Yes, that’s the best title I could come up with.
Rachael Slick, daughter of the founder of Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, recently wrote a guest post on “The Friendly Atheist.” In it, she shared what it was like to grow up in a household that obsessed over apologetics (defending the Christian faith). She writes courageously, and, as I post my thoughts, I don’t want to take that away from her. Growing up in the shadow of CARM sounds like it was absolutely bonkers, and I sense that her writing comes from a place of pain and struggle.
One part of her story particularly caught my attention: She explained that her breaking point with faith in Jesus came from a question that she was unable to answer. This makes sense, because when you emphasize apologetics to the exclusion of almost everything else, an unanswerable question quickly becomes a proverbial nail in a coffin. She was raised to have all the answers in order to “prove” the Christian faith, and when she didn’t, her system fell apart. That is, unfortunately, a very common story.
She writes (warning – heady, philosophical concepts up ahead):
“If God was absolutely moral, because morality was absolute, and if the nature of “right” and “wrong” surpassed space, time, and existence, and if it was as much a fundamental property of reality as math, then why were some things a sin in the Old Testament but not a sin in the New Testament?”
She then continued:
“Everyone had always explained this problem away using the principle that Jesus’ sacrifice meant we wouldn’t have to follow those ancient laws. But that wasn’t an answer. In fact, by the very nature of the problem, there was no possible answer that would align with Christianity.”
She approached faith in an extremely absolute, black and white way, as she was taught. Put more simply, she asks, “If God’s requirements for humanity are absolute (reflecting God’s own righteous ‘absoluteness’), and violating those requirements is sin, then why do the requirements change in the New Testament? Is God changing the rules, and, therefore, himself (which isn’t allowed, by definition)?”
If we read the Bible as though it were written by modern, western Americans, then yes: there is no way to satisfactorily answer her question – simply stating that “Jesus died for it” doesn’t explain everything. But the Bible wasn’t written by Americans. It’s a distinctly Jewish collection of writings, even (and especially) the New Testament. The point of the “Old Testament” laws, about which I assume she means the laws described in Torah (the food laws, laws about hair and clothes, etc.), isn’t morality. We do see moral laws, such as don’t murder, but most of the regulations are ceremonial and cultic in nature.
Why have these laws? There are two facets that are important. First, it separated Israel from everyone else. The laws formed a dividing line, so everyone would know that the people of Israel were different from all other people. This was a way to enact and live out the fact that God had chosen them specifically and specially, because they even looked different, acted differently, ate different foods, etc.
Second, as time went on, many Jewish people (now after the return from exile beginning in 538 BC) also saw that the history of their people was heading in a certain direction. God would vindicate his people, right the wrongs, and establish his kingdom on earth. Often this was seen as the role of the Messiah, but some viewed this as the thing God was going to do on “The Last Day,” the day of Resurrection. These two ideas also overlapped, but an explanation would take way too long for a single article.
In the wake of this anticipation, the writers of the New Testament came to realize that when Jesus took on the mantle of priest and king (as Messiah), went to his death, and then was vindicated when God raised him from the dead, all of those ancient laws, ceremonies, and cultic practices were actually signposts which looked ahead to the day that God himself would fulfill them.
Or, to get at the question raised above, it isn’t that Jesus’ sacrifice cancels them out. Rather, Jesus took on the task of being Israel throughout his life, faithfully following and interpreting Torah, and he fulfilled the role of Israel’s king and priest. In Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s covenant, God deems the covenant fulfilled. And Jesus, being the representative of Israel, actually represents the nation who was supposed to be the representatives of all humanity. Jesus’ faithfulness to the covenant (all those “Old Testament Laws,” if you will) implies our faithfulness, so long as we are in him.
The “problem” raised by the writer isn’t with God changing the nature of morality, but, rather, she has forgotten that the Bible isn’t to be read like a math textbook. The Bible has a narrative arc, meaning it moves in a certain direction within history and has a goal. When Jesus (the goal) hits the scene, we then can look back and reinterpret the story because we now know where the story has been heading.
Once we step out of the Bible-as-set-of-axiomatic-principles and God-as-fundamental-properties world that we have inherited from modernity, and once we step into the world of the Bible, all sorts of things that didn’t make sense actually fit together quite well. And, *spoiler alert*, it begins and ends with Jesus.