Monday, April 6, 2015

The Darkness Before Easter Dawn

In the hours before dawn, the women rose, gathered their spices and went to anoint Jesus’body. He was their friend, their teacher, and in one case, their son. The one person who knew their hearts completely and loved them still. The person who had given them hope that God had seen the misery of His people and was going to help them. The person who had healed sickness and cast out demons and even raised the dead. But now he was the one who was dead.

They had watched him take every agonizing step up Golgotha. They had seen the pain on his face and seen those long nails sticking out of his wrists. They had stared, unable to tear their eyes away but wishing they could. They had wept and wondered why God would allow this injustice and why the best man they had ever known would have to suffer so, and why they would have to lose him.

But by Sunday morning, their tears were spent. They must have found some way to numb the sorrow, to block it up in the bottoms of their hearts and roll a stone over the entrance. They busied themselves with preparing to anoint the body and with worrying about the stone at the entrance to the tomb, because the alternative was just too painful.

We, too, feel pain that is the same in kind if not in degree. We lose those we love. We watch friends get hurt. We see the injustice of the world and mourn for victims of senseless violence. We feel hope, only to have it crushed. Some of us wonder if there is anything left to live for.

But power is at work in the hour before Easter dawn. Even as the women trudge along the dark, stony path to the tomb, angels descend, and the stone is rolled away. Air fills the lungs collapsed by crucifixion, the hands pierced by nails move, His eyes open, and the soul of the man who spoke and laughed and cried and loved returns to His body. He is risen.

And those three words breathe life into souls that were nearly destroyed by sorrow. The injustice is righted, the loss is restored, the pain is healed. Hope is not only rekindled, but it blazes forth as brightly as the sun that now rises above the eastern horizon. He is alive, not only in our hearts but in reality. And because He lives, we also will live.

It’s now the day after Easter. The songs are sung, the decorations are coming down, and the chocolate is, or soon will be, consumed. It’s Monday, and people are going back into the drudgery of work. Life presses in with its various problems: sick children, quarrels with loved ones, disasters on the news, and pain hidden in our hearts.

But the Resurrection is not just a story. It is a historical event in which the raw, physical reality of death was reversed. Jesus had – and still has – a body just like yours but now transformed. He experienced all the struggles of your life and more. But He has overcome all that evil, and someday, He will return to destroy evil forever.

Friends, Christ is risen today and every other day. Remember that next time you feel the darkness pressing in on you. Jesus is alive.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Kingship in 1 and 2 Samuel (part 3)

In my last post, I looked at some passages relating to the Israelites’ request for a king and Samuel’s response to it. These passages describe the Israelites’ request as a rejection of God as their king. But I argued that the problem was not kingship in itself; rather, the problem was that the Israelites expected the king, instead of God, to save them so that they could continue worshipping other gods.

Now I’d like to look at another passage that deals with the establishment of kingship. But instead of humans establishing it, God does. The passage, 2 Samuel 7, records God’s response to David after David offers to build the temple. God gives David some pretty extravagant promises. He says that He will establish David’s kingdom, that David’s son will build the temple and even that David’s son would have God as his father. The last point is easy for Christians to overlook because we’re used to addressing God as “Father,” but in ancient Israel, having God as their adoptive father gave kings a unique relationship with and status before God. Now, having a king is more than just OK; now the kings are tied to God more closely than almost anyone else in Israel (arguably even more than the priests, who are not called God’s sons).

One scholar I read summed up the view in this and other passages by saying, “The king is God.” But that completely oversteps what the text said. In fact, all these glorious promises come after God has refused to allow David to build the temple. In other nations, building a temple might be seen as doing the god a favor, but here the Lord is clear: David can’t do God any favors. In fact, God is the one doing David a favor by building up his dynasty. (There are some puns here making this point: both the temple and the dynasty are called a “house.”) It’s only after tearing down any illusions David may have had about helping God that God starts to build David up and give him the high status. Kings in Israel may have had high status, but they were far from divine.

But even if the king is not seen as divine, they’re still portrayed very positively, in contrast to the negative picture in 1 Samuel 8 and 12.

There’s something else to note here. Even before He gets to the promises for David’s line specifically, God makes some promises for Israel as a whole. Specifically, He says, “And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.” (2 Samuel 7:10-11). Remember that kingship was established just after the period of the judges, and that as I argued last time, the Israelites were looking to be freed from foreign oppressors. Now God is offering them the freedom they crave. The problem was never the Israelites’ desire for peace and liberation; the problem was their looking for it through human systems and refusing to give up their idols.

David and his descendants are not replacements for God; rather their authority is completely dependent upon God’s. They also, in theory, will not be the kinds of kings who put up with idolatry. The building of the temple, which God also promises in this passage, demonstrates the king’s devotion to God and his role in leading the Israelites in proper worship of the one true God. Thus, they are the opposite of the type of king criticized in 1 Samuel.

David’s prayer in the second half of 2 Samuel 8 shows that he agrees with God’s assessment. He gives thanks and recognizes that God put him in his current position (v.18). He also affirms that there is only one true God: “Therefore you are great, O Lord God. For there is none like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears” (v. 22).

Of course, David’s descendants didn’t always keep this in mind. Some were proud and thought of themselves as above God’s law (See Uzziah’s actions in 2Chronicles 26:16-21). Others committed idolatry and led the Israelites to do the same. These promises found fulfillment to a limited extent during Israel’s history, but we are still awaiting their truest fulfilment when David’s greatest descendant, Jesus, returns to rule and bring perfect peace.

For now, let us note that the positions taken in these two passages in Samuel are not contradictory, despite the way they might appear in a superficial reading. They are coming at the same truth from two sides: A good king must be dependent upon God’s power and must seek to glorify the true God, not replace Him.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Kingship in 1 and 2 Samuel (part 2)

In my last post, I gave an overview of two passages in 1 and 2 Samuel that apparently give very different depictions of kingship. This post is going to look at the apparently anti-monarchy passages, and the next will look at the pro-monarchy ones.

In 1Samuel 8 two major objections to kingship appear. The first is the idea that appointing a human king constitutes rejecting the kingship of God over Israel. The second is in Samuel’s account of what kings will do; his account makes monarchy sound inherently oppressive.

Some scholars see these passages as expressions of “direct theocracy” – the view that only God has the right to govern Israel. This ends up as a kind of religiously motivated anarchism and means that having a human monarch is idolatry. I disagree that these passages actually require direct theocracy, though they would be consistent with it. I think there is a precise reason why asking for a king at this point in Israel’s history was a sin, but this reason does not invalidate all monarchy, much less all government.

1 Samuel 8 simply states that the Israelites have rejected God as their king, but in chapter 12, Samuel gives a farewell speech that fleshes out his objections in more detail. This speech starts with Samuel asking Israel whether he has been unjust as their leader. (They confirm that he hasn’t.) This in itself suggests that Samuel doesn’t have a problem with all government; after all he himself is a government leader, a judge. There’s something about kings, as opposed to judges, that he objects to.

Samuel then goes into an account of Israel’s history. As usual, the account starts with the Exodus, the point when God delivered Israel from oppression in Egypt. But most of Samuel’s speech is focused on Israel’s immediate past, the period of the judges. Samuel’s description of this period mirrors what you see in the book Judges. Israel is caught in a cycle: they turn away from God by worshipping other gods instead, so God sends other nations to oppress them, which leads Israel to repent and ask God for help, and then God sends a judge to save them. But once Israel is saved, they turn away from God again.

Eventually the pattern changes: “And when you saw that Nahash the king of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us,’ when the Lord your God was your king.” (1 Sam 12:12). Israel was once again in the “oppression” part of the cycle, but instead of repenting, they asked for a king. Kings in the ancient world were military leaders, so a good king would presumably be able to drive out the oppressors. And unlike judges (who are also military leaders) kings set up dynasties. That means there would be a leader to protect Israel even after the king’s death. From a human perspective, kingship would be a way out of the political troubles the people have been having.

But Samuel is looking from God’s perspective and realizes that the problem is idolatry. The Israelites are appointing a king in part to avoid dealing with the sin of worshipping other gods (see v.10). And it is this reluctance that creates the problem. Not all kings are idols, but the Israelites were looking for one who would replace God as their savior and who would enable their idolatry of Baal and the other Canaanite gods.

There’s an application here for us, too. Remember, kings were anointed, and the word “messiah” means “anointed one.” The Israelites’ problem was that they wanted a messiah who would save them from the consequences of their sin without calling them to repent. This kind of messiah is proclaimed in many churches today.

Back in 1 Samuel 8, Samuel warned the Israelites that the king would take their sons for his army, their daughters, their crops, their animals and their servants. This sounds like horrible oppression, and that could be what it’s describing. But some of it is simple necessity. If the king is going to lead an army, he needs soldiers, who would be the sons of the Israelites. If he’s going to set up law courts and build a palace and do all the other things kings do, he needs money and labor. It seems like money wasn’t used widely in Israel at this time, so taking crops and property from the Israelites could be Samuel’s snarky way of describing taxes. My libertarian friends would like Samuel.

Even if this is the case, it highlights the folly of trusting a human deliverer more than God. A human king needs to take from the people to do what God could have done without their help. In fact, the story of Gideon shows that God can use a small army as easily as a large one. Moreover, there is a real possibility that Israel’s king could become just as oppressive as the nations they want him to save them from.

Thus, the problem with kingship in 1 Samuel 8 isn’t monarchy as a form of government. Instead it’s the view that a human king can save people from God’s judgment without their repentance. Next time, I’ll look at 2 Samuel 7 to see what kind of kingship the Bible does approve of.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Kingship in 1 and 2 Samuel (part 1)

Last semester, I wrote a research paper on 1 and 2 Samuel, which were originally one book. The book can be described as a history of Israel’s transition from being ruled by local judges to being ruled by a king. I focused on two passages, one of which made this transition look like a good thing, and one that made it look like a mistake. In a series of posts, I’m planning to lay out my argument and show how there’s actually no contradiction if we understand the passages appropriately. This first post will present the problem and explain the approach I’m taking.

1 Samuel 8 is a good example of an apparently anti-king passage. Here’s my (greatly exaggerated) paraphrase:

People: We want a king.
Samuel: Israel has no king. Israel needs no king.
People: We know we don’t have a king. That’s why we want one, dummy.
God: Samuel, calm down. Let them have their king They’re not rejecting you …
People: Ha! Told you so.
God: … but they are rejecting me as king over them.
Samuel: Ha! Told you so.

Samuel then goes on to explain that the king will take their sons, their daughters, their crops, their animals and so on. So, it seems like this is saying that any human king is illegitimate, that God is the only rightful ruler of Israel and that human monarchy is inherently oppressive.

Skip ahead to 2 Samuel 7. David had become king and is more or less established so he calls the prophet Nathan.

David: I’ve got a great idea! I’m going to build a house for God!
Nathan: Yay!
God: What? I never said I wanted a house. Nathan, tell David I don’t need him. I established Israel – and David. Without me, he’d still be chasing sheep around the hills of Bethlehem. But I like David. I’m going to build him a house. One of his sons will build a temple for me. His descendants will be my sons, and his dynasty will last forever.
Nathan: What he said.
David: Yay!

So here God approves of kingship and gives David’s dynasty the right to rule. God even calls the king His son, which means that the king has a unique relationship with God. This is an incredibly positive view of kingship that even gives the king spiritual authority.

So what’s happening?

Many scholars say these passages come from different sources that were edited into one text. But that’s a little too simple. If we look deeper, there is a way to reconcile them – to see when kingship is good and when it’s bad. The text is actually more sophisticated than we realize if we write the passages off as a difference of opinion. But we don’t realize this unless we’re willing to think about it more.

There’s another reason to go for a reading that combines the two views. Even if a certain book of the Bible contains multiple sources, someone must have combined them. Any book of the Bible deals with intense religious, political and ethical issues. It seems unlikely that an editor would include texts that contradicted his or her deeply held beliefs without modifying them enough to remove all difficulties. Thus, the editors must have understood all the passages in a way that did not contradict their actual opinions.

I’m going to use a few posts to explain how this actually works. I hope it will help us understand these texts better. But more importantly, I hope to use this as an example of how looking at the Bible as a unified whole lets you understand it in a more sophisticated way.

Monday, January 12, 2015


He sits beside the dusty road.
His face, his soul are caked with dust.
He slumps beneath guilt’s heavy load.
The glaring eyes, the jaws outthrust,
the scornful stares no longer burn;
accustomed to his people’s hate,
he dares not hope enough to yearn,
too dead to mourn his dying state.
Across his view some children run,
Leaping, laughing with delight.
Heads turn, and down the road there comes
a man with eyes alive with light
who smiles as the children play.
His footsteps trace a joyful dance.
The tax-collector looks away
and wishes for another chance.
He hears the dancing steps draw near.
He does not dare to raise his eyes.
He feels the weight of shame and fear,
but deep beneath the surface lies
a thirst for life, for love, for good,
for someone to call him to be
more. If only someone would.
The Teacher says, “Come, follow me.”

Friday, January 9, 2015

God is not a god (part 2)

In Part1 of this article, I argued that God in a monotheistic religion is a fundamentally different type of being than the gods of a polytheistic religion. This means that Christians who are talking to polytheists can use more or less the usual arguments for the existence of God to show that a being with the characteristics monotheists ascribe to God exists. It’s possible that this in itself might be enough to convert someone to monotheism. But if the polytheist says, “OK, your God exists, but so do mine,” I don’t think we need to convince them that their gods don’t exist. We just need to show why they should worship only the monotheistic God.

So why should everyone worship the monotheistic God instead of polytheistic gods? Simply put: He deserves it. If there is a supreme being, perfectly wise, powerful and good, who created everything, this being is supremely worthy of our devotion and worship. Moreover all monotheistic faiths insist that this supreme being has spoken and has forbidden worship of any other being. If God is perfectly good and all-knowing, He must have a good reason for giving this command. Even if we don’t understand His reasons, it seems reasonable to trust and obey Him.

It’s also pragmatically wise to worship the most powerful being out there. Many of the polytheists I’ve met are afraid that the gods will punish them if they refuse to perform the appropriate rituals. But isn’t an all-powerful being capable of protecting you from these lesser forces?

Moreover, Christians believe that our highest good is found in being in right relationship with God. This is the source of all true peace and joy and of energy to love others. If the polytheistic gods are good, wouldn’t they want their followers to receive these blessings, even if that meant giving up their chance to be worshipped? If the gods insist on their own worship at their followers’ expense, they are selfish and thus don’t deserve to be honored.

Some people object that the God of monotheism is selfish for not letting us worship anyone else. But this objection fails to hold up. We’re talking about a supremely wise, good and powerful being who created all things and offers his worshippers true happiness. This being deserves complete devotion from everything He created. There’s nothing wrong with insisting on what rightfully belongs to you, and in this case, worshiping the true God also brings created beings the best life possible.

In fact, given that our best life is found in following the true God, if God loves us He must want us to worship only Him. Worshipping anything other than God is inherently destructive. We were created to worship God, and when we put anything else ahead of him, we end up making poor decisions that hurt us and other people. For God to allow us to worship other gods would be like a human father allowing his child to drink bleach.

Ultimately, the supreme proof that God deserves our love is found in Jesus, and especially in the crucifixion. This is not a needy God who demands our service. This is a God who is willing to serve us, even if it costs Him His life. Coming face to face with love like this should inspire us to love Him back.

In the end, conversion is not a matter of intellectual arguments, though the arguments are useful and important. Conversion is a matter of meeting the good, wise, powerful, eternal God of love and choosing to follow Him.

Friday, January 2, 2015

God is not a god (part 1)

If you’re a Christian in a Western country, you can find an abundance of information about the common worldviews of the day. You’ll find massive numbers of arguments and counter-arguments for apologetics against atheism, postmodernism and to a lesser extent Mormonism and Islam. (Stand to Reason has some really good material on this.)

There’s just one problem: If you don’t live in the West and you’re talking to people with a different worldview than these, you don’t have a lot to work with. I discovered this when I lived in Taiwan and started talking to people who followed a polytheistic form of Buddhism. There’s not a whole lot of modern apologetics directed at polytheism.

But the earliest Christians were surrounded by polytheists. It’s no surprise then, that early apologists were more helpful than later ones in dealing with this challenge. (I found Tertullian’s arguments against Marcion particularly helpful.) The following is my attempt to formulate a strategy for debates with polytheists.

On the surface, the claim that there is one God and the claim that there are many gods seem pretty similar. But the differences go deeper than basic math. Actually, the type of being posited by monotheists is completely different from the type of beings posited by polytheists.

Monotheism holds that there is a single being who created everything else in existence, who is infinitely powerful, all-knowing and completely good. This being has always existed and will always exist and cannot in any way be diminished. This God is also a person (not an impersonal force) and thus is capable of making free choices and communicating with people. In short, the God of all monotheistic religions is the supreme being – the greatest being in existence, by definition.

In polytheism, however, gods are like humans only greater. They are extremely powerful but not infinitely powerful; each controls an area of life, but some can impinge on others’ areas, since life is complicated. For example, the Greek god Ares was the god of war, but other gods like Zeus also influenced battles. The gods were still way more powerful and more knowledgeable than human beings, so it was important to be on their good side. In most polytheistic systems, the gods are involved in the creation of the world, but it’s sort of a team effort. (The creation stories vary between religions.) Gods in polytheistic systems also tend not to be eternal. Most polytheistic religions have myths explaining how the gods came to be. Thus, polytheistic gods are really powerful, but they’re not infinite like the monotheistic God is. It’s just a different concept.

Actually, it’s logically impossible for more than one being to fit the monotheistic characterization of God. Monotheists define God as the greatest possible being (or at a minimum, the greatest existent being). There cannot be two greatest beings, by definition.

Another way of thinking about this is by looking at the idea of omnipotence. There cannot be more than one omnipotent being. To illustrate this, let’s try to imagine two “omnipotent” beings with the (very creative) names A and B. A intends to move a rock to the north, while at the same moment, B intends to move it to the south. Where does the rock go? If it goes to the north, B is not omnipotent, but if it goes to the south, A is not omnipotent. If the forces cancel each other out so that the rock does not move, neither being is omnipotent. The only way around this is for A and B to agree on everything all the time, in which case either one is subservient or they’re actually the same being.

So if I were going to have a conversation with a polytheist, I’d start by asking whether a being that fits the monotheistic definition of God exists. If the polytheist is inclined to say no, you can pull out all the arguments for God’s existence that have been articulated by really smart people elsewhere.

But it’s possible that they’ll say, “Yes, your God exists, but my gods exist, too.” At this point, I don’t think it’s necessary to prove that the polytheistic deities don’t exist. We just need to persuade them to worship our God instead of the polytheistic deities.

It’s logically possible that there is a single omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, etc. being (God) and also lesser supernatural being with real but limited powers (gods). Many early Christians actually held this view. They thought the Roman gods were actually demons.

Note that this view is not henotheism. Henotheism is the belief that multiple gods exist but the group one is part of worships only one. It places the worshipped god and the non-worshipped gods on the same level. In contrast, a view that places the worshipped God in a different category than the non-worshiped gods is still monotheism, because it attributes to only one being the traits ascribed to the monotheistic God. In fact, arguably the polytheistic gods shouldn’t even be called “gods” on this view, since they are no longer on top of the metaphysical food chain.

Next question: Why should anyone give up the gods they’ve been worshipping and worship ours instead? I have some ideas about that, but since this post is already pretty long, that will have to wait for part 2.

In the meantime, for those of you who have experience with evangelism in polytheistic cultures: How do you go about it? I like my approach, but I don’t really have anyone to try it out with, so I’d be really interested in hearing about your experiences.

And for those of you who don't, the distinction between the God of monotheism and the gods of polytheism is still relevant. It refutes the atheist claim that atheists reject belief in God for the same reason monotheists reject belief in, say, the Greek gods. But, of course, the kind of being in question here is completely different. This also answers the claim that Christianity is just a rehashing of older myths about dying and rising gods. Christianity presents God as a fundamentally different type of being than do the myths it was supposedly based on. Thus,  the distinction here is relevant even within Western culture.