For the last post in Nick’s series on the “Syntax of Salvation,” click here.
“The late Hans Frei of Yale University described the development of early modernity as a ‘great reversal,’ whereby the biblical narrative was gradually displaced from its centrality. No longer was the Bible regarded as the ‘story-encompassing story’ within which the communities of Western culture located themselves. Instead of the Genesis-to-Revelation narrative, secular humanity located itself within another narrative centered on humanity’s conquest of the natural world, its growing self-mastery, and advancing freedom. Hegel wrote that ‘the history of the world is nothing but the development of the idea of freedom.’ The great reversal occurred when the world of the biblical narrative was accepted as valid only to the extent that it fit into a secular narrative of human advancement.” (Michael McClymond, Encounters With God, p. 112)
One example of this “great reversal” may be observed in Western culture’s utter abandonment of the biblical themes of judgment, punishment and wrath, even whilst attempting to retain the cushier, more comfortable parts of the gospel’s storyline. Love and forgiveness and grace are ever fashionable, it seems. Yet most Christians historically would contend that these realities are emptied of their meaning and stripped of their power without a parallel commitment to justice, hatred of sin, and passionate yearning for the final overthrow and exclusion of evil in God’s good creation. When these convictions are lost, that which has been erected upon their foundation cannot long survive. Few modern thinkers, however, have possessed the foresight to see (let alone embrace) the radical and far-reaching implications of this fundamental rejection of the biblical narrative (note: I am not saying that America is or ever was a Christian nation). We simply cannot, at the end of the day, have our cake and eat it, too.
One contemporary philosopher who understands that the superstructure of mainstream Western values, sentiments and ethics cannot long stand once the original foundation is removed is Peter Singer of Princeton University. An atheist who promulgates extreme ethical positions on abortion, infanticide, euthanasia and bestiality that most would still consider barbarous is, if nothing else, consistent:
“Here, as on many other moral issues, Christianity has for two thousand years been a powerful influence on the moral intuitions of people in Western societies. People do not need to continue to hold religious beliefs to be under the influence of Christian moral teaching. Yet without the religious beliefs–for example, that God created the world, that he gave us dominion over the other animals, that we alone of all of his creation have an immortal soul–the moral teachings just hang in the air, without foundations. If no better foundations can be provided for these teachings, we need to consider alternative views.” (Peter Singer, Writings of an Ethical Life, xviii)
Singer’s point is crystal clear: moral intuitions and convictions come from somewhere. They do not arise in a cultural or intellectual vacuum. And the simple, indisputable fact is that by and large Western sentiments have been conjured up in the laboratory of the gospel, whether directly or indirectly. The judgment of God upon human sin, it must be pointed out if only for honesty’s sake, has always been a central tenet of the Christian tradition. Today, however, we live in a culture where even our local gyms entice us with their claims to be “judgment-free zones.” All is well in the world, it would seem, and no one deserves to be punished for their sins–or even their high calorie intake and self-indulgent laziness. We are misunderstood, we are victims, we are many things besides—but we are not sinners, and we certainly do not deserve comeuppance for our crimes. Collectively we have found ourselves to exist “in a world without judgment, a world where at the last frontier post you simply go out—and nothing happens. It is like coming to the customs and finding there are none after all. And the suspicion that this is in fact the case spreads fast: for it is what we should all like to believe.” (John Robinson, On Being The Church In The World). Nihilism, as it has often been suggested, is fast becoming the new opiate of the masses.
I think, too, of this passage in Arthur Miller’s After The Fall which so poignantly captures the tragic cost inflicted upon human dignity in the absence of final judgment. Ultimately, meaning itself is forfeited in this substitute narrative:
“You know, more and more I think that for many years I looked at life like a case at law, a series of proofs. When you’re young you prove how brave you are, or smart, then, what a good lover; then a good father; finally, how wise, or powerful, or what-the-hell-ever. But underlying it all, I see now, there was a presumption. That I was moving on an upward path toward some elevation, where—God knows what—I would be justified, or even condemned—a verdict anyway. I think now that my disaster began when I looked up one day—and the bench was empty. No judge in sight. And all that remained was the endless argument with oneself, this pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench. Which, of course, is another way of saying—despair.”
With this lengthy introduction in view, we looks at another function of being “known by God” in Scripture: being known by God often serves as a warning of the judgment to come upon the fallen creation, against those who have turned away from relationship to God. Listen to these words from Jesus in the Gospels:
Matthew 7:21-23—“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
Matthew 25:1-13—“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Luke 13:22-30—“He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Jesus’ warnings to those who prefer their own self-constructed versions of reality to the presence of his kingdom were no novel threat. They are rooted in the Old Testament tradition with its constant separation of humanity into the “righteous” and the “wicked,” two categories that are ultimately distinguished from one another with reference to being known by God:
Psalm 1:5-6—“Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” (cf. 37:12-20)
Psalm 138:4-6—“All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O LORD, for they have heard the words of your mouth, and they shall sing of the ways of the LORD, for great is the glory of the LORD. For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.”
To be known by God is a tremendous gift of grace that comes to us in the gospel. But it must never be taken for granted or abused—or separated from repentance and faith. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Jesus (contrary to many popular portrayals of him today) did not believe that being known by God was a condition that obtains universally among all human beings. I cannot think of any good reason to disagree with him, whether from the standpoint of divine revelation or from my experience of this world. Both tell me of real evil with bitter consequences, of catastrophic loss and unredeemed (not unredeemable) criminals, and the inevitably of judgment. “In the end that Face which is the delight or the terror of the universe must be turned upon each of us either with one expression or with the other, either conferring glory inexpressible or inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised.” (C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”)
All lovers of literature know that a good story can be a comedy and yet depict individual characters within that story as coming to a tragic end. The biblical narrative is no less a comedy–with a cosmically happy ending!–for its forthright denial of (cheap) modern universalism. Jesus—the very image of the Father and embodiment of His character—often envisioned scenarios for his audience in which those who consciously turn away from the love of God would be, at the last, forgotten, unacknowledged and unknown by both God and the renewed world. Do we inhabit that same narrative?