The imagery of a cosmic battle with chaos described in part one, is properly the foundation for the Christian life. “Chaos” is a metaphor for so much that threatens God’s good creation and makes war against His saints. It is also an understanding that is almost completely lost in the modern world.
We generally fail to notice that modernity is a phenomenon of the “first world.” It is an understanding that presumes the kind of prosperity and progress that marks the middle class in industrial and post-industrial societies. When the American founders wrote that the project they were initiating was for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” they were repeating the words of Scottish Enlightenment philosophers who created the foundations of the middle class world. England was dominated by its fascination with the privilege of the upper class. Scotland was an outlier whose experiments unleashed the economic and intellectual forces that created a thriving class of merchants. Scotland abolished its parliament in 1707, passing the baton to England and a “British Parliament,” largely for economic reasons. The pursuit of happiness and prosperity became two words for the same thing.
The struggle against chaos has little place in the modern middle class. We do not presume chaos; we presume progress. We live in a world of standards, measures, approvals and rewards. As such, our Christianity is morphed into a bourgeois preparation and testing for a future reward. The Christian life becomes just one version of the middle-class progress in the ultimate pursuit of happiness. Life is good, and is going to get better. Jesus died to open up heaven so that our prosperity and happiness need not end with death.
This, of course, is a distortion that borders on blasphemy. Most of the gospel is alien to this milieu, and is often interpreted in a manner that softens its bite and suggests that Christ was mostly exaggerating. Hell looms not as an existential threat but merely as a place where the unsuccessful (“bad”) people go when they die.
Problematic for traditional Christianity’s confrontation with this false gospel is the fact that the false uses the same language as the true, distorting meanings and undermining the truth with its narrative. We do not see ourselves or our world in the manner God sees it, at least not in the manner described in the New Testament. It is quite possibly the case that only the poorest of the poor in America are even remotely prepared to hear the gospel in its original form (and even they generally live in the same delusion as those who lord it over them, seeing themselves as merely “unsuccessful”).
The material success enjoyed by one segment of the modern world obscures both the fragility of life as well as those injustices employed to make it possible. The economic segregation of modern societies hides much of the endemic poverty within our age. We are able to pretend much about ourselves and about our world that is simply untrue. This same pretense is increased and abetted by false theologies.
Imagine that you live as a “sharecropper” (a form of employment in farming that has largely ceased in America). Suppose, as well, that your family has lived in such a manner for generations. Each year, the income from farming has to cover the year’s living expenses as well as the seed and supplies for next year’s crop. Most years it falls short, but the owner of the fields is “kind,” and willing to extend credit. Year by year, the debt grows and the work continues.
This is much closer to the world in which the gospel was first preached. The gospel (and the Law of Moses) were not alone in addressing the injustice of such a world. In Hammurabi’s Law Code, dating back to around 1500 B.C., we read:
“If any one owe a debt for a loan, and a storm prostrates the grain, or the harvest fail, or the grain does not grow for lack of water, in that year he need not give his creditor any grain, he washes his debt-tablet in water and pays no rent for this year.”
In American sharecropping, the debt simply rolled over and increased. Our modern delusion hides the fact from us that we are all sharecroppers.
Chaos and hell in such a context are much more easily understood. When Israel was in ancient Egypt, hell was their slavery. It was the chaos that prevented them from living. Christ describes his ministry in terms that the poor of the land would quickly understand:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luk 4:18-19)
There were many people in Israel for whom such a proclamation was good news. There were others for whom this was quite the opposite. They were the creditors (in one form or another). Religiously, economically, they ruled Israel and held its poor and brokenhearted in bondage.
In our modernized Christianity, hell has been stolen and used as one of many threats for the poor and brokenhearted. It is “God’s punishment” added to their own. God has been coopted to serve the requirements of the powers that be.
But the gospel is quite clear about who stands in true danger of those terrible flames. It is not the poor and needy nor the brokenhearted. In the only illustration of judgment given in the New Testament, it is those who did not feed, clothe or visit the needy who are in danger. In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, we are not told of any good deeds by which Lazarus gains paradise. We hear only that “in his life, Lazarus received evil things.” How does that qualify him for paradise? The Rich Man received “good things.” Now Lazarus is comforted and the Rich Man is tormented. What is going on?
He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty. (Lk. 1:53)
God is doing that which was prophesied by Mary. It is the result of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom is the “right-setting” of the world (probably a better way to translate “righteousness”). It is the slaying of chaos in whatever form in which it oppresses and destroys. Christ has come “that you might have life.” The thrust of the gospel, in the proclamation of the Kingdom, is an invitation to choose sides. The commandments regarding generosity, kindness, mercy and forgiveness (always stated in radical terms) are an urging that we take up the position of the “hungry” and renounce the position of the “rich.” In commandment after commandment, in the Sermon on the Mount, this point is made repeatedly. A “right-setting” is taking place and we need to pay attention to what that means (repent).
Of course, this can be internalized as well. The right-setting that “fills the hungry with good things” is also a healing of the human heart and the transformation of the soul. The promise of salvation is a life in true union with Christ. That union means “we shall be like Him” (Jn. 3:2). We are conformed to the love that is revealed in every word and action of Christ. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15).
Hell is the consequence of an allegiance with chaos and oppression. It is putting oneself on the wrong side of the “right-setting” of the Kingdom.
Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low:
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together:
for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. (Isa 40:3-5)
The image is by James Laura and belongs to a Private Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality