Posts filed under ‘Theological Questions’

Civic Law: Why It Matters To Christians

God’s law is external to us and internal in us all at the same time.  On the one hand, it is external to us.  God, quite apart from our opinions and objections, has clearly revealed His law in His Word.  And regardless of cultural sentiments, sensibilities, or sensitivities, and oftentimes in direct opposition to these, God’s Word stands.  As the prophet Isaiah declares, “The word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8).  On the other hand, God’s law is also internal in us.  In Romans 1 and 2, the apostle Paul discuses how those who do not have God’s external, revealed law, as given in Holy Scripture, nevertheless know right from wrong.  This is his conclusion:

When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to the gospel, God judges the secrets of man by Jesus. (Romans 2:14-16)

Thus, even if someone is not a biblical scholar, he can still know right from wrong and righteousness from wickedness, for God has gone to the trouble of sketching and etching His law on every individual’s heart.  This is why, when we fall prey to immorality, an innate twinge of guilt wells up inside of us.

In doctrinal parlance, we call the sketching and etching of God’s law on each human heart the doctrine of “natural law.”  Because human beings are created by God, human beings know, by nature, what God’s law requires.

The theological principle of God’s natural, moral law, and the way it is sketched and etched on every human heart, has long been foundational in understanding our nation’s legal, civic law.  Traditionally, in order for a person to be convicted of a crime, they have to be found to have a mens rea, a Latin legal term meaning “a guilty mind.”  Under our nation’s legal system, it is generally assumed that a person must know he is committing a crime in order for him to be found guilty of that crime.  This is why if a dog, for instance, mauls a postal worker, though we may put the dog down, we do not put the dog in jail.  For he does not have “a guilty mind.”  He does not know that what he has done is wrong.  But this principle of mens rea is changing.

Yesterday, in The Wall Street Journal, Gary Fields and John Emshwiller published an article titled, “As Federal Crime List Grows, Threshold of Guilt Declines.”[1]  They note, “What once might have been considered simply a mistake is now sometimes punishable by jail time.”  The authors go on to explain that in order to convict a person of a crime, prosecutors no longer have to prove that a defendant has a mens rae.  One especially disturbing incident cited by the authors involves the 1998 case of Dane A. Yirkovsky. While doing some remodeling work, Mr. Yirkovsky found a .22 caliber bullet underneath a carpet, which he subsequently put in a box in his room.  Though he did not think he was doing anything wrong, because he had a criminal record, federal officials contended that possessing even a single bullet violated a federal law prohibiting felons from having firearms.  He is currently serving a fifteen-year sentence.

Part of the problem, Fields and Emshwiller note, is the rapid proliferation of federal laws.  The article states:

Back in 1790, the first federal criminal law passed by Congress listed fewer than 20 federal crimes. Today there are an estimated 4,500 crimes in federal statutes, plus thousands more embedded in federal regulations, many of which have been added to the penal code since the 1970s.

With so many new laws on the books, it’s no wonder people can commit crimes utterly unaware that what they’re doing is illegal!  And these days, it doesn’t matter whether or not a person is aware that what he’s doing is illegal.  A person can be tried and convicted quite apart from the principle of mens rea.

Why should Christians be concerned with the deterioration of mens rea?  Because it marks the divorce of our nation’s civic law from God’s internally inscribed natural law.  For decades, our legal codes were generally tied to overriding and undergirding moral concerns, internally ingrained into humans by their Creator.   Even something as seemingly morally arbitrary as the speed limit was connected to a moral concern – that of human safety.  But as our civic law has become more and more divorced from its moral counterpart, our civic law now permits things like abortion, something that clearly defies moral law, for it involves the deliberate taking of a human’s life in the name of human choice.  When this kind of activity is permitted by civic law, it not only makes civic law confusing, because it has no natural rhyme or reason but is instead bureaucratically and politically driven, it also diminishes natural, moral law.  For when something permitted by civic law contradicts natural, moral law, people often use the civic code to bludgeon and silence their consciences which testify to God’s natural, moral law.  This, in turn, radically alters even Christians’ attitudes toward basic moral and ethical issues.  For example, in a survey conducted by the Barna group, researchers found among people aged twenty-three to forty-one, 59 percent thought cohabitation between unmarried persons was morally acceptable, 44 percent considered sex before marriage to be morally permitted, and 32 percent thought abortion was a moral option for an unwanted pregnancy.[2]  Our civic permissions are changing our God-given moral sensibilities.

Finally, when people rebel against God’s natural, moral law, they walk down a road, even if this road is paved by civic permissions, to deep pain and suffering.  And this should break our hearts and, kind of ironically, trouble our consciences.

Civic law that contradicts moral law is immoral.  And because God has inscribed His moral law into the natural, and thereby universal, realm, we, as Christians, should lovingly and steadfastly stand up for that which God has given, even when our civics contradict it.  It’s only natural.


[1] Gary Fields & John R. Emshwiller, “As Federal Crime List Grows, Threshold of Guilt Declines,” The Wall Street Journal (September 27, 2011).

[2] Cited in David Kinnaman, UnChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity And Why It Matters (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007) 53.

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September 28, 2011 at 11:40 am Leave a comment

Genesis 6:1-4 and Christian Marriage

The other day, I received a question regarding the opening verses of Genesis 6:

When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown. (Genesis 6:1-4)

This passage is a perennially puzzling one because it immediately raises a host of questions.  Who are the sons of God?  Who are the daughters of men?  Who are the Nephilim?  To add to the perplexing nature of this passage, commentaries offer a whole array of conflicting interpretations, perhaps the most famous of which is that the “sons of God” are fallen angels who are perverting the daughters of men by intermarrying with them and allying themselves with an evil race of giants called the Nephilim.

I’m not sure that the interpretation of this passage needs to be nearly so esoteric.  Indeed, the interpretation proffered above flatly contradicts what Jesus says about the nature of angels:  “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25).  Jesus here makes it clear that angels are not the marrying kind. Thus, when Moses writes about the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2, he seems to be referring simply those who follow God and believe in His promise of a Messiah.  Most likely, the sons of God are from the line of Seth who replaced his late brother Abel as an heir of righteousness (cf. Genesis 4:25).  Conversely, the “daughters of men” seem to be those who do not follow God, most likely from the line of Cain, and are prone to wickedness and violence (cf. Genesis 4:17-24).  Thus, essentially what is going on here is that righteousness is intermingling with wickedness.

The sons of God intermarrying with daughters of men is paired with a reference to the Nephilim in Genesis 6:4.  Most often, the Nephilim are portrayed as giants, thanks in large part to the description of them in Numbers 13, when Moses sends out a team of spies to scout out the land of Canaan before the Israelites are supposed to enter and settle there.  The spies return with this report: “We saw the Nephilim there…We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Numbers 13:33).  Interestingly, this is the only other reference to the Nephilim in the Old Testament.  Because the spies compare themselves to “grasshoppers” in light the stature of the Nephilim, the Nephilim are often assumed to be giants.  Indeed, in the Latin Vulgate, Jerome translates the word Nephilim as gigantes, or “giants.”  But what Moses seems to be referring to in Genesis 6:4 is not so much the physical stature of the Nephilim, but their spiritual state.  “Nephilim” is a Hebrew word meaning, “fallen ones.”  That is, the Nephilim are wicked tyrants who care not for God and His Word.  They have fallen into sin. In the scope of four short verses, then, we find the sons of God intermarrying with the daughters of men, an act which is portrayed as sinful, and we hear of the Nephilim, renowned as evil thugs.  Sin is on the move in Genesis 6.  And it is spreading like gangrene.  This is why in the subsequent verses, Moses writes, “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that He had made man on the earth, and His heart was filled with pain” (Genesis 6:5-6).  What follows is the story of Noah and God’s judgment on wickedness by means of a worldwide flood.

So why would I spend all this time trying to sort out the exegetical puzzle of Genesis 6:1-4?  Is it out of mere theological curiosity?  Though I am always theologically curious, the practical implications of a proper interpretation of this passage are enormous.  For it gives us a down-to-earth look at what happens when righteousness intermingles with wickedness.  For when righteousness intermingles with wickedness, wickedness all too often seems to prevail.  This is why the apostle Paul later warns:

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be My people. Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you will be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:14-18)

Paul is crystal clear here:  Our God does not want His sons and daughters to yoke themselves to the sons and daughters of this world.  This has an especially poignant application to Christian marriage.  Christians should not marry non-Christians…period.  To do so is to try to yoke righteousness to wickedness.  So to the Christian singles I say, “Marry inside the faith.” Follow Paul’s admonition:  The person you marry “must belong to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39).

Now, certainly it is good to share your faith with others.  Certainly it is even fine to have friends who do not share your same faith commitment.  But to yoke yourself to these people is a different matter entirely.  For to yoke yourself to someone is to declare your solidarity and agreement with them.  And solidarity and agreement with unfaith is something you cannot and should not declare.

Thus, this little passage from Genesis 6 has weighty practical implications for how we relate to others, especially in the context of marriage, and puts us on notice that the results of righteousness intermingling with wickedness are never good.  Righteousness should never merely intermingle with wickedness.  Rather, it should overcome it!  As Paul says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).  May you overcome the evil you encounter with the goodness of Christ!

August 5, 2011 at 8:24 am 1 comment

A Pastoral Statement on Israel

On May 19, 2011, President Obama delivered a speech in which he called for Israel and Palestine to return to their 1967 borders with “mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”  The reaction to the president’s proposal was swift and fierce.  Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, declared, “The viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of Israel’s existence.”[1]

Because of the long-standing and good relationship between the United States and Israel, many are wondering, “What is our obligation to Israel?  Should we support a return to the greatly diminished Israeli borders of 1967 or should we demand the greatest amount of land possible for this democracy?  What should our position and policy be?”

People are asking these questions not only out of political concern, but out of theological concern as well.  Because God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever” (Exodus 32:13), the question naturally arises:  Does this land still belong, by divine right, to the Jews?  And if so, should we, as the United States, support Israel over the Palestinians in an effort to respect God’s promise to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

Because this question is multifaceted, several things need to be addressed.  First, it is important to note that there is a difference between an “Israelite” and a “Jew.”  In Scripture, the term “Israelite” refers to an Old Testament believer who worships Yahweh, the God of Israel and the Creator of the heavens and the earth, and who trusts in His promise to send a Messiah (cf. Isaiah 7:14, 9:6, Micah 5:2, Zechariah 11:12-13).  The term “Jew,” on the other hand, refers to a person of either a certain race or of a certain faith or both.  There are Jews who are of the Jewish race, but are secular, while there are also Jews who are not of the Jewish race, but who practice the Jewish faith.  There are even Jews who are the Jewish race and trust in Christ as their Savior!  Thus, to equate ancient Israelites who had a specific and clear faith commitment to modern-day Jews who may or may not have a particular religious commitment perhaps misses the point from a Biblical view.

The distinction between Israelites and Jews becomes all the more important when one realizes that God makes His promise to Abraham and his descendants in light of Abraham’s faith and not of his race (cf. Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3).  Faith, not race, appropriates the promises of God to the people of God.  Consider the following verses:

  • Abraham…is the father of all who believe. (Romans 4:11)
  • Through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:6)
  • You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)

Again and again, the apostle Paul makes the same point:  It is by faith in Christ that one becomes a child of Abraham.  Just because one is a genetic descendant of Abraham does not mean he is an heir to God’s promises.  Indeed, when Abraham’s descendants prove faithless in the Old Testament, they are exiled from the land of Israel (cf. Jeremiah 3:6-10, 2 Kings 17:3-23, 25:8-21).   In the New Testament too, faithlessness is judged harshly.  Consider these verses:

  • John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” (Luke 3:7-8)
  • Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.  Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”  In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. (Romans 9:6-8)

Abraham’s true children are those who trust in God’s promise of a Messiah, fulfilled in Christ.  Thus, modern day biological Jews, if they do not trust in Christ, cannot be said to be heirs to God’s promises.

But what about the land which God promised to Abraham and his descendants?  Is this the property of today’s Jewish people?  It is important to keep two things in mind as we seek to answer this question.  First, Israel, the modern-day democracy, is not the same as Israel, the ancient theocracy.  Israel, the ancient theocracy, is portrayed by the Biblical authors as ruled by God Himself.  This is why, for instance, King David is anointed by the prophet Samuel (cf. 1 Samuel 16:1-13) rather than elected by Israel’s general population.  Conversely, in Israel, the modern-day democracy, officials are elected by the people and not anointed by the prophets or trumpeted as divinely appointed leaders.  Thus, ancient Israel and modern-day Israel are not the same.

Second, it has already been noted that, apart from faith in Christ, the promises of God cannot be appropriated to human beings.  Thus, for those who do not trust in Christ, the promises of God – including the land of Israel – are not theirs.  But what about those Jews who do believe in Christ?  Does this land of Israel still belong to them by divine right?

Ultimately, all land belongs not to people or to a people group, but to God:  “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1).  God, in turn, entrusts His world to His people to steward faithfully.  Indeed, this theological truth is stated explicitly in the commission God gives to the Old Testament Israelites:  “When the LORD your God brings you into the land He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you – a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant – then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).  From the outset, God warns His people not to forget that it is He who entrusts the land of Canaan to the Israelites.  God expects His people to steward this land well and according to His commands.  If the Israelites do not, God warns, “I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the LORD destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 8:19-20).  Notice that if the Israelites fail to follow God, He will destroy them “like the nations the LORD destroyed before.”  What sets Israel apart is its faith, not its land.  Without faith, Israel is just like all other faithless nations.

Finally, we must remember that the land God promised to Abraham was only a foreshadowing of an even greater land to come.  The preacher of Hebrews explains:  “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.  By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10).  Indeed, all of God’s Old Testament faithful “were longing for a better country – a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).  Earthly Israel was only a shadow of a greater heavenly Israel.  Thus, in the New Testament, Jesus does not make promises concerning the land of Israel.  Instead, He makes promises of a heavenly Kingdom (cf. Matthew 5:3, 10, 6:33, Luke 22:29).  This is why, in Revelation, John sees “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Revelation 21:2).  The earthly land of Israel, then, cannot be said to belong, by divine right, to biological Jews, or even to those Jews who trust in Christ.  For Christ did not come to bestow an earthly kingdom.  Indeed, Christ never drove out the Romans from Israel, contrary to first century expectations (cf. John 18:36), and, when a Samaritan woman asks Jesus where people are to worship, whether that be on Mount Gerizim according to Samaritan expectations or on Mount Zion according to Jewish expectations, Jesus responds, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:21, 23).  The earthly land of Israel was only a foreshadowing of a much greater heavenly inheritance, which is ours through faith in Christ.

So what does all this mean for the United States’ position on the nation of Israel?  Theologically, we are under no specific divine mandate to support any particular borders for the nation of Israel.  Politically, there may indeed be good reasons to support expanded borders for Israel such as the fact that this nation is one of our close allies and is a thriving, lively democracy in a part of the world which is largely devoid of such governments.  The democratic freedom Israel enjoys and promotes is a foundational value of our American union.  And as such, our citizens generally desire to see the cause of freedom spread far and wide.  For these reasons, many Christians and Americans can and do support Israel.


[1] Matt Spetalnick, “Obama and Netanyahu face tense meeting on Mideast,” Yahoo! News (May 20, 2011).

June 7, 2011 at 3:58 pm 1 comment

A Christian Response to the Death of Osama bin Laden

Concordia’s Senior Pastor, Bill Tucker, has written a letter to the congregation concerning the death of Osama bin Laden and how the Christian should respond to such an event. My prayer is that it is helpful to you as you ponder what this event means not only in the life of our nation, but in your life as a Christian.

My Beloved Concordia Family,

The death of Osama bin Laden was reported on Sunday evening, May 1, 2011.  As news of his demise spread, people responded in different ways.  Some responded with jubilation, happy to see an enemy of our country destroyed.  Others felt sorrow:  Bin Laden’s death reopened painful scars from the events of 9/11 and losses suffered in our War on Terror.  Still others responded with concern: For the evil in this world, ultimately, will not be defeated by human action, but by Christ alone.  Perhaps you, like me, have experienced some of each.

As I have been sorting through my own personal response, there have been many from our beloved family of faith doing the same.  How should a Christian respond to the death of Osama bin Laden?  Hopefully this brief note, with some guidance from God’s Word, will be helpful in your contemplation of that same question.

From the Bible we learn that death, even the death of the wicked, is not pleasing to God, nor is it part of His design.  The prophet Ezekiel states it well:  “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23)  God’s preference is always that the wicked – even Osama bin Laden – repent and be forgiven.  This does not mean, however, that God won’t execute His judgment on those who refuse to repent.  In the very next verse, Ezekiel continues, “But if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked man does, will he live? None of the righteous things he has done will be remembered. Because of the unfaithfulness he is guilty of and because of the sins he has committed, he will die.” (Ezekiel 18:24)  The apostle Paul affirms, “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23)  God punishes evil.

We also know that God uses earthly governments to execute His judgment.  Paul writes, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established…He is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He [the governmental authority] is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:1, 4) We can conclude, in circumstances like this, God uses governments and militaries to bring judgment on criminals.  We remain thankful for our troops and their service on behalf of our nation and respect their God-given vocation as governmental officials.

Finally, as Christians, our response to the death of the wicked should mirror God’s Word.  The wise man of Proverbs wrote:  “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice.” (Proverbs 24:17)  These words lead us to respond to this news without reckless jubilation, but with measured sobriety. We thank God for His judgment on wickedness.  At the same time, we keep our hearts and minds humble, so we do not slip into arrogance and sin.

In these times, it seems certain there will be more terrorist plots.  We must pray for these evil efforts to be confounded, for evil men to be brought to justice, and for peace and security to be reestablished.  However, when we pray for peace, it is with the knowledge that our hope comes from the Lord.

Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, describes the Christian’s hope for peace, even in the midst of war, like this:  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”  May this be the prayer of us all.

God Bless You!


Bill Tucker
Senior Pastor

May 4, 2011 at 4:35 pm 3 comments

Some Thoughts On Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”

I was curious, so I checked.  It’s number one in Amazon’s “Religion and Spirituality” section and number three in Amazon’s overall list of the top 100 books.  To say Rob Bell’s newest opus, Love Wins, has made a splash is like saying our recent recession was an economic hiccup.  Both are understated.  Because of its meteoric rise to the top of national book sales, the pastors at Concordia feel it is important to address what Rob teaches in this book.  Here is what you need to know upfront:  Concordia’s pastors do not believe that Love Wins presents true biblical or Christ-centered doctrine.  In fact, we believe it presents false doctrine that is dangerous and confusing, leading people away from Christ rather than toward Him.  If this is all you want or need to know, there is no need to read the balance of this blog.  If you want to know why we believe this book presents false doctrine, read on.

The blogs and reviews of Rob’s new book are legion, and so my goal in this blog is not to try to break through the cacophony of clamor surrounding the book’s release.  That’s a far too ambitious – and, I might add, unrealistic – goal.  But neither do I intend my review to simply be another voice added to the many shouts either celebrating or decrying Rob’s book.  Instead, my review is more of a personal sort.  I am a pastor.  And already, I am receiving questions from people I know and love about Rob’s book.  And I am concerned.  I am concerned about Rob.  I remember him in his earlier years.  To this day, I have never heard a finer sermon on Leviticus 16 than the one he preached.  And the picture he painted of Ephesus, the Roman emperor Domitian, and John’s Revelation still grips me – and gives me hope – every time I think about it.  In fact, I still have a copy of that sermon…on cassette tape!   I’m having a hard time understanding what happened to Rob theologically.  I am concerned about him.  But I am also concerned about the people with whom I am talking.  The people who are questioning.  The people who are confused.  The people who are wondering, “Is this book true?”  If this is you, then I mean this blog for you.  And though my words may be pointed, they are not meant to be vicious.  Rather, they are written in love and a concern for the truth, for “love rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).  And I believe that, finally, the truth will carry the day.  For I, like Rob Bell, believe that love wins.

Deconstructing theology is dangerous business.  And yet, it’s something people – especially so-called “postmodern” thinkers – love to do.  After all, it’s fun to pile on top of certain theological presuppositions and assertions and expose the discontinuities in them, especially if these presuppositions and assertions are widely regarded as traditional and orthodox.  And it is this is this deconstructionist method that Rob employs in Love Wins. Consider this quote:

Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell.  God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever.  A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.

If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities.  If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we could contact child protective services immediately.

If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good. (pages 173-174)

The logic seems, well, logical enough.  If God loves us and wants salvation for us, how could He abandon his pursuit of us upon our deaths and consign us to eternal torment?  That’s not a loving God!   Therefore, goes Rob’s argument, God must allow people the opportunity to repent (though he never uses the word) even, perhaps, after death.  Or at least that’s what he tantalizingly infers!

But let’s apply Rob’s same deconstructionist enterprise to his own argument.  Rob solves the difficulty of the God who pursues us in the life and judges us in the next by appealing to God’s generous love – a love generous enough to allow for our free will, now on earth and then in eternity:

To reject God’s grace, to turn from God’s love, to resist God’s telling, will lead to misery.  It is a form of punishment, all on its own.

This is an important distinction, because in talking about what God is like, we cannot avoid the realities of God’s very essence, which is love.  It can be resisted and rejected and denied and avoided, and that will bring another reality.  Now and then.

We are that free. (page 176)

So, Rob says I am free – free to “trust God’s retelling of my story” (page 173), as he puts it, and free to reject it.  And not only am I free to trust and reject now on earth, but “now and then,” even into eternity.  On the one hand, this is quite an enticing prospect because it allows me to trust in God’s retelling of my story even after I die.  So if I mess it up here, I need not worry.  I get another shot at trusting God on the flipside.  It is important to note that Rob’s concern here is fundamentally a therapeutic utilitarianism.  The kind of God who would do something as psychologically stressful as consigning people to an eternal hell simply won’t work!  Indeed, Rob states this explicitly: “This is the problem with some Gods – you don’t know if they’re good, so why tell others a story that isn’t working for you” (page 181)?  The problem is that Rob’s version of God and the gospel doesn’t work either!  After all, what happens if I mess up on the flipside?  What happens if I trust God’s retelling of my story in this age, but then use the generous freedom that Rob claims love requires to reject God’s retelling of my story in the age to come?  Do I slip the surly bonds of heaven and wind up in a hell of my own making?  And what if I trust in God’s retelling again?  Is it back to heavenly bliss?  And then what if I reject it…again?  And then trust it…again?  Am I stuck in a vicious volley between heaven and hell for all eternity?  That certainly doesn’t sound very “heavenly.”  In fact, that sounds like what I struggle with right now!  That sounds like Paul’s exposition on every Christian’s age old struggle:  “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).  Where’s the hope in that?

The freedom that love brings is only good if it is exercised with the sovereign prerogative that God has.  In other words, love without God’s sovereign prerogative is impotent.  It cannot do what it desires.  It cannot, to use Rob’s book title, “win.”  And indeed, love that allows this kind of freedom isn’t even really love.  For it simply allows us to do what we please.  Who actually loves like this – even here, even now?  Love demands that when you see a child chasing his ball onto the interstate, you curb his freedom and tug him back.  Love demands that heaven is an age when we are not only free to live with God, but have also been tugged, or, more biblically, “chosen” by God (cf. Ephesians 1:3-14).  Love and freedom are not synonymous nor are they inextricable concomitants of each other.  That is why God does away with people who persistently demand their freedom.  For they cannot demand their freedom to God without demanding their freedom from God.  These are the people who go to hell.

To allow me the eternal freedom to trust or reject God’s retelling of my story is only to allow me the eternal opportunity to make myself unspeakably miserable.  And I’m not sure that’s a good opportunity. Because I already know what I’d choose…again and again and again.  For I’m not truly free.  I’m a slave to sin.  And so I will always choose wrongly.  As the Reformers put it, “We are unable to stop sinning.”  I will always fall for the illusion that freedom from God presents rather than the joy that freedom in Christ brings.  This is why God coopted my slavery to sin and set me free, only to make me a slave again, this time to righteousness – not out of some sort of sinister divinely wrought determinism, but for the sake of Christ:  “Having been set free from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18).  This is the good news – that God does not leave things up to us.  No, He loves us far too much to do that.  And so He conquers sin, death, and the devil, and gives us His righteousness, apart from and in spite of our terrible choices.

Whatever so-called “problems” and questions Rob Bell may try to solve and answer in his book, he only succeeds in creating more problems and begging more questions.  Not only that, but he finally replaces the good news with something that is neither good, for it leaves us in an eternal state of struggling against our own wills, nor is it news, for this struggle is much older than any twenty-four news cycle.  So, whatever supposed “problems” my “traditional” story of the gospel may have (which I am not convinced there are problems, just paradoxes), this I know:  When it comes to a love that is broad enough to allow me my own, dangerous freedom, “the good news is better than that” (page 191).

March 17, 2011 at 9:46 pm 6 comments

Cosmology and Philosophy

Your philosophy is an inextricable concomitant of your cosmology.  Charles Darwin knew this all too well.  Most people are at least passingly familiar with Darwin’s seminal work, The Origin of Species.  In it, he proffers a framework for understanding the origins of human life – and all life – using his mechanism of evolution by natural selection.  In his own words, here is Darwin’s theory in a nutshell:

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive, and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected.  From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form. (Origin of Species, p. 29)

Darwin begins with the assumption that life, at its root, is a struggle for survival.  He then concludes that those who win the struggle for survival carry on while those who lose the struggle do not.  This is natural selection.  Moreover, those who win the struggle for survival propagate more of their kind and develop “modified” characteristics which further benefit them in their struggle.  This is evolution.  Over time – indeed, over lots and lots of time – these beneficial characteristics continue to evolve so radically that whole new species arise from common ancestors while other, weaker species die out.  This, then, is the origin of species.  This is the origin of our species.  We are the product of the cold hand of evolution by natural selection.  This is Darwin’s cosmology, that is, his view of the laws of the world and, by extension, the cosmos.

But how you view things cosmologically inevitably informs how you view things philosophically.  That is why, after publishing The Origin of Species, Darwin published The Descent of Man, a philosophical take on his cosmological theory.  Thus, Darwin lamented according to the presuppositions of his cosmological theory of evolution:

We civilized men do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment.  There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox.  Thus, the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind.  No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.  It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. (Descent of Man, p. 168)

Darwin laments that humans work against evolutionary progress through wrongheaded ignorant attempts to save and care for those which natural selection would eliminate.  If evolution by natural selection is the incontrovertible law of the forward progress of life, then to work against it by tending to the weak and sick is to take life backwards rather than forwards.

Most people, of course, are not nearly so bold connecting cosmological evolution to philosophical evolution as was Darwin.  Allowing our sick and maimed to die in the name of natural selection would appall the vast majority us.  And yet, Darwin is simply teasing out the philosophical inevitabilities of his cosmological presuppositions.  He is being perfectly consistent.  Why aren’t we?

The fact of the matter is, the way one views the universe informs and, finally, dictates the morals and ethics one holds.  Darwinian evolution, if it is perceived to be the engine behind the improvement of life, cannot be meddled with by the likes of so-called “do-gooders” who are not really doing good at all.  For such people are slowing evolution’s forward march by caring for the lesser evolved among us.

Christianity, of course, has a very different view of humanity’s place and value.  According to Christianity, human beings are not merely the products of an inexorable evolutionary march, eventually to be displaced as the kings of the cosmos by a better and higher form of life thanks to natural selection.  Rather, we are specially created by God “in His own image” (Genesis 1:27) to be the caretakers of His creation (cf. Genesis 1:28-31).  Thus, we can, and are even bound, not by some unfathomably lengthy evolutionary progress, but by the intentions of our Creator.  And one of His intentions for us is “to love mercy” (Micah 6:8).  So, we are merciful to each other.  We care for those who cannot care for themselves.

Your philosophy is an inextricable concomitant of your cosmology.  So what is your cosmology?  One that is driven by evolution by natural selection?  Or one that rejoices in the merciful, creative hand of our God?  How you answer that question makes all the difference in how you view your life…and the lives of others.

December 8, 2010 at 3:19 pm Leave a comment

Help! I’ve Lost My Faith!

Just in time for the stress of the holidays, Concordia Lutheran Church has published a new pamphlet titled, “Help! I’ve Lost My Faith!” In a world and in times where Christianity and Christians are regularly attacked and maligned, our faith can sometimes get shaken.  So I invite you to check out this pamphlet and tell me what you think.  It’s available for download by clicking here.  Here’s a taste of what’s in it:

Every Christian experiences a time when he or she wonders, “Have I lost my faith?” Sometimes, it’s a habitual sin that a person is sure has completely destroyed his relationship with God. Sometimes, it’s a grave tragedy that compels a person to ask. “If God exists, why didn’t He stop this?” Sometimes, it’s a feeling of betrayal which leads one to exclaim, “I can’t believe God would do this to me!” And amidst such pain, frustration, confusion, and bitterness, we can be left wondering, “Has God abandoned me? Have I abandoned Him? Have I lost my faith?”

November 23, 2010 at 10:22 am Leave a comment

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