What difference did the birth of Jesus actually make?

Again this Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, and take a day- well, really a whole month- to ponder the birth of a single individual in a tiny obscure village in ancient Palestine. If you go through the traditional Christmas carols about the birth of Jesus, you find they are full of incredible changes which they say the birth of Jesus has brought to the world. And if you were just a little bit cynically minded, you might think to yourself that all these changes are running just a little bit overdue- 2000 years, and we’re still waiting.

It came upon a midnight clear”- promises “Peace on the earth, good will to me”. Peace on earth? Really? “Joy to the World” promises in verse 3 that  “No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground”. Really, I don’t have too much troubles with bindis in my lawn- but actually I think that’s because I sprayed it a few months ago- not because of an event 2000 years ago. And as for sin and sorrows- well, they’re not gone yet. What about “Oh Holy Night”- “Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name, all oppression shall cease”. We haven’t had any problems with oppression or slavery for the last 2000 years, have we?  According to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, Jesus was “born that man no more may die”.  No more death- that’s a nice thought, but just a christmaslittle bit inaccurate as a description of the last 2000 years.

We Aussies are a cynical lot. We like to question. We don’t take ceremonies or traditions too seriously. We love to make fun of anything that gets a bit too formal or makes big claims. Anyone who takes themselves a bit too seriously, they’ve got to be taken down. So in the spirit of celebrating Christmas in Aussie style- I’d like to apply a bit of a baloney check to all these Christmas promises. I can just imagine a lot of Aussies sitting back with a beer in hand listening to these Christmas carols and saying- “I dunno about this Christmas thing, it’s all a load of baloney- Jesus ain’t done nuthin mate. Nothings changed. Peace on earth? My kids are still whinging, my missus is still cranky with me- nothins changed. Telly’s full of bad news mate. The whole thing is a crock.”

So- what do we say? Christmas 2016- what difference has Jesus really made 2000 years after his birth? Well, I think it is fair to say that Jesus was probably the most famous person who has ever lived, and whose life did change the course of history more than anybody else’s. But still, these carols go way beyond that. Are they just guilty of massive exaggeration which we’re supposed to smile and politely ignore because it’s Christmas?

Well- let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Yes, suffering is still here. War, violence, terrorism, slavery, injustice, heartache. And I think it is right that today- on what is one of our most lavish days of celebration- with food and drink in abundance- today we need to remember that many many other people today around the world live in poverty, danger, sickness, and injustice. We have it so good today- but many are suffering. Let’s remember that, and ask God what he wants us to do about it.

Suffering reminds us that something fundamental is wrong in our world. God is no longer here in the way He wants to be. There is a problem in our relationship. There is a light on the dashboard, as it were, flashing annoyingly at us. There is a warning message coming up on our computer screen. Not necessarily because of something specific which people who suffer have done wrong- plenty of relatively innocent people that suffer. Rather, as a disturbingly constant remind to all of us that there is a problem in humanity’s relationship with God. Suffering is the error message which keeps on reminding us that there is something fundamentally wrong between us and God. There is a chasm between us and God due to our spiritual fall into sin, and we live in a spiritual warzone, and suffer the fall-out.

But I don’t think the carol writers were ignorant of the suffering. I don’t think they were trying to con us into thinking there was no such thing as suffering anymore. They knew it, probably better than we do. So- what were they saying, when claiming that Jesus has changed everything?

Well, they were making a fairly astounding claim- a claim which some people in our society are sceptical of, but really- it’s something which 99% of all humanity have always believed in. That is, there is more to life than just the here and now- the 70 or 80 years of life on planet earth. There is a life beyond this life. This world, this life is not the only life to be experienced. Our life on earth goes so quickly. Here we are at another Christmas Day. Another end of year celebration. Our kids grow up so quickly. We grow up so quickly. On Christmas Day, true it seems like some of us Dads never seem to grow up- especially when the water pistols and nerf guns and pool toys come out from under the Christmas Tree. But we say it every year, don’t we? Christmas keeps coming round quicker. It doesn’t actually. It’s just that life is really short. We want it to slow down and be stretched out more. But not just our life- but the history of our whole world- it won’t last forever. Society is changing and growing at an exponential rate. One day the end will come- I don’t know how exactly- but history will come to an end.

But what Christmas is saying- is that there is something more. There is something more than the dirt and poverty and disease which millions of people spend their whole life trapped in. There is something more than just the cycle of life we get trapped in- of work, weekends, summer holidays, toys and new TV shows to entertain us till we get bored of them. The Christmas message is that proof has arrived that there is something worth living for beyond our own brief existence of suffering and pleasure for a few decades.

What is the proof? Has God given us a scientific experiment, which we can perform whenever we need reminders that there is more to this life? Is it some kind of message written in the clouds- “Dear humans, Don’t worry about your lousy life now, there is another better world coming?” I think a lot of people today would ask God for that.

But God had a different method of showing us- a method which if you stop and think about it- it is just staggering. We kind of get familiar with the story of Christmas, and we think- “well, isn’t it cute? The baby in the manger, the shepherds and the angels, wise men, star over the stable- what a sweet little story.” We easily lose just the staggering nature of what happens in the Christmas story- it’s a story which should make our mouths drop open every single time- if you really get it. The message of Christmas is that the God who made the universe- the God who invented physics and chemistry, the God who knows the name of every star and planet, who knows every fish in the ocean, every thought in every human mind- who has always existed, and always will exist- this God became a human baby. That is just an incredible, incredible, incredible concept. He just didn’t send a science experiment, nor a message in the sky, nor even an angel. He came Himself- became a human, became one of us. He came as a human baby, and became reliant on his mother’s milk, learned how to talk and walk. He lived amongst our dirt, poverty, disease- and showed us a glimpse of Heaven, the world to come. Then He went one step further- and laid his life down for us- going lower than the low- so that we could share in his resurrection life in the world to come. And if God has gone to all that trouble for us- then we can know for sure- there is more to this life than the here and now.

Tom Hanks has a reputation of being the ultimate celebrity nice guy from Hollywood. He has a reputation of turning up to weddings of random strangers and offering a photo with them on their wedding day. Recently, I read of a lady who had a bet with her friend about who could get a personal headshot from a famous actor. She wrote to Tom Hanks, got a letter straight back, with a photo, and a chatty letter as if he was one of her best friends. What a nice guy. Wouldn’t it be somewhat staggering though if he wrote back and said, I’d like to meet you and have coffee with you. Perhaps I’d like to live in your street so I can really spend a lifetime getting to know you. In fact, wouldn’t it be something we would talk about for years if Tom Hanks was in Brisbane one Christmas, and came and joined us for our Christmas service today. Wouldn’t we feel nervous and excited, and line up to get a selfie with him in the background?

Have you considered the stunning story of how the ultimate celebrity of all time- God himself- came to us- but not as a king in a Star Wars space ship, or in a loud and glitzy parade? He came as a human baby, was born in an obscure village, and laid in an animal’s feeding trough for his first bed. That is astonishing, and that is what makes Christmas worth coming back to and celebrating for a whole month every year. God has come to us, and He has shown us with clear demonstration- that there is more to this life, by revealing his power and glory in his love and humility in our present life.

Well Christmas Day is party time. I’m sure you’ve already had a few Christmas parties, I’m sure most of us have a pretty good party planned for today. One of the things Jesus was famous for was his parties. The religious people of the day gave his a really hard time over it- why do you spend so much time partying with such dreadful people? Jesus’ response was “the kingdom of God is like a party.” A party to which everybody is invited. An eternal party- in the world to come. Today as we party together- remember that Jesus has opened up to us an eternal party- to live life the way it was meant to be- eternally. He’s invited us all to be there. And that’s what we’re celebrating. Jesus has come to earth open the door to the eternal party of the new heaven and new earth that is yet to come. So- enjoy your celebrations today!

The Gospel of the Kingdom

If you had 10 words to share with the world, what would be the most important thing you could say? Of course, in days gone by that would be a totally hypothetical question, but in today’s world, it’s a very real question. Everyday we are now bombarded with  hundreds of little 10 word sayings from social media, each of which have the potential to take off and get millions of views, if only we get enough other people to pass them on. So, if you had to reduce the most important thing in the world to just 10 words, what would you say? I want to suggest to you that we have 10 words from Jesus in Mark 1:15 which sums up his whole message. So, what does he say?

Jesus uses different language to the way we put things. We develop our own little Christian clichés and slogans to talk about Christianity- we talk about inviting Jesus to be our “own personal Saviour”, we talk about “Asking Jesus to come into your heart”, we talk about “going to Heaven when we die”. Some of these slogans are ok, some are better than others. The problem with Jesus’ slogan and His terminology is that I’m not sure it is an incredibly catchy slogan today. It’s not all that clear what he means, it doesn’t relate instantly to our culture. But if we are really going to understand Christianity properly, it really helps to go back to what Jesus was on about- even if we then adapt his language for our society today.

What is Jesus slogan? He says, “the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel.” Let’s think about these first 5 words – “the kingdom of God is near.” The gospel according to Jesus is that the kingdom of God is arriving. This doesn’t relate hugely well to us, because we don’t live in kingdoms anymore- well, technically we do- long live the queen- but really we have prime ministers, and elections, and senates, and double dissolutions- and kingdoms don’t really enter too much into our thinking these days. But the kingdom- this is Jesus’ gospel. This is really the message of the whole Bible- starting back in Genesis 1, where God tells man to rule the earth in his image- on through to the reign of King David in the Old Testament, whose kingdom was said to be an everlasting kingdom- Jesus in the gospels, Paul in Acts- right through to Revelation- where Jesus is said to be king of kings and lord of lords. If you look through Jesus’ teaching in the gospels- kingdom is the slogan used again and again, kingdom is the core concept which everything revolves around.

Jesus comes preaching the gospel about his kingdom. Gospel of course means great news- it was the word which was used by the Romans often to signify important news about the emperor- a messenger would come to a town proclaiming the latest important news about the king- our king has been victorious in battle; a baby has been born to the king; we have a new king who has been crowned today. It was the latest big news. So when the New Testament writers talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is this in the background- there is a new king who has come- He is the greatest king of all- His rule will change everything- His name is Jesus Christ. But the other background to the word gospel comes from Isaiah 40, where Mark quotes from in verses 2-3.

Isaiah 40 starts a new section of Isaiah- and it starts with good news. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” What’s he saying? The hard times are over. Judgement is past. Verse 3: A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” God is coming. Look at v9. “Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news;lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” 10 Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” There is it- the gospel is that God is king, and He is coming. One more verse from Isaiah. 52:6- “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”” This is the gospel. And so, when Jesus says- the kingdom of God is near- repent and believe the gospel- this is the gospel he is talking about, and He is claiming to be the one Himself who brings God’s kingdom to earth. The kingdom of God is coming- in Him, right now.

What did Jesus mean by saying- his kingdom was near? Because last time I looked,  our world is still a pretty messed up place. Let me summarise what Jesus meant by the gospel of his kingdom with 5 statements.

1. Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual kingdom.
When people heard Jesus say- the kingdom of God is near- they probably thought of a soldier riding into Jerusalem on a warhorse. Jesus teaching of the kingdom is very different. In Mark 4- he explains how his kingdom will come- and he doesn’t use the image of a soldier, he uses the image of a farmer, planting seeds in a field- and those seeds slowly growing over time- until at the end of the world, there will be harvest time. Then there will be a public, physical kingdom- and there- evil, corruption, injustice, death itself will be done away with. But the present nature of the kingdom which Jesus was instituting was a spiritual one. Jesus was not coming to set people free from Caesar, or Herod, or any other earthly human ruler. Jesus was coming to set us free from our spiritual slavery- because that is our big problem- not our political system, or our educational system or our economy. The big problem we have is we have a heart which is enslaved- we worship idols of money, of sex, of religion, of status- idols which we don’t even know about- we are addicted to loving ourselves, we are in slavery to sin, and ultimately, we’re enslaved to Satan. Jesus comes to interrupt our world on a spiritual level, by setting individuals free- and bringing them into a new spiritual kingdom of freedom.

2. We need to enter into Jesus kingdom.
Jesus talks a lot about entering his kingdom. Usually, he talks about our entering the future kingdom- “going to Heaven when you die” if you like. Sometimes he talks about us being in his kingdom now. For example, Mt 11:11- “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”. Jesus talks about how we enter his kingdom- he gives several different images for how we do that. For example- Mt 18:3- “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn andbecome like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Later Paul describes us who are Christians as being already in God’s kingdom- Col 1:13- He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

So the question we need to ask ourselves is- do I belong God’s kingdom yet? Have I entered into it? Are you a citizen of Australia?  The answer is yes or no, not I hope so. Yet many people say they hope they are a Christian. You are either in God’s kingdom or you’re not in God’s kingdom yet. And if you never become a citizen of God’s spiritual kingdom in this life, then you will never enter into God’s physical kingdom in the world to come.

3. God’s kingdom enters into us.
Not only do we enter God’s kingdom, but God’s kingdom enters into us, and demonstrates its presence in our lives and in the world around us. Luke 18:17-  “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” We receive the kingdom of God- it comes within us- and Jesus starts to be Lord in our life. And the kingdom of God makes its presence felt around us. Mat 12:28- But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Luke 10:8 “Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’” As God’s people live in our world, people should see the kingdom of God bursting out of us in all of its life, and so, they see the kingdom of God coming near to them.

Like in the novel- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe- Aslan has arrived to rescue Narnia from reign of White Witch. The children are on a hike through snow to meet with Aslan- and what do they see? They see the snow melting, flowers starting to bloom, birds start to chirp, and signs of spring are everywhere to be seen. Why? Because Aslan is on the move. His kingdom is coming, his kingdom is invading. God’s kingdom invades our world now- the signs of the future kingdom are to be revealed in us right now- as God’s people show the beauty of God’s coming kingdom- in way we live, in compassion we show, in way injustice is dealt with. The kingdom of God is appearing, in our lives, and through our lives around us. A really good question to consider- what would it look like for the kingdom of God to invade my workplace? Where does the kingdom need to come? Where is there sin? Injustice? Sadness? Fear? How does God want me to announce his kingdom?

4. God’s kingdom is a subversive kingdom.
God’s kingdom operates differently to the kingdoms we are used to. Jesus says some fairly outlandish things. He says- in my kingdom- blessed are the poor in spirit- for theirs in the kingdom. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. He say- in my kingdom the first shall be last, and the last first. The rich will barely find a place in the kingdom. The religious will often be thrown out, and sinful no-hopers will be rescued. In my kingdom it is more important to serve than it is to be served. It’s more important to be generous than it is to be rich. It’s more important to be pure in your heart than correct in your theology. God’s kingdom is one which will challenge our natural way of thinking over and over again. It challenges our selfishness and the way we live.

It’s a little bit like Jarryd Hayne, Rugby League superstar, returns to break into the NFL- American football- for his second season. And when he returns, he gets interviewed by a reporter, and he says- I’ve got an important announcement. The days of the NFL are coming to an end. The NRL is coming to America. He says- at the end of this season, I’m going to return to Australia, I’m going to bring back an incredible team, called the NSW Blues, we’re going to play another fairly crummy team called the QLD Maroons, and when all America sees how we crush the Maroons, they will never play NFL again, they’ll all just start playing NRL. The NRL is coming. So now- Jarryd says- the time has come guys. I have come to set you free- from your shoulder pads and helmets. You need repent of all these forward passes you’re throwing. From now on, you need to stop all this constant subbing on and off- everybody gets to play all the time, except you get 4 on your interchange bench, but just 4, no more. And the ball, it’s going to change shape, it’s too pointy. A new era of true football is coming, and it begins now. God’s kingdom has invaded our world in the person of Jesus, and in Jesus people, the kingdom of God continues to invade and express itself, showing a glimpse of the future to come.

5. God’s kingdom is entered through death and resurrection.
The most surprising thing of all about Jesus kingdom- is that his kingship is inaugurated through the death of the king. The king dies for the sake of his subjects. Above Jesus head, there was the sign placed- this is the king of the Jews. Ironically, they were proclaiming a central truth of God’s kingdom without even knowing it- that God’s kingdom is begun and is experienced through the death of its king, and through his resurrection. And for us, we enter God’s kingdom and experience God’s kingdom through our death and resurrection- coming to an end of our old life, and beginning a new life through His Holy Spirit within us. Jesus says- “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

This is Jesus message for the world. His kingdom is near. And so, the mission Jesus has entrusted us with is to declare this truth- God’s kingdom is here. God’s kingdom is breaking in. God wants to pull us further into his kingdom, He wants to push his glorious kingdom deeper into us, and through us to the world around us.

Does it really matter what I believe?

One of the most common and  challenging objections to Christianity is the challenge of pluralism. What is pluralism? Pluralism is the idea that there are many ways to God. Pluralism doesn’t really deny that Christianity is true, but what it does deny is the idea that only Christianity is true. So, I’m going to deal with this topic by responding to 7 very common questions that come from a pluralistic point of view.

Question 1: Is there such a thing as objective truth regarding God? Some people say “There is no such thing as objective truth”. Well, is that proposition true? If so, then there is at least one objective truth- that there is no such thing as objective truth! If that statement is not true- well, why should I believe it then? There you go- the statement refutes itself doesn’t it? What we need to understand here is that sure, it is true that no one has an exhaustive understanding of the truth. However, this does not prevent somebody from having a significant understanding of the truth.

All our understanding of truth is influenced by our upbringing, culture, and biases. However, just because our understanding of truth is influenced does not mean that it is entirely relative and socially constructed. It is undoubtedly true that we subtly alter our understanding of the truth, for example, in history to suit ourselves. For example, we may tell the story of European settlement of Australia as a glorious achievement without reference to the treatment of Aborigines who lived in Australia before Europeans. However, this does not mean that I can propose a true history of Australia that proposes that the first Europeans were a race of noble kings who arrived in splendid warships, rather than being a penal colony from England. Truth may have aspects of relativity but it is not completely subject to an individual’s uncontrolled bias and imagination. So, objective truth does exist, although we may not be able to claim to have exhaustive truth of any matter, and although our understanding may be biased through our bias, nevertheless we may have significant and objective understanding of real truth.

Question 2. Aren’t Christians intolerant and judgemental? If Christians say they disagree with another religion or viewpoint, often they are accused of being intolerant of others or judgemental. But the word tolerate means to allow or to permit, to recognize and respect others’ beliefs and practices without sharing them, to bear or put up with someone or something not necessarily liked. It doesn’t mean that agreeing that everybody is right simultaneously. Do we need to respect everybody’s point of view? No, we need to show respect for people, and for their right to have a point of view, but not necessarily for their point of view itself. Tolerance is allowing people to have a view you don’t hold- it doesn’t mean that you’ve got to pretend there is no difference between what you believe. Tolerance is not the key issue! Rather than talking about tolerance, we should talk about loving one another, and part of loving one another involves sharing and helping people find the truth. People have a right to believe whatever they wish, but we would be failing in our duty if we did not share our point of view with people. It is not intolerant or judgemental just to share that you have a different point of view.

Question 3: Is there anything wrong with proselytising? Modern society strongly discourages proselytizing. For example, an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald put it this way: “It is arrogant and dangerous, however, for anyone to assume a right or duty to convert others. All the blood that has been shed, and continues to be shed, around the world in the name of religion adequately makes this point. In the multicultural, multi-god nation that modern Australia is, proselytising can only needlessly provoke community tensions. In Australia, one’s religion is largely a private matter. It should remain that way.” The assumption here is proselytization is the opposite of tolerance. Asserting the superiority of one’s religious beliefs, in this view, is not merely bad manners; it involves a kind of divisive, offensive judgmentalism.

But, why is it we are allowed to talk about politics, or sex, but not matters of religion? This seems to be arbitrary, and puts religion into a category of irrelevance. Why is it that people are allowed to argue for the reality of climate change, but not religion? Why can people argue for gay marriage but not the existence of God? Surely what is needed is polite and open conversation on important topics, not a silencing of conversation. In the unwritten rule against proselytisation, what really is being done is to marginalize religion and to say that it is not important.

A good way to respond is to contend for the need for people to be open-minded and to learn from one another. Express a genuine interest in other people’s beliefs, and seek to learn from them. You then earn the right to share your beliefs with them. On the appropriateness of seeking to convert somebody, again, compare it with other topics which people passionately contend for: do you think it is right to try to convince someone that climate change is real? Would it be ok for everybody just to say- oh well, everybody is allowed to have a private opinion about climate change, but let’s never try to determine what the facts about it are.

Question 4: Isn’t there truth in all religions? Well undoubtedly this is right. We have been created in the image of God, and so we all have a moral nature, and this moral nature values love and compassion and justice, and so religions all are motivated by our moral nature to create rules and patterns of life which help us to live moral lives. But just because lots of religions seek to help us to live moral lives doesn’t mean they all have been given to us by God, and they are all true. They cannot all have been given to us 100% by God, they cannot all be true because they contradict each other. In Judaism, Islam and Christianity, there is only 1 God. In Hindusim, it is believed there are millions of gods. In Christianity, a core belief is that Jesus is God. In Islam, Jesus is only a prophet, and certainly is not God. In Hinduism and Buddhism, after death comes reincarnation. In Christianity, after death comes resurrection. So they cannot all come from God- they cannot all be true- unless you think God is contradicting himself and saying different things to different people.

But Question 5: Does it really matter what you believe? Isn’t it just sincerity and goodness that matter, not what you believe? One person writes “Beliefs are actually no one’s business but the believer’s. At the deepest level, what we believe surely matters a whole lot less than how we live and, in particular, how we are helping to make the world a better place. So why waste time and energy picking on each other’s religious beliefs?”

Yes, being good is very important. You don’t need religion to tell you that, even atheists want to try to be good. There is no argument there. However, the problem is that we haven’t been good, and that where religion comes in. How do we get forgiveness for the times we haven’t been good?

Is all that matters that you just try to be sincere in believing something- it doesn’t matter what- be sincere and try to be good? Well, sure, it is important that you’re sincere, but really, is it not also important that you are believing in what is true? Shouldn’t we be examining what we believe, and seeking to make sure that it is true? I mean, if Islam is true, then it is important that we all make a pilgrimage to Mecca in our lives. In Hinduism, your present suffering in life is caused by your sins you’ve committed in a previous life. In some religions, you can only receive forgiveness for your sins by punishing yourself in very degrading ways. Surely what you believe is also important, as well as being sincere in your belief. If it is true that there is a personal God who created us and desires to enter into a relationship with us, is it not important that you discover that truth and live in the light of it, rather than say- live under an atheistic view in which you have no relationship with God, but just try to be a nice citizen. Surely your sincerity is not the only thing, but also that you are seeking to follow what is true. Indeed, pursuing after truth is a moral value, so if goodness is what really matters, then you will pursue the truth about religious matters, and not just dismiss it by saying it doesn’t matter what you believe.

But Question 6: Aren’t your beliefs just a result of your culture? I mean, isn’t it the case, that if you grew up in India, you would be a Hindu, if you grew up in Saudi Arabia, you would be a Muslim, if in America, you would be a Christian. Is this true? Well, maybe so, but maybe not. There are plenty of atheists who live in America. There are plenty of Muslims who are becoming Christians. But even if it is generally the case, should it be that way? Should you just believe what everybody around you believes? Surely you should be pursuing truth. Surely people who live in a primitive tribe who trust in a witchdoctor’s remedies for treating sickness should progress to learning from modern medicine? Surely if you grow up in a racist society, you should not remain a racist in your beliefs? If you grew up in a country which believed the earth was flat, and you were a scientist and discovered the world was round, well, surely you should change your view.

Question 7: What about those who have never heard about Jesus? It’s a good question, it’s an interesting question. Christians have different points of view about it. Some people believe that God will judge different people according to different standards- some people believe that only those who have actually responded to the message about Jesus will be in Heaven. Ultimately we can trust God to be just and wise in dealing with those who have never heard about Jesus. Nobody will stand before God on judgement day and be able to say- that’s not fair God. It’s impossible for God to be unjust.

It’s an interesting question, but unfortunately, it’s also an irrelevant question. It’s not really our business to worry about how God will judge those who haven’t heard about Jesus. What is more important to consider is what sort of response which we should make to the truth which we do know.

Question 8: But is it really possible to discover the truth when there are so many opinions? Well, we would argue that there is indeed good evidence for why it makes sense to believe that God exists and that Jesus is the Risen Messiah. I would argue that there is not any religion which can make as good a case as what there is in Christianity. What we need to remember, is that most people in the world don’t follow their religion because they have examined the alternatives and found their religion the most reasonable. Rather, they follow their religion out of tribal loyalty to their culture.

And this point brings us to the crux of the matter in dealing with pluralism. The attraction of pluralism is that we don’t have to ever disagree with anybody. But if we are to pursue truth, disagreeing with different people will be perfectly normal. Pluralism encourages us to follow the crowd. Really, we need to be following and pursuing after the truth, wherever it should lead us. Pursuing truth is the pathway which God calls us to embrace, and unfortunately that means just being sincere about believing something is not enough.

In what way did Adam and Eve die?

Adam and Eve were warned that “in the day they eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would die.” What does this mean, for clearly they did not physically die on that day?

The most common response to this question is that Adam and Eve experienced spiritual death in that day. It is certainly true that something spiritual clearly happened when they disobeyed- there seemed to be a shame and fear of God which immediately emerged in chapter 3, as well as blaming one another for the sin. So clearly the concept of spiritual death may be seen there. However, is the heavily theological concept of death referring to a spiritual separation from God really the concept which was originally intended by the phrase “you shall surely die”?

By the end of chapter 3, there is clearly a reference to physical death- “dust you are and to dust you shall return”. Clearly this is the culmination of the consequences of the sin, and the fulfillment of the warning. As a result, I prefer to read the phrase “in the day” as having an idiomatic sense of the certainty of the consequence (for example, as seen in Ex 10:28, 1 Samuel 3:12, 1 Kings 2:37).

 

Why did God put the tree in the garden anyway?

adam-and-eve

It’s a good question, and I think the first answer to give is that we actually don’t know because we haven’t been told. I suspect that this is a question above our paygrade. However, we can speculate, and so here all we will be doing is offering some speculations about this question.

The most common answer to this question is that God didn’t want Adam and Eve to be robots, he wanted them to have a chance to use their free will. But a little bit of scrutiny suggests that although there is some truth to this, it is a little bit of a lame answer. Would God really want to put a temptation in the way of his dearly loved children just to see how obedient they were? It sounds a little bit like testing your children’s obedience by putting a bomb in front of them, and a box of matches to light it, and telling them not to light it. Why put it there in the first place?

What perhaps may begin to help explain the situation is the fact that the creation of humanity was not the first event in the history of revolt against God. We know at some point that Satan had rebelled against God, and in fact, we find in Genesis 3 that Satan is already present on earth. In effect, God is saying to Adam and Eve- “you have a choice. The war against me has already started, and it is inevitable that you will be tempted to join it. So, here is your choice. Will you live in perfect relationship with me, or will you join the other side and rebel against me, tasting evil?”. Of course, this does not explain how Satan sinned, or what the nature of his temptation was. That question will likely always remain out of our grasp, at least while we are in this life.

I will add one last possible deeper explanation. We know that the means by which God has chosen to defeat Satan was through humanity. We know very little about the nature of Satan’s sin against God, but it seems that Satan was an angel of God who rebelled against God. Why? He wanted to exalt himself to be like God. The kingdom of Satan is all about self-exaltation. And so when Satan tempts Adam and Eve to sin, what does he say? He says- if you eat of the fruit, you will become like gods. It’s all about self-exaltation.

How does God respond to Satan’s sin? Well, he could have made a very simple response: Zzzzz- (explosion, thunder, lightning, sizzle, smoke.) But in God’s infinite wisdom, He didn’t. He responds by creating another beautiful world- a material world, a lesser world, of dirt and water, flesh and blood, our world. And Satan intervenes into our world to bring his kingdom of self-exaltation into it- and He succeeds, and brings corruption into it, as humanity rebels against God, and chooses self-exaltation rather than self-surrender. The history of our world rolls on, and sinks into more and more chaos, but God has a plan, and is at work. And at the climax of world history, probably to Satan’s astonishment and bewilderment- God the Creator becomes a human baby. God stoops low and takes on flesh and blood, born into human poverty amongst the dirt. And Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, grows as a man, and then, if God humbling himself to become a man was bad enough, now Satan is rubbing his hands in glee- as Jesus submits himself to the hostilities of men- and is arrested, mocked, beaten, whipped, and then crucified. And Jesus Christ, the eternal God of our universe become flesh- dies as if he was the scum of the earth.

But it is in this death, this ultimate act of self-surrender, that Satan’s kingdom is ultimately defeated. This is how God chooses to defeat the kingdom of self-exaltation- by a graphic demonstration of the glory of self-surrender. And Jesus in his self-surrendering death doesn’t just pay the price for sins of humans- He also in the most emphatic way possible- responds to Satan’s act of treacherous self-exaltation with an act of incredible self-surrender- and this is the means which God chooses to defeat Satan.

So the means God chooses to defeat Satan is through the creation of humans, and their own alliance with Satan. But then Jesus demonstrates the full glory of God in becoming a human and defeating Satan in a death of humiliation before a resurrection of glory. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the first step along the pathway for the fulfillment of God’s plan to defeat Satan and demonstrate once and for all the futility of the kingdom of self-exaltation.

Old Earth or Young Earth?

planet-581239_960_720 (1)A major area of controversy amongst Christians has been the reconciliation of the early chapters of Genesis with modern science. Modern secular science would date the world to be around 15 billion years old, whereas a straightforward reading of Genesis 1-11 would imply a world of around 6000 years old. Other related questions include:

  • Did God use a process of evolution to create humanity?
  • Are the 7 days in Genesis 1 to be interpreted as literal 24 hour days or can they be read as long ages or as poetry?
  • Was the flood described in Genesis 6 literally worldwide or merely a large localised flood?
  • Was there death and suffering in the animal world before Adam and Eve sinned?

The Christian community is divided in their responses to these questions. Some insist that we must approach our science with the biblical presuppositions of Genesis 1-11 in place (Young Earth Creationists (YECs)). They would argue that when we approach science from a biblical worldview, there is plenty of evidence to support a world only 6000 years old, special creation of the different ‘kinds’ of Genesis 1 (not evolution), and a worldwide cataclysmic flood.

Other Christians insist that the facts of science are clear that the universe is very ancient in age, and that this in fact does not need to be a problem in reading Genesis. Several different interpretations are suggested: some see Genesis 1 as describing the general order of evolution over the ages, whereas others see it as merely a poetic way of saying that God did create, but not how he created.

It appears to me that the most straightforward reading of scripture would seem to support the young earth scenario, whereas the great consensus amongst scientists still would support an ancient universe, despite evidences appealed to by Christian scientists arguing for a young universe. There is a need for grace, humility and a lot of continuing study into the interpretation of both scripture and science.

To what degree should we expect to gain scientific understanding from the Bible? The following points are worth considering:

  • If the Bible is narrating true historical events, then one can expect to find scientific evidence that is consistent with them occurring in the past.
  • However, the Bible was not written as a kind of scientific code-book with hints for new theories to be read in between the lines. Eg recently an American businessman commenced an oil company in Israel claiming that the Bible indicated where he should drill for oil (Dt 33:24!).
  • Some parts of the Bible are clearly not intended to have scientific implications. This is particularly the case in the use of genres such as poetic and apocalyptic literature. For example, Revelation 7:1, Psalm 144:5-6, Psalm 104:3-4. The majority of Genesis is clearly intended to be read as historical narrative; the burden of proof lies with those who suggest the early chapters of Genesis are poetic to prove that it is so.
  • Sometimes we use idiomatic language rather than strictly scientific language –eg “sunrise”. This can be the same in the Bible. Eg Eccles 1:5, or the “heart” as the centre of the human personality.
  • Did the writers of the Bible use language that was 100% accurate scientifically or did it rather reflect their scientific understanding of the day? Eg it is often suggested that “the waters above the heavens” (Gen 1:7) or the “windows of heaven” (Gen 8:2) might have reflected a primitive cosmology. One possible solution to this is that the authors may have written in language which fit in with their cultural beliefs, but in itself was equivocal in its meaning- “ the inspired author of Genesis was allowed to use the only terms available to him in his language to describe natural phenomena, but was not allowed to offer anything more than the vaguest, most minimal descriptions of those phenomena, thereby leaving nearly everything unsaid about their exact nature.” (JP Holding in an excellent essay in Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal 13(2):44–51, Nov 1999)

 

Some summary observations:

  • Many people have some very strong opinions which they bring to this topic, and fairly negative stereotypes of other views. For example, many Christians immediately equate the theory of evolution with atheism. However, we should be at least open to considering whether there is any theological reason why God could not have created the world through a gradual process in which His hand guided an evolving world. On the other hand, the general media rarely give any serious engagement with scientific arguments proposed by those questioning evolution. Rather, they are just quickly dismissed as being “anti-science” because they believe in God, and all their arguments are ignored. It is common for both sides of the debate to dismiss the others’ arguments as unworthy of any consideration.
  • An important point to realize is that much of the clash between the two approaches to science is that the YEC appeals to the fact that the world before Noah was tremendously different to the modern world, and the flood was a cataclysmic event unlike anything since, whereas secular science operates under the assumption that the present is the key to the past. This brings radically different assumptions to how evidences are interpreted scientifically.
  • My personal observation is that the YEC position is the most straightforward understanding of the biblical text, and as such deserves to be given some space to develop their case, and should be listened to with an open mind. However, in spite of their progress in scientific research, they still have a way to go in demonstrating their view is consistent with the scientific evidence. Furthermore, at times they have overstated their biblical case while not establishing their scientific case.
  • A biblical case for an old earth could be mounted along the following lines, as argued at one stage by CS Lewis and more recently by John Lennox. Satan was present on the earth prior to Adam and Eve’s sin- is it possible that He had some role in the corruption of earth from a perfect creation? Is it possible that the garden of Eden alone was paradise, with the rest of the earth surrounding it fairly much the same as it is now?
  • I think the biblical evidence quite possibly allows for death in the animal world before the sin of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve received their death sentence after their sin via their exclusion from the tree of life. This implies that it was access to the tree of life which enabled their eternal life, and thus death was a normal force without it. This then implies that animals also outside the garden would experience death as a normal part of creation.
  • A well argued defence of an old earth and theistic evolution is argued by evangelical leader Tim Keller in the article “Creation, Evolution and Christian Laypeople”.

What were the “waters above the expanse”?

What are the “waters above the expanse” referring to?

When God creates the universe in Genesis 1, initially He creates planet Earth as a ball of water, which the Spirit of God hovers over (Genesis 1:2), and the rest of the universe is created from Earth. This is very unlike modern understandings of the universe in which earth originated as a late development from the rest of the universe. After creating light in Day 1, God in Day 2 creates an expanse out of the watery earth. This expanse is the sky, in which the birds fly (1:20) and even includes space itself, in which the sun, moon and stars exist (1:17). The waters below the expanse are clearly just the waters that remain as part of earth- which God will then in Day 3 create land out of. What though are the waters above the expanse? These waters are never referred to again in scripture, with the possible exception of Psalm 148:4. Some have suggested they were clouds which were created initially but then quickly dispersed in the succeeding events of creation, so that they did not exist any longer. Others see it as some kind of boundary to the entire universe which either might still exist or have now ceased to exist.

So how are these verses to be interpreted in the light of modern cosmological understandings? There are two broad Christian interpretations of Genesis 1- a figurative interpretation and a literal one. The figurative interpretation sees the whole passage as a poetic description of creation rather than a series of literal events which occurred. Under such an understanding, the events described probably fit in with ancient concepts of the universe, but the point of the passage is to poetically ascribe praise to God the one Creator who brought all things into being in an orderly way, not to give a scientific explanation of how God created the earth. The legitimacy of this approach is contested by many Christians today.

If these verses are to be taken literally, they suggest a very different understanding of creation than what is understood by secular scientists- that in fact, the universe had its origin out of planet earth which was originally a ball of water. Young Earth Creationists point to evidence of the existence of water throughout the universe as support to show that this premise is not unfeasible.   See Evidence of a watery origin for the solar system , and Water Near Edge Universe Bolsters Creation.