Bell Creek Community Church

A non-denominational church in Livonia, Michigan with Biblical teaching, worship, and kid's ministries.

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The Surprising Purpose in Christ’s Resurrection

12 hours 20 min ago

Why did God raise Jesus from the dead? On face value, it seems like a basic question with an obvious answer. We might even brush it off as the simple stuff of a children’s quiz on Easter Sunday. We also might be tempted to think of the resurrection only in terms of its future significance. But when we read 1 Peter, we find an unexpected purpose in Jesus’s resurrection, one that’s meant to help us in the here and now of our suffering and shame.

Peter’s first epistle opens with a recognition of this present suffering. His readers were battered by various trials (1 Pet. 1:6). They were shamed for their faith and maligned for their morals (1 Pet. 4:4). They experienced regular rejection and social exclusion. What they did in purity and goodness their opponents labeled as evil. They suffered unjustly, enduring endless sorrows. They were insulted for the name of Christ. They were outcasts. Rather than minimize these difficulties, brushing them off as temporary or trivial, Peter recognizes their fiery trials as an exile.

In response to this suffering—a kind of “soft” persecution that increasingly mirrors our experience in North America—Peter injects a word of hope. But perhaps it’s not the kind of hope we were looking for. Peter suggests that suffering through fiery trials isn’t a stray shower on the radar screen of our lives. It shouldn’t take us by surprise (1 Pet. 4:12). Instead, shame and social exclusion are the extended forecast for the follower of Christ. Yet there is hope, because we know the story of our Savior.

Flipped Script

Jesus, as Peter reminds us, was himself an elect exile. He was God’s chosen cornerstone, but he was rejected by men (1 Pet. 2:4–5). He was the precious and foreknown Son of the Father, but his common experience was disgrace and ostracism. He was on the outside among religious conservatives, powerful politicians, and even his own family. In his life, he was dishonored and didn’t have a place to lay his head. At his death, he was beaten, spat upon, slandered, and reviled. He was shamefully crucified. To any witness watching it all unfold, he wasn’t merely rejected by his peers and the powerful. He appeared to be forsaken by God.

Suffering isn’t a stray shower on the radar screen of our lives. . . . Instead, shame and social exclusion are the extended forecast for the follower of Christ.

However, three days later the script flipped. God vindicated his Son by raising him from the dead. And through his resurrection God intends to give us—you and me—a living hope, a hope for today as we sometimes face our own troubled and forsaken narrative (1 Pet. 1:3).

Through Jesus, Peter says, we come to believe in God. We may not often think of Christian faith in this way. We talk primarily in terms of having faith in Jesus, which is, of course, appropriate and biblical. But in 1 Peter 1:21, Peter wants to emphasize how we come to believe in God through Jesus. How does that work? If we keep reading, we see that God raised Jesus and gave him glory in order that our faith and hope would be in God. This is surely an unexpected purpose in Jesus’s resurrection: Jesus was raised so that we would trust and hope in God, our heavenly Father.

Here’s how I understand that working in the logic of Peter’s letter. When I see my life mirroring Jesus’s, when I see how my suffering intersects with his, when I realize that he endured suffering by entrusting himself to our faithful Father, when I recognize that the chosen and precious Son was rejected by others, I’m not so surprised when I could experience the same.

And when I watch Jesus, my King, crowned with thorns and exiled on a cross, and when my own life feels like walking through the valley of death’s shadow in the presence of many enemies, I can still have hope. I can have confidence in our Father, because I know what he did for Jesus.

God raised him from the dead and restored him to unsurpassed honor. He did this so that even when my own story takes a dark turn, when I face rejection, ridicule, and even physical suffering, I know it’s not the end.

Because I know how God treats his servants. I know how the Father treats his Son.

All the Way to Glory

This is an unexpected answer to our question. But this one “why” of God’s raising Jesus is how we can have confidence in him today, during our own affliction. When we follow the footsteps of Jesus into suffering, we know we’ll also follow him all the way to glory. The world’s ridicule and shame will not have the last word, but we’ll be exalted and given honor—and that from God himself!

When my own story takes a dark turn, I know it’s not the end. Because I know how God treats his servants. I know how the Father treats his Son.

As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:20, Jesus is the firstfruits of those who sleep. His resurrection and reception of glory is only the beginning of a worldwide harvest. He’s the prototype, the forerunner of many others who would follow him in faith, who will traverse that same path of suffering and subsequent glory. Peter, as an eyewitness to Jesus’s horrific death and his matchless glory, knew that such hope in future praise and honor at Christ’s return enables us today to endure seemingly endless rejection. He knew the antidote to shame and exclusion is God giving us honor and a home.

This Peter, who had crumbled under the weight of shame and deny his Lord, learned how the hope of glory could transform our lives and embolden our witness. This hope empowers us to purify ourselves in personal holiness, to live with honorable conduct during our exile. This assurance in God—that he will exalt us with Christ and grace us with his honor—enables us to honor others, even those who oppose us.

Such future hope also opens our mouths to boldly declare the gospel now, overcoming social embarrassment and our desire to be approved and affirmed. And, as Peter explains, this confidence can even open others to the gospel, as they see in us a contagious and lively hope that makes them curious for an answer.

How the Old Testament Prepares Us for the Third Day

Sat, 04/20/2019 - 12:00am

When I was a church teen in the 1990s, one of hottest new Christian bands was Third Day. The name seemed like a riff on the mainstream band Third Eye Blind, but we all know where it really came from. According to Paul’s gospel, Christ was “raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” This is “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3–5).

We all know that Christ rose on the third day. But we probably aren’t as familiar with the latter half of Paul’s statement, namely, that Christ was “raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4). This wasn’t just something that happened in history; it was also prophesied in the Old Testament. Jesus himself says the same thing in Luke 24:46: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.”

Which raises the question, where? Where is it written that Christ would rise on the third day? To find the answer, we must remember that the Old Testament has more than one way of pointing to Christ. We often think first of explicit predictions (e.g., Mic. 5:2). But we come up dry in our search for “Messiah raised on the third day” predictions. Because as far as I know, there are none.

The Old Testament has more than one way of pointing to Christ.

But the Old Testament also points to Christ through typological patterns, such as the slaying of the Passover lamb and the building of the tabernacle (1 Cor. 5:7; John 1:14). These are also things that Jesus fulfills. And I believe the “third day” Scriptures that Paul alludes to in 1 Corinthians 15:4 fall into this category.

In the Old Testament we find a pattern of God doing big things on the third day. Redemptive things. Revelatory things. And yes, resurrection things. Here are four examples.

1. Sparing Isaac

We’re probably all familiar with the story of Abraham offering up Isaac (Genesis 22). It was an excruciating test of Abraham’s faith, as God commanded him to do the unthinkable, only to provide a substitute at the last minute.

This event is a picture of God offering up Jesus on Good Friday. Isaac is described as Abraham’s “only son, whom he loved” (Gen. 22:4; John 3:16). He’s seen carrying the wood on which he would be slain (Gen. 22:6; John 19:17). And when he asks his father, “Here is the wood but where is the lamb?” Abraham replies, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:7–8). He would indeed. Whereas God spared Abraham’s son, he didn’t spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all (Rom. 8:32).

But there’s more. The story is also a picture of Jesus’s resurrection. Abraham tells his servant that both he and Isaac will return (Gen. 22:5). The writer of Hebrews seems to infer from this that Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead: “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb. 11:19).

Figuratively speaking, Isaac was offered up. And figuratively speaking, he was raised from the dead.

Genesis 22 describes the time frame for Isaac’s figurative death and resurrection:

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he . . . went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. (Gen. 22:3–4)

This is when it went down. The typology isn’t precise, of course. For Isaac, this all happened on the same day (not on a Friday and a Sunday). Still, what happened to Jesus literally happened to Isaac figuratively: His father received him back from the dead. And according to Genesis 22:4, it happened on the third day.

2. Descending on Sinai

One of the greatest manifestations of God’s presence in the entire Old Testament was when God descended on Mount Sinai. This was a pivotal event, as God delivered his Law to those whom he had redeemed. It was something those who witnessed it would never forget.

In the Old Testament we find a pattern of God doing big things on the third day. Redemptive things. Revelatory things. And yes, resurrection things.

God announces the event’s time frame in Exodus 19. When the people have finally arrived at Mount Sinai, he tells Moses:

Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. (Ex. 19:10–11)

And that’s exactly what happened.

This was the greatest of all divine manifestations so far—a day never to be forgotten. And it happened “on the third day.”

3. Raising Israel

The regathering of God’s people from the Babylonian exile is sometimes described as a resurrection (Ezek. 37:11–14). Hosea 6:2 describes the time frame of this resurrection:

Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. (Hos. 6:1–2)

After they had borne God’s wrath, being cut down and killed in the exile (Isa. 6:11–13; 40:1–2), God promises to raise them up on the third day.

Of course, the reference here is to Israel being raised, not to the Messiah. But Jesus is the true Israel, the ultimate offspring of Abraham. And like Israel, God raised him up on the third day (for a close parallel, see Matt. 2:15’s use of Hos. 11:1).

4. Saving Jonah

The story of Jonah is well known—at least parts of it. We all know he got swallowed by a big fish, and we all know he eventually came out alive and became an instrument of Nineveh’s salvation.

The author gives us the time frame for how long Jonah was in the fish’s belly: “And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jon. 1:17). The mention of this time frame is a strong hint that after three days Jonah will rise from what he himself refers to as “the belly of Sheol” (Jon. 2:2), the Hebrew word for the place of the dead (“Hades” in Greek).

It should strengthen our faith when we consider that God designed all of history with Jesus at the center, with every third day deliverance pointing directly to him.

You may question my previous examples. But in this case, Jesus connects the typological dots for us, drawing the parallel between Jonah’s deliverance from Sheol and his:

An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matt. 12:39–40)

Don’t get hung up on the fact that there weren’t literally three nights between Jesus’s death and resurrection. The Jews counted days inclusively—the fact that Jesus was dead during parts of three separate days (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) was enough in their minds to justify the language of “three days and three nights.”

The point is that just as Jonah got spat out of Hades on the third day, so did Jesus (Jonah 2:2; Acts 2:27). And just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so Jesus became a sign to his generation (Luke 11:30).

In Accordance with the Scriptures

When Paul says that Christ was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, I believe he had passages like these in mind—and there are more besides (2 Kings 20:5; Est. 5:1). Admittedly, only the Jonah passage is explicitly mentioned in the New Testament. But rather than limiting us in drawing connections from the Old Testament, Jesus’s use of Jonah 1:17 should teach us how to interpret similar passages that aren’t explicitly mentioned.

The empty tomb shouldn’t have been a surprise, especially coming when it did. It’s not as though the Israelites hadn’t been prepared. Not only had Jesus repeatedly told them (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34), but God also had been working wonders on the third day for millennia. And it wasn’t by accident. On the contrary, it should strengthen our faith when we consider that God designed all of history with Jesus at the center, with every third-day deliverance pointing directly to him.

Risen and reigning, Jesus is supreme. But he will not be alone; he is only the firstfruits. And someday, “figuratively speaking,” the third day is coming for us all. Remember that this Easter.

From OT Baptisms to the Cross: Behold Your Escalating Bible

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 12:00am

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 timeto 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.

Christopher Ash on Teaching Ruth

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 12:04am

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.

Recommended Audio Resources

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Listen to to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.

The FAQs: What Christians Should Know About Artificial Intelligence

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 12:03am
What just happened?

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.

• Implicit ethical agents — machines constrained to avoid unethical outcomes.

• 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).”

Self-Loathing Almost Ruined My Easter—and I’m Glad It Did

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 12:02am

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:

Dear 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.

3 Reasons I Changed My Mind About Penal Substitution

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 12:00am

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?

I also read contemporary evangelical classics, John Stott’s The Cross of Christ and J. I. Packer’s What Did the Cross Achieve? and discovered them to be entirely consonant with my primary-source historical reading.

Hallelujah, What a Savior!

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.

The Kind of Forest the World Needs

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 12:04am

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.

What Luther Would Say to Silicon Valley

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 12:03am

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.

“Luther emphasized how vocation, like justification, is a function of God’s grace,” Gene Veith Jr. and I wrote in Authentic Christianity: How Lutheran Theology Speaks to a Post-Modern World. “In vocation, God providentially works through human beings to care for his creation and distribute his gifts.”

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.

How to Answer the 12 Strongest Objections to Christianity

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 12:02am

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.

Say No to the Gospel of Self-Forgiveness

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 12:00am

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.

Why We Were Undone by the Notre-Dame Fire

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 2:13pm

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.

How to Know When to Say No

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 12:03am

There aren’t enough hours in the day or days in the week to say “yes” to everything comes along. We know we should say “no” to temptation and sin, but it’s much harder to say “no” to good things, especially gospel opportunities.

Jen Wilkin, Jackie Hill Perry, and Jen Michel talk about how they’ve learned to use discernment in evaluating the requests and opportunities that come their way. Each of these busy women has realized the toll that overcommitting takes on them, their families, and their local church community—and so they no longer say “yes” to every good opportunity. “If you’re constantly over-capacity in terms of the workload that you have, you don’t have the time to just continue to encounter Jesus,” says Hill Perry. “What we give away [when we overcommit] is our life with Jesus.”

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast or watch a video.

4 Ways Epaphras Can Help Ordinary Pastors

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 12:02am

The Billy Graham Library stands about 20 miles from the church I serve and the community I love. Built as a testament both to a man’s faithfulness in ministry and also the gospel he proclaimed, it draws thousands of visitors per month. One of the best parts is a guided tour of Graham’s life, which ends with a gospel presentation and invitation to put one’s faith in Jesus Christ.

But amid all of the memorabilia, my favorite item can be easily missed: a small plaque listing the names of the people God used to get the gospel to Billy Graham. There are recognizable names: F. B. Meyer, Billy Sunday, D. L. Moody, and Mordecai Ham. But at the beginning is a name you’ve probably never heard: Edward Kimball.

Kimball was a Christian man who shared the gospel with a shoe clerk named D. L. Moody. Moody influenced Meyer, and on the story goes—until we come to Graham, who responded to the gospel preaching of Ham at a tent revival. We all know the ways that Graham went on to be used mightily by the Lord.

None of Billy Graham’s ministry would’ve happened apart from the faithfulness of a Sunday school teacher sharing his faith in a shoe store.

But here’s the thing: None of Graham’s ministry would’ve happened apart from the faithfulness of a Sunday school teacher sharing his faith in a shoe store. God used that man to change the world, and most of us don’t know his name. (Kimball’s legacy is similar to that of Charles Spurgeon’s boyhood cook, Mary King.)

Faithfulness to Follow

When I think of the church planters in the New Testament, there are many recognizable names: Paul, Silas, Timothy, Titus, even the unnamed guy famous for his preaching (2 Cor. 8:18). We’re familiar with these faithful men.

But there’s another name you may not have heard as often: Epaphras. He met Paul and was transformed by the gospel, and then returned to his hometown of Colossae to share the gospel. Disciples were made and a church was planted. Paul calls him “a faithful minister of Christ” (Col. 1:7).

When I read Paul calling another church planter ‘a faithful minister,’ my ears perk up. I want to know what that looks like.

Now as a church planter, when I read Paul calling another church planter “a faithful minister,” my ears perk up. I want to know what that looks like. Thankfully, Paul gives us four marks—evidenced in Epaphras—of a faithful church planter.

1. Disciple Maker

The gospel was “bearing fruit and growing in the people of Colossae” (Col. 1:6). Why? Because they had learned it from Epaphras (Col. 1:7). The word learned is closely connected to the word for disciple. Epaphras’s faithfulness was seen in his disciple-making.

2. Humble Servant

Epaphras is called a servant of Christ and of the church twice (Col. 1:7; 4:12). His humility was evident in his willingness to ask Paul for help. Faithfulness looks like serving Jesus and others in humility.

3. Praying Pastor

Paul tells us that Epaphras was a pastor who struggled on behalf of his people in prayer (Col. 4:12–13). Epaphras agonized in prayer for their spiritual maturity. Thus, we see that a faithful minister labors in prayer on behalf of his people.

4. Hardworking Leader

Epaphras “worked hard” for those in his care (Col. 4:12–13). Certainly this is seen in Epaphras’s discipleship, service, and prayer. But the Greek word also speaks of the emotional weight and toll of ministry.

Now, none of these four things is going to surprise anyone in ministry. No one will read this and think, I didn’t think prayer and faithfulness went together. And yet living these out amid the difficulties of church planting can be brutal. Here’s why.

Honest Assessment

When I honestly assess my own heart, the desire to be famous competes with the longing to be faithful. In my sin, I don’t want to be Epaphras in Colossae: an unknown guy planting a church in a small town. I want to be Paul in Rome or Timothy in Ephesus. I don’t want to be the guy sharing the gospel with a shoe clerk—I want to be the guy with the library.

When I honestly assess my own heart, the desire to be famous competes with the longing to be faithful.

And, when I’m driven to be famous more than I desire to be faithful, everything we see in Epaphras gets turned on its head.

  • I want to make disciples, but I get busy with my agenda.
  • I want to be a humble servant—until someone treats me as such.
  • I want to be faithful in prayer, but I listen to the “I’ve got this” background noise in my soul.
  • Then, when the emotional weight and toll of ministry hits, I’m primed to depend on me rather than on God.

And in that moment, I have to acknowledge my drive to be famous for the idolatry it is. And then repent and remember the gospel.

Repent and Remember

The only one truly worthy of fame is Jesus. Just look at these credentials:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Col. 1:15–18)

Jesus is the head of the church and the only name worthy of remembrance. Faithfulness means pointing people to that name rather than hoping they remember mine.

Then I have to repent and remember the ongoing hope in the gospel that Epaphras brought to his hometown. I received Jesus in helpless dependence on him. I continue walking in helpless dependence on him. Faithfulness in ministry doesn’t look like “God, I’ve got this” but “God, I need you”—from the first day I met Jesus until I see him face to face.

Faithfulness means pointing people to that name rather than hoping they remember mine.

Edward Kimball and Epaphras were normal, redeemed, faithful men who played their part in God’s story. May we do the same.

Christian Life Is Paradoxical. Embrace It.

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 12:00am

She was angry with me. As any parent might expect, her reasons were both just and unjust. It was the unjust ones, of course, that I rehearsed the next morning, remembering how the house had shook with the gale of tearful, bitter words the night before. Standing at the sink, I reassured myself that self-preoccupation was the stuff of adolescence, that the relational chafing was normal as her high-school graduation loomed. I felt battered all the same.

Worry had woken me early that morning, and I had obeyed it, following it down the stairs to the kitchen. As the kettle heated, I scanned the morning headlines. Luke Perry was dead, and dozens were still missing from the mile-wide tornadoes that had roared through Alabama. Grief, it seemed, was still the confirmed condition of the world. I climbed the stairs to my office, hot coffee in hand, and in the hush of the still-sleeping house, began trying to untangle the previous night’s conversation, which I had not ended but punted to my husband after crawling into bed with a book—a book ironically on the seeming indecency of need. On the pages of my journal, I unwound fears for the future and the besetting guilt of all that I’d gotten wrong these past 18 years. I worried over the fossilization of those mistakes, wondered if the years had hardened them beyond repair. She was turning 18, and time was running out.

The words dripped and sputtered on the page. But they did not console the terrible anguish of being human.

Paradox of Being Human

Like any other human being, I’m a riddle to myself. I want to parent my children well. I will to do right by them. Yet even on my best days, I fail these good intentions by virtue of being human, limited in understanding as well as capacity. I don’t sovereignly know the secret burdens my children bear, nor can I always rise, indefatigable, to carry them. On the worst days (and there are more than I wish to count), I fail my best parental intentions, not simply because I’m human, but because I’m a sinner. When my phone rings, my oldest daughter’s angry, accusing voice on the other end of the line, I won’t answer with sympathy or love. I will hang up.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul insisted on this paradox of being human, which is to say, in one sense, that we’re both morally frail and also morally aspiring. In Romans 7, he confesses his own tragic doubleness: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” In this, we’re a mystery to ourselves: We fail the good that we will, and indulge the evil that we hate. Empirically, I prove Paul’s point every day.

We’re a mystery to ourselves: We fail the good that we will, and indulge the evil that we hate. Empirically, I prove Paul’s point every day.

According to G. K. Chesterton, the paradox of being human is that we’re both “chief of creatures” and “chief of sinners.” Made in the image of God, we shared his moral likeness, loving the good and hating the evil in the very beginning. We were the “statue of God walking in the garden,” and our great grief, after the fall, wasn’t that of beast but of “broken God.” Though we were meant to be like God and rule with him, we choose autonomy and rebellion over submission and worship. One bite of forbidden fruit has damned us, self-loving creatures that we are, to paradoxically choose the harm of sin every time. In the garden, God graciously offered life, and we willingly refused it. Body of death, indeed.

On the one hand, human depravity is such terribly bad news—a devastating indictment rendered by the Paul, earlier in his letter to the Romans, like this: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” On the other hand, to acknowledge ourselves to be sinners is a terrific relief—far better news than the optimism of the secularist who gives short shrift to human capacity for breaking things.

One paradox of the gospel is: The bad news is God’s very good news.

Paradox of the Gospel

Paradox, Chesterton argues, is the beating heart of the gospel. In Chesterton’s journey to faith, the paradoxes of Christian thought particularly compelled him. Reading secular atheists and agnostics, he observed that while Christianity was consistently attacked, it was always attacked for inconsistent reasons. Some criticized it for being too optimistic—others for being too pessimistic. Some faulted it for being too bold—others for being too meek. Christianity was to be blamed, although no one could agree why. Was it too ascetic and monkish—or too insistent on pomp and circumstance? As Chesterton continued to reflect, he began to wonder if Christianity wasn’t in fact all these “vices” at once: pessimistic and optimistic, bold and meek, ascetic and worldly.

In other words, was the only fault of Christianity its hospitality to paradox?

Built on the idea that God had donned human flesh and remained God, Chesterton eventually concluded that Christianity isn’t a theology built on tidy eithers and ors. Instead, compared to other religious systems, Christianity is uniquely hospitable to paradox, which is to say the apparatus of both and and. In fact, as Chesterton saw it, paradox is the sharp edge on which much of God’s truth could be found: “Whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.”

We must remember the paradox of grace: the gospel announces both leniency and violence; mercy and judgment; rescue and death. What blazes up on Golgotha is God’s embrace of contradiction: weakness as power, foolishness as wisdom.

And it’s odd to affirm, in the same breath, that human beings have reason for “great pride” and “great prostration” (Chesterton again). Nevertheless, to grapple with the paradox of being human is the small step that, with God’s help, can become the giant leap toward salvation. At least this was the conclusion of Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century mathematician, philosopher, and converted Christian, in one of his famous “fragments” of religious reflection, or Pensées, that he left behind before his premature death. “It is wretched to know that one is wretched,” Pascal wrote, “but there is greatness in knowing one is wretched.” The paradoxical condition for salvation isn’t moral merit but moral fault. We can’t offer to God pledges of consistency and purity and fidelity because these are promises we can never keep. Our lot is moral failure every time, even should we try willing it otherwise. We are only helped by admitting our need.

But according to Athanasius in On the Incarnation, it’s not just the depravity of humanity that necessitates his salvation; it’s, paradoxically, his greatness. How could God allow his special creation, endowed with his likeness, to fall into disrepair? And if he did, could he call such apathy love? “It was impossible . . . that God should leave man to be carried off into corruption because it would be unfitting and unworthy of himself.” It was God’s glory, even his glory bequeathed to humanity, that demanded a rescue. As Chesterton wrote, “Let him call himself a fool and a damned fool . . . but he must not say fools are not worth saving.” As God has willed it, humanity has been saved by paradox: that falling short of the glory of God, he should be rescued to, once again, become like him.

The reasons for salvation seem paradoxical; consider also the means. According to the great surprise of God’s story, Jesus Christ didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped but made himself nothing, humbling himself to death on a cross. The firstborn of all creation became last, and humanity’s life was found in God’s own losing. Further, lest we think of Christ’s self-sacrifice only as means to acquittal, we must remember the paradox of grace: the gospel announces both leniency and violence; mercy and judgment; rescue and death. What blazes up on Golgotha is God’s embrace of contradiction: weakness as power, foolishness as wisdom.

It’s a paradox to make men stumble.

Invitations of Paradox

It would seem, at least to me, that God has a kind of preference for paradox—that given the choice between either and or, God would often choose and. Paradox is, of course, the way we can rightly reckon, not just with our nature, but God’s: that he is immanent and transcendent; merciful and just; mysterious and knowable. In the person of Jesus Christ, the great I AM became the great I And, neither moderating his godhood nor his humanity but clothing himself with what seems to be contradiction.

In Christ, the great I AM became the great I And.

There are certainly more paradoxes to uncover in the story of God than I have room to mention here—including the nature of the kingdom (as a reality both now and not yet); the nature of grace (as “God’s working in us that we might will and work for his good pleasure”); the nature of lament, which, like on the morning I scanned the headlines and sat down to journal, invites us simultaneously into grief and hope. These are the irreducible mysteries that no systematic theology can logically explain, and it’s best that we imitate Moses when confronted with paradox. When he stood before the bush that burned and was not consumed, he did two things: drew closer for a better look, then removed his shoes.

Paradox inevitably offers these two invitations: curiosity and humility.

Recently, I was rereading Rosaria Butterfield’s book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. As she describes some of her assumptions about Christians before she became one, she admitted she thought they lacked curiosity. She thought they read the Bible badly, bringing the Bible into conversation only to stop it, rather than deepen it. They seemed to always be offering answers, but like Rosaria noted ironically, “Answers come after questions, not before.”

Instead of evading truth claims, paradox is a mechanism for affirming that truth, while knowable, can yet remain mysterious, even beyond the reach of reason.

Sadly, Butterfield’s experience has sometimes been my own—that we short-circuit our curiosity by insisting, too prematurely, on certainty. I’m not one to argue against certainty, for the Scriptures were written and the creeds argued to establish theological and doctrinal certainties. To maintain the importance of paradox isn’t the ambivalent shrug of postmodernity, which dismisses human capacity for objective knowledge. Instead, paradox gives a category for a different kind of certainty: “of truths that do not logically cohere.” Instead of evading truth claims, paradox is a mechanism for affirming that truth, while knowable, can yet remain mysterious, even beyond the reach of reason.

When we unearth the tension of paradox in the Scriptures, we should move toward it with expectation, rather than from it in fear. To be left with tension, complexity, and mystery necessarily moves us toward humility: the still smallness of knowing that he is God and we are not. Such childlikeness seems argument enough on its own, though curiously, it’s also a compelling witness to our secular age, which, despite having rejected the reality of God, yet longs for the transcendent—for something bigger and more enduring and more beautiful than their muddled, material lives. Our most compelling witness may not always be our reasoned arguments and sophisticated apologetics.

It may also be paradox.

The Both-And

On the morning after the explosive argument with my teenage daughter, I came to the end of several journal pages with a clearer understanding of the way to move forward. Unsurprisingly, the conclusions were mostly built on the both and the and. I needed to both persist in a ministry of words and a ministry of silent presence—because God had given me both the command to talk to my children as a means of spiritual formation and the example of his own quiet ministry of kindness to Elijah, who’d arrived dejected and despairing on the other side of his confrontation with the prophets of Baal. As a both-and, it was an answer full of tension and one that cast me back, not on my own understanding, but on God’s. Unlike an either and or, it was an answer that left me with the conviction that ongoing dependence on the Spirit’s wisdom would be needed.

I suppose the sufficiency of the both-and is what Job discovered at the end of his long, angry tirade which God never saw fit to answer. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Job never got answers to his questions. He never had definitive reasons from God for why he had permitted his suffering.

And the paradox is:

It was enough.

9 Things You Should Know About Notre Dame Cathedral

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 6:15pm

On Monday more than 400 French firefighters attempted to save Notre-Dame Cathedral from a devastating fire. Here are nine things you should know about one of Europe’s more historic and iconic religious landmarks:

1. Notre-Dame de Paris (French for “Our Lady of Paris”) is a Catholic cathedral in Paris that took centuries to complete. The cornerstone was laid in 1163 in the presence of Pope Alexander III, and initial construction was completed in 1260, nearly a hundred years later. The cathedral wasn’t officially consecrated, though, until 1345. Even after completion, construction and restoration continued. A half-dozen other major construction campaigns were undertaken from the 12th to 14th centuries, and changes and restorations took place from the 17th to 21st centuries.

2. During the anti-Christian fervor of the French Revolution, Notre Dame was turned into a Temple of Reason and rededicated to the atheistic Cult of Reason. Later, when the Committee of Public Safety, which controlled France, decreed worship of a Supreme Being, it was rededicated to the deistic Cult of the Supreme Being. When interest in the new religions waned, the cathedral was converted into a storage warehouse for food. 

3. Napoleon Bonaparte signed an agreement in 1801 to restore the cathedral to the Catholic Church. Three years later he decided to hold his coronation ceremony at the cathedral, becoming the first Frenchman to hold the title of emperor in a thousand years. Pope Pius VII handed Napoleon the crown—which the young conqueror of Europe placed on his own head.

4. In 1831, novelist Victor Hugo wrote Notre-Dame de Paris, published in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Hugo began writing the novel in part to bring attention to the value of Gothic architecture. A few years earlier, Hugo had published a paper entitled Guerre aux Démolisseurs (“War to the Demolishers”) aimed at saving Paris’s medieval architecture. Based in part on Hugo’s effort to draw attention to the cathedral, King Louis Philippe ordered in 1844 that it be restored.

5. From 1856 to 2012, the four major bells atop the northern towers of the cathedral were rung every 15 minutes. They also rang for significant events, such as the end of World War I in 1918, the liberation of Paris in 1944, and in honor of the victims of 9/11 in 2011. The four bells—which were named Angélique-Françoise, Antoinette-Charlotte, Hyacinthe-Jeanne, and Denise-David, after French Catholic saints—were melted down and replaced by eight new ones in 2012. The reason for the change was to recreate the sound of Notre Dame’s original 17th-century bells.

6. The cathedral’s pipe organ dates back to the 18th century and is the largest in France. The instrument has five keyboards, 109 stops, and nearly 7,374 pipes. In the 1990s, the organ was restored at the cost of $2 million and took 40,000 hours to complete. The update included a musical-instrument digital interface (MIDI) that records and allows for instant replay, a voice synthesizer, a printer, and a telephone line to an office near Versailles.

7. In 2013, a hive of honey-producing bees was placed on the roof of the sacristy (i.e., the room where the priest prepares for a service). The types of bees—Buckfast bees—were bred from a special strain at a Benedictine monastery, and known for their gentleness. The beehive is hosted on the cathedral to “recall the beauty of the Creation and responsibility of man towards it.”

8. The wood used for the framing of the cathedral consisted of 1,300 oak trees representing more than 21 hectares (2.5 acres) of forest.

9. The current fire is part of a long history of damage to the cathedral. In the 16th century, both the Huguenots and also the French king vandalized and altered the structure of the building. During the French Revolution 28 statues of biblical kings located at the west facade were beheaded because they were mistaken for statues of French kings. Minor damage to the medieval glass was also caused by stray bullets during the liberation of Paris in 1944. Even nature has taken its toll, as five centuries of wind damage forced the removal of the original spire in 1786.

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Kathryn Butler

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 12:04am

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I asked Kathryn Butler—a trauma and critical-care surgeon who recently left clinical practice to homeschool her children and author of a book on end-of-life care through a Christian lens, Between Life and Death—about what’s on her nightstand, her favorite fiction, books that have most influenced her thinking about faith and medicine, and more.

What books are on your nightstand?

This will be fodder for my husband. The piles have gotten out of control.

I actively read about four books at a time: something to teach, something to write about, something to help my child with special needs, and something to indulge my love for words. Right now that amalgamation looks like this:

Other titles heaped on the nightstand in various phases of completion include:

What are your favorite fiction books?

I gravitate toward the Lost Generation writers: William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, James Joyce. I love how they all pair an unflinching eye for detail with a deftness for capturing the moment, the essence of a thing. Their realism is unsettling, but it’s also their gift: I can’t read Dubliners or The Great Gatsby or even The Sound and the Fury without thinking, Yes, that’s why the gospel is such great news!

What books have most influenced your thinking about faith and medicine?

For years the problem of suffering was a stumbling block to my faith, even driving me for a time to agnosticism and existential depression. An in-depth study of the book of Job played a crucial role in deepening my faith, giving me a biblical framework that revealed God’s goodness even in our anguish. It also shaped my thoughts on end-of-life care.

Regarding medicine specifically, Dr. Robert Orr’s Medical Ethics and the Faith Factor has been an excellent resource, as have John Dunlop’s Finishing Well to the Glory of God and David VanDrunen’s Bioethics and the Christian.

What’s the last great book you read?

For classics, The Aeneid. For modern books, I loved Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser’s biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (which I reviewed for TGC). Her research was excellent, and her writing was stunning.

In the past year I’ve also read some pretty amazing children’s literature with my kids around the breakfast table that I know I didn’t appreciate decades ago. I expected to cry with Charlotte’s Web and the Narnia chronicles, but the poignancy of The Cricket in Times Square took me aback.

What’s one book you wish every pastor read?

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Gawande doesn’t write from a Christian perspective, but he does a spectacular job illustrating the skewed priorities of modern medicine and how the missions to fix and to keep safe often deprive people of what matters most in life. Our medical technology is a gift, but it comes with a steep price when wielded without discernment.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

For so long I didn’t understand grace. I knew my sin down to my bones, and daily dwelt on my inadequacy, but I really couldn’t comprehend that God would sacrifice anything of worth to save someone so corrupted.

The move from the hospital to homeschooling has compelled me to put aside any notion that I can redeem myself and has unveiled for me the sweetness and luminosity of grace in Christ. As I flunk daily at homemaking stuff, and as my son’s needs bring me to my knees, I’m amazed at how little we can do ourselves, how desperately we need the Lord, and how he works such wonders when we stop striving, start trusting, and come before him broken and humble. What he accomplishes far outshines anything we can do with our own awkward hands. And my heart bursts with gratitude that even when we’re so undeserving his love covers us and buoys us through.

Many Video Games Are Life and Death. One Is Death and Then Life.

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 12:03am

“It felt like a video game where all the mechanics are broken.”

These are the words of a heartbroken father, whose efforts to save his young son proved futile. Ryan Green is a game designer from Colorado, married to Amy. But when their 1-year-old son, Joel, was diagnosed with brain cancer, life seemed anything but a game.

Usually video games put the player in the driver’s seat. Your decisions determine the outcome. With skill, cunning, and perseverance, you can overcome every obstacle. You can defeat the dragon. But in real life, cancer proved to be a dragon that could not be slain. Tragically, in 2014, Joel died at age 5.

How can parents cope with such tragedy?

Ryan and Amy made a memorial to their son, “That Dragon, Cancer.” They made a game (read TGC’s review) that pits you against the dragon of cancer. Yet this game is unlike other games. This game is unwinnable. Instead the gamer is carried through experiences they did not choose, experiences they would not choose. Through the darkest valley, though, there is Easter hope. Ryan and Amy are Christians. They know a Dragon Slayer. But the Slayer isn’t Joel, and he isn’t us. Instead there is One who carries us through death to a place of feasting and joy. It’s not for the strong or the brave. It’s for the Joels of this world. For those who know they need to be carried.

Watch “Unwinnable: The Game That’s True to Life.”

Why We Need the Apostles’ Creed in 2019

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 12:02am

Whether from a desire for “authenticity” or from a mistrust of formal statements of faith, the use of creeds has fallen out of favor in many evangelical churches. However, in The Apostles’ Creed: Discovering Authentic Christianity in an Age of Counterfeits, Albert Mohler—president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and TGC Council member—argues that creedal statements are, indeed, relevant for “such a time as this.” As the subtitle suggests, when we employ those ancient words in our worship, we have captured “authenticity” at its best. The Apostles’ Creed frames the essence of Christianity, for it “expresses and summarizes the faith given by Christ to the apostles” (xiv).

Internalizing majestic statements of belief enriches our more spontaneous expressions of worship with infusions of known theological truth. Mohler explains the Apostles’ Creed line by line, phrase by phrase, applying its truth to life on the ground in the 21st century. The effect is a well-organized, timely presentation of truth.

Delight in the Details

If, as A. W. Tozer succinctly stated, “What comes into our minds when we think of God is the most important thing about us,” we would do well to align our understanding of God’s identity and character with his self-revelation. Mohler dives deeply into who God is with scriptural affirmations of his power—and right—to rule the universe.

With the largest part of the creed devoted to God the Son, readers are invited to delight in the details of our great salvation. Mohler laments “this strange time in which it appears to people that heresy is exhilarating”—and then rolls up his sleeves to equip believers with truths that move us beyond a mere “all I want is Jesus” mentality. The creed insists that Jesus’s identity is a crucial point in refuting heresy and helping us anchor our own stories in the metanarrative of the Jesus story.

Readers are invited to delight in the details of our great salvation.

The Christian faith is unmistakably Trinitarian. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God, and Mohler devotes chapter 11 to a clear and helpful expansion of the creed’s six-word assertion about the third member of the Trinity. He writes about the Holy Spirit as the member who abides with us, teaches the church, testifies to the truth about Christ, and indwells each believer with his truth-bearing presence.

Not an Accessory

Christianity is social, not solitary. In affirming belief in “the holy catholic church and the communion of saints,” believers confess that church isn’t an optional accessory to a flourishing Christian life. Further, our consumer mentality about worship styles, personalities, or the presence of a coffee bar gets swallowed up in a glorious call to recognize our “identity as eternal members of the eternal family of the eternal God” (164).

Church isn’t an optional accessory to a flourishing Christian life.

Unfortunately, the only eligible members of congregations happen to be sinners, but even this—“the sinfulness of the entire human race, and . . . the horrible reality of our own individual sin”—is accounted for by creedal words of hope (170). Belief in the forgiveness of sin sets all believers in the position of gratitude for a robust grace that matches the depth of our need.

Trusting All That Scripture Reveals

The Apostles’ Creed is an expression of certainty to encourage belief in an era when believers may prefer mystery or ignorance. God’s incomprehensible nature is distilled into statements of truth that cut through opinion and offer borrowed words to help the heart along. While it’s true the repetition of a creed has no saving value, there is great faith-anchoring value to a deeper understanding of the affirmations that define historic Christianity.

To that end, Mohler tackles common questions about the ancient rule of faith. For example, because Jesus truly died, we’re safe in interpreting his descent “into hell” as an entrance into the realm of the dead. Scripture doesn’t support much speculation beyond this point, and so “even as we confess that Christ descended into hell, we get ready to celebrate that hades could not hold him” (93).

In an attempt to defuse the controversy over male pronouns referring to God, Mohler teases out two distinct functions of “he.” Biblically, God is without gender, so the use of “he” denotes personhood, not maleness. So too fatherhood and gender are not one in God. Even though fatherhood has been corrupted by human failing, “it is God the Father who defines what a human father must be like, not the other way around” (10).

In this methodical and engaging exploration of the Apostles’ Creed, each credo is a stand-alone lesson, deeply theological and heart-stirring in a way only good theology can be. Creedal statements are servants, summarizing the content of belief so the truth can be succinctly communicated, unifying us on the essentials and directing our minds toward life-giving orthodoxy.

5 Films About the Beauty of Resurrection

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 12:02am

Every year in the lead-up to Easter, films about Jesus and scenes of his resurrection are not hard to find. This year’s Jesus: His Life on the History Channel is one of the latest, but other recent examples include Risen (2016) and Son of God (2014). Cinematic depictions of resurrection, however, are not confined to Easter-season adaptations of the New Testament.

In one sense, almost every film is a resurrection film. The traditional cinematic plot arc is from “Friday” to “Sunday.” A person, community, or cause is “dead,” lost, hopeless (Friday). There is lament, struggle, tension, darkness (Saturday). But in the end, there is rebirth, resolution, a new day’s dawn (Sunday). Human beings resonate with this movie structure for a reason. It’s the greatest story ever told.

But beyond this familiar story arc, resurrection is often a more explicit theme in movies. You see the death-resurrection cycle often in superhero or fantasy movies, where a seemingly defeated hero nevertheless revives and returns (e.g., Gandalf the White in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, or Batman’s ascent out of the abyss in The Dark Knight Rises). Then there are the countless action movies where the hero is left for dead, pummeled from every direction by every imaginable weapon, and yet somehow bounces back, again and again.

These “resurrection” tropes are so familiar in certain genres that they can numb us to the jarring beauty and bracing surprise of resurrection. But other films capture the magic and shock of resurrection by situating it within more mundane realities and contexts. Here are five of my favorite examples of this kind—movies that capture resurrection in all of its miraculous, unsettling, hope-giving glory.

Ordet (1955)

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (Danish for “The Word”) is almost always near the top of lists about the best films about Christian faith, and for good reason. Dreyer (one of three filmmakers whose work is featured in Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film) has a knack for capturing the transcendent in the mundane. Nowhere is that more evident than in Ordet and its famous, unexpected scene of resurrection near the film’s end. Though clearly a film about faith (or lack thereof), Ordet has a spartan style and ordinary setting that makes the literal, straightforward resurrection scene all the more startling when it comes. A woman, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), is lying dead in a coffin. Her brother-in-law Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) simply says, “Inger, in the name of Jesus Christ, I bid thee arise!” And she does. Watch on The Criterion Channel.

Munyurangabo (2007)

When I think about films that capture the beauty of resurrection, I always think of this small, little-seen indie from director Lee Isaac Chung. Set in post-genocide Rwanda, it focuses on the friendship of two adolescent boys who come from opposing ethnic groups (the Hutus and Tutsis). The wreckage and blood-stained trauma of Rwanda’s past is everywhere, but the focus is on the hope, reconciliation and resurrection that can come in death’s wake. This lyrical, neo-realist film (using all non-trained actors) came out of a trip Chung and his wife, both believers, took to Rwanda with Youth With a Mission (YWAM), to help teach filmmaking to young people. Resurrection is not literal in the film (though a few unexpected, magical shots suggest it) so much as it is a pervasive possibility that infuses every frame. It’s a film that beautifully captures the lament and hope of the “already, not yet.” Watch on Amazon.

The Tree of Life (2011)

Terrence Malick’s masterpiece is thoroughly Christian from start to finish (as its title would suggest). There is birth and death, but also resurrection. Genesis, Job, and Revelation loom especially large, shaping a narrative that essentially follows Scripture’s creation, fall, redemption, and restoration structure. Life’s ending is perhaps cinema’s most vivid depiction of the Christian eschatological idea of the resurrection of the dead. Set to the music of Berlioz’s “Requiem Op. 5 (Grande Messe des Morts),” we see people rising from graves, along with a variety of images evoking Revelation 21: a lamp (v. 23), an open gate (v. 25), a bride (vv. 2, 9), the nations walking (v. 24). To cap it all off, the boy about whom the film’s final line refers (“I give you my son”) is named “R. L.,” an abbreviation I suspect is a nod to John 11:25: “Resurrection and Life.” Watch on Amazon.

The Salt of the Earth (2015)

On first appearance, this documentary might seem to be more about death than resurrection—more Friday than Sunday. Directed by Wim Wenders (a believer), along with Juliano Salgado, the film explores the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, who turns his cameras unflinchingly on war, disease, poverty, famine, industry, migration and other human struggles in our fallen world. But as much as it captures visceral lament and anger over suffering and injustice, it also captures eschatological, “swords into plowshares” hope for renewal: not just for individuals, but for creation itself. This is stunningly captured in a sequence showing Salgado re-planting a decimated rainforest in his Brazilian hometown, showing the new life potential that always lurks beneath the soil of barren, drought-ridden ground. Watch on Amazon.

Happy as Lazzaro (2018)

This Italian film from director Alice Rohrwacher suggests resurrection in its very title (Lazzaro is the Italian name for Lazarus). Sure enough, the beguiling-but-beautiful movie does indeed have a jarring resurrection scene involving its titular character, though it’s not a parallel to the biblical Lazarus story. Still, Happy as Lazzaro—which is full of biblical imagery and has been described as a “religious parable”—is a powerful example of how awe-inspiring it is when resurrection happens in an otherwise realistic course of events. More than any other film I’ve seen outside the zombie genre, Happy as Lazzaro captures the “whoa” nature of seeing someone you thought was dead, very much alive and in the flesh. It puts us in the shoes of Thomas and the other disciples, friends, and family of Jesus who struggled to believe the resurrected man was really, truly resurrected. Watch on Netflix.