Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Hidden Link Between Justice and Eternal Life by Chris White

There is a joke within my religious tradition that goes something like this: two grade school boys were having a theological argument on the playground.  The first boy, who attended the United Methodist church, said to the other “there isn’t a literal hell!” to which to second boy, who attended First Bible Baptist replied, “the hell there isn’t!”  I find this quite humorous because as a young boy this was actually the content of my first theological argument.  I attended Sunday School at the Methodist church and our teacher told us that Hell was not a real place but the human experience of “being far away from God.”  A couple of my playmates at the time came from a devoutly Baptist home and they were certain I was going to hell for not believing there was a hell.  There wasn’t a lot of yelling and arguing in our theological debate, just fists and shoving.  In other words, we were behaving as if we were bishops at one of the early Ecumenical Councils of the church where theology was not just hammered out, but punched out and kicked out as well.  Not very saintly to be sure, but for me, theological truth is actually important enough to merit a sock in the nose if you’re going to be a damn heretic about it!  But, I digress.
Hell most definitely is the orphan-child doctrine of evangelicalism in America today.  American Christians are only second to Canadians in niceness.  Church must be nice, sermons must be positive and very biblical, and nothing should ever happen that would make someone uncomfortable from not having the air-conditioning turned down enough to telling someone they can’t drop their baby off in the nursery with green mucus dripping from its nose (especially if they are ‘a-first-time-visitor’).  People need to feel glad they took the time to come to church and in fact should be honored for doing so because they turned down one hundred other options they had to spend Sunday morning.  So needless to say, the topic of hell and judgment clash with our current mental furniture much like bright avocado green shag carpeting does with a plaid chesterfield couch (and if you think those two things go together nicely you should probably stop reading at this point and ask God to please give you some fashion sense).  But, whether or not hell is something that makes us uncomfortable to think about or talk about, it is an idea deeply rooted in the Gospel of Christ and if it doesn’t exist, God as we know Him is probably not God.
Typically the ‘anti-hell’ party platform goes something like this:  God is love.  A loving God would never send a person to hell because that is neither lovely or the loving thing to do.  Therefore, hell must not exist.  It must merely be the creation of some benighted medieval mind to scare people into going to church and giving their money away.  Obviously, all people must go to heaven when they die.  The problem with this line of thinking is a misunderstanding of God’s love.  God is love and this is the direct teaching of the Bible (1 John 4:8) but, as any parent knows, love is not the same thing as permissiveness and total indulgence of a person’s whims.  To never discipline or punish a child for wrong-doing and let them get away with anything or do anything they want usually creates a monster.  Not only does the scripture suggest this is a form of hatred under the guise of love (Prov. 13:24) but our society patently understands this concept as sure-fire recipe for creating a sociopath.  Even in human relationships such as marriage, if I say I love my wife, and then do things I know will break her heart like love someone else’s wife on the side or threaten her well-being by spending my paycheck on gambling, most people would conclude that my idea of love is either quite twisted or is not even real.  Love that has any real value does come with boundaries and limitations of one kind or another.  In applying this to the love of God, what I’m saying is God does love all people but His love does not preclude the necessity of justice.
Changing perspective just slightly, what we need to understand more fully is the nature of humanity and the gravity of what is called sin in the Bible.  God is the creator of the universe.  As Creator, the universe runs according to His laws.  His laws do include physics, but more importantly they include laws of love and moral rectitude because goodness is at the heart of who God really is.  When God made man, he did make him flesh and blood but also with a rational soul.  This means there are appetites and instincts within mankind such as hunger, thirst, and the desire for sex.  But man is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) which means that man is rational, relational, and religious in addition to being flesh and blood.  The Christian way to look at human beings is that they are embodied souls;  both are important, both are united by design.  There is a high purpose in man being an image-bearer of God.  Man’s raison d’etre is to rule and steward the earth as God desires and so honor God and make the world a place where all life flourishes.  This higher level of consciousness would enable man to learn to discern the good and evil and to choose to do the good.  The choice to do the good being the choice to act, think, and work according to the way God has ordered the universe.
But clearly things have changed because of the catastrophe often called “the fall” where our forebears became corrupt by believing the lie of Satan that if they chose the path of disobedience with respect to God’s law, they would become gods in their own right.  The temptation of Satan was not to eat some good tasting fruit, but to make a deliberate choice to spurn the law of God (the very goodness of the universe) and become a law unto themselves.  Since that time man has continued to possess his rationality and consciousness but has what Anselm of Canterbury calls a natural indigence when it comes to discerning good and evil and choosing the good.  Not only is there an unwillingness to discern, but the consistent choice is to do the evil which is to spurn the law of God.
With all this said as prologue, let me deliver on the promise of this essay’s title.  The fact is we do not live in a just world but we do live in a just universe.  In this world and within the span of anyone’s life, it is quite possible that grievous evil can be done to you for which there is no remedy.  I will not rehearse a bunch of possible scenarios here, but if you’ve lived long enough, you know that life doesn’t always work the way it does on TV.  People do get away with things and it seems that justice is unable to touch them.  This is actually a common objection many have to believing in God.  If God is real and God is good, how come this bad thing happened to me or this good thing was taken from me?  The answer is that God is real and God is good and because this is true, there must be justice in the universe that goes beyond this life.  If God is omniscient, he most certainly knows the truth of all matters and will be able to mete out justice perfectly.  But if there is perfect justice, there must be a way for you to receive it (either as an offender being punished or a victim being avenged) and therefore this would necessitate a continued life beyond the grave in either case.  Heaven and Hell exist for the reasons of God’s love and justice.  If God is loving, there would be no way he would permit evil to go unanswered or unpunished.  If God is just there is no way he would not bless those who have faithfully suffered in this life in a measure greater than their suffering.  Therefore there is a link between justice and eternal life that there might be sweet aequitas in the universe.
In a way this is very comforting but it does beg another question: are there any of us who have lived so blamelessly, so lovingly, so unselfishly, as to only merit being recipients of God’s justice and not his punishments?  To think so is not only hubris but really an act of willful blindness towards your own faults.  The scripture clearly teaches that all people, no matter how good we (or they themselves) think they are, are in fact sinners (Romans 3:23) and are therefore liable recipients of the penalties of a just God (Romans 6:23).  This is where the Christian message is particularly unique.  What if God can show love and accomplish justice simultaneously?  The message of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ is the son of God sent to live the life you should have lived and to die the death your sins deserve.  In so doing  God shows his love in providing a means of forgiveness and salvation, and at the same time satisfies justice in that yours, mine, and everyone else’s sin was taken upon himself when he died on the cross.  It is unusual, but certainly not unorthodox that the one who would judge us, would also take our penalty upon himself which is exactly what happened on Good Friday so long ago.  From that day until judgment day, there is an offer from God for you on the table.  I will pay for your sins, or you will, but justice will be done.  That choice is entirely up to you.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Christian View of History by Chris White

What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done,
    and there is nothing new under the sun.
 Is there a thing of which it is said,
    “See, this is new”?
It has been already
    in the ages before us.
 There is no remembrance of former things,[
    nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
    among those who come after.
-- Ecclesiastes 1:9-11
I heard, but I did not understand. Then I said, “O my lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?”  He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end.”
    --Daniel 12: 8-9
There is no end to people’s opinions about the subject of history.  For some it is a dull and lifeless pursuit without any relevance.  “I’m living in the present” such would say, “what happened in the past is unimportant to me.”  For others, history is means of moral instruction or problem solving or even a comforting connection with our ancestors.  Recently my wife and I went on a trip to Slovakia and Poland to visit the ancestral villages of my wife’s family.  It was so very interesting and moving to stand in churches where we know family members were baptized and married and worshipped and to see the landscape that they would have looked at for centuries.  For the news media and educational institutions, history is rarely a source of moral instruction, but rather a study in causation which is tracing the root system of current events.  But these points address the uses of history more than a view of history.  What I would like to describe here is a particularly Christian view of history.  I know there are some intervening points, but above I have placed two verses which considered separately represent opposite poles of thinking while taken together form a distillation of reality and Christian truth.
The view of Ecclesiastes is that “there is nothing new under the sun”.  In a broad context what is being said here is that history repeats itself with endless cycles.  In a sense, this point of view is baked into the passage of time as we go through the seasons of any given year or we look at the lifespan of a person.  There is conception, birth, development, decline, and death and seedtime, growth, fruition, and harvest.  This cycle is also seen in the development of civilizations.  Paul in his sermon at Mars Hill says quite specifically that God has ordained seasons where different nations will thrive and inhabit a given locale and then like all things fade away (Acts 17:26).  Of course other civilizations such as the Mayans built their calendars around the idea that catastrophic destruction would take place at the end of a cycle of years and the world would be reconstituted.  This cyclical theme also informs many religions and philosophies which teach variations on reincarnation.  We also see cycles in history where ideas are repeated and reconstituted.  A few years ago I read a book called The Victorian Internet which discussed to development, spread, and use of the telegraph.  Things which we think are new developments in our day like email, internet dating, instant messaging and the like were all practiced in the 19th century using the technology of the day.  Many social issues we face today are ones that previous generations faced.  Unemployment, immigration reform, rebellious youth, illegitimacy, and the list goes on.  History does repeat itself and there really isn’t anything new under the sun.
I hold the view that part of the reason history repeats itself is the human tragedy known as original sin.  While I won’t take the time to rehearse this Christian dogma (if you are interested there thousands of resources that have been written on the topic), I will say that one of its implications is that humanity’s mind and perception has become quite degraded from what it once was and thus we rarely value things rightly.  What is evil we will declare good, what is good we will consider evil with many points in between.  I have written before on this but I give it again as an example, war is neither good nor virtuous.  This is not to say that war is inappropriate in every circumstance or that individuals involved don’t act heroically or virtuously, but just to acknowledge in the end, our blood and treasure is poured out for the unobtainable.  True peace and justice come from the heart and any compulsion by way of gunpoint, diplomacy, or law are merely temporary measures at best, and exercise in futility at worst.  Another great example is our discovery of atomic energy.  Here we have a great source of energy that if done well could be a blessing to all nations and yet it’s more popular use is as a weapon of mass destruction.  Current statistics (2013) show that America alone has 65 nuclear power plants from coast-to-coast and over 5000 nuclear warheads.  What could be used for good is largely used for evil.  This to say we will do things as a race that are largely counterproductive and then never learn from our mistakes because we have a general inability to do so.  When I read the pages of scripture and the pages of history what I see is humanity recycling the same problems ad infinitum.  We facing the same issues the ancients did because through human generation we inherited their DNA and their folly.
But there is a second dimension of history given in the scripture, namely that history is moving to a specific and desired end.  This idea runs through the entire scope of the Bible from the earliest prophets to Jesus Christ and on through the apostles.  Put another way, history will be swallowed up by eternity and with that will be redemption, judgment, and God’s direct rule here on earth.  It actually will be the mythical “golden age” that so many cultures have longed for or once had and lost.  But as this touches on history, while mankind tends to live in and create cycles, God is acting at the same time in a linear fashion to carry out his plan and bring things to a good conclusion.  In Romans chapter 5, St. Paul writes “at the appointed time Christ died for the ungodly”.  The appointed time here references a season or moment where God in His providence brings something to pass that furthers His purposes.  Put another way, God was moving in human history in such a way that the events of the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection happened exactly as he desired.  Humans were certainly thinking and acting and choosing, but God was directing these things to a very specific end.  God’s plan continues to unfold throughout human history, not that He baptizes our evil decisions as His will, but rather He brings good out of them despite their evil intent through his sovereignty and then punishes the evil either in time or eternity (or both).  In other words, God carries on His plan with us or in spite of us depending on the person.
Bringing this full circle, I am of the conviction that the Christian view of history should be cyclically-linear.  Cycles do repeat themselves, but they are moving in a definite direction under the provident eye of a loving and sovereign God.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Back Story Behind Daniel and the Lion's Den by Chris White

The story behind Daniel in the lion’s den begins several hundred years before when King Solomon dedicated the newly built temple in Jerusalem.  Recorded for us in 1 Kings 8 is Solomon’s lengthy prayer on this momentous occasion.  Within that prayer are these words:  “When they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you become angry with them and give them over to their enemies, who take them captive to their own lands, far away or near;  and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors and say, ‘We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have acted wickedly’;  and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their enemies who took them captive, and pray to you toward the land you gave their ancestors, toward the city you have chosen and the temple I have built for your Name;  then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their plea, and uphold their cause.  And forgive your people, who have sinned against you; forgive all the offenses they have committed against you, and cause their captors to show them mercy;  for they are your people and your inheritance, whom you brought out of Egypt, out of that iron-smelting furnace (1 Kings 8:44-51).
The circumstance of Daniel living in Babylon was a judgment against Israel because they were in constant unrepentant sin against God.  Daniel is a model of both moral and spiritual integrity in Babylon and God places him at the highest levels of power as an advisor to a succession of 9 Babylonian and Persian kings in his lifetime.  God was doing much in this time of captivity and discipline of the Jews and one of His tasks was making Himself known and revered among the Gentiles.  But Daniel was a Jew and a faithful man of God and he did what a faithful man in his context would do: pray daily towards the temple in Jerusalem three times a day (Dan. 6:10).  Apparently Daniel lived in a home that had windows facing west towards Jerusalem and he was in the habit of opening his shutters and praying with the window open.  Prayer with the windows open was probably not so God could hear his prayers better, but simply a matter of air circulation.  Babylon (modern day Iraq) is a hot and arid place and no doubt Daniel’s room would be quite stuffy without some outside air.
But the story of how Daniel got into hot water for praying to God is an important one too.  Darius the Mede was the new king of Babylon and was giving out all sorts of political appointments in the new regime.  Daniel was approximately in his early 80’s by this time.  He had seen a lot of kings come and go through the years but his reputation as an able civil servant made him quite valuable and a bit of a venerable institution in Babylon.  Out of jealousy over Daniel’s prestige and placement, a trap was set for him by some court officials who knew the only way to dislodge him from power was to attack at the point of his religion.  There was no use in attacking Daniel’s record, job skills, or ethics as they were impeccable.  So was Daniel’s devotion to God.  What these jealous officials did was manipulate the situation by getting Darius to pass and unbreakable law that for the next 30 days no god or man may be petitioned to save the Persian king.  Darius was in the early days of his reign and I suspect his quick approval of this was because he was unaware of how devout Daniel was in his personal life.  With the law passed, Daniel was easy to trap because he would always obey the law of God before the law of man.  By the way, God’s laws are very compatible with those of human society.  However, there are times when human society demands that God’s laws be ignored or broken.  Only then, and only in that specific regard, is a Christian free of his obligation to obey the law.  This does not absolve the Christian from the consequences a state may impose on him, but before God he will not be considered a law-breaker.  So Daniel did what he always did and prayed three times a day.  He was caught by his detractors who made sure that the full weight of the law came down on Daniel and that he would have to face the penalty of the state.
Lion’s Dens are peculiar to the Persian Empire.  They were used to execute enemies of the state.  Lions were commonly used as a symbol of the monarchy (they are the King of Beasts) and therefore quite appropriate for the monarch to use against the enemies of the state.  Depictions of lion’s dens from archeology seem to differ from what is described in Daniel.  What is described in Daniel is something like a large pit where the victim was lowered.  Extant rock carvings that have been found show the lions in a cave eating a man who was put into small vault with no clothing on and his hands tied behind his back (much like a tomb).  This should hardly be considered a Bible discrepancy however.  A difference between lion’s dens is about the same as a difference in the style of two different electric chairs.  They slightly vary, but accomplish the same thing. Typically, the Lions were never fed between victims thereby ensuring that an encounter with them would be both terrifying and fatal.
Darius tried to find a way to let Daniel out of the consequences but could not find a legal trap door to do so.  The custom of these people was that their king was a god in his own right.  Gods do not make mistakes, therefore, a law they passed is unbreakable and inviolable.  Darius was forced to do what justice required and Daniel was sent to the lion’s den to die.  The opening was closed and sealed up with the king’s signet ring behind Daniel as he awaited his certain death.
Of course the reason we read of this story today is that God intervened by sending an angel to keep the lions from eating Daniel.  It is a miracle because a den full of hungry lions would never not touch a vulnerable octogenarian who was placed in their cave.  Having been preserved through the night, Daniel had satisfied the penalty of the law.  The penalty was being put in the lion’s den.  Death is assumed here but not required.  Thus, Darius was able to uphold his law and let Daniel go free afterwards.  The result was that Daniel’s God was glorified by Darius for letting justice be satisfied and yet saving his trusted friend from death.  In the end justice came to those who attempted to kill Daniel by them suffering the same fate only without God’s miraculous intervention.
What is so fascinating about this story is how it gives us a preview of the Christ event more than 400 years before Jesus walked the earth.  Many of the Old Testament prophets foretold things about the Messiah and so that Daniel the prophet would do so is not remarkable.  But in his case, he literally lives out the contours of Christ’s passion.  He is betrayed to a pagan ruler (as Judas did), the pagan ruler tries to avoid bringing capital punishment but is forced to by public pressure (as what happened to Pontius Pilate), Daniel was in his own person righteous and innocent of wrong-doing but out of loyalty to God pays the consequences of the law by enduring the death penalty (as did Jesus when he went to the cross), and finally Daniel is sealed in a cave which was certain to be his tomb and is freed from it by the one whose justice was satisfied.  Christ was sealed in the tomb for three days (a sign that he was fully and actually dead) and then was raised from death by the Father because atonement for the sins of the world had been made and the penalty of the law fulfilled.
So why doesn’t Daniel die just like Jesus does in the Gospel?  Because Daniel’s story is also our story.  We are supposed to keep God’s law but we can’t because we have a corrupt nature inherited through  original sin.  We are not corrupt because we sin, we sin because we are corrupt and this makes us guilty of breaking the law of a holy God.  Romans 6:23 says “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Divine justice requires we pay the consequences which is death and eternal punishment.  That is a debt all of us have before a Holy God.  But Jesus Christ, though He was sinless, took your penalty, your debt, and fully paid it Himself thus satisfying what justice requires.  Daniel didn’t die and was freed from the penalty of the law because of God’s intervention and this is what is offered us in the Gospel.  Christ paid your debt before God so you don’t have to.  That’s why the Gospel is called good news.  But like all important messages, a response is required.  You may turn to Christ and ask for His help and mercy, or you may go it alone and face your own consequences.  That choice is entirely up to you.