Aside from midnight church services, family reunions, and Ryan Seacrest parties, a significant number of people will celebrate New Year’s Day from the less festive setting of one of the many Syrian refugee camps, in countries like Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, or Iraq. These camps symbolize the narrative of the millions of Syrians who have fled their homeland due to the civil war raging since 2011. Their past is filled with political and financial trauma associated with refugee life. Their future is even more threatening as they struggle to reunite with loved ones, deal with the tragic deaths, and readjust to a new life where their Syrian passports may be their single economic asset. Their future is largely unknown. For these survivors, what is so “happy” about 2016?
The phrase has captivated my imagination for some time now, as I seek joy in the midst of a world crying out in pain. In a nation of mass shootings and executions, in a world devastated by war crimes and the crime of war, where working for peace means learning the depths and pervasiveness of violence, despair threatens to seep in through the air I breathe. Hope often evades my grasp, and fear like a weight drags down my every movement.
But when I find myself in a morass of bitterness, my soul gets a jolt of energy from my laughing toddler, or the accidentally insightful comment from my precocious 6-year-old, or the warm hand of my husband on my shoulder. I savor the comfort of these gestures and let them lift me out of my cynicism. And as the tears clouding my vision disperse, I remind myself that joy, too, permeates the world and can be found by those with eyes to see it.
It was the means of agonizing humiliation and execution and has adorned the banners of armies through which some of the most brutal violence was perpetrated in history. It is a symbol worn by the faithful and sometimes the fashionable. It has famously been described as a stumbling block and foolishness. The cross is central to the Christian faith — but what does it mean? And how could this symbol of weakness also be a source of strength for followers of Christ?
As Christians ponder the mystery and meaning of the cross and Christ’s resurrection in this Easter season, I read Tony Jones’ new book, Did God Kill Jesus? which explores and analyzes various atonement theories through history and culture and considers whether the most famous — penal substitutionary atonement — is really the most accurate. Although Tony and I do not necessarily share the same views, I realized that our perspectives are not as far off as I had thought. I recently had the opportunity to interview him about the book and how his study and meditation of the cross has shaped his understanding of the crucifixion and what that can mean for the faithful.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
JV: You touch a bit on this in the book (but for those who might not read it), what do you believe are the theological and social implications of holding to a belief in penal substitutionary atonement? Could you elaborate on what you think those implications are? And do you think there can be anything redemptive or beautiful in Christians holding to a substitutionary atonement theory of the crucifixion?
You may be surprised to read this, but I owe the Friendly Atheist a personal debt. My atheist brother invited me to officiate at his wedding ceremony with this condition, “As long as you don’t say anything about God.” I’m very close with my brother, so of course I agreed. I wrote the majority of the wedding ceremony with no problem. I easily secularized everything else, but was stymied by how to secularize the final blessing.
Since Google has all the answers, I typed the words “secular wedding ceremony blessing” into my search engine. The first link that appeared was the Friendly Atheist’s article “ A Secular Wedding Ceremony from Start to Finish.” The entire transcript for the secular wedding is beautiful. As I spoke the words of the Friendly Atheist’s final blessing, I experienced a profound sense of awe:
May the glory which rests upon all who love you, bless you and keep you, fill you with happiness and a gracious spirit. Despite all changes of fortune and time, may that which is noble and lovely and true remain abundantly in your hearts, giving you strength for all that lies ahead.
My brother and his wife expressed their appreciation for those words. My dad, a devout Christian, said it was the perfect capstone to the wedding. And all I could think were words of gratitude. “Thank God for the Friendly Atheist,” I said to myself.
On Tuesday, the U.S. government confirmed that 26-year-old Kayla Mueller, a captive of ISIS since August 2013, has died.
While circumstances of her death remain unclear, details of the young woman's life and work — most recently helping refugees in Aleppo, Syria — have emerged in the last 24 hours, as family, friends, and members of her community share memories and anecdotes of her compassion and big heart for those in need.
The Washington Post reports:
The Rev. Kathleen Day, who headed a campus ministry that Mueller joined at Northern Arizona University, recalled that she wrote in a letter from captivity that she tried to teach crafts to her guards, including how to make origami peace cranes.
“We just delight in that,” Day said, “that Kayla remained Kayla. She said she found freedom even in captivity.”
The Post also shared a letter written by Mueller to her family while in captivity. In it Mueller expresses her experience of faith:
"I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. ...I have been shown in darkness,light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free."
Mueller's family on Tuesday referenced another letter in which Mueller had written of her faith, this time to her father in 2011. According to the family, Mueller wrote:
"I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. ...I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I've known for some time what my life's work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering."
In their statement, Mueller's family said,
"We remain heartbroken, also, for the families of the other captives who did not make it home safely and who remain in our thoughts and prayers. We pray for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria."
The family has reportedly requested that expressions of sympathy be made to causes that Kayla would have supported. KPHO reports that additional information will be made available in the coming week.
So much of Christianity has become about avoiding hell. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a hospital chaplain, it’s that God is sending Christians straight to hell.
Christians need to stop thinking of heaven and hell as primarily places we go after we die. Heaven and hell are primarily realities that we experience here on earth.
Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is among you.” For Jesus, the kingdom of God, also known in the Gospels as the kingdom of Heaven, is a present reality. You don’t have to wait until after death. In fact, you shouldn’t wait because it’s here. It’s now. It’s among you.
Now, if the kingdom of God is a present reality, we can safely assume that hell is also a present reality. In fact, the word Jesus frequently used for “hell” was the term Gehenna. Gehenna was well known in the ancient city of Jerusalem as “the valley of the son of Hinnom.” Within the valley was a place called Topheth, where people would sacrifice their children, thinking that God demanded this sacrificial violence. As the prophet Jeremiah explains, this hell on earth is a purely human creation and God had nothing to do with this hell. Jeremiah said about those who sacrifice their children, “And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come to my mind.”
God doesn’t command the fires of hell; it doesn’t even come to God’s mind! Who, then, does command those fires? We do! René Girard said it succinctly in his book The Scapegoat, “[We] create [our] own hell and help one another descend into it.”
Hell is a place of suffering caused by spiritual, emotional, and physical violence. What does the kingdom of Heaven do when confronted with the violence of hell? The kingdom of Heaven goes straight into it.
A few weeks ago, my father was hospitalized for heart attack symptoms that might have been stroke symptoms that then turned out to be symptoms of something utterly inexplicable. My father, who suffered a massive heart attack in January 2009, and, against all odds and by the grace of God (he flat-lined twice), went on to survive subsequent surgeries and procedures and scares — always against all odds and by God’s grace. Though my father continues to survive and in many ways thrive, every hospitalization is a reminder that life is precious and short and tomorrow is not guaranteed to us.
This development has left me crying out to God, “Why? I know you don’t have to answer that, but … why?” This question reveals my heart: despite having known real and intense suffering in my life, I still live under the illusion that it is not normal. It’s been commonly reported, discussed, and parodied that those of us in the west, particularly in America, have no concept of how to deal with suffering. For many of us, even minor inconveniences — those “first world problems” like slow Internet access or traffic — feel like suffering in a relatively peaceful and easy world.
But as a Christian, I’m confronted by Scripture that reminds me that suffering will be part of our lives. And I’m confronted by the tendency — which I am sure that I share with many of my sisters and brothers — to shun it, preferring Gospels without suffering instead.