Tag Archives: God

Objections to Worship

Last week’s post was about worship of God “in spirit and truth” as Jesus phrased it. But there is an objection from skeptics to God desiring worship. They say the desire for worship on the part of God, and particularly the command for us to worship Him, is petulant, arrogant, needy, egotistical, and so on. Do they have a case? Let’s work through that today.

The main problem I see with this line of reasoning is that they seem to be objecting to a perceived lack of warrant, or justification, for worship. But this is because the god they object to is too little of a god, so to speak. Like the strawman fallacy, where one creates a caricature of your opponent’s view to pick apart and easily defeat, the skeptic has made a “straw god” to be disgusted with. It would, indeed, be the height of arrogance for a mere man to demand worship as God; no matter how amazing or powerful or smart he was, he would still be, without a doubt, unqualified for that role. But that’s not the God I serve.

  • The God of the Bible is distinctly and uniquely qualified to be worshiped. God is everything we consider to be praiseworthy. For example, we might praise the gracious and persistent love of a parent for their child even when the child rebels and hates the parent; yet God demonstrated His love for us in that He loved us before we could love Him [Rom 5:8,10, 1Jn 4:19]. We might praise the self-sacrifice of the soldier that gives his life to save his comrades; yet Christ gave His life as a sacrifice for all [Rom 5:6-8, 1Jn 4:10]. We might praise the judge who stands up against a corrupt system and refuses to be bought off with bribes, but rather punishes the guilty and releases the innocent that was unjustly charged; yet God is perfectly just [Deut 10:17, Ro 2:11]. He is all of these things and more, to the nth degree. Does this mean that God is subservient to independent behavioral standards then? On the contrary, we have these ideas of exemplary moral conduct because they are grounded in the unchanging nature of God.
  • All others are not qualified to receive worship. Some skeptics charge that demanding worship is indicative of the most unpraiseworthy of humans: megalomaniacs, malevolent dictators, psychopaths and so on. So why would we consider that behavior good when God demonstrates it? I would simply note that we are repulsed by humans craving worship because we recognize they are all unworthy of being worshiped, whether they desire it or not. They are not actually omnipotent, omniscient, or even the greatest thing since sliced bread. In attempting to lay claim to something they have no right to, they seek to steal glory from God.
  • God has the right to worship. If some stranger walked up to you and demanded that you salute them when they approached, you might reasonably take offense at that assumption of superiority on their part. But suppose you are a soldier in your nation’s military, in uniform, on duty at your base, and the stranger approaching you was the base commander. Even if you don’t know him personally or even recognize him, the symbols of far higher rank on his uniform mean that he has the right to your respect and your obedience. And if you do recognize him and just don’t like him, that doesn’t really matter. You are still obligated to salute because of his position of authority over you. Of course, you don’t have to salute; but you should probably expect to pay the consequences if you don’t. The skeptic objecting to God’s command to worship Him is treating God like the random stranger walking up and making the same demands – “How rude! Who do you think you are?” But God isn’t a random peer – He is our Creator, and He is sovereign over us, like it or not. You can object to His authority. You can refuse to respect, honor, glorify, and love Him – even though these would be the only reasonable responses if you understood who He was and what He’s done – but there are consequences to that choice.
  • Lastly, praising God and worshiping Him is simply acknowledging what is true. Truth is correspondence with reality, and if God really is loving, merciful, just, holy, sovereign – and if we desire to be truthful – then it is only right that we acknowledge those statements about God.

Gary Parrett described worship as our faithful response to God’s gracious revelation. His revealing of Himself to us warrants the response we call worship, whether that take the form of trembling, reverential awe, or exuberant, joyful praise, or deeply quiet gratitude, or simple, obedient service. If you’re a skeptic, don’t miss out on being reconciled with your Creator, the one and only King of all, because you objected to a little god that was only a pretender to the throne.

Worship in Truth

“Jesus and the Samaritan Woman”, by Gustav Dore, 19th c.

A woman inquired of Jesus about the proper place to worship: was it the temple in Jerusalem, or Mount Gerazim where her people worshiped? This raises the larger question of what’s actually important in this activity of worshiping God. Does location matter? Time? What about form of worship? In His reply to her one issue, Jesus answered the bigger issue when He told her to worship “in spirit and in truth”, for those are the worshipers God seeks [Jn 4:23-24].  But what does that mean? Let’s work through that today.

First, Nelson’s Bible Dictionary defines worship as “the supreme honor or veneration given either in thought or deed to a person or thing.”[1] However, while it can be directed to anything or anyone, only God is actually worthy of worship. Let’s look at 5 distinctives of Christian worship.

  • We must worship “in spirit” because God is spirit; that is, He is immaterial. And He has created us humans with a spirit as well. We are far more than the sum of our physical body components. Our worship can not be reduced to simply chemical reactions or physical responses to stimuli. There is a relational interaction between our spirit and the Spirit of God that transcends location or language or communication skills. Reverend Watkins writes in Ellicott’s Commentary that “The yearning of the human spirit is that of a child seeking the author of his being.”[2]  As Grudem points out, “genuine worship is not something that is self-generated or that can be worked up within ourselves. It must rather be the outpouring of our hearts in response to a realization of who God is.”[3]
  • While there is a mystical, spiritual component to our worship that may be expressed in a variety of ways, Christian worship is worship “in truth”. Therefore, it is also strongly propositional. It makes informative statements. It is not just some wishy-washy, make-it-up-as-you-go “spirituality” popular among many these days, but rather objective statements about God’s attributes, His actions in the world, and His work in the lives of His people. When we sing “Up from the grave He arose!”, we are making definite objective statements about Jesus’ actions in history. When we sing “Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty! God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!”, we are making objective statements about His nature. There’s no room for “true for you but not for me” relativism in Christian worship.
  • Worship “in truth” has real content. If your worship consists of making animal noises, I would argue that you’re not really worshiping.  Or if your worship is only an emotional high, barely distinguishable from the feelings at Saturday night’s concert other than it’s on Sunday morning, I would encourage you to look a little deeper. Emotions are good, but Christian worship grounds those emotions in solid truth. There’s a saying that “We sing our theology”, and that should give us pause. In light of that, the Christian should always examine the words they sing to verify that they are truthful and correspond to what we know of God.
  • Worship “in truth” will correspond to who God is, for truth is correspondence to reality. Ellicott’s commentary on those verses in John says, “Worship which is ‘in truth’ is in harmony with the nature of the God whom we worship.”[2] Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament likewise says of this passage, “To worship in truth is not merely to worship in sincerity, but with a worship corresponding to the nature of its object.”[4] The Expositor’s Greek Testament adds that worship “is to be ἐν ἀληθείᾳ {en aletheia} – in correspondence with reality.”[5] In other words, we worship God as all-knowing, all-powerful, sovereign, and holy because He actually possesses those attributes. We don’t worship God as the sum total of the universe (pantheism) or as the Force from Star Wars (panentheism), because those propositions – those truth claims – do not correspond to reality.
  • Lastly, worship “in truth” should be free from hypocrisy. After all, hypocrisy is saying one thing and doing another, which is the total opposite of corresponding to reality.

In summary, Christian worship is honoring God with our heart, soul, strength and mind, recognizing who He is, and responding appropriately. It is not limited by time or place, or status of the worshiper, or style of worship. It must be offered honestly and sincerely, not by rote, as a spiritual service to God and not to please man. For that is what God desires of us, and only that will ultimately satisfy creatures created to glorify God.

[1] “Worship”, Nelson’s Foundational Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004).
[2] John 4:23, Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, ed. Charles John Ellicott (London: Cassell & Co., 1905). Section on the Gospel of John authored by the Reverend H.W. Watkins.
[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), p. 1011.
[4] Marvin Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (NY: Scribner, 1887).
[5] John 4:23, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. Rev. W. Robertson Nicoll (NY: George H. Doran Co, 1897). Section on the Gospel of John authored by Marcus Dods.

A Dangerous Perception

The 9.1 magnitude Japan earthquake of 2011, as recorded at the Hokkaido Station seismograph.

A colleague and I were talking the other day about the difficulties in conveying the dangers of rare events to people. The site conditions for projects we were each working on had triggered some seismic provisions that can be very costly to design for, and to build. Unfortunately, earthquakes, tornadoes, and other relatively rare events are easy to blow off… until they happen to you.  Who wants to spend money or time preparing for something that is (in their mind) unlikely to happen in their lifetime?  Especially when it’s going to cost a lot? It doesn’t help that our part of the world has the potential for a high magnitude earthquake (M7.0+), but hasn’t had one in just over 200 hundred years. While it’s good that major earthquakes are rare here, one bad side effect is apathy and an unspoken rule of “out of sight, out of mind”. This tendency to not appreciate danger that is perceived as distant or unlikely to occur isn’t just an obstacle for engineers trying to justify their fees to clients. People often have the same mindset when it comes to spiritual matters, and that’s what I’d like to work through today.

We’ll wear helmets on our bikes and seat belts in our cars because of the dangers of vehicle accidents; we’ll put non-slip treads on stairs because of the potential for falls; we’ll put nets and cushions around trampolines because of accidents there; we’ll even stop eating things we like and start eating things we hate to stave off various diseases – we’ll take all sorts of precautions to protect our frail physical lives that are often here today and gone tomorrow despite our best efforts, but we won’t look to the safety of our eternal souls. Isn’t that an odd ordering of priorities? Small dangers can loom large in our view while much greater dangers are perceived as unimportant. And yet, none of us are guaranteed our next breath, much less the next day/month/year/decade. Death, that heavy curtain we just can’t see past, can close on us at any time. But that is actually just the short-term danger. For the Bible tells us some of what is beyond that black curtain: judgement, but not on our terms.

I’ve heard some people say that that if they died and found themselves in the presence of the God they had denied all these years, they would surely demand that He justify His actions throughout human history to them – as if they weren’t less than a speck of dust before His might that created the universe out of nothing, as if they weren’t a moral cesspool in comparison to His perfect goodness, as if they weren’t the intellectual equivalent of a bacterium in comparison to His omnipotence and wisdom [Ro 9:20, Ps 103:14, Isa 45:9, Dan 4:35]. I pray they realize the arrogance and folly of their statements before that hypothetical scenario becomes reality for them, because that trial scene will be very one-sided, and it won’t be them asking the questions. Indeed, we will all appear before God one day [Heb 9:27], on God’s terms. What does that mean?  It means that perfection is the standard to meet [Rom 3:23, Dt 32:4]. It means that we will answer for every word and deed and thought [Mt 12:36, Heb 4:12-13]. It means that if we can’t meet that standard, then we need a proxy – a substitute – who can, and is willing to, take our place and represent us before the judgement seat of God. That one is Jesus Christ [Jn 1:29, 2Co 5:21, 1Tim 2:5-6].

Don’t make the mistake of protecting yourself from the little things that can only affect this life, and neglect the real possibility of entering eternity without having reconciled with your Creator (and Judge) on His terms. Just as many of the earthquakes of the past came when people least expected, you could find yourself standing before God in the blink of an eye. Make the investment now that will make that meeting an occasion of joy rather than terror.

Sharpen Your Pencil

Photo Credit: freeimages.com/Beate W

“Let me sharpen my pencil and see if we can’t make that beam size work with the extra load the owner wants.” What does sharpening pencils have to do with designing beams? That’s simply an old expression in engineering regarding the need for greater accuracy in some particularly critical calculations. We tend to use a lot of approximations and rules of thumb that we know are not exact but will err on the side of caution. While a safe design is our duty to the public; a safe design produced in a timely manner makes for happy clients and keeps us in business. But sometimes, those typical procedures and quick approximations result in a design that doesn’t meet some project requirement. And while computers have replaced nomographs and graphical analysis methods – and the need to keep a sharp point on one’s pencil to get a more accurate result – we still use that expression to signify when the situation warrants a more detailed design. Back in the days of solving something by drawing similar triangles, the method – pencil and paper and straightedge – was often the limiting factor on our accuracy. Now, computerized methods allow us to be as accurate as we could ever need, so sharpening the pencil now is more about our assumptions. Did I assume a higher typical load than what is actually present on the current project? Did I use a simpler formula that doesn’t account for various load reductions or strength increases that actually could be applied to my current project? However, sometimes, in sharpening the pencil and wading into the details, we find that a particular situation isn’t quite as similar to past projects as we thought, and our assumptions we thought were conservative are actually overlooking critical factors. And that’s an issue I see outside of engineering as well.

One’s eternal fate is of critical importance. No one is promised their next breath, so where you’ll be a few minutes after your last breath, whenever it comes, is not something you want to miscalculate. What assumptions are you making that you need to revisit?

  • “The idea of God is outdated stone-age superstition and simply unnecessary now.”  Regardless of how old the idea of God is, that doesn’t make it unnecessary. We still need an explanation for the world around us, and scientific observation can only go so far. You can scientifically measure water boiling all day long and precisely explain how it’s boiling, and never explain why it’s boiling if you’re unwilling to admit that somebody put the kettle of water on the stove and turned it on.
  • “Science will answer everything someday.” The idea that science is the silver bullet to all our problems has a problem of its own: not all questions (and their answers) are scientific in nature. Metaphysical questions about the meaning of life and ethics are on the “ought” side of the ought-is dilemma, outside the scope of science, which can only observe what is, and not how it ought to be.
  • “Science has explained away God.” This idea that explaining the mechanics of our world does away with the need for God is a common assumption today, but this is akin to thinking one has explained the origin of a car by explaining how it works. The scientific method has allowed us to advance our knowledge of the mechanical workings of our world tremendously, but it is useless in a universe not governed by causality and logic. Our universe exhibits an organization that is best explained by a Master Designer. Indeed, modern science was based on the idea that the universe could be investigated and understood because God had created it in an orderly manner conducive to study.
  • “Religion just causes arguments and isn’t worth thinking about.” Maybe you’ve assumed that discussions about religion are just a waste of time and a needless source of feuding. But what’s the real problem there? Is it the subject matter, or the way we discuss it? Maybe civility and sound reasoning are the solution, and not indifference. Suppose you and I have gone for a flight in a mutual friend’s airplane. Beautiful, wide-open countryside passes below his Cessna 182 as we bask in the view. But then our friend passes out at the yoke. Now we are left with a very serious problem: what went up will eventually come down, one way or another. To make matters worse, we have very different ideas of how to fix the problem. But does our disagreement mean we should simply ignore the entire question of how to revive our pilot friend and/or land the plane? No! The problem remains even if we ignore it. In fact, it’s likely getting worse with each passing second. Likewise, the question of whether God exists, what we can know about Him, and what He may want of us are some of the biggest questions we can ask in life. No part of our lives are unaffected by the answers to this issue, and the urgency of finding the answer only grows the more we ignore it.

If any of those initial assumptions described your thoughts on the matter, I’d like to kindly suggest it’s time to sharpen your pencil and work through that problem again, my friend. But “time waits for no man”, and like the ground filling more and more of the Cessna’s windshield,  “the God question” can only be put off for so long before it’s too late.

Dangerous Assumptions

Ever assumed you knew something that turned out to be completely different? I know I have. It doesn’t take long to learn how embarrassing hasty assumptions can be. Yet we still have to make a lot of assumptions in life every day. I have to assume when I go to bed each night that my truck will start in the morning, and I don’t actually need to get up at 2 in the morning and run an ultra-marathon just to get to work on time. A dead truck is a possibility, but practically speaking, my assumption of reliable transportation is a fairly safe assumption given that truck’s history of dependability. In engineering, we have to make a lot of assumptions that can drastically change the results, and we’re expected to be able to judge whether those assumptions are justified or not. Assuming certain vibrational characteristics for a project, only to find out your structure’s resonant frequency actually matches the frequency of the average person’s walking gait, can change a client’s bold, cantilevered office building with a view into a nauseating life of trying to do office work on the end of a diving board. Assuming a connection to be rigid when it’s not, or assuming a high frictional resistance that may or may not be present can completely alter load paths, and divert force into components never designed for it. Assuming a beam is adequately braced when it’s not can change the mode of failure from a nice slow yielding to a sudden lateral-torsional buckling, drastically lowering the safe load on the beam, and possibly resulting in a structural failure. Just like assuming a snake isn’t poisonous, a lot of engineering assumptions can pack a deadly bite.

So what is it about assumptions that can be so disastrous? The issue is how close they are to, or how far they are from, reality. In essence, it’s a matter of how truthful the assumption is, for truth is simply correspondence to reality. If I assume the max unbraced length of a 30 foot long beam is 5 feet and it turns out to be 6 feet, then I’m fairly close to the truth of the matter , and I’ve erred on the side of caution, so my design should do well. If I assume it’s 30′ and I don’t need any bracing at all, then I’m working off a false premise, and I’m flirting with disaster. Sadly, a lot of people are making an even more dangerous assumption every day, many never realizing it until it’s too late.

What is this deadly assumption, you ask? Let’s work through some examples of it and find a common denominator:

  • “God is love, so that means everybody goes to heaven, right?” This assumes a very one-dimensional caricature of God, who is also just and righteous and holy. One could just as easily state, “God is just and we’re all sinners, so that means everybody goes to hell, right?” Or we could see Him as He has revealed Himself to us, and recognize that His love provided a way for us to be reconciled and justified before His perfect unbending justice, but only if we don’t reject it. Thus, some will be saved and some won’t.
  • “I’m a pretty good person, so God surely wouldn’t send me to hell.” This assumes that an absolutely perfect and holy God grades on a curve. We may lower our standards but why assume a perfectly just God would do the same?
  • “I don’t need God to be a good person, and that’s what counts, right? – Leaving the world a little better place than I found it?” This common misconception is based on a relativistic notion of “goodness”. But unless you happen to be the one perfect person in the whole world, good isn’t good enough to meet God’s perfect standard. And besides that, a lot of people throughout history have convinced themselves their heinous actions were actually for the “greater good.” So beware of subjective standards of “goodness”.
  • “I don’t like this God yours, so I’m going to just find one I like better.” My preference often has little to do with reality, and this dangerous assumption makes the mistake of thinking one’s dislike and rejection of God somehow circumvents the need to deal with God’s independent existence (and our potential obligations to Him) on His sovereign terms.
  • “I hadn’t really thought about what happens when I die, but I’m sure it’ll all work out in the end.” When has apathy and sticking one’s head in the sand ever been a good strategy for anything? The person saying this isn’t really sure of anything other than that they don’t want to think about anything that might require them to change course.

There’s a common assumption at the base of all of these statements – that we, as individuals with our finite comprehension, somehow know better than our omniscient Creator how He should’ve done things. It’s the notion that our way – our personal and very subjective way – is the right way, instead of God’s way. Ultimately, it comes back to pride, which, as the Bible wisely warns, “goes before destruction” [Prov 16:18]. So be wise and learn from the mistakes of others, and avoid the eternal consequences of these most dangerous assumptions.

Miracles and Einstein, Part 2

Albert Einstein in 1947

Last week, I went over how Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity were a more comprehensive model of the universe than previous theories, and how a worldview that can acknowledge the possibility of miracles is likewise more comprehensive than the atheistic worldview. Apart from whether God exists or miracles do occur, the worldview that can handle those possibilities without breaking is, all else being equal, the more robust model. Today, I want to conclude that investigation with a look at one of Einstein’s more unique “thought experiments”.

Einstein was famous for his thought experiments, and for good reason. He worked as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office, without access to laboratories and expensive equipment to conduct physical experiments. Moreover, some of his ideas were beyond the ability to experimentally verify for years. But throughout his life, Einstein carefully reasoned his way through the implications of different ideas via these thought experiments. He published 4 papers in 1905 (while still a clerk!) that revolutionized  science. Ten years later the world would get his general theory of relativity, and Einstein’s name would become synonymous with genius. Among his though experiments about lightning flashes and clocks and measuring rods on moving trains, he presented an interesting example in his book, Relativity, that I want to look at. To illustrate one implication of his theory of general relativity to the question of whether the universe is infinite or finite, he postulates a world of 2-dimensional “flat” beings living in a  2-dimensional “flat” world with “flat” tools for measuring their world. To the 2-D beings, depth is a foreign concept. Says Einstein, “For them nothing exists outside of this plane: that which they observe to happen to themselves and to their flat ‘things’ is the all-inclusive reality of their plane.” [1]  While he proceeds to build on this to look at the finitude of our universe,  what caught my eye was his point that only what happens in-plane is observable by the 2-D beings. This got me thinking of my own little thought experiment.

Suppose their flat universe is a region contained in a 3-dimensional universe. Maybe their entire existence is contained in a “tabletop universe” in your study. You, being a 3-D being, are able to look down on their universe and observe them in ways they cannot observe their own world.  For them, they might not be able to see past an obstacle in their path, but would have to go around it to see what was on the other side. You can simply see over the obstacle to know whether trouble awaits them on the other side or not. In some sense, you can see how their choices will play out before they can. But what if your relation with their world wasn’t simply limited to observation, but could also include interaction? While they could move and observe things in the x- and y-axes of their world, you would be able to approach them from the z-axis — “out of the blue”, so to speak. With their observations limited to a plane, your interactions with them would surely be mysterious. If you moved an obstacle out of their way, they would be able to see the effect of your interaction, certainly, but the origin of it? Probably not. It might, from their point of view, appear to defy their laws of physics.

Could you communicate with them? Possibly, though maybe not with the sound waves produced by your vocal chords. But you might be able to communicate with them in ways possible in their plane frame of reference. For instance, if they communicated with each other in flashes of colored light, and you wanted to give them a message, you could do so by translating your thoughts into flashing colored light instead of spoken or written words, in order to put your message in their terms. If you really wanted to interact with them in a way they could understand, though, entering their world would be the ultimate move. Of course, this is the stuff of sci-fi stories, but that’s why this is a though experiment, so let’s keep going. Suppose you could transform yourself to a 2-D being like the ones in the tabletop universe. Your interactions and communications with them would be more direct and personal in such a case. They would be able to relate to you better as one of them, rather than simply a mysterious source of messages and the occasional intrusions of solid geometry into their plane geometry world.  Even if you fully understood the limitations of living in a 2-D world beforehand, having endured those constraints yourself would make your interactions with them more meaningful for them.

Now, I’m not saying that spiritual reality is simply a higher physical dimension, or an alternate/parallel dimension, but I do think this analogy can show the plausibility of miracles. The skeptic often claims miracles are impossible, and yet we can think of scenarios where a completely naturalistic system could have events that would appear miraculous to one set of observers in the system. So to the skeptic, I would ask:

  • Is it really that much of a stretch to say that God exists in a way that transcends our observable universe such that He can be “outside” it, but still interact with it?
  • Would it be such a surprise that God might exist in a way that is like nothing else in our frame of reference? The idea of the Trinity, one Being with 3 personal centers of consciousness, is probably as different from our life experience as a 3-dimensional man would be to the 2-dimensional  creatures of Einstein’s thought experiment.
  • Should it be a shock that He could have knowledge of future events in ways we don’t understand? Some see omniscience as equating to deterministic control and negation of our free will, but knowledge of the future is not the same as causation of that future. Now the Bible does leave us with a tension between God’s sovereignty over us and our free will, but I would say this falls into the category of mystery rather than contradiction as some assume.
  • Is it so unbelievable that He would condescend to communicating with us in ways we could comprehend? The Bible records some of the different ways God has communicated with us: by direct speech to Adam and Eve [Ge 3:9], mediated speech through other humans (any of the prophets), inspired writing (like Paul’s epistles), angelic messengers [Lk 1:26-38], visions [Is 6:1-3], dreams [Mt 1:20-21], His Spirit indwelling us and speaking directly to our spirit [Ac 20:22-24], or even speaking through a burning bush [Ex 3:2-4:17] and a donkey [Nb 22:21-39].
  • Lastly, is it impossible that an omnipotent Creator could even enter His creation, taking on our limitations of physical existence and be one of us – “truly God and truly man” as the Creeds would say? That is the miracle of the Incarnation, and the most amazing demonstration of love for us. Some eschew this as arrogance on the part of us measly humans inhabiting this speck of dust in a vast cosmos, to think we are so important. But it’s not about some amazing worthiness on our part that warrants cosmic attention, but rather the amazing, mind-boggling extent of God’s love.

Perhaps, the skeptic’s problem is that they have too small a view of God. They are like the 2-D creature saying that the concept of “depth” is unintelligible and that there is nothing outside their plane. A world beyond their imagination breaks in to our world, and yet it doesn’t fit in their small, simplistic model of how the world works, and so they ignore it. Do you want to be open-minded, a real freethinker? Then free yourself from the constraints of atheism, and be open to the bigger view of reality. But I’ll warn you, when you do that, you’ll discover an added dimension to your world that Christianity best explains. Then you have a choice: do you turn your eyes back down to your flat world, or do you follow the evidence straight to Christ? Choose wisely, my friend.

[1] Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special & The General Theory (NY: Barnes & Noble, 2004, original 1920), p. 93.

The Twin Pillars of Christmas & Easter

National Building Museum, Washington DC, 2017. Author’s photo.

As the Christmas celebrations wrapped up, a friend shared the following quote yesterday from atheist New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman:

The God of Christmas is not a God of wrath, judgment, sin, punishment, or vengeance. He is a God of love, who wants the best for people and gives of himself to bring peace, joy, and redemption. That’s a great image of a divine being. This is not a God who is waiting for you to die so he can send you into eternal torment. It is a God who is concerned for you and your world, who wants to solve your problems, heal your wounds, remove your pain, bring you joy, peace, happiness, healing, and wholeness. Can’t we keep that image with us all the time? Can’t we affirm that view of ultimate reality 52 weeks of the year instead of just a few? I myself do not believe in God. But if I did, that would be the God I would defend, promote, and proclaim. Enough of war! Enough of starvation! Enough of epidemics! Enough of pain! Enough of misery! Enough of abject loneliness! Enough of violence, hatred, narcissism, self-aggrandizement, and suffering of every kind! Give me the God of Christmas, the God of love, the God of an innocent child in a manger, who comes to bring salvation and wholeness to the world, the way it was always meant to be.”[1, emphasis mine]

I get it. We tend to like the “God of Christmas”: the God who sends Jesus to be born as one of us, the God who so loved the world that He sent His Son for us, the God who is “pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel!”[2] Unless you have some psychosis where you resent being loved, who wouldn’t want “that God”? But here’s the thing. God isn’t one-dimensional. We often complain about books and movies where the character development is shallow, and each character has one personality trait that is exaggerated to the exclusion of all others. Then, why do we want God to be equally one-dimensional? Can He not be loving and just? But justice requires the judgement that Bart resents. Can He not love us, and punish evildoers? It’s hard to complain of the “problem of evil” if you specifically reject a God who judges and punishes evil.

What I think Bart is missing is that the “God of Christmas” is necessarily the same “God of the Cross”. You can’t have the manger without the cross, or the cross without the manger; they are twin pillars  in God’s plan of redemption.  We must not forget that the birth of Christ is not really functional without the other pillar: Easter. These two events, separated by about 33 years, mark the beginning and completion of a critical phase of God’s redemption plan established before the world was even formed. If Jesus had simply materialized at the cross to be a sacrifice for our sin, he wouldn’t have lived a sinless life [2Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15] to be an unblemished sacrifice [Heb 9:14]. If Jesus had been born and lived His perfect life, only to die the familiar and final death of men, then He would’ve been a great teacher and role model, but not our redeemer bringing eternal life, and we would be no better off than before He came. We can’t have one without the other. While we may feel more comfortable with the lowly child Jesus, the incarnation through a virgin birth was the necessary beginning that must end in the crucifixion and resurrection. The purpose of Jesus becoming that “innocent child in a manger” that would satisfy Bart, was to become the sacrifice that would satisfy the wrath of God that Bart resents.

Does wrath make you uncomfortable? It should. Left to face the perfectly fair justice of God on our own, wrath is rightly ours to bear. But that doesn’t have to be our fate. For God so loved the world, that He sent His Son [Jn 3:16], not to stay a sweet lowly baby, not to merely be a good teacher, and not to be an interesting story to ponder centuries later, but to be the mediator between us and God [1Tim 2:5], to be our great High Priest [Heb 2:17-18, 7:25], to pay the price for sin that we might receive the free gift of God [Rom 3:23-24, 5:8, 6:23]! There is no dichotomy here – the  God of Christmas and the God of the Cross are one and the same. For that sweet baby came to be our ransom and take the wrath of God; and the cross and subsequent resurrection were the culmination of God’s love for us in sending Jesus to redeem us, and Jesus’s love for us in sacrificing His life for us. Christmas and Easter are both necessary pillars supporting God’s plan for our salvation. So give me that God, that is big enough to orchestrate a plan so much grander and better than anything Bart Ehrman, or me, or anyone else could ever come up with. Give me that God, who is loving and just, whose wrath is righteous, who is the only one who can be trusted with vengeance, who judges fairly and consistently, yet whose mercy and grace are unfathomable.  Give me that God, who loved me while I was His enemy, with a costly, sacrificial love, but also loves me enough to not let me stay wallowing in my sin. Rather He disciplines me, convicts me, molds me, even though it’s uncomfortable, but it’s for my own good, even when I can’t see that far.

In short, give me… the God of the Bible.

[1] Bart Ehrman’s blog, from Christmas Eve, 2017, https://ehrmanblog.org/christmas-reflection-2017, accessed 2017-12-26.
[2] Charles Wesley, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, verse 2.

Hell vs Love

“Hell”, photograph by Robert Doisneau, 1952

Is the concept of hell as a place of eternal punishment incompatible with the concept of a loving God? I’m reading a couple of books right now written by atheists who both view hell not only as a moral outrage, but as contrary to the nature of God as loving. Are they right? Let’s dig in to that tonight.

Atheist David Madison wrote in 2016, “Hell and eternal punishment fall into the category of the cruel and unusual. Pain and torture that go on forever can’t be part of sound theology. ” [1] Eight years prior, Dan Barker wrote, “Love is not hatred or wrath, assigning billions of people to eternal torture because they have offended your fragile ego or disobeyed your rules….” [2] Of course, Richard Dawkins gave his own sensational statement on hell back in 2006: “I am persuaded that the phrase ‘child abuse’ is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell.” [3] But this opposition to hell is hardly limited to the so-called “new atheists.” Bertrand Russell, back in 1927, stated that “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.” [4]

With that brief survey of some of the objections to hell, lets consider a couple of responses.

  • Is damnation an act of ego-driven hatred masquerading as love, as Barker alleges? Actually, this has nothing to do with ego or hatred, for it is justice, not love, that condemns people to hell. Too many people construct a very one-dimensional image of God they can feel justified in rejecting, and this is just such a case. Yes, God is loving; but He is also holy, righteous, just. One might be tempted to say that the love of God should override this harsh justice, yet people don’t seem to approve if a human judge lets an unrepentant criminal go unpunished. But in God’s solution at the cross, love actually satisfied the need for justice rather than ignoring it. While God’s justice condemns us to an eternal punishment we all deserve, His sacrificial love offers us freedom if we’ll accept it.
  • Is the duration of the punishment unloving or inhumane? These skeptics, and many others, specifically object to the “everlasting” part of hell. There are two responses here. First, this objection stems from a lack of appreciation of the seriousness of sin – any sin – from the view of a perfect judge. We tend to excuse “little sins” and “white lies” and such, but anything less than perfection is a failing grade before a perfect God. True justice, when perfection is the standard, requires any infraction, no matter how minor in the defendant’s eyes, to be a guilty sentence. Another response to this objection is that the sin and lack of repentance of those condemned to hell don’t seem to stop once they get there. I don’t want to read too much into a story, but it is worth noting that in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar [Lk 16:19-31], the rich man, while being tormented in hell, continued acting selfishly toward Lazarus, even as he asked favors of Lazarus. If one never repents of sin (i.e. turns from it), then one continues in sin, and therefore in condemnation. Thus, the eternal nature of the punishment may very well be due to the eternal continuation of the sin.

Does the existence of hell rule out the love of God? Not when understood in it’s context. As Douglas Groothuis points out, “The doctrine of hell does not stand alone as a kind of ancient Christian chamber of horrors. Rather, hell is inseparable from three other interrelated biblical truths: human sin, God’s holiness, and the cross of Christ…. Only by understanding hell can we grasp the immensity of God’s love…. This is a costly love, a bloody love that has no parallel in any of the world’s religions.”[5] The tragic fate awaiting so many is not something Christians relish. On the contrary, it is concern and love for our fellow humans that drives us to warn them of the disastrous path they are on. It is a love motivated by that costly love with which God first loved us. If you are one who has rejected God because of the offensiveness of hell, I ask – no, I plead – that you reconsider, and accept God’s free gift of salvation. For in the end, if you will not have His love, sadly, you will have His justice. Choose wisely, friend.

[1] David Madison, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (Valley, WA: Tellectual Press, 2016), p. 277. Kindle Edition.
[2] Dan Barker, godless (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2008), p.89.
[3] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), p. 358.
[4]  Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not A Christian”,  a lecture given March 6, 1927, to the National Secular Society at Battersea Town Hall, England.
[5] Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011), Appendix 1: “Hell on Trial”, p. 658,660.

The Design of Salvation, Part 2

“Christ with Thorns”, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1865-1879.

Last week, we looked at some other ways God could’ve designed our salvation, although none of them really seemed adequate. We started off confirming that we really do need salvation; but then saw that we can’t buy eternal life, or be born into it, or get it by title or position, or earn it through good deeds, or pass a test to get it. And God’s perfect justice prohibits Him just ignoring our rebellious condition and rewarding us anyway. That’s the bad news. But this week, let’s dig into the beautiful distinction that separates Christianity from all the man-made religions of the world, and what makes the gospel truly… “good news”.

What is that distinction? Grace. “What does that even mean?” Glad you asked!  God’s grace can be defined as His “goodness toward those who deserve only punishment.” [1] Salvation is a free gift of God [Rom 6:23, Eph 2:8-9], for that’s really the only way we could get it. God is never obligated to show us this favor, and the fact that He does makes faith (or trust) in Him the only reasonable response on our part.[1] Like any gift, it has to be accepted to be effective. If it’s the dead of winter, and I’m homeless and freezing, and someone gives me a big down jacket, but I don’t accept it and actually put it on, I still freeze to death!

A gift is, by definition, free to the recipient. And while God’s grace is free, it isn’t cheap. How so? As Herman Bavinck puts it, “God must punish the wrong. God is love, indeed, but this glorious confession comes into its own when love in the Divine being is understood as being a holy love in perfect harmony with justice. There is room for the grace of God only if the justice of God is first fully established.”[2] And how is that perfect justice satisfied? Jesus, the second person of the Triune Godhead, became as one of us, but lived the perfect life we never could, and then died in our place, paying the penalty we all deserved. [Rom 5:8] We each sin, and the penalty for sin before a perfect and just God is eternal separation from Him. But Jesus became our proxy, our representative, our substitute. And while I could never pay off the penalty for my sin (hence the eternal aspect of it), Jesus’ sacrifice was a sufficient and complete payment. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus, this gift offered to us freely cost more than the worth of the whole universe.

And what is this gift? And how do I accept it? This is none other than the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life. If you read last week’s post and understood that you don’t meet God’s perfect standard and that He doesn’t grade on a curve, then you understand that you are, like every other human ever born, a sinner. And as mentioned above, the penalty for sin is severe: death and eternal separation from God. As AA would say, admitting you have a problem is the first step; but that’s not enough. Repentance is more than just acknowledgment of a problem or even remorse over it. It is a renouncing of sin and commitment to forsake it. But we are enslaved by sin, and only Jesus can break its power over us. [Rom 6:6,22, Jn 8:34,36] We must turn from sin and to Christ, looking to Him alone, and trusting in His work to make us acceptable to God. [Heb 12:2] This trust is also called faith. Paul wrote to the Romans that if one confessed with the mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believed in his heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, they would be saved. [Rom 10:9-11] It’s two sides of the same coin: the sincere heartfelt trust in Jesus’ saving work (which was proven sufficient by His being raised from the dead), combined with genuine repentance of past sin and commitment to follow Christ wholeheartedly (summarized in confessing that He is Lord of your life), will save you. You can’t have Him as Savior and not as Lord. [Jn 8:31,14:23]

Why would God do any  of this? The answer is… love. That word has been watered down a lot in recent years. People say they love a lot of things these days – food, their favorite sports team, a hobby, and on and on. But love isn’t simply a feeling of enjoyment or a momentary attraction. Emotions come and go, and are often quite selfish in origin, but love is a willful giving of oneself to another. Paul writes to the Romans that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Love in word only isn’t really love, for love necessarily results in action, as God’s love for us certainly did.

In the end, God’s way of doing thing really is the best choice among the alternatives for accomplishing His purpose in saving mankind from its rebellion, reconciling us to Him, redeeming us and repairing our brokenness, and ultimately, bringing glory to Himself, for He is worthy of it. Despite the “armchair quarterbacking” of skeptics, the gospel message really is the best way to balance sovereignty and free will, and allow the maximum number of people to voluntarily take part in God’s redemption.  Only God’s grace walks that fine line between love and justice, making God “the just and the justifier”, as Paul wrote. [Rom 3:26] Only God’s grace makes the ground level at the foot of the cross for men and women of every nation to come with open hands to receive what they could never earn, whether rich or poor, old or young, powerful or destitute, educated or ignorant. Only grace could meet all God’s design parameters and accomplish His purpose with such elegance and faithfulness to His perfect nature.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), pp. 200-1.
[2] Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids Eerdmans, 1956) p. 260.

The Design of Salvation, Part 1

“Golgota” by Mihaly Munkacsy, 1884

There are many critics of how the Bible describes God’s plan to save the human race, but it’s far easier to criticize someone else’s design than to work through what’s actually the best choice to accomplish a particular goal yourself. If you had the job of providing a means of salvation to a stubborn and rebellious people – many of whom don’t even think they need to be saved from anything  and want to actively resist any rescue attempt – how would you do it? How would you design salvation?  Let’s look at some alternatives and see whether those criticisms are really justified or not.

First off, is salvation even necessary? In case you haven’t read the newspaper, watched the news on TV, or gotten on the internet in a while, it’s pretty obvious that the world is a messed-up place. People are messed up. We like to think we’re not as bad as _____. Just fill in the blank with the person or group you tend to look down upon, because we all do that. Comparison comes naturally to us. But the fact is, none of us are perfect. A lot of times that doesn’t bother us because we assume that God grades on a curve. “Nobody’s perfect, but my saintly old grandma would surely get bumped up to a high A. I may not be as good as her, but I’ll certainly still pass, probably with a high B, or maybe even a low A. People like Hitler will obviously get an F. That guy that cut me me off on the highway the other day may be a borderline C, but God certainly wouldn’t fail me – I’m a good person.” Right? Well, God doesn’t grade on a curve, and there’s only 1 passing score: perfection. That’s bad news for all of us. Turns out, we’re in the same boat as Hitler and all the “really bad” people  that we feel so superior to according to our subjective grading curve. We have a serious problem, and need a serious solution. What are some options?

  • Would you make salvation dependent on earthly power? Is eternal life a gift not to be wasted on the masses? Are only the movers and shakers – the Pharaohs and Caesars of world history – worthy of it? Most of us are in that category of “the masses”, and probably wouldn’t pick that option. But historically, those in power wouldn’t have minded rigging the system to favor the powerful. However, power can actually be a hindrance in that it tends to blind us to our real needs that only God can meet. [Mk 8:36] Thankfully, God makes salvation available to the leaders of superpowers and the untouchable outcasts in the filthiest slums, and everyone in between.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on wealth? How much should tickets to Heaven cost? What value do you place on eternal life?  Judging by how much people will spend on surgery to try to retain the fleeting looks of youth, I imagine eternal life could fetch quite a price – maybe enough to price most of us out of the bidding.  There are many people with prideful hearts that would love to simply throw some money at God to purchase life eternal rather than pay the costlier price of submitting themselves to Him. “$100 to go to Heaven when I die, and I can live however I want until then? I’m in!” But what about when the price is $10,000?  $1 million? $1 billion? Even if it’s only a few dollars, any price you could come up with would be out of reach for somebody. Of course, there’s also the question of whether you would really enjoy Heaven if you just bought your entrance guarantee and spent the rest of your life living like the devil. Yet God makes salvation available to all, from the richest fat cat to the most destitute, bankrupt beggar.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on knowledge? Would people need to pass an exam, or be some type of Illuminati? Would you have a bridgekeeper asking obscure trivia like in Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail?[1] The Gnostics believed one needed “secret knowledge” beyond what the ignorant masses could ever hope for. I remember struggling in certain classes in college, and the frustration of being the student that just didn’t understand what everyone else seemed to grasp so easily. It was frustrating then, and it was just a class grade on the line, not eternity! So as much as I appreciate knowledge and enjoy learning new things, I thank God He didn’t make my salvation dependent on how much I know. On a related note, what if I’m in a car accident and suffer brain trauma and have amnesia and mental retardation as a result, or if I develop Alzheimer’s and can’t even remember what I learned the day before? Would my loss of knowledge put my salvation at risk? Thankfully, it’s not our IQ or our learning that saves us, for God makes salvation available to the genius and the dunce alike, to the scholar with a string of letters after his name and the illiterate orphan.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on race or ethnicity? The idea of one group of people being intrinsically more valuable than others is generally reprehensible to us now, but preference for those like us still creeps in to our thoughts, it seems. I can’t help but notice (and be amused at) how very white and European Jesus – a Jew from the Middle East – has typically been portrayed by Western artists in the centuries since. Yet God is no respecter of such shallow traits like nationality or skin color. He makes salvation available to the Jew and the German, the Russian and the American, and every other nationality there is. Likewise for every skin color: “red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight”, as the old children’s song goes.
  • Would you make salvation unconditional? Everybody goes to heaven/paradise/eternal bliss in the end? That sounds very loving and good at first. But it seems like it might be a little awkward if you were an innocent victim brutally beaten to death, and you meet your very unrepentant murderer in heaven. Might you feel a little slighted? Might you wonder where justice is when the victim and the laughing victimizer get the same reward? We have to minimize the justice of God for this option to appear feasible. Yet God offers salvation lovingly while still being just.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on good deeds? That is the probably the most common approach in man-made religions. And I get it: we understand the need for justice, and so we naturally think good should be rewarded and bad punished. But what about the one who realizes the error of his ways late in life? What good can he possibly do at the end to offset a life of selfishness, greed, dishonesty, theft, or murder? What hope is there for him? Or what of the child who gets hit by a car before she has much opportunity to earn credits in her “account”? But even with a long life of good behavior, it’s still not perfect behavior, and so it still falls short.  Works appeals to us because we do understand working and earning benefits, but also because we don’t understand the hole we’re actually in. So we think it is something we can work our way out of. In reality, if it’s on us to get ourselves out, the situation truly is hopeless.

I have to say, I’m not very impressed with any of the alternatives above. Are there other alternatives to what God did that you can think of that might’ve worked better? I don’t think there are, but I’d love to hear if you think I’ve missed something. It’s easy to criticize a plan without actually having a better option. But it’s when we work through the problems and consequences of alternatives, that we see the superiority of a plan we might’ve dismissed at first. Design is all about making choices to accomplish a specified purpose, and now that we’ve eliminated some alternative choices, join me next week for Part 2, where I’ll look at God’s actual choice for offering salvation, how it accomplishes His purpose, and why it really is the best design for rescuing us from our desperate situation.

[1] If you don’t know what I’m talking about there, your life is incomplete. Watch that scene from Monty Python on YouTube to catch up: https://youtu.be/Wpx6XnankZ8