Archive for April, 2019

Sri Lanka, Persuasion, and Resurrection

There is this telling line that describes the way in which the apostle Paul conducted his ministry: “Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4).  Paul, when it came to sharing the gospel, sought to persuade.  And, by all accounts, he was quite successful.  What began a small group of hundreds of Christians in the first century now numbers 2.18 billion.

The Christian faith has always had an affinity for persuasion.  There is a whole subset of Christian teaching categorized as “apologetics,” which is meant to defend the faith against those who would attack its integrity and persuade those who question its credibility.  Indeed, persuasion is critical to the Christian mission.  Christians are called to make winsome, reasoned, intelligible arguments as to why Jesus is the Messiah in the confidence that God’s Spirit will bring people to faith in Jesus as the Messiah.

Not everyone, however, operates in this way of persuasion.

Last Sunday, as Christians in Sri Lanka were celebrating the resurrection of Christ, a spate of coordinated, terrorist attacks were launched by nine suicide bombers at three churches and three hotels in the island nation’s capital, Colombia, killing around 250.  There were warnings in the days and weeks before the attacks, which Sri Lankan officials failed to heed.  One of the suicide bombers had been previously arrested, but was then released.  ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, although the extent to which the terror group was involved remains unclear.

Tragically, these kinds of attacks have become unsurprising.  In 2017, 18,814 people were killed in terrorist attacks worldwide.  This represents a whopping 27% decline in deaths from the year before.  Many, many people have lost their lives in these acts of evil.

Behind terrorism lies an ideology that those who disagree with you, whether their disagreement be theological, philosophical, ideological, or political, cannot and are not to be persuaded.  Instead, they are to be defeated and destroyed.  This way of thinking is as horrifying as it is frightening.  But it is also, ultimately, unsuccessful.

At the dawn of the third century, when Christians were being severely persecuted by the Romans, a church historian named Tertullian famously wrote to the Church’s persecutors:

Your cruelty, however exquisite, does not avail you; it is rather a temptation to us.  The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.

And seed it was.  When Tertullian wrote these words, there were around 19,000 Christians in Rome, about 4% of the city’s population.  50 years later, that number had grown to 78,000, around 17% of the city’s population.  By the year 300, there were nearly 300,000 Christians in Rome, which constituted over 66% of the city’s population.  Christians were killed.  But the Christian Church could not be stopped.  The persecutors’ terrorizing overtures were unsuccessful.

As it was in Tertullian’s day, so it is in our day.  The threats of those who despise Christians are simply no match for the persuasive and attractive truth of Christianity.  Those who lost their lives in Sri Lanka while worshipping the risen Savior on Easter are not extinguished.  They are simply now waiting – waiting for the One who, on the Last Day, will call forth their bodies from their graves.  To quote Tertullian once more:

The resurrection of the dead is the Christian’s trust … Life is the great antagonist of death, and will in the struggle swallow up for salvation what death, in its struggle, had swallowed up for destruction.

A terrorist may be able to take a life with a bomb, but he cannot extinguish that life for eternity.  Just like some soldiers, a long time ago, were able to take a life with a cross, but they could not extinguish that life for longer than three days.  Of this we are called to persuade people.  Of this I am fully persuaded.

Christ is risen.  And because He has risen, Sri Lankan Christians will rise.  And so will we.

April 29, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Rebuilding of Notre Dame and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

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The world watched in horror as a medieval Gothic treasure was wrecked last Monday when flames ripped through Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  Parts of the building, the construction of which began in 1163, still stand.  But much of the roof, which was made out of timber and original to the structure, along with the cathedral’s grand spire, also made out of wood and iron and rebuilt in 1844, is no more.

Reports indicate that many of the cathedral’s priceless relics, including what is claimed to have been the crown of thorns Jesus wore during His crucifixion, were rescued from the blaze.  Other relics, like a supposed piece of Jesus’ cross, may not have been so fortunate.  Its status is still unknown.  Parisians, Catholics, Protestants, and countless others across the world are still coming to terms with how a landmark as staid and majestic as Notre Dame – which withstood everything from the French Revolution and its virulently anti-Theist cult of reason to Hitler’s invasion of Paris and his order, thankfully disobeyed by one of his generals, to trigger explosives placed inside the grand façade – could come crashing down due to an accidental fire, likely triggered by an electrical short circuit.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, vowed to rebuild the cathedral under an ambitious timeline. “We will rebuild Notre Dame even more beautifully and I want it to be completed in five years,” the president said in an address last Tuesday.  This is indeed a highly aggressive timeline and one of which many experts are skeptical, suspecting that the rebuilding may take decades instead of years.  When the structure was first built, it took 182 years to complete.

Jesus, as He began His public ministry, gazed upon the temple in Jerusalem, which would have been the ancient Jewish version of Notre Dame, and declared, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19).  Apparently, President Macron’s ambitious building timeline has nothing on Jesus.  The temple had already been rebuilt once after being destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC.  Herod the Great had begun a restoration and expansion of the temple in 20 BC, which continued into Jesus’ day.  So, you can imagine the incredulity of those listening when Jesus declared that He could rebuild the temple from the ground up in three days.  This is why the people responded, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and You are going to raise it in three days” (John 2:20)?  But, of course, there’s a secret that the people listening to Jesus do not yet know or understand that John happily lets us in on: “The temple He had spoken about was His body” (John 2:21).

Yesterday, Christians all over the world celebrated the truth that Jesus’ building project was a stunning success.  He did at the end of His public ministry precisely what He said He would do at the beginning of His public ministry.  His body was crushed on a cross.  But in three days, He was not only rebuilt, He was resurrected.  Because of Him, even as the storied nave of Notre Dame sat sadly empty yesterday as a house of worship, hearts across the world were full of joy in celebration of the One who is to be worshiped.

When Notre Dame burned, the world lost a precious space.  But Christians did not lose their Christ.  And Christ did not lose His Church.  In the words of the old hymn:

Built on the Rock the Church doth stand,
Even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in every land,
Bells still are chiming and calling,
Calling the young and old to rest,
But above all the soul distressed,
Longing for rest everlasting.

Work on Notre Dame began 856 years ago because of this promise.  May work begin again on this grand old lady for this same reason.

April 22, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

“I am thirsty.”

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Credit: Gerard de la Vallée, “Longinus piercing Christ’s side with a spear,” 17th cent.

This Friday, Christians around the world will commemorate the death of Jesus Christ.  At the church where I serve, we will hold services centering around the traditional seven final phrases that Jesus speaks from the cross.  Many of these phrases are extraordinarily well-regarded and famous.  For instance, when Jesus prays for His executioners, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), we are treated to a tour de force in what true forgiveness looks like.  When Jesus cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34) we hear in His words both an ache for God’s presence in suffering as well as a separation from God because of sin.

One of my favorite phrases from Jesus on the cross is one that can sometimes be overlooked:

“I am thirsty.” (John 19:28)

This hardly seems like a profound statement.  It seems more like a mundane request.  A man who is baking in the hot ancient Near Eastern sun while hanging exposed on a cross has developed a case of cotton mouth.  And yet, these words represent not only the cry of a parched mouth, but the yearning of a scorched soul.

The Psalmist once said:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for You, my God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When can I go and meet with God?  (Psalm 42:1-2)

The Psalmist describes his desperate thirst for God.  And how does God respond to his thirst?

Deep calls to deep in the roar of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and breakers have swept over me. (Psalm 42:7)

God not only gives the Psalmist’s soul spiritual water, He offers the Psalmist a superabundance of this water in the form of waves and breakers.

Jesus invites anyone who has a thirst like the Psalmist’s:

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to Me and drink.  Whoever believes in Me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”  (John 7:37-38)

But this takes us back to Jesus’ words from the cross.  For when Jesus, who offers all men refreshment for their souls, Himself complains of thirst, how do men respond to Him?

A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips.  (John 19:29)

God responds to human thirst with refreshing water.  Humans respond to God’s thirst with bitter vinegar.  What a contrast.

And yet, the incredible thing about Jesus’ death on the cross is that sin’s vinegar never quite manages to strip Him of His life-giving water:

One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.  (John 19:34)

The water of life stubbornly remains, flowing from the side of the One who died.

This week, as we reflect on and remember Jesus’ death, may we drink deeply from the water of His life.  For the water of His life gives us eternal life.

April 15, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Better Root For Human Intimacy

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Two stories recently hit the headlines, one which made a big splash and one which went largely unnoticed.

In the story that made a big splash, last week, the nation of Brunei enacted new penalties for certain sexual acts.  Amy Gunia reports for Time:

Despite international condemnation, Brunei enacted new Islamic criminal laws Wednesday, including harsh anti-LGBT measures that make gay sex punishable by stoning to death.  The implementation of the draconian penal code is part of the predominantly Muslim country’s rollout of Sharia law …

Homosexuality was already illegal in Brunei, but it was previously punishable with prison time.  The new legislation mandates death by stoning for gay sex and a number of other acts, including rape, adultery, sodomy, extramarital sex and insulting the Prophet Muhammed.

The new penal code also punishes lesbian sex through whipping and theft with amputation, and criminalizes teaching children about any religion except Islam.

The second story that made headlines, albeit in a much more modest way, was last month’s repeal of some anti-adultery laws, still officially on the books, though not enforced, in the state of Utah.  Paulina Dedaj explains for Fox News:

The governor of Utah signed a bill repealing a 1973 law that criminalized sex outside marriage … The offense, which was not enforced by police, was classified as a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. 

These two stories pull in two very different directions.  But both of them point to just how contentious questions concerning human sexuality have become.

It must be stated that the new penalties in Brunei are nothing short of appalling.  Stoning people is inhumane as a matter of course, regardless of the reason behind it.  But, especially for Christians, stoning people for crossing sexual boundaries should have a special kind of cringe factor to it when one stops to consider how Jesus, in a story from John 8, advocates for a woman caught in the act of adultery by sending her accusers, who wanted to stone her, away.

The repeal of Utah’s law banning sex outside of marriage, though certainly not as flashy as the story out of Brunei, is also worthy of our attention and consideration.  Using legislation to uphold the kinds of sexual mores Utah’s law did, even if those mores are laudable, strikes me as a recipe for corruption and selective enforcement.  Corruption and selective enforcement are certainly endemic to the story of that woman caught in adultery.  Her interlocutors are unquestionably corrupt and selective in how they enforce their penalty of stoning, considering that they bring only her, and not the man in the tryst, in front of Jesus to face the death penalty.  Though I am a wholehearted proponent of traditional sexual morality, I’m not sure if what is moral always requires codification by what is legal.

I am thankful that there are certain pieces of sexual legislation on our books.  The criminalization of pedophilia, for example, is wise and needed for the protection of our most vulnerable.  I also wish we had more legislation bearing down on the pornography industry, which makes its billions by flagrantly degrading the dignity of human beings and, as with pedophilia, by preying on society’s most vulnerable by enticing them with money to humiliate themselves on camera to churn out a never-ending stream of smut.

With this being said, however, the larger debate over sexual mores will take something more than legislation to solve, especially when it comes to the hot-button sexual debates of our day, which often center not so much around widely agreed upon boundaries to sexual activity, but around deeper contentions concerning sexual identity.

In the West especially, views on human sexuality are broadly rooted in two things:  the sentimental and the carnal.  The sentimental root of sex is what we generally think of as romantic love.  Two people fall in love and express their love for each other sexually.  The weakness in this root however, as countless broken marriages and relationships can testify, is that the feeling of love can dry up with time or, as many who have affairs will argue, can even shift to another person.  This root by itself, therefore, is not sufficient as a foundation for human sexuality.  This root is simply not rooted enough.

The carnal root of sex is usually conceived of as the uninhibited expression of desire – or, to put it more bluntly, as lust.  This root of sex is what drives the pornography industry’s ubiquity and the hookup culture found on many college campuses.  The weaknesses in this root are manifold.  People are objectified.  Some are even raped.  And relationships rooted in carnality have literally no chance – and that is not an exaggeration – of lasting.  Such relationships are fundamentally selfish.  And selfishness is a sin that sexual commitment and wholeness cannot endure.

One of the unique gifts that Christianity brings to today’s debates over human sexuality is that while it celebrates the importance of love in sexual relationships and readily acknowledges and makes provisions for the reality that people struggle with carnal lust, it offers human sexuality another – and, I would argue, better – root.  It adds to the sentimental and to the carnal the aspirational.  This root sees human sexuality as something that reaches beyond the private love of two individuals and certainly beyond the fleshly lusts of one individual and seeks to reflect something of God’s love and His created order in its expression of human love and our relational order.  This aspirational root, rather than self-righteously condemning people who fall short of it, grieves over sexual sin and gently invites sexual sinners to turn from their sin and aim higher, just as Jesus does with the woman caught in adultery when He invites her to, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).  The Christian aspirational root of sex trades the brutality of Brunei for the blessings of rightly ordered relationships and the legislative problems of Utah for the redemption won by Christ.

The best picture of aspirational sexuality can be found in Christian marriage, which is itself an aspirational picture of Christ’s love for the Church – a love so deep that it led Him to lay down His life on a cross.  On the cross, perfect righteousness and infinite forgiveness meet.  May we, as those who follow Christ, aspire to hold forth to sexual sinners what Christ first held out to us from the cross.  He is our way forward.

April 8, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Problem With The New York Times’ God Problem

The polemical can sometimes become the enemy of the thoughtful.  This seems to be what has happened in an opinion piece penned by Peter Atterton for The New York Times titled, “A God Problem.”

Mr. Atterton is a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University who spends his piece trotting out well-worn and, if I may be frank, tired arguments against the logical integrity of Theism.  He begins with this classic:

Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted?  If God can create such a stone, then He is not all powerful, since He Himself cannot lift it.  On the other hand, if He cannot create a stone that cannot be lifted, then He is not all powerful, since He cannot create the unliftable stone.  Either way, God is not all powerful.

This is popularly known as the “omnipotence paradox.”  God either cannot create an unliftable stone or He can create an unliftable stone, but then He cannot lift it.  Either way, there is something God cannot do, which, the argument goes, means His omnipotence is rendered impotent.  C.S. Lewis’ classic rejoinder to this paradox remains the most cogent:

God’s omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible.  You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense.  This is no limit to His power.  If you choose to say, ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,’ you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words, ‘God can’ … Nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.

Lewis’ position is the position the Bible itself takes when speaking of God.  Logically, there are some things Scripture says God cannot do – not because He lacks power, but simply because to pose even their possibility is to traffic in utter nonsense.  The apostle Paul, for instance, writes, “If we are faithless, God remains faithful, for He cannot disown Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).  In other words, God cannot not be God.  He also cannot create liftable unliftable stones – again, not because He lacks power, but because liftable unliftable stones aren’t about exercising power over some theoretical state of nature.  They’re about the law of noncontradiction.  And to try to break the law of noncontradiction doesn’t mean you have unlimited power.  It just means you’re incoherent and incompetent.  And God is neither.  To insist that God use His power to perform senseless and silly acts so that we may be properly impressed seems to be worthy of the kind of rebuke Jesus once gave to the religious leaders who demanded from Him a powerful sign: “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign” (Matthew 12:39)!

Ultimately, the omnipotence paradox strips God’s power of any purpose by demanding a brute cracking of an irrational and useless quandary.  And to have power without purpose only results in disaster.  For instance, uncontrolled explosions are powerful, but they are also, paradoxically, powerless, because they cannot exercise any ordered power over their chaotic power.  Omnipotence requires that there is power over uncontrolled power that directs and contains it toward generative ends.  This is how God’s power is classically conceived.  Just look at the creation story.  God’s power needs purpose to be omnipotence, which is precisely what God’s power has, and precisely what the omnipotence paradox does not care to address.

For his second objection against God, Mr. Atterton turns to the problem of evil:

Can God create a world in which evil does not exist? This does appear to be logically possible.  Presumably God could have created such a world without contradiction.  It evidently would be a world very different from the one we currently inhabit, but a possible world all the same.  Indeed, if God is morally perfect, it is difficult to see why He wouldn’t have created such a world.  So why didn’t He? 

According to the Bible, God did create a world where evil did not exist.  It was called Eden.  And God will re-create a world where evil will not exist.  It will be called the New Jerusalem.  As for the evil that Adam and Eve brought into the world, this much is sure:  God is more than up to the task of dealing with the evil that they, and we, have welcomed.  He has conquered and is conquering it in Christ.

With this being said, a common objection remains: Why did and does God allow evil to remain in this time – in our time?  Or, to take the objection back to evil’s initial entry into creation: Why would God allow for the possibility of evil by putting a tree in the center of Eden if He knew Adam and Eve were going to eat from it and bring sin into the world?  This objection, however, misses the true locus of evil.  The true locus of evil was not the tree.  It was Adam and Eve, who wanted to usurp God’s authority.  They were tempted not by a tree, but by a futile aspiration: “You can be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).  If Adam and Eve wouldn’t have had a tree around to use to try to usurp God’s prerogative, they almost assuredly would have tried to use something else.  The tree was only an incidental means for them to indulge the evil pride they harbored in their hearts.  If God wanted to create a world where evil most assuredly would never exist, then, He would have had to create a world without us.

Thus, I’m not quite sure what there’s to object to here.  The story of evil’s entrance into creation doesn’t sound like the story of a feckless God who can’t get things right. It sounds like the story of a loving God who willingly sacrifices to make right the things He already knows we will get wrong even before He puts us here.  God decides from eternity that we are worth His Son’s suffering.

The final objection to God leveled by Mr. Atterton has to do with God’s omniscience:

If God knows all there is to know, then He knows at least as much as we know.  But if He knows what we know, then this would appear to detract from His perfection.  Why?

There are some things that we know that, if they were also known to God, would automatically make Him a sinner, which of course is in contradiction with the concept of God.  As the late American philosopher Michael Martin has already pointed out, if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy.  But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them.  But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect.

This is the weakest of Mr. Atterton’s three objections.  One can have knowledge without experience.  I know about murder even though I have never taken a knife or gun to someone.  God can know about lust and envy even if He has not lusted and envied.  The preacher of Hebrews explains well how God can know sin and yet not commit sin as he describes Jesus’ struggles under temptation: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15).  Jesus was confronted with every sinful temptation, so He knows what sin is, but He also refused to swim to sin’s siren songs.  The difference, then, is not in what He knows and we know.  The difference is in how He responds to what He knows and how we respond to what we know.

One additional point is in order.  Though I believe Mr. Atterton’s assertion that one cannot know certain things “unless one has experienced them” is questionable, it can nevertheless be addressed on its own terms by Christianity.  On the cross, Christians believe that every sin was laid upon Christ, who thereby became sin for us.  In other words, Christ, on the cross, became the chief of sinners, suffering the penalty that every sinner deserved, while, in exchange, giving us the righteous life that only He could live (see 2 Corinthians 5:21).  In this way, then, Christ has experienced every sin on the cross because He has borne every sin on the cross.  Thus, even according to Mr. Atterton’s own rules for knowing, in Christ, God can know everything through Christ, including every sin.

I should conclude with a confession about a hunch.  I am a little suspicious whether or not this 1,140-word opinion piece in The New York Times decrying faith in God as illogical was written in, ahem, good faith.  This piece and its arguments feel a little too meandering and scattershot and seem a little too clickbait-y to be serious.  Nevertheless, this is a piece that has gained a lot of traction and talk.  I’m not sure that the traction and talk, rather than the arguments, weren’t the point.

Whatever the case, Theism has certainly seen more compelling and interesting interlocutions than this piece.  God, blessedly, is still safely on His throne.

April 1, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments


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