Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Theistic Evolution and its Embrace of a Mythical Adam

Theistic evolutionist - he calls himself an “evolutionary creationist” - Denis Lamoureaux made a presentation at the Westminster Conference on Science and Faith (2012). He argued that there was nothing that could have prevented God from creating through evolution.

Besides the fact that such a position is oxymoronic – even God can’t guide through an unguided process – this just isn’t the point. Instead, the point is whether or not evolution contradicts the biblical account. However, Lamoureaux insists that you can have both – evolution without compromising the Bible. Nevertheless, he insists that Paul was wrong that an historic Adam actually existed.

His proof: The Bible was influenced by the errant science of its day. He cited Genesis 1 and its teaching on the “firmament” – a hard, solid object, something like the Great Wall of China, separating the waters of the seas from the waters of the skies – which he claimed that the Bible naively borrowed from ancient near-eastern cosmology. He also claimed that Paul was blinded by this cosmology, as his own writings reveal.

Lamoureaux cited Philippians 2:10 – “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” – claiming this threefold division of the cosmos reflects the errant scientific thinking of Paul’s day.

Even if Lamoureaux is correct, and this terminology is derived from an errant worldview, this fails to prove that Paul was duped by it and was teaching mistakenly because of it.

There is a great distinction between common usage and errant thinking and teaching. According to common usage, we say that the sun “rose.” Admittedly, this language might reflect errant science, but now it remains in our vocabulary because of its ability to communicate.

We know that the sun doesn’t literally rise, but scientifically precise language would fail to convey the idea, “what a glorious sunset!” Also, using this terminology doesn’t mean that we are ignorant of planetary reality or that we are misleading others.

Paul’s intention wasn’t to teach the errant cosmology of his day but rather the fact that every knee will bow wherever there are knees to bow – whether in heaven, earth, or even under the earth, if there are people there. This is the language of exaggeration!

I would imagine that language often did arise out of the rubble of mistaken ideas. We find a lot of this language in the Bible, whether in the form of the “firmament” or even in the Book of Revelation, which teaches that:

  • Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth. (Rev. 20:7-8) 
 Of course, the earth doesn’t have four corners. However, it is probable that this language most clearly communicated the idea that Satan would deceive the entire world, and not just the nations at the very “corners of the earth.” Clearly, Revelation is not speaking literally! Nor is it trying to teach that the earth actually has “four corners.”

However, Lamoureaux reasons that if Paul was wrong about living people being “under the earth,” then we shouldn’t insist that he was right about an historic Adam.

Here’s what is so perplexing about all of this. Lamoureaux assured his audience that he is a bonifide evangelical. He even recited the many evangelical doctrines to which he ascribed, like the Trinity and Incarnation. However, if he denies that Paul was correct about a literal Adam, then he must also deny all of the doctrines that Paul had based on a literal Adam:

  1. The Entrance of Sin and Death into the World
  2. The Fall
  3. The Gift and Justification of Christ Addressing Adam’s Trespass
  4. The Reign of Grace Replacing the Reign of Sin and Death (Romans 5:12-21)
  5. Christ as the Second Adam (1Cor. 15:21-22, 45)
Perhaps even worse, if we can’t trust what Paul had written about Adam, why should we trust anything else he wrote?

This problem cannot be restricted to merely the teachings of Paul. Adam’s genealogy connects him to the Patriarchs and eventually even to Jesus. If Adam is mythical, perhaps also Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and everyone else genealogically connected to the “mythical” Adam.

Jesus also acknowledged the historical Adam. When asked by the religious leaders about divorce, Jesus took them back to Genesis 1 and 2, and how God had joined Adam and Eve together, making them one, to prove that we have no business undoing what God had done (Mat. 19:3-8).

Well, if Paul was mistaken about an historical Adam, then Jesus also! If this is the case, what then can we trust about Jesus’ teachings? I guess that Lamoureaux would then have to position himself as a judge above the entire Bible to determine what is trustworthy. In this case, Jesus would no longer serve as Lamoureaux’s judge, but Lamoureaux would reign as judge over Jesus – not exactly what Jesus had intended!

Based on what, then, does Lamoureaux believe in the Trinity? Habit? Fear?

I therefore began to wonder what the scene would look like if the venue was changed. If instead of presenting a talk at Westminster, where he was received with applause as a respected professor, he had been debating the Prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel, what should have been the response of the faithful? Would it be fitting to extend Lamoureaux applause or an opportunity to repent?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Book of Samuel and the Credibility of Scripture

Skeptics claim that the Bible cannot be regarded as historical because it has a theological commitment. However, none of us approach history with a blank slate. We all have our philosophical, worldview commitments. However, these commitments do not preclude us from writing credible history.

I’d like to take the Book of Samuel to briefly demonstrate this fact. Clearly, Samuel is more than history. It is also theology. Right from the start, this book betrays its spiritual perspective. Elkanah (1 Sam. 1:1) had two wives. One of his wives, Hannah, had been barren:

  • But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. (1 Sam. 1:5-6)
As a result of her anguish and desperation, she vowed:

  • “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.” (1:11)
Consequently, the Lord answered her prayer:

  • Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.” (1:19-20)
Admittedly, the Book of Samuel, along with the rest of the Bible, is entirely God-centered. Of course, the revelations that the “Lord had closed her womb” and “remembered her” go beyond normal human historical accounts and partake of divine revelation. Therefore, the skeptics charge that the Bible cannot be regarded as reliable history but as pious myths.

However, pious myths – human creations – are written in a mythical, human, story-telling manner. Samuel is not! Let me try to demonstrate.

Firstly, there are many rough edges and subtleties – not the kind of thing you’d find in a humanly constructed myth. The boy Samuel was nurtured Eli the priest – clearly, a very human and mixed character – both faithful and unfaithful. On the one hand, he tried to correct the sins of his sons:

  • Now Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons [also priests] were doing to all Israel and how they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. (2:22) 
He faithfully tried to correct them but to no avail. However, without any adequate explanation, we are then given a very different portrait of Eli the priest. A prophet came to Eli and announced to him His Lord’s great displeasure with him:

  • Now a man of God came to Eli and said to him, “This is what the Lord says: …I chose your ancestor out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest…’Why do you scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling? Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?’” (2:27-30) 
A faithful Eli is suddenly followed by an unfaithful Eli and a promise of punishment. The transition is very rough – just as we should expect from an historical account. People are messy compositions. However, myths smooth out these messy portraits to give us something to which we humans can easily respond.

In addition to this, the theology is also messy. It doesn’t seem to cohere. On the one hand, we are given the revelation of a good and just God. On the other, it seems that the Bible reveals to us a highly nuanced and confusing God. After Eli tried unsuccessfully to correct his sons, we are told that:

  • His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the Lord’s will to put them to death. (2:25) 
How just can this be! It seems that the sons didn’t have a chance. Instead, it seems that God coerced them to sin so that He could punish them! This is not in character with a human myth. Instead, this reflects a theological tension reflected throughout the breadth of Scripture. We recall how God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to accomplish His purposes, and how He gives people over to the corrupt desires of their hearts (Rom. 1:24-28).

However difficult that this might be to understand, this humanly troubling phenomenon reflects the divine consistency of the Bible rather than humanly constructed myths, created to justify a particular worldview.

The rough edges persist. God had chosen Samuel to be His prophet:

  • The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s [prophetic] words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. (3:19-21)
At this time, Israel was under the control of the Philistines masters and revolted against them. Humanly, we would think that now, with the respect that Samuel had finally commanded through God’s validation of his ministry, things would be different. However, Israel was badly defeated. In a desperate attempt to gain their independence, Israel took the ultimate step. They again went to war against the Philistines, this time carrying the Ark of God into battle. Never had the Ark failed them. However, again they were routed, and the Ark was captured.

How could God allow such a thing to happen! This event is so unlike pagan mythology where so much emphasis is placed on rituals and objects. However, the God of the Bible cannot be coerced or manipulated by any human techniques, sacred objects or rituals. This is because the Israelite God is not a man-centered god but a God who transcends our control and manipulations.

Meanwhile, the Ark brought death to the Philistines. Finally, realizing that it had been a curse to them, they returned it to Israel.

Israel’s rejoicing was just what we would have anticipated. However, to our great embarrassment, in the midst of the rejoicing, God punished them severely because they didn’t rejoice in the prescribed manner:

  • But God struck down some of the inhabitants of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they looked into the ark of the Lord. The people mourned because of the heavy blow the Lord had dealt them. And the people of Beth Shemesh asked, “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?” (6:19-20)
God had turned viciously against His own people for what seems to have been a minor infraction. From a human point of view, God’s action was repignant and unacceptable – not the substance of myths. Also, so many of the Biblical accounts directly contrast the Old Testament Apocrypha where we encounter fully comprehendible, heart-warming, pious stories.

In Second Samuel, we see the re-occurance of almost the same thing. Years later, after the godly David became king and decided to bring the sacred Ark up to Jerusalem, he had to struggle with the same perplexity:

  • David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals. When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled.  The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God. Then David was angry because the Lord’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.
From a human standpoint, God’s timing couldn’t have been worse, and David’s anger couldn’t have been any more understandable! It seemed that Israel was doing everything that they were supposed to have done, and, in the midst of this rejoicing, God brought punishment. What a way to end a celebration, and one that celebrated God Himself! This is very troubling and doesn’t seem to be the substance of human myth or story - telling.

However, there is a divine consistency here permeating the entirety of the Bible. There was no object as holy as the Ark of the Covenant. It had been sequestered in the Most Holy Place, where only the high priest could enter, and that was only once a year. Actually, it was not so much a matter of the Ark but its covering – the “atonement cover”:

  • "Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering. He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover [“mercy seat;” KJV] above the Testimony [the Ten Commandments which had been placed in the Ark], so that he will not die.” (Leviticus 16:11-13)
Even the high priest was not allowed to look upon this cover – the lid to the Ark. In order to prevent this, it was covered by the wings of two huge gold cherubim. Also, the high priest had to bring an incense censor producing great billows of smoke into the Most Holy Place, lest he see the cover and die. This was the only object that carried with it the threat of death. God communicated to Israel, in this manner, that there was nothing holier or even more secret.

We later learn that the atonement cover, resting over the Covenant of the Law, represented the atonement of Christ (Romans 3:25), which had not yet been revealed in its fullness. Clearly, nothing was closer to the heart of our Lord. This represented the secret of His glory – that He would die for the sins of the world (John 12:23; 13:31). How this secret had to be guarded and sanctified until God was ready to reveal it!

Israel understood a bit of this. They understood that God had His boundaries that needed to be respected. However, they didn’t understand why. Instead, they were horrified by God’s seemingly arbitrary and severe judgments.

Although the Book of Samuel is thoroughly God-centered, it isn’t God-centered in a way we humans would invent. It’s certainly not the substance of myths! We do not find a God in the Bible created after the image of man, but a God who is often hostile to the things that we humans esteem.

Well, where was Samuel during all of this? After the debacle at Beth Shemesh, the Ark was taken to Kiriath Jearim where it remained for twenty years. This was followed by a great revival in which Samuel played an important role:

  • Then all the people of Israel turned back to the Lord. So Samuel said to all the Israelites, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the Lord only. Then Samuel said, “Assemble all Israel at Mizpah, and I will intercede with the Lord for you.”  When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the Lord. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the Lord.”
Subsequently, God gave Israel victory over the Philistines, and along with victory, independence. Along with this, Samuel’s esteem grew. However, Israel rebelled against his leadership and wanted a king instead.

The circumstances are very nuanced and troubling. On the one hand, Israel had a legitimate grievance. Samuel’s sons were corrupt. How could this happen to the godly Samuel, especially in the wake of this great revival? We aren’t told. However, these troubling nuances are the substance of human history, not the substance of myth and imaginative stories.

On the other hand, Israel was beginning to lose their focus on God and wanted to be like other nations by having a king. What a disappointment and how unedifying! And after all they had been through! This would subsequently cost Israel dearly. (This is not the story I would write!)

What was motivating the author of Samuel? I have tried to argue that this book transcends normal human motivations. It’s messy. From a merely human perspective, it is all over the place, and consequently, it is a very unsatisfying read. However, from the perspective of New Testament revelation, it makes deep sense.

Did the author understand about what he had been writing? I would guess that he understood it only superficially. This is exacting what Peter wrote about prophetic revelation:

  • Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. (1 Peter 1:10-12)
Even the angels did not understand. How much less the critics of our day!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Pope Francis, Atheists, and Salvation

Huffington Post writes that during his homily at Wednesday Mass in Rome:

  • Pope Francis rocked some religious and atheist minds today when he declared that everyone was redeemed through Jesus, including atheists.
What did the Pope mean when he asserted that “everyone was redeemed through Jesus?” Simply that He had died for the sins of the world? Most Christians already believe that! But did the Pope mean that Jesus had actually saved the world from eternal condemnation through His redemption? HP quotes the Pope further:

  • “They complain,” the Pope said in his homily, because they say, “If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good.” And Jesus corrects them: “Do not hinder him, he says, let him do good.” The disciples, Pope Francis explains, “were a little intolerant,” closed off by the idea of ​​possessing the truth, convinced that “those who do not have the truth, cannot do good.” “This was wrong . . . Jesus broadens the horizon.” Pope Francis said, “The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation”
Pope Francis is certainly right that the disciples were intolerant and judgmental. They were always drawing the line in the wrong place. However, Pope Francis went further in his sermon to say:

  • "The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can... "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!".. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
While the Pope is correct that we all have the commandment to do good, it seems that the Pope is suggesting that Christ not only died for the sins of the world but that the world and has already received the benefits of this redemption, apart from faith, enabling everyone to live righteously.

Well, let’s put aside the question of what the Pope really meant and simply look at the question:

  • What did Christ teach about the necessity of faith in Him? Did He teach that salvation and redemption could only be accessed through faith?
Jesus taught a lot about the necessity of having faith in Him:

  • “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-16; also 5:24; 3:36)
Clearly, Jesus taught faith in Himself. However, did He teach that faith is necessary for salvation? After telling the crowds that were following Him that they needed to labor for eternal life:

  • Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:28-29)
Jesus gave no hint that there were any other good deeds that would take the place of faith. Nor did He ever suggest, as many do today, that the Jews had their own covenant and therefore didn’t need to find salvation through Him:

  • “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.” (John 8:24; 12:44-48)
Even the Pharisees had to believe in Him to find salvation. There was no other means available (John 14:6)!

HP cites Reuters regarding other things that the Pope had stated:

  • Atheists should be seen as good people if they do good, Pope Francis said on Wednesday in his latest urging that people of all religions - or no religion - work together.
However, none are good. That’s why, according to all Scripture, we need the Savior:

  • As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one”…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:10-23) 
Can we ever be good enough to please God without faith – the acknowledgment that we need the mercy of God offered through the Savior? Scripture unequivocally tells us “no!”

  • And without faith, it is impossible to please God. (Heb. 11:6)
Why is faith so critical to God? Without faith – the recognition of our utter spiritual poverty and need for His mercy – whatever good deeds we perform will simply make us arrogant and self-centered. A house can only be built on a solid foundation.

We do the atheist no favor by suggesting that they are good enough to obviate the need for faith in Christ. In fact, we simple enable them to continue to be hardened. In fact, one atheist Facebook group just wrote:

  • Christians are furious at the Pope for saying that atheists can enter heaven. And I’m just sitting here not caring.
Perhaps they need to learn a lesson from Jodi Arias. When confronted with death, our self-confidence often evaporates.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Hidden Blessings

The sweetest blessings are the ones far beyond our reach – the ones that seem unattainable, the ones for which we must wait the longest. The Book of Ruth is a book of delayed and completely unexpected blessing.

Because of a severe draught, Naomi and her husband left Israel to settle in a foreign land – Moab. Her husband died shortly after this. Her two sons married women of the land. However, before they conceived, both of her sons died and Naomi was left with two seemingly barren Moabitess daughters-in-law – Orpah and Ruth – and without hope of grandchildren.

It seemed as if her life was over. She had lost everything. It even seemed that “the hand of the Lord had gone against” her. She therefore ordered her daughters-in-law to return to their families where they would have better prospects of finding a real life.

Meanwhile, Naomi had heard that the draught in Israel had lifted, and she was determined to return. Orpah returned to her people. However, Ruth wouldn’t, and she memorably pleaded:

  • “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
Nevertheless, Naomi had despaired of her faith in the wake of such misfortune. Upon her return to Bethlehem, when she was greeted by her old friends, she responded with gloom:

  •  “Don’t call me Naomi [pleasant],” she told them. “Call me Mara [bitter], because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (Ruth 1:20-21)
Back in Israel, the young Ruth proved her virtue. Instead of receiving the attentions of young suitors, she offered herself to Boaz, Naomi’s relative – the one man by whom Ruth could bare grandchildren for Naomi (Ruth 3:10)!

By the inscrutable grace of God, she conceived immediately and bore a child named Obed. This turned out to be such a wonderful and unexpected blessing that:

  • The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel!  He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” (Ruth 4:14-15)
Grandchildren were considered a great blessing, far more than they are today. There is no doubt that the women had any idea that their invocation regarding a “guardian protector” was prophetic. However, Naomi’s grandson Obed had been fated to beget Jesse, and Jesse, David the King of Israel.

We cannot contain such honor unless we have been prepared for it through periods of tears and loss. The more the cistern is carved and scraped out, the more water it will hold. The more disappointments and hardships, the greater capacity to contain blessing! Otherwise, the weeds of pride and arrogance, which abound in fertile soil, would choke out whatever good might be growing alongside.

Instead, we require a regular pruning to keep us healthy, as Jesus explained:

  • “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:1-2)
Some trees will kill themselves by their own growth if not pruned. However, the Lord is close to those He has cut back, the broken-hearted (Isa. 57:15; 66:1-2). Through David would come the promised King Messiah, and in His lineage, we can find many of the broken-hearted. The foreigner Ruth, a Moabitess, is accompanied by the prostitute Rahab, and a woman who had lost a number of husbands – a woman who had to seduce her father-in-law, Judah, in order to have children.

Naomi had no idea of the glory that would proceed from her. She had thought herself a victim of God, but He was preparing for something glorious through her – for the Savior of the world.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Are the Hebrew Scriptures Barbaric?

Skeptics denigrate the Old Testament in a number of ways. The atheist Richard Dawkins termed the God of the Old Testament a “Genocidal Maniac.” Others take issue with the Mosaic Laws, claiming that they are barbaric, citing the punitive requirement of an:

  • Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21:24-25)

In support of their position, they cite Jesus, who they claim had revised this primitive and embarrassing legal code:

  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” (Mat. 5:38-41)
However, it seems apparent that Jesus is not correcting the Mosaic Law but rather its abuse within 1st century Israel. For one thing, the conclusion that Jesus was correcting Moses’ law violated everything else He had taught. He had started His Sermon on the Mount with a warning:

  • “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Mat. 5:17-18).
We are therefore constrained to interpret what follows, not as the abolishing of the Law, but as the correcting the abuse of the Law.

Had Jesus instead prefaced His remarks by saying, “It has been written,” then a case could be made that He was correcting the Law. However, He instead prefaced His remarks with, “You have heard that it was said.”

In contrast, instead of, “You have heard that it was said,” He responded to the Devil’s temptation by unequivocally citing Scripture:

  • Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
In all of His corrections in the Sermon of the theology of His day, Jesus never uttered, “It is written!” Besides, He clearly affirmed the necessity to live according to “every word that comes from the mouth of God” – the very thing that the Torah always asserted. After having insisted that man must live by “every word,” it’s simply unreasonable to suppose that, in the next chapter, He was disposing of many of these words.

Also, had He been teaching against the Mosaic Law, He would have been brought up on capital charges. However, such charges were never brought against Him.
What then was Jesus teaching against? In order to understand this, we first have to examine the “eye for an eye” principle in its original context:

·         Eye for eye, tooth for tooth…An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye.  And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth. (Exo. 21:24-27)

After presenting the “eye for an eye” principle, Moses provides some examples of how it should be applied. If a slave-owner knocks out a tooth or an eye of a slave, the Law didn’t require that the owner would have his eye or tooth removed, according to a literal erroneous interpretation. Instead, the principle was to be applied more figuratively – the slave would go free!

Rather than being barbaric, this principle required that the penalty fit the crime! It represented an advancement over the legal codes of Moses day that often imposed the death penalty upon a thief stealing a sheep to feed his family.

To what then had Jesus objected? To the abuse of the Law! It seems that the powerful had appropriated an “eye for an eye” to justify personal revenge. They had hijacked a sound principle of public justice for private use.

We have a way of “seeing” those things that justify our case. If we want to prove that the Bible is barbaric, it is easy to construe it that way. Many do! However, it requires more effort to understand this ancient collection of writings in the way that they were originally intended.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Incivility, Polarization and Death

I am shocked by the level of hatred I find on the net. Here’s one example of a dialogue based upon an Atheist Facebook posting:

  • Prayer is like masturbation. It feels good for the person doing it, but does nothing for the person they are thinking about.
Sometimes, I just like to inject an alternate point-of-view. Here’s my response:

ME: It depends on to whom you are praying!

ATHEIST:  In case you haven't noticed; you're not welcome here! This is an atheist page, you can go elswhere if you don't like it! Why don't you go to your own dumb christian page and fucking stay there? How about that? And stop stalking us like some retarded internet pervert, you're even worse than them! Noone cares for what you have to say, so just go away!

ME: I am sorry to be the cause of consternation. Either you un-friend me or I'll un-friend you if that's what others want.

ATHEIST: First of all, we're not friends, second, which part of get the hell out don't you understand? This is no place for you, none wants you here, so go preach on your own page and leave us alone.

ME: You're speaking for others, but where are they?

This is not unusual. Actually, it’s almost representative. Interestingly, the respondent is a woman.

What does it suggest? Well, for one thing, it reflects the growing antagonism towards our faith. Jesus warned us about this:

  • "All this I have told you so that you will not go astray. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.” (John 16:1-2)
It also reflects something else – the disintegration of our once great civilization. We are a body fighting against itself – no, warring against itself. In contrast to this, the late French scholar, Alexis De Tocqueville, wrote (cir. 1830) about the strong sense of mutual responsibility, common morality, and cohesiveness that the American people shared. He tried to fathom the basis of what he observed:

  • I sought for the key to the greatness and genius of America in her harbors...in her fertile fields and boundless forests; in her rich mines and vast world commerce; in her public school system and institutions of learning. I sought for it in her democratic Congress and in her matchless Constitution. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great. (Democracy in America)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Suffering: A Gift or a Curse?

Suffering is a reality of life, especially the Christian life. In fact, rarely have I met a Christian who isn’t suffering, some intensely. And it is understandable and natural that we ask, “Why me, God?”

However, in order to answer this common and perplexing question, we need to make a distinction between the suffering and our understanding of it. Interestingly, for some, the suffering can be unbearable; for others, it is entirely bearable. What makes the difference? The way we understand it! If we understand our suffering as something necessary and therefore good, it becomes bearable. If we understand it as a curse, it feels like a curse.

Two friends both contracted incurable illnesses. One regarded it as a curse, a sign of God’s disfavor, and he experienced it as a curse. The other regarded his illness as a sign of God’s love and faithfulness and therefore regarded it as a blessing. He understood that God disciplines His children out of His great love, and therefore saw his disease as a gift from God (Heb. 12:5-11).

But is it really a gift or are we just conning ourselves? According to Scripture, if we want to reign with Christ and bear His image to the world, we must endure suffering (2 Cor. 4:10-11). Paul was arguably the greatest missionary known to the church. However, he had to be prepared for this great work and honor through extreme suffering.

In the process of persecuting the church, God struck him down with blindness. Then He instructed the faithful Ananias to lay his hands upon Paul to heal him of his blindness. Ananias complained that Paul was the leading enemy of the church. However, God revealed that Paul was His chosen one and that Paul would have to suffer terribly for Him:

  But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:15-16)

However, Paul learned to value his suffering:

  Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked…I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.  Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.

The suffering seems to have produced great compassion in him.

  Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (2 Cor. 11:24-29)

Nevertheless, he pleaded with God to remove a certain unnamed affliction. However, God informed him that He wouldn’t, and that by doing so would have an adverse affect on Paul. He subsequently came to understand that when he was weak, it was then that he became strong in faith through the grace of God (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Consequently, he came to regard suffering as a gift and not a curse.

I too have come to regard suffering as a precious gift. However, this understanding didn’t come until after decades of suffering depression, followed by panic attacks. Only in retrospect did I come to see that the suffering served to release me from psychological imprisonment unto a faith and a reliance upon Him through His Word, as David had reflected:

   It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. (Psalm 119:71).

Paul also explained that suffering served as a trainer to show him the foolishness of self-trust and the necessity for God-trust:

  We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Cor. 1:8-9).

Self-trust is our natural default position. Only the fires of suffering can consume it and the arrogance that self-reliance breeds.

Surgery can be painful, but it is also necessary. It can be a blessing. God’s mysterious surgery is also a blessing. To regard it as a curse is to misunderstand both God and His ways. It’s also to make the suffering far worse.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Invented Moralities: Their Inevitable Fate

The way we believe determines the way we will eventually live. If we believe that morality is merely something we invent, we will invent or delete convictions as we are confronted by new desires and pressures. Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, asked this critical question of the famous evolutionist, Richard Dawkins, in a Times Magazine debate (11/13/06, p. 55.):

·        “Do humans have a different moral significance than cows in general.”

To this, Dawkins responded, “Humans have more moral responsibility perhaps, because they are capable of reasoning.” However, prior to this, Dawkins claimed, “I don’t believe that there is hanging out there, anywhere, something called good and something called evil.”

But how then can any human be held responsible, even if we do have more intelligence than cows? It’s like reasoning about the relative merits of the good-tooth-fairy vs. the indomitable-snowman. If they don’t exist, there’s nothing to reason about. If “good” and “evil” are not “hanging out there,” then “moral responsibility” can be no more than a passing fad or an electro-chemical impulse.

It’s like indicting someone for breaking a law that doesn’t exist! If there isn’t an objective and unchanging moral principle to break, then it is not objectively possible to hold anyone to account, no matter how aware or intelligent she might be.

However, society will not survive for long in such a moral vacuum. I remember reading that the existentialist Albert Camus concluded that “a man without morals is a beast.” And he will also act like a beast if that’s all he thinks he is. Therefore, if morals don’t ontologically exist, then we have to invent them.

Therefore, in The Selfish Gene, Dawkims becomes the inventor:

  • Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.
But will moral invention sustain society without an adequate rational basis? Truly society needs generosity and altruism so it doesn’t unravel, but ultimately, if it’s all about human selfishness without moral absolutes, why shouldn’t it unravel? Why “teach generosity and altruism?” If we’re selfish to the core, then why not be true to that core and live it out?

Ultimately, secularism cannot answer these questions. What makes us any more valuable than the bovine? Why should our admittedly selfish concerns trump their concern for their own skins? And what if we’re more intelligent than cows? Does a higher IQ make us more valuable? If there is no God who created us in His image, then “value” is nothing more than a transient feeling, a social construct or a chauvinistic bias.  

Why not instead live according to the “survival of the fittest,” as past evolutionists candidly proclaimed? Historian Richard Weikart cites German pathologist Hugo Ribbert as a representative spokesman for the evolutionists of his day - the beginning of the 20th century:

  • The care for individuals who from birth onwards are useless both mentally and physically, who for themselves and their fellow creatures are a burden merely, persons of negative value, is a function altogether useless to humanity, and indeed positively injurious. 
According to this construct, some humans are winners, while some are losers, and your neighbors and your friendly family physician will ultimately decide this for you. There is nothing that can rule out eugenics in a world that deems some as “useless.” What happens to those who fail the IQ or popularity test? What reasoning can be brought against Ribbert’s assertion that those who society deems “useless” are not entitled to care? None!

What then of our cherished “Bill of Rights?” Why should it pertain equally to everyone, whether useful or useless? If we follow the logic of Dawkins and Hibbert, it shouldn’t! What then will be the fate of the vulnerable members of our society? Should we even care?

There can be little doubt about the answer to these questions. National Socialism and Atheistic Communism have given us compelling testimony to this fact - that whenever our God is replaced by an “ism,” humanity, stripped naked of His protective, value-imparting image (Genesis 1:26), becomes an object to be manipulated or even exterminated by the overriding interests of the “ism.”

When moral absolutes are eliminated, we eventually become mere objects to serve the corporate “good.”  Colson and Pearcey, How Shall We Now Live?, write about the demise of the Christian worldview:

  • Denial of sin may appear to be a benign and comforting doctrine, but in the end, it is demeaning and destructive, for it denies the significance of our choices and actions. It reduces us to a pawn in the grip of larger forces…Social planners and controllers then feel perfectly justified in trying to control those forces, to remake human nature and rebuild society according to their own blueprints—and to apply any force required toward that end. (pg. 183)
Dawkins has another problem. If he denies everything he can’t touch and smell, then he should also deny that reason and logic are “hanging out there.” Admittedly, reason and logic produce results, but the lack of moral absolutes also produces results – cynicism and contempt for any moralizing, anything that slows us in the pursuit of our lusts.

The German poet Heinrich Heine was able to see the approach of Hitler’s National Socialism from afar:

  • "It is to the great credit of Christianity that it has somewhat attenuated the brutal German lust for battle...And should ever that taming talisman break--the Cross--then will come roaring back the wild madness of the ancient warriors...For thought goes before deed as lightening before thunder. There will be played in Germany a play compared to which the French revolution was but an innocent idyll." (cir. 1830) 
If thought goes before deed, then our modern secular moral relativists are paving the way for another great horror – perhaps even a series of them.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Bible is not Fundamentally the Word of Man but of God

The Bible is an un-natural and un-human book. This is because it doesn’t reflect the types of things that we humans would write. The Bible also makes a seemingly outlandish claim about itself - It cannot be properly understood without the assistance of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:10-16)! Let me try to illustrate this fact. An atheistic website provided a good example of this failure to understand the Bible:

·        From Genesis to Revelation prominent individuals abound. But are they really worthy of respect and admiration? Was their behavior such that you would want to awaken your children on Sunday morning to read about their exploits?

In many respects, not! The article confidently proceeds to line up all the misdeeds about these “prominent individuals” to prove that the Bible lacks virtuous role models and therefore its morality is seriously deficient and unworthy as a moral guide, let alone a divine revelation. For instance, the atheist writes that Abraham:

·        Told his wife to lie, debauched Hagar, his maidservant, sent his maidservant and her child into the wilderness, lied, and married his half-sister.

Although this is all true, it fails to prove that the Bible is unworthy of serious consideration. This atheistic interpretation confuses description with prescription – the description of Abraham’s life with a moral prescription for us. It fails to understand that Abraham’s life and the lives of the other Patriarchs were never intended to be models for moral behavior. Admittedly, they had done dastardly things.

The atheistic author even misses the real dirt about Abraham — that he pimped his wife Sarah on several occasions! However, this author misses far more — the grace of God for sinners like us! The article concludes, “Anyone approaching the Bible for goodness, decency, role models, and morality, enters at his own peril.” This, of course, is true! However, humankind fails to grasp that Christ is the actual role model and not the wretches He stoops to save.

Even the life of Israel’s greatest king, David, is also blemished by serious moral failures – polygamy, adultery, murder, and cover-up. However, even orthodox Jews will not face what is so clearly spelled out in Scripture. When I was explaining the mercy of God to King David, an orthodox Jew cut me off:

·        You don’t understand! The Talmud explains that David was entirely righteous in killing the evil husband Uriah and marrying his wife Bathsheba.

However, this Talmudic interpretation is totally at odds with the biblical account. It reveals that God was angry with David over these sins. Although He forgave David, He also punished Him severely for them:

·        Then David said to Nathan [the prophet who confronted David about his sins], "I have sinned against the Lord." Nathan replied, "The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the Lord show utter contempt, the son born to you will die." (2 Samuel 12:13-14)

This isn’t an honest interpretive mistake. The Talmud, and orthodox Judaism, consistently rationalizes the very apparent sins of the their Patriarchs and heroes. Why? They are unwilling to see what is plainly written! Why? We humans want a religion – a belief system – that we can humanly understand. We cannot understand a religion where the founders of our faith acted in an embarrassing, undignified way. We want to feel that we are on the winning team characterized by elite and honorable people, not liars and pimps.

Throughout, in the Bible, the warts of God’s people are clearly evidenced. None of Israel’s kings get a clean bill of health. They were all seriously blemished. It makes us wonder how the writers of the Bible were able to get away with these disclosures with their lives. It also makes us wonder what had impelled them to write so honestly about their kings and also about the failures of Israel. Even more surprisingly, we have to wonder what had impelled Israel to canonize such derogatory writings.

Even more startling, are the denunciations of Israel by the Prophets of Israel! Often, they didn’t get away with these denunciations with their lives. However, despite the fact that they were hated – the light is always painful – their writings were nevertheless accepted as the Word of God. Why? I think that there is only one way to understand this phenomenon – It was undeniable that these Prophets spoke the Word of God, however offensive that it might have been!

There are so many counter-human aspects of Scripture. While the Koran assures the Muslim that he is the greatest, the Bible assures Israel that they are the least:

·        Do not say to yourself, "The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness." No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 6Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people. Remember this and never forget how you provoked the Lord your God to anger in the desert. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the Lord. (Deut. 9:4-7)

Moses never stroked Israel’s self-esteem, as anyone trying to gain a following would do. Instead, he repeatedly told Israel that they would fail to follow their God and that they would be consumed (Deut. 32:5-33). Despite these despairing messages, Israel received these insults as the Word of God. Why? They must have been convinced that these were God’s words!

This pattern – it’s all about God and His mercy and not about our worthiness - is maintained throughout the entire Bible. Jesus’ disciples were never complemented by their Master. Instead, the only two whose faith was praised were both of the detested Gentiles. Meanwhile, the disciples portrayed themselves as bumbling idiots. Why? If they wanted to influence others in favor of their Christ-centered faith, why would they portray themselves in such a negative way? Who would want to follow such ignoramuses! Evidently, for them, there was something more important than looking good – the truth of God!

We humans like to exalt our forefathers and, by doing so, we exalt ourselves. The Talmud and the religions of the world are all too human in this regard. As a new Christian, this too was my tendency. I was deeply disturbed to read about the blemishes of Abraham and David. These seemed to detract from my new-found religion. However, as God continued to reveal to me my own unworthiness along with His forgiveness, I learned to delight in the incredible love and patience He demonstrated to His Old Testament “saints.” But my eyes had to first be opened!

This is perhaps one of the great ironies — the more the skeptic battles against the Faith, the more he inevitably demonstrates its veracity. Scripture can only be truly understood through the inner working of the Spirit!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How the Gospel Frees Us from Psychological Oppression

Christianity is often pejoratively referred to as “dirty rotten sinner” religion. Our detractors will often say something like this:

  • “Christians tend to be so guilt-ridden. They feel that they have to go through life degrading themselves in order to win God’s approval. I find that very depressing. Instead, I want a spirituality that’s positive, freeing and one that will make me feel good about myself.”

This type of reaction is very understandable. We all want to be happy, and it might seem that the Gospel is a one-way street into a medieval village where the Inquisition is diabolically entrenched, seeking to wipe away every smile. While it’s a hard sell to merely claim that the Gospel will set us free from so many of life’s torments, a story might prove helpful.

For the first few years that I was teaching Bible and Theology at the New York School of the Bible, I was assailed by such intense feelings of unworthiness, shame and self-contempt that they co-opted my thought-life. Driven by such powerful feelings, my self-doubts seemed to speak with unassailable authority: “You teach? What type of Christian are you anyway? You think you really have faith? Look how selfish and self-absorbed you are. How are you going to help anyone? What a charlatan, posing in the front of the class as some type of authority! What do you think their reaction would be if they really knew you?”

Devastated by these indictments, I wanted to disappear and to have the buildings of NYC implode over my head and swallow me up without a sign. Many times, I thought of calling my school to say, “Find yourselves someone else. I’m not your man.” But gradually, the Gospel began to take root.

In my longstanding pre-Christian struggle to attain some sense of significance and value, I’d ward off the shame and self-contempt through positive affirmations: “I’m a good person; no, I’m a vastly superior person. I’m _____, _____, _____, and more. I’m a once-in-a-lifetime person!” There was no end to the superlatives. In fact, I was always inventing new ones—whatever I needed to tell myself to keep the shame at bay. However, these never sufficed, and so I always needed to up the superlatives in order to overcome the ubiquitous feelings of shame.

However, as a Christian, I learned that it was wrong to engage in this form of masturbation. But I had to do something about the poisonous arrows of my own demons. I needed to prove myself, and now I had a new vehicle with which to do it. I would excel at spirituality! I would prove, at least to myself, that I was worthy of God’s grace.

I reassured myself that I was more deserving of salvation than others. I was more spiritual; I had chosen God because I wasn’t as carnal as 90% of the human race. I had the keenness of mind to recognize the surpassing value of the things of God, and I had a great destiny, not just in heaven, like all the other Christians, but I would also lead the way here.

However, God loves us too much to allow us to continue in our delusions. He closed my hand to all my dreams of spiritual accomplishment. Even more difficult to endure, I began to see my own poverty of spirit, my utter unworthiness. My levies were overwhelmed, and the demons of shame and self-contempt came roaring back. I feverishly sought to rebuild the levies with good works--anything that would tell me, “You’re OK!” In my torment, I began to read the Bible with new tear-filled eyes, hoping to find a God tucked within its pages who would be far more merciful than I ever dared to hope for.

Jesus told a parable about two men who entered the temple to pray one was a self-assured Pharisee, the other a broken sinner who lacked the confidence to even look up to heaven (Luke 18:9-14). I had become that broken sinner, now defenseless against the internal raging. I had been stripped of confidence and any sense that there was something about me that would merit even a glance from a holy God.

Paradoxically, this was the beginning of psychological freedom. I had been stripped bare of all my defenses, and for the first time in my life, gradually found that I didn’t need them. I could finally let go of my miserable fig leaves, because I was beginning to know a God who wanted to clothe me with His forgiveness, His righteousness, and His sanctification (1 Cor. 1:29-30). I was beginning to learn that I was complete in Him (Col. 2:9-10), not because of who I am, but because of who He is.

It took me a while to learn these lessons. The Bible was my thought-life foundation, but it seemed to say such contradictory things. On the one hand, it assured me that salvation, along with everything else I needed, was absolutely free. But then I observed that other verses seemed to say that God’s “gifts” also required some labor on my part. These “contradictions” first needed to be resolved before I could decisively confront my demons.

However slowly, that day did come. Now, when my demons accuse me of my failures and worthiness, I’m ready for them: “Satan, you’re right! I am totally unworthy to serve God, let alone to teach. I don’t deserve the slightest thing from Him. But I have an incredible God who is everything to me—my righteousness, my sanctification, and whatever else I need. He loves me with an undying love and will never leave me. It is He who has given me the privilege to serve Him by teaching. Besides, I’m so glad that I’ve been reminded of my unworthiness, because this just prompts me to be grateful, and makes me just want to sing His praises.”

Understanding the truths of Scripture becomes a wellspring of peace (Col. 2:1-4). I’m now rid of some baggage that had been too heavy to bear. As Jesus said, "If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:31-32). The truth has set me free—free from the need to defend myself, free from struggling to prove myself, free from shame and self-contempt, and free from the fear of failure. Well, not absolutely free, but free enough.

However, this freedom would never have come without seeing the depths of my unworthiness. Had I not come to this crushing point, I would never have discovered true grace, and without receiving this incredible grace, I never would have found the confidence to lay aside all the inner struggles and to finally accept the fact that I’m an utter sinner saved by grace.

Not everyone’s experience is as intense as mine was, but we all have a conscience that tells us things we don’t want to hear, and we all attempt to beat it down one way or another (Romans 1:18-21). We all yearn to prove ourselves and resort to self-deception to accomplish this.

This isn’t merely a Biblical point of view; this is the prevailing view of psychology. Shelley Taylor writes,

As we have seen, people are positively biased in their assessments of themselves and of their ability to control what goes on around them, as well as in their views of the future. The widespread existence of these biases and the ease with which they can be documented suggests that they are normal.[1] 46

They might be “normal,” but dependency on self-delusions, the product of self-righteousness, ultimately produces a loss of mental flexibility, not freedom and joy. As paradoxical as it might seem, the road to freedom compels us on a humbling journey through “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23), where our old armor and defenses are stripped away so that we can be re-clothed in splendor. No wonder Jesus tells us, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:14).

How then do we come to this place of assurance of God’s grace in the face of our spiritual brokenness? It’s not possible on our own. Jesus had taught emphatically against the idea of self-salvation (Mat. 19:26; John 3:3; John 6:44). However, He made it equally clear that spiritual growth is also impossible without His involvement (John 15:4-5). Knowing this, we have to trust Him to perform for us the humanly-impossible and to cry out for His intervention.

Spiritual desperation is a lens that brings grace into fine-focus. It’s this mourning that sharpens our eyes to the reality of grace (Mat. 5:3-4; Psalm 25:8-9; 14-15). But what if we don’t see our neediness? We have to embrace the prayer of David:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24).

Trust Him in this. He has promised to reveal to us our spiritual deficiencies as He also did for the churches of the Book of Revelation:

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained (Philip. 3:14-16).

[1] Shelley E. Taylor, Positive Illusions (New York: Basic Books, Inc, 1989) 46.