Atheist Arguments: God Is Cruel


Often atheists claim that God, if He exists, is cruel, even evil, because look at the people who died in the flood (which they also don’t believe in), or how about all those Egyptian soldiers who died when the Red Sea closed over them (another account atheists claim is nothing but myth). A third example are those Amalekites Saul was supposed to wipe out (yes, those would be people atheists don’t actually believe ever lived). The war against the Amalekites, according to these atheists, shows that God is genocidal.

Taken out of context those examples do make God look bad. But here’s the truth.

First, God’s nature. Scripture reveals the character of God throughout. He identifies Himself as merciful and true, good and kind. There are many other traits revealed and demonstrated, but most pertinent to this question raised by the atheist argument is that God is righteous and He is just.

Psalm 7 contains one such revelation:

The LORD judges the peoples;
Vindicate me, O LORD, according to my righteousness and my integrity that is in me.
O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous;
For the righteous God tries the hearts and minds.
My shield is with God,
Who saves the upright in heart.
God is a righteous judge,
And a God who has indignation every day.
If a man does not repent, He will sharpen His sword;
He has bent His bow and made it ready.(vv 8-12)

Notice that God’s job as judge is actually a hedge, a safeguard, a shield for the upright, to protect them from the wicked.

Here’s another passage in the Psalms that makes the point that God deals with the wicked. He won’t let them hurt others with impunity:

The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked,
And the one who loves violence His soul hates.
Upon the wicked He will rain snares;
Fire and brimstone and burning wind will be the portion of their cup.
For the LORD is righteous, He loves righteousness;
The upright will behold His face. (11:5-7)

See? some atheists might say. There God is, hating and raining fire on people. Such a view misses the context again. The recipient of God’s wrath is the wicked who loves violence. As it happens even we fallible humans, with our imperfect laws and legal system and law enforcement officers, sometimes use deadly force to stop a violent person. We should not be shocked if God treats unrepentant oppressors and violent men in the same vein. After all, His knowledge is complete. His judgment is never wrong. So He doesn’t sometimes bring down His fire on innocent people. He gets the judgment right every single time.

The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether.
They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. (Ps. 19: 9b-10)

Psalm 119 repeats the truth about God’s righteousness more than once:

5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous;
Yes, our God is compassionate.

75 I know, O LORD, that Your judgments are righteous,

137 Righteous are You, O LORD,
And upright are Your judgments.

Psalm 145 declares a number of God’s attributes, including His righteousness:

8 The LORD is gracious and merciful;
Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.
9 The LORD is good to all,
And His mercies are over all His works. . .
17 The LORD is righteous in all His ways
And kind in all His deeds.
18 The LORD is near to all who call upon Him,
To all who call upon Him in truth.
19 He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him;
He will also hear their cry and will save them.
20 The LORD keeps all who love Him,
But all the wicked He will destroy.

These last lines bring up the next salient point in the answer to the atheist argument that God is cruel. In His righteousness, in His justice, He saves those who call upon Him, which obviously pits Him against those who are doing harm. How can you keep people safe who are being oppressed without dealing with the oppressors?

As it happens, in the three Biblical examples atheists like to use to claim God’s cruelty, He did in fact deal with oppressors.

First the people in Noah’s day. Too often we forget why God sent a flood. Yes, judgment but why did the people have to be judged?

Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.

Then God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them; and behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth. (Genesis 6:11-12)

As I read this, I think, Man would be extinct today if God had not stepped in and saved Noah and his family. Maybe not, but why wouldn’t Noah have eventually become a target for these violent people whose thoughts were only evil, all the time?

Then there were the Egyptians. These would be the people who ordered and enforced the killing of the Hebrew male babies, who kept them under slavery for 400 years. They would hardly qualify as innocent. When God judged them, He did so as part of the process of freeing His people from captivity. They were no match for the trained Egyptian army and chariots. So God intervened and stopped the potential slaughter of all the descendants of Abraham.

Which brings us to the Amalekites. This people group harassed Israel on their way to the Promised Land. Waited and watched and picked off the weak and the vulnerable. God did not send judgment on them right away. He gave them time to do the right thing, to turn from their wicked ways. He gave them a good 200 years! But throughout the exodus, throughout the time that judges ruled Israel, the Amalekites oppressed Israel. When God allowed Israel to select a king, He turned the punishment of the Amalekites over to him. As it happened, Saul didn’t complete the job. As a result, years later, a descendant of the king Saul had spared—a guy named Haman—hatched a plot to wipe out any and all Jews. He would have succeeded, too, if Queen Esther had not intervened.

Atheists see God’s intervention, His judgment of evil, His protection of the ancestors of the coming Messiah, as cruel?

I see the violent men in Noah’s day as the cruel ones. I see the Egyptians who were exposing babies and keeping a people in subjugation for 400 years, as the cruel ones. I see the Amalekites who were intent on destroying the Hebrews, starting with their weakest people, as the cruel ones.

I see God as He’s described in the Psalms and elsewhere: He is a righteous judge, who administers justice, which He always gets right.

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Published in: on February 15, 2019 at 5:31 pm  Comments (28)  
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Deadly Lies


Photo by Eduardo Braga from Pexels

Hananiah was the son of a prophet. Maybe he’d always wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps. Maybe he wanted his fifteen minutes of fame. Whatever his reason, he decided one day to stand up against Jeremiah.

This quirky prophet enacted at God’s command a series of object lessons to bring a dire message to His people: Because Judah had forsaken God, He was sending Babylon against them and they would go into captivity.

God replaced the wooden yoke with one of iron

On this particular occasion, Jeremiah was walking around with a wooden yoke on his neck—the kind that oxen wear, or that people hauling water might use. The yoke was a sign of servitude.

Hananiah faced him down in the temple and said, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon.’ ” He went on to say that those who had been taken captive earlier and the valuables removed from the temple by the Babylonians, would be returned in two years.

I wish that was true, Jeremiah said, but it’s not. The prophets who came before me have prophesied that God will send judgment on His people. Besides, “The prophet who prophesies of peace, when the word of the prophet comes to pass, then that prophet will be known as one whom the LORD has truly sent.”

At that, Hananiah took the yoke off Jeremiah’s neck and broke it.

I wonder what kind of a crowd they had by this time. Did some people turn away, muttering about how these crazy prophets hadn’t learned how to get along? After all, there was enough conflict with the Babylonians camped outside the walls. Why did they have to bring hate inside the city?

Or maybe there was another set cheering Hananiah on. After all, they’d had years of Jeremiah’s gloom-and-doom predictions. It was about time someone stood up and gave a message of hope.

But God told Jeremiah how to respond. First he declared that Hananiah might have broken the wooden yoke, but that would be replaced by one of iron, Furthermore

Jeremiah the prophet said to Hananiah the prophet, “Listen now, Hananiah, the LORD has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie.”
– Jeremiah 28:15 [emphasis mine]

As a result, Jeremiah continued, Hananiah would die because he counseled rebellion against the Lord. True to this word from God, Hananiah died in July of that year.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only false prophet of the day. Lies in God’s name were prevalent and had a deadly effect. To the people who were already in exile, Jeremiah sent word saying

Thus says the LORD concerning Shemaiah the Nehelamite, “Because Shemaiah has prophesied to you, although I did not send him, and he has made you trust in a lie;” therefore thus says the LORD, “Behold, I am about to punish Shemaiah the Nehelamite and his descendants
– Jeremiah 29:31-32a [emphasis mine]

To another false prophet Jeremiah encountered:

“And you, Pashhur, and all who live in your house will go into captivity; and you will enter Babylon, and there you will die and there you will be buried, you and all your friends to whom you have falsely prophesied.” [emphasis mine]

And another time

“They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially,
Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace.
Were they ashamed because of the abomination they have done? They were not even ashamed at all;
They did not even know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among those who fall;
At the time that I punish them,
They shall be cast down,” says the LORD.
– Jeremiah 6:15

Today the issue facing Christians is whether or not God’s word means what it says—is God really going to punish people who do not name the name of Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior?

Universalists are crying peace, peace. “Good people,” or all people eventually, will have peace with God no matter what they believe about Jesus.

Because their claims contradict the Bible, we can know as surely as Jeremiah did, that the message is false.

Then the LORD said to me, “The prophets are prophesying falsehood in My name. I have neither sent them nor commanded them nor spoken to them; they are prophesying to you a false vision, divination, futility and the deception of their own minds.
– Jeremiah 14:14

Sadly, today’s lies may not be as easy to spot. I mean, we don’t have prophets standing on street corners. Rather, the lies come from false teaching that might even use the Bible. Certainly it sounds good. Often it satisfies a hope we have: I hope I get rich; I hope my uncle will go to heaven; I hope my neighbor can walk again.

Over and over I’ve read rants against God because “He commits genocide.” The truth is, many people—actually, all people—die, because the wages of sin is death. However, God is not responsible for these deaths.

1) He warned against sin, and if Adam had obeyed, death would not reign.
2) God is a just judge, a righteous judge, knowing what we will say before a word is on our tongue. He knows each and every thought and intent of the heart. He makes no mistakes in judgment. We can’t fool Him into thinking we’re OK when we’re not.
3) He reconciles humans to Himself, “while we were yet sinners,” if only we accept that reconciliation by believing in Jesus.

Many lies, from those who do not believe God exists and from those who say He exists but who want to make Him conform to their party line.

God will not be mocked. He will not be toyed with. He will not be manipulated. Best plan? Cling to the truth in face of the lies.

About two-thirds of this article is a re-post of one that appeared here in March, 2011.

Comparing


One of my neighbors has a band that recently started rehearsing in his garage. To be honest, they aren’t very good. The lead singer is especially weak.

Understand, I’ve recently been watching The Voice, and the contestants this season are especially strong. So even though I don’t really listen to contemporary music, like on the radio or via iTunes, I still have a standard with which to compare my neighbor’s band.

But here they are, playing for all the neighborhood to hear. Unless they’re playing for the love of music, I assume they have hopes of performing somewhere. I’m sure their family and friends have told them they are good, that they could find an audience. But a paying gig? I have a hard time imagining that anyone would actually give them money for their music.

But isn’t that they way we are? We evaluate our lives, our talents, our weaknesses in a large part in response to what others say about us. We listen to our co-workers, read the evaluations from our boss, maybe get a word of affirmation from our spouse or children, or maybe a complaint or murmured confrontation. From all that feedback we add our own summation based on what we see in the world.

Likely we reach a conclusion that runs something like this: I’m not so bad. After all I don’t cheat on my spouse, I don’t lose my temper that often, and I don’t rob banks or gun people down. I’m a pretty good citizen since I vote in most elections. I don’t speed more than anyone else, and I don’t drive drunk. Nobody’s suing me, I pay my taxes. My neighbors don’t complain about my dog barking, and I always greet the mailman. I mean, I really am not so bad.

The problem there is that we make our judgment according to a minimal standard. We’re not evaluating if we love our neighbor, just that no neighbor is complaining—to our face. We’re not detailing what service we do for our city or state or nation, just what we do that is required of us. We haven’t identified any selfless, loving action toward our family that puts them first, just what we do to keep those relationships.

And isn’t that enough?

Actually, no, it isn’t. God’s standard is much higher.

First He says, above all we are to love Him with all we have—our mind, body, soul. We’re to be sold out to Him. As if that wasn’t enough, we are also to love others—our neighbors, our family, our enemies—with the selfless love Jesus showed. One example Jesus gave was to give, pretty much, the shirt off our backs to someone in need. If someone asked us to help them, we are to do twice as much as they ask. The story He told on this same topic was about a man who knew he was in territory where people hated him, and still he stopped to help a stranger in need. And this help cost him—in time, in money, in resources.

Do we love like that? Do I love like that?

Not even close.

So, am I OK? Are any of us “not so bad”? Well, sure, some might say. We didn’t beat up the guy who needed help, who’d been robbed and left for dead.

But are we to compare ourselves to the bottom rung of society and evaluate our character based on the fact that we aren’t as bad as we could be? Or are we to make the judgment based on what we should be, what we were created to be?

When we look at what’s highest and best, we have to consider the things Jesus told us He considers:

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.

There’s more, but it’s clear that Jesus set the bar high. He wasn’t interested in our just being better than murderers. He wants us to eliminate hate in our hearts.

With that as the standard, it’s pretty clear, we are not getting any paying gigs any time soon, because we all fall short of what Jesus set out before us.

Which is why He came—to do for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Published in: on April 11, 2018 at 5:25 pm  Comments Off on Comparing  
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The Great Divide—A Reprise


As divided as the United States is politically between red states (conservative) and blue states (liberal), the great divide has nothing to do with politics. Nor is it about racial issues or gender. The thing that divides all humankind, not just Americans, is whether God is righteous or Man is righteous.

The people in the latter camp outnumber the former by a wide margin and fall into one of a number of categories. First there are the atheists who simply do not believe God exists. Consequently, by default, Man is the righteous one.

Even though there really is no choice from an atheist’s perspective, I don’t think many who hold to this position are unhappy with the idea that humans are righteous—or we might say, good. In fact, I suspect most agree with the atheists who argue that any “not good” or unrighteous behavior we observe in children, or in adults, for that matter, can be easily remedied by proper education and eventual acculturation. Good will prevail, according to this view, if given a chance.

Another sub-group in this Man-is-righteous camp consists of people who shape god into the image they want him in. These people say things like, My god wouldn’t do such a thing. They determine what they want from a god and dismiss any revelation to the contrary. Consequently they ignore large passages of the Bible which do not conform to the image they created for their god. Some dismiss the Bible altogether and simply decide without the benefit of any “restrictive” book, what they think god is like. Others mythologize the Bible and take from it principles they want their god to stand behind.

At first blush, this group may not appear to believe that Man is righteous, not God, but because Man is shaping god, any righteousness god may have is actually the righteousness of the one shaping him.

A third group most likely would claim to have little in common with the first two. These folk believe in the literal meaning and authoritative place of the Bible—so much so that they say God is required by His very words to act in a certain way. He must bless those who follow Him and curse those who turn from Him.

This is the position of Job’s friends. Here’s a sample of their conversation with the man who had lost his flocks and herds, his children, and his health:

“Behold, how happy is the man whom God reproves,
So do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.
“For He inflicts pain, and gives relief;
He wounds, and His hands also heal.
“From six troubles He will deliver you,
Even in seven evil will not touch you.
“In famine He will redeem you from death,
And in war from the power of the sword.
“You will be hidden from the scourge of the tongue,
And you will not be afraid of violence when it comes.
“You will laugh at violence and famine,
And you will not be afraid of wild beasts.
“For you will be in league with the stones of the field,
And the beasts of the field will be at peace with you.
“You will know that your tent is secure,
For you will visit your abode and fear no loss.
“You will know also that your descendants will be many,
And your offspring as the grass of the earth. (Job 5:17-25)

This passage says the person who “does not despise the discipline of the Almighty” will find an end to suffering and hardship and trouble. Man simply has to do the right thing, and God will respond with unwavering provision and protection.

Another of Job’s friends, Bildad, spelled out this position clearly:

“If you would seek God
And implore the compassion of the Almighty,
If you are pure and upright,
Surely now He would rouse Himself for you
And restore your righteous estate. (Job 8:5-6)

In this view (though it’s unlikely any who believe this way would word it so) Man is pulling the strings, and God is simply reacting to Man’s actions. Man is really in control, then. God is the puppet, not the sovereign, and if the puppet, not the righteous one but rather, the manipulated one. Which leaves Man as righteous, though some fall short.

In contrast to the camp that views Man as righteous and god as either nonexistent, made in the image of the ones who admit he exists, or manipulated by those who believe in Him, those on the other side of the divide accept the fact that God is righteous.

Because God is righteous, He does not lie. Consequently His self-revelation is reliable, as is what He says about the rest of creation, including humans.

In a nutshell, what He says about humans is this:
* we are made in God’s image
* we are fearfully and wonderfully made
* we are made lower than Elohim—lower than God
BUT
* we have all sinned and all fall short of the glory of God
* we are deceived in our thoughts
* we are not righteous, no not one

Here’s one passage in Scripture that declares the last of these facts:

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God,”
They are corrupt, and have committed abominable injustice;
There is no one who does good.
God has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men
To see if there is anyone who understands,
Who seeks after God.
Every one of them has turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
There is no one who does good, not even one. (Ps. 53:1-3)

“No one does good” does not mean there aren’t kind atheists or Hindus who work against slave trafficking or Muslims who stand against abortion. Rather, the “no one does good” aspect refers to the condition of our hearts, not the individual acts we perform. It refers to seeking God rather than turning aside.

The truth is, our hearts are bent toward self-interest, not the interest of others. We are proud, not humble; greedy, not generous; hateful, not loving; rebellious, not obedient. Those are our natural tendencies—which we may work to change, but which remain the state of our heart.

Not only do we have the numerous passages of Scripture that show us what we are, we have a world filled with evidence about mankind. Shall we consider crime or terrorism? Wars? Sex trafficking or perhaps child pornography? Prostitution? Corporate greed or government corruption? What areas of society are immune to the unrighteousness of the human heart? Are marriages free of self-interest? Are schools? The government? Churches?

Despite the evidence, the world will continue to be divided along the line of righteousness: Is Man righteous or is God? We can’t have it both ways because God has said Man is not righteous. So if God lies, He’s not righteous. It’s one or the other, Man or God. And that is the great divide.

This post is an edited version of one that appeared here December, 2014.

Published in: on April 3, 2018 at 5:35 pm  Comments Off on The Great Divide—A Reprise  
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Cleaning the Cup—A Reprise


1194095_wine_glass_dark_fieldIn recent years a fairly popular criticism of Christians in Western society is that those in traditional churches are playing the part today of the “religious leaders,” also called the Pharisees, who clashed with Jesus in the first century.

I maintain that this position compares avocados and watermelons. The Pharisees were trying to work their way into God’s good graces, even as they rejected Jesus. Christians—if they are actual followers of Christ—have understood that our best efforts fall short of God’s glory and have instead accepted the work of Jesus at the cross.

Does the fact that Christians follow Jesus mean we can then live as we please and do as we wish? Certainly not. The instruction in the New Testament is for Christians, not all people in general, which I think we sometimes lose sight of, at least here in America. Rather than concerning ourselves with all that the Bible says, we work to bring all of society into a moral lifestyle.

To an extent, this is not a bad thing. Christ’s teaching is life-changing, but the truth is, it’s possible to clean up the outside of the cup and leave the inside disgustingly dirty.

However, Jesus didn’t advocate scouring the inside and leaving the outside filthy. He said, essentially, clean the inside, and the outside will take care of itself: “You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also” (Matt. 23:26).

Here’s what Jesus was really getting to:

“So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt. 24:28)

In other words, these words are directed at pretend Christians, or at religious people in other faiths that think doing a bunch of good deeds will put them in right standing with god or the universe or whatever it is they worship.

The outside can look all spiffy and clean. One reason Christians team up with Mormons in political matters, I believe, is that Mormons are so very moral. They are pro-life and pro-marriage, don’t drink or smoke or gamble, go to church, give to charities, and generally present a face of kindness.

Clean cups, at least on the outside.

Honestly, moderate Muslims are right there beside them. The women dress modestly, they are law-abiding, they worship regularly, they oppose homosexuality, drinking, and abortion.

I could say the same about any number of people of religion—they do many, many right things because, in their belief system, they have to. The doing is their ticket to “God’s” good graces—whether that means enlightenment, nirvana, heaven, or another planet where they will rule.

Shockingly, atheists fall into this category, too. Their list of “right things” will differ from Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and pretend Christians, but they still have their list: Be tolerant of people outside Western culture, take care of the environment, avoid even the appearance of prejudice, speak only in a politically correct way, support gender equality, gay marriage, and labor unions.

The gods that the atheists are trying to please, of course, are themselves. They talk much about doing something meaningful for society and leaving a legacy. They want to “make their mark,” to be remembered.

Jesus said he didn’t come for the people who have these spiffed up outsides. Those folk see no need for Him because they believe it’s up to them. Either God expects them to measure up, or they have to reach the standard they’ve set for themselves. So they busy themselves cleaning the outside of the cup, and when drink splatters, which it always does, they hurriedly wipe it away. When greasy fingers leave a smear, they wash and polish, until the outside shines.

All the while, germs roam free on the inside. They can hate and lust and covet to their heart’s content. They can doubt God and rail at Him, they can be disappointed and think He’s let them down or doesn’t really care or isn’t really there. Just so long as on the outside, they look good.

Jesus said He came to heal, but only sick people need healing. The well send the physician away. Services not needed here—only healthy people on site.

But that attitude is indicative of the spiritually blind. All people have fallen short of God’s glory—His righteous standard, and the only standard that matters.

Children run races and win trophies, but how silly if they strutted around claiming to be the fastest runner in the world. They would have measured themselves against themselves and decided they were the best. But if they were to measure themselves against the world record holder, they would clearly, consistently, and always fall short.

So too with Man’s efforts, as soon as we measure ourselves against God’s holiness. We might shine the outside of our cup in an effort to fool ourselves and others that it is clean, but to kill the germs crawling around inside takes the touch of the Master, the work of Jesus, the healing of the One who came to save.

This article is an edited version of one that first appeared here in June 2013.

Perfect People Aren’t Saved


No Perfect People

Yesterday I re-posted an article about morally flawed people, and the irony that many who accept their flaws without blinking still think they “deserve” heaven. Today, I want to address the opposite problem: people who think heaven is for good people. This article originally appeared here in May, 2013.

– – – – –

Along with an erroneous view of the Bible, some people also have misconceptions about salvation. One of the most common is that it’s the good people that come to Christ—the people who like church and gospel music, who think a good time means going to a prayer meeting. Those are the people that become Christians.

Wrong.

For one thing, there are no “good people.” If someone is devoted to religious expression but has not believed the claims of Jesus Christ, he’s using his religion to get something he wants. In other words, religious expression can be an evidence of our selfishness, our desire to manipulate—either other people or even God Himself.

Good people aren’t saved. Sinners are saved. The lost are found, the broken are healed, those at the bottom of the pit are rescued. Jesus Himself said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt 9:12b). In context it’s clear he was referring to messed up people—“tax collectors and sinners.”

Even today, I think some Christians have the idea that a person needs to clean up a bit before coming to Christ. Jesus seems to say the opposite. He first encountered people where they were at, and knowing Him then brought about change. In some instances, such as His conversation with the woman caught in adultery, He told her to sin no more. In other instances, such as with Zaccheus, the sinner himself volunteered to clean up his act after his encounter with Jesus.

Either way, Jesus saves sinners, not because they get rid of sin but because they can’t get rid of sin and they know it. They repent but it is Jesus who takes away the sin of the world. It is His Spirit that gives each sinner the desire to live in newness of life.

By our nature, none of us wants to worship God and serve Him [atheists call this our “default position,” not realizing that they are defining the sin nature]. We want to worship ourselves and serve ourselves. We do unto others so that they will do unto us. In other words, we largely look at relationships as trade-offs. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. And woe to the person who doesn’t follow through on his promise. Revenge awaits! Justified revenge, because people are supposed to come through for me (even though I don’t always come through for them).

The interesting thing is, those who think they are good don’t see any need for God. Why would they? They don’t think they need saving.

So it’s ironic that people falsely think good people come to Christ. People good in their own eyes are too busy with their perfectionistic ways to pay attention to what Christ is all about. They are making sure that they recycle, give to the charity of the month, teach their children to be tolerant of all lifestyles, and do their fifty percent of what it takes to have a good marriage.

Don’t get me wrong. When a person comes to Christ, he changes. A thief like Zaccheus doesn’t want to keep stealing. Just the opposite. He has a passion for making right the wrongs he’s done. But his new life is a result of his relationship with Christ, not a cause of it.

He didn’t come to Christ because he stopped stealing. He stopped stealing because he came to Christ.

Too many Christians don’t really understand this new life we experience. We’d like all the old desires to be gone and for some people, they are. For others, it’s a fight to the death, or so it seems. The old desires seem to raise their ugly heads at the least opportune times. Some people experience gradual and constant improvement. What they used to do, they hardly do any more. What they want to do to please Jesus, they find delights them now, too.

The process, we’re told, is sanctification—growing up into our salvation, becoming like Jesus through the supernatural transformation of His Spirit. Most of us think it’s a long process that doesn’t show a lot of results to most of those who are close enough to us to see our warts.

And because we fall down so often, because lots of people think only the good come to Jesus, we give Christ’s name a bad reputation—because clearly, Christians sin. When we think about it, it grieves our hearts because we’re dragging Jesus’s name into the mud. We’re letting people think poorly of our Savior because we wallow in the sins we say He saved us from.

Christians aren’t good people. We’re saved people, and it’s important that we let others see who we are: a people who have received mercy, who have been pardoned, redeemed, cleansed, forgiven, and who one day, when we see Jesus face to face, will be like Him. It’s just that we’re not there yet.

Published in: on February 9, 2018 at 4:33 pm  Comments Off on Perfect People Aren’t Saved  
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Adapting


seven_of_nine_speaks_for_the_borgI write fantasy and love the imaginative. It should come as no surprise, then, that when H&I started airing reruns of all the Star Trek programs, I eagerly began watching (except for the original—I’m less of a fan of those). Seeing them one after the other has been enlightening on many levels. One thing I’ve noticed is that the theme of adapting or even assimilation arises over and over.

Assimilation is a result of one species, The Borg, taking over the bodies of those they defeat by turning them into cyber-humans with only a collective conscience, not a sense of individuality. As the various Star Trek crews encounter The Borg, their major goal is to avoid assimilation.

But with considerable frequency a parallel theme surfaces—these space explorers from Earth had to adapt.

There’s a lot of talk in our day about adapting. We need to adapt to the changing technology, to the twenty-first century, to postmodern thought, to a global economy, to the realities of science.

The church in America seems to have bought into the idea that we need to adapt to the greater culture in which we live. So we need to find a way to make peace with feminism, we need to become relevant for the next generation, we need to tap into the way people today consume information.

Some changes are subtle, some innocuous. Some correct error from an earlier generation. For instance, I grew up in churches that looked down on drinking and smoking and dancing. In fact, the Christian college I attended required us to sign a pledge saying that we would not engage in such activities. They apparently overlooked premarital sex, however.

I say that tongue in cheek, but the truth is, while we were trying to hold the line against dancing, there were major breaches of a much more serious nature. Breaches in matters that the Bible stands against.

Change needed to be made so that we were no longer concerned with law-keeping while overlooking the point and purpose of God’s righteous demand for holiness. Legalism is not holy living, and my early church experience didn’t do a good job of differentiating.

The course corrective was not to adapt to the culture, though. The course corrective was to return to what the authoritative word of God says.

Of course, in order to do that we first need to know what God’s word says.

Oddly—I say “oddly” but it’s not really odd because I believe Satan, who hates God and wants to undermine His plans and purposes, is behind it—oddly we are not, as a western Christian culture, working hard to learn what God has to say in His word.

I’m fortunate that my church has once again instituted a Scripture reading program for us. As a body, we read a passage of Scripture together and one member of the congregation writes a meditation on the text. We also have preachers (still no senior teaching pastor, but that’s OK—I’d rather we find someone by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, who God wants for us) who instruct us from God’s word.

Currently we have Dr. Gene Getz preaching, and while he was teaching on Sunday, it hit me that I hardly know the Bible, so much greater was his knowledge and scholarship than my own. I’ve long thought the Bible is an inexhaustible source of wisdom and knowledge, but that idea was strongly re-enforced Sunday.

But I’m getting away from the subject of adapting.

It dawned on me this week that adapting is really a voluntary form of assimilation. It’s slower, though. We decide what we wish to change, and accordingly we move a little left or right. Sometimes there’s a bit of a pendulum movement that swings us from one extreme back to the other. But often, each new swing leaves us a little closer to the ideas and patterns to which we’re adapting.

I’m not talking about the issues of the 60s—boys’ long hair and girls’ short skirts—though things that seem so trivial undoubtedly did have an affect on culture. I’m not even talking about things like accepting abortion or moving homosexuality from the abnormal psych part of our text books to redefining marriage so that gays can be part of “normal society.”

The real adaptations we’re making have to do with our relationship to God.

Israel faced the exact same issue. God gave them His covenant and then His Law. They agreed to both. They would be God’s people and they would keep His Law. But once they settled in to their promised land, once they had some stability and security and prosperity, they started looking around at the nations surrounding them.

Look at their gods, at their religious activity, at their power structure. We want to be like them!

King Manasseh was probably the worst. He ruled for over a half century, and under his rule Judah adapted quite well to the nations around them. They started worshiping their gods, erected idols like theirs, practiced witchcraft like they did, instituted child sacrifice like they did. All the things the Canaanites had done which caused God to kick them out of the land, the people of Judah copied.

They adapted.

After all, worshiping one god was passé. Following His law, observing His feast days, making sacrifice to Him because of their sins was just so yesterday.

In the same we, we adapt today.

Is the Bible really authoritative? Might it not be simply a collection of myths, some infused with good, moral teaching? The rest, of course, is thoroughly forgettable because it is so passé. One God? One way to Him? Certainly all ways are equal. After all, we believe in egalitarianism. How could one way be better than the others.

And so it goes as we listen to “higher criticism” and progressives and univeralists and a host of other false teachers who show us how we can slice and dice the Bible until it says what the rest of the culture says. So of course abortion is OK, and homosexuality, and women preachers, and people ignoring their contractual commitments—in business or in personal relationships. Of course a little pandering to the wealthy is acceptable, a little bribery, a little lying. After all, it’s just business.

What’s more, what matters most is not God and His righteousness. What matters most is that we are not offensive to anyone, even as we push our way to the top. We must love, at the expense of truth if necessary, so that people will like us and accept us and support us.

That’s a snapshot of Christians adapting.

Cleaning The Cup


1194095_wine_glass_dark_fieldIn recent years a fairly popular criticism of Christians in Western society is that those in traditional churches are playing the part today of the “religious leaders,” also called the Pharisees, who clashed with Jesus in the first century.

I maintain that this position compares avocados and watermelons. The Pharisees were trying to work their way into God’s good graces, even as they rejected Jesus. Christians—if they are actual followers of Christ—have understood that our best efforts fall short of God’s glory and have instead accepted the work of Jesus at the cross.

Does the fact that Christians follow Jesus mean we can then live as we please and do as we wish? Certainly not.

The instruction in the New Testament is for Christians, which I think we American believers sometimes lose sight of. Rather than concerning ourselves with all that the Bible says to Christians, we work to bring all of society into a godly lifestyle.

To an extent, this is not a bad thing. Christ’s teaching is life-changing and all of society would be better off doing what He says, but the truth is, it’s possible to clean up the outside of the cup and leave the inside disgustingly dirty.

Jesus didn’t advocate scouring the outside and leaving the inside filthy. Just the opposite. He said, essentially, clean the inside and the outside will take care of itself: “You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also” (Matt. 23:26).

Here’s what Jesus was really getting to:

“So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt. 24:28)

In other words, He was talking to pretend Christians, or to religious people in other faiths who think doing a bunch of good deeds will put them in right standing with god or the universe or whatever it is they worship.

To be honest, a lot of those people clean up well. Their outside can look all spiffy and clean. One reason Christians team up with Mormons in political matters, I believe, is that Mormons are so very moral. They are pro-life and pro-marriage, don’t drink or smoke or gamble, go to church, give to charities, and generally present a face of kindness.

Clean cups, at least on the outside.

Honestly, moderate Muslims are right there beside them. The women dress modestly, all are law-abiding, they worship regularly, they oppose homosexuality, drinking, and abortion.

I could say the same about any number of people of religion—they do many, many right things because in their belief system, they have to. The doing is their ticket to “God’s” good graces—whether that means enlightenment, nirvana, heaven, or another planet where they will rule.

Shockingly, atheists can fall into this category, too. Their list of “right things” will differ from Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and pretend Christians, but they still have their list. Be tolerant of people who hold a different belief system than traditional Western culture, take care of the environment, avoid even the appearance of prejudice, speak only in a politically correct way, support gender equality, gay marriage, and labor unions.

The gods that the atheists are trying to please, of course, are themselves. They talk much about doing something meaningful for society and leaving a legacy. This is their nirvana, but to get there, they must clean the outside until it shines.

Jesus said he didn’t come for the people who have these spiffed up outsides. Those folk see no need for Him because they believe it’s up to them.

For the religionists God expects them to measure up, and for the humanists, they have to measure up to the standard they’ve set for themselves. So both groups busy themselves cleaning the outside of the cup, and when drink splatters, which it always does, they hurriedly wipe it away. When greasy fingers leave a smear, they wash and polish, until the outside shines again.

All the while, germs roam free on the inside. They can hate and lust and covet to their heart’s content. They can doubt God and rail at Him, they can be disappointed and think He’s let them down or doesn’t really care or isn’t really there. Just so long as on the outside, no one knows.

Jesus said He came to heal, but only sick people need healing. The well send physicians away. Services not needed here—only healthy people on site.

But that attitude is indicative of the spiritually blind. All people have fallen short of God’s glory—His righteous standard, and the only standard that matters.

Children run races and win trophies, but how silly if they strutted around claiming to be the fastest runner in the world. They have measured themselves against themselves and decided they are the best. But if they were to measure themselves against the world record holder, they would clearly, consistently, and always fall short.

So too with Man’s efforts, as soon as we measure ourselves against God’s holiness.

We might shine the outside of our cup in an effort to fool ourselves and others that it is clean, but to kill the germs crawling around inside takes the touch of the Master, the work of Jesus, the healing of the One who came to save.

This post first appeared here in June 2013.

Published in: on April 13, 2016 at 6:24 pm  Comments Off on Cleaning The Cup  
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Do Nice People Go To Hell?


gas_craterIn the Facebook atheist/Christian group I’ve mentioned, one person asked, “Who here is going to hell?” The question was glib and the answers ranged from a Christian’s bemoaning the message in a picture of someone holding a sign that said “Going to hell and PROUD,” to a couple people who either echoed the sentiment or said they weren’t going because there was no such place. One person who embraced the idea that he’d be going to hell said, “The company will be amazing.”

In light of those comments and some of the questions that arose in another post here this week, I decided to revisit an article that originally appeared here in March 2011.
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What a question: Do nice people go to hell? There are a couple things we have to define, the first being “hell.”

In the New Testament, Jesus used the word we translate as “hell,” more than anyone else, which kind of shoots the ideas that some professing Christians have—that Jesus is loving and the Father, as the Old Testament reveals Him, is wrathful.

Even a casual reading of the gospels shows that Jesus made a clear statement about the judgment of those who reject Him. But how does He characterize this judgment? Sometimes as a place of darkness. Other times as a place where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In one parable, Jesus says the evil servant will be assigned a place with the hypocrites. In Luke’s account of Jesus sending away those who claimed to know Him (“I never knew you”), He said they would be put out of the kingdom of God. And, yes, sometimes He made reference to a furnace or a place where there will be fire and brimstone.

Interesting that we camp on the image of fire, when all these other descriptions are also in Scripture. One pastor I recently heard believes we have formed our opinion of hell more from classic literature than from Scripture. For example, he pointed out that hell is the place created for Satan and his demons—spiritual beings. Consequently physical fire, it would seem, would have no effect on them.

What we know for sure about hell is that it is the just judgment God will assign to the wicked. “So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous” (Matt. 13:39).

So that brings up the question: Can nice people be “wicked”?

We know that there is none righteous, no not one. If we aren’t righteous—and what makes us “unrighteous” is that our own righteousness is nothing but contaminated tatters—then we are all, at our best, sinners.

Can sinners be nice people? Actually, yes. Before we were sinners we were made in God’s image. We have that about us still, though His glory is marred by our love of and commitment to ourselves. We are still a nice bunch … as long as I can be nice and receive credit for it. Or as long as I can be nice without going out of my way too much. Or as long as I can be nice and receive the same in return.

In short, we might look nice, but we come back to what Scripture says about our very best—it’s not pretty. And it most certainly is not efficacious for that which we need most—an answer to our sin condition.

Published in: on January 29, 2016 at 7:20 pm  Comments (5)  
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Scoffers


tangled-pathway-in-the-woodsWhen I hung out at that Facebook page intended to bring Christians and atheists into dialogue, it soon became apparent that some people were primarily there to scoff at anything related to God. I had a similar experience recently at an atheist blog.

For the most part, the host was respectful, but a few commenters were doing their best, it seemed, to set “the Christian” up to get off topic and say something stupid. Hence, Christians were lumped in with Muslims and God was likened to Donald Trump. Of course there was the usual accusation that God was genocidal, but the capper was the “ex-Christian,” who apparently had once been a pastor, making the generalization that Christians don’t know as much or study as much of the Bible as he, and if we only would, we’d come away with the same doubts and denials that he did.

All this makes me very sad.

First, I hate to read accusations against God that aren’t true. Of course, any accusation against God isn’t true because God is holy and blameless and righteous and just and good. There simply are no grounds for accusing God of anything.

In reality, Satan has to be behind accusations against God since he is a liar and the father of lies. Hard to believe that Job, in the midst of his suffering, joined in with the accuser to say that God was wronging him.

It’s a bit shocking to read Job saying things that remind me of some of those emerging church folk from a few years back—the ones who claimed they were nicer than God. Job was saying he was more righteous than God.

[God said to Job,] “Will you really annul My judgment?
Will you condemn Me that you may be justified? (Job 40:8)

Which brings me to the next thing that makes me sad. Thankfully, when Job came face to face with God, he repented. The three friends he’d been arguing with, didn’t. In God’s mercy, He told one of the men to make sacrifices for themselves and have Job pray for them. They did, and God accepted Job.

I guess their offering sacrifices indicates they repented in the end. But the sad and sorry truth is, many, many, many scoffers don’t.

Psalm 1 starts out by saying,

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers! (v 1)

The point of this psalm seems to be that it’s better not to hang with people who can be categorized as wicked, sinners, scoffers.

Christian parents often embrace this concept for their children. It’s better to pick your friends wisely, to steer clear of troublemakers and kids who knowingly and purposefully do what is not right.

Yet the current church trend is to paint Jesus as the guy who hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors—the dregs of the first century Jewish society. Well, the truth was, Jesus didn’t hang with them. They hung with Jesus. But the point these church leaders are making is that Christians need to break out of isolation mode so we can actually relate to people who need Jesus Christ.

But the two positions—picking good friends and hanging with people who need Jesus—raises a good question: how do non-Christians in our society ever hear the gospel? Porn stars or gang bangers or drug dealers or prostitutes or murderers are not likely to go to church, and church isn’t designed to evangelize.

So how do they hear the gospel?

Are we to refrain from walking in the counsel of the wicked, standing in the path of sinners, and sitting in the seat of scoffers, or not? And if we do, how do we fulfill the great commission?

There has to be a balance, I think, and it may be present in some of the word choices of Psalm 1:1. The righteous man, as he is identified as in verse 6, is firmly planted, not driven by the wind. At the same time it’s the counsel of the wicked he avoids, the path of sinners he won’t stand in, the comfortable intimacy with scoffers he disdains.

In other words, it’s not the wicked, the sinners, and the scoffers he is to avoid, but their counsel, their path, their companionship.

The Internet is an interesting place. I’ve read some articles—or skimmed them—written by scoffers, even some well-known scoffers. Each time, I’m left with this same sadness. I see how horrendous their words are, but I also see how much at risk they’re putting their eternal destiny.

Honestly? I’d like to reach out and shake them: What are you saying? How blind are you? It’s hard to watch them spit on the One I love—for His sake and for theirs.

Published in: on January 13, 2016 at 7:09 pm  Comments (13)  
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