Archive | September, 2013

Would President Obama Bomb the Canaanites?

I’ll get right to the point. I think President Obama would have bombed the Canaanites way before God annihilated them. Why am I even bringing up this hypothetical situation? Are statements like this even helpful for us today in our walk with God? For those questions I need to back up a little bit.

obamaI sat at the Credo House, in Heretics Corner, having a very important conversation. A young man who had been a strong believer the last time we met had grown shaky in many of his beliefs. This guy, whom I’ll call Jake, grew up in a very liberal part of the country and was born to liberal parents. His parents are intellectual people who view Christianity to be the opium of the masses.

Jake, slowly but surely, had been worn down by many conversations with atheist family members. Jake and I sat down to discuss many aspects of Christianity he was struggling to believe. After more than an hour and a half of great conversation he finally dropped the bomb. He said, “Alright, this is it, here’s the big one. My family and friends bring this up all the time and I’ve never heard a convincing response. Why is God so unjust in the Old Testament? How can God be loving when he does things like kill the Canaanites?

It’s a wonderful moment in any serious conversation to get to the real heart of an issue. Jake and I had been discussing issues in the periphery and now we were in the center of what was really bothering him. How does an intellectually honest Christian live with a God who called for the annihilation of the Canaanites? I know some of you reading this will think there is no such thing as an intellectually honest Christian, but please humor me for a bit while I talk nonsense.

Whenever we move into the issue of some of God’s actions in the Old Testament I typically have an image pop into my head. For some strange reason I go back to Thanksgiving. I’ll never forget the Thanksgiving many years ago when I finally was able to move from the little kids table to the adult table. At least at my house growing up we had a big table reserved for just the kids at Thanksgiving. We had another big table for all the grownups. Some cultures have elaborate ceremonies marking the passage from childhood to adulthood. The great ceremony, for me at least, was moving from the kids to the adult table.

I was so excited to move from the little kids table but it did have a distinct drawback. The conversations at the adult table were all about adult topics. If I wanted to sit at the adult table I needed to be willing to have an adult conversation. If you’re willing to criticize God for His actions in the Old Testament, you need to be willing to have adult level conversations.

If you are not willing to have an adult level conversation about God, please do not continue reading this post. Additionally, if you are under the age of 18, please stop reading this post. I’m going to get into some topics I want your parents to preview before you read. Seriously, stop reading if you have a weak stomach or are young.

Okay, I’m assuming everyone reading right now is consciously sitting at the adult table ready for an adult conversation. Here we go.

Before jumping directly into dealing with the Canaanites, let’s take a step back from that particular time and place and observe our world.

Let’s not pretend we live in a white-washed world. We live in a world where terms like Holocaust; Rwandan Genocide; and Darfur, Sudan have meaning. These atrocities were not committed by precocious little kids stealing candy from their sisters. These events were horrific. If my 6 year-old son asks me what happened during World War II, I can only provide a sugar-coated answer. I can only use simple words like good guys fought bad guys. I must hold back my more detailed adult knowledge.

Just last week I heard about an evil causing me to take a few shallow breathes. The details of this dreadful evil are difficult to even swallow at the adult table. Several men in New Delhi, India boarded a public transit bus and started gang raping a young girl. After raping her repeatedly they eventually rammed a metal rod up into her body which brutally ended her life. Four men were arrested and tried as adults. Some additional boys involved in the rape were so young they couldn’t be tried as adults.

Now, New Delhi is known as the rape capitol of India. Rape is common there and the men are usually given the benefit of the doubt. It is quite possible these men could have received a slap on the wrist. How could they get less than the full wrath of India?

I could probably make a case that none of these men would have done this terrible crime on their own. They were overcome by a mob mentality. The power of the group took over and each person lost their head. Yes, these young men should definitely be sentenced to prison but since they experienced a mob mentality there should be some leniency, perhaps.

Based on the knowledge the Indian society gained regarding the details of the crime, however, the young men were sentenced last week to death by hanging. The collective response throughout India was a recognition that justice had been served. When we put God on the stand and try him for being unjust, we need to remember there are terrible deeds happening in 2013 requiring extreme justice.

Let’s start going back in time a few thousand years and analyze the morality of the Ancient Near East. You may have heard of Baal worship. Baal is frequently symbolized in the form of a bull. Why? Because the people recognized the large testicles of bulls. Why did this matter? Well, people who worshiped Baal were many times looking for it to rain. In an agricultural society rain is of utmost importance. Baal worshipers thought they could force the hand of their god and make it rain.
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Stephen Hawking Detained in Russia for Bible Smuggling

hawkingThe new autobiography from scientist and well-known atheist Stephen Hawking entitled My Brief History is full of many interesting and at times surprising details.

One of the most surprising stories can be found on page 123:

I believe that disabled people should concentrate on things that their handicap doesn’t prevent them from doing and not regret those they can’t do…I visited the Soviet Union seven times. The first time I went with a student party in which one member, a Baptist, wished to distribute Russian-language Bibles and asked us to smuggle them in. We managed this undetected, but by the time we were on our way out the authorities had discovered what we had done and detained us for a while. However, to charge us with smuggling Bibles would have caused an international incident and unfavorable publicity, so they let us go after a few hours.

Stephen Hawking must be the only quadriplegic atheist to ever be detained for Bible smuggling. For nearly 50 years Stephen Hawking has been living with a progressing motor neuron disease related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). As I read his autobiography I wanted to both spend time joking with him, honor him for all he has been able to accomplish with such a health condition, but then have a very serious adult-level conversation about a God I believe he should take more seriously. More on this a bit later.

In order to write a book Stephen Hawking must twitch his cheek until a computer can recognize what word is in his mind. It takes an average of a minute for him to type just three words. A small 125-page autobiography seems like a long Russian novel when you realize how much work it took to communicate his story.

Hawking spends roughly half his book in the world of his professional passion: theoretical physics, cosmology and mathematics. The other half of My Brief History focuses on his personal life.

Hawking made front-page news in 2011 when he spoke boldly against Christianity. He said, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

I wondered if Hawking was on a trajectory from being a pretty friendly atheist to now going on the attack following the lead of men such as Richard Dawkins. I was surprised how his autobiography was free from polemical statements against Christianity.

Hawking only mentions his “run in” with Christianity a few times. A prominent memory of the Bible was having a tutor use the Bible in English class. He writes:

To keep us occupied, he therefore set us to read a chapter of the Bible each day and write a piece on it. The idea was to teach us the beauty of the English language. We got through all of Genesis and part of Exodus before I left. One of the main things I learned from this exercise was not to begin a sentence with “And.” When I pointed out that most sentences in the Bible began with “And,” I was told that English had changed since the time of King James. In that case, I argued, why make us read the Bible?”

I believe, sadly, Stephen Hawking received bad biblical information. I wish I could get in a time machine to provide an alternative response to the inquisitive young Hawking. One of those frustrating moments in history where his English teacher doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
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The Chester Beatty Papyri at CSNTM!

The Chester Beatty papyri, published in the 1930s and 1950s, are some of the oldest and most important biblical manuscripts known to exist. Housed at the Chester Beatty Library (CBL) in Dublin, they have attracted countless visitors every year. It is safe to say that the only Greek biblical manuscripts that might receive more visitors are Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus, both on display at the British Library.

The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM) is pleased to announce that a six-person team, in a four-week expedition during July–August 2013, digitized all the Greek biblical papyri at the Chester Beatty Library. The CBL has granted permission to CSNTM to post the images on their website (www.csntm.org), which will happen before the end of the year.

The New Testament papyri at the CBL include the oldest manuscript of Paul’s letters (dated c. AD 200), the oldest manuscript of Mark’s Gospel and portions of the other Gospels and Acts (third century), and the oldest manuscript of Revelation (third century). One or two of the Old Testament papyri are as old as the second century AD.

Using state-of-the-art digital equipment, CSNTM photographed each manuscript against white and black backgrounds. The result was stunning. Each image is over 120 megabytes. The photographs reveal some text that has not been seen before.

Besides the papyri, CSNTM also digitized all of the Greek New Testament manuscripts at the CBL as well as several others, including some early apocryphal texts. The total number of images came to more than 5100.

CSNTM is grateful to the CBL for the privilege of digitizing these priceless treasures. The staff were extremely competent and a joy to work with. Kudos to Dr. Fionnuala Croke, Director of CBL, for such a superb staff! This kind of collaboration is needed both for the preservation of biblical manuscripts and their accessibility by scholars.

 

Daniel B. Wallace, PhD

Executive Director

Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts

What If Noah Never Saw It Rain?

As the current NFL season progresses from week to week I must admit: I’m missing Tim Tebow. Yes, I know that’s a typical response from an evangelical Christian. I guess I’m predictable…guilty as charged.

The general consensus for Tebow seems to be, “If he would just give up the dream of quarterback, he might have a long successful career.

Tebow appears undeterred in his goals. He wants to be an NFL quarterback or nothing. I’m now hearing Christians, who previously supported him carte blanche, now questioning if his goals are too extreme. Is it all that bad to be a famous and wealthy NFL tight end?

As I took a sip of my coffee and pondered Tebow’s decision (since he asked for my input [insert sarcasm]) my mind naturally went to Louis the IX during the 13th century Crusades. Weird, I know. Welcome to my strange head.

Louis was convinced it was his God-ordained duty in life to liberate Jerusalem. His life seemed to be custom-made to be “the guy” who would be used by God in such a powerful way. Louis, unfortunately, caught the plague and laid dying short of his goal.

Louis was a broken man lying there on his death bed. All his hopes and ideas of God working so powerfully were now ending. Had God really been there? He started wondering, “Was God ever with me?” The dying words of a heartbroken Louis IX were “Oh Jerusalem, Oh Jerusalem.” He died with his unfulfilled dream dying with him. A Jesus-loving man died disillusioned.

What does this have to do with Tim Tebow? Well, it makes me wonder whether God can truly give someone a unique dream and then for that dream to never materialize? Maybe God gave Tim Tebow the resolute dream to be an NFL quarterback. Maybe Tebow will shock the world one day by being a Super Bowl MVP quarterback. Maybe.

What if, however, Tebow never plays another minute in the NFL? Was God really a part of Tebow’s story? Did God make his dream so resolute? Maybe Tebow needs to bring it down a notch? How do we know?

Let’s continue walking down this road by moving to a hypothetical situation. What if Noah never saw it rain? What if Noah spent decades building this tremendous boat and then the rain never came? Silence. Prayers followed for rain to come so the boat would float. Confusion followed. Noah had spent his life savings on the ark. Now what?

Noah is excited God has relented from flooding the earth, but now he has a lot of explaining to do. Noah’s savings account is empty. All his time and money were poured into the ark. The flood never came, now the bills are piling up on the kitchen counter.

Noah’s family starts to doubt whether he really heard from God. Noah’s friends wonder if he’s mentally unstable. Noah’s mother-in-law spouts off one night making it clear her daughter would have been better off marrying that other guy. All the while the ark is sitting outside, built well, with no rain in the forecast.

Maybe Noah should start dismantling the ark? Perhaps all that salvaged wood can now be used to enter into the residential home construction business. What should Noah do?
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The Wisdom of a Mother

I don’t think there is anything that rules our lives more than a moment by moment attempt to be happy. We will try just about anything to stabilize our moods and maximize our personality. Why? Because we know what it is like to be sad.

When I was in my early twenties, I was not good at following the Lord. I knew him, trusted in him, and I vowed to get back to him…at some point in the near future. But then, I was committed to making myself smile and laugh. Without fail, this smile always came by way of hanging out with my friends looking for girls to “conquer,” with lots of alcohol involved. Don’t get me wrong: I was never addicted to the alcohol, but I was addicted to the fun, laughter, and escape that came by way of being with my friends.

My mother, who brought me up in the Lord, did not know what she did wrong. She would vacillate between her anger (which often led to me being kicked out of the house) to some sort of tactful compromise in an attempt to make me think she was a “cool” mom. She was unstable and unhappy. Her life, at the time, was filled with sorrow for reasons I will leave unsaid. Though she was a strong believer, she never could find footing for her daily smile.

One summer night, I was at a bar where I hooked up with this girl. That night, on a whim, I decided to move to Arizona with her and some of my friends. Why not? We had nothing better to do.

I left my mother with hurt feelings wondering where she went so wrong with her son. Continue Reading →

Why I Can’t Open My Mouth

Lately I have felt like Zechariah, John the Baptist’s dad, who had his mouth shut for a time because he did not believe the angel’s message that he and Elizabeth were going to have a baby. However, no angel has come and interpreted my situation in such a way (and, I can still talk).

Some of you may already know that ten weeks ago, I woke up with my jaw locked to 20mm (I think it is supposed to open to above 50). It is still the same today. Yes, I feel some pain. Yes, it is frustrating. And yes, I am losing weight!

This is just to give you all an update on my situation.

I have been to doctors, dentists, TMJ specialists, and chiropractors. I have even undergone acupuncture. Nothing so far has helped. Mouth guards, muscle relaxers, and exercises have done nothing (and often make things worse). At this point, I have quit trying to get it open. I am learning to live with it and am thankful that the Lord allows it to open enough for me to speak. It would seem that this particular TMJ joint is the only one in the body that is not covered by most insurance companies. I have drained my bank account trying to get it open. I simply can’t afford to try anything else.

So . . . what does that mean? Not too much. I figure that there are a lot worse things that can happen to a person. As well, I am hoping that one day it will open back up as oddly as it closed. But if it doesn’t, I am sure that I will be all right. I can manipulate food in and, for the most part, I can chew.

But that is where I am at with my jaw. God wills it and I accept it.

That Age-Old Question: Why Do Good Things Happen?

Forget for a moment the question of why there is evil in the world. Ask: why is there good in the world? Bad things happen to people, but have you noticed that good things do too? We’re easily inclined to say that life should be better than it is. But why aren’t we inclined to think that life should be worse? If there is philosophical merit in the first question, there should be some merit in this reciprocal question, and in fact this question should be paramount for people who hold to certain philosophical worldviews (more on that in a minute).

Of course the age-old question, despite my sanguine title, is not about the existence of good but rather the opposite. The issue of evil and suffering remains the all-time league leader among vexing philosophical, theological, and – frankly- psychological problems. Why must all human beings endure so many hardships in this world? Life is so riddled with painful elements, from the minor discomforts and inconveniences facing us in day to day living all the way to the shocking and disturbing tragedies that scar our collective historical memory.

The problem of evil, pain, and suffering is as old as human beings. It is found in the most ancient texts. One of the oldest biblical writings is Job, maybe as gut-wrenching a book as can be found from antiquity. There was never an era or epoch when the question of suffering wasn’t foremost on people’s minds. And even though so much of life has become so much more comfortable for us in the contemporary world, this question still plagues people. It remains, as theologian Hans Kung once called it, “the rock of atheism.” Every popular and provocative atheist book of the last decade has basically been, at bottom, about this one topic.  Even when we think a famous person’s disbelief is owing to something else, it usually isn’t. The agnosticism of Darwin, for example, was based upon this issue rather than what people are likely to assume it was. The issue was philosophical, not scientific. He had far less of a problem imagining an intelligent designer working behind the scenes than he did imagining why the designer would let nature be so savage in so many ways – right up to and including the death of his own beloved daughter.

All of that being said, our present culture is not exactly known for deep contemplation of anything. So not surprisingly the problem of evil and suffering is frequently raised by people who think they may be onto something profound for the first time. I heard an interview not long ago in which a localized NPR radio show called “Radio West” spoke to theologian and commentator Al Mohler about recent tragedies in the news (marathon bombings, Oklahoma tornadoes, etc.). Upon hearing Mohler articulate a fairly classical Christian understanding of evil in the world, the host and a few callers reacted as though they had never heard this talked about with any depth prior to that conversation.

Still, the question of why so many bad things happen remains something we cannot get off of our minds. But I wonder why it does not occur to us to ask the inverse question of why people get to experience so many good things in life.  If God is watching, we instinctively perceive that he is to blame for all of the bad things that go on; but what about the good things? The 19th Century Victorian poet Christina Rossetti wrote, “Were there no God, we would be in this glorious world with grateful hearts and no one to thank.” Have you ever seriously contemplated the “Problem of Good”? People who do not believe in any sort of ultimate goodness should be particularly confounded by this question. Think of it: if no person like God exists, if from the start no purpose lay behind the origin and structure of this universe, and if the only game being played out is the strictly biological one, why should there be such varied experiences of joy in the lives of people? “Nature is a wicked old witch,” wrote the late evolutionary biologist George Williams.  She is “red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson famously put it.  Why, then, are there creatures like ourselves with so much capacity for so much rich enjoyment of life?

Philosopher Peter Kreeft offers an argument for God along these lines, focusing on the aesthetic qualities of our lives. We have a strange capacity to do far more than just eat, sleep, reproduce, survive and rear our young so as to make our genes successful in the brutally competitive struggle that characterizes survival of the fittest. We can enjoy all of these elements to a greater degree than you would think the blind processes of nature would allow. Kreeft considers the deep fulfillment we find in relationships, the way we enjoy fine food and great music, the power of profound stories and the way art can capture the imagination . At times these things can border on the sublime. The kind of love and longing that C. S. Lewis (one of Kreeft’s favorite people) talked about as a key to his spiritual awakening is part of the true and intense beauty of living, even in a place where disease, crime and ultimately death cause us so much grief and angst.  If we are going to ask why the latter, shouldn’t we also ask why the former?

And it’s not as if Lewis had too easy a life to comprehend tragedy and sorrow. The man who wrote a personal and probing book on the topic (The Problem of Pain) after the death of his wife had also seen the trenches of WWI, from which he was sent home wounded, and had years later lived through the Nazi bombing raids over London, during which his voice was heard weekly on BBC radio broadcasts reading words he had written to help bring calm and focus to the frazzled, frightened public. Those radio addresses, written and delivered during one of that city’s darkest periods, went on to become the chapters of one of the all-time best-selling books: Mere Christianity.

The good things in the world present as much a riddle to us as the bad things. Both beckon us to ultimate questions. The only reason we would obsess exclusively about the issue of pain and evil, while never pausing to consider the other side of the coin, is the near-sighted sense of entitlement to which we’re all naturally prone. We take the good things for granted, as if they are the norm or the default, and the bad things shock our senses as the inexplicable exceptions.

The late atheist pundit Christopher Hitchens was fond of likening the universe to a cosmic North Korea ruled over by a dictatorial deity. But as sure as Hitchens suffered his share of problems, right up to the problem of his own withering health, did he not also experience a life of many enjoyments? Did he not secure an outlet as a writer and a platform for fame? Did he not fill rooms with people who enjoyed his sardonic wit and lined up for his autograph? Did he not rub elbows with important cultural and political voices during a very long public career? Did he not spend many a fine meal regaling the table with his sharply sarcastic critiques of so many things in the news? Why would the all-powerful ‘Kim Jong Ill in the sky’ be so good to him as to allow all of that? Why would that cruel cosmic meanie give so many pleasures to a man who railed against him ceaselessly?

If the world is ruled over by a figure of omnipotent viciousness and cold cruelty, we should expect a thousand times more hardship in life than we experience. Likewise if the story of human history is nothing more than the story of a race of creatures on a distant galactic outpost where, by a crazy long-shot, a zillion factors lined up to make their existence possible, then all of our eloquent lyricizing and philosophizing about good and evil amount to nothing more than sounds going out into the atmosphere and never beyond it. As Doug Wilson put it, “the material universe doesn’t care about any of this foolishness, not even a little bit … it’s all just part of a gaudy and very temporary show. Sometimes the Northern lights put on a show in the sky. Sometimes people put on a show on the ground. Then the sun goes out and it turns out nobody cares” (Letter from a Christian Citizen).

Yes the problem of good and the problem of evil both force our attention and require us to consider more seriously the kind of reality in which we live.  No response is neat and tidy so as to satisfy us completely, but, like Wilson and unlike Hitchens (the two men, incidentally, are featured in a series called Collision that highlights their uniquely antagonistic friendship through several public debate appearances), I would maintain that the Christian understanding of things makes more sense of good and evil than the alternatives.

“You Can’t Use the Bible to Prove the Bible” . . . And Other Stupid Statements

I have heard this statement many times. It can come from Christians or non-Christians, but mainly I hear it from unbelievers this idea that the Bible is inadmissible as evidence for itself. If I were trying to use the Bible to prove the validity of the Bible (from the perspective of many outsiders), this is circular reasoning. This statement is not only wrong, but completely misunderstands its own argument; ironically, it makes the exact circular assumptions that it accuses believers of.

1. The “Bible” is not one book

When we are talking about “proving” or evidencing the truths of the Gospel message, we have to put our historian hats on (not our religious hats). The argument is meant to place Christians in this rather odd situation where they sound like they are saying the Bible is true because it says it is true. But the Bible is not one book. In fact, the term “Bible” is not in the Bible. The Bible is a collection of works that spans over a thousand years, written by dozens of authors, some who are connected, some who are not. All together there are sixty-six books in the Protestant Bible.

When we are talking about the claims of the “New Testament,” we are talking about the story of Christianity, the very foundation and apex of Christianity as it deals with the incarnation of Christ, who he was, and what he did. But even then, to say one can’t prove the New Testament with the New Testament is quite ill-informed and unreflective. The designation “New Testament” (along with its list of books) is not even in the New Testament. Like with the whole Bible, it is just a name given to a certain related corpus of writings that speaks about the story and implications of the advent of Jesus Christ. There are twenty-seven books in the New Testament.

If one were to look at this with a historian’s eye, to say we cannot use the Bible to prove or evidence the Bible is about the most misguided thing one could possibly say. What does that mean? Are you saying that we cannot use the testimony that the book of Matthew gives to evidence Mark? Or that one cannot attempt to piece together Galatians with the Book of Acts? Of course you can. In fact, you must. These twenty-seven documents, all written around the same time, all telling similar stories, must be used to prove or evidence each other. If not, the historian is not being a historian, but something entirely different. Continue Reading →