by John Ellis
“[I]n embodying the cross, the church throws into question Everyman’s everyday assumptions about the meaning of life and the human good.” Kevin Vanhoozer
Religion is not a private matter – true religion, that is. The cross demands otherwise. Multiple times, the Gospels record Jesus’ enjoinment to his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. Doing so, Jesus promises his followers in John 8:12, means that, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Kicking off the classic The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis expounds, “By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits.” A quick perusal of the Gospels reveals that following Christ’s example will pull us from behind the curtain and into the public square, even, possibly (probably), to the point of feeling the trauma of the cross. The thing is, though, and the very thing that rubs the most against the American belief in our birthright of expressive individualism, following Christ isn’t a lifestyle choice, it isn’t part of one’s identity. Being a Christian is total. And you’ll be hard pressed to find a church-going white evangelical who denies that previous sentence. At least, you’ll be hard pressed to find a church-going white evangelical who denies that in word. Denying it through deeds, not to mention actual worldview (often unawares), though, is another question altogether.
Religion, especially the white evangelical variety, is most decidedly not a private matter. T-shirts, bumper stickers, yard signs, etc. Trumpeting faith is big business, after all. Not to mention the allure of decorating our identity with the shiny flair that we believe best displays our chosen personality and identity’s priorities. Social media posts are replete with faith pronouncements: The Great Commission carried out via Facebook status updates. Most of us are familiar with the memes and status updates that proudly stand in the middle of social media’s courtyard and cry out, “Only those who truly love God will share this.” And then there are the God and Country platitudes: You’ll pry my Bible – even if I never read it – from my cold, dead hands; don’t tread on my religious liberty; Make America Great Again; etc. Not to mention the boycotts and cancellations (before “cancel culture” birthed sociological concerns and studies) of businesses and individuals who fail/ed to adhere to the right side of the ongoing cultural wars that dot the white evangelical landscape – happy holidays, anyone? Or are you too busy deconstructing the color of Starbuck’s latest X-mas cup to pay attention to what the beleaguered, underpaid store clerk mutters to you as you grab your bags filled with unnecessary luxuries? However, snark aside, many white evangelicals truly believe that they have taken up their cross and are doing battle for the Kingdom. The irony that their cross rarely leaves even as much as a splinter that can puncture their well clothed back and that their “kingdom” is the bottom line of power and comfort is lost on most. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9). Ironically, the “persecution” of white evangelicals in America is part of the shiny flair decorating their chosen personality, after all.
Angrily and, at times, violently – see January 6 – defending their right to cling to man-made concepts and to accumulate even more Western luxuries is “taking up their cross” for many white evangelicals. The “light of life” of John 8:12 is best summed up by their demand to have unfettered access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on their terms. How many Gadsden flag waving evangelicals have every pondered the contradiction that comes with giving greater import to a man-made concepts and political theories above a God given and defined good and the Kingdom ethics of self-sacrifice?
This prevailing contradiction in the actions, words, and even hearts across much of white evangelicalism, though, can only truly be seen after understanding what Jesus meant by “light of life,” as well as realizing how profoundly unamerican taking up your cross is. In other words, what actually is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ? How does the Bible define human flourishing? How should Christians live in America and what should our expectations be?
One of the things asked of prospective members in the church where I served as a pastor was to explain the gospel in around a minute. The exercise wasn’t meant to embarrass the individual, nor was it meant as a test for membership. By no means is the failure to adequately (or correctly) spit out the gospel in around a minute after being put on the spot evidence of the lack of the fruit of the Spirit. It was a diagnostic tool, of sorts, to aid the elders in a baseline for future discipleship. Most often, the three aspects that people would forget (or had never been taught are important parts of the gospel of Jesus Christ) were creation, Christ’s active obedience, and the resurrection. All three are vital to the good news of how God is saving His people, and it begins with Genesis 1:1.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” is one of the best-known passages of the Bible. It’s also the opening to one of the more heatedly debated sections of the Bible. Setting aside the epicurean-tinged debates about “how” God created the heavens and earth, not to mention the debates about how long it took Him to do it, the author’s primary point is twofold and simple: Firstly, God created the cosmos and everything in it. Secondly, and following closely on the interpretative heels of that simple statement, there is an ontological difference between the Creator and the created (which, to be clear, is everything that is not the Creator).
The ontological divide between God and His creation is important. For one thing, it separates Christianity from many of the other world religions by not allowing any room for either pantheism or its lesser-known cousin panentheism. Secondly, and more importantly for my thesis, it frames as well as controls discussions of anthropology. Or, at least, it should.
Humans may be the pinnacle of God’s creation, but that doesn’t mean that we are allowed free roam of the cosmic house, so to speak. Living in right relationship with God in God’s place enjoying God’s blessing does not work out to being some sort of anarchic commune. God’s law is eternal. From the very beginning, God gave humans positive and negative commands. What’s more, due to their created status, Adam and Eve owed God complete obedience. Being under the Creator’s rule doesn’t broach negotiations; there’s no Hegelian dialectical play between God and man. And that hasn’t changed. All humans in all times and in all places owe God complete obedience. Failure to do so results in death, a consequence God clearly communicated. However, humans chose and continue to choose to believe the lie that we can be like God. In doing so, we have failed to give God the obedience He is owed. Starting with Adam and Eve, running through human history, down to me and you, we have rebelled, earning God’s just and righteous wrath. At best, which is paradoxically also at worst, we believe that we have a level of status that allows us to negotiate with our Creator. Even that “at best” deserves eternal death. And we’ve all justly earned that sentence. Stating the obvious that’s been stated by many others, there can’t be any good news without bad news. Thankfully, from before time began, God determined to save His people from their sins and back to a right relationship with Him.
After Adam and Eve’s rebellion, God pronounced a curse. A holistic, total curse. Humanity’s relationship with God was affected. Humanity’s relationship with each other has been affected, as has humanity’s relationship with the rest of creation. Instead of enjoying God’s blessing in God’s place because we are God’s people, humans struggle under the weight of sin and sin’s curse. This is seen and felt whenever pandemics ravage the world. This is seen and felt when loved ones die. This is seen and felt when food is scarce, when homes are lost, and when emotional pain makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning. With every bruise, wounded feelings, and sniffle, the Curse makes its presence known. The effects of sin and sin’s Curse ravage our lives, even for those of us in the West who have the means to attempt to silo ourselves off from as much of it as we can. No luxury automobile can prevent knees and joints from giving out. No McMansion can wall off the existential pain that is inevitable when sharing this world with fellow sinners. No amount of Botox and plastic surgery can delay death. No amount of therapy will ever make us totally whole. Even the medical intervention that prolongs our life can’t assuage the pain of watching loved ones die nor suppress the reality that we, too, will die. We try, though. We try, with all our educated, privileged might and with the weight of our bank account, to ignore the Curse, if not abrogate it. Via distractions, many of us do anything we can to keep ourselves from looking outside our privileged existence. Angst and unease, after all, are not to be allowed into our lives. I have a right to be happy, we believe; it says so in the American bible.
Except, happiness, our happiness, in the myriad ways we define it in conformity with our preferred identity and personality, is the contemporary forbidden fruit being guilefully held out to us by the same Serpent-Satan who recruited our first parents to his rebellion. Happiness bears witness to the wrong resurrection. But I’m ahead of myself. The important point, for now: our privileged American way of life only hides the effects of the Curse. And not very well, and only for some of us. The problem – one of the problems – is that we allow ourselves to be deceived that those others – those people – are deserving of the Curse’s effects that rarely make it to the end of our cul-de-sac, and we’re not. And we’re wrong, eternally so. Our hubris will be of little comfort when suffering God’s eternal wrath. We’re wrong deceitfully so as we bear witness to the wrong resurrection.
The single mother crying herself to sleep tonight because she doesn’t know how she’s going to pay the rent is the direct result of sin. My sin. Your sin. The desperate refugees fleeing violence and starvation are terrified tonight because of sin. My sin. Your sin. The emaciated children scrounging through the trash heaps that border their barrio for anything that will sustain their life are peeling back the filth and decay in search of food because of sin. My sin. Your sin. For sure, the oppressed are sinners, too. But we, you and me, carry lesser burdens (for now), and, in turn, greater guilt. The scales of justice have historical fingers pressing down on them. Clinging to our idol of meritocracy, though, allows us to pretend that justice is blind. We get what we deserve. Pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps. I did build that, thank you very much, Mr. President. Blah. Blah. Blah.
Ironically, justice is blind. But not because of innate impartiality. We’ve blinded her. She wears a cloth bound around her eyes to hide the disgusting putridness of our actions. Tonight, or this morning over an overpriced cup of coffee, as you read this in comfort and ease, don’t forget that nothing you’ve done has earned you the “flourishing” in the here and now you enjoy while the great mass of your (our) fellow image bearers suffer under the just weight of sin in ways that we understand only via the documentaries we stream in comfort and in HD.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, again. Hold onto this, we’ll come back to it: White evangelicals in America have a self-serving need to define flourishing in ways that justify their privilege. Crosses should only be hoisted on our backs as long as our backs are padded, the cross reflects current hip trends, and we’re allowed to retain our “deserved” privilege. “Give me liberty or give me death” is what Pilate would nail to the top of our cross.
So, and getting back on track, sin destroys. First and foremost, sin changes our relationship with God. Please note, sin doesn’t sever our relationship with God. Image bearers have an eternal relationship with God. Sin just means that our relationship is one of God’s wrath. The question is (should be), how do we move from our relationship of God’s wrath to a relationship of God’s blessings?
Distracted by our Western ease and privilege, we tend to find our hope in the here and now, an over realized eschatology that defines human flourishing via Western anthropocentric concerns, desires, and objectives. On one side of the white evangelical civil war, that over realized eschatology takes the shape of God and country. Preserving their privilege, even as they deny that they have privilege, is their salvation. On the other side, tossing crumbs from the table of their privilege, even sizeable crumbs, so that the oppressed can share in their beloved materialism and privilege in the here and now is salvation. “You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car!” Taking up our cross is never really an option for us Westerners. Finding ways to avoid doing that is paramount. The lust for power and comfort pervades both sides. None of us are counterculture. We just fight over differing (yet the same) definitions of what constitutes a good culture.
The Bible’s stated solution to sin is counterculture. Truly counterculture. It’s found in the absolute self-sacrifice that is fueled by selfless love. What’s more, God’s solution to the problem of His peoples’ rebellion reveals an already-not-yet ontic reality that places the “already” in the spiritual and the “not yet” in the material. Sadly, and self-servingly, white evangelicalism reverses that reality. First, though, what is God’s solution?
Even as God proclaimed the Curse in Genesis 3, He also proclaimed His salvation. A descendant of the woman would one day come who would crush the head of the serpent. Our sinful, power-hunger human perspective assumes that descendant to be a powerful force overthrowing sin and sin’s curse. To be fair, that perspective isn’t totally wrong. The problem is that if the promised descendant wages war on sin and sin’s curse, we’re screwed. All of us. For God to save His people from their sins and back to a right relationship of His blessing to occur, the sins of His people must be dealt with. And this is where Jesus astonishingly enters history.
The Second Person of the Trinity, God Himself, became human. Leaving behind His deserved privilege and honor, Jesus humbled himself. Since God’s law must be obeyed, Jesus obeyed it. For God’s people, since we can’t. Since sin must be punished, Jesus endured it. For God’s people, since there is no way that we could endure God’s just wrath that our sins deserve; only God Himself can endure it. And he did endure.
After living a life of perfect obedience to God the Father, God the Son willfully mounted the cross and took on his own back the wages of God’s people’s sins. All of it. Every last drop. He loves those whom the Father gave him so much that he not only divested himself of his divine privilege, but he also died for God’s people. Suffered and died. Now, that’s carrying a cross.
If the good news ended there, though, it wouldn’t be good news. It’d be dead end news. Tragic news. The news of unfulfilled hope. “Well,” the news reports would say, “Jesus started out strong, but he’s dead now. So much promise, so little of it fulfilled.”
Thankfully – oh, so thankfully – Jesus didn’t stay dead.
After his resurrection, Jesus ascended back to the Father. And the good news of that part of the Good News is found in his words to his disciples that, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3).
And Jesus went. Which means that Jesus is coming back. That’s the good news, the best of news. He’s coming back for God’s people. But that’s not all.
The Bible ends where it begins, well, kind’ve. Literary parallelism par excellence means that the Story of how God saves His people back to Himself, ends where it begins but with a surprise. A surprise of the good kind.
In the beginning was a garden and two people tasked with exercising dominion and building a city. How do we know that? How do we know that the expectation (command) was to build a city? Well, because the Bible ends with the final Adam (Jesus) revealing the City he’s built. A City built around a garden. The final Adam (Jesus) did what the first humans and all subsequent humans failed to do, create God’s place where God’s people can flourish. Our material flourishing, assuming that you are repenting of your sins and believing in Jesus, is eschatological. It’s not temporal. Human material flourishing is not in the here and now. No amount of food, shelter, and garages filled with fill-in-the-blank is true flourishing. The best fed rebel on earth will find no comfort in his ease on the final Day while the most oppressed, downtrodden child of God will find eternal comfort as she is lovingly welcomed into the New Jerusalem by her nail-scarred Savior. That – this – is the light of life that Jesus promised those who take up their cross and follow him.
But what about this interim period in which we live and are called to worship and serve God? What should our expectations be, and how should we live?
In his commentary on Malachi, the South African theologian Pieter A. Verhoef gives a description of the post-exilic Israelites that generously (ungenerously) applies to white evangelicals in America.
Malachi was most likely written some time between Nehemiah’s first and second visits to Jerusalem. Mirroring Nehemiah’s admonitions and exhortations, Malachi confronts God’s covenant people with their syncretism. While still “dutifully” carrying out the cultic rites and rituals, albeit often with far less rigorous obedience than the Law demanded, the post-exilic people of God had allowed their desire for the comfort and ease provided by the growing economy around them to swamp their complete and total devotion to God. Verhoef charges, “In reality they wanted to make God subservient to the secularized interests of their own existence, to have prosperity for the sake of prosperity, and even the coming of the Messiah had to serve their own political interests. Even in their eschatological expectations they were taking the covenant relationship between God and themselves for granted.”
As opposed to new covenant believers, old covenant believers at least had temporal, material blessings promised as a condition of covenant faithfulness. Those of us living in the 21st century though? We have not been promised temporal, material blessings as a condition of covenant faithfulness. All of God’s promises find their yes and amen in Jesus, the final Adam. Through repentance of sins and faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, all of God’s promises are ours. But, not yet. In the here and now, we are promised sanctification: being made more like Christ. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:28-29a).
Many white evangelicals in America hold to a syncretic interpretation of the promise of Romans 8:28. The “good” is often, if not exclusively, situated materially in the here and now. Yet, Jesus, our Savior and King, promised persecution. Jesus told us that the world will hate us. As the Apostle Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 1:18, the cross is folly to all those who are unrepentant and unbelieving. Our faith, the Christian faith, is utter foolishness according to the world; and, if you don’t already know, the “world” that finds the cross foolish includes the United States of America. This is why Peter, in no uncertain terms, wrote, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles … keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (I Peter 2:11-12).
A couple of things: One, Peter’s words translated “sojourners and exiles” in the ESV could very well be translated using the Republican pejorative “illegal immigrants.” Christians, God’s new covenant people, are not wanted. We are not Americans. We are Christians, belonging to a Kingdom that is not of this world, and we serve a King who will one day overthrow all worldly governments, including America, if she still exists. As illegal immigrants, our witness to the Resurrection and the coming Day of the Lord, is an unwanted obstruction to a culture of living for self. Secondly, and closely related, Peter’s expectation is that God’s new covenant people will be reviled and persecuted by those who are not God’s new covenant people. Furthermore, even though Christians will be hated and even persecuted, living in adherence to Kingdom ethics will unmistakably glorify God in a way that even the non-elect will acknowledge on the day of Christ’s return. This same motif is gloriously embedded in The Revelation to John 1:7, that quotes Zechariah 12:10, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.”
One day, on the Day, Christians will be ushered into Christ’s physical presence. Those who are repenting of their sins and placing their faith in Jesus will spend all of eternity as God’s people in God’s place enjoying all of God’s blessings. But it’s important to note, and to note in a way that affects how we live, that material blessings are not promised God’s new covenant people in the here and now. Persecution is promised, though. The hatred and spite of our unbelieving neighbors, co-workers, and “family” members is promised. The opposite of the American Dream is promised. So, it’s important to ask, if my life in the here and now is characterized by comfort, ease, and the high esteem of those who are not God’s new covenant people, what does that say about my faith? What does that say about what my faith is actually in and where my hope actually rests?
In answer to a scribe who declared, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus described the cost of following him by saying, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:19-20). Following Jesus comes with a temporal cost, even, for some, to the point of death. But for all who would follow Jesus, it requires, in our King’s very words, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
In his book detailing the history of martyrdom in early modern Europe, historian Brad Gregory explains that the martyrs had to contend with these questions about Matt. 16:24. “Were these just words? If Christians took seriously this command, they too might meet with tribulation and death?” In answer, Gregory wrote, “The martyrologies [Ludwig Rabus, Jean Crespin, Adriaen Cornelis van Haemstede, John Foxe] expressed a conviction that … preaching God’s word and following Christ provoked persecution, but the power of faith and the grace of God sustained the oppressed and bestowed ultimate victory.”
I’m not sure that white evangelicals in America expect to “meet with tribulation,” much less death. I mean, I am sure that they don’t have that expectation. The ease with which professing Christians glide through society either calls into question the validity of Jesus’ words or the faith of many professing Christians. Christ deemed persecution an expected good. White evangelicals in America? Not so much.
Vanhoozer explains that Christians, “[accept] the Pauline premise that God has made Jesus Christ, together with his cross, our wisdom (1 Cor. 1:30). Jesus’ death on the cross ensures that Jesus is more than a sage, he is the savior.” Vanhoozer then goes on to urge his readers to accept the hard truth that, “[yet] the folly of the cross pertains precisely to what is good for us [emphasis kept].”
What we consider good is to be determined by the cross. Our goals, ideals, and expectations are not ours; like our entire being, they belong to God. Demands for life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, especially as controlled and defined in our post-Enlightenment society (this will be fleshed out more in future chapters) is the antithesis of the folly of the cross. It’s the antithesis of being witnesses to Christ’s Resurrection. Our expectations and demands for comfort, for strangers wishing us a “merry Christmas” instead of happy holidays, for a seat at the table of political power, for a house with a two-car garage, for being allowed to speak God’s truth without persecution, for anything that encourages our anthropocentric and Western contextually controlled definitions of flourishing and good are anti-Christian. We, as white evangelicals in America, bear witness to the wrong resurrection. We bear witness to the resurrection of the idol of the American experiment and dream. We are on the way of self-serving liberty and not the Way. In contrast, as Vanhoozer eloquently puts it, “To be a Christian is to belong to Jesus’ way, to be actively oriented and moving in the same direction as Jesus, toward the kingdom of God. … Those who belong to the ‘Way’ may expect to suffer for their life witness to the truth.”
So, what is flourishing in the here and now?
Flourishing is being conformed to the image of the Son. Flourishing is taking up our cross daily. Flourishing is being persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Flourishing is laying down our rights, and, at times, even our lives, in the service of others. Flourishing is joyfully accepting that our ethics and way of life is that of the example of Jesus: a commitment to pursuing holiness, including complete and total service to others, even if it costs us everything, which, to be clear, also encompasses being willing to let go of our preferred culture and demographic’s majority in society for the sake of oppressed and hurting sojourners.
Christianity is not an important part of the identity of those who are in Christ. It is our identity. Part of taking up our cross is seeking, in the power of the Spirit, to continually shed ourselves of any other identities. Faith is not a one-time consumer act. Too many people put their trust in a prayer they uttered than in daily placing their entire faith and hope in Jesus. This is evidenced by the lack of Kingdom ethics displayed across white evangelicalism in America. The folly of the Cross demands that God’s new covenant people live faithfully as exiles and strangers and not as good Americans. Doing so, though, requires realizing and accepting the import and the totality of the ontic control found in the Bible’s definition of Christians as exiles and strangers. Sadly, many professing Christians try to serve two masters. They’ve been and are being lied to. They believe the lie that being a good Christian is compatible, if not synonymous, with being a good American. This particular deceit of the Serpent-Satan goes all the way back to the beginning. As in, the beginning of this country.
(As a teaser, chapter 3 is titled “The Triumph of Epicurean Hippies”)
 Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 428.
 Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ trans. Aloysius Croft and Harold Bolton (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003), 1.
 For the record, I am not opposed to therapy. In fact, I commend it as a good and right means to help alleviate some of the immediate, personal effects of the Curse. I commend psychology and psychiatry in the same way I commend CRT as an effective means to provide solutions to temporal problems that are facing us. The reality of the Curse should not cause us to cower in the corner waiting for Jesus to come back. Kingdom ethics demand that we seek to serve the hurting and oppressed. That being said, it’s hard to deny that many people are seeking in therapy what can only be ultimately found in Jesus.
 Pieter A. Verhoef, The Books of Haggai and Malachi, TNICOT, ed. R. K. Harrison and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 295.
 There is an exegetical debate about what exactly Peter meant by “on the day of visitation.” It’s almost unanimously accepted that eschatological judgment is a dimension of Peter’s words. However, many conservative theologians believe that Peter’s words also point to how the Holy Spirit will use God’s new covenant peoples’ faithful witness to the Resurrection, in word and deed, to save people from their sins. There are many examples throughout Church history of the persecutor becoming the persecuted via their faith in Jesus, in large part because of the faithful testimony of those whom they were persecuting. For what it’s worth, I find the arguments of this dual dimension compelling. For the sake of my thesis in this article, though, I’ve chosen to focus on the eschatological judgment dimension found in Peter’s words.
 Brad S. Gregory, Salvation At Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 110.
 Gregory, Salvation At Stake, 172.
 Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 438.
 Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 14.