Adventures in Theology BlogChase A. Thompson: Author, Pastor, Vigilante.
What happens to people immediately after they die? Do they cease to exist? Do they go directly to Heaven or Hell? Is Purgatory an actual thing, or do people just sleep in the dust until Jesus returns? The article below is derived from a series at our church (Agape in Pinson) that is focused on answering life’s biggest questions. Most people have a theology – a certain way they think about God and the things of God. When it comes to answering life’s biggest questions, most people turn to their own personal theology to help them. But is that the best way? How should Christians approach the big questions of life? Maybe we’ve heard things from our parents, or other family members. Maybe we apply our own human logic to those big questions, or maybe our church or pastor has told us their take. When thinking about these great big questions, it is important to remember that God Himself does NOT think like we do, so it is unlikely that we will arrive at truthful answers to big questions on our own.
Isaiah 55: 8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts,and your ways are not My ways.”This is the Lord’s declaration.9 “For as heaven is higher than earth,so My ways are higher than your ways,and My thoughts than your thoughts.”
This means that it is unlikely that we will be able to use flawed human reasoning to answer some of life’s biggest questions. We can, however, turn to the Word of God for answers. In doing so, I propose three simple steps to guide us in answering this question:
- Rather than just focusing on one single verse, we must consider the whole counsel of God. Put another way, to answer the question of what happens when we die, we must attempt to survey all that the Bible has to say about this question, and not just one single Bible verse. The reason for this is that while every passage in the Bible is true – not every passage in the Bible is the COMPLETE truth. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul describes love, and we learn that it is patient, kind, and not at all jealous. All of these are true statements about love, but they aren’t the ONLY true statements about love in the Bible. In order to find out the complete teaching of the Bible about love, we have to go to other passages. In doing so, we find out in the Song of Solomon 8 that not only is love patient, kind and longsuffering…but it is also POWERFUL – as powerful as death. (Song of Solomon 8:6) Therefore, in order to have a complete understanding of love from the Bible’s perspective, we need the truths in 1 Corinthians 13 AND Song of Solomon 8, among many other passages also. Similarly, to gain a biblical understanding of death – and what happens after death – we have to survey the Word. That is the process of developing a biblical theology – it involves finding out all of what the Bible affirms about a particular topic.
- Our second step is to account for the difference between Old Covenant passages and New Covenant passages. The New Testament must take precedence over the Old Testament, and it must interpret it. More on this later, but consider Hebrews 7:18-19, and note how the New Testament/New Covenant has surpassed the Old.
Hebrews 7:18-19, “So the previous command is annulled because it was weak and unprofitable 19 (for the law perfected nothing), but a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.”
- Our third step is ongoing and continuous. With humility, prayer, and the leadership of the Spirit, we must keep returning to the Word of God. We should hold our theology with a degree of humility and repeatedly keep returning to the Scriptures to test and confirm that we are walking in the truth. Like an unmoored ship, we humans have a tendency to drift away from truth, and we must discipline ourselves to return – over and over again – to the authority of the Word of God.
Now, with that process in mind, we can move forward. I believe the first step in determining what happens when we die is generally survey what the Bible has to say on death itself. The Bible speaks frequently on the topic of death, so a comprehensive overview would be too long for this article, but we can begin with with these three major truths about death in Scripture:
3 Biblical Truths about Death:
- Death is here because of sin. We do NOT usually take this seriously enough. Consider the well known passage Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” According to the Bible, sin brings about death, and most Christians could quote that verse. Most however, don’t take it literally, but the case of Ananias and Sapphira, the death of Uzzah, and the case of Moses, tell us that sin LITERALLY can cause death. Think about Exodus 4 – God had just called Moses to lead His rescue mission, but on the way to fulfill that mission, God met Moses and sought to put him to death. Why? Because Moses was sinning by not obeying God’s command to circumcise his son. You can read about that in Exodus 4:24-25, “On the trip, at an overnight campsite, it happened that the Lord confronted him and sought to put him to death. 25 So Zipporah took a flint, cut off her son’s foreskin, and threw it at Moses’ feet. Then she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So – death is literally and spiritually the result of sin. (See the below discussion on Genesis 3 for further insight into this dynamic)
- Death is an ENEMY. 1 Corinthians 15: “Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when He abolishes all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign until He puts all His enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy to be abolished is death.” This is fascinating. The Bible depicts death as an actual enemy – one that will ultimately be abolished! Further, Revelation 20:14 shows that (somehow) death and Hades (the place of the dead) will be tossed into the lake of fire at the Great White Throne Judgment. (keep reading for more on this)
- Death will END one day. I can think of very few things that are better news than what is found in Revelation 21 – one day, death will no longer be a thing – it will be abolished. Revelation 21, “Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.”
Given those basic truths about death from the Bible, we can now move to some more specific verses that actually address what happens after death. I estimate that there are at least two dozen such passages in the Bible, and ten are listed below as an overview:
11 Bible Verses on What happens after Death:
- Genesis 3:19 “You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground, since you were taken from it. For you are dust,
and you will return to dust.” Hebrews 9:27 “ 27 It is appointed for people to die once—and after this, judgment” MEANING: WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE! BUT: John 3:16 “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son,so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” Summary: According to the Bible, everybody dies (with the exception of those alive when Jesus returns…) but those who are followers of Jesus will not PERISH…or rot away to nothingness, even though they die.
- 2nd Samuel 12: 19 “When David saw that his servants were whispering to each other, he guessed that the baby was dead. So he asked his servants, “Is the baby dead?” “He is dead,” they replied. 20 Then David got up from the ground. He washed, anointed himself, changed his clothes, went to the Lord’s house, and worshiped. Then he went home and requested something to eat. So they served him food, and he ate. 21 His servants asked him, “What did you just do? While the baby was alive, you fasted and wept, but when he died, you got up and ate food.” 22 He answered, “While the baby was alive, I fasted and wept because I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let him live.’ 23 But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I’ll go to him, but he will never return to me.” Summary: In the Old Testament, saints like David believed that there was a place that the dead went after they died.
- Daniel 12:1-3 and 13 “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever… “13 But as for you, go on your way to the end; you will rest, then rise to your destiny at the end of the days.” Summary: Old Testament saints like Daniel believed that, after a period of time dead/sleeping, there would be a resurrection in which the righteous would live forever, and the unrighteous would be punished. But how does the passage comport with a New Testament understanding of 2nd Corinthians 5:8, where Paul seemingly indicates that a Christian, upon death, will be in the presence of Jesus. How can this be if the Christian is sleeping in the ground? (Keep reading!)
- Luke 16:19-26 “There was a rich man who would dress in purple and fine linen, feasting lavishly every day. 20 But a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, was left at his gate. 21 He longed to be filled with what fell from the rich man’s table, but instead the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 One day the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 And being in torment in Hades, he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off, with Lazarus at his side. 24 ‘Father Abraham!’ he called out, ‘Have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this flame!’ 25 “‘Son,’ Abraham said, ‘remember that during your life you received your good things, just as Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here, while you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, a great chasm has been fixed between us and you, so that those who want to pass over from here to you cannot; neither can those from there cross over to us.’” Summary: In this teaching of Jesus (note that He does not call a ‘parable’) there is a place of the dead for the good people (where they are comforted) and there is a place of the dead for the bad people (where they are in agony and in flames, but still able to see, talk and communicate.) The people in both locations can see each other, but they cannot cross over from one place to the other. This place is called “Abraham’s Chest/Side/Bosom,” and Abraham is actually there. The other place, where the rich man is suffering in agony, is called ‘Hades.’
- Luke 23:39-43 “Then one of the criminals hanging there began to yell insults at Him: “Aren’t You the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!40 But the other answered, rebuking him: “Don’t you even fear God, since you are undergoing the same punishment? 41 We are punished justly, because we’re getting back what we deserve for the things we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!” 43 And He said to him, “I assure you: Today you will be with Me in paradise.” Summary: When Jesus was being crucified, he was not alone – there was one actual criminal (a thief) on either side of Him. One of those criminals insulted Jesus and one defended Him, ultimately putting His faith in Jesus as a King. That second thief is very interesting, and it could be argued that he had more faith than any of Jesus’ other followers, because he KNEW that, even though Jesus was in the midst of dying an awful death, that He was nevertheless a King, and that He was heading to His Kingdom. Jesus’ response to that request was the promise that on that very day, the thief would be with Jesus in ‘Paradise.’ This is a very enlightening passage on what happens immediately after death, perhaps one of the two or three most informative Bible passages that we have. Unfortunately, it is also quite difficult to fully grasp, because we have such little information about the ‘Paradise’ that Jesus is speaking of. The word itself is used two other times in Scripture. Once, in Revelation, it is noted that the ‘Tree of Life’ (cf Genesis 3-4) is now found in the ‘Paradise of God.’ (Revelation 21:7) That doesn’t help us much, but the only other reference in the Bible to ‘Paradise’ is actually very helpful:
“I know a man in Christ who was caught up into the third heaven 14 years ago. Whether he was in the body or out of the body, I don’t know, God knows. I know that this man—whether in the body or out of the body I don’t know, God knows— was caught up into paradise. He heard inexpressible words, which a man is not allowed to speak” (2nd Corinthians 12:2-4)
Taking that passage at face value, we learn that ‘Paradise’ is also called the third heaven, and it is a place that Paul was apparently ‘caught up’ to (either physically or spiritually), and it was a place that words fail to describe. I believe that this means that ‘Paradise’ is the current Heaven (there will be a NEW Heaven – see below) and it is the place where the souls/spirits of those who die in Christ go. In that way, it is analogous to Abraham’s side, mentioned in Luke 16. While I realize that there are some leaps in logic in this paragraph, I don’t think they are unfounded leaps across a bridge too far, this speculation makes the best use of the information given.
- 2 Corinthians 5, “For we know that if our temporary, earthly dwelling is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal dwelling in the heavens, not made with hands. 2 Indeed, we groan in this body, desiring to put on our dwelling from heaven, 3 since, when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 Indeed, we groan while we are in this tent, burdened as we are, because we do not want to be unclothed but clothed, so that mortality may be swallowed up by life. 5 And the One who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave us the Spirit as a down payment. 6 So, we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 For we walk by faith, not by sight, 8 and we are confident and satisfied to be out of the body and at home with the Lord. 9 Therefore, whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to be pleasing to Him. 10 For we must all appear before the tribunal of Christ, so that each may be repaid for what he has done in the body, whether good or worthless.” Similar: Philippians 1 21 For me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 Now if I live on in the flesh, this means fruitful work for me; and I don’t know which one I should choose. 23 I am pressured by both. I have the desire to depart and be with Christ—which is far better— 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” Summary: 2nd Corinthians 5:8 is one of the most oft quoted passages by Christians to describe what happens when they die. I believe that here Paul offers a great clue as to what happens directly after death. How can one be absent from their body, and yet present with the Lord? The answer appears to be that our bodies are temporary (Paul euphemistically refers to human bodies as tents or earthly dwellings.) Death involves the (temporary) destruction of our earthly dwellings/bodies and the separation of body and spirit/soul. That humans are composed of a physical and temporal body of flesh AND a soul/spirit is made clear by passages such as Matthew 10:28, 1 Corinthians 5:5, 2nd Corinthians 4:16, James 2:26 and 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Whether humans are tripartite (spirit, soul and body) or bipartite is a question beyond the scope of this article, but the important thing is that the body is designed to be temporary, and death in the Bible is the separation of the body, which dies, from the soul/spirit which lives forever. This is how Paul can say that being absent from his body means that he will be in the presence of the Lord…even though his physical body will actually be dead and buried in the ground. (See Acts 2:29.) Also note Paul’s description of being alive in Philippians 1:24 – being alive is “remaining in the flesh.”
- 1 Corinthians 15:35 35 “But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? What kind of body will they have when they come?” 36 Foolish one! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And as for what you sow—you are not sowing the future body, but only a seed, perhaps of wheat or another grain. 38 But God gives it a body as He wants, and to each of the seeds its own body. … 42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead: Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; 43 sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; 44 sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body.” Summary: Paul uses very vivid imagery here – A dead body is planted in the ground like a seed. And like a seed, it blooms into something completely vibrant and different when Jesus returns. Our current body is corruptible – it will rot, it is prone to injury, it can get fat, or feeble. The Bible teaches that, upon the return of Jesus, Christians will be reunited with a NEW body. Not weak and decaying like the old body, but incorruptible and powerful and immortal.
- 1 Corinthians 15:50 “Brothers, I tell you this: Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, and corruption cannot inherit incorruption. 51 Listen! I am telling you a mystery: We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet.For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed.53 For this corruptible must be clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal must be clothed with immortality.54 When this corruptible is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal is clothed with immortality,then the saying that is written will take place: Death has been swallowed up in victory.55 Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting? 56 Now the sting of death is sin,and the power of sin is the law.57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” Summary: As noted above – not all people will die, but all will have transformed bodies upon the return of Jesus. The corruptible/death-prone body will be covered with incorruptability/immorality. This will represent the ultimate defeat of death itself.
- 1st Thessalonians 4:13-18 “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. 14 Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus. 15 For we say this to you by a revelation from the Lord: We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly have no advantage over those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.” Summary: The blessed hope is the return of Jesus, whereby all Christians (those who have died, and those alive at His return) will be with the Lord forever – in body and soul. One clue about the state and place of souls/spirits of those who have died is found in vs. 14 “God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.” This appears to mean that Jesus will return with the souls/spirits of the deceased, and when the last trumpet blows, those souls/spirits will be reunited with their bodies.
- Revelation 20:20 “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the abyss and a great chain in his hand. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for 1,000 years. 3 He threw him into the abyss, closed it, and put a seal on it so that he would no longer deceive the nations until the 1,000 years were completed. After that, he must be released for a short time…..11 Then I saw a great white throne and One seated on it. Earth and heaven fled from His presence, and no place was found for them. 12 I also saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged according to their works by what was written in the books.13 Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works. 14 Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.15 And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” Summary: Immediately after the resurrection of the body, and its reuniting with the soul/spirit, there is a judgment – many Christians call it the ‘Great White Throne’ judgment, based on vs. 11. All are judged according to their works while on earth. Those not in Christ experience what the Bible calls a ‘second death,’ in which they are thrown into the lake of fire. They do not die in the lake of fire (as a normal body would…) because they now have immortal bodies.
- Revelation 21:20-21 “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea no longer existed.2 I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. 3 Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.” Summary: Where then do Christians spend eternity in Heaven? According to the plainest sense reading of Revelation 21, NO! They spend eternity in the NEW HEAVEN/NEW EARTH fusion. The first heaven and the first earth will pass away after the Great White Throne judgment, and Christians will live forever in a NEW Heaven/Earth place. Unlike our current state, God will be with us tangibly in every way, and He will end death, suffering, crying, grief and pain! What a thrilling conclusion!! So, if your belief is that Christians spend eternity in heaven…you are only half right! Christians will spend eternity in a completely NEW Heaven/Earth place.
Now we take all of the above Scriptures and boil it down: What do we learn about death and the intermediate state according to the Bible? In the Old Testament and New Testament, when people died, some Bible passages indicate that they went somewhere – the place of the dead…Sheol/Hades/Paradise. Other Bible passages (like Daniel 12, Acts 2:29) describe death as sleeping (in the dust) in both the Old Testament and New Testament. How could death be like sleeping in the ground AND consciously going somewhere? Is this a paradox or an oxymoron? Paul’s answer indicates that there will be a separation of body and soul/spirit. The body will go in the ground like a seed and die (being transformed and resurrected later), but the essence of who we are (our soul/spirit) will live on. That is why, in 2nd Corinthians 5, Paul describes the human body as a tent (“For we know that if our temporary, earthly dwelling is destroyed, we have a building from God“) The death and destruction of the body is not the end for US. It is also not the end for our bodies. Our bodies will indeed lie in the ground, and decay, but upon the return of Jesus, they will be transformed in an instant and reunited with our spirit/soul. (See: 1 Corinthians 15:52-53) So, as Luke 16, and many of the above passages demonstrate, those who die as believers in Jesus will, like Lazarus and the faithful thief on the cross, go to Paradise or the side of Abraham, which is a temporary Heavenly place that is good. Those who die apart from Jesus, like the rich man in Luke 16 and the unrepentant thief on the cross, will go to Hades and suffer in agony until Jesus returns. After the return of Jesus, those who are in Christ will live eternally with God in the New Heavens/Earth and those apart from Christ will be thrown, along with death and Satan, into the Lake of Fire/Hell. (See Revelation 19-20, specifically 20:15)
Thus, the Bible busts some of our myths and misconceptions about what happens after death:
- Christians do not die and go to an eternal Heaven. They die and their bodies go into the ground to await the return of Jesus and a change into immortal bodies; their spirit/souls go to Paradise/Abraham’s side/Third Heaven – a good place, but one that is going to be replaced by a new Heaven according to Revelation 21:1. (2nd Peter 3:13, “But based on His promise, we wait for the new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will dwell” Also: Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22)
- Those who are not in Christ do not die and go to Hell. According to Revelation 19-20, the dead are not thrown into Hell/the Lake of Fire, until AFTER the return of Jesus and the Great White Throne judgment. Prior to this, they go to Hades/The place of the dead, which (according to Luke 16) is a place of agony and flames…but is not the Lake of Fire/Hell. Further confirmation for this is found in Revelation 20:13, which notes that Hades will give up its dead, who will then stand before the throne of God for judgment. (“Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works.“
- The Devil does not live in Hell now. He is, according to Paul, the “ruler of the power of the air.” He lives on earth at the moment. (See Ephesians 2:1-2, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient“)
- The Devil will NEVER rule over Hell. Instead, he will be tied up and thrown into hell to suffer alongside all of the others who have rejected Christ. (Revelation 20:10 , “The Devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet are, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”)
- There is no indication in Scripture that there is a place like ‘Purgatory’ where some people stay for a little while (according to their sins) and some people stay for a long time. It appears that all who die stay in Paradise/Third Heaven/Abraham’s Side or Hades for the same amount of time, and get out at the same time – right before the Great White Throne judgment. There is no indication in the Bible whatsoever that doing penance or paying for indulgences can decrease people’s time in either of those places.
Now – it is time for some GREAT NEWS: According to the Word of God, we are coming to an age, in Christ, where THERE WILL BE NO MORE DEATH. DEATH WILL BE ENDED. In Christ, believers will be welcomed into the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21:1). Unbelievers will be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15). All people will go to one of those two places, based on whether or not they were in Christ. (John 3:36). As a close to this article, here are two great passages to meditate on:
ROMANS 8:10 Now if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, then He who raised Christ from the dead will also bring your mortal bodies to life through[j] His Spirit who lives in you.
Revelation 21:3-5 “Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.5 Then the One seated on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new.” He also said, “Write, because these words are faithful and true.”
The following is a complete chapter (on Martin Luther King Jr.) from my 2017 book The Bible and Racism, which is available on Amazon. I’d love for you to read it! (Click here to purchase the Bible and Racism from Amazon)
I have lived all of my life in and around Birmingham, the site of many of the great feats and victories of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Struggle. I grew up in this city, born just four years after Dr. King died, and I am grateful for him, for his stance, for his leadership, and for the way he fought a terrible, evil enemy….racism…with grace and humility.
Like many great pastors and preachers of the past, (I’m thinking of Martin Luther and his views on the Jews, John Calvin and his somewhat overblown participation in the Servetus Affair, C.S. Lewis’ apparent advocacy for some type of Universalism in The Last Battle, etc.), Dr. King had some theological failings. There are allegations of infidelity, and his theology can be less than biblical in several places. All of our heroes have sinful flaws – some more than others. Sometimes those flaws move somebody from the realm of Romans 7 (simultaneously sinful, yet justified), to the realm of base hypocrisy, and sometimes they don’t. Honestly, I’m not always sure where that line is. At times, it is quite clear: ‘Bishop’ Eddie Long, who passed last year, was apparently a predatory sex offender and a certain teacher of false doctrine; that he crossed the line many times is abundantly clear. At other times, it is much less so.
Thus we are aware of the flaws of many of our heroes in this day and age. I do not believe the flaws make them more endearing. Sin is sin. My sin is ugly and disgraceful, and not the least bit charming, and so is the sin of all who have come before us. Dr. King had his flaws, but his strengths were even brighter. He was a magnificent preacher and writer. He was patient, humble and long-suffering. In the face of multiplied cruel injustices and hatreds, he managed to keep his composure and dignity and urge a whole generation of people to do the same. There was a certain explosive power in his non-violent advocacy for justice. It was not the power of a squeaky, complaining wheel demanding attention (as so many so called social-justice warriors exhibit today), but the power of a passionate, uncompromising stance for righteousness that rarely, if ever, descended into unnecessary accusation, name-calling, nor antagonism.
Yes, Dr. King accorded himself with dignity, and yet HE FOUGHT. He was the furthest thing from a coward, and when he saw an America that exhibited deep symptoms of racial injustice, prejudice and pride, he rose up and fought with his words, his passion, his suffering and his life. In the face of injustice, sometimes nice people (who are not brave people,) just sit back and do very little – consoling themselves with the idea that their ‘niceness’ demands of them to not overly complain. This approach may well be appropriate when our own individual toes are being stepped on…the world could use much less complaining. However, this approach becomes cowardly in the face of systemic, ingrained brutality and justice that is harming those who cannot defend themselves. As that great English statesmen Edmund Burke wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Dr. King did the very opposite of nothing, and for that, he has my deep admiration.
Here are a baker’s dozen exceptional and lesser known quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – most of them taken from his sermons. Enjoy and be edified!
The first quote is VERY long, but so sublime that I don’t believe that justice will be served by cutting it: “So American Christians, you may master the intricacies of the English language. You may possess all of the eloquence of articulate speech. But even if you “speak with the tongues of man and angels, and have not love, you are become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.“You may have the gift of prophecy and understanding all mysteries. (1 Corinthians 13) You may be able to break into the storehouse of nature and bring out many insights that men never dreamed were there. You may ascend to the heights of academic achievement, so that you will have all knowledge. You may boast of your great institutions of learning and the boundless extent of your degrees. But all of this amounts to absolutely nothing devoid of love. But even more Americans, you may give your goods to feed the poor. You may give great gifts to charity. You may tower high in philanthropy. But if you have not love it means nothing. You may even give your body to be burned, and die the death of a martyr. Your spilt blood may be a symbol of honor for generations yet unborn, and thousands may praise you as history’s supreme hero. But even so, if you have not love your blood was spilt in vain. You must come to see that it is possible for a man to be self-centered in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. He may be generous in order to feed his ego and pious in order to feed his pride. Man has the tragic capacity to relegate a heightening virtue to a tragic vice. Without love benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride. So the greatest of all virtues is love. It is here that we find the true meaning of the Christian faith. This is at bottom the meaning of the cross. The great event on Calvary signifies more than a meaningless drama that took place on the stage of history. It is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth into time.” Paul’s Letter to American Christians, From a sermon preached in Montgomery, Alabama on November 11, 1956. This quote quite clearly portrays King in all his giftedness as an exceptional writer and orator. Few preachers of the last 500 years have been able to communicate with this level of eloquence. While eloquence is not the most important thing for one speaking the truth of God – “the Kingdom of God is not talk, but power” – I still admire it when I see it in a state like this.
“I don’t believe meekness means that you are dried up in a very cowardly sense. But I believe it is something that gets in your soul so that you can stand and look at any man with a deep sense of humility, knowing that one day you shall inherit the earth. That’s the meaning of meekness. That’s what Jesus meant by it. So let us be meek and let us be humble and not go back with arrogance. Our struggle will be lost all over the South if the Negro becomes a victim of undue arrogance.” Address at Holt Street Baptist Church to supporters, while celebrating the Supreme Court Ruling in Browder vs. Gayle. November, 1956
“Let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance… We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade… It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. “If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.” – From “The Drum Major Instinct,” Dr. King’s final sermon, April 4, 1967.
“If physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children from a life of permanent psychological death, then nothing could be more honorable. We must somehow confront physical force with soul force and stand up courageously for justice and freedom. And this dynamic unity, this amazing self-respect, this willingness to suffer, and this refusal to hit back will cause the oppressors to become ashamed of their own methods and we will be able to transform enemies into friends.” “Desegregation and the Future” Speech delivered in New York City, December 15, 1956.
“You are deeply in my prayers and thoughts as you confront arrests, threats, bombings and all types of humiliating experiences. Your wise restraint, calm dignity and unflinching courage will be an inspiration to generations yet unborn. History records nothing more majestic and sublime than the determined courage of a people willing to suffer and sacrifice for the cause of freedom. The days ahead may be difficult, but do not despair. Those of use who stand amid the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man must gain consolation from the fact that there is emerging a bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice…Remember. God lives! They that stand against him stand in a tragic and an already declared minority. They that stand with him stand in the glow of the world’s bright tomorrows.” December 26, 1956 letter to Birmingham Civil Rights Activist Fred Shuttlesworth.
[Our nonviolent approach] “does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often voice his protest through non-cooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that non-cooperation and boycotts are not ends within themselves, they are merely means to awaken the sense of moral shame within the opponent. But the end is redemption. The end is reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.“The Christian Way of Life in Human Relations” Address delivered to the United Nations in December of 1957.
“This is what Jesus means, I think, in this very passage when he says, “Love your enemy.” And it’s significant that he does not say, “Like your enemy.” Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemy.” This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.” Loving Your Enemies Sermon, preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama 1957. Generally speaking, I reject the “like” vs “love” dichotomy often discussed in our culture, but I do appreciate what Dr. King says here that even when we do not like a person’s stance or behavior, that we still love the person and do not seek their ‘defeating.’ Many internet commentors could learn from this example!
“May I say just a word to those of you who are struggling against this evil. Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him” From a sermon preached in Montgomery, Alabama on November 11, 1956.
“One of the amazing things about the protest that will long be remembered is the orderly way it has been conducted. On every hand you have evinced wise restraint and calm dignity. You have carefully avoided animosity, making sure that your methods were rooted in the deep soils of the Christian faith. Because of this, violence has almost been a non-existent factor in our struggle. For such “discipline, generations yet unborn will commend you.” December 3, 1956 address to the MIA – Montgomery Improvement Association.
“When the man in the parable knocked on his friend’s door and asked for the three loaves of bread, he received the impatient retort, “Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” How often have men experienced a similar disappointment when at midnight they knock on the door of the church. Millions of Africans, patiently knocking on the door of the Christian church where they seek the bread of social justice, have either been altogether ignored or told to wait until later, which almost always means never. Millions of American Negroes, starving for the want of the bread of freedom, have knocked again and again on the door of so-called white churches, but they have usually been greeted by a cold indifference or a blatant hypocrisy. Even the white religious leaders, who have a heartfelt desire to open the door and provide the bread, are often more cautious than courageous and more prone to follow the expedient than the ethical path. One of the shameful tragedies of history is that the very institution which should remove man from the midnight of racial segregation participates in creating and perpetuating the midnight.” From a 1967 sermon entitled, “A Knock at Midnight.” I agree with this charge, sadly. When the white church in the South should have stood loudly and bravely with the least of these, far too often, they turned their back.
On April 4, 1968, a “Shot rang out in the Memphis sky,” and Dr. King fell mortally wounded. The day before, he had preached a sermon entitled, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In that message, he addressed how Bull Connor and his racist Birmingham cronies had been overcome:
We aren’t going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces. They don’t know what to do. I’ve seen them so often. I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church day after day. By the hundreds we would move out, and Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come. But we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.” Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the trans-physics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses. We had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist or some others, we had been sprinkled. But we knew water. That couldn’t stop us. And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them, and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it. And we’d just go on singing, “Over my head, I see freedom in the air.” (Yeah) [Applause] And then we would be thrown into paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. (All right) And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, “Take ’em off.” And they did, and we would just go on in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.” (Yeah) And every now and then we’d get in jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers (Yes) and being moved by our words and our songs. (Yes) And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to (All right), and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham…Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somewhere the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones (Yes), and whenever injustice is around he must tell it. (Yes) Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, who said, “When God Speaks, who can but prophesy?” (Yes) Again with Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” April 3, 1968 sermon, the day before Dr. King was assassinated.
We know more about mathematics, about science, about social science, and philosophy, than we’ve ever known in any period of the world’s history…For our scientific progress over the past years has been amazing. Man through his scientific genius has been able to warp distance and place time in chains, so that today it’s possible to eat breakfast in New York City and supper in London, England. Back in about 1753 it took a letter three days to go from New York City to Washington, and today you can go from here to China in less time than that. It can’t be because man is stagnant in his scientific progress. Man’s scientific genius has been amazing. I think we have to look much deeper than that if we are to find the real cause of man’s problems and the real cause of the world’s ills today. If we are to really find it I think we will have to look in the hearts and souls of men. The trouble isn’t so much that we don’t know enough, but it’s that we aren’t good enough. The trouble isn’t so much that our scientific genius lags behind, but our moral genius lags behind. The great problem facing modern man is that, that the means by which we live, have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live. So we find ourselves caught in a messed-up world. The problem is with man himself and man’s soul. We haven’t learned how to be just and honest and kind and true and loving. And that is the basis of our problem. The real problem is that through our scientific genius we’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make of it a brotherhood. And the great danger facing us today is not so much the atomic bomb that was created by physical science. Not so much that atomic bomb that you can put in an airplane and drop on the heads of hundreds and thousands of people—as dangerous as that is. But the real danger confronting civilization today is that atomic bomb which lies in the hearts and souls of men, capable of exploding into the vilest of hate and into the most damaging selfishness. That’s the atomic bomb that we’ve got to fear today. The problem is with the men. Within the heart and the souls of men. That is the real basis of our problem. My friends, all I’m trying to say is that if we are to go forward today, we’ve got to go back and rediscover some mighty precious values that we’ve left behind. That’s the only way that we would be able to make of our world a better world, and to make of this world what God wants it to be and the real purpose and meaning of it. The only way we can do it is to go back, and rediscover some mighty precious values that we’ve left behind. – Martin Luther King Jr. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 1954.
“And I wonder why it is that the forces of evil seem to reign supreme and the forces of goodness seem to be trampled over. Every now and then I feel like asking God, Why is it that over so many centuries the forces of injustice have triumphed over the Negro and he has been forced to live under oppression and slavery and exploitation? Why is it, God? Why is it simply because some of your children ask to be treated as first-class human beings they are trampled over, their homes are bombed, their children are pushed from their classrooms, and sometimes little children [referencing Emmett Till] are thrown in the deep waters of Mississippi? Why is it, oh God, that that has to happen? I begin to despair sometimes, it seems that Good Friday has the throne. It seems that the forces of injustice reign supreme. But then in the midst of that something else comes to me.” – Martin Luther King Jr. 1957 Easter Sermon in Montgomery, Alabama, “Questions that Easter Answers.”
The following post is another excerpt from my new book, The Bible and Racism. It is available on Amazon and is a 200+ page exploration of what the Bible teaches about race and Jesus’ call for His church to be fully unified – every tribe, tongue, color and nationality worshiping together on earth as in Heaven. I would be honored if you would take a look at it! Here are 5 more powerful quotes from Chapter 14 of the book. I especially appreciate Tony Evan’s challenge that one must be a follower of Jesus FIRST – before one’s nationality, ethnicity, sex, etc. I also think C.S. Lewis’ warning that a ultra-nationalism can easily lead to racism, wars, and other atrocities.
Note: Here is Part 1 – 10 Quotes on Race and Racism.
6. For example, here are four pieces of the worldview, all of them undermining racism. First, at creation, all of us created in his image, all of us in his image. There are cataclysmic implications of human beings in the image of God — every kind of human being. Second sin and fall. We are one in our corruption. We are deep in solidarity in sin. You are so sinful and I am so sinful, we’re right there together. There is no exalting of another above another if we are both dead-bent rebels together on our way to hell. How vain is the exaltation of self, one sinner over another sinner? Third, the cross. Christ died to reconcile us both talking about Jews and Gentiles at that moment — in one body to the cross, to Christ through the cross to God, or you were slain.We say to Jesus in Revelation 5:9, “You were slain and by your blood, you ransom people for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation and you have made them a kingdom, one kingdom and priests to our God.” Why? I said it’s more than a social issue. Whenever I get to talk on this, I want to say to all conservative white folks who fear the social gospel, it’s not a social issue. It’s a blood issue. By your blood, you ransom them, all of them. You die to pull them together, Revelation 5:9. And fourth, faith. Not of works, and I think works means not only anything you do, but any distinctive you have does not commend you to God. Faith commends you to God and faith is a desperate I can’t help myself, which puts you in line with everybody. Therefore, the way into the family is designed to remove all ethnic barriers. (Source: Pastor John Piper Sermon, Race and the Christian, preached in 2012. http://www.desiringgod.org/)
Here, in just under three minutes, pastor John Piper is able to easily and systematically undermine racism with just a few logical and Scriptural points. As Piper says, there are “cataclysmic implications” in the truth of the Imago Dei – that humans are made in the Image of God. One of these implications is made clear in James 3:9, “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. my brothers, these things ought NOT be so” James :3:9 forbids Christians from cursing anybody with the rationale that ALL are created in the Image of God – I suggest that beating, kidnapping, and forced enslavement would also be banned under that understanding of humans being made in the Imago Dei.
7. The third ingredient [in love of country] is not a sentiment but a belief: a form, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others…I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, “But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?” He replied with total gravity–he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the alter–“Yes, but in England it’s true.” To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old [butt]. It can however produce [butts] that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it [ultra-nationalism] may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid. (Source: C.S. Lewis, the Joyful Christian, p. 189)
Lewis is absolutely right here, if a bit colorful. Nationalism – love of country – is not always a bad thing. It can be a very good thing, but when it becomes an ultimate thing, it gets very, very ugly. It must be remembered that Christians are not first and foremost American, or English, or Laotian, or Korean…but they are first and foremost aliens and strangers in the world, citizens of Heaven. (1 Peter 2:11)
8. We are operating on illegitimate standards that are not rooted in God, but rooted in culture, rooted in history, in background. And all of that may be facts but the question we must ask is: Is it the truth? You can have facts, but it not be the truth. The truth is an objective standard by which reality is measured; it’s God’s point of view on any subject. Just because you were raised a certain way. Once how you were raised disagrees with what God says, how you were raised was wrong! …If our pulpits were right we would have solved this problem of racism a long time ago. Slavery would have been solved, Jim Crow would have been solved, segregation — all of this would have been solved. But because the pulpits were anemic and allowed to take the place of the evil in America, we are still fighting that evil today! Because pulpits were silent biblically on this issue, maintaining a manifest destiny ideology that was in contrast to biblical theology! But that also explains why the Civil Rights movement was able to change it, because the church got out in front of it…Truth overrides tradition! Truth overrides color! Black is only beautiful when it’s biblical! …You must be Christian first. If we could get enough Christians to be Christian before white, Christian before black, Christian before Spanish … it doesn’t take 240 years to fix this. It takes about two minutes and 40 seconds…(Pastor Tony Evans, July 2016 sermon. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=KbhNCTJ-dUI)
Powerful words here from pastor Tony Evans. Though it is a bit of hyperbole to think we could fix racism in under three minutes, I agree that one of the things that have exacerbated racism is anti-biblical, and less than biblical, preaching on race from the pulpit.
9. These representatives of the saints in heaven are said to be around the throne. In the passage in Canticles, where Solomon sings of the King sitting at his table, some render it “a round table.” From this, some expositors, I think, without straining the text, have said, “There is an equality among the saints.” That idea is conveyed by the equal nearness of the four and twenty elders. The condition of glorified spirits in heaven is that of nearness to Christ, clear vision of his glory, constant access to his court, and familiar fellowship with his person: nor is there any difference in this respect between one saint and another, but all the people of God, apostles, martyrs, ministers, or private and obscure Christians, shall all be seated near the throne, where they shall for ever gaze upon their exalted Lord, and be satisfied with his love. They shall all be near to Christ, all ravished with his love, all eating and drinking at the same table with him, all equally beloved as his favourites and friends even if not all equally rewarded as servants.Let believers on earth imitate the saints in heaven in their nearness to Christ. Let us on earth be as the elders are in heaven, sitting around the throne. May Christ be the object of our thoughts, the center of our lives. Charles H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening: Daily Readings (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1896).
Not only did Spurgeon proclaim the equality among saints, but unlike some of the Puritans (who believed the same), Spurgeon’s understanding of equality among saints actually had practical implications that caused him to be an abolitionist and enemy of Victorian racism in England.
10. Go back to 1 Timothy with me. We read over this pretty quickly when we were walking through the first part of 1 Timothy, but I want to take you back there so you can see where Paul has already addressed this kind of slavery in 1 Timothy 1. Look at 1 Timothy 1:8. We will get to it in verse 10, but see the set up. 1 Timothy 1:8-10 says, Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, (ESV) What’s the last word? “Enslavers …” the word means literally “man stealers” or “slave dealers.” Anyone who kidnaps people for sale is unholy, profane and is denying the gospel. So, I want you to see very clearly that the Bible condemns, denounces physical abuse and human trafficking. I want to emphasize that for two reasons. One, if these two truths about physical abuse and human trafficking from both testaments … Old Testament and New Testament alike … if these two truths had been embraced by Christians in the 18th and 19th century, slavery would never have existed like it did in the South. The Bible explicitly denounces and condemns the kind of slavery that took place in the Southern United States, and pastors and church members who used this Word to justify their practices were living in sin. (Source: David Platt, “What about Slavery, Paul?,” in David Platt Sermon Archive (Birmingham, AL: David Platt, 2011), 3176.)
An excellent observation, by Southern Baptist IMB president David Platt, that Paul absolutely condemns “enslavers,” which were men that took other men and forced them into slavery. As that practice was at the very heart of the chattel slavery practiced in the United States and United Kingdom, the slavery found in those countries was outlawed biblically. Tragically, Confederate pastors and many other slavery apologists chose to turn a blind eye to passages like this in the Scriptures.
The following is an excerpt from my new book, The Bible and Racism. It is available on Amazon and is a 200+ page exploration of what the Bible teaches about race and Jesus’ call for His church to be fully unified – every tribe, tongue, color and nationality worshiping together on earth as in Heaven. I would be honored if you would take a look at it! The excerpt below, from 14, contains 10 great thoughts on race and racism from a variety of Christian writers, pastors, and leaders over the years. These are some of the most powerful quotes on race and racism that you can find, and I hope they are encouraging to you!
This post will simply be a large collection of excellent and challenging thoughts on race from faithful followers of Christ. You or I might not fully, 100 percent agree with every thought expressed here, but all of these passages are from solid and faithful Christians, and all are presenting ideas that should be grappled with. I might include a brief amount of commentary on a few of the quotes, but they will stand on their own by and large. The reason for including all of these quotes is to #1 spur you on towards godly and biblical thinking about race and #2 to demonstrate that there have been faithful voices in the worldwide church since the first century that have powerfully and passionately proclaimed good truths about race. Some might think (with reason) that the church in the past has been too often racist. While it is true (and inexcusable) that there have always been racists in every period of church history, I believe it is also true that those Christians who have known, proclaimed and lived biblical truths about race have outnumbered those who haven’t.
1. Sometimes we get a gem amongst the news, and to my mind there was a gem contained in a Reuter’s telegram, from Rio Janeiro, May 10th:—“The Brazilian Chamber of Deputies has voted the immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery in Brazil.” My heart rejoiced as I read that paragraph. I hope it does not mean that this vote can be defeated in some other Chamber, or the abolition be prevented by some other power; but if it means that slavery is to be immediately and unconditionally abolished in Brazil, I call upon you all to thank God, and rejoice in his name. Wherever slavery exists, it is an awful curse; and the abolition of it is an unspeakable blessing. All free men should praise God, and especially those whom Christ has made free, for they are “free indeed. (Source: 1888 Charles Spurgeon sermon, “Freedom at Once and for Ever,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 40 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1894), 349.)
I love Charles Spurgeon very deeply, and I especially love the fact that, even though he was a “product of his time,” he was not blinded to the Bible’s clear anti-racist teachings and their implications. Slavery is indeed an awful curse, and came about through the curse of Genesis 3 in the garden. Some might even say that slavery is man’s attempt to remove the burden of God’s curse in the garden (“you shall sweat for every drop of food you eat”) from himself and put it onto somebody else.
2. If you’re reading through the Bible and you get to Joshua 7 — especially if you’re a white American, especially if you’re Western person — you go “What?” In Joshua 7, a man named Achan, an Israelite — they’re coming into the promised land, they are strictly told you were not here for plunder — Achan takes some plunder, a robe, some wealth, takes it for himself, hides it under his tent. He breaks the law. He goes against God’s will, goes against the law for the Israelites. When it’s discovered, he’s not just punished, but his entire family is stoned to death with him. Western people — especially white Americans — say, “Wait a minute, he did it. They didn’t do it!” Now let me just get right off and say this. Most people and most other cultures, most other centuries understand why that happened. If you’re a New Yorker and you have some objection to some part of the Bible that you find offensive, I want you to realize it’s your cultural location that’s causing the offense… That if you can do something bad, the fact that you can do it, what helped you become the kind of person that can do it, was to a great degree your family. Your family produced you directly or at least failed to keep you from becoming that, and therefore at least actively or passively, your family participates in your guilt.
Most people, most places, Americans — especially white Americans — don’t understand that. Most people, most places recognize that because you’re not the product of your own individual choices, you are the product of a community. Not only are you the product of a community to a great degree, but that you by even participating in that community are producing other kinds of people with their particular kinds of character to because of your interaction with them. Joshua 7 says that there is corporate responsibility inside a family. I’ll take it up a little higher. In Daniel 9, now we’re talking about corporate guilt and responsibility inside a whole race or a culture because Daniel, in Daniel 9, confesses sins — repents for — and says it’s his responsibility to repent for sins that his ancestors did that he didn’t do it all. I mean I still hear it, though especially years ago when I lived in the South. I heard white people say, “Yeah, it’s a shame what slavery did, but I never owned any slaves so why in the world does anybody think that I as a white person now had any responsibility to that community over there at all? I didn’t own slaves.” But here is Daniel feeling a responsibility for and repenting for things his ancestors did. Why? Because he knows that the culture that he’s part of produced the sins of the past and he’s still part of that culture. He senses the responsibility and the Bible senses the responsibility. He senses the connection. (Pastor Tim Keller, 2012 message. Source: http://www.desiringgod.org/)
Tim Keller, if you are not familiar with him, is not a liberal theologian. He is a conservative, biblical, complementarian pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America, which is one of the most theologically conservative denominations out there. You might not agree with the dynamic that Keller is proposing here, but I believe that he has made a very good biblical case for what he is asserting, which is that we are, in part, defined by our culture and responsible for our culture.
3. Posterity is concerned in the actions of their ancestors or predecessors, in families, nations, and most communities of men, as standing in some respect in their stead. And some particular persons may injure, not only a great part of the world contemporary with them, but may injure and undo all future generations of many individuals, families, or larger communities. So that men who live now, may have an action against those who lived a thousand years ago; or there may be a cause which needs to be decided by the Judge of the world, between some of the present generation, and some who lived a thousand years ago. Princes who, by rapine and cruelty, ruin nations, are answerable for the poverty, slavery, and misery of the posterity of those nations. So, as to those who broach and establish opinions and principles, which tend to the overthrow of virtue, and propagation of vice, and are contrary to the common rights and privileges of mankind.—Thus, Mahomet (Mohammed) has injured all succeeding posterity, and is answerable, at least in a degree, for the ruin of the virtue of his followers in many respects, and for the rapine, violence, and terrible devastations which his followers have been guilty of toward the nations of the world, and to which they have been instigated by the principles which he taught them. And, whoever they were, who first drew away men from the true religion, and introduced and established idolatry, they have injured all nations that have to this day partaken of the infection.
Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 471.
For those that might have struggled with Keller’s idea (above) that we can be somehow responsible or involved with the sins that our ancestors have committed, you might be surprised that Keller’s understanding comes from Jonathan Edwards, a pastor and writer used mightily of God in the First Great Awakening. Edwards wrote fairly extensively about the evils of slavery and of man-stealing and abuse, but himself owned slaves. His son, however, came to greater understanding of truth, and released all of the Edwards family slaves six years before the American Revolution, and almost 100 years prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.
4. Tell me what you think, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the Christian Church desperately needs to be discipled regarding “race,” racism and justice. I once thought the most significant deficiency in Christian theology (at least in the West) was a deficiency in the theology of suffering. But I think there’s more ink used to help people with suffering than there is to help people think of themselves primarily as Christians and radically apply their new identity in Christ to fallen categories like “race” and insidious sins like racism.It’s tragic that the country’s biggest sin is racism and the Church’s biggest omission is racial justice. The tragedy gets compounded when one remembers that some quarters of the Church were once the strongest supporters of this sin. That means we’re working our way out of a deficit. The roots of racism are tangled with our faith. And this means we can’t assume some neutral stance, being formally against this sin but practically uninvolved. The root keeps creeping. We had better be weeding the garden of our faith and growing one another up into the fullness of Christ with attention to this anti-Christ called “racism.”Over and over the question I get from genuine and well-meaning Christians is, “How can I think about…?” Or, “What should I do about…?” Those are discipleship questions that desperately need answering in every local church—assuming we don’t want the roots of racism to find any soil in the body of Christ.
(Source: Thabiti Anyabwile https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/thabitianyabwile)
Thabiti, as an African-American pastor, writes a lot about race. I used to sort of naively think that it was more important to use all of our energies and ink focusing on Jesus and His gospel over and above anything else. I still believe that to be the case, but the fact is that the good news of Jesus has implications and practical impacts, which means we must write about issues like race and racism, and grapple with how the Word of God calls us to act in regards to them. I absolutely agree with Thabiti that the church has been complicit in racism too often in the past, and it has diminished and damaged our shining of the gospel. We do indeed need biblical discipling in the areas of race, racism, and justice. We need to think about it more, write about it more, pray for racial unity more, and walk out biblical racial justice more and more. I am hopeful that this book represents one very tiny step in that direction.
5. [You might say] “I got me some slaves and slave-girls.” What do you mean? You condemn men to slavery, when his nature is free and possesses free will, and you legislate in competition with God, overturning His law for the human species. The one made on the specific terms that he should be the owner of the earth, and appointed to government by the Creator – him you bring under the yoke of slavery, as though defying and fighting against the divine decree. You have forgotten the limits of your authority, and that your rule is confined to control over things without reason! Why do you go beyond what is subject to you and raise yourself up against the very species which is free, counting your own kind on a level with four-footed things and even footless things? [You say, ] “I got me slave-girls and slaves.” For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols (a unit of currency) did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling that being shaped by God? God said, Let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power… God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?” (Source: Gregory of Nyssa’s Homilies on Ecclessiastes. 335.5, 335.6, 336.6) 300s AD
What a powerful challenge – and sound logical argument – from Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote the above circa 375 AD. If only the Confederate champions of slave-owning had genuinely grappled with Gregory’s Scriptural and rational arguments here.
Was Jesus White?
What…just a simple one word answer isn’t good enough for you? The truth of it is that Jesus wasn’t exactly white, nor was He precisely black either. He was, most likely, in the middle, and that’s not just me hedging bets. Ultimately, the question of “whiteness” is a difficult and awkward question to ask and answer for anybody, much less a historical figure from a disputed part of the world, but it is possible to drill down and get a good answer to the question.
In the past, the United States largely considered Middle Easterners as non-white, but things changed, at least on an official level, as the result of a court case in 1909. Sadly, the case was ignited and surrounded by a substantial amount of racism, particularly on the part of the federal government.
Officer George Shishim was a Lebanese-American police officer in Los Angeles County in the early twentieth century. In 1909, he arrested the white son of a prominent L.A. attorney for disturbing the peace. That a ‘yellow-skinned’ foreigner had arrested his son didn’t sit well with this attorney, and he sued the county, claiming that, as officer Shishim was Lebanese, that meant he was not white, but Chinese-Mongolian, and thus ineligible for citizenship in America. How a white attorney at the time came to characterize a Lebanese man as “Chinese-Mongolian” has a little bit to do with the conquerings of Genghis Khan, and a whole lot to do with plain old ignorant racism. The case would appear before Los Angeles Country Judge Hutton, and the federal government argued against the potential citizenship of Shishim, declaring that as a Middle-Easterner, he was not white, and thus not eligible for citizenship.
Shishim’s defense, however, was an absolute stroke of genius. He argued to the court, who largely identified as Christian, that, “If I am a Mongolian, then so was Jesus, because we came from the same land.” This proved to be a persuasive argument to Judge Hutton, who announced his decision the following day:
This is an application by one George Shishim, a Syrian, to be admitted to citizenship. The federal government, acting through the department of justice, objects to his admission, basing its objection on the sole ground that he is not a member of the white race in contemplation of section 2169 of the revised statutes of the United States. (Source: http://www.arabamericanhistory.org/archives/dept-of-justice-affirms-arab-race-in-1909/ )
And thus it was that Middle-Easterners, including Israelis, came to be considered “white.” by the United States government, largely against its will. Interestingly, there is a movement underway to overturn this designation, and it is likely that by the next census, ‘MENA’ will be a new designation, standing for “Middle East or North Africa.”
Just last week I posted a mock up of the cover for this book on my Facebook page. I included a two word description of the picture that said “current project,” and nothing else. That post has become one of the most controversial posts I’ve ever made on Facebook. It generated lots of likes and nearly 150 comments, which is a fairly high number for one of my posts. The reason for that many comments is that within about 15 minutes of posting the picture, one of my Facebook ‘friends,’ I lady I’ve never met before and actually don’t even know in real life, posted an excerpt from the book of Deuteronomy in response to my picture.
I read the excerpt with some degree of curiosity trying to discern what her comment meant, it had no context other than the verse itself, Deuteronomy 7:3, which is a prohibition that was aimed at the Israelites commanding them to not marry foreign wives in the promised land. For years, racists and people who have utterly misunderstood the Bible, have used that passage (and others like it) to decry interracial marriage, interracial relationships and those sorts of things.
Reading Deuteronomy 7 as a current prohibition against Christians marrying somebody of a different nationality or skin color is a tragic misunderstanding of Scripture that completely disregards who the Old Testament was written to and the context of those commandments in Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy 7:3-6 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 because they will turn your sons away from Me to worship other gods. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and He will swiftly destroy you. 5 Instead, this is what you are to do to them: tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, cut down their Asherah poles, and burn up their carved images. 6 For you are a holy people belonging to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be His own possession out of all the peoples on the face of the earth.
The Jews were not allowed to intermarry with foreigners, not because of the color of their skin, but very clearly because of their religion. By this command, God sought to keep the hearts of the Israelites pure and their worship focused solely on Him, in keeping with the first commandment, “Do not have other gods besides Me.” It had nothing to do with keeping their blood pure.
Suspicious of the post, and wondering why she chose to post that particular Scripture, I went to check out my ‘friend’s’ Facebook page and discovered a trove of highly racist memes, racist comments and claims, and other highly offensive and inaccurate material including the picture you see below, which alleges that the Bible is only about white people , that Adam was a white person and that any attempt to describe the Bible as a book about mixed races is completely false.
I was incensed, disgusted and deeply troubled at the level of false teaching she was promulgating and therefore I challenged her comment on my Facebook page with some degree of firmness. This, as you might imagine, ignited one of those comment wars that are becoming more and more common on social media, as she apparently tagged in several of her white nationalist racist friends and, without any effort on my part, several of my friends joined in and for a while it was a free-for-all.
Her primary henchman, and I think that is an appropriate word for the situation, was a German Nazi white supremacist that claimed to love the Jews. (Yes, it was a very strange conversation.) In fact the first commenter herself claimed to be a Jewish person despite the fact that she was quite clearly a southern American. This was a new flavor of racism for me and upon a little bit of research I discovered that there was quite a few people who make the claim that the Israelites were white, Adam was white, Jesus was white, and that the only race that is eligible for salvation is the white race. According to these white supremacists’ abominable teachings, no other race is eligible for salvation. The Bible is about white people and was only written to white people. Thus, according to my ‘friend’s’ henchman, racism is actually a kindness and displays love, because it’s communicating the will of God.
What a disgusting and horrific idea! But it does at least raise an interesting question: what color was Jesus? Many people have in their mind a view of Jesus as a lithe white man with long hair. The trouble with this picture of Jesus is that it comes from the Italian Renaissance, where the Italian painters initially depicted Jesus as somebody very similar to them, with long hair (as was the fashion in that day), slightly tanned skin, and a white robe. The only part of that depiction that has some basis in reality is the robe. The fact is, we have no surviving pictures of Jesus from His time. The earliest surviving picture we have that depicts Jesus is copied below, dates from the 200s, and obviously doesn’t show details about the race of Jesus or much about His appearance or anything like that. One of the other earliest depictions of Jesus dates from the 300s AD, and is a picture with quite a bit more detail present in the facial area. Surprisingly, this second picture does appear to show Jesus as a dark-skinned man.
The pictures above are not definitive, however what we do know is that Jesus was in Israel and the Bible never describes Him in a way that would particularly distinguish Him from the rest of His people. For instance, Jesus is never described as being particularly tall, fat, balding, redheaded, etc., Therefore it is quite reasonable to conclude that Jesus probably looked much like the other Israelite men of His day.
So, what did the Israelites look like? Are Israelites white? The fact of the matter is that the Israelites are a Middle-Eastern people with a great amount of variety within their borders just like Americans, Asians and Africans have a great amount of variety among their peoples. If you were asked to describe a typical American, that might be somewhat difficult, given the wide variety of people in America. Nevertheless, it is possible to engage in some small amount of description of the average first-century Israelite, and therefore to give a pretty good facsimile representation of what Jesus probably looked like. In recent times, Scientists have actually done this through skeletal remains, and reconstructed a picture and description of what the average Israelite, and therefore Jesus, could have looked like. That reconstruction depicts Jesus as a man with olive/brown skin, black and short hair, and a heavy black beard. It isn’t exactly a picture of the historical Jesus, but it is a scientific representation of what the average Israelite person would look like.
Some might be surprised that Jesus didn’t have long hair, but the only Jewish men who had long hair in first century Israel were those who had taken a Nazirite vow. We know that Jesus probably didn’t have long hair because the apostle Paul wrote that it was shameful for men to have long hair, and, as Paul saw Jesus on the Damascus Road, it is highly unlikely that Jesus had the sort of long hair that is depicted of him in most pictures. Further, if the scientific reconstruction of first century Israelites is accurate, then Jesus would be neither black nor white, but somewhere in between.
What difference does it make? The problem with this discussion is that “whiteness” is a relative term and it’s not a very helpful one. People don’t genuinely have white skin – an actual white-skinned person would be awfully strange looking. People that are Caucasian generally have a peach/pinkish tone to their skin, and I’m not really sure how that came to be referred to as white, but as we’ve seen in earlier chapters, true white skin is considered diseased skin. The funny thing about “whiteness” is the fact that most people in the white community generally consider paleness to be a less than attractive feature. In fact, in the United States of America, many people pay good money to lie in coffin-like light booths, so that ultraviolet lamps might turn their skin a few shades darker, because in their mind, darker skin on a white person looks more attractive. What a strange set of circumstances!
If you would like to read more about this topic, please allow me to encourage you to read The Bible and Racism, available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Bible-Racism-What-REALLY-about-ebook/dp/B075846YB8/