Sunday, February 28, 2010

Theology is Married to History

Christian evolutionists claim that the Bible isn’t a science textbook. Indeed! However, what they really mean is that the Bible doesn’t teach authoritatively about the physical/historical world, just the spiritual, and the fact that the Bible contains physical errors shouldn’t affect its spiritual truths.

For a number of reasons, this position isn’t reasonable. After we discover that someone has spoken falsely, we will justifiably be suspicious of their other claims. Using this reasoning in reverse, NT scholar F.F.BRUCE concludes, regarding the Gospel of Luke:

“A man whose accuracy can be demonstrated in matters where we are able to test it is likely to be accurate even where means of testing aren’t available. Accuracy is a habit of mind…Luke’s record entitles him to be regarded as a writer of habitual accuracy.”

This is also how juries assess the reliability of a witness – by their demonstrable truth-telling track record. If a witness has a poor record regarding statements of truth, it’s wise to be skeptical about their other claims.

Christian evolutionists are pushing a “Christianity” that will not be able to stand the test of time or truth. If we can’t trust what the Bible teaches about the physical/historical, what reason do we have to trust it regarding spiritual matters?

Certainly, this kind of formulation will not impress thoughtful unbelievers. I, for one, had been unwilling to consider the veracity of the Bible. As long as I was convinced that Darwin was right, I concluded that Genesis was wrong. Nor will the Christian find this physical/historical-spiritual distinction believable for long. The spiritual message of the Cross cannot stand without the historical event of the Cross. Theologically, the spiritual can no sooner be separated from the physical than the head from the body. To try to do so kills both!

We usually discard a theory, when we find that it contains errors, and we loose respect for its promoters – even more so if the promoters knew this beforehand.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Were the Gospels Written by Eyewitnesses?

It is often alleged that the Apostles of Jesus couldn’t have written the Gospels because they were illiterate. Bart Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in the DaVinci Code, writes:

“The only explicit reference to their literacy comes in the book of Acts, which indicates that two of the chief disciples, Peter and John, were in fact illiterate (Acts 4:13). What about the others? There’s little reason to think the story was different for them.” (p. 107)

When people make such claims, we always need to examine their supporting evidence. In this case, Ehrman offers only one piece of evidence:

Acts 4:13 – When they [the Sanhedrin] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled (“agrammatos” = “illiterate?”), ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.

By itself, it’s hard to gauge what “agrammatos” means. It is only used one time in the NT. Therefore, we are restricted to deducing its meaning from the context, which I think argues decisively for “unschooled.”

Notice that this had been the assessment of the educated Sanhedrin, the ruling spiritual body of Israel. This body formed their opinion about Peter and John based upon what they “saw” and “realized” about them! They couldn’t see or gauge whether or not they were illiterate – they would have needed a written test to assess this – but they could see that the two were simple, “unschooled and ordinary men.” Clearly, these disciples weren’t graduates of the “University of Jerusalem.”

I am not aware of even one Bible translation that translates “agrammatos” as does Ehrman. Given the context, this is entirely unsurprising. Why then does Ehrman promote such a counter-evidential conclusion?

Even if the Apostles were illiterate, what was there to prevent them from dictating their Gospels to a scribe? Only the presuppositions of our present-day scholars!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Gospels’ Portraits of the Genuine Jesus

When I debated Rabbi Mizrachi two years ago, he charged that we Christians weren’t following the Mosaic Law as Jesus commanded, implying that Jesus never taught that His New Covenant would replace the Old. The Rabbi cited the Sermon on the Mount:

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).

Instead, I’d like to argue that this teaching, along with all of the other things that Jesus taught, argues persuasively that Jesus was cryptically preparing His people, planting seeds that would later bloom, “fulfilling” the Mosaic Covenant, for the New Covenant. In fact, what we find in the Gospel accounts also argues that Jesus’ teaching couldn’t have been the invention of the early church (70-100 AD), but instead represents accurate snapshots of His teachings.

For one thing, Matthew 5 couldn’t have been an invention of the early church. They would have been more explicit about the New Covenant replacing the Old and probably would have attempted to bring Jesus’ words into harmony with the epistles. Instead, Jesus taught that not a single Mosaic Law could be broken. However, He did hint that there might be an expiration date for the Mosaic Covenant. It would last “until everything is accomplished.” However, He is not explicit about this fulfillment – when or how it will occur, and what will be the result when it does occur.

To perceive the profundity of this teaching, we have to see it in the light of His other teachings, namely those regarding His Messiah-ship and Divinity. Rather than going into the specifics about these teachings, I hope it will be enough to state that He was seldom explicit about His identity. Instead, He used cryptic terminology, like “the son of man” (Daniel 7:13-14), especially when in public. Nevertheless, He did acknowledge that He was the Messiah to the Samaritan woman (John 4), His disciples (Matthew 16) and even within the context of His trial, as the Sanhedrin scrambled unsuccessfully produce testimony against Him.

In retrospect, this is exactly what we’d expect to encounter in Jesus’ teachings. His own followers, let alone the populace, were unable to receive or even understand what He was saying. They could only stand little morsels of His light. This is especially true when it came to the Mosaic Covenant, the flagship of Judaism.

The Torah warned that anyone who taught against Mosaic Law had to be executed (Deut. 13). Granted, Jesus wasn’t actually teaching against Mosaic Law, but it certainly would have appeared this way had He stated in his Sermon on the Mount that He was going to do away with the Old Covenant by fulfilling it all through His death. Consistently, He remained cryptic – He had to – in teaching that He would initiate a New Covenant to replace the Old, at least until the very end.

In John 2:19, Jesus states, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." John explains that He was referring to His own body. This interpretation is radical! Jesus associated His body with the place that the Israelites would meet with God and find mercy. Although He didn’t explicitly say that He was replacing the Temple, He was suggesting that it was now becoming redundant.

In the Gospel of Matthew (12:6), He goes even further: “Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple.” Again, although He wasn’t explicit, He was proclaiming that He was greater than the Temple and what it represented – the Mosaic Covenant!

In other places, He cryptically disqualified the Mosaic Covenant:

"Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.")
(Mark 7:18-19, NIV).

Jesus never explicitly contradicted any of the teachings of the Old Testament, but He was clearly laying down the foundational teachings for its removal. Instead, it was Mark who had been inspired to give his parenthetical interpretation that Jesus was cryptically declaring all foods clean. Israel wasn’t ready to hear this message yet.

It was only in the end of His ministry that Jesus was more explicit about His mission and the New Covenant: “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28; also Mk 14.24; Luke 22:20). Jesus would now substitute Himself for the lamb of the Passover!

Had Jesus been more transparent earlier, He might have been crucified before His appointed time. He had to keep this secret, and even after He revealed it, the impact of this thunderbolt could barely be perceived. As a result, the Apostles continued to worship in the Temple and to distance themselves from Gentiles.

Jesus’ post-resurrection teachings also reveal the same lack of a full-bodied theology of the Cross, something so uncharacteristic of the Epistles and therefore highly uncharacteristic of what the early church might have inserted into the Gospel accounts.

It is interesting to note that His “great commission” differs so notably among the four Gospels. Nevertheless, they all cryptically contain a setting aside of the Mosaic Covenant.

1. Matthew contains the most well known “great commission” teaching:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age"
(Matthew 28:19-20).

Blessing and life had been a matter of obeying Moses. Now it had become a matter of Jesus, who would always be with them, signifying that He had the ability to take care of His people.

2. In Mark’s “great commission,” Jesus simply instructed His disciples to “proclaim the Gospel,” promising salvation to those who believe (Mark 16:15-16). Once again, Moses isn’t in the picture, just Jesus. Also, there is no explicit mention of how this Gospel had been accomplished on the Cross.

3. In Luke’s “great commission,” the risen Messiah commands that “forgiveness should be proclaimed in His name” (Luke 24:46-47). However, once again, He doesn’t mention the Cross, but the Laws of Moses are nowhere to be seen. The blessedness that had always been conferred through the Mosaic Covenant would now come through Jesus.

4. John’s Gospel hardly contains Jesus’ “great commission,” but the same limited elements are nevertheless present – forgiveness of sins (20:23), the blessedness of believing in Him (20:29), and discipleship (21:19), but without any mention of the Mosaic Law.

The differences we find among the Gospel accounts shouldn’t concern us. After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples over a 40 day period, and so it would suspicious if the four Gospels each included the exact same speeches. It would smack of early-church collusion to iron out the rough edges and to bring them into a superficial harmony with the epistles. However, we find no such attempts. This make the Gospels appear to be genuine, eye-witness accounts of Jesus’ very words. We also find no attempts to place into Jesus’ mouth the more a detailed presentation of the Cross that we find in the Epistles.

We can also observe the same opaqueness in His teachings regarding His atonement. We find His most explicit teaching about His death for the sins of the world in the verse cited above. The other verses are as cloudy as His teachings regarding the New Covenant. Here are some of the most explicit:

1. “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28). (However, this says nothing about His death and taking the sins of the world upon Himself.)

2. “--and I lay down my life for the sheep…The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life--only to take it up again” (John 10:15-17). (Once again, there is no mention of how and what will be accomplished.)

I’d like to now draw some conclusions:

1. These teachings of Jesus couldn’t possibly represent teachings that the early church created and placed in Jesus’ mouth. They would have been more explicit about Jesus’ mission and would probably have lined Jesus’ words up with Paul’s. Paul had claimed that we are no longer under the Law and that the Law kills. On the surface, many of Jesus’ teachings seem to contradict the epistles, perhaps to the discomfort of the early church, who would have gone to great limits to reconcile these “contradictions” had they not been convinced that the Gospels contained the very teachings of Jesus. Besides this, His teachings reflect an intimate understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures.

2. If the Gospel teachings of Jesus do not represent the creative efforts of the early church, we are looking upon Our Lord’s authentic teachings, words that our Apostles preserved at the cost of their own blood.

3. We are also looking at a staggering proof for the authenticity of the Gospels. May He be forever praised!

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Answer to Pain and Disappointment

Life drips pain and disappointment (2 Cor. 5:2). Understandably, we attempt to take refuge in God’s affirming embrace to experience His love. However, when we also pursue the “quick fix,” we become vulnerable to unbiblical techniques and mystical teachings like, “It’s far better to know God than to know more about God!” This saying suggests that we can find intimacy and comfort with God apart from what is Biblically prescribed – meditating on His Word day and night (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:1-3; Deut. 6:6-8).

Pain tends to narrow our focus, and we forget about the great blessedness promised through the knowledge of our Lord:

This is what the LORD says: "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight," declares the LORD (Jeremiah 9:23-24; also 2 Peter 1:2-4; Romans 12:2).

How the knowledge of God translates into blessings can be demonstrated in a thousand ways. For instance, Martin Luther had regarded himself as an alien from the mercies of God. Consequently, he sacrificed all to become an Augustinian monk and priest. However, even afterwards, it was painfully obvious to him that he still had the same sinful struggles. He therefore regarded himself rejected by God until he became enlightened to the fact that these painful struggles accompany us throughout our Christian life (Gal. 5:17). This understanding comforted Him.

What comfort can we derive from trusting in mystical techniques to produce emotional experiences and intimacy? This pursuit is counter-productive. It places our experiences before His truth, unbiblical practice above Biblical prescription, and places our attention and hope upon our experiences and feelings above the glory of beholding our awesome God, according to His revealed truth (2 Cor. 3:18-4:6).

When we behold ourselves and experiences, we can find no basis for hope and edification. Yes, we are to examine ourselves to recognize our sins, but then to quickly offer up our dirt in confession to our Lord (1 John 1:8-9). I can think of nothing more depressing that meditating upon myself and my inner states. To see myself clearly is painful discouragement and self-absorption; to behold the God who loves me and has died for me is great joy. (If you don’t feel this way now, just persevere a little longer!)

God demands that we worship Him for who He in truth is (Romans 1:21), in spirit and truth (John 4:24). This is not only a joy; it’s also a necessity for any intimacy. If you are loved by your spouse because you remind him/her of a former lover, such a relationship is rotten at the core and will not stand. It is no wonder that God wants us to know Him as He truly is. No wonder He wants to be sought with an open and teachable mind.

Moses had been very discouraged in his ministry to rebellious Israel, but he knew what would make a difference – he needed to see the glory of God (Exodus 33:18). Instead of teaching Moses a new technique, He revealed the truth about Himself to Moses:

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation" (Exodus 34:6-7).

Moses could only worship!

Darwin and Compromise

A Christian evolutionist argued that preparing Christians for college by first demonstrating that evolution and Christianity are compatible would better keep them in the faith: “When a house falls down in the wind, do we blame the wind or the shoddy foundation? In the case of YECs (young-earth creationists) who fall away in the face of a simple scientific theory, I would sooner blame the foundation [YEC] than the wind.”

You mentioned YECs, but instead, let’s take the worst case scenarios where the evidence might not seem to support the Christian claims:

1. Christ is supposed to change lives, but Christians seem morality worse than others.
2. Pain contradicts the concept of a loving God.
3. The exclusivity of the Christian faith produces arrogance and a lack of love.
4. Prayers aren’t answered.

What do we do when the “evidence” seems to contradict faith? Do we then compromise Scripture to accord with the evidence? Do we then conclude that God doesn’t answer prayer, that He doesn’t change lives, and that He isn’t just?

Probably not! If we have other compelling reasons to believe in Christ’s revelation through Scripture, we will probably decide to live with the tension until and if it is resolved. We will continue to believe that God is good even though it may not appear so. We don't compromise Scripture's teaching about the goodness of God!

If we are willing to live with some tension, why then do we run scared in the face of Darwinian claims and compromise the clear teachings of Scripture? The power of the university or media? Professional respectability? Group think?

Friday, February 19, 2010

More Bible “Contradictions”

It isn’t too hard to prove that the Bible contradicts itself. Just establish a standard or test and then demonstrate that the Bible fails your test! This seems to be the very thing that Bart Ehrman excels at. He demonstrates how the details among the four Gospels differ and then indicts them. Ehrman points out the varying accounts of Peter’s denial of Jesus as his second “contradiction”:

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times “before the cock crows twice.” In Matthew’s Gospel he tells him that it will be “before the cock crows.” Well, which is it – before the cock crows once or twice?

I’ll put my money on “twice.” Mark seems to want to give more details, while Matthew is content to simply report the last crow. Does Matthew err because he neglected to mention the first crow? Did he misrepresent Jesus’ words? Does this place Scripture in error if it doesn’t represent the exact wording of what Jesus had actually said? If instead Scripture, under the inspiration of the Spirit, reproduced in this case the true intention of Jesus’ message instead of the exact wording, would this mean that Scripture contains errors? I don’t think so. This would be imposing our standards on Scripture.

We have to read Scripture according to its intentions, not ours. Demanding a wooden correspondence between the words of Scripture and what actually was said is sometimes clearly not the intention of Scripture. Let’s use an example for clarity:

Rev. 20:8: and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth--Gog and Magog--to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore.

The intention of Scripture isn’t to teach that the earth has “four corners.” Instead, this idiom refers to Satan deceiving all the nations all around the world. So why didn’t Scripture just say it that way? Well, sometimes exactitude can be misleading, especially if Scripture is addressing people who believe the world is flat. They wouldn’t have understood “around the world,” while they would have understood “four corners of the earth.”

I talk about the “sun rising” at a particular time. We now know that the sun doesn’t rise. However, by using this idiom, it doesn’t mean that I’m scientifically ignorant or that I want to deceive. It just demonstrates the need to speak in a way that others will understand.

Although the Bible might use terminology that isn’t scientifically accurate, it succeeds in conveying the message it wants to convey by using anthropic language, the language of common usage.

Sometimes the use of too many details can be misleading. We observe that sometimes the Bible rounds off numbers. Does this place it in error? Of course not! Sometimes Scripture intends to give exact answers; sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it gives summary statements condensing the actual events.

We can’t impose our standards on Scripture and require that it use scientific language or exact numbers on each occasion. This brings us to Ehrman’s third contradiction – the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection:

On the third day after Jesus’ death, the women go to the tomb to anoint his body for burial. And whom do they see there? Do they see a man, as Mark says, or two men (Luke), or an angel (Matthew)?

There are several possible solutions. I’ll just mention one possibility. Angels appear as “men” in many instances of the Bible. Although there might have been two present at that one time, Mark and Matthew chose to mention just the one. Perhaps this angel was far more prominent than the other, and they thought it needless to report the second?

I do not claim to have the ultimate answer. I simply wish to show that there are possible answers. Proving that the Bible contradicts itself, as Ehrman charges, demands that he demonstrate that there are no possible solutions. This he has failed to do.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Faith and Reason

Another Letter to an Atheist:

You wrote, “There's nothing to be gained by arguing with those who conflate conviction with fact.”

However, shouldn’t conviction and fact go together? Shouldn’t we be “convicted” when the facts spell out victimization? I think that you are assuming a purist stance and throw all religions/belief systems into the same bag. Indeed, there are conflicts between religion and science when a religion adopts the dictum, “I will only entertain things of faith/spirit and not physical evidences.” Of course, there are religions like this which believe that this is a world of illusion – the physical world does not exist – and consequently not worth investigating. Other religions would have it that our main task is to transcend this physical, evil world, while postmodernism maintains that “facts” are just the product of our subjective mentalities.

On the other hand, there are belief systems that believe that there is a stable, uniform, knowable and rational world out there that welcomes investigation. Both Christianity and Atheism fall into this category.

Indeed, the Biblical faiths, especially Judaism and Christianity, which are rigorous belief systems, requiring evidences and proofs. For example, the principle of Deuteronomy 19:15 permeates Biblical thinking:

“One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

In like manner, Jesus warned his followers to NOT believe Him without corroborating evidences (John 5:31). Therefore, from a Biblical perspective, faith is not something that is baseless, but rather a stance that is required in light of the confirming evidences. In other words, we believe because we have compelling evidences to believe – we attempt to join conviction to fact.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bible Contradictions

Bart Ehrman, agnostic and head of the religion department at the University of North Carolina, has just written a new book, Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible. For his first alleged contradiction, he cites Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple:

“In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables”
(John 2:14-15; also Mat. 21:12; Mark 11:15; Luke 19:45-46).

However, John’s account occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, while the last three record it as happening at the end. Some interpreters suggest that this “cleansing” occurred on two occasions. So where’s the contradiction? Ehrman charges:

“But that would mean that neither Mark [nor Matthew and Luke] nor John tells the ‘true’ story, since in both accounts, he cleanses the Temple only once.”

However, why would “true” reporting require that every occasion or detail be cited? No account can claim all the details regarding the people present, the clothing they wore, and their exact positions and movements.

Ehrman then objects, “If Jesus made a disruption of the Temple at the beginning of his ministry, why wasn’t he arrested by the authorities then?” Well, evidently, the sellers were doing something wrong, or Jesus wouldn’t have disrupted them. Perhaps, by arresting Him, the authorities perceived that this might place them in an unfavorable light among the people?

There are many things that we can’t say with certainty, but this doesn’t prove that there’s a contradiction. In fact, we should expect that difficult questions would arise, especially if the document is God-given. There is much about the physical world that remains uncertain. Some scientists argue that the questions are only growing. However, this should not invalidate the findings of science – nor should the uncertainties that arise from Scripture!

Let’s consider a competing option – there was only one “cleansing,” but John placed this same event at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry instead of at the end. If this is the case, Ehrman concludes, “Historically speaking, then, the accounts are not reconcilable.”

However, perhaps it wasn’t John’s intention to give a chronological accounting? Does this place his account in error? No! If someone asks me to give account of the things I did Sunday, and I don’t give them in order, this doesn’t make my account incorrect.

Throughout his book, Ehrman gleefully makes many unwarranted assertions. Why? Perhaps because bold charges sell books? Perhaps, he has an ax to grind? Attached to the sub-title of his book, Revealing the Hidden Contradictions of the Bible, he parenthetically adds “and why we don’t know about them.” This addition obtusely hints at something sinister – a cover-up. In any event, we will examine more of his allegations.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Moral Absolutes Require an Absolutely Transcendent Being

A letter to an atheist who wrote, “One can reason their way to moral absolutes without injecting a deity into the equation.”

Yes, we can reason our way to moral absolutes if there is first a basis in existence for these absolutes! Just consider these requirements for moral absolutism:

1. Immutability – if it changes, it can’t be absolute.

2. Universality – if its truth isn’t universal, then it can’t be absolute.

3. Transcendence – if it doesn’t transcend our own thinking and inclinations, then each one of us becomes the Supreme Court of our own subjective, non-absolute inclinations and thinking. There must exist something higher than us, something to which we are all subject and accountable.

In the above, moral law is similar to physical laws. However, there is one more necessary ingredient of absolute moral law that sets it apart from the physical laws – it carries transcendent authority. We can’t violate it without experiencing punishment, at least psychologically. While we can do a lot of things to violate the “demands” of gravity – getting on an elevator or plane – moral laws can’t be sidestepped so easily, at least not without painful consequences.

Conclusion: Acknowledging moral absolutes is to acknowledge a transcendent law-Giver. There is simply no one else in the picture who can fulfill these requirements.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Our Struggle for Assurance

We so desire the assurance of God’s love, but sometimes it seems as if His Scripture presents the biggest obstacles. For instance:

“Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

I’ve often found this verse, and many like it, very troubling. I had been trying my best to trust that salvation is a free gift, only to encounter a verse like this, which seems to suggest that there is some fine print involved in the promise of salvation as a free gift. It seems to say that I must achieve a level of holiness before I can expect to become God’s child eternally. It’s like signing up for a home-owners’ loan to later discover that the interest has skyrocketed.

How can we have a peace and joy in believing when the source of our belief – Scripture – seems to say such contradictory things? If the foundation isn’t solid, how can the house built upon it be solid? And without the assurance that comes from believing that we are safe in a God who loves us beyond comprehension (Eph. 3:17-20), we’re doomed to continual, morbid self-examination to convince and then re-convince ourselves that we have achieved an adequate level of holiness.

To compound the problem, if our own holiness is the ticket, even in part, into heaven, then we’re condemned to feverishly trying to convince myself that I have the winning ticket, that I am worthy to enter this exclusive party. Such thinking is the breeding ground of self-deception, self-righteousness, and self-absorption – not very pleasant fruit.

Indeed, Scripture can wound, but Scripture can also heal us from those wounds. I found great comfort in learning about the lives of the Patriarchs. Jesus affirms that they will enter the Kingdom of God (Luke 13:28). However, when we scrutinize their lives, we are appalled, at least initially, by what we find. Abraham had made his wife Sarah into a prostitute. As they journeyed the various provinces in the Promised Land, he would coerce Sarah into claiming that she was his sister so that he could derive some material benefits. On one such occasion, because of her beauty, the king of the Philistines took her as one of his wives. However, God prevented him from having sex with her and warned him to return Sarah to her husband.

When the king asked Abraham how he could have done such a despicable thing, Abraham lamely tried to justify himself:

"I said to myself, 'There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.' Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. And when God had me wander from my father's household, I said to her, 'This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, "He is my brother." ' " (Genesis 20:11-13)

On many accounts, Abraham seemed to have failed the holiness test. Of course, his nephew Lot was no better. He fell in love with the life of Sodom, even though it was infested with rapists. He was willing to sacrifice his two virgin daughters to the raping mob, and even after that, he had to be coerced into leaving that hell-hole, and then begged permission to reside in Sodom’s sister-city. Nevertheless, he is also regarded by God as a righteous man whose heart was grieved by the sin of his beloved city (2 Peter 2:7)!

How do we make sense out of these contradictory portraits? These aren’t unusual. In fact, we find them so often, that we are forced to try to make sense out of them. Jacob was the biggest conniver. Even his name reflected this fact. He swindled his brother Esau out of his birthright, deceived his father Isaac into giving him the blessing intended for Esau, and then spent the next several years competing with uncle Laban to be the cleverest swindler. Nevertheless, Jacob remains beloved of God (Romans 9:13).

All of these examples confront us with peculiar cases of people who fell short of holiness and yet were among the blessed of God. We can add to these many more – David who committed adultery, murder and deception; Peter who denied the Lord; Isaac who also pimped his wife; Paul who persecuted the church and caused Christians to disown their faith. Yet these miscreants found mercy because they repented. We can even say that our God worked lovingly in their hearts to bring forth this repentance (2 Tim. 2:25; Acts 5:31).

So how do we deal with the Bible’s requirement for holiness? The Book of Hebrews provides the reverse illustration of Esau to help us understand. Although Esau was nobler than Jacob, he lacked a heart for the things of God. In fact, Hebrews, after asserting the need for holiness, warns us about being like Esau:

“Lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.”
(Hebrews 12:16-17, NKJV)

Esau wanted his father’s blessing – it carried certain benefits – but he wasn’t interested in God. While he fought to have the blessing and even tried to kill Jacob, he never repented or was willing to confess his sins. He never came to terms with the fact that his life was devoted to self and not to the things of God. Had he been interested in God, he would have had more esteem for his spiritual birthright.

The resolution comes across like a trumpet blast: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness!!!” (1 John 1:9). This is what had made all the difference for the Patriarchs.

I don’t think we sufficiently appreciate what our Savior has promised us. In receiving God’s pardon, the past is no longer remembered. Abraham becomes a prince, and Jesus castigates the religious leadership for not having done the works of Abraham (John 8:39)! Clearly, Jesus would now only see holiness in Abraham.

Israel had been full of rebellion and criticized Moses for taking them away from their security in Egypt, yet our mysterious God declares of them: “By faith they passed through the Red Sea as by dry land” ( Hebrews 11:29).

Job had been dishing out many accusations against God, but after he repented of his rash speech, God declared to his judgmental friends: "My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has” ( Job 42:7-8). According to God, Job had spoken correctly. Evidently, all of Job’s railing had been obliterated, cleansed away!

We will always struggle with sin in this temptation-filled life, where our own holiness is unobtainable. However, our blessed Savior has provided a safety net – He will forgive and cleanse us as soon as we cry out to Him, even if we sin 70 x 7 times! Glory be His Name forever and ever!

I Suffer, Therefore God Doesn’t Exist

Another letter to the atheists who deny the existence of God because evil and suffering exist:

A postmodern stated, “The only truth is change itself. Therefore, there’s no objective truth!” However, if this is true, then this statement can’t stand – at least, not for long – because it too is subject to change.

This is precisely the problem you encounter when you try to deny God by pointing to the evil in the world. If there is no God, then there is no absolute moral truth upon which to base such an indictment. “Evil” then is just an arbitrary construct of our own ever-changing minds in an ever-changing universe—certainly no solid ground upon which to base any judgment against God!

Consequently, when you deny the existence of God, you do so without any rational basis. It’s like the atheist who asserts, “I can be good without God!” If there is no ontological and objective “good,” then all talk about “goodness” is arbitrary, subjective and therefore meaningless. Hence, the atheist’s denial of God is also meaningless.

The postmodern stance not only precludes the existence of moral truth, which you illogically use to deny God’s existence, but it also precludes the existence of any unchanging laws in the midst of our expanding universe.

But more personally, your indictment – “suffering proves there’s no God” – is also overwhelmed by many other considerations:

1. The good in the world overwhelms the evil or painful. Therefore, the vast majority of people value life. (If life is so evil, why are you still here?) Therefore also, it is illegitimate to discount God’s existence by the presence of suffering.

2. Our needs are met so perfectly: we hunger and there is food; we thirst and God provides water; we tire and there is sleep…. I’m amazed by the correspondence between my needs and the way God fulfills my needs.

3. Even more fundamentally, the universe is fine-tuned for my existence and comfort.

4. As Christians, even though there remain questions that trouble us, we find assurance in our Lord that we will blissfully be with Him for eternity, and that He will right every wrong. We also find comfort and assurance in the fact that He judges justly and mercifully, and will give everyone what they deserve and even better. Although we might not know how it will all pay out, we have come to trust in our God and therefore can be at peace regarding the outcome.

5. On the contrary, we can point to the fact that suffering and death is proof of God’s goodness. Just look at what happens to people for whom there is little suffering! They become arrogant and insensitive. Instead, I find that I need the prospect of death in order to value what I do have, while I have it. Eternal life in this corrupted world would make us indifferent to all the things that require sensitivity and thoughtfulness.

6. Also is also essential to prepare us for what follows: “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.” 2 Cor. 4:10-11

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Wahhabism, Koran, Israel and Fundamentalism

Are all fundamentalists made of the same wool? The Jewish Voice (Jan. 2010) reports about a Sheik Professor Abdul Hadi Palazzi who teaches that “the land of Israel belongs to the Jews.” How refreshing! Instead of equating Israel with Satan, Palazzi claims that the real culprit behind the hatred and warfare is Saudi Arabia, which has “funneled huge sums of money to extremist Islamist institutions”:

“The Saudi brand of Wahhabi Islam has distorted the real Islam and must be stopped.”

• “Wahhabism is a totalitarian cult which stands for terror, the massacre of civilians, the permanent war against Jews, Christians, and non-Wahhabi Muslims. The influence of Wahhabism in the contemporary Arab world is such that many Arab Muslims are wrongly convinced that, in order to be a good Muslim, one must hate Israel and hope for its destruction.”

• “Israel exists by Divine Right, confirmed in both Bible and Koran.”

• “As a Muslim who abides by the Qu’ran, I believe that opposing the existence of the State of Israel means opposing a Divine decree.”

Palazzi cites Sura 5.21 in support of his position:

“O my people [Israel]! enter the holy land which Allah has prescribed for you and turn not on your backs for then you will turn back losers.” (He also cites Sura 17:104, which he claims teaches that Allah will bring the Jews back to their rightful home!)

How popular is Palazzi’s message in the Muslim world? Let’s not be blind to the fact that there is another, less irenic side to Koranic teaching that seems to always trump the peaceable Suras:

• [47.4] So when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, then smite the necks until when you have overcome them, then make (them) prisoners, and afterwards either set them free as a favor or let them ransom (themselves) until the war terminates. That (shall be so); and if Allah had pleased He would certainly have exacted what is due from them, but that He may try some of you by means of others; and (as for) those who are slain in the way of Allah, He will by no means allow their deeds to perish.

• [9.5] So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

• [9.29] Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Apostle have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.

• [4.89] They desire that you should disbelieve as they have disbelieved, so that you might be (all) alike; therefore take not from among them friends until they fly (their homes) in Allah's way; but if they turn back, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them, and take not from among them a friend or a helper.

If only Muslims would take these Suras figuratively, but it is clear that many don’t! For instance, the highly esteemed The Khan Noble Koran comments on Sura 47:4:

• “Then Allah revealed the order to discard the obligations [imposed by earlier Suras] and commanded Muslims to fight against the Mushrikun (Polytheists and Trinitarians) as well as against the people of the Scriptures of they do not embrace Islam, till they pay the Jizya (tax) with willing submission and feel themselves subdued. At first the fighting was forbidden, then it was permitted and after that it was made obligatory against them that start the fight against you and against all those who worship others along with Allah (Trinitarians).”

Even in view of these chilling revelations, many modern commentators throw all fundamentalists into the same Jihadist bag, citing the Biblical mass annihilations ordered by Jehovah. However, there are critical differences between what we encounter in the Bible and what we find in the Koran. While the Koran issues standing orders to fight “against all those who worship others along with Allah,” in the Bible, God orders specific instructions for a particular time and place – for the protection of the theocratic State of Israel. Nowhere had Israel been given a blank check to annihilate unbelievers. Instead, these battles were ordered as God’s holy judgment, and not according to our human assessment of who deserves it. It is like the difference between a court of law and a lynch mob.

Now, in Christ and His New Covenant, we no longer need to remove the heathens from our midst in order to protect our faith. Instead, we are directed to lovingly go out among them, for our God is with us! This is Christian fundamentalism – light-years away from other brands!

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Hypocrisy of “Inclusiveness”

A letter to a Unitarian-Universalist Pastor:

Dear Pastor,

Usually I appreciate your thoughtful sermons. So please forgive me if I take issue with this one. In contrast to other churches, you extolled your church – the Unitarian-Universalists – as loving and accepting of the hurt, rejected and marginalized, a safe-haven. You highlighted two hot-button groups – those living out the gay lifestyle and those who have had an abortion. You also stated that, out of fear and ignorance, other traditions had rejected these folk; suggesting that your church had transcended these narrow judgments.

Conspicuously, you didn’t mention other groups of people and behaviors like adulterers, bigamists, pedophiles, rapists, liars or kidnappers. I refer to these groups simply to make the point that we all draw the line somewhere. There are belief systems and lifestyles – murder, genocide, robbing, and lying – which we all reject, as we should. It is therefore unfair to characterize those who would also proscribe abortion as intolerant and hateful simply because they regard this behavior as unacceptable.

While you might tolerate certain behaviors that an evangelical church wouldn’t, the latter would tolerate certain behaviors and beliefs that you wouldn’t tolerate. About two years ago, the soon-departing head of your education department made an impassioned plea for Sunday-school teachers for 4th grades through adult. I emailed my interest, but also confessed that I was a Christian. Consequently, I was rejected without an explanation.

Later, my wife Anita responded, on my behalf, by application to your church email requesting Sunday-school teachers. We never heard a word.

Let’s admit it – we are all judgmental and intolerant of certain things. It’s therefore highly misleading to present your church as the pillar of understanding and compassion and to demonize the rest. Ironically, I think that history would argue that Christianity has provided the best safe-haven for the weak and marginalized.

Instead, your message serves to reinforce inflammatory and misleading stereotypes that can only facilitate further polarization and intolerance, the very things that you want to eliminate.

I’m sorry to have used such direct language. I want to be open to your response, so I’d be glad to hear what you have to say, whether by email or in person.

Sincerely, Daniel Mann
(I haven’t yet received a response.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Identity and Psychological Well-Being

Psychologist James Hillman understandably insists that we have to recover a glimpse of our true destiny from the deadening materialistic ways we usually interpret our lives:

“We dull our lives by the way we conceive then…By accepting the idea that I am the effect of…hereditary and social forces, I reduce myself to a result. The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim. I am living a plot written by my genetic code, ancestral heredity, traumatic occasions, parental unconsciousness, societal accidents.” (The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, Random House, 6)

Hillman so clearly recognizes the emptiness of a life built upon merely genetics and “societal accidents” and reminded me of my own self-despair. Years of psychotherapy had stripped me of any conception of dignity, meaning, honor, value, or purpose. I had become nothing more than a result, and the only source of value or purpose left open to me was that of enjoying my now painful and dysfunctional life, something far outside of my grasp.

Although my Jewishness seemed to give me some sense of meaning, I couldn’t identify how! Was my connection to the Jewish people merely a matter of being a part of a long-persecuted people? Did Hitler make me feel Jewish? And should I allow Hitler to have the privilege in shaping my identity? Wasn’t this pathological, and wasn’t I supposed to be aiming towards a wellness-identity? Certainly my Jewishness transcended my own pathetic circumstances and connected me to 4000 years of history, but everyone else’s ethnic history took them back this far. Although they might not be able to attach a name to their ethnicity as I could, I seemed to be no better off for it. An ancient pedigree might mean a lot to a brewery, but how would this help me?

Hillman’s own answer points beyond this life:

“As explained by the greatest of later Platonists, Plotinus, we selected the body, the parents, the place, and the circumstances that suited the soul…This suggests that the circumstances, including my body and my parents whom I may curse, are my soul’s own choice.” (p. 8)

Is this biography or identity an improvement over the genetic and “societal accidents” biography most of us are stuck with? I don’t think so. Although it might broaden the scope of our lives chronologically, it fails to broaden them meaningfully. Life, identity, and biography are still centered upon the depressing and bungling god of self! Instead, our deepest longing envisions a connection to something greater than self, to the Source of all meaning and truth, to a Place where we can find rest for our weary souls:

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”
(Matthew 11:28-30).

It was the Master of all creation who promised to give me rest. This was the missing link, the piece that enabled me to take my eyes off my inadequate self and to attach them to a fully adequate and loving Savior. When we fail to find true identity in Christ, we condemn ourselves to an endless cycle of trying to refurbish our identity by chasing after the autographs of the rich and famous, or by affiliating with the in-groups, or by recovering our “past lives,” because our present one just ain’t enough.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Freewill: Just an Illusion?

Here’s my letter to atheists who deny the existence of freewill:

Here are some considerations that argue against denying freewill:

1. Your denial of freewill doesn’t seem to have an evidential basis. Simply because we can find many physical and psychological factors that tend to limit our freewill responses, these findings fail to prove that there aren’t some undetermined or freewill elements at play in the choices we make. Instead, it appears that your conclusion is driven by philosophical materialism/naturalism.

2. I cannot deny my freewill without also denying other things that are equally obvious to me. If I’ve been duped about the perception of my freewill, then I have also been duped about my existence and my other sensory perceptions. It’s so obvious to me that I can freely choose between ordering a Big Mac or a cheeseburger. If I am mistaken about this seemingly free choice, perhaps I’m also mistaken about who and where I am? However, in order to live coherently, I have to accept my basic perceptions.

3. I cannot deny our freewill and, at the same time, treat others with the dignity that I believe is inherent within them. By denying freewill, you are reducing us to mere robots, degraded objects undeserving of human dignity. I have heard teachers comment that when we treat our students as merely products of their environment, as opposed to free moral agents, we demean them in such a way as to interfere with their positive future adjustment.

4. If I deny our freewill, I can’t approve of punishment. If they never had freewill and are instead pre-programmed to act in a certain way, then they aren’t responsible moral agents. Consequently, we have no right to blame and punish others for their behaviors. Just imagine that a friend maliciously ruined your reputation. You confront him and he replies, “Sorry about that – I just don’t have any freewill. My chemistry compelled me to do it! I’m therefore not guilty. Pick a fight with my chemistry!” If you don’t believe in freewill, at least to some extent, your worldview prevents you from accusing your friend of wrong-doing, and this discourages responsible, moral behavior. It would be like blaming your toilet for overflowing.

5. Besides, if freewill is nothing more than a chemical reaction, then too our denial of freewill is just a chemical reaction and not a product of willfully assessing the evidence. Hence, the denial of freewill can be dismissed along with all considerations of truth.

6. By denying freewill, you deprive yourself and others the privilege of taking full responsibility for your actions and the restoration and hope that results from a full confession of our misdeeds. This philosophical stance will have the effect of dumbing- down and depressing our lives and relationships.

7. Without freewill, the rationale for moral persuasion – so critical for a healthy society – is severely undermined. What then is left to secure order and stability? Might-makes-right, the use of violence and coercion!

I think that the best protection for the belief in freewill is Scripture’s teaching that we are created in the image of God and are therefore morally accountable. I suspect that it is your atheistic commitments – your lenses through which you filter reality – that have prevented you from acknowledging freewill, which is so patently obvious and important. Please reconsider the price you pay to preserve your atheism.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Skeptical about Atheism

My Response to an Atheist who Believes that the Belief in God is Utter Foolishness:

While I share your high estimation of skepticism – it was skepticism that brought me from agnosticism to Christianity – you claim that the existence of God is an “extraordinary claim without the support of extraordinary evidence (to paraphrase Carl Sagan paraphrasing David Hume).” In this, I don’t think that you are sufficiently skeptical about your own claim of naturalism.

While I agree with you about the “extraordinary claims” that require “extraordinary evidence,” I must point out that we all must grapple with the same two “extraordinary” choices – Either Naturalism or Supernaturalism is the origin/explanation of the universe. Let me now set forth some arguments for Supernaturalism in favor of Naturalism.

1. Our experience uniformly demonstrates that the cause must be greater than the effect. Intelligent causation is greater than non-intelligent causation. Therefore, supernaturalism must be the preferred hypothesis.

2. Supernaturalism (transcendence) is a better explanation than Naturalism (materialism) for the immutability of the physical laws. Something must transcend our expanding universe of molecules-in-motion. (Where do the “natural” laws come from?)

3. Supernatural Transcendence is also a better explanation than localized materialism for the uniform operation of these laws throughout the universe.

4. Supernatural Oneness is more parsimonious than the idea of myriads of independently operating natural laws. It better accounts for the stability and regularity of the physical world.

5. Although we all agree that phenomena occur formulaically and predictably, there is absolutely no evidence that the laws that govern are natural as opposed to their being part of a Super-Intelligence.

6. Naturalism is utterly inadequate to account for many phenomena – life, DNA, consciousness, freewill, the fine-tuning of the universe, reason and logic – while Supernaturalism is adequate.