What advice do you have to help the conservative believer understand the value of the search for the historical Jesus?
A "conservative believer" must be someone who believes that Jesus was truly human as well as truly divine. (Anything else is radically unorthodox.) That true humanity was a first-century Palestinian Jew. If God decided to become a first-century Palestinian Jew, anything I can do to find what makes first-century Palestinian Jews tick is part of my 'conservative believer's' theological quest and personal pilgrimage. From my own books, I would recommend The Way of the Lord and The Challenge of Jesus. And perhaps The Lord and his Prayer. Q2. Submitted by JohnthePayne:
I heard you say that the parables were frequently political in nature. How does the Prodigal Son relate to politics?
In Jesus' situation, the Pharisees were a political pressure group that had been active, and variously powerful and influential, for well over a century. His kingdom-agenda radically clashed with theirs. Challenged by them, he told the story of the Prodigal Son, his father and his elder brother. The elder brother represents those who are criticizing Jesus' actions (Luke 15:1). The parable expresses a vision for what God was doing then in Israel--a vision which many of Jesus' hearers found politically unacceptable. Try going to Miami today and telling a story about a father who loved his son so much he went to a foreign country to seek him out and bring him triumphantly back home.
What did Jesus mean by "aionian fire", "aionian punishment", "Gehenna", and "katrakrina--damnation"?
"Aionian" relates to the Greek aion, which often roughly translates the Hebrew olam. Some Jews thought of there being two "ages"--ha`olam ha-zeh, the present age, and ha`olam ha-ba, the age to come. Aionian punishment and the like would be punishment in the age to come. Gehenna is the valley of Hinnom, at the southwest corner of Jerusalem. It is where Jerusalem's main garbage dump was, where trash smoldered with a steady fire. It became, for some Jews prior to Jesus, metaphorical for some kind of postmortem punishment.
Thus, Jesus' warnings of judgment function on two levels. The first involved postmortem disaster; the second indicated that if his contemporaries didn't turn from their ways and follow his way of peace, the whole of Jerusalem would become, as it were, an extension of its own garbage dump. This warning was fulfilled in A.D. 70 when the Temple was destroyed and the city was set on fire.
Katakrima (not katakrina) is the sentence of condemnation passed by a judge or court of law. It is used metaphorically in the New Testament for God's just judgment on those who fail to worship him and so to bear his image.
My thoughts about this idea of image-bearing and a doctrine of hell are expanded on in my book Following Jesus. A quick summary would go as follows: We find throughout Scripture that humans are invited to worship the God in whose image they are made. By worshipping this God (which involves repentance and faith; the faith involves learning to recognize this God in the crucified and risen Jesus), they are restored as image-bearers.
When people continually and consistently refuse to worship this God, they progressively reflect this image less and less. Instead, they reflect the images of what they are worshipping. Since all else other than the true creator God is heading for death, this means that they buy into a system of death. Thus, failure to worship the God revealed in Jesus leads, by one's own choice, to an eventual erasing of that which makes us truly human. I think this is the way a doctrine of hell might be restated today.
What is your interpretation of the words attributed to Jesus about the second coming? Is it possible that all the apocalyptic warnings (as well as the idea of the Rapture) were necessary only in the earlier years of Christianity?
Many of Jesus' sayings about the future have been misinterpreted (see Chapter 8 of my book Jesus and the Victory of God). The "rapture" is a misunderstanding of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4, a misunderstanding which then is projected onto Mark, Revelation, and other passages. The sayings of Jesus that have been misinterpreted include ones like Luke 13:3: "unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." These are clearly warnings about a coming military destruction (swords in the Temple, falling stonework, etc.), but are often taken as a description of burning in hell after death. Of course, there may be a further application (what older theologians called a sensus plenior, a "fuller meaning") to a doctrine of hell; but if we don't get the first level of meaning right, it's dangerous to guess at second ones.
The other classic misunderstanding is the persistent view that "the Son of Man coming on the clouds" is a prophecy of Jesus' downward flight in returning to earth from heaven at the second coming. In saying this, I am not denying a second coming; I am only denying that these texts refer to it. In Daniel 7, which is clearly referred to in passages such as Mark 13:26 and 14:62, "one like a Son of man" "comes" to the Ancient of Days. The "coming" is an upward movement of exaltation, not a downward movement of return to earth.
I am worried at the ways in which so many North American Christians are wedded to particular views of the second coming and find this so dominant a question, while other central and vital areas of Christian, and Gospel, thinking are marginalized.