The Great Tribulation mentioned in Revelation 7:14 is caused by Americans’ sins of empire, said Beth Paz, who served 11 years with InterVarsity’s Fresno Institute for Urban Leadership. Despite the definite article (“the great tribulation”), Paz understood it to be not the extraordinary period Jesus mentioned in Matthew 24:21, but general suffering (she always called it “suffering”) caused by sin that has afflicted mankind since Genesis 3.
Sin, said Paz, is “our rebellion against God.” That’s a robust, concise definition of sin and a well-chosen starting point for a Gospel presentation (which was her roadmap). While Paz mentioned some individual sins, like “our pride, our perfectionism, our narcissistic arrogance,” she hurried on to imperial sin, by which she sometimes meant Rome, but usually meant America. Invoking Habakkuk’s plea, Paz lamented, “How long must women indignantly cry out, ‘Yeah, me too?’ How long must we mourn for Trevon Martin? How long do children have to be ripped apart from their families at the border? How long, O God, how long?”
She warned that even ostensible Christians can become guilty of sins of empire by compromising—having “one foot in the world and one foot in the kingdom.” Some examples include pledging allegiance to Jesus and to our country or wanting “the American dream and the kingdom dream.” Paz exhorted the 10,000 students to repent of such “sin that so easily entangles” because “there is no room to half step your way into the kingdom of God.”
Watching the recording, I got the impression that Paz believed that to “follow the way of Jesus wholeheartedly,” I would have to renounce all ties to any particular nation. I’m not sure how this comports with Jesus’ instruction to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” or with the way Revelation 7 characterizes the great multitude clothed in white as belonging to every particular nation. Still, I’m sure Paz’s polished presentation convinced many young college students that identifying as American would make them a bad Christian.
Paz explained, “‘empire’ is always trying to counterfeit salvation.” How did they do this? In the case of the Roman Empire, “they boasted of peace and security and well-being, but they delivered the opposite.” I’m not sure why the Urbana 18 speakers fixated so much on the labeling the Pax Romana fiction. They were a hair off from the chieftain in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, who asked, “apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” The Book of Acts demonstrates how, common language, public order, exclusive citizenship rights, and a lack of internal borders helped the Gospel spread rapidly throughout the Roman world. Historical debates aside, I’m surprised to see “salvation” equated to “peace and security and well-being.” That sounds close to a false, “prosperity” Gospel.
I mentioned previously that Paz was heading towards a Gospel presentation, and quite an odd presentation it was. Essentially, it flowed like this: 1) Everyone one of us sins. 2) Sin causes suffering. 3) Jesus’s death on the cross obtained victory over sin. 4) Jesus offers everlasting freedom from sin and salvation from suffering. Technically, every bit of that is true, but it doesn’t complete the Gospel package. If I heard Paz’s message as an unchurched non-believer, I would assume that Jesus saves us from the consequences of our own sin. I would not assume that Jesus saves us from the wrath and judgement of a good, just, and holy God against wicked people. I would assume the cross was a symbol of victory against sin and death, but I would not assume that the very nature of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was as a substitute to bear the death penalty we deserved. Based on what Paz said, I would have a lot of evidence to support those assumptions.
To her credit, unlike other Urbana 18 speakers, Paz did not represent Jesus as still in his humiliation. “This is the salvation of Jesus Christ: that Jesus died on a cross—the lamb of God slain—that Jesus conquered death, and brought deliverance from sin and victory over evil and all the schemes against life,” she said. Now he sits on a throne of righteousness and justice, and will one day judge evil.
On Judgement Day, said Paz, “all oppression will be scrutinized, every sin will be held to account.” This is not a personal judgement, as suggested in Colossians 3:25, “the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done.” Instead, Paz added, “every perpetrator, traumatized by their own evil, will be forgiven and healed. And everyone who has suffered from marginalization, exploitation, powerlessness, and cultural imperialism will be vindicated.” I suppose she meant there is some non-personal force called “oppression” and another called “sin,” and that these will be “held to account”—whatever that means in a non-personal context.
Paz presented “sin” as the chief villain, from which God will rescue all victims and all perpetrators—who are also victims. Hell has no place in this model because all sinners will be saved by God. Does that mean we will break bread in heaven with Hitler and Stalin? When Paul said, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed,” he must not have literally meant that persons would be accursed; he must have been anthropomorphizing sin.
Paz loved to talk about how the cross of Christ is victory. “Victory hasn’t come easy, but victory has come. Hope will prevail” (if English prose had marks to indicate a crescendo, they would be appropriate here). In itself, picturing of the cross as victory is an accurate, Biblical way to discuss Jesus’ sacrifice. Unfortunately, focusing on this picture exclusively, as Paz did, reflects a disturbing trend among evangelicals. Contemporary theologians have tended—and evangelicals seem to have copied them—to ignore the penal, substitutionary nature of the cross in favor of more comfortable, palatable pictures, like the cross as victory. “Penal” and “substitutionary” are not commonly used words, but they mean simply that God’s justice requires death as punishment for sin, and Christ died as a substitute for us.
Theologian J. I. Packer spoke out against this liberalizing trend all the way back in 1973. Pastors Mark Dever and Michael Lawrence published expository sermons showing how penal substitutionary atonement can be found throughout Scripture in 2010, and Mark Galli, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, wrote in its defense just last week. Without the concept of Christ as a substitute punishment for us, the Gospel is just incoherent nonsense.
One might argue that Paz never intended her message to be a Gospel presentation, and I would be inclined to agree, if not for what happened next. InterVarsity staffers walked up and down the aisles, handing out white flags to symbolize surrender. Paz urged anyone who had never committed their life to Christ to stand and wave a white flag. She said it symbolized their repentance of sin and surrender of their life to Christ. “Give up your compromise, your half-stepping, your sin; seek Jesus,” she said. “That quickening of your mind, that stirring of your heart—that’s not me. That’s the Holy Spirit at work. Pay attention to it.” Subtle background music faded in to ensure that at least some hearts would be stirred, with or without the Holy Spirit’s involvement. Paz coaxed the emotional youngsters for more than five minutes, after which time she sent those waving white flags to an adjoining room to process what they had just committed to. I wonder how many of her “converts” counted the cost of surrendering their life to Christ. Did they even understand it meant salvation from the wrath of God for their sin?
God can use even a jumbled Gospel presentation and manipulative altar call to save students in training for the mission field who do not yet know him personally. But it certainly is no help to bury new believers under a mountain of unscriptural teaching out from which they will have to dig themselves later.
Editor’s note: This article originally stated that Beth Paz is a current employee of InterVarsity. However, she recently moved on to serve Director of High School Ministry at First Presbyterian Church, Fresno.