“We’re never gonna win the world,” sings contemporary blues artist John Mayer. “We’re never gonna stop the war. We’re never gonna beat this if belief is what we’re fighting for.” Mayer’s 2006 song resonates with much of America’s contemporary spiritual state. With so many religious and spiritual voices out there, why even bother trying to unite everyone under one belief system?
The irony, of course, is that much of America has at least begun to unite in their beliefs—the only difference is that we’re largely unwilling to give it a name. According to data from 2012, roughly 1 in every 5 Americans is “religiously unaffiliated”—though the number will soon skyrocket, as roughly 1 in 3 Americans under 30 also considers themselves “unaffiliated.” Mind you—these people believe earnestly in God; they’ve just lost their faith in traditional religion. For many, religion is the problem—not the solution—to our social problems.
What we’re left with is what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat calls our “populist creed”—the beliefs that largely unite those who’d prefer to label themselves “spiritual” than overtly “religious.” In Douthat’s 2012 book Bad Religion, he says that this “populist creed” takes the following form:
- No religion offers a complete picture of God. Therefore God is not experienced through manmade teachings, but personal encounters.
- God is everywhere—but he is best encountered by looking inside oneself. Self-discovery marks both the means—and the destination—of man’s spiritual quest.
- Sin and evil—if they exist—will one day be reconciled, rather than defeated. Douthat cites Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, in which she writes: “There is no such thing in this universe as hell, except maybe in our own terrified minds.”
- Perfect happiness is available right now—not in some distant heaven. What’s important is taking care of the world we currently inhabit.
Understandably, Christianity runs against the current of today’s culture. Christianity teaches that only in Jesus do we see a complete picture of God. God is found not within ourselves, but in the Truth he reveals most specifically in the Bible, and in Jesus. Christianity teaches that sin and death are realities defeated through the work of Jesus, and that perfect happiness awaits us when God finally sets the world right.
This is hardly the first time in which Christianity has experienced conflict with the broader culture. As we explore the book of Hebrews, we begin to see the ways in which early Christianity generated conflict with the culture around them.
You may recall that in the first century, the Roman government tolerated the Jews—but only barely. So when Christianity emerged, it did so under threat of persecution from the Romans (who didn’t tolerate this new faith) and from the Jews (who feared a new faith would upset their uneasy peace with Rome). At one point, Rome reacted against this “Jewish cult” by expelling Jewish Christians from their homes. But regardless of whether any particular incident sparked the writing of Hebrews, one thing is certain: the early culture—one that placed high value on the categories of honor and shame—generated enormous external pressure for early Christians.
This culture pressure gave birth to two dangers addressed in the letter to the Hebrews. First was spiritual burnout—that the time seemed long between God’s promises and fulfillment. What joy was there to be found in being social outcasts? Second was functional atheism—that is, believing that God is real, but acting as if he’s not. The early church struggled with those who abandoned the gospel for a life of pleasure-seeking.
Sound familiar? Today we face similar kinds of cultural pressure. It’s tough standing for the gospel in a world that sees Christianity as a social threat. We may similarly face spiritual burnout—after all, is there any real value in going to church these days? Aren’t I just as well-off staying home with my family? Alternately we may face our own form of functional atheism. We go to church faithfully, but our lives are ruled by devotion to the lesser gods of career, sexuality, money, power, and so on.
Thus the message of Hebrews is as clear as ever: endure. But how? Over the years a long litany of solutions have been raised, all of which seem to focus on technique. But in his book God in the Wasteland, David Wells observes that this focus has been woefully inadequate:
“[T]he fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music, and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to staunch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds. The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.” (David Wells, God in the Wasteland, p. 30)
What we need, then, is an “uncommon” Christ. A Savior that transcends the boundaries of rationality and inward-gazing spirituality. So it’s only fitting that the letter of Hebrews opens by directing our full attention at the person of Jesus:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:1-4)
In his commentary on Hebrews, Paul Ellingworth takes note of how the author opens with “an interweaving of themes, as in musical composition.” There’s music to be heard here, if we listen closely enough. What is the writer saying? He’s saying that the Bible serves us well in its ability to reveal God—but now that we have Jesus, we no longer see God embedded in a text, but embodied in flesh and blood and sinew.
Of course, this cuts both ways. Why? Because it also tells us that if Jesus is the perfect embodiment of God, then it doesn’t render our scriptures obsolete. On the contrary; it infuses them with new meaning, because they all point to this magnificent Son.
To know Jesus is to know God, and what you think about Jesus you also think about God. The original Greek here uses the term charakter—translated in verse 3 as “the exact imprint of [God’s] nature.” It’s easy to see where we get the English word “character” here, though in the ancient world they also used the term to refer to the stamps on coins.
The whole passage resonates with other early Christian thought, such as that of Paul in writing to the church in Colosse:
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by[f]him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
Barry Taylor—artist and professor at Fuller Seminary—has observed that today’s world seems bent on “rescuing” Jesus from the clutches of religious conservatives “who, the consensus s seems to say, have done Jesus a grave injustice by making him out to be just like them – uptight, overly religious in the pejorative sense, lacking a sense of humor, and disconnected from the way things really are.” (Barry Taylor, Entertainment Theology, p. 153)
But in the world of the New Testament we find a Jesus who is fully and emphatically God. In the sixteenth century Philip Melancthon—one of Luther’s students—wrote that “God indeed dwells in other holy people, but dwells spiritually.…But in Christ he dwells bodily…the very divine nature has poured itself into the flesh, with all its power.” He eternally exists. He is intimately involved in creation. He holds authority over his followers—the church. And only through his saving work can man find his way back to God.
Douglas Coupland is best-known for coining the term “Generation X” back in the 1990’s. But he has also written a number of other books, including Life After God, a collection of short stories of what life looks like through the eyes of an atheist. But at the book’s conclusion, he startles readers by revealing his “secret:”
“My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.” (Coupland, Life After God, p.359)
Do you need God? Then read on. The book of Hebrews may have something significant to say to you…