A critical aspect of Christian theology is the confession that salvation comes to those who are "in Christ." But what does that mean?
For some it means orthodoxy, right belief. Those who are "in Christ" are those who overtly and publicly confess that "Jesus is Lord."
The trouble with that notion is that Jesus explicitly teaches against that view: Matthew 7.21: "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." So there seems to be more to being "in Christ" than the confession that "Jesus is Lord." It seems that, to be "in Christ," we have to "do the will of the Father." Here we move away from orthodoxy to orthopraxy, from right belief to right practice.
This is an old and ongoing debate, and it sets the backdrop for the most provocative chapter in Roll Bell's Love Wins.
Chapter 6 of Love Wins is entitled "There are Rocks Everywhere."
This is my favorite chapter of Love Wins as it is the most theologically creative. The chapter is, at root, a chapter about Christology (the doctrine of Christ).
Early in the chapter Bell points us to the story in Exodus 17 where the people of God are thirsty in the desert and call on Moses and God for water.
Exodus 17.1-6So, Moses strikes the rock and water comes forth in the desert to quench the thirst of the Israelites. After pointing to this story Bell then goes on to cite the audacious and shocking exegesis of Exodus 17 from the Apostle Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians:
The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?”
But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
The LORD answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.
1 Corinthians 10.1-4Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is some pretty daring Christology. Paul in 1 Cor. 10.4 states that the rock in Exodus 17 was Christ. Talk about experimental theology...
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.
Here is Bell's unpacking of Paul's Christological analysis:
Jesus was the rock?Theologians would call this a "high Christology," an example of a "cosmic Christology" where Jesus is understood to be woven into the very fabric of creation. As Bell says, "Paul finds Jesus everywhere." The classic example of this high or cosmic Christology is John 1:
How is that? Christ is mentioned nowhere in the story. Moses strikes the rock, it provides water, and the people have something to drink.
Paul, however, reads another story in the story, insisting that Christ was present in that moment, that Christ was providing the water they needed to survive--that Jesus was giving, quenching, sustaining.
Jesus was, he says, the rock.
According to Paul,
Jesus was there.
Without anybody using his name.
Without anybody saying that it was him.
Without anybody acknowledging just what, or, more precisely, who--it was.
Paul's interpretation that Christ was present in the Exodus raises the question:
Where else has Christ been present?
With who else?
Paul find Jesus there,
in that rock,
because Paul finds Jesus everywhere.
John 1.1-3The high Christology of John is very different from the lower Christologies found in the Synoptic gospels. Compare "In the beginning was the Word" with the opening of Matthew:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
Matthew 1.1It's one thing to be the Messiah (low Christology) and quite another to be the Logos through whom the world was created (high Christology).
This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham...
Both sorts of Christology are on display in the New Testament, and we really don't need to choose between them, but the high Christology of John 1 and 1 Cor. 10 can radically reframe what it might mean to be "in Christ." Consider, as Bell does later in Chapter 6, the high Christology of Colossians 1:
Colossians 1.15-20Here we find echos of the Christology of John 1. Through the Son "all things were created." More, all things were created "for him." The Son is the telos, the goal, the direction, the end point of creation. Everything is heading toward the Son. Still more, "in him all things hold together." The Son is the animating force of the cosmos, the fabric or web holding everything together. Here we see the idea Paul was gesturing toward when he said "that rock is Christ." Jesus is everywhere in creation. Finally, the Son will "reconcile to himself all things...making peace through his blood shed on the cross."
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Created. Held together. Reconciled.
Past. Present. Future.
In light of the high Christology of Colossians 1, 1 Corinthians 10, and John 1--where Christ is "everywhere" and holds "everything" together--we wonder what it means to be "in Christ." If Christ already holds everything together isn't everything, in a sense, already "in Christ"?
In short, a high Christology might radically reconfigure what being "in Christ" might mean. We might, for example, be "in Christ" in the same way the Jews were in Exodus 17. Saved, rescued, sustained, and blessed without realizing Christ is there, without confessing that Christ is present.
This, obviously, raises a host of questions about how Christians relate to other world religions. Might there be Exodus 17 rocks in the experience of other faiths outside of Christianity? Might other religions, like the Jews in Exodus 17, be saved by Christ without their explicit awareness and confession?
What we have in this view is a sort of fusion between exclusivism and inclusivism. Salvation comes to those "in Christ" but with a cosmic Christology "in Christ" has been radically expanded allowing Christ to be the savior for others in an Exodus 17 sort of way. Here is Bell toward the end of Chapter 6 on this point:
[T]here is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity. This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum.In sum, what we see in all this is how a high Christology can create space for a more inclusive vision of God's saving purposes while holding onto the exclusivistic claim that all are saved "in" or "through" Jesus Christ. It's all a matter of how big your Jesus is. About if you think there are any more Exodus 17 rocks out there.
As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn't matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn't matter what you believe, and so forth.
Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.
What Jesus does is declare that he,
and he alone,
is saving everybody.
And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.
That said, I think skeptical readers of Love Wins will wonder about Bell's handwaving remarks that his high Christology hasn't thrown out the cross. And to be honest, it's true that he doesn't do a lot more in Chapter 6 to explain how the cross fits into the cosmic Christology he's deployed. So, to end this post, I'd like to sketch out something along these lines, something that Bell could have said in response. And it has to do with how I started the post, with the distinction between confessing "Lord, Lord" (which doesn't save you) versus "doing the will of the Father" (which does save you).
The issue, again, goes back to what it might mean to be "in Christ." More specifically, how does the cross get us "in Christ" when Christ is everywhere?
To get at an answer I'd like to borrow from the panentheistic analysis of Jürgen Moltmann in his book Trinity and Kingdom. Specifically, the "Christ is everywhere" formulation might lead us to assume a pantheistic position where we see an equivalency between God and creation. This doesn't seem very orthodox, but if we resist this equivalency what are our options? What might it mean to say that God creates something that exists "outside" of God? Can anything be "outside" of God? Isn't God omnipresent? And if God is omnipresent then how can creation exist outside of or externally to God? Creation has to be "in God" in some form or fashion, correct? And if so, doesn't that lead to pantheism?
Not necessarily. According to Moltmann, building off some Jewish theologians, God's creation involves two parts. The first part is God's withdrawal. A negative action of God to create space for creation. This "making room" for creation involves an act of self-limitation on God's part. After this negative space has been created the second, positive act of creation can occur. Here God speaks a positive word into the vacuum that was created through God's self-limitation. These two phases of creation are like breathing. First, a breathing in--passivity, vacuum, a pulling in. Followed by a breathing out--activity, creation, a moving out.
This formulation creates a panentheistic position. God isn't equivalent to creation. Nor is creation "outside" or independent of God, a object "beside" or "next to" God. Rather, creation is a space within God, a negative space that God has evacuated to make room for the Other.
This is a very paradoxical space. We are "in God" but in a way marked by the absence of God. We exist in a space that God has evacuated. Because of God's self-limitation the space of creation is marked by god-forsakenness, the loss or lack of God. We exist--positive creation--because God has self-limited--negative creation. The practical implication of this panentheism is that God can only appear in creation--the space of God's self-limitation--as weakness.
This is where the cross comes in. What does God look like in this world? God looks like Jesus on the cross. This is the idea I was trying to communicate in my recent post Your God is too Big which, if you haven't already, you should read as I don't want to say all that again. But let me at least remind you of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's commentary of how God comes to us in this world:
God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.All this is just a theological way of saying that "God is love" (1 John 4.8). Love--that is how God moves in this world, this space of God's self-limitation. This is why some of the church fathers proclaimed that "force is has no part of God."
And this brings me back to the start of the post. What does it mean to be "in Christ"? It means to love. To love as Jesus loved. To live a cruciform life. To take up our cross and follow him.
Yes, it's true that "Christ is everywhere." But what does this mean? I think it means that wherever love exists God is present. Because God is love. And that is how the cross is necessary for us to be found "in Christ." True, in one sense, as created beings, we are already on the "inside," but in a god-forsaken way. To exist is, to some extent, to be on the inside of the omnipresent God, but this existence is in the space of God's absence. So, to really be on the inside of creation, to be with God in creation, we need to go through the cross, to follow the path that Jesus walked. Jesus on the cross shows us the Father, shows us where God is located in this space called "creation." And when we follow Jesus to God, when we go through the cross, when we love, we find the Father in this world. On the cross Jesus shows us that "God is love." So we pick up our own cross to "do the will of the Father."
And this, according to Jesus, is what saves us. This is how the cross allows us to be truly and fully "in Christ."