Tag Archives: Theology

Tis the Season… but for what?

“Carols” – Nikiphoros Lytras, 1872

As I write this, it’s almost Christmas, one of my favorite times of year! One of the things I really enjoy about it is the Christmas carols. Not that I have any singing abilities, but I still love to sing them anyway, and unlike the rest of the year, people don’t look at me like I’m crazy when I sing them in December.

However, not all songs popular at Christmas time actually have anything to do with Christmas. For Christmas is not a celebration of magical snowmen, underdog reindeer, or interior decorating. Not that there’s anything wrong with singing about Frosty, or Rudolph, or decking the halls with boughs of holly. It’s just always been a bit of a letdown for me, hearing “Christmas” songs with no Christ in them. It’s like going to a big concert and only seeing the opening act. It’s all about the headliner, and if you miss them, you basically missed the concert. Likewise, if you miss Christ, you really missed Christmas.

So what is it about the old Christmas hymns I love so much? The story. I’ve always been a stickler for wanting to know the lyrics to songs, whether I was listening to heavy metal, dance club remixes, folk music,  or anything else. And I’ve been surprised more than once at how a good beat and some catchy riffs can get a lot of people taking in, and even singing along with, some pretty disturbing, messed-up, dysfunctional songs. But lyrics matter. Garbage In, Garbage Out, as you learn in programming. But in the old Christmas hymns I find rich veins of solid gold – little mini-sermons of good, sound theology that point me to God, and remind me of the events of long ago, why they are so vitally important, and why the gospel really is “good news”. Join me for a little buffet of Christmas carol goodness.

“Hark! The herald angels sing: Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild; God and sinners reconciled.”
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel. “[1][Mt 1:23, Jn 1:14, Rom 5:11, 2 Cor 5:18-21]

Reconciliation between the perfect, holy God and us incorrigible sinners! What a staggering thought!How can this be? Not by anything we could do, but only by His mercy! I don’t know about you, but makes me want to sing out:

“Gloria in excelsis Deo”.[2][Lk 2:14]

“Glory to God in the highest” sang the angels as they announced the momentous event to the shepherds.  And indeed, this was the start of a most glorious phase of God’s plan: the Incarnation!

“Silent night! Holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight. Glories stream from heaven afar; Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour, is born! Christ, the Saviour, is born!”[3][Lk 2:11]

“Christ” is from the Greek, and means “Anointed One”, as does “Messiah” from the Hebrew. After 400 years of silence since the last prophet had brought a message from God, an angelic choir was now belting out the news. The plan known to God from all eternity was now in full effect and being revealed to us humans. The world was ready and  all the pieces were in place as Christ the Savior took center stage, in a lowly manger of all places.

“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head”[4][Lk 2:7]

So often, we look to the proud and mighty to save us. Yet Jesus, through whom all was created, and who has the only real power to save, came in utter humility. No palace would’ve been too good for the King of the universe and beyond to be born in, yet He humbled Himself to be born as the lowest of the low. Why?

“Fear not, then, said the angel, Let nothing you affright.
This day is born a Savior of a pure Virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in Him from Satan’s power and might.”[5][Lk 1:34-37, Lk 19:10, Mk 10:45]

“O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.”[6][Mt 1:6, Mk 12:35 ,Mt 1:21, 2 Tim 2:8, 1 Cor 15:19]

He did not come to heal the sick, or feed the hungry or bless the poor, even though He did all those things. But He came above all else, to pay the penalty for our sin, to ransom us from the grip of Satan, to save us and reconcile us to God, to do what no one else could do, what no amount of hard work or good behavior could ever accomplish, to give His life for ours. And His arrival was accomplished through the virgin birth, not only to break the chain of human sin, but also to provide an extraordinary, naturally impossible sign that this was a supernatural work of God. Skeptics may mock the Virgin Birth, but would it really be much of a sign of something unprecedented happening if it were possible via nature alone?

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope–the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine![7][Rom 3:10-11, Phil 2:10]

Have you ever felt depressed? Worthless? Trapped in your bad decisions, your bad habits, your shortcomings, your human frailty? Now, consider how much worth must you have for the Son of God to come live as one of us, and then, in a shocking display of sacrificial love and mercy, take the punishment we all deserved? Not that we have that worth because of anything we did. Thankfully not, for then we could surely lose that worthiness by other actions. Rather, we are image-bearers of God, and loved by Him before we even existed. This was indeed a new morning compared to all that had come before. This was a game-changer that can only result in hope, rejoicing, and worship. But was that just a one-time deal?

“How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.”[8][Acts 16:30-31]

This last carol reminds us that this is not simply a story of what happened once and is no longer applicable to you and me. Rather the gift of heaven 2000 years ago is a living gift that still can make you a “new creation” if you but receive it. More than anything you could ever give or receive this Christmas, this truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

What does the sampling above tell us? That God reached down to us to reconcile us to Him, that those who are willing may receive the gift of redemption He offers, that our souls feel their worth only in Him, that we can truly have hope, that Jesus was born King and God, but also our sacrifice, for Christmas is only a signpost pointing toward the atoning sacrifice of the cross on Good Friday and the glorious victory of Easter morning. That’s all -just the greatest news in all of human history!

As R.C. Sproul would say, “everyone’s a theologian”; the only question is whether your theology is true or false. This Christmas, set Frosty and Rudolph and Santa and the rest of the gang aside and take some time to reflect on what Christmas really means. Digging out some old Christmas hymns will put you on the right track.

Merry Christmas!


[1] “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – stanzas 1 & 2 – Charles Wesley, 1739. Baptist Hymnal (2008) #192.
[2] “Angels We Have Heard On High” – refrain, traditional French Carol, date unknown. United Methodist Hymnal (1989), #238.
[3] “Silent Night, Holy Night“, stanza 2 – Joseph Mohr, 1818. Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), #281.
[4] “Away in a Manger” – stanza 1, attributed to Martin Luther, date unknown. Baptist Hymnal (2008) #205.
[5] “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” – stanza 3, traditional English Carol, date unknown. The Hymnbook (1955), #166.
[6] “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel” – stanza 4, translated by John Mason Neale, 1851, but poem dates to 7th century. Psalter Hymnal (1987), #328.
[7] “Oh Holy Night” – stanza 1, Placide Cappeau, 1847. Baptist Hymnal (2008), #194.
[8] “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – stanza 3, Phillips Brooks, 1868. Baptist Hymnal (2008), #196.
(This was just a small sampling of great Christmas carols. Know of some more good examples? Comment with your favorites and what they mean to you!)

The Challenge of a False Dilemma, Part 2

Decisions_smallIn last week’s post (here), we looked at how to tell if a dilemma before you is legitimate or not. This week, let’s apply that training in logic to a classic case, the Epicurean Dilemma. This is a series of questions regarding the goodness of God allegedly proposed by Epicurus in the 3rd century BC to show that God could not be omnipotent (all-powerful) and omnibenevolent (all-good or all-loving) if evil exists.[1]

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

The 4 questions have 2 base assumptions: 1)  omnipotence and omnibenevolence are required attributes of God, and 2) Evil exists. The first, depending on the definition of the terms, is in accord with traditional lists of attributes of God accepted by theists.[2] The second is reasonable given our observations of the world around us – just look at the news headlines and you’ll find abundant evidence of the existence of evil.  The horns of the dilemma then form a choice between:

A) God, if He exists, does not meet the “minimum job qualifications”, or
B) evil doesn’t exist.

Since evil is so readily apparent, “Whence cometh evil?”is a rhetorical question attempting to make the simultaneous existence of a good God and a world of evil an absurdity, and to steer us to accepting choice A. How then should we respond?

Actually, once we clearly define the terms, we’ll see that 3 of the 4 questions fall away, and the remaining has a reasonable answer. Let’s start with clarifying what we mean by these terms:

  • Omnipotence means having unlimited power to do whatever is possible. God cannot make square circles or stones so heavy He couldn’t move them. These are logical contradictions, and God cannot do what is contradictory.[3]
  • Omnibenevolence refers to God’s “infinite or unlimited goodness”, or His love for all.[4]
  • To love is “to will the good of its object”.[4]
  • Evil may be defined as a deprivation of some good that ought to be there; not a substance in itself, or a mere negation of substance, but a corruption of the good substances God made; analogous to rust on a car or rot in a tree.[5]
  • Free will is simply the ability to choose between alternative possibilities.

With clearly defined terms, we can now examine the argument. Though not mentioned in the dilemma, God has free will, which governs the use of His omnipotence. So then, just because God can do something, doesn’t mean He must. While His power to do anything possible is unlimited, His use of that power is limited by His will and His love. He could overwhelm us, and force us to only do what is right, but He doesn’t because of His love for us. Instead, He desires our freely-given love in return, since forced love isn’t really love at all. And so we have been created  with free will, able to choose to love or hate, to obey or rebel, to build up or destroy. This is where we start to see the nature of the false dilemma: the “problem of evil” really isn’t a choice between either God’s omnipotence or His omnibenevolence. It must factor in free will, both of God and man, and this actually answers the question “Whence cometh evil?” As Norman Geisler has highlighted, “God is responsible for making evil possible, but free creatures are responsible for making it actual.”[6] Free will is that two-edged sword that allows moral good and evil.

People often ask why God couldn’t simply eliminate all the evil in the world. But how many of us stop to think that if He did that, He just might start with me? We like to think other people are always the problem, or that He would take out the Hitlers of the world (and, you know,  maybe the guy that cut me off in traffic last week), but not sweet little me! Yet none of us are perfect, and perfection is the standard. Then, if we got our wish that a perfectly just God eliminate all the evil in the world, would any of us survive?

So is He able to prevent evil? Yes. He could make us all robots without the ability to disobey (but also unable to obey out of love). He could potentially give us “free will” but take away any bad choice that we were about to choose. Is that really freedom when the game is rigged like that? Is it really love when there’s actually no other possible option? He could potentially make every bad choice somehow have only good results, but (if possible) this seems to eliminate any concept of moral responsibility for our actions. I could go out and kill people knowing that God would simply follow behind me resurrecting them on the fly (or some other compensatory act). Is He willing to prevent evil? Yes, but not at the expense of free will that makes a morally good world possible.

We can therefore “escape between the horns” by showing how free will allows a third option that reconciles God’s attributes and the presence of evil in the world, or we can “take the dilemma by the horns”, by showing that the premises are false because of an unclear definition of the term “omnipotent”. In the end, God is willing and able to prevent evil, but it’s for our own good that He restrains His power and grants us the freedom that so often sadly results in the evil we observe.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_evil#Epicurus, accessed 10/17/2015.
[2] See Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume, (Bethany House Publishers, Bloomington, MN, 2011), p. 410 for a longer list of attributes.
[3] ibid, p. 487-8 (see also Hebrews 6:18, 2 Timothy 2:13, & Titus 1:2, NASB).
[4] ibid, p. 585.
[5] “Evil, Problem of”, in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, by Norman Geisler, (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2000, 5th Printing), p. 220. Condensed for brevity.
[6] ibid, p. 219.

The Logic of God

God Separates the Light and the Darkness - Michaelangelo - 1512
God Separates the Light and the Darkness – Michelangelo – 1512

In previous posts (here and here), I’ve written about the need for a clear understanding of logic to separate good and bad thinking. I’ve highlighted the fundamental laws of logic: the Law of Identity (A is A), the Law of Non-contradiction (A is not non-A), and the Law of the Excluded Middle (either A or non-A). These are so fundamental to basic thought, it’s easy to not think about them. Yet remembering these basic, self-evident truths can keep you from falling victim to  some surprisingly common mistakes in this age of relativism. Sadly, some Christians have tried to distance themselves from logic, thinking that “God is above logic”. On the contrary, the Bible reveals in its descriptions of God a rich exposition of these truths that shows that logic is part of God’s very nature.

Consider the Law of Identity. Commonly formulated as A=A, this demonstrates why these are called “self-evident” truths – you recognize the truth of it as soon as you see it. There is no proof of this because this is one of your basic building blocks of thought that you can’t break down any lower. Something simply is what it is. How is this demonstrated in Scripture? In the book of Exodus, God speaks to Moses, telling him to go and rescue the Jews enslaved in Egypt. Moses worries that the Jews, who have lived in the polytheistic Egyptian culture for centuries by this point, won’t believe him when he tells them that “the God of your fathers has sent me to you.” He supposes they may ask “What is His name?”, and asks God how he is to answer. God responds with “I Am Who I Am. Tell them ‘I Am has sent me to you.'”[1] This expression of independent, self-existent being is the epitome of the Law of Identity. We can all be identified in relation to someone else. A man may be his father’s son, or his sibling’s brother. There may be hundreds of Johns in a city, tens of John Smiths, only 2 that live on the same street, but only one John Smith Jr on that street. But here, God shows that His name can only relate Him to Himself. He is truly in a category by Himself. And we understand this by the Law of Identity.

Let’s look at the Law of Non-contradiction now. There are several different ways of expressing this, but in general, something cannot be both true and false at the same time and in the same manner. Similarly, something can’t both exist and not exist at the same time in the same way. How is this demonstrated in the Bible? The apostle John records Jesus saying that “I am the way, the truth, and the life”.  The book of Hebrews tells us that “it is impossible for God to lie”, and the apostle Paul tells Titus that God “does not lie” and Timothy that “He cannot deny Himself”.[2] Why is this important? Because logic seeks after the truth, and the opposite of truth is a lie. A lie can also be defined as a contradiction, for truth corresponds with reality, while a lie contradicts reality (a contradiction, from the Latin “contra” + “dictio” literally “speaks against itself”). So here we see that because God cannot lie, He cannot violate the Law of Non-contradiction.

The Law of Excluded Middle says that something either is or isn’t, true or false, on or off. There is no middle option between contradictory states. There are times when we may have a spectrum of choices, like when the gas tank is empty, or full, or somewhere in between. The Law of the Excluded Middle comes into play when the choice is between true opposites where one choice is the negation of the other, Instead of “empty” and “full”, the choice is between empty and not-empty, or between full and not-full. God either exists or He doesn’t. Our own belief, unbelief, or agnosticism does nothing to change that objective status. The apostle John tells us that “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.”[3] It’s either all or nothing.He either exists as morally perfect, without blemish, or not at all.

Now, is all of this to say that God is somehow limited by some man-made rules? Hardly. The laws of logic aren’t made, but discovered. Logic is the lens through which we look to make sense of reality, and it makes sense of reality because it is founded in the nature of the Creator of reality. Rather than limiting God, logic gives us a glimpse of His nature.


[1] Exodus 3:14, NASB.
[2] Hebrews 6:18, 2 Timothy 2:13, Titus 1:2, NASB.
[3] 1 John 1:5, NASB.
[4] D.Q. McInerny, Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, (Random House, 2005), p. 25-30. Though not quoted directly, this short, concise summary of basic logic provided much of the background on the laws of logic referenced here.

A Moment with Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard KiplingWe sometimes find gems in the most unusual places. I’ve always enjoyed Rudyard Kipling’s writings, but never expected to find a theodicy (a defense of God against the “problem of evil”) in his treasured works until a friend shared this. And so, this week, I pass this gem from 1919 on to you. May it give you something to think on this week.

“Natural Theology”

Primitive

I ate my fill of a whale that died
And stranded after a month at sea. . . .
There is a pain in my inside.
Why have the Gods afflicted me?
Ow! I am purged till I am a wraith!
Wow! I am sick till I cannot see!
What is the sense of Religion and Faith:
Look how the Gods have afflicted me!

Pagan

How can the skin of rat or mouse hold
Anything more than a harmless flea?. . .
The burning plague has taken my household.
Why have my Gods afflicted me?
All my kith and kin are deceased,
Though they were as good as good could be,
I will out and batter the family priest,
Because my Gods have afflicted me!

Medieval

My privy and well drain into each other
After the custom of Christendie. . . .
Fevers and fluxes are wasting my mother.
Why has the Lord afflicted me?
The Saints are helpless for all I offer–
So are the clergy I used to fee.
Henceforward I keep my cash in my coffer,
Because the Lord has afflicted me.

Material

I run eight hundred hens to the acre
They die by dozens mysteriously. . . .
I am more than doubtful concerning my Maker,
Why has the Lord afflicted me?
What a return for all my endeavour–
Not to mention the L. S. D![1]
I am an atheist now and for ever,
Because this God has afflicted me!

Progressive

Money spent on an Army or Fleet
Is homicidal lunacy. . . .
My son has been killed in the Mons retreat,
Why is the Lord afflicting me?
Why are murder, pillage and arson
And rape allowed by the Deity?
I will write to the Times, deriding our parson
Because my God has afflicted me.

Chorus

We had a kettle: we let it leak:
Our not repairing it made it worse.
We haven’t had any tea for a week. . .
The bottom is out of the Universe!

Conclusion

This was none of the good Lord’s pleasure,
For the Spirit He breathed in Man is free;
But what comes after is measure for measure,
And not a God that afflicteth thee.
As was the sowing so the reaping
Is now and evermore shall be.
Thou art delivered to thine own keeping.
Only Thyself hath afflicted thee!

– Rudyard Kipling


Notes.
[1] L. S. D. the abbreviation for the Latin Libræ solidi denarii ‘Pounds, shillings and pence’ (not the drug).

Getting Fitted for Heaven

Tailor´s_shop_-_Werkstatt_2As we draw near to Christmas, you can hear various “Christmas” songs on the radio and in stores and whatnot. Many of them would perhaps be better described as “winter holiday” songs, as they seem to be be completely unrelated to the story of Christ’s birth, which is, after all, the whole point of the holiday, but I digress.  One classic Christmas song that many are familiar with (or at least the first stanza), is “Away in a Manger”.  But tucked away in the 3rd stanza is this little gem:

“Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay,
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray!
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.”
– Away in a Manger, 3rd Stanza

We sang this version of this classic Christmas carol from the late 1800’s at church a couple of years ago, and that last line just really struck me. “Fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.” This life – the good times and the bad, the boundless joy and the heart-rending sorrow, the blessings and the trials – is a fitting process God uses to prepare us for our eternal life. And if you don’t know about that going on, this life can seem meaningless, chaotic, and tragic. One can see God’s blessings as simply good fortune/luck/serendipity, and the trials we are all subjected to ever since mankind’s initial rebellion against God as bad luck/cruel fate/karma. One can ask “Why me?” One can feel constantly blindsided by “life”. Or we can submit to the alterations of the Master Tailor, who takes our filthy rags[1] and clothes us with His righteousness[2,3,4]. He doesn’t alter the clothes to fit us (much as we might prefer in our pride), but instead alters us to fit the clothes. Like a child wearing his father’s 3-piece suit, His righteousness doesn’t fit us at all. But then He takes our deformities of pride, lust, anger, and selfishness, and straightens our crooked limbs and stretches us until we conform to His image[5]. Having been so fitted for heaven in this life, we really will feel “right at home” when we get there.


[1]  Isaiah 64:6 – “…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
[2] Isaiah 61:10 – “…[H]e has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness…”
[3] Matthew 22:11-13 – part of Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast, where the king (God) invites his chosen people (Israel) to a wedding feast, but they refuse. He then sends out the invitation to all. Verse  11 picks up with “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend’, he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.” Our attempts at righteousness – our rags – can never earn us a seat at God’s banquet. Only Christ’s “new clothes” make us presentable to a holy, perfect God.
[4] 2 Corinthians 5:21 – “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” This is called “imputed righteousness”, where our sin is imputed, or charged, to Christ’s account, and His righteousness is imputed to us, declaring us righteous (through Him and not of ourselves).
[5] Justification could be likened to this initial “fitting” where we are clothed with Christ’s righteousness, while sanctification would correspond to that life-long gradual molding and conforming to God’s intent for us.