Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

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WHAT IS GOD LIKE? – I

 

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Paul in Athens

 

But if God exists, what is He like?  What can we know about Him?

On this point it is important to emphasize that we must go by what the Bible says on the subject.  God must reveal Himself to us.  While we may be able to infer a few things about Him from the physical creation and have a vague sense of Him in our individual consciences, for the most part He must tell us what He is like.  We have no other means of knowing about Him.

The Bible, of course, has a great deal to say about God, and we cannot possibly summarize it all here.  However the apostle Paul did give a brief summary in a speech he delivered before an assembly of Greek philosophers in Athens recorded for us in Acts 17:22-31.  The Greeks at that time were pagans and had a polytheistic religion.  They worshiped idols in temples.  The irony of it all, of course, is that the idol had been made by human beings.  People were bowing down and worshiping lifeless images that they themselves had made.

Paul began by pointing out that God is the Creator – He “made the world and everything in it’ (v. 24; NKJV).  Because of that He is “Lord of heaven and earth.”  Since He has made it all, and it would not have existed if He had not created it, it all rightfully belongs to Him.  Moreover our continued existence depends upon Him: “He gives to all life, breath, and all things” (v. 25), and “in Him we live and move and have our being” (v. 28).  Once created we do not exist independently of Him.  Life itself is a gift from God, something He can take from us whenever He pleases.

In other words, Paul’s audience had gotten it all backwards.  God is not dependent upon us; we are dependent on Him.  He exists independently of us, not the other way around.  And that being the case, strictly speaking, God does not need anything from us.  “Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything” (v. 25).

What all of this means is that we owe Him our love and devotion, our worship and our obedience. God is the Creator of the entire human race, “in the hope that they might grope for Him, and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (v. 27).  God wants us to “grope for Him.”  The picture here is that of being in the dark, not being able to see, and groping with one’s hands to find the object being sought.  And this is a picture of our relationship with God.  We cannot see Him physically; His presence is not obvious.  But we must search for Him, and keep searching until we find Him.  He will not reward us for our apathy and indifference.  We must make the effort to seek Him by praying and meditating on His Word, and then we will “find Him” – we will receive salvation and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts comforting and guiding us.

The irony is that “He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we move and have our being” (vv. 27,28).  We are surrounded by God, our very existence depends on Him. Yet most of us do not know Him.  The tragedy of it all!

God, then, calls us to have a relationship with Him; but in order for that to happen we must make a conscious effort to seek Him.  He loves us; He wants us to love Him.  But we must never forget that it is not a relationship between equals.  He is infinitely greater than ourselves.  We owe everything that we have to Him.  We should bow down and worship Him in love, humility, and devotion.

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THE BIBLE: A BOOK LIKE NO OTHER BOOK

 

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Codex Vaticanus

The extraordinary claim that the Bible makes for itself is that it is nothing less than the inspired Word of God himself.   “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God . . .” (II Tim. 3:16; NKJV).   “. . .for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21).  God spoke to Moses directly.  Others saw visions or dreamed dreams.  The Holy Spirit descended on others and they spoke as they were led by the Spirit.  The words that they spoke and wrote down were words in human languages, but the thoughts, concepts and ideas came directly from God himself.  The prophets themselves did not always understand the things that God was revealing to them.  They had to study their own inspired to try to understand what God had revealed through them (I Pet. 1:10-12).

But how do we know that the Bible’s claim for itself is true?  How do we know that the Bible really is God’s Word?  What about other sacred books – the Hindu Vedas?  The Koran?   The Book of Mormon?  Are all of them “inspired”?  Or are all of them, including the Bible, merely human productions?  Why would the Bible be divinely inspired and not the others?

First of all, the Bible is different from the others, and in ways that make it unlikely to have had a purely human origin.  It was composed over a very long period of time (at least a thousand years), by a large number of different authors writing in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek).  And yet in spite of all of the diversity on their backgrounds there is a remarkable unity of thought in the book as a whole.  There is only one God, the Creator of heaven and earth.  He is absolutely just and holy.  Mankind is fallen and sinful, but God is merciful and compassionate.  Sin must be atoned for.  And in the fullness of time God sent His Son into the world to die for our sins and make salvation available to the entire human race.

And then there is the phenomenon of fulfilled prophecy.  Events were predicted before they happened and they subsequently came to pass.   The New Testament writers in particular could cite a large number of Old Testament prophecies regarding the coming Messiah, and note that they were fulfilled in Christ.  The prophecies are remarkable enough that they could not have been fulfilled by accident.

But what is even more remarkable is the nature of the message itself.  On the one hand it presents a high standard of moral conduct.  Men are exhorted to love God and each other.  Pride, lust, greed, envy, jealousy and anger are all condemned.  In the end all human beings fall short of God’s standards.

Most books of human origin, however, glorify man.  They either excuse, rationalize or even condone behavior that is compulsive, anti-social and self-destructive.  And in most books of human origin there is at least one human hero who distinguishes himself above all others.  In the Bible, however, there are no human heroes – all men fall short of God’s standards.  The Bible views human life from God’s perspective, and this suggests that He is the true Author of it.  No human being could write a book of this apart from divine inspiration.

And then there is the manifest wisdom contained in the Bible. Philosophers and psychologists have propounded theory after theory, only to have them discredited over time.  But countless multitudes of ordinary people have found the Bible “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).  It provides guidance and gives solace to those who follow its directions.

But in the end it often comes down to a matter of personal conviction.  When the message grips your soul, makes you feel your awful guilt before a holy God and then gives you the hope of eternal salvation in Jesus Christ you almost have no choice but to believe.  It has to be God’s Word – nothing else could bring such conviction.

The Bible is God’s Word, then, and we owe it to Him to study it, meditate upon it, and apply it to our lives.  It is the key to understanding life, and our lives must conform to its principles fi we are to find any lasting happiness or fulfillment.  Our ultimate loyalty must be to God himself, and all human teachings, laws and doctrines must be evaluated in the light of His Word.

Too often today young people who were raised in Christian homes are merely reacting to their upbringing.  But what is often missing is a direct relationship with God himself.  But it is not a matter of “your pastor said this” or “your parents taught you that.”  Rather it is a matter of what God himself has said, and in order to know that we must each individually dig into His Word and seek to understand what it says.  Our parents, pastors and teachers are all fallible human beings.  God’s Word is the final authority.  By that we stand or fall.  May God give us the grace to search, understand and obey!

THE GAP THEORY REVISITED

 

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Sedimentary rock formation, Tioga Co., PA

 

Review:

Unformed and Unfilled: A Critique of the Gap Theory

Weston Fields

Master Books, 2005

245 pp., pb

 

In 1976 Weston Fields published his book Unformed and Unfilled: A Critique of the Gap Theory.  It is largely a rebuttal of an earlier work by Arthur C. Custance entitled Without Form and Void, which defended what is known as “the Gap Theory.”  Fields’ book was republished in 2005.

The Gap Theory is an attempt to reconcile the biblical account of creation with the findings of modern geology.  It had become apparent to geologists at the end of the 18th Century that the earth was very old, has passed through several successive geological ages, and that there had been forms of plant and animal life, such as dinosaurs, that had since become extinct.  The question then became how to reconcile the geological evidence with the biblical account of creation, which seemed to indicate that the whole process only took six days a few thousand  years ago.  One possible solution was proposed by the distinguished Scottish theologian Thomas Chalmers, who suggested what became known as “the Gap Theory.”

The Gap Theory posited the existence of an unspecified length of time between the original creation of the universe and the six days of creation mentioned in Genesis Chapter 1.  It assumes that some sort of disaster destroyed the original creation and that what is described in Genesis 1 is a recreation of the earth.  This, then, would allow for the long geological ages postulated by modern science.  The Gap Theory then became popularized in a footnote in the Scofield Reference Bible, as well as in Halley’s Bible Handbook.  A later version appeared in Unger’s Bible Handbook.

Dr. Fields, however, will have none of this.  In his view Ex. 20:11 and Neh.9:6 state that the entire universe was created ex nihilo in just six days, and that the grammatical structure of Gen. 1:1-3 will not permit a gap between verse 1 (“In the beginning . . .” –  NASB) and verse 3 (“Then God said”).  According to him the Hebrew “vav” (“and”) at the beginning of verse 2 links the three clauses of that verse (“the earth was formless and void,” “and darkness was over the face of the deep,” “and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters”) with verse 1.  Verse 2, then, would describe the condition of the world at the beginning of the process of creation of the entire universe, thus not allowing for a gap between the two.

Dr. Fields’ argument becomes quite involved and arcane at points; and sometimes, in the opinion of this reviewer, a bit too strained, with both sides (Dr. Fields and Dr. Custance) reading more into the text than is actually there.  E.J. Young, for example, whom Dr. Fields sometimes cites in his footnotes, connects the three clauses of verse 2 with the main verb in verse 3 (“Then God said. . .”).  Verse 2, then, describes the condition of the world at the beginning of the six day process described in the remainder of chapter 1.

What neither Dr. Fields nor Dr. Custance may have known at the time is that there is compelling evidence that points to a geological catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs and brought on the Ice Age.  A comet or asteroid is believed to have stuck the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, spreading a thick cloud of debris.  Gen. 1:2, then, could very well describe the scene immediately after the comet struck.  The sky was darkened; most life had been wipe out.  God then began the creative process anew.

This is not to say that there are no problems with the Gap Theory.  If Gen 1:14-18 were taken in a strictly literal fashion, the sun and moon simply did not exist until the fourth day of creation.  (In my scenario, as the debris in the sky gradually settled, light appeared first, on the first day, and then the sun and moon became visible later, on the fourth day.)

Likewise Paul’s statements that death came through sin (Rom. 5:12-17; 8:19-21; I Cor. 15:21,22) would pose a problem, since under the Gap Theory whole species became extinct before man had sinned.  But the Bible is concerned primarily with what has happened since the creation of man, not with what may have happened before.

Dr. Fields is right in not wanting to let secular science dictate our interpretation of Scripture.  Unbelieving scientists are quick to jump to conclusions that eliminate God from their worldview.  But it is God’s written revelation that gives us the interpretation of the mute facts of nature.  Science has often erred, and a new discovery will often overturn a previously held conclusion.  But we cannot simply ignore or dismiss the physical evidence.  While fossils do not prove the Theory of Evolution, they do suggest that the world is very old, and the evidenced cannot be ignored.

God is the author of both nature and Scripture; and if each is interpreted properly they do not contradict each other.  The two basic questions are, what can science actually prove?  And what does the Bible actually teach?  On the latter question it is not the aim of the Bible to give detailed scientific explanations of natural phenomena, or a detailed history of the cosmos.  It’s focus, rather, is on man, on his fall and redemption; and thus we must be careful not to make the Bible say more than it actually does.  On this point we think that both Drs. Custance and Fields may have been prone to take things a little too far.

THE NATURE OF TRUE VIRTUE

 

 

It is striking that even among professed Bible-believing Christians there is a poor understanding of what the Christian life is all about.  One tendency is to think that because salvation is a free gift it does not matter how we live (“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”).  Another tendency is to think that Christian ethics consists mainly of avoiding certain sinful practices (smoking, drinking, dancing, card-playing, etc.).  And even in Reformed circles there is a tendency to a form of dead orthodoxy.

What the Bible actually says about the subject, however, is quite different, and the apostle Paul gives us a snapshot of what that is in Colossians 3:12-15.  He begins by describing the favored positions that Christians enjoy in Christ: “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies . . .” (v. 12; NKJV).  Here he uses three adjectives to describe the Colossian believers: “elect,” “holy,” and “beloved.”  “Elect” points to fact that believers become Christians because they are first chosen by God.  The second adjective, “holy,” points to the fact that they were set apart from the rest of humanity and enjoyed a special relationship with God.  The third adjective, “beloved,” points to the fact that they had become the special objects of God’s love.  Together the three adjectives underscore God’s grace in our salvation.  We were poor, underserving sinners whom He rescued in His grace and mercy.

But this has definite implications for the way we should live.  And so Paul tells the Colossian believers to “put on” certain virtues, in much the same way that someone night put on a coat or jacket.  It involves a conscious decision to live a certain way.

He begins by listing several virtues: “tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering” (v. 12).  These all involve the way we feel and act toward others.  The “tender mercies” (or “bowels of mercies,” as the old King James Version has it) refers to a tender compassion that we ought to feel toward others.  “Meekness” might better be translated “gentleness.”  “Longsuffering” literally means “slow to anger.”

Paul then goes on to describe how these virtues work out in actual practice.  He says “bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another . . .” (v. 13).  The implication here, of course, is that as Christians we are still less than perfect, and that from time to time conflict will arise even in the best of churches.  How, then, are we to deal with such conflict?  First of all, by “bearing with one another.”  We must make allowances for differences of personality and background.  Some things are not worth making an issue over.  And so if someone else’s action or behavior does not amount to actual sin, we should try to overlook it even if it rubs us the wrong way.

But some situations may require us to go to the other brother and confront him about the problem; and if he repents we should forgive him and restore fellowship.  Christians should not hold grudges against each other.

But, one may ask, why should we do this?  What is wrong with defending our rights?  Paul goes on to explain why: “even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (. 13).  Look at what Christ has done for us.  Here was the sinless Son of God who came into this sin-cursed world, and offered up His life on the cross in order to save us.  We were hell-deserving sinners, completely unworthy of the least of God’s favors.  And yet in spite of our guilt we are now forgiven.  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me”!  But if Christ was willing to do that for us, should now we be willing to do the same for others?  Should we not imitate Christ’s example?  And if we were hell-deserving sinners saved by grace we are really no different from the brother who sinned against us.  If Christ forgave us our sins then we should forgive others.

Paul then adds, “But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (v. 14).  Love, according to Scripture, is the preeminent virtue.  It is not enough merely to be kind, humble or patient.  These are largely passive virtues.  All of this must arise from a heart filled with love, an active concern for others, a positive desire to do good to them.  The commentators disagree over exactly what Paul meant by “the bond of perfection,” with some arguing that love is what underlies all Christian virtue, while others take it to mean that love is what binds Christians together.  In other case love is the preeminent Christian virtue, the virtue from which all other virtues arise.

And then Paul says, “And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which you were called in one body . . .” (v. 15).  In the Bible peace is more than just the absence of conflict.  It the sense of well-being that comes when everything is in order.  And so to this we are “called in one body.”  Every genuine believer is a member of the universal church, the mystical body of Christ.  And that universal church is to be marked by peace – a harmonious unity of the entire body.  That is the peace that we should let rule in our hearts.

And then Paul adds, “and be thankful” (v. 15).  If it is true that God is our sovereign Lord and Creator; if He has saved us by His grace alone, and guides us and protects us through His providence, then we owe everything to Him.  And that, in turn, should be reflected in a spirit of genuine gratitude in our hearts.  We can claim nothing for ourselves; we owe everything to Him.  That should draw out our hearts in praise and adoration to Him.

These, then, are the basic qualities of character that a Christian ought to “put on.”  It is significant that many of them, “kindness,” “meekness,” “longsuffering,” “love” and “peace” are listed among the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22,23).  They are the marks of a work of God’s grace in the heart.

It will be noted that Christian ethics largely concerns how we treat others.  “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law,” Paul says elsewhere (Rom. 13:10).  It will also be seen that God is concerned not just with the outward action but with the inward motive.  God looks on the heart, and what He sees are the thoughts and feelings that drive our outward actions.  True Christian virtue stems from a heart that has been renewed by the Holy Spirt, and arises from a genuine desire to please God and help our neighbor.  Anything short of that misses the whole point of biblical morality.

This, then, is what the Christian life should look like.  May God grant each one of us the grace to live a life that is pleasing to Him!

BUT WHAT ABOUT EVOLUTION?

 

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So far we have argued that the appearance of design in nature points back to an intelligent Designer.  But many scientists will retort that the appearance of design is just that – only an appearance.  They go on to argue that plant and animal life, at least, came about through a blind, impersonal natural process.  The Theory of Evolution, it would seem, has destroyed the argument from design.

But has it really?  Can science really prove that humans evolved from apes?  The answer is, no.

Science, true science, is based on observation and experiment.  Observations are made, a hypothesis is formulated.  Experiments are then conducted under controlled conditions to see if the hypothesis is true.

But evolution, at least not macroevolution, has ever been observed.  No one has ever observed a higher form of life evolving from an lower form of life, and it has never been reduplicated in a laboratory.  Evolution is a scientific “fact” that has never actually been observed.

Part of the difficulty here, of course, is that evolution is alleged to have been a slow, gradual process that has taken place over hundreds of millions of years.  But there were obviously no human observers around hundreds of millions of years ago.  How, then, do we know that evolution actually took place?  We do not.  The theory is largely based on circumstantial evidence – the fossil record, vestigial organs, etc.

But based on what we can actually observe in nature now, evolution does not take place.  All living things occur in identifiable species.  The species reproduce according to clearly defined laws of heredity.  The heredity is determined by DNA in genes and chromosomes.  Granted, mutations and genetic drift do appear, but the mutations almost always result in physical anomalies which are eliminated by the process of natural selection, which does occur.  Genetically it is virtually impossible for a lower form of life to evolve into a higher one, since that would involve simultaneous beneficial mutations in complex organ systems, and the creation of all new genetic material.  It is hard to see how this could happen even in a few isolated cases, let alone account for the appearance of all of the millions of different species in existence.

Moreover the fossil record itself does not really support the idea that all of life has evolved through a slow, gradual process from a single primordial molecule.  What we find instead is that almost all of the animal phyla appeared almost simultaneously during the Cambrian period.  There were several major extinction events and huge gaps in the fossil record.

How, then, can scientists be so adamant that evolution is a scientific fact?  The answer is that they are interpreting the evidence on the basis of an a priori philosophical assumption.  Prof. Jerry Coyne, in his book Why Evolution Is True, put it this way: “The message of evolution, and all of science, is one of naturalistic materialism” (p. 224).  Naturalism, he tells us, is “is the view that the only way to understand our universe is through the scientific method.”  And materialism, he says, is “the idea that the only reality is the physical matter of the universe, and that everything else, including thoughts, will, and emotions, comes from physical laws acting on that matter” (ibid.).  In other words, according to him science is implicitly atheistic.  And based on the assumption of naturalistic materialism evolution would be virtually the only possible explanation of the origin of the species.  But whether or not physical matter is the only reality and the scientific method is the way of studying that matter is the whole question under discussion.  What Dr. Coyne is doing, in effect, is presenting us with a circular argument: he is assuming his conclusion in his premise.  While naturalistic materialism may seem scientifically possible, is raises serious philosophical questions.  Can all of reality and human life really be explained in terms of atoms and molecules?

The bottom line is that Darwinists did not use the scientific method to prove that evolution is even possible, let alone that it actually happened.  It is “science” only in the broad philosophical sense of naturalistic materialism, and it can be argued that naturalistic materialism gives us an inadequate explanation of reality.

Prof. Coyne tells us in his book that

“For the process of evolution – natural selection, the mechanism

that drove the first naked, replicating molecule into the diversity

of millions of fossil and living forms – is a mechanism of

staggering simplicity and beauty.  And only those who understand

it can experience the awe that comes from realizing how such a

straightforward process could yield features so diverse as the flower

of the orchid, the wing of a bat, and the tail of a peacock.”  (p. xvi)

What this statement amounts to is that Prof. Coyne is confronted with nothing less than the evidence of design, and yet he refuses to acknowledge the Designer.  A blind, purposeless natural process cannot produce such a vast array of forms of life.  What we are dealing with here in the Theory of Evolution are not the hard facts of natural science, but mankind’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge God as the Creator.

 

DOES GOD EXIST?

 

4.2.7

Albert Bierstadt: Yosemite Valley

 

How do we know that God exists?  There are certainly skeptics who will loudly proclaim that there is no evidence for the existence of God.  Can you see Him?  Can you hear Him?  How, then, do we know that He exists?  Faith, they say, is nothing more than belief in something for which there is no evidence.

I reply that the proof for the existence of God is literally as plain as the nose on your face.  Look at yourself in the mirror in the morning and ask yourself this simple question: why is your face symmetrical?  Why should it be?  How did it come to be that way?

The fact of the matter is that when we look at the reality surrounding us, what we see is order, structure and complexity.  In fact, the more that science discovers, the more amazing reality appears to be.  Consider the heavens above.  “The heavens declare the glory of God; / And the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1; NKJV).  The sheer immensity of it all, with distant galaxies millions of light years away.  The planets running their regular courses around the sun.  Or look at the complexity of a single biological cell, or an entire organism, with all of its systems working together to sustain a viable living being.  Look at the amazing confluence of factors that makes life sustainable on earth – the right temperature, moisture and oxygen.  Consider the amazing process of gestation that transforms a single fertilized egg into a fully developed human being.   Even now we can scarcely comprehend it all, and yet it all existed since the beginning of time.

And then there is man himself – how different from the animals, a thinking, rational, self-conscious being, full of intellect and emotion, able to communicate with language and music.  “What is man that You are mindful of him, / And the son of man that You visit him? / For You have made him a little lower than the angels, / And You have crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:4,5).

What we all know from ordinary common experience is that order does not spontaneously arise out of chaos, and life does not arise from non-life.  All of this points back to a First Cause, an intelligent Designer, a Supreme Being who has both the intelligence and power to create the universe as we know it.  “He has made the earth by His power, / He has established the world by His wisdom, / And He has stretched out the heavens at His discretion” (Jer. 10:12).

But there is more to reality than just the physical universe.  There is also the intangible element of human psychology, and in particular our moral sense of right and wrong.  We make decisions; we interact with each other, and unfortunately we are capable of harming each other.  But our decisions involve values, and we have a sense of what we value for ourselves.  But if we do not wish to be harmed by others, can we justify harming them?  Something inside of us tells us that this is not right.  But why?  Animals do not think like this.

What we have is a conscience, and it enables us to make moral judgments.  The apostle Paul, writing of the pagan Gentiles of his day, said that they “show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves, their thoughts accusing or else excusing them” (Rom. 2:15).  We hurl accusations against each other, and are quick to defend ourselves when accused.  Why?  Because we think that there is something shameful about the alleged act itself.  But why?  It can only mean one of two things: either we are just plain delusional, or we live in a moral universe.  But if we live in a moral universe, what is the ultimate source of moral law?  Human government?  The human governments that promoted chattel slavery or the Holocaust?  Our conscience tells us that there has to be a higher law, a law that transcends human government.  But what can that be?  The answer is the Supreme Being who created us, the Lawgiver and Judge of the universe.  “He has shown you, o man, what is good; / And what does the Lord require of you / But to do justly, / To love mercy, / And to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8).

What it comes down to is this: either God exists or He does not exist.  And if He does not exist we live in an impersonal, irrational and amoral universe.  Life has no particular meaning or purpose.  But the universe gives us every appearance of being highly structured.  If it were not so science would not be possible at all.  And the very fiber of our being tells us that life must have meaning and purpose, and that there is a real difference between right and wrong.  God, then, must exist.4.2.7

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

THE ALT RIGHT AND IDENTITY POLITICS

Adolf Hitler-Der Fuehrer-34

 

This past Saturday we witnessed the horrible spectacle of a riot in Charlottesville, VA between white nationalists and counter-protesters.  The riot was precipitated by a rally planned by a variety of white supremacists and Neo-Nazis to protest the pending removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park in Charlottesville.  Counter-protesters showed up and the ensuing confrontation turned violent.  At least one was killed when someone drove his car into a crowd of protesters.

Ironically on the very same day the Wall Street Journal published an article in its Saturday Review section entitled “The Liberal Crack-Up” by Mark Lilla, who considers himself to be a liberal.  In the article, which is adapted from his forthcoming book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, Mr. Lilla bemoans the fact that the liberal agenda of fifty years ago has been replaced by the identity politics of today.  Liberal used to think of justice for all, of advancing the common good.  Today the left is splintered into a variety of special interest groups, each trying to advance its own agenda, sometimes at the expense of the rest: African-Americans, Feminists, the LGBT community.  It is no longer about the common good; it is now identity politics.

This had the effect of alienating the Democratic Party from much of its traditional base – white, working class Americans who in the last election turned out to vote for Trump.  The elitism of the party leaders could be seen in Hillary Clinton’s infamous remark during the campaign that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.  The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.”  But many of these people traditionally voted Democratic in past elections.  Now they are considered “deplorables.”

It was only a matter of time before there would be a reaction on the right.  The right wing now has its own version of identity politics: white nationalism – the Alt Right, Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and hence the riot in Charlottesville.

The Alt Right would like to see itself as fighting to preserve the cultural heritage of Americans of European descent.  But is it really?  Western Civilization was built on a Judeo-Christian foundation.  American democracy in particular is based on the premise that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  But the Alt Right offers us a secularized version of American culture – one that is not based on a system of shared values and moral absolutes.  Instead it appeals to a sense of racial superiority.  It is no longer God, but “blood and earth.”  It is no longer justice for all, but us against them.

But each of us as human beings, left or right, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, must ask the same basic questions about ultimate reality: does God exits?  What is the meaning and purpose of life?  What makes the difference between right and wrong?

Long ago the apostle Paul challenged the philosophers of Athens with these very questions.  In his celebrated address on Mars’ Hill (Areopagus) recorded for us in Acts 17, Paul pointed out that God is the Creator and that “He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth . . .” (v. 26: NKJV).  Here he points us to the essential unity of the human race – we all descended from a common pair of ancestors.  Evolutionists may question or deny this; but the fact remains that when you scratch beneath the surface we are all remarkably alike.  We laugh and cry.  We hope and fear.  We struggle to survive.  And we all share a common human nature that is prone to vice.  It all points to a common ancestry.

But why did God create us in the first place?  This points to the meaning and purpose of life.  According to Paul it was “that they should seek the Lord, in hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (v. 27).  We are here on this planet for a reason and purpose, that is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” in the famous words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Paul concluded his remarks on Mars’ Hill with a sober reminder that God “now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness . . .” (vv. 30,31).  This points to the existence of a universal moral law.  The entire human race is ultimately accountable to a Supreme Being, and His will and purposed are final.  As His creatures we are obligated to conform to His will.

As human beings we all feel a need for self-esteem, for a sense of meaning and purpose in life, for a sense of self-worth.  God intended us to find that in Him.  But in our Post-Modern, secularized society, when we have excluded God from our thinking, there is a psychological void that we will try to fill with something else.  That is what drives identity politics.  It provides us with a sense of belonging to some larger group or movement.  The Alt Right is a false conservatism.  It does not seek to return America to its Judeo-Christian roots.  Rather it lays the foundation for the arrival of a demagogue and dictator.  Will it be another Hitler?  Or the Antichrist himself?

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.

A REVIVAL

 

 

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  Owasco Dutch Reformed Church

 

 

                           

Note: The Second Great Awakening was a powerful revival that swept across the country during the early Nineteenth Century. (The First Great Awakening took place during the 1740’s).  The Second Great Awakening began in the 1790’s and lasted until the 1830’s.  Much of it was centered in Northern, Central and Western New York State, an area that became known as “The Burned Over District.”  Here is an account of one small part of the Awakening, a revival that began at a Dutch Reformed church in Owasco, NY, in 1816.  Owasco is a small village located in Cayuga County about 7 miles southeast of Auburn.  This building was constructed in 1815, just before the revival described.  The account also mentions a sister congregation at Sand Beach, located just outside of Auburn.  The account is taken from Accounts of Religious Revivals by Joshua Bradley, originally published in 1819 and republished in 1980 by Richard Owen Roberts.

 

“A most wonderful work of grace commenced in this place in 1816.  Seventeen persons were added to the church in January.  The number was rather unexpected, and produced a more than ordinary excitement in old professors, who generally before this had lain in a state of spiritual torpor.  In February, Rev. Mr. Ten Eych pastor of the above church, visited and preached in that part of his congregation bordering on Skaneateles Lake.  Here the power of God came down, and about thirty mostly young persons were soon discovered to be under the most pungent conviction.  He appointed another meeting for the next week, and then found a very large assembly who in the time of worship appeared to be in tears.  After closing meeting, he conversed with many and found some, under the most awful apprehensions of their ruin and wretchedness, while others were rejoicing in the hope of the gospel.  This induced him to propose to his consistory, the appointment of a meeting for the examination of such as felt the freedom of offering themselves for church membership.  By this time the flame had extended to every part of the society, and almost every day new cases occurred: Conferences were unusually thronged; God’s children were awake to their best interest; additional places for meeting were appointed and generally crowded.  The consistory had two meetings for the examination of candidates, about the last of February and first of March.  Sixty seven came before their first meeting, and thirty four before their last meeting.  One hundred and one joined the church on the first Lord’s day in march and sat down at their Lord’s table to commemorate his death.

“As several young persons from Sandbeach congregation were present, when these candidates were examined, there returned home deeply impressed.  That society had remained in a state of spiritual stupor: but the news of the large accession to the church of Owasco, together with the impressions made on the minds of those before mentioned, operated like an electrical spark: the flame spread with a rapidity unequalled by anything ever before seen in that region.  In the course of a few days there was scarcely a family in the neighborhood, where there were not some, more or less, under serious impressions; and in some families, all who were not church members were anxiously inquiring what they should do to be saved.  Conference meetings were held on every evening in the week, except Saturday evening.

“The Rev. Ten Eych appointed one evening a week for religious conversation.  This he found peculiarly serviceable.  It had a happy tendency to give freedom to many, who were before backward to open the state of their minds: and many received encouragement in hearing the state of others.  In May seventy one were examined and admitted to the communion of Sandbeach church.  The work still progressed in Owasco, and every sermon seemed to have a tendency either of comforting or awakening some present.  In July one hundred and forty were examined and admitted to the communion.  In one year there were admitted into those two churches, three hundred and fifty one. . . .

“In this revival God’s Spirit has operated differently on the minds of sinners from anything seen in some other places.  In relation to three fourths of those, who have been the subjects of hopeful conversion; the time between their first alarm, and their being set free in the liberty of God’s children, has not exceeded two weeks; — and respecting some, not more than half that time.

“Two instances I may here mention worthy of notice; a man who had previously spoken disrespectfully of the work, was with difficulty persuaded by his wife to attend conference, that was held I his neighborhood.  During the singing of the last psalm, he was awakened to a sense of his deplorable condition.  This was on Thursday afternoon.  On Friday morning he was distressed beyond any language to describe.  On Saturday morning he appeared to be the most happy person, on this side the perfect mansions of endless glory.  He rejoiced in the government of God, and seemed fully to approve of God’s plan of saving sinners through the meritorious righteousness of Jesus Christ.

“Another man, of seventy years, whose days had been wholly occupied in accumulating wealth, was awakened to a sense of his danger by a sudden death in his family, and in the course of a few days, was made to rejoice in the glorious hope the gospel presents.

“The whole work has been free from noise confusion and enthusiasm; nay, while distress and anguish of heart were seen depicted in their countenances, they strove to keep the same concealed from others, until constrained to apply to some pious friends to pray for them, or give them some spiritual instruction.

“Three fourths, at least, of those who have joined the above churches, are between the age of nine, and twenty five years, and perhaps an equal number of both sexes.  These have been led to own their unworthiness, wretchedness and entire sinfulness in a state of nature: that salvation alone is by free, sovereign, rich grace abounding to sinners through the atonement.  In about two hundred families, which compose the Owasco congregation, one hundred and eighty have more or less praying persons; and there are several instances where every branch of the family give evident tokens of a change of heart.  Many of these young converts promise fair to be peculiarly useful to the church of Christ.  They manifest sincere repentance, humility, a confident reliance on the all sufficient merits of a risen Redeemer, and a heart glowing with the warmest affection to his cause and interest in the world.”

 

A word on the vocabulary:

A “professor” is someone who professes faith in Christ.  Older writers would sometimes use the word in a negative sense to refer to someone whose profession of faith was weak or insincere, i.e., a nominal Christian.

A “consistory,” in the Reformed tradition, is a group of elders who oversee a church.  It is the rough equivalent to a “session” in a Presbyterian church.

A “society” is a legal entity that would own a church building and pay the pastor.  It would often include a large number of people in a given community.  A “church” is a smaller group of people who profess faith in Christ, are admitted to communion, and are subject to church discipline.

A “conference” would be a gathering to discuss the practical implications of the morning sermon or some other religious topic.