One of the ways Christians often handcuff themselves for the mission Jesus has given us is by misunderstanding the nature of sin. Here we need a heavy dose of Augustine who explained that evil is the absence of good, the privation of good. Which means that evil is always parasitic. There is no such thing as evil per se, it is the distortion, the twisting of something good that God made. But though we may nod in vigorous Augustinian salute, we are often not suspicious enough. In practice, we seem to think that this means all sin, all evil will masquerade about in red leotards waving a pitchfork and laughing maniacally. And short any of the uniform, we quickly resort to defenses of the goodness of creation and how-can-you-judge-their-hearts? lamitudes — which is a new word I coined just now, combining lame and platitudes.
In 2 Kings 18, Hezekiah took up the enormous task of reformation in Judah. At the time, Judah had become a third world thugocracy, and just like today, the signs of the idolatry driving the injustice were everywhere. Some of them were clearly labeled (Grove of Ashteroth: aim holy sledgehammer here.) And Hezekiah duly threw down the high places, destroyed the images, and cut down the groves of sacred pillars and trees where the abominations took place. But some of the abominations were disguised. They were demons dressed up for Halloween like saints. This is why one of the most courageous things Hezekiah did was tear down the bronze serpent that Moses had made centuries before.
In Numbers 21, when the people of Israel rebelled against God, complaining about His care for them, resenting His salvation in bringing them out of Egypt, God sent fiery serpents to bite the people. And those who were bitten died (Num. 21:6). So the people cried out to the Lord and repented of their sin and asked God to take away the serpents. When Moses prayed, God told him to make a bronze serpent pierced on a pole, and He promised that whoever had been bitten, when they looked upon the bronze serpent, would be healed.
Understandably, Israel kept this bronze serpent for centuries. It was a visual reminder of God’s great deliverance and salvation for His people. Nevertheless one of the things that idolatrous hearts do is turn good gifts into idols. Sometimes, the idolatry can be repented of and the proper use easily restored. But sometimes the righteous thing to do is call the spade a spade, the idol an idol and tear the damn thing down.
Now of course when Hezekiah did the deed, there were almost certainly some Jewish traditionalists who hyperventilated and had to breathe into a bag for a while. They would have argued vehemently that the bronze serpent was not an idol. And of course they would have been technically right but theologically wrong. It had been commanded by God. It was a great memorial of His salvation. Right. Correct. Exactly. But sometimes when that very God-given gift is so tangled up with human sin, it must be given up, destroyed.
This is the kind of fearless idol-thrashing that would need to start happening in certain Orthodox and Roman churches for me to even start believing their smug gnat-strangling distinctions between veneration and adoration. And I don’t care if you can say it in Latin. That just makes it worse. If some Archbishop took a sledgehammer to an icon of Mary, and then turned around and insisted that the seventh ecumenical council still had a point, I’d be willing to give him the time of day. But as it stands, the EOs and RCs that do their strutting online, condescendingly patting the poor protestant souls on the head for their so-called ignorance, just confirm that they are not of the spirit of Hezekiah, and so we don’t want any.
To be clear, I have always held, and continue to affirm that there are many genuine Christians in both communions, but with the Reformers, I insist that this is despite the actual teachings and predominant practices of their churches. In our church, members of those congregations are warmly invited to the Lord’s Supper because Jesus is the head of His church and not the dudes with the fancy hats.
But we are not immune to our own versions of this in mainstream protestant evangelicalism. We have the hipster phenom, we have the insecure-girl-got-another-piercing phenom, we have the politically-correct-me-too-ism, and piles of Christians bowing and scraping at pagan shrines in shopping malls and theaters and stadiums and seminaries. And the immediate response comes back, but didn’t God make us free? Didn’t God create tobacco? Doesn’t He like art? Shouldn’t we care about creation and the environment? Isn’t theology a good thing? Yes. Certainly.
Yes, but piles of Christians are like Rachel riding out of an oppressive and tyrannical Egypt sitting on the household idols. What are you doing with those black-rimmed glasses? What are you doing with that cigarette? Why are you wearing that sorry excuse for a skirt? Why are you posting that article about the third world child labor that made all the Halloween chocolate?
But isn’t treating children badly a bad thing, pastor? Yes, of course it is. But what are you doing? Do you know where that came from? You see there’s a pantheon of gods out there with piles of people bowing and scraping and venerating, hoping to appease their aching consciences. And they bring their offerings like Cain, offerings of environmental do-gooding and third world do-gooding and hip-and-trendy-me-against-the-world-ism (like Athanasius in skinny jeans).
Let me be clear: Paul said that everything is cleansed by faith and thanksgiving. Just because somebody worships their homosexual god with skinny jeans, that doesn’t mean that skinny jeans are unclean. God made that fabric, that stitching, including the button and the zipper — even if it was made in China. Nothing unclean about it. Same thing with ink and paint, environmental care, and mercy work in third world countries. But Christians can’t just say the world is good, and therefore this thing I found in front of the shrine of Athena is fine. They make their stuff and do their deeds as acts of worship to their gods. You can’t assume that just because they use the same words, they mean the same thing. Maybe or maybe not. Mormons believe in Jesus too.
Yes, there’s probably something good in there somewhere. But often it needs complete restructuring, redefining, a complete makeover. Often it just needs to be thrown down, and broken in pieces. Yes, the whole world has been given to Jesus, and therefore it belongs to us in Him. But the whole world has been crucified in Him, the whole world has been pierced and lifted up on a pole. Only as we see the whole world broken, the whole world dead, can it begin to live again. Then it is given back as grace, and then it can become a spiritual act of praise.
This is no retreatist mentality. This is not fear mongering that we might get yucky spiritual cooties from pagans. Not hardly. This is a call to arms, a call to war, a call to conquest. Jesus sent us into the world as His ambassadors. And that means we’ll need to eat food and wear clothes, and yay for that. But let’s remember what we’re here to do. We’re not here to play footsie and make eyes with the Amalekites. We’re here to nail everything to the cross of Jesus so that the entire world might be born again. And that new world is coming now. It is full of light and glory and pleasures forevermore. Don’t settle for less.