One of the things I’ve noted elsewhere is that frequently the work of the evangelist is to awaken love. Part of the insidious destruction of human beings by sin is the corrosion of love. Sometimes belief in God and belief in Christ must begin with belief in the bare existence of goodness, beauty, and truth. We are often dealing with the fragmentary remains of love: where love has nearly died, nearly succumbed to cynicism and despair. Wonderfully, God’s grace meets us where we are and not where we should have been, and God’s grace is always miraculous, supernatural, and sovereign. Nevertheless, it is not inappropriate to notice patterns.
One pattern is the fact that there is more than one kind of rebellion against God, and some forms of rebellion are nearer to God than others. This is hardly a defense or justification for that rebellion, but it is the recognition that some are nearer the Kingdom than others. It’s the recognition that some forms of sinful unbelief are more likely to enter the Kingdom ahead of others. Jesus said it like this: “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you [chief priests and elders of the people].” (Mt. 21:31)
One way to understand this is fairly straightforward. Frequently those at the fringes of society enter the Kingdom ahead of the respectable, well-dressed businessmen and religious folks. But wisdom also recognizes that sin and sinful people are frequently more complicated. Sin loves to hide and dodge the truth. Sin loves nuance and ambiguity. And so this is how we end up with Pharisees dressing up like the fringe. Some Pharisees strut their pride with expensive suits and big houses and fast cars. Other Pharisees stroke their egos by shopping at thrift stores, living in a small apartment, and riding their bike to work. Pharisees are chameleons, and depending on the context, they morph and shift.
In other words, there are fundamental identity issues at work here. The tax collectors and harlots that Jesus was talking about knew who they were. They were the scum of society. In our day, we have wannabe tax collectors and sinners. Of course they don’t actually want to be the scum of society, but they want to pretend to be in order to make it look like they were the ones Jesus was talking about. But the sinners and tax collectors in Jesus day had real skin in the game. Their identities were bound up with selling their souls to their Roman overlords or else selling their bodies for a living. And they were trapped. They couldn’t undo their identities.
But part of the stealth pharisaism of modern culture is intentionally shape-shifting and therefore ambiguous, unidentifiable, or at least multi-identifiable. You can shape shift through the decades as the fads and fashions roll through, blown about by every wind of doctrine: food, clothing, hairstyles, philosophies, music, political parties, whatever. Of course, unless you make your own clothes and cut your own hair and grow all your own food, it’s not like you can avoid a certain degree of this. So don’t hear me as accusing anybody of being a Pharisee on account of shopping.
My point is one of identity. The reason real harlots and tax collectors frequently entered the Kingdom ahead of others was precisely because they had identities. They knew they were outcasts. But they knew it and weren’t pretending that in a few minutes they could reinvent themselves. They weren’t pretending they could become something else, someone else after a few clicks on Amazon.
I suspect there’s something of a uniquely Christian radio active half life going on here. The culture is no longer Christian in any meaningful sense of the word, but we long for the experience of forgiveness and regeneration, and so we cop it through external forms, reinventing our identities with new clothes, new fashions, new styles, new affiliations. Of course that doesn’t really work, and so the really desperate people go in for something more physical, something more permanent. Tattoos and piercings are heading in this direction — they demand more of a commitment, but they can still be covered (usually) or removed or taken out. But the really dedicated ones are attracted to plastic surgery and sex change operations. This is the height of materialistic regeneration. I’m sure in a few years, genetic jimmying will also be part of this god-complex.
But the point is that this shape shifting is a semi-clever cover for the only constant theme which is “me.” I am the center. Try this. Try that. Buy this. Put this on. Reinvent yourself. Re-make yourself. Be yourself. But the not-so-subtile subtext to all the rootlessness, the common denominator of it all is the love of self, the love of me. The rootless are eternally self-serving, self-oriented, self-centered. And this is why everything becomes a mere accessory. Everything is used for what it can give me. The world is not loved. The world is not delighted in. The world is merely used and tossed away. And this is why ironically materialism actually often breeds a radical detachment from the world, a sort of materialistic gnosticism. You don’t love the gifts all around you; you just use them to feed your ego.
This is why I think C.S Lewis says somewhere that Hell will not primarily be filled with serial killers and rapists. Hell will be filled with bland and shallow human beings who are obsessed with themselves. They spent their lives serving themselves through food fads and shopping trends and with whatever was fashionable at the moment. Many murderers will turn and cry out to God for mercy as the axe falls, as their days dwindle in their prison cells. But the gum chewing, magazine-fingering, fashion-longing will see no need to repent. They are perfectly satisfied careening from identity to new identity, buying new clothes, finding a new diet, getting their hair cut a different way, reinventing themselves which is just to say: worshiping themselves. This is the offer of regeneration by accessory, but it’s actually death by accessory. When the coin in the coffer rings, five more minutes of narcissism springs. Life is just one long costume party, only they were the only one invited. And actually, they much prefer it that way.
This is why I suspect that commercialism and materialism are far greater evils than nationalism ever dreamed up. Nationalism gave us racism and jingoism and imperialism and some horrific holocausts — with screams and blood and warfare to boot. But commercialism and materialism have given us the silent, clinical holocaust of abortion on demand, transgenderism, and the casual Satanism of constant distraction. Here the identity of the human being is being slowly torn apart piece by piece, sucking the love of everything, the love of anything out of the soul.
At least the old heresies demanded commitment; at least the old evils insisted on blood. The old heresies destroyed human beings rather bluntly, like a two by four to the face. But the modern heresy of multiple personalities, multiple identities destroys human beings by shredding their souls into so many bits. Now there’s nothing left to hit, nothing to slam into God’s grace. The obsession with “me” fragments the ego into so many pieces that every confrontation is avoidable. No category quite fits. Nothing exactly applies to me. I am much more complicated than that. This is literally death by nuance. Which is probably what Hell is actually quite like. It’s not so much that the grace of God can’t reach them; it’s that their souls and loves have been so deracinated that there is literally nothing left for the grace of God to collide with. The tax collectors and harlots know who they are. They are trapped. They are lost. And in that very condition and for that very reason, they can be saved. They will enter the Kingdom ahead of many. But if you don’t know who you are or where you are, if you’ve studiously trained your soul to blend into anything, everything, what is there left of you? What of you truly remains that the grace of God, the love of God can receive and heal and make new?
The good news is that we live in God’s world and people are truly made in His image and therefore even the very baubles we use to distract ourselves from Him, can frequently be made by Him to be the very place we meet Him. It’s a tricky business trying to run from the Lord. He’s been known to catch the runners. He’s been known to send great fish to swallow the divers. And so the good news, the gospel of Jesus, is that so long as there is breath in our bodies, there is still soul enough to save.
And love is hard to kill. It’s been known to be dead and buried for three days and yet still rise again.