Monthly Archives: June 2009

Judgement, or “Where has all the smiting gone?”

I’ve read many things about God’s judgement recently. Judgement of nations1 , judgement of groups2 , and judgement of people. The concept of God’s judgement is apparently a very misunderstood and frequently misrepresented and since it has the potential to do great harm to a believer’s growth or an unbeliever’s understanding of the relationship between grace and holiness, I figured it deserves some more ink (or pixels as it were).

Some of the extreme examples of recent stances taken regarding the judgement of God is the relatively new practice of imprecatory prayer3 where advocates literally pray for the death of specific individuals such as President Obama. This practice is said to have come from select Old Testament texts where various figures such as the Psalmist, David, and others prayed for their enemies to be vanquished.

I’m not sure this is what Jesus had in mind when he told us to pray for our enemies4.

Most Christians don’t go this far, thankfully, but they do adopt a slightly milder view of God’s wrath and judgement through unfortunate events5 and natural disasters6. While this view of God’s judgement often comes from a noble desire to uphold God’s sovereignty which often, unfortunately, crosses the line into causal determinism and, in order to reconcile the two, forces the holder of such a view of God’s sovereignty to ignore clear Biblical teaching about judgement in order to explain why a sovereign God would cause such tragic events to unfold rather than prevent them.

This issue ultimately leads to the question of evil in general, which is covered far better elsewhere, but I want to focus on the simple question of God’s judgement and what we can and can’t say about it in light of some clear teachings from the Bible.

The nature of God’s judgement can be summed up by the three words Jesus spoke on the matter from the cross. It is finished7 . The Bible clearly states that Jesus paid for sin once and for all at the cross8 . After Jesus rises from the dead we don’t read of anyone being punished for their sins but we are told that this is a time of grace until the final judgement comes where all remaining unrighteous will be dealt with. In fact, we are told that there is only one sin which will determine our innocence or guilt according to Matthew 12:32 and that is the acceptance of the witness of the Holy Spirit to Jesus, the Son sent to pay for our sin. In other words, to blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to call God a liar by refusing to believe in His Son.

An astute observer will note Ananias and Sapphira9 as an example of God judging (and smiting) people after the resurrection of Jesus.

However I would point out that, in addition with Paul’s admonition of 1 Corinthians 5:5 to “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord”, Hebrews 12:17 tells us that when we are adopted into God’s family we are disciplined as sons . Because of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (once saved, always saved) we shouldn’t think that Ananias and Sapphira were judged in the sense that they somehow lost their salvation but were rather disciplined.

Only by claiming that Jesus did not actually die for the sins of all men could you claim that God is still at work judging and smiting the wicked or else we would have a problem with God requiring double payment for sins. This, too, is something many in the reformed camp end up accepting as a result of their theology10 which ultimately raises more issues than it solves.

As for claiming natural disasters and random events as judgements from God we need to look back to the Old Testament and how God brought judgement then and how what we call judgement today just doesn’t add up.

The first thing we should note is that the prophets in the Old Testament were sent to proclaim the coming wrath of God in order to 1.) give the people time to repent and turn to God (or did you think grace and mercy were unique to the New Testament) and 2.) to remove all doubt as to where the coming calamity came from and why.

With most (if not all) modern forms of “judgement” we see no prophet and we also, frequently, do not see the precision in scope we see in the Old Testiment. In other words, innocent civilians are caught up in many so called acts of judgement we hear about today.

While some theological systems do not hold to the notion of an innocent bystander and are perfectly fine with the idea that God would indiscriminately pour out his wrath on the righteous as well as the unrighteous, Abraham shows us God’s character in regard to judgement in Genesis 18. Before undertaking the task of bargaining with the Lord, he asks “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”, and later asks “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” This should show us, along with God’s statement about the Amorites ((Genesis 15:16 tells us that their sin had not yet reached its full measure)), that when God judges, he states his case clearly and limits his wrath to those he has also warned and given ample opportunity to repent.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard when it comes to building a Biblical worldview is the admonition to remain consistent in what we believe and teach. In other words, we have no business telling people about the grace, mercy, and love of a God who has indeed paid everything on the Cross if we are, at the same time, going to tell them that God is, at this time, judging the world for the sin he supposedly already dealt with at the cross.

  1. particularly the USA []
  2. generally whichever one we don’t like at a particular moment []
  3. []
  4. Matthew 5:44 []
  5. Such as 9/11 and bridges collapsing []
  6. such as tsunamis and hurricanes []
  7. John 19:30 []
  8. Hebrews 10, notice that Paul mentions the finality of Jesus’s sacrifice and the corresponding futility of thinking we can “add” anything to it. []
  9. Acts 5:1-10 []
  10. Which is sad, because it shows how bad theology can color a natural reading of the text, turning God into a capricious monster. []

Epistemology for Children

Last summer our family got the privilege to take 2 vacations lasting a week a piece with my mother, father, aunt, sister, and her family. Quite a few people in all including 7 children with ages ranging from 1 to 12 years old. During the first week we decided to hold nightly devotions and, being a spur of the moment decision, our lessons for both vacations were largely ad-hoc with minimal preparation (it was a devotion we held right before bed time after all).

This year I am planning on doing things differently.

First of all I want to have an overarching theme that the kids in particular can latch on to dealing with an issue they face a lot of since my sister’s recent divorce. This is the issue of truth.

Now the study of truth is an academic area known as epistemology which generally contains some very dense material. In fact, I am forbidden from reading aloud articles or scholarly journal entries1 dealing with epistemology in the car with my wife when she is driving since doing so had nearly lead to several wrecks as she nods off because of the repetitive and tedious nature of epistemological arguments2 . The greatest challenge will be to break down the monolithic question Pilot asked in John 18:38, “What is Truth?” so that a child can understand it3 .

As it turns out, there are a few resources available when it comes to teaching basic philosophical concepts (such as epistemology) to children. Most of these resources focus on mining great classic children’s books such as Horton Hears a Who4, Morris the Moose5 or games6 oriented at stimulating thoughts about how we think and how we know what we know7 is generally applied when solving a mystery or puzzle.)).

In fact, philosopher Jean Piaget argues8 that classic games such as Clue or Guess Who, and many others can also fill this role by focusing on specific areas of epistemology such as logic and mathematics. The key to it all seems to be getting the children to communicate their ideas and to help them think through what can otherwise be a very daunting subject.

According to Karen Gallas, using art as a means of expression9 seems to help children express their ideas more freely and concisely than if we were to confine them to merely using verbal means of communication to express their ideas.

Using these techniques and approaches, the next step will be to apply what the Bible teaches about how we know what we know10 . I think the best approach will be to do this using stories from the bible that all relate to truth and specifically truth in relationships, specifically with God.

So here’s the lesson plan for the week:

Day 1 (Monday):

We will all have just traveled quite a distance and will probably be pretty exhausted. This will be a great opportunity to introduce the plan and theme of the week and introduce them to the subject of truth by using the question Pilot asked in John 18:38 as a springboard for the rest of the week. This will also be a great opportunity to hear their thoughts on the matter and perhaps explain some of the ramifications of the topic and how it impacts our entire lives.

Day 2 (Tuesday):

Our first true lesson on the topic will begin by setting up a basic definition of truth and some tests for it. The passage we will use will be the story of Solomon’s wisdom in determining the mother of a child in 1 Kings 3:16-28.

Day 3 (Wednesday):

Today we’ll turn to truth in relationships and look at Jonathan and David in 1 Samuel. Specifically, how Jonathan remained loyal to David and showed it by telling him the truth even when it hurt.

Day 4 (Thursday):

Today we will look at a negative example of truth in relationships with Samson and his wife in Judges 14:1-20.

Day 5 (Friday):

Today we will look at truth ultimately being a person in the form of Jesus Christ using John 14:1-31.

Day 6 (Saturday):

Today we will look at the Holy Spirit’s role in guiding us into all truth using John 16:1-16 as our text.

Day 7 (Sunday):

Our final lesson will focus on trust in God using the story of Abraham going up to the mountain to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22:1-18 as an illustration of how much we are to trust God who made everything and can raise us up from the dead if he so chooses.

I’ll probablly edit the lesson plan above after next week when we find out what does and doesn’t work. In the mean time, I need to finish packing…

  1. Like Philosophia Christi []
  2. Because they are generally written to be a comprehensive refutation and portrayal of their positions they generally contain very technical and carefully defined terms. This is understandable, but ends up having the consequence of taking ten pages to say something you could have said in only one, or less. []
  3. Or at least begin to think with a Biblical epistemology. []
  4. Philosophy for Kids, Horton Hears a Who []
  5. Philosophy for Kids, Epistemology and Morris the Moose []
  6. Epestemic Games []
  7. Most of these games focus on deception and detecting whether we are being deceived or not by examining the evidence we’ve been given. The same thing could conceivably be done quite easily with detective stories, games, etc. since the same epistemic analysis ((or analytical thought process []
  8. Jean Piaget’s Genetic Epistemology []
  9. Arts as Epistemology: Enabling Children to Know What They Know, Harvard Educational Review Volume 61, Number 1 []
  10. A Biblical Epistemology []

The Shack

“I am not a reader”

This is the line repeated time and again during the second Q&A time after Paul Young, author of The Shack, delivered his presentation1 of his bestseller at Capitol Christian Center.

Sadly, it shows.2

Paul Young has a very eloquent writing style and excellent storytelling abilities which come through in both his oral and written works. Unfortunately, his ability to communicate is not paired, at least in the case of “The Shack” with sound theology.

There are excellent in depth reviews that deal with the theological issues contained in The Shack34 so I won’t re-address them here. What I want to focus on instead is the impact this book, hailed as being the next “Pilgrim’s Progress”,  is having on the Church of Christ.

Whenever someone brings up a critique of The Shack, defendants are quick to cite it as work of fiction and “not a theological work”5. The problem is, anything that purports to tell us something about God6 is, by definition, a theological work7.

The difference between The Shack and something like a systematic series by Bruce Ware is that The Shack is simply a poor theological work8 which displays the confusion and inner turmoil of the author9.

The problem this false “its only a fictional work” view poses is that it a.) wasn’t intended as purely fictional by the author10 , b.) it won’t be taken as purely fictional by the readers11 and c.) it has a wide reading and will consequently have a wide influence in the Christian community just like Dante’s Inferno12 .

Several people have mentioned the profound impact this book has had on their “spiritual development, but the strongest statement to this point was during the Q&A time where one lady claimed The Shack “not the Bible”13 was the most influential book for her spiritual walk. Sadly, no one jumped up to correct her or show her the error of her thinking.

As bad as The Shack is theologically14 , it is really just another example of how many Christians in America are more willing to embrace the existential, heterodoxical, and (often) heretical views of our present day15 rather than spend the time to study and listen to the orthodox views or fathers, grand fathers, and great grandfathers in the faith handed down throughout the ages.

In short, The Shack is only popular because Christians don’t read16 and this present fad only serves to reinforce the slide into post modernity17 we have been facing for quite some time.

Since there will probably be a movie based on this book, I believe it is worthwhile for us to examine more carefully the claims and theology put forth in such a seemingly innocent and entertaining work. We will never make a difference in our culture if we are unclear and uncertain about the message we are presenting. If we are serious about Christ being the only way back to the Father then we owe it to our Creator to study the word he has left for us in order to become knowledgeable and therefore useful in the work we are called to do.

UPDATE: Many more excellent reviews of The Shack can be found here.
  1. This is in 3 services which the pastor claims are all different so you might want to listen to all three. I, however, only listened to the last one. []
  2. Why would we ever consider a lack of reading a good thing? That is, unless we are captivated by personal experience instead of diligent study, but I digress.. []
  3. []
  4. []
  5. For an example, see the bottom of this post. []
  6. See Paul’s blog on the background behind The Shack to see where he does intend to tell us something about God. []
  7. []
  8. That is, it lacks attention to detail and does not actually answer the question it raises regarding the question of evil. In short, it is very subjective based on the expieriences of the author. []
  9. Such as his gender identity issues, mentioned in Q&A times, as well as a host of other issues. In fact, it is my conjecture that The Shack is a therapeutic work hat should have never been put into publication. []
  10. Again, see Q&A time where Paul Young asks rhetorically “Did you really think that I meant only the introduction literally?” []
  11. There are numerous “testimonials”, “courses”, and “study groups” all pointing to the “truth” found in The Shack []
  12. Which still predominantly shapes the Christian community’s views on Hell to this day even though much of it is based in pagan mythology. []
  13. Yes, that is a direct quote. I encourage you to listen to the Q&A to hear it in context []
  14. Need to add a qualifier here that I don’t think Paul Young is the anti-christ lest he write another emotionally laden blog about me hurting his feelings and devaluing him as a person. []
  15. Though these bogus ideas have been around for a great while now. []
  16. Which, by extension, indicates how much they value spiritual maturity. []
  17. Characterized by a poor view of objective truth and what, if anything, can be known. []

Listening for the voice of God

Listening for the voice or looking for the will of God are trendy topics these days. Much ink has been spilled and many conferences have been produced around the simple question; “What does God want me to do?”. WWJD indeed?

For those of you who are wondering about the phenomenon I am talking about, here is an article that expresses the route most Christians take when attempting to answer the question above.

First, this desire to know and find God’s will1  generally comes about from a right desire to obey God in all facets of life which, therefore, appears to be a mark of one’s spirituality if we tell others that we are “listening to God”. In fact, we have many places in Scripture where we are commanded to listen to the voice of the Lord and not to harden our hearts. In fact, one evangelist used Hebrews 3:7-11 in conjunction with his evangelistic presentation to try to convince people that the feelings they had were really promptings from the Holy Spirit.

Second, the struggle comes in because this “voice of God” is usually rather elusive and the one in search of it is often left without a clear and concise answer to the question they are asking2. Many teachers use Elijah’s experience in the wilderness3 as an example here.

John Piper and Mark Dever have both written excellent articles on this subject, both offering very good outlines and rebuttals. But the most comprehensive work I’ve found has been a doctorial dissertation done by Garry Friesen which subsequently became a book titled, Descision Making and the Will of God.

The bottom line is that workmen approved by God4 know how to rightly divide Scripture, not some vague inner impression that may or may not be God’s voice.

From even a cursory reading of the Old Testament and New Testament we can see that when God spoke, the intended hearers knew beyond a shadow of a doubt both who was speaking and what was being said. It is only because of an intense and misguided5 desire for “religious experiences”6 that we tend, more often than not, to seek the “will of God” outside the definitive Word he left for us.

How we go about learning God’s will for our life (let alone others’ lives) matters very much. It is wrong for us to ask someone to trust our religious experience. It does not matter how real they are/were for us and regardless of how convinced we may be that they are genuinely from God, the fact is that we are not prophets which is what we would end up being if the generally accepted “voice of God” view is accurate.

Mary Baker Eddy, one of the founders of Christian Science movement, based her theology almost exclusively on the belief that people today can and should “listen to the voice of God” as it gave them more revelation than what was found in Scripture. In the most extreme sense7, one can also cite Joseph Smith and Muhammad‘s extra-biblical revelation in the same vein of “hearing from God”.

We should rather stick to the objective facts8 when it comes to what we claim and proclaim as the “Word of God” which, when carefully evaluated, can only be the Scriptures God himself wrote and preserved and it alone is what our faith should be based and built upon.

One final note, religious experiences are wholly bad in themselves but we should never ask someone to rely upon OUR experiences since that would be asking them to place their trust in us rather than God.

At this point I know many will ask: What about the Holy Spirit? This is another area I fear we have not taught very clearly on which I’ll address in another post, but I wanted to address the cancer this whole “voice/will of God” notion is in the Church today. Something I believe produces undue anxiety in too many Christians. Crippling them with a heavy yoke and burden which looks nothing like he light and easy yoke Christ claimed to bring in Matthew 11:30.

  1. Often expressed in the exhortation by many pastors to “listen for the still small voice of God, more on that later, though. []
  2. “Who should I marry?”, “What house should I buy”, etc… []
  3. 1 Kings 19:11-13 []
  4. 2 Timothy 2:14-15 []
  5. Misguided because it smacks of exestentialism. []
  6. That is, a subjective experience we attribute, rightly or not, to divine origin. []
  7. That is, not exactly the same as, but nevertheless, in the same vein. []
  8. Objective, because religious experiences are wholly subjective and therefore non transferable []

The myth of secular morality

This is a response to a post a friend of mine recently made outlining a secular basis for morality1 centered on empathy or “the golden rule” as the objective standard by which we ought to order our lives.

This comes as part of a long-running discussion where I maintain that, in order for morality to be of any substance2 , it must first be objective3 , timeless4, and transcendent5. To that end, I would like to offer two conjoined arguments in opposition to the proposed secular basis for morality based on empathy and the golden rule.

1.) The philosophical foundations of naturalism do not support the case for empathy being a standard.

If by secularism we mean philosophical naturalism in the sense that the only reality is the physical reality of atoms, particles, and “laws of nature” to the exclusion of metaphysical constructs such as a soul then our biggest hurdle to overcome, long before we deal with the grounds of any objective morality, is to answer where we get the notion of “ought to” from.

In other words, if matter is all there is, then all of our actions are essentially predetermined by our genes through chemical reactions happening in our brains. In this scenario we can no more will ourselves to be good, upright individuals than a sociopath who has no conscience.

Furthermore, as naturalists, we remove from ourselves the categories of right and wrong and are merely left with preferences which, even if applied to a societal level, still find no objective basis since it is still the subject (whether an individual or collective) that is determining the correctness of any given action (or intention/motive) and not a fixed standard that fits the criteria outlined at the outset which is required if our goal is a standard that is truly objective.

The only imbalance that can be found in this scenario is an imbalance of opinion and preference so that, when I say that you have wronged me, all I am doing is merely expressing a difference in opinion over your actions or intentions.

However, the fact that humans throughout history, and even the secular humanist, feel the need for a basis to morality is a rather curious notion6 since, without a truly objective standard to go by, all we would be left with would be moral relativism which, being relative to the individual or culture, would provide no real guidance at all, let alone one based on empathy.

2.) The philosophical presuppositions in the argument of empathy seem to assume that all humans have some sort of inherent worth and are of equal value which, given the secular or naturalistic view outlined above, is as incoherent in a naturalistic or secular world view as the notion of a free will able to effect a downward causal change in the mind/body7.

At a certain level we agree that empathizing with animals is a good thing to do. However, at some point we tend to eat our small furry (or feathery) friends which seems to indicate that humans are in a category of their own8 indicating either speciesm or an indication that humans are, indeed, unique among the other “animals” in the evolutionary struggle.

Given that nature is also “red with tooth and claw“, and that animals regularly eat their own kind9, we can safely conclude that humans are alone in their ability10 to “empathize” which seems to indicate that the notion of empathy is, at best, ambiguous11 and, at worse, completely irrelevant to simple propagation of the species12.

The bottom line is that empathy, while sounding like the holy grail of secular ethics and morality does not line up with the philosophical naturalism it is built upon.

In conclusion; only in a world where humans were created equal13 would the golden rule or “empathy” make sense. Indeed, I would submit the fact that we find this golden rule upheld in some degree amongst nearly all cultures across the world and across time give us a good indication that we are, indeed, created equally and ought to therefore question seriously the foundation of our equality just in case that foundation happens to be a person like us14.

  1. As opposed to a theocentric model where morality is ultimately based on God and His Law []
  2. That is, not a myth. []
  3. That is, outside of myself. []
  4. Not constrained by time and space. []
  5. Cannot change with time []
  6. “Human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and can’t really get rid of it.” –C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity []
  7. That is, naturalism presupposes a deterministic view of causal actions which, by default, makes the concept of a “free will” incoherent. []
  8. or at least view themselves as such []
  9. Cannibalism, not only for food, but, in the case of preying mantises, even as a means of sexual arousal []
  10. and willingness to do so consistently []
  11. that is, just as much of a cosmic accident as we supposedly are []
  12. especially since altruism and self-sacrifice are values directly opposed to the Darwinistic notion of self-preservation []
  13. That is, their metaphysical souls created in the likeness of God []
  14. Yes, I am referring to God which, if he exists would require us to extend the rule of empathy to him as well. More so, since having created us he would occupy a higher place of importance than a fellow human being created in his image which, coincidentally, is what Jesus taught when he summed up the teachings of the Bible in two statements dealing with love. Both of God and of men. []

Church shopping

My wife and I recently moved to Atlanta and will soon begin “shopping” for a new church home. Since there are so few resources available when it comes to church shopping I figured I would post how we plan on doing it.

I generally measure churches on two metrics:

1. Truth. Does their teaching contain substance? Is it true?
2. Love. Do their members love each other (KEY!) as much as they love outsiders?

If either of these is missing I consider the church to be dead, regardless of how many programs, people in attendance, mission teams, etc. they claim to have.