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Last updated March 03.

March 3, 2014 issue

Salvation here and now

By Daniel Hertzler

When I first saw the title of this book, I wondered idly whether the author might be an atheist. On second thought, atheists probably do not bother with heaven. It is God they want to get rid of.

In fact, author Wes Bergen is a Mennonite scholar (and current mission worker in Ghana) from North Newton, Kan., who has taught Bible at Wichita State University. Maybe he developed this book from his notes for Bib Lit 101. Occasionally he refers to students’ inadequate views of the Bible. His anti-heaven emphasis may come from weariness at hearing their religious cliches.

The book’s purpose, Bergen writes, is to encourage salvation to happen rather than just talk about it. His students believe salvation is all about going to heaven. But Bergen asserts that “going to heaven is not a significant part of a biblical understanding of salvation. This is not to say it doesn’t exist as part of the answer of what salvation is, but it isn’t a major part.”

Bergen says he discussed his thesis with various groups, including high school youth. He cites the influence of scholars who “point me back to the text, to the Bible as it is rather than the Bible as I want it to be.”

Bergen’s path to understanding salvation takes an unusual turn. He approaches first the Old Testament and then the New from the standpoint of “bad news, good news.” First the bad, then the good.

Bad news in the Bible? Anabaptists have always viewed the Old Testament from the perspective of the New, because we find the greatest good news in the New. We might not look for bad news in the Old Testament, but on occasion we might avert our eyes — as, for example, from the seamy stories in Judges. I do not recall that these stories bothered me when I read the Bible as a child. It seems children are able to pass over such tragedies without being shocked as adults might be.

What is Bergen’s bad news in the Old Testament? He is particularly concerned about the “Grand Narrative” — Genesis to 2 Chronicles — which, he says, “reached its current form sometime after the Israelites are taken into captivity in Babylon… . I’m going to presume that the Grand Narrative reflects the ongoing debate within the community of Israel during the Persian period (roughly 520-330 B.C.).”

Because most of the Grand Narrative’s writers did not cite their sources, we are left to imagine how the narrative developed. Rabbis surmised Moses wrote the Pentateuch, and this idea has persisted. To suggest otherwise is to invite a backlash. Years ago when I was editing Sunday school material, a writer observed that Genesis was probably written in Babylon. I thought this was reasonable, but I should have crossed it out. The statement caused such a stir that management felt the need to put an advertisement in Gospel Herald, the Mennonite Church magazine, to apologize.

I agree in general with Bergen on how the Hebrew Bible came together. My hunch is that Jewish leaders in Babylon took their cue from Jeremiah 29 and wanted to help their children avoid the mistakes that brought them to exile. So, they said, we need to teach them our story and also the law of the Lord as in Deut. 6:4-9 — whose teaching methods some Jews still follow literally.

Bergen says it was only when the writers looked to the distant past that they saw God working in remarkable ways as the Israelites got out of Egypt and into the promised land. The return from Babylon was not like this at all: “No plagues, no manna, no angels.” I have not noticed that Ezra and Nehemiah complained about this lack, and I wonder if Bergen is making too much of it.

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  • '...'Bergen asserts that “going to heaven is not a significant part of a biblical understanding of salvation. This is not to say it doesn’t exist as part of the answer of what salvation is, but it isn’t a major part.” '

    If my recently departed sister could read that, I wonder what she would say. But I doubt very much she would agree. After all, her 53 years with us was just a blip in time in comparison to her new life forever with Jesus Christ. Had she lived twice as long here, to the ripe old age of 106, that still would only be one blip times two in the face of eternity. I think God's gift of salvation which leads to being with Him is pretty significant. I also think Bergen's book is best left on the shelf.

    - Elaine Fehr (mar 6 at 7:13 p.m.)

  • I find this idea refreshing. I have come to some of these same conclusions in my own journey. In my experience, many Christians have single-mindedly pursued the idea that the afterlife is all that matters with impressive dedication. I don't know how many times I was told to convert people so I could save their eternal souls, and was taught to say "what if you're wrong, what happens when you die?" as if Christianity didn't affect this life, but was merely a ticket to eternal paradise. If that is the case, why bother doing anything in this life, since it will all be over so soon? It's a dangerous way of thinking.

    I would rather see people making a difference in this world, instead of sitting back and waiting for the next, because if the next life is paradise, we don't need to feed the poor, support the oppressed, or stand against injustice. It will all be over soon. All we would have to do is convert the poor, the oppressed, and the persecuted and we can just wait for the next life when someone else will take care of them. Not our problem. Following Christ is so much more than a "get-out-of-hell-free card," if it is that at all.

    - Scott R. Troyer (mar 11 at 8:38 p.m.)

  • Scott, what kind of difference in the world are Mennonites making these days? The Mennonites are promoting same sex covenant relationships which violate scripture. They teach pacifism which Jesus did not. How many soup kitchens did Jesus set up? How many times did Jesus go into the government judicial system and protest against any injustice? How many times did Jesus take his disciples to a crucifixion and protest the death penalty?

    If Jesus were here, do you think he would purchase a vehicle and mount a mini drone on it and drive it to war protest rallies as did that retired couple in PA? Would Jesus take his disciples to the fund raiser in PA recently in support of same sex covenant relationships? Would he put his application in at EMU to teach Anabaptist history?

    How do you bridge these things with what Jesus said in the Great Commission which reads as follows: "And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen".

    - Dale Welty (mar 11 at 10:29 p.m.)

  • Sorry, but I gotta go with Scott's idea - kinda like that goat and sheep thing Jesus had going in Matthew 25.

    - Debra Bender (mar 11 at 11:26 p.m.)

  • Scott, what are Mennonites doing to help the oppressed that had their healthcare insurance canceled by Obamacare? What about those others oppressed who had their insurance costs significantly increased by Obamacare?

    I also await your response to my 10:29 p.m. comments above.

    - Dale Welty (mar 12 at 11:15 a.m.)

  • Mr. Welty,

    Since you seem so insistent on getting a response from my, I'll provide one (singular).

    First, I am not saying that Mennonites are making a difference in the world. I also am not saying that they are not. I am saying that followers of Christ should work towards that end, regardless of denomination. (Just to be clear, this also addresses your more recent comment)

    Second, I can easily see the idea of feeding the poor and caring for the ill in the actions of Christ and of the early church. Specifically, I recall one particular occasion where Christ fed 5,000 men and their families (Matt. 14:19-21).

    Third, one could argue compellingly that the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) contains a number of calls to stand against injustice by upsetting the social norm (loving enemies, not taking an eye for an eye, turning the other cheek, giving all your clothes to the man who sued you, going 2 miles instead of 1. All of these upset social expectations, and in several cases worked to expose the injustice of contemporary laws). This is not the place to exegete this particular scripture, but know that this interpretation exists with considerable scholarly backing. If you wish to know more, I suggest using an academic database or your local library to find some of this scholarship.

    Fourth, nothing I have said contradicts the so-called "Great Commission." By acting in the world, followers of Christ are teaching by example what Christ has taught them. As for baptism, it can still be offered to all those who choose it.

    I hope this clarifies my insights for you.

    - Scott R. Troyer (mar 12 at 3:50 p.m.)

  • Scott, I have no intention to utilize scholarly backing to interpret and understand scriptures where the Bible clearly identifies certain lifestyles as sin. It was the Apostle Paul who gave strong compliment to the Church at Berea saying in Acts 17:11: These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. Further, they were filled with the Holy Spirit which aided them in their learning and Godly living. It is quit likely they had been through the Pentecost experience. They had that thirst for righteousness which Jesus spoke about.

    - Dale Welty (mar 14 at 10:19 p.m.)

  • Scott, I just want to point out that I don't believe that salvation is not of great importance in living our lives in the here and now. Being set free from the bondage of sin allows us to live fulfilled lives in Christ.

    I strongly object, though, with Bergen's notion that "going to heaven is not a significant part of a biblical understanding of salvation. This is not to say it doesn’t exist as part of the answer of what salvation is, but it isn’t a major part".

    - Elaine Fehr (mar 14 at 10:50 p.m.)

  • The title did indeed pique my interest. Salvation is most certainly available here and now the moment we transfer our trust from ourselves to Jesus Christ! But sadly the article said (read) something completely different. Is this not a little bit less than honest to make the title say one thing and the article something else?

    - whentz40 (mar 24 at 6:52 p.m.)

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