Does Paul Tillich make any sense?

Since my first post on Paul Tillich, I’ve become convinced that his project is important, finding a new way of talking about God that doesn’t assume he is an actor in the world.  However, this new way works only for those with a traditional religious background.  Without this background, Tillich offers only a new and confusing vocabulary.

During the 1950s, Tillich was the most well-known theologian in America.  He was on the cover of Time magazine (2/16/1959), and a serious essay of his, “The Lost Dimension of Religion,” was published in the Saturday Evening Post (6/14/1958), then the most popular magazine in America.  His sermons were popular and well-attended.

Tillich reinterpreted the Bible in terms of existentialism.  Existentialism was fashionable in the 1950s, addressing the isolation and lack of meaning that many felt after World War Two.  We had won the war, the economy was booming, but what was the point of it all?  The fundamental existential question is the meaning and purpose of an existence from which God has been displaced.  This was, and is true, even for many who attend church.  They don’t act like they believe.  There is nothing sacred in their lives (Tillich, Depth). 


Instead of the word “God,” Tillich substituted the term “being-itself.”  With this term, Tillich wanted to get at the “God above God.”  For Tillich, God doesn’t do things.  He doesn’t intervene in the events of the world.  That’s our responsibility.  Rather, God is present in all things, allowing them to be.  God isn’t like a powerful person.  God is the structure of the universe itself, the force that brings everything into being.  God makes the grass grow.  God is no longer personal but remains transcendent (Novak, p 11).  He creates, supports, and maintains the world.  The “ground of being” is Tillich’s term for this God.  

God as being-itself is the ground of the ontological structure of being without being subject to this structure Himself. He is the structure; that is, He has the power of determining the structure of everything that has being. (Systematic Theology, p 239)

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Karen Armstrong, the new physics, and religion

Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God is an impressive, impossible survey of beliefs about God from 30,000 BCE to the current God wars between the new atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, among others) and Christian fundamentalists.  Armstrong synthesizes an enormous amount of material, including basic introductions to Buddhism and Confucianism, while concentrating on the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  Her work is aimed at the well-educated lay person. 

Where she goes wrong is in imaging that developments in the new physics, such as indeterminacy, can change the way we think about God.*  She’s wrong because while the new science of sub-atomic physics, strangeness, string theory, and quarks may inspire us to think more flexibly about God, there is no reason that it should.  The same may be said of astrophysics, and the fantastically beautiful images of distant galaxies brought back to us by the Hubble and Webb telescopes.  The situation laid out by Albert Camus remains.  We call out for the universe to tell us that we are not abandoned, isolated, and alone, and the universe is silent.

The absurd is born of the confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (Camus, p 28)

The new science is a source of the sublime, that experience that shatters our previous categories of experience.  “Beauty is the beginning of terror we are still just able to bear,” said Rilke.  The new science is beautiful; the new science is terrifying.  But unless one is looking strictly for inspiration, it does nothing to change the absurdity of human existence.  Humans long for a world that cares about us, and the world cares not.  Camus calls that the absurdity (absurdité) of the human condition, and it’s as good a word as any.

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On Eliot’s Journey of the Magi

On Eliot’s Journey of the Magi

T. S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, a poem of 43 lines, was one of a collection of poems with Christmas subjects “suitably decorated in colours and dressed in the gayest wrappers,” published by Faber and Faber to celebrate the season.  However, if one bothers to read the poem there is nothing gay or celebratory about it. It reflects the dark musings of a pagan king who has seen the Christ child, knows that his birth will upend the world, but is hardly thrilled at the prospect.  Perhaps the magus would be better off dead.  First, the poem, and then a few comments on it. 

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Eternity again and again

I’ve posted before on eternity, but there is much to say on this endless subject.    The first thing to figure out is what eternity is.  There are two main contenders:

  • Eternity is time without beginning or an end, sometimes called sempiternity.
  • Eternity stands outside of time. It is a perspective on time, but not time itself.  Eternity is nunc stans, from the Latin meaning remaining now, unchanging.  Ordinary time is nunc fluens, time that flows or passes.

The second way of thinking about eternity is often attributed to Plato (Timaeus 37c-e), but it became theologically significant in the work of Augustine (Confessions, book 11).  God, and only God, is eternal.  Earthly time, temporal time, is so insubstantial and illusory as to border on non-being (Erie, p 62).  Just as humans can only find fulfillment in God, so they can only find fulfillment in eternity.  God and eternity are virtually the same thing.   

Now is a ceaselessly moving point between past and future.  It is ephemeral, and totally lacking in substance.  For this reason, time has no value.  I was going to write, “ordinary time just is,” but the thing about time is that its substance, moments, have no substance.  They are gone the instant they have begun. 

Eternity is the opposite.  It is always present and everywhere.  In eternity all time is now.  How to make sense of this?  I like the simple explanation of C. S. Lewis.  He is answering the question how could God hear every prayer uttered by all who are praying at the same time.

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A History of the Bible

A History of the Bible

Normally I detest 600 plus page books, but John Barton’s History of the Bible is an exception.  If the story he tells is not always compelling, it is almost always interesting.  I focus on his account of the New Testament.  Barton tells a story familiar to Biblical scholars, but I’m not one, and I assume most of my readers aren’t either.  Mine is not a book review, but I stick closely to his text.

Paul or the gospels?

Paul wrote first, about twenty years after the death of Jesus.  The first gospel, Mark, was not written until about forty years after Christ’s death.  Surprising is that Paul has a more developed Christology, a theory of the divinity of Christ.  The Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) never identify Jesus with God, and have nothing to say about the Trinity.  The only exception is Matthew 28:19, which most scholars think was an addition by later editors.*  (The term gospels refers to the Synoptic Gospels unless John is specifically included.  They are called that because there is so much overlap in their content.) 

The gospels openly puzzle about who Jesus is.  Jesus himself is not very helpful, claiming only that he is not God. “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18). So, who is he?  The son of God, you say, but this subordinates Jesus to God, which is incompatible with the doctrine of the Trinity, which says that Jesus is God.  The point, and Barton makes it again and again, is that Christian doctrine, such as the Trinity, is not supported by the Bible.  The doctrine came later. 

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Is eschatology important?

Is Eschatology Important?

Eschatology is the study of last things (εσχατολογία).  Most often it refers to the end of the world, particularly Jesus’ prediction that within the lifetime of some of his disciples he would return to usher in the end times.  The prediction is found in Olivet discourse, referring to the Mount of Olives where Jesus delivered his prediction in Matthew and Mark.  It is found in all three synoptic gospels in similar form (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21). 

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. . . . Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. (Mark 13: 26,30-31)

Jesus was wrong.  He didn’t return within the lifetime of some of his followers.  He hasn’t returned yet, and doesn’t seem likely to.  His return is unlikely because we live in a different world, in which the magical reappearance of the Lord is unbelievable. 

A great deal of energy and ink has been spent justifying Jesus’ claim.  Rudolf Bultmann states the problem clearly.  Modern man no longer believes, and can no longer believe, in the cosmology of the biblical world, the world of myth, magic, and wonder, where heaven is above and hell below.  The return of Jesus on clouds of glory only makes sense in that world.  In today’s world, the hope that someday Christ will return is impossible even for many who want to believe.  What is a deeply religious man like Bultmann going to do?  What are the rest of us who long to believe going to do?

An apocalyptic prophet

Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet.  Those who would turn him into a wise teacher by discounting his apocalyptic sayings as additions by later authors and editors miss the point of Jesus (Funk).  Christ was crucified.  Christ arose from the dead.  Christ is the son of God.  This is the core Christian teaching.  It does not require belief in Christ’s glorious return.  Though most would include  this belief as central to Christian doctrine, only evangelicals and a few theologians talk about it very much

Realized eschatology

The great advantage of eschatology is that it avoids the tendency toward individualistic escapism: ‘If I’m good, then my soul will go to heaven when I die.’  Eschatology reminds us that Christ was about the transformation of the world.  Christ returns not to demonstrate his divinity, but to transform this world into the image of the kingdom of heaven.  The whole world is the stage upon which Christianity is finally realized.

Is there any way to retain this project without the magic of Christ’s return?  Realized eschatology, as it is called, seems the best bet (Dodd, N. T Wright).  Eschatology refers not to the end of the world but the transformation of the world in the spirit of “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”  Eschatology is not about individual salvation; it is about bringing the spirit of the kingdom to practices in this world.  Rather than lifting us out of history, eschatology is a historical phenomenon, the work of Christians to make this a better world.  Eschatology isn’t the end of the world, but its rebirth, inspired by the life of Christ, and continued by all who believe in the kingdom of God (Moltmann). 

Some might argue that this is no longer Christianity.  I disagree, for it retains the core beliefs of Christianity, above all that Christ is the son of God.  It is this belief that gives meaning to our lives, and a purpose to history, one that depends not on Christ’s return, but his original incursion into history.

Dangers of a liberal interpretation of Christianity and the virtues of eschatology

Humans are able to make this a better world, one closer to the kingdom of God.  But humans are not going to bring us closer to the eschaton.  If one looks at the terrible twentieth-century, the bloodiest century in world history, then we are headed in the opposite direction.   Fukuyama’s “end of history” is idolatrous nonsense.  Though we seek to realize a world that comes closer to the kingdom of God, we will inevitably fail.  The best humans can do is hew to this ideal in their efforts to make this world a better place.

Even if we no longer take Biblical prophecy literally, eschatology reminds us that we are under the judgment of God, for we have sinned in creating and tolerating an unjust world.  Eschatology reminds us that sin is a collective noun.    

Rudolf Bultmann, who rejects the magic and wonder world of the New Testament, sees biblical apocalyptic thinking as “the judgment of God” upon humankind for turning the world “into a place where evil spreads and sin rules.”  (Bultmann, 1958, p 26, quoted in Congdon, p 19)  Though Bultmann would reject my version of realized eschatology, mine has the virtue of being relatively straightforward, concise, and concrete, something Bultmann is not.  Bultmann is deep and profound, something I am not.


The failure of Christ’s return has led to at least a dozen explanations and interpretations.  Inaugurated eschatology (Ladd) is the most popular, holding that the death and resurrection of Christ are already the beginning of the end.  We are already in an eschatological age, which has not yet been fully realized.*  That will only come with the parousia (παρουσία), the second coming of Christ.  The teaching of “already but not yet” appears to allow us to have it both ways, but only because it does not take Christ’s Olivet prediction seriously.  Once one does that, all that is left to say is that Jesus was wrong.

Other attempts to save the appearances, as it is sometimes called (Barfield), include stretching the meaning of aeon, so that Christ’s claim that the end of the world is at hand, is interpreted to refer to the end of the Jewish age with the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE (Sproul).  The most extreme version of this claim is called preterism, which claims that the eschaton has already happened, that Revelation refers solely to the occupation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple by Rome.  Nero is the beast, whose name can be  rendered as 666 in Hebrew numerology. 

None of this addresses the Olivet discourse, which is generally ignored, even as it is the most conspicuous example of failed prophecy, so exact that it cannot be readily reinterpreted.     


The virtue of eschatology is that it reminds us that Christianity is not just about individual salvation from sin.  Christianity is about the fate of the world, which is today largely in human hands.  From this perspective, global warming is a sin.  Nevertheless, eschatology is not the only framework from which to extend the love of neighbor that Jesus taught to a larger world.  All we need do is to take seriously Christ’s own words about how we should live, while not transforming him into something he’s not.  Christ was the supremely good man, but to stop there is to abandon Christianity for temperate wisdom.  Christ was closer to an Old Testament prophet, predicting the fate of a greedy and selfish people.  That he used myth as well as truth to do this is just one more continuity between Christ and the prophets.


* The difference between realized and inaugurated eschatology is not crystal clear.  Realized eschatology says that the eschaton was begun and completed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  What remains is to complete the work begun by Jesus.  The work is historical, not transhistorical.  Inaugurated eschatology says that while Jesus began the eschaton, it remains to be finished with his return.  “Already but not yet” is its slogan.  The distinction makes a real theological difference, but it’s hard to see how each would guide practice differently. 


Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry.  Wesleyan University Press, 2nd edition, 1988. 

Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology. New York: Scribner, 1958.

Rudolf Bultmann, History and Eschatology: The Presence of Eternity.  Baylor University Press, 2019.

David W. Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology.  Wipf and Stock, 2015.

C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures. Fontana Books, 1965.

Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man.  Free Press, 2006.  

Robert Funk, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, new translation and commentary, with Roy Hoover and the Jesus Seminar.  Harper, 1997.

George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament.  Eerdmans, 1993.

Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology. SCM, 1967.

N. T. Wright, “The End of the World?”, Gifford Lectures no. 4. History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology. Baylor University Press, 2019.


It should have been a good book by a dying man.

It should have been a good book by a dying man.  Review of The end of Christian life, by J. Todd Billings

This should have been a good book.  Billings is dying of a slow-growing cancer.  He will not die young, but he will not die old either.  Billings’ reflections on death have an urgency lacking for most authors.  But the book doesn’t work.  He criticizes the prosperity gospel, but a heavenly version takes its place.  Why can’t people just die?  Is the question too simple?  Too harsh?

The pit

Sheol, misleadingly translated in the Septuagint* as Hades, is the pit, Gehenna, a burning garbage dump outside Jerusalem, generally considered a metaphor for Hell.  Sheol is mentioned 66 times in the Hebrew Bible (Strong’s Hebrew 7285).  Most of the time it sounds like Sheol in the Odyssey (book 11), where feeble shades float around in what we might call a semi-conscious state.  Eleven times Jesus refers to Gehenna, only once to Hades (Luke 16:19-31).  Never does he go into detail, for he is far more interested in heaven, the kingdom of God on earth.  That’s what the Sermon on the Mount is about (Matthew 5-6)

“In general, I suspect that no mortal lives for long without visiting Sheol for a time.” (p 30)  Billings makes a good point.  If Sheol is alienation from God and man, then one might say that it is the living, especially when confronted with the death of a beloved, but also in states of serious depression who are in Sheol.  For some, a diagnosis of incurable cancer will be enough to send them there. 

But we are the ones wailing, not the deceased.  It’s almost as if we are the ones who have gone to Sheol, not them. (p 34)


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Heaven can wait: Three Views of Heaven

Heaven can wait: Three Views of Heaven.

If you’re good, then when you die, you’ll go to heaven.  This seems to be the traditional Christian view.  In fact, Jesus never said any such thing. 

The ideas of a glorious hereafter for some souls and torment for others, to come at the point of death, cannot be found either in the Old Testament or in the teachings of the historical Jesus. To put it succinctly: the founder of Christianity did not believe that the soul of a person who died would go to heaven or hell. (Ehrman, p 16)

Ehrman is correct, but he is making some implicit distinctions that are not obvious.  Jesus believed in the resurrection of the body, not the soul.  Jesus also believed that the Kingdom of Heaven would be established on earth, not somewhere in the sky.  So, one could just as well say that Jesus believed in a glorious life after death for some, and death for others.  Hell plays a relatively small role in Jesus’ teaching. 

Three views of the afterlife

Three views of the afterlife are present in the Bible.  The third is implicit, and probably the most important.  The three are:

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What’s wrong with a secular world?

A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor, is 874 pages long.  A critic says “its size is preposterous.  No work of philosophy needs to be anywhere this long.” (Larmore).  A Rumor Angels, by Peter Berger, is 104 pages long.  It makes much the same argument as Taylor, and makes it more clearly.  Clarity is almost always a virtue; in this case, because it allows us to see where each goes wrong.  Berger appears more obviously wrong than Taylor, but that is mostly because we can see his argument more clearly.      

Both seek an experience of transcendence that lifts us out of a strictly secular world.  Both use human needs as the basis of transcendence, indeed as the basis of belief in God.  And both have it backward.  Founding the experience of transcendence in human needs makes the experience of God a strictly human affair.  Perhaps this is not such a terrible thing, but it is not what they are aiming at.   

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The baby logic of C. S. Lewis: Jesus was either mad, bad, or God

The baby logic of C. S. Lewis: Jesus was either mad, bad, or God

A popular way of thinking about God among evangelical Christians is C. S. Lewis’ forced choice strategy: Jesus was either mad, bad, or God (pp 52-53). Chuck Colson, Nixon’s hatchet man, was sentenced for obstruction of justice. He spent seven months in prison, and there become an enthusiastic evangelical Christian.  It was this choice between mad, bad, or God, he said, that convinced him to become a Christian (Silliman, p 120). 

What does Lewis mean?

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse . . . . But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (Lewis, p 52)

Right away the equation of madness with thinking you’re a poached egg, while amusing, biases the question. It assumes that there is only one degree and type of madness, total bonkers, and that madness today looks like madness then. What if Jesus was neither mad, nor bad, nor God? Why are these the only three choices? What if Jesus were mad in a way that was a socially recognized, even acceptable, form of deviance?  

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Around the time of Jesus, there were a number of men running around Judea and the Galilee claiming to be the Messiah predicted in Jewish scripture. After the Dead Sea Scrolls were finally published (in the late 1980s), Israel Knohl wrote The Messiah Before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  There he refers to the “son of God” text, one who would be “great over the earth.”

These are exactly the terms in which the archangel Gabriel described Jesus in the annunciation to Mary (loc 789-790).

He would be “the son of God and son of the Most High.” (loc 793-794)

Michael Wise has made a similar argument in The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Jesus, also based on the Dead Sea Scrolls. His point, like Knohl’s, is that the idea of the suffering servant of God would have been available to Jesus during his lifetime. It was not a subsequent invention. If this is so, then Jesus could have been filling a socially recognized role, badly needed during the turmoil following Herod’s death (4 BCE). 

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