The Cross Is Our Stairway to Heaven

Our salvation comes not from someone on our level, but from someone infinitely above it.

One of the most common evangelistic tools is a simple drawing of two cliffs with a chasm between. On one cliff is a figure representing the sinner, and on the other a figure representing God. What can span the chasm of our sin? A cross, dropped neatly in place to serve as a bridge between the sinner and God.

No doubt, this simple illustration has been used to great benefit, but allow me for a moment to make a mountain out of a molehill. Instead of a bridge between two level planes, the gospel is better understood as a matter of ascension, descension, and condescension.

Remember when Jacob dreamed about a ladder with angels ascending and descending? That ladder offers a better picture for how we think about salvation. A closer translation for the word “ladder” in Genesis 28:12 (ESV) is “stairway” (NIV). Jacob sees a series of steps—a stairway to Heaven, so to speak—with angelic mediators passing back and forth between God and man.

Scholars believe Scripture describes a commonly recognizable image for the original audience of Genesis: a ziggurat, or pyramid-shaped tower of steps that the ancients erected as a means to ascend to a deity.

The Bible even mentions one such tower “that reaches to the heavens” in Genesis 11, the famous Tower of Babel. Its builders intended to climb up to God on their own terms, but God frustrated their efforts.

In Jacob’s dream only a few chapters later, the same image is repurposed to tell a heavenly truth. We need not wonder what it is, for, conveniently, Jesus interprets it for us in John 1:51: “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”

The span between …

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What Kanye West’s Sunday Service Taught Me About Grace

When I visited Kanye’s Sunday Service, I was met by contradiction, a mix of characters, and a spiritual lesson.

It’s Sunday morning and I’m on my way to worship service—a normal part of my weekend routine except for the fact that it’s 4 a.m., I’m embarking on a five-and-a-half-hour drive from Sacramento to Southern California, and the service will be led by Kanye West.

Coinciding with the release of his much-anticipated ninth studio album, Jesus is King, West released $10 tickets for his “Sunday Service” at The Forum, a 17,500-seat stadium in Inglewood that formerly hosted the Los Angeles Lakers. I bought tickets on a whim and convinced my friend Vince, who is also a bit impulsive, to attend the show with me. Groggy and a little delusional, we laugh about what a bad idea this is (we also plan to make the drive home immediately after the show).

We listen to the new album on repeat as we drive, dissecting each bar and rating his tracks as I quietly hope that the performance will paint a clearer picture of West’s new status as an unlikely evangelical darling. But when we arrive at the venue, the tangle of contradictions only seems to grow.

By the time we arrive, the typical pre-concert rituals are already underway, but against the backdrop of the album’s strong religious message and iconography the scene is disorienting. Masses wait in line to snag limited edition Yeezy merchandise—one crewneck with pictures of a medieval dark-skinned Jesus runs for $250—a woman poses provocatively in front of a banner that read “Jesus is King,” and the unmistakable scent of California kush punctuates the air.

“He’s tapping into an urban market,” says Susie Seiko, an LA musician and longtime West fan. Seiko, who frequents multiple churches in the area including …

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Another Way for Immigration Reform? How Evangelicals Can Help Lead It

Evangelical Call for Restitution-Based Immigration Reform allows evangelicals to voice their support.

This August, after more than three decades in the United States, 66-year-old pastor’s wife Julita Bartolome was deported.

Her U.S. citizen husband, a Baptist pastor and a custodian at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, had been trying since 2002 to get his wife permanent legal status. Now separated from his wife by an ocean, he intends to keep trying to get her back.

The case has many troubled, particularly among the evangelical community, of which Julita and her husband are a part. Many are asking if there is a better way than this.

They’re not alone in asking this question. One local church in the heart of the Bible Belt recently lost 150 congregants to an immigration raid. Another town – Morristown, Tennessee – found itself deeply shaken in the aftermath of a 2018 raid. Many of its residents are evangelical Christians who voted for President Trump despite – or even because of – his harsh rhetoric on immigration. Yet the raid complicated and colored their perspective.

“When I heard ‘crack down on illegal immigration,’ I interpreted it as a crackdown on illegal immigrants that were criminals,” Krista Etter told This American Life “If there was a drug situation, you know, violent criminals, pedophile, any kind of situation of that nature. That’s what I expected…I don’t think anybody ever really stopped to think that they were going to go after the family man working at the meatpacking plant. That’s not what I had in mind.”

David Williams, a Southern Baptist pastor in Morristown, concurs: “I think people were voting for a secure border. You know, surely people didn’t vote that families would be separated, and that families …

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Pious Pledges and Consecrated Keggers

Can Christian fraternities and sororities redeem a campus culture bruised from hazing and drowning in alcohol?

Hours after sunset, the air was still muggy at the house I rented with three other college seniors in Fort Worth, Texas. Several students gathered around a folding table in a citronella-tanged backyard lit by tiki torches, lobbing ping-pong balls at red plastic cups.

Others sat in lawn chairs around a small bonfire, holding koozie-covered cans or cups with their names scrawled in black sharpie. The men sported boat shoes and Greek-letter t-shirts, while the women wore mostly sundresses with cowboy boots. Someone opened the house’s screen door and shouted over the country music to get my attention.

I followed him inside the house, where the air was even hotter. We slid along the wall past a crowd gathered in the kitchen, where two guys were holding up a third in a handstand atop a keg while he drank from the tap. Strings of white Christmas lights glowed in darkened rooms, and the twang of Big & Rich gave way to people jumping to the Black Eyed Peas amid a sea of toppled cups and crumpled cans.

When we reached the front door, a police officer was waiting. “Is this your house?” he asked. Neighbors had complained about the noise. And then: “Is this a frat party?”

“It’s not what you think,” I said. “We’re members of Beta Upsilon Chi, a Christian fraternity. Our letters stand for ‘Brothers Under Christ.’” I pointed back to the keg in the kitchen. “This is a root-beer kegger.”

All Beta Upsilon Chi functions are non-alcoholic. The students in the backyard weren’t playing beer pong; the cups were full of water. The empty cans were Dr Peppers. The officer raised an eyebrow—he clearly didn’t believe me. He told us to turn off …

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We’re Misreading the Bible on Laziness

Scripture warns against sloth—and against using it to explain away oppression.

In 1997, Anthony Cooper was working two jobs and barely getting by. “I would work almost 24 hours straight, go take the kids to school, go home, get some sleep, and go and do it all again.” His two jobs—at a pizza restaurant and a warehouse—provided just enough income to rent an efficiency apartment in Madison, Wisconsin. “My kids slept on one end; I slept on the other end with my futon.” As an African American man with no high school diploma, coming out of a two-year prison sentence, better jobs weren’t easy to get.

With the United States hitting record low unemployment rates in recent years, it might seem that anyone—with perhaps a little prayer, patience, and perseverance—could find good employment. But employment rates don’t tell the whole story.

In the past two decades, even as more Americans have found jobs, those jobs have become less likely to be long term, full time, and matched to people’s skills and education. The trend toward underemployment and disappointing work certainly impacts college graduates. But it hits especially hard for many people of color and for those who are differently abled, have an incarceration record, lack higher education, or live in economically depressed regions.

Before meeting Cooper, I’d worked and conducted research among nonprofits in South Africa that were trying to help people find good work. Some of the organizations used Scripture in their trainings. The founder of one organization, emphatically tapping his fingers on a table, summarized his group’s message with these words: “The whole Bible is about hard work.” He recited a proverb about laziness, a story of Moses making plans, and the fact …

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The Necessary Partnership of Truth and Charity

How the concept of the ‘via media’ might help us restore civil discourse.

My close friend, Nathan, is one of my favorite people on earth. He and I have intractable and substantial theological disagreements, but we love and enjoy each other. We discuss ideas and occasionally collaborate on projects. We both wonder, though: If we had met now, as opposed to as college students in the late ’90s, would we even have become friends? The cultural pressure to sort ourselves into ideologically pure and homogenous cliques is strong—much stronger now than it was 20 years ago when we met—and it’s eroding our ability as a society to seek common ground and common friendship.

There is a growing cultural assumption that the world is neatly divided between good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats. This unimaginative calcification forces many of our cultural and theological conversations into a stalemate—every event produces thousands of takes that are boringly predictable. The lines are drawn clearly and brightly and there’s nothing left to do but shout at each other.

As we see this intense polarization in politics and theology—and in the heightened and heated rhetoric that social media inspires—some public figures sound renewed public calls for moderation. Others denounce “moderation” as a strategy of the privileged that ultimately protects the status quo. In her Washington Post piece earlier this year pointedly titled “Centrism and Moderation? No Thanks,” historian April Holm rejects the idea that attempts at moderation are virtuous. “The logic of calls to prioritize civility in public exchanges and of the insistence on seeing moral equivalence on both sides of every debate . . . are available only to those who are not, themselves, …

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Does God Have a Funny Side?

The more we take Scripture seriously, the more we’ll find ourselves laughing along with it.

When discussing Christianity and comedy, it’s usually not long before someone brings up G.K. Chesterton, who was renowned for his wit, playfulness, and love of paradox. (Even the great man’s physique—he was very tall and very plump—lent him a comedic air.) It is no surprise, then, that Steve Wilkens’s book What’s So Funny About God?: A Theological Look at Humor quotes Chesterton to make the point that “funny” and “serious” are not polar opposites.

Yet Chesterton, in his rhetorical masterpiece Orthodoxy, makes a somewhat out-of-character comment about Jesus Christ: “There was one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.” The Bible, of course, teaches that God will not be mocked or taken for a fool (Gal. 6:7), and that he laughs at our rebellious rage (Ps. 2:4). Even so, it seems odd for Chesterton to suppose that Almighty God coming to earth as a helpless baby lacks something of a comic touch.

Christians, especially Protestants and evangelicals, are not renowned for their sense of humor. In medieval England (and across Europe), guilds would get together to stage stories from the Bible, which were often funny. These were casualties of the (otherwise much-needed) Reformation. As it took full effect in England, mystery plays disappeared, church walls were whitewashed, and Oliver Cromwell, despite a close friendship with master poet John Milton, shuttered every theater in the land.

Centuries later, it’s not just Christians suffering a humor deficit. It’s everyone. We live in strange times in which Snopes insists on fact-checking Babylon Bee headlines and presidential …

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Cyborg Church: One Body, Many People

Science offers insight on how the church can be more than just loosely associated individuals.

Recently I posted this on Facebook, “Answer with the first thing that comes to your mind, why do you go to church?” The vast majority of the answers were related to obtaining some kind of experience: closeness with God, worship, to be fed, to obtain knowledge. The far and away number one answer was “for community/fellowship.”

Yet I wonder whether what these experiences have in common, even the desire for community, is the focus on what the church gives me. Can that thing be relational yet ironically still individual?

While this Facebook post is not a scientific study, it made me wonder. Is the evangelical church in North America today truly the Body of Christ, or is it more a “loose association of the independently spiritual persons?” Do we ultimately attend as individuals searching for experiences to shore up our individual selves?

Of course, God works through the Holy Spirit to do amazing things in individual lives, but for some reason, as the New Testament writers remind us, he works through the church, the Body of Christ.

We come to church for many reasons, but we come to be formed as a congregation into the image and likeness of Christ—his Body on earth. The New Testament describes Christ’s representation as one but composed of many individuals (1 Cor. 12). How does God, through the Holy Spirit, enact this communal process, not for individuals, of being formed into Christ’s body?

We’re all cyborgs

We live in a world of new digital tools that are reshaping our lives. We carry around “smart phones” with all sorts of applications that enhance our daily lives in important ways. Apps remember phone numbers, access online information, guide us around town, …

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Remembering Pastor Samuel Lamb and His Faith in the Face of Persecution in China

On this International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, please pray for those who cannot worship freely.

As we remember our brothers and sisters around the world today on the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, I want to share about one special man who was a giant among men of faith and who had an incredible impact on my life.

He was threatened, beaten, and tortured for sharing the gospel, but he never wavered in his devotion to Jesus Christ.

I was eager to meet Pastor Lamb, one of China’s well-known house church leaders. I had traveled to Guangzhou, a city of more than three million, where he lived in a tiny apartment under house arrest. He endured more than 21 years in prison for his faith all because he refused to register his church with the Chinese government. Fifteen of those years, he did hard physical labor in a coal mine as punishment for trying to make a copy of the New Testament.

When I arrived at Pastor Lamb’s house for the first time, his house church meeting had just dismissed, so I had to wait outside while hundreds of Chinese believers made their way down the narrow staircase and filed past me into the night. I’ll never know how that many people fit inside that small apartment. I had to push past armed guards to make my way up the stairs. When I reached the third floor, I met my hero for the first time.

Pastor Lamb was short; I towered over him. With a contagious smile, he invited me to come in. The first thing I remember seeing was a long table with about 20 young Chinese people writing feverishly. Nearly 80 percent of the pastor’s congregation was comprised of young people who were hungry for the Word of God and eager to share it with their friends.

I asked Pastor Lamb what they were doing. He matter-of-factly explained, “They are making handwritten copies of the …

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Interview: Armenian Orthodox Leader: ‘We May Forgive One Day, But We Will Never Forget.’

Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, on what comes next after US House recognizes Armenians’ “legitimate claim” of genocide.

The Armenian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest Christian denominations in the world. According to tradition, Armenia was evangelized by Jesus’ disciples Bartholomew and Thaddeus. In 301 A.D., it became the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion.

An Oriental Orthodox denomination, the Armenians are in communion with the Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian, and Malankara (India) churches. They differ with Catholics and Protestants over the 451 A.D. Council of Chalcedon decision to recognize Christ as one person with two natures: human and divine. Oriental Orthodox Christians declare Christ has one nature, both human and divine.

The Armenian Church is governed by two patriarchs, entitled Catholicos. One, Karekin II, is Supreme Patriarch for all Armenians and sits in Armenia.

CT interviewed Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, which was once located in modern-day Turkey but since the Armenian Genocide relocated to Antelias, Lebanon, five miles north of Beirut. His jurisdiction includes the Armenians of the Middle East, Europe, and North and South America.

Aram I discussed the genocide, the US House of Representatives resolution this week to finally recognize it, and Armenians’ desired response from Turkey.

How do you respond to the US resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide?

Yesterday I made a statement welcoming warmly this action taken. I believe it is very much in line with the firm commitment of the United States of America in respect to human rights. The rights of the Armenian people are being violated. After more than 100 years, we tried to bring the attention of the international community that the Armenian Genocide is a fact of history.

Whether we call it genocide or massacre or deportation, …

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