Tuesday, December 20, 2011

This is War

Christopher Hitchens died this past week. May God have mercy.

I could wish that he had reconsidered in his last hours and had repented of his unbelief. If this was the case, God alone knows. But what I know is that his anti-theistic attacks on Christianity and Christ continue in his books and Internet debates. I wish to address one of his more regular arguments, that God is unworthy of our worship.

God, the God of the Bible, is unworthy of worship because God, as Hitchens oft wrote, ordered the mass murder of hundreds and thousands of innocent people, including women and children.

To that accusation Christians from Marcion onward to the liberals and some evangelicals of today have replied with various philosophical and theological sophistries in attempts to soften the force of Hitchens' point. In so doing they have both misrepresented God and have failed to give a biblical response.

So let me be clear. God did order the destruction of whole cities and societies. Why? Because God is at war, and God at war is a fierce God. God is at war with evil, with Satan, and with those who are caught up in evil or choose to identify with the enemy Satan.

This war is first of all in the spiritual realm. It is between Satan with his angels and God, who Satan desires to dethrone and to replace with himself. See Ezekiel 28 for an Old Testament description of the conflict and Revelation 12 for a New Testament example. But it extends to the realm of this earth and human history. See Ephesians 6 for Paul's description of the spiritual battle that extends in the the realm of flesh and blood.

At stake is the whole moral fabric of the universe and our eternal destiny. Satan would destroy both. God prevailing in this battle assures both.

In this war when men or nations take the part of evil, God has and will destroy them for the sake of those yet to be saved. In this way God judges nations and societies. Individuals, however, will face judgment in the future, at the Great White Throne judgment of Revelation 20.

Hitchens is right about the fierceness of God.

But Hitchens is wrong about the murder of innocents. Hitchens is judging God on the false premises that in God's wrath innocents perish and that death is the greatest of all evils. But God judges men on the basis of what they did with the truth of God they knew. Children do not know, therefore they can not reject God, and we are confident that the mercy of God in Christ Jesus covers them.

Hitchens' final error is that death is the greatest of all evils. However, he judges so from a purely temporal point of view. The Bible tells us that all are appointed to die. It is the common experience of every person. But the passage goes on to the more serious issue: "It is appointed unto man once to die, but after this the judgment. (Hebrews 9:27). It is this judgment that is rightly feared, not death. But, thank God, the passage goes on: "so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, without sin, to those who are eagerly waiting for him for salvation (Hebrews 9:28)."

It is upon that promise that innocent babes and sinners such as myself and Christopher Hitchens hope. I pray that even as the thief on the cross cried out for mercy with his last breath so Hitchens may have cried, and did he so, God, who is faithful and who in Christ Jesus provided forgiveness to all who call upon him, shall certainly have forgiven Hitchens.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Care for the Earth

God's original mandate for Adam was for him multiply and to rule over the earth (Gen. 1:26) and to till the the garden making it productive (Gen. 2:15). We could imagine the earth today the Garden of Eden made large.

I recently drove through the Columbia Basin of Washington where in sixty years the sage brush desert has been made to bloom as a rose. At one high point I stopped to look over the landscape.

As far as I could see in every direction were orchards, vineyards, wheat fields, corn, and sugar beats. It was a panorama of green and gold. But all is not well.

A recent trip to New Delhi India provided a sobering reminder that we have not done so well everywhere. Dust and smoke from cars and factories and burning garbage so polluted the air I could hardly breathe. The city itself was ill-kept,crowded, and festering. But that is a city, right?

Right. But it does not need to be so. On a recent trip into Seattle on the Sound Transit light rail train I noticed a green spot in an urban area I traveled through. Later I returned by car so I could look more closely. It was a community garden. In a strip of land that was a power line right of way, residents had planted a block long patch of vegetables and flowers.
Community gardens are not new. The city where I live has community gardens. Many homes have backyard gardens, as well. But the contrast between New Dehli and the Seattle neighborhood caused me to think about the mandate God gave Adam. Could we not do better at caring for the world than we have done. It is possible. God gave us the intelligence. We only need the will to follow his good plan.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Unity


The theme for the year at school is unity.  The theme is taken from John 17:21 which reads: "that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me.

It is a great theme. Certainly it is what God wants for us. But we often think of unity as something we need to work toward rather than something that God creates. (The closest we come to working toward unity is Ephesians 4:3 where we are told to "keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." But even then we simply keep what God has created.) However, like everything spiritual we try to do in the power of the flesh, no matter how hard we try, unity escapes us. The best we can achieve is agreement and cooperation. That is not unity, though agreement and cooperation may be the product of unity. It is too tenuously based when it is mere agreement and cooperation.

So, what is unity? John 17:21 actually refers back to John 17:11. There unity means the unity of brothers and sisters of one Father.  It is the unity of family, of being from one blood spiritually. It is the unity of a family whose focus is on the Father, rather than on themselves.

That sounds like worship, and in fact, true worship is one place where unity is most purely experienced. It is the place where unity begins - focusing together on God. As we focus on God, we allow God to be God. We stop playing God.  We allow our brothers and sisters to be accountable to God rather than to us.  We give up our right to be critical and to judge. That right is God's alone.

What a relief is this letting God be God. How sweet to see God's mercy and grace in the lives of others rather than looking for "issues."  What a joy this kind of unity is. And it is ours as we turn our focus to God and rest in his sovereignty.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Why I am a Christian

I have been teaching a class this year called Introduction to Christianity. In the last month we have looked at  Christianity from the Middle Ages to present. That included the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the terrible persecution of Reformers against Anabaptists in the 1500s. That got me thinking. If there has been so much ugliness -and there has been - why am I a Christian? But I am, in spite of the ugliness.

Of course, there has also been incredible good done by Christians. Go to the World Vision or the World Relief or the Union Gospel Mission websites or any number of others and see for yourself. I am proud of the many believers who are giving themselves to serve others. That is what Jesus called us to do. But that is not why I am a Christian.

This is what I will tell my class this week: I am a Christian because I choose to live in reality. If God is, if the Bible is true, and particularly if Jesus did, in fact, rise from the dead, there is no other option. These facts preempt all other paradigms.

That does not resolve all of the problems. I have experienced my share of doubt. Realistically, believing in a God whom we can not see and in the factuality of events centuries ago, particularly when such belief will change the course of life, is not easy. I appreciate the struggle some atheists have with this. But I have come to the conviction that believing in anything else is insanity.

I have spent much of my life challenging my own faith. I've read the arguments of many who do not believe. (At times I have had serious doubt.) I've read the counter-arguments. I've looked as honestly as I can at the evidence. And I am totally convinced by the evidence that the existence of God; the incredible life, death and resurrection of Jesus; and the claim of the Bible that it is God's word is true.

But that is not the only reality that convinced me to become a follower of Jesus. Perhaps it is not the most important reality. What convinced me was a personal encounter with God. To skeptics that sounds like something out of Twilight Zone, but every believer knows what I am talking about. We are convinced of God because he revealed himself to us personally.

That encounter came at age fourteen. For me, it was a moment of settled conviction that, though I knew next to nothing about the Bible, had not been raised in a Christian home, and had rarely been in a church, God was real, and if I wanted to live in reality, I must live in connection with the God who is. That conviction came with little emotion, but it did come with a settled peace.

I had a lot to learn, and I had a lot more to know of God. But in fifty years that conviction and that relationship with God has grown. Today I can not imagine life lived in the fantasy world of unbelief. I can not imagine living life without the relationship with God that has developed over the years. Much is still a mystery. There are still questions unanswered. But the simple reality and presence of God trumps all. I believe because God in the Holy Spirit drew me to him, keeps me, and cries through me "Abba Father."

I know, if you are reading this skeptically, that sounds strange. Nevertheless it is real and true. And that is why I am and will be forever a follower of Jesus.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hell and a Loving God

I am not sure I'm going to bother with Rob Bell's latest book Love Wins - or with John MacArthur's extended critique or with most of the others on the blogosphere.  However, the issue of hell and a loving God does deserve some consideration.

Love. There can be no question that God loves his creation including the most intranssient rebel and the most awful sinner. His love is extravagant, incomprehensible, and irrational.  Thank God for that, for I count myself as much outside reasonable love as any man. Only radical love, a love that would place his own Son on the cross for me provides any hope.

I would not wish to put any limitations on God's love, for if we could say, "God loves you, but. . .." I would be hopelessly lost.

My theology, my understanding of Scripture, and my heart tells me that God's love is so fundamental to him that everything that God does is bathed in his love.

Hell. I hate it. I shiver at the thought that I or anyone could spend eternity separated from God and all that is good in hell. Hell is incomprehensible. When I hear preachers or teachers making casual reference to hell or reducing its eternal awfulness, I seriously wonder if they are even close to understanding.

But as much as I hate it and as much as I do not understand how hell can be even imagined in view of God's immense love (that seems to be Bell's conviction) I can not do away with it.  It would require a denial of Jesus to deny hell; it was so often his warning to those who would refuse him. It would be a denial of the immeasurable sacrifice of God's Son if hell were even slightly less than eternal damnation.

I write that with tears, for I know, as you do, many who by any interpretation of the Word of God have chosen that unbelievably awful destiny over life. Dear God, have mercy.

How can I bring those two truths together, God's love and hell?  I will be truthful. I can not. No systematic theology I've ever read does it satisfactorily. Any such treatment must dilute either God's love or the awful reality of hell. I can only accept the truth of both. I will stand on both. I will proclaim both. And I will let the wisdom of God solve the conundrum.

(That is the trouble with systematic theology; it makes compromises. I prefer Biblical theology; if the Bible says it, I believe it.)

But even as I write these words I am seriously and deeply moved by the inconceivable danger they face who do not know of God's love. "How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?"

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Religion and Religions

What should our attitude as Christians be toward other religions?

I have been doing a study in the book of Acts with international students, many of whom are not Christians and who come from cultures where either Islam or Buddhism is the dominate religion. They have been at times confused and troubled by what they hear from Christians in American about their religions. So I was particularly interested in what Paul's approach to the religions he encountered was.

The first encounter with a non-Jewish religion recorded in Acts is in Lystra. There, because of a miracle Paul performed, the populace jumped to the conclusion that Paul and Barnabas were Zeus and Hermes. The local priests of the Greek gods wanted to bring a sacrifice to them. Of course, Paul was adamant that they should not be regarded as gods.

However, what Paul went on to say is perhaps surprising to us. He said that God in the past allowed all nations to choose their own way, though God left them with sufficient evidence that they might know that there was a God in heaven.

What does Paul mean - allowed the nations to choose their own way? Does that mean God allowed the religions that developed among the nations? It sounds like it.

He also said that he was telling them the good news that they should turn away from the empty things (literally) to the living God who created all things.

Is he saying that religions such as this one the people of Lystra followed were not evil, just incomplete? Paul definitely did not condemn the people or the religion. (He simply calls it empty.)  Nor does he condemn the religion so evident in Athens in Acts 17.  In fact, he recognized the seriousness of the Athenians' religious quest. He even recognized the truth expressed by some of their poets. Then in Athens, as he did in Lystra, Paul leads them to see that God now desires them to go to the end of their search and repent and receive the Savior now preached unto them. Was the religious quest evident in these people actually a good thing?  I think Paul is implying that.

If so, what might that mean for us in a religiously pluralistic world?  I wonder if we need to recognize the real and serious spiritual need that many people who are Muslims or Buddhist or Hindus feel - that just happens to be expressed in their religious lives as Muslims, etc. - and see our role as completers as we lead these people to see that the real and living God is the goal they seek and that Jesus is God's Savior reaching out to them.

That would seriously change the attitude many Christians in America have toward people of other religions. It would result in our honoring their quest rather than condemning them as absolutely in error and in opposition to God.  It would change the missionary enterprise, if it hasn't already for those who do see people the way God sees them.

It would change our attitude toward those in our culture who, though not religious, are on a similar spiritual quest.

Now, I do not mean to say that Satan has not hijacked the religions of the world for many people. He has.  He has turned them toward evil rather than good. But that does not change the fact that many who are Muslims, etc, are seriously seeking spiritual reality. Shall we not like Paul respond by leading them, without condemnation, to the true and living God?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What if God is Silent?

As I am writing this, I am watching the report of a murder trial.  The crime was the infamous Craigslist murder last year. The victims were a Christian couple and family. The husband and father was shot to death during a robbery as he tried to protect his son. The wife, testifying in the trial, recalls looking to the skies and asking, Why, God? Why?"

But God was silent.

I have a Christian friend struggling with cancer. Despite the treatment she has sought, the cancer will likely take her life. Why, God? Why?

But God is silent.

What do you do when God is silent? It is a question every Christian asks one time or another.  Do you quit God? I have had friends who have. But my friend Jack Frost chose another course.

Some years ago Jack's wife was diagnosed with cancer. Being a serious Christian and one who believed absolutely in the power of prayer and God's promise to heal those who came in faith to Him, he prayed.

But God was silent. He did not heal, and Jack's wife died.

Jack was devastated and his faith shaken. Then he thought through to  Peter's response when many disciples were turning back from following Jesus because they could not accept Jesus' hard saying about drinking his blood and eating his flesh (John 6:53).  When Jesus asked him if he also would go away, Peter answered, "To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."

And that is the point to which every believer comes, when there are no answers and God is silent. Who else has the words of eternal life?  No one.  So if God should be silent in my extremity, He remains my only hope. "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Thinking Biblically

Recently I engaged in a discussion of the book of Job with a video poster on YouTube.  His thesis was that God was a bully and that because God had all the power he could do as he pleased with Job. Job protests, of course, that God has treated him unjustly but to no avail. God comes back at Job in the final chapters with a challenge based on his power, and Job realizes that he is no match and submits.

The point, according to this video poster is that God is at best amoral, at worst evil, and in either case is not worthy of respect or worship.

It is a common theme on YouTube. And it illuminates the animosity of many toward God as well as the arrogance of many who consider themselves superior to God. This particular video also demonstrates the difference in worldview between Christians and skeptics.

For this poster, man is the measure of all things. If he cannot understand God, God must either be irrational or non-existent, purely an artifact of ancient thinking. Faith, of course, is also irrational. If a proposition cannot be proved, it is not valid.

For a believer, God is the measure of all things. If he cannot understand the ways of God, as Job could not, he can trust what he does know about God - that God is wise, that God is just, that God is good, that God loves us, that God is merciful. 

In fact, that is the point of the story of Job. God cannot be totally understood, but he can be trusted.

In the end, it is my personal experience of God, as it was for Job, that satisfies my questions. And that reminds me of a song My Savior Loves.