The Anti-Anti Christ

I’ve been laid up with crippling muscle tightness for the last two days, spending most of my time lying on the floor and trying to stretch the inside of my thighs. I guess that no respectable masseuse will work there, so I had no idea how tight my adductors had become. Sunday night after Dance Tribe in Santa Barbara, I got out of the car and almost couldn’t stand up. My foam roller doesn’t have any instructions for that area, but I ended up laying on my side with the inside of my thigh on top of the roller, wiggling the muscle back and forth across its length, working my way between the knee and my groin. It wasn’t quite like the black-out pain that I used to get doing Bikram’s half locust posture, but it was close.

Yesterday I went in to work to push a customer release forward, but at two the pain forced me home. I spent the rest of the day watching movies between sets on the foam roller and trying to get back into cow pose. I caught the last half of Stigmata on Sunday night, and picked up the ending of The Vatican Tapes yesterday. The two movies captivated me, not necessarily because they were compelling, but because they characterize two of the central difficulties I have faced as I attempt to go about the work that I do in the world.

The dramatic tension in Stigmata revolves around the attempt by a Catholic cardinal to suppress knowledge of Jesus’ authentic teachings. This builds around a fragment of the Gospel of Thomas:

Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone and you will find me.

This is consistent with the teachings of the four canonical gospels that the kingdom of God does not reside in institutional order, but is found by looking into our own hearts. That the Church is threatened by this teaching is evident from its conduct, but there are many explanations. One is that, as Jesus taught:

It is not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart.

[NLT Mark 7:15]

To tell a sinner to look into his heart is to bear responsibility for the consequences of his struggle with sin.

This is a struggle, naturally, to which priests are not immune. Stigmata relates the experience of the saints that suffered from the stigmata – bleeding from the wrists and feet that reflects the depth of the spiritual bond to the cross.  The more nearly they approach to that perfect expression of love, the more they are beset by demonic influences seeking to enter into that power to work their will in the world. I would counsel any so beset to trust in love, and to do as Jesus did: offer your enemies forgiveness and a promise of healing. But what most stigmatics hold in their heart is a fear of sin, and it is that fear that runs amok as they draw to them the “demonic” spirits that seek healing.

Witnessing that struggle, many of their peers take refuge in religious institution. The institution becomes a substitute for Christ, and eventually of greater value to those that maintain it. This is not merely a point of theology: I was told as a child that a contemporary pope was torn from the throne of St. Peter because he was about to announce the return of Christ.

The Vatican Tapes explores the second great challenge to the return of Christ. This is the common teaching, drawn from the Book of Revelation, that Christ will be preceded by the Anti-Christ – a figure that manifests all of his virtues for the purpose of corrupting Christ’s purpose.

Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived.

[NSRV Rev. 13:11-14]

This echoes the words of 2 Thessalonians:

The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.

[2 Thess. 2:7-9]

The interpretation by many is that the Anti-Christ is a man that will beguile the trusting with spiritual gifts, and lead them into corruption. In The Vatican Tapes, that ‘man’ is actually a woman, perhaps uniting both the anti-Christ and the Whore of Babylon in a single figure.

The problem posed by this interpretation is that it leads us to mistrust the presence of Christ among us. Christ brought fire down from heaven – the flames of the Holy Spirit. If we experience that, might we fear that we are being deceived as predicted in Revelation? And Jesus was famously a wonder-worker. Following Thessalonians, would a man that came to perform similar wonders be recognized as an avatar, or condemned (as Jesus was by his contemporaries) as a false messiah?

The way out of this trap is to recognize that Christ is not the man Jesus: Christ is part of the triune God that was, is and will be. Just so is the Anti-Christ: an opposition to Christ that since the dawn of life here on Earth has struggled against the healing power of divine love. Just as Christ’s influence reaches out from the cross through the ages, so the anti-Christ has woven its thread through our history. In the Bible, it can be identified as the serpent in the Garden, Herod on his throne, and the dragon in Revelation that chases the holy mother into hiding.

The only true barometer that distinguishes these two is our heart. Christ demands nothing of us but that our heart be filled with his love for others. Anti-Christ beguiles us with personal gifts that are twisted to command our fealty. Christ leads us because we trust him; Anti-Christ rules our thoughts with pleasures that cannot be sustained.

Here is the measure of goodness: not in what it offers us, but in the joy that it awakens through the boons received by those we cherish. Here science affirms that we are made in God’s image: if given a gift, our happiness lasts longer if we use it to benefit others.

This should be familiar to many of my readers. What may not be familiar is the allocation of spiritual gifts. This is the greater wonder, in my mind, and something tells me that it is an experience that others should now be encouraged to attempt.

Prior to Dance Tribe on Sunday, I stopped down the street at Hope. The pastor was just beginning his teaching, the concluding lesson in a series titled “A Freight Train Called Desire.” The lesson “The Loco-Motive” explored the damage we do to ourselves in seeking approval from others. I could feel a recognition in the congregation; they all knew this frustration. With that experience established in their minds, the pastor then reminded them that only one trustworthy source of approval exists: that of Jesus’ Abba (Daddy), the one that loves us without conditions, who welcomes our repentance with honor no matter how prodigal our sins.

In these moments prepared by a gifted teacher, I feel the congregants lifting their minds and hearts to the heavens. I am moved, recognizing the integrity of their desire, to guide it to the heavens with my hands, reaching up and up until I feel the angels’ responsive awareness. There is always a moment of surprise at this sense of being among the angels, and we pause there. As on Sunday there was nothing but gratitude in the experience, I raised my hands again to call them down.

Then comes the hard part: all the sorrows of this world come to the fore. Sometimes this is a defensive act – an attempt to protect ourselves from dissolving into love. But more often it is an act of healing. What comes to the fore are the experiences that must be surrendered if we are to hold on to the grace of the angels. So on Sunday, I found myself rooted to my chair as the tears rolled down my cheeks, heart breaking for the suffering of those I sat amidst.

Finally it cleared, just as the pastor completed his message. I don’t remember his closing prayer, for he had called the worship team up to lead the final song of praise. All the hours of practice focused in that moment. Sitting behind the rest of the congregation, I lifted my hands, imagining the stage cupped in my fingers, focusing the angelic presence. The introductory instrumental meditation resolved as a harmonic line, and the female lead sang directly into our hearts:

Oh, how He loves us, oh.
Oh how He loves us, how He loves us all.

Dave Crowder Band, How He Loves

It is an experience that I absolutely do not control. It is a relationship between angels and the congregation. It is something they do together when both see the possibility of service to love: us in manifesting healing in the broken world, the angels in amplifying God’s presence among us.

I am simply the witness to that possibility.

So I beseech you: open your minds and hearts to those possibilities. Do not allow fear to corrupt your love: have faith in Christ, immerse yourself in that security, and know that no power can stand against the strength of the healing we bring to the world with his angels. His love is the anti-anti-Christ. It erases the power of the anti-Christ. It makes the anti-Christ a lost, forlorn and confused figure – a withered shadow from our past that dissolves into the future we are creating together.

Dying in Peace

Standard Christian theology is that Christ died so that God could forgive our sins. But I think that Jesus said something a little more subtle: that he would die for “the forgiveness of sin.”

As I understand it, God is not about choosing those worthy to live in his presence, he is concerned with healing. A sin is a sin because it leaves a wound in the soul. That wound cannot be healed until we are ready to forgive the sin – to let it go so that it may be displaced by love. When that occurs, even the most vicious criminal becomes qualified to enter paradise.

Even better, though, is to hold on to the sin. It is to do as Jesus did – to allow the sin to take hold of us, and then to forgive it so that it may be suffused by love, and so made noble.

Death is a sin because is separates things that cherish one another. That cherishing reflects a mutually beneficial relationship. So for death to enforce such separation is to deny the parties those benefits, and thus to wound them.

In dying, Jesus allowed the servants of Death (the priests that slaughtered innocent creatures on the altar) to have their way with him, and forgave them. He suffused death with love, and so became the Prince of Peace.

How does that work? Because warring parties need to be separated. That can be accomplished in death, but what Jesus does is offer a spiritual refuge in which we can reflect until we figure out how to share strength with the ones we war against.

Sometimes, of course, that is our selves. Peace starts within, and when we accept Jesus, we allow him into our hearts and minds and grant him loving dominion over the conflicts that rage within us.

As Cain learned, it isn’t easy, but God understands that sin cannot be healed unless we wrestle with it. Terrible things happen: Cain murdered his brother Abel. But even then, that most heinous of sins was not punished with death. Instead, Cain was sent away to think, reflect, and become stronger.

Recidivism

When contemplating the selection from among the disciples of the Apostles, Luke records [6:12]:

Now during those days Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.

Now this is an interesting proposition for prayer: the junior partner in the triune turning to himself for wisdom. Illogical, even bizarre? I can understand it only by assuming that Jesus was a pseudopod emitted from the Holy presence, not in possession of all his spiritual faculties.

Of course, as a demonstration it is instructive to read  of the devotion and trust that Jesus invested in the Father. If he was moved to pray, how should not we as well? And conceiving of him as a man, I would not rue Jesus that comfort.

A common elaboration of the Crucifixion is that it was not just physically agonizing, but also spiritually devastating. We have the great heart-rending cry:

Eloi! Eloi! Lama sabachthani?

[Mark 15:34]

There was no answer, because there could be none. God took on flesh because it was only through flesh that evil could be healed. Once Jesus assumed that burden, it was his and his alone.

The angels cannot change their nature – it is the grace and curse of humanity to possess that capacity. Thus God testified to Cain:

Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.

[Gen. 4:7]

Jesus was the culmination of this seeking after strength. He arose out of a culture devoted to the seeking after purity, and chose to allow sin into his heart so that its consequences could be healed.

The bulk of the BIble demonstrates the difficulty of this accomplishment. The men raised to greatness always struggle with their frailty. Jacob’s lust makes him little more than a seed dispenser to two competing sisters and their handmaids, and his favorite Joseph leads monotheism into subjection to a polytheistic culture. David succumbs to desire, clearing the way for marriage by sending his friend into battle to die, and Solomon again opens the door to polytheistic practices.

This recidivism illuminates the challenge of loving unconditionally: to be merciful is to grant power to those lacking the ability to discipline their behavior. Every parent confronts this in the two-year-old and adolescent, but somehow we believe that grace given by God is proof against this corruption. To the wise, though, the recidivism of the Bible is the greatest possible proof of God’s compassion for us. He pursues the loving embrace even against the evidence of our unfaithfulness.

Of course, in demonstrating the infinite depths of divine compassion, the heroes of the Old Testament are problematical role models. This came to a head in Islam, which largely sanitizes the evidence of personal frailty. A Muslim scholar disputed with me over David’s betrayal of friendship, explaining that the sanitized history was enforced by Muhammed’s (pbuh) son-in-law, Ali, and justified in that opportunists used David’s behavior to justify their own lecherous license.

The consequence of this idealization of Biblical heroes is that the program of monotheistic escalation (the only God worth worshipping is perfect and infinite) extends to the heroes of the Bible. They are no longer human but gods themselves, immune to temptation and error.

So what of Jesus, absorbing the burden of human sin on the cross? We know that he showed reluctance and despair in the event. This supports my sense that divine love comes at the first possible moment. In the New Testament as in the Old, the manifestation of grace is subjected to pressures almost certain to destroy it. Among those are the unfaithfulness of those to whom salvation is offered. Returning to Nazareth early in his ministry, Jesus is astonished by their cynicism, which makes him unable to offer power in any great measure.

So I conclude: as monotheism is the pursuit of a truly human god, in that pursuit Jesus is truly our god, struggling against our sinfulness while healing us so that we may sin again. Paradoxically, as we approach more nearly to his grace, that struggle intensifies. The assault on his virtues are more focused, the wounds more intimate. As God cried out again and again in the Old Testament, would we not expect Christ to be tried by anger and fear?

Even perhaps, at times, to be overcome by human impatience and frustration?

Anti-Christ Anti-Scientist

A few years back, National Geographic ran a photo essay on the Alaskan tundra. In the publication notes at the back, the photographer recounted a conversation with a native regarding the urban tourists that passed through each year. When asked to characterize them, the native, a man who lived in solitude for most of the year, remarked that “They seem lonely.” That loneliness reflects not a lack of human association Rather, it is a deep disconnection in our souls from the root of life.

This problem is so characteristic of modern societies that, in our search to escape our constructed reality, we tend to gloss over the defects of ancient cultures. Pagan worshippers extol the virtues of Roman worship for its naturalism, ignoring the paternalism that gave license to fathers to murder their dependents. The homeopathic intuition of native healers is lauded, ignoring the vicious lore of hexes and curses. And nobody appears to want to reflect that xenophobia was endemic to all the ancient cultures, with outsiders that looked and spoke differently treated as inferiors.

But if the ancient world mixed its spiritual vices and virtues, it is still fair to ask why the spread of modern civilization has resulted in a spiritual divorce. Naturally, critics seeking to heal the divide focus on the dominant elements of modern culture. I am sympathetic to these concerns:

  • Science applies methods of analytical reductionism to reveal creative possibilities. Unfortunately, reducing things to their constituent parts is not something that souls engage willingly: to do so would be a form of suicide. Therefore, science achieves its most impressive manifestations in the material realm. Scientists seeking funding for fundamental research have a strong motivation to ignore their failure to explain spiritual phenomena, and tend actually to pretend that souls just don’t exist.
  • Capitalism heralds the efficiency of the free market in responding to unforeseen public needs and opportunities. Unfortunately (as recognized by Adam Smith), the metric of success – the accumulation of wealth – is too crude to support political control of resource exploitation by the greedy. Worse, concentration of wealth has allowed the exploiters to broadcast rationalizations for their behavior, almost all of which cast the exploited resources as spiritually deficient, and therefore not deserving of protection.
  • The traditions of Abraham (dominated by Christianity in American society) tackle the problem of masculine aggression by heralding the power released through submission to unconditional love. Unfortunately, the target population persists in its aggressive recidivism, to the extent that scripture is often quoted selectively (when not completely rewritten) to justify destructive behaviors that are decried universally by the avatar(s). This perversion divorces us from the noblest masculine manifestations of spiritual maturity.

Given the problems outlined above, I would be surprised if it were impossible to assemble evidence that each of the three elements can facilitate depravity. The science of eugenics justified medical experiments on populations (both human and animal) that were considered to lack souls, and therefore believed to be unable to feel pain. Unbridled greed first drove the adoption of slavery in the New World – both of native populations and imported Africans, and now drives us pell-mell down the road to ecological collapse. And the “Great Commission” to propagate the good news of Christ’s resurrection has been used to justify violent suppression of indigenous cultures.

But is it fair to stop there? After all, is not the material construction of our modern reality, with its buildings, appliances and tools, far more conducive to liberty from fear than the natural world we inhabited previously with its predators, diseases, weather and natural disasters? Does not capitalism also distribute wealth and create monetary velocity that supports personal initiative, thereby providing an escape from exploitation? And have not the traditions of Abraham been foremost in providing charitable support of those in need?

For those seeking spiritual reconnection, this seems to leave us in a limbo of ambiguity. If we cannot find the seeds of disconnection in our history, then how are we to escape from the mistakes of the past?

The answer I have held out here is that the way out is to recognize that it’s not just about us.

One of the great gifts of the Bible is that it charts the progression of human spiritual maturity from the heralded “era of innocence” experienced by primitive cultures. In The Soul Comes First, I explain the Biblical days of creation as the history of the evolution of the senses as revealed by the souls that survived the experience. The Garden of Eden is a similar metaphor, in my view. It describes the ideal state sought by the pagans – man and spirit united to create a world of peace. But that unity is sundered by the serpent, who tempts the woman – the nexus of life-engagement – into partaking of the “fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” For that sin, man and woman are cast out of the Garden.

As I expressed it recently to a friend, the great tragedy of the Fall was the sundering of trust. That trust was not only between mankind and spirit, but between man and woman. Ever since, we have been engaged in the sterile course of trying to fix blame for the problem. What we fail to realize, however, is that the source of the problem existed before the Garden. We did not create the serpent, although we were susceptible to its wiles.

We were cast out of Eden not because application of our intelligence was evil, but because we had admitted sin as a guide to our intelligence. Rather than allowing Life to guide our intelligence for good, we became committed to a course of resolving the difference between good and evil, and of developing the strength to choose the good. This is an extremely dangerous path, and the spiritual collective decides that we must be cast out lest we partake of the “Tree of Life” and live forever.

Again, we can think of this in material terms, but from the perspective of the soul of life, this is to say “if man, having admitted the serpent into his mind, enters into the Soul of Life now, then we will never be rid of the serpent.” In Revelation, this aim is made quite clear: the serpent/dragon attempts at one point to assault heaven, and is ultimately destroyed in the final confrontation with Christ.

But what is the serpent? The best way to characterize it is in the contrast between reptilian and mammalian parenting: while the mammalian newborn is nurtured for weeks or years before being forced into independence, the baby Komodo dragon must climb a tree to avoid being eaten by its mother. The reptile manifests the virtues of the predator, seeing in others only resources to be consumed.

So the problem is not science, or capitalism, or Christianity – it is with the ancient reptilian spiritual infection that we must purge. It is our path, on the knowledge of good and evil, to master that influence. It is a skill first encouraged in Cain (“sin crouches at your door, but you can master it”) and delivered by Jesus to the Apostles when he says “what you loose here on earth will be loosed in heaven, and what you bind here on earth will be bound in heaven.”

But until we as a species accede to the disciplines taught by Christ, we will discover, the further we walk with sin down the path of knowledge, the more distant will become our relationships with the Spirit of Life. Not because we can be expected to do differently, nor as punishment for our weakness, but as a matter of its own self-preservation.

Body Call

A few years back after the local UU speaker’s forum, I was waylaid by an out-of-area couple in the cool of the spring evening. The husband explained that they were trying to relocate back to the Thousand Oaks area, but his wife jumped in to speak of her commitment to caring for the son that had been disabled in the Gulf War. She mourned that sometimes it was so hard to be strong in her faith, that it felt at times as if the window was closing on her.

These impulses come over me at times: I formed a ball before my heart with my hands, then shifted them to the right and opened them higher and lower. “Here it is.”

She paused, hand held against her breast, and offered “Thank-you.” And they looked at each other and asked, “When does Jesus return?”

“When enough of us say ‘Yes, we understand now. We are ready to love as you did. Come to us, right here, right now.’”

These are the closing lines of my exegetical book, The Soul Comes First. The most significant contribution of that work is to explain the Book of Revelation (not interpret, but explain). What is left unanswered still is the why. Why does he have to come again? Why wasn’t once enough?

One part of the answer is that we have free will. I have addressed this before: the true evil of “sin” is that it disposes us to believe that we deserve our suffering. We’re like the judges of the Darwin awards that celebrate those that have committed such incredibly stupid acts that they’ve provided the rest of us the benefit of removing themselves from the gene pool.

To recognize our “sin” is to convince ourselves that we must earn our healing. In Jesus’s era, that was transacted through the priesthood using a system of indulgences based upon blood sacrifice. Jesus came and said “Well, enough of that bullshit. I will be the last sacrifice, and for my sacrifice you will be given forgiveness for your sins.” Now, looking back to Cain and considering the eternal nature of the Divine, obviously Jesus was not changing policy. He was simply trying to get us to stop beating ourselves up so that we could be healed.

In a recent discussion, I asserted that the authority of Jesus over heaven and earth is rooted in the irresistible admiration that comes with his perception of the possibility of our wholeness. This is what gives him the ability to heal the world: the fact that it comes not with scorn, but a joyous “Good job!”, much as that offered by the father to the prodigal son. “You were lost to me, but – Lo! – you have shed your burdens and now are returned!”

So in this framework, Jesus comes again to deliver us the promise of healing that can only be received when we stop believing that we don’t deserve it.

But there’s more.

In the end-times prophesy of Daniel and Revelation, we have the appearance of three corrupted beasts. The first of these in Revelation famously bears the number ‘666.’ This was first explained to me as a numerological reference to the days of Creation, with the conclusion that the beast was man. But that is to make too much of ourselves: it was not only man created on the sixth day, but all of the mammals.

Carrying this back to Daniel, it becomes clear that the beast (the fourth to appear in the dream) is the collective spirit of the mammals. In Eden, human intelligence was protected by the presence of God, but the Fall forced us out into the world to struggle with all the primitive urges that preceded us. Daniel sees this only abstractly: the beast bears teeth and claws of iron that destroy life. These represent the machines that we use to reorder the earth. We use them as predators, not attempting to integrate ourselves with other life, but exploiting it for our gratification.

In Revelation the personality of the beast is resolved in more detail. There are two of them, the second a red beast ridden by the feminine avatar called “MYSTERY.” So what does this tell us about the second coming? The masculine expressions of the primitive urges, represented by the first beast of Revelation, are the hunt and sacrifice. Jesus confronted and mastered them on the cross. The feminine expressions of the primitive urges are intercourse (the mingling of personalities through sex) and maternity. What about this aspect of human nature? When does that submit to Christ?

I feel this confrontation in my own life like a wall around my soul. It comes to the fore when I walk into a store and the counter girl pushes her breasts up at me, or when a pastor looks at me, interrupting my meditation on the cross to suggest that I am sexually harassing the members of his congregation. It has been the focus of so much conflict in my life, from the Sterling Men’s group that tried to force me to stay in my marriage, into the family law system, and in the workplace where brilliant women at home find that I disrupt their influence over the men at work. It is a wall rebuilt every night when I wake up at the witching hour with sex crawling all over my body.

How to resolve this problem, the problem of “MYSTERY,” the influence that reaches into our souls from a distance and leaves us wondering “Why did I do that?” Is the image of Christ in confrontation with this influence that of the rock star with a bevy of beauties moaning in the audience? Or is it the image of the celibate, relinquishing all experience of sexuality?

My two fiction books, Ma and Golem, are meditations on this problem. Ma begins with two dysfunctional erotic encounters – one a casual hook-up and the other a long-term political bonding – and evolves as a slow-moving train wreck with the men struggling against the consequences of their failure to honor their women. Golem elaborates with a truly amazing sexual explosion between Corin and Leelay, both introduced in Ma, that arises as an expression of their service to the survival of Life. And it confronts us with an encounter between the Goddess Zenica (Corin’s mother) as she uses sex to break the will of an old adversary to accomplish the end of her re-incarnation. In relating the events to Corin, she simply offers “I did what I had to do.”

Is that where it ends: sex as a tool?

Revelation does offer us an image [NIV Rev 22:1-2]:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

To me, this imagery is incredibly sexual. And I think that is as it should be: there is no part of our nature that cannot be sacralized, that was not given to us for the purpose of healing ourselves and this reality of corruption by selfishness.

I believe that intercourse must be brought into the service of Christ. So this means that it should be a means of bringing Christ into our lives, of pouring the love that we receive from him out over each other. My interpretation of my experience in church is that the opposite has happened: we take sex as the center of our intimate relations, and when Christ enters into that he is perceived as a threat. Or for sexually active single women, the presence of Christ in a man is interpreted as an opportunity to have really great intercourse – that is, to receive a love that would be given to them directly by the source if only they would ask for it.

As long as this persists, we are going to continue to struggle. My question is whether this is really the business of Christ. Eve was sent to Adam as his help-mate. Jesus confronted the masculine pathologies on the cross. Is it really possible for him to do the same work on the feminine side? My sense is that the end game would be far less painful if women stood up to take ownership of their problems.

Victory over Sin

In my previous post, I promised to examine how a limited human perspective causes confusion when trying to interpret the teachings of Christ through the Holy Spirit. I’m going to take one of the most fearsome passages in the Bible, that of Revelation 21:8, in which John interprets part of his vision as a “second death” reserved for those that sin.

When confronted with the reality of sin and the pain it causes, it is natural to use threats to keep it at bay. Our legal system does this, and that is echoed in the Law of Moses that was used in the Bible between Noah and the ministry of the savior. For those that sympathize with this approach, it is natural to interpret the Crucifixion as atonement for our sins, and the terrible destruction John describes in Revelation is interpreted as justice being meted out on the sinful.

But what is sin? I have suggested here and elsewhere (see The Soul Comes First) that sin is found in any act that leaves a wound in the soul. Is the propensity to sin inextricably part of humanity? I see at is something that was carried forward from our Darwinian past. Animals tear and rend unthinkingly, doing enormous damage to the souls of the things that they consume.

In the Garden of Eden, a man and a woman are found in a privileged relationship with God. They were innocent and free from sin. We know from Revelation that ultimately sin will be destroyed. God set Adam – the creature made in his image – to that work, with his true love Eve as his helpmate. As might be expected, sin fights for survival. In both the story of the Fall and Cain and Abel, sin is represented as something outside of just relationships. The serpent comes between Adam and Eve, and God speaks to Cain directly of “sin crouching at your door.” In both cases, the effect of sin is not just to separate humanity from God – it also breaks the trust we have in each other. Adam and Eve don clothing not only to hide from God, but to hide from each other. Cain’s jealousy leads to the murder of Abel, extending the loss of trust to brothers and sisters.

Sin has its way with humanity. It entered into us as an infection. This is indeed how Jesus speaks of it, saying [Matt. 2:17]

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.

Of course, Jesus’s healing skills are not rooted in knowledge of physiology, but in spiritual authority. He simply commands people to be well, and when they respond, honors their faith. The physical healings are paired to the casting out of sin in the form of demons. These were skills Jesus shared with the Apostles.

This work was interrupted by the ultimate sin, the Crucifixion of the savior. Jesus allows sin to have its way with him, suffering a brutal and painful death. In that process, he reciprocates with love. This is done in fulfillment of the promise that he would die for the forgiveness of sin, but that is only a waypoint on the journey. Humanity had a work to do in Eden, and we failed in that role because sin entered into our relationships. However, that work still remains to be done. Jesus came to restore us to the condition that prevailed in Eden so that we might complete the work that had been put before us.

Why didn’t Jesus just remove sin from us entirely, then? It is because we have free will. We have been convinced by sin, through the serpent and others, that we are at fault, that we deserve punishment. This is internalized to such a great degree that we punish each other for sin, compounding the damage wrought upon human nature. We cling to sin. In dying for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus was trying to break that embrace. He was saying “Humanity, let go of your burdens. Forgive each other, as God has forgiven you.” He resurrection was intended to convince us to rely upon the healing power of love.

We have trouble with that. Sin is wound deep into our spirits, and struggles still to survive. But Jesus promises to come again, and we can rely upon that promise though a day to him be like a thousand years to us [2 Peter 3]. When he does come to help us overcome sin, what will the result be like?

This is described by John in Revelation. He says {Rev. 21:8]:

But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.

I remind you that this is a human interpretation. Should we take the passage to mean that all those that sin will die the second death of fire and brimstone?

Well, look at it from God’s perspective: What would be the point in that, for have not we all sinned? No, Jesus’s goal is to preserve that which is good, and no one is purely evil. What John described was the destruction of sin along with the memories of the pain that it has caused. Sinful acts are written in our souls, but Jesus will return to separate us from those behaviors and their consequences so that the pure heart of humanity may be returned to heaven. When John reports people burning in hell, he is confusing the destruction of the evidence and effects of their acts. He sees the events themselves being destroyed. The fire is the fire that purges us of the infection of sin, bringing us liberty.

Robbing Peter to Play Paul

In an era in which the Law of Moses had been corrupted as political tyranny and religious hypocrisy, Jesus would not have been expected to write a Gospel. Scripture is offered to us as a method to open ourselves to the love of God, but words change meaning over the course of time, and eventually the weight of our cultural prejudice stands as a barrier against the Divine Presence. As Jesus experienced, even worse can occur when the meanings are manipulated intentionally.

It was in recognition of this outcome that God proclaimed through Jeremiah [NIV 33:34]:

I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,
For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.

Jesus was the implementation of this promise. The proof was not in his words, which are always ambiguous, but in his actions.

In The Soul Comes First, I explain Jesus’s promise that his generation will see the fulfillment of his prophesy: On the cross, Jesus was unbound from time, and worked his way through the future until his will for Humanity is manifested. Then he returned in the glory of his realm to return to the Father. In that process, Jesus had no need for words – it was through his flesh itself that the work was done.

But, for those stuck in the flow of mortal time, how were those moments to be bridged? That requires propagation of the message of salvation. The original Apostles, fishermen and tax collectors, simple men of Galilee, had limited reach for this purpose – but they had direct experience of Christ, and had been humbled by their lack of faith. This is reflected in the kindly advice of Peter, in his second letter [NIV 2 Peter 1:5-9]:

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is a message of personal redemption through direct relation with Christ.

How was such a message to spread in the face of a culture of tyranny and hypocrisy? Long and slow it would have been. So this is where Saul of Tarsus comes in. Roman citizen and temple persecutor of the Christians, like Moses, Saul understood the mindset of the ruling classes, and the processes that would avail to bring him into direct dialog with them. As a Temple priest, he also understood institutional practices. Reborn into faith as Paul, this apostle was a traveling consultant to Christian communities in formation. As a philosopher, Paul also provided the early Christians with a framework for understanding the events that had transpired in the Holy Land, including clear statements regarding the implications with respect to past teachings.

Obviously, these are incredibly powerful works, and a source of rich guidance for pastors trying to manage diverse congregations and reconcile Old and New Testaments. In many non-denominational congregations, I find that Paul’s writings are preached more often than the parables of Jesus. Paul is clear and direct, while the parables of Jesus often leave me wondering “WTF?” (until I work out that Jesus wove in three meanings for three different audiences).

But is the voice of Paul the voice of Christ?

I would argue “only mostly.” Paul has a terribly serious defect: his religious roots rest in a framework dominated by sin, and his personal redemption occurred as a result of his sin against Christianity as a whole. Paul carries a guilty past around with him, and so his theology is dominated by a concern for forgiveness, and the miracle of redemption.

Peter, on the other hand, offers this promise [NIV 2 Peter 3:8-9]:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

I much prefer the simplicity and directness of this promise. It is echoed in Paul’s writings, but as Peter says [NIV 2 Peter 3:16]:

His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

Sometimes less is more. I’d lay aside the rules offered in Paul’s letters, and focus on the progression defined by Peter. Leaving much to be discovered, it is harder work, but comes from one who learned most painfully from a more immediate experience of Christ.