100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What Christopher Hitchens Didn't Understand

Christopher Hitchens
I’ve been a little saddened by the recent news of Christopher Hitchens’ death. While I have not read much of his work or listened to many of his debates, the impression I have of him is that his major issue with religion is the violence it causes, as well as the hypocrisy we find in all religious people. What I find interesting is that these things disturb me also, but far from being an atheist because of them, I stand firmly in my faith. Is religion evil because of the violence it causes? Yes, I can agree with Hitchens on that. Is the hypocrisy we find in religious people despicable? Yes, I can agree with Hitchens again. But what Christopher Hitchens didn’t understand is this... that the Spirit of the true God isn’t like that. This is what makes Christianity different, because Christians are given the Spirit of God so that we begin to think like God and act like God. And of course, hypocrisy exists within Christianity because not all who call themselves Christians do actually have the Spirit of God, and even those who do will never follow Him perfectly, but are to grow in Spiritual maturity becoming more and more Christ-like.

Now most atheists will scoff, saying “Christians aren’t any different from any other religion.” Christopher Hitchens believed there was no evidence that they were. But earlier this week I came across the following article in Christianity Today...

The article talks about how Muslim violence against Christians has risen in Nigeria. Apparently this has been going on for some time, and this rise began about eight months ago. Some of the Christians there are saying “enough is enough” and encouraging other Christians to begin fighting back. But isn’t that interesting? That for all this time, the Christians have been true to the Bible which says “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Wouldn’t it be great for Christopher Hitchens to see that in the midst of the religious violence he so opposed, Christians were indeed quite different. They have not fought back. They have not contributed to the violence.

Jesus rebuked one of His disciples for striking the servant of the high priest with a sword, and reminded us that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” We can all understand that... if you’re a soldier in an army, for example, there’s a good chance you’ll die in battle some day. Why? Because when you fight, you always fight against someone who is trying to defend themselves. Violence just creates more violence. We should, of course, fight for justice; but when two parties are fighting purely out of hatred or rivalry, we see senseless violence in the world. This is the world that Christopher Hitchens abhorred, and which I do also. If those Christians in Nigera take up arms they become like their enemies, and they become hypocrites. They say “We have turned both [cheeks], and they have slapped us. There is nothing else to turn.” But what did they think their cheek turning would accomplish? Surely not peace from their persecutors... that’s not the point at all. Rather, what they have already accomplished is a witness to the world, and to people like Christopher Hitchens, that Christianity is different. That we do not live by the sword, as our Lord instructed us. If they take up arms, they will destroy that witness and will bolster many like Christopher Hitchens in their opposition to Christianity.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.
(Matthew 5:9-13)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Purpose of Old Testament Purity Laws

I was recently asked a question about the Old Testament purity laws. In the Old Testament Mosaic Law there were various things which made a person "unclean". And then there were various means by which that person would become "clean" again. What did it mean to be "unclean"? It essentially meant that one was not permitted to worship God in the temple. Some of the things which made a person unlcean were contact with a dead body, eating certain animals, and even the mere act of sexual intercourse. Often becoming unclean was completely unavoidable. A woman would be unclean during her menstrual period, or for so many days after having a child, for example. And people who had leprosy (which is really all manner of skin rashes and diseases) were unclean, which may have meant that one might be unclean their whole lives! And then certain animals were themselves "unclean", and even certain things could be unclean, such as a mildewy house. Contact with an unclean animal or thing made a person unclean. Since this state of uncleanliness meant that a person was not permitted to enter the temple, it was not a desirable state to be in for one who desired to worship God. So what we want to consider today is "Why?" Why did God set up these laws which banned people from His presence for seemingly trivial, arbitrary and unavoidable things?

This is one area which theologians seem to hold a number of different views. And while I don’t claim to have the answer to every question about these purity laws, I think my understanding of their general purpose is right based on my reading of Scripture. But the first thing I want to establish is that the things which made a person unclean aren’t necessarily sinful! Just consider the things we've looked at... it's not a sin to have a skin disease, or to have a child, or to eat a certain kind of food. None of these things are sinful.

Now, we read in Hebrews that the temple was a sort of "model" of heaven...

For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. (Hebrews 9:24)

Well, if you consider the temple to be a model of heaven, and that being unclean prevented you from entering the temple, then I think we have a good idea of what these purity laws were trying to teach us. The things that made people unclean all seem to have this in common; that they are aspects of life which do not exist in heaven. To have contact with a dead body, (human or animal), made you unclean. Why? Because there’s no death in heaven. People who have skin diseases were unclean because there's no disease in heaven. In fact, leprosy was specifically described as making a person appear "as one dead" (Numbers 12:10-12), and so we can say all the more, should zombie-looking people walk around in this "picture of heaven"? Menstruation, sexual intercourse, or having just given birth; these made you unclean because there's no sex or childbirth in heaven. In Matthew 22:29-30, Jesus says to those who asked a question about marriage in heaven, “...you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”. Jesus says they didn't know the Scriptures! But I’m not sure that the Old Testament actually tells us that there is no marriage in heaven unless we interpret the purity laws this way. What we learn from the purity laws are a few things about what humanity will look like after the resurrection.

Now this may not answer every question; there are still some things which appear confusing, and which don't appear to fit my theory. One of these would be the unclean animals. Surely this doesn't fit the model where we can say "some animals won't be present after the resurrection." Common theories are that unclean animals are those animals which often make people sick when they’re eaten. But if that were the case, why would God allow us to eat them now, as though He’s stopped caring for our health? Others say that the unclean animals do have something in common; that they’re all “wilderness animals”. If that were true it might fit my theory because in the New Earth there will be no “wild animals”; all will be domestic. But I’m not sure that this is the way the Bible makes the distinction. It calls animals which “part the hoof but do not chew the cud” unclean. If it were to do with being wild animals, why wouldn’t God just say “wild animals are unclean”? But another view is that the distinction for animals was indeed fairly arbitrary, and only served the purpose of separating Israel from other nations which did eat these things. I think this may be the most Biblical answer, generally speaking at least, when it comes to the purity laws regarding animals. Deuteronomy, whose purpose is to explain the Law, says in the context of reiterating the purity laws for animals:

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy 14:2)

The ultimate purpose for having unclean animals, then, is that God was able to demonstrate the end of the division between Jew and Gentile through the vision of Peter in Acts 10, where God showed that the distinction between animals had been abrogated. In the Old Testament, those laws were designed to separate Jew from Gentile so that a Gentile had to become Jewish if they wanted to worship the true God of Creation. In the New Testament, by taking away this barrier, Jesus is showing us one of the many things His sacrifice on the cross has achieved... a more direct access to God, available to anyone. Whereas all mankind once had to approach God through the mediation of the Jewish priests, now Christ in heaven is our priest, or mediator.

When Jesus came He healed lepers, a woman with a “discharge of blood”, and He raised the dead... all the things which are not sinful but made us unclean, He cleansed. He showed us that He is the one who takes away the corruption of the curse on creation, which was a result of the Fall of Man. Possibly, we aren’t supposed to make sense of the Old Testament laws apart from New Testament revelation. In the New Testament we have a lot of cleansing symbolism - the water of life, the blood of Christ, and baptism. But all of these are “once for all”, as opposed to a regular washing or purification ritual. Now that Christ has come there is no need for priests, for we have direct access to God; and there is no need for purity laws, because Christ has cleansed us. The only notion of a “purity law” in the New Testament is the impurity of sin, and the cleansing away of that sin through repentance and faith in Christ.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:4-5)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

How To Be Truly Great

Throughout history, and just as true today, the measure of success has been how many people are beneath you in the hierarchy of society. To be a boss or a manager means you’ve made it. Because of this, to be ambitious often means to put yourself above others. But the Bible is counter intuitive in this regard. Jesus said:

The greatest among you shall be your servant. (Matthew 23:11)

Applying this teaching, Paul said:

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)

My wife worked for a child care center which was described by everyone who worked there as a horrible place to work. In my view of the situation it was a horrible place to work because everyone did everything out of rivalry and conceit, and everyone thought they were better than everyone else. Everyone thought they could run the place better and were continually fighting for their ideas to be respected and implemented. They were continually hurt because nobody liked their ideas, but that was because they all wanted to be recognized for their own ideas. This is a perfect example of what the world is often like, and how God's counter intuitive wisdom is actually the true wisdom. If you had tried to reason with these folks that they should stop worrying about their own ideas and encourage and build the ideas of others, they probably would have said “No way! I’m not going to let them walk all over me! You have to be assertive if you want to get anywhere.” This is language we’ve all heard before and is familiar to us. But one of Jesus' sayings which has particularly influenced the way I live my life is this...

"When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, 'Give your place to this person,' and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher.' Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 14:8-11)

In this world it has always been the case that people will trample over everyone to get to the top. And so this Christian attitude of humility is often scorned and seen as weak. After all, if we don't fight to have our talents and ideas recognized, how will we get anywhere? But the Christian knows and trusts that God is sovereign over all. "He removes kings and sets up kings" (Daniel 2:21). We are told to be a servant of all, and to submit to those who have been given authority over us, for all authority comes from God (Romans 13:1). Servitude is the opposite of what people want; this is completely counter intuitive wisdom. A few years ago, however, I joined an online Bible study and fellowship. From the very beginning I was very aware of other people’s feelings and needs. I often wrote to people privately to encourage them and often to comfort or counsel them as they had shared their trials in the public forum. I never did anything in order to be noticed; this was all done privately out of a genuine desire to serve others out of love. Whenever I wrote on the public forum it was always to build others up and never to show off my own knowledge. I never strove to be anybody significant on that site, but after about a year I was invited to be a moderator. Later still, I was invited to create content for the Bible study courses they were running. I never told anybody how the forum ought to be run; I always respected that this wasn’t my forum and it wasn’t my position to change things. After a while, however, I noticed that some of the other moderators were imitating me in a few things. I’d had an influence, not by telling people “Do things my way”, but through my sincere service to others. I eventually left the forum to focus my time on other things, but my time there was a wonderful experience, and essentially without conflict. The kind of unity God wants in His Church is achieved through obedience to His Word and living according to Biblical principles. This was certainly something I learned while I was there; that the ones I became closely bonded with were the ones who had the same attitude of service as I did. We were all equals working towards a common goal; the edification of one another and the glorification of God. No matter what position a Christian finds themselves in, they are in a position of service. Even to properly handle the responsibility of authority is to always remember that you are actually serving those who are under you.

In the greater scheme of things, we all want to be masters over our own lives. We want to do whatever we want, which really means that we serve ourselves. But being a Christian necessarily means serving Christ first, then others, and ourselves last. To serve Christ and others is going to mean, quite literally, that you can’t necessarily do whatever you want. And if people were with me up to this point in regard to serving others, this is where I might still lose others. Often we’ll acknowledge that the Biblical ideal of serving others is good and wise, but the one area of life which people really have trouble relinquishing control is over their own lives. In fact, when my mother became a Christian this was her first question and the one thing holding her back... “What will I have to give up?” The pastor speaking to her at the time said “Nothing.” In one sense I understand what he meant, because a Christian doesn’t miss anything, so it doesn’t feel like you’re “giving up” anything. My mother was worried about the parties and the drinking, but soon found (as Christians do) that she no longer wanted those things anyway. But in the truer sense, the answer is most certainly that you have to give up something. In truth, you have to give up being master of your own life. When I became a Christian, this is what I realized. My first confession of faith was that I was prepared to give up my own “life plan” and to follow God’s plan for my life. This is a step of faith; you don’t know what God’s plan might be, or what the cost of following that plan will be. But knowing who God is and that He is trustworthy, a life of servitude to Him will never be a regret.

His master said to him, "Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master." (Matthew 25:23)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Problem of Human Nature

I read an essay by Stephen Jay Gould, an agnostic, called “Ten Thousand Acts of Kindness” which basically said that people aren’t really all that bad, it’s just that we focus more heavily on the bad things we do, which are actually an exception to the norm. If we stopped to take notice, he says, the good things far outnumber the bad things! He concludes “The solution to our woes lies not in overcoming our 'nature' but in fracturing the 'great asymmetry' and allowing our ordinary propensities to direct our lives.” This statement directly opposes Christianity which says that the essential problem with humanity is our corrupt nature. The Bible says, for example...

The intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. (Genesis 8:21).

Now, if the Bible is true we should be able to identify with that statement. Why is it that we don’t feel as though the intentions of our hearts are evil? It’s because what we’re reading here is God’s own words, spoken from God’s perspective. In another passage of Scripture it says, (again from a writer who understands God’s perspective),

All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. (Isaiah 64:6)

A “polluted garment” has the Biblical significance of something that separates us from God, yet it’s not talking about our sinful deeds but our righteous deeds! Those “ten thousand acts of kindness” which Stephen Jay Gould speaks of can be, to God, a “polluted garment”. How so? There are a number of ways we can do something good and yet offend God. Whenever we do something out of selfish motives, for example, the act itself is tainted. People can appear to be very kind but their real motive may be self-serving. Perhaps they want to impress others with how good they are, or maybe they’re expecting a “you owe me one” debt from the other person. We can also do things which appear good only because we feel compelled to do them. If, for example, I asked my son to clean his room, he might do it but he might hate doing it and do it reluctantly. This taints the whole act; what a father wants and appreciates is a son who cleans his room out of a motivation to do the right thing and to please his father. Motivation is everything, and in Christianity the motive must be love. And so Jesus explains...

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Love for God and love for others must be the motivation for all our righteous deeds. The “Law and the Prophets” refers to all of Scripture. At the time Jesus said this there was only what we now call the Old Testament, but I believe He’s speaking of all Scripture, whose purpose is to show us how the world ought to be, and how Man ought to think, feel and act (James 1:22-25). So, then, the way we are supposed to act is out of love for God and love for others. This is why our righteous deeds can be seen as “polluted garments”, when they are not done out of love for God and for others.

As I said earlier, we can do things which appear righteous but, because of our motives they are tainted, even to a fellow human being when they learn of our true motives and judge the act in that light. However, I’m not saying that fallen Man can’t be genuinely righteous in acting out of genuine love for others; we can. But even when we have love for God and man, our righteous deeds are still going to be tainted by other factors. We simply cannot be perfect in the way that God is. But can an atheist or agnostic like Stephen Jay Gould ever do anything at all out of love for God? Again, from God’s perspective, the heart of a man like Stephen Jay Gould is “evil from his youth” because he never, in his heart, expresses love for God let alone acts out of love for God. How can he? He doubts whether there even is a God.

The most righteous people alive in Jesus’ day were the Pharisees; members of a sect of Judaism dedicated to upholding the Mosaic Law. They had, however, missed the point of the Law which we have stated above when we quoted Jesus... the deeds of the Law are not pleasing to God unless they are done out of genuine love. Even the deeds of these Pharisees, then, were utterly corrupt from Jesus’ perspective. He said of them...

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. ... They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long [essentially making conspicuous their piety by arraying their garments with religious symbols], and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues. (Matthew 23:2-6)

Jesus, who is also God, was displeased with their righteous deeds because their motivations were selfish and prideful. Instead of focusing on their service to others, their mind was on their own ambitions; to be recognized as authority figures. This is our very nature, according the Bible; that we do not seek to glorify God in what we do, but to glorify ourselves. Stephen Jay Gould was wrong... our very nature is the problem because we do not love and glorify God by nature. The Bible tells us that when we put our faith in Christ we are given a new nature which is able to glorify God out of a genuine love for Him. This is why the Bible says we must be “born again”; we must be given a new start with a new nature. If we are truly prepared to forsake our old nature, which is ultimately selfish, and put our faith in Christ, He will give us this new nature. He will take away the self-glorification which characterizes so much of what we do, and passages like Philippians 2:3-4 will characterize our lives instead...

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Would You Even Forgive a Pedophile?

There is a certain man I often visit who likes to discuss matters of faith with me. I visited him recently and he asked me whether we should always forgive others, even when they've done something terrible, and if they're not even sorry for it. I told him that forgiveness has no limits. He then asked me more specifically... "Would you forgive a pedophile who had abused your son?" This is a tough question; pedophilia has got to be the worst offense possible! I hear that pedophiles are even hated by all the other prisoners in jail. Could I even forgive such a person?

Christ commanded us to forgive, and there should be no limit to our forgiveness. Jesus illustrated this in a parable (Matthew 18); a man who owed some enormous amount of money (in the millions, say) was forgiven his debt, but then refused to forgive one who owed him a small debt. The man who forgave the large debt was furious; how dare this man withhold forgiveness of such a small debt when he had just been forgiven millions? So it is with us; since Christ has forgiven us of all our sins against Him, how can we withhold forgiveness from anyone? Consider it this way... God forgives every sin, even pedophilia. And if Christ can forgive a pedophile, who am I to withhold forgiveness? "A servant is not greater than his master". Jesus clarifies this parable in saying that unless we are forgiving of others, God won't be forgiving of us. This is because it demonstrates that we are not "born of the Spirit", for the fruit of the Spirit is love, and forgiveness follows love. (See #51: What is the unforgivable sin?)

Forgiveness aims to restore the relationship between the offender and the offended. In the case of God and Man, God forgives but we must repent, which is the natural result of accepting forgiveness. The relationship is not repaired if God forgives only but we remain unrepentant toward Him. Now imagine the pedophile who thinks he can take advantage of my forgiving nature - he wants to sexually abuse my son expecting that I'll just forgive him and our relationship will be as though it never happened. But if a man intended to abuse my son, what good is it whether I forgive him or not; he doesn't care for our relationship at all. The expectation of future forgiveness of sins should keep us from committing those sins in the first place. And if I forgive him it is because I, at least, do intend to maintain a relationship between us. But what kind of a relationship do I want from a man who has sexually abused my son? ...

Earlier in Matthew 18, before the parable on forgiveness is told, Jesus tells His disciples:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)

When Peter hears this, he understands that it has to do with forgiveness. He asks "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven." Again, seventy times seven is a way of saying "there is no limit". As 1 Corinthians 13:5 says in the NIV translation "love keeps no record of wrongs." By contrast, unforgiveness and hatred are inseparably linked. In as much as love should abound in us, so should forgiveness. In the passage above, it's saying that when your brother sins against you, you should seek to bring him to repentance (ie to "gain your brother"). Forgiveness should have already taken place on your part. This is in the context of the Church where the offender professes to be a Christian. But if you've sought repentance diligently and they still won't repent, we "let him be as a Gentile and a tax collector". That is to say, we come to the conclusion that they're not genuine Christians. (You have to consider the Jewish audience Jesus is speaking to here, where "Gentile" stands for anyone outside the faith.) But how do we treat people outside the faith? We seek to lead them to Christ! This is not where we find the limit to our forgiveness, as it may sound to some readers. This is as I explained to my friend; through forgiveness I am able to carry on loving that person, and seeking to bring them to Christ. "If someone abused my child," I explained, "I would feel so much compassion toward them... they are so lost and in need of Christ!" This is the kind of relationship I would still want with the man who abused my son. Forgiveness emerges out of the character of love, and especially Christ-like love which even loves one's enemies. And if I did forgive a pedophile, it would not be inconsistent for me to turn him over to the police in the interests of protecting my son or other children from further abuse. It would also be out of love in an attempt to help the man himself.

Now in thinking about all this, I feel that there's something clearly lacking... it's all hypothetical. I can say I'd forgive a man who sexually abused my son as much as I like, but even I have to wonder; How would I really feel? What would I really do? And so I tried to think of a time in my life when I really did forgive in spite of a grievous offense. And after some time of self-reflection, I discovered something wonderful. I realized that I couldn't really track down any feelings of being horribly offended by anyone, precisely because I had forgiven them! Forgiveness repairs relationships, after all. But I came up with this... Trying to step outside of my own mind, I think that by rights I probably should be resentful of my mother. My mother used to ridicule and mock me all the time. It was, one might argue, a form of abuse. I do remember hating her as a teenager, and even into my twenties, before I gave my life to Christ. But God has given me a forgiving heart. We can forgive whether the offender is repentant or not; my mother wouldn't even know she'd done anything wrong, let alone repent of it! Yet because I forgave her in my heart there is no hatred or resentment. Some will probably say, "Well, maybe you've just grown up and matured?" And maybe my mother's offense wasn't as serious as sexual abuse... but at least consider how many adults are still resentful of their parents and hold grudges against them for a similar childhood experience. As this friend of mine and I were discussing forgiveness, he shared that one person in his life that he could never forgive was his father. For what offense, I don't know. But it's all too common for children to become estranged from their parents through unforgiveness. Yet Christ gives us the power to forgive because He has forgiven us, and is ready to forgive still.

"pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:28)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Which Comes First, Evidence or Faith?

Yesterday I wrote about how the life I live now, compared with the life I lived before I became a Christian, is solid evidence for me personally that the Bible is true. But as I said in that post, I had to live that life first before it became evidence to me. This may seem a little backwards, but it is quite Biblical. Paul refers to the Holy Spirit as a “guarantee” of our future glorification. That is, Christ will fully renew us one day so that we will be rid of sin and of all our ailments such as hatred, envy, depression, greed and so forth. And we have a “foretaste” of what that will be like through the Holy Spirit. But when are we given the Holy Spirit? It’s when we make that step in faith and say “Lord, I believe...” Believe what? That what all the Scriptures say about Christ is true, and that what all the Scriptures say about a new life in Christ are true. That Christ really is the Son of God, and that His work on the cross really is the only way we can be saved, wherein He took upon Himself the sentence we deserve for our sins, and imputes His righteousness to those who believe.

Saint Augustine made the point that most of what anybody believes they believe by faith. Even to believe that the woman who I call mother really is my mother in a sense takes faith. I trust that she has told me the truth when I first heard her say, so many years ago as a small child, that she was “Mummy”. And of course, there’s strong supporting evidence... my father testifies that she is my mother, my uncle testifies that he was at the hospital where his sister gave birth to me. It’s a little hard to believe that all these people would collaborate on a lie and not be found out in that lie after all these years. Nevertheless, as a child I didn’t need the evidence first... my mother told me she was “Mummy” and I believed her. The evidence came later.

I want to say that believing the Bible is at least somewhat the same. My own parents testified to the change that the Holy Spirit had made in their lives. My parent’s Christian friends gave the same testimony. Many throughout history, from the least to the greatest; from the journal of some unknown puritan to the sermons of Charles Spurgeon or John Calvin, have given the same testimony. And now I testify the same to you. It is hard to believe that so many would collaborate on this lie, especially since I myself would have to be a collaborator. You are given a promise; that through faith in Christ you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that through the Holy Spirit you will be given power over sin, love for others, a “peace that surpasses understanding”... all these things which will assure you of your salvation. Believe it and you will receive it. We could adapt what was said by G K Chesterton; “The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.”

Now there are people I know who said “I did try and I did find Christianity wanting!” But I would want to ask them whether they noticed a difference between their life before their conversion and after? There should be a noticeable difference. I remember the story of a group of Church elders who were involved in wife-swapping. Do you suppose that while they were supposedly “trying Christianity” they actually had any evidence of the Holy Spirit at all? Let’s realize that it’s possible to be physically present in the Church but not be of the Church spiritually speaking at all. No, what I have experienced in my life is undeniable. In fact, I believe that my testimony is the perfect answer to this objection. You see, I grew up in the Church and believed that I was saved like everyone else. Many former Christians say “Yeah, I had all the same feelings of the ‘Holy Spirit’ as you, but I realize now that it wasn’t the Holy Spirit at all; it was just my emotions.” I can identify with that - before I truly gave my life to Christ I had feelings that I thought must be the Holy Spirit... how is one supposed to know what that feels like anyway? And when I did truly give my life to Christ, it was a while before I started to sense that my new life was very different. I actually fought against the idea for long time that I had only just received salvation! In my mind, I had always been saved and this recent event was more of a “re-dedication”. But seeing the sheer contrast of my new life against the old, I couldn’t honestly maintain this outlook any longer. The evidence of regeneration starting from that later time in my life was simply undeniable.

So there is certain evidence of saving faith, and that evidence is our good works wrought from the heart. But the works come after, or as a result of, the faith. So how do we get faith? For me, personally, it was through reading the Bible and desiring the righteousness of Christ at any cost... that is, at the cost of giving up the sins that I loved to do. It was desiring to serve Christ at any cost, and trusting that the cost would be something I was able to bear; trusting that Christ would give me the strength to bear it. And ultimately, of course, it was a gift from God.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matthew 5:6)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

How Do I Know The Bible Is True?

As I was browsing the blogosphere the other day I came across a post by a certain atheist gentleman who does not believe that the Biblical depiction of Jesus’ life is reliable. In his post he said things like this: that there are almost no documents supporting the life of Jesus outside of the four gospels, and that there is little to no archaeological support either. Well, perhaps he’s simply unaware of the various references to Jesus in the writings of Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius, Thallus, Lucian... And perhaps he hasn’t heard of the work of Sir William Ramsay, an archaeologist and skeptic of the New Testament’s historicity who, through his archaeological work in Asia Minor came to the conclusion that books like Luke and Acts are entirely without fault historically.

Now you could invest a day or a week or even more researching all of these alleged ancient references and archaeological finds, and maybe you’d be convinced by the end of it. Here’s a good place to start if you’re interested. But few of us are likely to do that, I’m sure. And while I am certain that a diligent study would satisfy the skeptic, as it did Sir William Ramsay, it didn’t take any such study to convince me that the New Testament is true. How is it that I am personally convinced of the Bible?

The disciples walked and talked with Jesus, and they saw the miracles that He did. They emphasize the fact that they were eyewitnesses of the life of Christ when they wrote the New Testament documents. But they also acknowledge that we didn’t have that opportunity. Peter says...

We ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:19)

Peter refers to the fact that he was an eyewitness, but then he says there is “something more sure” than the fact that he was an eyewitness; “the prophetic word”. Now, often people will say that this refers to the Old Testament and its various predictions of Christ which were fulfilled. But to look for fulfilled prophecy in the gospels presupposes the reliability of the gospel account; the reliability of this eyewitness account. So that can’t really be “more sure”. Of course I absolutely affirm that the life of Christ did remarkably fulfill Old Testament prophecy, but I don’t think that’s what Peter is saying here. I think that Peter is referring to their very own letters and documents that make up the New Testament itself, which he describes as “the prophetic word”. This is not something that we should study one time to see how prophecy was fulfilled, but something we should pay attention to continually “until the day dawns and the morning star rises...” Peter is drawing attention to the prophetic nature of their own writings.

The New Testament makes prophetic utterances, certain “predictions” if you like, about what the Christian life is like as a result of faith. It tells us that when we put our faith in Christ we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that this will be evidence of the reality of Christ for us (Romans 8:16). The New Testament tells us that the Christian life will be characterised by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). And so it is in my own experience. When I first became a Christian I wouldn’t have noticed it, but as time went on I recognized this clearly as I compared my life “post conversion” to the life I led before I put my faith in Christ. The Bible tells us that a Christian will have victory over sin (1 John 3:9), and so I have found in my life that I have a hatred and aversion to sin I had not known before I put my faith in Christ. The Bible says that the Christian will be filled with love for others (1 John 3:14, 1 Thessalonians 4:9), and this too I have found; that since I put my faith in Christ I am filled with love for all people, “sinners and saints alike”, far more profoundly than I ever had before my conversion. Again, when I first put my faith in Christ I wouldn’t have known it, but I can look back now and compare my life before and after conversion, and say that my life has been consistently characterized this way after I was saved by grace. This may be subjective, but there are thousands upon thousands of Christians who will also testify the same thing. This is how I know that the Scriptures are true... because I can testify to the transformed life they very precisely foretell that I should be living.

And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony (Revelation 12:11)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Acts of God, by Clark H Smith

I love to fellowship with men and women of the Body of Christ, and today I am privileged to share with you an article written by a beloved brother in Christ, Clark Smith, on the topic of prayer in the face of what we commonly call “acts of God”. Clark has the heart of a disciple-maker – spending the last two decades teaching the Bible and encouraging faith-filled application of the truths found there. In different seasons of life Clark has been a pastor, a writer, a businessman, a teacher, and as he says “a finder of lost things and a smeller of sourdough”. Clark and his wife are parenting four young adult men and, in their home, caring for Clark’s mum in her 90s. He’s a wonderful man of God, and you can find more of his material at http://www.followillustrated.com/


Understanding Acts of God

In the midst of any natural phenomenon – hurricanes, droughts, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc – prayers are freely offered up to God to change the course of the disaster or to minimize the damages to life and property – especially to the lives and property of people we know. Here’s a series of questions that logically flow from a situation like this:

    If this is an Act of God, why is He acting this way?
    Does God want us to pray that the disaster does not affect a specific person?
    Will God change the course or limit the damage done if we pray earnestly?

If God honors our prayers about the course and amount of destruction, why doesn’t He just not allow the destruction in the first place? After all, at every time and place, there are people who are praying that damage and destruction be limited – why not just eliminate it altogether?

Why are there “Acts of God”?

We live in a broken world. In Genesis 3, God said, "cursed is the ground because of you." This "ground" is not just the dirt, but the entire world in which we live. The natural disasters that afflict us would hardly seem to fit within a perfect Garden of Eden. Our planet suffers under the curse of Adam’s sin. There is another facet of the curse which affects us in even more personal ways. Do you believe there was cancer in the Garden? Was there infertility, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or autism in God’s original creation? I don’t think so. The physical catastrophes that plague our lives are also as a result of living in a broken world.

In Genesis 3 and 6, the Bible teaches that there are things present on this earth that do not honor God’s original design. The logical question then becomes, "Why does God allow these bad things to happen?” Is a hurricane, an earthquake, an infertile couple, or a forty year-old father dying of brain cancer a sign of God’s judgement? Are natural and medical disasters what happens when God takes a nap and forgets to watch over us? Let’s look at scripture.

He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45)

This verse tells us that God has set rain and sunshine on earth without regard to goodness or badness! He is not mad at you when the rain ruins your birthday party at the lake and He is not doing you a favor by sending enough rain to keep your yard alive and hold your water bill down. God is not in the water bill business! This verse teaches that rain and sunshine are naturally occurring phenomena on this earth.
Note John 9:1-3 where we meet a man born blind. The disciples assumed the disability was the result of sin. Jesus elevated our understanding, "It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was in order that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3) Another time he addressed a serious illness by saying: "This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified by it." (John 11:4)

It is simple superstition to think that God gets mad enough at us to ruin our lives with physical catastrophes. Now, I would not tell the full Biblical truth if I did not acknowledge that the record shows that God has judged people during their lives - apparently for their sin. He has done this through natural disaster (the Flood of Noah / the plagues on Egypt / the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) and through physical illness (Acts 12.21-23). Please note how rare these events are; clearly not the norm of how God deals with us. In most of these "divine" judgments, there seems to be a common factor of crossing the boundaries between God and man. That’s perhaps another study for later, but for now, it is sufficient to say that He has not made a habit out of destroying people (by whatever means) during their life on earth.

The fact that you and I and the rest of the world are alive today is proof that God is not judging the sinfulness of man during our lifetimes. Hebrews 4.16 gives us the best insight on what God is doing about our sins: “Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.” God is not sitting on His throne eagerly waiting to zap us. He is gracious toward us, eager to help us, in spite of our sin, to do the things that are beneficial for us and glorifying to Him. That is entirely consistent with the teaching of the entire Bible. God may have destroyed much of Egypt through the plagues, but He also begged Pharaoh ten times to release the Israelites. God is not hard-hearted, but patiently, pleadingly hopeful.

How should we then pray?

Now at last we turn to the issue of prayer. Can we pray away the calamities that befall us? Many people have claimed credit for praying and causing God to act in a certain way. Some have claimed God diverted the path of hurricanes because of their prayers. I have some Biblically-based doubts about such claims. First, why pray to change the course or minimize the damage from disasters – why not just pray that a disaster never happen? Why not just pray right now that no hurricane, tornado, earthquake, drought, flood will ever again mar the lives of humans? I doubt that prayer would work, because it goes against what God has told us life on earth is like (remember Matthew 5.45).

Should we pray that God minimize the disastrous effects of the storms of life, whether they are natural or physical, or emotional for that matter? Yes, I think God is glorified when we pray about our hopes and fears. The great hymn reminds us: "What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer." God knows we don’t want Granny’s house or our livelihoods destroyed or any human suffering. Our prayers honor God because they admit a dependence on God – and that is the sole purpose of the curse on Adam! Genesis 3.17 is best translated to read "cursed is the ground for your sake." God intended that generation after generation would learn to depend on Him to provide the blessings of life. “He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (Acts 14:17)

However, many times our prayers become selfish. We are inclined to present God with a shopping list of preferences. We detail the prayers and praises of our lives and ask God to address them in such a way as to maximize our blessings and minimize our pains. This, too, is within the scriptural boundaries of prayers and promises (see Jeremiah 29.11). But I can tell you with absolute certainty God does not answer our prayers so that our lives may be made more tolerable! That is not the business God is in. As unpalatable as it may be to people defiant to the will of God – God is in the God glorifying business. And more personal than that, we should be in the God glorifying business!

Jesus was in that business and God liked it: "Father, glorify Thy name." There came therefore a voice out of heaven: "I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again." (John 12:28) Never once did Jesus pray to escape or avoid any personal tragedy. He never had a "comfortable" life, He faced personal rejection, the sickness and death of friends, betrayal, and even his own death with absolute steady focus on glorifying God.

Jesus wants us to pray in every circumstance for one purpose – THAT GOD BE GLORIFIED: "And whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son." (John 14:13)

We live in a broken world. As a consequence, we suffer personal, private tragedies and great global catastrophes. God is not disappointed when we pray for hurricanes to turn left or right avoiding Granny’s house. God is not disappointed when we weep at the bedside of a sick or dying child and beg Him to restore health. God is not disappointed when we cry out "WHY?" in despair over the evil in the world. But I firmly believe that God is disappointed when we seek anything other than for Him to be glorified. When we can join David in this Psalm of Praise, we will find ourselves in the sole business of glorifying God:

All Your works shall give thanks to You, O LORD, And Your godly ones shall bless You.
They shall speak of the glory of Your kingdom And talk of Your power;
To make known to the sons of men Your mighty acts And the glory of the majesty of Your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, And Your dominion endures throughout all generations.
Psalm 145:10-13
(all verses NASB)

Clark H Smith

Follow Illustrated

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Are We Really Mutants?

Have you heard that Richard Dawkins was stumped by the question "Can you think of an example of a mutation or evolutionary process which is seen to increase information in the genome"? There are so many copies of this on YouTube now, and most of your search results will be responses from atheists trying to defend Dawkins. Many of these videos will tell you the answer is a simple one, and that the footage of Dawkins must have been taken out of context. However, I had a conversation with an atheist friend of mine recently about this very question, and so I thought I'd make a few brief comments.

As usual, I remind you that I'm not a geneticist or anything; I'm just like most of you... my view of the world is shaped by my education as well as documentaries on TV, clips on YouTube, blogs and such like. So this is the context I write in; most atheists claim to have all their ducks in a row, but their information comes from the very same sources as mine... through reading Richard Dawkins' books, or watching documentaries about the origin of various species, or by watching atheist YouTube channels. These same sources which so convince my friend that there is no God have seemed to me quite weak in their arguments. So on this matter in particular, my friend tried to answer this question of “new information” for me. He later revealed that this was the answer given in one of these “in Dawkins defense” videos on YouTube. His answer went something like this...

DNA is made up of four key molecules which we signify by the first letter of their names, A, G, C, T. DNA is read in triplets, called codons. Each codon, such as “AGC” would tell a cell to generate a certain amino acid. These instructions are strung together until a "stop codon" is reached. The amino acids are put together to form a protein. In this way the cell is like a mini factory, the DNA is like the instructions on what needs to be made and how to put them together, and the bits that do the work are like little robots called tRNA. So far, intelligent design is sounding pretty good, by the way - your cells are like little factories, where DNA is the “computer program” to control little robots! Now, as for evolutionary processes creating new information, my friend gave this example... if you have the letters A, G in your DNA, this means nothing; but if a mutation occurs in the DNA strand to add C, you now have a codon AGC which will produce the amino acid Serine. And there you have it... new information!

Normally I don't like to write about the kinds of things which are better left to a website like creation.com, but the reason I wanted to write about this is precisely to point out that you don't always need to consult something like creation.com when faced with information like this. And I'm speaking to atheists primarily... think critically about the information you read and hear. This is supposed to be quite an authoritative answer, but if we just think about it, the story has a fatal flaw. First, let's try to picture the whole DNA sequence. Every group of three bases is a code for an amino acid. There is no such thing, then, as "AG" all on its own, doing nothing. It has to be followed by something... there are no "blanks" in the DNA sequence. Our AG will be part of a very long string. It’ll exist in a sequence perhaps like this...


Now watch what happens if we insert a C after the AG...


It affects every codon after it so that each one now produces something completely different. We no longer have GAG but AGA. No more TUU but GTU, and so on. As for the "stop codon", wherever that was, it has now changed also so that the “program” no longer stops where it used to. One mutation changes everything in front of it.

Now as for the question of whether this creates new information, let's consider what information is. A page of random characters contains no information at all. A page of text, like this one, does contain information. If we encoded information in the same way that DNA does, then a mutation in this sentence here would eftupsz uif sfnbjojoh jogpsnbujpo. (That is, “destroy the remaining information.”) There I wrote a simple computer program to make a similar kind of “mutation” to the way computers encode information. All you get is corruption; a complete loss of information.

Now my friend wasn’t completely defeated by this; he explained to me that this is a known problem called “frameshift”. Now I don’t intend this post to become technical, so I’ll make my point simply... whether you think that such massive change caused by a single mutation could create something new and functional and beneficial despite the massive loss of information that goes with it, or whether you think that multiple mutations might be able to balance out the massive loss that goes with a single mutation, you’re actually starting to forsake the chief defense of Evolution! Namely that massive beneficial change, like all the parts of a jumbo jet falling into place in a dust storm to form a functional jumbo jet, is outside the realm of possibility; and that for this to happen you need gradual incremental changes over long periods of time. For a single mutation to shift all of your DNA into something functional would be tantamount to the jumbo jet example. And I think relying on two or more mutations in close proximity to each other having a beneficial effect is again failing to evaluate the improbability of such a thing.
I don’t know whether or not there are no examples of mutations adding information to the genome, but I am certain of this; that there are nowhere near enough! My friend wanted to say that Evolution isn’t just mutations, it’s also natural selection. But natural selection has no creative power at all! It only selects from what is already there. Adding natural selection to the equation doesn’t add a new way for new information to be added to the genome. Mutations are, as far as I know, the only possible way in theory. So if you consider that the Earth is supposedly 4 billion years old, ask yourself... is even that enough time for mutations to generate the vast amount of information present in the genomes of every species alive today? We should be seeing beneficial mutations all the time in nature!

So was Richard Dawkins actually stumped? As I said, many people made YouTube videos and wrote blog posts to defend him. This particular one which my friend saw clearly failed to do so. One would think that Dawkins himself could write his own defense, and that it would be the definitive answer as to whether he was “stumped” or not. Well, Dawkins did exactly that, and you can read his answer and judge for yourself.


Friday, October 14, 2011

Why I Take Genesis Literally

A friend of mine, both a theist and an evolutionist, believes that the two world views are not in conflict. In his mind, he simply can’t understand why Christians such as myself are so opposed to Evolution since it poses no threat, as far as he’s concerned, to the existence of God. I answered him, “It’s possible that a god could have set the wheels in motion for evolution, but it certainly wouldn’t be the Christian God who gave us the book of Genesis.” We then began to discuss whether Genesis should be taken literally or not, and so I thought I’d share just a few comments as to why I think it should be.

A First Man
The first point to make, which I think eliminates a lot of other questions right up front, is whether there was a literal first man, Adam. In my mind, I think the Bible is very clear that there was. In Genesis 5 we have a genealogy beginning with Adam. It lists the descendants of Noah. I suppose we would then have to ask ourselves whether the rest of the people in that Genealogy really existed as well, but again I think the Bible is fairly clear that they did, especially when we look at something like Hebrews 11, whose very purpose is to give us real exemplars of faith throughout history, and includes a few of the names in this genealogy. Adam is also listed first in the genealogy of 1 Chronicles; a genealogy that most definitely consists of real people. At what point in the genealogy would the first real person be mentioned if they weren’t all real? And finally we have the genealogy in Luke’s gospel as well, whose purpose is to trace the lineage of Jesus Christ right back to the first man. In this way, the Biblical authors themselves certainly appear to consider Adam an actual person.

Literal Days
The next question is whether the six days of Creation were 24 hours or not. There are a few reasons why I think they were. Firstly, the Bible says:

And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. ... God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Genesis 1:3,5).

The fact that God called the light “Day” suggests a period of time familiar to the Israelite readers - a 24 hour day. Light already has a name - it’s “light”. But by relating “light” to “day” and “darkness” to “night”, the Text is saying that the flow of time was set in motion. It then immediately follows on that “there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” Later, Adam is created on the sixth day, but evidently survives the entire day; it cannot be a “millions-of-years day”. Furthermore, plants are created on day 3 before the sun on day 4. How long do you suppose plants can survive without the sun? I think these are literal 24 hour days.

Literal Events
The next thing we want to ask is whether the Genesis 1 account speaks of actual events. Let’s start from the beginning:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2).

Before the light was created and the periods of 24-hour time were set in motion, the Earth existed for some unknown period of time as nothing but water. It was “without form” - there was nothing you could point to and say “That’s the Earth.” That is, the Bible is saying that what would later become the Earth was initially “without form”. It doesn’t actually take the form of the Earth until verse 10. That this was literally water is confirmed by Peter:

...the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. (2 Peter 3:5-6)

If we believe in a literal Noah’s flood (the deluge referred to), then I think we should believe in the literal water of Genesis 1:2. And if we believe in the literal Genesis 1:2, why wouldn’t we take the rest of Genesis 1 literally?

The Garden of Eden
When we come to Genesis 2, we read about the Garden of Eden, and how God forbade Adam to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Was there really a Garden, and was there literally such a tree? It seems to me that the writer of Genesis, (that is, Moses), intends for us to take this as a literal place. He speaks of four rivers coming out of Eden, and two of these rivers are still known today - the Tigris and the Euphrates. Now the Garden itself would have been destroyed by the flood, so there may be little chance of finding this Garden today. Whatever it’s location was, it would no longer look like the paradise it once was. As for whether there’s an angel still guarding its entrance as the story describes, it would be difficult to know since angels need not be visible to us, and we wouldn’t see it if we did find the location today. But there’s no reason to deny the story because it includes angels; the Bible certainly affirms the reality of angels, and a God powerful enough to do all of these things. In that sense it is consistent with the rest of the Bible in its depiction of angels.

So to the question of Evolution fitting the Bible; it absolutely doesn’t. We certainly have a first man, which doesn’t fit any reckoning of Evolution. And we don’t have billions of years for the Earth’s existence. Even if the “waters” existed for billions of years, it is certain that there was no evolution going on, nor was there geological activity going on. And we have a place of origin in which Adam was formed in a single day, without biological parents. As Luke’s genealogy puts it, “Adam, the son of God.”

Other Creation Myths
Aside from the agenda to make evolution compatible with the Bible, there is another reason some Christians don’t take the Creation account literally. This is because of the apparently striking parallels to other creation myths of the time, which also have, for example, man created out of the ground by the gods. In some people’s view, this is more than just coincidence, and not having had enough exposure to those texts, I can’t really say. But they believe that Moses simply wrote in a fashion that the Israelites were already familiar with, rather than trying to record actual events. However, it’s been known for a long time that almost all cultures have a flood story. Yet far from being a problem for the Biblical story of Noah’s flood, it has served to bolster the argument that the flood literally took place. We understand that all of these stories exist because the truth of the flood has been passed down verbally from Noah to successive generations. They vary as people have altered the story, but Bible believing Christians know that the Biblical account is the truth. Likewise, I don’t think that what Moses wrote was necessarily the first time God had revealed these things about Creation to Mankind. Adam himself knew that he had been created from the dust of the ground, as he was told by God “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 2:19). And so the story of how Man was created from the dust would have been passed down even to those cultures that existed at the time of Moses. We see references to the creation account in Job also, such as the creation of man from dust (Job 10:8-9), and Job lived around the time of Abraham, long before Moses wrote.

Now there are a lot more “what about this’es” and “what about that’s” which we could discuss, but as I’ve heard one preacher say, “If you believe Genesis 1:1, you shouldn’t have any problem with the rest of Scripture!”

By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. (Hebrews 11:3)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Gay Activism on Facebook

In these modern times, changing the way our whole culture looks at the world is no longer a matter of holding public protests or managing to print articles in prominent magazines. Rather, people are able to use social networking sites to present images and slogans like the ones I've posted here. These are just a few of the ones I've seen posted by friends on Facebook. And seeing the emotionally charged attitudes of those friends, I know that these images are effective in their goal of changing the minds of a nation. Yet their arguments are flawed from a Biblical perspective. So I thought I'd make some comments on these images...

Not wanting to reiterate things I've said about homosexuality in the past, but I must make one thing clear; Christians ought not to hate homosexuals, and I for one certainly don't. A Christian, in one sense, might say "Amen!" to this first image. I agree with the point this image is trying to make about Homophobia. The poster alludes to the common Christian response to homosexuality, that it is "unnatural". But when a Christian uses the term "unnatural", in particular, it can mean unnatural in the sense of what God never intended. In that sense, sin and death itself are unnatural - God never intended for Man to die, but we do as a result of our "unnatural" sinfulness. Again, sin is unnatural (though everybody sins) in the sense that it is not the way God intends for us to behave. However, the image then implies that Homosexuality is, on the contrary, natural. And from a Biblical perspective it is not, in that same sense of being something God never intended for Man. God's intent for Man is clear...

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)

Homosexuality is unnatural because God designed our bodies, and it is "natural" for something designed for a purpose to fulfill its purpose. The argument lends support to the idea that homosexuality is natural by claiming that it is found in "over 450 species". Let's assume that claim is true; it makes no difference Biblically, because all of Creation has been corrupted. I've just told you that death is unnatural, Biblically speaking, and it is certain that animals die!

Despite the great number of these sorts of images, they do all tend to be arguing one of only a few key points. Again, this sign is essentially saying that homosexuality is natural. This gentleman appears to be saying that he never chose to be gay, but has been gay since birth. Many Christians have a problem with the idea that one might be genetically predisposed to homosexuality, and I've been involved in that debate amongst my peers. I, personally, don't have a problem with the notion of a "gay gene". There are many unnatural things that are genetic as a result of the corruption of all Creation. We could point to Down's Syndrome, for example. Now, the Bible doesn't condemn having Down's Syndrome, so we might say it's not the same thing, but it's at least an example of an "unnatural" genetic defect. If we wanted a better example, we might talk of the genetic predisposition to alcoholism or violence, which are things the Bible would also condemn. The genetic bias for these things is as debatable as the one for homosexuality, I believe. But it certainly seems to me that a genetic bias seems plausible, even if we base it purely on anecdotal evidence like the image above. It makes no difference - I am certain that I myself have a strong genetic disposition toward adultery, incest, rape, and all manner of sexual acts which are also prohibited in the Bible. It is no excuse if I do those things.

Now the cartoon on the right, and likewise the cartoon below, both say something similar; that society has seen similar prejudices before, and as silly as those prejudices seem to us now, so should any prejudice against homosexuality seem silly to us. However, these images don't draw valid analogies to homosexuality. The first, to do with being left handed, fails because the Bible never condemns left-handedness. Some will disagree with that statement, so I should discuss briefly... The Bible does often speak about the right hand as being significant; Jesus is said to have ascended to Heaven and is now sitting at the Father's right hand (Hebrews 1:3). It is a cultural symbol for a place of honour. It is where the king's most honoured would sit. This doesn't make left handedness evil or inferior. The closest we get to the Bible having something negative to say about left handedness is in Judges 20:16 where the literal translation of "left handed" would be those "impeded in the right hand". But this doesn't condemn left handedness, this is simply a way of referring to left handedness in a world which (still) is predominantly right handed. The verse itself tells us that these left handers were extremely skillful in wielding their slingshots, and so doesn't even imply that being left handed is some kind of disability. Those in the middle ages who called left handedness demonic and such were simply wrong. But the Bible does clearly refer to homosexuality as a violation of God's Law.

The second cartoon is similar to the one above, saying that we once saw interracial marriage as unnatural, but now we don't. However, once again the Bible doesn't condemn interracial marriage. I have to make a point of this because on the surface it does seem to, where the Mosaic Law would prohibit Jews from marrying Gentiles. This distinction however was religious, not racial. If a Gentile would convert to Judaism, (as did Ruth in the Book of Ruth, for example) then there was no infringement of the Law. Even the New Testament maintains that so close a union as marriage should not be made between believers and unbelievers.

Now in standing by the claim that homosexuality is not natural according to God's intended order of Creation, many homosexuals will feel this to be an attack on them. The saying "love the sinner, not the sin" is not often seen as sincere; surely if we hate the actions of a person we necessarily hate the person, right? But that's not so... Another image I've seen is of two men kissing, and behind them an image of Jesus with the caption "Jesus Loves You". The fallacy in that image is that while Jesus does love the people, it is precisely because of that love for them that He commands us through the Scriptures to repent of homosexual behaviour. From one who truly believes that refusal to repent from sin such as homosexuality will lead to eternal judgment, it would be nothing short of hate if I didn't try to correct some of these false notions and direct people to the truth of the matter.

I know that a gay man's feelings for another man can be romantic and loving, and that a true sense of companionship can be found between gay men (or women). But I believe that the good things of God are seen throughout all humanity, though we are all corrupt. Religions other than Christianity, for example, all contain much truth; almost all religions teach some form of the Golden Rule for example. But other religions are in error when it comes to the whole truth about God. We are all created in God's image, and so the good things of God can be found in all of man's pursuits. But homosexuality is a corruption of the good things of God; namely love and sexuality. It's a partial truth. Just as I might find beautiful love and companionship in a polygamous marriage, it would nevertheless be a sinful corruption of God's true intent for marriage. If, however, we live according to God's intended order, we discover true fulfillment because we live and behave as God has designed us to. Does this mean a gay man forcing himself to marry a woman will find "true fulfillment"? No! But a gay man who comes to Christ, and through Christ deals with his homosexuality, may then go on to naturally desire the things of God. That may be marriage or singleness, but a true Christian will naturally align themselves to God's revealed will. And that takes a supernatural change to the heart of any man.

You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Psalms 16:11

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Should Circumcision Be Illegal?

I read an article recently that a certain state in the US was almost successful in making circumcision illegal. This is certainly a great concern to the Jewish community! But my own wife is quite a passionate advocate for the banning of circumcision. She considers it to be cruel, and would even go so far as to call it child abuse. But how should I, as a Christian, feel about this issue of circumcision?

When my wife was pregnant with my son, I had been a Christian for less than one year. But my wife was not saved. And at that time I was studying theology under a certain Bible teacher who had once explained that "circumcision is healthy, since a foreskin is able to trap dirt and germs..." and that studies had shown there to be less cases of cervical cancer in countries where circumcision was more commonly practiced. So I, as a new Christian, ate this up. "Oh, the wisdom of God..." (you see), "in giving circumcision to the Jews!" And so I told my wife that I wanted our son to be circumcised, believing myself to be wise as God was wise in giving the Jews circumcision for health reasons. But my wife believed back then, as she does now, that circumcision is cruel and ought to be illegal.

So this was a point of contention between us. I wanted to "be wise", but my wife didn't want to "abuse our child." Finally the day came when my wife went into labour, and we were still unresolved on this matter. My son was born after a 7 hour labour, and they handed him to me to hold. It was while I was holding him that the midwife asked about whether we were going to have him circumcised. My wife told her that she didn't but that I did. And the midwife asked "is that for religious reasons?" "No, no!" I said emphatically, for that would be thoroughly anti-Christian. So I explained it was for health reasons, based on what I'd heard, and for no other reason than that. Then the midwife said that we should discuss it and when we'd come to a decision to let her know. But I looked at my wife, and then I looked at my son, and I think that perhaps God gave me some true wisdom at that moment. Looking at my wife, I thought "Though I've said it is for health reasons, I'm sure she will forever suspect that my real motive was religious... and surely for her sake I should give up my own preference in order to send the right message, for there is no commandment from God that a Christian must circumcise their children." And looking at my son I thought to myself... "I have here in my arms a Gentile child. Since the time of Abraham there have always been Gentiles!" (They seems to have survived fairly well despite having foreskins!) "No, this is a Gentile child, and he should forever be seen as a Gentile child; for the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles!" So before the midwife even left the room, I looked up and said, "It's fine... I don't want him circumcised." (And you should have seen my wife's reaction to that!) I had been so adamant about this for months "because it's the wisdom of God", and just like that I saw my own foolishness. It was also my first lesson in questioning what preachers say from the pulpit!

I later discovered that these studies which supposedly show circumcision to be healthy are truly flawed. But one thing which was sort of a landmark moment for me was when my wife showed me a YouTube video of an actual circumcision. I might be able to find the link on request, but it really was horrific! If circumcision is optional for Christians then there is no reason at all to choose the circumcision option! But does this mean we should ban it? By no means... (and I still disagree with my wife on this point). Just as I relented from circumcising my son because it is evident that Gentiles have survived with their foreskins for so many thousands of years, it is also evident that the Jews have survived for thousands of years. Yet my wife has dug up arguments to show that circumcision is a high-risk operation. While I'm somewhat sympathetic to my wife's view on circumcision, in so far as I would say there's no good reason to circumcise your children, I don't necessarily agree with all of the arguments she would make... She also argues, for example, that it reduces sexual pleasure for men. I doubt it! But most importantly, circumcision is important to the Jews, and what would banning it mean to them? Paul had Timothy circumcised for the sake of the Jews they were witnessing to, even though there was no religious requirement for Timothy to be circumcised. Just as I relented from having my son circumcised for the sake of my wife that I was witnessing to, we should permit the Jews to practice circumcision lest they blame a "Christian people" for taking away that right, and we close off opportunities to witness to them. It's true that circumcision is brutal, but I think that's part of the whole point of circumcision! Biblically, circumcision symbolizes the separation of our sinful nature through adherence to the Law. But separating our sinful nature from us isn't easy when we try to do it "through the Law"; it's very difficult and very painful! This symbolism works, and as Christians we should understand and be thankful to God that through the cross it's not this horrible ordeal!

But what I'm talking about here doesn't apply only to circumcision. I wrote recently about how the Muslims have (allegedly) petitioned for Christmas celebrations to cease at my children's school. As I've been discussing this with people, the response I typically get is something like "Well we should demand that they can't celebrate Ramadan!" But look, why would we cause them to despise us!? They want talk of Jesus Christ at Christmas silenced so their children aren't exposed to Christian ideas; but how much better is it when a Christian can say, "From childhood I've listened to you teach me about Islam, (or Evolution, or New Age, to broaden this scope even further), and yet I firmly believe in Christ." Now we should fight to have Christianity in schools, but let's not fight to have other world views banned. As Paul taught us by his example, we must be "all things to all people"...

To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:21-23)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

And There Was No More Christmas

I seem to continually be receiving emails from friends about the “Islamization of the world”. Some are from concerned Christians, others are from concerned non-Christians, and others are from non-Christians who think that because I'm a Christian I should be concerned. And what sort of things do these emails say? They say that there is somewhat of a conspiracy that the Muslim religion intends to become the predominant religion in the world by settling in countries and major cities which are not predominately Muslim at the present time. And then, as they become a sizable majority, they will slowly gain more and more influence to thoroughly impose Islam upon that country. I’m always wary of how much truth there is to these sorts of emails, but recently my wife started work for the local school where my children attend, and she has told me that the school announced privately to staff that there probably won’t be any Christmas celebrations whatsoever this year. Furthermore the reason for this, so the story goes, is that we mustn’t offend the Muslim community by celebrating an overtly Christian occasion. So there certainly seems to be some truth to all this talk of “Islamization”, though I would also concede that it’s due to all this Islamization hype that the Muslim community are blamed for this when the truth may be otherwise. I don’t think there’s any big conspiracy; I’m fairly convinced that the Principal of that school is an Atheist and her agenda isn’t to keep Muslim’s happy but to take advantage of any excuse that takes religion out of the school’s culture.

I must admit that I’m not really in my comfort zone speaking on this... though I keep getting fed these emails, I’m not one to necessarily trust such sources. It is, however, plainly evident by looking at the world around us these days that Islam is on the rise. I am happier to call it “Islamic Revival” than “Islamization”, much like we would speak of a Christian Revival. From my perspective, the Church has been compromising itself for a long time now... many Churches are not right these days; failing to acknowledge the authority of Scripture, ordaining homosexuals, denying that Christ is the only way of salvation, and many other errors. And it is precisely the Biblical pattern that God would allow another religion like Islam to rise up, and to subject His Church even to persecution, just as God gave Israel over to their enemies as judgement for their faithlessness. Consider what it would do for the Church if it were persecuted, (not that we actually wish that upon ourselves)... To use a Biblical idiom, it would be “refined by fire”. Anyone not truly committed to Christ would soon abandon the Church. And even the banning of Christmas at my children’s school is a kind of persecution, but what effect will it have on local Churches? Will they care?

We should look at the rise of Islam from this perspective... the Church has struggled somewhat to go and preach the gospel to Muslims in their own lands, so God is bringing them to us. We should see their presence in our neighbourhoods as opportunities to reach them with the gospel. But what I see instead is fear and hatred towards them because of these emails that circulate. I’m not going to pretend that Christmas celebrations being cancelled at my children’s school isn’t a sad thing, but to react with hatred would be the opposite of Christian. How can we hate those who are without Christ? It should stir up our compassion. People say "Look at what he Devil is doing through Islam", but I would want to say look at what the Devil is doing through these emails that circulate, using them to provoke Christians to hatred. Let’s not forget who we are, and what our Lord taught us. Let’s examine ourselves and repent of any hatred we have toward the Muslim community.

and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Mark 6:34