Suicide, Christianity, & the Meaning of Life

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If – as the Bible teaches – when a believer dies, their soul goes to be with God, where there is no longer any suffering, pain or sickness, then why would we not want to speed up the process a little bit? After all, as Paul the Apostle wrote to the Philippians, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23). Why not take up smoking, stop using sunscreen, and give up wearing seatbelts? Or, to take it even further, why not just go all the way and end your life now, so you can leave this harsh world behind and go to Heaven?

If that sounds preposterous, keep in mind that this was something that actually happened in early Christian history: there was a time when committing suicide became fashionable among Christians, and the church had to respond and try to end this tragic fad.

When Christians Were Killing Themselves

Until the Edict of Milan, AKA the Edict of Tolleration was issued in 313 AD, Christianity’s status in the Roman Empire was that of religio illicita, an “illicit” or illegal religion (as opposed to Judaism, which held the status of religio licita)During this time, Christians throughout the Roman Empire experienced waves of persecution, usually dependent on the attitudes of local authorities, although there were times when persecution was the official policy of the entire empire – such as during the reigns of Nero and Diocletian. Christians also faced persecution outside the Roman Empire.

During this period, many Christians were martyred, and martyrs were highly regarded and respected as those who had been willing to pay the ultimate price for their faith. In fact, martyrdom was so highly regarded, that people began to seek it out and desire it, as a way of expressing their devotion to Jesus. Ignatius of Antioch, for example, wrote about his desire to die as a martyr.

But some people took it even further. Jerome writes about a young woman named Belsilla who flagellated herself so much that she died from her self-imposed injuries. Another woman, Agathonike, upon witnessing the execution of a bishop by burning, also threw herself onto the fire, declaring “this is the meal that has been prepared for me.” She died in the flames, even though she had not been arrested nor charged. There are other accounts of Christians volunteering to be martyred even though they were not even being sought by the authorities. [1]

The Donatists, who considered themselves particularly hard core and dedicated, greatly desired to show their devotion by being martyred, some even going to the point of simply killing themselves to show how spiritual they were, i.e. how much they were not attached to this life and how much they desired to depart this world and be with Christ.

The Response of the Church

Seeking martyrdom and committing suicide became such a big issue with the Donatists in particular that it threatened the credibility, and even the existence of the church in their area of North Africa.

Judaism had always considered suicide to be sinful, whereas in pagan Roman culture it was considered an acceptable way to exit this life, and was practiced mostly by the wealthy, in part because slaves were not allowed to commit suicide since their lives did not belong to them, but rather to their masters.

It was Augustine of Hippo, a native of North Africa himself, who took up the challenge of addressing this issue and clarifying Christian thinking on this subject. In his book ‘The City of God’, Augustine considered what the Bible has to say about suicide and weighed various arguments for and against suicide. His conclusion was that suicide is always wrong as it is a violation of the sixth commandment (“Thou shall not murder”), and is never justified even in extreme circumstances. This became the official position of the church. [2]

The Meaning of Life

This whole issue touches on something which is core to Christian belief, and which sets Christianity apart from other worldviews and religions.

Many world religions view the world negatively, as a place of chaos, pain, and suffering – where the goal is to escape. This is the goal of transcendence and Nirvana in Eastern philosophies and religions, for example.

Christianity on the other hand, views this world positively. Rather than seeing the origin of the world as having come about through conflict or chaos, it is described as the thoughtful and good creation of a loving God. It is described as a garden paradise, given to us as a gift by our loving creator.

Although this good creation has been corrupted by sin and world currently “lies under the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), the world still retains its fundamental goodness, and God has promised that one day He will redeem His creation.

The purpose of our lives, according to the Bible, is not to escape this world, but to steward this world (Genesis 1:28), as well as our lives and everything we’ve been given, to the glory of God and for the benefit and salvation of others. In other words: the people of God have been given a mission which can only be carried out in this life, and therefore this life matters greatly. Rather than escaping this world, His desire for us is to be about His business as long as we live.

It is an unbiblical an anemic theology of life and the world which leads to the attitude that the most spiritual thing to do is to bide your time as you wait to get out of this world to be with God. True spirituality is rather to value this life and the unique opportunities it affords to do the work of God, and be involved in his saving and redeeming work.

As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. (1 Thessalonians 5:19)

Between now and the end of our lives, there is a whole space that is significant. How you live it matters greatly to God. There are things he wants you to do with that time (cf. Ephesians 2:10). The Christian life, in other words, is not simply waiting to die so you can go to Heaven. God has given you this life for a purpose and He wants to use you to advance His Kingdom and to touch lives. He values our lives, and so should we!

 

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The Gospel of Caesar Augustus, & What It Tells Us About the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Image result for caesar augustusMaybe you’ve heard of “the gospel of Jesus Christ”, but have you ever heard of “the gospel of Caesar Augustus”?

An ancient inscription which bears that phrase gives us understanding into what exactly the gospel of Jesus Christ is, and sheds light on the structure and content of the biblical “Gospels”, i.e. the books which tell the story of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

What is a “gospel”?

In English vernacular, we have terms like “gospel-truth”, which means that something is absolutely true. However, in the Bible, the word “gospel” doesn’t mean truth.

“Gospel” is the English translation of the Greek word “euangelion” which means “news that brings great joy.”

When we hear this word today, our minds immediately tend to associate it with spirituality in general, or Christianity in particular, but originally, this word was political in nature.

In the Greco-Roman world, from the time of Alexander the Great and on into the Roman Empire, this word was used to refer to history-making, world-shaping reports of political, military, or societal victories.

Example 1: The Battle of Marathon

I am considering running a marathon this year, and one of the things that I always keep in the back of my mind is that the person who ran the first marathon ran 42.2 kilometers (26.2 miles) to deliver a message, and upon completing this run, he DIED!

I feel like I still have a lot to live for, hence my hesitation… I have run a few half marathons, and after those I felt half-dead, so we’ll see…

The setting of that first marathon was a battle in 490 B.C. when Greece was invaded by Persia. Despite all odds, Greece managed to defeat Persia, and after the battle, Greece sent heralds to take the euangelion (proclamation of good news) out into every town and village in the country, to tell the people what had happened, and declare to them that they were free! Those heralds were “evangelists”.

Example 2: The Emancipation Proclamation

In the United States, when Abraham Lincoln signed the document which set the slaves in the southern states free, that news had to be taken and proclaimed in every city, town and farm in the South. Heralds were sent out who proclaimed to those slaves that something had happened, which would change their lives forever. They declared to them that because of what someone else had done, they were set free!

The Gospel of Caesar Augustus

An inscription found in Priene, in modern-day Turkey, referring to Caesar Augustus says:  “the birthday of [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euangelion) concerning him.” (Priene 150.40-41)

This inscription is found on a government building dating from 6 B.C. Here is more of what it says, which gives us insight into how they understood the “gospel” concerning Caesar Augustus:

The most divine Caesar . . . we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things . . . for when everything was falling (into disorder) and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave the whole world a new aura;  Caesar . . . the common good Fortune of all . . . The beginning of life and vitality . . . All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year . . . Whereas the Providence which has regulated our whole existence . . . has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us (the emperor) Augustus . . .who being sent to us and our descendents as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order;  and (whereas,) having become (god) manifest /PHANEIS/, Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times.

The “gospel” of Caesar Augustus was what we call today the Pax Romana, the age of peace in the Roman Empire which came about during this time, into which Jesus was born.

Caesar Augustus in this inscription is declared to be: divine, savior, and the beginning of the good news for all people on Earth.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ: a Direct Challenge to the Gospel of Rome

When we understand this term “gospel” (euangelion), and how it was used in the ancient Greco-Roman world, we can begin to better understand the specific way in which the Christian gospels of Jesus Christ were written. They were written in such a way as to present Jesus as the true divine King, who had come to bring true salvation to the whole world, and they were written as a direct challenge to the so-called “gospel” of Rome and its peace which was enforced through brutality, and which did not provide any actual salvation.

“The beginning of the gospel (euangelion) about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1)

“Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel (euangelion) of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel! (euangelion)” (Mark 1:14-15)

And this gospel (euangelion) of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14)

For I am not ashamed of the gospel (euangelion), for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)

The gospel is a message of a victory which has taken place, from which we benefit. We receive salvation, freedom and peace as a result of it.

The gospel, therefore, is good news, not good advice! It’s not about what you have to do for God, but it’s the news of what God has done for you in Christ to set you free.

Further Resources:

Check out this article from Marianne Bonz of Harvard University called: The Gospel of Rome vs. the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Check out this video Mike and I filmed about whether the gospel is political (hint: it is), and what that means for us as Christians today:

The IOC on Religion: Nothing New Under the Sun


One of the things we do at White Fields Church every week is invite people to text or tweet questions during the sermon and then I respond to them on our members’ website called The City. I really enjoy this aspect of it, and I think that such engagement aides in the learning process.

For the past several weeks I have been teaching through Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and what I have found most interesting about it is that the core message of the book is something which is incredibly relevant to our day, which is the uniqueness of the Christian gospel as it relates to every other religion and philosophy in the world.

When you look into the culture of the Roman Empire, interestingly what you find is a society which was very similar to modern Western society in many ways. It was a pluralistic society, a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society, in which there was freedom of religion – and yet… the prevailing notion was that in order for there to be peace in a mixed society, no one should say that their tradition or religion was any better or more true than anyone else’s – only that it was different. Furthermore, a person’s religion or tradition was considered to be something they were born into rather than something they had a responsibility to choose for themselves, and therefore it was considered taboo, rude and even wrong to try to “convert” someone to another religion than that which they were born into or brought up in.

Now, if that doesn’t sound familiar to our day and age, then you should check your pulse.

I discussed this in more detail this past Sunday. If you’re interested, check out the audio of that message here.

In response to that teaching, a member of our church texted in:

The unifying/melting pot of religions that Paul is warning the Colossians about in today’s passage is the same message delivered by the president of the IOC at the opening of the Olympic Games. It’s clear that making exclusive claims about right or wrong in regard to religion is frowned upon internationally.

I unfortunately missed the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics, and have not been able to find a way to watch the whole thing online – if anyone knows a way, please let me know!

Although I am not surprised by this, I am surprised by the naivety in thinking which it represents. For educated people to say that no one should make exclusive claims is to ignore the fact that EVERYONE makes exclusive claims, including the people who say that you should not make exclusive claims. For example, if you say that it is wrong to say that something is wrong, you are doing the same thing which you are claiming should not be done. I only wonder if this overlooking of the obvious is sincere/naive in nature, or it is it a willful ignorance for the sake of pragmatism; in this case that everyone would just get along. Either way, to make such a claim reveals a sort of patronizing disregard for the validity of the claims of any and all religious beliefs, which is itself a form of judgment about them… Oh the irony…

Don’t fall for this underdeveloped, recycled logic. We can absolutely live in a free society where honest and open dialogue of the validity of certain ideas, traditions, practices and beliefs exists.