The Gates Are Open

July 2015

Is God About To Judge America? (Part 2)

Posted on July 23, 2015

November 1, 1755 was a day so many people were looking forward to in the City of Lisbon, Portugal. It was All-Saints Day in the Catholic calendar, and as such, was a day of feasting, celebrations and a parade.

But it was going to be the worst day in that city’s history. Some believe it was the turning point in modern history.

At 9:30 a.m., buildings began to shake, the water in the harbor began to recede out to sea, streets collapsed and heaved, and half of the city’s churches literally disappeared. As the next few minutes collided, the shaking got more intense and people began to die by the thousands. The receding harbor would be re-filled in a half hour by the largest Tsunami to ever hit a European city. In the end, when all the carnage was totaled, 60,000 people were dead.

1755 marked a time when the Enlightenment was nearing its first height of popularity. People were walking away from God into deism, humanism and atheism. At first, theologians rose up and declared that the Lisbon Earthquake was the judgment of God against the teachings of the Enlightenment. Their voices cried out for Europe to repent of leaving God.

But there was a problem with this theory. When Lisbon’s city’s planners went through the rubble to determine which buildings had been destroyed and which had been spared, they came upon a curious truth. Every single church in the city had been shaken to rubble, and almost every brothel and drinking establishment had been spared.

People then began to question: How can this qualify as the Judgment of God if all the churches were annihilated? This, of course, became further fuel for Enlightenment fires. Non-theists mocked Christian scholars. Voltaire, long a believer in God and champion against the inroads of the New Thought proponents, finally gave up and declared that he was an agnostic.

There had been a judgment all right, but perhaps it was not the Judgment of God.

I believe the problem with the pronouncements of the theologians was their quickness to analyze. As I am going to show in a moment from a look at the beginnings of mankind’s history, it is always a bad idea to jump too quickly to announce Judgment. Judgment is a slow formula, arrived at through patience and decided by careful deliberation. This is true of human courts and perhaps even more so in God’s court.

The American Church in recent years has been inundated with outliers who find it delightful to cry “judgment” every time there is a disaster. From Westboro Baptist Church proclaiming God’s judgment at military funerals, to Pat Robertson calling for repentance after a hurricane. From Oral Roberts saying that AIDS was a judgment against homosexuality to a Los Angeles preacher claiming that Rick Warren’s son’s suicide was proof God was judging Saddleback Church because they had grown too big.

What is the problem with these knee-jerk pronouncements? They aren’t biblical for one. And they misconstrue the character of God for another.

In Genesis chapter three, the Bible recounts how sin entered this world. God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Satan, disguised as a serpent, tricked Eve into trying out the fruit. Adam, who was not deceived, watched to see what would happen. God had told him if they ate the fruit they would die. Adam wanted to see if his wife would live or die by her action. He allowed her to be the world’s first food-taster.

In this study on the world’s first sin, we see the Principle of Delayed Consequences. In order to understand this principle, notice the following details from the story:

  1. Adam is fooled by noticing Eve didn’t die. God never said they would die right away. Until that moment, they were going to be living forever. When they ate the fruit, death came into the world. But because Eve did not die right away, Adam concluded the fruit was safe. He didn’t realize that the consequences for our actions are not always swift and immediate.
  2. Adam and Eve hid from God because they expected immediate Judgment. Though God would explain the consequences of their sin, God did not judge them right away. And, in running away from God, they put a barrier between themselves and God. This would later become the pattern for mankind. We don’t seek the God we are afraid of.
  3. Death did not happen for a long time. Adam and Eve lived for almost 1,000 years. This is a longer time than anyone would have expected God’s judgment to be delayed.
  4. Both the physical and spirit realms are changed because of their actions. Death enters the world. The plants change their DNA. The animals are in hostility. Their bodies change and are no longer as healthy as they were. But, the biggest change is in the spirit realm. They are cut off from the tree of Life and from the direct presence of God. Since God is spirit (John 4:24), they, as spirit beings, do not have the complete access to God they once enjoyed. Both realms are changed irrevocably because of sin. The first part of judgment is always having to face the direct consequences of our actions.
  5. God makes promises even in the midst of explaining consequences. As we will see in later articles in this series, God almost always shows what can happen as God works to correct the mistakes we make. In this Genesis 3 story, Eve will give birth to a line of men from which will come the Savior. Adam will work the soil and through hard work will achieve great things. The devil will be destroyed by Eve’s offspring. Adam and Eve will have conflict, but they will also have God to help them with the conflict.

 

With all the talk about God’s judgment, there is so little discussion on the Principle of Delayed Consequences. There are so many examples of these an entire book could be written about biblical examples where judgment was meted out slowly. But let no one be deluded into thinking that some sins have no consequences.

All sin has a consequence to it. Some of them are just more subtle than others. And this is especially true when there is a huge delay.

In 2 Samuel chapter 21 we see a perfect example of this. Israel had been inundated by famine for several years. King David sends the prophet to ask God why this is happening. I imagine David, like most people of his day, believed the cause was recent and immediate.

He could not have been prepared for the answer God gave him. “It is because Saul killed the Gibeonites”. What? Who in the heck are the Gibeonites?

I’m not surprised if you don’t know. They only show up in one small scene in the book of Joshua. When Joshua’s forces had defeated Jericho and then the little town of Ai, the people of Gibeon knew they were next. So, they pretended to be from a far-away country, put dust on their faces and told the Israelites that they had come from a long distance. They begged Joshua to allow them to be the slaves of the Jews. Without checking with God, Joshua made a vow to them.

That’s when they discovered this group of people had pulled a fast one on them. They wanted to kill the Gibeonites, but God takes a dim view toward breaking vows. So God made the people of Israel take in the Gibeonites as servants. They served the leaders of the nation for several centuries.

We don’t know when it happened. We don’t know why it happened. But 2 Samuel 21 tells us that when Saul was king before David, he had a number of Gibeonites killed. It never says what they did wrong; in all likelihood he killed them because they were Gibeonites. In true Saul-like fashion, he probably thought he was cleaning up one of God’s messes. He liked to do that.

David asked God if this is why there was famine in the land. God told him it was indeed the reason. Broken vows have huge results in the spirit realm. The enemy of our souls loves to torture our lives and bring ruin when we do this. (Note: This should be a sobering thought as we realize how many treaties the American government has broken with its native peoples).

But this is many years after Saul did the killing. How can there be judgment now? This is the Principle of Delayed Judgment at work. You can be lulled into thinking you don’t have to make amends or change your ways because there doesn’t seem to be any consequences right away. Saul was already dead. David was nearing the end of his reign. We don’t know why the judgment had this timing, but it highlights the big problem with trying to discern judgment. We don’t know which consequence goes with which sin sometimes.

The same problem can be seen when people do the right thing and don’t see rewards right away. In Jeremiah 44:16-19 we read:

16 “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! 17 We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. 18 But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.”

19 The women added, “When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were making cakes impressed with her image and pouring out drink offerings to her?”

This is when the Israelites escaped to Egypt to avoid being taken into Babylonian Captivity. Jeremiah had been telling them to stop sinning and get their lives together. They had been worshiping other gods and God almighty told them to stop. The logic in their answer is intriguing. They want Jeremiah to know a simple formula they figured out:

  1. When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven, we had everything we wanted.
  2.  When we stopped, everything went wrong.

 

Therefore, by that formula, they were going to keep burning incense to the Queen of Heaven. These are people who believe that immediate reward and punishment are the way to tell if you’re doing right or wrong.

This is just as dangerous a formula to use when examining disasters like the Lisbon Earthquake or AIDS or Tsunamis or even the death of a loved one. The enemy to our souls loves to whisper in our ear that this is judgment for our bad actions. But he is a liar and seeks to deceive us into burying ourselves deeper in sin.

So why is Judgment delayed? That is the subject of the next article.

 

Is America About to Be Judged? (Part 1)

Posted on July 15, 2015

I admit it: I gave this a sensational title, but not for the obvious reasons. I didn’t do it to attract more readers or to present a unique and controversial approach to our current emotional state as a nation.

I ask the question to introduce the concept of God’s judgment and how we can wrestle with the implications of it. I don’t think many people know what the word “judgment” means and how God intends to apply it. (And yes, I can hear the words of Inigo Montoya from Princess Bride saying “I don’t think that word means what you think it means”).

As is always helpful, allow me to present my personal beliefs about God’s Judgment before delving into my question:

  1. I believe God is a righteous judge 
  2. I believe God will judge every man for the good and evil each has done
  3. I believe the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ provides enough grace to eliminate Judgment for anyone who believes in him and entrusts themselves to His mercy.

 

With those theological underpinnings, I want to present the real difficulties behind answering the above question. To do that, let me show you an important meme that came out right after the Supreme Court ruling legalizing Gay marriage.

I believe the composer of this meme is addressing a common theme in the past few decades: as America legalizes and normalizes actions which most conservative Christians consider sinful and unbiblical –abortion and gay marriage–we should expect to see God judge us as a nation. I am not exaggerating when I say I have read or heard that sentiment expressed several hundred times in the past few months.

The above meme takes a clever and poignant approach to questioning this concept. The writer notes that many Christians believe we are about to be judged for abortion and gay marriage; but apparently America was not judged for attempted genocide against native Americans, horrific slavery, rampant selfishness and greed and many other atrocities. Without asking the question, with sly sarcasm, the writer is suggesting that if those actions did not provoke God’s judgment, then recent activity won’t either.

I realize that both sides of this particular debate may have misunderstood how judgment works. Because of this, both sides are partially wrong in their conclusions. Abortion and Gay Marriage are not going to bring God’s Judgment the way people think they will. But neither did America escape judgment for all the other sins we committed.

 

First, let’s determine what the word “judgment” means. Most people who hear the word think it means to enact punishment upon someone for their actions.  When we think of “judgment,” our minds might picture the words of  the civil war hymn:

“My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, He is trampling out the vintage where his Grapes of Wrath are stored.”

But is that what the word Judgment means? Partially. To determine what the biblical word judgment implies we should look to the original idea behind the Hebrew and Greek words.

Hebrew: Mishphat. There are three different Hebrew words for judgment. But this is by far the most common one. And the others have a similar meaning. Mishphat refers to the process of deciding the merits of a case. The final verdict is not as critical as the process. It is what the judge does as he seeks to decide the truth of a matter to render the verdict.

Greek: Krina.  This word, and all its variations, means almost exactly the same as the Hebrew word. It is the word that Jesus uses when he says “Judge not or you will be judged”. A person who spends most of their days trying to decide what everyone else is doing wrong will find the rest of the world does that back to them. It is a “live by the sword, die by the sword” idea.  Krina almost always focuses on the process of determining blame or fault. To judge someone is to examine their life to determine if they are guilty or innocent.

Here is the main point.  The word is almost always followed by a proclamation of the findings of the judge. The period of judgment is not over until the judge both declares the verdict and announces the consequences. Judgment thus involves three stages:

  1. Presentation of the facts of the case.
  2. Declaration of the verdict.
  3. Carrying out of the sentence.

 

The Christians of the modern era perhaps believe God has finished the Judgment process–or at least the first two stages. Based on that belief, one could say that the execution of judgment is about to begin.

Here is how it sounds among Evangelicals. The bible is clear about abortion and homosexuality. And since the Bible tells us that abortion and homosexuality are always wrong, anyone who admits to doing either is already convicted on the facts. The declaration of the verdict has already been made, and we are just waiting for the carrying out of the sentence.

But there are serious problems with this. Let’s use abortion as an example.

First, does this mean that if a nation has any abortions that nation is about to be sentenced to retribution? How many abortions would result in Judgment? Or do the leaders of the nation have to endorse an act for the sentence to be carried out? And can we say that Roe v. Wade represented the wishes of this nation’s leaders at the time, or the general population? Or are the decisions of nine people–the Supreme Court–enough to trigger an attack from God? Are all nations going to be judged the same for their practice of abortion?

The answers are not easily forthcoming. And what if the abortion rates start to fall dramatically; does that mean that God will partially commute the sentence? 

I am not going to suggest answers to those questions in this first article. But the questions show that the presentation of the “facts” of the case may not be done yet. In the case of gay marriage, is it marriage that God will judge or acts of homosexuality? Does it matter what percentage of the population takes part in this? And since the Bible never imagined a nation would legalize gay marriage, can we assume legalizing gay relationships and calling it marriage is worse than the acts of homosexuality in God’s eyes.

These are also questions that have to be answered. I am not going to attempt those answers here.

But let’s assume that God has already decided that abortion and homosexuality in America are acts of guilt and must be punished. There are some huge questions to ask. Among them are these:

  • What will that punishment look like?
  • When will it happen? How long does God delay?
  • Have previous national sins been declared sinful? If they were, did God execute his judgment on them already? If he did not, why?
  • What other current sinful acts will God also declare worthy of punishment? Adultery, divorce, greed, taking advantage of developing countries, enslavement of youth for sex, not paying of tithes, violence against children, sexual abuse, prescription drug abuse, alcoholism (a right guaranteed by the 21st amendment), unwillingness to care for homeless, mentally handicapped, injured soldiers, ignoring the needs of soldiers with PTSD….on and on.
  • How long will the punishment last? Is there a chance for reprieve?
  • If there are 50 righteous people in a city, will God enact punishment (actually we know the answer to this one. Abraham prayed to God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if there were fifty righteous people. Actually, God was willing to spare that city from destruction if there were ten righteous people).
  • Has judgment already started? Would we know what it looks like if we saw it?

In the remainder of the articles, we will break down the answers to these questions and deal with some of the specifics of both the Old and New Testament teaching about Judgment.

 

Beginner and Intermediate Lists of Theological Books

Posted on July 6, 2015

theologyI did a teaching recently on the value of reading theological books and knowing the importance of learning to think theologically. Following up on that teaching I felt I should strengthen my position on this with some suggested book lists. I have two lists, so look carefully at these descriptions:

Basic Theology Reading List:  This list is designed for people who have either never read books that deal with theological topics, or have been turned off by theological books.

Intermediate Theology Reading List: This is for those who have already waded into the waters of theological reflection and now want to get a really good foundation on theological books that challenge the mind more thoroughly.

I have not included any books on systematic theology. That is, none of these titles covers all the subjects in theology. There indeed are books that do this, and I may do an article later this month giving my viewpoints on which of those comprehensive volumes is best.

Without further explanation, here are my recommended beginning and intermediate theology reading lists.

Beginner’s List for the Appreciation of Theology:

1. Know Why You Believe  by Paul Little. This gem of a book may seem small and simple, but it will challenge you to think all things through theologically.

2. The Case for Christ  by Lee Strobel.  Strobel takes you back to the beginning of your faith and asks all the questions that would have been good to ask then. By doing so, he makes it possible for us to understand our salvation in a reasonable format.

3. The Pursuit of God  by A. W. Tozer.  This classic never goes out of style.  Tozer, in a series of essays, makes it clear that we can find God when we understand who we are looking for. Since theology is the study of God, this book is a great beginning place.

4. Knowing God   by J. I. Packer. Dr. Packer takes the simplicity of Tozer’s subject and shows how deep the well can go if you think about our amazing God.

5. The God Who is There/He is Not Silent  by Francis Schaeffer.  These two volumes are really parts 1 and 2 of the same book. Schaeffer gives a philosopher’s take on why the church gave in to the Enlightenment and how we can recover from it both theologically and practically.

6. Wholly Sanctified   by Dr. A. B. Simpson.  Simpson wrote in the 19th century, but he shows us how theology can be a language not just of the mind but also of the heart.

7. Exegetical Fallacies  by D. A. Carson.  Dr. Carson shows us how easy it is to make mistakes in interpreting Scripture. And of course, he outlines both how to avoid those mistakes and how to spot them when preachers/teachers are using them.

8. Four Views on Hell  by several authors including William Crockett.  Actually any of the “Four Views” books would work here. This is a format of theological book which collects major views on a topic and lays out the different views one by one. The reason I think this is invaluable for a beginning reader of theology is that it shows how to consider more than one view on a major doctrine.

9. Heaven by Randy Alcorn.  This is a wonderful example of how an author explores every scripture on a particular subject (in this case, heaven) and how he lays out that scriptural underpinning into a workable theory. All budding theologians need to know how to do this. A very helpful AND entertaining book

10. Orthdoxy  by G. K. Chesterton.   This is a classic work of theology by one of the world’s greatest minds. It is not a long book, but it cannot be read fast. I think this may be the best example of a theologian who keeps all viewpoints in mind when he writes.

11. The Cost of Discipleship  by Dietrich Boenhoeffer. Boenhoeffer is a practical theologian. He is one of the very few pastors who stood up publicly against Adolph Hitler in Nazi Germany. This book is the theological underpinning for how he lived his life. This is where theology meets action.

12. Mere Christianity  by C. S. Lewis.  I could have chosen a half dozen different Lewis books to show his ability to take a difficult theological concept and present it logically and fairly. In this case, he shows how he came to believe in Christ and why the simple Gospel is so profound. I recommend also, “The Great Divorce”, the “Problem of Pain” and a “Severe Mercy” as other examples.

 

Intermediate Reading List for Learning to be Theologically Reflective

1. Confessions  by Augustine.  One of the oldest theological works known to the church. You can’t call yourself a theologian without wrestling with Augustine, considered the greatest post-biblical theologian.

2. The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?  by F. F. Bruce.  Don’t just accept the Bible as God’s Word. Find out why we accept the New Testament as readily as we do.

3. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind  by Mark Noll.  We have often settled for much less than good reflective thinking as evangelicals. This book will greatly challenge you.

4. The Blessed Hope  by George Ladd. There are many sensationalistic books on the End Times. Here is one written by a scholar who knows how to get to the point. Not a long book but a great example of saying more with less on a touchy issue.

5. The Next Christendom  by Philip Jenkins.  What will Christianity look like as other cultures are more dominant in the church than North America. How will that affect our doctrines and practices?

6. Benefit of a Doubt  by Greg Boyd. Do we always have to believe everything with 100% certainty to be a good follower of God. Boyd says that this can make dangerous disciples. He proposes another way of Faith.

7. The Divine Conspiracy  by Dallas Willard. One of the great classics of Christianity and a difficult book to read without thinking deeply. I challenge every person who wants to be a good theologian to wrestle with this one.

8. For Calvinism (Michael Horton), Against Calvinism (Roger Olson):  Here are two books that were created as interactive discussions on a touchy theological subject: Namely, Calvinism. These are two of the most articulate writers on this subject and they are also friends. They show a considerable amount of knowledge on the subject, but they also show how one can be gentle, considerate and humble in presentation of theological viewpoints.

9. Power Evangelism  by John Wimber.  Wimber was a seminary professor and a theologian when God began to use him in healing power. That Holy Spirit power had to be incorporated with good theology. Notice in this book how Wimber attempts to do this, though not always successfully.

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