Biblical terms we usually misunderstand

Does “saving justice” sound right to you? How about “holy love”? What about “gracious judgment” or “avenging mercy”? They should, but I suspect that for many, or most, of us at least some of these don’t really make sense.

Sadly, I’ve gotten the impression that over time our theological technicalities have led us to miss the actual meanings of many biblical terms. But these are important terms, and when we misunderstand them we misread the Bible and end up with confused theology. So without further ado, I want to list a few terms we tend to misunderstand:

Often, we think of justice as “punishment for wrongdoing,” but this is overly narrow. In Scripture, especially in the Psalms and the prophets, God’s justice is also connected with salvation, love, and faithfulness to the covenant (see Psalm 98, for example). Biblically, God’s justice is better described as His commitment to “rightness,” to putting things right in creation. This includes both salvation for His people and judgment for the wicked, healing for the hurting and destruction for the evildoers. This also connects with God’s righteousness and faithfulness. In Scripture, God’s justice includes a strong note of faithfully exercising His covenant responsibilities.
The most common definition I’ve heard of biblical “mercy” is “not getting the bad you deserve.” Again, this isn’t necessarily wrong to say what it says, but Scripture treats mercy as a larger topic. Mercy in the broader sense is simply to alleviate suffering. If someone is suffering and you help them, it is mercy. This can, and in Scripture often does, apply to people who don’t deserve the suffering they are experiencing, like the exploited poor. But it does apply especially to us who are suffering deservedly under our sin, when God freely rescues us anyone.
In parallel to the definition of “mercy,” people tend to define grace as “getting the good you don’t deserve.” Again, though, this seems slightly off, although closer to the biblical usage. It seems closer to the biblical use to say that grace essentially means “gift.” The point of the gift isn’t specifically that someone doesn’t deserve what they’re getting, but that dessert has nothing to do with it at all. Gifts are regardless of merit or demerit, and are not specifically about what you don’t deserve (or what you do deserve).

I thought of trying to add some other ones, but these are the bigguns I’ve been thinking about lately, so I’ll leave it at that. Try these alternative definitions out for a test drive in your Bible reading.

When the world is absolutely broken

[Trigger Warning: I am not the world’ biggest fan of trigger warnings, but I’m also not their worst enemy or opposed to them all in principle. In this particular instance, I feel the need one for, because this post will include discussion of child sex trafficking and related abuses.]

I just finished another one of Steven James’ Patrick Bowers books (see here for my last post on them).

It was hard.

This most recent offering, Every Crooked Path, tackles the topic of child sex trafficking. It is dark and frightening, and as a father myself I often needed to intentionally keep my imagination at bay lest I fall into despair at the idea of my children going through the events it describes. A lot of people should probably not even attempt to read it.

This isn’t to say that James is gory, graphic, or gratuitous. He’s pretty reserved in how and what he describes, but even so the things which are going on, and the gaps he leaves to the imagination, are harsh. The plot is about a group of child porn producers called the Final Territory. They kidnapped children, often brazenly, and kept them for molestation/torture/porn production for 6 months to a couple of years. Sometimes they would even go live and take requests.

To get away with all of this, they made use of the Dark Web, a massive underground part of the Internet which connects through Tor, a highly encrypted and anonymous network which must be accessed by a special Tor Browser.*

What is awful in this book is not so much the story itself, which if nothing else we can always remind ourselves is fiction, but the real-life data and information it contains. The story never happened, but the background which makes it plausible is basically factual. Children as young as the ones in this book are being taken. They are being abused. They are being molested, exploited, and put on the Internet (particularly the Dark Web) for the entertainment and profit of more people than you would be willing to imagine. And it’s not just a few children. There are thousands and thousands throughout the world.

This just brings me, then, to thinking about how absolutely broken this world is. It—including all of us who make it up—is depraved, wicked, broken, and self-destructive. We are evil, our communities are evil, this world is evil, and evil is ubiquitous. We live so much of our lives in largely willful obliviousness, pretending that our personal bubbles are the norm, with our highs as the normal highs and our lows as the normal lows.

As if this were not bad enough, we are often personally complicit in the worst ways of the world. The topic of Every Crooked Path is a prime example. It is our second glances that lead to lust, our lust that leads to watching porn, our watching porn that makes us want more in quanity and intensity, and our increasing demand that leads to a thriving and corrupt market which reaches out to include abduction, murder, torture, and molestation.

We are all guilty. We are all damnable. The world we create and live in, the world which creates us and lives in us, is rotten to the bone and devoid of all hope in itself. Nothing from among us is sufficient to solve this. None of us have the power to end these atrocities. We can fight, and we must in order to stem the tide of evil, but the corruption in the world is too extensive to be truly and fully healed by human efforts, even divinely blessed and Spirit-empowered ones. The problems run too deep for anything but total gut job, for humanity to be broken down all the way to the roots and built a new. We are stuck on a plane far too finite and compromised to solve the absolute brokenness of the world.

There are only two options once we realize and accept this. We can cling to eschatology or fall into nihilistic despair. Or, to put it in simpler words, we can hope for Jesus to return or give up all hope for all things. The world is either worthless and meaningless, with this present evil age being a fluke of cruel apathy, or it has a destiny in resurrection. If the former, we have nothing. There is only extensive and pointless suffering and brief, superficial joy, both of which are ended when we collide with death. If the latter, there’s a reason to breath and fight. We can’t prove which of these is true. But only one choice of these allows us to survive in the absolute brokenness. We need faith for absolute restoration. We need to cry out for an absolute Savior.

*It’s not actually difficult to access the Dark Web. It’s as simple as downloading and installing the Tor Browser, which is just a modified version of Firefox. But the Dark Web is a labyrinth, hard to search, and many websites can only be accessed if someone on the inside gives you the URL. Also, as a side note, the Dark Web is not all bad. It’s also used by political refugees/dissenters, whistleblowers, persecuted religious groups, ordinary people in heavily censored countries, and even law enforcement or intelligence agents.

No, you are not a soul

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.

C. S. Lewis

Amen, right?

By no means!

The above quote was supposedly said by C. S. Lewis, one of our favorite theological writers of the modern age. The sentiment is echoed all over the place in Christianity. People complain about their bodies and long for the day that they will be free of them in heaven. When people sin, they excuse their sin by saying they didn’t mean to do it, but their passions or instincts got the best of them. People who struggle with body image are always reassured that the body doesn’t matter; only what’s inside counts. The underlying dogma is clear: your body is not really you. It’s just a temporary shell. Your soul is the real you, and you may even be better off without a body.

This is antichrist.

I could go on for a long time on why this is so wrong, but I’ll focus on the problems with Gnosticism and resurrection. So, Gnosticism:

A strict separation of body/soul doesn’t resemble the Bible at all, but is closer to the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics were a heretical cult in the early church. They believed many problematic and even ridiculous doctrines, but a core distinctive was their view of the physical and the spiritual, or the material and the immaterial. Matter and flesh came from an inferior, perhaps evil, creator, whereas spirit and soul came from the true and good God. So they saw the body as at best irrelevant and at worst an evil obstacle to salvation. But the spirit was the true and good self which could reach salvation through enlightenment. Unfortunately, while not guilty of all of the heretical ideas in Gnostic thought, the whole “you are a soul, not a body” thing really does get its shape from this kind of thinking.

The problems with this approach go on and on. For one, this reasoning is what led to the heresy that Jesus was not completely human, or only had the appearance of a body (called Docetism). Yet John calls them deceivers who “do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” or (as the NLT puts it) “deny that Jesus Christ came in a real body” (2 John 1:7). Jesus was God made flesh. This flesh is essential to the Incarnation which saves us.

This view also leads to some of the moral problems of Gnosticism, which continue even today. If your body isn’t really you, only the soul, then perhaps you should practice extreme asceticism, denying yourself every bodily pleasure to instead live hungry, cold, and alone. Then your soul can focus on God. On the other hand, if the body isn’t really you, it might make sense to brush off moral responsibility in your body. What does it matter what you do if it’s just your body? Many Gnostics used this to justify sexual immorality, but even today in evangelical Christianity it can lead us to blame our bodies for our sins and insist that our souls are actually pure. (And in a less direct way, this leads to the unrealistic and extremely dangerous thought, “He seems harsh and jerkish on the outside, but he’s actually a good person once you get to know him.”)

Besides the Gnostic connections, another problem with this soul-centered view is resurrection. Jesus’ bodily resurrection is at the heart of the Gospel, and ours follows from it. The Apostles’ Creed literally says it as, “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” Paul made this point powerfully in 1 Corinthians 15. Some people in Corinth, probably influenced by Greek philosophy, were saying that there wouldn’t be a physical resurrection. Paul rebuked them and pointed to Jesus, saying the Gospel was at stake.

In fact, I think the popularity of this deviant view is why so many Christians underemphasize, or even don’t realize at all, the saving importance of Jesus’ resurrection. According to the Bible, Jesus’ resurrection is the source of our regeneration (1 Jn. 1:3), justification (Rom. 4:25), sanctification (Rom. 8:11-13), and glorification (Rom. 8:23). In a certain sense, resurrection is salvation, and we will not be “fully” saved until our bodies are raised for eternal life with Christ in renewed creation. If we miss this, we miss a major element to the Gospel. For the Bible, the body is not an addon, a shell, or an obstacle. It is saved, redeemed, and glorified in Christ.

Now I realize there are some who would object on the basis of the war between the spirit and the flesh. After all, Paul says this: “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Doesn’t this mean that your physical body is corrupt and that your spirit/soul is pure? Not really. For the acts of the flesh are “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-21). While many of these are body with the body, they are all rooted in the heart, and some of these only take place within. Thus the flesh as Paul speaks of it against the Spirit is not the human body. What the flesh actually means is debatable (I favor the view that it refers to natural humanity living without relation to God but only to humanity), but it doesn’t mean human body by itself.

To conclude, let’s drop the dualist silliness. You are a body and a soul. Your body without your soul is dead, and your soul without your body is naked. God made us to be both. We cannot ignore the body, but must let our body and soul serve as instruments with which to glorify God. For we will be raised forever, to live bodily with Christ.

Oh, by the way, it is a most likely a myth that C. S. Lewis said the above quote. Thankfully. (Though to be honest, I’m unsure whether he might have agreed.)