Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: August, 2014


    To view the course of current events one might think that the tide of history is running against Christianity. The widespread acceptance of the Theory of Evolution, a thoroughly secularized educational system, rampant consumerism and the breakdown of public morality all bode ill for the future of religion. Christianity, it would seem, is about to become a thing of the past.

    Or will it be? There are several problems with this scenario. First of all, the present course of modern society is simply unsustainable. Contemporary American society is plagued with chronic social, economic and political problems. Our political and economic system cannot survive social chaos. Something will eventually have to give way to something else. But what will it be? Dictatorship? Islam?

    Secondly, nothing in modern science or philosophy changes the basic facts of human existence. The rational order of the universe, and our uniqueness as human beings still exist in spite of Darwin’s attempts to deny both. We are still confronted with the basic questions of justice, human rights and morality, and we must still face the fact of our own mortality. Science has no answers to these questions. Whether we admit it or not, we must still function in a universe created by God.

    But more to the point, the course of history was predicted in the Bible. Far from being the demise of Christianity, recent developments are ultimately all a part of God’s eternal plan. The stage is very well being set for the grand finale of human history. The world is ripe for divine judgment.

    Right at the very beginning Jesus foretold the end. In the second part of the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 Jesus comes to describe a final time of persecution and distress. He mentions an “the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet” (v. 15; NKJV). This is an apparent reference to a supreme act of sacrilege that will take place during the end time, similar to the one committed by the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes when he desecrated the temple in Jerusalem in 167 B.C. Jesus, however, does not elaborate on the exact nature of the sacrilege except that it will be “standing in the holy place” – perhaps an idol of some sort erected on the temple mount in Jerusalem.

    At that point “the Great Tribulation” will ensue. It be both sudden and severe. There will be no time for escape, and “unless those days had been shortened; no flesh would be saved: but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” (v. 22).

    Again there will be false messiahs and false prophets, at least some of whom will claim to be able to perform miracles (v. 24). Jesus specifically warns us about them ahead of time, so that we will not be taken in by them. The emphasis throughout the passage is on the importance of remaining faithful to the true Messiah.

    This, then, if followed by the Second Coming (Parousia) of Christ. It will be sudden, dramatic, and visible (vv. 27-30). It will be as quick as a flash of lightning, and will be accompanied by celestial omens. The human race will see Him and mourn.

    In must be pointed out that it is at this point, “immediately after the tribulation of those days” (v. 29) that the Rapture of the church will take place. “And He sends His angels with a great sound of a trumpet and will father together His elect from the four winds, from one corner of the heavens to another” (v. 31). It will be noted that they are referred to as “His elect,” implying that they especially belong to Christ – they were redeemed by His blood. They are, in fact, the church.

    This, then, is what will happen. But when it will happen? On this question Jesus makes two important points. The first is that there will be “signs” that will tell us when the end is near. Jesus compares these signs to a fig tree (vv. 32,33). When the leaves sprout, the harvest is near.

    But then Jesus goes on to qualify His answer. “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in the heavens, but My Father only” (v. 36). Thus there is a certain amount of uncertainty surrounding the exact timing of the Second Coming, and that uncertainty is deliberate, for it leads us to an important practical lesson. Jesus compares the Second Coming to the situation that existed in the days of Noah. The wicked were taken by surprise and were completely unprepared (vv. 37-39). So, too, it will be at the end time. People will be going about their daily routines, completely unaware that anything extraordinary is about to happen. And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, the Lord will return. It is at this point that the saints will be raptured, and the wicked left to perish (vv. 40,41).

    This, then, brings us to the main practical lesson of the Olivet Discourse: we must live every day as though it were our last day here on earth. We must live every day in the expectation that our Lord could come at any time, and that we will see Him face-to-face. Thus eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) has a bearing on how we live our lives now: we are to be ever watchful and always ready (vv. 42-44).


    When Sam Harris published his best-selling book The Moral Landscape in 2010, he subtitled the book “How Science Can Determine Human Values.” His basic argument is that science can define human well-being, and therefore can provide a basis for “human values.” But how well does this claim hold up in actual practice? The record suggests something quite different. Science, it turns out, can be held accountable for some of the most egregious human rights abuses of modern times. Science, in fact, is almost directly responsible for racism.

    The plain fact of the matter is that “race” originated as a scientific concept. The biblical view is that “He [i.e., God] has made from one blood every nation of men . . .” (Acts 17:26; NKJV). In other words, all human beings share a common ancestry, and thus we are all basically alike. We are all sinners and therefore we all need salvation.

    However, as westerners came into contact with different peoples around the world, they could not help but be struck by the differences between peoples, both physical and cultural. And thus some began seriously to question the biblical premise. The physical differences between Europeans, Asians and Africans were so great it was hard to see how they could share a common ancestry. There soon developed a debate among scientists over “monogenism,” the idea that we all descended from the same pair of ancestors, and “polygenism,” the idea that the races each had a different ancestry and thus were not related to each other. Some of the leading figures of the 18th Century “Enlighenment,” such as Voltaire, were convinced polygenists. Soon there were elaborate schemes to classify the different varieties of humans, led by the famous Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus.

Carolus Linnaeus

Carolus Linnaeus

    However it was the attempt to understand the cultural differences scientifically that led to outright racism. The problem is that science, by its very nature, must understand reality in terms of natural causes. There is no room for such a thing as a human soul, let alone a role for divine providence. The working assumption of science is that there must be an underlying natural cause for human behavior. And the two most common “scientific” explanations for human behavior are biology and economics.

    It is the biological explanation that concerns us here. It was almost inevitable that scientists would try to link cultural differences to biological ones. Linnaeus himself identified five different “varieties” of human beings, and associated each with distinct personality traits. He then ranked the varieties in order. Likewise Georges Cuvier tied culture to race. Before long scientists were taking careful measurements of skull capacity in order to determine relative intelligence. In the U.S. Samuel George Morton amassed a huge collection of skulls upon which he took careful measurements, and rated each race according to intelligence, with Caucasians on the top and Negroes on the bottom. By the 1850’s authors such as Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau in France and Josiah C. Nott in America were writing books on race that were used to provide a scientific justification for slavery, among other things.

    Charles Darwin added a new twist to the discussion. On the one hand he argued that all human beings share a common ancestry. On the other hand he asserted that the races were all evolving, and he introduced the idea of natural selection. This suggested that some adaptations may have been more successful than others, and that some races might even be doomed to extinction.

    Whatever Darwin’s intentions may have been, his theory soon inspired Social Darwinism and Eugenics. One of the leading proponents of the former was Darwin’s contemporary and admirer, Herbert Spencer; while a leading advocate of the latter was Darwin’s own cousin Francis Galton.

    By the late 19th Century the “social sciences” such as anthropology, sociology and psychology proliferated. It was also the heyday of western imperialism. A growing number of writers in both Europe and America began asserting that even among Europeans there was an “Aryan race” that had a special gift for government and military conquest. In Germany the prominent naturalist Ernst Haeckel was an ardent Social Darwinist, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an Englishman who emigrated to Germany (he married Richard Wagner’s daughter) became an outspoken advocate of Aryan superiority. Thus when the Nazis came to power in 1933 they could look back on a century and a half of “scientific” research to justify their claims to racial superiority.

    Paradoxically it was a U.S. Southern Presbyterian theologian and defender of slavery, James H. Thornwell, who saw through all this scientific pretense. Speaking in 1850 at the dedication of a church building in Charleston, SC for the use of black people, Thornwell declared: “It is a public testimony to our faith, that the Negro is of one blood with ourselves, that he has sinned as we have, and that he has an equal interest with us in the great redemption. Science, falsely so called, may attempt to exclude him from the brotherhood of humanity. Men may be seeking eminence and distinction by arguments which link him with the brute; but the instinctive impulses of nature, combined with the plainest declarations of the Word of God, lead us to recognize in his form and lineaments, in his moral, religious and intellectual nature, the same humanity in which we glory as the image of God. We are not ashamed to call him our brother.” (Collected Writings, Vol. IV, p. 403).

    What this whole affair demonstrates are the limitations of science. Science is based on observation and experiment, and when it comes to the physical sciences, such as chemistry and physics, the scientific method works just fine. We are all indebted to science for the many physical comforts we enjoy. But when it comes to the so-called “historical sciences,” historical geology and historical biology, we run into a problem. The scientist cannot go back in time hundreds of millions of years and directly observe what happened. The best he can do is formulate a hypothesis based on the bare physical evidence that exists today. But even if he can demonstrate that a given scenario is hypothetically possible, he can never prove that that is what actually happened. No one has ever observed evolution take place, nor has anyone reduplicated it in a laboratory. Therefore it is hard to see how evolution can be considered “science” in the truest sense of the word.

    When we come to the “social sciences” we encounter more problems. Here we are dealing with intangibles. One cannot put human thoughts and emotions under the microscope. Has anyone ever observed an “id” or a “superego”? And as noted earlier, science is compelled to look for naturalistic explanations for phenomena. But when it comes to human behavior the scientist is forced to make a critical assumption, viz., that the human personality is a function of brain activity. But if personality is a function of brain activity then it is inevitably tied to race. And since the races are different from each other, then so must also be the human capabilities of each. This is why science fell into the trap of racism.

    Science can only look at what it can see, but it cannot see a human soul. It cannot see the full human potential. It can see what people have been in the past; but it cannot typically see what they might become in the future. Nor can science make moral judgments. Thus the attempt to understand human beings scientifically led to the disastrous results of the 20th Century.Adolf Hitler-Der Fuehrer-34

    The universe is far greater than what the human intellect can comprehend. We are ultimately dependent upon a source outside of ourselves for information about the meaning and purpose of life, the difference between right and wrong, and whether or not there is life after death. Science is helpless in the face of infinity. After many centuries of scientific endeavor we have barely scratched the surface. Our Creator must tell us who we are, how we got here, and where we are ultimately headed. That is why we have the Bible.



Francisco de Goya: The Third of May, 1808

Francisco de Goya: The Third of May, 1808

 One might hope that the preaching of the gospel would be met with universal acceptance. After all, what could be more welcome than the “good news” of salvation? But that, unfortunately, is not the situation, as Jesus pointed out to His disciples.

    In a remarkable passage of Scripture, Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, recorded in Matthew chapters 24 and 25, Jesus told how history would unfold. He was in Jerusalem with His disciples shortly before His arrest and crucifixion. And as He laid out for them what the future holds He painted a grim picture indeed. We are engaged in a spiritual war, and as the Christian goes through life he is beset with trials and difficulties on every hand.

    One problem confronting the Christian is spiritual impostors. “Take heed that no one deceive you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many” (Matt. 24:4,5; NKJV). Down through history there have been a variety of cult leaders, some of them even claiming to be the Messiah Himself. Sadly, some of them have attracted large followings, misleading countless sincere but naïve people.

    Then there is the external threat of war, political turmoil, and natural disasters. “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars . . . and there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places . . .” (vv. 6,7). Christians do not live in isolation from the rest of human society, and are inevitably affected by the turmoil around them. Yet in all of these things Jesus says “See that you are not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (v. 6). Indeed, all these things are merely “the beginning of sorrows” (v. 8). The word translated “sorrows” literally means “birth-pangs” (NASV) or “birth-pains” (NIV;ESV). The idea is that of labor pains that intensify as we get closer to the end.

    But then there is the specter of outright persecution. “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake” (v. 9). This is admittedly hard for American Christians to imagine. We have enjoyed the blessing of religious freedom for as long as we can remember, and it is hard for us to conceive of Christians being persecuted for their faith. Yet we are a historical anomaly. For most of the history of the church persecution has been the norm. Those who truly feared God and refused to conform to the prevailing social system were often subjected to arrest, imprisonment, torture, and even execution. Such, we are told elsewhere, is the lot of “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus . .” (II Tim. 3:12).

    What is especially sad, however, is what occurs inside the church itself during times of persecution. First of all there are those who will betray their fellow Christians. “And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another” (v. 10). The word translated “be offended” literally means “stumble” or “made to stumble.” Faced with persecution many within the church will be intimidated, renounce the faith, and turn on their former friends.

    In addition to this there is the threat of false teaching. “Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many” (v. 11). In some quarters today it is common to dismiss doctrine as irrelevant and unnecessarily divisive. Granted, some doctrine is irrelevant and divisive. But false doctrine poses a very real threat to the spiritual health and vitality of the church. It can only lead us astray from Christ and from doing His will. And the tragic victims of false teaching are the common, ordinary folk who are susceptible to deception.

    The effect of all of these developments is spiritual decline. “And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold” (v. 12). In times of social and cultural upheaval there is a rise in lawlessness. Established norms and standards disappear, and there is a disregard for truth. Sadly, this has a negative impact on the church itself. People cease to care about God. They neglect to seek His will. They become preoccupied with their own selfish aims and desires. The church falls into a state of spiritual apathy. Is this not an apt description of our own times?

    And what is the point of all of this? Jesus states I in verse 13: “But he who endures to the end shall be saved.” The word translated “endures” suggests holding fast under trials and sufferings. God has not called us to a life of ease. The Christian life is filled with trials and tribulations that put our faith sorely to the test. The true believer in Jesus Christ, however, endures to the end.

    In spite of all this the gospel goes forth, and people are saved. “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations . . .” (v. 14). While the gospel was eclipsed for a while during the Middle Ages, it reemerged during the Protestant Reformation. Gradually, in the 18th Century, the modern missions movement emerged and the gospel was spread throughout the world. By the late 20th Century Billy Graham was preaching to millions in every corner of the globe.

    History has unfolded, then, just as Jesus said it would. As the western world now turns its back on Christianity the world will soon be ready for the final drama – the final death struggle between good and evil, and the Last Judgment.



Parmigianino, The Conversion of Paul

Parmigianino, The Conversion of Paul


   Jesus once had a private interview with a distinguished rabbi by the name of Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, a court that sat in Jerusalem and tried cases under Jewish law. He was also a Pharisee, a member of a Jewish sect that was noted for its emphasis on tradition. And yet in spite of all these impressive credentials Jesus told him very bluntly, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3; NKJV). Why did He say that?

    As we have already seen, God has promised that “this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts . . . No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying ‘know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord . . .” (Jer. 31:32,33). In another passage God says “Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them . . .” (Ezek. 11:19,20). The kingdom of God will be a time of universal peace and righteousness. But we are all sinners by nature. In order for the kingdom to be realized on earth something must be done to the human heart.

    The heart, in the Bible, represents our innermost being, our innermost thoughts and emotions. The problem is that in our natural state the heart is wicked and corrupt. “The heart is deceitful above all things, / And desperately wicked; / Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). Or, as Jesus Himself put it, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matt. 15:19). This means that in order for the kingdom of heaven to be realized in our lives a change of heart must take place. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7).

    But what exactly is the new birth? What it is not is a mere change of attitude produced by natural means. It is rather a profound inward change wrought by the Holy Spirit. Those who have “the right to become children of God” are those “who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12,13).

    To understand the nature of the change that takes place when a person is truly born again one must first take a look at the psychology of an unconverted person, what he is like before he is born again. In Eph. 2:1-3 Paul says that we were once “dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience . . . ” He then goes on to describe the conduct that is typical of such people: “We all once conducted ourselves in the lust of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind . . .” (v. 3). In other words, we were motivated by self-interest, and as a result displayed a range of behavior that was often compulsive, anti-social, and self-destructive. These desires include not just the baser instincts for sex, drugs and alcohol, but also the more refined and socially respectable vices such as pride, ambition, greed and envy. But at the bottom of it all we were busy looking after “good old number one.”

    When a person is born again, however, he has the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of him. Paul, in another passage, makes a distinction between those who are “in the flesh” and those who are “in the Spirit.” ” . . . the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Rom. 8:7-9). And thus Paul could say in another place, ” . . . it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God . . .” (Gal. 2:20). This, in turn, means a definite break with the sinful attitudes and behaviors of the past: “And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24).

    What it all comes down to is psychology. The question we all have to ask ourselves is this: deep down in our heart of hearts, what do we want to do? Are we basically living for ourselves, and chafe under rules? Or do we genuinely love God and want to please Him in all that we do? Do we look forward to spending time with Him in prayer and personal Bible study, or do we view these things as tedious chores? When we pray and meditate do we sense that we are having real communion with Him? Are we actively looking for ways to serve Him?

    It is to be feared that there are many on the membership rolls of our churches who have never really been born again. They are in the church mainly for social and cultural reasons. It is the way they were raised; they have friends there; they like the music and the pastor’s nice, comforting homilies. But prayer is largely a meaningless exercise to them and the Bible is mainly a closed book. There is nothing particularly “spiritual” about their religious experience. And the moment it starts to cost them something personally to be a Christian they are gone.

    To return to Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” To know whether or not we have been born again is the most important question of all, for eternity hangs on the answer.


Jean-Francois Millet: The Gleaners

Jean-Francois Millet: The Gleaners

    When Jesus came He didn’t set up His kingdom right away – at least not in an earthly, visible form. This, then, raises some important questions: what exactly is the kingdom, and how will it come? To answer these questions Jesus told a series of parables.

    One of them was the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, found in Matthew 13:24-30, and then explained in verses 36-43. A man sows good seed in his field, but at night his enemy comes and sows tares among the wheat. (The “tares” are generally thought to be darnel, a weed that looks like wheat during the early stages of its growth.) The man’s servants ask him what to do, and he replies that they should let the tares and the wheat grow together until the harvest. Then the harvesters will gather the tares and burn them, and the wheat will be gathered into the barn.

    When asked by His disciples for an explanation, Jesus replied that “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man” (v. 37: NKJV). “Son of Man” is a Messianic title, taken from Daniel 7:13,14, which reads, in part, “And behold, One like the Son of Man, / Coming with the clouds of heaven! / . . . Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom . . .” In Matthew Jesus is evidently applying the term to Himself.

    The field, Jesus goes on to explain, is the world. The good seed represents “the sons of the kingdom” and the tares are “the sons of the wicked one” (v. 38). The harvest is “the end of the age” (v. 39). At that point “The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father . . . ” (vv. 41-43).

    Several conclusions may be drawn. First of all, the kingdom is present in one sense, but future in another. At this present time the “sons of the wicked one” and the “sons of the kingdom” exist side-by-side in the world. It is not until “the end of the age” (synteleia aionos) that the two are separated and “the righteous shine forth in the kingdom of their Father.” This latter phrase echoes the language of Daniel 12:3: “Those who are wise shall shine / Like the brightness of the firmament, / And those who turn many to righteousness / Like the stars forever and ever.” In other words, the earthly, visible manifestation of the kingdom will not appear until after the Second Coming of Christ: it is essentially future. And yet there is some sense in which the kingdom is already present among those who have already committed their lives to Christ. When the Son of Man sends out His angels, “they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend” (v. 41), suggesting that the kingdom is already present in a diluted form. This puts Christians in the peculiar position of living one reality while the surrounding world is practicing something entirely different.

    In its present form, however, the kingdom is not static by dynamic. In a couple of other parables Jesus compares the kingdom to a mustard seed which as a seed is very small but can grow to be ten or fifteen feet high (vv. 31,32). He also compares it to leaven which lies buried in the dough practically invisible to the naked eye, yet nevertheless exerts its influence throughout the dough, making it rise.

    The implication here is that the kingdom does not come all at once. It begins small and grows in size over time. Now is the time when “the word of the kingdom” (v. 19) is proclaimed and individual hearers respond. Some reject the gospel while others embrace it. Thus the kingdom currently exists as a spiritual reality among believers. When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom would come He responded, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed the kingdom of God is within you” (Lu. 17:20,21). This, it is suffices to say, was not what they had been expecting, and is no doubt one of the reasons why they rejected Jesus.

    Thus we are currently in the position of “already . . . not yet.” We can experience the spiritual blessings of the kingdom right now. When we repent and confess our sins, and place our trust in Christ as our Savior, the Holy Spirit comes and dwells within our hearts and produces spiritual life within us. But the full earthly manifestation of the kingdom must await the Second Coming of Christ. Until then we are called to remain faithful to Christ while living in the midst of a skeptical and sometimes even hostile world.