Category Archives: History

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.  https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25723-massive-ocean-discovered-towards-earths-core#.U56BwfldXTo. 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.”

Furthermore…

—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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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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A Bane of Non-theism: Unalienable Rights

The Declaration of Independence contains these famous words:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

What isn’t always understood by modern ears, is the exact meaning of “unalienable” (identical in meaning to “inalienable” – used interchangeably here).  It’s not a word most Americans use every day.  The word is defined as “that which cannot be given away or taken away.”  When the Founder’s wrote of “unalienable rights” they meant that there are certain rights that cannot be taken away, namely, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and equality.  While individuals and governments can certainly take away these things, they cannot take away the rights to those same things.  For example, someone can take away my car by theft, but he cannot take away my rights to that car, since it’s mine.

Think about these rights for a moment.  If these ideas (life, liberty, etc.) are indeed rights, then there is a right-ness to keeping them, and a wrong-ness to taking them away.  It is wrong to unjustly take away someone’s life, for instance.  But by whose authority is it wrong?  And who decided that certain aspects of our existence were actual rights?  Such language implies – no, demands – an authority.  But who or what can bestows upon human beings rights?  Can governments?  Certainly a group of leaders can give rights by the laws they enact and then enforce.  But these are not unalienable.  They are only as good as the paper they are printed on and the remembrance of those who in power who choose to enforce them.  Given rights can be taken away, inherent rights cannot.  Humans can give rights, but cannot instill an inherent (inalienable) right.

What the Founder’s understood is that in order for there to be such a thing as an unalienable right, it must have been bestowed by the Creator.  In other words, there must be a transcendent being who created us with these rights.  In the same vein, any moral code of right and wrong, if it is to be taken as absolute, must transcend us all.  Otherwise, right and wrong, good and evil, are just opinions, varying by culture and individual.  If there is no higher authority, one who is above all human institutions, unalienable rights cannot be established.

So how is this a “bane” for non-theism?  Because they cannot affirm the most fundamental statement of the Declaration.  To accept it as true would be either hypocritical or inconsistent with their belief system.  Yet this sentence is not only one of the most famous in our nation’s history, it is also one of the most important; for it lays the foundation for the rest of the document, as well as the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  This is perhaps the primary reason non-theists have rarely been elected to the Congress, and never to the Presidency – at least those who are openly so.  Most Americans still intuitively understand what our Founding Fathers knew:  God himself gave us our rights, and there is an unspoken fear that those who do not hold the same values will be the ones who initiate the change to take away those same rights.

An important question is often raised.  Can a non-theist be a good president?  The reality is that some atheists might actually make a great Commander-in-Chief, just as many are good fathers, husbands/wives, neighbors, workers, teachers, leaders, etc.   Yet these “good” behaviors are in spite of their belief system (or lack thereof), not the result of it (And, it could be argued, their morality is largely borrowed from Christian principles – the product of growing up in a country still somewhat immersed in Judeo-Christian values).  The central issue in a country built on many freedoms is that the non-theist cannot uphold unalienable rights.  This is a huge problem, considering the country is built around a central principle: freedom.  If  non-theists cannot affirm that certain freedoms are inalienable, then how can they affirm Constitutional rights?  For sake of worldview consistency, those rights would have to be radically reinterpreted.   And that is what most Americans fear.

 

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Christianity and Homosexuality, pt 3: Inconsistent OT interpretation

Question: Why appeal to Leviticus to condemn homosexual practice when you ignore all of the other laws?  Do you pick up sticks on the Sabbath?  Do you wear clothes with different types of fabric?  It seems that Christians are picking and choosing.

This is a very common objection to the traditional Christian view of homosexuality.  On the surface, it seems rather devastating.  On the one hand, if we say that those other Old Testament (OT) rules don’t apply anymore, we seem to be picking and choosing, and opening ourselves up to the accusation of inconsistency and hypocrisy.  On the other hand, if we say those rules do apply, then we are viewed with even more distain since much of the OT laws are quite foreign and offensive to modern ethics.  So there you have it: Game, Set, Match.

Well, not so fast.  The reality is that the church has always had an answer to this objection.  So what I’m going to write is nothing new, and certainly not a modern invention to get out of this dilemma.  But at the outset I need to mention that this issue has led to a bunch of theological discussion regarding the place of the OT law in the life of the Christian; and it is ongoing, and when I say “a bunch” I mean voluminous.  Rather than getting too bogged down in the issues of law and grace, let me state a few things about how Christians answer this challenge.

First, the “offensive” laws are primarily located in the Law of Moses.*  These laws were  given to the children of Israel.  Many of the commandments were geared toward them alone, and this to distinguish them from the surrounding nations.  Therefore, as a whole, the Law of Moses was never intended for all people, let alone for all time.

Second, though the Law of Moses was only intended for Israel, it did contain rules that would have applied to all people.  For instance, “You shall not kill (murder)” is one of the Ten Commandments, yet also a law expected of all people, for all time.  Conversely, a command such as “All winged insects that go on all fours are detestable to you” (Lev. 11:30) is for Israel, not, say, the Philistines.  So how do we know which is which?  This is where much of the above-mentioned theological discussion rests, but there are some general guidelines that help.  For instance, we get a strong clue from how the Bible speaks of the sins of the nations.  They are condemned for such acts as murder, child sacrifice, idolatry, witchcraft, and various forms of sexual deviancy, including homosexuality.  However, they are not condemned for failing to adhere to many of the other laws: Sabbath keeping, eating unclean creatures, temple worship, cleanliness rules, etc.  What we see from this is a clear indication that there are many laws within the Law of Moses that are normative for all, and many that were only for Israel.  This is why many Christians throughout the centuries have categorized the law into moral, ceremonial, and civil, aspects.**

Additionally, when we look at the New Testament, we find much the same story.  One of the most important theological issues of the new church, and in fact what precipitated the first council, was how the Gentile Christians were to view the Law of Moses.  Were they to be circumcised, for instance?  The answer was, and still is, no.  What we find in the NT are teachings condemning various forms of sin (including homosexuality), but no teaching condemning anyone for not following those laws specific to Israel.***

To summarize:

  • The OT Law of Moses was intended only for the Hebrews.
  • There are moral laws that God intends all people, in all epochs, to follow.
  • The Law of Moses contains many of these moral commands, in addition to many other laws specific only to Israel.
  • Jesus Christ fulfilled the Law of Moses “thus abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances” (Eph. 2:15).  Yet if one breaks a moral command, it is still sin.
  • One of the moral laws clearly spelled out in both the OT and NT is the prohibition on homosexual behavior.

There is no inconsistency, no hypocrisy in how Christians view the OT law.  To state again, this has been pretty basic Christian teaching since the beginning.  The objection has never been a particularly difficult one and still isn’t – though to the skeptic it certainly seems to be.

Notes:

* Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; also called the Torah in Judaism and the Pentateuch in Christianity.

** Most scholars today have distanced themselves from categorizing the Law of Moses into “moral,” “civil,” and “ceremonial,” since the Bible doesn’t include these categories and it oversimplifies the nuanced nature of biblical law.  While I understand the reasoning, I don’t have a problem with such categories.  It might be best to shun these distinctions in academic papers, but any meaningful dialogue with non-Christians or lay Christians needs these distinctions.  Otherwise, there is too much complexity, and too little clarity, leading to dead-end discussions.

*** For verses related to this paragraph: Acts 15:1-29; 1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:1-3, 16-26, 6:15

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“Hark!” Listen to Those Lyrics

Categorize this one as: “Do you know what you’re listening to?”

One of the most beloved musical groups of all time is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (MTC).  The Grammy Award winning group began in the 19th century and has been a household name since the at least the middle of the 20th.  The richness of their vocals and the beautiful arrangements has made the MTC popular with music lovers of all stripes – including Christians who might otherwise find Mormon doctrine unpalatable.  It’s simply hard to find better renditions of many classic hymns of the faith.  But herein lies a major problem.  A close listen to some of the MTC versions reveals some subtle, yet relevant, lyrical changes taking place.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the classic carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” 

In the Charles Wesley hymn, the second stanza of verse two traditionally reads: “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity; pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel.”  Here we have a beautifully poetic verse celebrating Christ’s deity and His God-man nature.  Wesley draws not only from the birth narratives, but also from the opening chapter of John’s Gospel:

“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” (1:1)

“And the word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” (1:14)

According to John, Jesus is the Word that existed before all things, who became a human to live among humanity.  Indeed, this Word is God Himself.  This view of Christ’s deity has been present within Christianity since the earliest days.  Despite some recent efforts to attribute the worship of Jesus as God to later councils, the earliest writings of the church indicate a well-established belief in Jesus as eternal God.  Distinct from the Father, yes, but very much God.

So where does the MTC come in?  If you listen to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” you will find the following change:

Mormon Tabernacle Choir:  “Veiled in flesh, our Lord is he, Savior through eternity.”

Original: “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate deity.”

There’s nothing particularly troubling about the lyric itself.  It doesn’t quite fit as well contextually as the original, but that can be overlooked.  What is bothersome is the fact that it was changed in the first place.  Why make such a change?  The answer lies in Mormon doctrine.  Mormons have a completely different understanding of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit than historic Christianity.  In Latter-Day Saint (LDS) theology, God the Father was once just a man like us, having walked on his own planet (Kolob, actually) at some time in the distant past.  He is one of a countless other gods ruling an unknown, but vast, number of worlds.  The god of this particular area has a literal wife, and through celestial sex, the spirits of all are created.  The first of these offspring was the “Son”, later to come to Earth as Jesus.  Faithful Mormons will reach exaltation someday too, becoming gods of their own world somewhere.  A famous sermon from none other than founder Joseph Smith lays it out:

“First, God Himself who sits enthroned in yonder heavens is a Man like unto one of yourselves . . . if you were to see Him today, you would see Him in all the person, image, fashion, and very form of a man, like yourselves.

“For I am going to tell you how God came to be God and what sort of a being He is. For we have imagined that God was God from the beginning of all eternity. I will refute that idea . . .”

“You have got to learn how to make yourselves Gods in order to save yourselves and be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done”

“The Head Father of the Gods. In the beginning the Head of the Gods called a council of the Gods. The Gods came together and concocted a scheme to create this world and the inhabitants.

(Taken from Stan Larson, The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text .  BYU: 1978.  Taken  from http://byustudies.byu.edu/PDFLibrary/18.2Larson.pdf.   Accessed 12/13/10.)

Much more could be said, but it is quite clear why the MTC does not sing of Jesus as being a part of the “Godhead,” or as “deity.”  They do not sing what they do not believe.  The question for Christians is this: will we sing songs containing teaching that we don’t really believe – or at least what the Bible does not teach?  Further, will we continue to listen to the MTC’s theologically altered hymns, thinking that it’s unimportant, or “close enough”?  Theology does matter, and if we listen closely to what’s coming through the earbuds from of our mp3’s, we might just be surprised.

  

Highly Recommended Reading:

Richard Abanes, One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church (Thunder’s Mouth Press: New York, 2003).        

     This is an absolutely fascinating read.  If you like history, or even fast-paced historical novels, this book is for you.  Abanes thoroughly researches (142 pages of notes) the beginnings of the LDS up until the present.  He also gives a helpful comparison of Mormon teachings with historic Christian teachings (ch. 17).  I truly wish every Mormon, and at least every Christian pastor, would read this work.

James White, Is the Mormon My Brother? Discerning the Differences Between Mormonism and Christianity (Bethany House: Minneapolis, 1997)

     White’s book is not a hit piece against Mormonism.  White has been in discussion and debate with Mormons for many years, so he knows what they teach.  This book is full of helpful information relating to LDS teaching, primarily their views on God and how it relates to biblical teaching.

Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nelson: Nashville, 2006).

     Bock’s book is primarily about the so-called Gnostic texts, how they measure up with the Bible, and how historically reliable they are.  But within the book is a helpful discussion of early Christian beliefs regarding the deity of Jesus.  This is a good popular level introduction to the earliest extra biblical writings on Christ’s deity.

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Saved, To Sin No More

At church this past Sunday we sang the classic William Cowper hymn, There is a Fountain Filled With Blood.  For anyone not familiar with Cowper’s story, it’s a powerful testimony of God’s grace, not only in salvation, but in the struggles that so many face.  It can be read here.  The following three verses (there are six in all) stuck with me long after the song had ended:

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its power
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.
Be saved, to sin no more, be saved, to sin no more;
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.

E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.
And shall be till I die, and shall be till I die;
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.

The first verse affirms the gospel, namely that Jesus Christ died to remove our sin – i.e., all of our “guilty stains.”  He doesn’t remove some of our sin, or even most of our sin, but all of our sin.  Therefore, when our faith is in Christ, our future home is secure.

The second verse reminds us that our Lord’s death was a once for all sacrifice, powerful to save us to the end, when we will be glorified.  When we sang this particular line: “Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more” I couldn’t help but utter in my spirit, “Come, Lord Jesus.”  What a wonderful day when this earthly struggle between spirit and flesh is ended and sin is completely eradicated!  It is a day the Lord has promised, and he cannot lie.

The third verse mentions “redeeming love” as our “theme” throughout our lives.  The gospel must define who we are, in every aspect of our lives.  There is not a single area that is not brought under the lordship of Christ, be it family, work, play, friendships, or church.  Once we are His, we are no long our own.

Here are a couple of renditions of “There is a Fountain.”  The first is an a cappella version of the traditional music.  The second is a more modern rendition performed by Red Mountain Church.

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