Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Apologetics

WHY RELIGION?

 

 

4.2.7

Van Gogh, Man Reading the Bible

In the opening chapter of his book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, the late and controversial New Atheist author Christopher Hitchens made the remarkable assertion that “people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon.”  He then concluded, “Religion poisons everything” (emphasis his).

To most people this sounds ridiculous.  Jesus taught His followers to love others, while the atheists Stalin and Mao slaughtered millions.  It is hard to see how the world’s problems can be remedied by getting rid of the divine Lawgiver and Judge.

But leaving Christopher Hitchens aside, who really needs religion? Why even bother with it?  Let’s face it: in our modern materialistic society few people pay much attention to religion.  To them it is some silly thing that a few people need, mostly older “church ladies.”  The rest of us can get along perfectly well without ever darkening the doors of a church building.  Or so we think.

The fact of the matter is that there are good reasons why religion exists.  As human beings we must all ultimately face the great existential questions of life: Who are we?  How did we get here?  Does life have any meaning and purpose?  What makes the difference between right and wrong?  And then there is the awful reality of death.  Why do we die?  What happens to us after we die?  Do we simply cease to exist, or does some afterlife await us?

The modern materialist never bothers with these questions – his life is filled with the Internet and TV.  He has more urgent and pressing matters to occupy his attention: What’s for dinner tonight?  What’s going on this weekend?  Who’s going to win tonight’s game?  And then he is totally unprepared for death when it finally comes.  But the ultimate questions will not go away; they are lurking there for us, and we cannot ignore them forever.

And then there are some people who try to come up with other solutions to life’s big questions.  Scientists and philosophers try to come up with alternative explanations of reality.  Psychologists try to come up with non-religious solutions to life’s perplexing problems.  Ordinary people turn to sex, sports, politics, money, or alcohol and drugs to fill the void and ease the pain.  But it is all in vain.  The questions are still unanswered (or the proposed answers are unconvincing); the problems still remain.

God is the missing piece of the puzzle.  What makes us different from animals, the reason we are capable of rational thought and moral judgment is because we were created as human beings in God’s image.  Life has meaning and purpose because we were created by God for a specific reason and we have a divinely appointed destiny to fulfill.  Justice and morality are figments of our imagination: they exist by virtue of divine decree.  And there is the possibility of life after death.

In the end atheism has nothing to offer but a meaningless, purposeless existence in an amoral universe followed by the cold silence of the grave.  There has to be more to life than that.

We were created by an intelligent Supreme Being and live in a universe fashioned and ordered by Him.  Our very lives depend ultimately on Him.  We can understand life only in terms of the creative purpose of Him who made us.  “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth . . . so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being . . .” (Acts 17:26-28; NKJV).  Ultimately we are accountable to our Creator for what we think and do.

That is why we have religion.

“For thou hast created us for thyself, and our heart cannot be

quieted till it may find repose in thee.”

St. Augustine, Confessions, I.1

WHAT IS MAN?

 

6072

 

One of the greatest riddles in modern thought involves the most intimate of all questions: what is man?  One would think that if we knew anything at all we would what we are – we would know ourselves.  And yet in modern secular thought we are largely a mystery to ourselves.

The problem is that the question of man’s identity is closely tied to the question of man’s origins.  Most modern thinkers believe that we are the product of evolution, a blind, purposeless natural process.  To them there is no such thing as “Intelligent Design.”  But this has created a dilemma for the modern thinker.  On the one hand it has led some to try to explain human behavior in terms of pure biology – we are physical organisms, and our thought processes are purely the result of brain chemistry.  But certain other thinkers, most notably Existentialist philosophers, try to argue that we exist as autonomous individuals, and are thus free to define ourselves as we please.  We exist first and acquire and “essence” or identity as we go through life and interact with other human beings.

But both of these viewpoints represent a radical departure from traditional Western thought.  The ancient Greeks sensed that there was something special about man, that we were rational beings and not mere animals.  We are self-conscious.  We have a sense of right and wrong.  We communicate with each other through language.  And we are conscious of our own mortality.  The purpose of education, moreover, was to help us reach our full potential.  But that, in turn, implied that there was a kind of ideal humanity that we should all strive to become – a sound mind in a sound body.

But human behavior itself is problematical.  We have a sense of what is right, but often we do what is wrong.  There are character traits that we admire and others that we detest.  But why?  Animals do not think that way.  Clearly we are not mere beasts and animals.  But how did we become so different?

The biblical answer is that we were created by God to be special, but then fell from our original state of innocence and became corrupt.  “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’  So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:26,27; NKJV).

There are several significant things about this passage.  First of all the existence of man is the result of a prior conscious decision on God’s part.  God first conceived of the idea of “man” (‘adam) and then brought him into actual existence.  In other words, contrary to Existentialist thought, man’s “essence,” his defining characteristics, preceded his existence.  And this, in turn, means that man must conform to a divinely ordained purpose.

Secondly, what makes mankind so special is that we were created in the “image” and “likeness” of God.  There is some way in which we bear a resemblance to God himself.  Exactly what this is is not defined in the text, but the text does go on to say that man is to exercise control over the earthly creation (“let them have dominion over the fish of the sea,” etc.).  This suggests that man functions as God’s vice-regent here on earth.

This is both humbling and uplifting at the same time.  David could look at the starry heavens and exclaim “What is man that You are mindful of him, / And the son of man that You visit him?” (Ps. 8:3,4)  On the one hand man is just a mere speck in the vast expanse of the universe.  But then David goes on to reflect on the special position that man occupies in the creation: “For You have made him a little lower than the angels, / And You have crowned him with glory and honor” (v. 5 – the word translated “angels” could also be translated “God” – NASV or “heavenly beings” – ESV).  David then goes on to say “You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; / You have put all things under his feet . . .” (v. 6) – the animals of land, sky and sea.   Certainly mankind occupies a special place in God’s creation!

But man sinned and fell – he rebelled against God and gave himself to all sorts of passions and vices.

“The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men,

To see if there are any who understand, who seek God.

They have all turned aside,

They have together become corrupt;

There is none who does good,

No, not one.”

(Ps. 14:2,3)

What this means is that the human race, as it exists today, is a twisted perversion of what God originally created.  We fall far short of the ideal humanity.  What is involved in salvation, then, is the restoration of the original ideal – of God’s image in man.  “. . . since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him . . .” (Col. 3:9,10).

What all of this means in practical terms is that we have purpose and meaning in life – we were created for a specific purpose and were designed to fulfill a specific role.  And thus there is a specific goal and ambition that we should have in life: to become the kind of human beings that our Creator intended when He made us.

This explains the paradox of the human condition: we sense that we are more than just animals, but that we are not what we should be.  Our inward sense of things is correct, and is confirmed by the revelation that God has given us in His Word.

Man, then, owes his special dignity to the fact that he was created by God in His image.  But that means that we can find happiness and fulfillment in life only by submitting to His will, but becoming the human beings that He intended us to be.

THE FOLLY OF SECULARISM

 

4.2.7

Grant Wood, American Gothic

i

The world has changed.  The world has changed dramatically, in fact, just during the course of my own lifetime.  The world in the 1950’s and 1960’s looked a lot different than it does today.

Back then most children grew up in stable, two-parent families, raised by their own biological parents.  They knew who their fathers were.  Dad was the breadwinner; mom stayed home and took care of the kids.  People had a sense of right and wrong.  They assumed the existence of a Supreme Being and believed that there were such things as moral absolutes.  People were expected to be polite and courteous, and to look presentable in public.  Profanity was confined to the barnyard.  And there were certain things that one simply did not do – such as cheat on one’s spouse, for example.  People would talk about such things as character, honor, integrity and duty.

Yet today we scarcely hear of such things.  It is assumed that self-interest is what drives human behavior.  Hardly anyone thinks any longer in terms of the common good.  People are out to “game the system,” and their concept of right and wrong is based on what they can get away with.  What happened to change things so dramatically?

In a word, the answer is secularism.  We have pushed God out of our lives, act as though He didn’t exist, and are suffering the consequences.  Young people today come from broken homes, are educated in a thoroughly secularized public school system, and are face with a business culture that is focused exclusively on the corporate bottom line.  Consumerism is the reigning mentality of the day.  But what is conspicuously absent today is religion.  Most churches today are made up primarily of senior citizens, and the majority of millennials are classified as “nones.”

Secularism amounts to practical atheism.  It is not that the existence of God is openly denied, but rather that He is simply ignored.  And the practical consequences of secularism are virtually the same as those of outright atheism.  It becomes virtually impossible to answer the great existential questions of life.  Why do we exist?  For particular reason or purpose.  What makes the difference between right and wrong?  It is all a matter of personal opinion.  What happens to us after we die?  Who knows?

There have been philosophers who have wrestled with the questions, but without coming up with any satisfactory answers.  (Just ask philosopher B what he thinks of philosopher A.)  But for the common, ordinary man who has never read Nietzsche or Sartre, life is a fruitless attempt to find meaning and fulfillment in the fleeting pleasures of life.  One can see the results in the expressions on their faces: the anger and hostility, the bitterness and despair.

What it all comes down to is man’s rebellion against God.  God is our Creator.  He has given us life and health, strength and vitality, and has placed us on a habitable earth.  And yet we have pushed Him out of our thoughts and lives.  But we can never find meaning and purpose in life, we can never find lasing happiness and fulfillment, until we return to our Creator and submit to His will.  We gain by giving; we win by surrendering.  We can reach our full potential only by being what God wants us to be.  “For thou hast created us for thyself, and our heart cannot be quieted till it may find repose in thee.”  (Augustine, “Confessions, I.i).

WITHOUT HOPE AND WITHOUT GOD

 

 

 

 

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893

One of the most tragic comments ever written about a group of people is found in Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.  There, writing to a church made up largely of Gentile converts, Paul reminded them “that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12; NKJV).  It is a vivid description of the world without Christ.

It must be remembered that before the coming of the gospel this was the condition in which most of the human race found itself.  God’s dealings with the human race were largely confined to one small group of people – the nation of Israel.  Thus Israel was uniquely in a position to know something about God and about His purposes in history.  He had made a promise to their ancestor Abraham, and that promise gave them hope – hope for a better tomorrow.

But where did that leave the rest of the human race?  They were “strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”  The “covenants of promise” refers to the various covenants that God had made to Abraham and his descendants the Israelites.  The covenants included promises from God, and the promises gave Israel hope – the confident expectation that God would make things better in the future.  But the Gentiles had none of this.  Theirs was a dark and unpromising world, filled with toil and hardship, strife and conflict, with no hope for a better future.  What you so was pretty much what you got.

Moreover, the Gentiles were “without God in the world.”  They worshipped gods, of course; they were polytheistic.  But their “gods” were very much like themselves – only they lived longer.  What the pagan Gentiles had no concept of was a single, all-powerful Supreme Being, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  And this affected them psychologically.  Without God it is nearly impossible to find meaning and purpose in life.  We simply exist as an accident of nature, left to struggle to survive on our own.  For a while we might convince ourselves that we are doing well – we have jobs and houses and cars and boats.  But does anyone else really care about us?  Does it really matter in the long run?  And what happens when things turn bad?  What do we have then?  We are left with nothing.

You can see it on people’s faces.  Some look sad and depressed; some look bitter and cynical; others are just plain angry.  Few smile and few look happy.  They have eaten the bitter herbs of life without God.

As human beings we can find meaning and purpose, happiness and fulfillment, only by returning to our Creator.  We were created by Him for His purposes, and life was meant to function a certain way – His way.

Our sins stand as a barrier between us and God, and we must find forgiveness on the basis of Christ’s atoning death on the cross.  We must go to God in repentance and faith, and then we can find a meaningful relationship with our Creator.  In his letter to the Ephesians could go on to refer to Isa. 57:19: “And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near”; and went on to say, “For through Him [i.e., Christ] we both have access by one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:17,18).

Does the Christian experience difficulties in life?  He most certainly does.  But he takes his burdens to God in prayer; he comes in complete submission to the Father’s will, and he trusts in God’s unfailing providence.  He finds fulfillment in life by serving God and helping others.  And in the end he dies in the hope of eternal life.  It is a hope worth living for.

THE SHACK: The Book and the Movie

 

Review:

The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity

Wm. Paul Young

Windblown Media, 2007

248 pp., pb.

 

Currently there is playing in movie theaters around the country the motion picture version of The Shack, a novel by Wm. Paul Young.  The book is largely a treatise on theology set in the form of a novel.  It has stirred controversy largely because the theology is unorthodox, to say the least.

The central figure in the book is Mackenzie Allen Phillips, or “Mack” as he is more generally known.  Mack experiences an unbearable tragedy when his youngest daughter Missy is murdered by a serial killer while on a camping trip.  Mack is overcome with grief and bitterness, until one day he receives a mysterious note in the mail inviting him to return to the shack in the woods near the place where Missy disappeared.  There he has an encounter with God, although not in the sense in which we would normally think of it.  And this is where the theological problems begin.

What Mack encounters in the shack are the members of the Trinity.  But God the Father is presented as an African American woman, generally referred to in the book as “Papa,” while the Holy Spirit is represented as a woman of Asian descent.  Jesus, however, is more accurately portrayed as a Middle Eastern male.

Strictly speaking, of course, God is neither male nor female.  But the Second Commandment’s prohibition against graven images is intended to prevent just such an attempt to portrait God in human form (Dt. 4:15-19,23,24).  Young, however, makes the various members of the Trinity out to be all too human – they are a bunch of chummy pals instead of an exalted Deity.

Much of what Young goes on to say in the book is a justifiable reaction against dead orthodoxy.  Church membership is a poor substitute for a real relationship with Christ, and knowing theology is not the same thing as knowing God himself.  But Young does not just reject dead orthodoxy; he rejects orthodoxy itself.  And instead of taking a fresh look at what the Bible actually says, he pretty much ignores the Bible altogether.  Young characterizes conservative theology as saying that “God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects” (pp. 65-66).

The main theme of the book is the age old question of how a good and loving God can allow evil into the universe.  To answer this question Young has recourse to the idea of human free will.  God is a God of love.  Love does not force or coerce anyone.  Evil is the result of man’s free will decisions.  At one point “Papa” tells Mack, “All evil flows from independence, and independence is your choice.  If I were simply to revoke all choices of independence, the world as you know it would cease to exist and love would have no meaning.  This world is not a playground where I keep all my children free from evil . . . If I take away the consequences of people’s choices, I destroy the possibility of love.  Love that is forced is not love at all” (p. 190).

Young insists that God calls us to have a personal relationship with Himself, and of course he is quite right on that.  But the basic flaw in Young’s argument is the assumption that love precludes the exercise of authority.  Young has Jesus telling Mack, “Have you noticed that even though you call me Lord and King, I have never really acted in that capacity with you? . . .To force my will on you . . .is exactly what love does not do . . .” (p. 145).  At another point Young has “Papa” telling Mack, “I am good, and I desire only what is best for you.  You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation or coercion, only through a relationship of love.  And I do love you” (p. 126).   “True love never forces” (p. 190).

This, in turn, leads Young to two patently unbiblical conclusions.  The first is that God has already forgiven the entire human race.  At one point in the book “Papa” tells Mack that through the death and resurrection of Christ “I am now fully reconciled to the world.”  Mack asks in disbelief, “The whole world?  You mean those that believe in you, right?”  Papa replies, “The whole world . . .I have done my part, totally, completely, finally.  It is not the nature of love to force a relationship but it is the nature of love to open the way” (p. 192).  At another point in the book Christ is pictured as saying that those who love Him come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but “I have no desire to make them Christian” (p. 182).  But the apostle John, who certainly knew the historical Jesus better than Wm. Young, said that personal faith in Christ was a necessary condition of salvation.  “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36; NKJV).  And faith in Christ ordinarily requires that we publicly identify ourselves with Him in baptism (Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:3,4; Gal. 3:26,27; I Pet. 3:21).

The other major problem with Young’s theology is his conclusion that in a genuine relationship with Christ there are no rules which one must obey.  Young has the Holy Spirit telling Mack, “The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules” (p. 197).  “There is no mercy or grace in rules, not even for one mistake.  That’s why Jesus fulfilled all of it for you – so that it no longer has jurisdiction over you” (p. 202).  “In Jesus you are not under any law.  All things are lawful” (p. 203).  Then “Papa” adds, “Honey, I’ve never placed an expectation on you or anyone else” (p. 206).  But the real Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15; cf. vv. 21,23,24; 15:10).

A film adaption of a book, of course, will focus on action as opposed to dialogue, and as a result the film version of The Shack only briefly touches on the more controversial points of theology.  The film comes across as a deeply moving story of tragedy, love and redemption.  But beneath the surface are the more disturbing implications that are explicit in the book.

In the final analysis Young has left us with a universe in which there is no final justice – in the end God punishes no one and forgives everyone, regardless of what they have done.  We are to forgive and not to judge because God forgives and does not judge.  Evil is an unavoidable consequence of man’s free will.  But the apostle Paul tells us that we are not to retaliate against those who have done us wrong precisely because God will judge.  “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give placed to wrath, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19; quoting Dt. 32:35).

Young pretty much sets aside practically everything that the Bible says about God’s transcendence, sovereignty, holiness, justice and wrath, not to mention the Last Judgment and eternal punishment.  Yet our theology must be based on what the Bible actually says.  While we may be able to infer certain things about God from His creation, and while we possess within ourselves a certain knowledge of right and wrong, the only way we can really know about God is through the written revelation which He has given us.  He himself must tell us what He is like and what He expects from us.  We have no other way of knowing about His attributes or His will, let alone the plan of salvation.  Hence our theology must be based on a careful study of Scripture.  Anything else is pure fantasy and self-delusion.

Yes, it is certainly true that a genuine relationship with God is a relationship of love.  God loves us, and we are called upon to love Him with all our heart, soul and might.  And at the practical level salvation involves the Holy Spirit living within our hearts and transforming us from the inside out.  But it also remains true that in a genuine relationship with Christ He is our Lord and Master and we are His servants.  And to that end the Bible is filled with commandments and exhortations to obey God.

It is easy to see why so many people find The Shack appealing.  It comes across as an invitation to a warm, loving and forgiving relationship with God.  But it is a siren call into the mire of false teaching, and should be avoided by anyone desiring a genuine relationship with Christ.

 

 

AMERICA’S PROBLEM IS SPIRITUAL – I

173

Paul at Athens

          Currently there is a great deal of hand-wringing going on over the thoroughly unpalatable choices the two major parties have given us this election cycle.  The Democrats, of course, have done what everyone expected them to do – nominate a more or less secular liberal.  What is shocking is what the Republicans have done – nominated someone who is not particularly conservative, has no prior government experience, and whose personal moral life is far from exemplary.  Nevertheless, the argument is being made in some quarters that Christians have a moral obligation to vote for Donald Trump because Hillary Clinton must be kept out of the White House at all costs.

But Hillary Clinton is not the problem.  Both she and Trump are symptoms of a much deeper problem, the spiritual and moral decay of American society.  In a democracy politicians merely reflect public opinion.  The real question is, what has brought public opinion to the point at which both major parties have nominated candidates who have serious ethical problems?

The problem starts with secularism.  In Romans chapter 1 the apostle Paul gives us a vivid picture of a morally decadent society.  And, as he makes it clear, the process of decline begins with secularism.  Paul says that “although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God . . .” (v. 21; NKJV).  Paul is undoubtedly describing Graeco-Roman society as he saw it in his day.  It was pagan and polytheistic.  But how can it be said that “they knew God”?

The answer is that the knowledge of the existence of God is available to every human being.  “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (v. 20); or, as we might better translate it, “From the creation of the world . . . are perceived in the things that are made, being understood . . .”  Proof for the existence of God is literally as plain as the nose on one’s face – look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself one basic question: why is your face symmetrical?    The order and structure of nature could not have happened by accident, through a blind, impersonal, purposeless natural process, and the Darwinists would have us to suppose.  There has to be an intelligent Supreme Being behind it all.

Why, then, are there so many people who deny it?  Why were there so many polytheists in Paul’s day?  So many secularists and even atheists today?  Paul says they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (v. 18).  They “became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (v. 21).  They do this “in unrighteousness” – there is something in the human personality that does not want to acknowledge God or act righteously.  And so a process of rationalization sets in – we construct whole philosophical systems to explain away the truth.  And probably in modern life the turning point came with the publication of The Origen of Species in 1859, an attempt to explain nature apart from God.  This has become the foundation of modern secularism.  And the basic premise of secular education is that we can understand reality apart from God.  We can study creation and completely ignore the Creator.

The result?  “Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves” (v. 24).  Perhaps no more terrifying words are found in Scripture: “God gave them up . . .”  God has abandoned us to our vices.  We are living in gross spiritual darkness.  The word “uncleanness” is commonly used in the New Testament to refer to sexual immorality.  It is perhaps no accident that that the Supreme Court’s decision on prayer and Bible reading in the public schools was followed by “the Sexual Revolution.”  We have separated sex from love and as a result find ourselves unable to sustain stable relationships with the opposite sex.  We now have a whole generation of young people who do not know what a stable home life is, and they are paying a terrible toll personally and emotionally.

And why has this come upon us?  Because they “exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.  Amen” (v. 25).  In other words, there is an element of willful rebellion in all of this.  Why do we concoct patently false explanations of reality?  Because we don’t want to acknowledge God.  When confronted with the evidence for the existence of God, we deny it.  And thus secular society lies under the judgment of God.

Thus our root problem is a spiritual one.  What we are witnessing today is the result of decades of secularism and materialism.  Public morality has eroded and our family structure has collapsed.  Democrats have been morally lost for several generations now What is shocking about the present state of affairs is that now the Republicans are prepared to join them.

WHICH RESTROOM?

DSCN1039

Here we are, in the midst of a presidential election cycle, and what should become one of the most hotly debated issues of the day, but who should be allowed to use which restroom?  The State of North Carolina recently passed a law requiring individuals to use the public restroom that corresponds to the gender listed on their birth certificates.  The Obama administration responded by threatening to cut off all federal aid to North Carolina.  At the same time the administration sent out a directive to school districts all over the country on how to avoid discrimination against transgender people.

It should be noted that the policy adopted by North Carolina is perfectly reasonable.  If we understand things correctly, individuals in North Carolina who undergo sex reassignment surgery can have their birth certificates changed to reflect their new gender identities.  And in the case of a public restroom there has to be a means of identifying a person’s gender.  To allow anyone to use any restroom he pleases is to defeat the whole purpose of having separate restrooms.  It especially puts women at risk of becoming victims of voyeurism.

Contrary to the way the issue is often portrayed in the press, it is not a simple matter of some people identifying with one gender or the other.  Gender Identity Disorder is just one in a whole range of sexual behaviors.  Some people are homosexuals; some are bisexual.  Some are transvestites; some engage in sadomasochism.  There are even some persons who identify as “trans” who are still attracted to the opposite biological sex.  How, then, does one identify a person as one gender or the other?  Where does one draw the line?

There is, of course, a formal psychological definition of “Gender Identity Disorder.”  But once the diagnosis has been made what is the most appropriate treatment?  Logically one could go either one of two ways: either change the body to conform to the mind or change the mind to conform to the body.  The approach favored by the LGBT community is the former: undergo hormone treatment or even sex reassignment surgery to make the body conform more closely to the person’s psychological identity.  But surgery cannot make the person a perfect specimen of the opposite sex: some of the old features are bound to remain.  This puts the transgender person in an even more awkward position: he does not conform entirely to either gender.  He is neither truly male nor female.

But an even deeper problem remains: what caused the gender identity disorder in the first place?  There is no hard evidence that the underlying cause is biological or hereditary.  Rather the available evidence seems to suggest problems in early childhood socialization.  And if that is the case surgery is unlikely to cure the underlying problem, and will leave the “trans” as frustrated as ever.  Is this really a wise or humane way to handle the situation?

Why, then, would we attempt surgery?  Part of the problem is that modern secular psychology does not have a clearly defined value system, and thus has difficulty defining social norms.  Psychiatrists are inclined to think in terms of the patient’s own inward sense of well-being.  Since most people do not want to change the way they think, the therapists tries to find a way to change or cope with circumstances.  In the case of a “trans” person that means transitioning to the opposite sex, enabling the person to live out his fantasy.

But most likely there is a philosophical agenda here as well – the idea, borrowed from Existentialism, that we exist as autonomous individuals and that we should be free to define our own “essence” or identity (“existence precedes essence”).  Seen from that perspective social norms are artificial and oppressive.  This perspective was taken up by the Feminist movement and from there spread to the LGBT community.  It is no longer a matter of “fitting in”; rather it is a matter of “being accepted.”  Hence the calls for “diversity” and “inclusiveness.”

The underlying premise is atheism – that there is no such thing as Intelligent Design, that we live in a meaningless, purposeless universe, and thus are free to define ourselves any way we please.  But this creates a huge problem for society as a whole.  If each individual is free to define himself any way he wishes, and should not be required to any particular gender role, who will assume the duties and responsibilities of marriage and parenthood?  Marriage, by its very nature, is confining and demands self-sacrifice.  And marriage is the very foundation of society.  Without it there is no stable environment in which children can grow and mature.  Human society as a whole depends on the interaction between the sexes, and society simply cannot function in the absence of standards and norms of some kind.

“So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27; NKJV).  We do not, in fact, live in a meaningless, purposeless universe – it was created by an intelligent Supreme Being.  Try as we might we cannot escape God’s created order.  We ignore God and His purposes for us at our own peril.

Are we witnessing the collapse of Western civilization?

THE MESSAGE OF GENESIS 1

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Albert Bierstadt, Yosemite Valley

 

The Bible opens with a direct challenge to the thinking of sinful, rebellious man: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1; NKJV).  Fallen humanity tries to deny this basic fact, for fallen man does not want to see himself accountable to a single, all-powerful Supreme Being.  And yet the only way to make sense of reality is to see it for what it really is: the result of intelligent design, the creation of God.

This point cannot be emphasized too strongly.  It is the whole difference between secular and Christian thought.  The creation narrative in Gen. 1:1-2:3 pictures God as systematically structuring reality so that it functions as a harmonious whole.  Human civilization depends on our discerning the rationale that is behind it all.  Science, government and the arts all presuppose a rational order in the universe, a logical structure to reality.  But where does this structure and order originate?  The ancient Greeks struggled with this question; but the revelation vouchsafed to ancient Israel was clear and unequivocal: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  It is this alone that makes human life possible and purposeful.

As we work our way through the narrative we see God systematically ordering creation.  At each step of the way we are told, “And God saw that it was good” (vv. 4,10,12,18,21,25), and in the end it says “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good” (v. 31).  The universe was not created in a haphazard, helter-skelter sort of way – it was purposefully structured to function harmoniously.  The practical implication of this is far-reaching.  Everything in life has purpose and meaning – it was designed to function a certain way, and can achieve fulfillment only as it functions the way it was intended.  This carries with it moral implications as well.  We have mandate to make things work the way they are supposed to work, which means that it is morally wrong to misuse or abuse, to hurt or to harm others.

The culmination of creation is man himself.  Once the environment has been carefully structured and prepared, God created man to inhabit it.  And since man’s relationship with God is the central theme of the Bible, our text goes into some detail about what is expected of humans.

First of all, we are told that man was created “in the image of God’ (vv. 26,27).  This is what sets man apart from all the rest of creation – this is what makes him unique among all created things.  Only man has the mental and moral capacity to create civilization, and no theory of evolution can account for this.  In the Bible there is a fundamental difference between man and beast.

Moreover we are told that “male and female He created them” (v. 27), and “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply . . .’” (v. 28).  In other words, gender differences are God-ordained.  The text does not elaborate on what these differences may be, and it is very easy to fall into stereotypes.  Nevertheless there are undeniably physical and psychological differences between the sexes, and they were largely put there by God Himself.  Human society was meant to function on a male / female dynamic, and we only create problems for ourselves when we attempt to ignore or override it.

And then God says, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (v. 28).  This is what is sometimes referred to as “the cultural mandate” – the idea that man is not just simply to live a hunter / gatherer existence, but to engage in agriculture and industry.  God created us to be workers and managers, to make improvements on our environment, and to create prosperity for our communities while preserving our resources for our posterity.

Here then is the difference between the Bible and both ancient pagan thought and modern secular thought.  According to the Bible the universe was created by God, and as a result everything has meaning and purpose.  Our goal in life should be to fulfill God’s purpose for us, to live our lives the way He intended us to.  Modern man, however, wants to declare His independence, to live his life his own way, to decide for himself what is the best course of action to take.  But try as he might to ignore God’s will he must still live in a universe created by Him.  When we begin denying the existence of moral absolutes and even of universal truths, we have destroyed the foundations of civilization itself.  To deny God is to render human society dysfunctional.  In the end reality is inescapable, and we only hurt ourselves when we refuse to do things God’s way.

A YOUNG EARTH?

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Chemung Formation, Rte 287, near Tioga, PA

How old is the earth?  Generations of Christians have looked at their King James Bibles and seen 4004 B.C. as the date of creation.  That figure was arrived at by Archbishop Ussher, who determined it largely by adding up the numbers in the genealogies.

Doubts, however, began to arise with the advent of modern geology.  In the early 19th Century the French naturalist Georges Cuvier arrived at the conclusion that the different levels of sedimentary rocks indicated successive periods of geological time, and that the earth’s history was marked by a number of catastrophes.  His theories were further developed by other geologists.  Today the most commonly accepted scientific view is that the oldest rocks are at least 500 million years old.

So which is right?  Does science conflict with Scripture?  If God is the author of both Scripture and nature, the two, when interpreted correctly, cannot disagree.  That being the case there are two fundamental questions that must be answered: 1) What can science really prove?, and 2) What does the Bible actually say?

On the first question it must be stated unequivocally that the science cannot prove the Theory of Evolution.  Science is based on observation and experiment.  But it is impossible for the human observer to go back hundreds of millions of years to see fish evolving into reptiles, or apes into humans.  The presence of different forms of life at different times does not prove that the one evolved from the other.

Moreover, when we look at what we can actually observe today, it is apparent the evolution does not take place.  What we see today is that all living things occur in scientifically identifiable species, and that these species reproduce according to well defined laws of heredity and genetics.  While gene mutations certainly do occur, in order for them to be beneficial they would have to occur within the context of the evolution of an entire organic system.  A change in the eye is useless unless it is accompanied by a corresponding change in the central nervous system.  Thus the process of natural selection acts as an inhibiter of evolution, not a facilitator.  And evolution from a lower form of life to a higher one would be virtually impossible – it would have to involve the creation of whole new genes and chromosomes.

Thus evolution is a “scientific fact” that has never been directly observed, and has never been reduplicated in a laboratory.  At best the evidence for it is both circumstantial and fragmentary.

But with geology it is a little different.  Here where I sit in northern Pennsylvania there lies, 5,000 feet beneath my chair, the celebrated Marcellus Shale formation.  And the whole reason natural gas can be extracted from the shale is because it was originally formed from organic material.  At some places in the county there are up to 15,000 feet of sedimentary rock.  This simply cannot be accounted for by a single geological catastrophe.

While the interpretation of much of the geological evidence is certainly open to debate, a few things seem fairly obvious.  When we look at the fossil record and later bone deposits it becomes evident that the dinosaurs lived prior to the Ice Age, and that the Ice Age mammals after the dinosaurs had become extinct.  Moreover human beings were alive during the Ice Age, but not before.  Thus there had to have been successive geological ages, with plant and animal life in existence before the appearance of man upon the earth.

So what, then, does the Bible say?  Several different approaches have been taken to understand the creation account in Genesis 1 in the light of the geological record.  One approach is to challenge the findings of modern science, and to argue that the earth really was created only 10,000 years ago or so.  This generally takes the form of Young Earth Creationism.  The opposite approach is to argue that while Genesis 1 may be describing the creation of the earth, the six days of creation should not be taken as a literal sequence of events, but rather a poetic description of moral truths.  This is sometimes called “The Literary Framework Hypothesis.”

Among those who take the Bible literally two other approaches have been taken.  One is the “Day / Age Theory,” in which each of the six days of creation is taken to mean a geological age.  And then there is what is generally known as the “Gap Theory,” which postulates the existence of an unspecified length of time between Gen. 1:1 and 1:3, thereby allowing for long geological ages in between.

So what does Genesis 1 actually say?  First of all probably most conservative, biblically orthodox scholars would argue that the Bible does not purport to be a scientific textbook on geology.  It is primarily concerned about man and his relationship with God.  Descriptions of nature are mostly incidental and take the form of the perception of the ordinary observer on the ground.  Thus when the Bible says that the earth stands still (Ps. 93:1; 96:10; 104:5) and that the sun moves across the sky (Ps. 19:4-6), this is not meant to be taken as a literal statement in favor of a geocentric view of the solar system.  Thus the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy noted that “The truthfulness of Scripture is not negated by the appearance in it of . .  phenomenal descriptions of nature” (Article XIII and Exposition).  This does not mean, however, that Genesis 1 does not describe real, historical events.  Man’s relationship with God takes place in space and time, and therefore the Bible relates real facts of history.

Gen. 1:1, then, states that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (NKJV).  The word translated “created” (bara’) is only used in the Bible of God’s activity and signifies creation out of nothing.  The phrase “the heavens and the earth” is a comprehensive term signifying the universe as a whole, and thus the phrase “in the beginning” would refer to the very beginning of the universe itself.

Verse 2 then states, “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of the God was hovering over the face of the waters.”   The word translated “without form” has probably been mistranslated in our English versions.  The Hebrew word (tohu) is a noun, used here as a kind of emphatic adjective.  In passages such as Isa. 40:17,23 and 49:4 it is used in parallel with words that mean “non-existence” or “nothingness.”  In Jer. 4:23 the exact same phrase as is used in Gen. 1:2 (tohu vevohu) is used to describe the situation on the land following God’s judgment, and there it obviously does not mean a formless mass.  And in Isa. 45:18 the word tohu is used on contrast with a word that means “for a habitation.”  The correct translation of Gen. 1:2, then, should probably be “and the earth was emptiness and waste,” which is the way that it is translated in both the Latin and German versions.  What the phrase does not mean, is that God began by created a formless chaos, but rather that the earth was an uninhabitable waste.  The text then goes on to say that “darkness was on the face of the deep” and that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

Significantly, though, the text does not tell us how these conditions came to be or how long they lasted.  Did God create it that way initially?  Or did it come to be that way as the result of a disaster or controversy?  The text does not say.

The text then proceeds with a description of the six days of creation.  That these “days” cannot mean long geological ages is established by the fact that the word “day” is defined in the text itself: “So the evening and the morning were the first day” (v. 5).  The statement occurs right after God separates “day” and “night,” and verses 14-18 describe the sun and moon as “ruling over” day and night.  Thus what is clear here are “days” that closely approximate our 24 hour days, thus ruling out the “Day / Age” theory.

Our conclusion, then, is that the Gap Theory does the most justice to the text of Scripture and the geological evidence.  Interestingly recent geological discoveries have put the whole question in a new light.  It is now widely recognized that what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs was a comet or asteroid that crashed into the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.  It is estimated that the impactor was six miles in diameter, burrowed into the ground in less than a second, and displaced 48,000 cubic miles of sediment!  Shockwaves would have triggered earthquakes and volcanic eruptions around the globe, and a giant megatsunami would have inundated what is now the U.S. Gulf Coast.  Dust particles in the atmosphere would have blocked out sunlight for up to a year.  Might not Gen. 1:2 be describing the scene immediately following the impact?  It would also explain why light would have appeared in the First Day of creation, but the sun not until the Fourth.  The sky was blacked out, light gradually appeared as the dust settled, and finally the sun and moon became visible.

We conclude, then, that the “Gap Theory” is the most plausible explanation of Genesis 1.

Related posts:

Velikovsky’s Case for Catastrophism

Morris and Whitcomb Fifty Years Later

A QUESTION OF DIVINE JUDGMENT

Jonathan Cahn on site

Jonathan Cahn on site

Review:

The Harbinger: The Ancient Mystery that Holds

the Secret of America’s Future

Jonathan Cahn

FrontLine, 2011

253 pp., pb.

Is America tottering on the brink of disaster? Author Jonathan Cahn thinks so, and in this thought-provoking book he presents disturbing evidence that America is, indeed, ripe for divine judgment.

Originally from a Jewish background, Cahn leads a mixed congregation of both Jews and Gentiles in Wayne, NJ. Thus it is perhaps only natural that he would be struck by the similarity between the events of 9/11 and Old Testament prophecy. As a result he has given us a fascinating and intriguing read.

The book reads like a Dan Brown novel, but Cahn insists that what he says in it about America is literally true. (I found the book in the Christian fiction section of our local Barnes & Noble.) His argument runs along three major lines. First, he notes the strong parallels between the events of 9/11 and an obscure prophecy found in Isaiah 9:10. The ancient (northern) kingdom of Israel, sometimes also known by the name of its capital city, Samaria, had long since fallen into religious apostasy and moral decay. Finally, around 733 B.C. it was invaded from the north by the powerful Assyrian army, which captured several districts around the Sea of Galilee. The Israelites apparently reacted to the situation in a spirit of defiance, and Isa. 9:10 summarizes their attitude this way:

“The bricks have fallen down,

But we will rebuild with hewn stones;

The sycamores are cut down,

But we will replace them with cedars.” (NKJV).

The northern kingdom of Israel was finally carried off into captivity in 722 B.C., and disappeared from the stage of history.

Cahn goes through this verse, word by word in the Hebrew original, and points out the astonishing similarities with the events of 9/11. Among other things it turns out that there actually was a sycamore tree at Ground Zero, which was subsequently moved and replaced by a conifer tree on the same site. (Cahn tells us that the Hebrew word ‘erez, usually translated “cedar” in our English versions, could refer to any member of the pine family, although this is debatable.)

More remarkably, however, on at least two occasions leading public officials actually quoted Isa. 9:10 as an expression of America’s own determination to rebuild. The day after 9/11 the Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Tom Daschle, quoted the verse on the Senate floor. Three years later, on the anniversary of 9/11, vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, speaking to a Congressional caucus, quoted the same verse again. Apparently neither man was aware that the verse, taken in its context, was actually a rebuke for the attitude thus represented!

The second line of evidence explored by Cahn has to do with the concept of “shemitah,” a Hebrew word that means “remission” or “release.” Under Old Testament law every seventh year was to be kept as a “Sabbath year,” in which the land was allowed to lie fallow. On the last day of the Sabbath year there was supposed to be a “shemitah,” a release of debts in which all the debts of poor people would be forgiven. The Hebrew calendar runs on a different system than our Gregorian calendar and the last day of the Hebrew year would, of course, be the day before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah generally falls sometime in September or early October on our calendar. As it happens, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack there was a major stock market crash on Sept. 17, 2001, which just happened to be the last day of the year on the Jewish calendar. Then, seven years later, on Sept. 28, 2008, which was the last day of the Jewish calendar for that year, the stock market crashed again, ushering in the Great Recession. On both days fortunes were lost. Was it just a coincidence?

The third line of evidence cited by Cahn involves the inauguration of George Washington as President, which took place in Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan on April 30, 1789. In his Inaugural Address Washington invoked the blessing of God on the newly formed government. Then, having delivered his speech, the newly sworn-in president led a procession to nearby St. Paul’s Chapel for an Episcopal prayer service. The chapel is, in fact, located adjacent to what is now Ground Zero. Cahn compares this to the ancient temple in Jerusalem, the focal point of worship in Israel, which was destroyed and rebuilt several times during its history.

Cahn does not presume to tell us what exactly will happen next, nor does he set dates. His main concern is to warn us that all the signs point to our being a nation under God’s judgement. He ends the book with an evangelistic appeal. Considering the fact that the book has already sold over 2 million copies and was on the New York Times best seller list, we certainly hope that it will make an impact.

Cahn has certainly given us something to think about, but I think that he may have overstated his case a bit. While the similarities between ancient Israel and modern America are striking, there are nonetheless important differences. Chief among them is the fact that America does not have the kind of formal covenant relationship with God that ancient Israel had (unless the language of the last paragraph of the Declaration of Independence be construed as an implied covenant). Under the New Covenant, the people of God is the sum total of born-again believers, not a given nation-state. Likewise there is no covenantal obligation for America to practice “shemitah,” although there is a general moral obligation for every human society to relieve the distress of the poor among them. Moreover there is no state church here in the U.S., and hence to central shrine that serves as the focus for national worship. Thus, while the similarities with the shemitah and the temple are interesting, it is hard to know exactly what they prove.

And yet, having said that, there are several things that undoubtedly are true. God is in sovereign control of the universe, and nothing happens by accident. He is holy and righteous, and holds all men accountable for their actions, Jew and Gentile alike. God once destroyed the entire world with a flood because He “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually’ (Gen. 6:5). On another occasion He rained down fire and brimstone of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. Were not the San Francisco earthquake of 1984 and Hurricane Katrina (Aug. 29, 2005) awesome demonstrations of God’s power and judgment?

The fact of the matter is that we are a nation under God’s judgment, and we would do well to take the warning signs seriously. For that reason we can thank Jonathan Cahn for at least getting the conversation started.