Are Natural Disasters and Pandemics the Judgement of God?

Taken Oct 17, 2020 from Longmont looking west at the Calwood fire burning along US 36.

2020 has been a wild ride! It feels like there’s a new surprise around every corner, and none of them are fun!

This year we’ve had the coronavirus pandemic, economic crisis, political and social crises, and environmental crises in the form of devastating fires in the western United States and hurricanes in the southern US.

Several people have asked me whether these fire are the judgment of God upon our society, or whether they are instead the work of the Devil.

God’s Judgment in the Bible Through Natural Means

This is an interesting question, because there are times in the Bible when we read about things which seem to be natural phenomena, but the Bible tells us they were acts of God for the purpose of judgment.

Examples of this would include: the great flood in the time of Noah, the earth opening up and swallowing the sons of Korah (sounds a lot like a sinkhole!) in Numbers 16, the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 (the site of the Dead Sea, often thought to be the result of a meteor striking the Earth), or Gehazi being struck with leprosy in 2 Kings 5.

The Bible Gives Us Something We Don’t Have In Our Time

What we have in the Bible is not just a sterile account of historical events, but rather an authoritative theological interpretation of historical events. In other words: floods happen all the time, but this flood was the judgment of God. Not every sinkhole is the judgment of God, but this one was!

These theological interpretations were given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the writers of Scripture. The question is: how can we know whether current events are God’s judgment or not?

When an earthquake or a tsunami strikes, or when forest fires rage, it would be presumptuous for us to declare that they are the judgment of God, because we simply don’t have the same authoritative insight or theological interpretation that was given to the writers of Scripture.

Further Considerations: A Fallen World and a Natural Ecosystem

When sin came into the world, it not only affected us human beings, it affected all of creation. There are things about nature which are broken, harsh and cruel.

Here in Colorado, for example, fire is a natural part of our ecosystem. There are certain pine cones which only open in the heat of fire, and pine forests often need fire in order to clean up the undergrowth and fallen debris and replant themselves. It’s how the ecosystem works, and there have been fires here since long before humans inhabited this area in the way we do now.

In other words: we moved to an area where wildfires are part of the ecosystem… so it probably shouldn’t surprise us when there are fires!

We look forward to the New Heavens and the New Earth, where things will be the way they were meant to be, the way they are supposed to be: where there is no more destruction by fire and no more disease, pestilence, and the like.

What Jesus Said About This: The Tower of Siloam

In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus was talking to some people about some current events which included the suffering and death of people in their community. One instance included a tower, the Tower of Siloam, which stood in Jerusalem, but had collapsed and killed 18 people.

People were asking whether the collapse of this tower, killing these 18 people, had been the judgment of God upon them. Check out Jesus’ response:

Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Luke 13:4-5

Jesus told these people, “No, this wasn’t the judgment of God.” Apparently, in our imperfect, fallen world, sometimes towers are built poorly and materials collapse, or the ground shifts, and structures sometimes collapse. Sadly, sometimes people die in accidents, or of illnesses, or of other reasons.

But, although this was not the judgment of God, Jesus warned those people that they should take heed in light of this event, and let this be something which causes them to repent and turn to God in humble faith, lest they also perish.

Regarding the fires raging in the United States, COVID-19, and the other difficulties facing the world right now: Is this the judgment of God? Maybe. Or maybe not. We can’t be sure. But we can be sure of this: these events should certainly cause you to turn to the Lord in prayer and repentance, and if we don’t repent then we will perish in something much worse than wildfire or COVID-19: the judgment of our souls.

One thing is for sure: God wants to use these events to cause us to turn to him. May we do so without delay. If we do, the hope of the gospel is not only the salvation of our souls, but the redemption of our lives, and a relationship with God.

Which Voices are Shaping You?

Doctors tell us that children in the womb are able to recognize their mother’s voice and differentiate it from the voices of others. Even though they’ve never seen their mother, they know and respond to her voice.

How are babies able to differentiate their mother’s voice from other voices they hear? Because their mother’s voice is the voice they hear and listen to most often.

What voices are you listening to the most?  

Right now, more than ever before, there are a lot of voices out there vying for your attention. It used to be that everybody had an opinion, but now everyone has a platform.

Mobile devices are designed not primarily for creating content, but consuming it.

If you don’t think that you are being shaped by the content you consume, think again. So choose wisely!

You can spend your time listening to the voices of political pundits, reading all kinds of articles, you can spend your time listening to the voices of everyone on social media…

The content you consume not only conveys information, it has a teleology, in other words: it aims to lead you somewhere. To use a biblical term: they seek to make you disciples of their beliefs and attitudes.

Just like a baby in its mother’s womb: whose voice do you want to be most familiar with? Whose voice do you want filling your ears and shaping your thoughts the most?

Many people today are being discipled more by social media, politicians, and influencers than by Moses, Isaiah, Paul, and Jesus.

May I encourage you instead to spend more time listening to the voice of God than to all those other voices?

As you immerse yourself in the Word of God, it tunes your heart to God’s voice and it familiarizes you with his voice.  As you read and study the Bible,  you get to know God’s voice and God’s heart, and you become familiar with the kinds of things God says.

Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd, and he said that his sheep know his voice and will not follow the voice of another. (John 10:4-5)

When it comes to hearing God’s voice: the most reliable, most certain way to hear God’s voice is to immerse yourself in the words of Scripture.

Let me encourage you to make His voice the voice you listen to the most. He alone has the words of eternal life, and everything that pertains to life and godliness.

Here is a recent message I taught at White Fields Church on the topic of hearing God’s voice:

What is “Epistemic Pelagianism”?

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor eBook: Smith ...

Looking for some light reading? How about an audio book for your next leisurely drive? This might not be it. If you’re looking for a short but extremely thoughtful book with intensely helpful cultural insights, then here you go:

I have been a fan of James K.A. Smith for several years now, and I recently read his book, How (Not) to Be Secular, which is a summary and study guide of Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age.

Smith’s purpose in writing a book about a book is that A Secular Age is both intimidating in its size and is written in a way which is inaccessible to many readers who would benefit from its content. I for one, though I am intrigued by Taylor’s book and its analysis of modern secular culture, balked at the 900+ page tome.

The Imminent Frame: Haunted by Transcendence

Smith’s book introduces you to Taylor’s key concepts and arguments, as well as some of his key terms, such as his analysis of the secular mindset as the “imminent frame.” This reminded me of a conversation I had with a relative years ago, who is my same age (an older millennial); when we started talking about the existence of God, she said, “Maybe God does exist, but: who cares?”

The imminent frame is only concerned with what is right in front of them, “the here and now”, and yet, Taylor explains that exclusive humanists who inhabit the imminent frame are “haunted by transcendence.” Smith points this out by quoting lyrics from The Postal Service:

And I’m looking through the glass
Where the light bends at the cracks
And I’m screaming at the top of my lungs
Pretending the echoes belong to someone
Someone I used to know

The Postal Service, “We Will Become Silhouettes”

Basically, no matter how much a person claims to not care whether God exists, or there is life after death, they are haunted by thoughts of it. I remember another family member describing how utterly terrified she was of dying, yet when I asked her what she believed about life after death, she said she doesn’t know, and assumes there is nothing. I don’t believe her: why be afraid of nothing? There is a nagging, haunting hunch in the heart and mind of every person, that there is something more than this life and this world… A God to whom they will answer, an existence beyond the grave.

Another aspect of the secular, exclusive humanism is the concept Taylor called “the buffered self”, which refers to the idea that an individual is an island unto themselves: that there is a firm boundary between the self and others, as opposed to the “porous self” which characterized people in previous eras.

Epistemic Pelagianism

James K.A. Smith’s book is not just a summary though, he also applies many of Taylor’s ideas to Christianity: both how Christianity contributed to and is influenced by this modern secular age.

I first listened to half of this book via audiobook on a drive to climb La Plata Peak, a Colorado 14-er. Later on, I picked up a hard copy to read as well, as there are some parts of the book which aren’t particularly well-suited for digesting properly listening at 1.5 speed while driving at dawn through the mountains.

One phrase Smith used, which my friend who was listening with me in the car ended up discussing for a while afterwards was: Epistemic Pelagianism. It’s the kind of phrase that forces you to hit the pause button and break it down in order to unpack what these two words together mean.

  • Epistemology = the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Epistemology deals with questions like, “How can we know that what we believe is really accurate or true? To what degree do we have the capacity to accurately discern truth and/or reality?”
  • Pelagianism = Pelagius (354 – 418 AD) was a theologian who denied the doctrine of original sin. He argued for the innate goodness of human beings and for absolute free will. Pelagius argued for these things in contrast to Augustine of Hippo, who taught from the Scriptures that human beings are fallen, and our fallen condition affects our will and nature.

“Epistemic Pelagianism” therefore refers to the idea that as human beings, we are capable of figuring everything out by ourselves, without any help from God.

Epistemic pelagianism denies the fact that we don’t see everything clearly. It denies the idea that, apart from God’s intervention in our lives, we are fallen, limited beings whose hearts are not pure. It places far to much confidence, to the point of hubris, in our ability to accurately discern and interpret the data we take in, in a way that can lead us to all truth, apart from any intervention or help from God.

Rather than epistemic pelagianism, the Bible teaches us that without God’s help, we cannot see clearly, and are incapable of objectively assessing and interpreting things. We need God to remove the blinders from our eyes, in order for us to see clearly.

This biblical epistemology leads us to humility rather than hubris; it leads us to the conclusion that we can’t see or know everything, that we can be wrong.

The Bible teaches that we only see in part, as in a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12), that a natural person is incapable of comprehending all truth apart (1 Corinthians 1:14), that our hearts are fundamentally broken and have a tendency to mislead us (Jeremiah 17:9), and therefore it is possible to hear and not understand, to see and not perceive (Acts 28:26).

There are things that we can know (Romans 1:19), but even in those cases we have a tendency to suppress that knowledge if we don’t like the conclusions it would lead to (Romans 1:18)

Thus, confidence in our ability, or willingness for that matter, to comprehend and follow the truth, apart from God’s intervention, is misguided. Instead, we need to take a more realistic and humble view of ourselves, which admits that we need outside assistance in order to receive, comprehend, and appropriately respond to the truth.

Conclusion

Ultimately, we see that theology shapes the way you view all of life. Modern exclusive secularism is based, at least in some part, on bad theology which is clearly refuted in the Bible. Good, robust, comprehensive Biblical theology therefore, is an antidote to many modern philosophical pitfalls.

If you’re looking for an accessible book that helps you understand Charles Taylor’s piercing insights into the exclusive humanism which is prevalent in many of today’s Western cities, as well as the cracks in those theories, and ways in which the gospel uniquely speaks to people today, check out James K.A. Smith’s book How (Not) to Be Secular, but make sure to take the time to break down and digest each sentence.

Will There Be Ethnic Diversity in Heaven?

The standard joke among foreigners when I lived in Hungary was that Hungarian would be the language of Heaven, because it takes an eternity to learn.

But will there actually be diversity in Heaven? Will racial differences exist for eternity? Or will Heaven be homogenous?

One Race?

As recent events have highlighted disparities and tensions between ethnic groups in the United States and beyond, one response from Christians has been to point out that the Bible teaches that all people come from one set of common ancestors. Therefore, they say, there is truly only one race: the human race.

In a recent episode of Calvary Live, Pastor Ed Taylor of Calvary Church in Aurora, Colorado spoke with John Moreland of Denver Christian Bible Church, who is an African American man. When Ed asked John his thoughts on the idea that there is really only one race, John said he was not sure if he fully agreed with that.

Why not? Because, while John would not disagree with the fact that all human beings descend from one common set of ancestors, he feels that saying that there is only one race detracts from the importance of racial diversity.

Is Racial Diversity Something to Erase or Celebrate?

This past Sunday we studied 1 Kings 11 at White Fieldswatch or listen to that message here. This chapter talks about how King Solomon married many foreign women, contrary to God’s command that the people of Israel not do that.

However, upon further examination of the Bible, what you realize is that this prohibition against marrying foreign women was about faith, not about race. Several of the female heroes of the Bible were women who were not ethnically Jewish, but they became followers and worshipers of Yahweh, the true and living God: Ruth was from Moab, Rahab was a Canaanite. In Jesus’ family tree in Matthew 1, five women are listed by name, and three of them are of non-Jewish origin.

In fact, if you look at the origin of the Jewish people, they were a nation chosen by God from among the nations. They were a manufactured nation, not created on the basis of a shared ethnicity, but on the basis of a shared faith in God. This is why there are Jews from places like Ethiopia and East Asia who are not ethnically descended from the Middle East, and yet they are full-fledged Jews. Essentially, anyone who wanted to be a follower of Yahweh was welcome, no matter where they were from.

Mike and I discussed this topic in this week’s Sermon Extra video: “Why Did Solomon Marry Foreign Women”

What made the early Christians unique was that, unlike most religions at that time, which were limited to a local ethnic group, Christianity – like Judaism – was a truly multi-ethnic faith. It claimed to the truth for all people everywhere, and it claimed that Jesus was the Savior not of only one group of people, but for the entire world.

This belief came from the Bible itself:

“Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.” 

Psalm 67:4

Although in English we often use the word “nations” to speak of political or geographical entities, i.e. “countries.” The word “nations” in the Bible, however, is the Greek word ἔθνη (ethni, the plural form of ethnos), from which we get the English word: “ethnicity.”

So, the country of Russia, for example, is made up of 185 nations, i.e. ethnic groups. This is why in Canada, the indigenous people groups are called the “First Nations.”

So, what this passage is saying is, “Let all the [ethnicities] be glad,” because God judges all the ethnic groups of the world with equity and guides them.

In the “Great Commission,” Jesus instructed his disciples to preach the gospel to all “nations,” i.e. ethnic groups:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:19-20

In his address to the philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens, Paul the Apostle said:

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us

Acts 17:26-27

Here Paul states that God, in His providence, has determined when and where people would live, with the goal that their setting and situations would drive them to seek Him.

Rather than being opposed to the plan of God, it would seem that diversity is part of God’s design and brings Him glory. In a fallen world, not all aspects of any culture will be good and reflect God’s character and heart, and every culture will have certain idolatries which are common to the people in that culture. Conversely, however, every culture will have some aspects which uniquely reflect God’s goodness and character (common grace), which will differ from the way other cultures reflect those things.

Ethnic Diversity in Heaven

In John’s vision of Heaven in Revelation chapter 7, he writes:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Revelation 7:9-10

John gives three descriptions of the diversity of the people around the throne and before the Lamb: tribes, peoples, and languages. This is an escalating list, which goes from smallest to largest: languages may be used by people of multiple ethnicities, and ethnic groups may contain many tribes.

All three of these designations are present around the throne; thus it seems likely that even with our new “heavenly bodies” (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-49), ethnic diversity seems to be maintained and apparent in Heaven, for eternity.

Whereas divisions and oppression will cease, it seems that diversity will not.

It seems that who you are, because of your ethnic and cultural background, will be maintained for eternity, to bring glory to God. While the negative aspects of a culture will be done away with, the good, God-honoring and glorifying diversity will continue to bring glory to God and enrich others.

As we await that day, may God help us to honor and value ethnic diversity, and glean from one another.

What is Liberation Theology?

The deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery have led not only to widespread protests against police brutality and systemic racial bias, but have also led many evangelical Christians to pay more attention to the importance of temporal justice as it relates to the gospel.

The following is an essay I wrote as an assignment for a class on Liberation Theology when I was working on my first degree in theology. Several kinds of liberation theologies have been proposed since it was first articulated: Latin American, African American, Feminist, and one I find particularly intriguing: handicapped liberation theology.

What is liberation theology, does it have validity, and is there anything we can learn from it? Hopefully this essay answers some of those questions for you:

An Evaluation of the Key Contributions of Latin American Liberation Theology to Modern Theology

Latin American liberation theology is a distinct form of theology which originated in the Latin American situation of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in South America. Although it arose from this particular setting, liberation theology has contributed to modern theology by raising significant practical and theological questions for Christians, such as the nature of salvation, the proper approach to hermeneutics, e.g. the starting point and sources of theology, and what the Bible says regarding politics, poverty and oppression.

Liberation theology is unabashedly a product of a particular historical situation. Latin America, even today, is the region of the world with the greatest economic and social inequality, where an elite minority possesses almost all the wealth, and the majority of people live in crushing poverty, with the poor often suffering and dying unnecessarily from lack of adequate food, healthcare and nutrition.

In seeking a solution to this problem, and functioning from an Enlightenment, ‘modern’ view of the the world, attempts were made in the 1950s and 1960s to bring development to LatinAmerica. These efforts did not succeed in improving the lot of the poor masses and many turned to an alternative analysis of the problem: Latin America does not suffer from underdevelopment, but from oppression; the real problem being unjust political, economic and social structures, both within individual countries and between the region and the developed world, that created and perpetuate the poverty and suffering of the great majority of the population.

A major factor in the development of liberation theology was the social teaching of Vatican II concerning human dignity and the need for structural change. Latin American bishops met in Medellín, Colombia in 1968 to discuss the implications of Vatican II for Latin America; the papers adopted by this council became the founding documents of liberation theology. The bishops talked about what Christianity had to say to the poor that had been neglected in the way that the gospel had been presented, and about a link between salvation and liberation from oppression.

The consensus of this meeting was that in many places in Latin America there existed a situation of injustice that should be recognised as ‘institutional violence,’ because the existing structures violated basic human rights; they said that this situation called for ‘far-reaching, daring, urgent changes.’

Other notable influences in the formation of liberation theology are political theology, Marxism, and popular religion. Jürgen Moltmann and political theology in Germany challenged the typical European theologian’s detachment from political objectives, Marxism was used by liberation theologians as a tool of social analysis and philosophy of history, and popular religion brought attention to the cultural specificity of distinct people groups as regards religious practices.

Some of the most influential figures in the formation of liberation theology are Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino. Liberation theology is a diffuse movement, but there are some defining characteristics, most notably its orientation towards the poor and oppressed.

In liberation theology, Scripture is not read from the standpoint of wishing to understand the gospel, but out of the concern to apply its liberating insights to the situation of the poor and oppressed. Salvation is interpreted in terms of socio-political liberation and there is the notion of ‘structural sin’ – the belief that society, rather than the individual, is corrupted and requires redemption. Political, economic and social structures that keep the poor down must be abolished.

There is a fundamental belief that theology is not and should not be detached from social involvement or political action. It is argued that political neutrality is not possible for the church and that to profess neutrality is to support the status quo, which in the case of oppression is to support the oppressors rather than the oppressed. To do so, as the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America did for many years, is to go against God, who, in the words of José Míguez Bonino, is ‘clearly and unequivocally on the side of the poor.’ Thus, if God is on the side ofthe poor, then the church must also be on the side of the poor, and act on their behalf; it is then, from that position of active involvement, that a person does theology. This is the reason why Gutiérrez describes liberation theology as ‘a new way to do theology.’

Whereas classical Western theology regarded action as the result of reflection, liberation theology inverts the order: action (‘praxis’) comes first, followed by critical reflection – thus there is a rejection of the Enlightenment view that commitment to an ideology is a barrier to knowledge. In fact, according to Sobrino, ‘the poor are the theological source for understanding Christian truth and practice’.

One of the ways liberation theology has contributed to modern theology is that it has brought attention to the biblical theme of God’s concern for the oppressed and the vulnerable members of society, which is especially apparent in the Old Testament law and prophets, but is also a theme of the New Testament, e.g. in much of Jesus’ preaching and in the Epistle of James.

In bringing attention to this biblical theme, liberation theology has contributed to the current concern across the spectrum of Christianity for issues of social justice, which, beyond simply giving aid to the poor, are concerned with taking action to change social structures that enable oppression and exploitation of some human beings by others – even by working to change policies to defend and protect the poor, weak, and vulnerable. This is certainly not something completely new to Christianity; others, e.g. John Wesley, were known for their concerns for social justice, but it is certainly a major focus in modern theology, and has influenced Christian views on such topics as civil rights for women, minorities and other people who could be seen to be kept down by social structures.

Closely tied to this is the movement in modern theology away from the Enlightenment view that faith and politics are two separate spheres. Liberation theology has raised awareness of the political nature of faith, and that theology is not just something to be learned, but also something to be put into practice in our particular historical and political settings.

Liberation theology has also contributed to the recognition that all theological reflection takes place in a social context, and therefore different social situations give rise to different theological questions, so that the theological questions that are relevant in one part of the world are different than those that are relevant in another part of the world. For example, whereas Western cultures struggle with issues of faith in their post-Enlightenment context of skepticism, science and technology, other parts of the world like Africa and Latin America struggle with issues of faith in a post-colonial context of poverty, injustice and inequality. Whereas westerners might see defending the supernatural nature of God a pertinent theological issue, it may not be such in a place like Africa, where the supernatural is readily accepted, but where the pertinent theological issue is rather ‘where is the God of righteousness in a world of injustice?’ Liberation theology has contributed to the concept that if the Bible is a universal book, then it has something to say to people in every historical and social setting, addressing the issues they face.

Liberation theology has also shown a new way of doing theology – a new hermeneutic, shaped by praxis as opposed to the more traditional way of doing theology by a detached ‘objective’ determination of theological truth which then shapes ethical thought, which in turn drives practical action. Liberation theology has encouraged us to take more seriously the socio-cultural setting of the Bible and brought attention to the blindness of an interpreter to his or her own set of socio-cultural presuppositions.

Liberation theology does not even claim to be objective, because it begins not only with a situation, but with a particular analysis of that situation. It is in this way that Latin American liberation theology has provided a hermeneutical framework for other forms of liberation theology, e.g. feminist theology and black theology. This is also one of the inherent issues that the Vatican pointed out in 1984 in a document titled Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation. While it affirmed the ‘preferential option for the poor’ and urged Christians to ‘become involved in the struggle for justice, freedom and human dignity’, it also warned against starting with a revolutionary praxis rather than belief, because to do so means that all contrary ideas are automatically discredited as reflecting the class interests of the oppressors.

This is precisely the disagreement between the proponents of the various liberation theologies: since they begin doing theology with praxis, what do they do with parts of the Scriptures which seem to contradict their beliefs or predetermined analysis of the situation? How does feminist liberation theology deal with verses such as 1 Corinthians 14:34- 35? Since liberation theology begins with praxis, Scripture is not the primary source of theology, therefore the Bible will be interpreted in light of the given agenda and related experiences.

Liberation theology has also contributed to modern theological discussion by stirring up discussion of a number of theological issues, such as the nature of salvation, the significance of the incarnation, what a Christian’s attitude should be towards politics and the government, and the implications of various eschatological beliefs.

Liberation theology does highlight the important biblical theme of God’s care for the poor, but on the other hand, Jesus seems to say that having a good life on this Earth is secondary to the salvation of one’s soul (Mk 8:36).

Liberation theology presents a legitimate protest against the over-spiritualisation of the biblical theme of poverty, but on the other hand, the Bible speaks of the wealth and poverty in regard to spiritual things as well (2 Cor. 6:10, 8:9; Lk. 12:13-21).

Liberation theology stirs up discussion on eschatology as well; is this world doomed and only going to get worse, until it is eventually destroyed and replaced (2 Pet. 3:7-13), or is this world and everything in it being redeemed by God, and any work we do of liberation is taking an active part in the redemptive work of God?

Should we as Christians rightly challenge the governments of the places we live, even if they are evil; should we work for top-down change in social structures – or should we simply seek to be a blessing to the place where we live (Jer. 29:7) and submit to the governing authorities, accepting them as those appointed by God for us? (Rom. 13:1-7) After all, Jesus lived in an oppressed society, but although he could have, the New Testament tells us he did not incite political revolution, nor encourage his followers to do so. However, although liberation theology may have incited such discussions, finding answers for these questions by studying the scriptures is not its main prerogative. Liberation theology is focused on doing theology from the perspective of the poor and oppressed and for purpose of the liberation and empowerment of the poor and oppressed.

In conclusion, Liberation theology was one of the most significant theological movements of the twentieth century; it has irretrievably changed the theological landscape. It has been both a product and a catalyst of modern shifts in thinking. Liberation theology highlighted the liberative nature of Christianity and the biblical theme of the concern that God has, not only for the spiritually poor and oppressed, but for those who are physically poor and oppressed and suffering in this life. It has raised awareness of the social structures that support and propagate oppression and has challenged us to consider how God feels about both our actions and our inactions for our fellow human beings. Liberation theology has discouraged us from viewing life as sterile and compartmentalised, and encouraged us to see it rather as a unified whole, in which areas such as theology, sociology, politics and economics are not separate, but rather intimately related. It has also shown a new paradigm for doing theology, driven by praxis. It has provoked all people who do theology to realize their own cultural blinders and to listen to the cry of the poor and see what God’s word says to them.

Bibliography

Bauckham, R., ‘Jürgen Moltmann’ in The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology Since 1918, 3rd edn, ed. by D. Ford and R. Muers (Oxford:Blackwell, 2005), pp. 147-162

Boff, L., ‘Christ’s Liberation via Oppression: an Attempt at Theological Reconstruction from the Standpoint of Latin America’, in Frontiers of Theology in Latin America, ed. R. Gibellini, (London: SCM Press, 1975), pp. 100-132

Chopp, R.S. and E. Regan, ‘Latin American Liberation Theology’ in The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology Since 1918, 3rd edn, ed. by D. Ford and R. Muers (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), pp. 469-484

Cobb, J.B., “Wesley the Liberationist”, <http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1100&gt; [accessed 08/02/2013]

Conn, H.M., ‘Liberation Theology’ in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. by S.B. Ferguson, D.F. Wright and J.I. Packer (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), pp. 387-391

Ferguson, S.B., D.F. Wright and J.I. Packer, eds, New Dictionary of Theology (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988)

Ford, D., R. Muers, eds, The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology Since 1918, 3rd edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005)

Hall, L., THY203 Issues in Modern Theology (Cheltenham: University of Gloucestershire, 2011)

Keller, T., Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010)

Lane, T., Exploring Christian Thought, Nelson’s Christian Cornerstone Series (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996)

McGrath, A.E., Christian Theology: An Introduction, 4th edn (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007)

Norris, F.W., Christianity: A Short Global History (Oxford: Oneworld, 2002)
“Social Justice”, Christianity Today, <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/topics/s/social-justice/&gt; [accessed 08/02/2013]

Vos, H.F., Exploring Church History, Nelson’s Christian Cornerstone Series (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994)

Reader Questions: Could the Mark of the Beast Be Transmitted Through a COVID-19 Vaccine?

A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll showed that 20% of Americans say that they would refuse a a COVID-19 vaccine, and that an additional 26% are not sure if they would take it.

Among those who are unsure, or decidedly against receiving the vaccine, some fear that the vaccine will have been rushed and not been properly tested, others say they are skeptical about the effectiveness of a vaccine, considering how viruses mutate, and given the relative ineffectiveness of annual flu vaccines.

However, there are also some who are concerned about possibly nefarious motives by governments and influential people, such as Bill Gates.

The suspicion of a sinister conspiracy behind the development of a coronavirus vaccine has been spurred on by comments from Bill Gates on March 18, in which he said that in the future “digital certificates” could trace who had recently been tested or who had received a vaccine. The idea is that those who will have received the vaccine will be allowed to do things which those who refused the vaccine would not be allowed to do, such as shopping, working, and enjoying entertainment or recreation in certain places. By the next day, a rumor had begun circulating that these “digital certificates” would be a microchip which would be hidden in the vaccine. [1]

For some people, this sounded similar to what the Bible says in Revelation 13 about the Mark of the Beast, without which people will not be able to buy or sell, leading to fears that by receiving this vaccine, you might inadvertently receive the Mark of the Beast, which would lead to the loss of your soul.

What is the Mark of the Beast?

The Book of Revelation is a vision that the Apostle John had while in exile on the island of Patmos. In this vision he was instructed to write down the things that he had seen, the things that are, and those that are to take place in the future. (Revelation 1:19)

Revelation is written in the apocalyptic genre, which its interpretation has been the source of much debate and speculation amongst Christians for the past 2000 years.

In Revelation chapter 13, John describes two beasts; one rises out of the sea (Rev. 13:1-10), the other rises out of the earth (Rev. 13:11-18). Here is what it says about the second beast:

Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.

Revelation 13:11-18

Throughout the years, Christians have tried to figure out what the Mark of the Beast is and what the number 666 means.

Adding fuel to the fears of a conspiracy is the fact that there is currently a bill before the House of Representatives numbered 6666, as well as a calculation of CORONA (6 letters in the word, and if you take the number of the order of the letters in the English alphabet, they add up to 66).

This isn’t the first time there have been rumors of the Mark of the Beast. Ronald Wilson Reagan (6 letters each = 6+6+6!) was accused of being the beast. Of course this is ridiculous for many reasons, not least of which is that it assumes that the Apostle John, who wrote in Greek, would give us a code which could only be deciphered in the English language (which did not even exist yet).

Many Bible scholars associate the number 666 with Caesar Nero, and there is good evidence for doing this. We know from Suetonius that many people were at the time toying with the numerical values of Nero’s name (Nero 39). This practice, known as gematria, took a letter of the alphabet and assigned it an equivalent number. So, for example, in the case of Greek, the first letter alpha would be given the number one. The second letter beta would be understood as two, and so on. When you take Nero’s name (Neron Kaisar) and transliterate it into Hebrew, the result is the number of the beast: 666. [2]

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the second beast in Revelation 13 was Nero; it could mean that it will be someone similar to or comparable to Nero.

The Mark of the Lamb?

What many people seem to forget when discussing the Mark of the Beast is that in the verses which immediately follow, the Mark of the Beast is juxtaposed with the Mark of the Lamb.

Perhaps some of you reading this have never even heard of the Mark of the Lamb. However, if we really desire to understand what the Mark of the Beast is, we have to understand it in light of the Mark of the Lamb.

Here’s what it says:

Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless.

Revelation 14:1-5

This is referenced earlier in the book as well:

Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

Revelation 7:2-3

So, any interpretation of what the Mark of the Beast is needs to consider that it must be something equal to and opposite of the Mark of the Lamb.

What are These Marks, and How Will You Know If You Have Them?

Considering how the Mark of the Beast is juxtaposed with the Mark of the Lamb, it seems clear that these two signs are identifiers, which identify your allegiance: either as person of the Dragon or as a person of the Lamb. It isn’t that you become a person of the Beast or the Lamb by receiving a mark, rather: the mark identifies you as what you already are. We see this in Revelation 7 & 14, where the mark given to God’s people is to identify them for who they already are, because they are already united to the Lamb.

In other words, these two marks are two opposite signs marking out two different types of people: the wicked and the righteous.

The Mark of the Beast is an identifier of loyalty and worship, and therefore is not something you could accidentally accept.

In the early 1980s, multiple books came out claiming that Uniform Product Codes (UPCs or “barcodes”) were the Mark of the Beast, since they were tied to buying and selling, with titles like: When Your Money Fails: The “666 System” is Here (1981) and The New Money System 666 (1982). In the late 80s and early 90s there were rumors that it could be something related to credit card companies. These ideas were predicated on the idea that the Mark of the Beast was something that could sneak up on you, and something you could accidentally use.

However, since the Mark of the Beast and the Mark of the Lamb are marks of loyalty and worship, a person will have full cognitive awareness of what they are doing (otherwise it is not worship). In other words, in order to take the Mark of the Beast, you would have to curse Christ and pledge devotion to his enemy – and it’s not something you could do on accident, or without realizing what you were doing.

In many countries, including the United States, it is almost impossible to function (think: buy or sell) without government-issued identification numbers, such as a Social Security Number or a Driver’s License Number. Almost everyone carries a mobile phone which contains a SIM card which can be tracked in different ways. Certain vaccines are required in order for children to attend public school. Whether these things are good or safe or whether the government has your best interest in mind may be valid points of discussion and consideration, but these things are not what the Mark of the Beast is about: it is about identification regarding allegiance and worship, and is therefore not something you can possibly receive against your will, desires, and full awareness of what you are doing.

Don’t Forget the Point of Revelation

It is important to remember that the revelation being given in the Book of Revelation is the revelation of Jesus (Rev. 1:1), not the revelation of the Beast!

The point and purpose of the book is not to make us scared about what the Beast is going to do, but to fill us with confidence because no matter what happens, Jesus is going to win!

Any interpretation of Revelation that results in “the beast” becoming the central focus (and dreaded fear) of your eschatology most definitely suggests that you’ve completely misunderstood the book entirely.

Matthew L. Halstead, Ph.D.

Neither the Dragon nor the Beast are the “star of the show” in Revelation, but Jesus, who comes to defeat them and redeem His people.

Let us remember that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who told us this:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

John 10:27-30

Whether you decide to receive a future vaccine or not is a decision for you to weigh and consider, but based on the clear teaching of the Bible, there is no need to fear that you will accidentally be taking the Mark of the Beast by doing so.

May we instead receive the mark and seal of the Lamb through heart-felt allegiance to Jesus, embracing the gospel whole-heartedly, with hope in the redemption He promises us, no matter what this life or any enemies may bring our way. This is the way of true security and confidence.

Reader Questions: Evidence of Faith

Here on the site there is a feature where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

This question was recently sent in:

Hi Pastor Nick,
Regarding James 2:14: is “works” or “deeds” limited to spiritual disciplines and obedience? Can you expand what an actual “works” is? Based on what I have researched in Strong’s [Greek & Hebrew Lexicon], this word “works” can be likened to evidence. If “works” is limited to spiritual disciplines and obedience, wouldn’t the Pharisee’s have been in the pocket when in comes to saving faith? Can a work, or evidence of saving faith be something like forgiveness, patience, or trusting belief? (John 6:28) I have been listening to you for quite some time online, and so I am thinking it could be “both”. lol. I believe that obedience and spiritual disciplines are VERY important, but they have been an overflow from my friendship with Jesus. They come very naturally to me the more time Jesus and I spend together. I have friends that tend to throw around this verse when they are not witnessing the type of obedience THEY feel should be demonstrated within the church. I tend to be very tolerable when it comes to most topics, but on this issue I get very agitated. I am not sure if it’s because I am denial, or because my friends are, in my opinion, using Scripture to justify moralism. I want to enjoy the book of James, come along side of it, not have any bitterness towards it.

Good question! It seems that James understands “works” to be outward expressions of faith. Clearly this includes acts of obedience, as James describes in chapter 2, using Abraham as an example, but it James also says that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

As Jesus explained, sin includes not just outward actions, but thoughts of the mind and attitudes of the heart. He also taught that to not forgive is a sin. Therefore, to keep oneself unstained from the world includes forgiveness and other attitudes that pertain to holiness. As you rightly mentioned, Jesus stated that the “work” of God is to believe in Jesus whom He sent (John 6:29).

It is possible to do good works apart from faith, but, as John Calvin stated, the motivation for good works in that case will be self-justification or self-glorification. This is what the Pharisees were guilty of, and why Jesus claimed that they were lost in spite of their good works. Calvin argued for “Total Depravity,” which he understood as meaning that apart from Christ, our motives for doing good deeds are skewed, and it is only once the love of God has been poured out in our hearts that we are capable of doing good for truly pure motives.

In his commentary on Romans, Martin Luther compared works to the heat and light that are exuded by fire. You can have light apart from fire, and you can have heat apart from fire, but if you have fire, it will naturally result in heat and light. In the same way, you can have works apart from faith, but faith naturally produces works.

So, the answer to your question is: Both 🙂

Racism, Identity, & Self-Justification

In Pittsburgh, Racism Is a Health Crisis - CityLab

Like so many of you, when I saw the video last night of what happened to George Floyd, I was horrified.

If someone was not there to film this incident, would we even know that this happened?

Was this an isolated incident? We have to recognize that a steady stream of “isolated incidents” constitutes a pattern, and racism and prejudice are alive and well in the world today.

As Christians, it is our theological duty to speak out against racism.

Racism asserts that some people are more valuable than others. This view is anathema to those who follow Jesus.

No matter the color of a person’s skin, no matter their economic or social status, no matter their level of ability or disability: all people are created in the image of God, and therefore endowed with an innate dignity as image bearers of the Divine.

What is at the Root of Racism?

It would not be uncommon to hear someone say that at the root of racism is sin. The question though is: What sin exactly is at the root of racism?

What underlies racism is the endeavor common to all human beings of seeking to establish an identity.

Every person is seeking to establish an identity, which can be defined as: evidence that we have value and worth, that we are deserving of love and acceptance.

People seek to do this in many ways, such as geography, ethnicity, morality, economics, social standing, education, etc.

However, when someone seeks to establish their identity in anything other than the redeeming work of Jesus, it leads to disaster.

This disaster, in some cases, may only be personal; it may only affect them. It will still be disaster because it will lead to emptiness, futility, and the loss of their soul (see Mark 8:36).

However, in many cases, the disaster of attempting to build an identity apart from Christ can affect others. This is what leads to wars, ethnic conflicts, tribalism, rivalries, and racism.

These are all forms of self-justification, or the attempt to prove one’s worth by means of something within them, whether that is their morality, their good deeds, or their race or tribe.

The Reformers, particularly Calvin, pointed out that while people can do good things apart from faith in Jesus and experiencing His regenerative work in their lives, all of their good works will ultimately be motivated by either self-justification or self-glorification.

Self-justification often seeks opportunities to justify oneself by looking for ways in which they can feel superior to others. It is endeavoring to build an identity for yourself – apart from Christ – that “proves” that you have worth, and many people go about that negatively by juxtaposing themselves against other people whom they deem to have “less worth.”

Considering It All Rubbish

In the third chapter of his letter to the Philippians, Paul the Apostle talks about how he formerly tried to build his identity apart from Christ in his ethnic background, in his morality, in his education, and in his zeal for God. (Philippians 3:4-9).

The result of these things, in every instance, was that they led him to look down on others who didn’t have his ethnic background, his morality, his education, or his zeal for God – and in at least one case it led him to physically and psychologically harm an entire group of people.

However, after coming to faith in Christ and embracing the gospel, Paul says that he now considers all of these things rubbish compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus, and being found in Him, with a righteousness that comes from Jesus, not from anything within Paul himself.

What the gospel offers us is value, worth, and belonging because of what God has done for us and who we are in Christ. This identity, rather than leading to oppression or rivalry, leads to love and charity.

May we be those who find our identity in Christ, and who recognize the inherent dignity of all people.

Hulk Hogan, Idols, and the Name of God

Recently Hulk Hogan posted this on Facebook, which garnered a lot of attention, and a reader asked me to comment on it.

In three short months, just like He did with the plagues of Egypt, God has taken away everything we worship. God said, “you want to worship athletes, I will shut down the stadiums. You want to worship musicians, I will shut down Civic Centers. You want to worship actors, I will shut down theaters. You want to worship money, I will shut down the economy and collapse the stock market. You don’t want to go to church and worship Me, I will make it where you can’t go to church”
“If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Maybe we don’t need a vaccine, Maybe we need to take this time of isolation from the distractions of the world and have a personal revival where we focus on the ONLY thing in the world that really matters. Jesus.

Matters of the Soul and the Body

I agree with Hulk’s statement that we should take this time of isolation from the distractions of the world and have a personal revival.

I agree with his call to repentance, prayer, and seeking the Lord from 2 Chronicles 7:14.

I don’t see why this repentance and revival would exclude the need for a vaccine however, but just as Jesus said: “What does it benefit a person if they gain the whole world but lose their soul?”, (Mark 8:36) that question could easily be applied to our current situation: “What does it benefit a person if they survive the COVID-19 crisis but lose their soul?”

Personally, I have seen a significantly greater openness to the gospel and to prayer in many people during this crisis, and I praise God for that. I believe that God is more concerned with the well-being of our souls than with our physical comfort. At the same time, it is also the call of the people of God to relieve suffering when possible (see Matthew 25:31-46), as we look forward to the end of sickness and death forever for those in Christ because of what He accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection.

The Human Heart is an Idol Factory

Hulk claims that “in three short months, just like He did with the plagues of Egypt, God has taken away everything we worship.”

The thing is, just taking away people’s money doesn’t make them stop worshiping money. Oftentimes it is not what we have that we worship, but what we want – that’s what it means to covet.

One of the things I learned working with refugees and the impoverished Roma population in Hungary, is that some of the people who worship money the most are those who don’t have any of it. They seek after it, believing that if they had it, they would be content and fulfilled. Some of the most materialistic people I have known are people who lacked materially. On the contrary, I have known many wealthy people who were incredibly generous – having learned firsthand that money and possessions will never fill the God-shaped void in one’s soul.

Martin Luther stated that “the human heart is an idol factory.” In other words, even if God did take away these idols, (which are all clearly still here, with the exception of sports) the underlying problem would still exist, and we would just make and find new idols to worship with our time, energy, resources, and attention.

What we need is something deeper: regeneration, new birth, a transformation from the inside out, which is the work of God in our lives.

The Name of God

I find it absurd that Hulk uses the name of God as his personal motto: “I am that I am.”

The name Yahweh derives from the Hebrew word for “to be” – which is why God told Moses to tell Pharaoh that “I am who I am” if Pharaoh asked the name of the God who had sent Moses.

To use this name as a personal motto is borderline, or perhaps blatant blasphemy, in my opinion.

In Conclusion

While it is a bit ironic that Hulk Hogan, a celebrity, is calling out the cultural idol of celebrity worship, and his point about God taking away our idols is dubious at best (if God shut down stadiums to stop our worship of athletes, how does he then reason that the shutting of churches is to be understood as punishment for people not going to church???), his core point is a good one: rather than just waiting for this to be over, we should take this time to refocus on our relationship with God and repent where necessary of giving other things the place in our hearts which rightly belongs to Him.

“Anything” and “All Things”?

In Romans 8:32, Paul poses the rhetorical question:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

In the Gospels, we read these words from Jesus:

Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

John 14:13-14

Does “anything” really mean anything? Does “all things” really mean all things?

What if I ask for a dinosaur?  What if I ask for Abraham Lincoln to be raised from the dead? 

You might say those would be ridiculous requests, but don’t they fall under the umbrella of “all things” and “anything”?

What about the times I’ve prayed for things, and I did not get them? Why did I not get them? Did I pray wrong? Or did God break His promise?

In the Bible, there were people who prayed, and their prayers were not answered – or at least not in the way they originally hoped they would be. Joseph was beaten up and thrown in a pit, then sold into slavery by his brothers (Genesis 37), and we’re told in Genesis 42, that when this was happening, Joseph was crying out and begging for mercy and to be rescued. Paul prayed three times earnestly that God would remove his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12), but God refused to remove it, because He wanted to use that pain in Paul’s life to shape him.

Apparently, God reserves the right to say no to some of our requests. 

Another interesting Biblical text to consider is James 5:2-3, which says:

You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

Two things are interesting about this passage: 1) we are told that we sometimes don’t have because we fail to ask. The implication is: ask – and you will receive. However, 2) we are told that sometimes we do ask and God doesn’t give us what we ask for, NOT because we fail to pray in Jesus’ name, but because we ask for wrong things with wrong motives, and therefore God chooses not to give it. 

So then why does God say that He will give us “anything” we ask for, and that He will give us “all things”?

Consider Psalm 84:11:

For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.

In Jesus, we have been made righteous, and we have been given the Spirit of God to empower us to walk uprightly. We’re told that God does not withhold “any GOOD thing” from the righteous, those who walk uprightly. God is committed to giving us that which is good for us. Thus, if God chooses not to give you something you ask for, you can rest assured that in His loving omniscience, He knows that thing would not actually be good for you, or perhaps it wouldn’t be good for you right now in light of what He wants to do.

What we have in God, therefore, is a Father, not a genie – and that is immeasurably better!