participating in the liturgical life of his community: the Victorines. This was a group of canons regular founded by William of Champeaux and Hugh of St. Victor who lived in accordance with The Rule of St. Augustine. Without going into too much detail, the Victorines not only sang hymns and prayed prayers together, they also brought an intensity and ingenuity to the composition of their hymns and prayers, as well as to their theological works. Richard is most known for bringing this ingenuity to his work on the Trinity, where he sought to prove—through the contemplation of Divine love—that the Divine, though one, must also be a plurality of persons; for the highest, most integral, and fullest love requires at least, and no more than, a Trinity of persons. Richard wrote many other works as well, most of which focus on the moral and spiritual formation of his community.
The reason you’ve never heard of Richard of St. Victor is likely because of a few factors. One, he gets overshadowed by other theologians who are more well-known. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, lived a generation after Richard, and he knew of and read some of Richard’s works. A second factor is that theologians like Aquinas either didn’t know of Richard’s work on the Trinity or did know of it but didn’t make it the basis for their own articulations of the Trinity; St. Bonaventure, by contrast, seems to have been more influenced by Richard’s trinitarian theology than Aquinas. Both Aquinas and Bonaventure are more well-known than Richard, in part because of the rise of the schools and the theological controversies that ensued there; also, each has deservedly earned a prominent place in the canon of great theologians. A third factor is a more practical one: much of Richard’s work has not been translated from the Latin. Grover Zinn’s English translation of Richard’s three main works was published with Paulist Press for the Classics of Western Spirituality series in 1979. As people become more familiar with Richard, more and more are studying his theology and explicating his written work.

Would you make a distinction between a pastor or priest and a theologian?

There used to be a time when simply being a pastor or a priest meant you were also a theologian. There is no doubt that many contemporary pastors and priests study their Bibles and seek to know and teach others about God. In that sense, they are doing “theology.” What primarily accounts for the distinction between theologian and pastor / priest today has everything to do with the breadth and depth of study. The sad truth is that many contemporary pastors spend more time reading modern-day self-help, leadership books, and biblical commentaries than they do the Church Fathers. If Augustine, Aquinas, or Bonaventure happens to be quoted in a sermon, usually it’s because they read it in a commentary on the book they’re studying rather than from actually reading Augustine or Aquinas themselves. I realize there are exceptions to this; but the trend—at least as it appears to me—is that many contemporary pastors and priests have made themselves more dependent on biblical commentaries for their homilies than they have on some of the greatest theological minds of all time. It would behoove them to give up on the Top Christian Bestsellers lists and read a book or two from one of these theological giants. Their soul would be the better for it. Their sermons would be the better for it. Their congregations would be the better for it. And their wallets would be the better for it: most of these works are available for free.

I should also mention that it’s important for pastors and priests to not only get in the habit of reading some theological classics, but to stop speaking in ways that belittle those who do this more often than they do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in on a sermon and listened to subtle gibes at those with PhDs in theology or philosophy. I don’t know if it’s because of some deep-seated insecurity they have around those who pursued a more academically rigorous degree than they did or some need to be perceived as the sole dispenser of wisdom for God’s sheep; but for whatever reason, there is a tendency to elevate the practical ministry over the theoretical one. The consequence is young people who grow up thinking it’s more important to learn how to become a charismatic leader than it is to study and contemplate the deep things of God and share with others from this rich storehouse of contemplation and study.

Where are the theologians today?

This really has more to do with the location and time period in which you live. In the middle east, for example, theologians—in the form of imams and clerics—are heard about and from all the time. They are the authoritative voices in their cities and culture. There was a time when the same could be said of the Western world, and especially America. But this is no longer true. The authoritative voices in our society have become the scientists and parasitic pundits on our major news outlets and TV shows. If a theologian is ever consulted, it is either in honor of some major holiday, the discovery of some “artifact” relevant to the Bible or the Church, or because of some local controversy over a pastor or priest behaving badly. Today, science is the latest heavy-weight champion of the Western world; and as long as Western democracies are more concerned with tummy tucks, face lifts, and turning back the hands of time, they will continue to look to science for their shallow form of happiness. History moves in cycles. There comes a day when people will realize the bankruptcy of their bodies, minds, and souls. That’s when they turn from those who study the hows and the whats to those who study the whys and the oughts.

What is the most pressing spiritual need in our world today?

The most pressing spiritual need in our world today is people who know how to regularly pay attention to the best of all things. Curbing this fundamental spiritual problem thus entails two things: (1) learning how to pay attention, and (2) connecting with / knowing about / experiencing the best of all things. In the case of the first, our society is losing the habits of mind that ensured the kind of mental staying-power needed for contemplation and prayer (e.g., memorization, meditation, lectio divina). This requires uninterrupted blocks of time in which children, teenagers, and adults stay with something. No interruption, no distraction, no diversion. The reason our education system in the United States is in such shambles right now is, in part, due to this “inattention to attention.” We break students’ attention by breaking up their days, moving swiftly from subject to subject, from teacher to teacher, one activity to another, and we certainly never force or encourage them to memorize or meditate on much of anything. How can one pay attention to anything, let alone to the best of all things, if one has not cultivated habits of mind and soul that can keep one focused on something for very long? if one’s mind is so quickly allured by noises, text messages, and emails? It should come as no surprise that distracted children grow up into adults who lack the ability to stay with anything or anyone for very long, with deleterious effects on individuals, cities, and nations.

So what about the second, attending to the best of all things? It all depends upon the range of things one believes there is to behold. If the world is merely physical, the best of all things is the best of all physical things: perhaps the male or female form? sun, moon, and stars? sub-atomic particles? or some other aspect of physical reality? But if there is more beyond the physical, and the best of all things is one of them, then one must search out invisible things in order to connect with / know about / and experience it for themselves. Without this openness and awareness to the invisible things, one cannot know oneself, let alone God.

Because we do not have people who know how to pay attention, we do not have a society of people capable of attending to the best of all things; and because people have limited their attention to the things they can—quite literally—only hold in their hands, they live like the cave-dwellers of Plato’s Republic, content to contemplate their own shadows, insensible to the light that leads to both self-awakening and the knowledge of God.

If God is a Trinity of Persons, and wants us to know this, why make it so impossible to understand?

If God is a Trinity of Persons, and wants us to know this, why make it so impossible to understand? Furthermore, if entrusting oneself to Jesus is all that’s necessary to inherit eternal life, isn’t belief in the Trinity and discussion about it a bit superfluous? Or, isn’t it sufficient to believe that God is a Trinity without having to understand it?
In some ways, this is the equivalent of saying, “If it’s important to know algebra, why does it have to be so impossible to understand? Furthermore, if entrusting oneself to Jesus is all that’s necessary to inherit eternal life, isn’t studying algebra a big waste of time? Or, isn’t it sufficient to believe that algebra is important without having to study it?” Granted, there are some things that are true of the study of mathematics that are disanalogous to the study of God; but nevertheless, the point to emphasize is that knowing God as Trinity requires work and effort. It is a crude sort of student who demands that algebra be reduced to arithmetic in order for him to understand it rather than work hard at raising his knowledge of things to comprehend algebra. The same is true for the Trinity. Just because it challenges the mind beyond its capacities doesn’t mean it cannot be understood nor that there is no benefit in the pursuit. In the truest sense, it requires devotion—devotion in study and devotion in prayer. Without an ardent zeal for a full understanding of things—”unless you seek Me with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength”—neither the pursuit of algebra nor the pursuit of God will deliver much.

If entrusting oneself to Jesus is all that’s necessary to inherit eternal life, then perhaps belief in the Trinity and discussion about it is superfluous, at least with respect to salvation. One could also point to history for examples when Trinitarian debate led to pointless philosophical speculation and even tragic death at the hands of well-intentioned theological factions. But if Divinity is a Trinity of persons, and Jesus is Divine, doesn’t this Trinitarian backdrop become relevant for understanding who Jesus is and what He is all about? The letters of John, for example, state that “God is love.” Does it make a difference whether we understand this love as Trinitarian? as a love between a Holy Father, Holy Son, and Holy Spirit? all of whom exist in a perfect, consummate oneness of life and love? a Divine love that—through Jesus—all of humanity is invited to participate in and enjoy forever and ever? beginning now? a love through which all things—in heaven and earth—will be transformed in accordance with? Contrary to the sentiment above, it is by focusing on the “communion”—the oneness of life and love—that all are invited to participate in through Jesus that the “reunion” that takes place in him discovers its full meaning and place!

It is, therefore, not superfluous to believe in the Trinity or discuss it. It is the substance of the Divine story made manifest in Jesus Christ. To ignore it or strip it away is to lose perhaps the most important context for understanding Jesus’ mission and movement in the world. He came that we might have life and have it abundantly. But that life is grounded in his life, a life which itself is grounded in a Trinity of persons. To accept Jesus’ invitation is, therefore, to participate in his life—a Trinitarian life—filled with an abundance that salvages the broken heart of humanity and mends it with its own, life-giving pulse; a pulse centered in a single heart shared by Father, Son, and Spirit. If there is any superfluity here—to play with the Latin etymology for ‘superfluous’ (i.e., “running over”)—it is the Divine superfluity that is so full of loving-kindness it fills up the devoted soul and makes its cup “overflow.”

So you’re a theologian and a computer programmer?

I’ve always had a curiosity and interest in computer programming, ever since my days in the fourth grade when I made little user-interactive knock-knock jokes using a Texas Instruments computer. Those with analytical minds often have an affinity for the technological as well as the scholarly. But the greatest fusion of academics and technology really came together for me when I was working on my dissertation. I simply needed to collect lots of research, define outcomes, manage and navigate a very complex hierarchical relationship of tasks and obligations—both academic and personal. A former professor of mine introduced me to David Allen’s Getting Things Done book and the workflow he has there for collecting, processing, organizing, reviewing, and doing things. I needed a way to apply this to control all of the digital elements of my life; and that’s when I started looking into Applescript—a programming language for the mac. It started with just simple curiosity. I picked up a book on the subject, started tinkering with the programming language a bit, and the next thing you know, I was designing a comprehensive system for implementing David Allen’s workflow on my mac. Once I developed a functional system for myself I then gave it a name—Ready-Set-Do!—and began selling it to others who could benefit from it.

In addition to that, I also began thinking of ways to convert text to speech I could listen to on my iPod. My life was busy in graduate school and I had to read just about every major theologian from the second century to the present day for my comprehensive exams. So I made a little script that would mass convert these public domain texts to audio files I could listen to on my iPod. I was able to 5-star rate the ones most important for my exams and could listen to a computer voice reading Augustine’s treatise On the Trinity while I was walking the dogs each morning. To this day, I have serious doubts as to whether I would have ever successfully made it through my Ph.D. without the extra tinkering I did programming these workflows for myself. Today they continue to help me stay organized and get things done.

What advice do you have for others looking to pursue a degree in Theology, Philosophy, or Bible?

You are choosing to study two of the most important subjects to know. But you should do your homework by reading up on various professors you’d like to study with before applying to a school. These are the mentors who are going to help shape and refine you as a person. The more you know about them, the better you’ll know which professors and which program will be the best fit for you. You may also need to check and make sure that the professors you’d like to study with are taking on more students and don’t plan on retiring at the time you join the program. Both of these fields—like many others in academia—are filled with good and bad professors. So do your homework. Read their works. Find out about the programs. And then do what you need to do to apply for them.

Second, just because you are studying two of the most important subjects to know doesn’t guarantee that others will value the degree as much as you do. The Humanities, as a whole, gets less funding and less attention than the more profitable fields of study (e.g., Business, Medicine, and other fields of Science). Expect to be overlooked. Expect others in academia to look down on you. Expect friends and family members not to understand the ‘utility’ of your decision to pursue an academic discipline that—at least in their minds—shares the same space with starving artists and musicians. Realize that there is a healthy dose of truth in their sentiments. Do not expect to get a job in academia, but don’t give up trying if that’s what you intend to pursue. You will likely have to diversify your skill-set some and do things along the way to earn money and pay the bills. At the end of your journey you may even have to consider using your knowledge in a career you never originally envisioned for yourself. All of this should come as no surprise. The world will never cease to be a place where newcomers have to both produce original work and find creative ways to market it to others. You will have to chart a course for yourself that helps define your niche, aligns with your passions, and connects with others who are interested in hearing what you have to contribute. Just keep at it. For you have the most to give to a world that so frequently loses—but occasionally rediscovers—its lifeblood in the Humanities.