Tag Archives: death

It is Finished!

‘It is finished’ is the sixth of the seven words of Christ on the cross. From the late eighteenth century, meditation on the Seven Last Words of Christ on the cross became a very popular form of devotion. In some churches today, the last words of Jesus are heard in the liturgy of Holy Week, when the passion narrative is read in its entirety. Reflection on the last words of our Lord can be a deeply rewarding experience, for they are pregnant with spiritual and theological meaning.

‘It is finished’ is the cry of our Saviour just before he commends his spirit to the Father. These words must not be understood merely to mean ‘It is over’. They must be taken in the sense of consummatum est – it is consummated, fulfilled and brought to perfection. These words, then, should not be understood as the final cry of someone who has come to the end of a terrible ordeal. Rather it is the assertion that the task that Jesus came to perform is now completed. The work that Jesus set out to do has been accomplished, and brought to perfection. His goal is achieved, and there is nothing else left for him to do!

What was this work that Jesus came to do? He came to offer himself as a complete and perfect sacrifice in order to atone the sins of humanity and make available the salvation of God. The theme of sacrifice and atonement is replete in the New Testament. Paul in Ephesians tells us that ‘Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Ephesians 5:2). Comparing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the high priests of Israel, the writer of Hebrews asserts: ‘Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself’ (Heb 7:27). And John in his first letter maintains that Jesus ‘is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world’ (1 John 2:2).

To skeptics the death of Jesus does not signal victory. To them, ‘It is finished’ simply means ‘He is finished’! But for the Christian, ‘It is finished’ is not a death gurgle. It is the cry of victory! As Stanley Hauerwas has put it, ‘It is finished’ means that ‘God has finished what only God could finish. Christ’s sacrifice is a gift that exceeds every debt. Our sins have been consumed, making possible that glow with the beauty of God’s Spirit’. Far from being a sign of defeat, the cross points to victory! In this sense, ‘It is finished!’ points beyond the cross to the Resurrection. It brings together Good Friday and Easter.

Nicholas Lash has summed this up eloquently in his book Believing Three Ways in the One God:

Out of the virgin’s womb, Christ is conceived. Out of that world threatening death on Calvary, life is new-born from an empty tomb. Christ’s terror is God’s Word’s human vulnerability. But, it is just this vulnerability, this surrender, absolute relationship, which draws out of darkness finished life, forgiveness of sins.

More, however, must be said. It is finished. But it is not over! It is finished. But time marches on! It is finished. But evil and suffering persist! How are we to make sense of this?

This situation is perhaps best described by the use of an analogy. The victory over sin and death by the death and Resurrection of Christ is like the liberation of an occupied country from Nazi rule towards the end of World War II. To understand the excitement of the liberation, we must imagine what it must be like to live under the shadow of Nazi presence. We must appreciate something of the utter hopelessness of the situation in order to sense its true poignancy. Many in that situation had resigned themselves to the thought that nothing could be done to turn things around.

Then, suddenly, news of a battle fought somewhere far away came to them. Some call it D-Day. And this battle is turning the tide of the war. The war seems to be brought to a new stage, and the enemy is now in disarray. Its back has been broken. Before long the Nazis will be driven out, and occupied Europe will be liberated. This is exhilarating news indeed!

But the Nazis are still present in that occupied country. Thus, in a sense, the situation has not changed at all. But in another sense, the situation has totally changed! The Nazis are defeated, and they will be driven out of that occupied country. The sweet scent of liberation and victory is in the air. This brings about a dramatic change in the psychological climate to the citizens of that occupied country. The whole atmosphere is changed. The gloom is lifted and the citizens of that country could rejoice as if they were free, even though freedom still lies in the future.

It is finished! But it is not over. Evil, suffering and pain still persist in our sin-scarred world. But the horror does not have the last word! At the heart of this horror is hope, because at the heart of the horror is Christ who has declared, ‘It is finished!’

In addition, at the foot of the cross, we realize that we are not merely victims of a senseless fate. At the foot of the cross we realize that we are participants of the drama of salvation, for our stories have become part of the story of the One who was crucified. Here at the cross the suffering of all time, the suffering of every human being is gathered to his suffering. The out-stretched arms of Jesus on the cross reach out to embrace, complete and make whole every human moment of horror. All the victims of evil, those who suffer in hospitals and at home, the victims of genocide, rape and murder, the innocent victims of war, and those who are crushed by injustice– their suffering need not be ‘senseless’ if they are caught up by faith in that once-for-all-time sacrifice of Christ on the cross for which it is said ‘It is finished’.

The cross of Christ does not give us all the answers to the world’s troubles and to ours. But the cross of Christ enables us to face these troubles without any answers because through it God has opened up a way for us to live without answers. In a statement that must surely be enigmatic to some Paul asserts ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church’ (Colossians 1:24). Paul is surely not saying that the suffering of Christ on the cross was insufficient. Rather Paul is saying that he is able to suffer because the work of the cross is finished.

It is finished! But it is not over.

We live in a time between the times. The kingdom of God has begun in Christ, but it will not be consummated and perfected until the end of the world. But the Good News is our Saviour has won that decisive far-off battle on Golgotha. The enemy is defeated! Its back has been broken! Although everything looks pretty much the same, the situation has totally changed. That is why the church throughout the ages could echo the words of Venantius Fortunatius, who in the sixth century wrote:

Sing my tongue, the glorious battle, Sing the last, the dread affray;
O’er the cross, the victor’s trophy, Sound the high triumphal lay:
How, the pains of death enduring, Earth’s Redeemer won the day.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in the Trumpet (TTC).

Celebrating Easter With J. S. Bach

For more than a decade I have made it a point during the holy week to listen to all of the extant Passions of the brilliant Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, and also his magnificent Easter Oratorio on Resurrection Sunday. Not only was Bach a musical genius who brought Baroque music to its zenith, he was also an astute theologian, with a profound grasp of the Lutheran tradition to which he belonged. As the composer and musician in the great Church of St Thomas in Leipzig, Bach was not only steeped in the great musical tradition of the Reformation, he also possessed profound knowledge of the writings of the Reformer Martin Luther and the tenets of the Lutheran orthodoxy of his day. His commitment to the Lutheran tradition is further evidenced by his long friendship with his librettist, Erdmann Neumeister, Leipzig’s most eminent defender of orthodoxy and author of 400 books.

Bach’s familiarity with and creative appropriation of Scripture, Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms and the Book of Concord is evident everywhere in the sacred cantatas of the composer. The characteristic JJ (Jesu Juva, ‘Jesus Help’) at the beginning of his scores and SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, ‘To God be the Glory’) at the end indicate the profound piety of the composer. Schönberg is surely right in asserting that J. S. Bach is tied with religion in a way that no other composer was.

Bach wrote at a time when the rationalism of the Enlightenment in Europe was tightening its grip on both university and church in Germany, with the goal of expunging from religion all claims and dogmas that fail the test of reason. For instance, Hermann Samuel Reimarus, a brilliant contemporary of Bach, challenged the traditional interpretation of Christ’s death on the cross by arguing that ‘it was clearly not the intention or the object of Jesus to suffer and to die’. Rather, Jesus’ intention, according to Reimarus, was to build an earthly kingdom and to free his people from the bondage of Roman rule.

When he realized that his bold preaching had offended the authorities and put his life in jeopardy, Jesus began ‘to quiver and to quake’, and tried to hide from sight. When Judas betrayed his hiding place, Jesus, believing that he was a messenger from God, expected God to deliver him from the hands of the authorities. But when deliverance did not occur, the crucified Jesus uttered the bitter and desperate cry recorded in the Gospels, ‘Eli, Eli Lama Sabachthani? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Remairus concluded that ‘It was in this that God had forsaken him, it was in this that his hopes had been frustrated’.

It is therefore not surprising that Reimarus would propose a bizarre theory that challenges the traditional understanding of the resurrection of Christ. The disciples, who had attained fame through the ministry of their rabbi, stole the body of the dead Jesus, hid it and then fabricated a tale of the resurrection and the return of Christ.

Against this sinister distortion of the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ, Bach boldly declares that the death of Christ, the Son of God incarnate, is the greatest expression of the love of God. Thus, in the soprano aria in his Matthew’s Passion, ‘In love my Saviour now is dying’, Bach could declare: ‘It is out of love that my Saviour intends to die, / Although of sin and guilt He knows nothing, / So that my soul should not have to bear / Everlasting damnation / And the penalty of divine justice’. Jesus did not recoil when he realised that his ministry had offended the authorities; he did not fear for his life, and tried to escape arrest. Rather Jesus presented himself willingly in obedience to the Father’s will, setting his face towards Jerusalem and Golgotha.

Furthermore, the death of Jesus was not the tragic death of a deluded revolutionary, as Reimarus had argued. Jesus died as one who bore the sins of the world, so that we should not have to bear the ‘everlasting damnation’ and ‘the penalty of divine justice’ that we rightly deserve. Against the revisionist approach of his contemporaries like Reimarus, Bach unwaveringly presented the atonement as satisfaction, thereby aligning himself with the Reformers and the eleventh century theologian, Anselm. As Jaroslav Pelikan has rightly observed, ‘the Anselmian doctrine of redemption as satisfaction rendered through the blood of Christ is a crimson thread that runs through Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew from beginning to end’.

Just as Bach would reach back to the Reformers (especially Luther) and to the medieval theologian, Anselm in his Passion According to Saint Matthew, so he would appeal to the Greek Fathers, chiefly Gregory of Nyssa in his Saint John Passion, which celebrates the great theme of Christus Victor. Bach’s Saint John Passion is infused with this theme, from the choral shouts proclaiming Jesus as ‘Herr’ (‘Lord’) to the transformation of the sixteenth-note figures of the strings to a crescendo, a grand, rising sequence. In the ‘deepest lowliness’ of the incarnation and the cross the lordship, power and glory of the Son of God is made manifest.

Through the cross and resurrection, the incarnate God confronts and defeats his enemies. Musically, Bach uses the turba choruses (i.e., choral pieces that contain the words spoken by the characters in the story) to emphasise the role of Christ’s enemies. These choruses, to use the description of Karl Geiringer, were used with good effect because of their ‘strongly wild, passionate, and disturbing character’. The cross and resurrection signals God’s triumph over the forces of evil, the defeat of the ‘prince of this world’ (John 16:11) and the ‘god of this world’ (2 Cor 4:4). Like Luther, Bach took the devil very seriously, and would not acquiesce to the demythologized and abstract accounts of evil that is often presented by the rationalists of the Enlightenment.

The definitive victory of God over the forces of evil is emphasized in the words of Jesus, ‘It is finished’, which Bach skilfully sets to a descending line to depict the expiration of the dying Jesus. Even in the midst of presenting the final and definitive victory of God, Bach would not casually and hurriedly bypass the death of Christ. Thus Bach invites us to take time to contemplate fully the ‘bad’ on this Friday that we call ‘good’. The death of Christ is real, and the sorrowful, meditative aria follows appropriately his last words. But this aria is not simply the celebration of the death of a hero. If it were only that, then Reimarus could surely also sing its words with conviction. For Bach, this is the death of the Hero, the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

Thus, the significance of Jesus’ declaration ‘It is finished’ could only be properly understood in the way Luther explicates it: ‘God’s Lamb has been slaughtered and offered for the world’s sin. The real High Priest has completed the sacrifice. God’s Son has given and sacrificed His body and life as the ransom for sin. Sin is cancelled, God’s wrath assuaged, death conquered, the kingdom of heaven purchased, and heaven is unbarred’. That is why in the second part of the aria, a shout of triumph bursts forth as the B minor adagio turns to a D major allegro and the full orchestra now accompanies the alto soloist as she sings: ‘The hero of Judah triumphs with power / and closes the battle’. The death of Christ has conquered death itself, and the resurrection marks the victory of God, the dawn of a new age.

But it is Bach’s magnificent Easter Oratorio that best captures the victory and joy of the resurrection of Christ. Bach composed music to the lyrics of the famous librettist, Picander, whose poetic paraphrasing follows closely the account of the resurrection in Mark 16:1-8. Beginning with the instrumental overture which can be divided into two parts – the joy of the resurrection and its melancholy aftermath – Bach masterfully shapes the attitude with which the believer must embrace this glorious truth. After the sinfonia and duet, Bach has Mary Magdalene utter these words in the alto recitative, ‘O cold mind of men! / Where has the love gone, / Which you owe to the Saviour?’ as if directing them to the sceptical rationalists of his day.

It is in the bass recitative towards the end of the Oratorio that Bach unequivocally declares the orthodox faith in the resurrection of Christ through the lips of the evangelist John: ‘We are glad, / That our Jesus lives again, / And our heart, / Just now melted and wavering in sadness, / Forgets its pain / And thinks about songs of joy; / For our Saviour lives again’. The theme of Christus Victor is once again emphasized in the tutti final chorus, which declares that ‘Hell and the devil are overcome; / Their gates are destroyed. / Rejoice, ye redeemed tongues, / So that it is heard in heaven.’

Bach’s Easter Oratorio depicts two responses to the great truth of the resurrection of Christ. There is the exuberant burst of rhythmic energy and the glorious sounds of trumpets which shout ‘hallelujahs’. But Bach knows that there is more than one way to say ‘hallelujah’, and so the Oratorio also invites a more contemplative response as the believer steps back as it were and reflects in overwhelmed amazement at this miracle of miracles. Bach shows that both the flourishes of trumpets and tympani and the somber sinfonia in E minor are appropriate responses to the glorious resurrection of Christ!

  1. S. Bach has through the years taught me many things about what it means to be a Christian and a theologian. He has taught me to be courageous in the face of the shifting sands of culture and the pervasiveness of secularism and scepticism. The truth of the Gospel does not require our defence; it is well capable of standing on its own, and the chief responsibility of the Christian is to bear witness to it with integrity – to tell it as it is. Beneath the architectonic brilliance and complexity of Bach’s music is the unflagging desire of the composer to simply tell it as it is. Bach strenuously resisted the effort of the Enlightenment to tear the two asunder, to sever theology from spirituality.

Bach, more than any other composer, has taught me the relationship between worship and theology, between what the Orthodox theologians have termed as the lex orandi (the law of prayer) and the lex credendi (the law of belief). Bach strenuously resisted the effort of the Enlightenment to tear the two asunder, to sever theology from spirituality. For the Thomaskantor, liturgy and theology are of a piece. And nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly and powerfully than in his Passions and sacred cantatas which resist the tendency found in Reimarus and others to distinguish the ‘historical Jesus’ from the ‘Christ of Faith’. These lessons are still pertinent for the church today, four centuries removed from that in which the Baroque composer lived and wrote.

May we in this postmodern climate of relativism and despair learn from Bach to tell it as it is – to proclaim humbly and courageously the Gospel of the resurrected Christ, in all its profundity, mystery and wonder!

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the Trumpet (TTC).

A Life Deemed ‘Useless’ – The Terri Schiavo Case

As I write this essay, a woman’s body is shutting down from starvation and dehydration because of the decision made by her husband and a court order issued by Florida judge, George Greer. Terri Schiavo collapsed on 25 February, 1990, when her heart stopped momentarily, resulting in severe brain damage. Fifteen years later, her husband, Michael Schiavo, who now has two children with another woman, is insistent that his wife would not want to be kept alive. He succeeded in obtaining a court order from the Florida Supreme Court to have the small feeding tube removed. Terri’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, fought the court order but were unsuccessful at overturning the decision, and on 18 March, the feeding tube        that supplied nourishment and hydration to the 41- year old patient was removed. Despite appeals by Governor Jeb Bush, the Florida judge refused to allow Terri Schiavo to be taken into protective custody. President George Bush and the Republican leaders of the U.S. Governor said that all legal options have been exhausted and that they would not go any further. Barring a miracle, Terri Schiavo will be starved to death.

The Schiavo case has polarised ethicists and the general public alike. Clarity can only be achieved when ideological agendas are set aside and the facts of the case are carefully and thoroughly examined. The first step is to understand Terri Schiavo’s medical condition. She is not brain-dead, but is in a permanent vegetative state (PVS). This means that her brain is severely damaged, and as far as doctors can tell, she is unaware of her surroundings, although she has emerged from a comatose state. It must be added that medical science has yet to fully understand this condition, and doctors are often reduced to resorting to educated guesses – there are no blood tests, scans or other investigations that could confirm the diagnosis. The degree of awareness exhibited by such patients, cannot be ascertained with any exactitude by doctors, and the view which categorically states that such patients have     no awareness of their surroundings is at least debatable. Those who are close to Terri, including her mother, have noticed some responses when they speak to her (see video at www.Terrisfight.org).

Although patients seldom recover after being in a permanent vegetative state for 12 months, there are isolated cases of such recovery. An article by N. L. Childs and W. N. Mercer in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry (1985, 48: 1300-1303) reports the case of a girl who recovered sufficiently after being in a PVS for six years to communicate with simple sentences.

Terri is not dependent on any machine that artificially enables certain of her organs to function, only a small gastric tube that supplied nutrients and water. In other words, Terri is not hooked on a life-supporting machine. She is a healthy woman with a disability and merely requires to be artificially fed. She is disabled, not terminal. The gastric tube cannot be seen as an ‘extraordinary’ measure or a therapeutic measure; it is an essential means through which Terri receives the required nutrients and hydration. Although Terri is deprived of full consciousness, she must be seen as a living human being, whose judicial rights and dignity must be recognised, respected and defended. As Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore has rightly insisted, ‘Deliberately to remove them in order to hasten the patient’s death … would be a form of euthanasia, which is gravely wrong’.

The American Medical Association defines euthanasia as the ‘act of bringing about the death of a hopelessly ill and suffering person in a relatively quick and painless way for reasons of mercy’. This is done through ‘the medical administration of a lethal agent to a patient for the purpose of relieving the patient’s intolerable and incurable suffering’. Terri Schiavo is being euthanized by starvation and dehydration.

Her death, however, will not be ‘quick and painless’. In his article published in The Straits Times (28 March, 2005, p.20) Andy Ho describes the harrowing process that a person dying from starvation and dehydration goes through. The mouth dries out while the tongue becomes swollen and cracked. The eyes sink and the cheeks are hollowed out, while the nose bleeds and the skin becomes loose and scaly. The urine gets very concentrated, burning the bladder even as the lining of the stomach dries out resulting in vomiting. The brain cells begin to dry out as the body temperature rises uncontrollably, causing fits to occur. Before the vital organs start to fail resulting in death, the lungs also dry out and they are clogged by their own secretions causing the patient to choke on their own sputum.  This is the process that Terri Schiavo is going through as her body slowly shuts down because it is deliberately deprived of food and water.

The removal of the feeding tube from Terri Schiavo is a direct violation of the commandment ‘not to kill’. No one has the right to take a human life, not even his or her own. Life is never our own possession but is always to be received from moment to moment as a gift from the Creator, and cannot be disposed of as we wish. Supporters of euthanasia have often presented the right to autonomy and self-determination as its justification. This is especially true of voluntary euthanasia, which the AMA Council defines as ‘euthanasia that is provided for a competent person on his or her informed request’. This principle is behind the ‘right-

to-die’ argument, although almost always with the qualification that it applies only to those who are terminally ill and in great pain. The question, however, is that if the right-to-life is so fundamental, why should it be confined only to this category of people? Why should this principle not apply also to those who are not terminally ill, but who feel that their lives are meaningless?

Those who supported Michael Schiavo’s decision have appealed to the quality-of-life argument. Without doubt, the quality-of-life argument in favour of euthanasia is the most harmful for life in society because it works on the basic presumption that there are certain people who have the right to judge whether the lives of other persons are worthwhile or valuable. However, as moral theologian Bernard Häring has rightly observed, their judgement ‘can not only be contemptuous, but it represents a death sentence’.

Michael Schiavo and the Florida judge have decided to execute Terri on the basis of their evaluation that she does not enjoy the quality-of-life that she should. Because of their evaluation, they are willing to subject Terri to the most inhumane execution. The people who speak so passionately and nobly about the quality of life are willing to force upon an innocent human being such an undignified death. As Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, puts it, ‘If it is true that the process has been fair, and that all legal avenues have been exhausted, how is it that this woman, who has done no wrong, will suffer a fate which society would never tolerate in the case of a convicted murderer, or anyone else convicted of the most horrendous crimes?’ Because of their verdict they were willing to submit Terri to such acts of cruelty from which even animals are protected by law. For in the State of Florida it is unlawful to keep an animal in a place while failing to supply ‘a sufficient quantity of good and wholesome food and water ’.

The case of Terri Schiavo brings much darkness to our modern society. Are we so blinded that we fail to see that we cannot inflict this sort of death on a human being without each individual and society as a whole suffering its terrible consequences?

*** Terri Schiavo died on 31 March, 13 days after her gastric tube was removed. This essay was written three days before her death.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the Trumpet (TTC).

Christian Spirituality in a Time of Resurgent Spirituality

August 2015 Feature Article

There was a season in world history when excessive confidence and trust was conferred on science, technology, and the place of the mind.  At the same time, suspicion and cynicism was directed at spirituality, subjectivity, and the place of the heart.

The mood of that season has since given way to a new season where the resurgence of spirituality is evidenced.  The age of globalization characterized by movement, change, disruption, and displacement has fueled spiritual thirst as well as increasing the number of options to satisfy deep spiritual longing.

In this article, I will present two growing stands of spirituality which have been observed.

The first strand which is readily discovered in popular secular culture affirms spirituality decoupled from God and religion.  The second strand found in growing numbers of churches is shaped by consumer oriented desire to be culturally relevant.  Both strands pose a challenge to historic Christian faith.

Finally, a third stand which focuses on the commitment to follow Christ is presented as the basis of authentic Christian spirituality and the aspiration which Christians should strive toward.

Spirituality decoupled from God and religion

The first strand of spirituality that is growing in prominence in a world of global flows is a form that is decoupled from God and religion.

Within this strand of spirituality is a yearning for spiritual experiences which exclude God and religious institutions.  Both the growing secularization of society as well as the loss of confidence in traditional religious institutions have contributed to the move toward this strand of spirituality.

A significant aspect of this stand of spirituality lies in its commitment to a particular understanding of transcendence.  The experience of transcendence is the sense of mystery and wonder when in union with something much larger that the human self.

While traditionally the experience of transcendence has been associated with union with God up there, this strand of spirituality gravitates toward union with the world down here.

Spirituality in this strand therefore celebrates without any reference to God, the exponential growth in understanding of the natural and supernatural world, the strength and tenacity of the human spirit, the breathtaking affordances and enablement of new technologies, the global diversity and multiplicity of human perspective, the awesome wonder at the universe’s mysteries, and even the angst of the world of complex human existence.

It presents a non-theistic vision of spiritual life and highlights the nature of the search for spiritual meaning in an increasingly secularized society.

Together with the secularization of society, the increasing lack of confidence in traditional religious institutions has also contributed toward the movement toward a spirituality which is decoupled from God and religion.  The unfortunate reality about traditional religious institutions is that they often grow powerful, exercise authoritarianism, are slow to address issues of abuse and injustice, remain inward looking, and are slow to adapt to changes in culture.

Kinnaman and Lyon’s study of outsider perceptions of Christianity revealed six points of skepticism and objections raised.  Christians were thought of as hypocritical, too focused on getting converts, antihomosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental (Kinnaman and Lyon 2007).  Likewise Kinnaman’s later study revealed reasons why Christian youth were leaving the church.  The reasons include the church being overprotective, shallow, antiscience, repressive, exclusive, and didn’t allow room for doubt (Kinnaman 2011).

While the studies were conducted in the United States, the sentiments are often echoed in many other parts of the world with deep implications for families, churches, schools, and Christians in the marketplace. 

Both the secularization of society and a lack of confidence in religious institutions have thus fueled the growth of this first strand of spirituality.  Faith, hope, trust, and wonder remain, but are arrived at without an appeal to God or religion.  While skepticism toward spirituality has not been lost, a new skepticism toward Christianity is evidenced and proliferated within institutions of higher learning, in the popular media, and by influential cultural elites.

Spirituality shaped by cultural relevance

The second strand of spirituality that is growing in prominence in a world of global flows is a form within churches that enthusiastically and unreservedly seek to move with the times.  In a fast changing world, the race toward relevance has resulted in significant changes not just of the external forms of church, but also in the inner nature and character of its accompanying spirituality.

A metaphor that aptly describes the church in a changing world is “a young person with white hair.” For the church to remain relevant in every generation, its external form needs to be renewed and adapted.

Equally, for the church to remain faithful to its roots, it cannot lose fundamental aspects of its character to the forces of change.  In their quests for relevance however, some adaptive churches have began to take on a character that is best described as “young person with colored hair.”

The slowness to recognize the extent to which cultural influences have become mixed in and rooted in the church today is paralleled in the way coffee is served and drunk today.  In its most basic and unadulterated form, coffee is served black.  In many popular coffee chains however, coffee is served as flavored Frappuccinos.

In the contemporary consciousness, coffee is an appealing beverage only because of the sweeten flavors of Frappuccino, and not because of the coffee per se.  Presented with the alternatives of a cup of black coffee and a Frappuccino containing only coffee essence, it would not be surprising if some insist that the Frappuccino was proper coffee while at the same time rejecting the real thing.

This muddle finds parallel in the church today and is observable in many successful, fast growing churches and their fan bases.  In David Wells’ words, these churches “appear to be succeeding, not because they are offering an alternative to our modern culture, but because they are speaking with its voice, mimicking its moves.”

Quite unlike the first strand of spirituality described which challenges the church from without, this second strand and its growing popularity challenges the church from within and is rooted in a consumer-driven posture of the heart.

Spirituality shaped by commitment to follow Christ

If the first strand of spirituality is decoupled from God and religion while the second an embodiment of trending socio-cultural influences, a third strand is marked by a deep commitment to know and follow Christ.  In a crowded, noisy world with a supermarket of spiritualities on offer, this strand stands apart and requires special attention and intentional cultivation.

The call to follow Christ is always issued amidst rival and competing voices.

In addition, when recognized, the call provokes differing degrees of receptivity.  The call invites all to recognize the identity of Christ as king of the universe and head of the church.  It bids all to enter into a discipleship relationship with the Master.

Finally, it summons all to appropriate the benefits of his sacrificial death on the cross, the power of his resurrection over sin and death, and the offer of hope both in this life and the next.

What animates a spirituality shaped by a commitment to Christ is the passionate desire to follow him and to imitate his ways.  This deep yearning and ambition is clearly exampled in the life of the apostle Paul who modeled his life after Christ and called others to follow in the same spirit (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; 2 Thess. 3:9).

Rodney Reeves comments on the core elements of this Christ-centered, life-altering spirituality embraced by Paul:

Since the gospel was more than a set of beliefs–it was a way of life–Paul believe his life revealed the gospel of Jesus Christ: he was crucified with Christ, he was buried with Christ and he was raised with Christ. Participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ was the template of Paul’s spirituality.

Spirituality shaped by commitment to Christ builds on the decision to follow him and grows toward maturity by pursuing the things Christ calls his disciples to become and live for.

Evidence of this strand of spirituality would include repentance from wrong doing, daily dying to self, embodying a spirit of service and sacrifice, demonstrating trust and dependence on God, and possessing a concern for the things that matter to the Master.  It upholds its integrity by resisting dilution and domestication of the gospel and by understanding that following Christ is not like bringing a puppy back home for personal amusement.

Bringing a puppy home requires some adjustment in personal lifestyle but still preserves a person’s status as the puppy’s master.  Following Christ however is better conceived as bringing a new master home.

That being the case, followers will need to note the adjustments in lifestyles, behaviors, and thinking that Christ demands of all aspects and arenas of life.  Having it any other way would be tantamount to preserving the rhetoric of following Christ while failing to uphold the reality in practice.  It would be to advance the great irony of following Christ on one’s own terms, not on His terms.

Concluding Words

The world we live in today is a world of global flows, shifting boundaries, and porous walls.  It is a world where our community, congregation members and children are exposed to different forms of spirituality.  It is also in the context of this world that Christians are called to develop authentic Christian spirituality.

Perhaps the invitation to develop authentic Christian spirituality in such as world can be compared to how fish we eat is served to us.  If developing Christian spirituality in an era past can be compared to being served fish with bones removed, developing Christian spirituality in the present age can only be compared to being served fish with bones on.

Eating becomes an exercise of wisdom and good judgment.  Under such conditions, it is necessary to discern what is beneficial, to distinguish from what needs to be spit out, and to know how to aid casualties along the way.

Dr Calvin Chong
is Associate Professor, Educational Ministries at the Singapore Bible College. His teaching and research interests include orality studies, hermeneutics, new educational technologies, designing learning experiences, the impact of narratives on worldview and values, conflict resolution/reconciliation, and contemporary urban missions and youth issues.


Culture of Death

“You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).

In its May 12, 2014 post, Mail Online reported that an 85 year old Italian woman paid €10,000 to a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland to help her to commit suicide because she was ‘unhappy about losing her looks’.

Oriella Cazzanello was in good mental and physical health when she travelled from her home in Arzignano, near Vicenza in northern Italy, to a clinic in Basel, Switzerland.

She did not inform her relatives of her intentions, or where she was going. In fact, her family members only knew that she had taken her own life when they received her ashes and the death certificate from the clinic.

The Italian new agency ANSA reported that Mrs Cazzanello, a well-to-do pensioner, chose to end her life because she was ‘weighed down by ageing and the inevitable loss of the look of which she was proud’.

Although active euthanasia, where the physician directly administers a legal substance to a patient, is not legal in Switzerland, physician-assisted suicide is permitted since 1942. In physician-assisted suicide, the patient administers a lethal substance supplied by the doctor to himself, thereby causing his own death.

According to this Swiss Criminal Code, assisting someone to commit suicide is a crime only when it is done with ‘selfish motives’, like personal gain. Article 115 of the Code reads: ‘Inciting and assisting suicide: Any person who for selfish motives incites or assists another to commit or attempt to commit suicide shall, if that other person thereafter commits or attempts to commit suicide, be liable to a custodial sentence no exceeding five years or to a monetary penalty’.

Swiss law does not require a physician to be involved in assisted suicide. Neither does it require the recipient, that is, the suicide, to be a Swiss national.

This unique law, which is not found anywhere else in the world, has attracted many people who wish to end their lives to Switzerland. It was reported that in the past decade more than 200 Brits have travelled to Switzerland to end their lives by assisted suicide.

A University of Bern study found that about 16 percent of those who seek the services of the suicide clinics in Switzerland had no serious health problems. They were simply ‘weary of life’. Unlike most countries that have legalized euthanasia or assisted suicide, in Switzerland assisted suicide is legal even if the person requesting it is not terminally ill.

Many proponents of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide have argued that the decision to take one’s own life with the help of the physician is a very personal one. They argue that every person must have the right to do this because of the principle of autonomy. Assisted suicide is the ultimate act of self-determination, which is priced above everything else in a society that is governed by the dogma of individualism.

But although assisted suicide may be a personal decision, it can never be said to be a private one. This is because the individual is always part of a community, and his or her personal actions will always have ramifications on those who are related to her, and to society as a whole.

Seen in this way, Mrs Cazzanello’s decision to take her own life has profound impact and consequences on her family members who were kept in the dark, and who discovered what happened only when her ashes were delivered to them.

Furthermore, the legalization of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide betrays the way in which society looks at human life. It opens the door to what Pope John Paul II described as ‘the culture of death’ that trivializes human life in a way that will result in the moral erosion of the community.

In his encyclical entitled, Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) Pope John Paul presents the most lucid account of the Christian view of suicide: ‘Suicide is always as morally objectionable as murder. The Church’s tradition has always rejected it as a gravely evil choice. Even though a certain psychological, cultural and social conditioning may induce a person to carry out an action which so radically contradicts the innate inclination to life, thus lessening or removing subjective responsibility, suicide, when viewed objectively, is a gravely immoral act. In fact, it involves the rejection of love of self and the renunciation of the obligation of justice and charity towards one’s neighbour, towards the communities to which one belongs, and towards society as a whole. In its deepest reality, suicide represents a rejection of God’s absolute sovereignty over life and death …’

The prohibition against murder – which includes suicide because it is self-murder –found in the Decalogue (Exodus 20:13) addresses this question. The command that prohibits murder is in fact a command to value and protect human life.

In this commandment, we are taught to think about all human life, including our own, in a particular way – as God’s precious gift to us. Because life is a gift, the language of rights does not apply. Simply put, because life is God’s gift, we do not have the right to take our own lives. And finally, in this commandment we learn that our primary business is about living, not dying.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today (June 2014).

Church Does Not Prohibit Abortion Under All Circumstances

It is clear that the Christian Tradition opposes abortion because it is the wilful killing of another human being. But are there no exceptions? What about pregnancies that result from rape? Should abortion be allowed in order to save the life of the pregnant woman?

WHILE the Christian faith opposes abortion for reasons spelt out in last month’s article (Abortion is ‘wilful destruction of a human being’: Methodist Message April 2007), the Christian anti-abortion position does not prohibit abortion under all circumstances.

The late Christian ethicist Paul Ramsay introduced the distinction between direct and indirect abortion in his attempt to show that under some very limited circumstances, abortion must be allowed. The difference between the two forms of abortion has to do with the primary thrust of the act, its main intention.

In direct abortion, the main intention is to kill the conceptus, while in indirect abortion it is to save the life of the pregnant woman. For this reason, direct abortion must always be prohibited. But indirect abortion may be allowed, but only when all other avenues of saving the life of the woman have been exhausted.

Indirect abortion restricts the circumstances in which abortion can be carried out. To repeat: only when the pregnant woman is in mortal danger, and when there is no other alternative, is abortion allowed. This means that all other reasons – quality of life, convenience, peace of mind, financial burden, etc – must be ruled out. Indirect abortion is one of those inevitable consequences of living in an imperfect world where in order to save a life physicians must take that of another.

But does this apply to pregnancy that results from rape? If a victim of rape were not allowed to abort, she would have to bear the responsibility of bringing the pregnancy to term and taking care of the child once he or she is born. The abortion option would relieve her of such responsibility, which is not the result of her own actions. In addition, some victims of rape may be under-aged or mentally ill and therefore unable to discharge their maternal responsibilities.

Christian ethicists have made several responses to this. The first is the statistically proven fact that very few women who are subjected to this violent attack become pregnant. Several reasons have been offered to explain why this is so. The woman may be infertile at the time because of either the menstrual cycle or the use of contraceptives. There may be lack of actual penetration, or her male attacker may be suffering from sexual deficiencies like impotence.

Secondly, if the victim were to present herself to the emergency department of a hospital within 24 hours, she will be subjected to certain protocols. Some of these protocols, such as flushing the reproductive tract and hormonal treatment, would prevent fertilisation. Thus, if proper steps are taken promptly, the chances that the violent sexual encounter would result in pregnancy can be greatly minimised.

Sometimes hospitals use abortifacient drugs like Ovral and RU 486 to prevent pregnancy in rape victims. There is some ambiguity in the description of such drugs and what they do. Are they contraceptives, abortion drugs or contragestation drugs? Drugs like Ovral have often been described as a contraceptive mainly because they “render the endometrium hostile to a possible fertilised egg”. In other words, these drugs cause a miscarriage. RU 486, however, prevents the implantation of the embryo on the wall of the uterus. The drug causes the uterus to react in a way similar to the end of a menstrual cycle.

Judging from what these drugs actually do, we must conclude that they primarily cause an abortion to take place. This means that it is misleading to call these drugs contraceptives. Their introduction has in fact already changed the entire course of the abortion debate, causing a shift from surgical to chemical abortions, and from abortion clinics to the physician’s office. Their introduction has made abortions easier, cheaper and much more private.

Even though the chances of a rape victim becoming pregnant are very slim, there is still a possibility that this might happen. Should the rape victim be allowed to abort the baby? To answer this question we must look beyond the individual and the crime that is committed against her, and set both the victim and the crime in the larger social context.

To put the matter plainly, although rape is a crime committed against an individual, it is never a private matter. This crime, like all other crimes, involves the entire community – the family, the church, the larger society. Thus it is the entire human community, not just the victim alone, that must bear the responsibility for the consequences of this violent act. Here the community must care for the victim and her child. It must provide her with the material, emotional and physical support she needs. It must care for her and the child she is carrying in every possible way.

Abortion is a convenient solution if society is unwilling to take up this responsibility. The abortion option is therefore welcomed by pragmatists. But such an attitude would surely erode the moral fibre of our society and drive it to embrace an ever more extreme form of individualism.


‘The late Christian ethicist Paul Ramsay introduced the distinction between direct and indirect abortion in his attempt to show that under some very limited circumstances, abortion must be allowed. The difference between the two forms of abortion has to do with the primary thrust of the act, its main intention.’

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the Methodist Message.

Should Christians Condone Euthanasia?

IN THE modern world dying has become a problem! The extraordinary advances in science and technology have not only made it possible for doctors to alleviate pain but also to extend life.

The possibility of being maintained on life support for months and sometimes years has resulted in much anxiety in both elderly and non-elderly patients. Patients and their families are increasingly involved in medical decisions concerning the end of life. As a result, patients, physicians, the public, and policy makers are faced with complex and difficult questions: Should the terminally ill patient be allowed to die? Should the medical profession have the option of helping these patients to die?

The issue of euthanasia or physician-assisted-suicide is receiving renewed attention and interest in recent years. The recent case of Terri Schiavo and the public debate it sparked shows quite clearly how clouded the question of euthanasia can become. (For my comments please see, “A Life Deemed Useless: The Terri Schiavo Case”, Trumpet, May 2005, pp. 2, 8).

But renewed interest in this issue can also be attributed to the fact that in recent years a number of European countries have legalised the practice of euthanasia. For instance, on April 10, 2001, the Dutch Government approved the “Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide (Review Procedures) Act”. And on May 28, 2002, Belgium passed an Act legalising euthanasia, which went into effect on Sept 23, 2002.

What is euthanasia? Should Christians condone such a practice?

The American Medical Association’s (AMA) Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs has defined euthanasia as:

… the act of bringing about the death of a hopelessly ill and suffering person in a relatively quick and painless way for reasons of mercy. In this report, the term euthanasia will signify the medical administration of a lethal agent to a patient for the purpose of relieving the patient’s intolerable and incurable suffering.

The Christian faith does not condone euthanasia because it maintains that human life is a gift of God and has intrinsic and exceptional value. The Christian faith’s rejection of euthanasia is also established upon the general prohibition against murder found in the sixth commandment in the Decalogue (Exodus 20:13).

According to the Christian faith, each human being is made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) and given a special vocation. Thus each human being has a unique role to play in the drama of salvation of the world. This emphasis has led some 20th century theologians like Karl Barth to argue that the dignity of each individual person is profoundly related to his or her uniqueness.

God has given each person a unique role to play at this time, in this place and in this manner. And although that role may not be glamorous, it is nonetheless special – it cannot be played by any other person in all of history.

Furthermore, the Christian faith sees life as a “gift” or a “loan” from God. The implication of this is that the individual is not simply a master but a beneficiary. More precisely, the individual is first a beneficiary before he or she is a master. This means that the individual’s life is not at his or her disposal, but he or she must treat it with due care; and due care must mean that nothing should be done to harm or destroy it. These insights have informed and shaped the Christian idea of the sacredness or the sanctity of life, and correlatively its stringent prohibition against harming and destroying human life.

Supporters of euthanasia have presented two arguments why to their mind the practice is not morally unacceptable. The first appeals to the principle of autonomy and self-determination: the person requesting to be euthanised is exercising his or her right to self-determination. This basic “right-to-die” argument appears in its various permutations in pro-euthanasia literature.

The problem with this argument is that if the “right-to-die” is so fundamental, why restrict it only to those who are terminally ill? Why not allow those who are in good health, but who feel that their lives are not worth living, to euthanise themselves?

The second argument – to which some Christians may be more sympathetic – is that euthanasia provides compassionate relief from suffering. That is why it is sometimes called “mercy killing”. In response, we argue that although suffering is to be resisted because it is not the expressed will of God, human beings do not have the right to take a life in order to relief suffering. The central principle which governs medical ethics is “maximise care”, and not “minimise suffering”. If it were the latter, then the elimination of sufferers would indeed be justified. But the duty of the physician is “always to care, never to kill”.

This wisdom, enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath, is embedded in the tradition of Western medicine for many centuries and should serve as the moral compass for decisions concerning the end of life. Thus the Declaration on Euthanasia of the World Health Organisation (Madrid, 1987) states that “euthanasia, or the act of deliberately putting to an end to a patient’s life, either at the request of the patient himself or at the request of his relatives, is immoral”.

In similar vein, the encyclical Evangelium vitae (“Gospel of Life“) issued by Pope John Paul II condemns euthanasia because it is a “grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person”.

‘The Christian faith sees life as a “gift” or a “loan” from God. The implication of this is that the individual is not simply a master but a beneficiary … These insights have informed and shaped the Christian idea of the sacredness or the sanctity of life, and correlatively its stringent prohibition against harming and destroying human life.’

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the Methodist Message.

Should Christians Support The Death Penalty?

CAPITAL punishment is a divisive issue today, even among Christians. Fundamentalist Christians in America, especially from the so-called Bible-belt, support the death penalty because it is the explicit teaching of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament.

Conservative Catholics support the death penalty maintaining that the practice – which is the right of the State – is in concurrence with Scripture, tradition and natural law. Liberals (and some conservatives) have long called for its total abolition.

It is impossible within the limited compass of this essay to examine this complex issue from every angle. What follows is a brief survey of the biblical material and the witness of the Christian tradition. I will also discuss, albeit briefly, the arguments in support of and against capital punishment, before presenting my own position.

There can be no doubt that the Old Testament sanctions capital punishment for certain crimes and offences. In the Mosaic Law there are no less than 36 capital offences that are punishable by execution by stoning, burning, decapitation or strangulation. The list includes offences such as idolatry, magic, blasphemy, murder, adultery, bestiality, incest, and even the violation of the Sabbath. But the death penalty is seen as an especially appropriate punishment for murder, for the Noahic covenant presents the following principle: “Whoever shed the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (Genesis 9:6).

That capital punishment is an approved punishment that the State can execute is surely taught, or at least implied, in Romans 13. The authority of the State is established by God to reward the good and punish the wicked. The State has the right to wield the sword in dealing with the wicked.

Although Jesus Himself refrains from using violence, He does not deny that the State has the authority to exact capital punishment. He cites with approval the harsh commandment, “He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die”, in His debate with the Pharisees (Matthew 15:4; Mark 7:10, Cf. Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9). In His trial before Pilate, Jesus did not contest Pilate’s right to execute offenders but reminded him that this authority came “from above”. (John 19:11).

Support for the death penalty is almost unanimous in the Christian tradition, particularly in the teachings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Except for a few like Ambrose, most Church Fathers maintain that Scripture gives the State the right to exact such punishment on certain offenders.

Thoughtful objectors of the death penalty have offered four reasons why capital punishment should be abolished. The first is that the convict may be innocent. This objection alerts us to the fact that even the best and most objective justice system is imperfect and therefore not infallible. The second objection is that the death penalty whets the appetite for revenge. The third objection is that the death punishment cheapens the value of life and promotes the idea that murder in some respects may be condoned. Some see this as a weak objection: many pro-life advocates are at the same time advocates of capital punishment because they reasoned rightly that the innocent and the guilty do not have the same rights.

The final objection will at first glance appear to be compelling: Christians are called to forgive. Although forgiveness is an important aspect of the Gospel and the Christian is commanded to forgive, there must be a distinction between the assailant’s relationship with his victim and with the state. Personal pardon on the part of the victim does not absolve the offender from his/her obligation to justice.

The purposes of criminal punishment may be summarised thus: rehabilitation, defence against the criminal, deterrence and retribution. Can the death penalty achieve these goals?

Rehabilitation: Obviously the death penalty does not help to reintegrate the criminal into society – although from the pastoral standpoint it may cause repentance and reconciliation with God. Defence against the criminal: Capital punishment is obviously an effective way of protecting society from the criminal, although some questioned if such an extreme measure is really necessary. Deterrence: The death penalty may deter others contemplating to commit similar crimes, although its power to do so is debatable. Finally, retribution: The general principle is that guilt calls for punishment; and the greater the offence, the more severe the punishment.

But since the State, unlike God, is neither omniscient nor omnipotent, retribution by the State obviously has its limits.

I believe that the State has the authority to exact the death penalty although it may choose not to do so. The State may choose to commute the death sentence to a less severe punishment, like life imprisonment without parole. However, should the State choose to put criminals to death, such punishment should be meted out only to perpetrators of heinous crimes like murder.

The State has the authority to wield the sword, but it must do so sparingly, and always in the interest of justice.


Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the Methodist Message.