Friday, November 21, 2014

Eternal Torment

In a Bible study group I once led, one of the members — a deacon on the church board — told why he had become a Christian. His chief motivation, he explained, was that he didn’t want to “go to hell.”

The desire to avoid the eternal punishment of hell is probably the reason why many have made the commitment to Jesus Christ. In some Christian circles, at least, the “gospel” is often presented in those terms: “Come to Jesus, in order to be saved from everlasting torment and ‘go to heaven’ instead.”

Scripture does contain a few hints about the possibility of eternal torment. Speaking of the need to avoid sinful motives and actions, Jesus quotes Isaiah 66:24: “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:47-48). Jude, the brother of Jesus and James, also has harsh words for those who rebel against the way of God, calling them “wandering stars for whom the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved for ever” (Jude 13).

Most vividly, the Revelation to John speaks of the “lake of fire,” the ultimate destination of those whose names haven’t been written in the book of life of the Lamb of God. They, and particularly those forces who deceive and oppress the people of God, will be cast into the lake of fire “and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Revelation 20:7-10; 14-15).

But is the idea of eternal torment believable today? Two arguments, at least, speak against it. First, if God is good and merciful, would he really consign a person to an eternity of unspeakable anguish and suffering? Such an action seems unworthy of a benevolent Deity whose being is so often identified with love in Christian teaching.

Second, where is this everlasting hell, anyway? The first Soviet cosmonaut famously returned to earth and announced that he didn’t see any God “up there.” If hell is real, wouldn’t it also show up somewhere as powerful telescopes range throughout the vast reaches of the universe? In the age of science, people have trouble believing in things that can’t be detected and measured by our sophisticated instruments. “Spiritual” concepts like heaven and hell have been relegated to the sphere of private opinion, and therefore ruled out of public discourse.

Whatever one thinks of avoiding hell as a motivation for committing one’s life to Christ (and I think there are better reasons), it is ironic that contemporary science itself — especially astrophysics and cosmology — provides an interesting analogy to the biblical hints concerning eternal torment. I am referring to the phenomenon of the “black hole.”

A black hole is the remnant of a star that has “burned itself out,” having expended all the energy created by the nuclear fusion that gives the star its brilliance. When this occurs, the core of the star collapses to a tiny ball of matter so dense that nothing — not even light — can escape its gravity. Anything near the black hole is affected by its gravity and is in danger of being drawn into it and annihilated, as it crosses the “event horizon” that marks the point of no escape.

And here’s where the idea of “eternity” enters the picture. Einstein showed that, as a body approaches the speed of light, time slows down for that body. What to an outside observer would seem like a thousand years would be experienced, by someone on that body, as mere seconds. The gravity of a black hole is so powerful that objects streaming toward it approach, or perhaps exceed, the speed of light. Thus, as you near the black hole’s event horizon, time will slow down for you to the point that it ceases to exist and becomes an eternity. In the interior of a black hole, time has no meaning.

Astronomers now contend that a huge black hole occupies the center of our galaxy, and that most of the 100 to 400 billion galaxies in our universe (I have heard both extremes) have such a black hole at their center. Anything falling into their clutches has indeed come to the place of eternal torment. The phenomenon of the black hole, by analogy, makes the everlasting “lake of fire” believable.

People need to know that the concept of eternal torment isn’t so far-fetched, after all. Maybe I will go ahead and put that bumper sticker on my car: “ETERNITY — SMOKING OR NON-SMOKING?”

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Free Exercise of — WHICH Religion?

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” This is the wording of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1791 by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states.

Today, this First Amendment’s purpose has been lost. The first clause has been dramatically widened and twisted into the doctrine of “separation of church and state,” with the express intention of preventing religion — especially Christianity — from having any role in politics or the shaping of public policy. The result has been what Richard John Neuhaus famously called “the naked public square,” a forum supposedly devoid of any arbiter of values. In reality, the removal of ostensibly religious concerns from public discussion has not left a void. Rather, it has put in place a dominant secular naturalism, with its conviction about the irrelevance of religion and a stress on “diversity.” This philosophical view, which its adherents hold with a religious tenacity, permits no opposing views to enter into the debate. The so-called “separation of church and state” has resulted in a state-supported religion controlling the parameters of public discussion.

This, of course, was far from the intent of the framers of the First Amendment. Their intent, rather than to prevent religious interference in the political process, was to restrict the government from interfering in religious expression and practice. The first clause is not a restriction on religion, but a restriction on the legislative power of government: “Congress shall make no law . . .” In other words, Congress is not to pass legislation establishing a government-supported religion. This restriction applies to the Federal government, not to other governing bodies within the United States. For decades after the ratification of the First Amendment, several states continued to have state-supported churches such as the Congregational churches of Massachusetts. It was only later that the clear wording of the First Amendment was extended to cover state legislatures as well as the United States Congress, and twisted even further into the doctrine of “separation of church and state” as it is commonly understood today.

The second clause of the First Amendment is a critical one: Congress is not to prohibit the free exercise of religion. This clause, too, has been compromised by the doctrine of “separation of church and state,” to the extreme that public school students have been told not to bring Bibles into their classrooms, or a high school valedictorian is told not to pray, or to refer to Jesus, during a graduation ceremony. Recently we saw how a company’s Christian owners were originally compelled, by the Affordable Care Act, to provide their employees with insurance that covered the destruction of a fertilized human ovum, as a birth control measure; only a narrow Supreme Court decision prevented these Christians from being forced to become accessories to the murder of an unborn child, against their deeply held convictions.

Praying in public in the name of Jesus, or upholding the sanctity of human life in your business practices, are not things that diminish the good of society, even if some on the political left irrationally believe they do. But what about religious practices that do, in fact, endanger the well-being of others? What if a Muslim woman insists on wearing her full head covering for her driver’s license photo? The photo ID serves the legitimate purpose of identifying a person qualified to operate a motor vehicle, and of establishing the person’s identity in general, for the protection of the wider public. (Yet, in a Florida case, a woman was allowed to be photographed for her license wearing the Muslim covering.) To take a more drastic instance, what if a Muslim U.S. Army officer repeatedly voices his view that non-Muslims are to be suppressed, and follows up on his conviction with a mass murder of fellow servicemen to the cry “Allahu Akhbar” — as occurred in the “Fort Hood massacre”? The demeaning of women by forcible head covering and relegation to servitude, and the thrust to eliminate all who refuse to convert to Islam (as seen currently in the gruesome acts of the “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq), are not harmless activities that have no effect on the public good. Are these ostensible “religious” beliefs covered by the wording of the framers of the First Amendment, that Congress shall not prohibit the free exercise of religion?

The problem, clearly, lies in today’s inclusivist tendency to treat all religions the same, with equal indifference — except that, in the name of “diversity,” detrimental non-Christian beliefs get a pass, while benign Christian beliefs are vilified. But the truth is that all religions are not equal in their contributions to the good of society. Is a religion that demeans women and demands “Convert, or die!” equal to a religion that teaches, “Let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), and accordingly has built schools and hospitals and undertakes projects such as building wells to supply African children with clean water?

The framers wrote that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” But what religion did they have in mind? The American nation had been shaped by values emerging from the tradition of Judaism and Christianity; when the framers spoke of “religion” they did not have Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or some other religion in mind, but the various groups based on biblical faith. The First Amendment was put in place to prevent Congress from favoring one Christian denomination over another, and to prevent the suppression of any biblically based group’s exercise of its faith and practice.

Rightly understanding the meaning and intent of the First Amendment’s “religious liberty” clauses requires a determination that not all religions are the same, or can be treated in the same way. The resurrection of Jesus Christ validates biblical faith as the only religion that is true, and worthy of protection under the First Amendment; all other religions are false, and their detrimental and violent aspects should not be given free reign in the name of “religious liberty.” To apply the First Amendment according to its intended purpose, our nation’s leaders and judiciary must recognize the priority of the religion centered in Messiah Jesus. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Monday, July 21, 2014

Why Can’t We Have It ALL?

Are you content with your church relationship? Or, to put it differently, is your church life — especially its worship life — all that you would like it to be? Increasingly, my wife and I find we are on a quest for a more fulfilling “church experience” — a tawdry sort of phrase, but I can’t think of a better way to put it right now. But we’ve been frustrated. One reason for our frustration is that, while many local churches have something of what we’re looking for, none of them even comes close to having everything. And we wonder why not.

Let me explain.

We can find a church that has liturgical solemnity and celebration, with the aesthetic satisfaction of color, pageantry and symbolism and the dignity of Christian tradition. These are things that could stretch us beyond the four limited dimensions of our mundane world into the transcendent realm of God’s presence. But those churches, typically, have abandoned the Holy Scriptures as the standard for faith and life and are caught up in stylized “inclusiveness,” pro-homosexual policies and other earmarks of political correctness.

At the opposite extreme, we might find a church that meets in homes as did the earliest Christians — where every member is free to offer his or her gifts contributing to the life of the body, where there is a wonderful sense of being bonded together in common life in Christ, in faithfulness to New Testament patterns. But when do we experience those moments of high worship when the transcendent glory of Christ breaks through to touch us intuitively? Where is the opportunity for the high ceremony of the worship of Israel, or the pageantry of heavenly worship reflected in the visions of John the Revelator?

We might easily locate a church that stresses faithfulness to the Word of God, where astute expository preaching brings out the nuances of the sacred text. But our role is pretty much limited to that of passive spectators of an oratorical or pedagogical performance. In such a preacher-dominated atmosphere there’s no opportunity for us to offer gifts of our own, whatever they might be, to our fellow worshipers. And the wordiness of such gatherings stifles or eliminates any breakthrough of the mystery of the transcendent — a mystery that touches us through sensibilities that can’t be confined to the flat world of rational understanding.

We could just as easily identify a church where free expression is valued, where there is a sense of the movement of the Holy Spirit among the whole body of worshipers, and where a sense of “family” pervades the congregation’s life. But such congregations often lack a sense of continuity with the historic church. They stem from movements that once experienced a life-giving breakthrough in understanding some neglected aspect of the Scriptures. But now that understanding has become a shallow formula that inhibits learning from other branches of the body of Christ.

It’s not hard, any more, to find a church that desperately seeks to connect with contemporary culture through cutting-edge music, heavy use of media and down-to-earth, conversational preaching. But the sensitive person on a quest for an encounter with the transcendence of God can be overwhelmed by the high-volume electronics, or lost in the busy crowds that flock to such churches.

Why can’t we have it all — in one congregation? Why can’t we have a church that holds to the moral standards of God’s Word, expounds that Word in depth with fidelity to the original texts, combines historic and solemn liturgy with free and passionate expression of praise, makes room for the exercise of individual gifts even during corporate gatherings, engages with the issues of our culture using the technology people have come to expect, and does all of this through a pervasive atmosphere of koinonia, the shared common life of all Christian believers in the unity of the faith?

Why can’t we have it all? Just asking.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Where Does Evil Come From?

If God created all things and considered them “good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25), then where did evil come from? This question sometimes vexes Christian believers, who wrestle with the effects of evil in their lives — illness, poverty or financial reversal, ill-treatment by others, unhappy circumstances of all sorts — not to mention the incidents of evil persistently reported in media news of nation and world. If God is good, why do we face these undesirable conditions, and why do our prayers for relief seemingly go unanswered?

The question has philosophical, as well as personal, implications. Atheists are quick to point out the presence of evil in the universe, considering it to be an argument against the Christian view of a good God. In fact the experience of evil circumstances has led many to deny the existence of God altogether, on the supposition that a good God would not allow the suffering and abuse that are so widespread on the human scene. Furthermore, an unjustified belief in God — especially the God to which the Christian Scriptures bear witness — is seen as the source of evil in the world. This objection is epitomized in the title of Richard Dawkins’s book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. If Dawkins finds religion itself as the source of evil (neglecting to take into consideration the unspeakable horrors committed by atheistic dictators like Josef Stalin in the last century), Christians have sought to explain the origin of evil in other ways.

One popular explanation is the rebellion of Lucifer, once a prominent angel — a fanciful theory based in part on a misinterpretation of Isaiah 14:11ff. and Ezekiel 23:12ff.. These passages refer to the king of Babylon and the king of Tyre, respectively, and the details of Lucifer’s fall from heaven owe more to how John Milton used the imagery of these passages in Paradise Lost to develop his picture of Satan than to any direct scriptural source. The Israelite prophets sometimes used such grandiose imagery to depict the fall of earthly rulers, but there is no substantial basis in biblical theology for seeing in these passages an explanation for the origin of evil.

Another popular explanation among Christians is that based on the creation of mankind in the image of God (Genesis 1:27-27). As creatures after God’s likeness, people have the option to disregard God’s moral order and go their own way. Otherwise they would be acting in robotic fashion, predetermined to do only good and not evil — a contradiction of their having been created in God’s image. Having a will of their own, people tend to “play God,” arrogating to themselves the authority to dominate and control others. Evil eventuates from mankind’s attempt to “be like God” (Genesis 3:5), a temptation placed before them in the Garden of Eden by the serpent. If the serpent is seen as “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan” (Revelation 12:9), then the origin of human evil is ultimately traced back to the rebellion of Lucifer, as mentioned above. In any case, the working of earthly evil — not only in human affairs but in all of nature — is attributed to “the fall,” when Adam and Eve chose to disobey their Creator and went in a different direction, away from his will.

But even a supposed pre-human origin of evil in the fall of Satan may not go back far enough, for the possibility of cosmic evil must have been present for that hypothetical event to have occurred. Is there another way to approach the question of the origin of evil, from both a biblical and a cosmological standpoint, that carries it still further back in time? We believe there is.

The Bible, as stated above, makes the point that the original creation was “good.” Cosmologists typically ascribe the creation of the universe to the “big bang,” before which nothing existed — not even space and time. Matter, in the primordial form of light (as the Bible states, Genesis 1:3), came into being at the same “singularity” when space and time appeared. Matter requires the elapse of time in order to exist; that is, for anything at all to exist it must exist in space and time. However, on a universal scale time is characterized by entropy; over time energy dissipates, order degenerates to chaos, everything “runs down.” Barring a new creative infusion, the universe will ultimately die the “heat death” when no more movement occurs except the expansion of its components into cold isolation. Thus existence itself, since it requires time, dissolves into nonexistence through entropy. This is the cosmological origin of evil, which is the denial and destruction of all meaningful existence.

This is why the Scripture is at pains to show that God, who is “good” and made his creation “good,” continually works to combat the evil of entropy. By the very nature of things existing in time, evil will arise and do its destructive work. God, therefore, though he may “rest” from his creation (Genesis 2:2), has never retired from the activity of sustaining his universe. He acts constantly to “uphold the universe by his word of power” (Hebrews 1:3), the Word revealed historically in Messiah Jesus (cf. John 1:1-5). The apostle Paul states, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17), as the cohering force that opposes the disintegrative effects of entropy. The Bible affirms that “the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear” (Hebrews 11:3). The foundation of all things is the information, or “word,” which is immaterial but which is necessary for matter to exist at the quantum or even sub-quantum level. That information needs to be continuously infused into the universe, or entropy takes over to accomplish its evil end.

When we see evil at work, whether in human affairs or in the events of the natural order such as storms, earthquakes and the like, we understand that this is a necessary consequence of existence in time. God is not responsible for it, and has established his Word as the bulwark against it. Aligning ourselves with his Word is the best defense against the encroachments and effects of evil.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Concrete Words of Worship

Christian congregations are often divided over the issue of worship style; commentators on the contemporary scene sometimes speak of the “worship wars.” This sad situation is partly the result of failure to understand and appreciate the concreteness of the Bible’s descriptions of the worship of God. Worship planners and leaders who want to be faithful to the Word of God need to consider how Scripture describes worship in concrete, down-to-earth terms. Here we can only provide a sample of the more important expressions.

The biblical words regularly translated “worship” in English versions (Hebrew hishtahavah and Greek proskuneo) mean, literally, to bow down, bend the knee, prostrate oneself. Whether used literally or symbolically, they underscore the fact that worship is primarily an act of homage to a sovereign. Thus it is an observable action, not just something done “in the heart.” Of course biblical faith expects that external actions should reveal true inward motivation. But in Protestantism we have focused on this motivation or attitude and downplayed the visible action. The result has been “spectator worship” in our corporate gatherings. Who can tell anything about our real commitment to honor the Lord if we are never asked to express this commitment through visible gestures, whether bowing, kneeling, lifting the hands, or other actions both verbal and non-verbal?

Scripture often refers to God’s people “giving thanks to the Lord.” This seems to be another synonym for visible worship. The Hebrew word hodah is derived from a root that means “lift the hand,” referring to the act of swearing an oath of loyalty. To “give thanks” or “make confession” (the same Hebrew root underlies both English expressions) means to affirm our allegiance to the Lord as King; it is to take the oath of covenant loyalty, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Paul combines these two ideas — bowing the knee and taking the oath of loyalty — in his reference to the universal worship which is to be offered through the triumph of the gospel, when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (see Philippians 2:10-11). There is no reason why the church shouldn’t anticipate this type of worship in its own corporate gathering.

Citing Romans 12:1 about our “spiritual worship” beclouds the issue, because Paul here uses the word latreia which means “service,” not “worship.” And reference to John 4:24 on “worship in spirit and truth” also begs the question until we have defined “spirit” and “truth” in biblical terms. That which is done in spirit is not invisible. To the contrary, only visible actions reveal that the Spirit is at work in a person’s or community’s life; one who is acting “in the Spirit” acts in a certain identifiable way. And truth, as Jesus defined it in the gospel of John, is the Word of God (17:17). So “worship in spirit and in truth” translates into visible, spirited actions of worship in conformity with Scriptural patterns.

Protestants have spiritualized the faith until it has become virtually invisible — even to the point of “forsaking the assembling together” in some cases. I suggest that biblical people wouldn’t recognize this as worship. When our practice of Christianity becomes primarily “a matter of the heart,” there is no way we can be held accountable for our faithfulness to the Lord by our brothers and sisters in the body. We can always claim that no one but God can judge our hearts. The point is that visible expressions of worship, whatever they may be, are not just window dressing for an inner attitude of trust in the Lord. They are part of our obedience to the Lord out of faithfulness to his covenant. Our “sacrifice of praise,” as the Psalms put it, is the tribute we offer as servants of the Great King. That’s why we need to pay much closer attention to what we do in public worship.

In The Shape of the Liturgy (1945,1983), Dom Gregory Dix wrote:

Briefly, the puritan theory is that worship is a purely mental activity, to be exercised by a strictly psychological “attention” to a subjective emotional or spiritual experience. . . . Over against this puritan theory of worship stands another — the “ceremonious” conception of worship, whose foundation principle is that worship as such is not a purely intellectual and affective exercise, but one in which the whole man — body as well as soul, his aesthetic and volitional as well as his intellectual powers — must take full part. It regards worship as an “act” just as much as an “experience” (p. 312).

One final point: genuine worship is directed to God. Much of what we do when we assemble as a body is directed horizontally, to instruct and encourage our brothers and sisters. This is good, but often there is a missing element: expressions of worship addressed directly to the Lord. Our lives of humility, consideration for others and prayerful study of the Word cannot substitute for telling the Lord directly of our love for him. I am pleased when I visit my grandchildren and observe them interacting one another, playing or conversing together without fighting. However, they could do that and ignore me entirely in the process. How much more valued I feel if they include me in their interaction, perhaps even hug me and say, “Grandpa, I love you!” I suspect this feeling is not unknown to the Lord, as well.

Monday, April 21, 2014

An Ordinary Meal

A poem written for Holy Week 2014,
in observance of Maundy Thursday

Here Jesus breaks the loaf, the cup he pours —
The ordinary food we share each day.
But blessing it, O Lord, he makes it Yours
To feed Your pilgrim people on their way.

True flesh and blood of plain humanity,
An ordinary human body, is his tent.
But when that body hangs upon the tree
It is Your own life, Lord, that is spent —

Spent freely for our ransom, we who reel
Confused in condemnation, far from You.
And as we gather, bidden to Your meal
Of bread and wine, we taste of life anew.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Truth Is One

This Epiphany season begins with the recounting of the visit of the Magi to the young Jesus. Their journey “from the east” occurred at a time unspecified in the only Bible account (Matthew 2:1-12) but within about two years of Jesus’s birth.

The Magi were apparently Persian astrologers, for the ancient term magus refers to priests of the religion of Zoroaster who studied the stars. The traditional understanding of Epiphany, or “manifestation,” is the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, or non-Israelite nations. The plan of God for Israel was always that, through the family of Abraham, all people would know the blessing of God in a restored creation. The homage of the Magi to Jesus prefigures the extension of the Christian message of new life in Christ to all nations of the earth.

Another theme, however, underlies the account of the quest these “wise men” undertook for the king of the Jews, or Messiah. That motif is the search for truth. It’s to be noted that the Magi were looking for truth in two places: in the Hebrew Scriptures, and in the cosmos or starry universe. They didn’t know the location of Messiah’s appearance — they had to ask Herod’s scholars for the details — but they knew the Jewish Scriptures would provide the clue. At the same time it was a cosmic event — the appearance of a star, perhaps a supernova — that alerted them to the significant event that had occurred.

The story of the Magi should remind us that truth is one, wherever we find it. There isn’t one “religious” or “spiritual” truth, and another “natural” or “physical” truth. For the Magi, if something was true it was true in both realms; or, more correctly, there was only one realm of truth regardless of the source. Today we speak of the “supernatural” as a realm of truth beyond the natural, but perhaps that’s a serious error. The distinction wasn’t known in biblical times; if something happened, it happened, period. It might be a “sign,” an unusual or unique occurrence, but it was an event in the realm of human experience like any other happening.

So perhaps what we call the supernatural is only an aspect of the natural that we don’t understand. Scientists deal only with the natural or material, and disavow the so-called “spiritual” as either nonexistent (a philosophy termed “naturalistic reductionism”) or beyond their concern. But then they encounter phenomena that can’t be explained within the parameters of known physical “laws” or conventionalities. Examples are gravity, which no one really understands, or “dark energy,” the bulk of the mass of the universe that can’t be detected electromagnetically but only through its gravitational effects on other phenomena. Another example is the appearance of digital information in the genetic code of the cells of living organisms. The physical universe, which cosmologists, astrophysicists and other scientists study, displays a number of “spooky” features that have thus far defied explanation in terms of the dominant scientific world view of “naturalistic reductionism.”

So the distinction between the “supernatural” and the “natural” appears to be misleading. Yes, truth is one, wherever we encounter it. Christians consider the Holy Scriptures to be the truth; as Jesus prayed, “Thy Word is truth” (John 17:17). At the same time, as the Magi believed, the cosmos or physical universe also reveals truth to those who study it. Hence there can’t be any fundamental disagreement between what the Bible tells us and what science tells us; if we think we’ve found a discrepancy, it’s only because we’ve failed to understand what is really being said either by Scripture or by the results of scientific inquiry.

The search for knowledge in any direction reveals truths about God and the universe he has created. As the apostle Paul states, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). We need to undertake a serious project of biblical and scientific under- standing, in order to show that truth is one, regardless of how it comes to us. That’s a challenge for the days and years to come.