Is This Election Really “The Most Important of Our Lifetimes?”

Evan McClanahan

Every four years we are told that our vote is crucial because a particular presidential election is the “most important of our lifetime.” Every four years, each party presents a candidate that, apparently, will be so catastrophic to our way of life that America will never recover. The principles, traditions, and liberties we so love will be lost by the first Wednesday of November unless we vote for the other person, the only person who can save our nation.

This is said so often, I’m wondering if this isn’t a “boy who cried wolf” situation. Perhaps our nation will carry on, largely unchanged, no matter who is elected. I mean, don’t most of the doomsday scenarios not only not come to pass, but sometimes things even get better? So, in the meantime, maybe I will just ignore the rhetoric, do my civic duty without guilt or embarrassment, and maintain my cheery disposition.

But what if this really is the most important election of our lifetime? I mean, by definition one of them has to be. How would I possibly know? By what standard could I make such a judgment? When I think about past elections, I’m reminded of the issues at the time: the Bush tax cuts, 9/11 and the Iraq/Afghanistan Wars, the 2008 housing crash and Wall Street bailouts, massive federal deficits, Obamacare, and a lot of hand-wringing about climate change and “green” energy. Until Trump, both parties continued or began foreign wars for decades, and both parties seem committed to spending money we don’t have. Despite the rhetoric at the time of each election, the apocalypse has not come and there was notable agreement between the parties.

President Obama was, for many conservatives, a difference maker in the usual back and forth, give and take. He was feared and loathed by the right because, unlike his Democrat predecessors, he was not content to tinker on the edges. He sought overhaul of the American way of life. He spoke of “fundamental transformation” and he was a student of Saul Alinsky, not exactly an American patriot. He was of the school that questioned America’s legitimacy in the first place, given slavery, imperialism, and capitalism. Hostile as his intentions may or may not have been, he was largely checked and balanced by a Republican Congress.

The argument for this cycle’s significance is that the very heartbeat of our country is at stake: the Constitution itself. Yes, the Constitution is in the crosshairs and is surviving on fragile ground because, it is said, one party wants to preserve it while the other seeks to destroy it. And this is not just tactical strategy to change the Supreme Court by court-packing. There really does truly exist a growing divide on whether the Constitution should even survive and whether America is a legitimate nation, given our history.

So is it true? Are the stakes higher now than ever? And if that is true, then won’t that be true for every election hereafter since the two parties represent such radically different visions? And what brought about such a change?

Well, yes, I do agree that this election is unusually significant given the emerging differences in understanding our nation’s founding and the different visions to either keep it great or start over using different principles. This election is different because the choice between the two candidates continues to get further and further removed from being two sides of the same coin.

Consider these five issues. Both parties agreed, at least in part, on these issues in recent decades past. Now, the differences are more stark.

Abortion. Yes, I know this issue is always the first to come up, but it is the pressing moral issue of several generations. Until it is abolished, it will remain so. We are far removed from Bill Clinton wishing abortion was “safe, legal, and rare.” And while the Republican Party has proven weak in its abolition of abortion, it at least defends the right to life for the unborn.

The proper role of government (especially in a pandemic-like situation). Both parties already represent mild to significant socialist philosophies (public education, progressive taxation, regulation of all industry, etc.). But Covid-19 revealed the fault lines regarding the authority of government to tell citizens if or how they can worship, gather, receive an education, or run a business. Covid-19 has become a political issue precisely because of two different schools of thought when it comes to “freedom at your own risk” vs. “safety for your own sake.”

Judicial philosophy. As already noted above, there are radically divergent views of the Constitution’s legitimacy and staying power. Senator Ed Markey (D., Mass.) said that “Originalism is racist. Originalism is sexist. Originalism is homophobic. Originalism is just a fancy word for discrimination.” Those are not words that would have been said by a United States Senator a decade ago, but are now mainstream.

The goodness of America. Again, not so long ago, we all pretty much agreed America was a good and decent nation. Yes, with a troubled history, but also with significant moral achievements. The difference between the parties here is significant. From the progressive academy and media comes something like the 1619 Project, which, at one point, argued that America’s true founding was the year slaves first arrived on this continent, not 1776. (That language was recently surreptitiously deleted.) Trump, meanwhile, established the 1776 Commission, which aims to encourage “patriotic education.” Of course, he was immediately called a fascist for that. There is a reason that any historic American monuments – be they of Lincoln, Washington, or Catholic priests – are up for destruction: because America is seen as good and worth preserving by some, but overdue for a downfall by others.

The normalcy of Christianity. Christianity was once assumed as the moral standard for the vast majority of Americans. We are witnessing a rise in hostility to Christian thought and practice. It is now a mainstream view to see Christianity as a mere product of “whiteness.”  I guess we are all just relativists now, appealing to what we think seems good to us. To explicitly rely on heavenly revelation contained in a book called the Bible is increasingly considered one small step above witchcraft…if even above it. The loss of Christianity’s influence is mostly seen in the fights over abortion and marriage, but you certainly see it in a civilization that has normalized pornography, mainstreamed pot, and idolized sports.

Elections, on all sides, attempt to use fear as a motivator. I try to ignore the rhetoric and think for myself. Policies and tactics aside, there is a growing divide between our two major political parties. As moral issues – not practical or financial issues – continue to define our politics, our politics are getting more religious. Christians, then, will bring their understanding of the faith into their politics. It will prove to be divisive both in the Church and the State. But given the stakes and given the growing divide, it looks like each election really will be more and more consequential.

Why Are All of the Supreme Court Justices Jewish or Catholic?

Evan McClanahan

Did you know that every Supreme Court Justice is either Roman Catholic or Jewish? Ever wonder why? Assuming Amy Coney Barrett is approved and sworn in, a Catholic Justice will replace a Jewish Justice in Ruth Bader Ginsburg. So the streak will survive. Even had Merrick Garland been approved, he was Jewish. The last two to vacate the Court were Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia, both Roman Catholic. The last Protestant to serve on the Court was John Paul Stevens and he left the Court in 2010.

As a Lutheran pastor, should I be offended or even worried? Where are the Evangelicals on the Court? Is my worldview going unrepresented? For that matter, what about the Agnostics and Atheists? Surely between the two of them, one-ninth of the American population should be represented, no? Is there some kind of Old Religion Cabal in D.C., or is there something native to those two faiths that produces Justices such a high rate? After all, between the two creeds, only 25% of Americans identify as either Roman Catholic or Jewish. So how have they filled 100% of the Supreme Court’s seats? Here are my best guesses.

This Is About Harvard and Yale More Than Faith

Before ACB’s nomination and presumptive approval, every Justice had a pedigree that included Harvard or Yale. ACB can “only” boast a Notre Dame degree. No offense to our church members who are Fighting Eli’s or Harvard Pilgrims, but that stat is even more jarring than the limited faith traditions of justices. It speaks to the relatively narrow corridors of opportunity among the politically elite, the kind of backstage pass that only a select few will ever be able to possess.

In the past, I accepted that as both schools possessed reputations for the highest academic pedigrees. But as many academic institutions have little tolerance for some ideological points-of-view have a more cynical view that this becomes about shared experiences and shared networks. “Oh, I see you went to Harvard. You’re one of us.” (Harvard, Yale, and Stanford produce more members of the House and Senate than any other schools, too.)

Not All Religious Commitments Are Equal

In addition to the influence of one’s Alma Mater, to merely say that one is Jewish or Roman Catholic is pretty meaningless. Many justices have shared these faith commitments and come down on completely different sides of the law. Sonia Sotomayor is Roman Catholic, but she is as far removed as Scalia’s jurisprudence as can be imagined. Other examples abound.

Only conservative Roman Catholics admit and confront the reality that within the Roman Catholic Church there are widely divergent factions and worldviews. Far from being saved by a Magisterium, Rome, including her own Pope these days, fields a huge number of conflicting views. Yes, I know they would argue they hold fast on the core doctrines and the Pope has only spoken ex cathedra twice, etc. But if one is Jewish or Roman Catholic “in name only”, they may as well be rightly considered Secularist, Atheists, Agnostic, or some other “ist.”  I mean, can we really say that Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden are in any way observant Catholics when they defend abortion as they do? Traditional Catholics agree with me when I answer “No.”

The same is true of Judaism. Liberal or Reformed Judaism has virtually nothing in common with Orthodox Judaism. As one of my friends recently told me, he is, like many of the Jews he knows, an “atheist Jew.” Judaism has for centuries straddled the line of religious commitments and ethnic identity, so it is quite possible that you can rightly be called a Jew but never practice the faith or water it down so as to be virtually unrecognizable, as many Mainline Protestants have done.

Judeo-Christianity Gifted the World with Common Law and the Separation of Church and State

Still, even with those two caveats, we are talking about 25% of our religious identification holding 100% of the seats. Why? It must be because of the inherent connection to long histories and a deep relationship to the Law that you find in both traditions. The Bible gifted the world with an understanding of Law that has blessed all those who would observe it. Rooted in the objective nature of God, God’s Law – even the Old Testament Law – stands as a bulwark of truth, justice, and mercy. From this Law, the West has inherited a “common law” tradition, which relies on case law and precedent. We also inherited a distinction between Church and State. While that separation can be overplayed by extreme secularists, it gives rise to fascinating and challenging legal issues that the intellectually-curious and the historically-minded find an attractive pursuit.

Though not unequivocally, the Bible served as the standard against which cases would be judged. While we can eat pork because the ceremonial law of the Old Testament had been fulfilled in Christ, there are moral offenses against God and neighbor offered in the Bible as examples from which we can write law or judge cases. With each case, precedent is set and that law is usually codified. (Of course, precedent can be reversed as it was in the cases of Dred Scott v. Sandford and Plessy v. Ferguson. Hopefully, the same will take place with Roe v. Wade.)

This is a theory and practice of law that is in marked contrast with other faith and social traditions, like Islam which has Sharia as its legal standard. I would argue then that this Judeo-Christian tradition is the reason for our own legal tradition, and it, therefore, makes sense that those who come from the more ancient versions of those traditions might intuitively defend that tradition.

If there is one thing that both Judaism and Roman Catholicism have going for them, it is history and a sense of history. Evangelicals think a meaningful religious history began with Billy Graham or at best in 1517. There just isn’t a long view of history, and you see this in their music, architecture, and teaching. It is always contemporary. It is “on trend”. Are the buildings designed with history in mind? Are Church Father’s quoted? Do their religious narrative and systemic beliefs go back centuries or basically a few years or maybe even a few months?

It is impossible for me to imagine true disciples of Steven Furtick or Joel Osteen seeking the kind of life that would lead to the most rigorous work of legal discernment imaginable. All that matters to most Evangelicals is what is happening now. That pattern of thinking precludes work that is literally built on centuries of ideas, writings, and influences. That’s not to say that Evangelicals can’t or don’t do that work now, but there may not be the numbers en masse to filter upwards all the way to the Supreme Court.

So, Should Protestants be Offended?

Well, because there is more to it than mere religious confession, I don’t think so. Likewise, observant Jews and Catholics can and certainly do protect the interests of Protestants. Sometimes, even the liberals agree with our causes! Ideally, since it is the role of a Supreme Court Justice to interpret the Constitution, their background shouldn’t matter. But as it is more common in the age of literary deconstruction to reimagine the Constitution, backgrounds do matter. In most matters, I would prefer a practicing Roman Catholic with an Originalist understanding of the Constitution over a progressive theist of any stripe.

What matters is whether words have meaning that transcend time? Or can they be deconstructed to mean something else? Is there an unflinching moral core in the heart of a Justice that can be appealed to defend something as fragile as a civil society? Does the Bible possess and clearly communicate eternal truths that should influence our social life? If your answers are yes, no, yes, and yes, I want you on the court, no matter your religious tradition. I suppose it is sad that Evangelical churches and universities are not producing the kinds of minds that work their way into the court system. But it is not nearly the tragedy that progressive or “liberal” views have brought to our society through the court.

When Did Christian Virtues Become “White”?

Screen Shot 2020-07-30 at 12.49.19 PMEvan McClanahan

The headline above reveals two possibilities. I am either so blind to my place in life (as a white man) that I cannot see how my race and religious beliefs have become completely intertwined, or I am perfectly capable of sight, but I just don’t agree with the premise. That I am even asking the question means I am really stupid or it means the premise (that Christian virtues and white culture are synonymous) is absurd and I am willing to say so. But the question needs to be asked because we are now reckoning with Western Civilization as a whole: what are its foundations? Is our society worth preserving? Is it time to start over on another foundation?

Because “White” or European or, really, Christian culture is at least a foundation of the American experience, and America is apparently a hopelessly racist nation, our culture’s foundations have come under intense scrutiny in recent months. Because our European forebears gifted us slavery, perhaps it was never a culture worth building a civilization upon in the first place. So some say it is time to knock it all down – literally, in the case of monuments – which first requires defining what it is to be “White” or European or Christian in the first place. If the culture of the Ancient Americans was wholly rotten, then like a bit of cancer, we must identify it and root it out. We should probably take some healthy tissue around it out for good measure, too.

With that in mind, a poster was promoted by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) that sought to identify “White” culture that has led to problems and presumably should no longer be normative. (The poster has since been removed and apologized for.) Besides being the kind of racism I was taught to avoid – stereotyping any one ethnicity, even if in a complimentary way – any of the characteristics listed could describe any number of ethnicities and I would argue some are virtuous by their very nature.

Here are a few of the “Aspects and Assumptions of Whiteness and White Culture in the United States” that are listed on this poster, a poster which, by the way, is not new or unique but reflects ideas that are pretty common in the American academy today:

  • “Self-reliance”
  • “The nuclear family: father mother, 2.3 children is the ideal social unit”
  • “Objective, rational linear thinking”
  • “The primacy of Western (Greek, Roman) and Judeo-Christian tradition”
  • “Protestant Work Ethic: Work before play”
  • “Religion: Christianity is the norm”
  • “Respect authority”
  • “Delayed gratification”
  • “Protect property and entitlements”
  • “Be polite”

Yes, with this list, I am cherry-picking the best examples of critiques that tie into Christian values or virtues. What you see above strikes me as not only not bad, but firmly situated in the Christian ethic. To attack them or write them off as mere “whiteness” seems utterly dismissive and unhelpful.

Some of the critiques of “Whiteness” are critiques Christians might also bring. Instead of rooting them in “Whiteness”, we would just root them in plain ol’ sin. For example, Christians would agree with the museum that to “win at all costs” is wrong, that a “woman’s beauty based on blonde, thin – ‘Barbie’” is wrong, that “wealth=worth” is wrong, and that “rugged individualism” can be taken to unhealthy extremes. Indeed, any virtue can be taken to an unhealthy extreme and become a vice. So not everything that is said in the now-infamous poster is wrong; however, many whites criticize those same qualities or behaviors. And it is factually wrong and slanderous to suggest uniformity among whites to prize blonde women, be on time, be Christian or to have a breadwinner husband and homemaker wife. How is this not racist?

But this conversation troubles me not because I seek to impose white culture onto blacks, but because part of the critique contains several explicit mentions of Christianity itself, and it seems to suggest that blacks reject these virtues. Is that, in fact, insulting to blacks? As I said in a recent sermon, Jesus and His Church are in the process of being cancelled, both on the Covid-19 front and now the reassessment of Western Civilization. We are either “non-essential”, dangerous gathering places amid a pandemic or we are the root cause of racism. We are routinely described as an imperialistic force that brought so much evil into the world, it is time for us to go.

Well, I disagree. First of all, virtues are virtues regardless of the ethnicity that practices them because we live in God’s world. The same is true for vices. Christianity, through description or prescription commends the following virtues, and I cannot think of any good reason that any Christian – or person, for that matter – should not make them a habit.

  • “…in humility count others more significant than yourself.” (Philippians 2:3)
  • “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Ephesians 5:22-23)
  • “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
  • “Honor your father and mother.” (Exodus 20)
  • “You shall not steal.” (Exodus 20)

These teachings are the foundations of the “way of life” you see described above as “White.” And yet, I unapologetically claim that any culture or ethnicity would benefit from following God’s Word and seeking these virtues, because all men and women are created in God’s image.

Second, where Christianity has flourished, so have these virtues, and the critical voice against excess has also been present. Around the world, Christians who are not white believe that idleness is a sin, that being polite is part of following Jesus, and that authority should be respected. That alone makes this poster not just an attack on “Whiteness” (if there is such a thing), but the kind of world that Christianity produces. After all, do we really want a world that is the opposite of everything on this poster: non-rational thinking, a destroyed nuclear family, idleness, rudeness, play before work, etc.?

Third, rationality itself appears to be under assault. Did you know that Western science and math are being rejected because they are considered products of white or European culture? Math is now called racist. Perhaps this explains the phenomenon of flat-earthers becoming en vogue. I never thought I would see the day where “objective, rational linear thinking” would not be valued or limited to any subset of humanity. True, the extreme version of this – cold, unfeeling carelessness  (Modernism!) – is also not ideal. But God Himself created logic and order; we live in an ordered world governed by laws of nature. To reject them is to ultimately reject the God who created them. This has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin and everything to do with whether logic and reason are objective or not.

Now, perhaps I should just ignore this and move on. After all, the NMAAHC has removed the poster after considerable pushback. But this re-thinking of Western Civilization and, hence, Christianity itself, is not at its nadir; it is only beginning. Part of our apologetic as Christians now is not just defending the existence of God, the resurrection, and the design of the universe, it is also our virtues and our values which are increasingly seen as fundamentally flawed and even imperialistic evil.

I know, I know, this is my “white fragility” talking. But if we are in the midst of a revolution, then it will not be enough to defend a mere political or economic way of life. If virtues are the foundation of a civilization and if our Christian virtues are seen as harmful, we will have to defend both the truth claims of Christianity and the world it creates. We must do so in love or else we will mock our own virtues. But do so we must. Because the opening shots in this revolution were not fired with this poster; they were fired decades ago. Only now are we seeing a vocal enough majority who is willing to say that your faith is part of the problem and it must be destroyed to root out the cancers it is created.

On Bending the Knee, Protesting, and Black Lives Matter

CJRXBSXQNNH6M46LUMAQSGTHBEEvan McClanahan

“Therefore also God exalted [Christ]
and graciously granted him the name above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
of those in heaven and of those on earth and of those under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” – Philippians 2:9-11, LEB

The news cycle surrounding the death of George Floyd has had three major foci: 1) the death itself, including the actors, details, timeline, and context. 2) The protests, mostly peaceful, and often led by Black Lives Matter (BLM) leaders or inclusive of BLM signage, etc. 3) The riots, defended by many as “the voice of the voiceless”, but rebuked by most.

No one disagrees – including the local, state and federal prosecutors involved – that the officers involved or present for the death of George Floyd should face significant reprisals for their actions. In fact, I cannot think of another high-profile police incident where there was such unanimity and swift action on the part of prosecutors to bring about justice. So in terms of media focus #1, the normally-slow wheels of justice are spinning as fast as possible to bring a just conclusion to a horrible event.

While it is disturbing that the riots have not been condemned – expect perhaps in passing – by many in the media, government, and academy, violent riots, the destruction of property, and the willful murder of even more citizens has seemed to abate. Many protestors and the leaders of such marches urged the rioting to end. It is a bit sad that this is a sign of progress, but in a triage situation, you save lives and progress from there.

So now, perhaps we can consider the marches and protests themselves, quite apart from any violence. As Christians, we always want to consider everything through a biblical lens. Of course, I am aware that many Christians claim to do that very thing and come out on very different sides of a whole number of questions. I can only offer you my justification for where I come down on the questions of the day and why. You are free to agree or disagree.

There is, of course, enormous pressure, especially compared to violent protests, to only cheer on the gatherings and peaceful protests. The subject of race is so explosive that to even question the motives or content of these protests is to immediately bring attention to yourself as a self-fulfilling prophecy of racism. Since much of the content of the marches is about racial parity, to even analyze the content or the leadership of the marches might only serve to prove the point that racism is as systemic and privileged as it is claimed.

And yet, Christians do not live by or through slogans, prejudice, assumptions, or snap judgements. We understand our world and our lives through the biblical revelation, and even if something sounds good, if it is not in accordance with the Bible’s teachings, we reject it, or seek to correct it in love. For since this is God’s world, the way towards peace is to know and love God Himself. And the way to know God is through his revelation.

Looking at the gatherings through a Christian and biblical lens, there is a lot to appreciate. There is an undeniable history in America that was evil and directly tied to race. There is an unbroken chain from slavery to Jim Crow to segregation that pit human beings against one another in ways we can hardly imagine. It is also undeniable that far too many in the visible Church defended and excused slavery, racism, and hatred.

The Civil Rights marches of the 1960s included many whites – including some Lutheran clergy I know – who understood that segregation was essentially inhumane. And as a result of those marches, specific legislation was passed that, while perhaps insufficient, was a significant step towards legal equality. Perhaps a question for us is, are those marches and these marches the same? What were the aims of those marches and what are the aims of these? When and how will we know that the goal has been achieved?

Today, of course, the titular issue is police treatment of people of color, not segregation. Or, at last, it was in the days following Floyd’s death. But the flood gates have opened to every grievance under the sun, and the animating backdrop to this is fundamentally the “woke” understanding of oppressed/oppressor distinctions that pits us against one another en masse.

Christians can agree with some specific grievances. For example, I believe Christians can say that our particular penitentiary system is not biblical, for Old Testament laws did not use a third party power to enslave a person for a crime. Rather, restitution was made between the persons involved. Christians can also say that racism is wrong. Though I wish that would be taken for granted, there are Christians who justify racism on a bad reading of Old Testament law regarding no intermarrying of tribes. Christians can also say that while Romans 13 is part of our biblical witness, so is Acts 4: we obey God rather than men. And by “men” that includes our political rulers, movement leaders, ideologues, and the decrees of what we now call “political correctness”. Some movements, organizations, and leaders are congruous with the Christians worldview and can be supported by Christians. Some are not. It is our job to know the difference.

This brings me to the foundation and hashtag known as Black Lives Matter. The genius of the founding is that, of course, on a biblical worldview, there is no disagreement that black lives do matter. (There is also no disagreement that this was not universally held in the past and it is not universally held today. Of course, there is no view that is universally held today, not even that the earth is round.) And yet, behind the phrase are certain beliefs and practices which are decidedly un-biblical and un-Christian.

While it may be that we can agree with some of the grievances and solutions of Black Lives Matter as an organization, no one should consider BLM a Christian organization. They certainly do not. Many of their beliefs are decidedly opposed to the Christian understanding of gender and marriage, and their mission goes far beyond ending racism. It is routinely said that the mission will not be complete until capitalism itself is overthrown. Tamika Mallory said that in Houston at a peaceful protest. And if this is not a Christian organization and Christianity itself is seen as an oppressive, colonialist force, will it be long before the calls are for it to be overthrown as well, unless it can be co-opted?

It was not that long ago that Christianity was seen as the problem and was overthrown. In the French Revolution, Notre Dame was converted to a humanistic temple, the 7-day week became a 10-day week, and thousands of clergy were executed by revolutionaries. I don’t see that exact pattern playing out, of course, but Jesus himself said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

Indeed, given that protests are breaking out all over the world – where presumably targeted killings by the police of black people is not an issue – one wonders if this movement at large is not about the overthrow of the Western way of life generally.

If that sounds radical, it shouldn’t. There are many who hold that the Western way of life (be it some combination of Christianity, capitalism, and republicanism) have created the world’s greatest evils and nothing short of the overthrow of the West will bring about peace. The West is seen through the eyes of the Howard Zinns of the world, who look at America and only see oppression, colonialism, and slavery. True, some of what he recounts is part of our story. Those are also part of the story of any replacement of the West, be it anarchy (“defund the police” is quickly gaining steam) or Communism.

America is now labeled a failed experiment, and any good scientist knows that when experiments fail, the only recourse is to start from scratch. That is the call of the mobs, and that is how BLM connects the act of one police officer to the overthrowing of capitalism. What does one have to do with another? Well, if I was cynical, I might suggest that one event becomes a motivating force for the true aims of the movement, which does not promote the building up of a civilization through personal virtue, the nuclear family, and Christian ideals, but rather a humanistic understanding of the person, family, and society which have far more in common with Marx than Christ.

This gets me to the zeitgeist of the day: kneeling. Kneeling can be a symbol of worship, resignation, humility, or idolatry. It all really depends on the object or person before which or whom we are kneeling. We have seen police officers take a knee in solitary with peaceful protestors. We have seen politicians take a knee and we have seen many whites take a knee at the hands of YouTube pranksters intending to make people look foolish. We have seen marchers take a knee in a sign of solidarity.

It may be that some of those sentiments are good and proper. However, the problem with such a symbol is that if it gives the impression that I would be (were I to take a knee) in full support of BLM and everything they stand for, I would have left my Christian worldview behind and sought a new authority. To see the taking of a knee to be used to humiliate and to unite others around the BLM cause is troubling. While we may choose to take a knee in certain situations out of love, respect, or courtesy, the only situation in which we MUST take a knee is out of deference to Christ. And if there even may be confusion about where our loyalties lie as Christians, then we are to remain standing if and when we are asked to kneel.

So what are we to make of these protests, assuming they are peaceful? In the minds of many, they are needed airings of grievances of a people hurt again and again. In the minds of others, they are about more than one action, one man, or even one idea. There is certainly a mixture of both. I want to listen to the cries of those who have been hurt by racism. I also defend a Christian worldview and its fruits because I believe it is best for people of all races. And I will not kneel in this moment for fear of confusion that kneeling could indicate my support for an organization that is not Christian and does not purport to be so.

We must be careful where our passions lie. For idolatry always comes in the name of something good, worthwhile, and virtuous. It also comes in the form of fear: kneel to this god or be banished. In general, my counsel would be to kneel for Christ and stand up to and for your neighbor. That is loving God and loving your neighbor.

Reflecting on the Riots

Minneapolis Police Death Oakland ProtestEvan McClanahan

I normally refrain from speaking too directly on our nation’s current events that are often of a political nature. I am hesitant to do that from the pulpit as I have an organic view of how the ministrations of the Church build up the body. I believe that through Word and Sacrament ministry, Christians are built up, and through the diverse vocations of Christians, the kingdom comes among us also. However, that can be a dodge, and there is certainly precedent and need for clarity from our pulpits on matters of morality, culture, and even certain policies from time too time. Given the unrest that we are seeing in many cities following the death of George Floyd, I think this is one of those times to speak, if not from the pulpit, still as a pastor.

First, it should be said that what happened to George Floyd was a completely avoidable tragedy. I understand why anyone – of any color or creed – would be horrified at the sight of a defenseless person being killed in police custody. Even if you are, as I am, an intuitively “law and order” personality, we concurrently believe as Christians that those in power are also affected by sin and have a tremendous burden not to abuse that power. Biblical law and our nation’s Bill of Rights protects us – in theory – from a police state and police state tactics: improper search and seizure without probable cause, not being force to shelter soldiers, the need for multiple witnesses, not falsely testifying, etc. So even if our default worldview is one of respecting and honoring authority, not all authority rightly bears that burden. This certainly seems to be one of those cases.

Furthermore, if I have failed to listen or speak against racism, I repent. Racism is real and unworthy of living in the heart of a follower of Christ. I have tried to educate myself on some of the historic realities of racism so that if I am in a position to listen better and even be an instrument of healing, I would gladly be used. I seek to honor each person I meet as one who is made in God’s image. I would call on every Christian to honestly assess their own heart and root out any hatred of any neighbor.

While I seek to be informed, I am also wary of our media and social media creating my world for me. If you are on social media, then you already know that kind of interaction has long ceased to be a “safe space” for neutrality or sometimes, even reason. On the issues of the day, it seems you are either a hero or a villain. Yet, in many ways, social media dominates how we see the world as we go there to find like minds, get our news, and quench our enemies. I believe it is shaping us culturally in dangerous ways as we are losing our desire to reason and to consider both sides of any argument. What is needed is careful consideration of just where Christ is in this recurring national conflict around race and police brutality, as events like this will likely continue in the future and the response may grow worse still.

What is needed? If police brutality is indeed a national epidemic (again, I believe our information is often filtered and we do not get a full view of what is taking place in our world), then what is needed is Christian police officers who love their neighbor through their service. Is the Church raising men and women with biblical worldviews and encouraging them to become police officers? Just as we need to encourage our young people to be pastors, we need to encourage them to fill the justice system and peace keeping professions specifically trained as lovers of God and neighbor. What I saw on that video was not love of neighbor, and that strikes me as the most powerful and comprehensive preventative measure from this ever happening again.

On the backside of this tragedy has been several days of peaceful and not-so-peaceful demonstrations. While the outrage is justifiable, mob violence is no solution. I have been heartened that some of the protestors actually protected stores from looters, understanding that their role was to raise awareness, not bring about destruction. If murder is wrong, so is theft, hatred of your brother, destruction of property, and the deaths of others who are equally innocent. A mob fueled by anger is not a Christian response and it will only be counter-productive. Indeed, Jesus says that if we are even angry with our brother, we have committed murder against him.

The Bible also teaches us just retribution in the law of lex talionis: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Evil is to be made “right” through equal measures of justice. I would argue that the destruction of property completely unrelated to the case in question and the destruction of police cars and violence towards officers who were in no way connected to the death of George Floyd is indefensible. If Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5:38 suggest that we are not to enact the principle of lex talionis, but rather to turn the other cheek, then such destruction is even less defensible, even while our personal disgust, fear, and anger may be justified.

The Bible teaches that those responsible for crimes are to be held responsible through the ministration of judges. The police officer who brought about the death of George Floyd and arguably those who did nothing to prevent it are to be held responsible, not every police officer in every major American city.

What is particularly troublesome to me is that merely pointing this out is assumed to be on the side of police violence. Many have so thoroughly come to believe that vandalism and rioting is acceptable that even though they are not present for the riots, they effectively support destruction as a tool of communication or retribution. Anecdotally, I see many people my age and younger supporting rioting as a legitimate form of protest. Christians should say, peaceful demonstrations, yes. Rioting, no. Again, to invoke lex talionis, the point is to extract equal judgement for a crime, not to go beyond.

What is needed? Not to be a broken record, but among all men and women made in God’s image, a comprehensive biblical worldview is needed. Without God, we only live for today and we are consumed by our passions. There is no reason to expect justice with such a worldview. Without God, we are becoming a nation of mobs, with stony hearts out to get what is ours. We need Spiritually-broken hearts what make violence towards others – no matter of their race, age, ability or creed – literally unthinkable. As we ignore and displace God completely from our understanding of the world, anger and violence will become our default position. At least, that is my fear. Hopefully, I am wrong.

I believe our Christian mandate is to have dominion and to build. Within our own souls, our marriages, our families, our communities and beyond, we are to peacefully build a civilization that demonstrates the love of Christ for the world. So what is needed in a time of riots? Christ, more than ever. The invitation to join us on our quest to build a civilization marked by a life with the Spirit. Far from being ashamed of that, we should actively promote it as our Christian calling. For if we love our neighbor as we are called, there will be no more need for riots at all.

The Whens and Hows of Reopening for Church Services

Evan McClanahan

UPDATED 5/30/20

As we navigate this fluid situation of quarantining and now reopening, advice and opinions vary across the board. As a church, we have limited those in worship and moved to live-streaming to continue, as much as possible, some kind of normal worship life.

Our plan is to move to a “full” service on Sunday, June 7. We already can hold the average number of those who worship to a 25% or 50% capacity. On June 7, we will have a full music service with communion. During the quarantine, we had a simpler service with less music and no communion. That spoken word service will be more or less what to expect when we have our 9:00 am service. As attendance everywhere is low, it seems wise to launch that service in the Fall.

For both practical and theological reasons, we will continue to take some precautions. Here is a link to the state’s recommendations. We will do or recommend the following:

  • Maintain social distancing in the nave
  • Pass the peace with friendly smiles
  • Allow worshippers to grab their own bulletin
  • When we begin singing hymns again and using the LBWs, we will provide a pre-sanitized LBW for you and keep a stack of LBWs in the narthex
  • Wipe down commonly touched items like doorknobs, etc.
  • Following the advice and standards for church gatherings, masks are recommended but not mandatory
  • The Monday Night Bible Study and Sunday school will be on Zoom through May and maybe beyond
  • The services will continue to be viewable on YouTube Live indefinitely

A few more details:

For Sunday School, we will go back to our 10:00 time, though I will start promptly at 10:00. I will be making coffee. I will be offering the class through Zoom as well as in person.

We will continue the “Ask Me Anything” Bible study via Zoom on Monday nights at 7:30 pm. Some who joined us on Zoom would likely not be able to join in person, so maybe that will become a combination of in-person and Zoom in the future as well. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to send them in. I will send out seperate emails with those links.

1 Corinthians and Communion: Why are We Abstaining, Again?

3_102020_italy-virus-outbreak-2-58202_c0-312-7456-4659_s885x516Evan McClanahan

As the effects of Covid-19 seem to drag on interminably, tensions will rise and new questions will be asked. Phase 1 of the pandemic was our immediate need to cope: social distancing, shutting down mass gatherings, relying even more in the Internet to meet and get work done, etc.

Phase 2 is the emerging recognition that those emergency measures are now becoming our normal life, and not everyone is okay with that. This will lead many to ask if the costs of isolation are outweighing or will outweigh the benefit. Sides are starting to form and anxiety for a return to normalcy will only increase. (I am not a political pundit, but I suspect that the 2020 elections will largely be fought over the issue of  what risks we need to be taking as a nation to return to normal.)

Phase 3 is living with this new normal until a vaccine is developed. Will governing authorities begin to tell us how and when our Constitutional right to peacefully assemble? (They already are.) Are sports effectively canceled for a year and a half? Will we sink into a global depression? Have we already?

The longer this goes on, the more I wonder to what extent pastors need to address more than just the questions of this as it relates to church. Will churches be on the front line of constitutional fights? Is our time together in worship as “essential” as other services? Is this a good time to point out that we really do value human life, but we clearly favor some lives over others? (Some have.)

Well, as you can see, I’ve jumped straight into the polemics. Let me back off a bit and ask more pastoral questions, mostly dealing with Holy Communion. First, when shall we commune again? And why, exactly, are we fasting? Those are the two issues: our inability to gather and whether we have the spiritual right to commune even though others can’t or won’t be present.

In general, I believe the best policy is to fast from communion until we can be together again. (As I’ve stated before in person, “virtual” communion does not cut it and should not be encouraged.) What is the standing of “being together”? Well, if we are to continue to be obedient to our governing authorities Romans 13 style, then it means until the maximum number of folks together jumps from 10 to 50 or more. Paul’s frustration with the Corinthian community was that some were eating when others could not be present. Likely the gathering was on a Sunday – still a workday in the ancient world – and some had to work later into the day and therefore arrived to the gathering late. By then, some where already drunk and there was no food left. This is how Paul describes the scene, which was a scandal to him:

1 Corinthians 11:17-21 (Lexham English Bible)
“But in giving this instruction I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For indeed it is necessary that there be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may become evident among you. Therefore, when you come together in the same place, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper. For when you eat it, each one of you goes ahead to take his own supper, and one is hungry and another is drunk.”

I believe the best course of action is to withhold from eating and enjoying until we can reasonably be together again. Granted, even without a pandemic we are not all always able to be present. But so those who are willing to be present in the company of others are not privileged, we will refrain until we get the go-ahead on 50 persons gathering, lest it appear that some in the congregation can participate in the meal while others cannot.

In a similar vein, Paul reminds the Corinthians that, in Christ, they possess certain freedoms, but for the sake of others, they should refrain from certain activities. The issue in Paul’s day was eating (or not) meat sacrificed to idols. He actually spends quite a bit of time on this topic in 1 Corinthians. Here are his summary thoughts:

1 Corinthians 10:23-29 (Lexham English Bible)
“All things are permitted, but not all things are profitable. All things are permitted, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good but the good of the other. Eat everything that is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for the sake of the conscience, for ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and it’s fullness.’ If any of the unbelievers invites you, and you want to go, eat everything that is set before you, asking no questions for the sake of the conscience. But if someone says to you, ‘This is offered to idols,’ do not eat it, for the sake of that one who informed you and the conscience. Now I am not speaking about your own conscience, but the conscience of the other person. For why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?”

Obviously our situation is not the same, but I believe the principle can be applied. Would it be wrong – absolutely wrong, that is – to have the Lord’s Supper for those willing to show up? I do not believe so. However, for the sake of those who do not feel safe gathering in a group at this time, we will refrain from eating. This is not so much a “weak conscience” issue as much as an issue of prudence. As this situation carries on into the summer, I suspect the same differing views that our country holds regarding the prudence of getting back to normal life will be held among those in our congregation. While Communion could be offered at any point, so as not to be a stumbling block or point of conflict in the community, we will wait until it is prudent for us to gather so no one feels left out due to a need for caution.

Perhaps this is a time for us to grow in our understanding of our other means of grace, the Word. Join us for Bible study, read more on your own, listen to a Bible podcast, etc. Get an extra dose of the Word while we await to share the Supper again together. As many who have gone before us in a time they could not share the Supper, the Word will prove sufficient for a living faith.

On the Necessity of Pressure-Free, Fear-Free Ministry (And How to Achieve It)

Evan McClanahan

At best, I am a “jack-of-all-trades” small-church pastor. Like most of my colleagues, I am pulled in a dozen directions each day. Within one hour, there is a good chance I will need to unclog a toilet, write part of a sermon, and pick up my children from school. Within one day, you can throw in updating the website, reaching out to visitors, running a baseball practice, and doing evangelism to college students. I am not a systematic theologian or an expert in any one field. Indeed, if I were to ever write a book about anything, it would be the only thing I think I know just a tiny bit about: how to achieve a pressure-free, fear-free ministry.

What do I mean by that? Well, it is no secret that fewer people darken the door of many of our Lutheran churches. And yet, the institutions we built continue to need support (i.e. people and their money) if they are going to survive. Something has to give. The answer is simple and I have heard it at many a council meeting: “We need to grow!” Well, yeah, that is the easiest, best, and clearest solution to our present “problem”. But if it were easy, we wouldn’t be in the position we are in, now would we?

So, this problem and solution has thousands of Lutheran congregations (and those of other denominational stripes) in a state of near panic. Programs are offered. Stewardship drives are launched. Maybe, just maybe, real evangelism efforts are begun for the first time in years. The language of “discipleship” overtakes the language of “membership”. The band section pushes the organ further into the corner. “Something must be done because if you keep doing what you’ve been doing you are going to keep getting what you’ve been getting.” Some kind of change is required because we’re going to die at our current rate.

The worst change of all in this panicked state is that people come to be seen as commodities for our ministry. How contrary that is to the ministry to which we have been called! We jump on visitors as though they are our salvation. “You, dear visitor, you are the solution to all of our problems! You (and of course your checkbook eventually, but we’ll just take your mere presence for now) are exactly what I need to justify my ministry and save my salary.” No doubt we are tempted to do what James told us NOT to do: offer the better seat to the rich. I mean, let’s get real people: we have children to raise and our salary is usually directly connected to people in worship and that offering plate. The temptation is real!

That is bound to affect your relationship to people, no? We can’t really be objective or put the spiritual needs of others first so long as we are fighting for survival, can we? We can’t really even do evangelism in a spirit of freedom if we need them to help save our institution, can we?

No, we cannot. This is why Paul was a tentmaker. In 1 Thessalonians 2:9, he writes: “For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” Paul specifically did not want to be dependent on those to whom he was ministering because he could easily be tempted to tell them what they wanted to hear or they could have an undue influence on his teaching. Pastors today will no doubt monitor their sermons based on what the most generous in the parish may think of them or we may hide our teachings so we do not turn off prospective members.

Paul sought, and worked for, freedom in ministry. He fed himself so he was not dependent on others to feed him. He took on a second vocation so his interactions with Jew and Gentile alike would not be marked by fear or pressure. His needs were covered, and that meant his relationships were authentic and without manipulation or coercion from either end.

I am lucky. My call is in the middle of one of America’s largest cities. Demand for space near downtown is constant and, as a congregation, we have slowly stewarded our property to be attractive to tenants. When I got here, we made around $5,000/year on rental income. Ten years later, that total over $60,000 and growing. We are currently in the midst of an expensive remodeling project so we can lease out our kitchen to commercial vendors. When that is done, we will do the same for a second kitchen space. To put it simply, given that we are a small congregation, we either needed to find a way to supplement our ministry or I needed to find a way to supplement my salary. Like, I said, I’m lucky, and we have been able to walk a path of the former rather than the latter so I can focus on ministry full-time. I do not take it for granted.

I know other pastors who are willing to do whatever it takes to carry on in ministry. One gentleman I know drives busses and I’m guessing saves his parish tens of thousands in the process. He is behind the wheel in the mornings and afternoons, but free in the middle of the day. How many pastors – you know, with our fancy degrees and high learnin’ and all – would be willing to do that?

In each case, ministry can be done freely and without pressure. I do no look at visitors or prospective members as commodities. I do not estimate how much they will give. I do not even care. We have bought ourselves the freedom and the time to do ministry as it ought to be done, without being a burden to anyone. Those who give do so freely without so much as a stewardship campaign or those encouragements to tithe. Oh, and the rental spaces we created are also a blessing to those who need them. As far as I can tell, everyone wins.

To pastors and congregations I would simply say it is time to get creative. What spaces can you overhaul, rent out, or reimagine? Are you willing to become more of a community center than a mostly-empty church? Pastors, what else are you qualified to do? Driving a bus may not be a dream job, but the benefits are good. Whatever the cost on the front end, the ability to conduct ministry free of fear and free of pressure on the back end is worth it and then some. Authenticity may not be for sale, but supplemental income can definitely buy your freedom for ministry.

Rethinking Two Phrases We Say Every Sunday, Part 2: “Shed for you and for all people”

bowl_chaliceEvan McClanahan

This essay is the second in a two-part look at some of the things we say week in and week out, things said so often we take them for granted. And yet, just because something is often said does not mean it is true. The first essay looked at the statement in our creed related to Jesus’ descent to hell, or to the dead. This week, I want to look at the Words of Institution, the words said at the consecration of the Lord’s Supper. Specifically, did Jesus really say “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people”? The first half of that sentence is not in dispute. But is the second half a good translation? Should it read “for all people” as the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) has it or “for many” as the Bible seems to suggest?

All of the liturgies we use are assembled from various bits of scripture. The Words of Institution, as printed in the LBW, are a combination of several passages. As I believe that all of the Bible is inspired by God, I am certainly okay with that. It is really a question of how much these words speak to the extent of the atonement of Jesus.

It would be best to lay out each time this sentence is said in scripture for comparative purposes. To be consistent, I’ll use a literal (almost word-for-word) English translation, the Lexham English Bible, for these four quotations. (This is my new favorite translation, by the way, in part because it uses God’s self-given name in the Old Testament instead of replacing it with the LORD.)

Matthew 26:27-28
“…Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Mark 14:24-25
And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many. Truly I say to you that I will never drink of the fruit of the vine any longer until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

Luke 22:17-18
And he took in hand a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves. For I tell you, from now on I will not drink of the product of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

1 Corinthians 11:25
Likewise also the cup, after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Let’s notice a few things. Luke and 1 Corinthians do not say anything about who benefits from the new covenant, whether it is “many” or “all people”. Luke doesn’t say anything about a new covenant at all and Mark and Luke have a temporally-relevant phrase not included in the LBW’s Words of Institution about how Jesus will not drink any more wine “until the kingdom of God comes.” Matthew and Mark do address the question of who this covenant is for and they both say “for many”, not “for all people”.

The question is why and when did these translations change? I believe the answer relates to the historic debates between Lutherans and Calvinists on the extent of the atonement. To put it simply, the question is, “Did Jesus die for all people or only for the elect? If Jesus did die for all people, why aren’t all people saved? If he did not, does that lessen Jesus’ sacrifice or make God look capricious or cold?” After all, that means God effectively judged people to hell before they were ever born.

I won’t presume to answer those questions here. Lutherans, as is somewhat typical of Lutherans, answer that we cannot fully know the answer to the problems of logic by asserting that even though Jesus died for all, not all are saved. (Just like we believe that Christ is present in the bread and wine but we don’t really try to explain how. “Paradox” and “mystery” end up being frequently used words by Lutherans.)

Of course, we do point to Bible passages for our defense that seem to indicate that Jesus died for all. They don’t solve the logical problem that faces us, but they do seem to indicate that Jesus died for all. Calvinists, of course, say our understanding of those passages is wrong. Those passages are:

1 John 2:1b-2
And if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one, and he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 Timothy 2:5-6
For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all, the testimony at the proper time…

So, in general, we are left with a few decisions. Is Jesus speaking to the extent of his atonement or the nature of this new covenant? The texts indicate that Jesus clearly says “for many.” The Greek word there, pollon, is not translated “all” anywhere in the New Testament, but is always translated “many”. Go here to learn more. Yes, Jesus may be addressing the extent of the atonement which we may agree includes “all”, but he is specifically addressing a new covenant. Covenants are not usually made with the whole world (the promise to Noah that the earth would never again flood perhaps being an exception), but with God’s people. Yes, in Christ, that covenant expands to include people from all nations, unlike the Mosaic covenant which was really only for the twelve tribes. But “the elect” are a real and limited people, and Lutherans do not deny that. So while Christ’s death may have been for all, all are not saved and, therefore, all are not part of this new covenant. We are brought into this covenant by faith and, clearly, not all have faith.

I also looked into some past Lutheran hymnals. None agree with the LBW. The 1917 Common Service Book of the Lutheran Church reads, “this cup is the New Testament in My Blood, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins.” The Lutheran Hymnary of 1913 reads the exact same. The 1941 LCMS hymnal The Lutheran Hymnal reads, “This cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.” The 1958 Service Book and Hymnal which preceded the LBW reads the exact same as the 1917 and 1913 hymnals listed above. For what it’s worth, Roman Catholics use “for many” as does the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

So, to be honest, this feels like a bit of an innovation that was meant to make a theological point rather than come from the text directly. Because the LBW has already been printed (42 years and counting!), it may be bad form to change the words now and break with our “new” tradition. And the translation change is theologically justifiable from a certain perspective, that of Jesus’ sacrifice being for “all” (even though his covenant is with “many”). So I won’t change what I say on Sunday mornings.

However, we should be aware of what changes were made by the editors of the LBW and why. There is really no defense given what is clearly the most literal reading of the Bible. But perhaps now we simply understand better why we say what we do.

Rethinking Two Phrases We Say Every Sunday, Part 1

Descent to the DeadEvan McClanahan

Ours is a liturgical church. Among other things, that means we often say the same things in our worship service, week in and week out. In our creeds, rites, and prayers, we do not seek innovation and we understand ourselves to be preservers of traditions that have come before us. That also means that the exact words we say – because they are said so often and reflect eternal, unchangeable truths – need to be perfect. They are full of meaning and they become, through sheer repetition, part of who we are. So each one has no room for error, or we should at least understand the nuances involved in their being chosen.

Over the years, I have become interested in – or even concerned by – a few of the translation choices in the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW). Of course, I went years without noticing them. I just took them for granted, trusting that they were words etched in stone at some point, rendered perfectly by those who knew better. Only when I studied a few theological areas in particular did these words stand out. The question is, are these words faithful to the Bible and ought they be used? After all, as much as I may love the LBW, I do not regard it as inerrant!

To which words am I referring? The first words are found in the Apostles’ Creed referring to Jesus “descent into hell”, or “to the dead”. The second are found in the Words of Institution, where Jesus says, “This is the blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins.” As space is limited, I’ll examine those words in next month’s Minute.

To the LBW’s credit, the main translation presented in the Apostles’ Creed has an asterisk by it. Regarding Jesus, it says that he “descended into hell”, while the asterisked version is  “descended to the dead.” I assumed for a very long time that the alternative version was offered for those who simply did not like the concept of hell or didn’t want to say the word, as in when people will say “H” “E” “double hockey sticks.” “Weaklings!” I may have thought to myself.

As it turns out, there are real theological issues here. Chief among them is simply what is meant by “hell” and what is meant by “the dead?” Biblically speaking, they are not the same thing, and there is only one verse (1 Peter 3:19 “…in which [Jesus] went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison…”) to support the statement.

“Hell” is generally considered the final place of judgment for those who did/do not trust in Christ. It is where the devil hangs out and from where his demons are dispatched. But no dead people are there…yet. Among “the dead” is a kind of in-between world that is not positive, but it is not hell, either. “Sheol” is the Old Testament Hebrew word for this shadowy place and it is the place where all of the dead go as they await judgement. “Hades” is the Greek equivalent of “Sheol.”

We have one parable that may further inform us, however. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Lazarus is said to go to be near Abraham while the rich man goes to Hades, and there is a chasm between the two. Neither goes, strictly speaking, to “heaven” or “hell”, but one definitely gets the sense that you would rather be with Abraham (I would call this place “Paradise”) than Hades. Jesus also references Paradise when he says to the thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

We need to consider another fact before we can answer the question of where Jesus went. For us, as we understand time, the gates of heaven and hell are not yet open. Because Jesus has not yet come again to judge the living and the dead, no one person is in heaven or hell, but rather, they are all in Hades or Paradise. When Jesus does come again, the floodgates to both places will open and Jesus’ work of salvation will be complete.

So where did Jesus go? Did he go to the full depths of hell, the devil’s domain? Or merely to Hades? The truth is that the Bible does not sufficiently answer the question, and it really depends on what you believe Jesus was doing through his preaching in the first place. Was he going to present the Gospel to those souls, presumably Old Testament saints, who died without the full knowledge of the Gospel in order that they might come to faith in Christ? Did he preach so that there would not be any one person, past or future, who did not have the possibility of hearing the Gospel? Or did he go to Hell to essentially spike the football in the devil’s face, and even exercise his dominion over hell itself?

The Lutheran Confessions acknowledge that this is a mystery, but they fall on the side of a full descent into hell. This is what is written in our Formula of Concord: “For it is sufficient that we know that Christ descended into hell, destroyed hell for all believers, and delivered them from the power of death and of the devil, from eternal condemnation and the jaws of hell. But how this occurred we should [not curiously investigate, but] reserve until the other world, where not only this point [mystery], but also still others will be revealed, which we here simply believe, and cannot comprehend with our blind reason.”

While I could go either way, I tend to believe that the purpose for Christ’s descent was to preach to those who had lived before Christ in “mere” expectation of his arrival. Therefore, while I have no issue saying hell, it seems to me that he went not to confront the devil (he already did that on the cross and at his temptation), but to offer those who had not yet heard the good news the chance to hear it. As it is a mystery, I can go either way. But when I say “hell” or “the dead”, I’ll have a better sense of what I mean by those exact words.