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.