100 Answers in 100 Days

More questions answered on this blog:

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

Saturday, April 21, 2012

What's Wrong with Pornography?

Today’s post deals with an issue which I think is far more serious than people believe it to be. I think that for so many people, if I told you that pornography ruins lives, they would probably scoff and call me a prude. But I think that, actually, it’s not so hard to see that this is true, and when we scoff it’s really because we all consider ourselves immune from the dangers. When we’re considering the danger of pornography, we’re really considering the dangers of feeding our own fantasies, and this is something that we all think we have under our control, believing we can always maintain a separation between fantasy and reality. But the Bible says that whatever is in our hearts and minds is ultimately who we will be in deed and reality. And I want to say that indulging in the fantasies of pornography makes us adulterers at heart, and very often will ultimately make us adulterers in reality. What makes me so sure of this fact? It’s because, if I had not become a Christian and given up pornography as a result, I know for certain that I would have cheated on my wife by now. In fact, it’s by the grace of God that I did not do so before I became a Christian; because I remember my former self, how I would have taken any opportunity that presented itself. But I don’t think that’s “just me”. According to one statistic, over 50% of married couples have been unfaithful, and knowing how prevalent pornography is in our society I believe there is a certain correlation there. I think we all know this to be true, and it isn't hard to find articles which agree (such as this.) It is also true to the testimonies of many, many others, including for example Nate Larkin, a former porn addict.

Now, I have a friend who has moved here from Russia. He told me something interesting. Since his mother is in Russia, he and his wife often sit down at the dinner table with a laptop set up in one of the seats, and his mother will be there via a live Skype video stream. Though she is Russia, they are literally able to enjoy meal times together. This is how real and intimate live streaming is, so that if we imagine, instead of a family sharing a meal together, one couple having sex on one end and another having sex at the other, I would quite literally call that group sex. We shouldn’t diminish the power of video. Perhaps it’s slightly removed from actually being in the same room as another couple, but not so far as to make it significantly different. Just about all of the same elements of attraction and arousal are there. If we consider group sex to be wrong, at what point does engaging with others sexually become "ok"? Well, I don’t think it’s ever ok. It’s not so different from a pre-recorded video, nor even from images created in our minds by erotic novels... the same wrong element is there in all of these; namely the desire for someone who is not your spouse. Pornography fills our heart with sexual desire, and when we desire for something we want to see that desire fulfilled. It's as simple as that.

But it's not just that pornography may lead to physical adultery. The mere act of interacting with pornography is already a kind of adultery. There are chat rooms where people can share their desire for one another, and it is expected now days that the person on the other end probably doesn’t look like the picture they upload to you. Nevertheless, when a man or a woman engage in that fantasy, it will affect their whole reality. Consider a film like Catfish, or talhotblond, which is freely available online. These are examples of just how intrusive a fantasy can be on one’s whole reality. These documentary films tell the true stories of men and women who, through online sexual relationships, ruined their lives. It might be argued that they are exceptional and extreme, but actually, with the exception of the murder which takes place in talhotblond, I think they are quite typical. We all know, for example, that even online role playing is wrong. Visiting the home page of one such role playing site (in the name of research, of course), I found what I expected to find... “Anonymity is important to the members of this site.” Why is it that men and women use a fake name and go to great lengths to prevent their spouse from finding out? If you saw a scene in a film where a father walked in on his son and the son slammed his laptop shut, wouldn’t we all correctly infer what he had been doing? It reminds me of the Proverb "The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion." If it were innocent there would be nothing to hide. The wife in talhotblond would do that; slamming her laptop shut if her husband walked past. Why? It’s because she knows that this is tantamount to cheating and is by no means innocent. Her husband in the film explained how he will always wonder whether he was only ever an outlet for the fantasies she’d lived online. The feeling of knowing that your wife is thinking of someone else while you’re being intimate is not very different from finding out that she’s cheated.

Now I know that many people who, if they’re into pornography, will scoff at this post. But I think that’s precisely because they’re into pornography! I don’t think I ever saw how damaging it was to my life until, through Christ, I gave it up altogether. Back then I knew that I would cheat on my wife if I had the chance, but back then I didn’t care. What does that say about my true feelings for my wife? Though in some sense I have always loved her, I can honestly say that I love her more now with a true love than I did back then, and praise God for that! God transforms our hearts and our lives. All of my fantasies, instead of being frustrated by the fact that I can’t actually live out what I viewed online, are instead the reality I live with my wife! Through Christ, she fulfills all my desires because the desires themselves are now for her only. Those who scoff are desensitized to their own adulterous desires, and to the seriousness of adultery itself. Folks, do not be fooled; pornography ruins lives, but Christ saves lives.

Let your fountain be blessed, 
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;
be intoxicated always in her love.
Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman
and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?
(Proverbs 5:18-20)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Is Hebrews a Problem for Eternal Security?

The idea of “eternal security” is that once a person receives saving faith and is truly born again, they will forever more be a Christian. Come what may, they will forever maintain faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. God has supernaturally transformed a Christian’s mind so that they cannot deny Him. It is ultimately impossible for them who today would die and go to Heaven to later change their mind, losing that faith which saves them, and therefore spend eternity in Hell. Generally, there are two main arguments against this view. The first is anecdotal evidence that there are Christians who do, in fact, appear to have once believed and then later rejected Christ. The second comes from a number of Biblical references which appear to suggest that one can indeed lose their salvation. I believe that eternal security is true from passages like Romans 8:29-30 or John 10:27-28, which reads “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” I find a lot of support for the eternal security position in Scripture, but many, in opposition, will cite passages from Hebrews like this one...

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Hebrews 6:4-6)

While I could write for pages and pages defending eternal security, which I believe to be true, today I want to resist doing that and focus only on the apparent disagreement which comes from the book of Hebrews. So we’ll come back to this passage from Hebrews 6. But I want to focus on Hebrews because I am just amazed by the number of Christians who struggle with this, or who twist Hebrews to try to resolve the conflict they perceive in it. And there are a number of ways in which Christians have tried to resolve the conflict. Firstly, I’ve heard evangelists essentially give up, saying “Yes, eternal security is true... unless you’re really, really determined to go to hell!” Others solve the problem by saying that apostasy doesn’t lead to loss of salvation, but to loss of some reward in heaven, and that’s what Hebrews is talking about. But I don’t think that’s what Hebrews is about, as we’ll see. And then there are hyper-dispensationalists, who say that eternal security applies to us in this age, but that Hebrews is written to believers in a whole different age where salvation is by works, and that at that time you will be able to lose your salvation. This view, however, fails to recognize that nobody can ever be saved by works; it’s literally impossible. But generally, all of these views acknowledge that there is strong Biblical support for eternal security, and these are just ways to try to reconcile Hebrews’ apparent conflict with that doctrine. I want to say, however, that there is no conflict between Hebrews and the rest of Scripture.

Now for those who believe, as I do, that our salvation is secure in Christ and that we cannot lose it; we all tend to explain the phenomenon of apostate Christians as those who never really had genuine faith in the first place. And when it comes to this passage in Hebrews, I believe that if we just consider the whole message and purpose of the Hebrews Epistle, this is precisely the kind of person that the writer has in mind. In my view, there are essentially three kinds of people in the world... there are the unsaved, the saved, and then there are those who may have a lot of knowledge about religion and even be deeply involved in the Church and pious living, but who do not really have a genuine faith. And this category of people are not some invention of mine for the sake of getting my theology and hermeneutics to work... the Bible is very explicit about such people. Most overtly, Jesus’ every rebuke to the Pharisees was to try to reveal to them and to us that such a group of people exists, and that they were those very people. The Pharisees were the most deeply involved people in the religion of Yahweh, and yet Jesus said of them...

You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. (John 8:44)

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus spoke of such a people, whose outer appearance seems righteous and pious, but who nonetheless have no saving faith...

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

So you see people who have every appearance of being genuinely saved... they prophesy and cast out demons and do mighty works! But there is something lacking in them, and that is ultimately a saving faith which results in their actions aligning with the will of God Himself. Now perhaps when many Christians get to the Book of Hebrews they make the assumption, because this is now an epistle, that the target audience are all genuinely saved Christians. But of course, any epistle was written to a physical body of believers in a particular church, and any particular church will consist of both those who are indeed genuinely saved, but potentially also those who, like the people in Matthew 7, seem to think that behaving like a Christian is all there is to actually being one. They are “nominal Christians”; that is, Christians in name only. So I want to spend some time showing why I think the writer to the Hebrews does have this “nominal group” in mind. Now, I think that this is evident all throughout the book, so I don’t have time to make my case exhaustively. Do please go and read the Book of Hebrews for yourself and see if you can confirm in your own mind that what I’m saying is true.

In terms of the overall purpose of the book, it appears to be written to Jews who have become Christians but who are now considering returning to the former practices of Judaism. If they were to do this, it would certainly be a case of apostasy. So let’s first look at how the writer to the Hebrews approaches this problem. He makes a point from the Old Testament. He reminds them of how, in the days of Moses, there was one congregation of Israel but that many of those sinned (through idolatry) and were judged. And then he says...

For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. (Hebrews 4:2)

This makes it very clear, in my mind, that the author is distinguishing between those of faith and those who do not have a genuine faith. Speaking to his audience, he is wanting them to consider carefully... do they, themselves, have genuine faith? Even though they’ve been calling themselves Christians for some time, so too did those Israelites in the desert, of whom the writer says “were not united by faith”, consider themselves part of the congregation of Israel. This distinction is set up even earlier in the book of Hebrews when the writer quotes the Old Testament to make his point...

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion [that is, those who rebelled in the exodus], … They [those in the rebellion] always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ (Hebrews 3:7,8,10)

So they “have no known my ways”. We can look back and see the similarity in Matthew 7; those nominal Christians there were ultimately “workers of lawlessness”. In saying “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts...”, he is referring to the calling of the Holy Spirit to be saved.

When we get to Chapter 6, which we quoted at the start of the post, those who have “tasted the heavenly gift” and “shared in the Holy Spirit” suggests to many that these are genuine Christians. But to “taste the heavenly gift” and “share in the Holy Spirit” means, to me, to have been surrounded by genuine Christians and to have reaped the benefits of being in such a community. It’s to have witnessed the activity of God through the Church, though one may not themselves be indwelt by the Holy Spirit. There are such people... I myself was one for 28 years of my life!

Now I think that what Hebrews 6 tells us is that such people, if they do reject Christ, may find that it becomes supernaturally impossible for them to later make a genuine acceptance of Christ. This is God’s judgement on them; to have received so much of the witness of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and to then reject Him, God seals their fate [See What is the Unforgivable Sin?]. John 16:8-11 teaches us that the Holy Spirit works in the lives of all people, so it’s perfectly consistent to say that the Holy Spirit is involved in the lives of nominal Christians. But the writer goes on to say...

Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. (Hebrews 6:9)

That is to say, ‘there are these nominal Christians out there, but we don’t think any of you are...’ In fact, the writer considers that in their case, they are sure of “things that belong to salvation.” This suggests that the group he is speaking of really are nominal Christians, not having salvation at all. Of course he’s writing out of concern for those who appear to be nominal Christians, but here he is probably addressing his immediate audience; the pastor and elders of the church. As an aside, verses 13-20 of the very same chapter are, in fact, a very strong proof text for the eternal security position.

Chapter 10 of Hebrews is the other main passage which suggests, to some, loss of salvation. There we read words like this...

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. (Hebrews 10:26-27)

Again, the assumption here is that one who has “received knowledge of the truth” must be a saved person; and so this would suggest a loss of salvation due to persistence in deliberate sin. But there is a very relevant passage in 1 John which reads:

No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. (1 John 3:6)

John is speaking to a church precisely to help them distinguish between genuine and nominal Christians! So again, it is clear from John that one who deliberately and willfully defies God in sin is a nominal Christian. And much like in Hebrews 6 where the writer says (again I paraphrase), “there are nominal Christians, but I don’t think any of you are...”, he comforts them in chapter 10 with similar words...

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. (Hebrews 10:39)

Again we see clarification that this group who are destroyed through apostasy do not actually have faith, and that faith will “preserve our souls”; a phrase which lends support to the doctrine of eternal security. While the book addresses those who may not have a genuine faith, it is also directed to genuine Christians in a number of ways. When I read the book, I'm not afraid of falling away and being damned because of it. But I am encouraged to stand up for the witness of Christ, and to be an example to all of what true faith can and will achieve.

So I would encourage you to read the book of Hebrews for yourself, keeping in mind that the writer is trying to reach those who have been associated with the church for some time, but through attempts to leave the church (parallel to 1 John 2:19), some have shown that they don’t actually have a genuine faith. They are like those Israelites in the Exodus who saw the miraculous deliverance from Egypt, they saw the pillar of fire and the manna and received the Law from God Himself, and yet had no faith in God, as was evidenced by their idolatry. Likewise, by being in the church they are surrounded by the witness of the Holy Spirit, speaking to them through the Church. The writer is saying ‘don’t be like those idolaters in the Exodus who, despite all they’d seen, nevertheless rejected God’...

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. (Hebrews 12:22-25)

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Nature of Eternal Punishment

The Bible teaches us about hell as a place of eternal punishment for sins. But what is the nature of this punishment? Traditionally people have believed that the unsaved; that is, those who have not put their faith in Christ for salvation, will experience some kind of torment, both physical and mental, forever in hell. This is a particularly frightening thought; that there might be some intense pain which will never cease, for an unending period of time. But there are those who, having read the Bible, conclude that this is not, in fact, what the Bible teaches about hell. Annihilationists believe that ultimately the unsaved will be thoroughly annihilated in hell. That when God casts them into hell, their body, soul and spirit will cease to exist altogether. Their “eternal punishment”, therefore, is that they will be denied eternal life and will instead be eternally dead. Today I wanted to discuss this view of hell, and why I think it’s wrong.

Will you just disappear forever?
Annihilationists often argue that their view is more consistent with a God of love and mercy, annihilation being more “humane” of God; and will even go so far as to say that this is more just of God as well. What I find interesting, though, is that annihilation is precisely what atheists expect will happen to them after they die, and they seem fairly content with that. That is to say, no atheist believes in divine justice, and annihilationism is consistent with their view. When I consider what it might be like if annihilationism were true, I feel as though I could live my life however I please, raping and murdering and stealing, because presuming I could avoid the vengeance of my fellow man, I would go to the grave and escape all consequences for my sins. I would effectively “get away with it all.” Even if there were a God, I could have lived as I pleased and be blissfully unaware of what life with God might be like. I don’t think this is compatible with the perfect justice of God.

But what does the Bible say about hell, exactly? Many passages refer to it as a place of fire, and so the annihilationist sees this as an illustration of annihilation... you put something in a fire in order to completely destroy it. Other passages like Matthew 10:28 say that “soul and body” are destroyed in hell. And finally, being cast into hell is described by the Bible as being the “second death”, and since physical death is the destruction of the body, so the second death must be destruction of the soul. And so, of course, the annihilationist rests heavily on these passages. But I think that hell, being a spiritual place, can be a place where a fire (of sorts) inflicts torments (of sorts) on the people who will be there forever. We can consider the burning bush of Moses, or the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were cast into the fire and did not get burned. They were protected by God from the fire, but we can imagine that God could control the degree to which they might have been burned by the fire, perpetuating it for all eternity. Further, we can understand destruction in the sense of someone saying “drug addiction destroyed my life...” That is, they still have life, but it’s somewhat of a “hell on Earth”, as people are also apt to say. And when the Bible uses the term death in a spiritual context, we can consider a passage such as Ephesians 2:1-2 which reads "And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked". Obviously death in the spiritual sense doesn't entail a lack of consciousness and awareness. The passages of Scripture which annihilationists appeal to may be spun a certain way in their favour, but I don't think their spin holds up in light of the rest of Scripture.

The reason I think that hell is a place of eternal punishment and torment is not just that I think this is more compatible with God’s justice, but because the Bible describes it precisely as a place of eternal punishment and torment. Annihilationists will say that the once and for all punishment of having been annihilated is “eternal” in the sense that those who have eternal life will remember it forever. But I think that’s an unnatural way to read “eternal punishment”, and an even more unnatural way to read of “eternal torment”. Punishment and torment are things experienced by the one receiving the punishment and the torment. To say it lasts forever means that the experience of it must last forever for the one receiving it. Let’s consider the following passage:

and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Revelation 20:10)

It is impossible to read this as saying that the devil’s own torment will somehow be perpetuated after he has been annihilated. How can his torment exist if he doesn’t exist? Now, some annihilationists say that the rules for the devil are different from the rules for people, but there is no justification for that at all. We know that the unsaved go to the very same place (v15 of the same chapter). And the truth is that if the devil is worthy of eternal torment in hell, rebellious people are more so, because they have rejected the sacrifice of God’s own Son.

Now, I don’t think we know perfectly what the eternal torment of hell will actually be like, but I think we can certainly say that there will be conscious individuals present there for all eternity, suffering. Sometimes the appeal is made that “Heaven wouldn’t be heaven if we were constantly upset about our loved ones being in hell”, but then, is it any better that the memory of their annihilation must necessarily live on in our memories, according to the annihilationist view? And then some say “What about the God of mercy?”, emphasizing the mercy of God. But then I would reply that God's mercy is to be found, and it is found in the cross. And we can also cite a passage like Hebrews 10:28-29...

Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God...? (Hebrews 10:28-29)

The traditional view of eternal punishment in hell is, I think, the true one. Hell is a terrible, terrible place, but I can’t apologise for telling you that it’s a reality. Christ came precisely in order to save you from that place, and through Him you can escape it, whoever you may be. God is merciful; that’s why He died for you! God is loving, that’s why He sacrificed His Son. And His love for you is why He, Himself, taught us about how terrible a place hell is. The warning goes out to you now, before it’s too late... See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. (Hebrews 12:25)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Justice of Hell

Browsing various atheist blogs, I came across the objection that it doesn’t seem fair or just for a man to be sent to hell when he did not know that there was such a devastating consequence for his sins. That is, if he had been told that hell would be the consequence of his sins he might not have done them. The most obvious response is that we Christians do tell people of hell, but they sin anyway. And they sin anyway because they simply don’t believe us. And I would want to remind us all at this point also, that the threat of hell is not designed to keep you from sin; the fear of hell won’t work at preventing your sin nature from exercising its desires. Rather, the doctrine of hell is taught by Jesus because it’s the truth, and because there is no hope of escape from it except through Him. Jesus taught it, therefore, so that we would understand that He is our only hope. Good works and the strictest refrain from sin, on the other hand, is not our hope.

But against this idea that it’s not fair to send someone to hell who was unaware of this dire consequence for their sin, I imagine it this way... Let’s set up a “desert island” scenario, where perhaps two brothers have been stranded since a very young age. They have had such little contact with society that they are completely unaware of the whole concept of a prison. But let’s imagine that one day, one of the brothers kills the other; and that around this very time a ship comes to the island, filled with men from our own society. These men see that a murder has taken place, and so they put the boy in prison. This boy, though he did not know that prisons existed, will himself still say “Yes, this is certainly something I deserve for what I did!”

Now let’s extend this illustration further. Let’s say that there’s a disagreement in the courtroom as to what the sentence should be. Nobody disputes that the boy should go to prison, but some say ten years, others say thirty, and yet others say a life sentence is in order. In such a case, the opinion of the boy himself carries no weight, even if he should say “I deserve life!” In a human court, this may be put to a vote, or perhaps the judge’s own view stands regardless. But in the reality we live in, God is above all human opinion and all human judgment. It doesn’t matter whether we think the boy should go free, pay a term of his life, or pay with all of his life; God sets the rules, and the rules are that sins must be punished for eternity. Since we are all sinners, our estimation of the penalty due is biased... would you really ask prisoners whether they should be set free?

Two common justifications for why we deserve an eternity in hell are that, though our sins are finite they are against an eternal God, and a God who is Holy beyond our comprehension. The second is that, once we’re in hell we may continue to sin for all eternity, and so the punishment is self-perpetuating. Like if a prisoner went to jail with a six month sentence but ended up there for life because every infraction of the prison’s own code of conduct extended his sentence. But this is, of course, speculation; maybe we really can’t understand, this side of death, why we deserve an eternity in hell, but I think that we all will when we see the glory of God first hand. And in as much as we may not be able to understand how God can punish a sinner for all eternity, it can also be said that we cannot readily understand how God could reward eternal life to those who put their faith in Him. Why are we not far more confounded by the amazing grace of God? How can anyone, as sinful as we are, receive eternal life is similarly beyond our comprehension.

Some have built a doctrine of purgatory, which is the idea that suffering in hell is only for a limited time, after which we will eventually have paid the debt for our sins and will then go to heaven. This idea is not supported by Scripture at all. The reason Christ had to die is precisely because we cannot ever atone for our own sins. If even billions of years in hell could atone for our sins, then Christ would not have died for us. He died because our situation is hopeless.

Both eternal life and eternal damnation are to do with God’s perfect justice. Justice demands either a just punishment for sins or a just reward for righteousness. No one is righteous which is why we should all receive the just punishment for sins. But Jesus Christ is perfectly righteous, and through His death on the cross He imputes His righteousness to us, though we are sinners, if we put our faith in Him. This is how people like you and I can receive the just reward instead of the just punishment; not for our personal righteousness but for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us through faith. How does this work? The honest answer is, I don’t think anyone perfectly understands how this works. But understanding how it works is different from believing and trusting that it does work. We can believe that Christ was raised from the dead, that He is the incarnation of God, and that He told us the truth when He said that those who follow Him will be given eternal life and shall never perish. This is where my hope lies.

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Romans 5:9)