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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.  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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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]

Conclusion

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.

Notes:

[i] Smietana, Bob, “Wheaton College Suspends Hijab-Wearing Professor After ‘Same God’ Comment.”  From: http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2015/december/wheaton-college-hijab-professor-same-god-larycia-hawkins.html.  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: https://www.ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/v2non.htm.  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: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karl-giberson-phd/the-strange-theology-of-w_b_8939466.html.  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: http://chicago.suntimes.com/opinion/7/71/1234531/elite-wheaton-college-still-school-different-sort.  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: http://www.npr.org/2015/12/20/460480698/do-christians-and-muslims-worship-the-same-god. Updated 21 Dec 2015.  Accessed 11 Jan 2016.

[iv] Mohler, R. Albert. “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?”   From: http://www.albertmohler.com/2015/12/18/do-christians-and-muslims-worship-the-same-god/.  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): https://www.templeinstitute.org/oral_tradition.htm.  Accessed 13 Jan 2016.  For an example from Catholiscism: http://www.catholic.com/tracts/scripture-and-tradition.  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: http://www.imranhosein.org/articles/understanding-islam/87-islam-rejects-the-false-doctrine-of-the-fatherhood-of-god.html.  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: http://thefederalist.com/2015/12/21/wheaton-is-right-the-christian-and-muslim-gods-are-different/.  Posted 21 Dec 2015.  Accessed 11 Jan 2016.

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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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20/20 Takes on Heaven

I just finished watching the two-hour 20/20 special, “Heaven: Where is it? How do we get there?”  Honestly, I didn’t expect much, so I wasn’t disappointed in what I got.  What does make me sad is how much distortion and deception there is on this topic.  Actually, it’s more provoking than anything.  It made me want to . . . well . . . blog about it.

In true post-modern style, we were treated to a smorgasbord of ideas from Barbara Walters and company.  Various faiths and non-believers had their say.  Even hell had a short segment at the end.  Very little of biblical truth was presented.  Barbara (yeah, we’re on a first name basis) did interview Joel Osteen.  He managed to state that Jesus was the only way to heaven, so that was good, but so much more needed to be said.  There are a couple of key truths that seem to elude virtually everyone, including an increasing number of Christians.  A lot more could be said, but let’s start with these two . . .

First, there is a tendency to think that heaven is achieved by how good we are.  Most people take this view.  We like to earn things by nature, so why not heaven?  Yet the Bible indicates very clearly that no amount of good works can get us into heaven.  It would be like a serial killer (think Charles Manson or Jeffrey Dahmer) who thinks he should be released from prison because he bought some Girl Scout cookies, or gave some change to a homeless guy.  The problem is that the good deed comes nowhere close to matching the atrocities committed.  In the same way, our sin is presented in the Bible as an atrocity against God, our Creator.  No amount of goodness can cover that amount of rebellion. (cf. Rom. 3:9-20; Eph. 2:9).

Second, most people come at this issue with the idea that heaven is the default destination for themselves and everyone else.  This comes from the idea that we are good by nature.  However, Scripture gives us a totally different picture.  We are by nature rebels and we have sinned repeatedly against a perfectly holy God.  Therefore, the default destination is hell.  As the Paul wrote, we are all “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3).

The Bible paints a bleak picture of humanity.  To sum it up, we’re not nearly as good as we thought – in fact we’re criminally bad.  And we’re not headed toward a future blissful existence – we’re destined for the due penalty for our sins.  We are doomed.

Well, not quite.  Not everyone.  There is more to this story.  Thankfully!  In the very same passages mentioned above, we also read these beautiful, life-giving verses:

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by faith you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-6)

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.  For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.  This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:21-26).

Yes, there is a heaven.  We’re not told exactly where it is.  But we are told how to get there: by faith in Jesus Christ, and repentance of our sins.  In an age of confusion, where every idea gets heard and the only ones viewed with suspicion are those stated with certainty, this truth must be proclaimed.  It is what a dying world desperately needs.

**All Scripture cited from  the English Standard Version, Crossway, 2001.

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Christianity and Homosexuality, pt 2: An alleged inconsistency

Question: Why do churches harp on homosexuality so much?  Aren’t there many other sins they’re ignoring? 

The short answer is, yes and no.  A slightly longer answer is this: society has made homosexuality an issue, and the church has responded in kind to this new normalization.  If the issue was some other deviation, such as adultery or incest, there would be little said about homosexuality, and much said about the other two.

But we need an even longer answer.  It is a common conception that conservative Christians focus too much time and energy on homosexuality.  But this isn’t fully accurate.  Christians have the appearance of being unbalanced in this area for a couple of reasons.  For one, the political aspect of gay marriage and same sex benefits has brought this issue to the forefront.  Most Christians vote, and since they don’t find these ideas good for the country, they bring up the issue to their representatives, and also write and speak about them.  It’s therefore in the news a lot and Christians seem only to be focused on this particular issue.  Secondly, there are the extreme preachers and churches that do indeed put a great deal of time and effort into an anti-homosexual message.  A few have even done outlandish things such as picket the funerals of gay people, and preach sermons about rounding up gays and killing them.  Even though the vast majority of Christians abhor such behavior, and even though only a small percentage of Sunday sermons even mention homosexuality, guess who gets the media attention?  So when a non-Christian or gay rights supporter hears a hate-filled rant from a pulpit, or watches the unbiblical antics of Westboro Baptist with their “God Hates Fags” signs, is it any wonder that they attribute these attitudes to most conservative Christians?

The truth is that the Bible teaches that we all have sinned and fall (continually) short of his glory.  Everyone struggles with sin.  Whether gossip, slander, pride, violence, unjust anger, lust, or the myriad types of sexual perversions – God requires us all to repent.  Not only that, he has called believers in Jesus to teach others that we all must turn from our sins and believe in him.  On the one hand, Christians must call out all sin, including, but never limited to, homosexual behavior, since all sin keeps us from God.  On the other hand, when society experiences a tidal wave shift in thinking on a particular issue – in this case, homosexuality – it is perfectly reasonable, and should be expected, that Christians will respond.  The questions for Christians are: How am I responding?  Humbly or arrogantly?  With love or condescension?  And how much time am I focusing on this?  Is there a lack of balance?

One other thing to keep in mind is the fact that every group has its “black sheep” who make life difficult for everybody else.  There are millions of Christians and thousands of churches.  Just looking at the mathematical odds, of course there are going to be Christians and churches doing and saying outlandish things.  This fact really should go without saying, and I would have liked to have not said it, but I think it is easily forgotten, or at least ignored.  It is simply unreasonable to judge Christianity by the rogues out there who are not in any way representative of the whole.

In summary, our modern culture has made homosexuality an issue by normalizing it more than any previous culture in history.  Anyone who disagrees is often labeled “backward” or a “bigot.”  Society has drawn “first blood” in this issue, and Christians have responded.  Unfortunately, some have answered to fire with fire, and this has raised the ire of the pro-gay movement even more.  Yet it must be understood that the Bible does condemn homosexual acts, and it would be a violation of the Christian’s conscience to sit idly by while others are saying it’s “okay.”  We must call sin, sin, yet do so with gentleness, respect, and humility, knowing that we too are sinners.  To do otherwise would be unloving.

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How Shall We Then COEXIST?

Scarcely a day goes by that I don’t see the popular “COEXIST” bumper sticker gracing the back of somebody’s car.  It usually accompanies other stickers of a similar ilk, but often stands alone.  I can’t help but wonder about the decision process of the folks who apply this sticker to their bumper.  There seems to be a couple of possibilities:

  1. They simply want people of differing views to get along without violence.  There is no pronouncement of religions being all the same, or of some desire to see a one-world religion.  It is primarily a view of peace.
  2. They want a world of peace and understand that the best way to accomplish this is to promote the view that there is no religion that is better than any other.  Not only war, but any kind of verbal disagreement is seen as the enemy.

Before weighing in on which is the more likely true message, here’s how the website http://www.coexistbumpersticker.org describes the meaning of the sticker and its purpose:

The letters that spell coexist use different religious symbols to represent the different religions. Here are the letters used and what religion they are for.

C – This is a crescent moon that represents Islam

O – This is the peace symbol or pagan/Wiccan pentacle.

E – It is the male/female symbol or a scientific equation.

X – This is the Star of David and represents Judaism.

I – It is a pagan/Wiccan symbol used.

S – This is a Chinese yin-yang symbol.

T – The cross is used to represent Christianity.

Now that you have been enlightened to the coexist bumper sticker meaning, you can see how it is designed to promote peace and coexistence among different people, no matter what your religion is.

Many people don’t think that this is a good idea, but if you think about it, when people start to coexist with each other, the problems in the world will become less. If you believe that coexistence is a good idea, then this could be the right type of sticker for you to add to your vehicle.” (emphasis mine)

While the makers of the bumper sticker promote the message in a non-threatening and winsome way, there’s good reason to think they have in mind a message more in line with (2) than (1).  The line I’ve italicized betrays this: “when people start to coexist with each other, the problems in the world will become less.”  While the statement on the surface seems innocuous enough, when we consider what it takes to accomplish a lessoning of the “problems in the world” we see that it cannot merely refer to physical or verbal fighting – there are many, many other things wrong with the world: hunger, disease, racial inequalities, environmental issues, etc.  With each religion and/or philosophy comes a differing view about how to approach each problem.  And some problems are viewed as worse than others based upon the particular worldview examining it.  For instance, a New Age person might view environmental issues as the most pressing problem of the day, since in that worldview the earth is all we have and we must treat it (or, her, as the case may be) with much care.  On the other hand, some Muslims (and some Christians, I’m sorry to say) don’t really care about these issues at all.  With such divergent worldviews, it’s a pipe dream to imagine universal agreement on fixing the world’s problems.

With that line of reasoning as our base, let’s think about this for a second.  There’s only two ways, theoretically, to bring about peace and harmony among all peoples, and to cure the world’s ills.  In one, the realization must emerge that only one way is correct.  When the masses understand this, harmony will ensue since there will be a common belief system, and with that common worldview will come a common purpose and outlook.  In the second, the realization must emerge that either there is no true religion or philosophy, or that all religions and philosophies lead to the same ultimate goal, or god.  This too leads to a common worldview and purpose and outlook.

Guess which view the COEXIST crowd is most likely to espouse?  The first is intolerable, since having only one way is viewed as narrow and bigoted.  It almost goes without saying that you would be hard pressed to find someone with the COEXIST bumper sticker holding this first view.  The second must be the choice.  But with the second comes the view that true peace and coexistence can only take place once religion is relegated to the realm of non-importance.  After all, it is supposed, any claims on religious truth leads to discord, and disagreement is not harmonious.

Compare the message with the famous song “Imagine” by John Lennon:

Imagine there’s no Heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Lennon’s song has become something of an anthem for the New Age worldview.  It lays out in strikingly unambiguous words what it takes to achieve true peace, true oneness.

But the Christian who holds the Bible as the infallible word of God, and Jesus as the only way of salvation, will understand the COEXIST message in a different way.  There will only be true harmony when every knee is bowed to the one true and living God.  Yet this doesn’t mean that we cannot “coexist” in a more biblical sense.  Here are some guidelines:

  1. As Jesus commanded, we should love our neighbor (i.e., everyone – cf. Mt. 5:44-47)
  2. While we may disagree with the views of others, and may even engage in discussion and debate, we must do so “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pt. 3:15).
  3. We must seek to “live at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18; cf. Heb. 12:14).
  4. We must pray for a peaceful existence with all people (2 Tim. 2:1-2).
  5. We must do good to all people (Gal. 6:10)
  6. We must understand and teach that biblical coexistence is not about differing belief systems; instead, it is about divergent peoples coming together under a common belief, namely that Jesus is the Messiah who died for sins and rose from the dead.

What we must not do is compromise our message.  If Jesus truly is the Messiah, we must preach it – yes, with respect and gentleness – but also with clarity and boldness.  True love for all people demands nothing less.

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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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