Archive | Folk Theology

Is God an Egotistical Maniac?


“It is absurd to believe that the deity has human passions, and one of the lowest human passions, a restless appetite for applause.” -David Hume

“Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31 31

“Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God . . . so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever.” 1 Peter 4:11

There is a popular notion among Evangelicals that I think has become part of our folklore. Indeed, it is the shibboleth (secret pass code) of my fellow Calvinists. When I call this “folklore” I don’t necessarily mean “not true” (as we will see), I simply mean that it is uncritically accepted without much thought. Many would say that God’s sole purpose, intent, and motivation for creating humanity and all of creation was for His own self-glorification. If you were to ask God, “Why did you create us?”, his answer, without hesitation, would be, “Easy, to glorify myself.”

Many unbelievers will bring this up as a primary point of departure from the Christian faith. They would say that the Christian God is an egotistical maniac, only out for his own self-glory. As one person put it: “If I had a child I would not bring him into this world and say, ‘Congratulations, I created you to worship me’. I would not want a son simply to serve me.” He goes on, “I never asked to participate in this game of life. I was nothing and then I was created simply to serve him or I’d have to burn for eternity?” He goes on to accuse God of being egotistical, sharing in the most base traits of humanity. Is this true? Does God have a “relentless appetite for applause”?

Wrong Answers

Wrong answer #1: Yes, God is an egomaniac. But it is okay since he is God.

This is the answer many people would give (though not in so many words!). The idea is that being self-serving and demanding of recognition is acceptable so long as the recognition is warranted. It’s only bad when we do it because we don’t deserve it. Therefore, God’s egotism is a “righteous egotism.” What is base and sinful for man is not so with God.

I am going to let you in on a little secret. I am from Oklahoma. We have a certain way of getting by with things here through the way we talk. We can sanctify many conversations by using certain qualifiers. For example, we can get by with any gossip by simply adding the words “God bless his/her/their soul” to the end of the sentence. “Did you hear about Bobby and Susan? They are having marital problems, God bless their souls.” “I hear  Rick is starting to drink again, God bless his soul.” I think we have something similar in Christianity. We can attribute just about anything to God so long as we tag it with the word “righteous.” God is vindictive, but it is a “righteous vindictiveness.” God is jealous, but it is a “righteous jealousy.” God is cruel, but it is a “righteous cruelty.” I think we need to be careful here. Sometimes these things are true, such as God’s jealousy (Deut. 5:9). But simply placing the word “righteous” in front of the character trait does not often do justice to what is trying to be said. Continue Reading →

Folk Theology: Twenty Urban Legends in Theology

Folk theology describes beliefs, generally shared by a large group of people, which said adherents have rarely thought through in a critical way. These beliefs are normally inherited (passed on through rote teaching and tradition).

I present to you my list of the top 20 examples of folk theology. There are many more, but I narrowed the list, believing these present a good sample with which to begin. Some examples have very serious consequences; others are somewhat benign. I started with the least consequential, then progressed to the ones which carry the weightiest theological consequences. As you read through the list, be careful not to become too discouraged. Folk theology is a phenomenon affecting many, if not most of us, and leads us to myriad misunderstandings.

Let the countdown begin:

20. People become angels

This is a common misconception in popular culture, though it appears less frequently among Evangelical Christians. However, this niche of folk theology influences many through its presentation in popular songs and movies.  Many older cartoons’ narratives are liberally sprinkled with this folk theology (Think of what would happen to Tom every time he died in Tom and Jerry!).

19. Satan is red with horns and a tail

In a similar vein, this idea is not so much found among Bible-believing Christians as it is in pop culture. However, like other examples of folk theology, it frequently finds an extended audience in the secular populace. While Christians may not believe Satan actually looks this way, many subscribe to the point of view that his very appearance reflects his evil nature. In other words, most people believe Satan and demons to be hideous and foul looking creatures. However, this belief is not supported in Scripture.  Rather, Satan and his demons are depicted as appearing as stunningly beautiful creations of God, deceiving and distracting mankind from realizing their nature as agents of evil intent by using the guise of physical attractiveness. (2 Cor. 11:14).

18. Angels have wings

While it is true that Isaiah 6:6, Ezekiel 1:11, and Revelation 4:8 describe creatures worshiping God and having wings, this does not mean that every type of angel has wings. In no case do we find that their physical appearance resembles the depictions (looking like a man or woman with wings coming out of their backs) so commonly portrayed in our modern culture.

17. Hell is Satan’s domain

There are many synonyms for Hell used in the Bible. Some of these are more descriptive and intentional than others. However, when we think of Hell, we normally are speaking of the place of eternal punishment mentioned in the New Testament, described as the “lake of fire” in Revelation 20:15 (cf Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14). In reality, not only is Hell not Satan’s domain, residence, or home, he has yet to even be there! In this sense, Hell is not presently “open for business,” since it is a place which exists explicitly for the execution of  divine judgement – and this greatest of all judgements has not yet taken place. So, all of those images of Satan being the king of Hell . . . forget them. Once he gets there, he will have no more authority than any other human or demon who calls the place home.

16. Satan’s name is Lucifer

Many people believe that “Lucifer” is Satan’s actual name. This is wrong for many reasons. First, the word from which we get “Lucifer” is the Hebrew helel. It occurs only once in Isaiah 14:12 and is not speaking of Satan, but of the king of Babylon. Later tradition saw a double reference here and believed that Satan was also in view. The Latin Vulgate translated “morning star” as “Lucifer.” The King James Version used this word in its translation. Hence, without justification, this name found its way into our tradition as the formal name of Satan.

15. Our resurrection bodies will be able to go through walls

People often think this because they believe Christ’s body went through walls (John 20:19). However, the passage does not speak to the nature of his resurrected body, but rather to his power. There is no reason to believe the physiology of our resurrected bodies will be any different than what it currently is. Remember, God is redeeming Plan A, not falling back to Plan B. Generally speaking, whatever Adam and Eve’s physiology was like before the fall will be what ours will be like after the resurrection. We will not be able to walk through walls, fly, or run as fast as Flash. And you know what? This is very good. Continue Reading →

Avoid Every Appearance of Evil!

When Christian leaders talk about how to live a godly life, they eventually turn to the gray areas those things that are right for some but wrong for others. You know the list: drinking, smoking, watching R rated movies, playing cards, dancing, using colorful language, listening to Country-Western music (OK that last one is not a gray area; it should be taboo for everyone), etc. That’s the short list. And the way the instruction on such matters goes is all too often along these lines: First, our freedoms in Christ are articulated, clearly stated, appreciated. Next come the qualifiers: but don’t exercise your freedom in Christ if it will make someone uncomfortable, cause someone to judge you, is not entirely loving, etc. This would be bad enough if it just ended there. By the time all the qualifications are stated, the freedoms that we allegedly have are almost all stripped away. Paralysis begins to set in. But the coup de grace comes with a single verse from 1 Thessalonians, utilized as a weapon against all those who enjoy their lives in Christ: But even if what you do is loving, makes no one uncomfortable, doesn’t cause anyone to judge you, remember that you are responsible to avoid every appearance of evil. So, if in doubt, don’t do it.

That’s how the verse reads in the KJV: Avoid every appearance of evil. It’s 1 Thess 5.22 and it puts a damper on everything. But does it really mean this? Does it really mean that even if something looks like it’s evil to some, we can’t enjoy it? Hardly.

The Greek text really should be translated, abstain from every form of evil. There is a genuine correspondence between form and evil: that is, stay away from evil things. But the reason that form (or, in the KJV, appearance) was used is because Paul is speaking about false doctrine. This verse, in fact, was more often attributed to Jesus than to Paul in the early church, suggesting that Paul got this line from his Lord and that it was one of the sayings that for some reason didn’t make it into the gospels but was nevertheless an authentic saying of Jesus. It was used with literal reference to coins; to abstain from every form of evil was to avoid counterfeit teaching. Further, in the context, it seems clear that Paul is speaking about false teaching. Verses 19-22 read as follows:

Do not quench the Spirit;
Do not despise prophecies;
But examine all things: cling to the good, abstain from every form of evil. Continue Reading →

Could Esau Repent? The Difficulty of Heb. 12:17

I was talking to someone the other day. He was distraught and depressed about his faith. Though he had experienced a dramatic conversion a few years back, the last year has been full of trials and temptations which lead him back into a lifestyle which he thought was in his rear-view mirror. Along with his return to some former habits, he has entered into a nightmare of doubt. His primary doubt comes from his ability to return to the Lord, having, according to him, “rejected the gift of God” and “returning to his own vomit.”

While the issues are complex and I do not wish to enter into a dialogue about this person’s spiritual state, I do want to mention a verse that has put him in a spiritually catatonic state. He believes that like it was with Esau, it is too late for him. He believes that the repentance that he seeks has been removed from the table. In other words, he believes that there is a time when repentance is no longer possible.

Here is the verse he referred to in support of this pain:

Heb. 12:17
“For you know that even afterward, when he [Esau] desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.” (NAS)

The impression is that Esau rejected the blessing of God through his birthright (which is true). When he later realized how fool-hearted this was and turned to God for repentance of his sin, he was rejected. It was just too late. I don’t believe this is the case. Let me explain.

The question is What did Esau seek with tears? What is the “it” of Heb. 12:17 (“he sought for it with tears”)? Many people assume that it is repentance. While the translation I used (NAS) leaves the question open for interpretation, the word order in English leaves the other possibilities obscure. But, at face value in the reading of most translations, it does seem like it is repentance that Esau is seeking. Notice the readings in these other translations: Continue Reading →

The Myth of “Abraham’s Bosom”

I remember when I was young, I was taught that there was a place called “Abraham’s Bosom.” The way it was explained to me made perfect sense at the time. You go to heaven if you trust in Christ. You go to hell if you don’t. People go to heaven because Christ’s atonement on the cross paid for their sins. God cannot be in the presence of sin (Hab. 1:13). Therefore, those who are covered by Christ’s death can be in the presence of God. Those who are not, cannot. 

So far so good? But there is a problem: what about all God’s people who came before Christ’s death? What about Abraham, Moses, David, and Isaiah? According to the theory, they were not yet covered by Christ blood. Conclusion: they, before Christ’s death, were not in the presence of God. They were somewhere else waiting for their sins to be covered.

This “somewhere else” was known as “Abraham’s Bosom.” Think “Protestant Purgatory” or something like that. Abraham’s Bosom existed as a holding tank for God’s people until Christ’s death on the cross. Once the atonement was made, Abraham’s Bosom it was vacated as all its occupants were ushered into God’s presence in heaven.

The name “Abraham’s Bosom” came from the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. “Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried” (Luke 16:22). Notice, this parable was given before Christ’s atonement. Therefore, people have said that this must be the place, between heaven and hell, that pre-Cross saints went to.

Why there is no such thing as Abraham’s Bosom

As nice and tidy as that might sound theologically and biblically, it does not really work. There is no such place as Abraham’s Bosom.

First, the idea that God cannot be in the presence of sin is untenable.

The passage in Hab. 1:13 simply means that God is too pure to approve sin. It has nothing to do with sin or evil being in God’s presence. Here are some of the reasons:

  • After the fall, we find God walking in the Eden with Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:8).
  • Satan himself can be in God’s presence. In Job 1:6, we see Satan presenting himself before God (see also 1 Chron 18:18-21; Rev. 12:10).
  • Christians, who are still sinners (1 John 1:8), are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Obviously the Holy Spirit must be able to be in the presence of sin.
  • Christ, God incarnate, was in the presence of sin the whole time he walked the earth (John 1:14). He was even carried in the womb of a sinner! Continue Reading →

Inviting Jesus into your Heart (Dan Wallace)

In Revelation 3:20 Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him and he [will dine] with me.” The crucial phrase for our purposes is “I shall come in to him.” This text has often been taken as a text offering salvation to a lost sinner. Such a view is based on two assumptions: (1) that the Laodiceans, or at least some of them, were indeed lost, and (2) that the Greek εισελεύσομαι πρό means “come into.”

Both of these assumptions, however, are based on little evidence. Further, the resultant notion is anything but clear. To invite Christ into one’s heart is hardly a clear picture of the gospel.

Regarding the idea that those in the Laodicean church were not believers, note that in the preceding verse, the resurrected Lord declares, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline.” Here φιλέω is used for “love”—a term that is never used of God/Jesus loving unbelievers in the NT. This φιλέω is applied to the Laodiceans here, for the verse concludes, “Be zealous, therefore, and repent.” The inferential ‘therefore’ connects the two parts of the verse, indicating that the Laodiceans are to repent because Christ loves (φιλέω) them!

The second assumption is that εισελεύσομαι πρό means ‘come into.’ Such an assumption is based on a less than careful reading of the English text. The ASV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, for example, all correctly render it ‘come in to.’ (Note the space between the prepositions.) The idea of ‘come into’ would be expressed with είς as the independent preposition and would suggest a penetration into the person (thus, spawning the idea of entering into one’s heart). However, spatially πρό means toward, not into. In all eight instances of εισοέρχομαι πρό in the NT, the meaning is ‘come in toward/before a person’ (i.e., enter a building, house, room, etc., so as to be in the presence of someone), never penetration into the person himself/herself. In some instances, such a view would not only be absurd, but inappropriate (cf. Mark 6:25; 15:43; Luke 1:28; Acts 10:3; 11:3; 16:40; 17:2; 28:8). Continue Reading →

What Does it Really Mean to Take the Lord’s Name in Vain?

What does it mean to use the Lord’s name in vain? This is a question that might seem self-evident to most people in western society. Whether you are religious or not, you would not even hesitate with your answer, “It means to say ‘G D’.” I am sure that there are more people that can answer this than there are who can list the ten commandments, name the Gospels, or tell you the difference between the New Testament and the Old Testament. For this reason, I thought that I would try to contribute to this discussion by asking the question “What does it really mean to take the Lord’s name in vain?”

Obviously, I am going to say something that is at odds with the common conception among those of us who grew up in the context of our western Judeo-Christian culture, otherwise I would not have included the word “really,” and put it in italics! The reader must also be warned that I am going to use a phrase that is very offensive to many. I am assuming that I am dealing with a mature audience who understands the intentionality that I bring to this blog. If what I am proposing here is correct, we all need to hear this in order to overcome a serious issue of folk theology that damages the character of God and misrepresents what it means to talk in a “Christian” manner.

For most, the ultimate violation of the third commandment, “You shall not take the Lord your God’s name in vain,” is to say “God damn it.” You can use just about every other word or phrase, no matter how bad, but when your vulgarity includes the utilization of this phrase, many would believe that you have crossed the line. You might even be charged with blasphemy. Some people will stand before God and when asked “Why should I let you in to heaven?” will proudly say, “Because I did not murder, commit adultery, and I never said the ‘G D’ word.” (Please note, I don’t think God is going to ask that question. Don’t go there.)

I believe we have this wrong. In fact, from a purely objective standpoint, I don’t believe that this phrase causes God to bat an eye whatsoever. Think about it this way for a moment. Why would calling on God to damn something be so bad? What does the verb “damn” mean? The American Heritage Dictionary defines the verb “to damn” as “the act of pronouncing an adverse judgement upon.” To call upon God to damn something is neither sinful nor unbiblical. In fact, you can find people throughout Scripture, especially in the imprecatory Psalms, who call upon God to bring judgement on their enemies. In other words, they are asking for God to damn those who they feel are ripe for His judgement. In this sense, saying “God damn you” can be as biblical as saying “God bless you.”

Some may say to me the reason why this is a violation of the third commandment is because people are using God’s name in a “vain,” “worthless,” or “empty” way. In this case, to say “God damn it!” in our colloquial tongue is not the same as seriously calling upon God to damn something or someone in a biblical sense. For these people, if you say it with the biblical meaning, fine, but if you say it casually, then you have used His name in an “empty” way and thereby have broken the third commandment.

But there are three major problems with this line of reasoning:  Continue Reading →

Christians Can be So Bizarre or “He Hates the Buildings!”

I sit here with a bit of a conflicted soul. On the one hand, I got the new issue of Christianity Today and found that it is devoted to the importance of doctrine in spiritual formation. Giddy. That is what I was when I read it. However, I also received an email yesterday that serves to curb my excitement, reminding me of the reality of our desperate condition. (I’ll get to the email soon).

Christians often scare me. Really, all religious people scare me. But Christians in particular because they are the ones I have to deal with everyday. I have a deep empathy for the so-called “new atheists” such as Daniel Dennet and Christopher Hitchens who find religion repulsive and counterproductive to the betterment of society. While I completely disagree with them for a variety of reasons that will not be covered here, I can put myself in their shoes and find myself saying the same things. Namely: Christians can be so bizarre.

Seriously, we can produce the craziest nutcases the world has to offer. Sadly, it is often our beliefs that are the issue. From the “God told me to kill my children,”  “I cannot talk to you because you are going through a divorce,” “If you say the earth is going around the Sun we are going to put you in jail,” to “Our ministry needs a million dollars or I am going to kill myself,”  we have our embarrassments. The things said and done in the name of God are astonishing and disturbing. Yes, I know. Everyone has their nutcases, but we have the tendency to breed a special variety. I have already, in times past, talked trash on my own breed: Calvinism. But now I am going to get after the species in general: Christians.

In the interest of full-disclosure I must tell you something. I have Gail Riplinger’s book Which Bible is God’s Word sitting right in front of me. Its basic argument is that all Bible translations other than the King James Bible are from Satan. Oh yeah, I am serious. The sin is not that I have this book, but that it is representative of times past when I was, for about six weeks, a KJV Only advocate, believing that all other Bible versions were from Satan. To make matters worse I was actually an outspoken evangelist of this belief. I told my family, my friends, and everyone who would listen about Satan’s plot to get you to read another version of the Bible. I can only imagine what the conversation sounded like. I had “evidence” that I thought was solid, but as I look back on this “evidence”, my face turns red. I guess I keep Riplinger’s book in front of me to keep me humble and always aware of how bizarre I can be.

Christianity is dangerous. The Bible is dangerous. Please don’t get me wrong. I believe that both, rightly understood, are wonderful and true. However, the “rightly understood” is so hard to come by. The difficulty is not that one has to be a super-genius to understand the Bible or the Christian faith. Quite the opposite. The Bible is wonderfully simple and so is the Christian faith.

I believe that the difficulty lies in two areas:

1. Christians believe that the Bible is God’s word.
2. There is not a bolt of lightening that strikes you when you interpret it wrong (i.e. there is no immediate evidence of or consequence for wrong interpretation.)

The reality of these two make a potentially lethal combination. They don’t make good bed-fellows and hence the Roman Catholic cry for an imperial authority to regulate such things. Although Catholics have their share of bizarre teachings themselves, their problem is bigger in my opinion since their bizarre doctrines get dogmatized and everyone must believe them. At least in Protestantism we can both recognize and repudiate our weird uncles. Catholics are stuck having to defend them for all time. (Another story, another time.)

Now for the bizarrity of the moment. . .

This is from an email I received from a concerned follower of our ministry. It is a phone message from his Bible Study leader. Every time I listen to this, I am reminded of the movie “The Jerk” when Steve Martin is getting shot at but he naively thinks the guy is shooting at the cans beside him. “Its the cans. He hates the cans!” Well, in this case: “Its the buildings. God hates the buildings.” Listen and you will see what I mean:

(Please note that the audio has been altered to protect the identity of the caller.)

Buildings are the whore of Babylon? Really? Satan is luring people into buildings which is the great apostasy? Really? Continue Reading →