New Zealand, Nigeria & New York: Religious Violence, Refugees & Reporting

This past Friday, the world was rightly horrified by an attack on muslim worshipers in Christchurch, New Zealand by an anti-Muslim white supremacist.

In another part of the world, 280 Nigerian Christians have been killed in the past two months by Fulani militants and Boko Haram terrorists. Nigeria has now been declared to be the most dangerous country in the world to be a Christian.

Why Such Little Reporting on Nigeria?

The instances in New Zealand and Nigeria are both examples of violence and hatred directed towards people based on their religion, yet the attacks in New Zealand have gotten much more press coverage than those in Nigeria, the latter of which has prompted questions from British MP Kate Hoey as to why there is so little coverage of these events in the media.

Why such unbalanced reporting?

Is it because the one took place in a developed Western country, whereas the other is taking place in a developing country in Africa? Is it because the one was a one-time incident, whereas the other is an ongoing campaign of terror?

If so, what does the lack of media attention communicate? Hopefully not that the lives of those in the developing world matter less than the lives of those in developed countries. Hopefully not that ongoing violence is less worthy of our attention and outrage than isolated events.

Nigerian Refugees in the News

I was encouraged today when I came across this article from the New York Times, highlighting an 8 year old Nigerian refugee in New York City.

As the article details, Tanitoluwa Adewumi lives in a homeless shelter with his family. The article mentions that Tani’s family is from northern Nigeria, and that they fled their homes because of Boko Haram terrorists who are targeting Christians such as themselves in their homeland. In New York, they were helped by a local pastor to get temporary housing in the shelter, as they wait for their asylum case to be processed.

As Tani began attending public school in NYC, he was introduced to chess, and over the past year, he has become a chess prodigy, winning his age group, and impressing coaches. “He went undefeated at the state tournament last weekend, outwitting children from elite private schools with private chess tutors.”

A GoFundMe account set up for those who want to help Tani and his family: https://www.gofundme.com/just-tani

Created in the Image of God

One of the fundamental teachings of the Bible about humanity is that we, uniquely out of all created things, are created in the image of God. As a result, we believe that all humans have dignity and are equal in value, no matter their race, gender, socio-economic situation, or physical ability or disability.

There is an ongoing situation in Nigeria right now which deserves the world’s attention. Good on the New York Times for talking about it. More is needed.

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My Recent Poll: Here’s What I’ve Learned So Far

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A few weeks ago, I posted an anonymous poll here on the site, in which I asked the question: How would you, or others you know, finish this sentence: “I could never believe in a God who ________”?  (click here for that post)

If you haven’t filled out that poll yet, you can access it here.

I got a good number of answers, but the bigger the sample size, the better for this sort of thing, so I would love it if you would go over and fill out the poll and send it to others who wouldn’t mind giving their voice.

This poll was done in preparation for a sermon series we will do at White Fields starting April 28, the week after Easter.

Here’s what the poll results have shown so far:

Theodicy is the biggest issue for those who took our poll

The top two responses were: “I could never believe in a God who:”

  • Sends people to Hell
  • Allows bad things to happen to good people

There were several write in answers which were related to these two, such as: “I could never believe in a God who:”

  • Can heal, but doesn’t heal all
  • Allows good people to die, but lets awful people live
  • Allowed the Sandy Hook massacre
  • Allows miscarriages
  • Chooses some and not others

These issues all fall under the category of Theodicy, which essentially means “the defence of God’s goodness”

The Trilemma of Theodicy

Very famous in this regard is what is called the trilemma of theodicy. A trilemma is like a dilemma, only instead of two issues (di) that are at odds with each other, in a trilemma there are three (tri).

The trilemma of theodicy states that there are three things the Bible states are true about God, which cannot all be true at the same time:

  1. God is loving
  2. God is all-powerful
  3. Evil exists

The argument goes that since evil exists, either: God must not really be loving, or God must not really be all-powerful. Either God is incapable of stopping evil, even though he’d like to – in which case he is not all-powerful, or God is capable of stopping evil, but chooses not to, in which case he must not be truly loving.

The logical flaw in the trilemma

The big flaw in this thinking is that it takes into account only two of God’s attributes: his love and his power.

But does God have only two attributes? Certainly not! God has a myriad of attributes, including that he is: all-knowing, providential, eternal, etc. Simply adding another attribute of God to the equation changes it fundamentally, and removes the “lemma” out of the tri-lemma!

For example, if we say that God is not only loving and all-powerful, but also all-knowing and/or providential, it changes things completely. It means that it is possible for God to allow bad things and use them for good purposes, and even for our ultimate benefit. The fact that God is eternal reminds us that comfort in this life is not the pinnacle of existence, therefore it is also possible for an eternal God to allow temporal hardship in order to work an eternal good purpose. The Bible says this explicitly in 2 Corinthians 4:17 – For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.

An Unloving God Who Creates Unloving Followers?

Following closely behind in popularity were: “I could never believe in a God who:”

  • Doesn’t affirm some people’s sexuality
  • Creates hateful and hypocritical followers

Surprising Lesser-Issues

To my surprise, the questions which seem to not be major issues in people’s minds are were:

  • The reliability of the Bible
  • Proof of the existence of God

I wonder if this is the result of much effort put into these areas by Christian apologists, including CS Lewis with Mere Christianity and Timothy Keller with The Reason for God, or if, on the other hand, Christians are putting a lot of effort into questions which people don’t currently perceive to be pressing questions which cause them to be skeptical of Christianity. Either way, these issues are certainly fundamental to Christian faith and belief, and speaking into them can hardly be said to be in vain.

Other lesser-issues, which I expected would receive more responses were:

  • Apparent genocides in the Old Testament
  • Suppression and subjugation of women and minorities

I wonder if the reason for this is because there are very well-known evidences that Christianity and the Bible have done more to encourage the uplifting of women and minorities around the world, evidenced by the fact that wherever Christianity has gone in the world, women and minorities have been empowered and there has been movement towards equal rights, equal pay, etc. Surely there is room for improvement in these areas, but the point is that the Bible provides the theology which empowers women and promotes equality for people of all races. How it is implemented is a human issue.

More to Come

I will write more on some of these issues in the weeks to come, and will address them in the upcoming sermon series.

If you haven’t filled out the poll yet, I’d love it if you would: click here to access it.

Poll: “I Could Never Believe in a God Who…”

Starting April 28, the Sunday after Easter, we will be doing a series at White Fields called “I Could Never Believe in a God Who…”, in which we will be addressing some of the common struggles and objections that people have about God, the Bible, and Christianity.

You can help me by taking a second to fill out this quick anonymous poll to let me know what are some of the biggest hurdles to faith that you have experienced yourself or encountered in other people. Thanks!

Please also share this with others; I’d like to get as many responses as possible to get a clear picture of the things people are really struggling with.

(email subscribers can click here to access the poll)

Did People Go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death & Resurrection?

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A reader recently sent in this question:

In John 3:13, Jesus says“No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven-the Son of Man,”

  • Is this saying that people didn’t go to Heaven before Jesus’ death and resurrection?
  • Where had everyone who died gone before Jesus died and rose?
  • Did this change after his death and resurrection?
  • What verses can you share with me about this?

Let me answer each of those questions in order:

Is this saying that people didn’t go to Heaven before Jesus’ death and resurrection?

Yes, I believe so.

Where had everyone who died gone before Jesus died and rose?

The Old Testament talks a lot about “Sheol” which is the dwelling place of the dead. Psalm 139:7-8, for example, says: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”

Is this saying that God is present in Hell? No. It’s saying He is present in Sheol. 

It would seem (I’ll give Scriptural justification for this below) that Sheol was divided into two sections: Abraham’s Bosom and Hades.

Abraham’s Bosom was a place of comfort for those who died in faith. Since they had not yet been redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus, they could not go to Heaven, so this was a sort of holding place, or waiting room for the souls of the Old Testament believers who died in faith, trusting not in their own works or performance to garner them favor before God, but casting themselves on God’s mercy and grace to save them through the Messiah who was to come.

Hades, on the other hand, was a place of torment for those who died apart from awareness of their shortcomings and apart from faith and trust in God’s mercy and grace. Hades, like Abraham’s Bosom, was/is a holding place or waiting room for the souls of those who have died apart from faith, and though those in Hades suffer torment presently, one day Hades will be emptied into the Lake of Fire, meaning that Hades is not the final destination for those who have died apart from faith.

Did this change after Jesus’ death and resurrection?

It seems that in the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus descended into Sheol and released those from Abraham’s Bosom and led them to Heaven. Those who die now in faith in Jesus go to Heaven, i.e. the presence of God.

Hades, on the other hand, remains in tact, and those who die apart from faith still go there.

What verses can you share with me about this?

Luke 16:19-31: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31 gives us insight to this through the story of the rich man and Lazarus: Lazarus, a poor man who died in faith, is taken to Abraham’s bosom, whereas the rich man who died apart from faith is taken to Hades. Between the two parts of Sheol, the story tells us, is an uncrossable chasm, and there is no escape.

The rich man desperately wants someone to go and speak to his family members, and plead with them lest they end up in Hades as well, but the man is told that his family members have been given Moses and the Prophets (i.e. the Scriptures), and they should listen to them.

Ephesians 4:8-10: He Led Captives in His Train

In Ephesians 4:8-10 we read this: Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives (in his train), and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

The Apostles Creed, one of the oldest Christian creeds, includes this phrase:

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.

Going back to Jesus’ apostles, who spoke with him after his resurrection, there seems to have been an understanding that Jesus descended into Sheol, and did two things:

  1. Released those “captives” from Abraham’s Bosom and led them to the immediate presence of God (Heaven). (Ephesians 4:8)
  2. Preached to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19-20)

The latter of these was not evangelism, but a pronouncement of judgment upon those spirits in Hades. We know this because of the qualifying text in 1 Peter 3:20.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise”

2 Corinthians 5:8Luke 23:43  & Philippians 1:23 tell us that when a believer dies today, they are taken to the direct presence of God, AKA “paradise”.

Hades will be cast into the Lake of Fire

Revelation 20:11-15 describes how, after the judgement of the living and the dead at the end of all things, Hades will be cast into the Lake of Fire.

And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.  (Revelation 20:13-15)

A New Heavens and a New Earth

Heaven, as it is now experienced, is different than what will be after the final judgment, where Revelation 21 tells us that there will be a new heavens and a new Earth, for the first heaven and the first Earth will have passed away, and will be no more. (Revelation 21:1)

Jesus said in Matthew 24:35 that Heaven and Earth will pass away, but his words never will.

2 Peter 3:7 says, But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. 

And 2 Peter 3:10 says, But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Thus, after the final judgment, there will be a new heavens and a new Earth, which will be not only the restoration of Eden, but the fulfillment of what Eden would have been had sin not entered in.

In the New Jerusalem, once again, we see humankind together with God, with no sin nor shame, nor any of the destructive effects of sin (i.e. sickness, pain), and that the Tree of Life is there. Whereas Eden was a garden, the New Jerusalem will be a garden city.

Submit Your Questions!

Thanks for these great questions! Keep studying the Word, and feel free to send more questions to me by filling out this form.

Mary Did You Know? – Questions About Jesus’ Childhood

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A few weeks ago I created a page where you can submit questions or suggest topics. A reader sent in this question:

In John 2:3-5, Mary asks Jesus to do a miracle in order to save a wedding feast where they have run out of wine.

How did Mary know to ask Jesus for help? Was she even asking for help?

Did she know who he was and what he was here to do?

Why are there no stories of Jesus’ childhood, except in the gnostic gospels?

I recently taught this section at White Fields, during our Advent series. In the sermon I talk about how this first of Jesus’ miracles points to the eschatological hope of the gospel. You can listen to that message here: From Shame to Joy

Let me answer each of your questions in order.

Was Mary Asking Jesus for Help?

Yes, I think that is clear from two things we see in the narrative:

  1. Jesus’ apparent frustration with the request.
  2. Mary’s instructions to the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do.

How Did Mary Know to Ask Jesus for Help? Did She Know Who He Was and What He Was Here to Do?

Yes, Mary absolutely did know that Jesus was the Messiah! This is the woman who got pregnant without having sex. I think that’s something that would be hard to forget.

This is the woman who had the angel Gabriel appear to her to announce that she was pregnant with the Messiah (Luke 1:26-38). This is the woman who sang the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-56). This is the woman whose cousin Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah also had a visitation from the Lord. Joseph also had a visitation to tell him the identity of the child (Matthew 1)

Lest we forget, this is the woman who also experienced:

  1. The visit of the shepherds who had heard the divine proclamation (Luke 2)
  2. The visit of the magi who came from the East following the star which proclaimed the birth of a new king (Matthew 2)
  3. Interactions with Simeon and Anna in the temple (Luke 2)

Furthermore, this is the woman who had to flee with her baby in the night to Egypt, where they stayed for several years as refugees until Herod the Great died, because he was committed to killing this one who was the rightful heir to the throne of David, i.e. the promised Messiah.

Mary and Joseph had an acute awareness of who Jesus was, and I would expect that they also talked about this with Jesus. One question that theologians debate is whether Jesus innately knew that he was the Messiah, or if it was revealed to him by the Spirit. I expect that his mother and father would have talked to him about it as well, recounting to him as a young child why they had to live as refugees in Egypt, and telling him stories of the angels’ visitations and all the crazy stuff that happened at his birth.

The word Messiah means anointed one. There were three people in ancient Israel who were anointed with oil as a symbol of the Spirit of God upon them to empower them for their ministry: Prophets, Priests and Kings. The eschatological Messiah was known to be one who would be the perfect fulfillment of all three of these offices: he would be the ultimate priest, the true prophet (remember Moses’ prophecy in Deuteronomy 18:15 of the prophet whom God would raise up… the Jews understood this to be a Messianic prophecy – see John 1:21), and the true king (for more on this, read: If Jesus is God, Why is He Called the Son of God and the Firstborn of All Creation?)

Being that Jesus is the true and greatest prophet, it would be expected that he would perform miracles, like the “wonder-working prophets” Elijah and Elisha. This is why one of the expectations of the Jews from Jesus was that he validate his ministry through performing miracles. Jesus pushed back at this, knowing their hearts – but the fact is that he did perform many miracles.

Why are there no stories of Jesus’ childhood, except in the gnostic gospels?

It says clearly in John 2:11 that this was the first of Jesus’ miracles, or rather “signs”, by which he manifested his glory. This, by the way, goes to show the dubious nature of the childhood narrative of the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which purports Jesus doing miracles to heal birds.

My guess is that the reason there isn’t more written about Jesus’ childhood is because there wasn’t much to talk about. He spent his first several years in Egypt, then at age 12, his parents noticed that he had a keen desire to know the Father and study the Scriptures. Beyond that, Jesus and his parents would have always known that he was the Messiah, but he didn’t do anything in that role until his baptism at age 30.

Thanks for these great questions! Keep studying the Word, and feel free to send more questions to me by filling out this form.

Chinese Conviction & American Apathy

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In 2018, the Chinese government acted to crack down on unregistered Christian churches. These churches are sometimes called “house churches,” which is a misleading term, since many of these churches have hundreds, even thousands of members and own their own buildings.

Chinese law requires Christians to worship only in congregations registered with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a government-sanctioned organization which manages churches. Millions of Chinese Christians meet in unregistered churches which defy these government regulations, seeing them as compromising the church, especially considering the Communist government’s atheistic agenda.

Over the past few months, the Chinese government has stepped up their persecution of Christians by destroying crosses, burning Bibles, confiscating religious materials and closing churches, even demolishing their buildings, as can be seen in this video:

In December 2018, more than 100 Christians who attend a Reformed church in Chengdu were arrested and charged with “inciting subversion of state power.”

Chinese Conviction

The pastor of that church, Wang Yi, a former human-rights lawyer and law professor, who has been an influential intellectual in China, issued a statement along with other Chinese Christian leaders titled: “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” in which they stated that they would not cease gathering together for worship and studying the Bible.

Additionally, around 500 Chinese Christian leaders have signed a document called “A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith,” in which they stated that they were prepared to bear all losses, even the loss of their freedom and their lives, for the sake of the gospel.

For Chinese Christians, gathering together for worship and Bible study is an act of resistance and social disobedience. It brings with it the possibility of arrest, punishment and persecution. And yet – believers are resolute: they will not stop gathering for public worship services, no matter what the cost.

American Apathy

At the same time, on the other side of the world, the American church is seeing a rising wave of apathy.

Some of the reports of the decline of Christianity in the United States are misleading, as I’ve written about here: Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 1 & Part 2.

However, other reports show that while reports of the decline of Christianity in the US may be overstated, there is a growing sense of apathy in regard to church attendance.

Christianity Today recently published these infographics based on data from Pew Research Center:

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Read the full report here: Pew: Why Americans Go to Church or Stay Home

Two significant things that these infographics reveal: 1) Americans view Christianity as being important for the purpose of moral formation, 2) Americans tend to think that church is superfluous when it comes to Christian faith.

The Irony

Comparing the Chinese situation with the American one, what we see is that the people who stand to lose the most from going to church (the Chinese) are the most resolute in doing so, even though doing so will likely hurt them financially, socially, and even physically. Conversely, those who have the most freedom and stand to lose nothing are the most apathetic about public worship.

Whereas many Chinese Christians see gathered worship as central to their faith, something they absolutely cannot give up or do without, and an act of resistance – many American Christians see it as extraneous.

Who is Right?

I believe that we in the West can afford to learn something from our brothers and sisters in the East.

Christianity was formed and grew in the crucible of persecution, and perhaps the worst thing for Christians is to experience such ease and comfort that we lose the understanding that following Jesus is a radical and subversive thing in this world.

Perhaps the greatest danger our faith can face is not direct persecution, but patronizing “pats on the head” and people thinking that Christianity is “nice”.

Sinclair Ferguson has put it this way:

“We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.”

Recently I read an article by Simon Chan from the theological journal Pneuma, in which he very astutely wrote this:

[Western Christians] have a very weak sociological concept of the church. This has two negative consequences. First, the church tends to be seen as essentially a service provider catering to the needs of individual Christians. Rarely are individuals thought of as existing for the church. When the church is seen as existing for the individual, then the focus of ministry is on individuals: how individual needs can be met by the church. But when individuals are seen as existing for the church, the focus shifts from the individual needs to our common life in Christ: how we as the one people of God fulfill God’s ultimate purpose for the universe, namely, to glorify and enjoy God forever.

Chan is challenging us to ask the question: Contrary to our consumeristic mentality, isn’t it actually true that the church does not exist for us as much as we exist for the church, and the church exists for God?

I believe that we in the West can afford to look to the East and learn from our Christian brothers and sisters in China about the importance of gathered worship.

What Does It Mean to Live “Coram Deo”?

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What does it mean to be “in the presence of God”?

This past Sunday at White Fields we studied Isaiah 6 as part of our series, Remember the Prophets

You can listen to the audio of the message here: A Vision of God

In Isaiah chapter 6, Isaiah gives an account of his call to ministry, which took place through a vision he had of God. In our community groups, one of the discussion questions had to do with what it means to be in the “presence” of God.

Coram Deo

Coram Deo is a Latin phrase which literally means “before God”. For Christians, throughout history, the phrase has been used to describe a life that is lived before God, i.e. in constant awareness of His presence, and seeking to experience communion with Him – not just at church or in dedicated times of prayer (although those are not to be neglected!), but as you go throughout your day.

An Uber Driver and a Stay-at-Home Mom

This past week I had two conversations which illustrated the importance of this:

The first was with a lady in community group who drives Uber several hours a day. She described how, sitting in her car, she is able to commune with God; she listens to sermons and even as she’s driving, she converses with God in her soul.

The second was a stay-at-home mom who called in to Calvary Live, the weekly call-in radio show I host on Mondays on GraceFM. She described how she struggles to find time to pray because she is so busy with her toddler, so she has developed a system where she will set timers throughout the day, and when they go off she will pray for 3 minutes uninterrupted. I suggested that perhaps it would be helpful for her to learn instead the practice of “Coram Deo”: living your whole life before the face of God, and conversing with Him throughout the day, not only in dedicated stints.

Pray Without Ceasing & The Practice of the Presence of God

Paul the Apostle wrote to the Thessalonians that they ought to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). It was in heeding this call that some throughout history were drawn to monastic movements: they became monks and nuns, went away to Bible colleges and the like, so they could truly pray without ceasing. But how can you do that if you have a job or a toddler? For most of the population, retreating from the duties and responsibilities of life in order to pray without ceasing is not feasible, and we must ask the question: even if it were feasible, would it actually be the right thing to do? I would say, No! God has given us a mission in this world, and in order to fulfill that mission, we are not called to retreat from the world, otherwise we cannot be salt and light; a city on a hill is not meant to be hidden (cf. Matthew 5:13-16)

A famous book written in the 17th Century by a monk who called himself Brother Lawrence, is: The Practice of the Presence of God. In it, Brother Lawrence describes his practice of ongoing conversation with God as he went about the duties of his day, which included dishwashing and other chores. Throughout his day, he was living Coram Deo: before the face of God.

An Integrated, Rather than Compartmentalized Life

The principle of Coram Deo is important, because it reminds us that our lives as the people of God are to be integrated, not compartmentalized. In other words: it isn’t that our lives are compartmentalized into different areas: work, family, faith, etc… – but that our faith is integrated into every aspect of our lives: we do our work before the face of God, and unto God’s glory! Our family life is lived before the face of God, and unto His glory!

In other words, to live Coram Deo means to seek to be constantly aware of God’s presence (which is there whether you realize it or not), seeking to live in constant communion with God, and integrating your relationship with God into every aspect of your life.

This means that you don’t have to be a monk or a nun in order to pray without ceasing. It means that you don’t have to be in vocational ministry (working for a church or Christian organization) in order to serve God through your work!

For more on this, read: Vocation and Calling According to the Reformers

I invite you to join me in seeking to live Coram Deo today and everyday moving forward!

For more on Isaiah’s vision of God, check out this video discussion I had with Worship Pastor Mike Payne:

Martin Luther King Jr. On Christianity and the Gospel

31 Powerful Quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States, the day when we commemorate the civil rights leader, who was also an ordained Baptist pastor.

I’ve written before about MLK Jr.’s letter to fellow pastors from his jail cell in Birmingham, and about his most famous speech.

Here are a few things he said about Christianity and the gospel:

1. “The end of life is not to be happy, nor to achieve pleasure and avoid pain, but to do the will of God, come what may.”

2. “There is so much frustration in the world because we have relied on gods rather than God. We have worshiped the god of pleasure only to discover that thrills play out and sensations are short-lived.”

3. “The early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

4. “If any earthly institution or custom conflicts with God’s will, it is your Christian duty to oppose it.”

5. “We need to recapture the gospel glow of the early Christians who were nonconformists in the truest sense of the word . . . Their powerful gospel put an end to such barbaric evils as infanticide and bloody gladiatorial contests.”

6. “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

 

Jordan Peterson and the Bible

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Jordan Peterson is an interesting character. A Canadian clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, he has had a meteoric rise in popularity in the media as of late.

One reason for Jordan Peterson’s recent popularity is that he has been able to put words and justification to what many people consider “common sense”, not least of all when it comes to the idea that gender is not a social construct, but is rooted in biology. He then, as a psychologist, gets into the psychology behind this very relevant social issue.

I recently finished reading his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaosin which he brings some of his training and experience and makes it very practical, from everything to posture, raising children, and conversation.

Jordan Peterson and the Bible

Jordan Peterson states emphatically that he is not an atheist (nor does he believe that anyone is actually truly an atheist). He is also not a Christian, at least not in the traditional sense. He mentions in the book that he received a Christian upbringing, but departed from Christianity once he got out on his own.

Nevertheless, Peterson champions many things which are considered biblical or Judeo-Christian values. He argues convincingly for the doctrine of human depravity, and often uses the word “sin” – a word which even many Christian churches today try to avoid, as they feel it is off-putting and rubs people the wrong way. Jordan Peterson does not shy away from talking about human depravity and the need to take personal responsibility for your actions and decisions.

Peterson quotes generously from the Bible in his book; in fact, I mentioned to someone the other day that Peterson talks about and quotes the Bible more than the authors of many explicitly Christian books I have read!

However, Jordan doesn’t only quote from the Bible, he also attempts to exegete and interpret the Bible, particularly the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, and it is here where I, as a theologian, take issue with what he says.

Presuppositions Influence Interpretation

Anyone who attempts to interpret the Bible will inevitably be influenced in their interpretation by their presuppositions, their commitments to already-held beliefs. None of us are truly objective. We all look at things through various lenses, and those lenses invariably and inevitably affect the conclusions we reach.

As a humanist who buys into the idea that all religions developed as the result of the shared consciousness of particular cultures, Jordan Peterson views the Bible as being a didactic mythology which served to help certain groups of people at certain times. He does not believe that it is objectively true, or even more true than the sacred writings of other religions, rather that it reflects the collective consciousness of a particular group of people at a particular time.

Thus, rather than taking what the Bible says at face value, he tries to fit it into his own framework of thinking. The reason this is sometimes confusing, is that it is unclear where exactly Jordan Peterson’s worldview comes from. It seems to be influenced by the Bible in large degree, and yet Peterson clearly has other influences, particularly Enlightenment thinkers, who championed the above stated views on the Bible in particular and epistemology in general.

The Irony…

Here’s the irony: while Jordan Peterson (rightly) argues against relativistic approaches to things like understanding gender and hierarchy, he himself has a relativistic approach to epistemology, truth and worldview! He has basically created it for himself, based on what he subjectively decides to borrow from various religions and philosophies.

Back to Issues of Epistemology and Worldview

For example, Jordan Peterson states (as fact) Wellhausen’s “Documentary Hypothesis” about the construction of the Old Testament having had 4 main sources and several redactions. Wellhausen’s theory is now considered deeply flawed and is not held by many contemporary Bible scholars. It is irresponsible and misleading, in my opinion, for Peterson to state this as if it is accepted fact, without even giving the caveat that this is a theory from the 1800’s which a great number of Bible scholars today (who have studied this subject in much greater depth than he has) no longer accept.

Irresponsible and Uninformed Exegesis and Hermeneutics

Furthermore, I would say that Jordan Peterson practices irresponsible and uninformed biblical exegesis and hermeneutics repeatedly throughout his book, particularly in regard to the significance of the opening chapters of Genesis. For example, in Rule 7: Pursue What is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient), he states that the Bible says that work is part of the curse of sin and death in Genesis 3. This is simply not the case! Genesis 1 & 2 show that work was part of the idyllic world which existed before sin came into the world, and it portrays God working. The difference after the curse, was not that people would have to work (they worked before the curse), but that their work would be characterized by frustration because of the introduction of sin and imperfection into the world.

Another example can be found in his further attempts to exegete and interpret Genesis 3:22-24, where it says that God drove the man and woman out of the garden after they fell into sin, lest they eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. Peterson expresses that this action of God seems mean and inexplicable. There is a very good and widely held view on why God did this, based on a clear reading of the text: God – in His mercy! – did not want the man and woman to be cursed to an eternal existence in their fallen state. Rather, he would allow them to die, so that he could then resurrect them once he had accomplished his plan of setting right all that they had done wrong. We call that: the gospel!

Nothing New Under the Sun

In summary, Jordan Peterson speaks with such confidence and bravado that he comes across as an authority, when in actuality he is merely recycling old Enlightenment approaches to the Bible popularized in the 1800’s, which are not considered to be consensus today.

All Injunctions, No Justification

My final critique of Jordan Peterson’s book would be this: he concludes the book by telling people that they must be strong in the face of adversity. He says that life is pain and hardship, but we must be strong in the face of it and persevere. But here’s the problem: he never gives a reason WHY we must persevere! Why push on? Why try to be strong and suffer well?

In other words: If we have no destination, and the journey is painful, then why bother continuing the journey?

Having rejected the hope of the gospel, Jordan Peterson has sawed off the very branch he is standing on, and at the end of his book, his message to be strong and persevere falls flat because he has not shown us that life has an actual telos: a destination, meaning and purpose.

As Christians, we absolutely do have a hope which goes beyond this life, and it is this hope which makes our lives meaningful and worth living, even in the face of hardship. We have a destination, and that destination gives us a mission in this life. Our goal is not only our own happiness, but to use our lives for God’s purposes until we do come into the great eschatological hope of eternal life because of what God has done for us in Jesus.

Resources for Studying the Prophets

This past Sunday we began a new series at White Fields called “Remember the Prophets“.

The idea for the series comes from James 5:10, where James tells us to “remember the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Take them as examples of patient endurance under suffering.”  In this series, we will be looking at a different Old Testament prophet each week, considering their lives and their messages and what we can learn from them.

remember the prophets main title 16x9

We are moving through them chronologically, and so began with Amos, an interesting person with an important message. Click here to listen to that message: Amos: Faith that Works

This Sunday we will continue the series by looking at Hosea, a gripping story of adultery and faithfulness which gives us insight into God’s heart.

Resources for Studying the Prophets

Generally speaking, the prophetic books are not well known by many people who even regularly read the Bible. Part of the reason for that is because of the negative tone of some of the books, as well as the feeling that without understanding the context of the books, they don’t make sense.

People have asked me at times what books or materials are good to use if they want to get to know the prophetic books better. Here are my top two recommendations:

Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Prophets, J. Gordon McConville

Image result for exploring the old testament a guide to the prophetsI had the pleasure of studying under Gordon McConville at the University of Gloucestershire in England, where he is professor of Old Testament theology. This was one of my text books, but is part of a great series from Inter-Varsity Press and is very accessible to the average reader and also scholarly at the same time.

On the scholarly side, this book tends to get a little bit into the weeds about theological discussions and debates, but the introductions and outlines of the books, their themes and their structures are very good. In other words, you can use it to go as deep as you’re ready to go.

Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament, Irving L. Jensen

When I first became a pastor, one of my mentors told me, “You’re going to need some books.” He then walked me into the book store at the church we were at and pulled Jensen’s surveys of the Old Testament and New Testament off the shelf and handed them to me.

The benefit to these books published by Moody Press is that rather than being a commentary that tells you information, they instead instruct you about how to ask the right questions. Thus, you are the one doing the exegetical work, or the inductive Bible study, rather than just passively receiving information. They do, however, give you important background information in order to get the context you need, but they also tell you where to go to get that context if it is found in other places in the Bible.

I hope these resources are helpful for you, as they have been for me!