Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: September, 2014

THE MYSTERY OF LAWLESSNESS

    So far in our consideration of the events that will lead up to the Second Coming of Christ we have looked at the church. But what about the rest of society? What happens to them?

    Our text (II Thessalonians 2) mentions God sending “a strong delusion, that they should believe the lie” (v. 11; NKJV). It is significant that the definite article is used (the lie), suggesting that what is in view here is one particular lie. But which is it?

    The immediate context might suggest the “power, signs, and lying wonders” mentioned in verse 9 associated with the Antichrist. But it is also an undeniable fact that there is one particular idea that has radically changed the way most people think about reality and done more than anything else to turn people away from Christianity. That idea is Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution The Origin of Species gained rapid acceptance soon after it was published in 1859, and its impact on Western culture has been profound.

Charles Darwin in 1855

Charles Darwin in 1855


    John Dewey explained it like this: for over 2,000 years the Western mind “rested on the assumption of the superiority of the fixed and final” (“The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy,” 1910). A “species” was considered fixed and unchanging, and knowledge consisted of understanding the essence and purpose of things. But Darwin changed all of that. The very title of his book was provocative: a “species” had an “origin,” it was no longer fixed and definite, but is in a state of flux. “In laying hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency, in treating the forms that had been regarded as types of fixity and perfection as originating and passing away, the ‘Origin of Species’ introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion” (Ibid.). Earlier philosophers had thought in terms of purpose and destiny. “Purposefulness accounted for the intelligibility of nature and the possibility of science, while the absolute or cosmic character of this purposefulness gave sanction and worth to the moral and religious endeavors of man. Science was underpinned and morals authorized by one and the same principle, and their mutual agreement was eternally guaranteed.” But Darwinism “cut straight under this philosophy.” If Darwinism is true, “there is no call for a prior intelligent causal force to plan and preordain” organic adaptations.

    That being the case, according to Dewey, “philosophy forswears inquiry after absolute origins and absolute finalities . . .” The whole focus of philosophy changed from the pursuit of absolute values and universal truths to the concrete problems of temporal existence. New philosophies appeared: Pragmatism, Existentialism and Post-Modernism. Knowledge became personal and subjective. By the mid-Twentieth Century such leading intellectual figures as Dewey, Heidegger and Wittgenstein had given up on the idea of knowing universal truths at all.

    But what about morality? If morality is not fixed and determined by divine decree and knowable through revelation, what does determine it? There are two possible general answers. One is that morality is determined by society as a whole, and the other is that is entirely a private and personal matter. At first Western culture turned to the first solution. We were convinced that science and reason would lead us to correct conclusions, and that society could be ordered accordingly. This approach is sometimes thought of today as the essence of “Modernism.” There were two different versions of this: the Socialist one employed in the old Soviet Union, and the democratic / capitalist one favored in the U.S. But following the disclosures of the atrocities committed under Stalin, and the presence of racial segregation in the American South, followed by U.S. intervention in Viet Nam, widespread disillusionment with modern, “scientific” methods of organization set in. The younger generation turned to extreme individualism, rejected standards and norms of all kinds. “New Left” theoreticians such a C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse became the prophets of the age. The “youth rebellion” of the ’60’s was followed by the sexual revolution and then by radical feminism. Kids “turned on” and “dropped out.” The results of this Post-Modern, relativistic way of thinking has been catastrophic. Today, ironically, corporate America is stronger than ever. But there is scarcely any semblance of stable family life left at all.

    Our text tells us that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way” (v. 7). The triumph of this “lawlessness” is now nearly complete. One might ask, why would God allow such a thing to happen? The answer is so that He will be absolutely just when Christ returns to judge the world. The text goes on to say that “they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved” (v. 10), and that therefore they are to “be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (v. 12). To know the truth and deliberately reject it leaves us utterly without excuse. We justly stand condemned before a holy God. Our apostasy and lawlessness is the prelude to the end.

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THE GREAT APOSTASY

We are indeed witnessing dramatic changes in both American society and in the world at large. As we have seen, this is all consistent with how Jesus said history would unfold. But how will it all end?

    Jesus said that at the end of the age “there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matt. 24:21; NKJV), and then He would return to earth “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (v. 30). This is the climax of human history, and there are certain developments that will precede it.

    The apostle Paul, writing to the church in the ancient Greek city of Thessolonica, had told them that when Christ returns Christians will be “caught up together . . . in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (I Thess. 4:17). This appears to have caused some consternation among the Thessalonian believers, however, thinking that the event had already taken place.

    Paul went on to explain in a second letter that certain events would lead up to the Second Coming. “Let no one deceive you by any means; for the Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition . . .” (II Thess. 2:3). This “man of sin” is none other than the Antichrist.

    Tragically, what will precede the Second Coming of Christ will be a “falling away” or “apostasy” (Gk. apostasia). This suggests that many who had previously known the truth and in some sense had embraced it subsequently gave it up.

    The exact sequence of events is unclear, but the passage mentions that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (v. 7), and that “He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way.” The passage also says that “God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie” (v. 11).

    We must be careful here. Christians in nearly every era of the church’s history have been tempted to believe that they were living in the end times, and in a sense that is only natural. God wants us to see our lives in the context of redemptive history as a whole. But it would be a sore mistake (made by many in the past) to set a date for the Lord’s return when He Himself said, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, but My Father only” (Matt. 24:36). Nevertheless, given the scope and scale of the changes taking place in the world today it is hard not to conclude that at least some of this has taken place already.

    “The mystery of lawlessness is already at work.” If there was ever a time in Western history when this was true it is now. The case can be made that a critical turning point in Western history came with the French Revolution. For a thousand years or more an established order had existed in Europe, but that order was suddenly and violently overturned when King Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette were beheaded on Jan. 21, 1793. Their executions ushered in an age of revolution, “democracy,” and chronic instability. It is truly “the mystery of lawlessness” at work.

    In conjunction with this “mystery of lawlessness” the text makes a cryptic reference to something that is restraining the lawlessness. What exactly this restraining influence is has been much debated. Paul tells the Thessalonians that they “know what is restraining” (v. 6), and then adds “He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way” (v. 7). What is intriguing is that in the Greek a neuter participle is used in verse 6 (“what is restraining”), but a masculine one is used in verse 7 (“He who now restrains”). This has led some to suppose that the restraining influence is none other than the Holy Spirit, and I am inclined to agree. The word “Spirit” (Pneuma) is grammatically neuter in the Greek, but as the Third Person of the Trinity the Spirit must be considered as a personal being. Hence either a masculine or neuter pronoun could apply.

    In times of revival, when the power of the Holy Spirit is felt more strongly, a morally restraining influence is felt throughout society. But when the church goes into spiritual decline, the enemies of religion grow bolder, and evil flourishes. It has been at least 150 years since the United States has experienced a general revival. The church today is spiritually weak and powerless, and moral decay becomes worse by the day. All the evidence suggests that “He who now restrains has been taken out of the way.”

    But the church is still here, you say. How could the Holy Spirit have been taken out of the way? Our answer is that while the Holy Spirit may still be present, How power is only latent. We do not see Him convicting the world “of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:7-11). Indeed, these things are so rare today that many cannot even conceive of what it must have been like. We have grown accustomed to “church growth” achieved through purely human means. We have come to think of conversion as something that is a matter of human persuasion – of marketing and psychology. But as long ago as the late 19th Century the famous American evangelist D.L. Moody made this suggestion: “I think that if we search, we will find something in the Church grieving the Spirit of God; it may be a mere schism in the church, it may be some unsound doctrine; it may be some division in the Church” (Secret Power, 1881, p. 108). He then went on to make this remarkable statement: “But some say, if we take that standard and lift up high, it will drive away a great many members from our churches. I believe it, and I think the quicker they are gone the better. The world has come into the church like a flood . . .” (Ibid., p. 109). He then went on to conclude, “. . . if the churches will but confess their sins and put them away, and lift the standard instead of pulling it down, and pray to God to lift us all up into a higher and holier life, then the fear of the Lord will come upon the people around us” (p. 111). Tragically, Moody’s warning has gone largely unheeded.

    Sad to say the church itself is a part of the apostasy. There is still time for revival, yet the church continues on its downward spiral. Unwittingly we are leaving the path open for the arrival of the Antichrist. What a sad commentary on the state of the modern church!

WHAT IS A JUST WAR?

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  In my last blog post I suggested that it might be proper, under certain circumstances, for the United States to go to war with the so-called “Islamic State.” But that raises a question that has vexed Christian theologians for centuries: when is a war ever justified?

    On the one hand Jesus’ own teaching on the subject seems to be unequivocal: Christians are forbidden from taking vengeance. “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44; NKJV). But does that preclude the government from taking up the sword? Or Christians from serving in the military?

    Jesus’ remarks must be understood in their broader context. Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount He made it clear that He was not out to subvert the essence of the Old Testament law. “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (5:17). And what did the Old Testament law say? “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13; Dt., 5:17). The word rendered “kill” in the old King James Version is the Hebrew word “ratzach,” and is used as a technical term to refer specifically to murder or manslaughter – the private taking of human life. Most modern versions render the commandment “You shall not murder.” Thus does not preclude, however, capital punishment. Exodus 21:12-17, for instance, lists several capital crimes and uses the Hebrew phrase “mote yumat” (“put to death”) to describe the punishment. The civil magistrate, in the exercise of his office, is to administer justice on the principle of “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Ex. 21:23-25). In other words, what is called for here from the civil magistrate is strict retributive justice.

    The basic principle behind all of this is stated in Gen. 9:6:

        “Whoever sheds man’s blood,

         By man his blood shall be shed;

         For in the image of God

         He made man.”

Taking the life of a fellow human being is not like deer hunting. Human beings are made in the image of God. Therefore murder is tantamount to sacrilege. There is something especially sacred about human life. But if life has been taken, if murder has been committed, then it must be punished by human means: “By man his blood shall be shed.” This is why murder is morally wrong, but capital punishment is not.

    Significantly this statement was made in the context of the “Noahic Covenant,” a solemn agreement God made with Noah in the aftermath of the Great Flood. What had occasioned the Flood was the fact that “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11 – interestingly the Hebrew word for violence is “chamas,” similar to the name of the radical Islamic Palestinian group – the word can also refer to non-physical forms of aggression as well). After the Flood, God having told Noah and his family to be fruitful and multiply, He then promised never again to destroy the whole earth by flood. The covenant was made with Noah, his descendants, “and every living creature” (Gen. 9:10). In other words, the covenant is universally binding upon the entire human race. When we commit murder we invite divine judgment upon ourselves.

    Nor does anything in the New Testament negate what the Old Testament says on the subject. In Romans 13 Paul says that the civil magistrate is “God’s minister” who “does not hear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (v. 4). Far from being inherently evil, civil government has been ordained by God.

    It was in this context that medieval theologians worked out the just war theory. According to Thomas Aquinas, in order for a war to be just it must meet three conditions: 1) it must be authorized by a duly constituted sovereign; 2) there must be a just cause – some crime committed by the enemy; and 3) there must be a rightful intention – the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil. War should not be the pretext for cruelty, oppression or hatred.

    The basic idea is that human life is sacred, and that blood by shed only when absolutely necessary. All steps should be taken to avoid the unnecessary loss of life. We must avoid killing non-combatants and prisoners of war. For these reasons weapons of mass destruction are immoral by their very nature and should never be used in actual combat.

    It must be said that most of the wars in which the United States has been involved probably do not qualify as just wars. We have been blessed to have two wide oceans on either side of us and friendly neighbors to the north and south. Only once in the past century has a foreign power launched an attack on our soil (not counting 911, which was by a shadowy terrorist group). In most cases we have intruded into foreign conflicts in we had no direct interest, and too often there has been no clear beneficial result. Will not “the righteous Judge of all the earth” (Gen. 18:25) hold us accountable for the blood that was shed?

    The president has now embarked on another military campaign in a conflict in which we were not directly attacked and in which it is hard to see how his strategy could work successfully. The situation is liable to be fraught with unforeseen consequences. May God have mercy on us all.

A WORD OF CAUTION TO PRESIDENT OBAMA

Official_portrait_of_Barack_Obama

    In the aftermath of two beheadings of American journalists by the radical group that styles itself “the Islamic State,” there is a growing clamor for President Obama to take action. The president’s Republican critics maintain that he did not act resolutely enough to end the civil war in Syria and that he withdrew too quickly from Iraq. Now even some of his fellow Democrats are starting to complain that he lacks vision and resolve.

    Personally I believe that a president needs to be cautious in such situations. Whether or not to go to war is literally a life or death matter. War inevitably entails the loss of human life, as well as the massive destruction of property. Moreover the outcome of a war is by no means certain. Once the fateful decision has been made to commit troops to combat the outcome is determined by unpredictable events on the battlefield; and it is by no means certain that the “good guys” will win. In war might makes right.

    No president should embark on a military adventure unless he has an objective that is both clearly defined and attainable. In the Middle East we have neither. The United States, strictly speaking, has no interests in the region aside from access to oil at fair market prices. In terms of higher humanitarian goals it is unlikely that American-style democracy will ever take hold there. A bad regime is often replaced by an even worse one. In the meantime our meddling in the region has only garnered us a reservoir of ill-will.

    That being said, there is no doubt that the so-called “Islamic State” poses a very real threat to the western world, and we must be prepared to act when the time is right. The trick is to make sure we have a clear pretext to do so. If we act preemptively we make ourselves the aggressors and give our enemies a pretext to attack us. What we need to do is to stop our bombing campaign in Iraq, and declare publicly that the United States has no quarrel with Islam, and no interest in interfering in a sectarian conflict between opposing factions of Islam. But then we need to make clear, in coordination with our NATO allies, that a terrorist attack sponsored by the “Islamic State” against any NATO member will be considered an act of war and that we will respond accordingly. Then, should such an attack actually materialize the president should ask Congress for a declaration of war. And once war is declared our objective should be the complete defeat of the Islamic State. That, of course, will require “boot on the ground.”

    Assuming that the war is brought to a successful conclusion a political solution will then have to be found. If the various factions comprising the Islamic world still cannot cooperate with each other we may have to carve out a new Sunni Arab state in the parts of Syria and Iraq that we will have occupied..

    It is ironic that the current crisis is happening on the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. By the middle of August most of Europe was at war, and by the time it was all over four years later 10 million men had died in combat and four empires had disappeared. Was it worth it? Just over twenty years later Europe, indeed the whole world, was engulfed in an even greater war, indeed, the worst war in human history.

    Yes, the president needs to weigh his options carefully. And let those who are urging a rush to war think about the possible consequences.