The Next Christians: A Review

I tend to enjoy anything about the future.  Whether it be in the form of science fiction books, post-apocalyptic movies, or prophetic dreams and visions, there is something tantalizing in the many potential scenarios of tomorrow.  Part of the intrigue is that the future can be considered in several ways: the actual future (what will happen), the potential future (what could happen), the likely future (what will probably occur), and the prescribed future (what should happen).  In his book The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America (TNC), Gabe Lyons doesn’t delve into the more fantastical aspects of futurism.  But he does employ the latter two aspects.  In his view, a new generation of Christian is showing some significant differences in how their faith is practiced, leading him to the conclusion that this positive change will continue into the foreseeable future.

In TNC Lyons lists six ways Christians engage the world: Insiders, Culture Warriors, Evangelizers, Blenders, Philanthropists, and Restorers.  He makes some good observations and critiques here.   Christians can try to Christianize everything (insiders), think that the means of pleasing God and changing hearts is through politics and putting God back in culture (Culture Warriors), consider in-your-face gospel witnessing the only true form of obedient Christianity (Evangelizers). He finds fault with all approaches.  Insiders cluster together and only do “Christian” things, and are viewed by outsiders as “holier-than-thou.”  Culture warriors like Jerry Falwell viewed America as a Christian nation that needed taken back.  The concepts of “Christian” and “America” seem intertwined: “When the faithful saturate their schedules with Christian events at Christian venues with Christian people, the world has a hard time believing we hold the rest of the world in high esteem.”  Evangelizers primarily just want to see people saved.  It becomes an end-all, be-all agenda.  Lyons writes that many of their tactics end up alienating many more than are brought into the fold.  Blenders are those who have some Christian faith values, but overall, their lives reflect that of the culture.  Some churches have responded by becoming relevant to accommodate this group.  The problem is that Bible study, sacrements, etc., tend to be downplayed.  Philanthropists emphasize good works in their lives, by serving and/or giving in various ways.  More often than not, however, the gospel message is downplayed.

As a response to the flawed approaches most Christians take in interacting with culture, Lyons proposes a better approach – restoration.  Restorers do want to share their faith, “but conversation isn’t their only motive.  Their mission is to infuse the world with beauty, grace, justice, and love” (47).  “They envision the world as it was meant to be and they work toward that vision.  Restorers seek to mend earth’s brokenness” (ibid).  In a key statement he writes: “Through sowing seeds of restoration, they believe others will see Christ through us and the Christian faith will reap a much larger harvest” (ibid).

A couple of sentences from Lyons summarize the book: “The next Christians believe that Christ’s death and Resurrection were not only meant to save people from something.  He wanted to save Christians to something.  God longs to restore his image in them, and let them loose, freeing them to pursue his original dreams for the entire world.  Here, now, today, tomorrow.  They no longer feel bound to wait for heaven or spend all of their time telling people what they should believe.  Instead, they are participating with God in his restoration project for the whole world.” (53, italics in original)

Much of the book relates examples of people who function as Restorers.  From ministries to porn stars, to popular websites like Paste Magazine, Christians are reaching out and changing culture in new and meaningful ways.  In explaining Paste’s philosophy, “they have experienced the power of creating a cultural good and seeing the impact it can have on millions of God’s creations, Christian or not.” (92)  And how does this help expand the kingdom of God?  Or is that the intention at all?  Lyons answers this way: “They believe that part of service to God is bringing signs that point to his Kingdom and tangibly expressing his love to those in need—even when the measurable result of conversion can never be tallied.” (93)

There is a lot of good insight in TNC.  Much of modern western Christianity is beset with the issues Lyon’s cites.  Change therefore is needed.  His distinction between being “offended” by cultural vs. being “provoked” was perhaps the best insight for me.  It’s easy to get into a mindset of defensiveness when our Christian values are attacked.  Some even propose escaping culture as much as possible.  Instead, Lyons helpfully elucidates how we should instead be provoked to positive action, using the opportunity for good, to show a dying world the love of Christ.  Many of the examples he gives of people doing just that are quite inspiring, if not at times convicting.  Would that more Christians (myself included) find such brave, creative, and Christ-honoring ways to shine our lights in this present darkness.

There are some criticisms, however.  The first ‘red flag’ came early in the book with this statement: “You may be dumbfounded that there are 76 percent of ‘us’ and yet little unity in what we collectively represent.” (5)  This statement might seem innocuous, but behind lies a theology that drives the remainder of the book, and one in which I have some serious reservations.  The idea that over three-quarters of Americans are “us” – read: “Christians” – is seriously problematic.  Is he talking about self-identified Christians?  Based on many recent polls most Americans don’t believe even the bare minimum of Christian doctrine.   If we understand the plain meaning of Jesus’ words in various passages, there is a rather small percentage of “us”, meaning faithful, Bible-believing Jesus followers.  Why do I harp on this?  Because much of what Lyons writes about in TNC is built upon this faulty assumption of a vast majority of Americans being true Christians.  Yet if his cited statistic isn’t true, then the foundation for much of what he writes is flawed from the outset.  This statement is more revealing than it would seem.

Regarding his categorization of the types of Christians, Lyon made some valid overall points, but his categories were a little reductionistic, almost more caricature than reality.  Certainly many Christians can fall into these categories, but most are far more complex in their faith.  For instance, many enthusiastically evangelistic churches  (Evangelizers), and politically engaged churches (Culture Warriors) also spend a great deal of time and money running mercy ministries such as soup kitchens, homeless shelters, crisis pregnancy centers, as well as relief aid and workers in disaster areas.  Lyons surely understands this, so it is puzzling he didn’t nuance his descriptions with any qualifications.

On pp. 54-55 Lyons explains the gospel story: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.  This is a good solid summary of the biblical gospel story, and it avoids inside language so it can be understood by anyone.  However, there is one enormous omission.  There is no message of how one appropriates this news; in other words, how is one to be saved?  Why does Lyons not mention belief and repentance?  The omission is troubling.  He doesn’t elaborate on his theological influences, but this section, indeed the entire book, reminds me of how many today view salvation.  Instead of proclaiming personal faith in Jesus and a turning away of sin (the message the dreaded “Evangelizers” preach), a new wave of scholars and their disciples have put forth being a kingdom saint.  The task of the believer is to expand the kingdom, but not by evangelizing in the traditional Protestant sense; rather, by proclaiming the biblical message as Lyons has outlined, seeking to restore the creation to its intended state, and by emphasizing God’s rule and Christ’s kingdom.  A solid message, but how does one appropriate this message of the kingdom and become a kingdom saint?

Lyons does add this: “I don’t mean to diminish the importance of telling others about God’s redemption accomplished on the cross, and we shouldn’t deny that salvation through faith in Jesus has eternal implications.  But shouldn’t we be faithful to recount and live out the whole story?” (56-7)   This is one of the few times he mentions the necessity of faith in the gospel message, and then he downplays it.  Lyons doesn’t state we should preach this message, only that “we shouldn’t deny” it.  This is a huge difference.   People of all stripes need to hear information in black and white.  And when it comes to being right with God, they want specifics about how they can know this.  With some issues this cannot be done, but with the gospel and salvation it can.  In response to Peter’s sermon is Acts 2, the people asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?”  Peter responded: “Repent and be baptized … for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  One might think that I’m spending too much time on this issue, being nitpicky.  But central to the Christian message for millennia is not only the message of the gospel, but how one moves from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.  The Bible is clear on this, and while the church has had many missteps through the centuries, the core understanding of how one is saved has been pretty consistent.

I have little doubt that Gabe Lyons is a faithful believer who can articulate his faith clearly in many settings.  What he sets forth in TNC works for him.  And it works for those whose stories he cites.  There is some merit in being a Restorer.   I just don’t find it to be our primary goal from a survey of the New Testament.  Instead, there is a focus on holy living, understanding core teachings and identifying false ones, loving one another, and looking for the Day when Christ Himself would restore all things.  By following the dictates of the NT prescriptions, Christians will certainly have a positive influence on the surrounding culture, much of which will mirror what’s related in TNC.  But the difference is that restoration from a NT perspective is secondary to the more primary focuses listed above.  My fear is that if these “Next Christians” get this backwards, what should be primary will fade, and eventually disappear.  They might remain Christian themselves, but the following generation might well not be.

*I received this book as from Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review.



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Was Noah’s Flood Global or Local?

In 2004 I was among the multitudes across the planet who watched in horror as a powerful earthquake under the Indian Ocean created massive tsunamis, killing well over 200,000 people.  The videos of the waves rushing upon the land demolishing housing structures and ripping up trees demonstrated the awesome and deadly power of water.  Similar scenes played out during the Japan tsunami a few years back.  But this isn’t limited to tidal waves.  Tremendous devastation has occurred during sustained torrential rains, when dams give way and release mega volumes of water, and even when giant seas empty out onto lower land masses.   The reality of our situation is this: we live on a planet that’s covered by over 70% water.  Floods are bound to happen.  And occasionally, they are apocalyptic.

And then there’s the granddaddy of all floods, the so-called Noah’s Flood recorded in Genesis.  As traditionally understood, this flood was so enormous that it covered the entire planet.  And it was deep, very deep.  The tallest mountain was said to be under water.   Every person and all creatures were killed.  However, by virtue of God’s forewarning, Noah built a huge ark, and was saved along with his family and two of each kind of animal.

That is how the text is normally read and has been understood by Christians throughout history.  However, a growing number of Christians are proposing that the Flood wasn’t global in scope after all.  It was a local, or regional, flood.  They hold that the text can be read this way, and that unless we take the Flood as local, we run into a multitude of problems.  For instance: How could Noah and his three sons sustain all of those animals: food, water, cleaning?  And then there’s the scientific evidence, or lack thereof.  These arguments, among others, have caused many Christians to reconsider the traditional interpretation of Noah’s Flood.  And it should be noted that many are conservative Christians, even believing in the inerrancy of Scripture.

So where do I stand on this?  Well, let me be honest and say that I’ve courted the Local Flood Theory (LFT).  Some of the scientific arguments are indeed convincing, and even some of the textual arguments make some valid points.  But I can’t accept it if the text itself doesn’t allow it.  So I performed a personal experiment of sorts.  I started in Genesis 6 and read through to ch. 9.  Over the years I’ve done this “experiment” several times, even reading with the assumption of a local flood in mind.  Yet no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t escape the reality that the text teaches a Global Flood (GF).  In what follows I want to give a couple of arguments why the GF is the only interpretation that works.  Next I’ll discuss some of the common objections to the GF.  And lastly, there will be a brief discussion about why this is an important topic.

Argument #1: The duration of the flood

In even the worst of local floods, the water subsides rather quickly.  The reason for this is that it has somewhere to go.  Gravity pulls the water to the lowest point, into streams, rivers, and eventually, the oceans.  In the aforementioned tsunamis, the tragic events of the flooding lasted for perhaps a few hours, before the waters pulled back into the ocean.  Within a matter of days the land dried out and humanitarian efforts were underway.

Contrast the relative brevity of even the most enormous of recent floods, with the long duration of the Genesis account.  Consider these numbers:

  • “the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days” Gen. 7:24
  • It was 76 more days before “the tops of the mountains were seen” Gen. 8:5
  • It was 60 more days before a bird finally found land. Gen. 6:8-12
  • It took 150 days for the waters to fully abate after the flooding stopped. 8:3
  • In total, Noah was in the ark 315 days.

One could argue that the numbers here are merely symbolic and a little too neat to be taken literally.  But the text reads as history, giving specific dates at each milestone.  Even the most enormous of regional floods cannot account for the number of days listed above.  Some have proposed that the Mediterranean emptied into the Black Sea about 5,000 B.C., creating a significant flood of the region, searing into the memories and legends of those who witnessed it.  Certainly if this did occur it would be absolutely devastating.  The amount of water in that sea pouring through the land would decimate everything and everyone in its path.  But like all local and regional floods, it wouldn’t last that long before the water would subside finding a new place to rest.  Only if the water did not have a place to go, would it “prevail on the earth” for many months.

Argument #2: God’s promise to all earthly creatures

After Noah, his family, and all of the animals had exited the ark, God made a covenant with them.  Never again would flood waters destroy all creatures on the earth.  The sign would be the rainbow (cf. Gen. 9:8-17).  Keep in mind this wasn’t merely a covenant to a specific people, such as the Jews; nor was it just a covenant with all humans; no, it was a covenant promise to all creatures, human and animal.  As such, it’s the only one like it in the entire Bible.  Note the following verses:

I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” Gen. 9:11

And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” Gen. 9:15

When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.” Gen. 9:14

It’s hard to fit this covenant promise with a regional flood.  I would argue it’s impossible. In fact, I would go further and argue that it undermines the Noahic Covenant altogether. For instance, how would someone in say, Brazil, understand the Noahic Covenant? Does a rainbow there invoke a remembrance of the covenant, or does it only apply in the land of the flood?  This is a major problem created by trying to make the flood local.

I’ve debated how to structure this argument.  It seems a dialogue format will make it easier to follow.

GF Proponent: Do you believe the Noahic Covenant is for all humanity and all creatures?

LF Theorist: Yes, it was for all the creatures on earth.

GFP: Did all of the creatures on earth die during the flood?

LFT: Well, all of humanity died, since they were localized to that region.  That’s why an enormous and devastating regional flood could take them all out.

GFP: Do you also believe all of the animals on earth were located in that region?

LFT: Probably not.

GFP: Was the NC only for the animals coming off the ark, or for all animals on earth?

LFT: It was for all.

GFP: Then how does the NC have meaning with regards to the animals not experiencing the flood?  The animals’ comprehension of such a promise is beside the point.  How does the NC relate to those animals, or all of the animals that have existed since?

Since Noah’s Flood there have been countless local and regional floods that have destroyed whole populations of people and animals.  Perhaps one could argue that the NC is only for the Middle East region where the deluge took place.  If such is the case, it only applies to those living in that region.   But that’s a problem, and not a small one.  The NC has always been understood to be universally applicable, which is why you don’t find many (if any) proponents of a more limited understanding.  But if the NC isn’t limited in scope, then I can’t come up with a rational understanding of how it has lasting and binding meaning if the flood was merely local.  Only if all creatures, human and non-human, perished in this cataclysm does God’s universal covenant promise make any sense.  And the only way all creatures could perish would be in a global flood.

There are other problems with the LFT, but these two are sufficient to show that it undermines the text of Scripture, and virtually nullifies an important covenant of God.  But there are some objections to be answered.  Below are some of the most common.

Objection: The ark itself doesn’t make any rational sense.  First off, not all of the kinds of animals could possibly fit on it.  Second, there wouldn’t have been nearly enough room for all of the food and water for that length of time.  Relatedly, what about the carnivores?  Do we think that hay would satisfy lions & snakes?  Therefore, wouldn’t a multitude of extra animals be needed to feed them?  Third, how could a handful of people take care of such a large number of beasts?  And what about all of the waste! 

I don’t believe this to be a particularly difficult problem.   Recall that God is all over this story.  He is the one who calls Noah and gives him very specific instructions; He is the one who brings the animals to the ark; He is the one who shuts the door of the ark; He is the one who brings on the flood.  In light of God’s active participation in the story, it isn’t at all inconceivable that he caused the animals to fall into hibernation for the duration of the flood.  This would effectively eliminate any need for extensive care for the animals.  I understand the text doesn’t tell us this is what happened, but it is a reasonable explanation, and shows how it might well have occurred.

As for the number of animals, the text states that they were brought two by two according to their kind.  If we include all of the variations then, yes, it would be problematic.  But this isn’t how the story relates it.  And keep in mind the size of the ark.  Its dimensions were roughly 450’ long, 75’ wide, 45’ high, and it had three levels.  This was a very large vessel and would have had adequate room to house the animals.

Objection: There isn’t nearly enough water on earth to cover the highest mountain.  We’re talking enough water to cover the planet to a depth of over five miles!  Where did it come from?  And just as problematic, where did it go?  A localized flood makes way more sense.

This is a scientific objection with some teeth, I must admit.  The key to my answer is this statement: “the fountains of the great deep burst forth” (Gen. 7:11).  Rain in and of itself would not produce a global flood of this magnitude, even forty straight days of it.  However, if combined with enormous quantities of water from the “great deep” it could.  So is there water underneath us?  And if so, is there really that much water?  Yes, there is.  A couple of years ago scientists discovered that there is a giant reservoir of water way below the earth’s surface.  Perhaps three times the amount in all of the oceans combined.   Here’s a quote from New Scientist:

“We should be grateful for this deep reservoir. If it wasn’t there, it would be on the surface of the Earth, and mountain tops would be the only land poking out.”[i]

It should be noted that if there’s even more water down there, as the researchers believe could be the case, then there would be no “land poking out.”

Objection: Ice core samples demonstrate that there was no global flood.  These samples accurately relate historical data from tens of thousands of years ago, including volcanoes and droughts.  A global flood would absolutely be represented, if it actually occurred.  But it isn’t there, so the flood must have been local.

Of all the scientific objections, this one is perhaps the toughest to deal with.  There have been attempted answers, but none of these accurately deal with the evidence.  My first response is to acknowledge that these samples do not indicate a worldwide deluge during Noah’s time.  However, I don’t believe this is the definitive evidence against it.  While we know the effects of a big localized flood and of hydraulic effects in general, a worldwide flood as described in Genesis, has not been observed and could have unexpected effects upon the land and seas.  We also don’t know where the water entered and exited, what temperature it was, what temperature the earth was in various places, or of the salinity of the various seas.  For instance, if the seas were highly salinated, did the fresh water sit on top, only mixing a little?  Did the ice at the poles melt, or was the water cold enough and not long lasting enough to have not greatly affected the ice?  There is a lot we don’t know.  So while I understand the scientific case against the GF, it’s not so overwhelming to cause me to abandon the clear meaning of the Bible.


So why is this discussion important?  For one, if we abandon what the Bible teaches on the subject of the flood, there’s no reason to not use a similar hermeneutic elsewhere in Scripture.  Human nature is such that once a section of the Bible is found false, all of it becomes suspect.  But these chapters were not written as legendary or mythological accounts.  There is a great deal of specificity in it, far more than what’s in the other ancient flood stories.  For instance the dims of the ark show that it was designed to withstand a major flood; there are very specific landmark dates given, such as months, days, and Noah’s age.  If it’s legendary, then all of these details are superfluous.

A second reason to reject the LFT is that it serves to undermine the promises of God.  As shown earlier, the Noahic Covenant only makes sense if the flood was global.  When Christians believe in and teach a local flood, they need to understand the theological implications, as well as the effects on their students.  There are many promises of God throughout the Bible.  The NC was the first.  If it’s called into question, the rest also become suspect.  Let God be true.


Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Scientist Steve Jacobsen as quoted in “Massive ‘ocean’ discovered towards Earth’s core,” by Andy Coghlan. Accessed 05 June 2016. To be fair, I should point out that the water in this reservoir is trapped within the molecular structure of the earth’s mantle. In other words, it’s not just some big underground ocean.  Therefore, some would object this couldn’t be released, at least not very easily.  But there’s still much we are learning about God’s creation.  It could very well be that the right conditions would cause the water to “burst forth” as described in the text.  This is apparently what did, in fact, occur.

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Why I Don’t Believe in a Pretribulational Rapture of the Church

According to popular eschatology, the end will occur something like this:

In the last days there will be a seven-year tribulation encompassing the whole earth. In the midst of this there will arise the long-feared Antichrist and False Prophet, world leaders who lead the whole world astray. At the end of those seven-years Christ will return in glory to defeat the powers of evil and to set up his kingdom, a millennial reign lasting one thousand years. Oh, and one other thing: the church will be raptured out of the earth prior to the seven-year tribulation period, thus missing the Antichrist and the ensuing carnage he unleashes. At the end of the tribulation period, those raptured out will return with Christ at his Second Coming and will reign with him on the New Earth.

Well, that’s what I once thought. In fact, not only was it my view, but I assumed it was the view of every Bible-believing Christian. After all, my Scofield Study Bible taught it, all of the prophecy guys on the radio were on board, and multiple books, charts, and movies showed these end-time events in stark reality. And then one day there was a change. The exact year escapes me – sometime in my early to mid-twenties, I believe – but what doesn’t escape me is what created the seeds of doubt in my mind. Not a teacher, not a book, not a movie. It was the Bible. When I picked it up and began reading it – I mean, really reading it, as in studying it closely – what I found was that the pretribulational rapture (PTR henceforth) is rather hard to find. One section in particular stuck with me, and this passage (along with a sister passage) sealed the deal. However the last days would play out, there was one thing I was quite certain of: the church will not be raptured out of the world seven (or three and one-half) years before the Second Coming.

What follows is my take on this issue. It’s not exhaustive by any means. I only hope to show from a plain reading of Scripture what it says, and let it interpret itself. Next, I’ll entertain a handful of common objections. Lastly, I’ll give a brief summary of why this issue needs discussion.

At the outset let me say that much of what I wrote at the beginning describing the end time is still what I hold today. My biggest beef is in the idea that the church will be plucked out of the earth for the duration of the tribulation week. That being said, let’s begin. The primary focus will be on a passage from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians: 2 Thess. 1:4-11; 2:1-12 (cf. also 1 Thes. 4:13-5:9).

As a starting point, let’s review what Paul writes in his second letter to the Thessalonians. These verses serve as fitting launch point, and will touch on the key issues.

2 Thes. 1:4-11 (ISV)
4 As a result, we rejoice about you among God’s churches—about your endurance and faith through all the persecutions and afflictions you are experiencing. 5This is evidence of God’s righteous judgment and is intended to make you worthy of God’s kingdom, for which you are suffering. 6Certainly it is right for God to pay back those who afflict you with affliction 7and to give us who are afflicted relief when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8in blazing fire. He will take revenge on those who do not know God and on those who refuse to obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9Such people will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction by being separated from the Lord’s presence and from his glorious power, 10when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be regarded with wonder on that day by all who have believed—including you—because you believed our testimony. 11With this in mind, we always pray for you, asking that our God might make you worthy of his calling and that through his power he might help you accomplish every good desire and faithful action.

I’ve highlighted the phrases dealing with the Lord’s return and underlined the sections to do with both believers and unbelievers. This is for ease of reference when the questions below are asked. Based on the text above…

—When will the Lord “pay back those who afflict you with affliction”? (non-believers)
—When will the Lord “give us who are afflicted relief”? (believers)
——Answer: “When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels.”


—When will the Lord “take revenge on those who do not know God”? (non-believers)
—When will the Lord “be glorified by his saints and regarded with wonder … by all who have believed—including you”? (believers)
——Answer: “When he comes … on that day”

The purpose of this exercise is to show that when the Lord returns, both believers and unbelievers will be greatly affected, albeit in radically different ways. For believers, there will be relief from persecution and suffering, and they will revel in his coming. For unbelievers, there will be great affliction, punishment, and finally, eternal destruction. All of this will occur “when he comes.” Therefore, it is difficult, and I would say hermeneutically irresponsible, to insert a secret pretribulational rapture of the church in this section. It’s not there, and the most straightforward reading of the passage doesn’t allow for it.

But there are some objections, so let’s review some of the most common.

Objection One: When “he comes” the Lord will translate believers. For unbelievers, the seven-year tribulation period will begin their affliction, culminating in their destruction at the end of the tribulation at the Second Coming. Therefore, the above passage can be viewed through the lens of a PTR.

This objection makes sense, but does it work? I don’t believe so. But to show its flaw, we have to expand our context a bit to include 2 Thes. 2:1-12, where Paul writes: “Now we ask you, brothers, regarding the coming of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah, and our gathering together to him …”(v.1)  This is a clear reference back to what he was just discussing a few verses earlier. Apparently, there were some false teachers saying that the Lord had already come, and this was disturbing the church. Paul responds thusly: “Do not let anyone deceive you in any way, for it will not come unless the rebellion takes place first and the man of sin, who is destined for destruction, is revealed” (v.3).  What we see is that the Lord’s coming (“it will not come”) will take place after the “rebellion” and the revealing of the “man of sin.” This was a teaching Paul had personally given to the church (v.5) and it serves as a marker or sign of the end times. The whole tenor of this section indicates that believers would witness these things; otherwise, how would all of these details of the tribulation period instruct and encourage them?

Ultimately, the “man of sin” will be destroyed “by the manifestation of his (Jesus’) coming” (v.8).  All agree that this undoing is at the Second Coming of Christ.  But this creates a significant problem for PTR proponents. There’s no reason to view the coming in v.8 as distinct (seven years later) from the coming in v.1.  If they are the same, the whole edifice of the PTR crumbles.  However, if it’s maintained that they are not the same coming, then evidence is needed to defend this view.  To be frank, nothing in the context would lead one to such an interpretive move, so I would not expect a good answer here. The only way to view two comings in this passage is to read one’s theology into the text.  But this is an eisegetical approach, not exegetical. Scripture is not to be interpreted based on preconceived theology, rather it’s to be read based on what the text actually says.

Objection Two. The phrases “coming of the Lord” and “day of the Lord” refer to two different events. The former is when believers are gathered to him. The latter always refers to the Second Coming.

I’m not sure that this distinction helps matters. Assuming that the objection is true, it does nothing to overturn what has already been argued. While true that these phrases can have different emphases, it doesn’t follow that they must have different timetables. As seen in the passage above, it’s clear that they refer to the same event.

It should also be noted that PTR proponents take the entire seven-year tribulation period as the Day of the Lord. This is the wrath of God upon the earth and its unbelieving inhabitants. Due to this understanding, Christians cannot be on the earth, because they will not undergo God’s wrath. Therefore, they must be taken out. This is logical reasoning, but it’s based on a shaky foundation. It must be shown from Scripture that the wrath of God is poured out during the tribulation period, and not at the end when the Lord returns. It’s at this point that PTR teachers introduce an array of OT scriptures concerning Israel in the last days. It would go well beyond the humble intentions of this post to thoroughly examine them all. I will only point out that placing the wrath of God at the start of the tribulation period is arbitrary, and there is no clear biblical reference indi this to be so.  As shown in my answer to the first objection, an examination of the “comings” in 2 Thessalonians shows rather clearly that believers will not escape the tribulation period; therefore, the wrath of God must begin at the end of this period.

Objection Three. What about Rev. 3:10? Doesn’t it prove we’ll be raptured prior to the tribulation period?

This objection falls outside the present context. I deal with it here because it’s considered the strongest single verse supporting the PTR. First, here’s what the verse says: “Because you have obeyed my command to endure, I will keep you from the hour of testing that is coming to the whole world to test those living on the earth.” Now, if one comes to this verse already assuming the PTR, it certainly would seem to be an obvious reference to the rapture. However, we need to step back and consider what’s being said and what’s not being said. First, it says nothing about how these believers would be kept from the “hour of testing.” There is no reason to assume a rapture when this statement could have several other meanings: (1) that they would be allowed to escape the trial, similar to the escape that Jesus had taught (cf. Luke 21:20-21,35-36; see also John 17:15), (2) the trial would not come to their particular area; (3) they would be kept through the trial, meaning a divine sustaining in the midst of suffering. Based on what Jesus stated in his Olivet Discourse, it seems most reasonable to view “keep you from” as a physical escape on the present earth, and not a translation into heaven.

Second, if a rapture is how we are to interpret “keep from,” what about the church at Smyrna? They also received no condemnation from Jesus. And what about the faithful believers within the other five churches? In the PTR, all born-again believers will be raptured. In the context of the seven churches, that would mean at least some of all of the churches would be represented. In light of this, it’s hard to read Rev. 3:10 as a rapture text. More likely, all of the churches would go through the trials of the coming tribulation, though in differing degrees. For the church at Philadelphia, it appears that 3:10 indicates that the worst of the tribulation would not afflict them to the degree that the other churches would experience.

Third, there is the issue of relevance to the churches themselves.  There is little question that these letters were to actual churches, containing an unknown number of Christians.  If Rev. 3:10 is referring to a still-to-occur time of tribulation, then no person from any of the churches would experience it since they have long since departed.  In light of this, how does this verse encourage the Philadelphians, any more than it would anyone else from this time period?  Much more likely, the verse is referring to a time of tribulation in that particular era.  Otherwise, it’s a rather strange thing to say.  Kind of like saying: “Because you have been faithful Paul (the Apostle), you won’t have to go through the Holocaust that will try my people.”

An additional word needs to be said concerning the history of interpretation regarding the second coming of Jesus. Prior to the early to mid-1800’s, virtually no Christian understood that there would be a secret rapture of the church. The first true advocate was John Nelson Darby, and from there the teaching spread and was eventually adopted by Dispensationalists, becoming one of the distinctives of their eschatology. The idea that the entire church for over 1700 years had missed the pretrib rapture is far-fetched. While it’s conceivable that everyone was wrong on this point and that it was hidden until the latter day, this seems most unlikely, and it strikes another serious blow to the PTR.

So why is this important? Aren’t there more pressing theological issues to discuss and debate? (I suppose this could be viewed as a final objection). Although more practical than theological, the question is nonetheless important. My beef with the PTR is that it leads people to the erroneous conclusion that they’ll escape the coming time of trial. If there is to be a time of severe tribulation (and I believe there will be), then what will become of the faith of those Christians who witness it, who endure it’s great afflictions, who see with their own eyes the man of lawlessness? Will some be so disillusioned that they buy into the great deception? Will others, thinking they’ve been deceived by false eschatology, have their faith shipwrecked? Another concern is that there are millions of Christians – primarily in the West – who are wholly unprepared for what’s coming. If the tribulation is soon, then they must be warned and told the truth of the matter. My hope is that more Christians will be like the Bereans, and will study Scripture diligently to see if these things are so. May God grant us to understand his word rightly, and to be prepared for trials and temptations in their many forms, including the final great tribulation.


1All Scripture taken from the Holy Bible: International Standard Version®. Copyright © 1996-forever by The ISV Foundation. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED INTERNATIONALLY. Used by permission.


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The Same God?: a look at Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism

A firestorm ensued at Wheaton College this past December when a professor, citing Pope Francis, declared via Facebook that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.[i]  Her evangelical employer suspended her, which in turn somehow turned into a national story.  What probably should have been left as an in house debate among Evangelical Christians has turned into quite a controversy, eliciting commentary spanning a multitude of religious beliefs and ideologies.  Most of what I’ve read has been unenthusiastic toward Wheaton, to say the least.  Despite the unfortunate tone and rancor, it’s not necessarily a negative situation that this issue is now public.  What I’m seeing and hearing leads me to this: in these often heated discussions comes clarity.  Clarity of doctrine and beliefs.  Clarity of hearts.  Painful though some of the talk is to hear,[ii] it gives us as evangelicals an idea of where the culture stands on this issue and, more importantly, where fellow Christian leaders and organizations stand.

Before moving on, let me state that I’ll be discussing several major belief systems: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Mormonism.  The reason I include the latter two is because the exact same question arises in regard to these religions from time to time, particularly Mormonism.

On to the question: Do Christians worship the same God as Muslims, Jews, and Mormons?  Personally, I don’t like the way the question is framed.  It leads to varying interpretations of what is meant by “worship” and “same God.” Upon reading and listening to the various discussions on this topic, it’s clear more questions need to be raised to clarify the debate.  Here are but a few:

  1. Is the God of the Quran and the Bible the same? In other words, is God described differently in the Bible, Quran, or various LDS texts?
  2. Do Christians and Muslims have in mind the same God?
  3. If Christians, Muslim, Jews, and Mormons have in mind the same God, is it appropriate to state that they worship this God based on the totality of their beliefs?
  4. What is meant by worship? Is it merely a devotion to a set of beliefs?  Is there a true worship that goes beyond asceticism, what Jesus called worshiping “in Spirit and in truth”?

How the above questions are answered directly affects the central question.  With that in mind I’ll describe three main approaches to this question.  Next, some key Scriptures will be cited along with some comments.  After examining what the Bible has to say on the matter, we’ll return to the approaches and ascertain which approach best fits each faith – in relation to the central question.

Approach One: the same God is in view & the same God is worshiped.

From all appearances, this view is the most popular, and pairs well with Inclusivism.  The reasoning is that all four belief systems accept the biblical view of God, for the most part.  So Islam, for instance, is considered one of the Abrahamic religions because it accepts Abraham, as well as Moses, as true patriarchs.  Since the God of Abraham is the God of the Bible, then Muslims must have in mind the same God.  Whether they call this deity “God” or “Allah” is immaterial.  These are just language based terms for the same being.  Furthermore, their worship of God is evident in their strict devotion to the sacred texts.  While there are certainly differences in theology and practice, who are we to say that Muslims, Jews, or Mormons are not truly worshiping God?  Nobody has perfect beliefs, so charity should reign.[iii]

Approach Two: the same God is in view, but the same God is not worshiped.

This view actually has some evangelical support.  There is a realization that the major Abrahamic religions based their identity in the Patriarchs.  This alone indicates that the same God is in view.  However, that doesn’t mean that true worship is occurring.  Though one can have right beliefs about who God is, it does not follow that one is showing true devotion regardless of additional theological ideas and practices.  As Paul noted in Romans, one can have a “zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.”  The meaning is clear: one can have in mind the right God, but not be a true worshiper of that God.

Approach Three: different gods are in view; therefore, worship is of different deities

This view acknowledges that the major religions trace their origins back to Abraham.  Therefore, a great deal of similarity is to be expected.  However, there is also a great deal of difference.  With the introduction of new sacred texts (i.e, the Quran) has come a redefinition of God.  And when God is redefined, God is no longer God.  A new deity has been imagined.  The evidence of this is seen in the type of devotion given, as well as how God is spoken of.  In other words, there is enough variation to warrant the belief that Christians, Muslims, and Mormons have in mind a different God.  Therefore, when each group worships, it is directed toward the God of their sacred texts, the God they have in mind.

Scripture Examined

With these three approaches now defined, it’s necessary to look at a few Scriptures that have a bearing on this subject (with some comments following):

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:23-24)

There’s not only a differing view of God in play, but also a differing understanding of worship.  We must realize that when others talk about “worship” they have in mind something else, typically any type of devotion or acceptance of a religion, either in whole or in part.  Since the definition is greatly broadened, it behooves us to use this opportunity to clarify what Jesus said about true worship.  In biblical Christianity, it’s not merely about following right practices.  True worship is a matter of the heart, not a rote memorization of some text, or a daily prayer ritual.  Biblical worship is based on a correct understanding of God’s nature and revelation (truth), in addition to a deep and abiding love of God and his ways (spirit).  Without these two in unison, true worship cannot be accomplished.

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.  For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.  For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. (Romans 10:1b-3)

In these verses Paul is speaking of the unbelieving Jews of his day.  They rejected Jesus as their Messiah.  What is significant for the present discussion is that he assumes that they have in mind the same God, despite them rejecting Christ and, by extension, all of the theology that comes with him.  The Jews have the right God in mind, but their knowledge is now deficient and cannot save them.  As further discussed below, this passage lends support to applying Approach Two to Judaism.

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. (John 8:42-44a)

These verses are sometimes cited as proof that Jews who reject Jesus are not worshiping the same God.[iv]  This would put them in Approach One, the same boat as Islam and Mormonism.  But recall that there are two main points we are considering: (1) what God is in mind, & (2) if the same God, is he truly being worshiped?  In reading the passage above along with its wider context, Jesus isn’t dealing with question one.  Rather, it’s all about worship.  The Jews in conversation had the right God in mind, but their hearts were far from him.  Their hearts had become so calloused in fact, that not only were they not worshiping God, they had even turned into servants of Satan himself.  The devil had become their “father,” even while they diligently worked to keep every jot and tittle of the Law.  Taking these verses in accord with what Paul writes in Romans 9-11, it becomes clear that unbelieving, religious Jews know who God is, but they are not worshiping him since they have rejected Jesus.

With the above thoughts in mind, let’s revisit the three approaches and apply the truths of Scripture to the present topic and central question.  Restated again: Is the God of Christianity the same as the God of Islam, Judaism, and Mormonism?

Approach One: Same God, Same Worship

The only religious groups that would fall into this category would be the various Protestant denominations.  These are the Christian groups who hold to the Bible as the true and only word of God, and seek to live by it.  Much of liberal Protestantism would be excluded since they reject large sums of biblical revelation about God, and in some cases radically redefine both his being and his character.  Arguably some sects of Roman Catholicism could squeak in – or, at least many individuals within the Catholic church – since some have a higher view of the Bible than of tradition.

Approach Two: Same God, Different Worship

Much of Judaism falls into this category.  While religious Jews utilize tradition and some other texts, their ultimate guide to theology is the Torah.  Therefore, as explained above, they have in view the right God.  However, in their rejection of Jesus as their Messiah, they are not worshiping him according to knowledge.  A large segment of Roman Catholicism falls into this category.  Rome has placed tradition at such a high level that it has become equal to the Scriptures themselves.  As a result, the pontiff of Rome is given undue adulation (the “vicar of Christ”), Mary, the mother of Jesus is exalted far beyond what is acceptable, the saints are prayed to, and the gospel itself is muddied.  This being said, I’m not stating that all Catholics are unsaved. Rather, Rome’s man-made traditions have so obfuscated the gospel that it’s hard to know the truth to be saved.[v]  And that is tragic.

Approach Three: Different God, Different Worship

This category involves both Islam and Mormonism.  When comparing the God of the Bible with the God of Islam, it’s evident that Allah is a different God.  Since a new text has been introduced with new ideas about God, we must conclude that a different deity is in view.[vi]  In the case of Mormonism the differences are even starker.  God has been completely redefined into something, or someone else.[vii]  In both cases, Muslims and Mormons do indeed practice devotion and worship, but the object of that worship is not the God of the Bible.[viii]


Christianity is both inclusive and exclusive, albeit in different senses.  It’s inclusive in that anyone, anywhere, regardless of ethnicity, upbringing, or past actions, has access to salvation through Jesus Christ.  It’s exclusive in that salvation only comes through Jesus, meaning that neither one’s ethnicity nor good actions plays any part in obtaining eternal life.  It’s this exclusive aspect of biblical Christianity that so offends.  And, oh does it ever ruffle feathers.  But it always has.  And it always will.  Jesus himself said as much, and his Apostles encountered this opposition in force.  Despite this, we are to proclaim the truth: there is one God, and one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ. He is God’s prophet, priest, and king.  He is the God-man, who came to die a sinner’s death to save sinners.  We must trust in his provision – there is no other provision available.  To reject the Son is to reject eternal life.  We must worship this same Lord in spirit and in truth, and we must testify of his truth to others, in the hope that they might do the same.


[i] Smietana, Bob, “Wheaton College Suspends Hijab-Wearing Professor After ‘Same God’ Comment.”  From:  Posted 12 Dec 2015.  Accessed 11 Jan 2016.  The professor at the center is Dr. Larycia Hawkins, who wrote: “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”  Regarding what the Pope said, it should be noted that he was merely affirming what has become standard church doctrine: “The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their desserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.” Emphasis mine.  From Nostra Aetate 3, in the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Second Vatican Council, 28 Oct 1965.  Found here:  Accessed 11 Jan 2016.

[ii] One could choose from over a dozen articles from The Huffington Post.  The anti-Christian sentiments at that site are legendary, so it’s no wonder a story like this led to such outrage.  Here’s one: Gilberson, Karl, “The Strange Theology of Wheaton College.”  From:  Posted 08 Jan 2016.   Accessed 11 Jan 2016.  As others have done, Gilberson, a professor at Stonehill College, accuses Wheaton of anti-Muslim bigotry and asserts that their position is illogical.  For a refreshingly fair non-evangelical opinion piece on the situation, and why Wheaton did what they did: Laats, Adam. “Elite Wheaton College Still a School of a Different Sort.”  From:  Posted 08 Jan 2016.  Accessed 11 Jan 2016.

[iii] As an example a professor at Louisville Seminary, Amy Plantinga Pauw states: “No one is in a position of saying, ‘Well, we know exactly how God works in the world, and my particular group has a monopoly on that,’” as quoted here: Gjelten, Tom, “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?”  From: Updated 21 Dec 2015.  Accessed 11 Jan 2016.

[iv] Mohler, R. Albert. “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?”   From:  Posted 18 Dec 2015.  Accessed 11 Jan 2016.

[v] The parallels between the traditions of Rome and the traditions of the Pharisees and scribes are hard to miss.  Both add to the written word multiple new rules; both place tradition on an equal footing with the scriptures; both have enjoyed much “pomp and circumstance”; both have placed undue burdens upon their followers; both have been guilty of the deaths of God’s servants.  The list could be longer.  Listen to Jesus’ biting words: “You have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Luke 10:52b ESV – for a more in depth context: Luke 10:37-53, Matt. 23:1-35).  For an example from Judaism describing the “Two Torahs” (written and oral):  Accessed 13 Jan 2016.  For an example from Catholiscism:  Accessed 13 Jan 2016.  The similarities between the two approaches to the Bible and tradition are striking.  It bears stating that Jesus himself never criticized the Torah.  He did, however, repeatedly criticize tradition.  In fact, he never said anything good about it.  The problem, it seems, is that tradition inevitably undermines the truth of God’s word.

[vi] While there are many similarities with the Judeo-Christian understand of God, the differences should not be underestimated.  As an example, Allah in Islam could never be called “Father” as in Christianity.  See: Hosein, Imran Nazar. “Islam Rejects the False Doctrine of the Fatherhood of God.”  From:  Accessed 11 Jan 2016.  Hosein misunderstands, for the large part, what is meant by biblical reference to God as “father.”  He isn’t a father in the literal, technical sense of intercourse/pregnancy/birth, as Hosein (and the Quran) asserts.  Rather, he is father in a more metaphorical, though real way as our Creator who loving treats us as sons.  But even this Hosein seems to reject:  “Neither is Allah Most High father, nor can He be even compared with father, since He is incomparable. Indeed elementary common sense reveals that He cannot be father since, although He created both the male and the female, He is neither male nor female.” It seems inescapable that Allah is capricious and distant.  Therefore, there can be no dynamic relationship between Allah and man, even though Allah is said to answer prayers and offer mercy.  Yet this isn’t the same as the relational God of the Bible.

I should also note that Islam is not a monolithic movement.  There are varieties of thought regarding these issues.  However, the traditional concept of Allah in Islam is as noted here.  Additionally, most conservative Muslims (if that’s the term to use) like Hosein would almost certainly agree that Allah is not the same as the God of the Jews and Christians.

[vii] I’ve spoken with several Mormon missionaries (“elders”) about this very subject.  They tend to be cagey when it comes to Joseph Smith’s “revelations” that God is an exalted man who was once was much like us.  But pressed on the subject, they capitulate – though the subject is quickly turned elsewhere.  The confusing part is that Mormons use virtually identical theological terminology.  But as I pointed out to them, if I describe my wife to someone, yet my physical description of her is different than what she looks like, and my description of her personality is different, then I’m not talking about my wife.  I’m talking about someone else.  It matters not one bit that I call her by her correct name.

[viii] For another interesting take on the controversy, and a defense of the fact different Gods are in view: Cochran, Matthew. “Wheaton is Right: the Christian and Muslim Gods are Different.”  From:  Posted 21 Dec 2015.  Accessed 11 Jan 2016.

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Why Christmas?

There are several ways Christians view the Christmas season. Some go at it with reckless abandon – house full of lights, presents galore, fridge full of eggnog, Bing Crosby and The Carpenters blaring on the radio. Others shun it altogether, citing it as unbiblical, or even pagan. Many are somewhere in between, feeling confused, wanting to be faithful but wondering what to make of this time of year. I suppose my family falls into this latter category. Like most Christians around the globe we observe the holiday, but struggle to find the best way to do so. How much emphasis on the decorations, or the presents? How do we rightly instruct the children? Is all of this really necessary? Certainly, there are excesses this time of year, yet also a lot to celebrate. So … what do we do about it?

Well, this post isn’t about whether or not Christmas is pagan (that will be another post). And it’s not to preach a definite “do this” or “don’t do that” regarding presents and trees and such. Rather, my goal is to lay out some basic principles – or, better, emphases – to guide us during this season.

Adoration of the Magi (1632) - Rembrandt.  public domain

Adoration of the Magi (1632) – Rembrandt. public domain

Number One: celebrate the coming of the promised Messiah

Try to forget, for a moment, cute children singing “Happy Birthday Jesus.” That’s most certainly not the point of Christmas. There’s a much more edifying way to look at it. Think of it this way: there was a time in history before Christ. Yes, of course, but what does that mean? For the Jews, he was the long promised fulfillment of dozens of ancient prophecies. They longed for his coming, spending time in a lengthy exile and under foreign subjugation in their own land. For me, as a Gentile, it also means a whole lot. Prior to his coming there was no redemption, no hope of eternal life, no giving of the Holy Spirit. There were no Gospels instructing us about God’s ways. There was only hopelessness, the fearful truth that death would come, but without a sure knowledge of what would come afterward.

Jesus changed everything. His entrance into the world was epoch-making. If he hadn’t come, I would be doomed. Because he did come, I’m saved. “But I’m a Gentile!”  “Yes, but now you’re mine too.”

That’s why I celebrate this time of year. Yes, we should also remember his resurrection and long for his return. But that doesn’t mean we cannot have a time when his first coming is celebrated. This coming – or Advent – demands our primary focus. It’s a time to reflect on our own blessings, as well as point others to the purpose behind his advent.

Number Two: don’t be too distracted

There is a yearly tendency to get wrapped up, so to speak, in all of the hustle and bustle of the season itself. Lots of gifts to buy, decorations to put up, travel plans to make, dinners to cook. None of these in and of themselves are wrong. However, they can become problematic if our focus is taken off Christ. If that occurs, the whole holiday is just an end-of-the-year party, devoid of any spiritual merit. How easily this happens! My advice (and this includes myself) is to know thyself. Take a daily inventory of where you’ve focused time and energy. Know when the season threatens to steal your true joy. Make it a point to meditate on Scripture, particularly those relating to salvation in Christ. And direct your children consistently to those same vital truths.

Number Three: don’t spend too much time fretting over what Christmas has “become”

Yes, Christmas is over-commercialized. This has been going on for many decades. Charlie Brown even lamented this in the 1960’s. The fact is that Christmas to the world is completely secular. It’s all about being with family, sharing gifts, Santa, and hoping for snow. But instead allowing this lack of spiritual focus to annoy us, it should remind us to pray, and to use every opportunity to engage the culture with the truth. The irony of Christmas is that most people reject the very one in whose name they celebrate. Our task is to show them what they’re missing. We can also pray that while they sing or record some of the traditional carols, some of those biblical lyrics will lead them to think about him of whom they sing.

Christ by highest heaven adored
Christ the everlasting Lord
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail, the incarnate deity,
Pleased as Man with Man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel!

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today.

For lo the days are hastening on
By prophets seen of old
When with the ever circling years
Shall come the time foretold
When the new heaven and earth
Shall own the prince of peace
Their King
And the whole world
Send back the song
Which now the angels sing

[In order, Hark the Herald Angels Sing (verse 2); O Little Town of Bethlehem (verse 4); It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (verse 4)]

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What is the significance of the 153 fish in John 21:11?

“So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them.  And although there were so many, the net was not torn.” John 21:11 (ESV)


Konrad Witz – Petri Fiskafänge (1444, public domain)

One of the interesting aspects of Scripture is its use of numbers.  Certain digits in particular seem to repeat often.  For example, the number 40 (number of days it rained during the deluge; years Israel spent wandering in the wilderness; days Jesus fasted in the desert) and the number 12 (tribes of Israel; number of Jesus’ disciples) show up several times.  So there is good reason to see a pattern.  Why certain numbers have more significance than others is a bit of a mystery.  For the present discussion, I want to address how we view certain numbers when they show up in the text.  More specifically, is there a hidden meaning behind certain numbers, which yield extra knowledge of God and his ways?  With this question in mind, I want to explore an important event at the end of John’s Gospel.

In John 21:1-14 we learn about the third appearance of the post-resurrection Jesus to his disciples.  There were seven present, and they had been fishing all night with no results.  Toward morning a voice calls out to them from the shore asking if they caught anything.  Getting a negative answer, the man says to cast the net on the right side of the boat.  They do as instructed and the catch is so large that they can barely pull it out of the water.  John recognizes the voice now.  It’s Jesus.  Peter jumps into the water to meet him.  Jesus has a fire prepared on shore and invites them to eat.  When the boat comes ashore the catch is counted – 153 fish.  Amazingly, the net is intact.  Jesus and his disciple eat bread and fish together.

A search of the internet of this passage will yield multiple interpretations of the real meaning behind the 153 fish.  You’ll find references to Pythagorean theorum, cubed numbers, prime numbers, the total number of people helped by Jesus in the NT, and other even more esoteric meanings.  What you won’t find is any consensus.  But why would the meaning be hidden to us for over 2,000 years?  If it has a deeper significance, no one can be faulted for searching it out.  Wouldn’t God want us to know about it?  The problem is that no one seems to have the key to interpreting the number.  And we love our mysterious, cryptic codes just waiting to broken!  But the question remains: Should we be searching for the deeper meaning of the number, or is there a simpler explanation?

The most obvious and straightforward interpretation of the 153 fish, is that it is meant to serve as an evidence that it truly was a large number of fish caught.  Furthermore, John emphasizes that even with such a catch, the net wasn’t broken.  We can rephrase it this way: “It was a very big catch.  You want proof?  I was there when we counted them – 153 fish!  And get this – the net survived unscathed!”  The event also demonstrated to the disciples that this was Jesus, and not some imposter.  The huge catch, the unbroken net, the timing of it; these all worked together to demonstrate that a miracle had just taken place.  That’s it.  No reason to follow rabbit trails to Wonderland.

I should point out that one can find additional significance in the passage.  For example, when Jesus called his disciples, he said that he would make them fishers of men.  It is legitimate to see a correlation to the large number of fish in this passage, and the large number of human converts they would soon be ‘catching’.  Therefore, the miracle could also be viewed as an object lesson of the soon to be realized spiritual awakening.  Reading the text this way is legitimate and beneficial, whereas seeking the hidden meaning behind a number benefits us none.  God desires us to be strengthened in faith and love.  Yet the various methods I’ve read attempting to explain the number 153 can hardly be said to help any of God’s children in the way he wants. The myriad interpretations of the catching of the 153 fish serve as a great reminder why we must not look for hidden messages in the Scriptures.  Doing so can lead us astray of the intended, plain meaning of the text.  God’s message in his word is clear.  He knows that we are but dumb sheep, easily led astray by false shepherds.  He isn’t going to make it harder by expecting us to treat his word like a puzzle waiting to be solved.  I’m not saying there aren’t difficult passages.  But these are in the minority.  The vast majority of the Bible is plain, and can be understood by using a solid translation and grasping the context and the literary genre.

In conclusion, we must use caution when reading the Bible.  We have a tendency to look for the hidden things, mysteries, and codes to break.  And we like to share our latest findings, to be the first to find what no one else has been able to locate (I’m not above committing this error myself).  But doing so puts us more in line with the interpretative methods of the Gnostics and the Kabbalists, rather than the most faithful Christian interpreters throughout history.  Therefore, let us rightly divide the word of truth, laying aside our appetites for secret knowledge





Filed under Devotional, Religion, Theology

Tribe A, Tribe B, and Morality: An Illustration and A Conversation

There has been a lot of discussion among non-theists regarding how to understand morality.  The subject has long been a vexing one, considering non-theism does not officially have a set of moral codes.  This has troubled them all the more considering that theists often invoke the “moral argument”; namely, that apart from a belief in God, anything goes – or, at a minimum, nothing is inherently right or wrong.  But modern atheists  have been striking back.  Sam Harris has even written a recent book on the subject, defending a god-less morality.  Generally, non-theists appeal to reason, and to cross-cultural norms that match up with one another.  But these arguments only go so far, as we’re about to see.

 An Illustration:

 Tribe A – This tribe is composed of farmers and herders.  They work hard, love their families, and keep to themselves.  Though they might have communication and trade among other tribes, they have no desire to engage them in conflict of any kind.

 Tribe B – This tribe is one of warriors.  They also work hard and love their families.  They trade and communicate with other tribes, but underlying it all is a desire to conquer them.

In the course of time, Tribe B decides to invade Tribe A, even though Tribe A has done nothing to provoke such an attack.  Tribe B levels the village, burning homes, killing the men, raping and forcing into slavery the women and children.  Tribe A is no more.

(There are many questions raised by such an event, but we will deal only with the moral aspects.)

Is what Tribe A did to Tribe B an immoral act?  If so, why?  What is the basis for condemning it?   If Tribe B’s cultural morality allows violent acts against another culture when tribal improvement is to be gained, how can one go against them without invoking a higher standard of morality?  There are only two options here for the one who condemns this act.  Either one must appeal to a transcendent code (i.e., God), or one must consider one’s own morality, or that of one’s culture, as the standard by which others are to be judged.  The former is automatically ruled out for the non-theist.  That leaves the second option.  But taking this approach is also quite problematic.  For it makes one’s own moral code the ultimate standard, making oneself or one’s culture a kind of God on earth.  The non-theist must then answer how he knows that his understanding of moral norms is the correct one.  I’m not aware of any who can do this.

The dynamics of the Tribe B situation effectively nullifies the modern atheistic approach to accounting for morality.  Neither reason, nor universal cultural norms answers the dilemmas raised.  Tribe B can merely answer: “Why should we listen to you?”  There’s not much the non-theist can say it return, but it might go something like what follows.

A Conversation:

Non-theist: What your tribe did to Tribe A was terrible.  I condemn it in the strongest terms.

Tribe B: We don’t agree. Who says it’s wrong anyway?  You?

Non-theist: It’s wrong to kill people and steal things.  Everybody knows that!

Tribe B: We don’t agree.  We have rules for our own tribe that keeps us functioning, but these others tribes . . . we don’t know them, and we care nothing for them.  So if they have things we need, we take them and dispose of the people.  Simple.

Non-theist: How callous!  How can you not see the immorality of killing innocent people!

Tribe B: We’ll ask again: Who says?  We have our cultural norms and you have yours.  Ours allows us to attack other tribes; yours obviously doesn’t.  Our tribe doesn’t give a hoot what other tribes think about morality.  Your culture seems to like imposing your tribal norms on other tribes.  What a strange culture you must live in.

Non-theist: One reason I say it’s wrong is because I don’t want my society to be attacked by barbaric tribes like yours!

Tribe B: So you really don’t care about Tribe A either, do you?  You’re just afraid for your own safety, right?

Non-theist: No, that’s not what I’m saying.  Yes, I don’t want us to be attacked.  But I also believe that attacking any tribe is wrong.

Tribe B: Then give us a reason why it’s wrong.  Your opinion, or your society’s opinion doesn’t matter to us.  Give us a good, solid, reason (opinions and feelings not allowed) why we shouldn’t attack other tribes.

Non-theist: Okay, for one thing, most other tribes agree with us that it is wrong to kill.  Tribes across cultures, across centuries, have concurred.

Tribe B: You are incorrect.  There are – and have been – many, many tribes just like us that condemn killing in their own society, but have no qualms with killing other societies.  Your view only makes sense within a tribe, not tribe to tribe.  Also, even if what you say were true, it doesn’t make our acts good or bad.  It’s still just an opinion, albeit one held by a lot of people – but still just a one viewpoint against another.

Non-theist: Well . . . this kind of behavior is bad for society.

Tribe B: Not for ours.  Tribe A, yeah, but like we said, we didn’t know them and cared nothing for them.

Non-theist: But this kind of violence will lead to a more violent society in yours also.  Violent acts, even against people you don’t know, creates a violent mindset that will likely lead to chaos is your society also.

Tribe B: Who says?  We have rules against violent behavior in our society, and if they are broken, people are punished quite severely.  To be frank, we don’t have a lot of crime, and we get along rather nicely.  Is this the best you can do?  Give another reason.

Non-theist: But I just don’t really feel that killing .  .  .

Tribe B: Then feel away, but we’re done with this conversation.  You’ve convinced us of nothing!

This conversation illustrates the problems non-theists run into when speaking about ethics and morality.  Some are more honest with the implications.  Atheist professor William Provine has stated that if there is no God: “There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans.”  Few non-theists dare to be so blunt, but this is ultimately what their worldview holds.

But I’m not one to defend mere theism.  Just believing God exists doesn’t get one anywhere.  Who is God?  What is he like?  What does he want from me?  Mere theism cannot answer these questions, and so falls into many of the same moral holes as non-theism and agnosticism.  In fact, it is a form of agnosticism.  But God has not left us wondering.  He has revealed himself to us through his word, and his Son, Jesus Christ.  To say the least, what God says is of utmost importance.  He instructs us about what is right and wrong, yes, but also tells us that every person falls far short of these standards.  By the way, this would be my word to Tribe B:

“What you did was wicked in God’s sight.  He is the one who sets standards, not your tribe or any other tribe.  God has said he will judge eternally all those who kill and steal as you have done.  But he is also a God of love, and has given you a way out of this condemnation.  He has sent his one and only Son to take your punishment.  He died in your place, and yet rose again on the third day.  What you must do is trust him, turn from these immoral ways, and follow him.  Walk as he walked.”

This is why true Christianity makes so much sense.  Not only can we unequivocally state that certain behaviors are inherently wrong, we can also go further and speak of redemption and a future restoration.  It is this message that we must proclaim until Jesus returns.


Filed under Apologetics, Philosophy, Religion, Theology