I couldn’t believe my ears. The President of our Charismatic Christian university was guest lecturing at our class on the Holy Spirit, and he just said that if we put a dollar in the Coke machine and expected to get a Coke, why would we treat God any differently? I wanted to scream, “Because God is not a Coke machine!”
I restrained myself. He was eventually ousted as the university president, and my beloved alma mater is on a healthy trajectory. It was while I was at Oral Roberts University from 1996 to 2000 that I was first introduced to Charismatic theology with all of its excessive bits. I had come from a “Pentecostal” church in Malaysia, but had not heard the sort of faith theology that I encountered from some students and some chapel speakers at ORU. (The theology faculty, thank God, were and continue to be a balanced and Biblically sound.)
“NOT HERE AND NOT NOW”
Charismatic theology was, in many ways, an attempt to recover the long-ignored parts of Scripture: the miracles, the healing, the power of God present and active in our midst. Much of what the early Charismatic movement was reacting to, I suspect, was the tone of teaching in many American churches that suggested that God won’t do anything about the present trouble or difficulty but will one day get us out of here. It is a sort of escapist eschatology. It’s a narrative that begins with the Fall of Man in Genesis 3 and ends with the Lake of Fire in Revelation 20. “Yes, there is suffering here,” they concede. “But don’t worry. If you believe in Jesus, God will get us out of here and take us to heaven and not that other place.” As for life in the meantime, well, just hang in there. God, in this view, is like the Enlightenment era God, intelligent and powerful but uncaring. It is a sort of distant Deism disguising itself as Christianity.
“HERE AND NOW”
It was to this sort of distant Deism that Charismatics reacted. “No,” they insisted. “God cares about your suffering. He cares about what’s happening now.” As Oral Roberts famously– and rightly– preached, “God is a good God!” And it simply won’t do to say that our definition of good is thoroughly ruined.
Where parts of the Charismatic movement went askew is the insistence in some circles that everything God promised is for the here and now in its fullness. This is where the “Coke machine” theology and other such claims that we may loosely call the “Prosperity Gospel” come to play. “Jesus has done it all,” they insist. “Didn’t He say, ‘It is finished’? There. You see, God has done His part, now it’s up to you to pray and believe…and you can have it!” It seems so simple that it almost makes sense. Unfortunately, many of the so-called teachers of this theology are a little too simple-minded. Using an overly simplistic and Biblically selective logic, they arrive at the mistaken conclusion that since a thing is paid for, the thing can be had now. (One needs to think only of a father who has paid for a Christmas gift for his children but is waiting until Christmas day for them to have it to understand the flaw of this logic.) According to this view, full health, no suffering, all the wealth, and more…can be yours…HERE…NOW. This can be called an over-realized eschatology, the view that all that is coming is now in its fullness. God, in this view, is a doting Dad who encourages all our selfish impulses. It is a sort of Theistic Consumerism.
“NOT HERE, NOT NOW, NOT EVER”
To this extreme teaching, a segment of Christians have reacted strongly by emphasizing that “it’s not about you…it’s all about God!” This, like the “Prosperity Gospel,” works at face value. Except that God, because He is self-giving Love, does indeed act to rescue and redeem His beautiful creation. His story is about His work to make us and redeem us. To push the “it’s not about me” thinking too far can be to say, in effect, that God is God, and you are not, and so we should all just sit down and shut up. God is an old, strange, mad scientist. We don’t understand Him, so just leave Him alone. “When will God act to end poverty and disease?” you ask. “Who knows!” they reply. What they seem to suggest is, “Not here, not now, and maybe not ever.” “What about suffering?” you plead. “Don’t call it ‘suffering’ just because you don’t understand it. Maybe God calls it ‘good’.” Such talk is confusing. It fails to give any weight to the image of God that is still in us, to the notion that while our view of ‘good’ may be a tainted by our selfishness, it is not totally ruined.
The problem is that there is no real view of the end, of what God thinks of evil and suffering and what He will do about it. This God seems angry. And, but for Jesus, this God might throw us all in a Lake of Fire. In fact, He still might! So stop all these questions! It is an ambiguous eschatology. I suggest that this view of God as an enigmatic distant sovereign who is to be obeyed and never questioned has more in common with the God of Islam than the YHWH who was quite comfortable with questions, wrestling, and laments.
“HERE AND NOW AND NOT YET”
If we broaden our narrative to be as wide as the Biblical narrative, we would have to start with the fact that God made a world and called it good. He then made humans to be His image-bearers and rulers on His good world. Their rebellion allowed evil to infect God’s good world. But even then, God came looking. He was never distant. The Fall in Genesis 3 led quickly to hatred and murder among brothers in Genesis 4. Before long, human societies were fragmented in Genesis 11.
To launch His rescue project, He chose a family (Genesis 12) to be His covenant people and promised to bless them and all nations through them. Every time He prospered His people, it was a work of redemption, reversing the stain of the curse, hinting at the renewal of all things that will one day come. The final picture of Scripture is not the Lake of Fire– though the judgment and punishment and destruction of those who insist on their rebellion and reject God’s rule is real. The final picture is Heaven coming down to earth and Jesus making all things new (Rev. 21). This is what Peter anticipated in Acts 3:19-21 when he said the Messiah would one day bring about the “restoration of all things.” This is what Paul envisioned when he wrote that “all things in heaven and on earth” would be summed up in Jesus (Eph. 1:10).
God cares about the “Here.” He loves His good world and intends to renew it, to bring it through death (i.e., renew it after making it ‘pass away’; maybe even through making it pass away), even as God brought Jesus’ physical body through death. God cares about the “Now.” When Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God, He healed the sick, raised the dead, brought blessing to the luckless. The Kingdom has touched down. God’s rule on His earth through His covenant people has begun. This is what Charismatic theology gets right and what the “Prosperity Gospel” seems to sense, buried though it may be in their foolish insistence on having everything now. What the other views seem to miss is that God cares about this world. He intends to rescue it. He had His chance to wipe it all out with the Flood, but instead, He carefully chose to preserve bits of His original creation: the creatures, the plants, and His image-bearing humans. Something tells me “new heaven and new earth” are not new things created ex nihilo; but God’s original creation that passes away and is made new again, like our bodies that will pass through death and experience resurrection.
God’s work of redemption and restoration, though firmly located in the Here and Now, is also Not Yet in its fullness. Yes, Jesus said, “It is finished” on the cross. But John, the same gospel writer who recorded those words, sees Jesus (in a vision) saying at the end of all things saying, “It is done” right after He makes all things new. Well, which is it? Was it finished at the cross or done in the end? It is both. At the cross, the word John chose means, “It is complete“; at the end, when He returns and makes all things new, the word John chose means, “It is coming to pass.” With God, what is complete will take time to come to pass. It has begun here and now. It will culminate here, later. This is what is called inaugurated eschatology, a good ending that has already begun now. We are in the final overture, the last bars of the song, the “Hallelujah Chorus,” if you will. This God is Creator and Redeemer.
And that is very good news.