Urbana 18 Speaker Dismisses God’s Holiness in Sermon to Students on “Holy, Holy, Holy”

on January 14, 2019

Every three years, InterVarsity convenes a conference to excite Christian college students about missions. At the most recent conference, Urbana 18, students learned to denounce capitalism, apologize for Christianity, set aside the doctrine of justification, and exchange God’s holiness for pantheism.

Activist Danielle Strickland riffed on the seraphim’s song in Revelation 4, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” Few places in Scripture can yield more profitable meditation, but Strickland’s irreverent and syncretistic interpretations leave me wondering whether we have the same God.

Throughout her presentation, Strickland pronounced the word “holy” as people often do when uttering it profanely—with a long first syllable and an emphasized second syllable. She adopted this manner from a 5-day-old Christian recently transformed from a life of drugs and crime because it “makes so much more sense” than anything she learned in Bible college. In contrast, when Isaiah witnesses the same refrain (“holy, holy, holy”), he pronounces judgement on himself because of his “unclean lips.” It takes the searing of a burning coal from the altar of heaven to atone for Isaiah’s guilty, sinful mouth.

I sympathize with Strickland’s apparent difficulty in defining “holiness;” words are utterly inadequate. However, even though she used words like “otherness” and “sacredness” as partial synonyms, from all her examples it seems like “holiness” meant to her simply “beauty.” This sublime, mysterious attribute of God, she said, “is everywhere, if we could see it, in everyone.” This notion is not far removed from pantheism, which “regards the universe as a manifestation of God.”

Strickland shared an example in which, she said, she personally experienced the holiness of God. She was privileged to see the face of a 16-year-old Muslim evangelist under a burqa, which, according to Strickland, was “beautiful, “gorgeous,” “sacred,” “holy.” The girl’s face was “filled with, like, heaven’s heartbeat—just this eternal, divine, sacred presence of God pounding to get out even in the deadest of the world. Holy.” Strickland said that’s when she realized: “God’s asking us all the time… ‘would you like to see my face?’”

Hold on a second. According to God, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” If sinful man really saw the face of the one, true, holy God, we would die.

There is beauty manifest throughout the universe—especially in the image of God—and it does point us to God. But that beauty is marred by sin and, therefore, no longer holy. The very fact that beauty is so common throughout the universe should signal that it doesn’t have the type of “otherness” as holiness. Strickland confuses beauty for holiness and so falsely assumes that God’s holiness is manifest anywhere there is beauty (everywhere). While not quite pantheism, this notion represents an unholy mixing of beliefs, or syncretism.

Some may shrug at this distinction. Consider, however, Strickland’s two (correct) main points: the way we understand God 1) affects the way we see everyone around us, and 2) affects the way we ought to live as Christians.

Based on her God-in-all interpretation, Strickland said we can “behold the face of God” if we unmask it from negative externals. The list of bad things to remove included prejudice, sexism, racism, nationalism, and pain. However, it also included religion, rules, and expectations, and “other barriers.” It should come as no surprise that after diluting (or, more precisely, reinterpreting) the holiness of God, Strickland casually rejected all restrictions on Christian behavior. After all, holiness is just as much about moral purity as about being separate.

Sprinkled throughout the presentation, Strickland’s flippant attitude toward sin went beyond merely rejecting legalism. She approved of the bumper sticker, “Jesus is coming! Quick, look busy.” Another time, she quipped gleefully, “I’m extroverted, so when I’m tired, I don’t get sleepy; I get in trouble.” The impressionable young audience joined her in a chuckle. Of course, this “trouble” is simply and inexcusably “sin,” and it afflicts all fallen humans, not just tired extroverts. Later, she admitted that she would never be holy because she is “not gifted in the good.” Why so many euphemisms?

I don’t mean to criticize Strickland for sinning; every Christian sins. Nor for talking about it; I wish we in the church would repent of sin more. What shocked me was how little her sin bothered her. Strickland made no mention of the command, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). Nor did she recite—since she likes the Gospels—“unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

Strickland did mention Hebrews 12:14 (“strive… for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord,” but only to upend it. Previously, she explained, “I thought it was like, at the end of time, God would be like, ‘well, are you holy? Because if you’re not holy, you’re not getting in.’” However, Strickland liberated herself from this interpretation with the opinion of an 18-year-old student. This plucky freshman asserted the verse meant, that people will only see what God looks like if they see God in you.” If we can’t actually be holy, this interpretation only makes our predicament worse, not better. It only looks like a solution with the help of some clever, logical hand-waving. There’s a good reason why Paul appointed doctrinal guardians for church and stipulated they should not be recent converts.

Ever since Genesis 3, the Bible asks the question, how can sinful humans dwell with a holy God? The Bible concludes, they can’t… except through the blood of Jesus Christ. That is why the Gospel is Good News. Hebrews 10:14 summarizes, “by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” Even if our lives aren’t perfectly holy yet, God considers us so, and our task is to grow in holiness as a labor of love—to be more like God.

Strickland concluded by comparing God’s throne room in Revelation 4 with “one of the most notoriously terrible drug alleys of Vancouver’s East Side.” She once officiated a wedding in front of a dumpster there. They pressure-washed the alley to make it smell “a little bit less like urine.” The flower girl sprinkled petals on “this gross, nasty, infected, diseased area.” Remarked Strickland, “it was beautiful.” A bum woke up in the dumpster and interrupted the vows by crudely exclaiming, “Holy _____!” According to Strickland, “I’ve never heard a holier sound.” After all, she said, that word is “the sound of Revelation” (remember her profane pronunciation). Strickland asserted, “Revelation 4 is like Jesus throwing a wedding in every alley.”

God’s holiness has nothing to do with a foul-mouthed addict in a dumpster. Where is the throne in the alley wedding? The thunder and lightning coming out of it? An emerald-like rainbow? A sea of glass like crystal? God’s throne room, full of worship, does not smell like urine and is not a “gross, nasty, infected, diseased area.” God’s holiness is so pure that it knocks clean over any sinful human that encounters it. It is so far beyond us that it causes us to tremble with terror.

That’s not to say that Christians shouldn’t go into alleys and witness to addicts. Jesus did, when he walked on earth during his humiliation. But now he has been exalted, and we cannot (and must not) treat him as lowly anymore (Philippians 2:8-11). The king of the feast has commanded us to go out and bring in those we find in the byways, but the feast is not there; it is in the king’s banquet hall. And if someone doesn’t prepare himself by washing and dressing in wedding clothes, he will be locked out (Matthew 22:1-14).

As Strickland said before, how we think about God determines how we view others, and how we live our lives. Let’s make sure that the God we worship is not one we created, but is truly holy, completely set apart and morally perfect, unmixed with ideas from pantheism or any other false religious system.

  1. Comment by Brad Pope on January 14, 2019 at 7:49 am

    Sounds just like Richard Rohr…

  2. Comment by A.J. Bernard on January 14, 2019 at 8:15 am

    It’s no wonder the Muslims laugh at us and use liberal Christians like this to show themselves the worthlessness of our faith. How can a graduate of a Christian institute of Higher Learning be so utterly ignorant, unless our academies are implanting that ignorance?

  3. Comment by Michael Moore on January 14, 2019 at 9:09 am

    How far did they have to look to come up with a speaker like this one?

    Adrian Rogers said that when he came to Christ, he was so appalled at his own sinfulness that he laid on the ground face down. That wasn’t low enough, so he got a shovel, dug a hole, and put his face down in it. This woman sounds like, if she ever met the true Jesus, she would tell Him, “move over! You’re standing in my place!”

  4. Comment by William on January 14, 2019 at 9:39 am

    The calling card of a “Biblical intellectual” is to, first and foremost, place self on a superior pedestal in order to engage in Biblical criticism and critique so as to prove one’s intellect to self and peers — certainly an arrogant way to build self esteem while engaging in idol worship.

  5. Comment by Dan on January 14, 2019 at 10:19 am

    I don’t donate anymore to CRU and I now will have to add InterVarsity to this list.

  6. Comment by paul on January 28, 2019 at 11:42 pm

    your ignorance is profound. I was there. Her message remarkably reflected in a glorious way mans’ efforts to comprehend the Holiness of God-a concept larger than the entire universe-in a way that should leave us all in childlike awe from one perspective, even though we will react also like Isaiah and John. I am confident without knowing much about either the ignorant author of this blog and Danielle Strickland that Danielle has had a much greater impact on the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ.

    The dishonesty of the post is also the typical work of the lazy mind who does not make the effort to understand context. For 5 days, morning til night, we studied the entire book of Revelation, coming to our knees at points. Every song in every language praised the Holy God who sits on His throne.

    Folks like you need to be very careful to heed the admonishment in Proverbs that God finds as an abomination those who stir up dissension among the bretheren.

  7. Comment by Lisa Reiter on February 17, 2019 at 3:39 pm

    To Paul, who was judging the author of this article for judging Ms. Strickland (see a similarity?):
    I much prefer healthy debate among Christians than living in a politically correct world where we can’t say anything for fear of being condemned.
    If some of us have problems with edgy leaders, maybe it’s because their style is so flashy we worry about the content of their words. Also, I go to a church where our leader was cool, edgy, and sinning horribly.
    Where words are many, sin abounds…(I say that with fear and trembling, BTW, because I like to talk, too.)

  8. Comment by Garry Eddy on January 14, 2019 at 5:44 pm

    Many years ago, our basketball team had a player who thought the game consisted of him dribbling and shooting. The rest of the team was there to feed him the ball. He felt there was only two fundamentals in the game and they centered around him. The only reason he got to play was the coach worked for his dad. Likewise, as brilliant as this young lady may be, it strikes me that she sees the fundamentals of the council of God as unnecessary in her mind. And she interprets the ones she likes to feed her own ego. The question that needs to be answered is, what was her leverage to even participate as a speaker?

  9. Comment by Chip on January 14, 2019 at 10:38 pm

    I am not sure from this piece whether Danielle Strickland ultimately was saying anything more than Mother Theresa, who talked about seeing Jesus in everyone. This view is fairly common among Christians of various stripes, including conservative theological ones. There might be real differences there; I’m just not sure if there are from this piece.

  10. Comment by April User on January 15, 2019 at 10:09 am

    I thought that the cry of “Holy, holy, holy” was a declaration of and to each Person of the Godhead, not an over the top emotional response.

  11. Comment by Roger on January 16, 2019 at 5:13 pm

    Holy simply means set apart. Set apart from sin. I know the OT says mankind will die if they see the face of God. The Father is Spirit and we would die if we saw him. Jesus is the physical manifestation of the Trinity/ Godhead. Jesus is God in physical form and many people saw him in his earthly ministry. We forget that Jesus is the creator God of this universe.

  12. Comment by D. Scott MacDonald on January 16, 2019 at 7:36 pm

    I’m feeling pressed to do a little research on Urbana. After all, someone gave Strickland the platform, and they share the blame for her little rant and lack of hermeneutical honesty. Some Christians seem so eager to be edgy that they lose common sense. It’s sad to ponder the effect on impressionable youth who could have been equipped and encouraged to ministry for a holy God, Who, when He came as close as ever to humans, inspired extreme fear (Exodus 19, especially verse 16ff, and Exodus 20, especially 18ff).

  13. Comment by Bret L Johnson on January 30, 2019 at 11:17 am

    Scott, I agree with you and though I was not there this time (at Urbana) I find myself also wanting to research what is “up” with Urbana. One family (Dad, Mom & two college age kids) went to U18 and Dad told me after, “It seemed like in the main sessions it was a rant about all that is wrong with America.” Hmmm… In addition, the Urbana organizers MUST be highly concerned about attendance. My understanding is that only 10K people were there but only 6K of those were college students….the rest presenters, exhibitors and other older adult on-lookers. The Cross for the Nations Conference in Louisville during Christmas break had 7K college students. I find that VERY interesting. And of course the Passion conference with their 40K attendance is a factor for all.

  14. Comment by Carl Stoakes on January 18, 2019 at 9:39 pm

    My “goodness” is Jesus Christ Himself; apart from Him, I have no “goodness.”

    When you get close to the Holy Spirit, the first thing you will realize is what a low down rascal you really are.

    “God is love” has no meaning whatsoever if the statement is detached from a holy God who made a BLOOD ATONEMENT for unholy sinners.

    The unsaved man thinks he is waiting for his trial, but he has gone far beyond that. He is actually on “death row,” waiting to be executed.

    “Every Christian should be out of step with the age in which he lives.”

    “Those of us who have spent much time dealing with these “deeply pious” people, with “humble frames of mind” in their “reverential trust,” know that they are some of the greatest Bible-rejecters in the world.”

    ~ Dr. Peter S. Ruckman, Galatians Ephesians Philippians Colossians Commentary, “Philippians Chapter 2”.

  15. Comment by Lisa Reiter on February 17, 2019 at 3:27 pm

    Danielle Strickland spoke at my church this morning. She’s been a speaker here a few times before. But, some red flags went off for me this time, which led me to this site:
    -humble bragging about trips, etc.
    -political correctness (Black history, MLK)
    -too many words and strident tone
    -worldly coolness with slang and tattoo
    -calling socially inept people “gross” because they come off as insincerely sweet. I know people like this–they are not gross at all, just trying their best to make others like them.

    I do not look forward to the next time she speaks at my church and wonder at our church leaders for continually inviting her.

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