Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Calvinists vs. Arminians: Can't we all just get along?

On February 13 I wrote a blog post titled, "Oh, Hell" in which I expounded upon some of my personal doubts and wrestlings with the concept of hell as presented in the Bible. I also mentioned I was reading Rob Bell's book on "Heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived," titled "Love Wins," and that I would get back to you when I was done, with my thoughts.

I finished the book on a jet plane, coming back from a vacation in beautiful Savannah, Georgia last week. And so, I intend to make good on my promise here.

Bell raises a lot of perceptive and fascinating questions about the Bible's treatment of the afterlife. I don't think he deserves all the criticism he's received (for instance, that he's a heretical universalist); he certainly doesn't take that position directly, although the questions he raises about the nature of God, and what really is or isn't said about hell in the Bible, might leave you with that impression.

Basically, if you want to walk away with clear ANSWERS to the questions he raises, this isn't necessarily the right book for you. Also, I think you should realize from the outset that much of what is discussed in this book might lead you (as it did me) into direct explorations of the various (perceived) conflicts between 5-point Calvinists and Arminians.

By way of review (and these are my own words), the extreme Calvinist position says that salvation (when it comes to who is saved and who is not) is "100% God's decree;" in other words, God chooses "the elect." We may think we are making choices for (or against) God, but in reality because we are elected (because those choices are foreordained by God), we are not really responsible for them. God alone decides who He will save, and who He won't. There really is no free human choice on our part involved.

On the spectrum of God's will/human choice, Arminianism swings to the opposite extreme. Salvation is completely a matter of free human choice. God has provided the means for salvation (the blood of Christ), but we are the ones who choose it. Therefore, some Calvinists accuse Arminians of believing we humans "deserve" at least "some of the credit" for our salvation. After all, we repented and made the choice. However, the classical Arminianist position itself clearly denies this.

For many years I've believed that at least the extremes of some of those who embrace both of these positions are in error, if you look at the whole of the Bible. The answer has to lie somewhere in between (or perhaps wholly outside of) these two extremes. Yes, the Bible makes it clear that God foreordains/elects the saints. (But, what does that mean? Calvinists say it's the salvation that's foreordained, and Arminianists say it's the future life of those who have been saved that is foreordained.) And yes, on the other end of the spectrum, it also makes it clear that our free will, our human choices, matter enormously.

This tension plays out in numerous places in Scripture. Despite many warnings, Pharaoh chose to oppose God and seek to keep the Israelites enslaved. The Bible says that God "hardened Pharaoh's heart" in these choices. And of course, the dramatic release of the Israelites from Egypt was part of God's plan all along, to demonstrate His glory to both Egyptians and Israelites.

So, it was both God's perfect will (His election), and man's choice (Pharaoh's decisions) that made this happen. Somewhere in the middle of our two extremes ... and it all works together for good for those who love God and "have been called" according to His purpose! (Romans 8:28)

Bell might tick off hard-core Calvinists in his assertions that God does not violate the principle of human freedom (if someone rejects him, walks away into a hell of his own making, God lets him go); and that God truly does not wish any to perish (and that God gets His way ultimately, which leads to the conclusion many people have reached that "Love Wins" is universalistic). I experienced this reaction first-hand when I discussed the book with a Calvinist friend recently.

(By the way, I know some hard-core Calvinists who spend a lot of time wrestling with the fear that they aren't really saved ... that, despite their acceptance of Christ's forgiveness for their sins, God may somehow ultimately "elect" for them to be damned ... which I think is possibly one of the more negative ramifications of Calvinism's extremes. Scripture says "All who come to me I will in no wise cast out" and urges us believers, time and again, not to fear! These Christian friends of mine have chosen to come to Him. Shouldn't they therefore release that particular fear? Would God break His promise?)

What Bell does do, through his questions, is pop some evangelical/fundamentalist "bubbles" that may need to be popped, or at least thoroughly discussed. For instance, take the contention (supported primarily by 5-point Calvinists, but also assumed by many other Christians) that at the moment of death, the curtain drops and your fate is sealed. That even if (when confronted with the majestic God who created you, in judgment) you fell to your knees and said, "I'm sorry I didn't believe in you and receive you earlier! I now understand the error of my ways. I believe in You now. Please forgive me, cover my sins with the blood of Christ!" God would shake His head and say, "Nope. Too late. Your fate is sealed, and now you will be tormented in hell forever for not doing this 10 minutes earlier. Sorry!"

That sounds extreme, I know, but that really does seem to be what many Christians believe. Bell points out that the loving Father who "desires for all men to be saved," the Father who hiked up His skirts and ran out to welcome His prodigal son back into the fold, wouldn't be capable of such evil. And, I have to say he has a good point.

However, I realize that 5-point Calvinists will make two valid points (which Bell plays around the edges of but doesn't really address directly): 1) The words of Christ himself (in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) seem to imply that the decisions we make in this life, and the inclination to make those decisions (based on the "ordainment" of God, according to Calvinists) are effective for all of eternity; and 2) If God truly does ordain those whom He desires to be saved, to eternal life, and those whom He desires to be damned, to eternal death, then He would certainly do so before the "it is appointed unto man once to die, and then the judgment" deadline.

Actually, my main bone of contention with extreme Calvinists is reflected in that last sentence. Could the Creator God of the Scripture really "desire some men to be damned?" Isn't this in clear violation of his own stated will, expressed in Ezekiel 18:27-32, 1 Timothy 2:3-4, 2 Peter 3:9, and elsewhere?

However, I would point out to those who argue (on the basis of Heb. 9:27's*, "It is appointed to men once to die, and after this the judgment"), "Once saved, always saved" and "Once you die in your sins, you are always lost," that even that proof text itself is not explicit about the amount of time, space, or other events that may elapse between those two things ("once to die," and "then" -- when? -- judgment). Catholics would probably insert into this space, "Hence, Purgatory" which of course is the view that an intermediary state of being is needed to fully purge/cleanse our souls from sin before we can be allowed into a sinless heaven.

Not being Catholic (and not seeing any direct evidence for Purgatory in Scripture), I naturally do not accept this contention, but something akin to Purgatory (and supported by the Old Testament metaphor of the "Outer Court of the Gentiles" when it comes to the Temple, or to similar outer areas of the Tabernacle) might possibly exist in the fringes of the journey to Heaven. C. S. Lewis alluded to this in his brilliant allegory, "The Great Divorce," wherein a busload of passengers are delivered on a day-trip from Hell to Heaven. They have great difficulty even stepping upon the grass of Heaven's outlands, as they are so incorporeal, and it is quite clear that they must become "adjusted" to the realities of heaven (their souls cleansed from all that binds them to hell) in order be able to traverse "inward and upward" toward the Center of God's universe.

The Great Divorce leaves us with the sense that all of the bus riders save one judge this journey too difficult to make. They are too comfortable in hell, having gone there in the first place because they are too uncomfortable being exposed to the holiness of God, with all of its demands. In other words, they are too used to being the captain of their own ship. The narrator alone leaves the reader with the impression that he is going to miss the bus ride home to hell, and seek to make the changes necessary to travel inward and upward. (I.e., repentance after death!)

Based on Bell's words in "Love Wins," I think he would agree with Lewis. Although I don't think he necessarily views hell as a place of punitive justice (where God pours out his wrath on sin by torturing lost souls in eternal torment), he certainly does contend that "a hell of our own making" exists. He affirms free will, the fact that God gave men the ability to choose, and will never force them to do otherwise. He agrees that if God freely gives man the ability to choose his grace, there must be the possibility that some will not choose it, perhaps may never choose it.

But, at the same time, as I mentioned earlier, he raises some intriguing questions. Evangelicals agree that God is omnipotent (as expressed by Bell's phrase, "God gets His way"). And most of them agree with straightforward interpretation of the verse "God desires that none should perish." (Although I recognize that 5-point Calvinists might not acknowledge the straightforward interpretation of this verse. One friend said to me: "That verses doesn't mean 'everyone' ... just the elect." But I'm sorry, that's not what it plainly says ... is it?) If God wants all people to be saved, and He ultimately gets His way, what does this portend for the future of all people?

Also, there is the intriguing passage in Isaiah 45:23 — "By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’" Which is reinforced quite heartily by Paul in Romans 14:11 and Philippians 2:9-11. If every knee will bow and every tongue will confess (swear allegiance to, according to Isaiah) the Lordship of Christ ... then where are His detractors?

Only three possibilities, as far as I can see, remain: 1) Rob Bell is right: Love Wins in the end, and ultimately God gets His way. All ultimately repent and are covered by the grace of God in Christ Jesus. 2) Those who fail to repent (the goats of Matthew 25) are destroyed in the "Second Death," the lake of fire reserved for the Devil and his angels (Revelation 20;14), and all others (the sheep) worship God forever as He intended. Or 3) This verse doesn't really mean what it seems to mean ... either "every" doesn't really mean "every," or as one of my Calvinist friends might contend, "bowing to the Lordship of Christ" is forced upon wicked unbelievers somehow ... which raises the question: is forced allegiance really allegiance?

I've ordered those three possibilities in accordance with what I hope is true. But, scripturally, I think the best argument really lies with option #2. Scripture doesn't really seem to entertain the possibility that Satan and his demons will ultimately repent and serve God, although I don't see this as outside the realm of possibility for God's grace, certainly. (Remember, "He who is forgiven much, loves much" Luke 7:47.)

The bottom line is, just as Scripture really isn't clear on these things (what we need, after all, is to trust God today, and having the answers to these questions doesn't necessarily lend itself to this trust, does it?), I don't think we as fallible human beings can be completely clear, either. Bell makes a good point that there is not a hard-and-fast, clear-cut interpretation of these matters. My Calvinist friends might shout "Heresy!" but just shouting heresy hasn't ever helped the cause of Truth, as far as I am aware. I don't see that Rob Bell's conclusions (or at least the questions he raises) are anti-biblical in any way, so I'm certainly not ready to throw the first stone. (And, might I add ... I've actually read the book! Many of his critics have not.)

There are some things about the WAY Bell writes (his imprecise, somewhat vague, poetical style, which I assume comes from the way he preaches) that annoyed the heck out of me. But once I survived this in the first half of the book, I felt like the second half made wading through the first half worth the wait.

*By the way, even hardcore Calvinists will agree that Scripture presents several different types of "judgment," and it is not immediately clear which type Heb. 9:27 is referring to. If "judgment" refers to the Great White Throne Judgment, the final judgment at the end of days, depicted in Revelation, then certainly there is some "space" which must be inserted where the word "then" occurs in this verse.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Noah" all wet

One of the pieces of Noah art that hangs on the wall
of my office.
I don't think I've yet reviewed a movie on this blog. But, after watching "Noah" last night, I feel compelled to try my hand at it.

A couple of things first: 1) I was VERY excited about seeing this movie. I am a huge Noah buff (that is, a fan of this extremely powerful story). I spent five years in my 20s writing a fantasy novel ("Fountains of the Deep") which swirled around the edges of this historic, globe-changing event. My office at home is decorated with Noah wallpaper, paintings, etc. I was thrilled with the previews. So, it really was something I was looking forward to. The reviews were mixed, but even though I read a few sour ones, I still couldn't miss it.

2) I wasn't expecting biblical accuracy, per se. Actually, I was happy to read in one of the reviews (and I used this fact on Facebook to respond to those who expressed doubt about the movie) that while the movie "filled in the blanks" left by the scriptural account, it didn't actually contradict Scripture.

And, even if it did, I was prepared to live with that if they did a good job telling a good story and didn't totally screw it up. It's Hollywood, after all. The director is an atheist. My expectations were not high.

Yet in spite of all this, I was bitterly disappointed. Now let me try to express why. (And, be warned, this will contain spoilers.)

I felt the movie started out fairly strong. It depicted creation and the fall with a fair degree of reasonable accuracy. When Noah came on the scene, one felt how precarious it must have been to carry the light of a relationship with the Creator in such a dark world.

The depiction of earth as an industrial wasteland, spoiled by humanity's sin, reminiscent in some ways of a prediluvian Mad Max, I could live with. I was expecting a creative approach, and this didn't disappoint.

But, my first major disappointment was in the depiction of the creatures labeled as "Nephilim." In the Bible, the Nephilim are some sort of mysterious union between "the sons of God" and "the daughters of men." They were a race of giants, physically speaking. (One of the great biblical mysteries, to me, is how descendants from the Nephilim race came to exist in the antediluvian world. My novel provided a proposed solution to this mystery.)

But, in the movie, the Nephilim are actually angels who have fallen to earth. It's implied their motives were pure for falling: they wanted to come "help humanity" overcome the temptation of Adam and Eve! (That's rich, isn't it!) But God had forbidden it, supposedly, so when they reached earth they were turned into funky rock creatures, with the angelic light of their spiritual being somehow shining through the cracks and manifesting in their glowing eyes. They reminded me of Ents. I couldn't decide whether it was creepy, or just plain silly.

These "Nephilim" end up redeeming themselves, later in the movie, by allying with Noah and protecting the Ark from the hordes of barbarians who are trying to take it over to save themselves from the Flood. And of course Noah also uses the Ents (er, Nephilim) to do the heavy lifting on the actual building of this magnificent vessel. Hence it looks like it takes about a week to complete, rather than the full century Scripture assures us it actually took.

So, of course when raindrops start falling the evil humans rush the Nephilim to get at the Ark, and while the rock creatures are able to hammer many of them into dust, they are eventually overcome. As they are overcome, their angelic spirits are freed from their rock prisons and they are able to soar back up to God. How pretty.

(This was probably the most noble depiction of demons that one could imagine!)

And that's just a start of the movie's problems. The sin of godless humanity around Noah is depicted as being a combination of disrespect for women (trading them as sex slaves) ... and eating meat. (Which is worse? I'm torn.) Noah and his family are, of course, vegetarians. Because only a true sinner could eat meat.

Which brings us to the purpose of the Ark. Noah seems convinced that it's to save the animals, so that God can start over again with a much simpler and nobler world. Noah realizes (rightly enough) that sin is inherent in all of us, and the dilemma of repopulating the world with sinful humanity strikes him hard. As a result he assumes that it is his responsibility before God to ensure this is never allowed to happen. When his only daughter-in-law miraculously becomes pregnant (and bears twin girls, conveniently enough one for each of his remaining, wifeless sons) he is convinced God wants him to kill the newborns, and almost does.

This is all a very complicated set-up for the end of his movie, and the all-important "drunk and naked in the tent" scene. Actually, it wasn't in the tent, but in a cave on the beach. Of course Noah is making wine out of nice table grapes (not wine grapes) and somehow manages to become smashed. The reason, we realize, is his depression at his failure before God to extinguish humanity and hence save the world for animals. Plus his pretty wife is pissed off at him. (Noah, a frumpy version of Russell Crowe who might have passed for 60, should have been like 600 years old at this point, so having a pretty wife was a definite bonus.)

But of course, love wins in the end.

I'm sorry, does this all sound as ridiculous to you as it does to me? It left me crying out for even a small ounce of the power of the real story.

The beauty of the Ark, of course, is that it's a metaphor for Jesus. The metaphor was repeated, hundreds of years later, when Moses' sister places the baby in his own little Ark and sets it afloat on the Nile. The Ark is the salvation that God has provided you and me from a fate worse than death. Sin is the disease and a holy God has to judge it, elsewise none of us will survive. He created all this for a reason beyond our ability to imagine, but whatever it is, it's worth the pain of a sinful and decaying creation. It's worth Him going to great lengths (like the Ark ... and like His Son, dying on a cross) to save it. To save us.

Yes, all Creation groans and longs for that day, and no doubt in some wonderful sense all Creation will be saved (a seed must "die" and be planted before it can be born again into a magnicent tree). But it's not just about Creation. The Ark is there to save you and me!

It was Noah's simple obedience that made this possible, but it was God's doing. The Ark is a symbol of His grace, carrying us high above the waters of sin and death.

And another Ark is coming!

Okay, sorry about the soapbox. Back to my review. Watch "Noah" if you want to, but be warned. You might want to save it for a Redbox coupon night.

Did you see it? What did you think? Am I all washed up?

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Stressing the Shrooms

I go through periods of my life where I am intensely interested in learning about something new. (My wife calls this by a much less flattering label, "Obsessive/Compulsive!")

Right now it's mushrooms. Not just picking wild mushrooms ... which I became interested in about 20 years ago, when we moved up to the Northwest, and during the past five years have really exercised/grown in my knowledge of how to hunt and find wild mushrooms ... but now, in terms of growing mushrooms (and no, we're not talking about the psychedelic kind, just the delicious, edible kind) here in my own home.

Baby pearl oyster mushrooms
(Pleurotus ostreatus) "pinning"
out of a "stressed" bag of substrate.
I've started by ordering a couple of pre-fab mushroom growing "kits" (one for oyster mushrooms, and one for portobello mushrooms, both among my favorites). The oyster kit is faster and is already sprouting shrooms (see the photo at left). The portobellos (also known as crimini, if you pick them at an earlier stage) will begin to mature in about a month.

Also, I've ordered and started building mushroom logs in our back yard, using "spawn plugs" impregnated with the spawn (mycelium) of Pleurotus ostreatus. (Basically, you cut maple logs into three-foot lengths, four to six inches in diameter, and drill them full of small holes, then hammer these little spawn-impregnated wooden dowels down into those holes, seal them with wax, keep them off the ground but in shade and damp for about a year before the mushrooms begin to sprout out.) I have 100 spawn plugs, about 4 logs' worth, so hopefully a year from now I will be knee-deep in pearl oyster shrooms.

These are pearl oyster "spawn logs."
3' Maple logs with 25 spawn plugs

embedded in each (sealed with
spot of red cheese wax).
Naturally I've been doing a lot of reading on the internet about shroom cultivation, and also talking with our local shroom company, Ostrom's. And I'm learning a great deal. One of the things I learned recently about shrooms is what has inspired me to write this blog post.

Most people don't realize that the shrooms that we eat are not the largest and most significant part of the mushroom organism. The largest part is actually the part that you can't see, what shroomologists call "substrate." Mushrooms are a fungus, of course, and like any fungus they have a very fine, hair-like root structure called "mycelium" which generally grows underground (or within the rotting bark of a tree, in the case of oyster and other shelf mushrooms). In some cases that organism can be very large, we're talking as large as football fields.

This is why you often find mushrooms growing in large "fairy rings" on lawns or in fields. The ring of mushrooms actually marks the outer edge of the single mycelium organism that connects them all.

So what, then are the mushrooms themselves? They are what shroomologists call the "fruiting bodies." They contain the seeds (spores) by which the mushrooms propagate themselves. If you take a mature mushroom (one which has opened so that the gills beneath are exposed, in the cases of those which have gills) and set it on a piece of white or black paper for (depending on the spore color; dark spores show up better on white paper, and vice versa), when you remove it you should see what is called a "spore print." You'll see that the spores have dropped like dust in a very distinct pattern corresponding to the gill pattern of the mushroom. (Spore prints are one way shroomologists positively identify various species of mushroom which may look, externally, very similar to other, possibly dangerous, species.)

Think of the mushroom, being to the organism beneath it, as the apple is to the apple tree. Fruit.

This is oyster mushroom spawn which I
 am growing myself in a plastic container.
The white mycelium covers sterile
pieces of wet cardboard like fur. The
individual pieces of cardboard will 
be inserted into bags with substrate
nutrients like pasteurized straw and
coffee grounds.
The mushroom spores, like seeds, are what propagate the organism. If in the proper nutritive environment, they will grow into new "spawn" (or mycelium) in order to start the cycle all over again.

Obbviously, for our purposes, the mushroom "fruiting bodies" themselves are what it's all about. They are the part that's delicious to eat. (I don't know of anyone who actually eats the mycelium. Yuk.) And, it's something that I learned recently about how these fruiting bodies come about that has given me cause for pause.

It's stress. A mushroom organism typically won't "fruit" (shoot forth delicious shrooms) unless it is stressed somehow.

There are, of course, various things that stress a mushroom organism. In the case of oyster mushrooms, it's predominantly moisture, light, and warmth. Hence I hang my substrate bag in front of a window in my mushroom-growing room. I regulate temperature at an even 62 to 64 degrees, and try and keep humidity well above 70%, keeping my mushroom substrate bag (which is punctured with small holes so the oysters can "pin," or send out small mushroom fruit buds) suspended in a "humidity tent" above a pool of water. I also spray the substrate bag at least daily with a fine mist of water.

More pearl oyster mushrooms pinning.
They double in size every day and should
be ready for harvest in about a week.
As you can see from the photo, this "stress" is paying off ... Today, 9 days after I started stressing the substrate bag, the shrooms are pinning and beginning to grow outward. They are approximately doubling in size every day, so within another week I ought to have a nice crop of shrooms ready to harvest. (I'll be sure and include more photos then.)

The portobello substrate, on the other hand, is located in a cool, dark room in a box. The substrate is scheduled to mature about March 7, when the mycelium should be at maximum health. Then I will open the bag, and stress the organism by scratching the top surface of the substrate with a fork. I will add casing (which is a mixture of damp peat moss and calcium carbonate, with some of the scraped substrate mixed in) to the top, leave it open to air, and keep the casing damp. This combination of air, casing, and damage to the substrate is what stresses the crimini organism (Agaricus bisporus). Within a few weeks it should begin pinning (poking up through the casing), then within a month I should have mature crimini and/or portobello shrooms ready for harvest.

The mushroom logs in the back yard will take much longer to mature, between 6 months and a year, but once they mature I will stress the logs primarily by soaking them in water, in order to begin the fruiting process. (The season also contributes to this process, as warmer temperatures also stress the organism.)

Our young adults group is currently studying a fascinating book by C. S. Lewis titled "The Problem of Pain." One of Lewis' theses is that pain (stress) is a natural part of life (including the Christian life), and is designed to cause us to grow spiritually. When we are too comfortable, we do not progress in our trust in God. But, introduce a stressful event, and the pain that brings (hopefully) causes us to look God-ward, to re-evaluate our lives, to pay attention to the cause of the stress and to begin to make the adjustments necessary for a healthy and dynamic faith.

You can learn a lot from a shroom ...
if you'll only listen.
We are just like mushrooms. Stress and pain cause fruiting. If our response to stress is the proper response ... realizing that we cannot in and of ourselves fix our problems, and relying on God for divine strength ... then we will be fruitful. God will be glorified, others around us loved and strengthened, and ultimately we ourselves (like Job, at the end of his traumatic stress experience) will be blessed.

Easier said than done, of course. None of us wants the fork. Pain hurts, by definition. (If you are hankering for pain, then something is seriously wrong with you!) But, when we are in pain, we can draw comfort in realizing that "God is not finished with us yet," and that, according to Romans 8:28, "God works all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose!"

Friday, February 28, 2014

Treating Persons as Persons

I have one Global Media Outreach contact I get really excited about, every time I see a message from her in my mailbox. I can't use her real name, but let's call her Charity. The reason I get excited is she always asks such smart and perceptive questions. It's obvious she spends a lot of time reading and reflecting on the Word of God.

And in order to answer her questions, I am forced to go back into the Word and dig for nuggets of pure gold to share. It's a process (and an outcome!) that I love, because mining the Bible for truth is one occupation that is incredibly, incredibly fruitful. (Sort of like living near Seattle and hoping to see a little rain occasionally!)

Recently Charity asked: "How do we treat a person as a person?" At first I thought, "Well, that's a silly question!" However, the more I reflected on her question (and I spent several days doing so), the more I realized how profound it really was.

So, here is how I finally responded ...

Dear Charity,

That's a profound question indeed, and I hope you don't mind that I've taken a few days to think about it.

There are two perspectives from which to answer this question, and I think they are very similar.

The first perspective results from a consideration of what we call "The Golden Rule," represented by Christ's teaching in Matt. 7:12 -- "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." As human beings. as persons, I think first and foremost we want to be treated with dignity and respect, granted the freedom that God created us to experience. And, we all want to love and to be loved.

The second perspective comes when we reframe the question: How does God (the First Person) treat us as persons? Shouldn't we "go thou and do likewise?"

And the answers here aren't so much different than those expressed by the Golden Rule. Yes, God loves us ... so much so that He sacrificed Himself for our sake. He gives us amazing dignity and respect as persons.* He always treats us "like adults" and allows us to make our own decisions about good and evil, and to experience the consequences of those decisions.

If we trust Him, he provides for our needs, protects us, and associates Himself with us. The very word for the most significant event in human history (the Incarnation), indicates that God became one of us. "God with us."

God always tells us the truth ... even when it's difficult to hear. He is gracious and merciful, forgiving ("seventy times seven times") those who are willing to accept it. And he wishes for us the peace and joy that He has in Himself.

When it comes to us treating others that way (as persons), it's a tall order. It requires us to "seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God." I don't think any of us (as fallen sinners) can do this, without God's help.

Please let me know what you think.

God bless!

- Larry

*I've always been perplexed by the degree of dignity and respect with which God treats even Satan, his arch-enemy, in Job 1 and 2. But when you think about it, it really says something about God. He created all of us (yes, even Satan) as persons worthy of dignity and respect. Yes, God will ultimately boot the devil and his angels into the Lake of Fire, based on their ultimate commitment to hate and oppose His will. But only our Holy Judge could do such a thing with perfect justice, dignity and respect.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Guardian Angels

Recently one of my Global Media Outreach (GMO) contacts, an elderly gentleman in India who is in a Hindu context but is very interested in Christianity and the Bible, asked me about a biblical perspective on "guardian angels" and whether or not we should seek to commune with them (specifically, if we should seek healing from them). I thought my blog readers might be interested in my response, which follows.

Dear Anish*,

It's very good to hear from you again. (It feels like it has been a long time, indeed.) But, I am sorry to hear that you are not feeling well.

My perspective on angels (and guardian angels), and our relationship with them, is formed entirely from Scripture (the Bible). I do believe that angels surround us and do the bidding of God on earth. See 2 Kings 6, for example. (One of the Hebrew names for God in Scripture is Elohie Tseva'ot, which is roughly translated "God of Hosts" or "God of the Angel Armies.") And the fact that some angels are assigned to watch over us — and children, in particular — is also clear from Matthew 18:10.

However, that said, I do not believe it is wise to seek to identify and communicate with angels. I have several scriptural reasons for holding to this position.
  1. Nowhere in Scripture are we admonished to seek angels or to pray to them. To the contrary, we are to seek God Himself, directly. 1 Timothy 2:5 says: "For there is one God and one mediator between God and man: the man Christ Jesus." Jesus has the angels under His control: He commands them as He wills ... and He is our go-to.
  2. To the contrary, Scripture indicates that in some cases seeking or listening to angels can be very dangerous, if their message contradicts the message given to us by Christ in the Gospel. See Galatians 1:8 and Colossians 2:18. Paul even said the devil himself masquerades as "an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14). The bitter truth is that many cults and false sects such as Islam, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others, have come about because "angels" supposedly delivered a "new gospel" to these sects' founders. But, that Gospel was in each of those cases in direct contradiction to the Gospel of Jesus Christ presented in the Bible.
So, if we are not to look to angels for healing, who should we look to? One Scripture I think is very clear on this count is James 5:14 ...
"Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord."
An "elder" is a volunteer position of leadership in Christian churches. I have served as an elder in my church. When people in our church have fallen ill, we have encouraged them to let us know, and then we elders gather around them, anoint them with oil and pray directly to God for their healing. They aren't always healed miraculously; but it's clear that if God wills it, they can be healed by this act of faith, and many times they are. I could write many pages to tell you stories about people healed from very serious illnesses, just in our small church alone.

So, telling you the honest truth, my brother, I would encourage you not to seek after "angels" for your deliverance (especially if you are not seeking them through the words and wisdom of Holy Scripture). I would encourage you instead to submit yourself for prayer to the elders of a church nearby you ... and see what happens.

I am praying for healing for you, as well, my friend. Please let me know how it goes.

- Larry

*Not his real name.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Oh, Hell.

Okay, time for some gut-wrenching honesty. I really struggle with the whole concept of hell.

And that's interesting, because hell is the first (though not the best, certainly) reason I am a Christian. What I mean by that is, when I was a young child, attending Sunday School at a Baptist Church, the fear of hell was put into me by well-meaning Sunday School teachers. (And what child in his or her right mind wouldn't be terrified by talk of eternal torment in a burning lake of fire?)

I DIDN'T want to go there, that was for sure. So, when I was 8, I received Christ as my personal Savior. I was assured that His forgiveness of my sins would allow me to live with Him forever and save me from eternal torment and remorse in hell.

I realized much later, of course, that that was not the ideal motivation for becoming a Christian. The truth is, the reason I remain a Christian today, is out of love, obedience and gratitude for what God has done in sending his one and only Son to redeem me from my sin (at terrible cost to Himself). Who couldn't love a God like that? He created me and loves me so unfathomably that He would go to such great lengths to have me. So, submitting myself to His Lordship is a natural response.

But, the concept of hell now gives me a lot of pause. This is mostly true when people depict the Scriptural position for hell as: "God is just. He loves people, but if they won't accept His sacrifice for their sin, because of His justice He must punish them eternally, by torturing them in a lake of fire."

This whole concept of the God I know who loves me so deeply, actually and actively torturing people for all eternity in a lake of fire, is one I really have a hard time swallowing. It seems to run contrary to everything I know to be true about God. How could a loving God live with Himself as the eternal torturer? That sounds more like Satan to me.

I realize I'm not the only one who has trouble with this. My favorite author, that brilliant Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, depicts hell (in The Great Divorce and many of his other writings) quite differently than I described above.

He admits that there are many who will reject God's grace and therefore will not submit to live in obedience to God for all of eternity. The only logical choice, therefore (since our souls are eternal) will be for them to live in a state separated from God. And any place where God's presence is not, will be a dismal, drab, and dull place, filled with all kinds of self-important sinfulness, dread, loathing, boredom, etc.

In the Great Divorce, this (admitted metaphorical) town increases always in size, as people (who in reality all hate each other, since the absence of God is the absence of true love) keep "spreading out" in an effort to get further and further away from each other. So it is an incredibly lonely and desolate state of being. C. S. Lewis would probably hold that the "eternal burning" of consuming hellfire was a metaphor for the smallness of self apart from God, continually collapsing in upon itself and becoming continually less and less relevant to the "real" universe ruled by its Creator.

Other writers take a different tack. Right now I am reading Pastor Rob Bell's much-criticized book, "Love Wins," trying to determine whether the accusations of him taking a "universalist" position (which says that in the end, every knee will bow and all will submit themselves to the Lordship of Christ) are accurate, or not. But his belief that the all-consuming love of Christ will win out over the consuming fires of hell, in some manner, is already clear.

Scripturally I have some trouble with the universalist position (as romantic as it sounds), primarily because I agree with both John Bunyan and C. S. Lewis that our trajectory as we go through life is either to grow closer to God, or to draw further away from Him; and I don't see any reason to believe this principle will change in the "next life." Scripture does seem to indicate that there are sheep and there are goats, those who will be separated (or separate themselves) from the love of God, by their own choice, through all eternity. To state otherwise really is a challenge to freedom of human will.

It's also interesting to note that even those who question the concept of Hell have less trouble with the idea when it comes to certain people (or angelic beings, such as Satan and demons) who are truly and thoroughly "evil," mean or destructive, and therefore seemingly deserving. How many people (other than Rob Bell, perhaps) are comfortable with the idea that Adolf Hitler or Idi Amin or Joseph Kony or Josef Stalin will be roaming the halls of heaven? This idea is predicated on the assumption that when it comes to sinful beings, some people (or angels) are significantly "worse off" than others (e.g., me!).

But of course there is significant scriptural teaching to argue against this line of thinking. "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome. "There is none righteous. No, not one!" From a biblical perspective, we have all chosen our own way. Perhaps because of the personal gifts and circumstances surrounding Adolf Hitler's life and rise to power, the effects of his depravity are more far-reaching than the effects of my depravity. But, we are both depraved (and an argument could be made for saying we were "equally depraved") and in need of a Savior.

By this logic, if Adolf Hitler deserves to burn eternally in hell, then so do I. I am not God's standard of goodness, after all. Jesus is.

"So," you are probably thinking about now, "What are you saying? Where do you land on all this?"

And you should know that I'm not really going to answer your questions ... at least not yet. I am processing. The first thing that I need to do is sit at the feet of God and really study what He has to say on the topic of Hell. Christ spoke a lot about Hell. I'm certainly not comfortable with everything that I know He's said, but I recognize that my comfort is not the issue, and I think I need to dig in a little bit more and really get the full perspective of a Scriptural view of Hell. After all, God's ways are not our ways. He is incomprehensibly holy and far above my understanding. Before rendering judgment I feel I really need to become better (and more objectively) acquainted with the truth that Scripture reveals on the topic of hell.

My second step really aligns with the first: In order to more effectively align my thinking with Christ's, I need to spend a lot of time in prayer over this. I need to be absolutely sure I'm reflecting the mind of Christ and not the mind of my culture.

So I would like to finish reading Bell's book (so many have jumped all over him without even reading the book itself, I do wonder whether he's getting a fair hearing). And of course walk through the discipline of aligning its message with the pages of Scripture. (The same holds true for anything C. S. Lewis has written.) My theology says there are no modern-day biblical scribes writing down the words of God. Instead what we have is a lot of people giving their opinions — hopefully well-informed, but their opinions nonetheless.

And, I don't want to be just one more of those!

One final note: I don't anticipate that any of this thinking will change anything, practically speaking. The right reason for aligning oneself with God's will for your life is clearly not fear of hell, but the glory of God and the beauty of being in His presence eternally. If you know anything at all about sin (and it's clear God knows more about it than we do), then you are aware that it has to be defeated, cleansed, purged. And if Hell is the only way to do that, then so be it.

Regardless of what hell is, or whether or not it even exists as more than a metaphor, I know one thing for sure: God created us as eternal beings, and I want to spend my eternity living as close to Him as possible!

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

A Kingdom Cycle of Blessing

I think I've told my readers about a volunteer "online evangelism" ministry I do with Global Media Outreach. They have a series of websites designed to attract people who are seeking to know God, and when someone is investigating the Gospel and asks for more information, I am able to start a conversation with them online. Also, there are many new Christians I chat with on a daily basis, who are seeking more about basic principles of Christian living.

So far, over the past half-decade I've been doing this ministry, I've been blessed to be able to correspond with several thousand people, from dozens of countries all over the globe. Most have expressed a commitment to follow Jesus and grow in their Christian faith. This has (obviously!) been a huge blessing in my life.

One of the reasons it's a blessing, is because they often ask very intelligent questions, which help clarify priorities in my own life. Sometimes I feel so compelled by the question, and the biblical answer which it calls for, that I feel I should share the answer God has given with more than just the person who has asked.

Which is why I have a blog, right?

So, today a young man (from a northern African nation) asked me about tithing. Kombula (I'm changing his name to protect his privacy) asked,
"The tithe ... is it for us today? The tithe was given specifically to the Israelites and was a law. Jesus came to set us free from the law. He taketh away the first that he may establish the second. Are we still under the law?"
Great question, right? My response:

You're right, Kombula, the tithe is a specific ordinance established under the Law. And we as New Testament believers are no longer under the Law, we are under Grace.

However, as with all Old Testament ordinances, we need to look to the underlying principle. And the principle here is pretty clear. The principle is: God is the owner of all that we have, and He has lent it to us. The parable of the talents shows that we are stewards of His resources. Jesus taught that if we "invest" what He has given us into His kingdom, then the Kingdom will be blessed, and we will be blessed in turn. Our investment proves that we are good stewards, and able to handle bigger and better blessings if He decides to pour them out on us.

While the tithe (10% of everything, right off the top) was an Old Testament principle, given to the Hebrews, the New Testament principle is: "God loves a cheerful giver," and "Give as God has prospered you." So, the question I ask New Testament Christians is, "Has God blessed you more, or less, than the average Old Testament Hebrew? If the answer is "more," can you give back to God at least 10% of what He has given you ... cheerfully?"

These are very convicting questions, particularly to those of us who live in affluence here in America. Of course He has! So we should consider the tithe (10%) as a minimum standard. But unfortunately, the average churchgoing Christian here in America only gives about 3%. And our country is struggling, walking away from its Christian heritage, in part I believe because of our sin of affluence and our ingratitude as Christians in America.

My wife and I try to practice this. We are not affluent, per se, at least by American standards. I work for a nonprofit organization and my wife works for a school. We are an "average" family, with two children. But we try to give a significant portion (well over 10%, probably at least double or triple that) of our money, our time, our volunteer energy, etc. to the Kingdom. (Which is why I'm talking to you now ... I don't get paid to do this!)

Since we have been practicing this, these past 20 or 30 years, we have been incredibly blessed. We certainly have everything we need, and God continues to pour out more that we can invest into the lives of others. It's the opposite of a "vicious cycle" (maybe call it a "Kingdom cycle of blessing?"): As we try to be faithful with what He has lent us, He entrusts us with more that we can invest.

I don't know what this looks like in other countries and cultural contexts, exactly, but I do believe the principle is the same everywhere. It's Scriptural. Whatever God has given you, invest it. Dedicate a "tithe" (whatever you can do cheerfully), right off the top — the best of your energy, finances, time, etc., back to God. If you prove yourself trustworthy in these "little things," He will bless you with more to be trustworthy with.

Let me be clear that this is not a guaranteed path to wealth, or anything like that. Wealth does not equal blessing. Blessing takes many forms.

Does that make sense? I pray that God will bless you abundantly as you trust in Him!


In upcoming blogs, I'm going to feature responses to some other great questions asked by this young man and others recently ... so stay tuned! And, as always, please let me know what you think.