All posts by Ross Hickling

It’s All About the One

In this season right after the elections, I think that most of us are tired of the constant barrage of campaign ads trying to make the right candidate look like a saint while picturing their opponent as the “creature from the black lagoon” who will leave its murky environs to menace all if elected to public office. Yes, America has election fatigue. It’s even nauseating to watch candidates that I would vote for saying all of the right catch phrases in the right order for maximum effect. They have all of the right persons fawning over them as they wave to a throng of half crazed supporters (who gets this excited in every day real life?) with every motion and word carefully scripted. Even though running for office of necessity is a popularity contest, it causes me to pause about my personal life and how I relate to other people as someone interested in impacting culture with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Should I try to gain as many Facebook friends as I can or should I try to become a YouTube channel titan who boasts a multi-million subscriber list? Should I try and say all the right catch phrases in order to endear myself to as many people as possible? I believe that Christian ministries oftentimes measure their success by how much attention they can garner for their pet project or ministry. In this election season, this causes me to see a contrast between election politics and successful ministry. If you truly want to make an impact in the world around you, it’s mainly about impacting one person at a time.

A number of years back, I was involved with a team of law enforcement officers (C.O.P.S.) who came alongside grieving families during National Police Week (NPW). Every May, families, friends, and co-workers descend upon Washington, D.C. to commemorate their fallen heroes who gave the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their communities. During NPW this particular year, I was tasked to be with a particular family who had travelled to D.C. In addition to this duty, I had also auditioned to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” at the main memorial service. As a vocalist, it would really be great exposure and an honor to be able to sing at the main memorial service where there would be thousands of people and dignitaries present. The president traditionally is in attendance as well and normally speaks to the assembled there and consoles the grieving families too.

However, I did not get the nod to sing at the service that year and concentrated solely on serving the family. I did attend the memorial service though and was able to help a large man in a wheel chair go from the street all the way up to the top of Capitol Hill. This ended up being quite a workout in the warm May weather (dressed in a suit and tie). Reflecting on my time during NPW that year, it hit me that aiding the family and the large man in the wheel chair was much more important than gaining some sort of acclaim for myself. As I look back at it, I believe that I made a greater impact by helping the large gentlemen in the wheel chair grieve his fallen loved one. In retrospect, I actually believe that I was meant to go to D.C. to have the honor of pushing that man up Capitol Hill.

In reflecting upon intentionally ministering to one or just a few people at a time, it is clear that Jesus and his disciples were not in ministry for the notoriety. It is true, of course, that at points they ministered to throngs of people. However, they often were interested in merely serving just one person at a time. I think of Jesus and how he interceded on behalf of the man born blind and gave vision back to him (John ch. 9). I think of how even in the middle of a large crowd, He felt healing virtue go out of Himself for just one person (Mark 5:27-34). I think of Jesus discussing a reborn spiritual life with Nicodemus (John ch. 3). Another obvious example of Jesus’s heart toward just one person is His parable of the lost sheep where the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go after the one that is lost (Luke 15:4-7). There are many more examples of how Jesus, God Incarnate, would minister to just one or a few persons.

In addition to Jesus, the disciples also modeled intentionally ministering to one person with great effect. I Think of Phillip ministering to the Ethiopian Eunuch. How he spent his time explaining the book of Isaiah to the eunuch, leading him on to a profession of faith in Jesus Christ and then on to baptism. I think of Paul’s labor on behalf of the slave Onesimus as he tried to convince Philemon to free him. I think of Peter who travelled a far distance at the behest of God to speak with the Roman centurion, Cornelius (Acts ch. 10). In the New Testament, we see that God is, in fact, interested in “just one.”

There are some who do have a gift of public speaking and can naturally connect with a large audience at once. However, the truth is that most of us just do not have a natural charisma that can hold the attention of large groups of people. The truth is that Christians can be most effective in ministering to people where they connect with one person in an authentic way. Where we treat another person as an end in themselves rather than a means to obtaining something else. If you really want to be used for good in the life of someone else, the first thing to do is to commit to do it and ask God for opportunities to do it. Even in doing small acts of service for a person in need, God can use you to impact the life of someone else for good. I urge you to commit to being used by God in whatever setting that you find yourself in and pray to the same end. When committing and preparing yourself to be used, I believe that God will use you in His ministry of helping the needy of society and also in going after the “one lost sheep.”

OMG! The Words of Jesus on Anxiety

Public Domain Wikimedia

When I was a young detective working the streets of Portsmouth. VA, I always wondered what the draw was for young men to commit serious crimes. You might be surprised to know that police officers get to know many of these “at risk” teens. There was often a tension within me between showing these young men the love of Christ and also protecting the community from crime. As a result of frequent contact with them, I got to know some of them pretty well. In these times together, I tried to be a friend to them. I tried to reason with them about the futility of dealing drugs, stealing cars, etc. Why were these kids into using and selling drugs? One of these young criminals, whose nickname was “Fatboy,” was one of the worst of these offenders. After spending some time with Fatboy, I realized that one of his major problems was anxiety.

Fatboy’s demeanor was seemingly easy going and he often had a smile on his face. Oftentimes, after arresting Fatboy, I would talk and listen to him. I could tell that he liked the attention and I really liked him too in spite of his terrible record. I remember one pursuit in particular where Fatboy led me on an adventurous chase after he had abandoned a moving, stolen car (that eventually struck a house). As I chased him on foot, we weaved in and out of various backyards in the Portsmouth, VA neighborhood which brought me into contact with several cranky canines. Having been stirred up by the fleeing Fatboy, they would then shift their focus on me which gave me plenty of motivation to increase my speed to clear the next backyard fence. To my chagrin, the large meal that I had recently consumed was working against me. After keeping him in sight for most of our “run,” I rounded the corner of a house and it was as if Fatboy had vanished. But wait a minute… there was a large bush in the center of the field. He had to be in that bush. I was so glad to see several detectives who had arrived to assist me in my chase and with labored breathing I pointed to the bush. I could not help them as they retrieved Fatboy from the bush as I was so winded from the “steeple chase” that had just ended.

I bring up Fatboy because it was clear to me after talking to him on several occasions that what led him to use drugs was a broken home where positive role models were not present. Furthermore, the dysfunction of his home life gave him anxiety that, among other factors, led him to drugs which paved the way to an early life of crime. In a recent article in Psychology Today entitled “7 Reasons Why People Do Drugs,” the author mentions that one of the uses of drugs is to help cope with the stress of anxiety coming from the inability to experience pain, frustration, and fear.1 In other words, many of us try to avoid these negative emotions by chemically dulling them. It is in this sort of scenario where many get trapped by drug abuse. A New York Times article entitled “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety?” also discusses the plight of inner city kids like Fatboy who are trying to cope with abusive families, poverty, and violent streets.2 Not only is anxiety a problem in urban neighborhoods, but also affluent suburban areas as well. In this article, Benoit Denizet-Lewis tracks the journeys of several extremely anxious teens as they seek help to turn things around. The constant stress of online social media, the pressure to excel at school, and social anxiety can be overwhelming for today’s teens in suburbia.

Related to the increasing anxiety in the U.S. a study by Joshua Smith and Sarah Book indicates that illicit drug use and anxiety disorders are linked statistically.3 In other words, if you are having a problem with one, you are more than likely going to have problems with the other too. Moreover, Smith and Book also mention that research indicates anxiety normally comes before drug use. In addition to these two, our featured scripture also links drugs and anxiety as well.

In past OMG! blog posts, (Here, Here, and Here) I mentioned Jesus’s words as being quite relevant to today’s culture.4 In Luke 21:34, Jesus warns us to be careful about not living a life characterized by “carousing, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life.” Not only do we see a problem today with improper sexual advances/addiction, and drug abuse, but we also observe an ever increasing trend of anxiety among both teens and adults. Here in this one verse, Jesus puts his finger directly on several major problems that our culture wrestles with still today. He warns that it is very easy to fall prey to these traps. These vices can very easily overwhelm someone. If Jesus is in fact God Incarnate as he alluded to a number of times in the New Testament, then his words should be great advice about how one can flourish in life and I believe that they are. Luke 21:34 is still relevant nearly 2,000 years after it was penned.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, there are other words of Jesus that give advice about being weighed down with anxiety. In Matthew 11, Jesus encourages all to come to him with their burdens because “his yoke (another word for a heavy weight) is easy and his burden is light (vv. 28, 30).” If one would do this, Jesus states they would find rest for their souls ( v. 28). In essence, Jesus says if one will heed his words and release their burdens to him, then he will help shoulder these burdens in tense times. Being God, he has the ability to communicate directly with an unlimited number of people and to take upon himself an unlimited number of burdens. Most of us are trying to unload our burdens one way or another. We really don’t do well when we are weighed down. But He wants to carry our burdens! Amazing isn’t it?

When dealing with the challenges and the stressors of modern life, instead of resorting to destructive habits for relief, Jesus encourages us to find solace in Him. In past blog posts, I’ve talked about the efficiency and effectiveness of Jesus’s words. After contemplating about his resurrection, it would stand to reason that the words of Jesus would be in themselves a proof of his deity. After looking at only several verses, it becomes clear that Jesus’s words are every bit as relevant and every bit as needed today as they were when he spoke them 2,000 years ago.

1 Heshmet, S. “7 Common Reasons People Do Drugs.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201711/7-common-reasons-why-people-use-drugs Accessed 16 August 2018.
2 Denizet-Lewis, B. “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety?” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/magazine/why-are-more-american-teenagers-than-ever-suffering-from-severe-anxiety.html Accessed 16 August 2018.
3 Smith, Joshua P. and Sarah Book. Anxiety Substance Use Disorders: Areviewhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2904966/
4 Other words of Jesus about anxiety that are also germane and relevant to our current culture are Matt. 6:25-34.

OMG!-The Words of Jesus: Great Advice for Avoiding Addiction

Public Domain

As a young policeman, I learned to hate drugs with a passion. In these early days of my law enforcement career, I saw the devastation that it brought upon families, households, and neighborhoods. Drug addiction had the capability to reduce healthy men and women to animals. I won’t describe the walks taken through vacant homes also known as “shooting galleries” where drug addicts would self-administer heroin through intravenous injection or inhale crack cocaine with homemade pipes. But needless to say, if you walked through one you would be stunned with the foulness of the environs.

As a rookie, I remember taking a stroll through one of these galleries and encountering a woman with ulcers all over her very swollen legs and arms. The ulcers were caused by the constant “skin popping” with used needles. Healthy vascularity was impeded by the impurity of the heroin (caused by the “cut” or the powder chemicals used to dilute it), thus the swollen limbs. In addition to my experiences with the de-humanizing aspects of drug abuse, I have been personally impacted by drug addiction through several relatives who succumbed to the siren song of promised happiness even as I observed them spin in a vortex of despondency.

Ross after making undercover drug purchases circa 1989

My disdain for narcotics dealing increased as I transferred into the street narcotics squad after a year of serving in uniformed patrol. I had a pretty good success rate of buying drugs off of street dealers. I guess it did not take too much skill. I just had to grunt, speak unintelligibly, and wave the cash around. That usually did the trick. However, there was one time where I fell for the old “I’ll be right back with the crack; here hold my driver’s license for collateral; I won’t rip you off” ploy. Needless to say, I did not feel brilliant after letting the money walk. Fortunately, my supervisor wasn’t too bent out of shape for losing the twenty dollars. Out of the many times I bought dope, there was one other time I was “ripped off.” However, we did catch up with this greedy street dealer and we decided to charge him with stealing.

Humorous stories abound in the annals of undercover narcotics purchasing. One of our detectives, after “striking out” all night, realized why when someone noticed his badge emblazoned hat perched atop his head. Another rookie detective asked a dealer for “a rock” and was given “a rock of the white quartz variety” in return after he paid the unscrupulous street thug twenty dollars for what he thought was a piece of crack cocaine (this scenario made for quite a laugh in the courtroom at the expense of the detective). On another occasion, our squad came up with the idea of driving around in a dump truck purchasing drugs with the arrest team waiting concealed in the bed. However, on our very first try, the dealer jumped up on the running board of the truck and ogled the team in the bed before refusing to sell to the driver.

There are many more stories of misadventure to tell. Even though I attempted to inject some humor into this blog post, the topic of drug abuse is a very serious matter today. It is astounding to see the meteoric rise in drug related deaths. A USA Today article entitled “Life expectancy is down for a second year: Drug overdoses are a big reason why” shares that the major reason for this slide is due to the dramatic increase in drug overdoses, drug related traffic crashes, and falls amongst younger people. In 1999, the frequency of the aforementioned deaths occurred at a rate of 6.1 per 100,00 compared with 19.8 per 100,000 in 2016. [1]

In addition to this jump in drug related deaths, drug overdoses have quadrupled from 1999 to 2015 with a total of 183,000 deaths occurring in this time span (wow!). Moreover, the burgeoning epidemic of opioid addiction is felt here in North Carolina as well. An article entitled, “Opioid Epidemic Strains Hospital Emergency Room” reports that emergency rooms here in NC are very likely to have patients in the middle of overdoses getting treatment at any time. The article went on to say that since 2012, “ER” visits with a substance abuse diagnosis are up almost 75%. [2]

In addition to this rise in drug addiction, a JAMA Psychiatry study released in 2017 reports that “high-risk” drinking (women 4 or more per day/men 5 or more per day) rose a hefty 29.9% between 2002 and 2013. This same report also noted an alarming 50% rise in “problem” drinking (where it causes recurrent and significant problems in your life/alcohol dependence) in the same time period.[3] Regarding why people are getting into more trouble than before, Dr. Schuckit, an alcohol researcher, opined in a Huffington Post article that one reason for the increase in alcoholism is likely the increased social acceptability of being tipsy (environmental factors comprise half of the risk). [4] After reviewing these studies, it would not be an overstatement to say that the U.S. has a very serious problem with drugs/alcohol dependence. Did Jesus Christ say anything relevant for us to consider today?

In Luke chapter twenty-one, Jesus is discussing his imminent departure from the Earth, cataclysmic events occurring in the future, and the importance of being ready in the event of his second coming. In verse 34, he admonishes his disciples to remain vigilant in the faith during trying times and not to engage in “carousing, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life.” Jesus states that engaging in a lifestyle characterized by these activities will not meet with his approval. Jesus warns us not to be in a state of drunkenness. Even though Jesus does not explicitly address the topic of drug abuse, surely being drunk or carousing would encompass “getting high.” In this one verse, not only is Jesus alerting us to the importance of being sober but also that not being sober has eternal consequences. God wishes us to live our lives soberly, centered on caring for others, and in right relationship with him. Moreover, it is easily observed that Dr. Schuckit’s above-mentioned observation of the increased acceptance of drunkenness in the USA stands in contrast to the warnings of Jesus against living a life characterized by “carousing and drunkenness.”

As the designer of human beings, Jesus knows the consequences of lives that are mainly concerned with the prurient self-interest of escaping one’s problems by drug or alcohol intoxication. His aforementioned words are great advice on how we can live the most fulfilled and productive lives here and now. Furthermore, implicit in this passage is the greater reality of eternal life with Him in opposition to this temporary life with all of its cares and snares.

As observed in past OMG! posts (click here and click here) , the words of Jesus are not only succinct and to the point, but also give great advice on how to live your life moment to moment. God does not force anyone to live a certain way yet advises that there are consequences when you place your selfish desires at the center of your life. Even as Thomas was confronted with the risen Jesus Christ and proclaimed “OMG!,” I can read His words that are still very relevant today and proclaim “OMG!,” these words are truly of divine origin. If we, as a society, would only embrace the words of “God Incarnate,” we could reverse the devastating trend wrought by the blight of drug abuse/alcoholism in the U.S. However, modern pop culture media, which promotes base values such as drug use, alcohol intoxication, and free sex, obscures the simple Christian ethic of pure living with all of its attendant benefits.

1 Painter, K. “Life expectancy is down for a second year. Drug overdoses are a big reason why.” USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/12/21/u-s-life-expectancy-drops-second-year-drug-deaths-spike-cdc/970283001/ Date of access: 18 April 2018.
2 Debruyn, J. “Opioid Epidemic Strains Hospital Emergency Room.” http://wunc.org/post/opioid-epidemic-strains-hospital-emergency-departments#stream/0. Date of access: 18 April 2018.
3 Grant, B. F., Chou, S. P., & Saha,T. D., et al. “Prevalence of 12-Month Alcohol Use, High-Risk Drinking, and DSM-IV Alcohol Use Disorder in the United States, 2001-2002 to 2012-2013Results From the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions.” JAMA Psychiatry. Date of access: 18 April 2018.
4 Martinez, J.D. “Americans are drinking more, But why?” Huffington Post. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/americans-are-drinking-more-but-why_us_598c9b1ce4b0caa1687a5e6c Date of access: 17 April 2018.

Because of the Incarnation: Hope For Today and Forever

Piero de Cosimo, The Incarnation of Jesus, circa 1485/1508, Public Domain

Atheist, mythicist scholar Richard Carrier claims that Jesus Christ was a mythical person based mostly on the accounts of the resurrection that he views as coming from ancient, pagan gods. In addition to Carrier’s musings, American Atheist President David Silverman quips that The Christmas Story is “Fake News.” What do these skeptics rely upon for their views? After looking into what they are saying about the Birth of Jesus Christ, do they have a rational basis for denying the incarnation of Jesus Christ? For a Christian, this is a very important question to consider. In evaluating the reality of the historical Jesus, we have to start with the incarnation of Jesus Christ. After looking into things, the incarnation of Jesus Christ is something that is reasonable to place my faith in. In opposition to the opinions of Carrier and Silverman, I find that the historical incarnation of Jesus Christ is a reasonable conclusion from the evidence we have.   Furthermore, in contrast to the mythical figures that Carrier tries to join Jesus Christ with, the historical incarnation of Jesus Christ forms the basis of God’s intentional plan to have fellowship with humanity throughout time and also into eternity. Because of the incarnation of Christ we have hope for today and for eternity.

Romulus and Remus by Pietro de Cortona, circa 1643. Public Domain.

Among the mythical characters that Richard Carrier uses to promote his theory of a mythical Jesus are Romulus, the legendary Roman ruler and Zalmoxis, the Thracian mythical god (et al.). He makes comparisons between these “dying and rising gods” and Jesus Christ and based on his comparisons, he makes the leap that these preceding gods must have been the progenitors for the resurrection accounts of the Gospels.[1] The American Atheists are a bit glibber than Carrier in their annual holiday billboard advertisements. In keeping with Trump’s recent campaign against the mainline media, the American Atheists have trumpeted that the Christmas story is “fake news” and encourage people to “just skip church.”   Of this campaign, David Silverman, their leader, suggests that the Christmas story is not true and that religious people ignore the truth so they can enjoy the fellowship in churches.[2]

In my recently completed PhD thesis, I analyzed Carrier’s “mythical Jesus” claim and found that his comparisons do not match up to the data coming from the New Testament about Jesus Christ nor do they match the data coming from the mythical accounts Carrier draws from. Furthermore, I also found that Carrier does not understand what evidence is nor does he realize that his whole thesis is based upon a logical fallacy (post hoc ergo propter hoc- assuming causality just because one event precedes another). In addition to this, I found that the Gospel narratives were actually based upon accepted principles of evidence. It seems that Carrier and Silverman cannot accept the evidence supporting a supernatural yet historical event.[3]

If Jesus is not a reformulated pagan deity, then where does the idea of Jesus, and more specifically the Christmas story come from? We have no further to look than the Old Testament. As borne out in the Old Testament, the advent of a promised deliverer was known for a long time.   In Genesis 12:3, Abram has an encounter with God who tells him that all of the people’s of the Earth will be blessed through him. Even though Abram is recognized as the founder of the house of Israel (and also claimed by the Arabs as their founder), how is it that one man could bless all of the nations of the World? Even though this verse does not mention Jesus per se, two early Christian leaders, Paul and Peter as recorded by Luke point to Jesus Christ as the person who fulfills this promise.[4] Moreover in Acts 3:22, Peter refers to Jesus as the fulfillment of a prophecy given by Moses in Deut. Chapter 18 when Moses foretells of a prophet who will be raised up from Israel. Regarding the widespread blessing of Abraham’s lineage, Genesis 49:10 discusses a ruler from out of the tribe of Judah whose reign includes all nations. Matthew (ch. 1) and Luke (ch. 3) both discuss how Jesus was descended from Judah. Continuing further on in the Old Testament, the eternal aspect of Abraham’s blessing is discussed by Nathan the prophet when he is instructed to tell David that his throne “will be established forever (2 Sam. 7:16, 17).” It is clear that the Old Testament speaks of a future eternal king and that New Testament writers saw the origins of Jesus Christ in many prophetic Old Testament passages, not in pagan gods.

Specifically regarding the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Old Testament gives references to a divine son whose father is God himself. Psalm 2:7 refers to a son born of God whose inheritance is the entire Earth. Isaiah 7:14 is the oft quoted reference to a future and virgin born baby whose name is called Immanuel or “God with us.” Continuing the theme of a child of divine parentage, Isaiah 9:6 refers to a child who will have all authority over the Earth, who will reign forever, and also who has the names of God. As Mentioned in Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of this verse (Luke 1:32-33; 3:23-28; Matt. 1:1,6-7). Moreover, Micah 5:2 speaks of a ruler “whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” who is born in the City of Bethlehem. Here in these Old Testament passages is envisioned a divine ruler born of a virgin and naming a specific region where he will be born. The idea of a virgin born Son of God comes from Old Testament prophecy and not pre-existing pagan myths.

Not only is it known from Old Testament scripture that there would be a virgin born God in the flesh, but this was also testified to in the nativity accounts of the Gospels as well. We read of the lowly, yet noble birth of Jesus.  Matthew, a disciple of Jesus, and Luke, a close associate of Paul who had access to the early Christian community and several of the original disciples, wrote the Nativity accounts. As with Luke, Matthew, by virtue of his close association with Jesus, would have access to this information as well.

In addition to the Old Testament and the Nativity accounts’ attestation of a virgin born Son of God, it is observed that Jesus clearly viewed Himself as God incarnate. Jesus clearly gains the wrath of the Pharisees when he proclaims that before Abraham was “I Am.” In this short proclamation, Jesus Christ clearly names Himself as God. Jesus also speaks of his unity with God the Father in Matthew 9: 27 and in the same chapter also confirms his status as the promised Messiah (v. 4-6). In Mark’s Gospel (2: 1-8), Jesus heals the paralytic and then forgives the man of his sins. Who alone but God can forgive a man of his sins? Moreover, when Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man (he does this many times) in the Gospel accounts, he is associating himself with God (Daniel 7:13). There are many other examples of his self-proclaimed deity as well throughout the Gospels.

This short survey of Old and New Testament passages reveals the intentionality of God in His plan to enter the world which would eventually lead to the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. These deliberate, divine actions guarantee our future as God’s family forever. The Nativity account is not a rehash of pagan myths but a well-attested narrative of the birth of the Messiah. So, when I go to church this Christmas season, I will not be there to pay tribute to a mythical being whose virgin birth was merely a fable. The American atheists are right in one sense because I will enjoy the fellowship at church. However, I am motivated to go to church not just to fellowship. My main aim for going to church this Christmas season is to give worship and thanks to the one and only eternal God who knowingly humbled himself and took on flesh to give us hope for each day. As the words of a well-known, old anthem state, “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow.” Not only should I daily strive to follow his example of humility, but I also have daily assurance that God is still with me every moment of every day. Not only does he promise to be with me each day, but he also guarantees my eternal destiny. Because of God’s intentional actions of humbling Himself to take on flesh, dying, and arising from the dead, I have these assurances for now and forever. Because of the birth of that little baby over two millennia ago, I have hope for living each day and hope for eternal life with him.

1 Carrier, R. 2014. On the historicity of Jesus: why we might have reason to doubt [Kindle ed.]. Sheffield: Sheffield University Press (pp. 249, 302). Available: http://www. amazon.com

2 Atheist’s Holiday Billboards Say ”Skip Church” to Avoid Fake News, American Atheist website- https://www.atheists.org/2017/11/holiday-billboards.

3 Hickling, S.R. 2017. An Evidentiary Analysis of Doctor Richard Carrier’s Objections to the  Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Doctoral dissertation).

4 Paul views Jesus as the fulfillment of this promise as Abraham’s seed (Gal. 3:16); Peter also recognizes Jesus as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant (Acts 3:25-26).

 

OMG! Jesus’ Words in Light of Publicized Scandals

Doubting Thomas, Guercino, First Half of 17th Century, Public Domain

In my last blog post, I reflected on the proclamation of Thomas after encountering the risen Jesus Christ eye-to-eye. His oft-quoted proclamation, in essence saying “OMG,” is a brief but powerful testimony of the reality and world rocking implications of that face-to-face experience. In addition to Thomas’s well-known journey from skepticism to faith, it also struck me that upon looking at the few words of Jesus that are recorded in the New Testament, these words were radical when they were spoken and are still radical today. With the recent sex scandals that proliferate our media today, would following the words of Jesus have helped those who are currently embroiled in these scandals?

In addition to the revolutionary implications of His words, they are also good advice for daily living. When measuring the viability of a worldview or religious dogma, this is an important matter to consider. When followed everyday, does the perspective under study cause the practitioner to flourish in a holistic sense? How does an examined belief system fare when compared to the existential realities of daily life? Paul D. Feinberg offers that any religious system should stand up to “tests for truth.” Feinberg offers a list of these tests to consider when investigating any faith position. Among these criteria, Feinberg offers a test for livability and a test for fruitfulness. Is a belief system livable and is it beneficial when followed? [1] In light of recent media reports, I believe that the words of Jesus as written in Matthew’s Gospel in his fifth chapter (mentioned below) will enhance the lives of all if heeded. So, not only are the words of Jesus a radical departure from cultural norms of yesterday and today, but I believe they also contribute to the well being of the individual and society as well. For these reasons (among others), I believe that Jesus’s words are a convincing argument for his deity.

According to several Internet sources, there are 2,026 words of Jesus Christ recorded in the New Testament. So very few words recorded for someone who had and still has such a great impact on the world. For a moment, imagine the Roman backdrop when Jesus ministered on the earth. The Roman Empire was noted for its decadence. We see from the writings of that time an obsession with sexual debauchery of almost every sort. One author, Paul Chrystal gleans these details from looking at Roman literature, ancient graffiti, and the visual arts.[2] As part of this depravity, Roman cult worship often had temple prostitution as a mainstay of religious rites.   Everett Ferguson observes the widespread use of prostitutes in the fertility cults of that day in areas such as Asia Minor, Syria, and Phoenecia. He mentions the existence of one thousand prostitutes at the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth. [3]  Looking back at this ancient culture with its emphasis on sexual indulgence, it is easy to see how radical it was when Jesus spoke his words.

In recounting the words of the Old Testament, Jesus expands on the prohibition against adultery. He teaches in Matt. 5:27-30 that if one even lusts after someone else, then that person has already committed the sin in his mind. Furthermore, Jesus states in these verses that one would be better off without eyes and hands instead of using them to indulge in destructive, sexual behavior. In addition to this teaching on moral impurity in Mark 7: 21-23, Jesus further discusses that all types of immoral behavior, to include sexual immorality, are germinated within a person’s mind.

With all of the recent focus in the media regarding the various sex scandals, the aforementioned words of Jesus Christ seem now more than ever to be good advice. With each passing day, sordid details of men improperly forcing themselves on women emerge. From Hollywood to Washington, D.C. and in between, there is an ever-growing list of the “mighty” that have fallen. Would a man improperly touch a woman if he had not conceived of doing it beforehand? It stands to reason that if one did not think about ways in which to sexually misbehave, then the improper act would not be committed. Furthermore, if one did not fixate oneself upon a particular person in a sexual manner, then one would not determine in one’s mind to commit a lewd act.

An interlocutor may reply, “It is too simplistic to suggest that one should just not engage in the thought or activity. It is also against human nature to expect one to always be pure in their thoughts and deeds.” In reply, I would agree that being pure in mind and for that matter, being a Christian is not always easy. Furthermore, Christians will often struggle with these issues throughout their lives. But there is a difference between someone who is serious about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and someone who is not so serious or does not follow Jesus Christ.   Those who are committed to Jesus Christ will actively struggle against giving into temptations of this sort (1 Cor. 6:18). It is not to say they will never give in to temptation. Rather, they are fighting against it. Fortunately, when Christians do give in to temptation, they can re-align themselves with these principles and also receive help in time of need (Heb. 2:17-18). In many cases, a person who is not committed to Jesus Christ may not struggle (Eph. 4:19). This stands in contrast to somebody who is serious about abstaining from sexual temptation. When an opportunity presents itself, this class of person (the one not struggling) is more apt to give in to temptation or more willing to exploit a perceived weakness in someone else. It stands to reason that a person who is committed to employing the words of Jesus would be more determined not to succumb to temptation (Eph. 5:5).

In addition to the benefit of a reduction in reported sex scandals, another obvious effect of these words of Jesus is a higher view of women. Instead of thinking of women as merely an object to satiate one’s desire for pleasure, these words guide men to a healthy respect for women. In a holistic and meaningful way, a man and woman can bond in marriage and enjoy each other in a relationship of mutual trust/commitment (Eph. 5:25-33). Men would not be seeking improper liaisons with women if they were not imagining in their minds ways to accomplish them. So again, heeding the teachings of Jesus regarding purity of thought has great implications for not only the individual but also for society in general. Moreover, these few words of Jesus, if followed, would also curb many destructive behaviors (pornography, prostitution, and any number of deviant sexual behaviors that are known to cause, psychological dysfunction or physical distress).

In addition to these benefits, adhering to purity of the mind would also enable a person to lead a fuller life, as they would not always be weighed down with the burden of always trying to fulfill baser desires (1 Cor. 5:17). Rather, if one is more concerned with living one’s life focused on God and his goals for you, then one’s natural impulses will be subject to this higher value. These aforementioned words of Jesus are mentioned in several verses yet if one would only follow them, then men would find that they would be able to live more noble and fulfilled lives. They would not have to worry about the possibility that their thoughts may lead them into troubling circumstances. After observing the positive benefits of maintaining a pure mind, in these words of Jesus I see great advice that could not only transform individual lives but also change culture as well. In a society that glorifies sensual themes today, these words of Jesus Christ are radical, are good advice to follow, and convince me that they are the very words of God.

[1] Paul D. Feinberg, “The Nature and the Case for Theism and Christianity,” in Five Views on Apologetics, eds. Stanley Gundry and Steven Cowen, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 148-155.

[2] Paul Chrystal, In Bed with the Romans, (Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing, 2015).

[3] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 64.

Happy Man at the Beach CC0 From Wikimedia

*************OMG!**************

Having only participated in social media since I retired from law enforcement almost four years ago, it took me a while to figure out what all of the commonly used acronyms were for SM. I quickly learned that there were one or two of them that I would not use no matter how popular they were. Some of the ones that I became familiar with were TTYL (Talk To You Later), SMH (Smack My Head), IDK (I Don’t Know), and ROFL (Rolling On Floor Laughing). Every community will have its well-used acronyms of choice that are part of the corporate culture. In the early days of my law enforcement career, there was a strange name that I kept reading in reports even though I didn’t at first realize it  was not a name at all (it ended up being a law enforcement acronym). I finally worked up the courage one day to ask my older partner who this ‘Fnu Lnu’ guy was. He laughed, gave me that ‘you are kidding me’ look, and told me that it was an acronym for a person whose name was unknown (First Name Unknown- Last Name Unknown). Before receiving this embarrassing revelation, I thought perhaps it was some sort of notorious repeat offender criminal- lol (another social media acronym). There was one acronym that I often ran across that seemed pretty innocuous even though I decided not to use it. Most people who are on social media are familiar with “OMG” (Oh My God or Oh My Gosh) as it is used often to register surprise in response to something that has happened or in response to something noteworthy typed by someone else.   I have always tried to be careful with using the Lord’s name in vain but as the acronym can also stand for ‘Oh My Gosh,’ then it seems to make the acronym more harmless.

However, there are circumstances when it is wholly appropriate to utter this phrase. For instance, if you hear of a loved one dying suddenly, using the phrase “Oh My God” would be wholly appropriate and not an example of using the Lord’s name in vain as you are truly addressing God with the reception of the bad news. Learning of a natural disaster where there is a massive loss of life would be another proper use of the phrase ‘Oh my God’ as one’s thoughts are turned towards the victims of a surprising and unforeseen cataclysm. It can be a short prayer of sorts being uttered on behalf of those who are in the midst of harrowing circumstances.

Recently, a group that I have had the pleasure of sharing with was going over the evidence for the reliability of the New Testament. After spending a number of meetings going over the different forms of evidence that support the authenticity of the New Testament, to include the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the block of lessons finally ended. As I was reflecting back over this strong evidence that supports the New Testament, it hit me anew that if this collection of books and letters is really true, then there are radical consequences for us today as individuals and also as a culture. These radical consequences were realized by one of Jesus’s disciples. Thomas, one of the first skeptics to the report that Jesus had arisen, was convinced of the reality of the risen Jesus after he looked the post-resurrection Jesus in the eye, heard him speak, observed and maybe even felt the spear wound that had been inflicted on Jesus. In response to this most surprising encounter with the risen Jesus, Thomas quickly proclaimed ‘My Lord and my God’ as Thomas began to realize the implications of what he just experienced. Yes, in essence, Thomas was saying “OMG!” The life of Thomas was inalterably changed, he went to India as a witness to this risen Jesus Christ, and was eventually martyred as evidenced by what Christian tradition tells us about the end of his life. Indian Christian tradition tells us that Thomas went to India proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and eventually died as a result of this declaration.[1]

photo by Westsara 11 May 2015

Although today we cannot see the physical body of Jesus Christ today as Thomas did, we still can proclaim “OMG!” after realizing the implications that come from the fact that Jesus Christ actually arose from the dead. When we read his words in the Gospel accounts and in Acts, we are reading the very words of the risen Jesus Christ. When heeded, these words have transformed the lives of individuals and cultures. Not only do we have evidence that tells us that we are reading the very words of Jesus Christ in the Gospel accounts, but we also have the words themselves that are like no other words that have ever been spoken/written. Even though his recorded spoken words were only few in number, they are like a high candlepower spotlight that rids every shadow from its beam. These words were not only a radical departure from the prevailing pagan culture of his time, but these illuminative words still probe the souls of all men and women today. Surely these radically potent words that have transformed countless lives have to be the words of God. Even though I was not with Thomas when he made his well-known proclamation of belief, I look at the words of Jesus that we have today and say “OMG!,” these have to be the words of God.

Within our cultural milieu, there are telltale signs of a society that is in crisis. STDs are alarmingly on the rise and numbing ourselves with drugs is now more than ever an acceptable form of recreation. Emergency rooms are filling up with those who are overdosing on opioids and also addicts seeking out painkillers. Our youngest generation is awash in pornography crippling their ability to experience healthy intimacy and warping their view of the opposite sex. I look at our crumbling society and pray “OMG, we need you more than ever, please help us.”

Yet if we would pay attention to these precious few words that Jesus Christ spoke, we could transform individual lives and culture today. The irony is the way of the cross, with its emphasis on God and others, brings ultimate contentment and fulfillment in every aspect of life. Jesus Christ said that he came that we all might have life to the full. He also tells us to take up our crosses daily. How can I have a life characterized by contentment if I am not concentrating on satiating my own desires? Again, herein lies the irony that confronts those absorbed by the prurient influences of modern life in the U.S. and the West. In that they never consider the way of the cross, many will never realize a holistic contentment that emanates from a life unconcerned with the garnering of more things and sensual experiences. In the next several blog posts, let’s look at some of these profound words that still reverberate like an aftershock of an earthquake from a time period far removed; words from God to all of us. In my estimation, they have to be God’s words to all of us.

[1] McDowell, S.J. 2014. A historical evaluation of the evidence for the death of the apostles as martyrs for their faith. Louisville: SBTS. (Dissertation-PhD) pp. 268-269.

Photo by Benson Kua from Toronto, Canada

 

Sanders Comments: A Christian “Straw Man” Erected and Attacked

Bernie Sanders Public Domain

On June 7th, Bernie Sanders castigated a Trump nominee, Russell Vought, for a blog post that Vought wrote when a controversy erupted in 2016 at his alma mater, Wheaton College, a conservative Christian college. Vought had written to support the decision of the college to terminate one of its professors who was expressing that the “gods” of the Muslim faith and the Christian faith were one and the same. The professor, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, was terminated because of her divergence from the doctrinal position of this private, Christian college that supports “Christian exceptionalism” or the notion that Jesus Christ is the only way to be in relationship with God. Did Sanders’s comments accurately portray the disposition of Christians towards those who reject Jesus Christ? In this blog post, I am not writing to “slime” Sanders or to vindicate Vought for his words he typed on a blog page in 2016. Rather, I see in Sanders words, a recent media/cultural trend to misrepresent the position of Christianity on any number of issues (also known as a “straw man” fallacy). After investigating Vought’s post, Sanders comments, and relevant Biblical texts, I have come to the conclusion that Sanders does misrepresent the disposition of Christians towards those of other faiths as Christians themselves do not condemn Muslims or any other religious group. In his remarks, Sanders has erected a “straw man” and then attacked it.

In order to build a foundation for my thesis, I looked up Russell Vought’s original post. As mentioned above Vought is an alumnus of Wheaton College and posted in support of the college after Hawkins expressed a heterodox position on the unity of the Muslim and Christian gods all the while insulting the college administration. In his comments, Vought makes a good case for defending the orthodox Christian statement of faith of Wheaton College. It is cogent, well reasoned and is based upon the words of Jesus in the New Testament that testify that he is the only access point to God (John 14:6). Vought believes the words of Jesus Christ are true and so holds to “Christian exceptionalism.” Even though not a theologian, Vought, a conservative voice in the GOP, ably explained the New Testament position of Jesus Christ as the only Son of God and that those who reject Jesus Christ “stand condemned.” Vought was relying on John 3:18 when using this phrase. He also explained why Hawkins’s position undermined and presented a serious challenge to proclaiming the Gospel message of salvation through the name of Jesus Christ. A link leading to Vought’s original post is included below):

Wheaton College and the Preservation of Theological Clarity

In Vought’s June 7 confirmation hearing, Sanders attacked Vought for writing that Muslims are condemned already before God. During the back and forth of the dialogue between Vought and Sanders, Sanders asks if the aforementioned view that Muslims “stand condemned” is “Islamaphobic.” After Vought denies Sanders’s accusation, Sanders went to the core of his animus towards Vought. Sanders mentioned that there are several million people who are Muslim Americans and that Vought’s condemnation of those Americans who are not Christians is disrespectful. Sanders ends his comments by, in essence, saying that Vought should be disqualified from government service because of his Christian belief that salvation only comes through Jesus Christ which puts him into conflict with those of other religions.

Parable of the Tares-Jan Luyken- Free Art License

A brief examination of Scripture is needed to see if Sanders is in fact correct about his view that Christians condemn people of other faiths. This seems to be Sanders real beef with Vought; he believes that Vought condemns Muslims. But does the Bible ever describe Christians as standing in judgment over non-Christians? In traditional Christian doctrine, who is the one who judges all people, to include all people who call themselves Christians? The New Testament affirms that Jesus Christ is the one who either will accept or reject all persons regardless of labels. Jesus Christ states that no one else comes to God the Father except through him (John 14:6). He gives this answer in response to a question from Thomas about how the disciples can follow after Him to heaven when Jesus leaves the earth.   In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus also tells the parable of the wheat and the tares (13:24-30). After telling this parable, he explains that he is the one who separates the wheat from the weeds. Furthermore, he passes judgment on those who are worthy of punishment and also on those who are righteous (13:36-43). Later on in Matthew, Jesus teaches that He is the one who separates the sheep from the goats (25:31-46). In this passage, Jesus is the one who determines who is rejected and who is accepted by God. In John’s Gospel (10:9), Jesus speaks of himself as the gate to the sheepfold (heaven) and that he is the one who allows entry into it. So, Jesus states again and again that he alone is the one who condemns those who are unjust and approves those who are righteous. Moreover, in John’s apocalypse, he shares that Jesus alone is the one who grants entry into the “New Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:27).

The Good Shepherd- No Restrictions

After a brief survey of the New Testament, it is observed that Jesus Christ alone is the one who selects those who are deserving of eternal punishment and also eternal reward. As God incarnate, Jesus is the only one who grants access to God the Father and also access to heaven. There is no mention in the New Testament of a follower of Jesus Christ being qualified to render eternal judgment/condemnation on any other person. So, when Vought speaks of Muslims as “standing condemned,” it is Jesus alone who renders this judgment, not Vought or any other Christian. Moreover, Paul explicitly instructs all to be wary of judging another person and that the office of Eternal Judge is reserved for God alone (Romans 2:1-10).

Balthasar van Cortbemde The Good Samaritan Public Domain

If the New Testament teaches that Jesus alone is the sole arbiter of eternal perdition/reward, then what does the New Testament teach about how a Christian should treat others who are not Christians? In short, the answer is “with love.” Jesus mentions that all should love their neighbor as themselves (Luke 10:27b). When being queried about who should be considered a neighbor, Jesus gives the parable of the Good Samaritan as an answer to this question (Luke 10). In giving this parable as a response, Jesus further teaches that the Samaritan is one who has been a good neighbor rendering aid to one who is suffering. The Samaritan’s love practically expressed to aid someone in distress from another faith tradition is instructive about how Christians (or for that matter anyone) should treat others different than themselves. In addition to Jesus’s words on loving your neighbor as yourself, Jesus makes another emphatic statement that this love extends to enemies as well. If someone is your foe, then you should love this person all the more than someone who is your friend (Matthew 5:44, 46). In addition to Jesus words, Paul also tells us the importance of love in 1 Corinthians 13. Without love, you might as well hang up any attempt at Christian piety (vv. 2-3).

As one who lived a perfect life, Jesus’s ministry was filled with an ethic of love that extended to others that were believed to be “less than.” Jesus made sure to visit and share with the Samaritans, a group believed by pious Jews to be “beneath them.” He also dined with tax collectors who were despised by segments of the Jewish population (Matt. 9:10-11). Along with these examples of reaching out to those of lower social status, Jesus also protected a woman who was caught in adultery that was facing sure death (John 8) and even forgave a man of his crimes/sins as he hung on the cross (Luke 23:43). Jesus Christ was continually serving humanity (showing love to others) while he ministered on earth. In his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ not only teaches us to love others, but also modeled a benevolent, selfless love.

Jacopo da Ponte – The Good Thief on the Cross, 16th Century- Public Domain

Hearkening back to Sanders’s disapproval of John 3:18 (standing condemned), I find it quite interesting that just two verses before this passage is the best known of all Bible verses that clearly proclaims the disposition of Jesus towards “the world.” God so loved the world that he sent Jesus Christ to it that all may attain eternal life through relationship with him (v. 16). Moreover, 3:17 states that Jesus was sent not for the purpose of condemning anyone but rather to enable all to attain eternal life. It is only because of their rejection of God’s provision of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ that any are condemned (v. 18) and as stated before, only Jesus Christ is the one who pronounces judgment on any person.

After briefly examining New Testament Scripture relating to who renders final judgment upon humans and what the teaching of the New Testament is about the disposition of Christians towards all persons, it is clear that Sanders is in error when he insinuated that Vought, a Christian, condemned Muslims himself. After reading Vought’s words, it is obvious that Vought was merely referring to a New Testament passage (John 3:18) that spoke of condemnation from God for those who reject Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the clear message of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ/God is the only one who judges every person regardless of his or her label. In regards to an individual Christian, the prime responsibility of any Christian towards any other person is to love them and not condemn them. Furthermore, rendering judgment against another person is expressly prohibited in the New Testament (Rom. 2).

In addition to the error found in Sanders’s denunciation of Vought, there is one more aspect of Sanders comments that is troubling to me. It is the fact that Sanders seems to miss the anti-Christian bigotry of his words. Even as Sanders unjustly accuses Vought of condemning Muslims, Sanders doesn’t seem to recognize the fact that he has not only unfairly accused Vought, but he also indirectly casts an aspersion on all Christians who believe that the New Testament is the inspired word of God. He condemns all Christians for believing that Jesus Christ alone is God Incarnate. Just because Christians believe that Jesus Christ is God exclusively, with no other rival god, does not mean that Christians will unfairly treat any other person because of their religious affiliation. So, Sanders, in effect does what he criticizes Vought for. He condemns a people group for their beliefs.

In conclusion, Sanders commits a logical fallacy (erecting a straw man) when criticizing Vought’s use of John 3:18. The only person who renders eternal judgment according to Christian doctrine is Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the main disposition of a Christian (to include Vought) towards any other person regardless of their label or religious affiliation is simply to love them. This does not mean that a Christian accepts any beliefs or actions of persons opposed to the orthodox Christian perspective. Rather, in spite of the actions or beliefs that a person may hold in opposition to Christianity, Christians are charged to love others regardless of their label without accepting as legitimate any heterodox beliefs/actions.

Before launching an attack against any person, Sanders would be better served to conduct a more thorough investigation before condemning another person or group. If he were to do this, then maybe he would not rush so quickly to an unfair and harsh judgment. This sort of misrepresentation of Christian beliefs and anti-Christian bigotry is becoming more prevalent in the media today. Unfortunately, history tells us that if an untruth is repeated enough, then many will view repeated inaccuracies or misrepresentations as facts. However, I am still hopeful that in the future, instead of superficial research on important issues, politicians and journalists will conduct more thoughtful and thorough investigations instead of racing to get out a provocative sound bite or a fiery piece of rhetoric. We all owe each other the courtesy of giving any matter of import a complete go-over before making serious and public accusations.

Music: More Than Just a Pretty Tune

UNCG Ratio Christi club member Joshua Johnstone playing the piano at a RC club meeting in 2017

 

When we are relaxing or celebrating a special occasion, oftentimes, there is music playing in the background. We may play a tune we think is an oldie but goodie when at home to unwind from a hard day. At a wedding, we will hear romantic or personally meaningful songs that will evoke “that special feeling” in those who are attending. Couples listening may slow dance or just snuggle up close to each other. Often when making a long trip, many will have their favorite music blasting to whittle the time away. In the gym, most everyone has their earbuds in to “get motivated” so they can wring out that one extra rep. I remember in earlier days if I heard the song “Eye of the Tiger” by the group Survivor, I would suddenly have the urge to go push some iron or go for a run.

What is music anyways? Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines music as:

a :  the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity

b :  vocal, instrumental, or mechanical sounds having rhythm, melody, or harmony choral music piano music recorded music[1]

 It is interesting that this definition may give a short, technical explanation for what music is but what it means to us is a totally different matter. Oftentimes, we associate certain songs with something significant that happens in life such as when an important transition occurs. I remember the year I graduated from high school, the most popular song was Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.” Not only does this song evoke happy memories, but it also reminds me of a significant transition in my life. In addition to bringing back the nostalgia of my youth, I have enjoyed playing and singing music as well. As I ponder the various aspects of music, it seems to me that music is much more than just a pretty tune.

When Paul Rupple attended his daughter’s piano concert, he commented about an accomplished pianist and his son who played a piano piece together:

As you can imagine, as I sat there, I could only wonder why, if we are the product of random processes and natural selection as many would have us to believe these days, would this music even exist, let alone move a person to emotion?  It really doesn’t make any sense at all as it does nothing to add to our survival as a species.  It doesn’t gather any more food for us (although we did have snacks afterward – but we, the parents even brought those), it doesn’t lead to an increase in the population, and the lessons actually cost money, as do the instruments on which the music is played.  It just seems nonsensical that people would create music that has order and does something to us that we identify as emotions, which themselves don’t make sense from an evolutionary viewpoint.[2]

Rupple observed in the expert playing something that could not have been the result of random occurrences. Playing intricate musical compositions do nothing to help a musician gain more from a Darwinian perspective.

Public Domain

In similarity to Rupple’s thoughts regarding the insufficiency of naturalistic processes alone, Boston College philosopher, Peter Kreeft, suggests a simple syllogism:

Premise: There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach

Conclusion: Therefore there must be a God.

You either see this one or you don’t.[3]

In this brief syllogism, Kreeft observes that appreciating the grandeur and beauty of a musical great’s compositions puts one into contact with God. The implication from Kreeft’s logic equation is that no random process can explain the genius and beauty of this noted composer’s work.

In addition to the perspectives of Rupple and Kreeft, Bernard Brandstater shares his perspective on music:

I am a believer out of necessity, compelled to bow before a Transcendent Being who is personal, who is intelligent beyond imagining and imponderably artistic and generous. In discussing beauty in today’s confrontation with entrenched naturalism, a bold creationist who upholds a designer/creator of beauty wins hands down. Though it is outside the laws of a naturalist worldview, his model works. The model reveals a designer, a God whom we can glimpse, though indistinctly, because the data we observe in nature require that He exist and that He be active in the cosmos. And His attributes come into clearest focus when we not only consider complexity, which is essential for life, but also see beauty, which is essential for spirit, as His gift to us. He is not only a designer and a fabricator, but also an artist who fashioned the physical vehicles that carry the colors of a rainbow and the sounds of great music.[4]

Photo of a painting of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach (Public Domain).

As has been briefly demonstrated above, it is easy to note the rationale for God’s existence from experiencing the beauty of music. However, from my perspective as an investigator, I observe evidence for God’s existence in music as well. For example, we may think about the experience of driving a car and that a certain car handled well after we drove it.  However, we do not think about all that went into making the car.  Is it mere coincidence that we live on a planet that has all the materials that allow for a car to be made?  The metals are mined from the Earth, the glass is manufactured from sand, the rubber from rubber trees, the gas from oil deposits, the carpet from petroleum products, the paints from pigments in plants and other materials, gravity, etc. You get the idea.  It would be serendipitous to think that we have all of these materials and elements naturally occurring in the atmosphere/Earth that allow for a car to be made. Not only do we have the materials to make a car, we also have the intellectual ability to manufacture and operate automobiles as well.

In similarity to the above illustration of the car, it seems to me that I have taken a lot for granted when playing air guitar to my favorite rock classics. For instance, when these classic rock riffs were recorded, the guitar that was played was made out of wood and metal. Without these naturally occurring materials from the cosmos, we would not have the material to make the guitar and other instruments.  Moreover, without airwaves with which to carry vibrations, the eardrums to receive the vibrations, the aural nerves that carry the musical signal to the brain, and a brain that has been designed to receive and process the music, then music would not be appreciated as it has been for millennia. Of course, we cannot forget that musicians have bodies that allow them to play instruments.  They have lungs that they can fill up with air.  They also have mouths and noses with which they use  to push their breath through the instrument.  Moreover, musicians have hands and fingers with which to play instruments and also ears with which they use to tune their instruments. We cannot forget eyes with which they can use to craft instruments and write/read musical notes.

In addition to musical instruments, vocal music also has the same array of intricacies.  Vocal cords (or folds) make vibrations that travel through air from the lungs and are are pushed out of the nose and mouth of the vocalist by muscles in the diaphragm.    In addition to these vocal folds and supporting muscles, there are also resonance chambers that are a part of the sinus area of the face as well as the mouth itself. These chambers greatly enhance the vibrations made by the cords and aid in projecting the vibrations as they travel through the air from the nose and mouth of the vocalist en route to the ears of the listeners, etc. We also should not forget to mention the ability of numerous vocalists to be able to sing in harmony and in rhythm with each other.

In making my argument for the existence of a designer God by observing the various aspects of music, this case can be made by relying upon circumstantial evidence.  It is obvious that the human body has been designed to make musical instruments as well as instrumental and vocal music too.   We also must not lose sight that design is also apparent in our ability to appreciate/compose music with various specialized parts of the body ( ears, nerves, brains, and minds).

As noted above, there is ample evidence for design observed in the physical and mental processes that contribute to the successful making/performing of music.  All of these aspects considered together provide good circumstantial evidence to make an inference that there is a Divine designer who crafted the world and our bodies in such a way that music can be made and appreciated.  Moreover, it would be harder to explain the various aspects of music composition/appreciation randomly coming into being.   So perhaps the next time when I am “air guitar soloing” to my favorite Boston riff, I will remember that music is more than just a pretty tune.

Photo of Ross Hickling, U.S. Marshals Service, Retired

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/music

[2] Rupple, P. Evidence for the existence of God. Date of access 4 May 2017. http://veritasnetwork.blogspot.com/2009/03/evidence-for-existence-of-god-aesthetic.html

[3] Kreeft, P.J. & Tacelli, R.K. 2009. Twenty catholic capstones to Christian apologetics (In Handbook of Catholic apologetics. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, ch. 17).

[4] Brandstater, B. 2004. Intelligent design: The argument from beauty. Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 15/1 (Spring 2004): 12-20.

The Shack: Bad Theology-Good Theodicy

The Shack Movie

Recently, I took in “The Shack” at a theater in my hometown of Kernersville with a group from church. It had been some years since I read the book (authored by William P. Young) after its controversial release. When reading the book back then, I noted that there was much to disagree with from a theological perspective regarding the composition of God. I also was concerned with the Universalist perspective that seemed to be nesting within Young’s text. However, I also found that there was truth in its pages regarding the benevolence of God when the characters in the cast (mainly Mac) encountered the existential problem of suffering and pain. After viewing the recent movie, I observe bad theology yet good theodicy.

In the seminary topic of theology proper, a student will study the doctrine of God. Who is he? What is he composed of (spirit or a body)? What about the Trinity? Is the Godhead composed of three parts or is it one Divine unity in three persons? What about the metaphysical composition of Jesus? Was he simply a great human prophet whose ministry God blessed or was he God himself? In treating these questions, conclusions should be drawn from what is observed in scripture about God. In arriving at who God is (understanding that we cannot have a complete understanding of this because of a limited human perspective), an orthodox Christian perspective (or that perspective which supports the traditional understanding of Christianity from its historic roots) is gleaned from the pages of the Bible itself.

From this jumping off point (an analysis of scripture), we can make observations about who God is (in a limited sense of course). In “The Shack,” the Godhead or Trinity is figured prominently. We observe that the three persons of the Trinity are presented in the movie as three different human beings. I will assume that the reader will know the general descriptions of the three people portrayed as the Trinity in the movie and also the general plot of the movie. As God the Father is portrayed as an African-American female, the main problem is that God, the Father, has a human body. In Colossians 1:15-19, it states that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Thus, we observe two persons of the Trinity in this passage with the Father being invisible and that he (the Father) could/can be observed in the person of Jesus when he ministered on the earth and also now in heaven. So, God, the Father, is immaterial yet Jesus is God in the flesh. Thus, when “Papa” (the Father) is displayed in the movie with any sort of body, this would not be an accurate portrayal of God the Father from a Biblical perspective because God does not have a flesh and blood body. The same holds true for the character of Sarayu, who was portrayed by an Asian female who represented the Holy Spirit. The corporeity of Sarayu is also counter to the composition of the Holy Spirit as described in the New Testament as the Holy Spirit is immaterial and does not have a physical body.  Furthermore, in relation to our relationship with the Holy Spirit, Ephesians 3:16 describes the empowerment from the Holy Spirit within your being. Also, New Testament testimony of the immateriality of the Holy Spirit comes from the encounter of the disciples with the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter two where the Holy Spirit filled them with the evidence of speaking in tongues.

Of course, Jesus portrayed in the movie, as a middle-eastern man would be an accurate depiction of “God in the flesh” as portrayed in the New Testament. However, three flesh and blood persons as the Trinity is not an accurate portrayal of the Godhead as inferred from the New Testament.   I was encouraged that the movie cured some of the problematic Universalist and hierarchical concepts mentioned by the members of the Trinity in the book where there was no hierarchy within the Godhead and where all persons of all faiths would eventually get to God through Jesus Christ albeit many after death. The characters in the movie just did not discuss these heterodox topics so that was a big advantage that the movie had over the book.   Turning from the negative aspects of the movie to positive ones, the love and unity observed between the members of the Trinity resonated with the audience and me. Also, the love and patience with which the various members of the Trinity related to Mac (the lead character in the movie) was an attractive portrayal of the loving disposition of God towards humanity as observed in scripture (see below).

In contrast to the “fleshly nature” of God portrayed in the movie, I believe that the handling of the issue of theodicy (or one’s theory of the problem of pain and suffering along with the belief in a good God) was a success.  Dr. Eleonore Stump, who is the Robert J. Henle Chair in Philosophy at Saint Louis University, states that amidst the back and forth of scholarly discussion on the problem of pain and suffering, there really should be a discussion as to the emotional trauma that one experiences. She (Stump, 1991:197-198) submits that in discussing the problem of evil, one should go beyond providing “a morally defensible reason for God to allow suffering.” [1]   Why does a good God allow us to experience pain and suffering? In this way, I think that the movie is effective. The explanations that it gives for the reason terrible things can happen to good people and why God allows them to happen are a good start to explaining the disposition of God towards humanity from our perspective. In Mac’s accusation of God allowing the cruel death of his daughter, Missy, God tells him that he has an incomplete picture of things and even when Mac doesn’t understand things, God is working out things for his good. In further interaction with the Trinity, the Holy Spirit (Sarayu) asks Mac about his level of confidence in knowing for sure what is good or evil. With billions of people who believe that they are right on a particular topic, how is it that you (Mac) think you are a capable judge?

The Trinity further submits to Mac that the brokenness that manifested in the murder of Mac’s daughter Missy has been percolating since the fall of Adam. But then in response, Mac is wondering how God could have allowed Missy to experience this terrible death?  In reply, the Trinity states that it can work good out of terrible tragedies. However, in no way does it mean that It (the Trinity) caused them. Furthermore, God states that there never has been any promise of a pain free life but that while she was being murdered, God was with Missy (evil is here because of the fall but also God is with each one of his children when it befalls them). In a very moving scene from the movie, God, now in the form of a Native American man, leads Mac to find the body of his daughter. In this touching scene, Mac wraps the body of his daughter, in a sheet and as he is carrying her to bury her, he is chanting, “I forgive you” (referring to the murderer) over and over even as the Trinity is comforting and assisting him in this painful task. Earlier in the movie, the Godhead tells Mac that he needs to forgive the murderer and at this juncture in the movie, Mac takes their advice to heart. Throughout the movie, Jesus is working on some sort of woodworking project as he is a carpenter and at the end of the movie it is observed that the project Jesus was working on all along was Missy’s casket. The burial scene depicted the loving care of God for both Mac and Missy. In a subsequent scene, Mac is given the opportunity to see his beloved Missy and it is obvious that she is content and happy, playing with other children, and in the presence of Jesus (she is obviously in paradise/heaven).

Another positive aspect of the movie was the love that each member of the Trinity had for the other. This was portrayed well when Mac sat down with them for dinner in the early part of the movie. It was obvious that there was great affection amongst the member of the Trinity and also for Mac. I thought that a shared meal was quite a fitting setting for the movie-makers (and Young) to place the Trinity and Mac together. This dinner gathering to me was evocative of the marriage supper of the lamb where the children of God are brought together at a meal to celebrate their newfound entrance into heaven and union with Jesus (Revelation 19:6-9).

This resonates with me. Planned, special meals are normally those occasions that functional families look forward to the most. The birthday of a loved one or a special holiday meal are always occasions where goodwill is in abundance. This goodwill is amplified by the smells and tastes of special menu items. Also, another aspect about what makes these meals special is the person making it. Oftentimes, it is either mom or grandmother who are the loving chefs who create these memorable and delectable treats. Sometimes, granddad or dad grills the meat in his own special way. In this meal portrayed in the movie, it is “Papa” who is the loving maker of the meal. In this and other scenes in the movie, the movie cast/writers do well in portraying the love and care of God for humanity in their care for Mac.

Of course, I do not have some secret conduit of knowledge from God regarding God’s disposition towards those with who he is in relationship with. Rather, I look at scripture and observe that the words of Jesus and the other Bible authors lead us to similar conclusions as to what is portrayed in “The Shack.” In several different scenes, the dialogue and action of the movie portrays a God who is so personal with Mac, that He was intimately familiar with the details of Mac’s state of mind and emotional hurt.  This is in accord with the words of Jesus in Luke 12:6-7. God is intimately familiar with our circumstances and values us greatly (God knows us so well that the hairs on our heads are numbered). Also observed in Matthew’s Gospel is the injunction of Jesus to cast your cares upon him in order to receive rest for your souls (11:28). This speaks to God’s desire to carry your burdens for you. Similarly, God also desires to help you with your anxieties because of his love for you. God wants to lighten your load if you will only give them to him (1 Peter 5:7). Another scripture reference where the compassion of God is exhibited is in Psalm 46:1 where the Psalmist proclaims that God is our “refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble.”  Similar themes are included in the following Psalms as well (3:3-4, 23:4-6, 55:22, 37:39, 40). In John 16:33, Jesus wants us to be of good cheer because he has overcome the world. The constant provision and protection for those who trust in God is exhibited in Deut. 31:6; Jos 1:5 where the well-known promise, “I will never leave you or forsake you” is located.  Similarly, the resurrected Jesus just before his ascension, proclaimed, “I am with you always (Matt. 28:20).” Similarly, the attentive nature of God towards his children can be discerned when Jesus mentions in Matt. 6:8 that the Father knows what you need before you even ask him for something in prayer. These various scripture references highlight God’s care and provision for those who are in relationship with him.

As mature Christians and also as Christian leaders, I believe that it is important to check out books and movies that have made an impact on culture. If we do not do this, then how can we speak prophetically into the culture that we live in? Understanding the controversial nature of “The Shack” after reading it years ago, when the movie came out recently, I wanted a young adult group that I am involved with now to see the movie for themselves in order to judge the merits of it. After seeing the movie as a group, we then discussed it during our next meeting. We discussed both the negative and the positive aspects of the movie. What was really productive about viewing the movie is that we did not only discuss the negative aspects of how God was portrayed, but this portrayal of God was used to discuss who God really was from our limited perspective. So, this was a great opportunity to discuss the Trinity and the various persons within the Godhead. This made for a great transition into the topic of “Who Jesus Is” and a discussion of how the identity of Jesus impacts us today and then on to other related topics. We also discussed the problem of pain and suffering and how the explanation within the movie did well as a beginning point to discuss this issue. So, I believe that movies like “The Shack” should be seen and discussed by the church at large. Relatedly, I do not believe that these movies should be shunned and dismissed merely because there may be some error within them. Rather, we should analyze movies like “The Shack,” we should discuss the negative aspects and the positive aspects of movies and books, and we should use them (popular movies and books) as aids to reveal what scripture says on relevant cultural issues and trends.

[1] Stump, E. 1991. “The problem of evil and the desires of the heart” in The problem of evil ed Adams, Marilyn. New York: Oxford University Press.

Link to “The Shack” trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLOyUbSS5Eg

 

“Does the OT God Care About Social Justice?”

Sistine God
Photo of a depiction of God painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Public Domain.

Nobody likes a bully. We all know what bullying is from our past experiences. Someone who is small or weak is abused physically and mentally by someone more powerful or popular. Bullies often take what they want when they want it.  An example of institutionalized bullying is observed in the movie “The Help” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1454029/synopsis) where white women in a certain neighborhood mistreat their African-American maids. As you watch the movie, you are waiting for justice to be dispensed. To your delight, justice is eventually delivered to the cruel high society women depicted in the movie in an unexpected fashion. There are some today who accuse “the god of the Old Testament” as being the worst kind of bully. In the opinion of some prominent skeptics today, this god is portrayed as a villainous despot who dispenses his wrath wantonly on humanity. Richard Dawkins, an Oxford scholar known for his rants against religion, explains his view:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.[1]

Another skeptical scholar, John Loftus, agrees with Dawkins regarding his opinion of the God of the Old Testament:

What we actually find in the Bible is an extremely not-so-good, very bad God! Yahweh, the part of the Godhead in the Old Testament is very bad…He’s a God of war, a condemning bloodthirsty God of wrath.[2]

But does Dawkins’ vociferous indictment come anywhere close to an accurate portrayal of God as observed in the Old Testament? How about the opinion of Loftus? Does it match up with what is described in the OT about God?   If God is in fact one who relishes doling out pain and suffering for the fun of it, then maybe Dawkins and Loftus are right. Most people today do not approve of “heavy handedness” when they see it displayed.  After looking at passages not normally cited by skeptics, you may agree with me that God, as observed in the writings of the Old Testament prophets, is really interested in social justice; in providing for and protecting those who cannot protect themselves.

Recently, when reading through the OT prophets, I was looking for this bully God that Dawkins and Loftus were describing. Would I observe a tyrannical oppressor? In an earlier blog (http://shieldyourfaith.org/blog/?p=435), it seemed to me that God had a deep concern for those who had sold themselves into slavery. God was so concerned about the abuse of Israeli slaves at the hands of their fellow citizens that the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed the destruction of Jerusalem as punishment for their cruel treatment of these slaves.  As observed in Jeremiah 34:8-17, the activity of Yahweh on behalf of these oppressed ones gives us a hint at the disposition of God towards those who are deemed to be weak in society. He loves and defends those who cannot defend themselves. Jeremiah is not the only prophet who pens this divine concern for the downtrodden.

Widow with children
Fernand Pelez – Illustrirter Katalog der internationalen Kunstausstellung im Königl. Glaspalaste in München 1883, 4. Auflage, München, September 1883

As I made my way through the prophets, I noted others as well. In his era, Ezekiel also lists misdeeds committed by Israelis/Jews:

  • Citizens shed blood; the rulers shed blood
  • Unjust gain by the rulers
  • Orphans/widows mistreated
  • Many lie and look for reasons to commit violent acts
  • Having sex while practicing a false religion in public areas
  • After sacrificing their children to a false god, they come to the temple and desecrate it (23:39)
  • Many men having sexual relations with their mother
  • Adultery
  • Assassinations
  • Defrauding of the poor
  • Racketeering (threatening others for money)
  • Burglary and theft
  • Religious officials involved in corruption
  • Oppressing the poor and the needy
  • Abusing foreigners

After listing this long indictment against Israel/Judah, God pronounces judgment against them. God will allow them to be conquered and carried away by a more powerful nation. However, this is not the last word from Ezekiel (ch. 34) who then proclaims the mercy of God in the future. Furthermore, he states that after Israel/Judah are punished, corporate life will be restored again (ch. 37).

In the writings of the prophet Joel, he also speaks of judgment on Israel/Judah but then also proclaims that in the future they will be restored and blessed with abundance. In his OT book another prophet, Amos, discusses social justice at length. He shares with us not only how God is disgusted with the immorality of Israel’s leaders but they have also earned God’s ire because they won’t stop abusing Israelis who are vulnerable. Amos’s list of charges includes the use of dishonest measures, sexual depravity, the sacrifice of children, and selling fellow Israelites into forced slavery. Even as these abuses continue, the social elite live comfortably. As a result of this maltreatment, Amos proclaims God’s judgment against Israel will be served up by a swarm of locusts (ch. 7).

But interestingly enough, Amos continues with a different tone after announcing God’s punishment. Characteristic of the activity of Yahweh in the Old Testament, the future for Israel is full of mercy and redemption. God says through Amos that he will restore Israel to a place of prominence and blessing after their punishment is complete.  Even after all of these transgressions, Yahweh will remain faithful to Israel and forgive them of their corporate trespasses. In the book of Jonah, the prophet gets mad at God because He spared the Assyrians when in Jonah’s estimation they are worthy of punishment (Jonah 4:1-3). What about the other prophets?

In the Book of Micah, a new offense is being committed against the innocent. In addition to the general moral malaise of the country, Micah informs us that there are Israelis who are throwing rightful owners out of their houses and off of their fields (ch. 2). Not only are they committing these crimes but they are also dispossessing their fellow countrymen of their inheritances as well. Micah also mentions the worship of false gods as another reason why God is against Israel in his era.

A pattern is emerging as our survey of each prophet continues. From the perspective of Habakkuk, this prophet simply notes that there is social injustice all around him. Because justice no longer prevails in Israel, justice is coming against the wrongdoers in Israel. Even as Habakkuk announces impending punishment against Israel, he asks God to be merciful even as he punishes them. He further proclaims that Israel will be delivered from those who will conquer and carry them away. Again, judgment rendered but then mercy following the judgment.

In the writings of Zephaniah, not only is the worship of false gods given for the reason of God’s judgment, but also because of the violence and deceit that is ongoing in these pagan temples. Furthermore, Zephaniah refers to the belief that undergirds much of the debauchery and license observed; they do not believe that God is still active in the affairs of the world. In similarity to the pattern that we have observed with the other prophets, God is going to show mercy to those who acknowledge and cease their misdeeds.

In Zechariah, the Israelites ask him (Zechariah) if they should fast in order to obtain the blessing of the Lord for themselves. Zechariah is quick to censure them for their hypocrisy. In response, Zechariah warns them that instead of earning God’s favor by performing rituals, they would be better off practicing social justice now. Stop oppressing the fatherless, widows, and those who are from other lands that reside with them. Moreover, Zechariah writes that these people ignored his counsel and because of their obstinacy, they were going to be scattered by the wind. However again, in line with the other prophets, Zechariah foretells that God will be merciful to Israel by restoring them in the future. The Prophet Malachi echoes the other prophets with a short indictment, a plea to change or face judgment, and a future where evildoers are vanquished and the righteous rewarded (4:1-3).

So, what we see in the prophets is a God who is punishing because of the continuing abuse of the poor and needy at the hands of the powerful. He isn’t just causing people to suffer for sadistic reasons. Rather, he chastises the powerful (bullies) because they refuse to discontinue their exploitation of the poor and underprivileged.

After a reading of the prophets, it is clear that God is seeking social justice for exploited victims when he brings calamity to their oppressors.  Furthermore, the very fact that God sends His prophets to different nations shows his beneficence. He would rather that cruel oppression cease voluntarily and would rather abstain from bringing destruction to a nation. It was also demonstrated in the prophets that God will not only protect the vulnerable, but he will also grant mercy to their oppressors if they would only turn from their cruel ways. God is ready and willing to show mercy to these criminals if they stop their persecution of the weak. After my reading, the words of Dawkins and Loftus don’t align with what I observe in the writings of the OT prophets. Perhaps those who rail against the “God of the Old Testament” should read the prophets and consider God’s messages of justice and mercy. They should conduct a more thorough examination before they “go off on God.” Granted, they do not believe that He exists and are pointing out what they believe as proof that the Biblical god should not be embraced by anyone.  But they should consider all of the passages of the Old Testament before they hurl verbal missiles.

In Contrast to the words of Dawkins and Loftus, this kindhearted and patient God as portrayed in the books of the Old Testament prophets sounds to me like a shepherd who continually searches for his lost sheep and rejoices when he finds it (Luke 15). He cares for his sheep.  In opposition to the claims of these prominent skeptics, God always takes up the case of the oppressed and desires that the bullies of society cease and desist from their brutish ways. The “God of the Old Testament,” as portrayed in the prophets, is not a cruel bully who tortures for the sport of it. Rather, he is a caring shepherd who cares for the needy and punishes those who ignore/abuse the downtrodden.

Shepherd
Public Domain

[1] Dawkins, R. 2008. The God delusion. New York: Mariner Books.

[2] Loftus, J. 2016. Unapologetic: Why philosophy of religion must end. Pitchstone Publishing: Durham.