We launched the recent Advent season with a startling reflection by Chris Neumann on everlasting life, a bedrock Christian promise that most all of us look forward to with delight. Chris found it terrifying. This brought a response from Bruce Martin, a longtime member of our Crossings Community and the author of many of our text studies. We have shared it with Chris. At Bruce’s request (see below) we share it with you too, inviting further responses whether to Bruce or to Chris. Conversation is good. It’s how we learn, and all the more when the motive driving the conversation is the love we have for each other in our Lord Jesus Christ.
One caveat: early on you’ll find Bruce asking Chris what “the ultimate promise” is. We should mention that this phrase came not from Chris but from the editor who assigned a title to his essay.
Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community
The Terrifying Promise of Love (A Response to Chris Neumann)
by Bruce Martin
Christopher Neumann’s searing essay “When the Ultimate Promise is Terrifying” provoked reactions in me that I’d like share with the considerable wisdom of the Crossings Community. I thank our editor for this opportunity, and hope that the Community will continue this discussion in greater depth than I can offer.
Neumann’s very personal essay is filled with succinct theological gems almost to the point of overwhelming his story. I commend and thank him for all of these, and for his courage to speak for many others.
Even as I celebrate where Neumann ends up, I will argue here that there are issues more pressing than immortality to contend with. After summarizing his thesis, I will offer some clarifying comments about the Crossings Matrix (or “methodology”) as it encounters the problem of time, and then propose a more terrifying prospect of the Gospel than immortality, namely love.
I understand Neumann to be saying that God “saves” us by his “gift of everlasting life” (that is, “immortality” or “eternity”) via Jesus’ death and resurrection, but this very gift “terrifies” many Christians by endlessly throwing us back onto our own “inadequacy and guilt.” This “fear” is a mark of our “humanity” and makes any so-called “easy faith” impossible. We find ourselves stuck in an endless “roundabout” between Steps 3 and 4 of the Crossings Matrix. The way out of this conundrum is to “trust” the Good News that “God is not giving up” on us, and in the promised “joy” that awaits “because [Jesus] knows the future we have in store, together.” That our faith in Jesus is “hard,” not easy, is furthermore demonstrated by our “suffering” provoked by “the freedom we have been given to fail.” The result of such faith is endless joy and endless hope that mitigates any fear of immortality.
The existential fear of eternity which forms the backbone of Neumann’s thesis is rooted in the salvific gift of “immortality,” the presumptive “ultimate promise” of the Gospel. But is this true? For Neumann, the consequence of immortality is an endless “roundabout” between the Good News in Step 4 of the Crossings Matrix and the horror of God’s wrath in Step 3. Somehow, Step 4 doesn’t seem to prevent a repeat of one’s sin-guilt and God’s righteous judgment. Why not? Because Steps 5 and 6 must be engaged as well. But of course they do! My quibble here is that immortality is neither the “ultimate promise” of the Gospel nor a source of terror.
Two things must be said here. First, I do not find that immortality is the “ultimate promise” of the Gospel. That promise is the forgiveness of Sin wrought in Christ, and only then is Death vanquished as Sin’s consequence, even though we often bind them together in a kind of theological shorthand. Sin is fundamentally trust in ourselves rather than in God for life itself and finds expression in everything we do and think. Since we cannot eradicate Sin, we fight against Death (hence also against God) to maintain our self-existence, trusting in ourselves alone to do so. Christ did not die so that we could be immortal but to solve the problem of Sin; only then does Death cease to be a problem. Once Sin and the lawful guilt that arises from it is no longer an issue, immortality ceases to be a problem.
Sidebar: Robert Bertram in a presentation on the necessity of Christ recounted (in an ecumenical context) a conversation with a priest who thought that Step 3 was too severe for a gracious God, and that one should go directly from Step 2 to Step 4. When Bertram laid before him the gist of Step 3, the priest asked, “Things aren’t THAT bad, are they?” To which Bertram replied, “Yes, things are so bad that God sent his only Son to suffer and die on a cross.” That’s Step 4 because at that point Death is behind us. Immortality is simply not at issue. Our problem is rather Sin’s rebellion against God that God finally puts an end to by our death. That’s Step 3. “Saving faith” is “hard” for us, indeed impossible, because it necessitates our own death. To drive this point home Bertram often reminded us that even a “little faith” (a “scintilla” as he put it) was sufficient to render us “saved.” Why? Because faith-in-Christ is itself the life of the Spirit. This faith is a gift greater than life in the old creation because it is a foretaste of the new creation.
If Christ expresses God’s relentless unconditional love for us, then God must be “immortal” to do so. And if faith-in-Christ is how we live in this Good News; if faith-in-Christ includes us in God’s love so that we, too, love others relentlessly and unconditionally, then we also share in Christ’s immortality. But we must first be dead to ourselves (Step 3) before we can be alive to God (Steps 4-6). After Step 3 is fully accomplished in our own physical death there is no going back. That option will then be closed forever. How’s that for a positive spin on immortality?
Secondly, the Crossings Matrix is to be used not sequentially but simultaneously, in respect to its eschatological limit. For Christ-trusters on this side of death, Steps 1 to 6 happen all at once even though we analyze them one at a time, because we are “simultaneously wholly saints and wholly sinners” (Luther). Neumann rightly and damningly illustrates that we are in a “roundabout” between Steps 3 and 4. But in fact this roundabout occurs among all the Steps, endlessly back and forth. Its eschatological limit began in Jesus, is kick-started in us by a further act of God (faith), and continues to spread throughout creation via faith’s incarnated love for others. Thus, we are wholly saints and heirs together with Christ to God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3. Our “little faith” anticipates the Advent of a new creation. The Matrix breaks apart and any fear of immortality vanishes. The roundabout we experience now is due, not to our mortality or the promise of immortality, but to our sinful quest for life, which is a gift to begin with.
The Problem of Time
As inveterate sinners we are bound to time and bound to think in time. But faith-in-Christ looks beyond time even while within time. John Macquarrie summarized this conundrum when he said: “It is more true to say that time is in God than that God is in time.” One way of looking at the problem of time is thus to assert the principle that ‘God is in all times simultaneously’. God is the author, so to speak, of a creational “book” that has already been written. Only in this way can God guarantee his promise to love us relentlessly. The same is true of Christ and the Spirit. As saints already gifted with the Spirit, whose lives are hidden with Christ in God, we can think about our eternity just as we think of God’s eternity. Faith requires that of us. We do not need to get stuck in the slog of time. Time as we know it is even now being transformed, by faith, into the new creation.
In faith, thus also in Christ and in the Spirit, we know ourselves as permanently loved by God. We share in the love of God as expressed in Christ. Is Jesus now risen in glory terrified of his immortality? I think not. Jesus died once for all and loves all, for all time. And since we are “in Christ,” we, too, are not terrified of immortality, come what may. Steps 4 and 5 of the Crossings Matrix, extended into eternity by the promise of our resurrection, lays that problem permanently to rest.
But the Crossings Matrix includes Step 6, us even now loving others relentlessly and unconditionally. When our present life is freely given away, “suffering” comes to us as our old life ebbs away. Luther called these sufferings “spiritual attacks” from God that seem to contradict faith but serve instead to strengthen it. Doubt and persecution are included in these attacks. Did someone say that faith is “hard”?
The Terrifying Promise of Love
The Crossings Matrix breaks apart in the new creation; that is its eschatological limit. But when the new creation comes upon us in glory, when we suddenly find ourselves resurrected in Christ, what will “our” life be like; what will “we” do; what will our faith and immortality mean? Since, as Paul of Tarsus put it, all our “spiritual gifts,” save one, will cease, what then will we be doing in eternity? I can only suppose that we will do what Christ does. And that, my dear friends, is terrifying! Not because I don’t know what Christ does but because I do.
Jordan Peterson recently confessed his faith by saying: “Christ is too terrifying a reality to be believed fully.” Let us surmise that Peterson, like many others, gets stuck in that roundabout betwixt Diagnosis (Steps 1-3) and Prognosis (Steps 4-6). What makes Christ “terrifying” (far more than “immortality”)? Peterson means Christ in his totality: his fulness, subjecting both Sin and Death to the purposes of God; his resurrected glory-in-God; his humility and total commitment to creation; his relentless never-ending love, crucified for us. This Christ – and we with him – is too overwhelming to comprehend fully. Christ breaks the Matrix.
Granted. But if Christ – and we in him – is indeed the purpose of creation, then what we shall likely “do” in eternity is what we know that God-in-Christ “does”: to create and to love. And since it is the relentless love of God that we see expressed in Christ, then we along with Christ will, in our new creation, love another creation into existence and love that creation as Christ loves us. Imago Christi. Or would you rather play your harp all day? I would rather be fully involved in the “eternity” that is Christ. As a sinner I am wholly terrified at the prospect because I know what it means to be Christ for us! Yet as a saint I wholly embrace the prospect with the love with which I am loved. Let it be so. Let Advent be so.
Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community