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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Resurrection and the Wrath of God

I just finished writing an essay on suffering and Jewish lament. The materials I found proved very enlightening on the topic, and I even learned some Jewish theology, both ancient and modern, along the way. When a tragedy comes to the question, “Why does God do this?” there is a Jewish response, or rather, several responses. One answer is that God is not omnipotent. If he were, but did not prevent suffering, then he is unjust, and Jewish Scripture claims God’s justice frequently.

For the fall semester I’m taking a course on early church history, and one of the required textbooks is Bart Ehrman’s Peter, Paul, & Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend (2006). It’s a great read so far, and a new take on an old thought has been introduced to me concerning Jesus’ crucifixion and Jewish law. Deut 21.23 lays a curse from God upon those who hang on a tree, and such was the form of Jesus’ death. Here’s where Ehrman picks up:

But how could Jesus be God’s Righteous One if he was in fact crucified? For doesn’t Scripture indicate that the one who hangs on a tree is cursed by God (Deut. 21.23)? Paul began very quickly to think that yes, Jesus was cursed. But he must not have been cursed for his own unrighteous acts, since he was God’s Righteous One. He must have been cursed for the unrighteous acts of others. That is to say, Jesus did only what was right, and suffered for the sake of others who had violated God’s will and stood under his wrath. Jesus took the wrath of God (his “curse”) upon himself for others. His suffering and death, in other words, were vicarious: he died for the sake of others, so that they themselves would not have to pay the price for their own sins. Christ’s death ransomed others from the just payment of death. (Ehrman, 114)

I struggle somewhat with the notion of God’s wrath. In fact, this idea came up (or rather, was avoided) the other night at church. There is a rather beautiful and marvelously well-written (in my humble opinion) song called “In Christ Alone.” I’ve had some trouble figuring out who wrote it, but here are the full lyrics. The second verse says the following: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied/For every sin on Him was laid/Here in the death of Christ I live.” The worship minister at the church I attend change the second listed line to “The love of God crossed the divide,” due to what he calls “bad theology.” I’m not totally sure what this means, as I have yet to discuss it with him, though I truly want to. However, it doesn’t sound like bad theology to me. And here is why.

If Jesus’ death was unjust, and God has a history of hating injustice (particularly against widows and orphans), then why would God not be wrathful, especially against those who commit the injustices in question? So let’s assume God was angry about this, despite the notion that such events were in line with God’s plan. How would God act toward the unjust? Sometimes, it would be a plague, or a disease, or just a straight up tomahawk chop to the head resulting in an immediate death. Here, the punishment was carried out, but against a willing substitute: Jesus.

This puts us in a bit of a bind. If a man took advantage of a widow, and God wants to strike him down, he will do so. But if the widow, in her righteousness, pleads with God to punish her for his actions, will he comply? And does this put God in an awkward place when he is asked to punish an innocent person? Jesus knows he is innocent, yet understands he must do whatever is necessary to fulfill God’s justice, God’s wrath.

I suppose this is the concept of substitutionary atonement, that Jesus simply took the place of someone else’s failures, their sins. So when we sing, “The wrath of God was satisfied,” is it necessarily bad theology to claim that the curse upon one who hangs on a tree is Jesus’ willingness to accept God’s wrath? Is it bad theology to say think that God did not necessarily want to take up Jesus’ offer?
For some, myself included, substitutionary atonement is not the preferred theory. I don’t like the idea that God’s bus couldn’t be stopped, so Jesus pushed mankind out of the way and got pummeled. For if God ran over Jesus, why bother resuscitating him afterward?

Here is where my thought finally kicks in. It’s because the resurrection is God’s answer to suffering. In the eschaton when all persons are resurrected, given glorified bodies, and take their dwelling on the new heaven and new earth, suffering will finally have been answered. For every time that a woman loses her husband, or a father holds his dying child, or a single mom becomes homeless, the resurrection stands at the edge of this age and proclaims, “You shall suffer no more. Come, drink of me, and I will give you rest.”

Suffering exists; this much cannot be denied. But even if our response is that God is not responsible for it all, his answer is calling to us, waiting for us. I trust that when we suffer, God suffers as well. The lost husband, the dying child, and the homeless mother grieve the heart of God, who promises a new body that cannot die in a home that he has rebuilt for us when all things are made new. “See," God says, "I am doing a new thing.” And what a glorious new thing it is.

Monday, August 20, 2012

"Blessed Are" or "Blessed Be"?

A thought has been floating in my head for a few days. In the Beatitudes, the common translation is "Blessed are . . . " Whichever group about which Jesus speaks, he uses the phrase "μακάριοι οἱ . . . " to make a statement of blessing. The Greek does not use a verb of being here, which means the interpreter/translator needs to make a decision. The sentence itself says "Blessed the poor in spirit, because of them is the reign of the heavens." There is no "are" there. Thus, my thought.

My professor of spiritual formation holds the idea that the Beatitudes are not aspirational values, but something more. They're not phrases that say, "You should be poor in spirit, because if you are, then yours will be the reign of heaven." They are statements that, according to this professor, bless people in real, current situations. They reflect this more: "Blessed are those whose spirits are already impoverished, broken, shattered, for they have something more to anticipate in the reign of God." The Beatitudes speak to existing realities rather than a state of being which one ought to seek.

With this in mind, I became curious as to whether the implied verb of being is indicative or an imperative/subjunctive. I have started searching for similar examples, especially those using the phrase "blessed be" and "blessed is/are" in English. Of the six examples I have thus far examined in the LXX (Gen 9.26; 14.19-20; 22.18; 24.27; 27.29; Ex 18.10), they all use εὐλογητός or a derivative thereof. There are quite a few more I have to sift through (no fewer than 20), but the first few all have that word group in common. Also, these six examples are found only using the search terms "Blessed be," without using "is/are."

Realistically, what difference does it make if the Beatitudes are translated "Blessed be the poor in spirit" as opposed to "Blessed are . . . "? If it is the latter, then the blessing has already been bestowed: God's favor has already fallen on the oppressed, which makes sense. The Bible frequently speaks to God's compassion on the disenfranchised. However, many of the finite verbs used are in the future tense. Whether this is near future or distant future cannot be said definitively (unless you know something I don't; I'm eager to hear), but it's still interesting. If "Blessed are" is understood in light of the future tense verbs used, then it might not be appropriate.

"Blessed be," on the other hand, has the ring of Jesus seeking God's blessing on behalf of these people for whom he already has a soft spot. It is not uncommon for a speaker to remind God of his promises and say, in effect, "And remember, God, I'm holding you to this. Seriously. I am." If Jesus is understood to be saying, "Blessed be the mourners, because they will be comforted," then the comfort sounds rather absolute, even if the blessing is not. We tell God, "Bless this meal," not with the sound of an optative verb of request, but with a statement in the imperative. We fully expect God will bless the meal, assuming we think about it beyond something we say at mealtimes. We expect, but cannot be completely certain. If I pray over my fast food chicken, God had better bless it, because there's no other way that stuff could be considered good for me! If it is "Blessed be," then the person in the real situation of pain has something to legitimately look forward to. This may be conveyed through the future verbs in the sentences, as well, but "Blessed be" appears to work in the fashion of an emphatic article or particle: it's not necessary, but it presses the point.

There is research to be done on this on my part. I plan to look up statements of blessing in other Greek texts (at least those which are readily available to me) and see how they compare. Μακάριος isn't too common so far, but εὐλογητός looks like it might be everywhere (see also Eph 1.3). I think there's potential here for one of those small interpretive decisions that does matter, even if only a little. In the meantime, enjoy this video on pre-blessed food.