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)