When God Saves a Religious Extremist

The recent horrifying terror events in Oslo allegedly planned and carried out by Anders Behring Breivik, whom The Atlantic has called a “Christian Extremist”, not only furthers the conversation about the threat of terrorism but the conversation about the threat of religious extremism of any kind. This kind of religious extremism has been rightly condemned by the media and by sane people alike, but extremism of a certain kind is not necessarily evil but inevitable. Martin Luther King Jr. assumed extremism in his Letter From Birmingham Jail: “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”

The New Testament resoundingly assumes that any “Christian” extremism that results in the hateful murder of human beings is not Christian at all.

The New Testament paints a picture of its biggest Christian missionary before his conversion to Christianity in similar terms as Breivik. The book of Acts says that Saul, whose name was later changed to Paul, was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (9:1-2). He was identified as a religious extremist who saw himself, as New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce has pointed out, in line with the “great paragons of religious zeal in Israel’s history—Phinehas, Elijah, and Mattathias (father of Maccabees)—who were prepared to go to extremes of violence against the enemies of God” (The Book of Acts, 180). Paul even approved of the execution of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who publicly proclaimed the historical death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and some have gone so far as to say that he may have been the one “charged with proclaiming that the convicted person was about to be executed for the specified offense” (Bruce, 161).

But God saved this extremist, and Paul went from condemning those who believed that Jesus was the crucified and resurrected Messiah to believing it himself and spreading this message throughout the Mediterranean in spite of fierce opposition. In other words, Paul went from being an extremist of hate to an extremist for love. God’s eye-opening grace in Paul’s life on the road to Damascus turned him from being a man who hunted down those who disagreed with his religion to being a man who was persecuted for spreading the news that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and one and only Savior of the world. He did not seek to kill for this message, but was willing to be killed to spread it. In fact, tradition has said that Paul was eventually killed by the Roman Emperor Nero for his faith.

Authentic commitment to Jesus creates extremists for love and grace not hate and injustice.

This kind of reaction should not surprise Christians. Belief in the exclusivity of Jesus spawns hateful extremism by those who reject it. Jesus himself said this: “And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Mk 13:13). Ironically, those who believe the claims of Jesus and tell others about them will be viewed as extremists and some will be killed because of it.

On the other hand, the New Testament resoundingly assumes that any “Christian” extremism that results in the hateful murder of human beings is not Christian at all. But there is a kind of Christian extremism that is the corollary effect of the Christian gospel, and that is extremism for the message of the self-sacrificial and substitutionary love of Jesus Christ. Now this belief is that which many today find intolerable and even evil because of its exclusivity, but notice the difference, this kind of belief never seeks the harm of another human being because it is rooted in the conviction that the salvation of humanity lies in its message of the love and grace revealed in the person and work of Jesus.

When God saves a religious extremist he does not make him less of one, but he does make him a different kind of one.

When God saves a religious extremist he does not make him less of one, but he does make him a different kind of one. Instead of sending them on a crusade of hate, he sends them on a mission of love. This loving mission will include proselytizing. Even the atheistic magician Penn Jillette reached this conclusion in one of his You Tube clips on his interaction with one whom he described as a sane and kind Christian that gave him a Gideon Bible: “How much do you have to hate someone not to proselytize?” A Christian extremist should be the kind of person who seeks the good of his neighbor and his enemies in the here-and-now by doing deeds of compassion like Jesus did, and the good of his neighbor and his enemies for of all eternity by calling them to repent and believe the good news of Jesus who died for the ungodly.

The diabolical acts of Breivik should be publicly detested by all Christians, but all Christians should not waver in their allegiance to King Jesus whose kingdom is not of the world but has invaded the world with substitutionary love for sinners by being executed in their place and raised from the dead for their justification. Authentic commitment to Jesus creates extremists for love and grace not hate and injustice.

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