Is politics part of the church’s mission?

Apologies for the long delay since my last post. I actually spent several months researching this article on politics – it felt a very important subject and I wanted to make sure I was doing it justice. It’s been on my mind a lot following Brexit and Trump. Many Christians, especially those in the ‘elite’ of the church in this country (eg media, heads of denominations etc), passionately think that Christians should get involved in politics, and are often quite left-wing. The reverse is the case in the US, obviously. But is this what Jesus wants? The article explores this question. It helped me to make up my mind on the subject, but I hope I am being fair to all sides. Let me know your thoughts!

Bart Ehrman: has the Bible been changed, and does it matter?

Bart often tries to be fair to Christians, for example arguing with Jesus mythicists, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

However it’s his popular books, such as ‘Misquoting Jesus’, that bear a lot of responsibility for the widely-held beliefs that our Bibles have been changed so much that they can’t be trusted. He’s argued that the early Christians decided to make up a lot of things Jesus said, or that the ancient manuscripts are so different that we can’t know what the originals said. And a lot of people believe him.

It’s true that we don’t have the original manuscripts of the Biblical text, and the ancient manuscripts we have do vary somewhat. However these variants are nearly always very small and insignificant changes, such as ‘in’ and ‘into’, which don’t change the meaning. Modern Bibles such as the New Living Translation tell you all about this in their notes.

But behind the rhetoric Bart is a bit more fair. I’ve been reading ‘Misquoting Truth’ by Timothy Paul Jones, which summarises some of these points. For example, he says this:

“It is probably safe to say that the copying of early Christian texts was by and large a ‘conservative’ process. The scribes … were intent on ‘conserving’ the textual tradition they were passing on. Their ultimate concern was not to modify the tradition, but to preserve it for themselves and for those who would follow them. Most scribes, no doubt, tried to do a faithful job in making sure that the text they reproduced was the same text they inherited.”

In fact because of the technique of textual criticism, the fact that there are multiple later manuscripts with small errors in them actually gives us more confidence in what the original text said, because the changes act as clues to trace the original. Bart acknowledges this:

If there were only one manuscript of a work, there would be no textual variants. Once a second manuscript is located, however, it will differ from the first in a number of places. This is not a bad thing, however, as a number of these variant readings will show where the first manuscript has preserved an error. Add a third manuscript, and you will find additional variant readings, but also additional places, as a result, where the original text is preserved (i.e., where the first two manuscripts agree in an error). And so it goes—the more manuscripts one discovers, the more the variant readings; but also the more the likelihood that somewhere among those variant readings one will be able to uncover the original text. Therefore, the thirty thousand variants uncovered by [John] Mill do not detract from the integrity of the New Testament; they simply provide the data that scholars need to work on to establish the text, a text that is more amply documented than any other from the ancient world.

 

 

 

Spirit-filled Christian converts her abductor

This is an old testimony from the 80s, but it is absolutely extraordinary.

Margaret Mayfield was in a parking lot in San Antonio, Texas, having been prompted in the morning to carry some Scripture and evangelistic materials with her in her car.

She met a man who looked ‘rabid’ and ‘demonic’, and she tried to witness to him. He made her get into the car and had a gun.

What she didn’t know, was that he was serial killer and rapist Stephen Morin, who was on the run from the police after killing someone earlier that day – on top of numerous rapes and murders.

However, she showed no fear, and extraordinarily, showed love to him as they talked for hours. He commented on how she was not trying to escape, and how she did not seem to be afraid. “I’ve felt more love from you than I have in my whole life,” he told her.

She told him that he had a ‘satanic stronghold’ following his traumatic childhood with a mother who hated him. He replied that he knew that force of hate, that sometimes it had made him do things that he didn’t want to do.

She prayed in the Spirit throughout, when she wasn’t preaching the Word to him. “Are you an angel?” he asked. He wanted her to go in and get a paper, but she said she did not want to read what he had done because the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin – the impression she left is that she knew this would increase her fear.

He asked her for money, “whatever is in your heart to give me”. When she gave money to him, he started crying and said: “You are the most wonderful person I’ve ever met in my life. This love I feel is not sexual, it’s nothing like that. It’s something I’ve never experienced before.” She had various opportunities to call for help but she did not.

He wanted to kill himself, but Margy continued to witness to him and tell him that he would go to hell if he did, telling him of the gospel, that Jesus loved him and died for his sins.

Suddenly he said: “You’ve been preaching to me all day, and I finally understand what you’re talking about.” He pulled over, raised his hands in the air, and said: “Jesus I am sorry for everything I have ever done. Please forgive me, I want to go to heaven.” He cried and told her that the hate that had been in his heart had gone. Later, he told her that just before his prayer, he had heard an audible voice say: “This is the last time that I will call you.”

He went on to unload his gun, gave Margy the bullets, and said: “I don’t ever want to do this again. I want to tell people about Jesus Christ!” He continued to praise Jesus all down the road.

They went to get a hamburger (she said, “by this time we were friends”) as he waited to get on a bus.

Many people have asked her, why didn’t you call the police? But she said that she wanted to obey the Spirit of God. If she had listened to reason, she says, she would have called the police but then she could have ended up dead. So she obeyed the Spirit.

She went home, leaving Stephen in the bus station, and there were police everywhere. She wouldn’t tell them where he is for a while, as she didn’t want to hurt his fledgling faith. Eventually she did, and the police went there and found him reading a Bible. He handed over some weapons, and said  normally he would have had a shoot-out, but… “I met this lady today, and now I am different.”

Margy said: “The power of love is what won that man. Not criticism, not telling them they’re doing the wrong thing. They already know that. It’s the love of God that cuts across those barriers and wins people to the Lord.”

Later, she realised that God had been preparing her for a long time for this experience. She had spent a lot of time memorising the book of Ephesians, and Psalm 91… she said, that though most people would have been terrified: “[God] had programmed me so much to think the thoughts of the word of God. I think that day, that’s what surprised me so much… how much love and compassion I felt for him. I never would have believed I could have felt that, I mean I couldn’t have, without God in me. I got a glimpse that day of how much God loves humanity, and it’s such a depth! We can’t even fathom it, it’s so great. It’s changed me forever, that’s for sure.”

Morin was later executed for one of his murders, and his last words were a prayer.

Why did Kenneth W Daniels lose his faith? A Christian response to his book

stjohnsashfield_stainedglass_goodshepherd_portrait_croppedKenneth is now an atheist, though once a Wycliffe missionary. He describes what happened at length in his memoir: ‘Why I believed: Reflections of a former missionary’. The book attempts to convince the reader of his arguments against Christianity, and claims that his deconversion was due to ‘weighing the evidence’. Though he says at various points that he is not trying to persuade believers to doubt, this doesn’t tally with his rather sinister invitation at the end of the book: “Consider taking a swim in the waters of unbelief. You won’t be struck by lightening…”

His analysis did not persuade me to doubt my faith. In fact it reminded me of the strength of the intellectual arguments for Christianity. Perhaps that is because of our very different backgrounds.

Kenneth grew up in a supportive but fundamentalist Christian environment, then began to have doubts while at university, which did not go away. Not an unusual story, as university is where we start to think independently from our parents. I think that’s why I was more convinced that God exists at the end of my science degree than when I began. My mind had been opened – though it took some time before I truly adopted Christian faith. But I grew up in a secular environment. Neither of my parents were practising Christians. I came to faith in my late 20s, after a lot of searching. It requires a lot of independent thought, as I’ve written elsewhere, to break out of the secular, atheistic worldview we are immersed in. It takes effort and courage. Becoming a Christian helped me to open my mind further. Though now, I absolutely, without hesitation, believe orthodox Christianity to be true.

Yet, Kenneth took the opposite path. Why? Well, he claims throughout the book that he didn’t want to lose his faith. One reason he cites, is that his family, wife and career are all devoutly Christian. (It’s worth pointing out that his doubts existed before he went to Wycliffe). Kenneth describes heartfelt prayers, spiritual experiences, earnest studying, that he hoped would bring him back to faith. He says that his deconversion was purely because he ‘weighed the evidence’ (p.56).

However, I do not see this careful ‘weighing’ in his book, which leaves me puzzled. He read fairly widely, yet often confidently makes assertions without apparently being aware of some of the counter-arguments. He seems to me, to be trying to convince himself that God’s not real. He also appears to be arguing against a particular kind of Christianity – fundamentalist, creationist etc – rather than the Christianity that I know, which is evangelical, but thoughtful and open. This leads to a whole load of straw men and red herrings for someone who does not identify with “fundamentalist” Christianity. (Though as I point out at the end of this piece, in some ways I think Christians should be more concerned about the fundamentals as Jesus described them).

The objections that Kenneth raises are nothing new. The violence and “un-Christian” commands of the OT, the “conflict” between evolution and creationism, the Biblical “contradictions” or “errors”, the existence of hell, suffering.

I was raised in British culture that sees such problems as insurmountable objections to Christianity, and rarely mentions the Christian point of view. This counter-Christian rhetoric is all over our TVs, in our most popular books, claimed as fact by many of our teachers. Most younger people in the UK now uncritically accept these ideas. For that reason, most committed Christians, especially adult converts, have thought through these objections carefully, and found them to be unfounded or secondary to their experience of Christ in their lives.

So how could these issues have been so devastating for Daniels? I don’t know, but I spot a few interesting possibilities. From a spiritual point of view, on the surface he had everything he needed. He grew up in an apparently loving Christian home, his experiences of Christian community seem to generally have been positive.  He must have been covered in prayer, because he was open about his doubts while a missionary.

As to intellectual issues – he appears to have read many of the great Christian apologists. He has definitely thought through the issues to a certain degree. This is too small a space to go into all his objections – reams and reams have been written about all of these things from apologists on both ‘sides’. Kenneth has read fairly widely, but what interests me more, is the underlying assumptions he was holding as he read them. On what basis was he evaluating these arguments, and why? He describes ‘weighing the evidence’, but what scales was he using, why, and what is his criteria for evidence? On page after page of his long book, I found many holes in his arguments, or at least valid critiques. The most common thought I had was: “But you could apply that criticism to atheism too”. (This is a crucial point that I’ll come to later, and it is picked up in the video ‘The Skeptic’s Dilemma’, posted below.)

So what’s the reason Kenneth lost his faith? My hunch is that ultimately, God gives us choices. We choose what we read, and we choose what criteria we will use to adopt our beliefs or reject them. Certainly during my faith journey, there have been a number of crossroads at which I think I could have chosen to turn away from God. I didn’t want to do so. For me, they were more emotional than intellectual. However, my intellectual searching and questioning has helped me to develop my theology and way of understanding my faith – I am a fully ‘intellectually satisfied Christian’ and I see many good rational arguments to believe. But my faith is something more fundamental than just a ‘belief’ or an ‘experience’.

Daniels sometimes expressed a passivity when he was a doubting believer – along the lines of ‘please God, show me that it is true because I want to believe’. I think this is a good prayer to pray. But was it honest? What choices did he make along the way that reflect his heart in the matter?

Daniels writes that he found his faith was on ‘sinking sand’. I suspect he is right. Let’s say that the OT does have errors, and evolution is true – both things I would be open-minded about, to a point. So what? Why does this make anyone doubt the existence of God, and that Jesus is the Son of God and died for us? Why does that lead one to think that the material world is all there is?

Most testimonies of coming to faith are not clear logical arguments from one intellectual position to another (though some do experience intellectually-driven conversions to Christianity). Neither is Daniels’ deconversion. For example, several times his doubts seemed to appear from nowhere and he doesn’t challenge them. If he had applied his ‘doubting’ to his own doubts, he may have had a more balanced rational journey. Yet he seems to accept his doubts as fact, in the same way that others would accept their faith as fact. If only skeptics would be as sceptical of their own beliefs as they are of religious ones.

For example, once Kenneth describes doubts came from observing the evolution of language and then thinking that this is plausibly how species evolution occurred (p.29). I’m at a loss to understand how this could have damaged his faith, it just doesn’t seem logical to me. But then, before my conversion, I read a degree in Molecular Biology, so I understood evolution pretty well to start with. I came to faith with the presumption that evolution was entirely true – it didn’t stop me believing in Christ. Other logical leaps are described in the book that suggest to me that this can’t have been a purely intellectual deconversion, though this is what Kenneth experienced it to be.

There is the odd almighty clanger in the supposed ‘evidence’ against Christianity. It would take a book in itself to challenge all of Kenneth’s arguments in detail, but I choose a select few here:

Clanger 1: “As long as moral behaviour is grounded in the relational consequences of our actions and we can ask ourselves, “what kind of society would result if everyone behaved like me? then no holy text or divine design is necessary to explain or support morality.” (p.164) He spends a long time arguing that you don’t need religion in order to be good. No, he says, we only “need to decide what’s ultimately in our best interest in the long term.” Goodness, as if every terrible act in history hasn’t been done with that in mind! A motivation to stop doing evil because “if everyone did it it would damage society” has not prevented the evils of the world. He’s also assuming quasi-Christian morals. But what about a community in which murder, or rape, or cannibalism, was seen as morally acceptable and pleasing to society? Is that OK because they’ve decided that such behaviour was ‘in their best interest?!’ This naivety at how human beings have decided and enacted their moral codes is worrying. As William Lane Craig simplifies, morality on naturalism is a matter of, “Who says?”

Kenneth also betrays a very legalistic understanding of Christianity. His understanding of how Christianity might help society is to restrain people’s worst instincts by fear or motivation. He says that he regularly prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide him, but says there was no difference to his moral behaviour after he lost his faith. He seems not to have experienced the increases in love, patience etc that the Holy Spirit can bring. (Note, I’m NOT saying he doesn’t have love, patience etc, but I do say that the Holy Spirit can bring breakthroughs in those areas that are not found otherwise – that is my personal experience and that of countless others). It’s not the rules that help real Christians to be moral, it’s the Holy Spirit and a change of heart. Obviously there are lots of half-hearted Christians in the world, as Kenneth is keen to point out. He says that the similar (or worse!) divorce rates among Christian groups compared to outside show this. Yet he’s talking about the US, again, and there are so many confounding variables in these kinds of studies, that make such conclusions are not empirically valid. In my culture, where Christians are in the minority, I can say that though there is much lukewarmness and bad behaviour by Christians – regularly I see, experience and hear about moral breakthroughs that have come from prayer.

Most importantly, he’s missed the real point of the moral argument that he claims to be refuting. The question is, does objective morality exist? Kenneth seems to believe so, as he’s very sure that atheists can be moral, and that his behaviour as an atheist is just as moral as when he was a Christian. So presumably he is happy to define morality as something beyond just what he thinks to be true. If objective morality exists, then how and why? Is it on some metaphysical moral plane that science can’t currently detect? If not, than who says Kenneth’s understanding of what is moral is correct?  I suspect that Kenneth has not wrestled with the real dilemma that he faces. Atheistic moral philosophers are very aware of this problem, and are trying to find ways of getting around it, but it is not easily done.

Clanger 2: Prophecies. Warning bells should ring when he recommends to the reader a book written in 1807 on Jesus’s fulfilment of Biblical prophecy. His chapter on this subject begins by arguing Daniel’s apocalypse in chapter 10-12 is not prophecy, but written after the events in the second century BC. He cites the ‘Oxford Companion to the Bible’. He says that there’s no evidence that the book wasn’t written afterwards. Well, maybe not, but using secular assumptions that a genuine prophesy is impossible probably won’t help. It’s a strange place to start, as I don’t know many Christians who find this prophecy to be foundational to their faith.

The really important prophecies to Christians have clear evidence that they were written well before the events prophesied, and Kenneth barely mentions them. As for the most convincing prophesy, tellingly Kenneth limits his comments: “Perhaps… Isaiah 53 was not presented primarily as a prophesy but a series of past events.” (p. 210) and “most of what it refers to is spiritual in nature, so it was possible to apply it to Jesus or any other righteous person who was unjustly executed.” I’ll leave this to readers’ own conclusions – though it’s fair to say that people who are not well acquainted with the life of Jesus will not realise how astonishing Isaiah 53 really is.

Clanger 3: “There is no evidence that any of the authors of these five sources [of the gospels] witnessed any of the events they described.” As Kenneth’s book was written three years later than Richard Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the eyewitnesses’, the claim there is ‘no evidence’ was, and is, patently incorrect.

These are three examples, but there are more problems with the ‘evidence’ cited in the book.

So, why did Kenneth lose his faith? I can only speculate. I would never attribute it to some great moral failing – everyone suffers from great moral failings of some kind. I did observe some interesting themes throughout the book that might offer some possible routes to understanding.

  • He describes not being exposed to secular or atheistic ways of thinking until adulthood, and feeling afraid of reading non-evangelical authors or having his fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity questioned. Obviously, this does not help someone to really explore what they believe and why. Someone who comes from a non-Christian background such as myself, will have had exposure to all these things, and analysed them without ‘fear’. Though I think it would be better for a child to be brought up in the Christian faith, clearly there can be a downside, if they do not encounter the problems that ‘outsiders’ have with the faith, and so consider such ‘doubts’ to be more significant than they really are.
  • Often he described being persuaded by a book, just by reading it – whether the author was Christian or atheist. This suggests to me that he tends to take things at face value and accept them, perhaps because of his fundamentalist roots? Though he has clearly thought a lot about the subjects – his childhood non-critical acceptance of what he is told does reveal itself in the adult Kenneth. Mind you, many atheists and Christians are also like this – we all have blind spots of some kind. Lack of critical thinking is as much a problem in atheism as it is in Christianity, and Kenneth displays a lot of rigid thinking.
  • He does not fully understand many of the Christian arguments for God. Eg, he is confused re the moral argument, as explained above. He also doesn’t engage with a lot of good Christian arguments for the existence of God, such as the argument from consciousness, and the excellent Christian challenges to atheistic naturalism, such as the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.
  • He says he had been brought up with the idea “Christian = good, non-Christian = bad”. This is so easy to refute (and begs questions of what is good, how can we label something Christian etc) that I’m not surprised he was confused.
  • Regularly, he cites a potential alternative to the Christian viewpoint, as if it is a damning indictment. Perhaps again, this is a reaction to his upbringing, but to me such possibilities do not undermine my faith. Reasonable atheists and Christians acknowledge the strong points and weaknesses of their own and the other ‘side’ in terms of the rational debate. But I didn’t read Kenneth – once – acknowledging some of the very real problems with atheism and naturalism. He appears to find the unanswered questions or uncertainties of Christianity to be devastating for belief, yet doesn’t see the massive rational problems with his adopted worldview. Yet plenty of atheists are willing to acknowledge, along with Christians, that atheism has many difficulties intellectually.
  • To whom do we listen, and why? It’s worth examining our motives and emotions about our choices of what we read and what we believe. On what basis are we evaluating something, and how have we chosen this criteria? And why? Kenneth said: “I came to my present perspective initially against my will, and I persevere in it only because it is genuinely where I believe the evidence leads.” This begs an awful lot of questions. What kind of evidence is he talking about? Why choose that kind of evidence? Isn’t that choice culturally constructed? On atheism and naturalism, how can we trust the cognitive reasoning of our brains in any case? And, is there any such thing as a ‘choice’ as the world has to be scientifically determined? And, the biggie… to the next point
  • There is often a blatant inconsistency by which atheists pick holes in arguments for theism or Christianity, yet ignore the holes of the atheistic arguments. This phenomenon is well articulated by David Wood in this talk: The Skeptic’s Dilemma. This summarises what I believe Kenneth does so often in his book.
  • We are not just passive accepters of faith. Unless Calvinism is true (I don’t believe so), faith requires decisions of our own making.
  • He seems to have picked up quite a lot of rigid assumptions, such as ‘if the Bible is not inerrant, it is worthless’ and ‘if I feel uncertain or doubtful about one area of Christian belief, all other areas are in doubt too’. Having such absolute beliefs without any notion of a ‘middle way’ may not be helpful. I can testify to the fact that it is possible to be a passionate believer, holding to the basics of faith, while still being open-minded about certain issues. Our faith shouldn’t rest on whether or not it’s possible to prove that every piece of our theological system is infallible. Surely, it should rest on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ and His love and sacrifice for us.
  • A significant factor preventing Kenneth from rejecting Christianity was the fear of hell if it was true, and the rejection of his family (though they have not rejected him). This reveals quite a legalistic ‘faith’, once again. This kind of fear-based adherence to God can’t be a good thing. Did he really, genuinely, know that God loves him, before his deconversion? It doesn’t sound like it, sadly.
  • Very early on in his doubting, he said he didn’t believe Jesus was the Son of God. In fact, I noticed a surprising lack of discussion about Jesus – the book was much more about the religious trappings of the faith. Did he actually know and love Jesus, before he lost his faith? I suspect he would say yes, but the lack of mention does intrigue me. If he had a more Christ-centred hermeneutic to his Bible reading, would this help him to know God?

I once listened to a talk by Michael Ramsden about the ‘ontological grounding’ of the gospel, which I thought was a good way to articulate the reality of a Christian. Essentially, he said that his faith was more than just a belief, more than just a feeling – that it was a way of being, something much more fundamental. Did Kenneth ever experience this? I wonder whether this internal “being” influences our emotions, beliefs and choices – though the influence can go the other direction too? I’ve known a number of people who have converted to Christianity through intellectual means, as well as emotional, spiritual, and other routes. Likewise, people appear to make the trip the other way through these same means. How can we trust our own thoughts, our own logic? If we are nothing but dust, atoms and molecules, material objects – nothing can be trusted. As Plantinga has persuasively argued, atheism is a philosophy that refutes itself. But faith is something more than just matter, thoughts or emotion.

No, I think that there is something much more fundamental going on. The ultimate point of our existence is the acceptance or rejection of God. This is something more than a belief, an experience. It is who we really are.

 

 

 

Defending Tyson Fury from the waves of hate

I wrote an article “Tyson Fury’s a working class Christian man and we should celebrate him” for Christianity magazine’s blog that’s basically supporting him, though I don’t agree with everything he says. It’s provoked a lot of comment, which I expected, and I’m finding very interesting. You can see the comments underneath.

In essence I’m pointing out that the people who are criticising him often express hatred, prejudice and judgement – so why are people not calling them out on it?

Jesus came to save sinners, not those who think they are righteous. He taught against self-righteousness and hypocrisy so clearly. Though, it’s often hard to see in yourself. But Tyson is a classic example of the great Northern value of “what you see is what you get”.

The guy really needs prayer, because one of the hardest teachings of Jesus was to love your enemies. He has a lot of them at the moment, and needs all the help he can get. The BBC Sports Personality of the Year competition is on Sunday, so it’s all gonna get heated up again.

 

 

Was Jesus a pacifist? Early church beliefs about war and violence

I had a debate with someone about pacifism the other day, online. Did Jesus teach pacifism? To me it is fairly clear that He did, with words such as ‘love your enemies’, ‘pray for those who persecute you’, ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword’ etc.

It’s not easy being a pacifist, especially if faced with violence personally, or when there are murderous expansionist fascistic regimes who hope to kill or rape all those who don’t agree with them. I honestly wouldn’t want to judge anyone who committed violence, and there are many situations where it would be an automatic reaction for me. Sometimes it is done with good intentions – those going in to rescue people from slavery, for example.

I just can’t see that violence is God’s will, based on the New Testament. Yes it was ‘allowed’ in the OT, though there are many passages that show this would not be God’s ultimate will for the world. But post-Jesus, things change, it seems to me.

One of the strongest arguments that this is what Jesus taught, I believe, is that the early church was unanimously pacifistic. I’d highly recommend a book called ‘Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs’ compiled by David Bercot. It’s a quick way of examining what was taught in the pre-Nicene church (the first couple of centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection). Here’s a very quick summary:

Many church fathers taught that it was not right for a Christian to go to war, or be in the army. Explicitly condemning war and violence (rather than the idolatry of the army etc, which some say is the reason early Christians were not allowed in the military) were: Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Lactantius, Arnobius.

Also saying that they personally would not go to war, or making less explicit condemnations of war, or commenting that Christians do not commit violence or go to war: Tatian, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus.

There are a small number of mentions of Christians being in the army. But they had this restriction, which is a pretty extraordinary one, when you think about it:

By the close of the second century, if someone who was already a soldier came to faith, they were allowed to stay in the army after baptism, but only if they didn’t use the sword, take oaths, or engage in idolatrous practices. This was confirmed in the writing of Hippolytus, who wrote: “A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism.”

The earliest Christians had the heritage of the early church, led by people who spent 3 years in Jesus’ company. Wouldn’t they have a pretty good idea of what His views were on this subject?

War may seem the easiest way. But Jesus doesn’t teach the easy way.

 

What do I mean by the “living Christ” and morality?

I was chatting to an atheist on twitter, and we were discussing how we can know what is right and what is wrong – and how we can be sure we’re not being deceived. My answer is, ‘The Bible and the living Christ’. He said he didn’t understand the latter, so I thought I’d write a blog post to explain.

Christians debate about what extent their own experience of God – which could also be called the presence of God, mystical experiences, being filled with the Holy Spirit, the indwelling Christ – should play a role in the Christian life. Usually if they are concerned or sceptical, then they say it should just be the Bible. After all, we could be deceived as to what we’re feeling. And, presumably, most atheists would think that we are deceived.

Yet – a secular morality has to come from conscience and/or rational thinking. But how do you know whether your conscience, or reasoning, is correct? Both of those things can be entirely subjective. Even groups of people can come to very wrong moral decisions together through their own thinking and feeling. So the atheist has the same issues as a Christian does – how can we know what is right?

That’s why the Bible as a foundation is so important to me – and why the living Christ is just as important. The Bible is an objective measure of standards, particularly if we are focused on the simple and beautiful teachings of Jesus, as I think anyone who follows Christ should be. If I am tempted to have an affair, and ‘feel’ that it might be right, or even think that God is telling me to do this – I can look to the words of Jesus that tells me adultery is wrong. (I can also see his words of mercy for things I’ve done wrong in the past – but I would be clear that he does not want them to do this in the future).

Of course, many people have twisted what the Bible says to suit their own ends, sometimes for evil and murder. This is harder to do though, when you focus on Jesus, what he did and said, as a whole. How can you be deluded into thinking that Jesus wants you to kill, or even hate someone, when Jesus said ‘love your enemies… do unto others… pray for those who persecute you… he who lives by the sword dies by the sword?”

But, coming back to the living Christ. Why is this important? Why not just the words written down? Well, one danger is to just think that Jesus was a good teacher who lived a long time ago, which can mean we don’t pay much attention to him. But as a Christian, I believe that he lives today, that he is the visible image of the invisible God. That his presence can be felt in the here and now, as a very clear reality. That we can talk to him and know his love – in the here and now. I do feel this, though there are ups and downs in this journey and I am not always in this state of bliss!

The Bible says that when we are filled with the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Christ, that we will feel and demonstrate: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”

In this state of feeling or knowing the goodness of God inside of us, the written words of Jesus written down are also given more insight, beauty and clarity. Because as we KNOW Christ in the here and now, by experience in our hearts, we can also read his clear, objective words in the Gospels, and clearly hear His voice. They become alive, and have more power and meaning.

Many times as I’ve struggled with something, particularly if I’m annoyed with someone, or hurt, or in some way battling with anger and negative feelings – if I repent and focus on Christ’s presence, and His words in the gospels, then there is a breakthrough and I feel love once more.

So this is how the living Christ influences what I do and think in the present. By knowing Him in my heart, and also knowing him through his Word. This can be kind of a simple morality – about what I need to do with myself in my life in the here and now, rather than philosophical debates. But without doubt it has led to more love in my life (though there is still plenty of room for improvement, and more of that love).

This was the experience of the early Christians, as St Paul wrote as a prayer to other believers, that God would: “empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.”

This is obviously difficult to understand for someone who has never experienced it. I am no better than anyone else for having had these experiences – and I need much more of his indwelling presence in my life, as I have only made limited room for it so far. But Jesus makes my life richer and more beautiful, and has brought much more love to my life. I still make wrong judgements and I’m sure I could be led astray with wrong thinking or emotions. But I know it’s only the living Christ who could bring me back to a place of love, and its his presence and his words that I rely on.

I hope that makes sense to you, please feel free to ask questions.

God is love

I’m reading a lot of Neil Anderson books at the moment, and I recently came across this gem, actually from one of his colleagues, Steve Goss. I thought I’d share it with you.

Here is a basic truth: God is love. You already knew that, didn’t you? But od you really know it, have you made a deep connection with it? For example, if God really is love, it means that he simply cannot not love you. The love of God is not dependent on the one being loved but on the character of the one doing the loving. God is love. That’s his nature. He couldn’t not love you. It doesn’t make any difference whether you perform excellently one day, and mess up the next. God will still love you because God is love. Nothing can make God love you more or love you less. It has nothing to do with you – or what you do or do not do – it’s all about him.

Faith is seeing things as they really are. If you saw that truth as it really is, would it have an effect on how you felt about yourself and consequently on your behaviour? More than likely. This is where the rubber hits the road in terms of how the rest off your life as a follower of Christ works out.

From ‘Free to be yourself: enjoy your true nature in Christ’ by Steve Goss.

I think if we all really knew this truth, it would transform the church, and then the world…

Darkness and light: the crucifixion and ISIS

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Today I was given a clear picture of the scene of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, as I was reading Matthew 27. I saw how much hatred there was in the crowd, and in the religious leaders, and in the soldiers. The crowd was shouting for Jesus to be viciously tortured and killed – full of murderous rage and evil. The leaders were desperate to find something wrong in Jesus and to condemn him for blasphemy – and so have him killed and tortured. The soldiers were mocking and taunting him and drove nails into him. There was no compassion, no mercy – just hate and evil.

And yet Jesus did not fight back, he did not try to defend himself. He did not try to justify himself. He remained pure, and good, and holy. Even when he was in agony on the Cross, he still said to his Father: ‘Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’. The darkness was raging around him, throwing its worst at him, hating him, hurting him and cruelly mistreating him. Yet Jesus remained the same – pure and loving – and full of mercy.

It struck me very clearly and forcefully how the evil of the crowd was darkness, but how brightly Jesus was the light. As it says in John 1:5:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.

It also struck me how similar kinds of darkness have expressed themselves throughout history. The crusades, the gas chambers, and the modern-day atrocities committed by ISIS are all examples of the darkness expressing itself. All too often, it prompts evil and hate in return. But to have the mind of Christ is to stay pure, stay loving, stay forgiving in that situation. That is completely impossible for a human being, but it is possible for Christ living in us. That light cannot go out – we must let it shine within us, and keep the darkness out of our souls – even when the darkness rages outside.

Are the ‘culture wars’ coming to an end? (I hope so)

In writing up a summary of this week’s Southern Baptist Convention on homosexuality for Christian Today, I started to get hopeful. There’s a softening on the conservative side that suggests detente. The last thing Christians want to be involved with is war – and that includes the culture wars. Let’s hope and pray that we can all learn to love and respect one another, even when we disagree.

A summary of Tom Wright’s “Surprised by Hope”

I love this quote from Wright’s “Surprised by Hope”, which I think summarises the whole book quite well:

Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God.”

It’s expanding on 1 Cor 15:58: “Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless”.
I find this massively encouraging! Keep loving, peeps…

Ten quick responses to atheist claims

I attended the Evangelists’ Conference in London on Tuesday, with the view to reporting it for Christian Today. Professor John Lennox was the main speaker, and very good he was too.

He took queries from the audience, of questions they’d been asked by atheists or skeptics. I collated ten of these into a short article for Christian Today – click here. Those who like to discuss their faith will find the atheist claims very familiar.

Of course, most of these touch on subjects that could take books and weeks of discussion before they’re even partially resolved. However some of the atheist claims are a bit daft and illogical, so can be answered pretty quickly. Anyway, I hope the article stimulates some thinking and seeking in whoever happens to be reading it.

Obeying the Bible means living a radical, green life

It was great to see so many people out marching for Climate change around the world last weekend. It’s always good to see a community getting together for a common cause. But will it change anything? I doubt it. Governments already know that a significant minority of their populations are concerned about climate change. What will really change the situation is not going on marches, but changing the way we live.

And, encouragingly for Christians, this way of living is laid out pretty clearly in the Bible. In fact, even if you don’t believe in climate change, if you want to take the Bible seriously, you’ve to live a life that is in agreement with the greenest and most right-on environmental protesters.

Why? Well, anything that is producing carbon and going into the atmosphere, is related to consumption. It’s caused by money, or more to the point, it’s caused by some people having too much money and greed. It’s now the norm for our culture to be going off on foreign holidays via plane, even twice a year, having two cars, changing technology every few months, eating vegetables that were flown from the other side of the world. And what makes all this possible? Having too much cash, and then choosing to spend it on ourselves rather than on helping others. This is a lifestyle that we’re all caught up in in the West, and dealing with it is a lot harder than going on a march. Our societies need root and branch reform, and the Bible is the best place to start. I think this passage is key to the issue:

“Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.

But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” 1 Tim 6:6-10

How true this Bible quote is. Greed, and the lust for entertainment, stuff, activity and fashion, has lulled us into this situation, where the world’s resources are scarce and we’re wasting them on consumer goods and leisure rather than investing them into people and the planet. We have a model in Jesus, who was so low-impact that he didn’t even have his own house (Luke 9:58). We’re told to be stewards of the Earth and all the living things in it (Gen 1:28). When we think of Matt 25 we normally remember that those who go to eternal punishment are those who have not helped the sick, the imprisoned and the hungry. But Rev 11:18 also points out that those who destroy the earth will be in this group. So if we’re God’s people, then we’ll be caring for people and caring for the Earth too.

Breaking our addiction to consumption, cars, boys toys and all the trappings of the modern world will take a long time. In the same way as an addiction to crack or alcohol, it takes Jesus to fill the hole that the addiction leaves and repair the damage. This in and of itself will direct our attention from entertainment and buying stuff, towards helping others and loving Creation, in all its beautiful variety. We’ll not be working every hour God gives us, but working fewer hours because we’ll need less money: truly we’ll be serving God and not filthy lucre (Matt 6:24). We’ll have more time for our friends and family, and serving our community, even putting on dinner parties for the lost and broken (Luke 14:13). We’ll be able to give away the money we do have to good causes.

I can hear the mini-me Richard Dawkins of the twitter world howling in outrage at what I’ve just said, thinking of the gas-guzzling SUVs and private jets of certain parts of the Christian community, especially in America. But it’s not our job to shout at them, it’s our job to lead by example. And perhaps we need to get the log out of our own eye, before we can help others get the speck out of theirs (Matt 7:3-5). We need more than shifting to a green tariff, reusing plastic bags and buying recycled paper, to get the almighty, rotten trunk out of our own eyes.

Living a life worthy of that 1 Tim passage, and to be content with just having enough food and clothing to survive, is radically different from our Western culture. But as the ancient monks and nuns discovered, it can leave more space for what’s really good, and what’s really God. After all, it’s His Earth, not ours.

Johnny Cash’s “Man comes around”: what do the lyrics mean?

Johnny Cash was a deeply religious man, who loved Jesus and the Bible.

So much so, that in one of the last songs he wrote, “The Man Comes Around”, he gives a deeply personal message about Christian faith to his fans. I’m going to go into a lot of detail in this post.

Cash saw the song as one of his most significant pieces of work. “I spent more time on this song than any I ever wrote,” he said in August 2002. “It’s based, loosely, on the book of Revelation, with a couple of lines, or a chorus, from other biblical sources. I must have written three dozen pages of lyrics, then painfully weeded it down to the song you have here.”

So what is the message he’s trying to give?

Revelation is an amazing book of the Bible but it does require work to understand what it means. It’s full of rich symbols and striking images. One of its main themes is the end of time, when God will come to stop the wrongdoing in the world, and give the people the judgement that they have chosen. Instead, God’s Kingdom will reign, a place with no more crying or tears. But for those under judgement, God’s offering a way out.

When you examine the song’s lyrics alongside the Bible passages it mentions, it becomes clear that Cash is giving a very clear message to his listeners – he’s saying, “make a choice, before it’s too late”.

That’s not very fashionable. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t say it bluntly: we’ve got to study the song to understand it. So, here is the song dissected so that we can do this. The Bible verses are in quotes, Cash’s lyrics are in bold.

And I heard as it were the noise of thunder
One of the four beasts saying come and see and I saw
And behold a white horse

This is Cash’s spoken beginning to the song – it makes quite an impact! It’s based on this verse from Revelation:

As I watched, the Lamb broke the first of the seven seals on the scroll. Then I heard one of the four living beings say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked up and saw a white horse standing there… He rode out to win many battles and gain the victory.” Revelation 6:1-2a

So what does it mean? The four ‘living beings’ are first mentioned in Rev 4, and probably symbolise either goodness in Creation or God himself: here they are showing John, the author of this book, events in the future through a series of images such as the white horse. In this passage the horses refer to the judgements of God that are coming to the world – this means that human beings will be allowed to do their worst and therefore there’ll be much evil and many problems: war, death, famine and disease. While some say this is a prediction of what will happen at the ‘end of time’, it’s obvious that this is already happening on the Earth, sadly.

There’s a man going around taking names

The song opens with this line, and it’s key to the meaning of the whole song. A theme in the book of Revelation is the ‘book of life’ – who will be taken to God’s eternal Kingdom? If we are to go there, our names are recorded within the book:

I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books.” Revelation 20:12

As made clear in the rest of the song, it is Jesus who is coming to ‘take names’ and judge the people of the Earth, according to what people have done.

And he decides who to free and who to blame

It’s made clear in this line that it’s Jesus who is making the decisions here, about whether someone is to be ‘saved’. This reflects what it says in the Bible, for example:

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war… He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords. Rev 19:11,13-16

Jesus will make a decision for every person, whether they will be judged by their actions – whether they’ll be free in heaven or live forever with the weight of sin on them. This passage presents a fearsome image of Jesus, but it reflects the incredible horror of the wrong things we do and how God feels about them. Not that God wants people to hurt, but that if people want to continue to do evil, they are choosing for themselves an evil existence for eternity. As we will see, God offers a way out…

Everybody won’t be treated all the same

Again Cash isn’t being very PC. It’s fashionable to think that God does not judge, that he will take everyone to heaven without any consideration of whether their lives have reflected the reality of heaven. Revelation makes it very clear that this is not the case: that there is a black and white, clear choice to be made, such as in this passage:

And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds. Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire. Rev 20:11-15

Although the gospel of Christ offers forgiveness and redemption to all those who are willing to accept it and want to turn away from a life of apathy and wrongdoing and towards a life of love, this passage shows that our deeds will be judged. It’s important to follow Christ in this life – that means giving our lives to him. Not just a decision in our minds, but a decision with our hands, our feet, and our voices. What we do, matters. So, Cash is saying, we won’t be treated the same.

There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down

So while he’s warning of the judgement to come, Cash is pointing to the way out of the horrible fate he’s described, from the book of Genesis:

As [Jacob] slept, he dreamed of a stairway that reached from the earth up to heaven. And he saw the angels of God going up and down the stairway. Gen 28:12

This is what God offers – an escape route from the judgement, here depicted as a ladder. We are always offered forgiveness and entry into God’s Kingdom, if we repent. (Repenting means turning away from a life of selfishness, greed, lust, hate, apathy, anger and pride, and toward’s God’s love). So as again elsewhere in the song, Cash is saying that there’s an escape route towards heaven if we want it.

When the Man comes around
Cash’s song title comes at the end of each section of the song. He’s referring to Jesus’ return to Earth at the time of judgement, which is mentioned throughout the Bible, including this vision the Old Testament, which Jesus later said was referring to himself:

I saw someone like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One [God] and was led into his presence. He was given authority, honour, and sovereignty over all the nations of the world, so that people of every race and nation and language would obey him. His rule is eternal—it will never end. His kingdom will never be destroyed”. Daniel 7:13-14

The man comes around’ refers to this passage from Daniel. Jesus often referred to himself as ‘The son of man’ in the New Testament.

The hairs on your arm will stand up

Cash continues to paint a picture of a frightening time, which Revelation also makes clear:

“Then everyone—the kings of the earth, the rulers, the generals, the wealthy, the powerful, and every slave and free person—all hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. And they cried to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to survive?” Revelation 6:15-17

This isn’t a fashionable way of viewing the end of the world. But it’s what Cash was saying, and it’s what Revelation says.

At the terror in each sip and in each sup
Will you partake of that last offered cup?

There are two references here to drinking. The first probably refers to this Revelation passage, talking about drinking from the cup of judgement:

Then a third angel followed them, shouting, “Anyone who worships the beast and his statue or who accepts his mark on the forehead or on the hand  must drink the wine of God’s anger. It has been poured full strength into God’s cup of wrath. Rev 14:9-10

Although a cup of suffering is referred to in the first line, the second ‘Partaking in that last offered cup’ probably refers to the cup of communion – that salvation through Jesus’ blood will still be offered even at the end, however bad it gets. Again, and as the Bible passage referred to in the next slide says – God will always offer a way out of the judgement if a person or a nation repents. So however frightening it is, there is a way out. Cash is telling his listeners that there’s an offer on the (communion) table.

Or disappear into the potter’s ground
When the Man comes around

I think this lyric means, that if you don’t repent take that ‘last offered cup’, which is the cup of forgiveness and new life that Jesus offers us, then the alternative is the potter’s ground, which is a symbol from the book of Jeremiah:

The Lord gave another message to Jeremiah. He said, “Go down to the potter’s shop, and I will speak to you there.” So I did as he told me and found the potter working at his wheel. But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so he crushed it into a lump of clay again and started over.  Then the Lord gave me this message: “O Israel, can I not do to you as this potter has done to his clay? As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand. If I announce that a certain nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down, and destroyed, but then that nation renounces its evil ways, I will not destroy it as I had planned. And if I announce that I will plant and build up a certain nation or kingdom,  but then that nation turns to evil and refuses to obey me, I will not bless it as I said I would. Jeremiah 18: 1-10

So the implication is that we’ll be ‘crushed and started over’ if we don’t repent. However this Bible passage is again talking of the possibility of a new start, of forgiveness. So, again, Cash’s inclusion of this passage indicates he is telling his listeners that there is a way out – God always offers a way of avoiding the judgement. We must turn away from wrongdoing, and towards God’s way of love.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers

Cash is again using the imagery of the book of Revelation, painting the picture of the end of time:

Then I looked, and I heard a single eagle crying loudly as it flew through the air, “Terror, terror, terror to all who belong to this world because of what will happen when the last three angels blow their trumpets.” Revelation 8:13

David Pawson says the trumpet is used in Jeremiah and Ezekiel to warn people to ‘get ready’… because God wants to save them. So once again, it’s an image that gives a warning: that bad things will happen if we don’t pay attention.

One hundred million angels singing

Cash makes another clear reference to Revelation, where the angels are singing praise to God:

Then I looked again, and I heard the voices of thousands and millions of angels around the throne and of the living beings and the elders. And they sang in a mighty chorus:

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered— to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and blessing.” Revelation 5:11-12

God is being worshipped by angels all the time. The ‘Lamb’ is a name for Jesus used throughout the Bible, who took on all our suffering and sin at the Cross so that we could be free. So the angels are praising God, for his sending Jesus and offering a way out of the judgement and the pain of a life without God.

Multitudes are marching to the big kettledrum
Voices calling, voices crying

Cash is probably referring to the armies of heaven on white horse that we saw in Revelation 19. The image of voices crying is again painting a picture of a time of trouble and suffering.

Some are born and some are dying

Again Cash is making it clear that there’s a clear division between those who are saved and those who are not:

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” John 3:7

On the day of judgement some will be reborn into God’s Kingdom, and some will face the second death – a terrible fate. Cash is trying to warn people of this.

It’s Alpha and Omega’s kingdom come

This means that it’s God’s Kingdom come:

I am the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end,” says the Lord God. “I am the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come—the Almighty One.” Revelation 1:8

The ‘kingdom come’ is often referred to by Jesus, as in the Lord’s prayer. When we pray ‘Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven’, we are hoping for a time when life on Earth will be as it is in heaven: no wrongdoing, no suffering, no pain. Just purely in the will of the Father, pure love, peace and joy. But for those who do not want God’s Kingdom, it’s not a joyful time.

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree
The virgins are all trimming their wicks

And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. Matthew 25:6-7

This is a passage of the Bible again referring to judgement – the wise young women had their lamps ready for when Jesus (the bridegroom) comes – the foolish ones were going to get some oil and weren’t ready. So it seems clear that Cash is warning his listeners to be ready for the day of judgement.

The whirlwind is in the thorn tree
It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks

This is a reference to a dream that Johnny had that inspired this song.

Till Armageddon no shalam, no shalom

Revelation says that there will be a battle at the end of time, at a place called Armageddon. This might by symbolic of the spiritual fight between good and evil, or it might refer to a real battle:

And they gathered them together at the place which in Hebrew is called Armageddon. Revelation 16:16

As we’ll see later, the terrible events of the judgement and the war that will take place will not last – God will bring his peace (shalom) to the world once all evil has been vanquished.

Then the father hen will call his chickens home

This comes from a very comforting passage in Scripture – which shows that even while we reject God, he longs for us to come to him as children and be protected under his wings:

Truly I declare to you, all these [evil, calamitous times] will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. Matthew 23:36-7

God longs to draw people to himself and be kind to them, as a mother hen. And yet, we continue to reject him. I think it’s clear from this passage that any judgement, as fearsomely described in Revelation, is not what God would ultimately want: he would want to care for and protect his children. However, he allows us to choose what we want to do, as any good Father does.

The wise man will bow down before the throne
And at His feet they’ll cast their golden crowns
When the Man comes around

This is another clear reference to Revelation, where the people who have accepted Jesus as Lord will bow before him at the end of time:

Whenever the living beings give glory and honour and thanks to the one sitting on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever), the twenty-four elders fall down and worship the one sitting on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever). And they lay their crowns before the throne and say, “You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honour and power. For you created all things, and they exist because you created what you pleased.” Rev 4:9-11

The casting of crowns is an indication of worship.

Whoever is unjust let him be unjust still 
Whoever is righteous let him be righteous still
Whoever is filthy let him be filthy still

This is a direct quote from Revelation. The actual passage makes it clear, again, that there is a judgement coming, according to what we have done:

Let the one who is doing harm continue to do harm; let the one who is vile continue to be vile; let the one who is righteous continue to live righteously; let the one who is holy continue to be holy. Look, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me to repay all people according to their deeds. Revelation 22:11-12

Again, we will reap what we sow – we will face the consequences of our actions. But as Revelation and Cash makes clear, there’s always a way out. That’s why he’s writing the song:

Listen to the words long written down
When the Man comes around

When Cash says ‘listen’ – he is again showing that this song is very personal, written directly to those who listen to it. As it says elsewhere in Revelation, the invitation to come to God is always open:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let anyone who hears this say, “Come.” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life. Revelation 22:17

The song repeats itself. Then:

In measured hundred weight and penny pound
When the Man comes around.

This probably refers to:

And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine. Revelation 6:6

Theologians debate as to exactly what this means, but in this song it probably again indicates that we will be judged by God, as it says in Daniel 5:27; ‘You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting’.

Johnny’s narration returns to give a chilling finale:

And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts
And I looked and behold, a pale horse
And his name that sat on him was Death
And Hell followed with him.

Well, Cash couldn’t make any clearer what he means. The four beasts and pale horse come from this passage:

I looked up and saw a horse whose colour was pale green. Its rider was named Death, and his companion was the Grave. These two were given authority over one-fourth of the earth, to kill with the sword and famine and disease and wild animals. Revelation 6:8

This judgement could be said to be on the Earth now. But I think Cash is ending the song with these words to emphasise that the choice is stark: loving God and giving our life to his law of love, or going to the place of Death – the natural extrapolation of a life of wrongdoing.

This can all sound very frightening – I think Cash and Revelation do intend to do this, actually. It’s interesting that both of them are presenting a crucial and alarming message: but both are doing it using imagery, not going around with sandwich boards.

However Revelation also has a very positive message, for those who have repented of their wrongdoing and accepted Jesus as Lord. We have a future that has no more evil, only pure love and God’s rule:

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.”

Rev 21:3-5

Will you listen to the words, long written down?

John Lennox on Genesis 1-2: evolution, creation and human life

In 2013 and 2014 I did some work for the Keswick Convention, turning some of its Bible talks into articles.

One of my favourites were the talks from John Lennox, which became a series of blogs for Christianity magazine. Here’s an excerpt from the first one:

What we are going to discuss is absolutely fundamental. The first page of Genesis is the charter of all human dignity and value. In the next 5 days, we will challenge, in the name of God and the Bible, the prevailing naturalism, that is regarded as the default in our culture.

Genesis is a thorny subject for Christians, who tend either towards accepting evolution and seeing Genesis 1-2 as some kind of allegory, or they are six day creationists. The subject causes a lot of arguments.

It all obscures the real beauty of Genesis 1-2 – the calling of creation ‘good’, the importance of living things and particularly humans to God, our vital responsibility in looking after the Earth and everything in it: there are so many crucial insights into our world in this short bit of text.

I think I am unusual in being happy with the scientific evidence for evolution (though I often think bigger claims are made for it than can be currently justified) – but I don’t think Genesis 1-2 is only an allegory either. I think there’s no need for the polarisation that currently exists, and we end up missing the point.

I think Lennox is near this position too – his talks are well worth listening to. You can get them free on http://www.keswickministries.org, or read a summary in these blogs. I’ll pull out some more stuff from them in the coming weeks, hopefully.

The 8 silliest myths about Christianity

When you look into a subject, sometimes you’re shocked to find that the perceived wisdom of our day is totally and completely wrong. Totally. When I became a Christian, I discovered lots of these on the subject of my faith.

From Hitler being a Christian, to Jesus not existing, to the Bible being created at the Council of Nicaea, there really is a lot of misinformation out there. Here’s a short list of 8 of the daftest myths I’ve come across, written for Christian Today.

An atheist denies that Jesus was a myth

Atheists sometimes like to claim that Jesus didn’t exist – even Richard Dawkins has tried to do this. But it’s not just Christians that defend the evidence for the existence of Jesus. Professor Bart Ehrman, who isn’t a believer, and often criticises Christian beliefs and the claims in the Bible, states very clearly that the idea that Jesus didn’t exist, or was a mixture of several people, is not taken seriously by any reputable scholar. He is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and in this interview above, he gives the atheist interviewer a bit of a telling off.

“We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody in his time period… I’m not a believer, but as a historian, you can’t just dismiss it, and say ‘We don’t know’. You have to look at the evidence. But there is hard evidence. For example, we have one author who knew Jesus’ relatives and his disciples – Paul.”

Ehrman’s argument is that the nature of the what Paul says in his letters about Jesus, gives strong evidence for Jesus’ existence.

“Why would he lie about it? Paul says things about Jesus as off the cuff comments, where he’s not making a point. That’s very important to historians. Historians look for disinterested comments. He says things, for example, like ‘James, the brother of the Lord’. That’s very important information… you have a disinterested comment.”

Then the atheist fella tries to argue that Paul didn’t write Galatians, but Ehrman states very clearly, that no serious historians have doubted that Paul wrote Galatians (a letter that contains evidence that Jesus existed).

“You have to do the serious historical work and work out what is an embellishment and what is not… you have to approach it sceptically. I’ve spent 30 years studying this… I can tell you, that everyone who has looked at this thing seriously, there’s nobody that doubts this.

“You can systematically doubt everything, sure, but that’s not how you do history. You do history by looking at evidence.”

Later, in part 2 of the interview, Ehrman talks about the reality that for all ancient historical figures, we don’t have the original documents (it’s very common to hear atheists state that because we don’t have the original copies of the New Testament books, that we can’t trust them).