Category Archives: Soteriology

PODCAST: Bridging the Gap w/ special guest David Lapp

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I was pleased to have David Lapp as my guest to discuss the growing divide between groups of people along political and religious lines. David, through his work with Better Angels (http://better-angels.org), has been working to heal, in particular, the political divides which were so apparent in the recent U.S. presidential election by focusing on what unites us as Americans. He’s also a convert to Roman Catholicism from Protestantism and we spent a great deal of time discussing how Catholics and Protestants can find unity even as we divide over issues of authority and doctrine.

Some of his writing can be found at the Institute for Family Studies’ website–https://ifstudies.org.

Podcast link:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20170506-BridgingtheGapwithDavidLapp.mp3

Music:
“The Itis” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

PODCAST: Finding Jesus in the Jewish Feasts

Discussion of the biblical feasts, (Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Pentecost, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Tabernacles) their spiritual lessons, and how they point forward to Christ.

Audio:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20170420-FindingJesusintheJewishFeasts.mp3

Music:
“The Itis” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

 

PODCAST: Cantus Firmus At the Movies Ep. 2 – Noah (w/ Mike Schellman)

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In this episode we looked at Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) and talked about its themes of judgment and mercy, misguided piety, and stewardship/environmentalism. We also examined its portrayal of the Watchers and the film’s extrabiblical source material in 1 Enoch and the Zohar.

Mike Schellman was my special guest and can be found at http://mschellman.blogspot.com/

Audio:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20170401-CFATM-Ep2-Noah(wMikeSchellman).mp3

Music:
“Octagon Pt 2” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

PODCAST: Daniel Was a Man – the Historicity of the Prophet Daniel

A brief look at the Old Testament book of Daniel, its late date by critical scholars, and arguments for the early date which it claims of itself.

Podcast link:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20161223-DanielWasaMan.mp3

Music:
“The Itis” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

Holding Firm to the End: The Epistle to the Hebrews and Eternal Security

It is popular within evangelicalism today to think of salvation in terms of a “once saved, always saved” framework. Though a Calvinist variant of this belief posits that God keeps His elect by causing them to persevere to the end, its free will counterpart argues for a faith that, once initiated, does not require perseverance in order to secure final salvation. It is this latter view that is beyond the pale of acceptable Christian doctrine and which the author of Hebrews refutes thoroughly and repeatedly.

There are several lines of argument which the author uses to substantiate the need to persevere, but the strongest and most prominent is the comparison between the Israelites in the wilderness and those in the New Covenant. Whereas Moses was a servant in “God’s house,” Christ is over God’s house (Hebrews 3:1-5). But even though Christ is much greater than Moses, He cannot guarantee our perseverance any more than Moses could guarantee the perseverance of the Israelites in the wilderness:
But Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (Hebrews 3:6, ESV).

The author of Hebrews goes on to parallel our faith as Christians with the faith of those Israelites, citing God’s words in Psalm 95 as a present exhortation for us:
Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest’” (Heb. 3:7-11, ESV).

By way of context, it ought to be stated that prior to their rebellion, “the people believed” (Exodus 4:31, ESV. See also Exodus 14:30-31). This is the key component to the parallel that the author is making—their faith begun did not guarantee that they would finish in it, and it is finishing in faith that allows one to take hold of God’s promises. Our author does not go on to say, “but there are better promises for you,” but, “take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God… For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (emphasis mine. Heb. 3:12, 14, ESV).

If there were any doubt remaining that the author was concerned with the salvation of genuine Christians, such doubts ought to be dispelled by the fate he described for those who had, “been enlightened . . . tasted the heavenly gift . . . shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:4-5, ESV) but had “fallen away” (v. 6): they are like a worthless crop bearing thorns and thistles, set aside “to be burned” (Heb. 6:8, ESV).

If even this is not explicit enough to change the mind of someone holding to a doctrine of eternal security, the author of Hebrews circles back around to it again in chapter 10:
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27 ESV).

Notice the parallel rhythms of 6:4-8 and 10:26-31: a person was enlightened (6:4), receiving the knowledge of the truth (10:26); they then fell away (6:6), went on sinning deliberately (10:26); in their present state it is impossible to restore them to repentance (6:6) since there no longer remains a sacrifice for their sins (10:26); and the judgment which awaits them is to be burned (6:8), a fury of fire (10:27).1

After describing the fate of the apostate in 10:26-27, the author appeals to Habakkuk chapter 2, wherein God declares, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him” (Heb. 10:37-38, ESV). This citation not only puts an exclamation point on the fate of the unrepentant apostate spoken of earlier, but also brings up the issue of what living by faith really means.

Thankfully, our writer does not leave the answer to this question up to our imaginations but provides concrete examples of what saving faith looks like throughout the next chapter. He begins by explaining that faith is confidence about things we do not yet see. Though we do not yet see Christ reigning over the world and creation restored, we trust that this will be the case and live our lives according to this trust in what God has said He will do.

Next, he goes on to look at individual examples of faith from the Old Testament scriptures and from Israel’s history. For instance, Noah’s trust in God led him to follow God’s command to build the ark even though he could not yet see with his eyes the need for it. Similarly, Abraham trusted in God’s promise to give his descendants the land of Canaan even though he died not having seen such a promise fulfilled. Such an attitude our author commends, saying, “if they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Heb. 11:15-16, ESV). Since God has put eternity into the hearts of men and women (Ecclesiastes 3:11), we feel drawn to God even as we feel pulled back into the false security of faithless living. Noah and Abraham resisted that temptation and were therefore commended for their faith, as was Moses, of whom we are told:
“[He chose] rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Heb. 11:25-26, ESV).

If faith in God is made difficult by our limited vision, how much more so when there is an obstruction before our eyes? Though God delivered from oppression and violence many of the pre-Christ saints, this was not the case for all:
“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Heb. 11:35-38, ESV).

And yet despite this obstruction to their ability to see the telos of God’s purposes, they trusted in Him nonetheless. If this is true of them, why should it not be true of us who have obtained the fulfillment of promises they longed to see?:
“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39-40).

Indeed, Christ was the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. And though many of these promises have not been realized in their fullness, we have more evidence upon which to base our faith than they had. Such a benefit ought to stir up an even greater faith—and a desire to live by it—in what God is going to accomplish for us. And if they could persevere until the end, what excuse can we give for not doing so? For not only do we have resources they did not (the down payment on God’s promises in Christ’s first advent, more of God’s plan revealed to us than was revealed to those who came before, additional power from the Holy Spirit, etc.), we also have their example to follow. The author concludes:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:1-3, ESV).

The cloud of witnesses—those saints who came before us and persevered to the end—testify to us that we can and should persevere. Furthermore, we have not only an example but a great advocate in our Lord Jesus Christ. Though He suffered, he endured because of “the joy that was set before Him.” Faith is not therefore a commitment to suffer because suffering is inherently praiseworthy or noble, but a commitment to follow Christ regardless of the consequences because the reward of such a commitment is participation in Christ’s resurrection and coming kingdom. Our faith, which the author of Hebrews defines as “believ[ing] that [God] exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6, ESV) with the result that we draw near to Him, gives us the strength to endure—for without confidence that God exists and that our present struggles are worth enduring, we would give up the race. Finally, anything which holds us back from finishing the race (what our author refers to as weights) should be cast aside. It is not good for us.

To conclude, the belief that one cannot forfeit salvation even though she abandon Christ is simply not biblical. Not only do we not have any such promises, but such a mindset contradicts the goal of the gospel—our union with Christ and the restoration of all things. If we fail to be interested in these goals, we have no place in the coming kingdom of God. Salvation is not about going to a nice place when you die, but about participation in Christ. Our entry and continued place in Christ’s body is on the basis of faith, and this faith lives (runs the race) on the basis of its confidence in the reward of reaching the finish line.

1 To see these parallels laid out more explicitly, see Nathan E. Brown’s Hebrews – An Exegetical Analysis, p. 103. (Link)

How Jesus’ New Covenant Priesthood Fulfills the Promises of God to Israel

At this point in history Christian evangelism to the Jewish people is something of a minefield. Because Christian-identifying gentiles have so often oppressed Jews, any attempt to proselytize has, to many Jews, become synonymous with anti-semitism—a kind of spiritual pogrom. In addition, it is not uncommon for traditional Jews to accuse Jewish Christians of self-hatred and of abandoning their people to join an oppressor. For many of these traditional Jews, becoming a Jewish Christian is more shameful than becoming a Jewish atheist.

As grievous as the church’s antisemitism has sometimes been, and as understandable as it is for Jews to be wary of the Christian faith, whether or not self-identifying Christians have been antisemites is not logically connected with whether or not the Christian faith is itself antisemitic, let alone with whether or not it is un-Jewish to accept it as one’s own. To underline this point, it would be advantageous for us to go back before the antisemitism in the church to the days of Jesus’ Jewish apostles. When we do, we fill find in a New Testament document entitled “The Epistle to the Hebrews” an argument centered in Tanakh (the so-called Old Testament) that the acceptance of Jesus as Messiah is the logical outworking of the acceptance of God’s Tanakh. Though other Jewish (and gentile) Christians made various arguments to this effect, the author of this epistle’s argument focuses on the fact that Jesus’ covenant has a better priesthood, covenant, sacrifice, and ministry than that in the covenant made through Moses. More than that, he establishes that the Tanakh itself points to the fact that these Mosaic ordinances were only temporary until the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

A Better Priesthood

In chapter 7 of this epistle our author highlights a priesthood which predates Levi’s—that of Melchizedek, king of Salem.1 Melchizedek was a priest of God whom Abraham gave tithe to;2 and since Levi was still, so to speak, in the loins of his great-grandfather Abraham, this means that in some sense the entire Levitical line paid tithe to Melchizedek through Abraham. Of this man we know next to nothing. His birth, death, and ancestry are never even alluded to. And yet David, when writing of Messiah, said that the Lord had sworn of him, “you are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”3 This new prophesied priesthood, which is not by Levitical line but by oath of God, is the key to the author’s argument in this section. After all, if the Levitical priesthood was perfect and eternal, why would God mention another to come after it?

Although the great Rabbi Maimonides wrote that Jesus could not be Messiah since he caused the Torah to be altered,4 David’s prophecy of a new priesthood tells us differently. As our author tells us, “when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.”5 In other words, if David looked forward to a different priesthood, this means the old one was passing away. And since this priesthood was at the center of God’s Torah, and the Torah was at the center of the covenant, the priesthood of Messiah (whom both the Torah and the rabbis taught would be of the line of Judah, not Levi) would initiate a new covenant.

Although Melchizedek is only apparently immortal (since we never learn of his birth, death, or ancestry), the Messiah’s priesthood truly is eternal. This is one reason why His priesthood is superior to that of the Levites: “The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him.”6 An eternal priest is able to make intercession for his people to the end of the age.

More than this, “he has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (7:27). This underlines the fatal weakness of the old priesthood: its priests had to make offerings continuously. In contrast, Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself was final and fully efficacious, and His remaining priestly work consists of making intercession for those who draw near to him (7:25).

A Better Covenant

Now, if a change in the priesthood requires a change in the law, what has happened to the covenant which commands the keeping of the law?7 For this the author quotes at length (in chapter 8) from the prophet Jeremiah, who told the Jewish people, on behalf of God, that:

the days are coming… when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah… I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hears, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people… For I will be merciful to their iniquities and I will remember their sin no more.”8

It is important to note that this new covenant is not made with gentiles as if God would abandon the Jewish people. It is instead a covenant made with the Jewish people but extended beyond the boundaries of ethnic Israel to the nations who are blessed through them This is why the Jewish apostle to the gentiles, Paul (also known as Saul or Shaul), wrote of a gospel which went “to the Jew first and also to the [gentile].”9 Furthermore, he warned gentile converts to Jesus as Messiah that if they thought of themselves as superior to the Jewish people, who are God’s “tree” by nature, God would remove the gentiles (branches which were not natural but grafted in) from His people.10 This teaching undermines the rabbinic narrative that Christianity, properly practiced, is part and parcel with the gentile abuse of the Jewish people just as it undermines the claim of any antisemite to be a Christian in good standing.

In any case, an obvious question presents itself here: if a new covenant is spoken of, where does that leave the old one? According to the author of this epistle, “in speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”11

This does not suggest that the Tanakh is useless. As the Jewish believer in Jesus, Adolph Saphir, wrote:

And yet no portion of Scripture can ever become antiquated, losing its instructiveness, significance, and value. No period of the history of God’s people, no type, no institution, no event of any dispensation, can be forgotten; nothing that God has said, given, or done, will be lost. For the eternal Spirit, who saw the end from the beginning, hath so ordered it that the whole Scripture ministers unto all generations of His people, that as the fathers cannot be made perfect without the children, so the children who are privileged to see the better things provided for them by God are gathered unto the fathers, and blessed with the ancient household of faith…”12

It is not that what God had revealed through Moses was useless, but that it anticipated what He would reveal through Christ. In the case of the covenant, it looked forward to a new covenant, spoken of by the prophet Jeremiah, where sins would be cleansed fully by a different kind of high priest and the law of God would be written on our hearts instead of on tablets of stone.13

A Better Sacrifice

If the priesthood has changed, and the covenant with it, what kind of sacrifice remains for sins? Although it is common for the rabbis to claim that prayers will have to substitute for our offerings until the temple is rebuilt, the author of this epistle gives an answer which is much more tightly integrated into the fibers of the Tanakh. Indeed, our author reminds us that, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”14 If the basis for both our forgiveness and for the Mosaic covenant is sacrificial blood, and the Mosaic covenant can no longer offer blood sacrifices, there must be a new covenant if there is to be forgiveness of sins.

In chapter 9 our author summarizes the procedure of sacrifice for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). On this day alone could someone enter into the full presence of God in the temple’s most holy place, and even then only the high priest. This mediator, “entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.”15 Upon this fact our author hangs his most essential point. This sacrifice obviously could not perfect either the priest or the people since (1) it had to be offered over and over and (2) it could not open the way into the most holy place, and the presence of God, for all. The Day of Atonement was centered around an imperfect priest making imperfect sacrifices for a people who were not perfected by them. This doesn’t make those sacrifices useless, however. They served their purpose at the time they were given. But if this is so, “how much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”16 Through the final and perfect sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah, we may have complete forgiveness of sins and the Spirit of God motivating our motives, actions, and intentions.

Ministry

For our author, the old covenant sacrificial system pointed to something greater to come. If the new covenant, priesthood, and sacrifices are better, then the ministry which our high priest performs on behalf of his people is as well. Since the New Covenant was established upon better promises, then also “the ministry Jesus has received [is] superior” as well.17 Why? In summary, because:

Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.”18

Final Thoughts

What is the application for those living today? Because of what Jesus did, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”19 and “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body.”20 Furthermore, we may be grateful that God fulfilled what was only a shadow in his beautiful Torah, forgiving us of our sin by the ministry of our New Covenant High Priest and by making a way to cleanse our conscience from sins once for all.

1. Or, more literally, King of Righteousness, King of Peace.

2. See Genesis 14.

3. Psalm 110:4, ESV. All additional biblical citations are from the ESV.

4. See his work The Laws Concerning the Messiah.

5. Hebrews 7:12.

6. Hebrews 7:23-25.

7. As we read in Exodus 24:7, “Then [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.‘”

8. Hebrews 8:8-12, quoting from Jeremiah chapter 31.

9. Romans 1:16.

10. Romans 11:16-21.

11. Hebrew 8:13.

12. Saphir, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Exposition, Kindle edition.

13. Compare the giving of the Old Covenant law in Exodus 19-20 to the inauguration of the New Covenant by the writing of God’s law on the heart in Acts 2, both taking place on Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks.

14. Hebrews 9:22.

15. Hebrews 9:7.

16. Hebrews 9:14.

17. Hebrews 8:6.

18. Hebrews 9:24-26.

19. Hebrews 10:10.

20. Hebrews 10:19-20. See also Matthew 27:51, which tells us that at the time of Jesus’ death, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

The Gospel According to Batman V Superman

Fresh from the theater after having seen Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, I have been reflecting upon one particularly fascinating theme within it. In a far more thoughtful and sophisticated manner than the vast majority of overtly “Christian” movies, this film promotes a theology–even a gospel.

Warning: some spoilers ahead.

From the outset, I want to point out that this isn’t a theologian finding theology where it wasn’t intended. Indeed, Lex Luthor (of all people) reiterates explicitly and repeatedly that what transpires in this film points to something greater–the problem of evil and man’s relationship to God.

Luthor provides the viewpoint of the unrepentant cynic. Superman is odious because he resembles God and God cannot be trusted. If God couldn’t prevent the suffering of a young, abused Lex, better for God to die (or at least his proxy). Luthor therefore attempts to orchestrate deicide against Superman, first by the hands of man (Batman) and then by the hands of the devil (Doomsday).

The answer to Lex’s supposedly unsolvable problem of evil comes out of left field. How does a seemingly omnipotent and omnibenevolent God respond to evil, particularly when it results in free human beings who want to kill him despite His desire to save them? He identifies with their humanity and gives his life in order to defeat him who has the power of death (in this case, Doomsday). In doing so, he inspires conversion in men (represented here by Batman) who for the first time see God as loving–and pure love means being willing to suffer for the good of the beloved even though the lover doesn’t have to.

If God is willing to suffer with us, maybe our suffering isn’t as meaningless as we think it is. This seems to be the catharsis of Bruce Wayne. When Wayne sees Superman as powerful and alien, Superman (like God) seems quite dangerous. But when Wayne realizes that Superman has taken on humanity and even feels a love for his human mother as great as Wayne did, this changes him. Suddenly Wayne is overwhelmed with compassion–with empathy even–and helps Superman to rescue his mother from the clutches of Luthor. One can hear echoes of Jesus’ words to John on the cross to take care of Mary: “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:27).

This theology addresses what bothered so many fanboys about this movie–Batman’s willingness to kill. In this reading, it makes sense for Batman to kill for most of the movie–life is ultimately meaningless to him, so he creates his own purpose. It is Superman’s love and sacrifice that changes Batman, not a cold, deontological ethic grounded in passionless conviction. Despite what the enlightenment deists affirmed, it is not philosophy which makes us good but love. After seeing Superman’s self-identification and self-sacrifice to save humanity from death, Batman is determined to be a better man. This is the reason why he decides not to brand Luthor in prison, a brand which we are told sets inmates apart for death by the hands of fellow prisoners.

Though it has to be teased out, there is a rich theology in this film which is frankly unparalleled by what the Christian film industry is producing. It presents a gospel which is somehow more moving and more compelling despite not having to be spelled out.

The Defeat of American Constantianism and the Resurrection of Grace

I once heard Phil Burress, head of the religiously and politically conservative organization Citizens for Community Values, talk about the political work that his group had done. While most of it was pretty standard religious right stuff like campaigning against pornography and gambling, one issue stuck out. He spoke of legislation they supported which protected exotic dancers from being groped by customers.

What made this cause unique was that instead of simply working to shut down strip clubs (which CCV would no doubt be in favor of), they were seeking to protect women who found themselves working in jobs which were morally objectionable. They were essentially saying to these women, “what makes you valuable isn’t whether or not you refrain from engaging in behavior I find to be morally wrong, but that you are made in the image of God. As such, I want to show honor to you as a child of God that He loves.”

While Christians who have the freedom to participate in the political process need to take this responsibility seriously, we often imbue it with too much importance. We forget that the world and its people are fallen, and we are shocked and dismayed when it behaves accordingly. If American Christianity has lost the battle against legally recognized gay marriage, what does this loss teach us that we didn’t already know? We live in a country where people who are willing to live and let live can do more or less anything else they choose to. The benefit of such an arrangement is that as Christians we have the freedom to explore our faith without fear of reprisal. The corollary to this is that others are also free to reject Christian belief and behavior.

Is our key responsibility to these people to consolidate political power and treat them as our opponents in order to remind them who’s in charge; or is it to treat them as human beings made in God’s image? June 26, 2015 may stand as American Constantinianism’s Waterloo, but it need not be Christianity’s. God’s grace has and will conquer. If we respond with love and humility toward those whom Christ died for, it can be our Milvian Bridge.

Dr. James White on Annihilationism

When reformed apologist James White took a call on the topic of annihilationism on on his June 25th, 2015 webcast, he showed a surprising degree of sympathy for those who hold to an annihilationist or conditional immortality position, though he still gave reasons as to why he wouldn’t hold such a view himself.

For those who are unfamiliar, annihilationists believe that the unredeemed will not suffer eternal conscious torment but will finally be destroyed. While there is much that could be discussed in White’s comments on annihilationism, he emphasized one point in particular and has done so many times in the past when discussing this issue. As such, it seemed worthwhile to discuss this one point.

Dr. White seemed to think that the central issue in the debate is this:
“Is the punishment of the ungodly limited in its time span so that the punishment is a finite punishment, which assumes a cessation of sin? …From my perspective the only way anyone can stop sinning is through an extension of grace and divine power and a changing of their nature.” (quoted from the webcast)

In other words, how can sinners ever stop being punished for sin if they never stop sinning? So long as someone has not been redeemed by grace, they remain in a state of rebellion and are thus still deserving of the wrath of God.

There are, I think, some misapprehensions of the annihilationist position on Dr. White’s part that support his criticism. To begin with, he seems to assume that the punishment for sin is conscious torment, and is thus unintentionally begging the question. The annihilationist does not believe that punishment for sin is conscious torment, but utter destruction. As such, once this punishment has been applied, there is no sinner left to engage in rebellion against God, and thus no continuation of sin.

When Jesus died as our substitute, He died as our substitute. It was His death that was efficacious. According to Paul, this is part of the key proclamation of the gospel message:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 5:3, ESV)

If the punishment that Jesus took for us is the punishment that we would have been forced to bear ourselves, then this punishment is death and not eternal conscious torment.

White also seems to assume that the difference between the traditional view and the annihilationist view is that the latter supports a belief in finite punishment. Not at all. The annihilationist believes that the damned will be utterly destroyed, never to return to life. This punishment is therefore of infinite duration, even if it isn’t experienced by the damned consciously for all eternity.

Dr. White would probably point to other reasons why he couldn’t hold to this perspective, but his central objection simply fails to address the annihilationist position.

Fighting Injustice, Condemning Violence: Jesus’ Gospel of Social Justice and Restoration

(the previous title for this post was
“What Does Easter Sunday Have To Do With Social Liberation?”)

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’”

– Luke 4:16-21, ESV

Though the idea of a “social gospel” has been (often rightly) condemned by conservative Christians, there are elements in such a view which are actually central to the biblical message. Note that in the passage above, Jesus’ first announcement of His mission is one of social liberation. Though one could arguably read between the lines to find it, there is no discussion of  traditional views of atonement (how it is that Jesus saves us) like Penal Substitution or even of the conquering of death in this announcement. The “year of the Lord’s favor” that Jesus speaks of is the Mosaic year of Jubilee, wherein the debts of those who had fallen into hard times would simply be wiped away and those who had sold themselves into slavery to pay for their debts would likewise all be freed. In other words, Jesus’ first explanation of His earthly ministry is connected to upending oppressive social systems.

Jesus liberating the oppressed also flows from the idea of recapitulation (a view of atonement propounded by the church father Irenaeus, wherein Jesus reverses what Adam did by initiating a new humanity in Himself). Oppression is a symptom of the sin which mankind is responsible for, and Jesus came to undo this oppression. Much to our surprise, He did so by becoming a helpless human baby born of a Jewish peasant in a land overrun by pagan conquerors; He then chose to die at their hand in order to free others. As noted at the end of the previous chapter, Paul taught in Philippians chapter 2 that the incarnation by itself was an act of supreme humility when undertaken by an omnipotent deity. God’s identification with humanity, apart from any explicit teaching, underlines His concern for the weak and lowly. That He chose to become incarnated into an oppressed class highlights it even more so. God identified Himself with the humble and oppressed, a concept pregnant with theological meaning.

This latent meaning is revealed, for instance, in Matthew 25, where Jesus claims that we will be judged based upon how we treated those who were less fortunate. Where there are those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, or who are foreigners in a strange land, Jesus is present; so much so that to turn these away is to turn Jesus away. There is therefore grievous sin where there is wealth and power without concern for those without, and this sin is under the judgment of God. Before Jesus was even born, His mother spoke of the theological impact of her pregnancy in this way:
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53, ESV).

That the cross had a socially liberative meaning is shown in how John the Revelator looked at history through its lens. In Revelation 13:4, a beast which is a composite of the beasts in Daniel 7 (which all represented various empires) oppresses the people of God and is said to be empowered by Satan, who was/will be defeated by the blood which was shed by Jesus (Revelation 12:11).

The ultimate fate of the beast and of the oppressive politico-military power he uses and represents is described in Revelation 19:
“And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse [Jesus] and against his army. And the beast was captured… and thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (Revelation 19:19-21, ESV).

Though Revelation looks forward to Jesus dealing with the powers of evil most finally in destructive judgment, the amazing message of the New Testament is that on this side of judgment day, these powers have already been defeated, and that by the sacrificial—not violent—work of Christ. When Jesus rose from the dead after being murdered by the wicked power structures of his time and place, the inevitable conclusion was that man’s power structures, even with their ability to arrest and kill at will, had lost. Unrighteous authority has to use violence to bolster its power, but this violence, says the resurrection of Jesus, has failed. The power of death, the greatest power that any oppressor can use against its victims, has been taken away from Satan and from satanic authority structures. They have lost, regardless of whether or not they’re willing to acknowledge that fact.

Of course, the idea of God liberating the oppressed and conquering the oppressor is not one found only at the end of the Bible, but is indeed quite near the beginning. In Exodus 2:23, we read that the Hebrews, while slaves in Egypt, cried out in their oppression and God heard it. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman pointed out that the text does not say that the cry was addressed to God, but God was predisposed to hear it nonetheless:
“The slaves did not raise up a cry to God. But the cry had its own intentionality. The cry knew, all on its own, that it was precisely addressed to ‘God…’ The cry of the victim is central to the faith and practice of Israel… It is the oppressed human’s cry, in other words, that will unleash the chain of events that will ultimately result in your being punished… If you victimize someone, then that someone will cry out and [God] will have to act against you.”i

The Passover observance, which prefigures Christ, is a celebration of God’s deliverance of His people from slavery, though blood atonement to redeem their lives is also most certainly prominent. If we are to take this parallel at face value, Jesus as the fulfillment of Passover at least partially represents liberation of His people from social oppression. This imagery of the exodus of God’s people because of His redeeming acts is connected to Christ in the New Testament in various places, and Scot McKnight highlights one important example:
“When Jesus is transfigured, Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah speak of Jesus’ ‘departure,’ which translates the Greek word exodus (Luke 9:31). The ‘exodus’ death of Jesus leads his followers to freedom, and that freedom is what the kingdom is all about in Luke.”ii

It is also worth noting that concern for the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner are common throughout the Old Testament, so much so that it appears to be a primary preoccupation of God’s. Jeremiah 22:16 even goes so far as to connect supporting the cause of the poor and needy with knowing God. As Jurgen Moltmann wrote, “There must be no theology of liberation without the glorification of God and no glorification of God without the liberation of the oppressed.”iii

The prophet Daniel likewise looked forward to a day when the edifice of man’s system of oppressive power would come toppling down since it was built upon a shaky foundation—namely that which is in opposition to God’s rule. Daniel interpreted a vision which came to Babylon’s king wherein man’s kingdoms were represented as a great statue with many layers. This statue, which was described as “mighty” and “frightening” would suddenly meet a surprising fate:
“A stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:34-35, ESV).

The stone was Christ, and the mountain is the Kingdom of God which He preached:
“And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44, ESV).

Jesus does nothing to undermine this Old Testament concern for the poor and oppressed, let alone the idea that God’s kingdom would judge those who had used their power corruptly. In fact, He sometimes used language which suggested what Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian who is generally viewed as the father of Liberation Theology, would call a strong “preferential option for the poor,” so that the wealthy often seem to be painted by Jesus as corrupt oppressors. Jesus’ identification with the poor is probably connected with the fact that they are some of the chief victims of a sinful world which He has come to set to rights:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry” (Luke 6:20-25, ESV).

Social justice is such a strong biblical emphasis that the fourth century church father Basil of Caesarea went so far as to argue that if one hasn’t given up one’s excess to those in need, this one’s salvation is questionable. To be a Christian means to be on the frontlines of combating social inequality:
“I know many who fast, pray, sigh, and demonstrate every manner of piety, so long as it costs them nothing, yet would not part with a penny to help those in distress. Of what profit to them is the remainder of their virtue? The Kingdom of Heaven does not receive such people, for ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.’”iv

The vanguard of preaching the socially liberative dimensions of the good news are Liberation Theologians. Liberation Theology has much in common with a Christus Victor view of the atonement, except that instead of conquering death, the focus is on Jesus’ conquering of oppression by His identification with the poor and His judgment upon oppressive systems, and it is our job as Christ’s representatives to enact this liberation. Liberation Theologians Leonardo and Clodovis Boff explain the underlying idea for how the gospel message relates to the plight of the poor:
“Jesus Christ, second person of the Blessed Trinity, incarnated in our misery, revealed the divine plan that is to be realized through the course of history and to constitute the definitive future in eternity; the kingdom of God. The kingdom is not just in the future, for it is ‘in our midst’ (Luke 17:21); it is not a kingdom ‘of this world’ (John 18:36), but it nevertheless begins to come about in this world. The kingdom or reign of God means the full and total liberation of all creation, in the end, purified of all that oppresses it, transfigured by the full presence of God.”v

The Boffs rightly emphasize a “now and not yet” component of atonement that extends to social transformation. God has given us the seeds of social transformation, but the fullness of its growth comes about when God fully restores creation. Gutierrez gives this liberative definition of salvation, which emphasizes the “now” over the “not yet,” while holding them both in tension:
“Salvation—the communion of men with God and the communion of men among themselves—is something which embraces all human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ: ‘Thus the center of God’s salvific design is Jesus Christ, who by his death and resurrection transforms the universe and makes it possible for man to reach fulfillment as a human being. This fulfillment embraces every aspect of humanity: body and spirit, individual and society, person and cosmos, time and eternity. Christ, the image of the Father and the perfect God-Man, takes on all the dimensions of existence…’ The absolute value of salvation—far from devaluing this world—gives it its authentic meaning and its own autonomy, because salvation is already latently there. To express the idea in terms of Biblical theology: the prophetic perspective (in which the Kingdom takes on the present life, transforming it) is vindicated before the sapiential outlook (which stresses the life beyond).” vi

By no means is Gutierrez original in his take on the present consequences of the Kingdom of God being inaugurated by Christ. The second century church apologist Justin Martyr pointed to Isaiah’s promise of a future kingdom where swords would be beat into plowshares and war would disappear as being, in at least one sense, fulfilled by Christians before the eschaton:
“And that it did so come to pass, we can convince you. For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God; and we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.”vii

Jesus has redeemed our social relationships by breaking down the racial, social, and gender barriers between us (see Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:28) and by demonstrating that we have full equality both in that we are all deserving of death and that despite this Christ considers us to be his brothers. Since this is the case, we ought to seek for peace and the liberation of the lowly brother or sister from the shackles of institutionalized violence. If Jesus came to restore the created order, then our relationships with each other ought to be a part of what was/is/will-be redeemed by Him. N.T. Wright, noting the places where Jesus “saving” someone is applied to physical healing or rescue (for instance, Matthew 9:22), points out that, “this juxtaposition makes some Christians nervous (surely, they think, salvation ought to be a spiritual matter!), but it doesn’t seem to have troubled the early church at all.”viii They clearly had a broader idea of salvation that didn’t limit it to merely “spiritual” matters. Our evangelical church today is unfortunately far too Gnostic. In contrast, Martin Luther King, Jr. charged the church with the responsibility to make a difference in the oppression in the world around them:
“There was a time when the Church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But they went on with the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven’ and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the archsupporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”ix

King pointed out that suffering Christians are powerful Christians because they follow in the path of Christ. Suffering should not be neurotically sought out, but where it cannot be avoided, the one who suffers with Christ has not been conquered because the suffering Christ has not been conquered. As Moltmann wrote, “In their hearts all true men worship one God – the naked, wounded, bloody, but unconquered and unconquerable Christ.”x It is the oppressor who has been conquered since that which is joined to Christ cannot be vanquished, while that which is not is fit only to be thrown into the fire. As the prophet Malachi, speaking for God, put it:
“I will be a swift witness against… those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 3:5, ESV).

The tendency for Christianity’s scriptures to challenge our system of violencexi coalesced into a uniquely modern view of the atonement referred to as the scapegoat view, proposed by Re Girard, wherein society’s tendency to place blame on a scapegoat to whom they do violence is confronted when it results in murdering God. As pastor and author Brian Zahnd wrote:
“The cross is shock therapy for a world addicted to solving its problems through violence. The cross shocks us into the devastating realization that our system of violence murdered God! The things hidden from the foundation of the world have now been revealed. The cross shames our ancient foundation of violence. The cross strips naked the principalities and powers. The cross tears down the façade of glory that we use to hide the bodies of slain victims.”xii

While there is much truth in this, the biblical witness to the fact that God used the cross as a sacrificial atonement and as a means to conquer death, sin, and the devil must be brought in to balance such a view. Man’s sinful systems did murder God, but the sovereign God used our sin to achieve our salvation. Christ has already, in a sense, conquered the oppressor (whether human oppressors, death, or the devil), though this victory will not be fully realized until His second coming. As Paul told the Corinthian church:
“For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:21-26, ESV).

Though Liberation Theology has some indispensable insights into the atonement and Jesus’ mission on earth, it also has a tendency for some dangerous imbalances. For instance, when the oppressed are identified with the poor and seen as incorruptible, and those with wealth and power are thought of as necessarily evil, the gospel fails to be relevant to all people as sinners in need of salvation. The gospel challenges us all in unique ways, but it still challenges all of us. The poor are not immune from sin, nor are the rich always necessarily greater sinners.xiii This false dichotomy probably emerges out of Marxism, which is unfortunately one of Liberation Theology’s major underlying extrabiblical influences.

Another danger of Liberation Theology is that it can have a relativizing effect on morality—the view of the oppressed can begin to be seen as the only moral viewpoint and they are therefore free to determine the proper moral course of action in enacting their earthly liberation. This, of course, in turn creates an oppressed class which is poised to become an oppressing class that is unwilling to listen to God’s challenge to their own sin. In other words, Liberation Theology, when taken by itself, has the capability of instilling the oppressor mentality into the oppressed.

When James Cone, father of Black Liberation Theology, comments that, “American theology is racist; it identifies theology as dispassionate analysis of ‘the tradition,’ unrelated to the sufferings of the oppressed,”xiv and notes that the cross of Christ was nothing less than a lynching tree,xv he is surely speaking truth to our tendency for hypocrisy, particularly when we have power or privilege to protect. But when he says, “we have reached our limit of tolerance, and if it means death with dignity or life with humiliation, we will choose the former. And if that is the choice, we will take some honkies with us,” one is immediately alerted to the fact that there is something in the Christian tradition which he disparages that is worth holding onto. In fact, it is our failure to apprehend the Christian tradition which leads to our siding with satanic power structures. If the idea that God created only one human species which now finds itself in desperate need of salvation is orthodoxy, then surely racism and classism are heresy. On the other hand, if Christ is our example for achieving our own liberation, then we must take note of the non-violent, non-retaliatory means by which He effected it.

In 1965 at the Cambridge Union Society of Cambridge University, James Baldwin argued the affirmative against William F. Buckley on the topic “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” Baldwin demonstrated his case by highlighting how slavery helped to build the economic prosperity of the United States but that black Americans had still not benefited as white Americans had from their own labor. In contrast to the violent separatist rhetoric which was coming from some black Americans at the time (and understandably so from a human perspective), Baldwin did not argue for the intrinsic moral inferiority of the white oppressor, but highlighted their shared humanity:
“One of the things the white world does not know, but I think I know, is that black people are just like everybody else. We are also mercenaries, dictators, murders, liars. We are human, too.”xvi

With surprising empathy, he also mustered the insight to feel pity for the oppressor of his black brothers and sisters:
“What has happened to the white Southerner is in some ways much worse than what has happened to the Negroes there… Something awful must have happened to a human being [in this case, Sheriff Jim Clark of Selma, Alabama] to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.”xvii

Though he could have argued from the good that we have in common to demonstrate that all humans are fellows, he chose, interestingly, to highlight the wicked tendencies which are in all of us. Had the roles been reversed, it could have easily been a black sheriff abusing a white woman. Depravity knows nothing of skin color– it affects us all equally.

Though it is out of the scope to address issues of Christian non-violence and how it doesn’t require acquiescence to evil (Walter Wink’s Nonviolence: A Third Way and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail are excellent, concise, popular level introductions to this philosophy), it is worth noting that Jesus destroyed the powers of evil not by “taking some honkies [in this case Roman soldiers and those Jews who held up their power] with Him.” He destroyed it by loving His enemies while still being radical in His truth-telling. This does not mean being obedient to sinful and dehumanizing laws or stuffing your dignity in your pocket, but it does mean that you never forget that you share a common humanity, spots and all, with an oppressor. As Baldwin noted elsewhere, “if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”xviii

And if our fallen nature makes us comrades, how much more our being joined to Christ as the fountainhead of our new humanity? As Paul argued in Ephesians 2:13-15, the wall of hostility between races has been broken down by the blood of Christ. We are not all different types of man, but one new man in Christ Jesus. Likewise Colossians 3:11 claims that Christ has made meaningless the categories which we invent to assist in our despising one another:
“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (ESV). When Liberation Theologians are concerned with tearing down these walls to make us one man, they are living out the fruit of the gospel. Insofar as they play the game of Marxist dialectical struggle, imposing a dichotomy that must be erased through violent struggle, their solutions are not Christian solutions.

What we sometimes see in Liberation Theology is an unbalanced emphasis on Christ the Victor, or Christ the Conqueror. It is ironically the same view of Christ which has undergirded the dangerous theocracies of the past. Placing it in the hands of the oppressed does not somehow baptize it as Christian. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, urges us to achieve moral ends by only using moral means. Insofar as Liberation Theologians commend to us the tools of the oppressor (and by no means do all Liberation Theologians do this), there has been no liberation in the Christian sense. However, its insights are both timeless and timely. If Christ’s incarnation represents an identification with the lowly, His resurrection and exaltation are good news for the same, and those who are in power have an obligation to identify with them as well, lest they crucify Christ afresh with their apathy.

 

i. Walter Brueggeman, Old Testament Theology: An Introduction, Kindle Edition.

ii. Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement, Kindle Edition.

iii. Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, Kindle Edition.

iv. St Basil the Great, On Social Justice (Popular Patristics Series Book 38), Kindle Edition.

v. Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, p. 52.

vi. Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, Orbis Books, 1973, p. 151-2 . Note that this definition and explanation of salvation carries some of the essential qualities of Christian salvation (often those qualities which conservative theologians underemphasize), but it doesn’t emphasize the importance of sin, repentance, or Jesus’ death for sins. Because Liberation Theology’s primary concern is present social liberation, the means by which we are reconciled to God takes a back seat.

vii. Justin Martyr, First Apology, Ch. 39. Cited from www.ccel.org.

viii. N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope, Kindle Edition.

ix. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

x. Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, Kindle Edition.

xi. See, for instance, my own discussion of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk at http://www.cantus-firmus.com/?p=496.

xii. http://brianzahnd.com/2015/03/jesus-addressed-congress/

xiii. When God judged Israel and Judah, He did not spare the poor, as they were often just as actively engaged in wickedness and injustice as their wealthy counterparts (Jeremiah 16:6, 11-12).

xiv. James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Kindle Edition.

xv. Note his recent book title, The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

xvi. From a transcript in The New York Times’ March 7, 1965 article “The American Dream and the American Negro.”

xvii. ibid.

xviii. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, Kindle Edition.