One thing that messes up our reading of the Bible is that we think we know what certain words mean. But many of our definitions need to be re-thought in the light of the gospel of God-With-Us. Below are some of the definitions I’ve had to re-think. When I’m reading the Bible and I come across these words, I have to remind myself what they actually mean:
God - This word evokes in me images of some Christianized Zeus. But because I believe the gospel, I know that God is not a person. God is three persons together in perfect unity. Wherever the Bible speaks of God, it is speaking of the Trinity. Since the word “god” has so much mythical baggage, it’s been useful for me to just drop the word altogether. In the New Testament, it’s obvious that “God” almost always refers to the Father. In the few instances where “God” refers to the entire Trinity, I just translate it as “the Triune One.” It helps me keep my thinking straight.
Faith - My mind habitually thinks of faith as if it’s a work. As if the Pearly Gates are guarded by a brain scanner that checks to see if I have enough faith particles in there. So I have to strong-arm my thinking into new channels whenever I see this word, reminding myself that believing in something does not cause it to start existing; to believe is to perceive and embrace something that was already there. When I understand specific texts in this light, the texts make a LOT more sense. Faith does not trigger Jesus into giving me a gift; faith is simply the way the gift gets inside me and transforms my thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and relationships.
Salvation – I tend to mystify this word way too much. My best remedy is to replace “save” with “heal” (They are the same word in the Greek). That usually gets my mind onto a better track, and that track is usually not preoccupied with getting into heaven after I die. It’s about having my broken pieces put back together, having my relationships healed, having my mind healed from the effect of poisonous lies. This healing is given to us by grace. That is reality, and it transforms those who are willing to re-orient their minds around it.
Justification - Another word my mind is always tempted to turn into some kind of voodoo. But there is nothing mystical about it. Justice is about right relationships, with Papa, with ourselves, and with the world around us. This “right relationship” to all things belongs to Jesus, and he has given it to us by grace. As I re-orient my mind around this reality (i.e., as I repent and believe), I actually begin to relate rightly to reality. I actually become more and more just, in anticipation of the day when Christ’s just-ness will dwell fully inside my skin.
Chosen – Brother Calvin, bless his heart, taught me to get really uptight about this word. The trick to calming down is to remember that Papa chooses people instrumentally, not exclusively. Ultimately, he chose his Son to be the executor of his plan of adoption. And within that choice is included his choosing of certain persons and communities to be the carriers of his blessing to everyone else. Remember Genesis 12: Abraham is blessed to be a blessing; he is chosen for the sake of those not chosen. With that firmly in mind, texts about ‘the chosen ones’ no longer make me panic.
Kingdom – The “kingdom of heaven” is Jesus’ preferred term for the thing he’s telling people about in his gospel. We tend to turn this into “heaven as the place we go after we die.” But Jesus is clearly talking about concrete realities in the here and now, not just what happens beyond death. Dallas Willard defines a kingdom as “the range of a king’s effective will.” When Papa’s will is done on earth as in heaven, his kingdom is functioning there. Simple. And speaking of heaven…
Heaven. Dallas Willard and N.T. Wright have taught me the biblical concept of heaven as the earth’s control room, the driver’s seat of the cosmos, the space-time of humanity’s interaction with the Triune God. My science-fiction-soaked brain tends to envision heaven as a kind of parallel dimension, infinitely close to every place of earthly space-time, but invisible because we are slightly out-of-phase with it. A careful theological imagination like this can help us think outside old wineskins.
Judgment. At its most basic level, to judge is simply to discern good from bad. As a child of God who now lives under the constant harassment of my own badness, I rejoice in being judged. It is a good thing for Jesus to name, condemn, and destroy the darkness that lives in me. It is painful, to be sure, to separate good from bad, true from false. Anyone who’s ever said “I’m an alcoholic” knows the terror of being discerned/judged truthfully. But the truth sets us free. Jesus saves us by judging us. An interesting Bible study: Look at all the NT references to ‘judgment’ and see if we are judged by grace or by works.
Punishment/Wrath. The pagan mind is full of visions of vengeful deities, and those visions infest my mind as much as anyone else’s. So I filter all such language through the reality of fatherly discipline. As the writer of Hebrews says, punishment and wrath are gifts from a father to his beloved son. There is no need to avoid punishment and wrath language (after all, the Bible is chock-full of it). We just need to stop thinking of it in terms of Zeus and his lightning-bolt of doom.
Eternal Punishment. During exile, some Jews adopted pieces of Zoroastrian philosophy (The Babylonians were called Farsi’s, and these Jews who copied them came to be called Pharisees). This philosophy placed strong emphasis on “endless torture” (aidios timoria) of the wicked. Over and against this view, Jesus spoke often of aionian kolasin, an “eon of discipline” (Notice the word “eon” in the Greek aionian), though it is usually translated “eternal punishment.” This eon will last as long as I refuse the discipline, forever if I choose, but my Papa will never give up on me. “Eternal punishment” is good news, not bad.
Coming. Jesus spoke constantly about “the coming of the Son of Man,” a reference to the prophecy in Daniel about a human being ‘coming on the clouds’ to sit at the right hand of the Ancient of Days. Notice that this is a movement from earth to heaven, rather than the other way around as we usually think about Christ’s “Coming.” Jesus’ coming/ascension to the throne means the destruction of his enemies, including the corrupt Temple system and every other power in history that has ever set itself against Him. The New Testament does clearly teach about a future Glorious Appearing of earth’s King and everything that happens as a result, but Jesus’ own teachings were focused primarily on a different topic. For more on this, I recommend N.T. Wright’s SURPRISED BY HOPE or Hank Hanegraaff’s APOCALYPSE CODE.