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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Was God involved in the formation of the Hebrew canon?

This blogger has advanced the notion that the Judeo-Christian Bible is the product of a joint effort between human and Divine. If that is the case, then it would be reasonable to expect some evidence of Divine involvement in the process of designating an official collection of writings. What about that? Does history offer evidence of anything other than a random, messy and much disputed process for arriving at the current canon of the Old Testament?

First, it should be acknowledged that most Christians are woefully ignorant about the history of the development of the Biblical canon. In fact, many Christians wouldn't even know where to begin looking for answers. Some have wrongly supposed that God told someone along the way, "These are the books that I want in the Bible." (Just for the record, that never happened!) Nevertheless, the reality is that many excellent books have been written about the formation of the canon. Hence, this post is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject - it is my intention to present a few thoughts for consideration within the context of this present discussion.

For our purposes, we will begin with Jesus Christ. In short, although it is an extremely interesting subject, I don't believe the long history of the development of the Hebrew canon prior to the arrival of Christ is relevant to our current discussion. The reason that I am able to make such a statement is that there is much evidence to suggest that the Hebrew canon was settled by the time that Christ appeared on earth. What's the evidence?

The First Century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, wrote in his famous treatise entitled Against the Greeks or Against Apion in some detail about the content of Scripture in his day. He wrote: "For we [Jews] have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another (as the Greeks have), but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws, and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death...the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life." (Flavius Josephus Against Apion, Book I, Section 8 of William Whiston's Josephus: Complete Works)

If you're wondering why that book count doesn't square with the one in your Bible (39), then you should be aware of the fact that Christians divide the books of the Old Testament differently than the Jews. According to torah.org, the Jewish Bible is divided into twenty-four books: 1) the five books of Moses [Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy]; 2) the eight books of the prophets [Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve (minor prophets)]; 3) the eleven books of the writings [Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah, Chronicles]. Why two extra books in the present Jewish count? In times past, the book of Ruth was attributed to Samuel and associated with the book of Judges; and Lamentations was associated with Jeremiah.

That the Old Testament canon was settled by the time of Christ is further reinforced by the gospel accounts of his life. Not only do the authors of the gospels quote extensively from Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah, Christ himself is reported there to have quoted extensively from it. Jesus used passages from the Law (Deuteronomy 6 and 8) to answer Satan's temptations (Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13). He quotes the prophet Isaiah in his "Parable of the Soils" (Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20 and Luke 8:4-15). Christ talked about Moses, Abraham and Elijah. He also gave the people of his day "the sign of the prophet Jonah" as the proof that he was the promised Messiah (Matthew 12:39 and 16:4).

Christ's familiarity with the story of the Old Testament also indicates that Scripture was available to an average Jew of the time (Jesus was certainly not considered part of the Jewish or Roman elite). This impression is further reinforced by the story of his visit to a local synagogue. We read: "He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written (once again indicating familiarity with the text): The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:16-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2)

That this familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures was not confined to priests and scribes is further reinforced by an account we have in the Acts of the Apostles. We are told there that the Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonians, because they "examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." (Acts 17:11) In this regard, it is also instructive to note that in his second letter to Timothy, Paul reminded his young apprentice that he [Timothy] had known the Scriptures from childhood. (II Timothy 3:15) This is followed by that favorite verse of the Fundamentalists: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." (II Timothy 3:16) How would this statement have been useful to young Timothy if he did not have access to those Scriptures? Moreover, whatever we might think about them, this statement also makes clear that Paul regarded the Hebrew canon to be inspired by God (Remember, there wasn't any New Testament at this time).

Was God involved in the formation of the Hebrew canon? Clearly, Christ and his disciples thought "He" was. Moreover, Josephus and the writings of the New Testament make plain that the Hebrew canon was settled by the time of Christ; and that they were available to the average interested Joshua (or should we say Yeshua?).

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Emperor Constantine's role in promoting the Hebrew God and Scriptures

I very much appreciate my guest's comments of the past few days, but it appears that we differ in our interpretation of the history of this subject. As my previous posts here have indicated, I did participate in Dr. Jacob Wright's online course (and enjoyed it very much). Like my guest, I do not share all of Dr. Wright's conclusions about the Bible; but I do find his general thesis (see my second rationale in yesterday's post) to be a compelling and plausible explanation of both the archeological and historical evidence available to us.

To be sure, my guest is in good company in the role that he/she assigns to Constantine in this matter; but I believe that the emperor's role in this story is more complex and nuanced than many students of this history have imagined. Perhaps I am more sensitive to this subject because of my background in a religious culture (Worldwide Church of God) that twisted their account of Constantine's role relative to the evolution of the Christian religion. In short, they interpreted his actions and decrees to justify some of their own beliefs/teachings (e.g. they claimed that he changed the Christian day of worship from the Sabbath to Sunday - which is not true, but that's another story).

Emperor Constantine was a brilliant visionary and a political opportunist. Although it would be presumptuous of us to attempt to judge what was in a man's heart that lived so many centuries ago, we do know that the evidence of his life's work underscores two primary objectives of the emperor: 1) to consolidate and centralize power within himself, and 2) to rebuild and strengthen the Roman Empire. It is not important for us to know whether or not the Emperor's vision of a cross before his battle with Maxentius actually happened or if it prompted a sincere change of heart (or some kind of religious conversion) on the part of Constantine. It does mesh, however, with the political objectives mentioned above. The fact that the emperor attributed his political ascendancy over his adversaries to this vision tells us volumes about the strength of the Christian community within the empire.

Many Roman historians have described the attitude of the imperial government (along with most of the citizenry) toward religion as being almost laissez faire in nature. In other words, as long as one's personal beliefs and religious practices did not interfere with one's obligations to the state, most folks simply did not care what you believed or practiced. In fact, it is clear that Augustus and his successors regarded the public expression of religion as a tool of the state - something to promote cohesion and unity (as in worship of the Emperor). Hence, the persecution of Christianity within the empire was in large part a reaction to a perception that this group undermined the emperor's authority and threatened the peace, cohesion and unity of the empire. In other words, they were a troublesome minority that needed to be stamped out.

Nevertheless, even in the face of determined persecution, the cult of the Christian religion had grown in numbers and had spread throughout much of the territory of the Roman Empire by the time of Constantine. In his quest for imperial supremacy, Constantine sought to associate himself with what had by that time been adopted as the religion of a large number of his subjects. Thus the emperor embraced the cross because it was so widely regarded as the principal symbol of the Christians. He declared Sunday as an official day of rest because it was the day on which a majority of his subjects (Christian and Pagan) had chosen to worship their god(s). Once again, whatever his personal beliefs, the emperor needed a peaceful, cohesive and unified realm to govern.

Although there was apparently some degree of consensus among Christians by the Fourth Century about which texts/writings of the early church were authoritative, there had never been anything like an official canon of sacred writings for the community. To remedy this situation and forestall quarrelling and dissension within their ranks, Constantine quite purposefully gathered together some of the leading voices within the Christian community and enjoined them to reach agreement over which of the ancient texts/writings would be regarded as their standard. After all, if he was going to recognize these people as a legitimate religion within his state, he felt that he had the right to demand that they be united and at peace with each other (Constantine never made Christianity the state religion - that happened later under Emperor Theodosius). Hence, it is misleading to say that the emperor was personally responsible for the Christian canon (Indeed, it is generally agreed that the emperor did not appear to be very interested in which texts were included - his objective was clearly unity). Although his role in the evolution of that canon was clearly important by anyone's standard, it was not the determinative one that many have attributed to him.

What is the point of this little history lesson? It is inaccurate to assign the Emperor Constantine with responsibility for the spread and popularity of the Christian religion. It is also inconsistent with the facts to give him credit for the Christian canon or the introduction of the Hebrew Scriptures to the Western World. I would describe all of these developments as evolutionary in nature and happening over many centuries, but I would say that Jesus Christ and his disciples were the most important factors in introducing the Western World to these concepts and promoting their acceptance. To be sure, the emperor is an important part of this history; but his role was much more nuanced than both many Christians and Atheists have been willing to admit (agendas are very dangerous to an objective account of history).

Monday, July 28, 2014

A rationale for including God in our conversation about the Judeo-Christian Bible

In light of this most recent series of articles, it occured to me that a summary of the rationale that underpins my thesis may be in order. My guest commentator is correct in asserting that the conversation of the last few days has assumed certain things (for me, those assumptions are based on earlier posts on this blog). However, as some of those posts are now archived (and some folks may not be familiar with them), I have decided to offer a few words about my assumptions regarding this topic.

First, just in case my most recent posts have not made clear my position on the Judeo-Christian Bible, I would like to briefly restate it here. I believe that the book regarded by most Christians as "The Holy Bible" is: 1) a revelation of the Divine will, purpose and character, but it is not the only one; 2) a representation of Divine authority, but it is not itself the authority; and 3) not the word of God, but it does contain some of "His" words.

Now to the point: Why do I believe these things about the Bible? or In light of all of the errors, mistakes and inconsistencies, why haven't I rejected the book altogether? My rationale:
1) The Hebrew God was unique among the gods of the ancient world. Throughout most of human history, the gods have been an entirely human conception that could be equated with living or mythical creatures or naturally occuring phenomena or forces. The Hebrew Divinity claimed to be beyond human understanding or quantification. "He" couldn't be compared to anyone or anything else and insisted that there wasn't any image or name that could adequately represent him.
2) Likewise, the Hebrew Scriptures were unique among both the religious and secular writings of the ancient world. Unlike the writings of larger and more powerful cultures, the Hebrew writings were not regarded as state secrets and sealed away in a royal library somewhere. On the contrary, they were largely composed after the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had fallen. They were written for a people who had been conquered and subjugated by their more powerful neighbors. Unlike their contemporary counterparts, they did not extol the virtues of heroic death on behalf of the state. Instead, they talked about things like survival, family and individual responsibility before God.
3) These writings (produced by a relatively small and obscure group of people inhabiting a narrow slice of the Levant) were adopted by a significant portion of the human race as their sacred text(s). In the evolution of Western thought, we don't ignore the contributions of the Egyptians, Greeks or Romans. Hence, it doesn't make much sense to ignore a collection of writings that has had such a profound impact on virtually every aspect of our culture and thought (some good, some bad).
4) In the midst of all of the errors, mistakes and inconsistencies, there are several coherent themes running through these writings. Some of these include: God, covenants, survival, love, redemption and salvation. Likewise, although we can point to several inconsistencies within the context of the four gospel accounts (and the history/epistles that follow them) which are included in the canon, we must also admit that there is a remarkable degree of harmony extant in these documents written by many different people over a period that may have covered almost a hundred years. Among a largely undeducated people accustomed to an oral tradition and without access to modern communication and traveling aids, I still have to admit that this is a remarkable achievement (even taking into account the documents which have survived that didn't make it into the canon).

Finally, as my guest has indicated, our individual and collective judgment regarding what constitutes perfection may not be in sync with the Divine conception of perfection. When two people stand before a painting, what appears to be incoherent or flawed to one of them may not appear as such to the other. If we are all part of a greater collective consciousness (and I think that it's very likely that we are), doesn't it make sense that we would individually reflect different aspects or pieces of that consciousness? And if that is the case, how can we reject or ignore any part of that consciousness?

I rejected Fundamentalist Christian notions about the "authority" of Scripture many years ago, but it seems counterintuitive to me to reject those writings as having no value in informing us about the Divine. In similar fashion, the Atheist rationale for tossing both the writings and the Divinity does not appear to me to be grounded in sound reasoning or true wisdom. What do you think?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Why wouldn't God correct errors in Scripture?

I received a very thoughtful response to my last post that has prompted yet another one from me. I enjoy comments that challenge me to dig a little deeper and think more about the implications of something that I have proposed. It is the sharing of ideas that help us all to grow in grace and knowledge - even when the end result is not agreement.

If my view regarding Scripture as the product of a cooperative effort between human and Divine is correct, this raises some profound philosophical questions about the character and purposes of that Divinity. As my guest succinctly stated, "the proposal of a 'joint project' would seem to have a binding effect by returning us to a view of a God tinkering with humans, inspiring greatness but failing to prevent some of the banality that would end up getting published in the project." In other words, why would God allow error and inconsistency to exist in any project that "He" was a party to? Does this blogger's thesis return us to the image of a God that is toying with humanity?

In attempting to answer these questions, I would like to propose some questions of my own: If God corrected all of the human mistakes, wouldn't that make the Fundamentalist's conception of Divine dictation a reality? If God controlled the process, would it be fair to characterize Scripture as a joint project? Considering how sacred writings have been handled by our forefathers, what makes us think that something that was penned by God alone would have been handled any differently by them (or us)? Is there anything in the history of humankind on this planet that would suggest a collective learning process - one that mirrors the individual learning process over the course of a single human lifespan? In other words, does human history suggest progress (learning) over time? Is there anything in that history to suggest the sequential revelation of greater information/awareness for our species?

I would ask my readers to consider for a moment the example of the United States Constitution. Although the overwhelming majority of American citizens accept one version of this document and regard it as the basis for our governance, think about the multitude of interpretations that it has generated over the last two hundred plus years. Consider for just a moment, the debates that our society has generated over the role of the Federal government and the extent/meaning of our freedoms. And just for perspective, we are comparing a document of about 8,000 words to a Bible that contains over 750,000 words.

Consider another example from "secular" literature: Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. When I think about all of the discussion that this poem generated in my high school literature class, it reminds me of the fact that each individual perspective can bring its own unique interpretation to almost any piece of literature. This one poem has generated much commentary over the years since it was published. Indeed, in its biography of Frost, the Poetry Foundation reported that the poet once said that he could have generated forty pages of footnotes for this one page poem.

What does all of this imply for my thesis about Scripture? If God had corrected all of the inconsistencies and mistakes in the Bible, it would still have been the subject of numerous interpretations. As my guest noted in his/her comments, communication involves both sending and receiving - and some subjective evaluation of the information on the receiving end is virtually unavoidable. If God had handed us everything on a silver platter, what would we have learned from that? If God had supplied us with a knowledge and understanding of everything from the very beginning, what kind of existence would that have entailed for us? Would our existence have been less banal than it is currently?

What about human history? It is astounding to me to think about just how far our species has come in the last five hundred years. Think about the age of geographic exploration and discovery, the Protestant Reformation, the music that has been composed, the great works of literature that have been written, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the exploration of space. I certainly understand why some of us would hesitate to characterize some of these developments as progress, but can any of us seriously deny a progressive trend in human history? Moreover, we cannot say that this trend is confined to the "material" or "physical" realm. During this period, humanity has witnessed a dramatic shift in public opinion regarding slavery, misogyny, religious intolerance and war. I'm certainly not suggesting that these things have disappeared from the planet - I'm merely pointing out that they are not as widely acceptable today as they were five hundred years ago. Have we made progress on these "spiritual" or "moral" issues? I think so.

What does this history imply for my thesis about Scripture? It suggests that either human or Divine effort (or some combination of the two) has produced a greater awareness and understanding of the world we live in and the nature of our role in the cosmos. That's not to say that we have reached the summit - that there's nothing left to learn. On the contrary, I would argue that the process of learning and growth could be eternal (I hope it is).

Finally, if God really is "being-itself" (as my guest suggested), wouldn't that view also fit with this thesis? If we are all part of the Divine, couldn't we just as easily characterize that as a joint venture between human and Divine? What if we someday discover that we are talking about the same thing - just employing different words based on our current, limited understanding? I like to think of this as a cooperative effort, but I also don't have any problem with viewing it as a "oneness." Is God tinkering with us? I prefer to think of it as working with us to improve our lot over time. What do you think?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Two choices regarding God?

In a discussion related to The Atheist Delusion? post, I was accused by an atheist of advocating a cherry-picking approach to Scripture. This is not the first time that I've been accused of engaging in this type of fallacious reasoning - my Fundamentalist Christian friends have accused me of the same thing. From the atheist perspective, a person has the choice of accepting and defending a monstrous God (defined by Scripture) or rejecting the existence of God. From the Fundamentalist Christian perspective, a person has the choice of accepting all of the things attributed to God in Scripture or rejecting the only "TRUE" God. For both sides, it's all or nothing. Moreover, anyone who rejects this formula is cherry-picking. By the way, there is a name for this kind of argument too: It's called "excluding the middle" or presenting a "false dichotomy" (making it look like there are only two choices when in reality there are more legitimate alternatives).

What is cherry-picking? In the realm of reasoning and formulating logical arguments, cherry-picking involves the selective use of evidence. In other words, a person engaging in this behavior would suppress or ignore any evidence that did not support their belief or thesis. So who's doing the cherry-picking in this discussion about who's deluded - Fundamentalist, Atheists or me?

As this blog has always challenged the Fundamentalist doctrine of Sola Scriptura, the atheist could not claim that I had suppressed the evidence that he uses to discredit God and the Bible. Likewise, I have stated my support for scientific findings and the evolutionary model in explaining the diversity of life on this planet, so he could not accuse me of suppressing or ignoring that evidence either. Instead, the atheist accused me of cherry-picking by pointing to my assertion that the Bible is a joint venture between human and Divine. He claimed that I had arbitrarily decided that the good stuff belonged to God, and that the bad stuff belonged to man. The atheist then challenged me to present a methodology for determining what in Scripture is inspired by God and what is derived from human reasoning. According to him, if I failed to supply such a methodology, my thesis would collapse; and I would be guilty of cherry-picking.

Since it is my contention that God is so far beyond our ability to conceptualize and contain, I naturally replied that it would be impossible to arrive at such a methodology (especially one that would satisfy an atheist). That does not, however, mean that the assignment of something to the Divine is necessarily arbitrary in nature. I believe that every individual (including myself) has some ability to differentiate between things that are of human origin and those which are of Divine origin. I believe that ability is derived from the same place from whence Scripture is derived - human reasoning informed or enlightened by Divine inspiration. The atheist demanded a formula from me that would result in a universally applicable method that arrived at uniform conclusions by everyone. If I'm right, that's not possible this side of God's Kingdom. Moreover, he sets a standard for me that his side of this argument is also not able to satisfy - Two people employing the scientific method and studying the same subject often arrive at different conclusions. Learning about God (or any other thing) is a process that happens over time. Hence, if I don't claim to know the complete nature and extent of God, how can I be accused of cherry-picking facts to support an open-ended thesis regarding the nature and extent of God?

"It's all or nothing!" That's what Fundamentalist Christians and Atheists preach, but it still doesn't make any sense to me. What do you think?

The Atheist Delusion?

Have you ever read any of the articles, excerpts or other materials posted by the authors of The Christian Delusion? If not, you should. The people behind this material have impeccable credentials and are obviously knowledgeable about Scripture. Indeed, they make many of the same points about Scripture that I have made in various posts on this blog. They, however, reach some conclusions that are very different from the ones reached by this blogger. Hence, although I would argue that many of the points that they make about Scripture are valid, the reasoning and logic employed in using those points to discredit God is flawed.

Like them, I have argued that many of the traditional conceptions of God are based on false premises (found in Scripture or Christian teachings), which has prompted me to advocate for a more expansive and rational view of God. As part of that effort, I have pointed out the ignorant and arrogant attitudes that exists within some Christian circles regarding their belief system (i.e. "We have the truth!"). The authors of The Christian Delusion, however, appear to be guilty of the same hubris as their Christian counterparts (maybe this has something to do with the fact that many of them used to be believers). In short, they have discovered the "truth" that God does not exist.

Like their Christian counterparts, they have a very high opinion of their "truth;" and a very low opinion of anyone who professes a different "truth." In the time honored tradition of proof-texting, they trot out scripture after scripture to demonstrate the foolishness of believing in God. But I have to ask: How logical or rational is it to base your conclusions about God's existence on a book that you have rejected as illogical and irrational?

In their discussion of "The Will of God," they point to twenty-four passages of Scripture that portray God as a monstrous entity that any rational person would reject. Nevertheless, while I agree with every one of their interpretations of the passages cited, I do not accept them as a basis for rejecting God. The Bible does teach that it was God's will that: Humankind (along with billions of animals) be annihilated by a flood, people commit genocide on his orders, it was acceptable to make female prisoners of war into sex slaves, homosexuals be executed, it was acceptable for God to be jealous, angry and vengeful and use natural disasters as retribution and punishment, etc. How do the opinions of these biblical authors regarding God's will prove that God does not exist? The only thing that they demonstrate to me is that their opinions about God's will are crazy and invalid!

Likewise, John Loftus' chapter on "The Bible and the Treatment of Animals," points out that Scripture is at odds with our modern understanding that animals should be protected from mistreatment and extinction at the hands of humankind. Mr. Loftus references the passages in Genesis where God gives mankind dominion over the earth and instructs him to subdue it (including all of the other organisms on this planet). He then makes a convincing case that these passages are the basis for many of the attitudes that have led to modern ecological problems. He goes on to point out the cruelty and waste of animal sacrifices outlined in the Torah, and the apparent indifference of God to the suffering of the organisms employed by him in the plagues of Egypt. Loftus concludes that the prophetic writings are not any better in their treatment of animals or insistence on the superiority of man. He also points out that Christ cusrsed a fig tree for not bearing any fruit, and that he was indifferent at best to the plight of animals.

Although Mr. Loftus acknowledges a few passages in Scripture that present animals in a favorable light or advocate for their humane treatment, he concludes that these should not distract us from the overall barbaric and egocentric character of the majority of biblical passages. Thus, after an impressive review of several proof-texts, Loftus issues two challenges to the Christian community: "What best explains the fact that Christians must continually seek out these minority voices in the past to defend what they believe?" and "Why didn’t God reveal the truth about the intrinsic worth of everything from the environment, to other races of people, to women and to animals from the very start?" Both of his challenges are based on the assertions made by many Christians that God revealed essential truths about everything in the pages of the Bible.

In answering these challenges, it must first be stated that not all Christians assert that God revealed essential truths about everything in the Bible (this blogger being among those who would not assert such a thing). I believe that the Bible was written by men who did not always follow the guidance of Divine inspiration. Inspiration is not dictation. I see Scripture as a joint venture between human and Divine. Thus, while the Divine part of that equation could be said to be perfect, the same claim could not be made about the human side of the project. Hence, it is clear to me that the biases, prejudices and faulty reasoning of the human authors found their way into Scripture. So, yes, there is a great deal of barbaric and egocentric garbage that has found its way into the Bible; but that fact only discredits the human authors of Scripture, and the folks who assert that they are infallible. It is an unwarranted leap of logic to attribute these failures to God or conclude that "He" doesn't exist because of them.

I would say that the minority voices got it right in these instances, and that the majority was clearly in the wrong. I don't see any inconsistency between my belief in God and embracing Darwinian evolutionary biology or its implications for the proper treatment of other species by humans. Moreover, I can't see how anyone who truly embraces Darwin's thesis could criticize Jesus Christ for not being a vegetarian! There are a great many organisms on this planet that are not vegetarians (lions, tigers and bears, oh my!). I guess one could characterize the natural world as having evolved into a cruel and indifferent place; but how rational and useful is it to find fault with the fundamental basis of the ecology of life on this planet?

As to the second question/challenge posed by Mr. Loftus, it appears to this blogger that God has revealed the intrinsic worth of all other organisms on this planet - at least to some of us. It appears that God has revealed this "truth" to Mr. Loftus, and it appears that "He" has revealed it to me. Unfortunately, some folks reject inspiration and appeal to their own faulty reasoning or the faulty reasoning of others - I cannot speak for them. Hence, Mr. Loftus' assertion that there has been a lack of Divine guidance on this subject rings hollow to this blogger. Is Mr. Loftus suggesting (like the Fundamentalists) that the only way for God to reveal things to us is through Scripture? Doesn't Scripture indicate that the natural world can reveal many things to us about God's character and what "He" wants or wills?

I would agree with Mr. Loftus that there is good reason to believe that a large number of Christians are deluded, but it appears to this blogger that atheists are also not immune to the phenomenon.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Promoting and Defending God and Attacking Each Other

Does God need people to promote and defend him? Apparently so! A large portion of Christian financial resources go to do just that. From Ken Ham's Creation Museum to most of the religious programming on television, the overwhelming message of Christians is one of promotion and defense of God - and things associated with God, like the Bible. The other major focus of these media efforts is attacking each other. What happened to the Gospel?

From time to time I like to check out the folks at Chick Publications - just to see what they are up to at any given moment. They are one of the premier sources for Protestant Fundamentalist Christian tracts. I noticed on my latest visit that they were advertising a new T-shirt with the caption "Please don't go to Hell" plastered accross the front of the garment.

I did a little survey of the subject matter of their tracts and found sixty-one tracts devoted to a "Basic Gospel" message. I also counted 69 tracts devoted to things like Homosexuality(4), Halloween(8), Anti-Catholic(9), False Religion(20), Hell(9), Communism, Mormonism, Global Warming and Jehovah's Witnesses. Many churches accross the United States purchase these tracts and distribute them to the general public in an effort to hook new converts.

Groups within the Church of God culture are not immune to this phenomenon either. Notice some of the booklet titles from the Church of God International: "The Origins of Our Calendar," "Who Changed the Sabbath to Sunday?" "Evolution: Fact or Fallacy?" "The Restoration of Sodom," "The Coming Blood Moons - What Are They?" Notice some of the titles from the United Church of God: "Creation or Evolution - Does It Really Matter What You Believe?" "Is the Bible True?" "Life's Ultimate Question: Does God Exist?" "The Rapture vs. the Bible" "Bible and Archeology (Parts I and II)."

What happened to the message(s) that Jesus Christ gave his disciples to proclaim to the world? Was Christ God's representative to mankind or not? If he was, why isn't the entire focus of these Christian organizations the message(s) that he gave them? Does God need us to promote and defend him? And what do you think God's take on Christians attacking each other would be?

Aren't you attacking Christians Mr. Blogger? I'm asking some questions. I know some fine people who use all of these materials. I accept them as my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I expect to see them in God's Kingdom. I'm just asking: Are we waisting the resources that God has given us on things that "He" never asked us to do?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Miraculous God

A friend recently sent me a copy of an article that appeared originally in the Sept-Oct 2010 edition of The Journal: News of the Churches of God. The article recounted the story of a couple from Texas who claimed to have experienced a miracle that prevented them from having a serious motor vehicle accident. In fact, the article was part of a series of articles on supernatural occurences (angels and miracles).

Reading this account brought to my mind a theme that has been a common refrain from people outside of the Christian community. In short, many critics of the Christian Bible and religion have focused on rebutting or disproving any claims that God and/or "His" representatives have performed miracles. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson once penned his own version of the gospels in which he left out any references to miraculous events.

The fundamental complaint seems to be the absurdity of the notion that miracles are possible. In this view of the world, any phenomenon that we can observe or point to has some rational, scientific explanation for its occurence. Moreover, Christian claims that miracles have and/or do happen are seen as proof that Christians embrace an anti-intellectual, anti-scientific view of the world. They ask questions like: "Why does God intervene on some occasions and not others?" "Why would God use his powers in such a meaningless or silly fashion?" "If God performed all of those miracles recorded in Scripture, why doesn't he perform miracles today?"

First, I think that I have established my credentials as a critic of the anti-intellectual and anti-scientific mindset that exists within some corners of the Christian community. I do think that it's absurd to ignore our God-given ability to reason, and the things that scientific exploration and research can tell us about the world in which we live. I have likened this kind of thinking to a small child standing in a corner and shutting their eyes and covering their ears to avoid any input from the world around them. I've talked about the folks that will only listen to Fox News or MSNBC. That kind of reasoning is childish and silly (in fact, it's an affront to characterize it as reasoning).

Nevertheless, Christians aren't the only folks who practice the technique of burying their heads in the sand. Atheists, agnostics and practitioners of other religions can be equally stubborn and close-minded about some things. Just as some Christians automatically reject anything that doesn't derive from Scripture, some folks automatically reject anything that isn't rational or logical to them. Even if they don't have a scientific explanation available to them, there has to be one out there somewhere - it's just that no one has discovered it yet. For this crowd, the supernatural is impossible - only the world that they can absorb through their five senses and process through their own brains is possible. I don't know about you, but it seems to me that both viewpoints (anti-intellectual and strictly scientific) are narrow and limited.

Hence, although I certainly would not claim that all of the "miracles" recorded in the Bible are "real" or attributable to Divine action or influence, I think that it would also be a mistake to dismiss all of them out of hand. It is apparent to me that some folks believed that Christ performed (or was a part of) many miracles - some of them believed this so strongly that they were willing to die for him. Even so, if we accept that some of the "miracles" recorded in the Bible may have had some foundation in truth, how do we explain that miracles do not happen today?

I cannot vouch for the experiences of other folks, but I can certainly attest to what has happened in my own life. In short, this writer has experienced what he believes to have been a miraculous event. As I have said before, often these things are a matter of individual perspective. Some folks will look at the same set of events and see no miracle whatsoever - I'm not going to convince them that I have experienced a miracle, and they are not going to convince me that I haven't.

This is the official account of the events surrounding my miracle:
"At 4:59 a.m. on February 16, 1995, an F3 tornado touched down three miles west of Joppa in extreme northeast Cullman County. It traveled through the town of Joppa, crossed Alabama Highway 69 and moved into Marshall County, just southwest of Arab, at 5:06 a.m. The tornado moved across the southern side of Arab at 5:08 and crossed over U.S. Highway 231. It finally dissipated near Browns Creek on the western side of Lake Guntersville after being on the ground for 14 miles. Six people were killed and 130 were injured. One death occurred in a house and the other five occurred in mobile homes. Five of the deaths were in Marshall County and one was in Cullman County.
A total of 157 homes were destroyed (77 in Cullman and 80 in Marshall) and 12 businesses (6 in Cullman and 6 in Marshall) were destroyed. More than 40 commercial poultry houses were demolished and at least two small trailer parks were destroyed by the tornado. The roof was ripped off Amberwoods Garden Apartments and the tornado also tore through the Joppa Elementary School." --Mike Wilhelm's Alabama Weather Blog

This is my account of those events:
After being discharged from the United States Army, I had placed a sixteen by eighty foot mobile home on some land that we owned in Joppa, Alabama. My wife and two small daughters lived with me there. Also, at the time, my brother and his three small children were visiting from Ohio and staying with us.
It was still dark outside when the sound woke me. Yes, it was like a gigantic freight train bearing down on us - only louder. We didn't know it at the time, but the tornado had already demolished the Joppa Elementary School about two miles up the road from us.
Everything happened so fast. We barely had time to get the kids out of bed and kneel down in the hallway of the trailer to pray. In one of the most intense prayers that I have ever said in my life, I asked God to spare the little ones. At the "A-men," it hit.
The whole trailer lurched and shook. We heard metal being ripped off, windows breaking, trees snapping and electrical lines popping. Looking back, to say that we were terrified just doesn't seem adequate to describe what we were feeling that day.
Silence and darkness followed, and the air was filled with the scent of pine. When we emerged from the trailer, the first thing that we heard was "Help, help, please help us!"
The trailer immediately behind us was gone - the tornado had obliterated it. My neighbor was pinned under a car, and her daughter was standing in the wreckage crying. My brother and I helped some other neighbors to extract her from the debris. We used what had been her bathroom door a few minutes before as a stretcher to load her onto a pickup truck and carry her to the hospital.
As the sun came up, we could clearly see the path of the tornado. My neighbors' houses to the west and east of me were missing their roofs and one of them had been knocked off of its foundation. The house across the street from me was also missing its roof. A strip of mature pine trees (one and a half to two feet in diameter) immediately behind my trailer had been snapped off like toothpicks.
How had we escaped this cataclysm? There was devastation all around me. Twenty sheets of four by eight plywood that had just been delivered and stacked in my yard the day before was gone - no where to be seen. It was as if something or someone had placed their hand on top of my trailer and held it down and shielded it from the wind.
Two windows had been broken in the storm and a sheet of siding had been knocked off the back of the trailer. Two of the concrete block support pillars were knocked over underneath the trailer and most of the vynil underpinning was gone; but my trailer was intact, and we were unharmed!

From my perspective, I experienced a miracle that day. Although I have had other supernatural experiences in my lifetime, this one would be enough for me. I believe in a God of Miracles. What do you think?

Monday, July 21, 2014

The two biggest threats to the institution of family

My apologies to those of you who are anticipating the naming of homosexuality and abortion as the response to this post's title - It's not going to happen here. It is the opinion of this blogger that naming those things as the biggest threats to the family obscures more realitstic and immediate hazards. In short, I believe that the two biggest threats to the institution of the family are: Grudges and Indifference.

In a society that claims to be Christian, it is astounding to me just how tenaciously most of us hold on to the hurts and disappointments we have suffered at the hands of each other. Take a moment to consider some of these: "My dad/mother didn't spend enough time with me when I was a child," "My grandparents never remembered my birthday," "My aunt hurt my feelings at a family Christmas gathering twenty-five years ago," "My cousin played a horrible prank on me when I was a teen," "My parents didn't come to my sports event/concert when I was a kid," "My mother didn't prepare healthy meals for our family," "My brother/sister got more attention than I did," etc. The list could go on ad infinitum.

We use these memories of actual or imagined injustices to justify negative feelings against each other and isolating ourselves from the offending party, but is that the way that Christ taught his disciples to deal with offenses? Didn't Jesus say: "If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins?" (Matthew 6:14-15) When asked about the extent to which we should forgive each other, and Peter suggested seven times, Christ replied: "No, not seven times, but seventy times seven!" (Matthew 18:21-22) He then proceeded to give them the "Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor." (verses 23-35) Christ didn't give any wiggle room on this one - A Christian has to forgive those who hurt and offend them - PERIOD!

The other big threat to the family is indifference. Think about some of the things that some of us tell ourselves related to this topic: "My life is so full and busy that I don't have any time to go watch a game/concert," "They live too far away to visit or keep in contact (what about phones? social media?), "I don't have the time or energy to take care of them," "I don't have the financial resources to help them out," "I'm devoted to God and my church - my family is secondary to that," "I have a party to attend that evening or a show to watch on television," etc. We have a million of these excuses tucked away in the recesses of our minds!

This type of behavior violates what most Christians would recognize as one of the most fundamental teachings of Jesus Christ: "Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you." (Matthew 7:12) Do you enjoy being ignored? Love is not indifferent. It is an active force that seeks the welfare and benefit of those who are its object. (I Corinthians 13:1-7) How can anyone who claims to be a Christian be indifferent?

Do you think that God will accept such excuses? Are you comfortable with these kinds of excuses? Does this article make you squirm a little? Are we using homosexuality and abortion as scapegoats, so that we can avoid facing the real threats to the family? Is it too painful to look in the mirror and face the real threats to the family - those things that lurk in our own hearts? Yeah, the more I think about it: GRUDGES and INDIFFERENCE! What do you think?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

God's Sabbath

"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work...For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." (Exodus 20:8-11, NIV)

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews made very plain that there was a deep spiritual significance to the concept of God's Sabbath. In other words, the notion of resting on one day in seven was not an arbitrary ritual; and it was never intended to be just another part of the mechanics of worshiping God.

The writer demonstrated this by referring to Israel's story as they journeyed out of Egypt. This was accomplished by quoting from one of the psalms. We read: "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, where your fathers (ancestors) tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, 'They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.' So I declared on oath in my anger, 'They shall never enter my rest." (Psalm 95:7-11 and Hebrews 3:7-11)

The author then proceeded to warn his Christian audience not to follow the example of the Israelites. (Hebrews 3:12-15) Continuing, we read: "Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief." (verses 16-19) The children of Israel had failed to trust God and march in to take possession of the Promised Land (here referred to as God's rest).

As we have noted before, there were no chapter and verse designations in the original manuscripts of the sacred writings. Hence, the thought in the third chapter of Hebrews continues into the following chapter. We read: "Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it." (Hebrews 4:1) The author of the epistle then proceeded to tell his audience that the message that had been preached to the Israelites was fundamentally the same message that had been preached to them, but that the children of Israel had failed to respond to that message - had failed to believe in God's rest. (verses2-3)

This promise is then firmly tied to God's Sabbath. We read: "For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: 'And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.' And again in the passage above (verse 3 quoting again the passage in the psalm) he says, 'They shall never enter my rest.'" (verses 4-5) Thus, he concluded that those who believe in that rest still have an opportunity to enter into it. (verses 6-7)

Then he repeats that the promise of this rest is still valid for God's people. Continuing: "There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience." (verses 9-11) To enter the Promised Land of God's rest, the Christian must stop doing his own work(s) and accept and believe in what God has done!

This is consistent with what Jesus Christ taught about the Sabbath. Like many Sabbath-keeping Christians of today, the religious leaders of Christ's day emphasized the proper observance of the day - the legalistic requirements of the Law. Jesus made clear that the Sabbath was intended to be a blessing for mankind - not something to be ritually observed in a rigid and burdensome fashion. (Mark 2:27) The Sabbath represents the ultimate Promised Land for God's people - it's not a special hoop for people to jump through to demonstrate their sainthood! Hence, it should be the goal of every Christian to enter God's rest.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Is the Bible an incoherent and meaningless collection of writings?

Many critics of the Christian Bible characterize it as lacking cohesion. They say that it is a collection of disjointed and often rambling compositions that cannot be logically reconciled or connected to each other. Blogger Steve Wiggins recently wrote: "The Bible is not a unified composition." ("Stratego" posted 12 July 2014 on Sects and Violence in the Ancient World) What about those charges? Does a closer examination of Scripture inevitably lead to such a conclusion?

As the long time readers of this blog will readily acknowledge, this writer is no friend to the Fundamentalist view of Scripture. I have pointed out in numerous posts that Scripture is not perfect, and that substantial inconsistencies exist among some of its more important teachings. Nevertheless, an admission of such imperfections and errors does not necessarily mean that Scripture is a hopeless jumble of mishmash that is virtually worthless in terms of providing spiritual and philosophical guidance.

I would argue that there are a number of themes that run throughout Scripture that knit together the various writings (even taking into account the diverse teachings, prophecies and opinions represented within them). In this regard, consider these themes:

1. God - character and personality
2. Laws - commandments, statutes, ordinances, judgments, expectations, etc.
3. Covenants - Adamic, Noachian, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, New or Christian
4. Israel - family, tribes, people and nations
5. Salvation - the redemption of mankind from sin and death
6. The conflict between good and evil, sin and righteousness
7. Survival - the belief in hope in the face of defeat, slavery and subjugation
8. Compassion and empathy - the belief that love is the ultimate solution to all problems/difficulties
9. Meaning and order in an often chaotic and cruel world
10.Worship - the way to honor and respect the Divine

Nothing to unify these "disparate" writings - What book are you looking at? Yes, this writer sees the fingerprints of the human authors all over these writings, but I also see another set of fingerprints on them that demands our attention. What do you think?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Did God create different races of people?

In times past, students of the Bible have suggested that modern racial divisions can be traced to the three sons of Noah (Shem, Ham and Japheth). The most common view assigned Shem as the father of Semitic/Asian peoples, Ham was regarded as the ancestor of Black Africans and Japheth was said to be the progenitor of Caucasian/European peoples.

However, it is interesting to note that race is not mentioned in Scripture. Instead, the Bible speaks in terms of families, tribes and nations. Hence, the assignment of racial categories to the descendants of Noah's sons is based on human interpretation and extra-biblical information. In short, the racial divisions of humankind cannot be demonstrated exclusively from the Bible!

It should also be noted that modern genetic research has turned our traditional understandings about race upside down. Skin, eye and hair color are now understood to be very superficial features that don't really tell us much about what's on the inside of a person. Also, any view that talks about a White, Black and Yellow race has been demonstrated to be very simplistic at best and probably worthless in the final analysis when discussing human populations.

The study of human DNA has demonstrated that we all ultimately originated in Africa. More particularly, the study of mitochondrial DNA has demonstrated that humanity is descended from a common female ancestor that lived about 200,000 years ago known in scientific circles as "Mitochondrial Eve." Similarly, genetic scientists have determined that all paternal haplogroups derive from a "Y-chromosome Adam" that lived about 150,000 years ago. It should also be noted that there is enough wiggle room within the scientific evidence to suggest that these two ancestors of the human race could have lived at about the same time. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that we are all related to each other either way (through the genetic or biblical model).

It is also interesting to note that many folks have submitted their DNA to labs for testing in connection with their pursuit of the story of their ancestry. Indeed, Genetic Genealogy is one of the fastest growing branches of ancestral research in the world today. This testing has completely upended some folks' conceptions of who they are and what race they belong to. Many "Black" Americans have discovered that they have significant percentages of European ancestry in their backgrounds. Likewise, many "White" Americans have been surprised to find that they are descended from an African haplogroup. My own genealogical research and genetic testing has revealed European, African and Native American heritage. Taken together, this demolishes any notions of ethnic or racial purity that have been advanced by some folks.

What is the conclusion of the matter? God created a wide range of genetic possibilities, but all of the evidence (both biblical and scientific) indicates that "He" did not create races of people. On the contrary, the evidence demonstrates that people and geography have led to the formation of these superficial differences among the human race. Hence, there is no Divine mandate for racial prejudice, and there really is no such thing as miscegenation.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

God and the Christian conception of sin (Part 2)

In its article on Sin, The Catholic Encyclopedia states: "As regards the principle from which it proceeds sin is original or actual. The will of Adam acting as head of the human race for the conservation or loss of original justice is the cause and source of original sin. Actual sin is committed by a free personal act of the individual will. It is divided into sins of commission and omission. A sin of commission is a positive act contrary to some prohibitory precept; a sin of omission is a failure to do what is commanded." (http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=10849) Although most Protestant Christians would not state the matter in these terms, many of them would agree that there are different types of sins.

If we reject the premise that we have inherited Adam's sin (which is not saying that we haven't felt some of the consequences of his decision), then we are left with what the Catholics call actual sin. Traditionally, the worst of these actual sins were the Seven Deadly Sins: Lust, Greed, Glutony, Envy, Anger, Pride and Sloth. (http://www.catholicbible101.com/7deadlysins.htm) It is interesting to note that Catholics also make a further differentiation between sins by characterizing them as being mortal (those that result in damnation) or venial (those that impede our relationship with God).

All of these distinctions between different kinds of sins brings to mind another interesting question: What is sin? The Catholic Encyclopedia states that "Sin is nothing else than a morally bad act, an act not in accord with reason informed by the Divine law." For those of us who might find that definition to be a little too broad and nebulous, there are also several places in the Bible where sin is defined.

In this regard, the scripture that is most often appealed to is found in John's first general epistle. He wrote: "Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the trangression of the law." (I John 3:4) Now this is where things get interesting in the realm of Christian theology/philosophy. What law was John talking about? Was he referring to the Law of Moses? Was he writing about the Ten Commandments? Was he talking about the teachings of Jesus Christ? In any legitimate attempt to answer these questions, one would have to examine all of the other scriptures which define sin and examine John's statement here in both the context of his other writings and those of his associates.

Another definition that was attributed to Solomon states: "Haughty eyes, a proud heart, and evil actions are all sin." (Proverbs 21:4, NLT) In his letter to the Romans, Paul said that anything that does not originate in faith is a sin. (Romans 14:23) Nevertheless, he also indicated that the Law enables us to understand what sin is. (Romans 3:20) In his epistle to the scattered tribes of Israel, James said that any occasion that a person fails to do what they know is right should be considered a sin. (James 4:17) Later, in the same letter referenced above, John declared that all unrighteousness is sin. (I John 5:17)

David once wrote that all of God's commandments are righteousness (Psalm 119:172), but Paul indicated that there was a righteousness apart from the Law - one based on faith. (Romans 3:21) Hence, in looking at these scriptures, we are forced to ask ourselves: Is there a coherent and meaningful way to reconcile these different statements about sin? This author believes that there is a way to do just that.

First, in reviewing all of the scriptures associated with the topic of sin, it becomes clear that sin is inextricably linked with disobedience to God's Law. Nevertheless, it is not immediately apparent from those scriptures alone which Law or laws are referenced in these statements.

Returning to John's definition of sin, when we take a closer look at the surrounding verses a clearer picture begins to emerge about the nature of what he was trying to convey to his readers. At the beginning of this letter we read: "This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts." (I John 1:5-10, NLT)

In the original letter, there were no chapter and verse designations to interrupt the writer's thought. Hence, the thought continues into the following chapter: "My dear children, I am writing this to you so that you will not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate who pleads our case before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who is truly righteous. He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins - and not only our sins but the sins of all the world. And we can be sure that we know him if we obey his commandments. If someone claims, 'I know God,' but doesn't obey God's commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God's word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him." (I John 2:1-5) So, according to John, Christians do sin - they break God's commandments. Nevertheless, he went on to remind his audience that they have an advocate with God - Jesus Christ. He is recounting here the most basic message of Christianity: The sacrifice of Jesus Christ atones for our sins - removes them from us - wipes them away.

Continuing, John nails down exactly which commandment(s) he's talking about. We read: "Dear friends, I am not writing a new commandment for you; rather it is an old one you have had from the very beginning. This old commandment - to love one another - is the same message you heard before. Yet it is also new. Jesus lived the truth of this commandment, and you also are living it. For the darkness is disappearing, and the true light is already shining. If anyone claims, 'I am living in the light,' but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is still living in darkness." (I John 2:7-9) John is clearly associating the commandment(s) with the principle of love here.

Hence, when we return to his definition of sin delivered later in the letter, we begin to understand what he is really talking about. In context, we read: "Everyone who sins is breaking God's law, for all sin is contrary to the law of God. And you know that Jesus came to take away our sins, and there is no sin in him. Anyone who continues to live in him will not sin. But anyone who keeps on sinning does not know him or understand who he is." (I John 3:4-6) But didn't John say that Christians sin? Keep reading! "Dear children, don't let anyone deceive you about this: When people do what is right, it shows that they are righteous, even as Christ is righteous. But when people keep on sinning, it shows that they belong to the devil, who has been sinning since the beginning. But the Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born into God's family do not make a practice of sinning, because God's life is in them...Anyone who does not live righteously and does not love other believers does not belong to God. This is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another...If we love our Christian brothers and sisters, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead." (verses 7-14)

Paul wrote to the saints at Rome: "Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God's law." (Romans 13:10) As with many Christians today, the Pharisees and Sadducees loved to embellish the Law and add to the list of things that were considered sins. We are informed in three of the Gospel accounts of Christ's life, that one of them asked him "Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?" (Matthew 22:36) Continuing: "Jesus replied, 'You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself. The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.'" (verses 37-40) In other words, love is the principle behind the whole edifice of the Law.

In its most fundamental and basic terms, even the Ten Commandments can be reduced to this formula. The first four commandments are based on love for God, and the last six commandments are based on love for our brothers and sisters. Hence, for Christians, when we put all of the scriptural and philosophical evidence together, the clearest definition of sin is "Any behavior that is not motivated by love." (And for all of the haters out there, that includes loving yourself!)

Monday, July 14, 2014

God and the Christian conception of sin (Part I)

Few teachings have evoked as much consternation and ridicule among both believers and non-believers as Christian dogma regarding the subject of sin. Indeed, many have argued that the "Christian" conception of sin is one of the most damaging and destructive beliefs that has ever been introduced into the world of ideas. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that there is no such thing as sin. What is the truth of the matter? Are Christian conceptions of sin in harmony with God's view of the subject?

In exploring this subject, it is probably best to begin with the most controversial aspect of the subject: The concept of Original Sin. It is interesting to note that the earliest and most articulate spokesman for this belief was Augustine of Hippo (an important Christian theologian and philosopher of the late Fourth and early Fifth Century). In his great work The City of God, Augustine wrote: "For God, the author of natures, not of vices, created man upright; but man, being of his own will corrupted, and justly condemned, begot corrupted and condemned children. For we all were in that one man, since we all were that one man, who fell into sin by the woman who was made from him before the sin. For not yet was the particular form created and distributed to us, in which we as individuals were to live, but already the seminal nature was there from which we were to be propagated; and this being vitiated by sin, and bound by the chain of death, and justly condemned, man could not be born of man in any other state. And thus, from the bad use of free will, there originated the whole train of evil, which, with its concatenation of miseries, convoys the human race from its depraved origin, as from a corrupt root, on to the destruction of the second death, which has no end, those only being excepted who are freed by the grace of God." (Book 13, Chapter 14 - http://home.newadvent.org/fathers/120113.htm)

In his St. Augustine's Doctrine of Original Sin, Jesse Couenhoven points out that Augustine's teaching on this subject represents a complex set of beliefs which had a number of different component parts that were not necessarily dependent on each other. (http://www.academia.edu/1958072/St._Augustines_Doctrine_of_Original_Sin) Couenhoven describes these components in the following terms: "In brief, the five elements of the doctrine of original sin are as follows: (1) the source of original sin is a primal sin in the garden of Eden. (2) All human beings share in this sin because of our solidarity with Adam, the progenitor of the race. The results of the primal sin are twofold. (3) From birth, all human beings have an inherited sin (original sin itself), which comes in two forms: common guilt, and a constitutional fault of disordered desire and ignorance. (4) In addition, Augustine holds that the human race suffers a penalty because of sin — human powers are weakened, and we will experience death. (5) Finally, Augustine speculates about how both sin and penalty are transmitted from generation to generation." In his evaluation of the Bishop of Hippo's teaching, Couenhoven concludes that these components do not stand or fall together - that it is possible to accept some of these and reject others and remain philosophically and theologically consistent. This blogger agrees with this view.

In his Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, Augustine relied heavily on Paul's letter to the Romans to justify his teachings on Original Sin. (http://home.newadvent.org/fathers/15091.htm, et al) One verse in particular was employed to support several of the components of the doctrine: Romans 5:12. In the NLT, the verse is translated: "When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam's sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned." Augustine interpreted this to mean that Adam's sin was inherited by all of his descendants (note that the verse could be interpreted to suggest that Adam's sin was simply the first of many - that death is the consequence of the fact that all have sinned). It should also be noted that Augustine's view is in accord with the practice of infant baptism, which many Protestant Christians reject. Augustine believed that Adam's fallen nature was transferred to all of his progeny through the process of human reproduction (one of the principal reasons that sexual intercourse came to be regarded as sinful). Hence, since all babies were born with Adam's sinful nature, they had to be baptized to prevent them from being condemned to hell.

This, however, directly contradicts the teachings of the prophet Ezekiel about individual responsibility for sin. He wrote: "What? you ask. 'Doesn't the child pay for the parent's sins?' No! For if the child does what is just and right and keeps my decrees, that child will surely live. The person who sins is the one who will die. The child will not be punished for the parent's sins, and the parent will not be punished for the child's sins. Righteous people will be rewarded for their own righteous behavior, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness." (Ezekiel 18:19-20)

In addition to contradicting this principle of individual responsibility, Augustine's teachings on this subject also present some problems for the traditional view of the Messiah and require additional doctrines to resolve them. Think about it. Christ took on the nature of humankind. (Hebrews 2:14, 16) Luke records his human genealogy as being derived through Adam. (Luke 3:38) This would seem to contradict one of the major tenets of Christianity: Christ was sinless. (Isaiah 53:9, II Corinthians 5:21, I Peter 2:22, I John 3:5) After all, if Adam was Christ's human ancestor, wouldn't that have made him an inheritor of Original Sin? On the other hand, if we adopt the view of individual responsibility and reject Augustine's view, there is no contradiction to resolve.

It should also be noted that Augustine's teaching on Original Sin is very closely linked to his beliefs regarding the immortality of the soul. In short, Augustine did not believe that humans really die - that only the physical body dies. He believed that we all have immortal souls that are punished or rewarded based on whether or not we've accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior in this life. The significance of this being that not all Christians subscribe to this view. Some Christians believe that humans are wholly mortal, and that immortal life is God's gift to us through Jesus Christ. (Romans 6:23)

To be sure, there are numerous scriptures that suggest that mankind is mostly or entirely evil (Genesis 6:5, Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 7:18, et al); but it is also suggested at the very beginning of the Bible that man (including his nature) was very good. (Genesis 1:31) Indeed, we are told that humankind was made in the very image and likeness of Almighty God! (Genesis 1:26-27) Of course, Augustine and his followers would say that this is where Adam's fall changed everything.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that we are really talking about the origins of sin or sinfulness. Augustine attempted to answer this question of origins by stating that Adam was the source of sin, but was he? If we read this story carefully, one could make a strong case for tracing the origins of sin through Eve to the serpent. As a matter of fact, Jesus Christ characterized Satan as the original sinner and the father of all liars. (John 8:44) Even so, how does that negate or lessen the principle of individual responsibility outlined by the prophet Ezekiel? Whatever the origin of sin, haven't we all sinned in the eyes of God? (Romans 3:23) Doesn't the Bible teach that each and every one of us will someday answer for his/her sins if we haven't accepted the forgiveness afforded to us by Christ's sacrifice? (Romans 14:12)

In examining the question of Original Sin, it might also be instructive to ask ourselves: What exactly was the sin that Adam and Eve committed? In the Genesis account, we are told that they violated a direct commandment from God not to eat the fruit of the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil." (Genesis 2:17, 3:1-7) In other words, they chose to reject God's definition of good and evil and decide for themselves how to define those terms. That decision introduced sin, death and separation from God into the world (Genesis 3:8-24). Nevertheless, the way that I see it, all of their progeny have had to make the same decision for themselves - to accept or reject God's definition of good and evil. Thus, our individual decision in this regard is what accounts for our subsequent behavior and whether we live or die (in the eternal sense).

This can be interpreted to fit very well with what Paul wrote to the Corinthians regarding the resurrection of the dead. He said that "death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man." (I Corinthians 15:21) Continuing, we read: "Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life." (verse 22) Later, in the same chapter, Paul returns to the theme: "The Scriptures tell us, 'The first man, Adam, became a living person.' But the last Adam - that is, Christ - is a life-giving Spirit. What comes first is the natural body, then the spiritual body comes later. Adam, the first man, was made from the dust of the earth, while Christ, the second man, came from heaven. Earthly people are like the earthly man, and heavenly people are like the heavenly man. Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man." (verses 45-49) In other words, one could reasonably interpret these passages to mean that we acquire our physical characteristics from our human ancestor (Adam), including our predisposition to die, without assuming that we have inherited his sin or sinfulness.

In this connection, it is also instructive to remember that most Christians would regard Christ's sacrifice as applying to them personally - "Christ died for my sins." Of course, there is also a corporate sense in which Christ died for the sins of everyone who has ever lived; but, for most Christians, that would not in any way negate the very personal nature of their salvation through Jesus Christ. In other words, Christ died for Adam's sin; but he also died for mine!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Does God care about this kind of stuff?

Pastor Fred Coulter of the Christian Biblical Church of God recently attacked Dixon Cartwright's The Journal: News of the Churches of God for the editor's willingness to publish a wide variety of perspectives/opinions in his newspaper. In fact, he suggested that Mr. Cartwright should rename the paper "Heresies to Deceive Those Who Are Trying to Be Faithful." (The Journal, Issue No. 162) When asked to respond to Pastor Coulter's comments, Mr. Cartwright said: "The Journal is a forum that was originally meant for Church of God Christians to be able to air their opinions, including opinions about doctrine, and also communicate with each other across Church of God boundaries." (same paper and issue)

How do these claims stack up against each other? More importantly, does God care about this kind of stuff?

In defense of Mr. Coulter's statements, David Froloff wrote a letter to the editor that appeared in the most recent number of The Journal. (No. 163) In it, he accused Mr. Cartwright of not believing in the authority or inspiration of Scripture. He then went on to affirm that God had indeed commanded that entire nations be exterminated, and that God had also rejoiced at the prospect of splattering the brains of Babylon's children against a stone wall. He continued by contrasting Mr. Cartwright's "disagreement with God" with Mr. Coulter's complete devotion to "the infallible words of God." Mr. Froloff concluded his defense of Pastor Coulter by suggesting that his assertion that nothing positive can be derived from "this advancement of heresy" by Mr. Cartwright is probably correct.

If we appeal to the very scriptures that Mr. Coulter and Mr. Froloff claim to be defending, we would have to conclude that their position contradicts a theme that runs throughout the entirety of those writings: Making information about God and His covenants available to the average man (see my post on the democratization of knowledge). If Mr. Coulter and Mr. Froloff have a lock on the truth, then they certainly don't need a publication like The Journal. If they have all of the truth, there is nothing left to discuss - no need to grow in grace and knowledge. It's a closed system - nothing enters or leaves. Once you've discovered "the truth," the only thing left to do is internalize it - any other information is completely unnecessary and superfluous. For me, the only self-evident thing about this kind of reasoning is how self-reinforcing it is.

Anyone who has been exposed to the Worldwide Church of God culture for any length of time knows that there have always been people within that culture who have attempted to discourage or forbid their "brethren" from reading or listening to information that in anyway contradicted the party line. I know what you're thinking - that sounds more like Hitler's Germany or the Soviet Union; but this attitude is still alive and well in much of this culture.

Moreover, in the wake of the disintegration of the Worldwide Church of God, most of the different organizations that have arisen to take its place have a vested interest in keeping their members corralled - don't want to risk losing them to the competition. Nevertheless, we should all remember what THE CHURCH really is (see my post on the church). THE CHURCH is made up of everyone who has God's Holy Spirit - it does not exist within any single man-made organization! Within that group of people, each individual person has the responsibility to test the spirits and to make sure that what people write and say makes sense and agrees with the totality of the scriptural evidence.

As someone who is arrogant enough to believe that I don't have a lock on the truth, I'm glad there is a publication like The Journal to read. I enjoy reading different perspectives and opinions on the issues that I care about. Those perspectives/opinions don't always change my mind, but I always learn something - sometimes my own beliefs are even reinforced by what I read there. THE TRUTH is not a fragile thing. If I could prove that something was true thirty years ago, I should still be able to demonstrate that truth today. If I can't, it must not have been "true" to begin with - right?

It's interesting to me that two men whose opinions/perspectives have been represented in The Journal in times past would be so opposed to the publication of the opinions/perspectives of others. Isn't that just a little hypocritical? Oops, almost forgot, any opinions that differ from theirs are heretical!

A few final questions for my readers: Do you honestly believe that God commanded the Israelites to commit genocide (remember what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust?)? Do you honestly believe that God could take pleasure in a baby's brains being dashed against a stone wall? (something about that picture appears out of sync with the image of a sparrow falling to the ground) I believe that the Bible is inspired, but I don't believe that either one of those things originated in the mind of God. You might want to rethink those points Mr. Froloff.

Does God care about this kind of stuff? What do you think?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Was Confucius inspired by God?

Christians tend to have a very narrow view of inspiration. When thinking of inspiration, most of us immediately go to the Bible. We think of the men and women who wrote our scriptures as being inspired by God, but is it possible that people from other religious traditions could also have been inspired by God? Consider the following quotations attributed to Confucius and compare them to passages from our own scriptures. (The following quotations taken from The Sayings of Confucius, The Harvard Classics at Bartleby.com):

The Master said: “The wise are free from doubt; love is never vexed; the bold have no fears.”
"And he that doubteth is damned (condemned) if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin." Romans 14:23
"Love is patient and kind, Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged." I Corinthians 13:4-5, NLT
"There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love." I John 4:18

The Master said: “Of a gentleman who is frivolous none stand in awe, nor can his learning be sound. Make faithfulness and truth thy masters: have no friends unlike thyself: be not ashamed to mend thy faults."
"As snow in summer, and as rain in harvest, so honor is not seemly (proper) for a fool." Proverbs 26:1
"It is senseless to pay tuition to educate a fool, since he has no heart for learning." Prov. 17:16, NLT
"Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?" II Corinthians 6:14

The Master said: “As long as his father lives a son should study his wishes; after he is dead, he should study his life. If for three years he do not forsake his father’s ways, he may be called dutiful.”
"My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother" Proverbs 1:8
"Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." Proverbs 22:6

The Master said: “A gentleman who is not a greedy eater, nor a lover of ease at home, who is earnest in deed and careful of speech, who seeks the righteous and profits by them, may be called fond of learning.”
"For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags." Proverbs 23:21
"Follow the steps of good men...and stay on the paths of the righteous." Proverbs 2:20, NLT

THE MASTER said: “In governing, cleave to good; as the north star holds his place, and the multitude of stars revolve upon him.”
Speaking of the future king of Israel, Moses wrote: "And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites...and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear (honor) the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them: That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom..." Deuteronomy 17:18-20

Meng Yi asked the duty of a son.
The Master said: “Obedience.”
"Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord." Colossians 3:20

The Master said: “To-day a man is called dutiful if he keep his father and mother. But we keep both our dogs and horses, and unless we honor parents, is it not all one?”
"Honor thy father and thy mother" Exodus 20:12

The Master said: “Listen much, keep silent when in doubt, and always take heed of the tongue; thou wilt make few mistakes. See much, beware of pitfalls, and always give heed to thy walk; thou wilt have little to rue. If thy words are seldom wrong, thy deeds leave little to rue, pay will follow.”
"He that hath knowledge spareth his words...Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding." Proverbs 17:27-28
"Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established." Proverbs 4:26
"The tongue of the just is as choice silver" Proverbs 10:20
"A wholesome tongue is a tree of life" Proverbs 15:4

The Master said: “A man without love, what is courtesy to him? A man without love, what is music to him?”
"If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn't love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God's secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn't love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it, but if I didn't love others, I would have gained nothing." I Corinthians 13:1-3, NLT

The Master said: “A heart set on love will do no wrong."
"Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." Romans 13:10

If one believes that the Bible is inspired, and these sayings match principles found in that book, then doesn't that suggest that Confucius was inspired by God? Moreover, if these principles are found within such different traditions and cultures (with little or no awareness of each other), doesn't that prove that they are "universal" in nature? Doesn't it also suggest a common source? Isn't all of this a little much to be considered a coincidence? What do you think?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

God and the Amalekites: They were so bad that their babies and livestock had to be killed!

You remember the story - How the Amalekites attacked the children of Israel on their way to the Promised Land. (Exodus 17:8) And how Moses commissioned Joshua to form an army and defeat them. (verses 9-10) As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites would win; but, when Moses got tired of holding up his hands, the Amalekites would start winning. In the end, Aaron and Hur managed to hold up his hands long enough for Joshua and his forces to defeat them. (verses 11-3)

Even so, those Amalekites had really gotten God's dander up. We read: "After the victory, the Lord instructed Moses, 'Write this down on a scroll as a permanent reminder and read it aloud to Joshua: I will erase the memory of Amalek from under heaven.'" (Exodus 17:14) Later, God gave the task for dealing with these scoundrels to the Israelites - after they had an opportunity to get settled in the Promised Land. We read: ""Never forget what the Amalekites did to you as you came from Egypt. (Talk about holding grudges!) They attacked you when you were exhausted and weary, and they struck down those who were straggling behind. They had no fear of God. Therefore, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies in the land he is giving you as a special possession, you must destroy the Amalekites and erase their memory from under heaven. Never forget this!" (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

Nevertheless, according to Scripture, this "Divine" declaration was not carried out until several hundred years later. After the establishment of Saul as Israel's king, we read: "One day Samuel said to Saul, It was the Lord who told me to anoint you as king of his people, Israel. Now listen to this message from the Lord! This is what the Lord of Heaven's Armies has declared: 'I have decided to settle accounts with the nation of Amalek for opposing Israel when they came from Egypt. Now go and completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation - men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and donkeys.'" (I Samuel 15:1-3)

Now that is pretty harsh! They must have really pissed off God to get a sentence like that (Please don't get offended, that word is used in the King James Version of the Bible). Think about it, Saul was commanded to exterminate everything that belonged to these people - not just the male soldiers. The instructions are explicit and include women, children and livestock. Moreover, if we read further into the account, we are told that Saul made God even more angry by sparing the king of Amalek and a few of the livestock. (verses 7-11)

How does one reconcile that kind of language with a loving and compassionate God that notices when a sparrow drops dead? The short answer is that you can't! I've heard all of the explanations: God has the right to do whatever he deems necessary (including killing humans), All humans are ultimately worthy of death, God was showing compassion to the Amalekites by cutting off their suffering (He has the ability to resurrect them later and have mercy on them), etc. Even so, don't all of those explanations seem to come up short when we really think about what happened? What did the women, children and babies do to deserve being butchered? What about the poor livestock? OK, maybe some of the donkeys and camels were a little stubborn - but was that enough to justify indiscriminately slaughtering them?

Why is it so hard for us to just say that this account is completely inconsistent with what is revealed about God's character elsewhere in Scripture? In the end, the only things that such an admission actually discredits are the stories that attribute such a horror to God! I don't know about you, but my God isn't vindictive - doesn't hold grudges for hundreds of years - and never told anyone to commit genocide!

Monday, July 7, 2014

God and tithing

Tithing is a biblical principle that has been misunderstood by some (and abused by other) "Christian" leaders for centuries. Indeed, it has been used by some unscrupulous individuals as a way to enrich the church and/or themselves. Lay members eager to obey and please God have been encouraged to give anywhere from one tenth to thirty percent of their gross income to the church.

Nevertheless, if our objective is to honestly try to apply this Old Testament principle to New Testament giving, then it is essential that we understand the way that tithing worked in ancient Israelite society. In this regard, the first thing to understand is that ancient Israel was an agricultural society. As a consequence, the principle of tithing was applied to crops and farm animals. There was a "tithe of the land" (crops) and a "tithe of the herd" (livestock). Leviticus 27:30, 32

The next thing that is crucial to a proper understanding of the practice of tithing in Israel is the fact that this was done on the "increase" or profit that was produced each year. Deuteronomy 14:22 In other words, the tithe was "paid" on the crop that was produced that year or the livestock that was born that year. In this formulation, it was understood that the farmer owned his home and land. The farmer did not receive a paycheck or have mortgage or utility payments to make. Likewise, it was understood that the farmer had to feed and provide for his family's needs.

God also designated that the tithe be brought to the place designated by God at the time of harvest. There were two harvests that coincided with the annual festivals outlined in the twenty-third chapter of Leviticus. The Israelites were instructed to bring this tithe to the feast and present offerings to the priesthood and eat it "before the Lord." Deuteronomy 14:23 In this connection, they were specifically forbidden from using the tithe at home. Deuteronomy 12:17 Hence, it was made very clear in Scripture that most of the tithe was to be used in the celebration of the religious festivals (first at Shiloh and later at Jerusalem).

Finally, as there was no central government when the tithe was instituted, the Israelites were instructed to use the tithe every third year to support the Levites and the poor among them. Deuteronomy 14:28-29 Hence, in attempting to apply this principle in modern times, one must take into account current taxation by our central government and its programs to help the poor among us.

In similar fashion, most of the people in our society are not farmers. Most of our people are paid wages for work performed for someone else. Likewise, most of us have mortgage, car and utility payments to make each month. Hence, when trying to apply the principle of tithing to modern times, we need to ask ourselves what part of our income constitutes an "increase" or profit. So, when you attempt to adopt this practice, you might want to think twice about giving ten to thirty percent of your gross income to a single church organization! Sorry preachers, I know that's going to make some of you mad.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Job had ideas about God too!

Like all of us, Job had his notions about what God was like. Job had a set of beliefs and opinions about God that were based on incomplete and sometimes inaccurate knowledge. Nevertheless, Job held tenaciously to his beliefs throughout his trials and sufferings. Those beliefs kept him from sinking into despair and gave him confidence in himself - in his righteousness before God.

Even so, Job was clearly frustrated by his misfortunes. He felt that what had happened to him was unfair and unjust. In his arrogance and pride, Job was in a mood to confront God. He wanted to know: "What's going on here?" "Why has God allowed me to experience these things?" In short, Job wanted answers; and he clearly felt that he deserved them.

God, however, clearly had a different perspective on things. In fact, God's response to Job sounds exactly like something that God would say to all of us: "Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words? Brace yourself like a man, because I have some questions for you, and you must answer them." -- Job 38:1-3 God then proceeds to ask Job a series of questions relative to the creation of the earth and the life that inhabits it that no one alive today would be able to answer definitively. -- Job 38-41

When God was finished, Job finally realized that his beliefs and opinions were clearly not up to this Divine challenge. We read: "Then Job replied to the Lord: 'I know that you can do anything, and no one can stop you. You asked, 'Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?' It is I - and I was talking about things I knew nothing about, things far too wonderful for me. You said, 'Listen and I will speak! I have some questions for you, and you must answer them.' I had only heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes. I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show (demonstrate) my repentance." -- Job 42:1-6

I think that there is a great deal of wisdom in Job's reply. What do you think?

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The spirit of antichrist

Prophecy junkies love to speculate about the identity of the antichrist, but few people seem interested in exploring what this term actually means. The Greek word "antichristos" literally implies one who is opposed or adversarial to the Messiah. (The New Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible) Moreover, when we study the scriptures where this word is used, it quickly becomes evident that many people have exhibited this spirit. In other words, there are many antichrists extant in the world.

In his first epistle, John wrote: "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust (desire) of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever. Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things. I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth. Who is a liar, but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son. Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: but he that aknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also." (I John 2:15-23)

Hence, according to John, an antichrist is a Christian who has abandoned their devotion to Christ and his teachings. Christians have been called out of the moral filth and behaviors of this world, but these individuals have been enticed back into their former lifestyles. In other words, they have rejected Christ and the things that he represents - his way of life. John also makes clear that there were many of these individuals around when he wrote his epistle.

Later, in this same epistle, John wrote: "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world." (I John 4:1-4)

So, if someone is teaching something (or behaving in a way) that is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ, that person is following a spirit of antichrist. A person who espouses hateful things and is judgmental of others is denying the very Messiah (Jesus Christ) to whom they claim to belong. Jesus Christ once said: "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity." (Matthew 7:21-23) In short, you can't be a Christian and behave like a person who disregards Christ's teachings.

In his second epistle, John wrote: "For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, This is a deceiver and an antichrist. Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward. Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son." (II John 7-9) A "Christian" who is not following Christ's teachings is acting in the spirit of antichrist. Hence, people who hate, marginalize and condemn others are steeped in the spirit of antichrist. And, just as in the days of John, there are many of these kinds of folks extant in the world. If you're looking for the antichrist, just turn on your television set and watch the crowds shouting and spitting at bus loads of illegal immigrants or watch one of the clips of those Westboro Baptist Church protests at the funeral of one of our fallen soldiers.